Chapter 76: A Grand Tour

The early Dragon Mail stations were an earnest and generally successful effort in standardization; Haddock and Ingerman explicitly acknowledged the degree to which their designs were inspired by the Imperial Roman Castrum system of standardized layouts. Having experimented with the design in the earliest mail stations in the Alban Isles and Norway, Haddock and his initial construction expedition were able to build the mainland continental stations extremely quickly, typically completing each within a matter of days. Once the physical stations were built, the local merchant partnerships would take over with maintenance, staffing, and other logistical needs.

These early stations, while they had their problems, were generally well-designed, featuring a landing platform on the roof, housing for the staff, temporary quarters for dragons and riders, resting and feeding stations for the dragons, and mail intake and output offices. Due to space requirements, they were initially built outside of the local city walls or municipal limits, but quickly accrued settlement in their immediate vicinity, as additional shops and services found the traffic going to and from the mail station to be a natural draw.

Corpus Historiae Berkiae, 1396

July, AD 1042

Rouen, Normandy, Francia

Esther bat Rivkah rushed through the panic-stricken streets to her home as the city seemed to boil in chaos. A flock of dragons was reportedly towing a fleet of ships up the length of the Seine, while another group of dragons had flown into the Duke's keep only an hour or so earlier. The Duke's men were trying to keep order in the city, but they were being extremely terse with explanations, which was not helping the panic.

A month earlier, her parents had left to go to the dragon-riders' territory, and now there were more coming here—

She fought her way past a cluster of shouting matrons and finally reached her family home, sagging against the door, only to startle as a familiar—and impossible—voice said cheerfully, "Esther! There you are!"

She whirled to see Yitzhak ben Gili leaning against the wall, a huge grin on his face.

"What—how?" she stammered. "You, you left!"

He stood up from the wall and cheerfully brushed himself off. "And then I flew back." He pulled a small roll of parchment and a small purse from his belt and placed them down on the windowsill for her to take, without risk of inappropriate contact. "From your parents," he said, backing up.

She reached down and picked them up, broke the wax seal, and started to read, as the rushing crowds of people in the street around them paid them no mind.

Her eyes widened, and she looked up at Yitzhak.

"Yes," he said cheerfully, clearly enjoying every moment of her reaction. "The dragon-riders were telling the truth. I… I met the daughter of this Dror ben Ezra. She is a respected leader of their people, their senior speaker of law—a posek, even!—and the head of one of their tribe's clans, and she still remembers a small smattering of Ivrit from her father." He looked down and said, his voice slightly choked, "Your father recited the Shema to her and that was enough."

Esther stared, and then looked back down at the letter from her parents. It was an excited missive telling her to make preparations to sell what she could, and bring the rest with her, including the rest of her siblings, and that the purse was funds for her to use for their travel. And then…

She shook out the small piece of parchment with a wax seal on it and odd markings on it. "What's this?"

"A voucher for you to fly from Vedrarfjord to Berk to join your parents," Yitzhak said, his tone and demeanor cheerful once again. "Keep it safe, I'd say. But, yes, the Dragon Hero is up at the Duke's keep right now; I flew in with him, and I'm staying here to start coordinating sending people over."

Esther looked at him in shock. "Just like that?"

He nodded. "Esther… they…" He took a deep breath to steady himself and then said softly, "A hundred years ago, one of us was rescued by one of their ships, they found him adrift in the ocean. He lived with them for nearly fifty years, taught their children how to read and write… and helped write down their laws." He sighed and smiled. "Now I know how Yaakov's sons felt when they arrived in Mitzrayim, looking for aid, and found that Yosef was there already as the Pharoah's Vizier…"

Esther bit her lip. "Be careful with that comparison. You know some people will take it as a warning."

He scowled and nodded. "Point. But at least they're very against thralldom." He shook his head and a small smile grew. "And they want us as scribes… as teachers" He grinned. "And unlike Mitzrayim, where we were a separate people, we've already been accepted as part of them! With full rights, same as anyone else! They even…" he leaned in and said more quietly, "in memory of this Dror and his service, they even offered clan rights to your father—which would allow us to become lords over their lands and even ride dragons!" His voice, still hushed, got a little high at the end.

Esther felt her eyes go round. "What?"

He nodded. "But your father turned them down—because we would have to swear on their gods… and they accepted that, with no question! Apparently they had all of the Halakhah explained to them as being part of a geas, a binding agreement with Hashem—"

Esther cocked her head in sudden thought, and said, "Well, I guess from a certain perspective it is!"

"Indeed! But all your father had to say was that we couldn't make that sort of oath on their gods when we have ours, and they accepted that!" He looked like he was about to cry out of sheer joy. "They even said that they'd be seeing if they could accept the oaths if we changed them to suit!"

Esther blinked, but before she could say anything more, a pair of people came hurrying up—a tall woman with long black hair, and a fat blond man… both of them wearing clothing decorated with dragon scales.

The woman turned to Yitzhak. "There you are! Your directions were… not clear."

He shrugged sheepishly. "My apologies." He motioned to Esther. "This is Rav Dovid's eldest, Esther. Esther, these are Fishlegs Hensteethsson and Heather nic Oswald, clan Ingerman. Fishlegs is one of Dror's great-grandchildren."

Esther bowed to the pair of dragon riders, only to have the other woman—they were around the same age—say, "No need for that. It's a pleasure to meet you. My betrothed doesn't speak your tongue well, though, so I will have to translate."

Startled, Esther nodded.

"But that will have to wait for later. We're a bit busy at the moment," Heather said, and turned to Yitzhak. "Are you all set?"

"More or less," he responded. "I don't know how many will actually be interested in uprooting themselves and going, but I imagine that I'll find some takers."

"Good."

A flock of dragons flew by overhead, carrying—

Esther stared.

They were carrying lumber? What…

Heather followed her gaze up and made a noise of confirmation. "They're starting construction of the Mail station. It'll be on one of the hills outside of the city," she pointed vaguely to the general easterly direction, "and given Hiccup's estimates, they should be done in three or four days or so. Then the construction team flies down the coast to catch up with us."

"I… uh…" Esther stammered, and then caught herself from continuing to stammer, despite the feeling that things were out of control. "Excuse me, but where are you going?" With the letter in her hand from her parents and the general chaos in the streets, it seemed like a reasonable question.

Heather turned and gave her a slow smile, before glancing at Yitzhak. "Do you want to explain, or should I?"

"Oh, you can," he said cheerfully.

Heather said something in rapid Norse—presumably—to Fishlegs (and what kind of a name was that?!), making him grin. Then she turned back to Esther. "We're going to go south along the western coast of Europa, and then into the great southern sea, building mail stations as we go… all the way to the lands your people call 'Eretz Yisrael' and 'Mitzrayim.'"

Esther felt faint. "That… that far?"

Heather nodded. "We'll have nearly thirty stations… and from what I understand, there are some of your people all along the way. So Fishlegs here…" she cocked her head to her betrothed, who was apparently listening to their conversation with great focus, "has letters from your father, explaining the situation… and letting them know that they can come to us." She grinned at Esther. "Hopefully, by the time we get back, you'll already be in Berk." She sighed. "And I'd love to stay more and chat, but I'm one of the few people proficient in your tongue, so I have to go help. But I wanted to check that Yitzhak was all right."

He beamed. "I am. My family's my next stop, but I know that once I get in there, I won't be going anywhere for the rest of the day, and I wanted to let Esther know first."

Esther chuckled weakly, which was odd for her, but given how much her world had just been upended, her usual sarcasm was a bit beyond her. "I look forward to seeing you there."

"Good!" She turned to Fishlegs, and said something in Norse.

He gave a whistle—and to Esther's amazement, a small brown dragon came fluttering down a few moments later. The street cleared nearly instantly, and the two riders got onto the dragon's saddle. A gust of wind issued from its wings, sending dust scudding over the street stones, and it lifted into the air.

Esther watched them go in awe.

###

Uppsala, Sweden

Tuffnut brought Swift down into a landing outside Vidkunn's house. Swift, at least, was being gentle, which Tuffnut appreciated; his gut still twinging from getting stabbed, the scar on his gut stiff and stubborn and painful when he pulled at it, and getting jostled in the saddle was a great way to make him do that. But now he figured that, having informed King Anund yesterday at his current court at Sigtuna about Magnus's new territory, he could stop by and visit a friend on his way to Kyiv.

Swift sniffed as soon as Tuffnut gingerly dismounted.

"Hey, buddy, what's—whoa!" Tuffnut blurted as another Nadder appeared from around the back of the house and screeched at them, spreading his wings and roaring.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Tuffnut bellowed as Swift—hot-tempered idiot he could be—screeched right back, and shot a spine at the other dragon, which after a moment's panic he recognized as Dogsbreath's—Redsnout, that was the name!

Redsnout bellowed as it grazed past him, and then Dogsbreath burst out of the door. "What's going—oh shit!" He froze as soon as he saw Tuffnut, and the two Nadders continued screeching at each other, both of them clearly preparing to start fighting. Here. In a wooden city. Next to their friend's house.

Frantically, Tuffnut called out to Dogsbreath, "Chin, on three!"

"One—whoa!" Dogsbreath dodged as Redsnout blasted a burst of fire.

"Two!"

"Three!" They both scratched their Nadders at the pressure point on the chin and jumped out of the way as they slumped in unison.

After beating out the small flames that their hot-headed friends had ignited, Dogsbreath turned to Tuffnut. "Are you here to arrest me, Tuff?"

Tuffnut shook his head. "Nah. Here to visit a friend." He thumbed towards the house, where, at the door, Baali and Vidkunn were staring.

Dogsbreath nodded. "Truce?"

"Truce." Tuff turned to Vidkunn. "Hey! Just dropping in…" He glanced at the burned patches. "I'll… uh… I'll pay for that."

"No worries, my friend. Are you two… going to have problems?" Vidkunn asked carefully.

Tuffnut shook his head again, sending his braids swaying. "Nah. It was just a surprise, is all." He turned to Dogsbreath. "So what, my good man, are you doing here?"

Dogsbreath sighed. "Tell you over dinner?" He glanced to Vidkunn. "There's enough for one more, isn't there?"

"Aye." Vidkunn looked at the two stirring dragons. "But make sure they behave themselves first, please."

A short while later, Tuffnut was sitting down to a meal with Vidkunn and his family… and Dogsbreath and his girl. They'd already made introductions—including who Inga was, which Tuffnut thought was hilarious—and he resolutely ignored the slightly awkward atmosphere as he shared gossip and stories.

Vidkunn already knew about Magnus' new territory from Dogsbreath, so that wasn't as much fun. Instead, Tuff shared stories of a more personal nature.

"So, yeah, Ruff's a mom now. I've got a niece and a nephew and she's all mushy," he said with a grin. "And both Astrid and Magnus's sister are preggers too. You should have seen the look on King Annund's face when I told him!"

Dogsbreath shared a look with Inga, and then turned back to him. "Hey, Tuff…?"

"Yeah?"

"Can you do us a solid?"

"Of course, my man. What do you need?"

Dogsbreath smirked, and Inga said, "Tell Dogsbreath's father and my mother that they'll be having a grandchild soon."

Tuffnut dropped his spoon with a clatter. "No way!"

"Yes," Dogsbreath said, and leaned over Inga protectively.

"Congrats!" Tuffnut exulted. "Yeah, sure, I'll tell them, and maybe get Hiccup to sketch—wait, no, he's gone south."

Dogsbreath paused and then asked carefully, "Gone where? Doing what?"

"He's building up that Dragon Mail, all through the southern sea. It's going to be his summer project—I know that they'll be sending a construction crew here later this summer too, which is part of what I was coming to tell Vidkunn," Tuffnut said, "but with everything going on elsewhere, it'll take them a while."

Dogsbreath glanced over at Vidkunn, who nodded. "You and Baali can leave sooner, and I'll stay here," Vidkunn said. "It works out well anyway, as this way you can make the trip and my son gets home well before it gets colder."

Tuffnut quirked an eyebrow. "Where are you going?"

"The Roman Empire," Dogsbreath said seriously. "Snotlout's already down there, so we can just join him."

"So… you're already in exile, you might as well?" Tuffnut asked.

They both nodded.

"You sure you don't want to come home?"

Inga scoffed. "With what Cami would do to me? No way."

Tuffnut smirked. "She's getting married too, didn't you hear?"

Inga choked. "To who?"

"An Alban noble girl she met at Thawfest," Tuffnut said with relish.

"Well, may they enjoy each other. But, no, we're not going back. We'd just get punished for running away and all that," Inga said.

Tuffnut nodded. "Alright. I'll let them know."

Dogsbreath shared another look with Inga, and the pair of them both nodded. Then Dogsbreath leaned over the table. "So… Tuff."

"Yeah, my man?"

"Hiccup listens to you. If we tell you what really happened down in Francia, will you tell him?"

Tuffnut quirked an eyebrow and cocked his head in the opposite direction. "As opposed to…?"

"Whatever Sir Henry lied to him about. Will you? Please?"

"Sure…" Tuff said, curious and slightly baffled—and then, as Dog and Inga explained through the rest of the meal, he felt his eyebrows climb to his hairline, and his temper rise.

###

Constantinople, Roman Empire

Sigurd basked in Demetrius' attentions as the eunuch fussed over his hair and attire. He was definitely getting used to the convenience of an aide and servant like this—and it was nice having somebody work hard at making him look good.

And he wanted to look his best, too. While it wasn't official—yet—he'd gotten advice on how courting worked here in the Empire, especially among the Dynatoi. And, after seeing her bash his attacker's face in the other week—the fellow was being questioned as to who had sent him, last he'd heard—Sigurd had to admit that he was… intrigued.

He could use the relaxation of spending time with his only friend outside of the Army after dealing with the stress of the Empress' appointments… one appointment in particular. After a lot of discussion with Kristoffer, Gunnar and Gudmund, they'd decided to keep Kormak where they could keep an eye on him. Sigurd had considered telling the Empress what Kormak had done... but he wasn't sure how she'd react to him telling her that she'd been wrong. Nope, nope, nope... And they'd talked with Harald, too, and Harald had told them that he'd tried to keep Kormak from being reassigned, but the Norseman must have acquired a powerful patron among the Dynatoi in order to earn his reward.

Bells suddenly sounded through the open window, and both he and Demetrius stiffened.

It had finally happened, despite Sigurd's best efforts to push the thought to the back of his mind.

Zoe had passed.

For a brief moment, Snotlout wondered if the Hypsikrates would also be able to engage in the palace looting alongside the Varangians—and then Sigurd recoiled in horror at the thought. He'd failed. Failed! No, no, no! He didn't deserve any of the spoils, not when it was his fault she was dead! If he'd only been faster or smarter or...

No. He didn't have a claim on the palace looting. And if anyone asked him, he'd be sure to make his opinion on the whole thing clear—and if they got greedy, he'd cheerfully boot them off of their dragon and back to ground support where they could join Kormak and Constantine. Now Sigurd just sat there for a moment, the reminder of his abject failure tolling in the distance, until Demetrius asked cautiously, "I think that the party is likely to be canceled, sir. Shall I switch to your funeral attire?"

Sigurd nodded numbly. "Yes."

Demetrius had barely begun before there was an abrupt knock at the door, and a messenger appeared—Sigurd was being summoned before the Empress, along with Hookfang.

Several hours later, Sigurd was standing behind the Empress' throne once more, dressed in his full formal uniform, with Hookfang at his side. Elsewhere, he knew, Zoe's body was being prepared for the funeral rites, but here and now the Senate and full court were assembled.

The Empress looked out over the court, rose from her throne, and spoke.

"My Imperial Sister has passed into the loving embrace of God. We mourn her and her passing." She then said some odd phrase that Sigurd barely caught, but judging by how it was echoed by the court, he guessed it was a blessing.

"With her passing, the demands of rulership fall completely on my shoulders. I swear to you, in God's Name, I shall not fail you all."

The crowd murmured, and Sigurd stiffened, but nothing happened beyond that. Hookfang looked like he was considering going to sleep out of boredom.

The Empress continued. "The Empire is a reflection of God's Holiness; when we cleave to God's Will, we are blessed with His Strength. When we falter and allow earthly corruption to seep in, we are divorced from that Strength and are weakened." She scanned the crowd. "Due to the lapses in judgment by my beloved sister's spouses—"

Sigurd distinctly heard the emphasis on the plural, and he wasn't alone in that, judging by the reactions he saw in the crowd.

"—we have been weakened sorely from the holier days of my uncle's tenure in this throne." She named over a dozen names and ordered them to step forward.

They did so, the Varangians in the room keeping careful watch on them; Harald was standing nearby, watching their faces with some satisfaction. Sigurd watched them as well, seeing dismay, fear, and hatred on a few faces, while others were carefully blank. They bowed before her.

The Empress looked down at the kneeling men. "You are the worst of the lot, and the worst of the rot. Not just malfeasance of office, although there is plenty of that as well, but immorality, impropriety and other sins before God, acts of wanton lust…" She looked out over them. "I have read the reports on your fornications, adultery, sodomy and pederasty. You thrived in the corruption brought by my predecessors. Those days are at an end. You are stripped of your offices and estates, all of you, and will be punished appropriately for your crimes."

Sigurd watched several of them pale, and one of them seemed near to fainting from how he swayed even as he bowed.

"Take them away," she ordered, and the Varangians descended on the group and marched them out. As they neared the door, three of them broke down in teary-eyed begging for mercy, only to have the Empress stare at them with a cold-eyed expression, and motion for them to be taken away.

Sigurd shivered—but he didn't have a moment to recover before the Empress called forward a number of eunuchs and other men and bestowed the recently vacated offices on them. She then dismissed the assembled court to prepare for the funeral, and turned to Sigurd.

"A moment, if you would, Sir Sigurd."

"O-of course, Empress," he stammered.

She motioned to Harald. "And please attend as well, Sir Harald."

"I feel that I must apologize to you somewhat, Sir Sigurd," she said as Harald approached the throne, the three of them still visible to the vast chamber, but slightly separated from it all.

Sigurd blinked, uncomprehending. "Wait. My lady… how do you owe an apology to me?" he half-squeaked.

"You were attacked the other week for your connection to me, how I have promoted you as my Champion. The attacker was specifically there to eliminate you." She smiled slightly. "His employer is being dealt with appropriately."

Sigurd glanced at the door where the begging men had been dragged out.

"Yes, he was one of them. And others will make further attempts on you. Be wary. But at the same time, both you and Harald here have reputations for impeccable moral character. Harald resisted the corruptive desires of my sister for years, and you have gained the reputation for being a man resistant to temptations of sin. I feel that I have chosen rightly for putting my trust in you."

"I, I see," Sigurd squeaked, which made Harald chuckle.

The Empress smiled somewhat warmly. "I have heard of your budding courtship with the young Makris woman, and, while you've had your... lapses, it seems to me that you have taken care to at least observe morality through it, if not always proper decorum. You have my blessing if you choose to continue. Perhaps her parents will learn from your example."

"I, I thank you, my lady," he said.

She smiled. "You both are dismissed. I must prepare for the funeral, as must you."

As they walked away, Sigurd asked Harald, "What will happen to those men?"

"Castration for most, but I believe that several of them will be burned at the stake," Harald said with satisfaction.

Sigurd blinked. "What for?"

"Lying with men as they would with women." He scowled. "And they should be grateful that the Empress is only having them burned."

Sigurd swallowed nervously, thinking of people he'd left behind in Berk.

"You all right there, Sigurd?" Harald asked.

Sigurd eyed the tall and well-built man he looked up to as a leader, and asked, "What else might she have done to them?"

Harald shrugged. "It is a perennial problem in the Army, but had she felt it necessary, they would be castrated, have their manhood impaled on sharp reeds, and then be whipped naked through the streets to the pyre." Sigurd felt his eyes grow round, and Harald chuckled. "Aye, they have a good means of putting people off of that particular perversion here!" He paused, evidently taking in Sigurd's reaction, and added in a kinder tone, "Oh, have no worries, Sigurd—that is only for the wretches who actually do the deed. The judges know better than to listen to fools like that one who called you ergi for knowing how to sew!"

Sigurd felt his earlier desire to impress Harald at all costs… start to melt away like ice in the summer sun. "Right, right."

"Speaking of him, by the way, are things working out all right? I know between him and the... other one, you've got some problem children in your unit."

Sigurd took a deep breath, trying to keep his disillusionment from coloring his response. "I... I haven't had any issues. Yet."

"That's good. But I worry. Someone in this rat's nest decided that they wanted to get those two…" Harald said, but trailed off as Gunnar came up to them in a hurry. "What is it?" Harald asked.

Gunnar saluted. "Sir Sigurd, we have a solid lead on a nest!"

Harald cackled. "Excellent!" he said and gave Sigurd a backslap.

Sigurd blinked and pulled himself back to his duties. "Where? Where is it?"

"To the east, in the Anatolian highlands, near the Caucasus Mountains. Possibly in them."

"Any idea of how big?" he asked, large parts of his mind still buzzing in fear and horror—and relief, at having never actually tried anything with Harald…

"No idea, but probably at least a hundred dragons."

Sigurd nodded distractedly. "All right. We don't have the setup for them yet, so let them continue on. It's not like anyone else will try anything against them, right? But first we need to get the funding and supplies set up, as my advisers keep telling me."

Harald grinned. "Ah, lad, it's good to see you doing well with this. Keep at it."

"Will do… sir. But for the moment, I think we have a funeral to prepare for." He nodded to Gunnar. "The nest will keep for now."

###

Torkil Territory, Western Steppes, The Great Steppes (Under Conquest)

Drago, atop his first subjugated dragon, swooped down on the fleeing Torkil tribesmen below, sending them scattering and screaming.

A few horse-archers tried to stand their ground and fight back, but a quick spur of his knees against the dragon's neck made the beast breathe fire against them, and they screamed—and died.

As the sun began to set on the day, the Kagan and his beast flew up alongside Drago. Soot-stained, flushed with sweat, and beaming, he said, "Bludvist! The Torks are crushed! And it was your beasts that turned the tide of the day!"

Drago nodded. Vast swathes of the steppes below continued to blaze, and his face set in a scowl. "It was wasteful."

"What?" the Kagan said, looking at him.

"I said it was wasteful! How much of the grasslands needed for your flocks just burned? How many flocks that you could have taken for your own were just reduced to charred meat, along with their herders? Many surrendered as soon as they saw our dragons." He narrowed his eyes, scanning the blood-red horizon. "No… this is different now. We don't need to make war on them like we once did, attacking as part of a massed horde."

The Kagan was giving him a sidelong look. "Normally, a man that spoke so to me would be staked out for the birds to eat alive. But you have earned a free tongue with me… and there is no one around to overhear your words. Speak, my friend."

"We can fly and move faster than the fastest horse. It is not like it once was, where they would hear of the tribes massing and be able to congregate as well to fight back. Now…" he clenched his fist on the reins, "now we can fly up to the other kagans, the other kings and princes, when they are alone, isolated from their followers, and offer them a simple choice—swear allegiance to us… or die."

"And if they choose the latter?"

Drago bucked his knees against the dragon's neck, and it let loose a blast of fire into the air.

The Kagan was quiet for a long period, and then nodded. "I see the wisdom in your words, my friend. Today was satisfying, yes… but adding their warriors to our banner? That would be even better. And if they turn us down… well…" He grinned as the land below went dark, even as the sun still shone on them in the air.. "Their successors will learn from their mistakes."

###

Lixbuna, Taifa of Badjoz, Al-Andalus

Feeling sweat drip down in her hair—it was so incredibly hot this far south, and the hijab and veil that the Moorish traders had recommended she wear were not helping matters—Heather glanced up and down the small, twisty street and said to Fishlegs, "Are you sure that this is the right place?"

He shrugged. "I think so. I mean, my accent is pretty strong, but Chayim understood it clearly enough." Johann's merchant contact here was another Jewish man, which had led to some extremely entertaining explanations from Heather's perspective; the poor fellow had been floored when Fishlegs, speaking careful Arabic, had given him the letter from Rabbi Dovid. Now, while Hiccup supervised the construction of the latest Dragon Mail station, she and Fishlegs had gone out to track down the supplier of the poison used at Thawfest.

Now they were—apparently—standing outside of his house. It was nice enough: stark white stone in a narrow street only a few paces wide, with a clay-tile roof, the buildings sharing walls with one another but clean.

Heather shrugged. "All right then. Worse case, we have the wrong house and apologize." She reached out and knocked.

After a few moments, the door opened slightly, and a short woman—she barely came up to Heather's shoulder—peered out to look at them. Her eyes narrowed and she said, "Can I help you?" looking specifically at Fishlegs. "We don't sell marital potions, so be off if that's what you're after."

Fishlegs sputtered slightly, and Heather, smiling at how he was still flustered at that, despite them being lovers for over half a year, said in her own careful Arabic, "We're not here for that."

"Then what are you here for?"

Heather held out a rubbing of the jar's etching that she'd taken before she'd left Berk. "We were wanting to ask some questions about this."

The woman took it from her hands, nodded, and closed the door.

"Friendly," Fishlegs commented dryly in Norse.

"Well, if they're selling poisons and potions, I imagine they get a lot of suspicion pointed their way."

"Point." He took a deep breath and blew it out along his arms, which shone with sweat; with the shocking summer heat this far south, he'd left the furs back aboard their waveskimmer and traded for a lighter linen tunic, and linen trousers underneath them. In Heather's opinion, he looked rather dashing in them.

They chatted quietly for a short while about the sights that they'd seen, and the heat, and how far they still had to go—Heather was interested in seeing one of these deserts, made of nothing but sand as far as the eye could see—until her belly rumbled.

Fishlegs glanced down as her stomach growled. "You all right?"

She sighed. "It's the strange food. I'll be all right." Her appetite had been off for days, ever since they'd made port at one of the northern Iberian cities, and she wasn't the only one having that reaction; a few of the other Hooligans had even thrown up at the foreign cuisine.

Before he could continue worrying over her—which she found equally endearing and exasperating—the door opened again and the woman nodded at them from inside. "You promise you mean my family no harm?"

Fishlegs bowed his head politely. "We just want to ask the maker of that jar some questions, that's all. I swear that we mean you no harm."

She looked him in the face and nodded. "All right. You may come in."

Heather had to resist the urge to sigh in relief as they entered the dim and cool house. It was deeper than its narrow frontage would have lead them to believe, and the woman guided them back to a small lounge area, with chairs and a small table, the walls covered in potted plants, vines and flowers; judging by the windows, this room would get lit by the evening sun, and that probably gave enough light for them to live.

"Wait here," their hostess said, and vanished through the door again.

Heather gratefully took a seat, but Fishlegs was intrigued by the various plants on the walls and started to examine them with interest. She smiled at her lover's interest in the small things—like a potted plant. It was so easy to get caught up in worrying about the big things—like her brother, or whoever it was that had sent the poisoner, or other plots against their people—that those simple pleasures would just fall by the wayside.

She made a note that, next chance she got, she'd cook for the two of them, and relax in the art of food preparation. And maybe, if it was something she made herself, that might help settle her stomach, too.

She was still fondly watching Fishlegs trying to identify some of the plants when a man walked in, the woman following him.

She examined the alchemist: of middling height, slightly shorter than her, with dark hair and dusky skin, he was handsome enough, probably fifteen or so years her senior. He looked slightly anxious, and a flutter in his voice confirmed as much as he asked Fishlegs, "Hello… Can I help you?"

Fishlegs almost jumped back from the plants like he'd been burned. "Oh, yes, sorry, I was just, just looking, I, just curious—"

Heather grinned slightly and said, "Yes. Were you the one that produced the jar of Ta'fila extract?"

"Yes… last year. I don't discuss my customers, though. I take my promises of discretion seriously."

"Well, someone tried to poison the heir to my chiefdom with it three months ago," Heather said as Fishlegs sat down next to her. "He failed, but given that we don't know who sent him, we figured that we would ask you if there is an antidote for the poison."

The alchemist blinked. "Who are you?"

Fishlegs bowed. "My name is Fishlegs Hensteethson clan Ingerman, of the Hooligans of Berk, and this is my betrothed, Heather." Saying 'betrothed' was a great deal easier than describing the precise legalities of their situation, they'd agreed.

The alchemist stared at them and then started to laugh. "You're the Norsemen dragon-riders! What are you doing this far south!?"

"Wait, you know—of course you know us. Everybody knows us," Fishlegs said, rolling his eyes. Heather found it interesting, though, that he was able to identify them from that.

"Yes, but I've been trading with your people for years!" the alchemist said cheerfully, and then his expression darkened. "And someone tried to use some of my creations to poison your heir!?" He turned to the woman, who had been watching the whole discussion in stony silence. "Hiba, love, could you bring out some of your drinks? Please?"

She eyed them and nodded, turning and leaving the room as Heather's mind chewed on what he'd just said. Traded with Berk for years… and all of the jars that Astrid had said she'd gotten from Mildew the night of the battle…

It fit.

The alchemist turned back to look at them, and asked eagerly, "Did you fly here on dragons?"

Heather shared a surprised look with Fishlegs. The city had been near-frantic when they'd arrived, towing a fleet of waveskimmers and with more construction dragons flying overhead. That had been yesterday. How had he not noticed?

Fishlegs coughed and, turning back to the alchemist, said, "In a manner of speaking. My chief's heir is here, supervising the construction of a local mail station for us to use for carrying letters between various cities across Europa."

"Really? Amazing," he said eagerly. "How will that work?"

Heather sensed an incoming scholarly discussion, and acted to divert it. "We'll happily tell you, but first… what can you tell us about that poison?"

The alchemist, his enthusiasm visibly cooling, sat back in the chair and crossed his arms. "I won't discuss my clients—and in this case, I don't know who the exact end customer was."

Heather wet her lips and said carefully, "You said that you've been trading with us for years. Was it with someone in our tribe? I don't need you to name names or anything, but a simple yes or no will work."

The alchemist seemed to consider for a moment, and then said, "And what happens if I tell you?"

"Well, given that the man we suspect was your customer vanished without a trace nine months ago," she said, "we won't hold it against you at all."

The alchemist nodded, his brow furrowed in thought, and said, "Yes. He'd been ordering the same substance since before I became an apprentice; when my master died, I inherited his customers." He shrugged. "But I heard the same thing from my trader—the customer vanished before he arrived, and he had to sell that jar to someone else at a loss. And, no, he didn't tell me who."

Heather nodded. "Thank you."

The alchemist nodded, looking down at his hands. "It was for poisoning pests that got into the food supply, supposedly. I wouldn't make poisons for people."

"Wait, what?" Fishlegs blurted in Norse, and then repeated himself in Arabic.

"That's what it was for. Pests. I thought it was a bit odd to use for rats and the like, but—"

Fishlegs' eyes went wide. "Oh, Thor."

"What?" both Heather and the alchemist said.

"Mildew—your customerwas one of the tribe's best dragonslayers. Killing dragons that came to steal food for their master!" Fishlegs said in shock—transforming into fury. "He… he poisoned them to kill them!"

Heather blinked. "Oh…"

The alchemist looked back and forth between the two of them, and fear started to grow on his face. He bowed his head and said, "I promise that I will not make more of this poison!" He shrugged slightly helplessly. "Besides, my old sources for it are far away to the south."

"And what is the source?" Heather asked. "And is there an antidote?"

"The source is a small shrub, called Ta'fila, or Adelfa by the Christians, or Oleander by the old Greeks," he said. "It is a pretty plant, with beautiful flowers—I have a small one here, actually." He stood and, with Fishlegs' help, carried a small bush in a pot over to the table—just as Hiba returned with a tray of cups and a jug.

She gave a sigh of exasperation, and Heather glanced at her. "Does this happen often?"

"Yes. Basir, darling, what did we say about plants where we have food?"

Basir blinked, guiltily lifted the pot and put it on the floor, inching it away with a nudge of his toe. "Not to."

With a roll of her eyes, Hiba—presumably his wife?—set the tray down on the table. Now that she wasn't scowling at them in suspicion, Heather noted that she was also pretty enough; she'd guess a few years younger than Basir. She poured the drink into the cups, and Heather said, "May I?"

"Uh—of course," Basir said.

Selecting two of the cups at random, Heather picked them up and handed one to Fishlegs, who was still examining the Ta'fila plant.

Holding the cup in hand, Heather waited until Basir took a drink himself before quenching her own thirst—certainly, he was an alchemist, but she doubted that he'd poison himself that casually.

"So… tell us about this plant? And we'll tell you about the Dragon Mail," she said.

Basir leaned forward. "Well, it's grown for its beauty," he said, motioning to the plant, and both Heather and Fishlegs nodded; it was a very pretty shrub, with long, narrow leaves and attractive flowers. "But every single part of it is very poisonous; the flowers, the wood, the sap, the leaves…" He shrugged. "What I sold was a distillation of the sap and boiled flowers."

"Is there a cure or antidote?" Fishlegs asked.

Basir shook his head. "Not as far as I know, no. Once they've ingested it…" He shrugged. "It depends on the dose."

Heather sighed. "Of course. So… you were asking about the Dragon Mail?"

"Actually, first… I was wondering what kinds of dragons you have with you?"

She and Fishlegs shared a look, and then Fishlegs said, "Why do you want to know?"

"Well, I've heard that, unlike Ta'fila, some dragon venoms can have… medicinal effects," Basir said carefully. "And I would be more than willing to trade my creations for access to some."

Fishlegs raised an eyebrow at that. "I'll mention it to the heir," he said cautiously. "But as for the Dragon Mail…"

They stayed for a while longer, and even had some food with the other couple. Heather ended up joining Hiba and their household servant in the kitchen for a short time, curious about the cooking methods used here. While the other woman was a bit taciturn, she did learn that they'd been married for just under two years, and they'd previously lived in Ishbiliyyah, a city to the south and east, but they'd been forced to leave due to Basir losing favor with the new king when he'd come to power.

Before they left, Basir, at Hiba's urging, gave Heather a pair of small glass phials, etched with another flower and sealed with wire and cork.

"What's this?" she asked, smiling.

"A gift. Not a poison, I promise! Lavender oil, fresh from the flowers plucked last month. Can be used in perfume, soaps…"

Hiba caught Heather's eyes, and gave a slyly demure smile. "Good for massage too, I will personally attest."

Heather chuckled. "Well, thank you."

"It is a gift. While I was not the one who attempted the poisoning of your prince, I do hope that it helps dispense any acrimony he might feel. One phial for you, one for your prince."

Fishlegs nodded. "We thank you for it, and we'll give it to him shortly."

Hiba and Basir nodded and gave small polite bows. "Our pleasure having you here. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some things to check on in my laboratory…" Basir said, and went up the stairs without another word; he'd had to vanish a few times since their arrival to check on things, apparently.

Heather considered the two phials… and thought that she wouldn't give Hiccup his until she was certain that her phial was safe. But she turned to Hiba regardless and smiled. "Thank you for the gift. And feel free to correspond with us via the Dragon Mail; we should be home by the end of the summer—" which was the plan, given that Hiccup and Fishlegs had a class of new dragon-riders to teach, "and I think my betrothed can only be kept back from chatting with your husband by force."

Hiba laughed. "Likely! And take care on your voyage."

"We will!"

With that, they left, heading for the port where the waveskimmers were docked. So far, they hadn't returned any of the merchants to their homes yet, and so the fleet was still at full size. Once they passed the Straits of Jabal Ṭāriq to the south, they would be leaving them behind, in ones and twos and threes, until they reached the end of their journey through the southern sea at Cairo. Then they'd simply fly home from there, stopping at cities en route to build more Mail stations if they could; Wulfhild and Astrid would be restricted to riding in one of the skycarts that they'd brought with them for that return journey, which neither of them were happy about, but accepted it as the price for coming at all. But for the moment, laden with waveskimmers, their fleet's speed was at its slowest. So the hope was that they'd be home in time for the Autumn equinox, if not before…

Well, it wasn't like they'd hold the class without them.

Reaching the ships, Heather and Fishlegs went to the one that Hiccup and his family were using as their temporary home. They found Astrid and Wulfhild sitting outside, basking in the late afternoon sunshine, their dragons at their sides, their bellies starting to noticeably bulge under their linen robes. Stormfly, her wings spread out on the deck, was healing nicely, and could fly again for short periods—and since she had refused to be left behind, they'd brought her along, hoping that she'd heal completely by the time they were ready to fly home.

"Is Hiccup available?" Heather asked. "We… we found something."

Astrid opened one eye and looked at her lazily. "He's currently having a creative moment. You might want to give him some space until he's come down from it."

Wulfhild snickered. "I get why he's excited, but we're out here and not in there for a reason."

"And that reason is…?" Fishlegs prompted.

"He was given a tour of a paper mill today, and is writing down every step of the process and how to build them, so he can send it back home with the mail rider," Astrid said, closing her eyes again.

Heather dropped her head and laughed. "Oh dear. Well, your parents will be happy!"

"Yes, they will. But he's a bit… focused right now," Astrid said cheerfully.

They laughed, and Heather and Fishlegs explained what they'd found, basking in the warm sunlight.

###

Chief's Hut, Isle Of Berk, Alban Hebrides

Stoick put down Hiccup's latest letter—sent from the mail station on the Francian coast, at the city of Nantes—as Magnus, looking much less windswept but still just as tired as he had when he'd arrived yesterday, stepped into the chief's hut. Stoick watched the younger man carefully walk over to a chair and settle himself down, though it was clearly an effort to do that instead of staggering across the room and slumping into the seat.

"You all right there, lad?" he asked in amusement.

Magnus looked up at him, deadpan, and was clearly about to reply in kind before a tremendous yawn hit him.

Stoick waited patiently for it to subside, keeping his expression carefully schooled, although he knew his eyes were twinkling with amusement.

Magnus clicked his jaw shut a moment later and resumed his deadpan look. "Between the crying at all hours, the demands, the fussiness… oh, and the babies, I've barely gotten any sleep in the last month."

Stoick snickered. "So you took half a day's flight up here just to catch a nap?"

"Funny. No. I came to ask a favor." His face turned solemn. "A very big favor. But first, I wanted to tell you what I'm up to."

"Aye, go ahead," Stoick said.

"To lead into it, can I ask how Eire is doing?"

Stoick bit his lip and said, "Overall, I now control—officially—over three parts in four of the southern half of the island, with my northern border," he still felt appalled at the thought of having an actual border, "being the line measured across from Dubh Linn in the east to the mouth of the Abhainn na Gaillimhe in the west." He shrugged slightly helplessly at the responsibility. "The remaining fourth belongs to the túathwho refused our offer. We told them that they're fine to stay on their own, but if they attack any of our people, we will not be merciful to those responsible."

"Good, good. And I know that you're getting ready to do a count of all of them."

"Aye. We're preparing for a full and proper census of everyone in our lands, and I'm recruiting everyone with scribe training that I can to do it—not helped by Hiccup having taken a tenth of the scribes in the tribe and a few hundred dragons with him."

Magnus nodded. "And you're doing that so you can do your Bed Rights and Food Rights properly, yeah?"

Stoick nodded.

Magnus put his hands together, palm to palm, and touched his index fingers to his lips in thought, before saying, "When… when you're done, can I borrow that census team? I need them for the same reason."

Stoick gave him a sidelong look. "Oh?"

Magnus nodded. "I plan on instituting your thralldom ban and Bed Rights and Food Rights for all three of my kingdoms by year's end. And I need to do a proper count as well."

"I can't just give you them; you'd have to give them proper pay and support, lad, but I don't have a problem if they agree to be hired by you," Stoick said. "But as a favor, aye, I can certainly let you ask."

"Well… that wasn't the favor," Magnus said hesitantly.

"Oh…?" Stoick said leadingly.

"I…" Magnus swallowed. "Well, this is awkward."

"Lad, you flew for six hours just to ask this. Spit it out."

"Well, let me lead up to it first. So… Vedrarfjord," Magnus said. "How many people are living there now?"

"Something like four thousand," Stoick said, shaking his head. "If not more by now."

"And that's the thing. As much as Bed Rights and Food Rights are the way that 'a chief protects his own' against hunger and cold…" Magnus said, "they have also been making the city grow." He sighed. "All three of my kingdoms have been bled dry—and didn't exactly start with a lot of blood in the first place, especially since Harthacnut thought that the way to get blood from a stone was to smash the stone."

Stoick winced. "Aye, and I should talk with Gunvor and Hákon about the balance of Harthacnut's ransom… as he's not exactly around to pay the rest of it. But now it would come from your coffers."

Magnus nodded. "And that's just part of the problem. My people don't have that kind of money." He swallowed. "Not yet."

"And I take it that you have some idea of how to fix that?" Stoick asked.

"Yes." He looked down at his hands. "I need a loan. A big one, Stoick. As many dragonscales as you're willing to lend me."

Stoick blinked, and, after a long pause, he said very carefully, "Lad, you are aware of what you're asking?"

Magnus gave a quick, sharp nod. "By taking a loan from you, by being in your debt, my honor will put me subservient to you. I won't be your vassal, but I will be honorbound to listen to you and not act against you."

"Aye… and you realize what sort of message that sends?" Stoick asked. "You're a king, lad!"

Magnus scoffed. "So are you, for all that you insist on being called 'chief'! And I'm already the junior of the two of us! So I can't act against you!? As if I would want to! I'm the junior—in age, experience, wealth, power—and I've already sworn oaths of friendship and aid! My sister is carrying your grandchild! If I acted against you, all that would make me look like is an oathbreaking ass like Harthacnut was!"

Stoick paused. "But your people… they'll accuse you of selling out to me. Remember that letter from your regent and your jarls? They made that exact accusation—of Norway being the junior and subservient. You'd just be proving them right."

Magnus nodded. "Aye… but the situation has changed now. I've cut my puppet strings—with your help. Einar has been trying to muscle in on control of England and Denmark, and I've been blocking his efforts. So even if they rose up against me in Norway, I still have two other crowns with which to bring them to heel. Also" He took a deep breath. "I've been doing a lot of thinking on that letter."

"And…?" Stoick prompted.

"The specific accusation was that Norway would be treated like it was under Cnut's regents—his wife and son, who taxed the kingdom to the point of rebellion." He shook his head. "I've already declared no Crown taxes for this year in all three kingdoms, just to give them room to breathe—and I'm still getting funds from the rentals of the dowry dragons' labor and the Mail, so it's not as if I'm in danger of poverty. But a year with no taxes is not going to be enough." He took another deep, steeling breath. "And that's why I want—need—the loan. It might take twenty years to pay off, but that's fine. In twenty years of growth, with Bed Rights and Food Rights for everyone, I'll be able to afford it! Look at Vedrarfjord, after not even one!"

Stoick paused and considered. It was like what he did here—give out loans to people in need to build themselves up, from thralldom or in the aftermath of a dragon raid…

He found himself nodding, slowly. "Aye, that could work."

"And that's what I'm hoping. Like I said, the specific accusation was that Norway would get bled dry. Instead, I plan to fatten it up, and undermine Einar and the jarls that way. It would be hard to declare a rebellion over unfair taxes when the taxes are going right back into building Hiccup's creations to help people, now wouldn't it?"

Stoick looked at Magnus, shocked, and then, slowly, he started to laugh. "Oh, lad!" He reached over and gave Magnus a backslap. "Oh, remind me not to play King's Fist with you!"

Magnus grinned. "Thanks, Stoick. And so that's my plan. Well… most of it."

"What else is there?" Stoick asked.

Magnus glanced down, his shoulders set in discomfort. "Well… So… as I commented before, my sister is carrying your grandchild. But so is Astrid. And while I'm certain that the children will be raised as siblings…" He sighed. "I have two children now, one of each sex, who share no consanguinity with Astrid's child."

Stoick paused. "Magnus, are you suggesting what I think you're suggesting?"

Magnus nodded. "My suggestion is that, in twenty years, when the loan is repaid, Astrid's firstborn marries one of Ruffnut's. And we unite four realms—four realms that are as strong, and as prosperous, and as healthy, as we can make them."

There was a pause.

Stoick thought, and then nodded. "Aye… but I want to make it clear that if the children do not wish to marry, they will not be forced to."

"Of course," Magnus said. "And if that's the case, we figure out something else. But…" he swallowed. "That's my plan… and my offer. What do you say?"

Stoick thought on it for a moment, thought of the vast supplies of dragon-scales sitting in the treasury. Yes, he would need a lot of it for Eire, to do for that island what Magnus was suggesting to do for his kingdoms, but even after the funds he'd already sent over, there was a lot left.

Fishlegs and Astrid had even presented the figures to him. Toothless had shed almost hundred pounds of dragonscales alone, and each of the Nadders had shed over hundred and twenty, the Nightmares, nearly two hundred on the average.

All in all, during each of the last spring sheddings, Berk had produced in the area of a thousand thousand pounds of dragon scales and leather from the sheddings of the flock. And while all of the first year's sheddings had been sold off or used up…

They still had vast amounts of this year's sheddings, despite having used so much of it to pay the merchants for the use of their ships and buy their wares. Even with the reduction in value that came from having so much of it, a pennyweight of dragonscales was still enough to buy a meal here on Berk.

And there were two hundred and eighty pennyweights in a pound…

It was all so complicated. Who knew what it would be worth in another twenty years? But there was one thing that Stoick did know from having spent years as chief.

Coin sitting in a coffer was coin not doing anything. It wasn't being used to pay off debts, or build a house or a mill or a ship, or pay for someone's labors. It just… sat there.

It was better to invest it, in a house… or a mill… or a ship…

Or a kingdom.

He nodded. "How much do you need?"

###

Village of Bun Ilidh, Alba

Kerr the fisherman watched as Jarl Mildew climbed onto the back of his demon dragon and flew out to the waiting fleet.

To Kerr's disappointment, the water did not boil with hate as the elderly monster stepped foot onto the King's ships; no divine punishment issued forth for such a vile man attempting to cross the purity of the ocean waters.

It had been Hell on Earth since he had arrived, with his treatment of the village; he was cruel and unforgiving, and gave punishments far out of proportion to the offense. Kerr had been branded on the face for speaking back, one of the village girls had had her ears cut off and her head shaved for attempting to feed the caged beasts without the Jarl's permission, and still others had been lashed or mutilated. Lachie, the man who had been whipped last month for the crime of telling other fishermen about the dragons, had died of a lingering infection in his wounds.

But despite their prayers, a sudden storm did not come up and drown their monstrous jarl.

All they could do now was pray that he would die while he was away—even though the regent the king had left in charge promised to be no kinder or gentler, nor the squad of soldiers he had brought with him. Kerr had heard that they were all members of King Harthacnut's Thingmen, who had defected to King Mac Bethad after the battle against the dragon-riders last year, and had sworn to avenge their honor after they had fled the battlefield.

And if that meant abusing a small fishing village in the north of Alba… then they would do that. But they ran patrols and hunted down runaways, and did other more unspeakable things.

As the ships set sail and turned to the north, Kerr watched them go, hate in his heart.

###

Constantinople, Roman Empire

Sigurd leaned over the functionary's desk, Spondyles and Gudmund at his back. "What, exactly, are you asking for again?"

The functionary smiled politely up at him. "Nothing significant, Sir Sigurd. As I explained to your aide there, the funds that you require are significant and we haven't budgeted for them for the year. It will require significant effort on our part to shift funding around to free up the necessary coinage to pay for what you require."

Sigurd gave him a flat stare. "All right. So what?"

"Well, I feel that it is only fair that, in exchange for the amount of effort you are asking of us, you might speak to the Empress on behalf of our office, as you have her ear directly."

Sigurd scowled. "And what's so hard about just doing your job?"

"Sir, we are doing our jobs! And what you are requesting is a significant sum of money! I cannot simply conjure it out of nothing like some witch!"

Sigurd leaned in as threateningly as he could, given his lack of height. "But me talking to the Empress for you will somehow manage to make the coin appear?"

"Well, we shall do our best, but as I said, this is a significant endeavor, and I cannot guarantee that we will manage to gather all of the funds that you requested!"

"Look here! This is being done at the direct order of the Empress!" Sigurd said. "And you're right—she did tell me to come to her if there were any problems. This is a problem. So either you can fix it, or I'll go tell her that you can't, and then she'll find someone who can!"

"I, uh, sir!"

"I'm serious! So either get to work, or I tell the Empress that her logothetēs toū stratiōtikou can't follow her orders, and she needs a new one!" He leaned in further. "Think your boss will be happy?"

The bureaucrat looked him in the eye, scowled, and said, "I see, sir. We'll do our best."

Sigurd scoffed. "You'd better."

With that, he turned and left, Spondyles and Gudmund at his back. As they walked, Spondyles said dryly, "You're doing a fine job of making friends among the paper-pushers. And the logothetēs are not enemies to make."

Sigurd nodded, but his mind was elsewhere. "The Empress told me that if there was a problem, I should come and tell her. But now there's no problem. Everyone's happy."

"Keep telling yourself that, sir," Spondyles said dryly. "And keep smashing eggshells with hammers. Just don't expect that office to be happy to see you again."

"And if they don't do their jobs, then I'll let the Empress know, and she can clean out more of the deadwood. I don't need to bribe them into doing their jobs," Sigurd said firmly. "Now, I've got a courting date to go on—"

Spondyles scoffed loudly, and Sigurd turned to him. "What? What is it, Spondyles?"

"Sir, if you really think that a daughter of the Dynatoi is interested in you for you, rather than just a different form of what you just smacked that paper-pusher for, you're thinking with the wrong head," he said flatly. "As well spoken and educated as you are, you are still a barbarian, and the Dynatoi have not gotten where they are on sentiment. No, you're the commander of one of the most powerful and coveted units in the Empire, with the ear of the Empress. What I'm shocked by is that you haven't been buried in their daughters, trying to get your attention, if not seducing you in the night outright!"

Gudmund was nodding in rueful agreement. "He's right, sir. They all want to be your friend now. Where was this girl when Michael wanted your head on a platter?"

"But she saved me from a Dynatoi killer…" he protested.

"What, you think they all move in lockstep? Half of them are rivals with the other half, and their squabbles occasionally turn into civil wars," Spondyles said. "And Makris is a younger daughter. They probably consider her—and her maidenhead, if you get that far—to be a worthwhile price to get a lever on you."

Sigurd shook his head and squeezed his eyelids shut. "No! I mean, that's not true! She likes me!"

"Oh, I doubt she finds you hideous," Spondyles said.

"Demetrius does, after all, do good work," Gudmund said dryly.

"But she almost certainly was pointed in your direction by her family," Spondyles finished. "So, even though I know you don't care for my advice, I'll give it you anyway: don't commit, and don't let her entrap you. Because—"

"That's enough!" Sigurd said, marching forward. "I'm going to go see her, and I'll prove you wrong."

Spondyles sighed and nodded. "Yes sir."

###

Rome, Papal States

Alvin sat back in the comfortable chair and considered the cardinalis, Ugo. The fellow was a fanatic of the highest order… which made him effectively putty in Alvin and Delilah's hands. Since they'd arrived a little over a week ago, they'd been making contacts with the senior churchmen, and Ugo was one of their prime candidates for manipulation. He ate up everything they told him, every lurid story, every libel and accusation against the dragon-riders. In fact, Alvin considered him quite cultivated at this point, and was mostly priming him with other stories for him to spread through the Vatican so that the ground would be prepared as they went to talk to the other cardinalis—who would not be as easy to convince.

But, since Ugo was also their host, it wasn't as if doing this priming was a burden on their time.

As they ate, Delilah told Ugo about a fictitious act of torture she'd supposedly seen the Hooligans commit on one of the priests in Eire—a method that Alvin remembered having actually seen used on a Norseman priest when the two of them had been younger. He had been impressed at just how long the man's torturers had managed to keep the man alive for further torments, trying to get him to renounce Odin. There was certainly something to be said about taking one's time in extending the pain with a little bit of support and not hastening the end—which had come for that man after six days, nailed to the tree in that northern forest.

Then the door burst open and a servant rushed in, eyes wide in panic.

"My lord! A flock of dragon riders is coming to the city!"


AN: Pace is picking up! I'm so excited!

Also on the excitement front, in two weeks, as mentioned, I'll be seeing HTTYD 3 in the UK with several friends, and then going on my March hiatus a few weeks later. So, for clarity, my publication schedule for the immediate future looks like this:

Ch 77: Jan 27
Ch 78: Feb 10
Ch 79: Feb 17
Ch 80: Feb 24
Ch 81: April 7
And so forth.

I also finally succumbed to a plot bunny that bit me last year, and am posting a HTTYD Modern AU/Urban Fantasy AU over on AO3. It features Hiccup and Toothless as fae (fairies) and Astrid as a vampire, in modern NYC, with the first episode titled "How To Become An Urban Legend". That'll be updated more irregularly, as inspiration strikes. And my friend and beta reader, PrimedOverlord,is posting their HTTYD/Marvel Cinematic Universe crossover fic, HTTYD: Resurrection, which I've been alpha reading for. I highly recommend checking it out (also on AO3).

Beyond that, a tremendous thanks to my beta reading team (Batyatoon, PrimedOverlord, Dischordant) for all of their help in this fic. Times are rough all around right now, so I hope that we're able to give a bit of escapism and joy to all of you, our readers (and, yes, we have lots of fun discussing all of your reactions between us!)