Moordryd gave the computer a wary look, glancing sideways at Connor.
"Do I really have to?" he asked.
Connor chuckled once at Moordryd's tone. For a moment, he sounded like Artha trying to beg off taking care of the stabled dragons.
"No," Connor said. "Blood or a strand of hair would work best, but you could just put your hand on the scanner and let it read your draconium levels. Of course, since this will probably take two or three hours..."
As Connor let his voice trail off, Moordryd's shoulders dropped and he gave the scanner a look as if it had personally offended him.
"Y'know, for ancient technology, this isn't very impressive," he said.
"The scanner comes from the Dragon Priests," Connor said. "Who've held it since the ancient Dragon-Human war. I'm just happy it works at all."
Moordryd stared at it for a moment longer, then gave a long sigh and yanked a single strand of hair, wincing at the sharp sting. As he lay it on the scanner, Connor sat and picked up one of the books that Moordryd had taken from the burning academy.
"Have you started reading any of these?" Connor asked.
Moordryd ignored the second seat, instead sitting crosslegged on the floor. Connor's eyes widened slightly but he said nothing, wondering if Moordryd read on the floor as a habit or if his time with dragons meant he just didn't like using chairs. Dragon stables simply had no need for them.
"Empire of Shadow was the easiest," Moordryd said. "It was pretty interesting with the fighting and the other empires, but then it went into the politics and money and...I kinda lost it there."
"They are somewhat dense," Connor said, focusing back on the books. "Academy books tend to be more intense than what you would find in a normal bookstore."
Connor opened the copy he'd picked up to the first page. "A Treatise on the Philosophy of Balance...all matter submits to a hierarchy of forms, beginning from the equality of all colors to the primacy of gold, itself much more than the sum of its parts despite the universality of the values of draconium..."
"Yeah," Moordryd said, glaring sidelong at the book. "I tried that one, too. Didn't get very far."
"It just means that all the colors of draconium are equal," Connor said, "but gold is on top, despite being just as equal as the rest."
"Why didn't it just say that?" Moordryd grumbled. And then frowned. "But..."
"How does that even make sense?" Connor chuckled. "It's philosophy. Sometimes you have to read it two or three times before the reasons at the end of the book help the first part make sense."
Moordryd grimaced. "I'm gonna let you do that one. The last one's a lot easier to get...mostly."
"Which one?" Connor asked.
"Empire of Shadow," Moordryd said, opening it up to his bookmark, one of Decepshun's shed scales slid a third of the way inside. "It mentions the shadow booster once, but only in how he stopped the dragon booster from...um...stopping a riot."
"'A riot'?" Connor echoed. "Did it say what people were rioting about?"
"Hang on." Moordryd flipped back several pages, grimacing as the paper cracked and flaked under his fingers. "Dammit, how old is this book anyway?"
"If it's talking about the shadow booster in the present tense?" Connor said. "Three thousand years."
"Scales..." Moordryd muttered under his breath as he handled the pages a little more gently. Bits of the edges still crumbled away. "There, found it. Um, it's kind of long."
"That's fine," Connor said. "What's it say?"
"'In anticipating the first economic attack, the Shadow Empire sent its agent to the capitol of the Orange Empire, Alqaliu, to observe the ongoing chaos of the food shortages. While there, the largest storehouse of grain and seasonal stock suffered a terrible conflagration, the result of the Orange Empire's overconfidence with their human slaves. The dragon booster allegedly appeared during the ensuing disturbance, attempting to calm down the rampaging dragons, but the Shadow Empire's observer revealed the dragon booster's hand in starting the blaze to aid the human slaves. In the confusion, the dragon booster escaped and Alqaliu continues to lose control over its starving slaves."
Connor nodded once. "The shadow booster started a fire that burned down their food supplies, probably to help destabilize the Orange Empire and weaken their hold over their human riders."
"Why?" Moordryd said. "That would've killed dragons and humans."
"The orange dragons then weren't just a pack out in the wastes. They were an entire empire with thousand of enslaved humans, and they were an enemy of the Shadow Empire, who believed that humans should rule."
Heaving a long sigh, Connor opened the philosophy book to the first page.
"I'm sure it helped the Shadow Empire's agenda in other ways, but so much time has passed that most of the history has been forgotten. It's just one instance of the many times the shadow booster fought the dragon booster."
Moordryd considered that, wondering how long the two had been rivals until the shadow booster finally changed sides. A thought struck him.
"When the shadow booster finally joined with the dragon booster, was he joining the Gold empire?"
Connor frowned, pausing for a long moment. He glanced sideways into the darkness.
"There was no gold empire. Gold was the original color, the Star Dragons who were the original dragons. When the humans started breeding them for earth moving or heat, that's when dragons began to change color. The ancient dragon booster was working with the other boosters, but not with the other empires, not really."
Moordryd looked back at his book, letting the pages fall back to the last page he'd been reading.
"And the Shadow Booster went with his dragon?"
"What few records that the Dragon Priests have," Connor said, "all agree that the shadow booster left the black empire because of his dragon. He couldn't stand to see her treated like an animal."
Just how much did he have in common with the ancient Shadow Booster? Moordryd didn't reply, instead burying himself back in his reading.
Ancient politics didn't mean very much to him, especially when it was the minutiae of how the Shadow Empire struck in one kingdom or betrayed another. He tried to focus just on the Shadow Booster, but most of the mentions of him were limited to how he served the empire, nothing else. Nothing about what he believed, what his dragon believed. And even the few mentions about him kept calling him the empire's agent. He wasn't sure how he knew that meant the shadow booster—perhaps it was the armor and amulet remembering for him.
The war slipped from the empire's grip, however, as it always does—with both rider and dragon succumbing to their psionic pairing.
Moordryd finally sighed and put down the book, hiding his yawn behind the cover.
"That's it," he muttered, setting the book on the console. "I'm gonna fall over."
"You had a big day," Connor said, sweeping that book and the other two under his hand. "I'll finish reading these, then help you try to make sense of them. I have a few suspicions about pure black dragons that I think I can answer with these."
"Great, awesome, totally drac..." Moordryd pushed himself up, pressing a hand to his forehead to stave off the headache. "I'm gonna go keel over upstairs. Don't wake me 'less it's my father charging down on us."
"Upstairs," Connor echoed. "With your dragons...or with Artha?"
The haze in Moordryd's mind suddenly cleared as chills ran down his spine. He hadn't even asked Connor what he thought about his possible relationship with Artha. Nevermind all the fighting they had done before—did Connor really want a Payne with his son? Moordryd froze—how stupid to turn his back on a dangerous fighter.
"If...that's okay?" Moordryd said, half-turning to face him even as he expected a jack stick in his back. "I'm not gonna...I mean...I don't know what that blue energy did to him. I just kinda wanna be there..."
"As long as that's all that happens," Connor said, chuckling as Moordryd turned faintly red. "If Artha's willing to try, then. Well. I was his age when I met Gwennyvere."
Moordryd almost asked "your wife?", then realized how stupid that question was. Of course Connor's wife. Artha never mentioned his mother, just like Moordryd never mentioned Zulay in front of his father. Wounds like that never healed, and questions only tore them open fresh again.
"I promise I won't hurt him," Moordryd said suddenly, not sure why he blurted it out. "I mean, we're not fighting—I'm trying my best not to make anyone here angry...I...ugh, scales. I mean..."
Now Connor laughed once despite himself.
"You're as bad as your father," Connor said, leaning back in his chair. "Go on, get to sleep. We have work in the morning."
Wondering what Connor meant about his father, knowing better than to ask, Moordryd sighed at himself and headed back upstairs, collapsing in a pile next to Artha's couch.
Something soft and heavy dropped on his head. For a moment he was tangled up in it, and then his hands found the edges and pulled the blanket down again.
"Hey, don't yell at me when I'm the one who brought bedding for ya."
She smiled as she tossed a pillow at his head, a little disappointed when he caught it in one hand before it could hit his face.
"We got the little monster put to bed with Fracshun," she said. "What were you and Connor doing?"
"Nothing—" Moordryd started, narrowing his eyes, but her look didn't waver. She knew what he looked like when he lied, and he had to remind himself that he could be honest here. They knew that he was a thief. He didn't have to lie.
He grumbled and pulled the blanket close.
"...reading old books," he said. "I stole them from the academy. When it was burning."
"Academy books?" she breathed. "Drac."
"No," he said, "boring and impossible to understand. I just gave up right now. He's gonna keep going with 'em."
"Huh." She looked at him a moment longer, then gave a shrug and a wave of her hands. "Never a bad thing to admit when you need help."
Moordryd didn't think he believed that yet, but he didn't say so.
"Why're you still up?" he asked. "It's late."
"Putting Lance down took longer than we thought," Kitt sighed. "Energy Booster is right. He could run circles around us."
"Don't tell him that," Moordryd said.
"I know, I know. Stupid kid. If he'd just get it through his thick skull that he's not helping—he's just making everything harder..." She sighed again, hopelessly this time. "Then he wouldn't be a kid, I guess."
"Mini-brat," Moordryd said.
"I dunno," she said with a grin. "You like the big brat enough."
Moordryd just gave her a look. "Go to bed, Kitt."
"Sure, sure," she said. "If you need me, I'll be bedding down in the double stable with Parm."
"Oh?" Moordryd watched her pause in the doorway. "The egghead, huh?"
"Yeah," she said, tossing her head. "So?"
"Nothing," he said. "Not like I got any room to talk."
Kitt watched him a moment longer, gauging if that was sincere or not. Then she gave him half a smile and walked out, her footsteps crunching through the sand until he couldn't hear her anymore.
Moordryd heaved a long sigh, leaning back against the couch. He brought the blanket up around himself and used the pillow for his back, letting his head rest near Artha's shoulder.
"It was easier dealing with all this dreck when I was hiding in the undercity," he mumbled to himself.
As he shifted around, trying to get comfortable, he felt Artha's arm moving behind him. Then Artha let his arm drop over Moordryd, falling easily across him and holding him with a weak grip. A warm grip. Weary as he was, there was still strength there, confidence that Moordryd took comfort in. And the embrace was enough to clear away some of the doubts and worries and let him fall asleep past nightmares.
Artha managed to stand the next day and move about the next, leaning on Moordryd as he was introduced to his nest mates. Artha watched Parmon and Kitt practice together, tried to talk to his little brother and sighed when Lance didn't listen.
The day after that, he was walking on his own, still shaky and staying by Moordryd's side as he occasionally swayed or tilted off balance. He was joined by Decepshun, without her gear or saddle, as they made slow trips around the arena, walking off their injuries with Beau and Moordryd close. That night, he finally left the couch and bedded down in the cave with his crew, protesting that he was all right when they piled extra blankets for him.
"I swear, guys," Artha grumbled, huffing as they added the rest of the dragon blankets to his pallet. "It's not the first time I've taken a bad hit."
"You're still banged up," Kitt said, threatening to punch his shoulder and motioning at him when he cringed. "See?"
"Your system was overtaxed," Parmon said. "By a power we're still trying to understand. That isn't something to take lightly."
Artha groaned and looked at Moordryd, hoping for help. He groaned when he saw the last blanket in his hands. "Not you, too!"
"Hey, this isn't just for you," Moordryd said. He tossed the blanket on the ground beside Artha's and nudged it with his boot. His blanket was a good twelve inches below Artha's, and he tossed his jack stick between them as well. "This is for my protection."
Artha tilted his head, then glanced over his shoulder at his father, who nodded once in grim approval. He blinked, trying to figure out what they meant...and then Artha's face flushed red. This was the first night that he and Moordryd would sleep side by side, and right under Connor's watchful eye.
"Oh, scales..." Artha pressed the palm of his hand to his forehead, grimacing at the logic. "Dad, we're not gonna do anything like that!"
"Correct," Connor said simply.
"I don't know what you were like when you were young," Artha said, "but that is totally not on the table."
"Also correct," Connor said again.
"Ugh! You're impossible!" Artha gave up, plopping down on the blankets. After a moment, he relaxed and stared at the ceiling. "Wow...this is pretty comfortable."
"Good," Parmon said. "Hopefully you'll feel even better in the morning. Then we can really try out our new armor."
Artha grinned as his friends spread out around him, all of them groaning or sighing in relief as they finally lay down for the night. They had all been up and working for days, and rest came to them like taking off heavy packs during a long march.
"Feels like a dragon pile," Mordryd murmured, scooting so that his back was against Artha's nest. "Don't you roll on top of me, stable brat."
Kitt chuckled. "Did you get squashed when you were a kid?"
"It's no joke," Moordryd said. "You think hatchlings are cute—wait 'till one rolls over and pins you under its side."
"Oh, I know," she said. "Wyldfyre got me twice like that. Hazards of living with a dragon in down city."
Parmon looked up from his own blanket. He didn't think Connor would frown too heavily on Parmon and Kitt sleeping so closely, but he didn't risk asking, either.
"Sir," he asked. "Will you be staying up again?"
Connor nodded once. "I want to try to finish this book on psionic dragons and riders and then place some orders for more dragon chow. I shouldn't be up too late."
Moordryd lay down quietly, letting Artha take his hand as the other boy let his arm dangle from the side. Connor was still working through The Tragedy of Psionics, the book about the link between the black dragons and their riders. That it was ominously titled bothered him, but he hadn't been able to slog through such dense reading. He didn't like that Connor felt determined to finish it.
But that was one more problem on a pile of problems growing ever larger, and he did his best to cast the thought off to the side and clear his mind long enough to go to sleep. There was nothing he could do for now except rest. He would try to deal with his problems when he woke up and had a full flight of black dragons at his back.
Connor glanced over the top of the book, watching as they each drifted off. Once certain they were asleep, he turned quietly and brought up the results of scanning Moordryd's hair.
35% black draconium.
It made no sense. Most riders grew attuned to a certain type of dragon, but even the most physically altered riders never reached over 25%. Their hair changed color, their eyes sometimes as well, and they even adapted in other ways, with the riders of heavier greens often turning bulky, the riders of reds becoming whipcord thin. It didn't affect everyone—Parmon being one example—but even he could be stubborn and inflexible in his own way.
To reach 35%...
What had Word done to his son? Was it simply the result of growing up with dragons? Connor frowned and studied Moordryd again, glancing at his hand holding Artha's in his sleep.
The black draconium certainly hadn't entered his skin or hair, although it might have made a difference in his eyes. Was it why Moordryd was even more pale, more ashen? Connor didn't think so. No, the only way that much draconium might take effect would be in his neural net. His brain.
In the morning, he would ask Moordryd if he ever understood the black dragons without words or expression. And he would try to explain why the Shadow Booster armor had specifically summoned the book The Tragedy of Psionics and the danger both Moordryd and Decepshun faced.
Another reason to encourage his relationship with Artha. As far as Connor knew, it might be the only way of keeping the Shadow Booster's power on their side. In a human-dragon war, they couldn't afford to lose a fifth of their fighting strength to one faction or the other.
"And," he murmured softly to himself, "it seems I will need to ask Decepshun just how nuanced her stance on the war is."