Vorri lurked awkwardly at the edge of the sitting room of the suite at Dragonwatch. Tristin, Mikhyal, and Wytch King Drannik had all come to wait while Vayne performed the transformation on Shaine. They were already seated, but Shaine still stood at Vorri’s side, body vibrating with tension. He’d been awake most of the night. Vorri had done his best to soothe him, but to no avail.
“Will you be all right out here with them?” Shaine asked quietly.
“You’re the one who’s being transformed.” Vorri gave him the brightest smile he could manage.
“Ai, but you’re the one who’s going to have to sit out here with my father,” Shaine murmured.
“If you’re brave enough to face the transformation, then I can be brave enough to face your father.” In truth, Vorri felt both superfluous and awkward, but he wasn’t going to admit that to Shaine, who had his own fears to deal with.
All too soon, Vayne appeared in the doorway of the bedroom where the transformation would be performed. “We’re ready for you, Shaine.”
Shaine caught Vorri’s hand in his own.
“You’ll be all right,” Vorri whispered. “Look how many dragon shifters Vayne’s already made. He seems to know what he’s doing.”
Shaine gave him a weak grin and kissed him before disappearing into the bedroom behind Vayne. Vorri took a seat at the small table, unwilling to intrude on Shaine’s family as they talked quietly among themselves. He’d only met them three days ago, and while he liked Mikhyal and Tristin well enough, he found the tall, imposing Wytch King Drannik positively frightening.
It wasn’t long before Mikhyal approached the table. “May I sit with you?” His hand hovered over the back of the chair opposite Vorri.
“Please do. I was just…” Vorri’s gaze flicked to the sitting room, then to Mikhyal. “I didn’t want to intrude. You’re all family, and I’m…” He trailed off, not sure what he was, exactly. He and Shaine had slept in the same bed since arriving here, and had shared pleasure several times, but Vorri wasn’t certain how such things were handled among these folk. He knew Shaine was fond of him — could feel it in the pack-sense — but he wasn’t certain what that meant to Shaine. Or to himself. Or even if there was any point in having feelings for one another.
“You’re a friend of Shaine’s, obviously,” Mikhyal said with a smile. “And although I could wish you weren’t taking him into danger, I admire my brother’s determination to honor his debt to you.”
“I’ll do everything in my power to make certain he returns safely,” Vorri said. “Thank you for helping convince the Wytch Kings to aid us.”
“Ah, well. As to that…” Mikhyal gave him a wry smile. “I have it on good authority that what you and Shaine are attempting is very important.”
The air above Mikhyal’s right shoulder shimmered, and a delicate, winged creature that looked very much like a miniature dragon with a white mane and long whiskers coalesced out of thin air. It was perched on Mikhyal’s shoulder as if it had been there all along, and had only just now chosen to show itself. Silver scales glinted as it hopped down onto the table.
“Very good authority, indeed,” the little dragon said in a haughty tone. “I’m glad we’re finally clear on that, Your Royal Highness.” It minced across the table toward Vorri on dainty, clawed feet and settled itself in front of him. “If I might introduce myself, I am Dirit, bond-mate to His Most Royal Insufferableness, Prince Mikhyal.”
Vorri eyed the creature with interest. It seemed very small compared to the dragons that had ferried him and Shaine up the mountain. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, Dirit. I am called Vorri. I don’t believe I’ve ever met anyone quite like you before.”
“Anyone.” Dirit’s fluffy eyebrows twitched, and he glanced at Mikhyal. “Did you hear that Your Most Royal Insensitiveness? I’m an anyone, not an anything.” He turned back to Vorri and offered him a toothy grin. “I do believe we are going to get along most famously, Master Vorri. I only regret that I will be unable to accompany you and Prince Shaine on your most important mission.”
“I-I’m sure we’ll manage,” Vorri said faintly.
“I’m sure you will. Shaine is quite well, by the way. Vayne has just started the process, and the prince is sleeping peacefully.” He turned to Mikhyal. “I had better go off to the kitchen and give Mistress Alys a poke. There’s a rather notable lack of pastry on this table.”
“Be careful,” Mikhyal said. “The last time you gave her a poke, she chased you out of her kitchen with a broom.”
Dirit scowled. “Trust you to bring that up. I’ll have you know Mistress Alys and I have come to a very amicable understanding. As long as I don’t leave footprints in her pastries, she sets some by for me. She’s much more accommodating than some people I could name.” And with that, the little dragon hopped down off the table and faded from sight.
“I take it Dirit is not a shifter,” Vorri said after he’d gone.
“No.” Mikhyal shook his head. “Dirit is something else entirely. A creature of the mythe, charged with defending the royal bloodline of Rhiva.”
“I see.” Vorri didn’t, not really, but Mikhyal didn’t explain further. Instead, he gave Vorri a very long, very serious look.
“Vorri… I don’t know how much Shaine has told you, but I have reason to be extremely concerned about this mission. Fixing the vulnerabilities in Shaine’s mythe-shadow will only go part of the way toward solving the problem. My brother spent a year under the control of one of the Wytch Masters, and I fear he may still be vulnerable in other ways.”
“Ai, he’s told me,” Vorri murmured.
“Has he? Then you’re aware of the terrible blow Anxin struck to his self-confidence.”
“I can feel it, Your Highness. Through the pack-sense.”
“Ah. Of course. You… you will take care of him, won’t you?”
“We’ll take care of each other,” Vorri said firmly.
Mikhyal nodded slowly. “Do you have any idea where you’ll start looking?”
“Toward the mountains,” Vorri said. “I believe my pack-mates are being held south and west of here. And I’ve received a few vivid images through the pack-sense: my brother, a cage, a house of stone, and the sun setting behind a mountain range.”
“The sun setting behind the mountains…” Mikhyal looked thoughtful. “The Dragon’s Spine?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen any mountains but the Iceshards, but I don’t recognize the shapes of the peaks. They are softer and smoother than those I’m familiar with.”
Mikhyal twisted around in his seat. “Tristin, could you come over here for a moment?”
Tristin rose from his seat and approached, Wytch King Drannik right behind him.
“Vorri, can you describe the mountains you saw?” Mikhyal said. “Or perhaps draw them?”
Vorri closed his eyes. It had been only a brief glimpse, but he’d seen it several times, and it was distinctive enough that he’d remembered it. “There are three peaks, all in a row. The two on either side are almost the same height, but the one in the middle is lower, and has a completely flat top, as if someone sheared it off. The setting sun is hovering just above it, like a big orange ball of fire.” When Vorri opened his eyes, Tristin was staring at him, his face gone very pale.
“What?” Mikhyal asked sharply. “Does that sound familiar, Tristin?”
“It sounds like he’s describing the view outside my bedroom window at Falkrag,” Tristin said faintly. “I saw those mountains every day of my life, until I was sent to Shadowspire. And this time of year, the setting sun does indeed align with the center mountain. It’s called Aio’s Table. Where did you see it, Vorri?”
“It was an image I received through the pack-sense. Something one of my pack-mates saw.”
Tristin looked grim. “It wouldn’t surprise me if they were using Falkrag to house Vorri’s kin. Wytch Master Faah often worked there. He’s related to my uncle, Wytch King Altivair. A great uncle or a second cousin, or something. He can open mythe-gates, you know. He could be the one behind the rhyx attacks.”
“Falkrag is an estate in the kingdom of Ysdrach, where Tristin was born,” Mikhyal explained to Vorri. “Ysdrach lies directly south of Altan, across the Blue River.” He glanced at Tristin. “You should have been allowed to roast Faah when you had the opportunity. Then we might not be in this mess.”
“Faah is unlikely to be the only one who has that ability,” Drannik said. “I’ll speak to Garrik. We could send a wing of dragons to rain fire down on Falkrag.”
Vorri’s heart stuttered. “No, you can’t! My kin are being held there! Please! You must give me a chance to free them!”
“You will have your chance, Vorri,” Drannik said softly. “But if you cannot put an end to the rhyx attacks, and soon, then we will.”
Vorri’s stomach twisted in knots. “I’ll free them,” he whispered. “I swear it.”
* * *
Now that Vayne had over a hundred dragon-shifter transformations to his credit, the process had been streamlined to the point where it only took a few hours. That being the case, Mikhyal had expected Shaine’s transformation to be completed well before midday, but lunch time came and went, and all was silent beyond the bedroom door.
“It’s taking a long time,” Mikhyal commented.
Drannik glanced up from the papers he’d brought with him to read. “Is it? I haven’t been paying much attention, I’m afraid. I’m sure they’d have told us if anything was wrong.”
“Shaine is still sleeping peacefully, as far as I can tell,” Vorri offered shyly.
“Thank you, Vorri,” Mikhyal said gravely. “I think I’m going to send Dirit in to have a look.” He didn’t see Dirit anywhere, so he gave the bond connecting himself to Dirit a sharp tug. The little dragon appeared on the table in front of him, licking his claws clean. “You don’t have to shout, you know.”
“Sorry, Dirit.” Mikhyal glanced toward the bedroom door. “They’ve been in there a lot longer than usual. Any chance you can sneak in and have a look? Just to reassure me that everything’s all right.”
The little dragon rolled his eyes. “Sneaking, is it? I was promised this was an assignment worthy of my abilities, and here I am, reduced to creeping about like a thief in the night. Honestly. The things I do…” Grumbling to himself, the little dragon faded from sight.
“Thank you,” Mikhyal called after him, and was rewarded with a delicate little snort.
From across the table, Vorri gave him a very odd look.
“Sorry about that, Vorri. Sometimes Dirit chooses to manifest physically, in which case everyone can see him, but other times, he chooses to show himself only to me. Well. Tristin and Jaire can see him, too, but they’re the only ones I know of. Unfortunately, regardless of which state he’s in, he doesn’t look any different to me. It makes for some rather embarrassing moments. The staff at Castle Rhivana have had to get used to listening to the heir arguing with himself as he wanders through the halls.”
It wasn’t long before Dirit returned. The little dragon didn’t appear at all agitated, but he said, “Prince Shaine still sleeps peacefully, but the Royal Dragon Master is doing rather a lot of muttering under his breath.”
Mikhyal’s heart stuttered. “Is that all you can tell me?” he demanded.
“Apologies, Your Most Royal Recklessness, but this transformation business does seem a bit on the complicated side. I didn’t think you’d want me interrupting them to ask questions. I imagine if they had something to tell you, they would do so.” Dirit peered at him from his spot in the center of the table, and from the way Vorri appeared to be studying him, Mikhyal gathered he’d chosen to manifest physically this time. “Will that be all? I was in the middle of some rather delicate negotiations with Mistress Alys regarding a most enticing apple tart.”
Mikhyal sighed, resigned to having to wait to find out what sort of snag Vayne had run into. “Yes, thank you, Dirit.”
“Well, that wasn’t very helpful,” Drannik said, turning from his seat in the sitting area.
“No, it wasn’t. I can’t imagine what the problem could be. Shaine can touch the mythe. I thought that was the only prerequisite.”
Drannik didn’t look at all perturbed. “Dirit is right, though. They’d have told us if there was anything to worry about. And Vorri doesn’t seem concerned.”
Vorri shrugged. “The pack-sense would tell me if Shaine was in any kind of distress, and he’s not. He’s fast asleep.”
It was another two hours before Vayne finally appeared. “Sorry it took so long,” he said, glancing at the four anxious faces awaiting him. “Shaine is fine. The transformation, however, did not go as planned. The ink would not take. Shaine’s mythe-shadow refused to absorb it, and when I delved deeper to find out why, I discovered latent shifter patterns already there.”
Mikhyal frowned. “I was under the impression that would make it easier, rather than harder.”
“It would have, had they been dragon patterns. They weren’t. They were much more like the patterns I saw in Vorri’s mythe-shadow. Buried and choked, tangled up with Anxin’s meddling. I cleared out the blocked channels and got rid of the hooks and pathways Anxin left behind, so Shaine will no longer be vulnerable to a Wytch Master’s control. But as to what sort of shifter he’s going to be, I’m not certain. The patterns I uncovered are similar enough to Vorri’s that I suspect Shaine might be a rhyx shifter, but I cannot say for certain. And if that is the case, I’ve no idea how to teach him. I’ve burned in the instinct to shift, but as for the rest of the teaching patterns I usually use… knowing how to fly and how to see the air currents isn’t going to be at all helpful if he’s not a dragon.”
“If he’s a rhyx shifter, I can teach him what he needs to know,” Vorri said softly. “I’ve taught our young ones before. It’s one of my duties as the healer’s assistant. Some of them know instinctively what to do, and some need a bit of help.” His eyes narrowed. “That might explain why I can feel Shaine in the pack-sense. He’s one of us.”
Vayne’s gaze moved sharply to Drannik, and he said in a very neutral voice, “There was no trace of anything like this in Mikhyal’s mythe-shadow when I worked on him.”
Drannik cleared his throat. “The boy’s not mine. Not by blood, anyway.”
“Then whose?” Vayne asked. “If there are more like him…”
“You’d have to ask his mother about that,” Drannik said tersely. “She never deigned to inform me, though from the look of the boy, I’d guess his father might be Turan, my former guard captain.”
“I dismissed him shortly after Shaine’s birth. The rumors… and Shaine, with that red hair, so like Turan’s…” Drannik trailed off, looking uncomfortable.
“Ah. I see,” Vayne said carefully. “Well. No rush, but perhaps you could make some discreet inquiries as to his whereabouts. If we have people with such abilities within our own borders, they could help solve our communication difficulties.” He turned to go back into the bedroom. “I’ll stay with him until he wakes. Once he’s ready to try shifting, we can head outside. We may well need your help, Vorri.”
Vorri nodded. “I’d be happy to assist.”
* * *
“Shaine? Can you hear me?”
Shaine jerked awake, blinking at the pair of golden eyes staring down at him. “Ambris…” For a moment, he couldn’t think why the healer would be sitting at his bedside. Then he remembered. The transformation… he was going to be a dragon, like Mikhyal. “Is it done? I feel like I only just closed my eyes.”
“It’s done,” Ambris said with a smile. “And you came through it admirably.”
“Largely thanks to you, no doubt,” Shaine murmured. He sat up, seeking Vayne, whom he found standing at the foot of the bed. “And the pathways Anxin left in my mythe-shadow?”
“Gone,” Vayne said. “Completely disrupted when I brought out the latent patterns hiding deep within your mythe-shadow. There is no trace of them left.”
Muscles he hadn’t known he’d been holding tense suddenly loosened, leaving behind a profound sense of lightness. “Then I’m truly free.”
Ambris squeezed his shoulder. “You are, indeed.”
Shaine frowned as the rest of what Vayne had said registered. “Latent patterns? What do you mean? I’m not… I mean, I don’t have…”
“Shaine, the transformation didn’t go quite as expected,” Vayne said, his face a neutral mask.
“What… what do you mean?” Shaine twisted around, trying to get a glimpse of his back.
“There’s no tattoo,” Ambris said gently.
“There isn’t?” Failed. He’d failed at this, too. “I’m not a dragon?” Shaine’s throat felt thick, and his eyes burned.
“Not a dragon,” Vayne confirmed. “You’re a shifter of some sort, but… your mythe-shadow wouldn’t take the dragon patterns. When I searched for the reason, I found latent patterns, buried far deeper than any I’ve yet encountered. I cleared the channels and brought the existing patterns to the surface, and in doing so, broke what remained of Anxin’s tampering.”
“Not a dragon, though,” Shaine murmured, unsure how to feel about that. If not a dragon, what was he? “But… what else could I possibly be?”
“There are some similarities between the patterns in your mythe-shadow and those in Vorri’s,” Vayne said.
Shaine brightened at that. If he couldn’t be a dragon, a rhyx was an excellent alternative. What did it matter if he couldn’t fly? He could Jump, and that was far more useful. “A rhyx, then.”
Vayne held up a hand. “I didn’t say that. I said there were similarities. We won’t know for certain until you shift. I’ve given you the pattern you’ll need to initiate the shift, but… you may find it takes a bit of practice to get used to your new form. The dragon patterns I use don’t just confer the ability to shift; they give the dragons the instincts they rely on to fly and to walk and run on all fours, and how to manage their tails. But for you…” Vayne trailed off with a rueful smile and a shake of his head. “I’m not sure how much, if any, of that sort of thing is part of the patterns I uncovered today. If it does turn out that you’re a rhyx shifter, Vorri will be able to help you, but if you’re not, you’re going to need to practice a bit.”
“I don’t mind that,” Shaine hastened to reassure him. “And don’t feel bad that you couldn’t make me a dragon. Just knowing I can’t be taken over again is a tremendous relief. Thank you, Vayne.”
Vayne smiled. “You’re most welcome.”
“Can I get up now?”
“Take it slowly,” Ambris cautioned. “You may be a bit dizzy at first.”
Shaine rolled off the bed and got carefully to his feet. “I don’t feel dizzy. Or weak.” He gave Ambris a grin. “You’re very good.”
Vayne handed him a fur-lined cloak. “When you’re ready, strip, put on the cloak, and we’ll go out into the courtyard to practice. Your clothing won’t shift with you, so you’ll save yourself a tongue-lashing from the seamstresses if you think before you shift.”
Ambris and Vayne left the room, and Shaine was left alone, feeling a mixture of relief and uncertainty. What if he wasn’t a rhyx shifter? What if he turned out to be something entirely different? Something no one knew how to help him with?
No… he mustn’t borrow trouble. And he needed to keep things in perspective. Having the last traces of Anxin’s meddling gone was more than enough. The fact that he might now be able to shift was a bonus, something he’d never have sought out on his own. Something he doubted the Wytch Kings would have agreed to grant him if it wasn’t going to buy them something they wanted.
With trembling hands, he removed his breeches and slung the cloak around his shoulders. It was large enough to hold closed at the front, and lined with warm fur.
They were all waiting for him in the main room of the suite: Vayne and Ambris and his family, and there, hanging about on the fringes of the group, was Vorri. He gave Shaine an encouraging smile and trailed behind as the group moved down the hall and out into the courtyard.
The air was cold, and the flagstones beneath Shaine’s feet were icy. Vayne threw a thick cotton rug down for Shaine to stand on, then explained how to find the pattern he needed to shift.
When Vayne had finished his instructions, Shaine flung off the cloak and gave himself over to the glowing ball of light at his center. The pattern he needed was right there, hanging in his mind’s eye next to the pattern he used for cloaking himself in the mythe.
He pushed the pattern into place and suddenly found himself staring up at the others from a much lower position. Their expressions of surprise suggested he wasn’t what they’d expected. He looked down and saw large, clawed feet covered in fur the same color as his hair — flame-bright shades of red and gold. <Well?> he sent to Vorri. <What am I?>
“You’re a rhyx,” Vorri murmured, amethyst eyes fixed on Shaine. <And you’re absolutely gorgeous. I’ve never seen a rhyx the color of fire before. My pack-mates are all black or brown or white. How do you feel?>
Shaine settled onto his haunches and considered the question. <It feels… different. But not wrong. Like putting on an old suit of clothing I haven’t worn in a while.> He sniffed the air, and an avalanche of sensory information poured into him. People and distant smoke and trees and… <Vorri, the smells! So many! And I know what they are!> He closed his eyes and drew in a trickle of air. Some deep, instinctive part of him untangled and identified the individual scents moving through his nose and mouth.
“He’s fine,” Vorri said, laughing. And before anyone could stop him, Vorri practically tore his own clothing off and shifted. <Come on, Shaine.> He pranced about in front of Shaine. <Come and play. Get used to your new form.> Vorri danced in a circle around him, then took off, tearing across the courtyard and leaping the low wall in a single, graceful bound to land lightly on the mountain path beyond.
Shifting had been so easy, Shaine didn’t think twice about running. He gave himself over to instinct and tore after Vorri. His rhyx body seemed to know exactly what to do as he leapt over the wall and landed in front of Vorri.
<It doesn’t look like you need any teaching at all.> Vorri’s tail thumped on the ground.
<It feels glorious!>
“Go and run for a bit, get used to it,” Vayne called from the courtyard as he bent to pick up Vorri’s discarded clothing. “When you’ve finished, there are cloaks in the chest by the door. We’ll be waiting in the suite. Vorri, I’ll bring your clothing inside.”
Vorri gave him a nod, then took off up the mountain path, his laughter trilling through the pack-sense, clear and bright. With a yip of excitement, Shaine tore after him.
The wind flowed past him, full of multi-layered scents he’d never been aware of in his human form. His claws bit into the ice-crusted snow, and instead of sinking into it, he was able to dance across the surface. <I feel like I could run forever!> He sent to Vorri. <This is wonderful!>
<It is!> Vorri slowed his pace so Shaine could catch up. <And while I know you wanted to be a dragon, I’m selfishly pleased you turned out to be a rhyx. And a very beautiful one, at that.>
Had he been in human form, Shaine would have blushed, but rhyx, apparently, didn’t have that sort of reaction. <So am I,> he said, and raced past Vorri, up the mountainside.
* * *
Now that Shaine was no longer vulnerable to being dominated by a Wytch Master, Vorri had assumed he and Shaine would be departing immediately for Falkrag. The Wytch Kings, however, did not agree. Shaine and Vorri had been waiting in Tristin and Mikhyal’s suite all afternoon while the Wytch Kings met in Garrik’s private study, no doubt arguing over the best course of action.
Since neither Vorri nor Shaine had ever visited Falkrag, Jumping there was out of the question. In fact, they were now as close to the distant estate as either of them had ever been. If they were to get there quickly, they’d have to be transported on dragonback.
“I don’t know what’s taking them so long,” Shaine said, kicking idly at the table leg as he closed the journal he was trying to read.
“I suppose they’re debating how close they can fly us without being discovered,” Vorri said.
Shaine scowled. “I wish I’d been to Falkrag at some point. Jumping would be so much faster.”
“Even if they’ll only take us to the border, we’ll still get there much faster than we would have with you on foot,” Vorri reminded him. “And with both of us in rhyx form, we’ll still make good time. Rhyx are fast, you know. And we can run for a long time.”
“We won’t be able to bring much with us,” Shaine pointed out.
“We won’t need much. But we should bring clothing. Rhyx might be able to run quickly and sneak and Jump, but if we’re trying to release my pack-mates from cages, we’ll need human hands, and if they’re being housed outside…” Vorri shivered at the thought of struggling with a lock while standing naked in the snow.
“We’ll have to come up with some way to carry a few things,” Shaine said. “What do your people do when they need to bring tools with them?”
“We don’t take tools. Why would we need to? If we leave the valley, it’s either to hunt or to seek out new hunting grounds. Our rhyx forms are far better suited to that. If we make a kill, we Jump back to the valley with it, and someone else usually butchers it.”
“Tristin and Mikhyal have saddlebags they wear to carry their things,” Shaine mused. “Surely someone can fashion something like that for a rhyx. It wouldn’t have to be anything large… just big enough for boots and enough clothing to keep us warm.”
Vorri never got a chance to reply, for at that moment, someone pounded on the door. Shaine glanced at Vorri and leapt up to open it. In the hall stood a very agitated Prince Jaire. He pushed past Shaine and shut the door behind him, then said in a low voice, “We have to go. Now.”
“Go?” Shaine’s alarm rippled through the pack-sense as he stared at Jaire. “Go where?”
“Falkrag,” Jaire said. “Now that they know where the rhyx are coming from, Wytch King Ord is arguing that they should simply send a wing of dragons to raze the place.”
Vorri’s heart stuttered. “They can’t! My pack-mates are there! My brother and my sister…” He met Shaine’s wide eyes. “I never should have told them what I saw.”
“You weren’t to know,” Shaine said. “And if you hadn’t told them, we’d have no idea where we’re going. Still, I wouldn’t have thought Mikhyal would allow something like this.”
“He’s arguing against it.” Jaire was so agitated he was almost bouncing. “So is your father, but Ord can be damn persuasive when he wants to be. And he’s not the only one. Grab your winter things and follow me. You’ll be going by dragon, and I’ve already packed some supplies for you.”
“By dragon?” Vorri asked. “You mean riding a dragon? Like I did when we went to Dragonwatch?”
“Yes. Well, no, not you. I’ve only got one dragon big enough to carry a man, but I think with a combination of dragon flight and Jumping we can do it.”
“Who did you get to help?” Shaine asked.
“Brax,” Jaire said with a grim smile. “And he’s none too happy about it. Go and get some warm things. I want to be gone before they miss me. I told Garrik I had a headache, and I needed to lie down, but knowing my brother, he’ll cut the meeting short just so he can check on me.”
Shaine did as he was told, darting into the bedroom, and returning with a pair of warm cloaks.
Jaire nodded approvingly. “Good. Get those on, and then Jump us out to the stables.”
* * *
Light snow was falling when Shaine Jumped Vorri and Jaire to the royal stables. A cold wind whipped down the mountain as they made their way around the building and headed toward the twilight-shadowed orchard.
Jaire led them through the bare trees to the far side of the orchard, where a dark, bulky shape awaited them. As they drew closer, the shape resolved itself into a large dragon, already harnessed and saddled.
“Good evening, Brax,” Shaine said. “Jaire said he talked you into helping us. Thank you.”
The dragon snorted and scratched the ground with one of his great clawed feet.
“He doesn’t approve of this excursion, so it’s a good thing he answers to me.” Jaire gave Brax a pat on the flank before opening one of the saddlebags. “You can pack your clothing in here. There should be room. My things are already packed, so as soon as you’re ready, we’ll be off.”
“We?” Shaine shot Jaire a dubious look. “You’re coming with us?”
“Insurance.” Jaire gave him an impish grin. “Can you imagine Garrik allowing them to raze Falkrag if he knows I’ve gone with you?”
“No, I can’t,” Shaine said, “but I can imagine him being furious with all of us for allowing you to take such a risk.”
Brax snorted and nodded emphatically.
“Brax and I have already had that argument.” Jaire sounded far too cheerful. “If Garrik’s upset, I’ll deal with him when we return.”
If Garrik was upset? The Wytch King’s legendary temper had never been directed at Shaine before, but it would be if he and Vorri allowed anything to happen to Jaire. Vorri’s unease rippled through the pack-sense, reinforcing his own, but Shaine wasn’t about to start an argument now. Once they reached Falkrag, he would do his best to make Jaire see reason. And if Jaire couldn’t be convinced, between them, they might be able to subdue the prince and tie him to Brax’s saddle. If Brax didn’t approve of the expedition, he could probably be counted on to help.
“How are we doing this with only one dragon?” Shaine asked.
Jaire grinned. “Brax and I will take Vorri to a cottage we know of, then Vorri will Jump back to your suite and fetch you. Then we’ll fly you out to Falkrag, Shaine, and once we’ve arrived, you can Jump back to the cottage and fetch Vorri. It won’t take any longer than it would if we had two dragons, and that way, Vorri won’t have to make a long journey on dragon back when he’s not used to it.” Jaire looked very pleased with himself as he laid out his plan. Brax just snorted, though it was impossible to tell if it was a snort of disgust or agreement.
Shaine turned to Vorri. “Are you all right with this?”
“If this is the only way to make sure they don’t burn Falkrag, yes, absolutely.”
“I’ll wait for you in the bedroom, then,” Shaine said. “How long will it take you to get to this cottage, Jaire?”
“A quarter of an hour, if that,” Jaire said. “Come on, Vorri, let’s get you strapped in.”
After helping Vorri into the saddle and making sure he was strapped in safely, Jaire shed his clothing, stuffed it into one of the saddlebags, and shifted. Moments later, the two dragons launched themselves toward the darkening, snowy sky.
Shaine watched them until they disappeared into the swirling snow, then Jumped back to his room in Tristin and Mikhyal’s suite.
“You should take a weapon.”
Shaine spun around to see Dirit perched precariously on top of the footboard of the bed.
“I’ll be in rhyx form,” Shaine protested. “There’ll be no way to carry one.”
“Nevertheless, you should take one.” The little dragon disappeared and reappeared on top of the weapon rack on the wall. “It would probably soothe His Most Royal Soon-to-be-Anxiousness to know that you’re armed.”
“You’re not going to tell him, are you?”
Dirit drew himself up to his full height, which wasn’t very impressive, and placed a little clawed hand upon his chest. “Tell him? I swear to you on my most considerable honor, I shall volunteer nothing, even if he should put me to the rack. However. Once he learns of your disappearance, I shall have to tell him something.” Dirit peered at Shaine. “Or would you have me lie to my bond-mate?”
“No, of course not. But perhaps you could… prevaricate? Stall him a bit?”
The little dragon’s eyebrow tufts twitched. “I suppose I could do that,” he said uncertainly.
“Just until I’ve gone. Once Vorri comes back for me, we’ll be on our way, and as long as you don’t say too much, they’ll have a devil of a time finding us in the snow.”
Dirit nodded. “Very well, Prince Shaine, I shall do my best to stall him.”
“Thank you, Dirit. Go on, you’d best guard the door, just in case. I’ve no idea how long that meeting they’re in might go on for.”
The little dragon winked out of sight, and it couldn’t have been five minutes more before Vorri appeared, hair hanging in wet straggles.
“You’re soaked,” Shaine said.
“Ai, it’s snowing even harder now. I don’t envy you the flight to Falkrag. Jaire says there’s a storm coming down from the Iceshards, and you’ll need to leave immediately if you’re to avoid the worst of it. Ready?”
“Ready,” Shaine said firmly.
Vorri took hold of his hand, gave it a squeeze, and Jumped.
The first part of the flight to Falkrag was miserable. Tiny bits of ice pelted Shaine’s face and found their way under his cloak. The snow didn’t stop until they were nearly to the Dragon’s Spine. When they reached the mountains, the dragons turned south and followed the line of the mountain range separating the kingdoms of Skanda from the Westlands, rather than cutting across the open countryside of Ysdrach and risking being seen.
As they crossed the Blue River, the border between Altan and Ysdrach, Shaine’s thoughts became dark and grim. His only fear now was that despite how intrigued the Wytch Kings were with his ability to Jump, they might deem himself and Vorri expendable, especially if they thought attacking Falkrag would eradicate the threat of more rhyx attacks on the vulnerable villages of the Northern Alliance.
Mikhyal wouldn’t support an attack on Falkrag, but Shaine feared his father might be swayed by Wytch King Ord. Though Drannik had been somewhat more approachable in the weeks since Shaine had been freed from Anxin’s control, the fact remained that Shaine wasn’t Drannik’s son. Not by blood, at least. As the night wore on, Shaine became more and more convinced that Jaire had been right to insist on accompanying them.
* * *
Mikhyal’s head was pounding.
He’d spent the afternoon trying to convince Ord and Edrun that razing Falkrag was not the best course of action. After that, he’d spent most of the evening trying to convince Garrik that giving in to Ord might cost them any hope of forming what might be a valuable alliance with Vorri’s people.
Now, all he wanted to do was fall into bed, but first, he’d have to explain to Shaine and Vorri why they wouldn’t be leaving in the morning, and might not be leaving at all, if Ord had his way. Garrik was clearly tiring of the argument, and if Jaire hadn’t been there to temper him, Mikhyal might well have agreed with Ord just to end the damn meeting. When Jaire had pleaded a headache in the middle of the afternoon, he had been certain the argument was lost.
He and Drannik had presented the most convincing case they could over dinner, but if Jaire wasn’t there to be the voice of reason when they reconvened in the morning…
The suite was quiet when he stepped inside, and he sagged against the door and closed his eyes, taking a few moments to enjoy the peace. When he opened his eyes, Tristin was watching him from his seat at the table, which was covered with sketches and books. Tristin’s dark eyes sought his, the tiniest of frowns crinkling the top of his nose.
“Are you all right, Mikhyal?”
“I’m fine.” Mikhyal rubbed his temples. “It’s just been a very long day. I’ve had Ord shouting in one ear and Garrik in the other all afternoon.”
“Ah.” Tristin winced and got to his feet. “I take it there’s some disagreement regarding what should be done next?”
“That’s putting it mildly. I was afraid they might come to blows, with me stuck in the middle.”
“Oh, dear. Well, it sounds as if you need a quiet, relaxing evening. I’ve just the thing.”
“A double murder?” Mikhyal inquired hopefully.
Tristin grinned. “I was thinking more of a hot bath and someone to wash your back, and then possibly wash other things, but I suppose we could pause long enough to drown Garrik and Ord, assuming you can lure them in. Though I fear that might cause more problems than it will solve.” He reached for Mikhyal’s hand.
“Ai, it surely would.” Mikhyal allowed himself to be pulled toward the bedroom. “I like the idea of someone washing other things, though. Are you volunteering?”
“Well. Um.” Tristin flushed. “I think… yes. Yes, I’m volunteering.” He gave Mikhyal a sly grin. “Filthy job, but, ah, well, someone has to do it, you see, and… I do believe I’m qualified to make the sacrifice.”
“I’ll be the judge of your qualifications, husband,” Mikhyal growled, then gave in to a huge yawn and added ruefully, “Though I’m not sure if even the most magnificent qualifications will make a bit of difference. The way I feel at the moment, I’ll be asleep before I have the chance to fall into your passionate embrace.”
“I shall consider that a challenge,” Tristin declared.
As they passed the closed door of the guest room, Mikhyal stopped. “Do you think Shaine and Vorri are asleep yet?”
“I honestly couldn’t say. I had lunch with them, but I was working in the greenhouse all afternoon.”
“I hate to disturb them,” Mikhyal said, “but it’s not that late, and I should keep them apprised. They were hoping to leave tomorrow, but the way things went today, I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
“Ai, they were preparing for it this morning. I spent an hour answering questions about Falkrag and sketching out the floor plans of the house and grounds. As best I could remember, anyway. I did warn them about that. It’s been over fifteen years since I’ve seen the place. A lot could have changed since I lived there, and… well, I was heavily drugged for most of the two years before they moved me to Shadowspire, so it’s quite possible my memory is faulty.”
Mikhyal’s hand was raised to knock on Shaine’s door when Dirit appeared, hovering in front of him at eye level.
“You don’t really want to disturb them, do you, Your Royal Inconsiderateness?”
“They’re asleep then?” Mikhyal kept his voice low, so as not to disturb his brother.
Dirit’s whiskers twitched. “Your brother might not say much, but I’m sure it’s exhausting getting used to a new form.”
Which wasn’t really an answer, but it was true. Mikhyal’s own transformation was recent enough that he clearly recalled both the exhilaration and the exhaustion when he’d worn himself out testing the limits of his new dragon form. He lowered his hand and glanced at Tristin. “I suppose he and Vorri did spend all of yesterday afternoon and evening tearing up and down the mountainside. Well then, about this bath you promised me…”
“I’m rather looking forward to it.” Tristin waggled his eyebrows suggestively. “I’ve hardly seen anything of you these past few days.”
They hadn’t even reached the bedroom when there was a sharp rap on the suite’s main door.
Mikhyal rolled his eyes and muttered, “Now what?” He crossed the room and opened the door to find Garrik standing out in the hall looking irritated.
“Sorry to disturb you, Mikhyal, but is Jaire here?”
“No, he’s not,” Mikhyal said.
“Are you sure?” Garrik looked even more harried than he had during the evening meeting. “Could you just check in Shaine’s room? They’ve been thick as thieves since Jaire went to help him catalog all those books he found after the fire.”
“I can look, certainly.” Mikhyal turned toward Shaine’s room only to be confronted once more by Dirit, who appeared on top of the decorative table standing between the bedroom doors.
“You really don’t need to look,” Dirit said quickly.
Mikhyal frowned at Dirit. “Now I definitely need to look,” he said, glaring at the little dragon as he strode across the room. “You’re acting decidedly guilty, Dirit. What are you hiding?”
“Nothing!” Dirit protested. “I’m not hiding anything!”
Mikhyal flung open the door to Shaine’s room, only to find it empty. “Nothing indeed,” Mikhyal growled. “What do you know?”
“If that little insect of yours is involved…” Garrik’s tone was decidedly menacing.
“Insect?” Looking absolutely scandalized, Dirit popped out of sight, only to materialize clinging to the nearest bookcase. He skittered up the side and rose to his hind legs, one clawed hand pressed dramatically to his little chest. “Insect, indeed! I’ll have you know, I was chosen—”
“Yes, we know,” Mikhyal snapped. “Where is Shaine?”
“Well, I really couldn’t say,” Dirit said. “He was going by dragon, after all. He could be almost anywhere by now.”
“By dragon?” Garrik growled.
“Which dragon?” Mikhyal demanded.
“Is Jaire with him?” Garrik said, almost at the same time.
Dirit tapped a claw against his chin as if deep in thought. “Yes, yes, I do believe Prince Jaire was present. As for the dragon, well it was rather dark. And snowing dreadfully. A positive identification could prove somewhat… difficult.”
“You’re a creature of the mythe,” Mikhyal pointed out. “You can see better in the dark than a dragon, or so you’re always telling me.”
Garrik pinched the bridge of his nose. “Please tell me Brax was with them.”
Dirit’s whiskers drooped and he gave a slight nod of his head.
“I’ll kill him,” Garrik muttered. “Slowly and painfully.”
“Where have they gone?” Mikhyal asked.
Dirit twitched an eyebrow tuft. “Do you really have to ask that question, Your Royal Obtuseness?”
Mikhyal’s shoulders slumped as he recalled Jaire excusing himself from the meeting with a headache. Had he warned Shaine and Vorri? “Not Falkrag.”
“Well, you were talking about razing the place without any thought for Vorri’s kin, weren’t you?” Dirit crossed his arms and glared down at them both.
Mikhyal met Garrik’s eyes. “Jaire must have warned them.”
“I’ll kill him, as well,” Garrik muttered. “You’ll have to take over for me. I don’t suppose I’ll be back until late tomorrow. Assuming I can find them quickly.”
“I hope you’re joking,” Mikhyal said.
“I am not,” Garrik said flatly, and started for the door.
Mikhyal moved in front of him. “Now?”
“The sooner I start, the sooner I’ll catch up to them.”
“In this?” Mikhyal gestured to the window, where the snow was piling up on the outer sill. “Think for a minute, would you? Weather aside, the Wytch Council has access to drugs that can make their soldiers invisible to the mythe, and others that can bring down a dragon in a heartbeat. You wouldn’t have a chance, Garrik. The Wytch Council would love to get their hands on you. And if they do, everything you’ve worked for will be for nothing. You know too much to risk it.”
Garrik’s eyes narrowed. “You’re assuming I’d break under torture.”
“Every man has a breaking point,” Mikhyal explained patiently. “Even you. But I’m not talking about torture. They wouldn’t need to bother with that when they can bring in one of their Inquisitors to strip everything from your mind. That’s what they did to Kian when he and Jaire were being held at Shadowspire.”
Garrik ran a hand through his hair. “So what do you suggest? I can’t just leave him. Jaire isn’t a soldier. He’d be useless at defending himself.”
“Let me go,” Mikhyal said before he could think the better of it. “Even if Shaine is cloaking himself, Dirit will be able to locate Jaire once we’re close enough. With any luck, I can find them before they do anything stupid.”
“You’re the heir to Rhiva,” Garrik protested. “If we’re concerned about sensitive information, you possess just as much as I. No. We need someone else. A dragon shifter who can get there quickly. An empath, who can locate them without getting close enough to give himself away. Which means someone who would recognize both Shaine and Jaire.”
Mikhyal considered that. “Ilya could, but he’s needed here,” he murmured. “Vayne, too, but he’s much too valuable to risk. Who else have we got?” In his head, he ran down the list of dragon shifters he trusted enough to send after his brother and Prince Jaire. “What about Prince Bradin? He went through the transformation a few weeks ago, and he’s an empath, isn’t he?”
Garrik’s eyes widened. “Ai, he is. And a powerful one at that. And he hasn’t been at any of the strategy meetings, so he won’t have any recent intelligence. I’ll have a word with him, and tomorrow we’ll talk to the others and decide on a course of action.” He stared at the window, which was currently being pelted by tiny bits of ice. “No one’s going anywhere until this storm blows out anyway. We might as well get some sleep.”
Relieved, Mikhyal stepped aside and let Garrik continue on to the door.
“I’ll see you first thing tomorrow,” Garrik said. “Hopefully this storm will have blown out by then.”
“Hopefully,” Mikhyal murmured. And hopefully they’d be able to convince the others how important it was that Jaire, Shaine, and Vorri be retrieved quickly and quietly. Before they could get themselves and the Northern Alliance in trouble.