[A/N: Because Charle is creepy. Part 1 of 2, and many thanks to Raindog Bride for her input. ]


THE VICTORS

The war for Endiness had come to an end.

Delicately, Charle Frahma inspected the iridescent fragments of the Crystal Sphere one last time, then let them fall. Once the wellspring of power that could make the earth itself quake and the sky rend apart, it was now only a broken bauble. She left the pieces beside the mortal remains of what had once been her brother. Time would bury both.

When she arrived in the still-smoking, still-crumbling ruins of Kadessa, she had looked for the Crystal Sphere first. She did not need to see Melbu Frahma's body to know his soul had fled. The fate of the sealed Hundred-and-Eighth was more urgent. Cleaning her hands on the silken cloth that her attendant Miata brought for that purpose, Charle studied the sky.

Through the towering columns of ash, a surreal vision claimed ownership over the sky. Clouds coalesced into something higher and more material than clouds, roiling together like an infant in seemed to draw all things to itself, from the plumes of smoke, to the light of setting sun and kindling stars, to the souls of the wartime deadhalf-glimpsed in the corners of her eyes—and she knew better than to call that impression a mere flight of imagination. At its heart, the golden thumbnail of moon she had always known was almost obscured. Soon it would pass from sight completely, becoming the core of a phenomenon that no one, living or dead, had ever thought to see.

It was beautiful, in its own way, still incorporeal but growing like a nightmare. She expected that it would soon cease to terrify. Human memories lasted only so long, after all.

At her side, Miata trembled. "Will it fall upon our heads?" she asked her mistress, quite calmly, but she could not hide the anguished pounding of her heart from the attuned senses of her own race.

"Perhaps someday," Charle answered, "though I do not intend for that day to come. In any case, that moon will never set again."

Lifting the hem of her skirt away from the rubble (and not all of it was rubble, either. Winglieslay dead among these stones, both soldier and civilian, for Kadessa had been a grand city; and below that, like the tiers of a cake, humans had perished in their little hamlets and villages when Kadessa crumbled like an avalanche from the clouds. Melbu Frahma had planned it so, moving his airborne capital over settled lands when he knew the Dragoons would come for him,Gloriano smoldering at their heels. Charle had intended to remind the dear little creatures of that fact before they went on their rampage, but then the Dragoons destroyed Aglis, her favorite city, and she felt less obliging), she picked her way over to a familiar-looking bit of stonework.

Yes: it was that same fountain from the courtyard where she and Melbu had played as children. The first of her roses at Ulara had come from the blooms in that garden. Astoundingly, a few inches of water remained in the cracked bowl. One sad-eyed fish lay gasping, the gritty water barely deep enough to cover its torn fins.

Intrigued, Charle bent down. The fish stared piteously back. "Melly?" she asked, waiting for some spark, some sign.

Miata cleared her throat for attention. "Mistress."

A young scout approached them, dropping lightly out of the cinder-filled air on wings of russet light. Charle straightened to greet him, brushing ash from her pastel petticoats. She went through servants and guards too quickly lately, and did not recognize him. He did bow properly enough, but he remained hovering, clearly reluctant to let his sandals contact the defiled, upturned ground. His eyes darted towards Melbu Frahma's body, but wisely he did not comment. Nor did he stammer anything about the evolving moon, as the last scout had.

"Something of interest to you, mistress," he announced. "We found two dragons a mile from here."

Only a mile—she could have seen them herself, if it were not for the flying ash. She left the fish where it lay. It was only a fish. "Alive? Are the poor things trapped?"

"No, mistress. They've just perched on an arch. They do not seem much harmed, but we cannot go too near. The Dragoon with them attacks if we do."

Unlike Miata, Charle could control her body's reactions; her heart skipped no beats, nor did she stir. "Which Dragoon?" she inquired, folding her hands at her waist. She considered what she knew of their strengths, their fears, their ability to survive battle alone; which would have protected which other, who would have gone down in a blaze of misbegotten glory. She did not hope, but, of course, she had her preference.

"It's the dark one—Rose."

Charle smiled.

*******

Of course, it was not easy to convince Rose to come with them. Self-assigned guardian of the memorial arch and the dragons roosting mournfully there, the Dragoon—solitary, blood-spattered—seemed like a creature possessed. The first two winglies to come within twenty yards were cut to ribbons before Charle's eyes.

"Stop this at once!" she ordered, flying down a little faster than dignity excused. At the familiar voice, Rose's face turned towards her, like a white lily floating in the black pool of armor, wings, and tangled hair. Her eyes failed to focus.

"Rosie, honey, you must stop," Charle repeated, more gently, gliding toward her. Miata followed gamely. "The battle is over."

The rapier in Rose's white-knuckled hand lowered, trailing streamers of dark matter and wingly blood. The Dragoon's voice came out in a whisper. "Have we won?"

Now within striking range, if Rose should choose violence, Charle never faltered. Her guards murmured. "The humans have won," she corrected, tucking one of Rose's snarled black locks behind her ear. "You have lost."

Rose seemed to shrink. On the arch above her, one of the dragons threw its bright head back, keening high, sweet, and eerie—the tacky scarlet one Charle had never liked. Its larger, sleeker comrade, dark as night, hunched like a vulture.

Charle tried to take the rapier from Rose's hand, but although the young woman did not resist, neither did her grip loosen. "Come away now, dear. There's nothing left, and Kadessa is still crumbling. It's time to come home."

Rose fixed red-rimmed eyes on the far horizon, although there was nothing there that Charle could see. "Gloriano is burned—every inch of it," she rasped. "It's all gone. Where do I go?"

"With me, of course." Charle tucked her arm through the Dragoon's, accepting that her silken sleeve would never recover from the stain. "As you belong."

Meekly, like a child, like the living doll she had once been, Rose allowed the wingly sorcerer-heiress to lead her away from the arch and whatever griefs and horrors lay beyond. Charle held her closely, and after a few minutes—as she had suspected would happen—the dragoon spirit left Rose. Her chitinous obsidian armor melted away into mere chipped leather and steel. When her wings disintegrated into falling ash, Miata immediately took her other arm to bear her through the air.

"Mistress, what is to be done with the dragons?" Miata whispered.

Charle watched Rose's face for reaction, but the Dragoon had passed beyond comprehension again. "Michael will follow his little mother," she answered, just as softly, "and as long as he behaves like a good boy, we will shelter him as well."

"And Zieg's creature?"

"Dart will be ever so miserable without him,"she replied after a moment of deep thought, "and ever so wild! When we are far away, have the guards dispose of him, would you? And let it be quick, there's a darling."

Rose did not blink. Charle bent her head over the Dragoon's ear and whispered, still hoping, "Melly?" That gained no more response than before. Sighing, Charle caressed the human's scratched and bloody cheek, where tears had burned red fissures into her skin.

*******

Far from the stench of slaughter and the smoke of Kadessa's destruction, the windows of Ulara gleamed with the cold light of the swelling moon. Charle watched it rise as long as she could stand, thinking of things past and things lost. Finally, she drew back, dimming the glass, and turned to examine her guest.

With the stilling of the soul of the dragon inside of her, Rose had become docile, submitting mutely to the ministration of Charle's attendants. They peeled off her ruined armor and bathed her lean white body. Every brush of their hands served to heal her wounds. A trio of them devoted themselves solely to combing out her long hair to ebony silk. Charle supervised critically, rejecting the gold and white robe they brought out for her.

"Definitely not. Her coloring is all wrong."

"But mistress, you always liked her in this robe before…"

"Did I? How silly I must have been!" Charle smiled. "Well, run along and find something darker now. Black will look so striking against her skin, don't you think?"

"Yes, mistress."

They dressed Rose as Charle directed, meeting no more resistance than if they were putting clothes on a mannequin. If Rose thought anything of it, if she thought at all, she gave no indication.

This pleased Charle. She had not selected the prettiest, most delicate, most graceful child from the tribe of Ruj and spent nearly two decades cultivating her in art, music, literature, and swordplay, only to see her wasted on Diaz's little war. She liked Zieg Feld and the rest well enough, but they were so rough. The day they stole her precious pet away, to make a warrior out of her, Charle had been in such a foul mood that she forgot to feed the roses. It soothed her to see Rose once again where she belonged, as she belonged.

"That will do for now," she said, as an attendant finished painting lacquer onto Rose's nails. "I think Rosie has had quite a busy day! Fetch us some tea and a little to eat with it. That is all."

"And the tea, mistress?"

"No, no, silly child, just the normal kind."

The scout from earlier appeared in the doorway as her attendants filed out—unannounced and unescorted. Charle hid her displeasure, but made a note to have him assigned somewhere inglorious. "Lady Charle, there are reports of human army activity on the ground. Do you wish Ulara to ascend to higher altitude?"

"No, no, they'll only shoot us down. Now that Diaz is gone, they may turn reckless, and those nasty little cannons at Vellweb work with or without Dragoons. " Charle tapped her finger against her lips. "Have the city moved over Gloriano for now."

"Mistress, Gloriano is still burning below."

"Then I suppose we must close the windows and hide in the smoke. Oh! And be sure to put a ward around my roses, will you? This war has been so bad for their growth." She dismissed him with a wave and settled herself into a chair beside her one human flower, unique in all the world, already thinking of the pruning and cultivating that would be required to restore the damage done.

Miata brought the tea and took herself off to a seat by the window, unobtrusively present should her mistress require her, and alternated reading a book of poetry and watching the impregnated moon grow and shimmer. Charle made herself cozy, removing her slippers to tuck her feet under her, and waited.

Two hours passed. Outside the windows, the bizarre daytime luminescence dimmed; they drew near the giant crematorium that was Gloriano.

"Damia's dead." Rose spoke so quietly that Charle barely caught the words. The Dragoon cupped her fingers around her teacup and stared at the rising steam as if it were a snake, coiling to strike her.

"I know, honey. Hasn't it been two months now?" Charle leaned over and touched the rim of the teacup with one finger, injecting a little more heat into it, as she had been doing patiently for the past two hours. "Your naughty friends wrecked Aglis for her, I remember."

"Kanzas is dead," Rose went on, as if Charle had not spoken. "A wingly broke his spine, so he did not think he would ever leave the battle. He only had his Dragoon wings and his hands. He called a storm out of his own body to destroy the Virage guarding the core of Kadessa's flying devices. Then the city began to fall."

Several hundred miles away, Charle and her people had heard the thunderclap. She shook her head fondly. "Silly boy! He never did things by halves…" Rose went on in that same maddening monotone. "Belzac and Shirley are dead. He wouldn't let her die, and she wouldn't let him die alone. His dragon is also dead."

Another half hour of silence passed. The eerie moonglow daubed the room with fingers of accusation. "Rosie, I hate to be the one to tell you," Charle said finally, taking the Dragoon's cold hand, "but Suvie's passed on as well."

Rose's fingers twitched. "Syuveil? The poison?"

"Yes," Charle said.

"Then that is everyone. Every last one of us."

"Oh my," she sighed, although of course she knew the moment that she saw the Red-Eyed Dragon howling alone atop that cracked archway. "What happened to lovely Zieggy?"

"Zieg."

And Rose dropped the cup, the fine porcelain shattering in a splash of scalding tea between her feet. Her hands covered her mouth. No, they were in her mouth, and she bit on the knuckles until the skin broke with beads of scarlet. Liquid welled in her eyes, but instead of clear salt water, it ran down her cheeks black as ink.

"Stop, sweetie, you'll hurt yourself," Charle chided. She pried Rose's hands away from her teeth. The Dragoon sat frozen, crying tears of darkness, and the wingly sorcerer-heiress patted her wounded fingers soothingly.

"Am I dead, too?" she croaked, almost longingly.

"Oh, Rosie, no."

"Every last damned one of us," Rose repeated, and Charle frowned and pinched her wrist for the profanity.


[To be continued]