The guard stepped forward, motioning Javed through the large double doors into the dragon lord's chamber. The only source of light in the vast room was a large opening in the center of the roof, where dragons could enter and exit through. The light did not reach to the edges of the room, concentrating in a beam in the center. There he was directed to stand.
He could hear sounds reverberating off the walls, loud shuffling and the heavy fluttering of wings, yet he could not see their source. He had been told that this was an audience with Dragon Lord Dromoka. From the sound, he could tell that she was not the only dragon in attendance.
Javed waited, having been instructed to wait for Dromoka’s instruction as to what he should do. He felt utterly vulnerable and alone. Out on the wastes, facing the berserkers, he had had his comrades for support. Even when he had faced of against the dragon, it had not been like this. Here he felt like a sand rat, being watched by the vultures.
A throaty trill called for silence. Though all dragons spoke in their version of the draconic tongue, the dragons of the Dromoka clan lived and worked in such close proximity with their humans (and aven and ainok, the bird and dog peoples, respectively, of Tarkir) that they did not need translators to understand the common tongue. And the non-draconic peoples of the dromoka clan in turn could decipher the sounds and gestures of their dragon overlords.
The other dragons fell silent at Dromoka’s command. In the silence, Javed could hear the blood pumping through his ears, and feel his heart pounding in his chest. He didn't have to wait long.
Step forward, young one.
Javed obeyed. Looking out of the sun light and into the gloom, he could barely make out the massive form of the progenitor of the clan. She who had lived for over a thousand years. She who had led the clan, unchallenged, for those thousand years. She who, along with the other four Dragon lords, stood above every other life form on Tarkir, as Elder Dragons.
Dragonlord Dromoka. Though obscured, she stood at attention, peering down at him. Her body was covered in the tough scales that defined her brood. No other dragons on Tarkir were as resilient. That was why they had settled the sun burnt wastes of Arashin. They set the example for the clan, of enduring.
Javed was seized by a combination of animal fear and holy reverence. Normally he would consider it the greatest honor of his life to stand in the presence of his dragon lord. But that presupposed that he wasn't called forth for accidentally killing his scalelord.
Dragonlord Dromoka took an active role in leading the clan. Javed had seen her in person before, though from a distance, when she had made her visits to his aerie city. Her inspections were mostly positive, except for the thief who was a repeat offender, and so was eaten as punishment.
Javed had never had a reason to fear Dromoka, or any of the dragons. He had always believed in the clan, and what it stood for. The dragons were their guardians, their protectors. Each member working together for the good of the clan. Even now, he was tempted to meekly accept their ruling. But another part, that may have been awakened by Anafenza, wanted to fight to live. To stand up for himself. It was a new concept for him. But he reasoned that since he hadn’t intended to do anything wrong, if he just explained himself, they might see it that way too.
He hesitated, wondering if he was free to speak. After a moment, he was about to clear his throat to begin, when Dromoka spoke.
Javed. He felt a thrill go through him at recognizing the sounds for his name in the dragon tongue.
You have been through much, Javed. Do you know why we have called you here?
Javed felt the nerves come rushing back. “Oh Dragonlord Dromoka. I throw myself on your mercy.” He fell to one knee and bowed his head. “I have sinned greatly by taking the life of my scalelord, Katar.” He heard a rustling from the dragons observing. “But I did not intend it! I wanted to help her. But I failed.” Javed felt his words in his heart, and his eyes were tearing up. “And by my failure, our clan feels the loss. My heart is filled with grief, both for the loss of my lord, but also for the loss that my clanmates are feeling.” Whatever happened, he wanted to be judged based on what was in his heart.
Because Javed was standing in the light, and the dragons surrounding him were set back in the lesser light, his eyes couldn’t adjust. He could make out their forms, but their expressions were inscrutable. Most non-draconics had trouble discerning dragon expressions anyway, but after much time spent in their presence, one could recognize and interpret their body language and gestures. But Javed couldn’t even do that now. He waited in tense silence. He had said all that he cared to say. He didn’t want to muddy the water with many words.
Then he heard a exhale of air from Dragonlord Dromoka. She adjusted her body position, and then began speaking.
I know, young one. Javed gaped. Her voice wasn’t angry, or condemning. It was measured.
I know that you didn’t intend to kill Katar. You have grown up under our eyes, and have always been a worthy clanmate. You believe in the values of our clan, and have striven to serve to the best of your ability. Your clanmates can’t understand what happened, but they all testified of your integrity. Whatever happened must have been under extreme exigency.
Javed swallowed, not daring to hope that this interview was going much different than he had feared.
Dromoka went on. What is more, we cannot deny that your swift action won the battle, and saved many of your fellow scaleguards. It is what Katar would have wanted. What she would have given her life for. Dromoka sighed. Javed heard murmuring from the other scalelords in the room. Only now he could think of how much this death might have affected the other dragons. They had lost one of their own. And not in glorious battle against the enemy, but in an accident. Javed felt a rush of gratitude for their treatment of him in spite of that.
In light of the facts of the situation, which have been corroborated by witnesses, we have decided that no punishment is necessary for your actions. Javed gasped and let out the breath that had been holding in his lungs. Dromoka let out a chuckle at the display.
However, the results of that battle do require attention. Javed recomposed himself. Until the meeting was over, he must show the proper respect, and pay attention. Javed, due to your actions in the battle, the decision has been made, to advance you to foremost.
Javed nodded once before doing a double take and feeling the world drop away. WHAAAAAA?!
Dromoka was still talking. We feel it is only right in light of your accomplishments to put you in position to make use of your talents for the good of the clan. Do not think of this as a reward. It is a solemn duty, and will require every ounce of your body, mind, and spirit.
Javed stammered, almost interrupting, “B-but...how is it done? I don’t deserve this honor.”
Dromoka preened her scales. We have discussed this. We felt that you could redeem yourself better in service to the clan, in light of your record and the accidental nature of your crime, than merely executing you. Make no mistake, this calling may mean your death as well.
“But in service to the clan!” Javed blurted out. “A chance to redeem myself!” Javed bowed down on his knees and pressed his forehead to the ground. “Thank you, oh great Dromoka.” He wanted to say he was in her debt, but that would be redundant by this point.
I can see we have made the right decision, Dromoka said, looking around at the other scalelords. They nodded in return. Though Dromoka was the utmost authority in the clan, she valued the opinions of her draconic brethren, and even those of certain skilled humanoids.
Javed tried to settle his breathing. His understanding of the world had been turned on its axis. Going from fear of death to jubilation and honor. Then Dromoka reached behind her for something. Javed noticed that other attendants had come to flank him. It seemed his audience was over. But then Dromoka turned and stepped into the light.
Up close, she was breathtaking. Massive and scaled, she stood above even the other dragons of the clan. In Javed’s eyes, at this moment, he knew what a god looked like. She rose onto her hind legs, holding something in her claws. Finally, Javed caught on. He would have realized sooner, as it was the defining moment of a promotion ceremony, if he had not been at the center of it.
Javed gulped, and tried to keep breathing. Dromoka held in her hands a large scale that had once been part of herself! It was the highest of honors, to receive of their overlord’s natural armor, to weave into their own.
The Dragonlord moved with stately grace, reinforcing the solemnity of the ceremony. Javed held out tremulous hands to take the scale from her hands. He had to hug it against his chest to keep it steady. It was light for its size and strength, unmatched by any metal on Tarkir. If he proved true, he could earn other scales to create more pieces. Some of the oldest, and most decorated Foremost had full suits of Dragon Scale armor.
After he took the scale, Dromoka nodded in acknowledgement, and turned back to her seat. As she retreated, the attendants ushered Javed out of the room. Javed’s head was spinning so much that he wasn’t sure he could have managed it on his own.
After he emerged from the Dragonlord’s chamber, a nearby aven approached him. “Javed?” Javed nodded dully.
“Javed, my name is Mirza. As you know, you have been appointed to Dromoka’s foremost. You will also be assigned to magic training.”
“What?” Javed gasped, “I wasn’t told-”
“We are always on the lookout for potential Magic users,” Mirza said, winking. “We’d never noticed such potential in you before, but your feats during the battle are undeniable. If you show promise, we will continue your training, but regardless, you will fight as a Foremost.”
Javed could only bow, clutching the dragon scale he had received. Mirza laughed. “Let’s get you to the armory, and incorporate that scale into your new set of armor.” Javed listened with as much attention as he could muster.
“You will receive introductory training here, at your aerie. After a month, once we’ve seen your baseline, we will send for you at Arashin. You’ll complete your training at the capital, and then be assigned to a post along the border. You’ve already faced the Kolaghan, so you know battle, but the first station for most new foremost is along our border with the Ojutai. It’s not as volatile.”
Javed had heard of the Ojutai. They studied at monasteries high in the mountains. Meditation, martial arts...a buncha crap. Navel gazers, the whole lot of them. There was more to life, like duty, and honor. Let the Ojutai sit in their mountains. The Dromoka would brave the desert sands, and protect the precious trade route known as the Salt Road from bandits and the Kolaghan.
Of course, the peaceful nature of the Ojutai meant that such a post would probably not see much action. Javed couldn’t decide how he felt about that. One part of him relished an easy post. No point in looking for trouble. But his loyalty to his clan made him feel guilty, knowing that he wished to avoid that which others would have to do. He settled his mind by resolving to follow his Dragonlord’s orders, and not wish for more, but execute them to the best of his ability. No one could be blamed for that.
The aven gave Javed the details of his training, and then paused for a moment. “One last thing, soldier. Since you’re going to be in training soon and then posted, the scalelords decided to assign you a turn on breeding assignment before you ship out.” Javed’s eyes bulged. “In case anything happens to you, we want your strength to be passed on to the next generation.” Mirza gave a wry smile.
“What? But how-? Who?” Javed stuttered.
“Don’t worry about it. We’ll handle it. You don’t have to wrack your brain. Just do your duty, as always, ok?” The aven smiled, then sobered up and gave Javed an official nod. Javed returned the acknowledgment, and they continued on to the armory.
Javed groaned as he left his physical examination. Even though each soldier was required to prove their fitness on a regular basis, since he was moving into a new division, he needed to do it again. They had really put him through the paces. It was far beyond regular soldier work, but having seen real battle now, Javed could see the purpose. It didn’t replicate true battle conditions, but if you couldn’t handle training, then you probably weren’t cut out for the real thing.
He had some time before he had to report to his first session of magic training, which he was both excited and nervous about. He had never done magic. That was the long and short of it. They thought Anafenza’s displays of power in the battle had been him! Javed shook his head. He really didn’t want to think about that right now, for a lot of reasons. He just had to hope that magic was a teachable skill, and that he could grasp it.
But before that, he wanted to check in on Ester. He hadn’t been able to see her since the battle. When he had been rescued, one of the first things he had asked about was her, and his other comrades. He had been assured that everyone who was still living had been taken for treatment, and she was among them.
It felt good to know that at least something good had come of this. Javed had meant to see her when he arrived, but of course he had been detained for debriefing. And then he had reported to the armory to receive his new dragonscale armor. He took a moment to appreciate his new gear. The large scale had been used to create a breastplate, and the rest of the armor was metal and leather to match. Skilled warriors knew how to move so the impenetrable dragon scale took the brunt of an attack. He even had a new steel shield and saber. He momentarily wondered what Ester and his fellows would think of him now, then blushed.
When Javed got to the infirmary tent though, he found that Ester had already been released. Hmm… He wondered where she could be. He wavered for a moment on whether he should go look for her. She’s probably resting, and I do need to get to my magic training. He resolved to see her after his training.
“The two schools of magic that we use are based on the elements that make up our lives. That is to say, the Sun, and sand. It may sound simple, but it’s true.” Javed was being tutored by Sanaz, the ainok. They stood to the side of the training grounds, watching the soldiers drill.
“Most people lack the ability to channel magic. That’s alright. There are plenty of ways for even the least among us to serve. But to some, this greater gift is given.” She turned to Javed and met his eyes. “Most who do have the gift show promise in either sun or sand, as each requires different things of the user. And then they focus on honing their skills in that school. With experience and training, both schools can be learned, although even then, usually one comes easier.”
Javed nodded, focusing his attention on her words. Being able to use magic would be vastly preferable to putting his body in harm’s way. If it were all the same, he would like to serve from outside of range. Of course, whatever the clan needed of him was his duty.
Sanaz led him to a nearby table. On the table were a bowl of water and a plate with some sand on it. “This will be your first test. We will see which school you lean towards, or if it is perhaps both.” Javed nodded again, waiting for her to explain the test.
She gestured to the plate. “We will begin with sand. Sand is all around us. It easily blows in the wind. We all know about the destructive power of Sandstorms. But it can also be used to conceal. We Dromoka use our sand magic to conceal our troop movements, and plan ambushes, or to waylay and lose our enemies. They may wander in the sands, never making progress. But we can also call down the fury of the Sandstorm, flaying flesh from bone. None can withstand it, not even the dragons of other clans. Whether they flee or hide, the sand will find them.”
Sanaz motioned to the plate with sand. “You have not yet been trained. So we are not focusing on actual spells or anything complicated. I just want you to focus your will on this sand and make it move. If you can do that, you have the potential to learn sand magic.”
Javed nodded again, sweat now beading on his brow. This was the moment this had all been building towards. He wanted to be successful, but he couldn’t help being aware that everything they saw in him had been done by Anafenza. He could end up embarrassing himself, or worse, exposing himself as a fraud.
He stood by the plate of sand, and stared at it. Every ounce of his being focused on it. He reminded himself to breathe. Every once in a while, he clenched in force, trying to will the sand to move. He moved his hand over the sand, and held it rigid, trembling.
“That’s enough,” Sanaz said. Javed slumped, sucking air. He had tried so hard, but nothing.
“This is strange. The reports from the battle indicated that you summoned a sandstorm. Even if it was done in exigency, you should have been able to move a little bit of sand.”
“I don’t exactly know what happened, “Javed lamely explained. Sanaz watched him for a moment. It was clear that she had expected him to be able to do this.
“No matter, It might just be another case of faulty intelligence,” Sanaz reasoned. “The heat of battle can play tricks on memory. Or perhaps you’re just having a bad day.” She raised an eyebrow at him, and Javed flushed, burning with shame. Why? Why had he agreed to this? It would have been better to be condemned by Dromoka than pretend to be something he wasn’t.
“Well, let’s move on. Perhaps you are of the sun, after all.” She gestured to the sun above, though neither needed to look directly at it. “Sun magic is of two main parts. We use the power of the sun to heal, and strengthen our bodies to meet the demands of battle. We can also concentrate the light of the sun to blind and even roast our foes. In this form, we can even approach what our dragonlords are able to do effortlessly, with their breath. So Sun Magic is offensive as well as defensive.”
She motioned to the bowl of water. “We have this water here as a receptor for the healing magic. The offensive aspects are more difficult, so we’ll leave those for later. I want you to focus on this water, and try to generate a warm healing aspect to it. Don’t force it. It requires a calm and confident mind and heart. If successful, the water will begin to glow. Once again, don’t force it. This is why most magic users focus on one or the other. They require different things of the user.”
Javed nodded. He was trying to keep peace inside with his coming humiliation. He had no idea how to make this work, no more than with the sand. If he was some chosen, as Anafenza had said, it certainly didn’t manifest as added skill in the magical arts.
Javed took a deep breath. He focused on the water, but didn’t let it take up his focus. He tried to remember how he had felt when Ester had been hurt. His pulse quickened, but he refused to give in to the panic. He didn’t have the right to panic. He needed to be calm. He needed to remember the sun, its warmth that kept them alive, and channel it to the water. Let it warm, let it heal. Let it do the work.
Sanaz smiled. The water had taken on a supernatural glow. “That’s enough,” she said. Javed’s trance was broken and he gasped as he saw the glowing water. Without his concentration, the glow slowly faded. “So, it seems that we can explain how your friend survived. Not everything was hogwash.” Javed was too excited to notice her cynical tone.
“You seem to have the gist of it, Javed. We will work on it, but the main thing you need to remember is that state of mind you just had. It is the hardest thing about spell casting. Simple, but difficult. If it were easy, everyone could do it.”
“Before we end, I want to see if you can focus the sun magic for offensive capabilities.” Sanaz led him to a training dummy. “This will be your target. Once again, don’t force it. This magic isn’t coming from within you. You are accessing its power. Think of justice, think of our enemies who would destroy us. Cultivate thoughts of righteous judgment. Cutting them down so the innocent may live.”
Javed nodded, and felt those feelings rushing through him. He thought of the Kolaghan, who swept everything before them and destroyed all they could, leaving nothing behind. He thought of the venomous Silumgar, who concocted plots in their swamps and committed unspeakable atrocities on anyone unlucky enough to be in their power. Javed wished for the power to protect the innocent of his clan, and any who were powerless. They wouldn’t have to fight if those other clans would just leave them alone!
He felt the heat rising, and realized that he had gathered the power. How to release it? Go! he thought, and let all of the feeling pour out of him, aimed towards the dummy. In a split second, he saw a beam of light bridge the gap between him and the dummy. It was incredibly hot! The dummy burst into flames, but only burned for an instant before being reduced to ashes. Javed was amazed that he had done that. He felt closer than ever to the scalelords
He turned to Sanaz, who was watching approvingly. “Well done. You do indeed have the talent. We will work at refining that talent. The most important thing is understanding the nature of magic, and putting yourself in alignment with those principles.” Javed smiled. He had done it. He was useful.
He decided to head back to the barracks and lay down for a bit before dinner. Then he heard a voice call his name. “Javed!”
Javed turned and saw Ester walking towards him, along with Mirza. He smiled. Though he had been told that she was ok, it was good to see her up and about. It was strange to see her out of armor and with her hair down. He wondered why she was with Mirza. A thought occurred to him, but he brushed it aside.
When they met, Javed and Ester embraced with a hearty pound on the back, then separated. “It’s so good to see you, Ester!” Javed said. “I didn’t get a chance to check in on you before now.”
“Oh, it’s ok, Javed. I know you were occupied. I’m just glad that they found you after the battle.” Ester smiled. “I hear you’re coming up in the world.”
Javed blushed and shook his head. “I’m just trying to serve as asked by our dragonlords.”
“Speaking of that,” Mirza began, “that’s why I’m here.” As Javed gave him his attention, he noticed Ester look at her feet shyly. “Remember how I said your breeding assignment had been moved up?” Javed froze. “Well, Dragonlord Dromoka has approved a match.” He gestured to Ester, who stepped forward and met his eyes.
Javed didn’t know what to say. This was highly irregular. Usually, breeding mates didn’t know each other before hand, in order to avoid baggage. It also encouraged feelings of duty to clan as the driving force behind the union, instead of unseemly feelings of preference. But Ester was...a close comrade! And he had saved her life! It was impossible for there not to be conflicting feelings here. Why would Dragonlord Dromoka choose this- And then he realized he was questioning his Dragonlord. Javed took a deep breath to calm himself.
Mirza went on. “You are both healthy humans, who have shown great loyalty to the clan. Dromoka wishes to preserve those qualities for future generations. It will also partially coincide with Ester’s rehab assignment, so she can continue to serve in full capacity.”
“It is my honor to serve Dromoka,” Ester said. She met Javed’s eyes. There was a question in them.
Javed swallowed. Of course, no matter who it was, or when it came, there would have been awkwardness. He squared his shoulders. Some things were more important than awkwardness. Like doing the right thing. “I am also honored to serve Dromoka, and to be paired with such an exemplary fellow servant.”
Ester smiled, but Mirza waved off the compliment. “Of course. Dromoka has spoken. So let it be.” Javed and Ester echoed his words. “There is no specific rush, other than Javed’s deployment. So you have a month. You know that this isn’t an endorsement of any relationship between you two, other than that of clan mates and for the time being, breed mates. Once this assignment is completed, your status as breedmates will expire, until Dromoka sees fit to assign you again. And there is no promise that you will be paired again. Understood?”
Javed felt the weight of duty. He was nothing more than a clan mate, and breed mate, to Ester. And she must be nothing more than that to him. While attachment wasn’t the worst crime, it belied a lack of commitment to the cause. And that was often the beginning of greater dereliction of duty. He knew it could be hard. He had seen others struggle with this assignment, and some fall under the weight. But it wasn’t a surprise. He had grown up in this world. It was all he knew, and if others could do it, so could he. He briefly thought of Anafenza, then put her from his mind.
“I understand,” he replied. Ester looked at him, then nodded.
“I understand as well.”
Mirza nodded. “Very well. I’ll leave you two alone then. You are still expected to attend to your duties. Javed with training, and Ester with your rehab assignment. However, your free time will be spent together until your breeding assignment is fulfilled.”
Javed and Ester nodded, and Mirza bid them farewell. Javed looked to Ester, who was studiously watching Mirza leave. “When did they tell you about this?” he asked.
She turned to meet his glance. “I was approached earlier today. They told me I was being considered for a breeding assignment, since I was injured. When Mirza came to get me, he told me I would be partnered with you. I found out only a little before you.”
Javed breathed. This was completely new territory for him. And he knew it had to be also for Ester. They both were fresh out of basic training. Javed had always been aware that this could happen, been taught and indoctrinated to know that this was the way of things, but it was very different to be living it.
“Um, I was just going to get dinner. Would you like to accompany me?” Javed ventured.
“Yes, that would be good,” Ester replied awkwardly. Javed hesitated for a moment, then headed towards the mess hall. Ester followed slightly behind.
As they waited in line with their fellow soldiers, the silence stretched. Javed took a breath to speak, but realized he didn’t have anything to say. Ester looked at him expectantly, so he just shook his head. Ester hmm’d and went back to studying the ground.
They got their food and found a seat at one of the tables. No one paid them much mind. Soldiers mostly hung out with others from their unit, but it wasn’t a hard and fast rule. And it was considered bad form to make a big deal out of those currently serving breeding assignments.
They sat in silence for a moment. Then Javed barged ahead. “I’m really glad you’re ok, Ester. I know there’s been a lot to deal with in a little bit of time, but I wanted to say that.” He smiled nervously.
Ester returned the smile. “I am grateful to your swift actions. Many clan members were saved due to your quick thinking.” Javed blushed, but his smile left and he looked down at his food. Ester noticed this and also frowned, looking away.
Ester tried again. “I...heard what happened with...Katar. That must have been…” She trailed off, and Javed didn’t know how she would have ended that sentence.
His eyes teared up as he forced himself to go back to that day. “It was the worst moment of my life. No pain I’ve ever felt could compare.” Ester flinched and instinctively reached out a comforting hand, although it didn’t make it all the way across the table. Javed weighed the pain of trying to save Ester and of killing Katar, and it didn’t even compare. One was trying to save a comrade, to pull together, to win. But if she had died, it would have been an honorable death. He could have remembered her bravery.
But the other…
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have brought it up,” Ester said. Javed swiped his hand as if to brush those words away.
“I’m actually glad to talk about it. To talk to someone who understands.” He again thought briefly of Anafenza. He banished the thought. Dromoka had already judged him, and given him his sentence. Maybe if Ester could forgive him, he could forgive himself.
He opened his mouth to continue, but Ester spoke first. “Let’s go for a walk. We can go to the groves.” She quickly stood up and took her dishes. Javed had to swallow his thoughts, and follow.
The Sun was setting behind the city walls as they made their way among the trees. Each aerie city, though they lived in the desert, was built around stable water supplies, and so there was greenery and life. It provided a stark contrast to the endless sand of the wastes.
Ester took a moment to enjoy the cool air of dusk. “Everything seems so different today,” she said. “Even though it’s only been a few days, it feels like a lot longer.” She looked at Javed.
“You’re telling me. This morning I was sure I was going to be executed, or exiled. Now I’ve been promoted to Foremost, I’m learning Sun Magic, and…” He trailed off, but what was left unsaid hung in the air.
Ester choose to let it lie. “So, tell me...about what happened. I still don’t know the whole story, beyond what I’ve heard from others.” Javed looked down in though for a moment.
“There was, some kind of sandstorm. I thought it might have been magic, but now it looks like it was just a random occurrence. I couldn’t see clearly. I wanted to help Katar. She was losing to the warkite!” Javed’s voice started to rise, but he paused to compose himself. “And I screwed everything up. I killed my scalelord. And my fear is that I’ll carry this weight for the rest of my life.”
Ester reached out her hand and rested it on Javed’s arm. “Javed...Of course you will carry that weight. But Dromoka has given you an opportunity to redeem yourself. In lieu of death, she has given you the opportunity to be of use to the clan. Not everyone who offends so gets that opportunity.”
“I know,” Javed said, almost sniffling. “And I’m glad. But it’s still hard.” Ester watched his slumped shoulders, and felt an overwhelming urge to comfort him. She reached out and took him into a comforting embrace, his head resting on her shoulder as she stroked his hair.
“I know,” was her reply.
They stood there in silence for a moment. Then Javed’s hands slowly lowered from where they had been wrapped around her back, trailing down and coming to a rest around her waist, on her hips. Ester felt a strange feeling. She became more aware of his body in contact with hers. She looked up into Javed’s eyes. There was an intensity there that had not been there before. Then he gently pulled her hips closer to him.
“Javed…” she managed to croak out.
“Ester…” he whispered. Her lips parted, and she felt her eyes torn between his gaze and his mouth. Her heart was beating faster, almost like a training exercise, and she could almost swear she felt the same rhythm under his armor. Something was happening.
Javed leaned in towards her, slowly. Time seemed to slow down. Even though she couldn’t have fathomed anything like this happening when this walk had started, things had moved so fast. Like a switch had been flipped. And she wanted this, whatever this was. She was ready.
Then their gaze was broken, as Javed looked up at something behind her. And like that, the spell was broken. “Is someone there?” She asked, quickly turning around and scanning for any passerby. She didn’t feel ashamed. After all, they had been assigned to each other. But she did feel a self conscious heat rushing to her cheeks.
“No...I just remembered something…” Javed replied, his hold on her loosening. Ester looked up at him perplexed. He looked back down at her. “I’m sorry, I just remembered I had somewhere to be. It’s important.” They finally separated, though Javed watched her, as if checking with her.
“Oh, uh, ok,” Ester jumbled. “I understand. You have a lot of new responsibilities. We’ll have plenty of time to...uh…”
“Thank you,” Javed replied, saving her from trying to think of what to say. He began to walk past her, as she wondered what had happened. But he paused beside her, and quickly gave her a peck on the cheek. “I will see you tomorrow.”
Ester put her hand to where he had kissed her, as she watched him leave. My training had nothing to prepare me for this, she thought.
Javed shook his head as he took his leave. What had that been about? Javed could remember looking at female clan members before, and being interested, but this had been on another level. His body had been trembling! Was that supposed to happen?
And then he had had to leave Ester there! He still didn’t know how things would have played out if he had stayed. He decided to put it out of his mind for now. There were more important things to attend to right now.
When he had looked over Ester’s shoulder, he had caught a glimpse of the spirit Anafenza. Within the city walls no less! In the hustle and bustle since he had returned, his visit with the spirit had seemed more and more like a dream. Yet there she was, visible in the dim light, almost glowing.
She had beckoned him, and then turned and faded away. Javed had had to lie to his comrade...to Ester, in order to get away. He felt bad for doing so, but the alternative was unthinkable. He came to the building where she had been standing, and peeked around it. Nothing. He pressed on, and then saw an alley between two buildings. Javed felt a pull, so he gave a glance in both directions before slipping into the shadows.
Once he reached the middle, he waited, leaning against the wall. Gradually a glow appeared in the darkness, filling out to show the spirit warrior Anafenza. She who had first approached him in the desert, who had helped him in that ill-fated battle, who had helped him save Ester’s life. Yet it was also she who had told him about the alleged history of his clan, who had told him that he was meant for a great calling, who probably wanted him to commit treason.
“Greetings, Javed,” she said. She was floating a few feet off the ground, and glowing faintly, enough to appear visible in the dark night air.
Javed bowed low at her greeting. Though she had never requested it, he couldn’t help but be polite to such an unusual figure. When he looked up at her again, she had a crooked grin on her face. Javed blinked, frowning slightly in puzzlement.
“I’m sorry, did I interrupt something?” She was outright grinning now. Javed gaped and felt the blood rush to his cheeks. Had she been watching him and Ester? “I guess she was showing her gratitude.” Anafenza laughed. “I almost thought you two were going to go at it right there.”
Javed gasped, scandalized. “How vulgar! Please, leave her out of this. I feel bad enough about meeting with you already.”
“Relax, it’s not like you’re cheating on her,” Anafenza replied with a wink. “It’s not like there’s anything to cheat on, anyway. Am I right?” Anafenza said as she raised an eyebrow at Javed.
“It almost feels like I am,” Javed replied.
Anafenza did a double take. “Whuh? ...Oh, right.”
Javed grimaced at his boots. “Everyone in the clan thinks I’m a hero. I was promoted, I’m learning magic, and now I get the chance to breed, that some never get! And yet here I am, listening to traitorous rhetoric from an blasphemous spirit.”
Anafenza rolled her eyes. “Are you listening to yourself? The only reason you think any of that is normal is because you were raised in it. Why do you and little soldier girl need permission, if that’s what you want? Why are human families so dangerous? Why is the past such a problem? Because our people didn’t always live that way!”
“You dare to talk about our people!” Javed hissed. Anafenza halted, grudgingly taken aback. “I don’t know about you, but I know some of the things we’re asked to do are hard. I know it’s easy to find fault. But I believe in my clan! I believe that our way of life has preserved us in this harsh land, and against the dangers of the Kolaghan and the Silumgar! It may not fit everyone, but it is right for us!”
He finished, breathing heavily. Though his voice hadn’t risen above a loud whisper, it had been so emotional that he felt exerted.
Anafenza glared at him. “Is that really how you feel?” Javed stared at her, then nodded. “Then I guess this is over,” she said. Javed gasped in surprise. “I’m not interested in corrupting you, boy.” Her omission of his name hit him. “If you’re that much of a believer, then I guess we’ve got nothing to talk about. Though I think you’re fooling yourself. After all, who followed me here?” Her lip curled. “You could have stayed.”
Javed could only glare in response. He had no rebuttal. Anafenza ignored him, but he stayed where he was. When he didn’t say anything, she started to fade away.
“WAIT!” he actually shouted. Anafenza quickly reappeared and shushed him.
“Not so loud!” she hissed.
“I thought you were going to leave!” Javed replied.
“I was. Why? Does that bother you?” Anafenza mocked. “Did you think I was going to be your little spirit buddy? Ha. If you’re not in, I’ve got other things to do.”
Javed groaned. His fists clenched and grasped, as if wrestling with his decision. “If I let you go, I will always wonder. Talking with you has introduced the sin of doubt into my mind. I need to see this through. I need to get your side. I need to soothe my conscience.”
Anafenza regarded him seriously. “And what if you don’t like what you find?” she asked imperiously.
Javed growled. “Then...I’ll do the right thing.”
Anafenza suddenly smiled. “That’s all I want from you,” she said, as her hands floated to the sides, and she leaned down towards him. Javed gaped. He had never been this close to her before. She truly was beautiful. She laid a tender kiss on his forehead, and though he could not feel a physical touch, a warm feeling spread through his body, like the feel of sun magic.
Javed sucked in his breath. The reason he had listened to her in the first place, was because of this feeling. He had reasoned that no one who engendered this feeling could be corrupt. If he was to judge good and evil, he had to believe in his instincts. And yet she was leading him to apostasy and treason. If he followed her, he might never be able to fit in again. And yet, a part of him wanted, no, needed to know. It was already too late. If he turned his back now, he would never be at peace.
“Alright, now that that’s settled,” Anafenza continued, “I’m going to let you know where to go to learn the truth about our history. Once I give you this information, your fate is sealed. If you betray us, or try to turn us in, we will kill you. I will be watching you to make sure.”
Javed gulped at the threat, but he knew it made sense. He would go along for now. But if it came down to it, if there was something he could not countenance, his life was a small price to pay. He nodded his agreement.
Anafenza waited, as if expecting more complaints. When none came, she nodded as well. “Javed, keep calm. I’m going to implant the memories in your mind. That way there’s no evidence left behind.” She descended to his level, and after a moment of hesitation, approached him. He was surprised when she came very close, and then melded into his body. He felt her presence, distinct and rushing, slightly disturbing his own equilibrium. Then, as they aligned, he could feel her mind!
He saw the location of a grove of trees. They had names carved into their bark. Fruit grew on them, but not like any that was common in the Dromoka gardens and groves. There, the trees were tended in secret. And spirits lived in the trees. He saw it with such clarity that it was as if he had been there a hundred times. And he knew the way. There were other images and feelings whirling around, but they couldn’t overtake the main vision. Yet as always, he couldn’t feel anything negative or ugly in her presence. Then, as suddenly and forcefully as it had started, it was over.
Anafenza emerged from his body and went back to her floating position. Javed, for his part, was forced to lean against the wall to hold himself up. “Wow.”
“What did you see?” Anafenza asked.
“I saw the grove. I saw how to get there,” Javed replied.
“Did you see anything else?” she pressed.
“No,” he replied defensively. “Should I have?”
“No, that’s fine,” Anafenza said. “I just haven’t had to do that often, and when we’re merged, our thoughts are open to each other.”
Javed thought a moment. “Wait a minute. Does that mean you saw into my mind?”
Anafenza merely smiled. Javed felt a cold sweat rise up on his skin. That could mean anything. He wondered if there was anything incriminating.
“Don’t worry,” Anafenza reassured him. “I won’t hold it against you.” Then she winked. Javed blushed. Now he wasn’t sure if she had seen anything, or she was just making it up to tease him.
“Alright, then, I’m glad we dealt with that. Now we need a way to get you to the grove without arousing suspicion. We have a few collaborators in town who can get you an alibi. It won’t hold up to much scrutiny, but it should do for what we need.” Javed nodded, wondering how far this conspiracy went.
“What about my training?” Javed asked.
“We’ve thought of that. Don’t worry. We’ll send our person in the morning. We’ll get you to the grove, you’ll hear our whole spiel, and then we can get down to business.” As she spoke, Anafenza gave him a stern glance that preemptively answered any questions about his choice in the matter. Javed understood. There was no turning back now. But he would always have a choice.
“Ok, Javed, you should head to the barracks. Just act normal and don’t draw attention to yourself. I’ll know if you do.”
A thought occurred to him. “So you’re going to watch me while I sleep?” he teased, trying to pay her back for earlier.
Anafenza smiled, but didn’t rise to the bait. “Absolutely.”
The smiles faded from their faces, and they watched each other for a moment. Then Javed turned to go. He paused, then turned around once more to look back at the spirit, but she was already gone.
As he made his way to the barracks, his mind was racing. He had nothing substantial to offer, even if he wanted to turn her in. He could lead them to the grove, but he knew he would be dead long before they would arrive. He thought briefly about Ester, but decided that she would have to buy whatever excuse they came up with for him.
As he lay in bed, he wondered how he had gotten caught up in all this. He thought about his life in the clan. Things were building for him. If he kept himself clean...who knows how far he could advance? But on this path he was walking...the least he could expect was a traitor’s death. And the alternative...was worse. His stomach twisted as he tossed and turned.
Shortly after Javed left to meet with Anafenza…
Ester made her way back to the womens’ barracks. There wasn’t much to do, now that the sun had set. As she approached the building, she saw Mirza waiting at the entrance. She knew immediately why he was here.
“Ester, how are you this fine evening?”
“Well, and yourself?” she responded politely. Though he wasn’t a dragon, Mirza acted on their behalf, so he was due her respect.
“And how was Javed?” he questioned.
She blushed, remembering their encounter. “He was fine too. Nothing to report.”
Mirza raised an avian eyebrow. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure!” she retorted. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you are asking me to do. As I understood it, Javed and I have been assigned as buh...breeding partners. Why am I under investigation? I’m following orders.”
Javed sighed. “You are not the one under investigation.”
Ester’s eyes widened. “Javed?”
Mirza shushed her. Ester looked around, but there weren’t many people about at this hour.
“Javed?” Ester whispered. “Is this about Katar?”
Mirza eyed her imperiously. “I’ll only tell you what you need to know. Javed’s story of what happened to Katar sounds legitimate, and his record is clean. But the dragons are not sitting well with one of their own dying. Let’s just say they don’t believe in coincidences.”
Ester looked puzzled. “Why would someone want to kill one of our scalelords?” Then a thought occurred to her and she gasped.
“Whatever you just thought of, forget it,” Mirza warned her. “I’m not asking you to go prying or snooping. Whatever is going on, the dragons are paying serious attention. It would be best to be completely ignorant, if you know what I mean.”
Ester nodded, then burst out, “Hey, then what’s the big idea of pairing me with Javed then, if he’s under watch?”
Mirza schooled his expression. “We picked you for this specifically because you are close with Javed. Watch him. Stick close to him. Keep an eye out. If he acts suspicious, tell me. But don’t go any further than that. If he shows no signs, than that must mean he’s innocent.” Mirza shrugged. “In which case, your assignment stands.”
Ester stared at the aven. “You’re serious.”
Mirza glanced back at her. “Deadly. When it comes to open warfare, the Dromoka can hold our own. When it comes to conspiracies and secrets, we have a hard time. Dromoka came up with this plan herself. You should be honored to play such an integral part.”
Ester stammered, “I...I am.” Though her feelings were not as settled.
“Good.” Mirza nodded. “Look, we haven’t said anything because you’re on rehab and breeding assignment. But the plan is, once you have the child and we place it in another aerie, to promote you as well.” Ester gasped. “We know you were in the fray as well. Just do your duty. Obey your orders, And you will be rewarded. As all are in the clan Dromoka. Understand?”
He nodded goodbye, and turned to leave. Ester watched him go, still thinking about everything that had changed in just one day.