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Chapter 3

A few days later…

Nerys was beyond herself with excitement. Everything around her was ever so interesting: the big green-and-brown thing that Jack called ground, the white ships that weren't ships and that were called 'houses', the way the ocean stopped being blue and turned gentle green – as gentle as the tip of Nerys' tail, - the crowd that gathered at the shore at their arrival… She looked around with wide eyes, not daring to blink out of fear that she would miss something worth seeing.

She was so fascinated with this new world that she didn't even objected, when Jack came to her and told her that he was about to leave the ship and make a report in front of the local Aerial Command. "Do you, really?" she asked, rather absent-mindedly. "But you will come back, won't you?" Now she wasn't so distant any more.

"As soon as I can," Jack promised.

"Ah well." She was calm now. Jack had never lied to her and there was no reason for her to believe that he would start now.

The young man was in a great hurry to reach the British military base: during the last few days, his father's condition had worsened steadily and a series of storms coming all of a sudden had prevented them from reaching Zakynthos and asking for help. Now Captain Riley was feverish again, his wound obviously infected and his mind tended to wander. Jack could hardly wait to go ashore and provide adequate care.

Nerys curled on the deck as much as her new size would let her – which was not much – and Jack gave her a pat. Her head was turned towards the shore – she would not agree not to see all the interesting things there, - but it was her hearing, more than her eyesight, that warned her about a new presence. "I hear wings," she said and indeed, only in a few minutes time a dot appeared and at approaching the ship, it took the well-known form of a Longwing.

"Oh, it's her," Nerys all but hissed and uncoiled herself just before Lily landed on the deck of her ship.

While the terrified sailors were hurrying as far away as they could, Jack went to Lily, so they could have a quiet conversation that Nerys jealously tried to eavesdrop on.

"Catherine is worried," Lily said. "She wants me to take the awful sailor there as soon as possible."

"Very well," the young man replied, "and just in time, too. His health has been deteriorating these last few days."

The Longwing cocked her head. "You said he was getting better."

"He was," Jack explained, "but his condition changed."

"Oh." Lily tried to poke her head into the first cabin she saw, hoping to catch a glimpse at Riley. Instead, she was faced with a young sailor who uttered a startle curse at suddenly finding himself observed by a huge, sinister orange eye.

"I'll bring Father," Jack said hastily. "Stay put," he added and retreated as quickly as possible.

Lily stayed put. She had enough experience with humans to know that her very presence scared them to death, so even though she thought them stupid and cowardly, she stayed put.

A few minutes later Captain Riley was brought to her in a stretcher that two sailors attached to her back. Jack had chosen them for the task because he knew they wouldn't squirm in fear by Lily's proximity – they've been sailing with his father for more than ten years and they knew that Lily's captain was their captain's wife. They had seen the female dragon on board many times and had even made her accommodations more comfortable. "Send Captain Harcourt my regards," one of them said while attaching the stretcher.

"Yes, I will," Lily answered absent-mindedly, craning her neck, so she could examine what was happening on her back – or at least try to. "Is he securely strapped?" she asked anxiously. Jealous as she was of the awful sailor's place in Catherine's life, she did not want him dead. She had become accustomed to him and as much as it pained her to admit it, she had even formed kind of attachment to him.

"Yes, he is" Jack assured her. "Don't worry, I'm coming too," he added, extracting a low hiss from Nerys. The dragonet rose in full height and growled threateningly. Jack sighed. I should have expected that, he thought. During all his years in Loch Lagan he's seen how possessive dragons could be of their riders. Asserting their right of owning their captains seemed to be the only occasion when the beasts wanted to make it fully understood who was in charge.

He stroked the glossy hide and Nerys relaxed a little, although she was still growling low. "I'll be back as soon as possible," he said. "I promise. We have lots of work to do – we must find you a nice clearing, then introduce you to the admiral – I'll be back shortly."

Despite these reassurances, Nerys remained suspicious, but there was little that Jack could do. He instructed her that no matter how many interesting things she might spot ashore or how hungry she might become, she was not about to leave the ship and climbed on Lily's back. It would be easier if he would simply let her lift him, as she had done many times before, but he was not about to test Nerys' patience. It broke his heart a little to see her staring dejectedly after them, but there was no other option.

Under any other circumstances, he would have enjoyed looking at Zakynthos from above – the Greek island was green and nice and everything and Jack had always loved discovering new places] as it was, he barely noticed the land beneath, concentrated solely on observing his father's motionless form in case that the strips decided to give them a nasty surprise. And then suddenly Lily was going down and landing, and there were people running from everywhere to take the stretcher down, and his mother was yelling something at him, but the wind blew her words away. He let Lily put him down and joined his mother who was anxiously striding next to the stretcher. "Since when is he like that?" she asked. "Lily told me that he was making a recovery."

"He was," Jack confirmed, "but while the storm was tossing us up and down, he hit the wall and the wound became inflamed. He's been feverish since then."

"Oh." Catherine said nothing more.

"Of course, the surgeon proved to be totally useless," Jack went on."

"Of course," she agreed. "I hope that at least he didn't cause your father further harm?"

Jack shook his head. "I don't think so."


"Where is Nora?'

"She is busy right now." For a moment, a faint smile crossed Catherine's features and made her look years younger. "She's been promoted to ensign."

"That's great!" Jack exclaimed, genuinely happy for his sister. "Last time I saw Dyer, he couldn't say enough for her, but I didn't expect that she's make an ensign so soon."

They were still in the enormous yard, among dragons, captains and servants. The familiar surroundings somewhat eased Jack's fear – it was the environment that he had grown in. When he had been little, he had used to think that nothing bad could happen while he was among dragons and people who worked with them.

Captain Riley was brought into Catherine's quarters and a physician was summoned. Judging by his air of calm competence, Jack concluded that he might be a dragon surgeon and not a human one. Not that he did mind – dragon surgeons knew their stuff.

In a few minutes, Jack and everyone else, except for his mother, got evicted from the room. He was pacing nervously in the hall, when a girl's scream made him turn around just in time for Nora to throw herself into his arms. He hugged her tightly.

"Oh I'm so happy that you're here!" she exclaimed joyously, "and that you'll stay with us forever! I've been waiting for ages for you to come! Tell me, is your dragon really an Incan breed? Is it true that she doesn't have any spots or patterns? Does she really have holes in her hide? What about - ?"

Jack laughed and moved her at arm's length, so he could have a better look at her. "Give me a rest, Nora! I can't even remember all your questions, let alone answer them. Let me see you. Here."

She immediately fell silent, letting him examine her. At the age of thirteen, there was no way to mistake her for a boy, not if one looked properly. She was still very slim, but she was starting to possess certain roundness of some parts and her face was clearly not that of a boy, although her short hair – the same red as their mother's – gave away nothing. Jack hugged her again.

"But why are you standing out here?" Nora asked. "And where is Dad? Is he still reporting to his superiors?"

Jack sighed. "No," he admitted reluctantly, "he's here, in the room. He's been having some – problems with his health."

Nora's eyes widened in fear, but thankfully before she could start asking questions, Emily Roland came to them, grinning widely. "Good to see you, kid," she said. "It seems we'll be making a captain out of you, after all."

Jack grinned in reply, taking her remark at its good size. While Nora was his kid sister, he supposed that he was kind of Roland's kid brother, having grown in the Loch Lagen base – and other places – where she had been serving with various dragons.

"Tell us about Nerys," she said. "But first, let's go to my room. I need to sit down."

Nothing strange here, Jack thought. He had noticed immediately that she was pregnant, heavily pregnant, and since he clearly remembered that at their last meeting, a year ago, she had been pregnant again, he concluded that she must have given birth to a boy… again. That made how many of them, three? She must be desperate to finally produce a girl for Exidium, he thought. He could still remember his mother's anxiety before Nora's birth. That brought him to certain thoughts about what he should do for Nerys' future well-being –

"Why are you blushing?" Roland asked curiously. "What are you thinking about?"

Jack blushed even more. Too much time with the Navy, he thought. It seemed that there were certain things he'd have to bring himself to become accustomed to in his new-old dragon world.