“Please,” David said, his voice weak, little more than a rasp. “No more.”
“No?” purred Vereoria, her eyes twinkling. “This is too much for you? How about… this?”
He tried to fend her off. But the ordeal was too much. “How can you do something like this?”
“It’s only the sixth course. You need to pace yourself properly for a true banquet.” She smiled, holding out another cup of the hot spiced cider. He accepted it reluctantly. “Take your time. Savor it. There will be no sudden attacks, no distractions, nothing you need worry yourself about. You are quite safe here.”
“Yeah, you say that.” He took a reluctant sip of the cider. It was phenomenally good, which was really part of the problem. “So. My friends.”
“Are unharmed, and far from here. They will never stop me from fulfilling my plans.”
He sipped at the cider again, and frowned. “You know, you’d probably have a much easier time of things if you didn’t phrase things so… ominously.”
“My phrasing is perfectly fine,” said Vereoria, her tone imperious.
The pretty red-headed girl sat beside him at a table that could have fit hundreds. Tizona sat across from the two, her eyes lidded, her head lowered slightly, nibbling at the food. She’d been taking small bites continuously for the better part of what felt like an hour. David had no idea where the hell she was storing it all.
The foods were continually changing. Plates arrived and left in a dizzying sequence. He’d refused, at first. But in honesty, he wasn’t sure what else to do. He was fairly sure there was no fairy-tale ‘eat the food, trapped forever’ bullshit going on, and it had been quite clear that if Vereoria wanted him dead, he’d be dead. He glared at her.
“I heard about a lot of things while I was travelling here. Like, for example, how humans and mystics can get more powerful.”
“Oh, yes.” She smiled. “Killing. It’s true, technically. A human can steal the magic of a mystic by killing them. And a mystic can steal the power of a human in the same way.”
“You’re not dying.” She smiled. “You know what real power is? Real power is knowing the secrets. Real power is knowing how the world works. Real power is what my family has, and has always had.” She reached out, and grabbed a small, plump strawberry between two fingers, popping it into her mouth. Those bright red lips pursed around it, just a little juice dripping down her chin. She wiped it off, and flushed. “Excuse me. I haven’t eaten much, recently.” She sighed. “All of that work, all of that panic to track you down after you slipped through my grasp. Just another sign of what has gone wrong with the world.” Suddenly, she slid her arms around David, grinning up at him, her bright golden eyes twinkling with avarice, and… something a great deal more affectionate. “My human. All mine.” She clung to him in a way that was almost as pleasant as it was disturbing. “With you, I shall have this world in the palm of my hand!”
That seemed more in line with his expectations. David turned his head towards Tizona. “Is this normal?”
“The girl was panicked near to death by losing you, now she’s happy that she’s found you again.” Tizona took a spoonful of blueberries and whipped cream, and ate it with a single dainty bite. She chewed, and smiled. “Your adventures must have been very interesting. We spent so much time tracking you down, as you tore an awkward crime spree across most of Western Europe. Do you know that there were those in the church who wanted you dead? Assassins?”
“That’s-” David paused. “Were?”
Tizona smiled, and ate another dainty bite of blueberries and cream as Vereoria continued to cling to him.
“I will tell you about it. Later. First, you need to settle in. I need to make sure that you are properly prepared for being my husband.” Vereoria stood up.
“Wait a second. Where am I?”
“The Palace of the Dragonlords. Atop the Aventine Hill.” She clapped her hands, and servants flooded the room like an incredibly polite high tide. “Bathe him, and bring him to my chambers.”
“Like that, why do you have to phrase it that way-” David said, but the tide of servants reached him at that point, and he was being politely but firmly ushered onto his feet and out of the room.
There were many different kinds of ways getting clean. There’s the quick shower in a motel without enough hot water when you’ve got too many people staying with you. The dip into the hot springs, pleasant, but without all the accoutrement. The sensation of being home- a sensation that David hadn’t felt in what seemed like an impossibly long time-where you had everything exactly the way you liked it, where you knew where to find everything you needed to get clean. And then, there was this.
He was naked, which should be mortifying, but the servants seemed completely uninterested in that, which was an entirely different kind of embarrassment. It was like a scene in a certain kind of movie, the kind of opulence you expected from historical dramas. If you were so rich that you didn’t even need to wipe your own ass- Well, what kind of person could keep their perspective in the face of that kind of spoiling?
His hair was washed, shampooed, conditioned, and any protest or complaint was brushed aside with polite words as the embarrassing experience continued. The tailors entered next, and that was its own special kind of hell as a warm but utterly detached woman with the lower body of a brobdingnagian spider took every single measurement, including the inseam- by far the most shameful measurement in tailoring.
The entire situation, he suspected, was to keep him off balance. To prevent him from thinking too hard about his location, about what was happening, to try to get in contact with Farida and Caladbolg and Gerlinde. To keep him from making life more difficult for her. Well, she’d have to learn to live with disappointment.
Clad in nothing but a bathrobe, the tailor rattling off styles and fabrics, and him nodding silently along with all of her suggestions, he walked through the halls, guided by a slender English man with lupine ears and a tail, and an absolutely impeccable jacket. A butler, if David was any judge of stereotypes. The fact that he constantly walked around with both paw-like hands clasped together beneath hilariously oversized white gloves only added to the surreal silliness of the situation.
He had been captured by a dragon, and she was planning to marry him against his will. The damsel in distress thing was getting a little bit on-the-nose. Wait, what was a male damsel? A Mansel? A dudesel?
“Your chambers await, sir,” said the wolf-boy, his accent dripping with so much class that David felt like a pop quiz was imminent.
“My chambers? I, uh. I thought that I was being brought… you know.”
“Yes. They are also Madam Dracos’ chambers.” He opened the doors, and stepped in, waiting for David expectantly. David stepped in, opening his mouth to continue arguing. The door slammed shut as the butler stepped smartly out.
“Hey. Hey!” David pounded on the door twice. As he raised his hand for a third knock, it swung open, revealing the butler.
“I won’t be held prisoner!”
“You have the run of the Palace, though you aren’t permitted to leave,” said the wolf-boy, and his voice was so dry it could’ve been used to make jerky. “If Sir requires anything, Sir need only ring the bell.”
The door slammed shut, and David turned to study his new gilded cage.
At least they hadn’t skimped on the gilt.
The room was luxurious, but curiously cozy. Not cramped, but in a building as large as this, it would’ve been so easy to make the room large enough that no amount of personal possessions could ever fill it. This room was perhaps twenty feet on a side- Sizable, enough to hold the massive four-poster bed at one end with plenty of room left over- but it was clearly well lived in. A great chest of drawers, a book shelf full of novels. A small vanity, with a surprisingly anemic selection of foundations, blushes, and other unidentifiable powders, as well as something that appeared to be meant for polishing scales.
David stepped over to the book shelf, and pulled out a novel at random, frowning at the front. A rather trashy looking romance novel, with what looked like a human male lead and a Mystic woman. He pulled out another, and another, and found more variations on the same classic theme. By the time he gave up on the shelf, he was starting to get a strange impression, and a bit of a headache. He made his way over to the bed, and stared down at it.
In some ways, in a lot of ways, it was exactly like the bed he’d woken up in. He took a deep breath, and lay down on the bed. His pulse still racing, his head buzzing, he wasn’t quite sure when he fell asleep. Worries and anger melded together into an enervating soup in his skull, and the darkness fell over him surprisingly quickly. His dreams were fitful and strange, flickers of movement. The door opening, a great deal of fear, the scent of cinnamon in the air, something warm clinging to his side, and strangely, tears. Was he crying? His cheeks felt wet, but he wasn’t feeling sad. Angry, determined maybe, but not sad. The dream faded away like mist.
When he awoke in the morning, there was still no sign of Vereoria. He climbed out of the bed- a minor ordeal in and of itself, considering how soft and yielding it was- and groaned as he set his feet momentarily on the floor before recoiling as if stung. He’d heard about drafty palaces, and he’d never quite realized what exactly they meant; The stone was colder than should be possible anywhere in Italy, even at this time of year. He frowned, and looked around for a pair of slippers, before finally forcing himself to step down onto the cold floor. The walk to the door put him in mind of one of the nastier expeditions gone wrong, the kind where people ate each other.
At precisely the moment that he reached the door to the bedroom, it swung open, the wolf boy peering at him with an expression that was judgmental as all hell despite being totally neutral. He held out two fluffy pink obscenities “Your slippers, sir.”
“Well, damn. Who trained you to fetch my slippers?” David felt a little guilty about that, but the floor had been excruciatingly cold.
“The finest obedience school in London, sir. I also took the liberty of fetching you the paper. Unfortunately, I tore it to shreds.”
David paused for a moment. “That’s actually pretty funny. I’m sorry, I’m having a bit of a day.”
“Yes, a night with Madam Dracos would no doubt be taxing. She already speaks of her conquests at length to the court. In oftentimes graphic detail.”
“Does she, now?” David said, an eyebrow raised. He wasn’t that heavy a sleeper.
“Quite so, sir.”
“What’s your name?”
“I had it changed, sir.”
“Thanks, Jeeves.” David took his slippers, and put them on. “Good boy.” He wasn’t in the best mood.
“Immaculate boy, sir. Madam Dracos awaits you in the Sixteenth Dining Chamber. Attire is casual.”
“Great. Okay, I know where the first fifteen dining chambers are, but-” Jeeves snapped his fingers, and a young girl appeared as though by magic. Considering the faint scent of brimstone, and the fact that she was behind him in a room which had previously been empty, it might in fact have been by magic. “Oh, good. Let’s go, then. Wouldn’t want to keep my bride to be bored.”
The corridors were large, and empty. Others passed David and his demonic escort, occasionally pausing to snicker and chuckle as they saw him. His slippers did not echo as he walked down the halls, and he briefly considered making a run for it, before deciding that knowing where the hell he was going to go was wise before making any trouble. A wedding had to take a long time to plan; He’d be fine.
The Sixteenth Dining Chamber was almost shockingly intimate. Tizona sat at the small, square, mahogany table, her feet up on the table and shorn of any shoes, a sword in one hand with several large cuts of steak skewered on it, seared to perfection. She had a knife in the other hand, slicing off tender flakes of the meat onto a plate before daintily eating them. She gave him a brief nod and a smile. To her right was Madam Dracos. “Slept well?” She asked, between bites, her expression cherubic.
“Like a rock. I must have missed all the excitement,” said David, as he stepped over to the table, taking a seat across from Dracos. She had been reading a tablet, one finger trailing down the surface, a strangely incongruous bit of technology in the otherwise archaic surroundings. At his words, her expression turned ugly, her eyes narrowed. Tizona turned her head towards her, a frown appearing.
“Leave us,” said Vereoria, sharply. The demonic girl bowed deeply, and stepped out as Tizona stared. “You too-“
“You don’t command me,” murmured Tizona. The sword gleamed as the juices of the steak slowly dripped down towards its tip, beading there, hanging in the air like her words. “You stated that you had consummated. That you had taken the strength that was your birthright from him. Did you lie, Vereoria? I understand to the courtiers. Did you lie to me?“
“You are not a confidant, Tizona,” said Vereoria, her eyes narrowed. “I will withhold information. You know I have no intention of harming him.”
Tizona put down the knife. The now-free hand tightened slowly, her thumb placed atop each finger in turn, squeezing it down against her palm until the joints popped loudly, a slow and unhurried demonstration. “If I think for a moment that you can’t keep him safe-“
Tizona stood up slowly, still carrying the sword. She tore a large chunk off of the tip, chewing slowly, and swallowing, before walking out of the room, leaving the two of them alone. David waited for several long seconds, as Vereoria held the tablet in front of her face, covering her expression.
“You’re a virgin.”
“Yes. That is not the issue.”
Suddenly, all of the fire and grandiose pride had disappeared from her voice. David stood up slowly, and stepped around the table. She was staring morosely down at the tablet, and her expression made him realize, quite suddenly, that she was actually very pretty when not acting like a silent movie villain. David reached out, and rested a hand on her shoulder. “Are you alright?”
“Fine,” she murmured, softly. “This is all a sham. A sham on which your life and my future depend. If you expose my weakness, my leadership will be challenged, and your life will be forfeit.”
“Not because of me. Because others will want your power, and I will no longer be able to protect you. Bear with this. Bear with the marriage ceremony, with the tradition. When it is done, I will, with your aid, and Tizona’s, open the path back to your world. Undo the mistake that was made so long ago. And then…” She waved her hand. “You can go. Back to your world, or to her. That…” She gritted her teeth for a moment, and David was shocked to see that there were tears in her eyes. She stood up, and shook her head. “Eat your breakfast. Then you have the freedom to wander the grounds. Do not tell anyone, Tizona included, about what has happened. There are vipers everywhere.” She narrowed her eyes, and her expression was more pout than glare. “We will have to consummate the marriage, once. I am sorry for the inconvenience.” She stood up very stiffly, and marched out of the room. David considered following her, and then decided that he’d rather not prod the bipolar dragon any further.
Instead, he took a seat at the table, kicking back as he skewered a piece of melon, wrapping it in some of the thin prosciutto that had been provided, and crunching down on it. He was starting to wonder quite a lot about the things that Tizona and Vereoria had said before. As though they were putting on a… performance.
He paused for a moment, and peered at the walls. A variety of paintings adorned them. It took him a couple of moments to realize what was strange about them. Each of them, throughout a variety of eras of materials and styles, depicted a couple, and a child. It took him a moment to realize that each couple seemed to be a dragon, and a human- Or at least, he presumed they were human, lacking any paleness or sharp teeth that might hint at vampires or some other form of Undead. And the children were always dragons.
“You can be free of her, you know.”
David nearly fell out of his chair. A woman stood in the open doorway. Tall, imperious, she bore a stunning resemblance to Vereoria, save for her hair, which was a brilliant blonde. Her arms were crossed, her expression fierce, her eyes the same golden color. “What?”
“You can be free. If you wish to be free of this world. It would be better off without your kind.” She smiled. “If you wish to leave, you need only seek me out.” She turned, and marched out of the room, her heels clicking, the great and voluminous garment she wore hiding her body beneath it- and presumably any draconic traits. On a hunch, David looked back up at the walls- There, just by the door. A couple. It looked like a renaissance style painting, but there was no question that it was from the last twenty or so years, from the phone on the table that the father was resting his hand on. The man’s hair was white, his expression worn, and the woman seemed very young. She looked, in fact, just like the woman who had just visited. And there, between them, a small girl with bright red hair and golden eyes, standing with her hands hanging down in front of her.
If he were a betting man…
He took another bite out of the melon and prosciutto, and sighed. Was he seriously going to let himself get sucked into another plot? He’d been offered a way home. If he believed the woman- Vereoria’s mother, he was guessing- he could be home.
Of course, that assumed two things. First, that he believed her. Second, that he was comfortable with not knowing what the hell was going on.
He stood up, and stepped out of the room, trying not to have a heart attack when Jeeves was waiting right outside of the door. “Hey, Jeeves. Uh, where’s the-“
“Library, second floor, Eastern wing, between the Arts Chamber and the eighteenth Dragonlord’s apartments.” said Jeeves. David stared with disbelief. “I am very good at my job, sir.” He snapped his fingers, and the demon girl appeared in another puff of brimstone, this time confirming it as magic.
“You know, I was under the impression that magic was getting awfully rare in the world,” David said, as he followed the demon girl.
“The Dragonlords are the last source of it. This place is suffused with it. Though, confessedly, I’m just using smoke bombs and the hidden passageways.” She smiled over her shoulder at him.
“Ah. Stage magic, then.”
“If that makes you feel better, sir. What kind of books are you looking for?”
“History. Secret history, if you’ve got it. Humans, and that kind of thing. There were a bunch of pictures of humans in that room. You know what those are, right? Mythological monsters?”
“Well, presumably not mythological,” she said, smiling. “And yes, we know humans exist. We’re encouraged not to spread that around. You’re not going to find much written about that, though, what with the whole ‘encouraged not to spread things around.'”
“Yeah, thanks. I’ll be the judge of that.”
Three hours and a substantial stress headache later, David judged that she was right.
The thing was, there were lots of books about humans, and mystics. The trouble was, they were all bullshit. Theorizing, lots of discussion. Nothing that actually told him anything. He was tempted to throw something, but that wasn’t going to do him much good. Instead, he leaned back, and covered his eyes, thinking for a few moments.
“Looking for answers, human?”
He lowered his fingers. Tizona stood there, dressed in a tight black jacket and a pair of pants. She had her hands in her pockets, her expression amused, her long green hair hanging in spikes around her face, messy and fetching. Her skin was a crisp brown, just a few shades darker than his. She stood with one hand on the table, leaning easily against it, her eyes running down him.
“You know, it’s been such a long time since I got to see a human.”
“Yeah? That’s why you’re working with her?” David rubbed his forehead. “You tried to kill Caladbolg.”
“No. I disrupted her corporeal form. Painful, though only slightly, and embarrassing. More harm was done by your Mystic girlfriend when she stabbed Vereoria’s wing.” She took a seat next to him, one leg crossed over the other. “You know, you’re looking in the wrong places. These things were never written down. They were witnessed. Passed down.” She tilted her head. “Do you want to ask me anything?”
“How about what the deal is? Why did Vereoria summon me? Hell, how did she do it? And-“
He paused for a moment. He considered asking her about Vereoria’s behavior. But she had gotten… frightening, before, when she’d sensed weakness in Vereoria. Of everyone here, Veroria had seemed the most willing to work with him. For the moment, he was going to have to give her the benefit of the doubt. “I’m afraid I don’t know much about anything after the humans went away, until you returned.” She sighed. “I was the last of the great swords, you know?”
“Who knows? Perhaps I was always more resilient than the other two. Less connected to any one wielder. Certainly, I became known for being wielded by the great El Cid, in the waning days of humanity.” She leaned her head on her hand, and smiled. “We learned of a ritual. A ritual that would destroy all of humanity. I didn’t think it possible, but we raced to stop it, he and I. His last and most glorious stand. I was the only one of the three great swords still responsive at that point. The only one who saw our world… shatter.” She frowned at him. “You left us behind.”
“It wasn’t a spell to destroy humans. The Dragonlords were not fools, after all. They knew that there were great and terrible magi among the humans, who could indeed destroy any ritual targeted against them. They had a more insidious plan in mind.” She stared into space for a moment. That moment became two, then five, then twenty.
“Raining,” she murmured.
“It was raining that day. I remember so well. El Cid carried me into battle in the heart of the power. Here, in fact. He charged forth to meet the Dragonlord. He had her on her knees, about to take her head, when the ritual was completed. Then, he was simply… gone. All of you were. Every last human. Gone.” She leaned forward, her eyes fierce, and hard. “You left us.”
“I wasn’t there,” David said, his eyes flickering down to the sword that had materialized in Tizona’s hand, whose tip was now pointing at him. It didn’t take a mind-reader to know what she was thinking.
“That is not what matters. What matters is that you abandoned us. You left us to rot. Every one of you left us, and every sword, every building, all of us-“ She stopped for a moment, and David realized that she was choked up. “Weren’t we good enough? Did we fail you? Did we not do the right thing? Why didn’t you bring us with you? Why couldn’t we have been by your side?”
“If I’d had anything to say about it, you would have,” said David, softly. “Caladbolg’s a good sword. So is Durandal. What about you, Tizona? Do you think you’re a good sword?”
“I am a sword,” she said, and there was no trace of the pain or anguish now. She sat quietly once more, one leg crossed elegantly over the other, her expression stern. “I heard you refuse the offer of the old Dragonlord this morning. You did not go back. You will do what we want, you will follow the plan that Vereoria has created. If you do not-“ She gritted her teeth. “I remember feeling El Cid’s hand torn from my hilt. I remember feeling the last fleeting warmth of his presence. I remember bleeding the power he had bestowed in me out through a ragged wound in my soul. I remember becoming nothing but a piece of metal again. I will never experience that again. I would rather kill you than let you betray us.”
He reached out, and rested his hand on hers. The tip of the sword hovered menacingly at his throat, but he still held her hand. The silence hung between them for several long seconds, and she broke the gaze, the sword’s tip falling. When it rested on the ground, he smiled. “I am nobody’s puppet, and I’m not going with anyone else’s plan. I’m going to do what is best for the people I care about. And two of them are swords.” He released her hand, standing up. “What the hell happened to you to make you so damned bloodthirsty?”
“I lost everyone I loved,” she said, softly.
“Yeah. So did Caladbolg, and so did Durandal.” He turned away from her, and walked out of the door, his shoulders hunched. “You didn’t see either of them working with the dragonlords or hunting down a human.”
It wasn’t very charitable of him. It wasn’t very kind. But it felt damned good to give her a sharp word, after all the sharp words that he’d been given.
He entered the dining room, ready to yell at someone. The dining room was filled to bursting. Dozens of round tables with dignitaries of all kinds sitting at them, from the look of their clothes. Or maybe courtiers? He wasn’t entirely certain whether they were foreign or Vereoria was royal enough to qualify for courtiers.
“David,” said Vereoria, snapping her fingers once. He approached her, hearing the laughs and murmurs around him. The word ‘pet’ was thrown around.
It was all rather comical. If he’d cared about what these people thought, if he cared about whether they respected him, if he was the kind of bloodthirsty hero people apparently expected him to be, it might all be humiliating. As it was, it was kind of hilarious. He took a seat next to her, and on a whim from the imp of the perverse, he leaned over to kiss her briefly on the neck. She stiffened, and there were soft sounds of disquiet and surprise. He settled back in the chair. “Good evening, darling.”
He was getting a feeling for all of this. Vereoria’s power depended on him, in more ways than one. She needed him to be there, to be apparently subordinate to her will, in order to retain her power over these people. They wanted to see him crack, to break from her. He smiled, and slid an arm around her waist, embracing her. In an act of supreme self-control, her face did not change in the least. No flush, no embarrassment. But he could feel the way her heart was beating quickly.
Dinner passed quickly and without comment, after that. She dismissed him, and he returned to the bedroom. This time, he stayed up, the lights off, his eyes open, his mind racing. And when she finally entered the room, he listened as her footsteps approached. Slowly. Nervously. He listened as cloth rustled. And then he felt her settle into the bed, the warmth of her body slowly spreading out next to him. He reached out, and rested a hand on her. She went stiff. “Oh. You’re still awake.”
“Yes.” He slowly sat up, and frowned at her. “We’re alone in here. The two of us can speak freely. And it’s become increasingly clear to me that you’re the closest thing to an ally I have here, even if it’s solely because your life is apparently depending on me being under your control. I want to know.”
“What about?” she asked, slowly sitting up. She was dressed in a surprisingly sheer night dress, the fabric almost see through, and gathered the blanket up to cover herself, her head lowered. “I am the heir of the Dragonlord’s line. The child of power going back millenia. I can tell you the answers. All of the secrets.”
David was quiet for a moment, and considered. “You said that the Dragonlords were the ones who cast humanity out, and that it was a mistake. You brought me back. What do you want?”
She stared at him for a few seconds, and took a deep breath. “What I’m about to tell you is one of our greatest secrets. One of the deepest and most important parts of being a Dragonlord. It’s what separates us from a common dragon, and all the other mystics. The reason our bloodline has as much power as we do. We’re half-human.”
“Yeah,” said David.
She paused, and frowned. “That’s very shocking. The fact that we can interbreed with humans at all. It’s a real surprise.”
“Oh. The shock and horror.”
“God.” She rubbed her face. “This is because the truth is that power is not passed through death, or murder. It is passed through intimacy. The belief that humans and mystics had to kill each other in order to gain power was from a misunderstanding. Drawing blood is intimate, but there are other things that are… more so.” She coughed.
“Sex. Yeah, I experienced that.”
“Yes, sex, thank you, all of these things that I spent years learning were apparently totally self-evident to you!”
“I’m actually a human, so I suppose I had an advantage. So-” He paused. “The spell. Dragonlords have been using it for a while, haven’t they?”
“Every generation, we summon a human to the head of the family’s side. Their… It was a tradition. It kept our bloodline powerful. Kept the magic strong in us. But over the past few generations, we came to a realization. Our worlds were growing further apart-“
“Wait a moment. You summoned humans regularly? Shouldn’t that have woken the swords?”
She sighed, giving David a petulant look. “We kept them away from human ruins, and other Mystics. May I continue?” David rolled his eyes, and she went on. “Our worlds were growing apart. The gulf was growing larger. Slowly at first. You’ve noticed the way the two worlds mirror each other in so many ways? That’s the connection between them. But the force of divergence is growing greater. Soon, it will tear apart those threads. Already, they’re straining. And when they do…”
She snapped her fingers.
“We will voyage in two separate directions. Our worlds will never cross again in the infinite reach of realities. Humans will remain, forevermore, just a myth.”
He sat back, feeling slightly stunned. “So- The reason that I didn’t show up in the right place-“
“The tension. You should have appeared in the ritual circle. You should have been-” She gritted her teeth. “It doesn’t matter. You were flung through the world. I had to maintain my image, as a conqueror, as deadly. If I did not, your life would have been forfeit.” Her shoulders slumped, and she leaned to one side, her expression drained, pained. “I was foolish. Over-quick. I declared that I was going to use the power I gained from you to open a path back to the Earth. One path. A gateway through which we could trade. Keep our worlds together, forever.”
“Not merge the worlds, then.”
“No.” She smiled. “Can you imagine the strain? The world’s population suddenly doubling? No, that wouldn’t be the proper method. What we need- What we need is a cold war. A single path, keeping us at arm’s length, keeping us from quite touching. It is the solution that will work for everything. The whole reason we kept you was to make ourselves special. If we sacrifice that now…” She gritted her teeth. “Can you imagine? My mother, deciding, unilaterally, that she was to be the last one who had a human. That she would get that power, and no one else. The selfishness of it.”
“Sounds like all of the Dragonlords to me,” David said, watching her expression. She looked away.
“Well, who cares what you think, anyway.”
“Well, if we’re going to be married-“
“It means nothing. Just a sham. Just a way to stake my claim on you. We’ll dissolve it once the portal is made. You can go to… whoever you please.” She crossed her arms. “Do you know the Sphinx?”
“That was where it began. The commingling. The first civilization arose when humans and mystics discovered the connection could last. Of course… They were not the only ones. There was another civilization, to the north and the east, where a man was born of the union between human and monster-“
She glared at David. “Who told you about that?”
“We have the Epic of Gilgamesh in my world. We know a fair amount about it. I mean, it was five thousand years ago, but…”
She rubbed her face slowly.
“He was the first Dragonlord, wasn’t he?”
“Yes,” she said, glaring at him again. “This is very unsettling, learning that all of the information we sought so hard to hide in our world is just… there. It’s going to make things very troublesome after we’ve opened the gate.”
“You didn’t think that humans would just roll over, did you?”
“I don’t want to conquer humans! You’re much more useful as a threat, a boogeyman, a unifying thing, and as…” She was quiet for a moment, and turned her head away. “He was the first Dragonlord, yes. The line of the Dragonlords spread, through Mesopotamia, Greece, then Rome. We suppressed the ancient myths of Egypt. We ruled the world. But humans simply… wouldn’t submit to us. They vexed us. They fought us, tooth and nail. The Huns, the Mongols, the Timurids, time and again your ancestors would rise from their hovels, and become a storm that engulfed us.” She smiled. “That was why the ritual was performed. Because my ancestors feared that when the secret escaped- and the world was growing smaller, it WOULD escape- we would be consumed by the tide of history. Forgotten.”
“I see,” David said, as diplomatically as he could manage.
She looked up, her expression suddenly nervous. “What?”
“You don’t approve. It’s a good idea! We can keep our cultures apart, prevent those wars, keep everything under control!”
“Why do you care what I think?” David asked, feeling slightly bewildered. Vereoria looked away sharply, her arms crossed.
“Yeah. You’re right. What do I care.” She sighed. “You will do what I say, even if I have to threaten people… Please.”
“I don’t think that’s the right way. But…” David frowned. “No magic. All of the Tools being asleep, forever, never getting to wake again… That’s not right, either. And merging the world would cause chaos.” David went quiet.
“As though you’ll have the choice,” said Vereoria, somewhat acidly.
“You’ve got me here. You sure you don’t want to ravish me?” David asked. Vereoria’s face turned a fearsome red, and she threw herself down on the bed, curled up into a fetal position, facing away from him. He lay down on the bed, and slowly sank into sleep.
And yet… There was a soft motion from her side of the bed, something rhythmic and careful, and a smell that David recognized.
Someone was lonely.
The next morning, David found Vereoria in the chapel. The room was surprisingly large, a great stained glass window standing over the altar, depicting a draconic Mystic with a small pouch of silver in one hand. “Kind of funny, seeing how all of history was apparently telling a story from either side,” murmured David, frowning up at the stained glass mirror.
“Well, Carloman and Charlemagne, Romulus and Remus, Jesus and Judas. It’s like there were hints everywhere that things were incomplete, but nobody could recognize them.” He frowned. “I wonder just how much of that has messed with our society.”
“Is now really the time?” she asked, her expression frantic as she bustled around the room. “Ah… Seat them here- wait, no, their countries are at war… Here, and here.” She turned towards one of the maids. “How are the feast preparations coming along?”
“We’ll have everything ready,” said the woman, though from her expression she would have probably said that regardless. Vereoria was carrying Tizona, and the green-haired woman was a step behind her, looking nearly as agitated as the dragon. The presence of a deadly weapon apparently brought out the polite submission in people, even while preparing for a wedding. “Tonight will be fine, your majesty-“
“I know it will. Because if anything goes wrong, there will be hell to pay.” She turned towards David, and frowned. “Have you gotten your outfit finished? I need to get mine prepared.”
A wall abruptly rolled around like something out of Scooby Doo, and Jeeves stepped out from behind it, hands clasped behind his back. He seized David’s arm, and led him firmly out the door. David was put in the mind of a dog straining at the leash during a walk, another uncharitable thought, as he pulled the human along through the corridors of the building. They came to another stop in a fitting room, and David found himself abruptly sexually assaulted by the tailor from the previous day, the spider girl pressing up against him from behind and measuring his inseam with an invasive grace.
After being left feeling thoroughly violated, David stood in the fine tuxedo, examining himself with a critical eye. If there was ever an outfit that personified the words ‘Monkey Suit’, this was surely it. He sighed, tugging at the collar, and didn’t notice the fact that the room had emptied entirely while he was examining himself in the mirror. He turned around, and suppressed the urge to have a heart attack as he found the older draconic woman standing across from him.
“You have made very quick friends with my daughter.” The old Dragonlord tilted her head to one side. “I am curious. What drives your loyalty? Perhaps you agree with her goals? Perhaps you believe that your kind would be able to conquer us, to run rampant over us. Or perhaps…” She studied David’s eyes with a disconcerting intensity. “Oh, yes. That familiar thing.” She smiled. “Tell me. When you first came to this place, you met someone, didn’t you? You found yourself… connected to them. You did not want to be far from them. You might even call it… love?”
“What of it?” David asked, his voice harsh. A bit harsher than he meant it to be, really.
“My husband- Do you think he spent his final days cursing my name, cursing the woman who tore him away from everything he ever knew? The woman who waited until he was too old to see his daughter grow more than a few years old to mate with him, so that he could barely be a part of her life?” She laughed bitterly, her golden eyes fixed on David’s. “No. His last words were that he loved me.”
“So what? Stockholm syndrome is a thing.”
“Think about it, David. A spell to summon a mate. But one that requires such effort. One that can only be performed once a decade. You can’t imagine we’d leave it up to chance, did you?” Her smile was hollow, savage. “Did you think you met your soulmate by chance? That you fell in love with the first person you met because they were ordained?” She turned, and walked to the door, looking over her shoulder. “Our worlds are better off apart, human. Without the heartache that comes from separation. Let sleeping dogs lie. Let the magic die. Goodbye.”
She walked out of the room. “Nice rhyming,” shouted David, after her. “But you should work on your lying!” He frowned at the door. Damn. That didn’t even rhyme, not really.
Mind control magic. He’d been subjected to it once. Could it do more than just make him anxious when he walked away from a vampire? Could that have been a part of it, what had made him fall for Farida? He didn’t think so. But then, that could just be the spell.
He remembered his family. He still wanted to see them again, to see everyone he cared about. He wanted to go home. But he also cared about this place.
Because of a spell? Because someone had messed with his head? Because he’d been made to think that?
The wolf-boy was suddenly beside him, and the rug on the floor was suddenly rather disheveled from the butler’s quick exit from some hidden trap door. He slicked his hair back with both hands. “Yes, sir?”
“She is currently trying on her wedding dress, but it’s improper-“
“I give zero shits about what is proper, Jeeves. Show me to her.”
“As you wish, sir.”
Vereoria’s wedding dress was a bright, bloody red, and lacked a veil. Otherwise, it looked a great deal like he’d expect any wedding dress to look. She frowned, looking over her shoulder. One of the maids stepped forward. “Sir, it is bad luck for the bride to see the groom before the wedding-“
“Leave us,” said Vereoria, her voice firm. The room emptied rapidly. The sun hung low in the sky, the light turned a delicate golden. David could see tiny motes of dust floating in the room, drifting slowly across the sunbeams. Vereoria stood with her arms crossed, her expression muted, watching him. “Well?”
“I talked with your mother again.” He gritted his teeth. “Did the spell make me fall in love with Farida?”
“Oh, don’t I wish,” murmured Vereoria. “Mind control doesn’t work quite that way. That’s what she hinted at, right? Without ever outright saying it. She’s desperate. Angry. She uses such childish ploys.” She sighed, and crossed her arms. “If it were mind control, I could simply break the spell, remove your feelings for her, make you love me, instead. It would be simple. All of this conflict would be…” She snapped her fingers. “Gone. Like that.” She stared at him with those bright golden eyes, the dusty light twinkling around her. “The spell is particular. It’s meant to find someone who is ideal for our purposes. Lonely, without substantial connections. Someone who will not be missed. Someone sexually compatible. Someone in need of companionship. You were a somewhat lonely person, David?”
He didn’t answer.
“You were to find yourself in this world. In the arms of a woman, tender, nurturing, caring. Someone who would make you welcome. Who would give you the warmth and tenderness that you have needed so dearly, for so long.” She sighed. “You were chosen because you needed that touch. Because you were lonely, and hurt. There was no need for mind control, or magic, to make you love the person you first met. It would happen naturally. A balm to soothe leaving your world.”
David blinked. “You-“
“It was supposed to be me. I was supposed to be the one you found when you woke up. I was supposed to be the one who would care for you, make you feel better. I was supposed to be the one who you’d fall in love with.” She rubbed her face, and David realized there were tears running down her cheeks. “My father died when I was just a child. The Dragonlord line is never supposed to be influenced by the humans in their lives. That’s why we wait until they get old. That’s why I never got to know him. That’s why my mother is tormented by the memory of him, because you’re supposed- You’re supposed to be-“
“It’s not just the loneliness, is it? It’s…” David went quiet. He had an inkling. He really didn’t want to say it.
“In that whole other world, there is no one who’s as perfect for me as you. And because I did the ritual wrong, because I couldn’t summon you to the right place, because of a twist of fate, my soul-mate ended up with another person. Some bitch who never earned you, who never deserved you, all because…” She shook her head. “We were supposed to have the grand adventure. I was supposed to be your guide in this world, your protector. It was supposed to be our great love story.” She wiped at her eyes again. “Bitter irony, isn’t it? You really are the kind of guy I love, and that’s never going to happen.”
He didn’t contradict her.
“So. That’s the state of things. That’s what I need you to do. Open the gate. Then, you can go and have your happy life. I won’t interfere. I care about you, fool that I am. I’ll find some other human and make do, and my line will continue. Everyone will get what they want. You will get to return to your people, and keep your dog. I will gain the power I need, and… be happy enough, I suppose, not that I have any other choice. I think that you owe me this much.”
“I’m sorry,” David said, softly. “You know, you’re really not a bad person.” At the hope in her eyes, he shook his head. “But I think you’re right. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to be together like that.”
“Yes.” She sighed softly. “Life surrounds us with countless possibilities. If only things had gone differently. But they did not, did they?”
“Hah.” She smiled softly. “Your love for her is genuine. More’s the pity. I hope the two of you are very happy together.”
“Is she okay?”
“She and the others have dropped off of the radar. Likely hiding. Staying out of sight. We will track them down, after the gate is opened.”
“Alright.” He paused for a moment, and studied her. “You’re not going to let them be hurt, are you?”
“That would break your heart.” She smiled very softly, her expression just slightly tormented. “I don’t think I could find it in myself to do it to you.”
“Vereoria…” he struggled with the words for a moment. “You’ll find someone. It’s a big world. There’ll be someone there for you.”
“Yes. I am sure there will be. And yet, I now know that they are never going to be as right for me as you would have been. Perhaps there are some downsides to magic, hmmm?” She waved a hand. “I will see you at the ceremony.”
The speed of the ceremony didn’t particularly surprise David. It was, after all, fairly clear that Vereoria was in a race against time. There was clearly pressure from everyone around her in the court. The sooner she’d sealed the alliance with him, the sooner she’d be able to assert her authority over the others of the court. What did surprise David was just how beautiful the ceremony was.
The chapel had been decorated. Great silk banners of the House of the Dragonlords hung from the walls, an Or dragon rampant across a field gules, flapping slowly in a breeze that must have been conjured up by magic. The sun had set, and great braziers filled with oil had been lit, filling the room with a thick, smoky darkness. The moon must have risen, because a bright silver light fell through the stained glass, painting the scene in strange and ethereal tones.
David’s head spun as he stepped down the plush red velvet rug, feeling the heels of the formal shoes sink deep into it with each step. Deeper, he thought, than they really should have. The experience was rather like walking through quicksand. Something about the night felt ominous. A certain heavy pressure lay over the room as he approached Vereoria, the heartbroken bride standing tall and proud, giving no hint of the painful story she’d told him.
This all could have turned out so differently. But she’d find someone else. The world was a big place, and he knew she’d find someone better for her. He wasn’t willing to spend the rest of his life with someone because they thought they couldn’t do any better. That wouldn’t be fair to either of them.
He walked down the aisle, aware of the eyes of dignitaries, and bodyguards. Quite a lot of them, in fact. That brought a small frown to his lips. Was there really an expectation of some sort of trouble tonight?
A piercing scream rang out through the castle, echoing strangely off the walls. He spun towards the door, heart pounding. Several gunshots rang out. People began to talk nervously.
“David,” hissed Vereoria. “Hurry up.”
He stepped up to the altar quickly, casting a glance over his shoulder. Half the bodyguards in the room had stood up, and were filing out the door, submachine guns held at their sides. “What’s-“
“I don’t know,” hissed Vereoria, her hand twitching. David noticed the scabbard at her side. Apparently a sword was considered a reasonable fashion accessory here. That didn’t entirely surprise him. “Priest, please, let us begin.”
“Of course,” said the demon woman. She was tall, matronly, dressed in what might have had some root in a nun’s habit, though as seen through one of the cheesier pornos. “Do you- What on earth?”
David looked down. A thick, cloying mist was pouring into the chapel through the open door, covering the ground in a foot-deep layer of fog so thick that the floor tiles were completely obscured, hungry little wisps and curlicues rising from the top of the fog to lick at the air occasionally, rather like a hungry animal. There was another scream, this one rather closer, and another burst of automatic weapons fire. It cut off abruptly, the echoes ringing through the chamber.
Gerlinde stepped into the doorway, a smile playing across her features, sharp teeth glinting in the air. “Well, hello, Your Eminence. Should I bow?” She smiled. “I’m afraid I always was more of a Protestant.”
“How did you find this place?” asked Vereoria, her eyes widening. “You fool. You shouldn’t have come here.” She drew Tizona.
“How did I find you? Well, it was easy. Someone must have wanted us to know where you were.” Gerlinde reached down to her waist, and drew Durandal, the blade gleaming in the light. “The how doesn’t really matter, does it? Saving a handsome mansel from the dragon’s clutches… If Errol Flynn were still alive, the elfin bastard would be saluting me right now.”
Vereoria lunged, with all the explosive power of a fencer with legs made out of dynamite. Gerlinde seemed to trip and fall backwards, into the mist, her arms pinwheeling. Vereoria stabbed Tizona down, into the mist, and David’s heart dropped.
The next moment, Gerlinde leapt out of the mist from behind Gerlinde, bringing Durandal’s curved blade down in a blow that was only barely deflected by one of Vereoria’s wings.
It all would have been very thrilling and uplifting, had it been the slightest bit necessary. “Gerlinde! Stop! She’s on our side!”
The words were strangely dampened as they left his throat, seeming to fade away, as Vereoria spun and struck a vicious blow for Gerlinde. The vampire dove beneath the mist again.
“Vereoria! Stop it! You said you weren’t going to hurt them!”
The blades flashed as the two of them struck blow and counterblow, each one filled with deadly intent. Someone was going to get hurt. David took a step forward, and she stepped into view.
“I am sorry about this,” said Vereoria’s mother, her eyes hollow, her nails shining like talons in the moonlight, as she approached him. “I wanted to offer you another way. But it appears that you are stubborn.” She sighed. “You humans. All alike, it seems. Or maybe it’s us that never change, hmmm?” She smiled, and lashed out. the nails swiped at throat-level, and it was only a lucky step back that kept him from losing his carotid. He took another step back, trying to create some distance.
The damned shag rug was underfoot. His foot hit it on a bad angle, and he slipped, his arms windmilling as he fell back into the mist, striking his head against the floor. Even cushioned by the rug, the blow was enough to make his head spin, and he stared up dizzily as the woman loomed over him. “Y’don’t have to do this.”
She shook her head. “I can’t hear you.” Then she raised her foot.
The stained glass window shattered. The sound was strangely muted, as a dark figure twinkled in the night. She descended, and David wondered to himself when exactly Farida had gotten cool.
It was not, in fact, Farida. Caladbolg, naked as a jaybird, came down through the air, and Vereoria’s mother only barely avoided being skewered as the sword flashed through the air. David felt warm paws around his shoulders, lifting him upright. He turned his head, and Farida kissed him very hard on the lips.
That, there, was a perfect moment. It lasted for less than a second, but it seemed to stretch out for him, perfect and sweet, as she cradled his head in her arms, holding him tight.
Then she broke the kiss. “Now!”
Caladbolg knocked Vereoria’s mother to the ground with a backhand blow, and then lunged through the air as Gerlinde seized Vereoria in a headlock. She ripped Tizona from the dragon girl’s hands, and held the blade up, slamming her knuckles across the flat once, hard. A ringing sound filled the air, and she smiled. “Sorry to get violent, sister.”
Then she brought the sword down. The air parted like a stage curtain, swept aside by the blow, revealing a dark shoreline.
Farida grabbed David, and pulled him through. The opening closed a moment later, leaving seven people on the beach.
“Alright,” growled Gerlinde, into Vereoria’s ear. “Here’s how we’re going to do this. You’re going to keep the authorities from giving us any more shit. We’re going to go unmolested all the way to Egypt, on the Dragonlord’s dime. And-“
“She’s on our side,” said David.
“What?” said Farida.
“She’s not actually a bad person. She wanted to open a gate to the human world all along. I don’t know if I agree with what exactly she has in mind, but… I think she’ll help us.”
“You’ve clearly been brainwashed by the Dragonlord’s magics, or her insidious sexuality,” said Caladbolg, her expression stern and harsh. “We will break the enchantment, David-“
“She’s, uh. Actually, I’m pretty sure she’s a virgin,” said David.
A very awkward silence filled the air as everyone stared at him.
“Well, I can’t imagine she’d have him admit that to us all if he were under her control,” said Farida.
“It… conceivably… could be a trick,” said Caladbolg, although she didn’t look particularly convinced herself.
Vereoria made a gurgling noise, and Tizona frowned. “While I can empathize with the desire to strangle the life out of her, it might be prudent to allow her to speak. Or at least breathe a little. And… Caladbolg… sister… I know that we’ve had our differences, particularly in the very recent past, but.” The green-haired sword blushed. “Could you stop holding my hilt quite so tight?”
“Ah.” Caladbolg flushed as well, and handed the sword back to Tizona. David had the sudden impression that they’d all seen something that, strictly speaking, they were not supposed to. Fucking swords.
“Uh. Where are we?” he asked, frowning as he realized that their surroundings were quite unfamiliar.
“I wanted to get us somewhere safe. Somewhere where we could get in touch with the authorities and keep them from targeting us.” Caladbolg waved an arm across the horizon, the dark night hanging over them, the starts twinkling in the night, and smiled. “Welcome to the port of Alexandria, the heart of Alexander’s empire.”
“So, should I keep choking her, or, what?” asked Gerlinde. David looked down. Vereoria had an extremely annoyed expression on her face, and was now clawing at Gerlinde’s arms somewhat ineffectively.
“For crying out loud, Gerlinde-“
“Hey, we hadn’t come to a conclusion there! She’s been menacing us! Plus, she was a bitch to me!” Gerlinde released Vereoria, and the dragon girl stumbled and fell flat on her face in the wedding dress, landing in the sand.
“Good god,” murmured Caladbolg. “Rather young for a Dragonlord…”
“Thank you, tool,” growled Vereoria, pushing herself to her feet, her eyes narrowed. She let her eyes run across the group, her arms crossed. “You have captured me, but-“
“Vereoria,” said David, his voice soft. “It’s okay. You don’t have to put up a front, here. We all want the same thing.”
“Do we, now?” murmured Vereoria, her eyes lidded, studying the group. “I seek to open a gate. A point of trade. A controlled linkage between the two worlds. I seek to connect our two worlds permanently, at arm’s length. Separate. But equal.”
There was a slightly stunned silence from around the group. “Wait a second. Then why the hell were you acting like such a jerk?” asked Farida, her eyes narrowed.
“That… Ah.” Vereoria sighed. “There are certain… expectations, when it comes to being a Dragonlord-“
“She was protecting us. Projecting an image of power to keep Tizona and those in the court from thinking she was vulnerable, or taking a swing at us.”
“How do we know this isn’t a trick?” asked Caladbolg. She frowned at the looks she received. “Look, I’m just asking. It’s a perfectly reasonable question under the circumstances.”
“I will cooperate. Tell the court that this is all according to my plans, and that the gate will be opened. That any interference will be met with three awoken Swords, and severe punishment.” Vereoria smiled. “I may not be able to claim David’s heart. But I have faith in him. When we stand before the Sphinx, when he takes the blade in hand, I know that he will not flee.” She smiled, her arms crossed, her expression annoyingly triumphant. “He will reunite our two worlds, and give me what I seek. Power over this world that shall not end.”
“Alright,” said Farida, rolling her eyes. “Let’s find somewhere where you can stop the damn manhunt.”