3 Years Later
A high wall surrounded the city of Midgard, capital of the Eastern Realms. Within the city many winding cobblestone streets that led up to a towering castle. On one of those streets, in a very run down tavern a stone's throw from the wall, a barmaid was serving her sister a drink.
"I don't understand how he could do this to his own son," said the girl. She spoke her mind without thinking, before turning her attention back to glass she was cleaning. She didn't want to sound stupid, not in front of her sister. Elena wasn't even sure why her sister had come to her tavern, of all places; it wasn't as if they got along.
"He is a traitor," said Rosalind of the Turks. Although she didn't seem satisfied with the answer; her voice lacked conviction and held none of her usual smugness about bringing a down an enemy of the crown. Before Elena could question her further, Roz changed subjects. "Have you thought about my offer?"
Elena came around the bar and moved to the doorway. There were no customers at the moment aside from her sister and the owner had taken the night off. She changed the sign to closed and locked the door. "You still want me to be a Knight of the Turks, guardian to the crown? Not as long as you're there. I don't want to be you."
"So you'd rather be a barmaid?" asked the woman. "Our father was a Knight of the Realm. You're a warrior, Elena, it's in your blood. You did so well as a girl. Always first in training."
"Are you happy Rufus is going to die?" asked Elena, changing the subject back to young prince. It was a gruesome line of discussion, but Elena did not want to talk about becoming a Turk. Besides, her sister still hadn't told her how she felt about what was happening to Rufus. "And like that? I couldn't think of a worse way."
"It is the worst way," said Rosalind. "That's the point. Don't tell me you've forgotten your history."
"Long ago the land was scorched by fire and the rivers ran with blood. The many kingdoms fought amongst themselves for power over land and dragons ruled the skies feasting on men. Then the first Shinra king struck a bargain with the dragons. They would give him his throne and peace and in exchange he would make a sacrifice of all who opposed him. The penalty for treason is death at the claws of a dragon." She Elena recited from memory. "But his own son. What do the Turks think of it?"
"I don't know," said Rosalind. "Our leader, Sir Veld, has deserted us. His daughter is among the rebels and he hopes to rescue her. The King says that it is treason for him to leave his post. An oath to the Turks is for life. We have been ordered to hunt him down. I was almost glad when I heard the news about Rufus. The traitor aided the rebels, tried to kill us, and when we brought him before the King, Rufus told him of Veld's defection. I wanted him punished but…"
"Not like this?"
"Shh," said Rosalind, "it's a dangerous thing to question the king. But I wonder who will be heir now that Rufus is gone. If the throne passes to the Scarlet Lady I fear things may be even worse than they are now." Rosalind spoke quietly and Elena knew she wasn't saying half of what was on her mind. It was not the business of the King's own guard to call him a madman and a tyrant.
Rufus starred at the dungeon wall and watched as the dawn's light slowly crept in through the cell's small barred window. He heard footsteps approaching and turned at the sound. Time to go soon.
The prince had played a dangerous game and he knew the price of losing. All the same he'd made a gamble, and now it was time to pay.
He was surprised to see Tseng at his cell. For a moment he almost dared to hope that maybe there was chance. After all, he had known Tseng since he was a boy, the man had mentored him, and with Veld already gone would it really be so hard for the rest of the Turks to betray their King and help Rufus escape? They could flee across the sea and bide their time, build their forces.
Except Rufus had tried to kill the Turks and this man owed him no loyalty.
"Are you going to lead me to the slaughter?" asked Rufus. He didn't bother to get up just yet.
"I volunteered," said Tseng.
Rufus laughed, a sound that might have been mistaken for a sob if it had come from anyone else, but Prince Rufus never cried. "You hate me that much now?" he asked. "I knew you were angry, but this? You actually want to watch me die."
"I don't hate you," said Tseng. "I was angry with you, and I suppose I still am, but more disappointed than anything. I volunteered because someone should be with you and in case you had anything more to say."
"You're a smart man Tseng," said Rufus, "You know why I did it. My father will burn the whole world if he isn't stopped. Forgive me for not wanting to wait around to inherit the ashes. The King knows everyone hates him. That's why he's so paranoid. He won't let anyone near him, not even me. Exiled to the outer cities, what I could do but help how I could, with secrets and gold."
"And if the rebels had succeeded you thought they'd just hand the throne back to you?" asked Tseng. "I expected more from you in many ways - loyalty, honor - but more than anything I expected you to be smarter."
"Oh I knew Fuhito and his rebels would betray me eventually," said Rufus. "I simply underestimated how soon and neglected to betray him before he could betray me. It was difficult gambit, keeping a piece in the game as long as possible because it's useful but knowing keeping it too long could cost you everything. Oh well, there's no point now. What do you want, Tseng? I'm going to die today, so I can't really feel worse. Or do you want me to apologize for trying to kill you? It really wasn't personal, you know. At the time I thought, well, capture by the Turks means likely execution courtesy of my father; killing the Turks and escaping means living to fight another day."
"And telling the King about Veld?" asked Tseng.
The corner of Rufus's lips curled into a small smile and he laughed again. "I thought if I threw him a bone he'd show some leniency, maybe chalk the whole thing up to teenage stupidity since I was so quick to come back to his side. We know how well that worked. Still, I'm sure Veld will be fine. You don't get to be Lord Commander of the Turks for nothing and I'm sure your best efforts to find and kill the Veld will somehow fall short. Love has a way of interfering with results…sometimes." He looked at Tseng, meeting his eyes. Rufus was too proud to beg, but he wasn't above suggestions. "Or we could join him. Be outlaws and free."
More footsteps came down the hall. The loud, uniform marching of men in armor. "It's time to go, Rufus," said Tseng.
A crowd had gathered to watch the prince be led out of town and towards the place of sacrifice. Among them was the Lady Elena. She stood alone, her dark red gown was the cut in a youthful style and her hair was long and girlish. She did not stand with her sister who had moved to join the Turks. Rosalind belonged there clad in the manner of a Knight of the Turks. Dark woolen hose and leather trousers cross-gartered to the knee. A white linin shirt beneath a black quilted long coat and dark scale amour, and a tabard with their coat of arms: three Talbots sable with a chaine d'or for the dogs of the Shinra, quartered with the arms of the Shinra.
Elena wasn't sure where she belonged exactly.
She found it hard to make plans for the future when everything seemed uncertain. The king's own son had turned against him and was now as good as dead. What was there now for the future and what point in serving a King who seemed on the brink of madness? To keep the peace as long as possible? Well, she supposed it was better than anarchy and war. All you could do in life was what you thought was for the best. Had Rufus seen his treason like that? Was he sorry he'd ever thought to be betray the king or only sorry he'd been caught?
Elena watched the prince as they led him away in chains. He did not seem afraid, nor was his head held high in defiance. Instead he was looking around, searching the faces in the crowd. She wondered who he was looking for among the mob of common people. A rescue?
If that was what he hoped for he would be disappointed. Elena watched as the armed guards escorted the prince into the barred carriage that would take him to the place of sacrifice. When Rufus arrived they would strip him, bind him, and leave him naked and helpless on the altar. She wondered if Tseng would be the one to do it. If he would stay with Rufus as long as possible before moving away a safe distance to see that it had been done.
She imagined, whatever treason Rufus was guilty of committing, this would not be easy on Tseng. Ten years Rufus's senior, Tseng had known the boy most of his life, practically grooming him for leadership. Tseng had had more of a hand in raising the prince than the boy's own father. At least, that's what Elena had heard from her sister, who trusted her with more information than she really should have by their order's laws.
Elena was an exception to the Turks' usual rules of secrecy. She was considered one of the family even though she'd yet to take the pledge and wasn't entirely sure she wanted to take it at all. However, her father had practically promised both his daughters in service to the realm and she had been raised and trained for one purpose, to give herself to the service of the Turks.
She supposed there were worse things - being given to a dragon for one.
The way Rufus was bound, hands behind his back and secured to the same rope, which bound his legs, was not very comfortable. When asked to kneel, he complied. He wouldn't be taken struggling and begging. There was no escape, but that didn't make it acceptable to act like a coward. If anything he was annoyed that he had to face death on his knees instead of standing.
Tseng had stood by and watched as the men secured him. They hadn't said another word to each other. What good would it do? They were both sorry about the situation, Rufus was certain, but sorry didn't change things. Rufus wished he didn't yearn to hear one last comforting word. Some indication that Tseng wished he could have saved him.
Did Tseng want this to happen? Had Rufus pushed things so far that everyone he'd ever known would rejoice to see him dead? Maybe. He was a traitor after all.
Rufus thought perhaps there was one person who would still love him, who would understand and forgive him: Reno. He was common thief, a street rat, and Rufus's long time lover. Not that Reno knew who Rufus truly was; they met in secret and didn't talk about their lives. Reno was smart enough to guess Rufus was from the upper side of the city, noble, or at the very least rich, but he didn't know Rufus was the prince and as far as Rufus had been concerned the less Reno knew the better.
He hadn't wanted to get him mixed up in the mess of schemes and power games that had been his life. Reno had been his escape. During the time they shared Rufus could forget himself and just be the man Reno loved, nothing more or less. Of course, if they had been found out Reno would have been killed. Perhaps if Rufus truly loved him he would have ended it.
Of course, he couldn't bring himself to give up what he wanted. He was selfish; Rufus thought he could have whatever he chose. That's why he was in this mess.
A sudden rush of air pulled Rufus from his thoughts. His eyes turned skyward. He saw it in the distance like a gigantic bird, the closer it came the clearer the dragon appeared. The beast was bright red; its scales glistening like rubies in the sun. Up close, it was nothing like a bird, four legs, a long neck and giant bat-like wings.
The dragon let out a burst of fire as it descended, wings beating wildly as it slowed without landing. Instead the dragon reached out its clawed hand and scooped up Rufus like an eagle grabbing a sparrow in its talons. However, Rufus did not find himself impaled, but lifted into the air without so much as a scratch.
The prince couldn't help but cry out in surprise as the ground swiftly shrank away beneath him. Fear soon changed to wonder as he saw the land spread out before him. They were flying, and despite the fact he was probably about to die a very painful death he couldn't help but revel in the moment.
The dragon turned away from the kingdom, banking left towards the Forbidden Mountains where it made its lair. Rufus wondered why it had waited to kill him. Did it have young? Perhaps Rufus was going to be dropped alive and squirming into a nest filled with sharp teeth and claws? Or perhaps dragons were like cats and liked to keep their prey alive for a little while for their own amusement.
Whatever the reason, Rufus hadn't been burnt or shredded just yet and he supposed that was something. All the same, more time alive gave him more time to think about all the terrible things the dragon might do to him. Its head was so large it could easily swallow him whole, but he couldn't help but imagine what its teeth could do to flesh if it took him bit by bit.
The vast cavernous entrance of the dragon's lair came into view and it slowed once more to land gently on its two back legs. The dragon lifted Rufus up over its mouth and opened its jaws wide. Starring down into the dragon's gullet past rows and rows of sharp teeth was almost enough to make Rufus lose his courage but he steeled himself, refusing to scream.
The dragon's tongue wrapped around his body and slowly drew Rufus into its maw, sucking him back past the teeth still unharmed. So it would swallow him whole then and with any luck its throat would smoother him before he reached the dragon's belly. The jaws shut, and Rufus was left in darkness, sloshing back and forth as the dragon walked deeper into the cave.
Then without warning, and the dragon lowered its head, opened its mouth, and allowed the drool soaked prince to slide out onto a pile of gold. For a cave, the place seemed rather bright, at least compared to the darkness of the dragon's jaws. Rufus was left blinking as he tried to take in the enormous room. He could make out no source of light and concluded the cavern must be lit by magic.
If it weren't for the dragon, Rufus might have been amazed at the sheer size of the cavern or the splendor of the treasure upon which he now sat. However, at the moment the giant red beast had settled down on its haunches and was regarding him intently, rather like a cat. The Prince had a sinking feeling he was about to be batted around, bitten, and tossed until he stopped moving.
Rufus scanned the treasure pile for any sort of weapon. The dragon watched him and let out a low growl before swiftly pinning him beneath its enormous claw. It raised a single talon and pressed it to Rufus's throat.
"Get on with it then!" snapped Rufus. "Eat me! Go ahead!"
The dragon pulled back its lips revealing rows of long sharp teeth clenched in a vicious smile and made a sound that could almost be taken for a laugh. Then it lowered its head down to meet Rufus's face and licked him.
"You don't have to be afraid, I don't want to kill you," said the dragon. "I may be hungry but that's not worth takin' your life."
Rufus eyes widened in surprise that only grew as the dragon transformed into a? human boy, now perched on top of him, hand resting on the side of Rufus's neck.
"Reno?" asked Rufus, still not able to take in all that he'd seen.
"Hello, lover," said Reno.
"You could have told me you were a dragon," said Rufus. He climbed down into the hot springs Reno had led him to deep within the caverns. The waters were perfectly warmed and flowed out into an underground river, which was probably somewhat polluted with soaps and oils from the numerous bottles that lined the side of enormous pool.
"Like that would have come up in conversation," said Reno, rolling his eyes as he settled down by the side of the water. "It isn't something I go spreading around, you know. What about you? You could have told me you were a prince, your highness. Why'd you never tell me?"
"For you own good," said Rufus.
"Ah maybe, or maybe you didn't trust me. Thought a slum rat like me would try to use you. I ain't stupid, Rufus. You or your guard would have had me killed if I ever tried anything."
"Oh don't pull that," said Rufus, "I've never looked down on anyone because of where he came from. I was with you, wasn't I? Besides, you aren't really a peasant boy, you're a dragon, so I hardly think you can play the class card. You probably have more gold than I do. Where did you get it all anyway?"
"Dwarves," he said.
"Dwarves?" asked Rufus. "There haven't been any dwarves here for a long time."
"Well yeah, dwarves - they mine precious things and shape them and then dragons take what they make and chase them off. Well, you can eat some of them, but they're really tough and hairy. Not like humans, humans are delicious."
Rufus gave him a look. "You're kidding?"
Reno shook his head. "I thought you wanted me to be honest from now on. Come on, you eat meat. Think of dwarves, sort of like bees. Bees make honey and then humans take the honey, it's like that."
Rufus grabbed a bar of soap from the ledge of the spring and began scrubbing off his drool-soaked skin. "You realize when you talk about meat in this conversation you're talking about people."
Reno laughed again. "I'm not human," he said. "It's only murder if you kill your own kind, which dragons, unlike humans, don't usually do. Ain't you here cause you tried murdering your own father along with anyone who got in your way? You don't exactly have the moral high ground."
Rufus turned to look at him. His joy at seeing his lover again and not being in immediate danger was beginning to fade, replaced by a growing apprehension. "How do you know that?" asked Rufus. Until that moment the prince had assumed it was a happy accident that the dragon he was given to turned out to be none other than Reno. He'd even begun to dream of returning to his kingdom on the back of an enormous dragon to claim his father's throne in fire and blood. However, things didn't seem like they were as simple as that.
"Why do you think you were given to me?" asked Reno. "It's because Tseng convinced your father it was the best course of action because I told him I wanted you. It just worked out he found an excuse. Tseng's also a dragon, by the way. Maybe I should start at the beginning."
"That would be appreciated," said Rufus, sitting down in the shallow water because he needed to sit down. His mind was reeling with all the implication of what Reno had just said.
"Right, well let me tell you something about dragons," said Reno. "As you see we can change our shape, but we don't often or for too long. Once there was a pair that turned themselves into cats and got so lost in it they lived their lives as cats. They forgot they ever were dragons or maybe just stopped caring. That's why dragons don't really shift all the much, you lose yourself to what you become."
"Cats?" asked Rufus. Well it did explain why the dragon, despite its reptilian form, had reminded him of a feline.
"Yeah, why do think cats are so haughty?" asked Reno, "some of 'em are part dragon. That pair what shifted, well all the while they were having kittens together and with others. Now a lot of cats are dragon kin. It's why we won't hurt them or birds; those are the shifts dragons have taken. Generally, dragons will not shift into food creatures."
Rufus gave him another look. "Is that how you see me?"
"It's not personal," said Reno, "but no, it's not how I see you, more dragons in general. According to our beliefs we were created to eat humans. Our legends tell us that a long time ago humans overran the world, killing other creatures for food or sport and taking more than their share of what the earth had to offer. Whole species ceased to exist and the world itself may have become uninhabitable for everyone. So the dragons were born, magical, powerful, practically invincible, and driven to eat humans. We hunger for them above all else."
"So why are there still humans left, and…not that I'm ungrateful, but why haven't you eaten me?"
Reno cocked his head to the side. "I'm generally not on a first name basis with my food and we are lovers, aren't we? I couldn't just kill you. Even if you do kind of deserve it. But I'll get back to you and me. There was a war between dragons and humans, and if things kept going like they were dragons and humans would have both been wiped out, or maybe just the dragons. Maybe that's what the gods wanted, just to cull the humans a bit but not destroy them but we dragons didn't want to die off. In this kingdom we struck a truce with your ancestor, the first Shinra king. We'd leave your people in peace and in exchange-"
"We'd feed you," said Rufus. "And now I'm on the menu because you wanted me to be sacrificed, but you promise not to eat me because you love me? Is that basically it? How does Tseng come into it? Why did you both take human forms?"
"Well I like humans," said Reno, "not just as a snack, I'm curious about all the things they make like furniture. I started collecting it and other things and took a human form so I could enjoy them. Then I asked Tseng if I could go explore the human world and he was dead against it. For years and years he told me no, but the end he realized he couldn't really stop me and I wouldn't let it go so he came up with a plan. He'd go first, assume the form of a young boy and spend his life blending into human society so he'd know what was safe. He joined the Turks so he could be in a position where he'd know all the goings on in the kingdom so he could keep me out of trouble."
"What is he to you?" asked Rufus.
"We're two of the last of our kind," said Reno, "he's my elder, at times like a brother and sometimes a lover. Are you jealous?"
"Just trying to understand," said Rufus, "so everything Tseng ever did was for you?"
"I don't know, I think so, I mean he hates humans so I don't see why he'd have done it otherwise."
"He hates humans?" asked Rufus.
"Except as a meal," said Reno. "He's quite fond of eating them."
"That doesn't make any sense," said Rufus. The Tseng he had known all his life cared about the kingdom, his fellow Turks and his mentor Veld. How could Tseng hate people? Then again, how could his Tseng have asked his father to give him to a dragon? Even if Rufus did deserve it he thought Tseng would have forgiven him. That Tseng hadn't wanted this.
"Maybe being a human for so long has changed his mind," said Reno, "I don't know. You can ask him about it when he returns. I imagine now that I'm done playing in the kingdom he'll arrange for his human self to disappear so he can come home."
"Done playing?" asked Rufus.
"Yeah, got what I wanted, saw a bit, learned a lot and even got a souvenir."
Rufus scowled at him, practically storming out of the water and grabbing a towel from a nearby wrack. "So, what? I'm just some toy to you?" he asked. "You set it up so I'd be handed over to you gift wrapped because you wanted to keep me as a pet?"
"Well, you don't have to put it that way," said Reno, "it's more…when I see something I like, something beautiful and wonderful, I want to carry it off and keep it. It could be worse, Rufus. Even if I'd never met you, you still would have been a traitor, it's not fault you got yourself into this mess. If you'd had been caught and I hadn't asked Tseng to bring you to me, well - what would happened? You might have been locked up in a dungeon or executed or given to me all the same. Only if I didn't want you, I'd have eaten you. If you'd prefer that then it could still -" Reno stopped himself and sighed, shaking his head. "Look, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. "I just figured you'd be happy. I've saved you and we get to be together now."
"As your slave," said Rufus, "until you get bored and decide to make a meal of me." It was perfectly clear to Rufus that the dragon did not intend to let him go.