Rajaion was coming.
Almedha scowled when she spotted him: he was sailing through the sky in wide, sweeping arcs, with no obvious direction. But she knew the direction. He had to have seen her by now, and soon enough he'd be swooping in beside her, on this lonely little cliff edge she'd found. All this lackadaisical circling was his attempt at being nonchalant, she supposed — oh, I just happened to be soaring by and I spotted you, so I thought I'd stop by — as if that was fooling anyone.
At last, he landed alongside her, shifting back to his human form as he skidded next to her. She fixed him with a glare. He returned a good-natured smirk. "You're looking better."
Almedha snorted. "Don't be cute, Rajaion. What do you want?" She knew, of course. But she wanted to make him say it.
"Father wants you to come home."
Almedha arched an eyebrow. "And did he tell you that?"
Rajaion's silence was answer enough. Rolling her eyes, she turned back toward the cliff's edge, tossing her hair behind her and letting her feet dangle over the edge. Rajaion remained standing behind her — tall and silent as the stones around them, as Dheginsea himself.
"Maybe I won't go back," Almedha announced, every syllable deliberate.
Rajaion laughed weakly.
She sensed scorn in that laugh, and snapped her neck around to face him again. "I mean it. You know what that fight made me realize, Rajaion? That it's pointless. Me even being here. I'll never change his mind. I'll never be able to beat him. And I can't just sit around waiting a few centuries for him to just kick it already —"
"Almedha —" Rajaion interrupted, his voice a low warning.
"But it's true. So I should leave."
She was glaring at him again. The ruthlessness there — how casually she spoke of Dheginsea dying, how very badly she wanted to thwart her father — always caught Rajaion by surprise. Where did it come from? Why did she seem to cling to it? Rajaion sighed, combing one helpless hand through his hair. "This fight was different," he muttered.
"Of course it was different. You saw it — I made him shift."
"You provoked him, Almedha."
"I wanted to provoke him." Even now, just thinking of the fight, an odd thrill ran down Almedha's spine. On the surface, it had been the same old fight all over again — the usual shouting match, with her usual hysterical accusations and Dheginsea's usual monosyllabic dismissals. But there was something cold and flinty in her father's gaze, and when she shifted, he did too — a first. She couldn't help but loose a hiss of pleasure. If she could drive him to fight her, then maybe she could drive him to fight others, drive him to abandon those silly isolationist ideals —
But Dheginsea had come at her faster than she expected. How could someone so heavy move so fast? The battle was over within seconds of its beginning — leaving her singed and crushed against a mountainside, without having laid even a single claw on her opponent. Soon as she could see straight again, she'd torn away and fled here. Fled for the last time.
Rajaion's voice startled her out of her reverie: "I don't think you should leave." His voice sounded odd — pitched higher than normal, making him sound young, almost as young as Kurth. "He loves you, Almedha, you know that? It would crush him."
"Crush him?" Almedha laughed, a shrill, short laugh with a touch of hysteria. "Rajaion, I've been trying for years just to touch him. I'll hardly crush him. What will happen is, I'll leave, and he'll just do nothing, stoic as ever."
Rajaion scowled, pursing his lips. "Me, then," he muttered — then, more clearly, he repeated, "Me. You'd be leaving me, and I couldn't — Almedha, I know you're frustrated, and I know he seems overbearing, but you shouldn't just leave —"
"Do you ever think maybe you should leave, too, Rajaion?" Almedha interrupted.
The question was so unexpected that it jarred Rajaion into silence. She smiled — not a mocking smile, or a condescending smile, like she so often wore, but a warm, authentic smile. "You're not like him, you know — much as you try to play at it."
Rajaion didn't know how to answer that.
Almedha shrugged, lifting her feet and standing up once more. "Think about it, brother," she called over her shoulder, before she shifted once more — taking wing and disappearing between the cliffs before Rajaion could say another word.
How easy — how pathetically easy — it was to pass into the circles of beorc.
Even this, the highest of all circles, the domain of royalty — even entering the palace at Nevassa tonight had taken little more than charm and a bit of swift thinking. These palace guards thought themselves so austere and stoic, but they were nothing compared to her kinsmen back home. Almedha had given herself an assumed name, pouted when the guards informed her that she was not on the list, and with just a few flattering words and sultry glances, she was in.
So this is Daein at her highest, she thought. She stood on the sidelines of the ballroom, demurely sipping a glass of whine while surveying the crowd. This central chamber was large, she supposed, by beorc standards — though, of course, it was nothing as compared to the cavernous halls of Castle Goldoa. But the decorations for the festival — those were incomparable. The hall had been strewn with hundreds of color-tinted gas-lamps, there was an enormous banquet-table crowded with dozens of different meats and sweets, there were clusters of ice sculptures scattered throughout the hall, and bright oil paintings adorned every wall. Dheginsea would've called it gaudy, but she found it charming.
Charming — and quaint. From the way the cats she'd spoken to in Gallia described Daein, she had expected something rather more... oh, she didn't know. Larger, more sinister, weightier. They had spoken the Daein king's name with trembling breaths; they spoke of sleepless laguz hunters and the cruel, battle-hungry Riders of Daein. She'd imagined a mighty country, a militant country, a country that could perhaps match even the might of Goldoa.
But those guards had been so easily charmed, so easily deceived. As she'd approached the palace, she had kept a careful eye on the laguz hunters patrolling the entrance — and she sensed their fear. Not confidence, not power, but fear — the same fickle fear that ran in all beorc, with regard to laguz. A fear of discovering a monster; a terror of recognizing their own laguz kin.
Almedha sighed at the recollection. Yes, Daein was a disappointment — but this festival, at least, held a certain allure. And since she was here anyway, she'd make the most of it — she took a last swig, finishing her glass, and set it aside. She'd been feeling the gaze of a courtier on her for quite some time, so now she turned toward him, smiling, and strode closer.
He muttered some greeting, tripping over his words — a shy boy, aren't you? She reached for his hand, clasping hers gently over his before offering an encouraging smile. "Come now, dear, don't be shy. Go on and ask me to dance."
She was a whirlwind on the ballroom floor: she took the lead, forcing her partner to come scurrying along as she waltzed with a weighty, rugged sort of grace. She shed partners quickly as she gathered them, finding few able to keep up with her breathless pace for more than a song or two. Her energy soon drew the higher nobles and minor princes toward her — seeing some kind of challenge in her, perhaps, and vying to prove their own skills. At the sidelines, other festivalgoers whispered in passing about the mysterious countess, a lady no one had met before tonight but was nonetheless captivating.
Almedha had thought she was done dancing — the crowds were thinning, the music was slowing — when she felt another pair of eyes on her. She turned to see the source: a blue-haired man, stockily built, but dressed in the finest robes — robes only the royal family was permitted to wear. Some distant prince, she guessed, one of those poor boys that were a dozen or more degrees from the throne: close enough to find themselves ensnared by court politics, but far too distant to ever have a hope of ruling themself.
He strode closer. Ah, so he was a forward fellow; no need to encourage him. She remained rooted, lightly bemused, as he leaned toward her and murmured, "Your ears."
Oh. Almedha delicately lifted a hand to the side of her head — her hair, which she'd so ornately and carefully braided, had come loose from her dancing, revealing a sliver of her pointed ear.
He knew what that meant, knew what she was. His grin told her as much — a broad, wicked grin.
Almedha matched his grin. "How careless of me," she replied, shrugging.
The man crept closer — a motion that surprised her. Most beorc — every beorc she'd ever met, anyway — couldn't stand to bring themselves any closer to a laguz than necessary, restrained by the same fear she'd sensed in the palace's own laguz hunters. But there was no fear in Ashnard's eyes; only something akin to hunger.
"One word," Ashnard continued, unabated, "and five dozen of the royal guard will come at once to slay you. Or should I do it myself, I wonder?"
For an instant, Almedha considered meeting his challenge — telling him to call those guards while she shifted, right here in the midst of Castle Nevassa. A legendary black dragon, versus a rabble of underprepared beorc? She could take down ten dozen, fifteen dozen of these guards — destroy them all, until she had the survivors fleeing before her. Perhaps, in the aftermath, as she made her retreat, Daein would contact Goldoa. Some sort of beorc blustering — demanding repatriations, threatening war, insisting on an audience with Goldoa. What would Dheginsea do then? Disavow his only daughter? Or break his vow, take his dragon form, and come after her?
The idea was tempting, for a moment. But something about that hunger in this prince's eyes, and the way the candles shone on his skin — they seized her, and she seized him.
Grabbing him by the shoulders, she pulled him brusquely toward her. His eyes widened, and he made a motion to pull away — but she strengthened her grip and whirled, slamming the poor prince into a nearby wall. Even untransformed, she had more then enough strength to match an unarmed beorc, especially one caught off guard.
A few guests startled at the sound — for a moment, it looked like the beginnings of a brawl. But Almedha, still pinning Ashnard to the wall with her arms, quickly pressed in toward him, smothering his mouth with her own.
To the shuffling crowd, they seemed like a couple overwhelmed with passion, perhaps lacking in social graces or sobriety, but otherwise unremarkable. But she could feel Ashnard's bones creaking in her grasp, threatening to snap. She kept her lips affixed to his, teasing him with her tongue — before she squeezed her hands tighter, squeezing and smashing him against the wall until she forced a groan from him. Only when she heard that groan of pain sharpened a pitch did she loosen her grasp — slowly, agonizingly slowly, relishing the prince's every ragged breath.
"I'd love to see you try, beorc boy," she purred at last, as she pulled her lips away. Her hands lingered lightly on his shoulders. He remained unmoving, stunned mute by that furious kiss, as she pulled back and turned away.
She smiled as she walked off — she could feel his eyes on her back the whole while.
For hours Rajaion had circled the high steppes where Almedha normally lingered — weaving between the cliffs, scanning every ridge. She wasn't there.
Maybe I won't go back.
She always said that — and always, she returned to the palace a few days later, perhaps a bit thinner and more ragged-looking, and rather mollified, but otherwise fine.
But a week had passed, and there had been no sign of her. Rajaion never quite knew whether his talking to her kept her away longer or drew her back sooner, but he knew he couldn't simply remain rooted. "Let her do as she will," Dheginsea had commanded — but Rajaion ignored that command. Just this once, and just this one day — and it took all the courage he had. How was it Almedha always managed to do this so easily?
Don't laugh. I mean it.
When he caught the scent, it was old and stale — but at least it was there. Beating his wings faster, he followed the trail, hovering close to the earth as the ridges climbed higher and higher around him. The air was thinner, up here — she'd traveled a long ways up, up and over the highest ridge in the vicinity. Rajaion followed the scent up the sheer cliffside, and then, with a screech, he halted at the top as a sudden paralyzing realization struck him:
The other side of this cliff was Gallia.
Gallia, not Goldoa. Falling back into human form, he walked to the Gallian-facing side and peered into the basin. Those were Gallian lands, down there — and she'd crossed into them.
She'd meant it, this time. She had left, and he hadn't even managed to say goodbye.
The court called it love — the way they seemed to cling together, those surreptitious glances they were perpetually exchanging, and the way they disappeared together, sometimes for days at a time.
But if the court knew the half of it, they'd have to call them both deranged. True, Ashnard made Almedha feel more alive — but in a savage, bestial way, in a warped way. She longed to hurt him, to make him envious, to make him furious — and he wanted the same.
She relished the look on his face whenever she demonstrated some small aspect of her power — when she casually gripped his hand tightly enough to make his knuckles creak, or when she spoke in passing of the might of Goldoa's dragons. They were such small things — but they always made Ashnard look at her with this hungry, desperate, desirous gleam, a jealous pain that somehow drew her closer to him. Most magnificent were the times when they lingered in the palace's sprawling courtyards, and she shifted to her draconic form unannounced — they'd be walking together, and suddenly, she'd take wing. She'd circle back once to glimpse at Ashnard's awestruck expression, and then careen away, laughing in her mind as she went.
But Ashnard was clever — he'd found ways to make her burn, too. Once, at a palace festival, when she'd walked away from him for a few minutes, she returned to find him clinging to some slutty courtesan, with his tongue jammed down her throat. Almedha had nearly gone mad, nearly shifted right there and tore both of their heads off — but instead, she'd stormed over to Ashnard, wrenching him away and dragging him with her into the nearest empty room she could find.
"You are mine, dear, sweet, Ashnard," she'd hissed, pressing him tightly against the wall as she pressed into him. "And no one else can have you."
Their lovemaking — as it was that night — was frequent and feverish, a thing of violence. There was hair-pulling, scratching, biting — he'd try to hurt her, and she'd try his limits, until it devolved into a screaming, clawing, grinding frenzy of passion, reaching an ecstatic peak before they fell back exhausted.
No, it wasn't love. Almedha knew that. But those nights when they were united, when she lost herself in that violent bliss, she was certain she'd found something even stronger.
After two long months, Dheginsea finally sent a red dragon platoon out to seek Almedha. Only one member of that platoon returned — and when he did, Rajaion wished he hadn't.
Rajaion could sense that something was strange even from afar — the descending dragon's wingbeats were too quick, too erratic. But perhaps the dragon had been wounded — so he and Dheginsea rushed to the front of the palace to meet him.
The lone dragon didn't land outside the palace, though, so much as he crashed — skidding into the earth shoulder-first, scraping against the sharded rock in the canyon bed, before finally collapsing in a heap just a few wing-lengths away from the palace entrance.
"What's this, Rudagun?" Dheginsea barked. "That landing was sloppy — shift back, now, tell us what happened."
Still in draconic form, Rudagun twitched, his eyes darting unseeing around the clearing, left and right and left again until he finally twitched his gaze toward the king and prince. Then Rudagun responded at last — with a hiss and a blast of firebreath.
The fire just barely avoided singing them both — and that was due more to the dragon's sloppy aim than any particularly quick reaction on Rajaion's and Dheginsea's part, though they'd both jumped away from the blast. As soon as the creature — Rudagun — finished his brief assault, he coiled into himself, jerking his claws and feet about erratically as he did so.
Rajaion righted himself, brushing some dirt away even as he felt anger boil up on his chest, just on the verge of compelling him to shift. "Traitor," he whispered — but hesitantly, not quite willing to believe his own accusation.
"No," Dheginsea replied in a stiff voice. "Not a traitor. Driven mad. I'd heard rumors of such a thing, but..."
What rumors? Rajaion wanted to know — but the question died on his tongue when he looked at his father. Dheginsea's expression was hard, his mouth a stern, unhappy frown, and his shoulders seemed to slump, as if bearing some incredible weight. "Look away, Rajaion," Dheginsea commanded.
Rajaion suspected what was coming — but he didn't look away. Whether out of morbid fascination, or simply out of some duty he felt toward the mad-dragon he'd once called a kinsmen, he remained rooted. His father didn't notice, focused on the task at hand — so he stood and watched his father shift. Watched as Dheginsea rose to his full height, silent king versus spitting serpent, and watched as the king lunged, fixing his jaws on the red dragon's neck and snapping it with one weighty, razor-toothed crunch.
The dragon's dying shriek echoed in the cliffs, echoed even over the high ridge that divided Goldoa from Gallia. Could Almedha hear it?
It had started in the smallest, most innocuous ways, this weakness — all small things, all easily dismissed. She was losing some of her extraordinary strength; her muscles felt perpetually drained — but perhaps this was just due to the season's change; perhaps the languid summer heat was making her weary. Shifting to her dragon form was taking longer, and was harder to sustain — but perhaps that was due to the new life in her belly, consuming her energy.
The excuses sounded thin in her ears — but they satisfied Ashnard easily enough, for now. He thought of little more than that unborn child, lately — always pestering her about how long a mixed child may take to be born, what kinds of powers the child may have, whether such a thing had happened before in Goldoa, and so on. "I don't know," was always her weary answer. That was the totality of their conversations, these days — no longer was Ashnard interested in Almedha, in making her burn, in making her quiver, in making her long for him. Just the child. Only useful as a broodmare, to him, she thought bitterly.
She had come outside this morning to be alone — the air was still crisp, and the vast acres of vacant land around Castle Nevassa were sprawled out before her with the predawn fog hanging heavily across them.
With a deep, inward sigh, she reached inside herself and began to shift — forced herself to shift, struggled to shift. It was such a strange feeling — shifting had always been natural to her as breathing, or blinking. How was she supposed to force herself to do it?
She remembered when she used to shift in front of Ashnard, just for show, just to make him jealous. She never did that, anymore — she was afraid he would notice her struggling, afraid he would begin to suspect something was amiss, like she had known for months now. What would he do, if he found out? When he found out?
At last, her dragon form came to her — jerkily, and uncomfortably, but it came. More than she could say most days, lately. She tested herself, taking a small step forward, stretching her wings — and, once she felt bold enough, she lurched forward and took to the air.
She tried to just lose herself in the sensation of flight, tried to focus on nothing but the air whipping by — but just sustaining her position required immense focus, and stray doubts and worries kept creeping into her mind unbidden.
She hadn't believed Dheginsea's warnings about unions of beorc and laguz — not really. Or rather, she'd chosen not to believe him — because what did that old fossil know? And besides, actual children being produced from such a pairing was such a rare occurrence, such a fluke, that surely she didn't even need to bother worrying over it.
Childish thoughts, in hindsight. And soon she would have a child to show for it.
Suddenly, her strength failed her. A wave of vertigo seized her mid-flight, and she felt her wings buckle, collapsing against her sides. The ground came rushing up to meet her — she twisted, landing on her shoulder, and winced at the pain.
Then she just lie there — too weakened to take flight again, but too stubborn to return back to her human form. How pitiful she had to look — a once-mighty royal Goldoan, lying in the dirt outside Castle Nevassa, flightless. She beat her wings uselessly against the ground, loosing a sudden shriek of frustration, raising her head in a wide arc. As she did so, she glanced skyward, half-expecting to see Raijion there — gliding through the air in wide, spiraling arcs, winding slowly down to where she lay among the rocks, speaking softly to her, urging her back home.
Maybe she would actually listen, this time. She hadn't the strength to pull away, any longer.
The figure that swung open Almedha's bedroom door startled her — she hadn't seen him for a month, at least. Maybe longer. She'd lost track of time, ever since the beginning of this self-imposed exile in the farthest corridor of the palace.
His expression was flat, his eyes dark. "Someone's coming," Ashnard announced. "Bring that child of yours."
Then he turned, and was gone again. For a moment, Almedha wondered if she'd imagined it — wondered if she was losing her mind, at last, left alone with nothing but an infant son to care for. But, just as she thought this, two armored guards stepped into the room.
She gave a hollow laugh — of course Ashnard wouldn't wait for her, of course he wouldn't bring her himself. She was beneath him now. Escorting her was grunt work, for grunts like these.
Sighing, she picked up her child and glared at the men. "Show me where I'm going, then," she snapped. If she used that tone, she could almost imagine she still held some sort of power over them — almost.
They led her up one winding staircase, then another, and another — she wondered how far they were ascending. To the top of the whole palace? She held her child tightly against her chest the whole way, and he was silent. Such a quiet child, she thought, almost unnaturally so.
At last, the guards led her out onto one of the palace's terraces. Ashnard stood at the edge, hands on the railing, looking skyward. Quickening her pace, she stepped beside her husband: "What is it you want of me, Ashnard?" she asked. She'd wanted her voice to sound cutting, wanted to sound fierce — but she just sounded tired.
"Oh, just stand there," he answered airily, without turning his head.
She quirked an eyebrow. "That's it?"
Ashnard flashed a smile then — a wretched smile, like he'd been wearing on the night they first met. But back then, she'd scoffed at his naiveté. Now, without her powers, that same smile sent a tremor down her spine. "It's amazing, Almedha," he said, "the lengths some will go to protect their kin. I never understood it myself —" he laughed "— but it's so useful, sometimes. You'll remember this potion, I trust?"
He held the bottled concoction in front of her — lightly rose-colored, with a slight froth at the top. Yes, she remembered it — borne of his laguz experiments, experiments she'd deliberately turned a blind eye toward. She'd learned of them just before her pregnancy, just before things start collapsing — the eyes of the two feral tigers she'd seen chilled her, far more than any petty beorc blood pact could — but she'd never spoken of her discomfort to anyone. She didn't want to show Ashnard any weakness.
Seeing him holding the potion, though, made her feel a prickling at the back of her neck. Something wasn't right. Ashnard's gaze was fixed toward the sky. She followed his gaze — and her breath caught in her throat.
She would recognize that silhouette anywhere — circling through the sky in long, meandering arcs, seemingly directionless. But she knew the direction. He was coming for her, had to be coming for her — for her, and for a nephew he'd never even met.
She made a move toward Ashnard — and the guards surrounded her in an instant, pressing their lances against her sides in threat. She pulled her child in closer to her chest, and heard a helpless noise falter in her throat — somewhere between a sob and a whimper. Ashnard heard it, and that grin of his broadened.
Do you ever think you should leave, too? You're not like him.
Almedha looked back to Rajaion. He was closer, now; she could almost make out his face. So this is love, she thought, and all at once a bitterness swelled up inside her chest, threatening to crush her as he slowly spiraled down.