“Ah- No. No, not like that. Three fingers, like this~”
The sight we find ourselves seeing is not the lewd one you might have imagined it to be. It’s cold, dark, and windy up here – and as a man and his lizardman commander sit alone at a table atop the vast wall, not a light can be seen in the valley far below. Martin and his superior would know, after all. It’s their job to check, and they’re hard at work.
“See-? No!” Charlie growled, finally losing her patience. “If you flick it like that, it will just fall out of your hand. Face the other way, would you? If you drop one of my playing cards into the outer city, you will be going down there and getting it back for me, young man.”
This pitiful exercise had gone on for some time. Four weeks, as a matter of fact, had passed since Martin had first seen his superior do this little trick at a gala dinner. Martin had a lot of little skills, as a matter of fact, to the point that he was known for them. If there was an odd job to be had around the gardens, around the city, even occasionally in the outer reaches of the palace, Martin would be around to do it. What Charlie had not encountered before, though, was the boy’s thirst to learn more. Cornered later that night, the commander had been informed that she owed the boy a favour. For what, you might ask? Well, for lots of things. Which meant lots of favours. Most of which, by this point, had been expended.
“Why do you even want to know how to do this?” Charlie asked, observing a queen flutter pathetically just beyond the reach of the stone canopy the two sat under – and then, rather quickly, be blown to the ground, where it caught against the wall.
“I’ll need it.” Martin replied simply. The old lizardman narrowed her eyes at the boy, but Martin only shrugged. “One day, I’ll need it. I knew I would the moment I saw you do it.”
Charlie shook her head. “That’s another thing. Most of my boys don’t remember the Galas. I’ve been here for a long time. Before that, I was out there for even longer. It’s your youth. Weren’t you drinking?”
“I’m not a drinker,” Martin said quickly. “You see, the mind is a man’s greatest weapon. I have to stay sharp-”
“Don’t give me that vocel shit, Martin. I saw you throwing up in the courtyard two Christmases ago like the rest of the boys. What happened?”
“I’ve been trying to-“
“Don’t change your answer!” Charlie snapped. “This is to try and impress her, isn’t it?”
“You have only seen her once in your life and it was five years ago!”
“Six years. Two days, a week, one month, six years.”
The lizard sighed. “Look, I can see you like older women, but I think I need to spell something out to you, Martin. You see this fancy collar on my neck? You see the lighter, less fancy one on yours? She might have saved you from the gardens when she took power, Martin, but that was a long time ago and in case you haven’t noticed we are still slaves.”
“A slave can’t go to the market,” Martin retorted. “He can’t have hobbies, or learn transferrable skills. He can’t be educated, even up to the level we were. He can’t choose what he has to wear-“
“You can’t choose what you have to wear.” Came the curt reply. “And also – if you really believe that a slave is only a slave when they are chained and abused, bought and sold, and generally mistreated, you don’t know the history of slavery. Pacification was a big part of it.” She ground her sword against the wall for a moment, then looked carefully over the blade. “That’s what you are.” She said, putting it to the wall again. “Pacified.”
“If I am pacified,” Martin mused, “Then what are you? You’re her commander. You report to her once a month. If she’s so terrible, you would challenge her.”
There was a long silence. Martin’s eyes narrowed.
“You did challenge her, didn’t you?”
“I assure you,” The lizardman growled, “You should look elsewhere. She is vile. Ow. OW.”
“Hot under the collar?” Martin chided, as an angry red welt began to appear. “You know it’s against the rules for a high ranking official to say such words.”
“Screw her and screw her ruAAAHAHHH!” The lizardman groaned, grasping at her collar. “Too hot! Too hot! I’m sorry!”
Martin shook his head, gently pouring his untouched ale over her as he was often forced to do.
“Damn it, if I could just get this thing OFF… Why didn’t she just banish me? That was all I wanted, really!”
“I wish I had one that was hand made like that.” Martin grumbled.
“No,” Charlie replied, “You don’t. Trust me. Stay amongst the drones and the peasants. Find yourself a nice girl in the city and if her character’s good I’ll try and get you permission to marry her. Marriage to a monster means release from your slave contract, Martin, and it’ll be my last favour to you, so don’t blow it for yourself. It’s the same as I said when you were young. Don’t attract attention. You’ll get hurt, and Bones will have to set you right again. You remember Bones? Nice guy. Doesn’t believe in anaesthetic.”
There was a long silence.
“So two fingers-?” Martin asked, holding up a card.
“No! Three god damn it! AAAAAhhhHH.” She clutched at the collar again. “Come on, that was nothing. Oh… I need to take some time out, Marty.”
“Huh.” Martin replied.
“You know what I’d do if I could get out of here?” Charlie asked, walking to the parapet.
“Blimp?” Martin said out loud, getting to his feet.
“What?” Charlie said. “Hell no. The skies terrify me. I’d be down in the mountains, catching up on- Martin?”
Martin was scampering down some stairs. Immediately, Charlie looked out over the horizon, where he’d been standing, and was taken aback. There was a light in the sky. Three lights. But they weren’t expecting any arrivals.
She was shaken from her thoughts by loud clattering as Martin began to ring the watch bell. “Did you just-” She managed to stammer, before being surrounded by the chorus of noise as the other posts joined in. Finally, the citadel bell toiled, and the others fell silent. Soon, below the two, there were footfalls as the civil guard reached the towers and began to join the night guard. Quite casually, Martin reappeared, a few signs of worry on his face as he began to stash the emptied ale glasses out of sight. “Martin,” Charlie said, stopping him. “Who are you hiding them from? Me?”
“You never know. She might need to come out to us.”
“I’m, uh, stashing these.”
“Stashing them is fine. Chuck them off the wall and I dock your allowance.”
Floundering for a moment, Martin carefully pushed the glasses under the table, moving quickly to block Charlie’s view of them, assumed a casual sort of pose leaning against it. As two of the civil guard barrelled up the stairs behind her – a man and a Wyvern – Charlie pinched her nose.
“Commander!” The man said. “What’s the situation?”
“I don’t know if it’s a- Well, let’s say it is. Look.” She pointed.
“By the gods.” The Wyvern said. Then, “You got him to drink?”
Charlie shook her head. “Martin, move.”
“By the queen!”
“Actually, that’s a zeppelin, or three.” Martin muttered. “They’ve got their fog lights on. They want to be seen. Do you think they intend to moor themselves at the docks and board us, or fire on the city?”
“Are you going to wait to find out?” Charlie asked. “Get to the front, make sure the gun operators have what they need.”
“No buts. We both know you can’t use a sword or a gun.”
As Martin scrambled down the stairs once more, he heard Charlie barking orders. Four more guards passed him, and two couples. Nobody paid him much attention, for once, apart from one Hellhound that barked at him angrily as he tried to squeeze past. “S-Sorry!”
As he dashed around the outskirts of the inner city, he could see lights coming on. Some of the citizens had come outside and were talking in hushed tones. He was not far from the docks – it only took him 10 minutes running, and Charlie’s training meant he was only marginally exhausted by the time he made it there.
There it was. The gigantic cloudshredder that it was his job to maintain. The huge gun gleamed in the moonlight, coming to life in front of him as if on cue and tilting to aim right at his face. He dashed out of the way just as it discharged a bullet. “PEBBLES!” He screamed.
“SORRY, MARTY!” his childhood friend called from the cockpit, waving a leathery wing at him. “I CAN DRIVE THIS THING, I SWEAR!”
“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU TWO DOING?”
Oh crap. Pestile and Mortar, the resident armorer and gunsmith, respectively. Oh well. They had no authority to give Martin a bad time.
“You bloody fool! You coulda’ fuckin’ killed him!” Pestile yelled, fiddling with her collar nervously.
Thankfully, Pestile was not considered important enough for a special collar.
“I’m sorry…” The bat controlling the gun whimpered, slumping over to one side. Immediately, the gun began to spin. “ohooaaaAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA-“
“Stop! STOP, WOMAN! For goodness sake, lean to the right! Even better, let go of the joystick!”
The gun’s rotations came to a stop. Then, just as suddenly, it began to spin the other way.
Mortar didn’t say anything. He never did, really. He just nudged Martin, handed him some oil and pointed him to the munitions, and excused himself.
“We’re going to get obliterated, aren’t we?” Martin muttered to Pestile, partly as an attempt at humour.
Martin wasn’t allowed to fight. This was partly due to his small size and apparent fragility, but more due to his failures in training. He was, in Charlie’s words, “sword shy” – an affliction that left him permanently relegated to support roles.
“That’s our Marty,” The oni sneered. “Why don’t you make yourself useful and start loading her up. COME ON, PEBBLES! YOU’RE THE BEST WE HAVE NORMALLY! PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER, WOMAN-”
“WE COME IN PEACE,” A voice interrupted, emanating from the blimp. “If, uh, anyone’s interested.”
All at once, the inner city guard stopped. The noise from bustling crowds of men and women preparing defences and various rehearsed plans dissipated. From the citizenry, the hushed whispers turned into loud, general outrage complete with the slamming of doors and irritated shouting. Then, somewhere above Martin, Charlie’s own magically amplified voice responded.
“We’re, uh, on your manifest for eight in the morning yesterday. We just-“
“IT IS THREE IN THE MORNING, TODAY.” Martin cringed, reaching for his earmuffs as the lizardman launched into a rage in full earshot of everyone in the inner city. “DO YOU KNOW WHAT A RADIO IS!? DO YOU KNOW WHAT FLIGHT PLANS ARE? DO YOU KNOW WHAT BUNKERING TIME IS FOR?! WHAT ARE YOU, A HOLIDAY VESSEL?!”
There was no response for a moment. Then, in a very quiet voice –
“Can we land please.”
“Well, like I said to your friend, we were boarded…”
As Martin scribbled notes from the slightly distraught captain, Charlie poked her head through the door. “You know who is awake.” She growled at Martin, without subtlety. “And she’s not happy.”
Slowly, Martin turned to face the captain again, her catlike ears twitching as he looked her in the eye and told her, “You might have just upset a bronze dragon. Now just try to give me,” he quickly added as the Nekomata started blubbering, “A full statement, just how you remember it happening. Leave nothing out.”
“It was too fast. They took the special shipment,” She sniffed. “The medicine. Her medicine.”
“You know who’s?”
Martin knew better than to ask what the medicines were for. “What else did they take?”
“Books, charts. They tried to make us get lost. They threw someone overboard, and-”
“I’m going to need to stop you there. That’s a possible death. Who and where?”
“M-My first mate, Tiara. She fell in t-th-the sea…”
“She’ll be fine.” Charlie muttered. “There are plenty of folk in there to help her-”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Martin interrupted. “Hit water at terminal velocity and it’s like a brick wall. You’d get knocked out, no time to thrash around, and drown before anyone noticed you-”
“And what are we supposed to do about that?!” Charlie suddenly yelled. “Time and place, Martin! Quit speaking out of turn and maybe think before you open that mouth.”
Martin bit his tongue. Before him, the captain began to wail. Charlie gestured for Martin to get out. Now.
“By the way?” Charlie whispered to him as he passed her. “You are on record as the one who raised the alarm. Not taking the fall this time. Sorry!”
Not good news. Not good news at all.
Punishments were rare because people in the inner city tended to respect the law, and those acting outside it were dealt with by the civil guard. Her highness, however, always dealt out punishments personally to her servants, and the punishments were always one of three things – Banishment, relegation to some miserable duty, or ironic retribution. Knowing what some of his comrades had been through gave Martin a little insight – he remembered having to bring a friend food several times after he was chained in place in the gardens for a week – but beyond that, if the crown guard came looking for him, it was a toss up between a lengthy reassignment to sanitation and garden duties, or some flavour of sleep deprivation as punishment for daring to wake her highness without good enough reason. Perhaps both? Given, of course, that she was in a mood bad enough to issue major punishments for minor infractions, which was, Martin reminded himself, always.
Suddenly, something heavy landed on him. For a moment, the world was a blur of colour and pain. Then, he came to a stop, and his eyes, looking directly upwards, focussed on Pebbles. “Marty.” She said again. “I’m so sorry I messed up with the gun again. Are you ok? I didn’t hurt you with the shot, did I?”
“No, but you’re making up for it,” Martin groaned.
“Hey, I can’t help it.” Pebbles pouted. “Mum says it’s instincts, so there. Besides,” – she gave him an impish smile – “It’s a monster’s rightful place-“
“I really don’t have time for this, Pebbles.”
Pebbles looked agitated. “What are you saying, Martin? Don’t you want to-“
“You’re going to tear my clothes again.” He reminded her. She paid no attention. Something had come over. Perhaps it was the way the sun had just gone behind a cloud, or perhaps it was something else triggering in her mind as she regarded him from above. Martin squirmed, but it was too late. Pebbles wouldn’t move.
“You think you can just ignore me all the time now,” She complained suddenly. “Don’t you remember the fun we used to have, you insect? You’re making me really angry.”
Uh-oh, Pebbles was having one of her turns.
“Pebbles, we have jobs to d-“
“Lets, just,” Pebbles regarded the remains of Martin’s pants and underwear for a moment, sort of unsure what her instincts seemed to be guiding her to do – “Get rid of these,” She finished, throwing them aside with a sharpened claw. “They took so long to get off last time.”
People were looking. “Pebbles, can we go inside?!” Martin asked, reaching for her wrists and trying to break her grip. Pebbles smiled.
“No, Martin,” She purred, flipping him over and pushing him to the ground, hard. “This is your punishment for ignoring me,” She told him matter of factly, tearing open his shirt with a long, enduring rip that echoed across the quickly vacant courtyard. “I’ve been thinking about doing this for a loooong tiiiiiii… oh, OH MY GOD! MARTIN, I’M SORRY!”
The sun was back. Pebbles let go of him immediately, covering her body as he quickly covered his. There was some laughter around them as Martin staggered over to the men’s quarters, slamming the door quickly behind him.
He slumped against it, then, enjoying a moment of silence. He half expected Pebbles to come knocking at the door. But she didn’t. He looked up, then, and caught sight of Mortar, through the open door ahead. Grinning.
These quarters were for technicians, and so they were a bit of an improvement – but not a big one – over the regular personnel rooms. They were also, mercifully, a lot quieter. To Martin’s left and right were several rooms; rooms that Martin never entered. Immediately ahead was the room he shared with Mortar.
“I’m in trouble, Mortar.” Martin said, slumping into his bed. “The queen might want to see me.”
Mortar sighed, taking one of the pellets from the box on his lap and rolling it between his fingers. After a while, he looked back over towards Martin, raising his eyebrows once.
“Oh, come on now.” Martin said. “We both know she’s married. It’ll be shit. She’ll just give me some shit, and I’ll have to deal with it.”
A moment of silence, punctuated by the sound of Mortar slurping from his teacup as Martin dusted off his old dragon anatomy book. The slurp turned into a chuckle, and Martin glared at Mortar. “It’s NOT po- I mean, Look, I can’t change how I feel about dragons, alright? They’re fucking majestic, man. They’re beautiful. She’s beautiful.”
Silence. Mortar started rolling the pellet again, ignoring his friend’s ranting.
“Do you know they have a wingspan of six to eight meters? Eight fucking meters, man. That’s insane. Lilim don’t have that much. Falcon harpies don’t have that much. And I know what you’re thinking, size doesn’t matter, but look at this-“ – Martin turned the book around to mortar, and a page folded out twice, quite unexpectedly. Martin quickly turned it around – “-A-AAAA-N-No not that, wrong page, that’s um… It’s a book for men, alright?! Yes, I know you have a thing going with Pestile. You should get married and get out of your collars, but… No, it’s- look, here.”
He gestured to the full page spread on breath weapons. Illustrations of cities, entire kingdoms being destroyed by single targeted pulses. Mana measurements beyond comprehension. “Look, man! You see what I mean?”
Mortar gave Martin a sympathetic sort of glare. “Yes, I’m aware.” Martin blustered. “Even the legendary men they normally marry, they marry out of sympathy. They’re controlling, covetous, mean, I know. But, I just- I can’t stop thinking about it. I love dragons, man. I want to marry a dragon. I want to, you see those scales? They’re so lovely and smooth, and sensitive, and I’d love to just, put my hands on them and, ok yes- yes it’s a bit weird alright never mind.”
Another silence. Perhaps more awkward than the last time.
Mortar nudged Martin then, pointing towards the door. “Oh, Pebbles?” Martin muttered. “She’s like that sometimes. She’s normally a bro, though. She gave me her lunch yesterday. It happens sometimes, a thing with her species. With me only, yes, I’m aware, Mortar. I think she’s very pretty, Mortar. There are other boys. I don’t know where, Mortar. Somewhere, alright?” Martin sighed, watching the gunsmith discard the first pellet, tossing it gently behind the bed, and then pick up another. “I’m in trouble, though, man. Really, I am.”
Mortar shrugged, rolling the palette between his fingers and picking up the teacup with his other hand. He went to drink from the cup, but paused for a moment, eying the mug suspiciously as Martin sighed and went back to his book. Mortar’s eyes moved to the pellet. Then, gingerly, he dropped the pellet into the cup.
All at once, the room filled with light, white hot and all encompassing; a screeching, gut wrenching pop-bang filling the ears of all present with its roar, followed by the sound of muted, intense ringing as both men’s beds rocked on their frames and the shrapnel of the mug embedded itself in the walls and ceiling of the room – leaving Mortar holding only the handle, wide eyed and grinning like a madman. For the two seconds it took for him to notice that his vest was on fire.
Martin had not flinched. “Nah, storm in a teacup, you’re probably right,” he muttered, slowly turning to face the wall as the gunsmith threw his vest to the ground, stomping it into the wooden floor with murder in his eyes. “Maybe nothing’ll happen,” he mused, letting those two fold out pages hang out again; and gazing fondly into the eyes of the dragon in the full length picture, he let himself fall asleep, fully dressed.
Martin groaned. “Mortar, will you stop that? It’s… five. I’ve been up most of the night, and I’m trying to sneak in some extra rest before Charlie remembers I was supposed to be on the rota for-“
Bang-bang-bang-bang. “ROYAL GUARD, OPEN UP.”
“Oh, bollocks.” Martin groaned, as Mortar shuffled towards the door and opened it, inviting two Wyverns to immediately regret their decision to attempt to fit into the small room.
“Which one of you two techies is Marty?” One of them barked, bending backwards a little in a vain attempt to make the rest of her wing fit through the door before evidently deciding fuck it and letting it stick out into the corridor. Martin staggered to his feet, offering himself, but one of them reached out to grab him by the top of the head anyway. Wyverns; very tactile creatures.
The attempt was blocked, however, by Mortar’s hand. The Wyvern backed away a bit, indignant, her voice echoing through her intricate helmet – “Mr. Mortar, if you will not allow Marty to cooperate with-“
Mortar held up a finger for a moment, silencing the Wyvern. He moved behind Martin, reaching behind his bed as the other three watched, uncomfortably silent. Finally, he withdrew Martin’s squashed technician’s hat, depositing it on top of Martin with a subtle kind of grace not unlike a weary teacher smacking an loudmouthed student on the back of the head. He stood back, gesturing with an open palm towards the door. “Now you can go,” his stance said.
“Yeah, thanks, man.” Martin muttered, as the guards lead him out, pausing again to fit themselves through the two doorways – “What is it with humans and doorways…“ – and leading him out into the faint light of the sunrise.
“Well, I gather I’m fucked.” Martin said, when the silence quickly became too much.
“Quiet.” One of them growled. “We’re going to the citadel entrance. Pray you come out today.”
It was a surprisingly short walk, given how far the citadel was from his barracks near the edge of the cliffside settlement, and Martin couldn’t honestly have said whether that was the result of his own thoughts playing hell the whole way, or just the sheer pace that the Wyverns were making him keep. They reached the citadel gates; a place those of his rank rarely passed, and, were quickly and solemnly nodded through.
Then they entered the mountain. Formerly a human castle held by the order, built specifically to withstand the wrath of a fire breathing dragon – but it hadn’t stood a chance against the water and ice breathers that had attacked it. Martin had heard stories of gangs of paladins and knights trapped in ice, headed into artificial dead ends, crushed, eaten, drowned. His previous owners, keepers, and lords. Many of them men far too psychopathic, too corrupted by the chief god’s dogma, to willingly submit to a monster’s rule, or the love of any of her minions. Miretta LaCole was her name, given ownership of the castle after a rather long and heated argument between her and her collaborator, Sadekles, resulted in the agreement that, yes, fine, the next two castles would be given to Sadekles – yes, even if they were nicer – but she really really wanted this one, so she and her husband would be taking it, thank you very much.
Martin preferred not to think about how life had been before the dragons had arrived. Even this, he assured himself – fully aware that he was being brought forward to be punished, or worse, humiliated, by the dragon queen he secretly coveted – was leagues better than the daily suffering, starvation and trauma that had been inflicted on him by the order and those that served it. Miretta, like all of her particular species, was a shrewd politician, a dangerous enemy, and an asset to her country. She made sure her kingdom never went hungry. She made sure the kingdom’s neighbours were either happy with her, dependent on her, or, preferably, both. She treated her servants well, and her house better. And she made sure that her nest egg – her cliffside, mountain city – grew by several leagues every year.
“…well, that’s the problem.” Martin heard her say, her powerful voice carrying down the long halls. “If we’re carving the second level down, say, here, and we’re extending the high voltage network right the way across… apart from here, that’s not an abseiling job. The cliff really isn’t that sheer there; it simply doesn’t jut out like our friend proposes. Go out and look for yourself. And yet she’s quoted double. Yes, I am aware we have the money. I am not paying for it.”
The group came to a stop outside two large double doors, out of view, as one of the Wyverns held out her hand. One whispered something to the clerk standing on the threshold of the room, and the clerk eyed the group sombrely before heading inside.
“There’s some other matters to discuss, if you wouldn’t mind, your highness. There’s the matter of the young mistress’s medicine, and, of course, there’s the boy who raised the alarm.”
Martin’s eyes shut tightly. That’s me.
It sounded like Miretta started to say something, but then stopped, listening to the quiet voice of the clerk as the clerk clearly tried to talk to the court’s speaker, her voice trembling a little. Martin had to stop himself from smiling imagining the clerk shivering from the feeling of the dragon’s eyes boring into the back of her head.
The speaker started to repeat what had been said, but Miretta interrupted. “Just bring him inside, please.”
The walk from the back of the royal chamber to the front of it was a long walk. It was a much longer walk than Martin had expected, and far more than his nerves could endure. As he reached the edge, his eyes locked with Miretta, sitting cross legged in an intricate night gown on a golden pile of riches beyond belief, filling almost all of the chamber they were in. Miretta’s hoard, in all its shining glory. And Martin knew that if a single coin was marked, turned, added, or – god forbid – removed… Miretta would know.
The speaker was silent.
“Hello, Martin.” She said, bemusement playing across her pale features.
It seemed like most of the room were expecting Martin to speak, so he did. “Hi.”
“Good start,” She commented, pushing her blue locks back out of her eyes – “Martin, you raised the alarm on a passenger ship – woke the whole city up, and prepared us all for a surprise attack – because they arrived unexpectedly in the middle of the night, with fog lights.”
People seemed to be waiting for Martin to speak again. And gods, Miretta was beautiful. “Y-Yeah, I’m sorry.”
“Why are you sorry?”
“Well, you see-“
“No, I don’t see, Martin. I don’t see how a small fleet of three barely scout class transport blimps approaching with full fog lights on qualifies as an “imminent destruction” threat. I’m asking you to enlighten me, Martin.”
“Well, I mean, yeah. I made a mistake.”
Miretta seemed to wait a moment for him to say more, then sighed. It was at this point that Martin noticed the whip held quietly in her hand. Of course: all older dragons had a personal favoured weapon, with enchantments aplenty, that they always kept by their side. He still couldn’t help but be unnerved as she spoke again. “Okay. Why was it a mistake? Do you know why it was a mistake or are you just saying, ‘Yeah, I made a mistake’ because you think that is what I want to hear? Do you at the very least understand that all citizens of this city, including the servants, are given some kind of very specific instructions for what to do when they hear that alarm bell – a bell we use instead of radio, sirens or any electronic or magical, disruptable warning system – and that using it in so trivial a situation and forcing your comrades to treat an obviously entirely inert situation as a threat devalues its relevance to everyone here?”
Martin couldn’t think of anything to say. “I…” He managed.
“The actual emergency response was good,” Miretta commented. I was up in the sky. I could see everyone working hard, the ambulances were ready, the whole fire service was ready. I could see you and I could see the approaching ships, ships that I was ready to completely blow out of the sky – despite the fact I could see no onboard weapons! Because you told me and the rest of the city that they were a literal imminent destruction threat. Do you not understand what ringing that bell means, Martin?”
Martin had indeed not fully understood the purpose of the IDT Emergency Bell. Little had served to illustrate his lack of understanding, in fact, as much as the reality that he was just now learning what the acronym ‘IDT’ stood for. Vague memories were now resurfacing of Charlie barking information at him at breakneck speed, and of him not really listening to anything she was saying. He genuinely felt bad. “No, I didn’t.” He found himself saying. “I thought I was supposed to ring the bell if anything out of the ordinary happened. I know I have a radio, I would have used that if I’d understood properly. I’ll take the training again or do whatever you ask.”
Miretta just glared at him. After a few moments, it became thankfully clear that she could find little wrong with this statement. “Yes you will, Martin,” She said eventually, “But I don’t think I’m going to be letting Charlie put you on watch duty again any time soon. Dusty old bint can find someone else to play cards with.”
Martin nodded. “I understand. Thank you, Miretta. I’m sorry to have woken you.”
Miretta arched an eyebrow. “Martin, two things – one, you’re not formally allowed to call me by that name. Most dragons wouldn’t even consider you worthy to know it. I was nice enough to introduce myself given my sympathies for the troubles you had been through when we met, but you still call me ‘Your Highness’, unless you want me to kick you through the floor. And number two; I’m sorry, are you running things here? A bit of an admonishment, a lecture, a slap on the wrist – and you think we’re done!”
She rose to her feet, letting the whip hit a trophy in front of her with a near deafening crack that echoed across the chamber. “How charming,” she leered, as the noise settled, one half of the trophy skittering across the floor of the balcony and landing at Martin’s feet. “Perhaps you think this mistake will end up drawing positive attention to you.” She said, leaping towards him and gliding gracefully to a stop meters away. “Perhaps you think this is something I might even come to forget.” She bent down, then, casually grabbing the half-trophy and tossing it roughly back into the gold pit before seizing Martin by the collar and pulling his nose to hers. “You are wrong, Martin.” She hissed, venom in her voice, in her breath, in her scowl. “I expect far better.”
And with that, she tore off his collar.
As shards of splintered metal went flying in all directions, Martin gasped. It felt like all of the strength he had had left his body at once, shot out by the collar as a last ditch anti-tamper mechanism. He was 90% sure this wasn’t how they were supposed to be removed. But there he was. Free.
For about 5 seconds.
He felt something larger, rounder and more intricate fit around his neck, then, and immediately had an idea what it was. “New collar, new rules, Martin.” Miretta stated, as he finally managed to push himself to his feet. “It looks beautiful on you, of course. As for the rules, you know most of them from Charlie. No colourful language, no disparaging comments about myself or my staff. I will know if you utter my name. And one more thing, just for you. You see, Martin, while your hypervigilance, so far, has both disappointed and annoyed me, I have thought of a use for it.” She reached into her gown and pulled something out. “Here.” She said.
Martin slowly looked at the gilded pocket watch.
“Well? Take it, Martin.” Miretta smirked. “You’ll need it for your new job.”
“What is it?” Martin asked, the slight bit of irate confusion he was feeling showing in his voice. “…Your highness,” He quickly added as her eyebrow shot up.
“You’ll find out soon.”
Martin slowly reached out for the watch, expecting some kind of trick. But there was none. She dropped it right into his hand. The moment it touched his skin, the glow vanished, and it felt like a normal watch again.
“Ok, quick demo.” Miretta said. “Do you see that hoard down there?”
“I… have, your highness.” Martin said slowly. “I can see it. Yes.”
“Well,” Miretta continued… “No, wait, turn out your pockets first. What’s in your pockets?”
Martin was thoroughly confused, but more to the point, he wasn’t carrying anything. Did she think he’d stolen from her? He fished out a handkerchief and a pack of cards, but nothing more. “Y-You can frisk me if you want-“
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Martin. No. This is for your understanding. Now, see the hoard? Throw the watch into it.”
Martin felt very anxious about this. “B-But how will we find it aga-“
“Throw. The watch, Martin.”
Martin threw the watch. In hindsight, he could have probably come up with a trajectory that hadn’t sent it whizzing straight past Miretta’s head, but he was stressed out, and the new collar had already started to take issue to his not immediately obeying Miretta. Miretta sighed, having already slightly adjusted her stance the millisecond Martin had started telegraphing his throw, before muttering: “You do need clear instructions, don’t you, Martin.”
There was a barely audible clank, echoing through the silent chamber as its occupants stood in silence.
“Okay, good.” Miretta said after a moment. “Now have a look in your pockets again.”
“I still just have the box of cards and the hanky, Mir-mi-my highness. Your highness, I mean-”
“Actually look, Martin.” She glowered.
Martin scowled back at her for a moment – probably not a wise move, but a move nonetheless – and very exasperatedly stuck his hands into his pockets.
A moment later, out came the watch. “What?”
“It’ll teleport back to you if you look for it on your person and it’s not there. And only you, Martin.” She took his hand for a moment, and Martin jumped – seeing not only her claw gripping his, but the watch passing straight through it as if it wasn’t there. “That… took a while, by the way. I had some problems originally with them falling through the floor. It wasn’t the watch at that point, it was just… things. Perhaps one or two people. Don’t look at me like that, Martin, they absolutely deserved it.”
“So…” Martin mused, as she stepped back. “Am I guarding this, or something?”
“Why would I need you to guard things, Martin? Are you saying I can’t guard my own hoard?”
“Ok, a promotional gift, then? Are you making me an officer? I’m really confused, your highness.”
“No, Martin. Nothing like that.” Her lips formed a thin little line, enjoying the human’s confusion and anticipation. Then she spoke. “You’re going to be looking after someone that those of you who dwell outside probably haven’t met yet.”
Martin swallowed nervously. “Who?” He asked.
“Follow,” Miretta said simply, taking hold of the ring of his collar and pulling him towards the door.