“I’m just saying it’s not like you,” Isaac said.

“Leave it.”

“You’ve never taken someone in without cause.”

Gerard looked at the soft poet with hard eyes. “I told you, I had reason.”

“Then what was it?”

“You trust me, don’t you?” Isaac’s loyalty was his weakness.

“You know him.”

“I said, leave it.” And he did.

They moved together in silence, heading toward Blakely’s southern gate. They had to finalize preparations for the arrival of Prince Holden of Talvivald. Gerard and Isaac had been sent as emissaries of the Draclaudian Empire, under order of King Edmund, to receive Holden and his caravan. They would then travel as escorts with the Prince to the capital, where he was to meet Princess Ysabelle.

Houses Draclaudus and Baneblade would soon be merged.

One of the gate guards saluted as Gerard approached. “Sir.”

“We need access to the southern redoubt.”

The guard nodded. “Things should be just about ready. Allard is already there, making preparations. He’ll let you in.”

They left the city proper and headed toward a hill south of it, on top of which sat a small, hexagonal fort. The redoubt was one of the newest constructions in Fort Blakely, and a grim reminder of the preparations for war that were underway.

“Do we knock?” Isaac asked, looking at the ponderous oaken door that barred their entrance.

“No need for that,” a voice called to them. Allard smiled down from the top of the redoubt, in his typically fine raiment, all jewels and furs and flattery. “Such an honor to have two of the court’s most venerated with us. And under such exciting circumstances. I’ll be down in just a moment. I can’t wait for you to see what we’ve made of it.” He darted out of sight, and soon the heavy door was creaking open, inviting their entrance.

Inside, the cold, martial interior of the fort had been transformed. What was once a barren, hollow bunker that sent frosty reverberations bouncing back and forth was now lavish and full. There was a massive wooden table with a centerpiece that overflowed with ripe fruit. All around, tapestries had been hung to absorb and soften the sounds. The chairs were covered in furs and the bed was surrounded by heavy brocade drapery.

“Magnificent, isn’t it?” Allard could barely contain his excitement.

Gerard nodded. “Very impressive. Where’d you get it all?”

“Stripped some of it from my own manor. Other things were borrowed from the guild members. If I had a little more time, I could accessorize with a few other odds and ends, you know, vases, paintings. Anything just to spruce it up a bit.”

“It’s fine,” Gerard assured him. “He’s only staying a night.”

“Yes, but so much hangs on his visit. Everything should be perfect, no?” He now turned eagerly to Isaac. “I am a devoted admirer of your lyrics. I don’t suppose my humble work might inspire any in the future?”

Isaac smiled awkwardly and shrugged. “I…never know when the muse will strike.”

“Yes, I imagine it must be a fickle thing. But Gerard here seems to inspire some of your finest.”

Isaac wasn’t sure who he was complimenting.

But Allard was already halfway up the steps, almost skipping, so pleased was he with his arrangements. “You must see what I’ve done with the roof,” he said, plunging back outside.

Gerard plucked a grape from the bowl and popped it in his mouth. “Excitable as ever.”

“You’ve worked with him before?”

“‘Allard the mallard’ we call him. Well, not to his face.”


“Because that would be rude.”

Isaac laughed and shook his head. “You know what I mean. Why the name?”

“Because he’s an odd duck. But a good man. Good at what he does.”

“What…does he do?”

Gerard swept his hand around, not sure how to describe it. “This.” He began to ascend the stairs, following Allard. “If he does become one of your lyrics, you’d probably call him something like”–he paused, struggling to mimic his friend’s grandiloquence–“I don’t know…a prodigious procurer of things?”

“Is that what my poetry sounds like to you?”

“No good?”

Isaac bounded past him, taking the stairs two at a time. “Dreadful.”

Gerard’s stern brow broke, and his eyes softened in mock offense. “You wound me.”

At the top of the stairs, Isaac turned and smiled. “Then I must be a keener critic than poet.”

They rejoined Allard, though he barely noticed. He was busy tightening the fabric of a canopy and fluffing pillows and straightening blankets and furs that had been slung over low-lying lounges.

“Prince Holden can relax under the stars when he stays, if he should want. Inside our out, it’s luxury. All that’s missing is the drink. A few barrels of ale are being delivered later. More than enough for his entire entourage.”

“You’ve done well,” Gerard said.

“So tell me, really,” Allard began, adjusting a fur with exacting precision so that it looked carelessly thrown, “what do you think of all this? Merging houses, forging alliances?”

Gerard shook his head. “I’m not paid to have opinions.”

Allard turned to Isaac, who simply shrugged. “I’m paid to have the king’s opinions.”

“Your reticence is deafening, gentlemen. But worry not, I shan’t say a word.”

They stood for a moment, taking in the scenery. There was thin cloud cover, and so the sky was gray, but in a pale, luminescent way. The diffuse light ignited the green on the moors. They could sometimes look dim and swampy, browns and olives dominating the faces of the rolling hills. But on sunny days, or days like this one, their green was made glittering and citrine, like a carpet of spring buds ready to bloom.

A lyric was taking shape in Isaac’s head when its meter was dashed by an explosion. The three turned in unison back toward Blakely just in time to see a writhing, reptilian figure surging through the sky.

“What is that?” Allard gasped.

“A dragon?” Isaac was in shock.

“How is that even possible?” Gerard asked.

Allard bolted back toward the door, his jewels jangling and robes fluttering as he went. He gave a panicked motion for them to follow. “Must needs the gentlemen be reminded we are at a fortification? I suggest we use it.”

The black dragon pulled a sharp angle and plunged low to the ground, gliding over the moor like a void, it’s shadow slithering their direction.

Isaac grabbed Gerard by the arm and tried to pull him toward the door. But the knight was immovable. Instead, he unsheathed his sword and stepped toward the parapet.

The creature cut the space between them at an alarming rate, searing straight forward like an obsidian meteorite.

“Gerard! Please!” Isaac pleaded.

The impact was imminent. But at the very last second, the lizard arced violently upward. For a brief moment–a moment frozen forever in Isaac’s brain–Gerard’s form was cast in relief against the dragon’s. Usually, his armor made him look stout and unyielding, like an imperious statue. But now, his shining carapace made him look beetle-like–an insect–small and vulnerable.

The dragon rose higher and higher. Its serrated form was dulled as the wispy clouds enrobed it, and soon it had dissolved into the gray completely, leaving only a surge of air in its wake.

Isaac’s heart had leapt into his throat, and his panicked lungs struggled to draw breath. “Where…where did it come from?”

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