Rutga stood on the battlements of Fort Neera, stiff and cold. The wind up here was chilly and cut through the gaps in his armour much more proficiently than any blade ever could. He stamped his feet to stop them going numb. Thicker socks would have been welcome, but Rutga’s feet had a tendency to become swollen at night for some inexplicable reason. He could barely get his boots on as it was.
A sign of old age? Did body parts get bigger as you got older? His grandfather used to have unnaturally large ear lobes, he remembered, although he had assumed that was just because the rest of him was shrinking.
The treetops swished from side to side and above them, the stars shone and twinkled. He had slept beneath many different skies, but the stars over Ranvar always seemed to him to be the most glorious. His opinion was biased, of course.
The moon was nearly full, giving an excellent view of the forest and the stars and beyond. He was the sole watch in a remote outpost with a garrison of six and the nearest town an hour’s ride away. It felt like the end of the world.
The late watch was everyone’s least favourite duty, but Rutga found it refreshing. To stand at the edge of the kingdom, looking out at the trees that formed a natural border with the small but intensely proud nation of Jaminikan. It made Rutga feel like the protector he’d signed up to be.
All the fighting and killing he’d done in the name of Ranvar, that had been a necessity, but he preferred to think of himself as a guardian, defending his family and of all the other families living under the Ranvarian flag, rather than someone who killed to order.
In truth, the people of Jaminikan were unlikely to cause Ranvar any trouble, but their intentions and his duty were not intended to mirror one another. He would stand on the wall whether there was a threat or not, whether it was night or day, cold or hot. Such was a soldier’s lot, to serve, to be sacrificed if required.
“Hey there, you look like you’re freezing your balls off.”
Rutga turned to see Private Mershwin approaching, carrying a mug of something steaming.
“Thought you could do with a hot drink.”
“It’s not so cold,” said Rutga. A sharp breezed whipped in between them, instantly drawing moisture to the tip of Rutga’s nose. He wiped it with the back of his gloved hand.
“You’re a sturdier man than me, then,” said Mershwin. “Have this, anyway. No point me carrying it back down.” He held out the mug.
Strictly speaking, it was against regulations. You weren’t supposed to eat or drink on duty, you were supposed to keep a constant lookout for the enemy. Vigilance did not take a break for beverages. But the fort was far from a place of danger and imminent attack. The whole western border of Ranvar was lined with timid nations falling over themselves to maintain good relations with their bigger, more powerful neighbour. Being stationed in any of the western border forts was considered a very comfortable assignment. It made no sense to be overzealous about the job when there was no call for it. The need to act would come soon enough.
“Thank you,” said Rutga, taking the drink. The heat from the mug immediately warmed his hands. He took a sip. Blackberry cordial. “Very nice.”
Mershwin smiled like he’d successfully completed his mission. He was a young man keen to make a good impression. Rutga had probably been the same at his age. It hadn’t really helped — you got the job you were best qualified for. That was why the Ranvar army was so much better than its neighbours’ troops. That and the dragons.
“I know it’s sort of against the rules,” said Mershwin, “but the commander doesn’t really mind as long we don’t overdo these things. We’re a pretty tight-knit bunch here, I think you’ll find. Like to keep an eye out for each other.” He smiled and looked up at the sky, stretching his young back that probably didn’t need it. “Where you posted before? Up in the mountains, wasn’t it?”
“That’s right,” said Rutga.
“Even colder there, I bet.”
“True, but you get used to it.”
“We all thought it was rather odd they only transferred a single man, but I suppose you put in a request, did you?”
The boy was a bit nosy, but harmless. “No, they needed me and some others to do a job. Once the work was complete, they sent us off where we were needed. I was hoping for somewhere a bit warmer, I have to admit.”
Rutga took another sip. The drink was rapidly losing heat to the night air. A little alcohol would have added more of a kick, but Private Mershwin was a considerate rule-breaker; a little over the line was okay but no more. Fortunately, the rest of the garrison weren’t quite so straight-laced or his job would be that much harder.
Mershwin laughed. “Well, it’s not so bad in the summer. Not much to do, though. It’s only a matter of time before we get called up to the Eastern Front with this Gweur thing going on.”
“Gweur thing?” said Rutga.
“You know, all this unrest and what have you. They say the eastern nations are preparing to attack, some sort of coordinated plan. I don’t see them getting very far, but they’ll probably outnumber us if they really are working together. And it’s not like we’re much use out here. Not exactly busy fighting off invaders.” Mershwin snorted and his shoulders shook with good humour. The boy was actually keen to join in the coming fight. He would probably change his tune once he saw a few friends lose their lives.
Rutga drained the mug, the last dregs cold as they entered his mouth, and handed the mug back. “You could be right, but I don’t think it would be wise to leave these borders unprotected.”
“You think the Jaminis would try something?” Mershwin pulled a face suggesting he thought it unlikely. “They’re not bad people, you know. Not violence in them.”
“Everyone has violence in them,” said Rutga, “under the right circumstances. An open border might tempt them, or at least some of them. Young men have a tendency to feel aggrieved no matter what society they are brought up in. Old men, too, in some cases. Just because they accept their position now, doesn’t mean they aren’t ready to exploit a chance to improve their standing.”
Mershwin nodded thoughtfully. “I guess you’re right. No point taking too many risks. And it’s not like we’re going to lose, even without the dragons.”
“What do you mean, without the dragons?” said Rutga, the word catching his ear. He looked up at the sky warily.
“You must have heard, about the dragons refusing to fly? No?”
“The dragons aren’t refusing to fly,” said Rutga. He had only recently returned to Ranvar and had been immediately posted here. What news he had heard had been mostly gossip and conjecture. This was the first he was hearing about non-compliant dragons.
Mershwin leaned closer and lowered his voice. “I saw a report on Commander Lefwas’ desk. I know I shouldn’t have, but it was open and it didn’t look very secret or anything. It definitely said all dragons were grounded until further notice.”
“I don’t think that can be true,” said Rutga. “What about those?”
He pointed at the moon. A silhouette that was very clearly of a dragon was flying across it.
“Oh my,” said Mershwin, looking up, his eyes shining in the moonlight, a delighted smile on his face. “Oh yes. I’ve never seen one flying at night before. So beautiful. I wonder where it’s—”
Rutga slipped the blade of his dagger between the vertebrae in the back of Mershwin’s neck and up into his skull, while placing his hand over the boy’s mouth. He gently lowered his limp body to the ground.
When his instructor had explained to him why he was so well-suited to the role of assassin, Rutga had tried to refuse the job. Just because he had the requisite skill and ability didn’t mean he relished the idea of taking another person’s life. On the battlefield was one thing, but to hunt someone and take them unawares… it took a certain kind of man to do that sort of thing.
Personally, he had hoped for something in the frontline where he could stand shoulder to shoulder with his fellow Ranvarians, forming a wall against the threats to the Ranvarian way of life.
His first assignment had been in a support role, little more than a delivery boy providing supplies for a small team sent to take care of a minor nobleman who was about to become a lot more powerful after the death of his ailing father. The son was erratic and full of rebelliousness, which was only natural for his age, but a concern for the stability of the region.
The primary team became compromised, the mage with them foolishly getting involved with one of the court ladies, and Rutga had stepped in to complete the job. It had been more luck than anything, but Rutga was good at spotting an opportunity when he saw one. That was his talent.
He did too good a job and was quickly enrolled as a full-time solo operative, a very vaunted position, at least within military circles. When he tried to refuse the assignment on the grounds that he didn’t enjoy taking lives, he was told that if only people who enjoyed murder were tasked with the job, there’d only be the insane and the cruel to choose from, and no army would want to rely on people like that. It did make a kind of sense.
Rutga left the body on the battlements and looked up as dragons swept across the sky, six in formation. They hardly looked real, more like clouds crossing the moon. The other men would mostly be in a stupor by now, the ale and beer spiked with a strong sleeping agent. The few left awake would be easy enough to dispatch. It wasn’t something he would enjoy, but their sacrifice would serve Ranvar in the end.
He headed into the fort where it was at least a little warmer.
Prince Ranade sat at the head of a long table feeling disturbed by current events. His ministers were seated on opposite sides of the table, forming a gauntlet of bad news. Usually, at these sorts of meetings, he would let them bicker among themselves and wait for an impression to form about what the real issues were and what was merely the normal humdrum preoccupation of each man.
They all had their own agendas which they were constantly trying to advance, sneaking in proposals in between the main discussion, as was to be expected. But not this time. There was only one topic to be discussed.
“We should attack them immediately and with our full force,” said War Minister Reshvay. “Crush them and give these other ingrates an idea of what they can expect.” The long whiskers of his moustache trembled with indignation.
“You forget we have no dragons to provide air support,” said Foreign Minister Kuplas.
“I forget nothing,” Reshvay blasted back. “We don’t need air support to deal with these peasant upstarts. Farmers and labourers, that’s all they are. Untrained, undisciplined. We’ll cut right through them. One of our men is worth a dozen of theirs.”
“They’ve been known to use magic,” said the Chief of Staff of the Secret Service, his golden mask in place. “I assume you haven’t forgotten that, also.”
“Of course I haven’t,” said Reshvay. “That’s what we have mages for, isn’t it? Don’t tell me you think these hoodlums using wild Arcanum can stand toe to toe with our mages. What do you think the Royal College has been doing all these years? We’ll annihilate them!” He slammed his fist on the table, making the small plates rattle.
“I am reluctant to use the mages unless there is no other option,” said Prince Ranade. All eyes turned to him.
It had been his wife who told him his legacy would be that of a great monarch who presided over the peaceful expansion of Ranvar’s influence. He had believed her. Things had been going so well, negotiations working much better than the covert shenanigans his father had favoured, mutual advantage forging stronger ties and closer alliances. Or so he thought.
His wife even told him they would erect a statue of him and it was important he look after his health. A fat statue would not be the legacy he wished to leave, would it?
Salads, the price of immortality.
Now, however, it seemed his legacy would be something entirely different. Everything was going wrong. Gweur was leading a revolt that was spreading, the dragons were unresponsive, demons were returning for the first time in millennia, and the mages… the mages were of questionable loyalty.
“You don’t trust the Archmage, my liege?” asked Kuplas.
“It is not a matter of trust,” said the prince. “Whatever is happening to the dragons is connected to Arcanum, which means it is connected to the mages. The Archmage may himself not be aware of exactly what is happening here. Putting the mages in front of this new magic… it may be what our opponents want us to do.”
“If I may,” said a voice from the far end of the table, “I agree with His Majesty.”
Heads turned towards the speaker, Mol Carmine, Acting-Minister of Instruction.
“Continue,” said Prince Ranade.
“From the information I’ve been able to gather,” continued Carmine, “much of what we’re seeing has been arranged very carefully and our response has been predicted and prepared for.”
“Such as the alliances formed between what we had believed to be rival nations?” asked Minister for the Interior Bol.
“Yes, I believe so,” said Carmine.
“And how is it we weren’t aware of these coalitions?” asked Minister Reshvay. “Did they suddenly spring up out of nowhere? Isn’t it your job to be aware of such realignments, acting-minister?”
“Be reasonable, Reshvay,” said Kuplas. “It’s hardly his fault, the man’s only been in the job a few weeks. If anyone dropped the ball here, it would be his predecessor.”
Reshvay made a harrumphing sound which set his moustache quivering again. “There were many aspects of Delcroix’s methods I might take issue with, but it would never cross my mind to question his diligence when it came to matters such as these. If it had happened on his watch, he would have been aware of it. I can only surmise these are recent events.”
“Or very old ones,” said Carmine, which drew the attention back to him. “If we know anything about the demons’ methods, it’s that they operate on a completely different time scale to us. A few thousand years means nothing to them. I can fully believe that whatever we’re seeing now is the culmination of plans laid long ago, slowly coming to fruition in tiny increments. Such is their way. We may not have been aware of it because it was already arranged by the time we thought to look for signs of collusion.”
Carmine had everyone’s full attention now. He seemed very comfortable holding court, the prince noted. A young man rising to the occasion, or another ambitious whelp hoping to jump the line?
“It would be foolish to be overconfident about our ability to handle these farmers and labourers,” continued Carmine. “If, as I suspect, they have been intentionally portrayed as mere yokels, it would indicate that they wish to lull us into a false sense of security. By studying us over the centuries, perhaps even encouraging us to be confident in our superiority, they will be fully aware of our tactics and methods. As His Majesty has suggested, bringing the Archmage and the other mages of the Royal College into the fight may well be part of this long-gestating plan. If the demons are behind the insurrection we are seeing — and I strongly believe that to be the case — then, they would need a way to deal with the mages. And from what I’ve seen of their work, they would be much more inclined to somehow use the mages for their own benefit rather than consider them as opponents to be defeated.
There was a long pause as the table considered this.
“Weren’t you supposed to deal with this by removing the key players in the Gweur uprising?” asked Reshvay.
“Yes,” said Carmine. “But I realised I was being manoeuvred into a trap, just as we may be now, and aborted the mission. If they were expecting us to mount a covert operation, they may have used it to embolden their followers and those not quite convinced. Exposing us as the terrible tyrants willing to take lives without remorse, and so on.”
“And what gave you this insight into the demons’ plans?” asked Reshvay. “I don’t recall seeing any of this in your reports. Have you been withholding information from us?”
“Not at all,” said Carmine. “I was actually fully-intending to carry out my mission as discussed, but a chance conversation made me realise the strategy being employed against us. It was similar to the one used by King Carthenon during the—”
“Yes, yes,” said Reshvay impatiently. “We don’t need a history lesson. I’m more interested in who this genius was you spoke to. Someone in your department? A sharp young mind I should be aware of?”
For all his flap and bluster, Reshvay had an astute mind and an eye for inconsistencies. It was what made him an excellent battle commander, one of the best Ranvar had ever had. If he felt there was something that needed ferreting out, he was probably right, even if it made Carmine feel uncomfortable. Carmine feeling uncomfortable was actually a good indicator that Reshvay was indeed onto something.
“No, no, nothing like that,” said Carmine. “As it happens, it was the boy.”
“The boy?” said Reshvay. “Which boy? Your boy? You have a boy?”
“The Tutt boy,” said Carmine, his lips spreading into a thin smile that seemed to cause him pain.
“When did you speak to him?” said Kuplas, his interest also piqued by who Carmine had advising him.
“No, no, you misunderstand. I was visiting a friend — my predecessor’s daughter, actually, to offer my condolences — and he happened to be there. It was a passing remark he made, about one of his lessons, I think, and it sparked the thought in my head, that was all. Completely coincidental.”
“And what did you make of young master Tutt?” asked Prince Ranade.
“Your Majesty? I’m not sure what you mean.”
“How did he strike you? I would appreciate your appraisal of the young man who seems to always be at the centre of recent events.”
“Well, if I may, I don’t really have very much to say on the subject. He seems bright and, to be perfectly frank, quite normal.”
“He can hardly be that, can he?” said Reshvay, practically spitting the words out. “Nobody normal would find themselves in the predicaments the boy has, let alone come out of them unscathed.”
“That is true,” said Carmine, “although it could be down to blind luck, or someone else manipulating the situation to make him appear to be a key element when he is only meant to serve as a distraction, it is hard to know. I had thought of bringing him in for a chat since, as Your Majesty says, he seems to be in the middle of things. A more thorough interrogation might yield more definitive answers.”
“No,” said Prince Ranade.
“You will not in any shape or form bother the boy.”
“As you wish,” said Carmine, bowing his head. “May I know why?”
“The van Dastan girl, the Archmage’s daughter. I gave her my word he would not be interfered with. If the Archmage does become a problem, she is the only one who can stand against him, certainly the only one he wouldn’t raise his hand to. She is a spirited child and very temperamental. She seems to have taken a liking to the boy, which is perfectly natural, and would be very upset if any of you began poking around as I know you are wont to do. He is to be left unmolested, do I make myself clear?”
There was a general murmur of acquiescence to his command. It appeared Carmine hadn’t been the only one with designs on Mr Tutt. The prince was tempted to summon the boy himself, just to see what all the fuss was about.
“Under no circumstances, not even an emergency. He is not to be troubled.” More noises of begrudging acquiescence. Sometimes it was necessary to issue an unambiguous edict so no mistakes were made. Emergencies could be manufactured as required by these men. “Now, as for the matter of these rebels.” There was some noise behind the prince. He stopped speaking and waited, knowing he was about to be interrupted.
A few seconds later, his aide, Monforth, appeared beside him and began whispering in his ear.
“Your Majesty, there has been some sort of attack at the border, details aren’t clear, but I think it would be wise if we moved you—”
Prince Ranade raised a hand to silence him. He could already see the flurry of activity around the Chief as his agents blurred in an out of place beside him, giving him a rapid briefing on the matter
For the average person, all they would see was a slight mist around the Chief, as though the fireplace chimney had become a little blocked and some smoke was filling the room. But the people in this room were not average and had the ability to make out the barely tangible agents moving around the chief — able to interact with him but not the rest of the room — bowing to speak in his ear, turning their masked faces to hear his instructions.
The Chief’s golden mask remained as implacable as always, but the prince sensed a tightening of the features beneath it.
“Chief?” said the prince.
The Chief of Staff stood up, waving away the smoke around him. He took off his mask, his face and whole demeanour instantly returning to his natural age. “Your Majesty, there has been a report of dragons crossing the western border.”
There was a ripple of alarmed murmurs around the table.
“Flying?” said the prince.
“Yes, my liege.”
“Where were they going?”
“No, sire. They weren’t leaving, they were entering our territory. These are not our dragons.”
“Are you saying they are enemy dragons?” said War Minister Reshvay.
“Yes. We believe the Gweur rebels are behind this.”
“Gweur?” said Foreign Minister Kuolas. “You said the western border.”
“Yes,” said the Chief. “The Gweur influence has spread further than we had thought.”
“And you’re sure about this?” asked Prince Ranade. “All the western forts have reported the same?”
“This isn’t a report from the defensive line,” said the Chief. “This came from my agents posted at the Ransom School.” More shocked murmuring. “It was confirmed by sightings made by my agents in the field. They were seen heading towards the capital, at least a dozen.”
“The school?” said Carmine. “What has the school to do with this?”
The Chief turned to face the acting-minister. “It was the Tutt boy. He alerted my men to the threat. A sneak attack made in the small hours from a completely unexpected direction. Why the forts didn’t report anything, we have you to determine.”
The boy once again, thought Prince Ranade. It was becoming clear he was going to play a vital part in events. Perhaps a private audience was called for. But that could wait.
“I want you to activate our anti-dragon contingencies immediately,” said the prince.
“I took the liberty of already giving the order, sire,” said the Chief.
“Good,” said the prince. “At least our preparations for rogue dragons will prove to have been wise despite the cost.”
It had been his father who had instigated the extremely expensive program to defend against dragons turning against their keepers. Had he known this would happen. The old man had always been remarkably prescient about such things. His advice now would have been most welcome. Perhaps that wasn’t such an impossible notion.
“There is a slight problem…” said the Chief.
“We have no idea where the dragons are now. They disappeared with the rising of the sun. We suspect they are in hiding, in preparation of a night assault.
“Hiding?” shouted a red-faced Reshvay. “The damn things are bloody huge. Let’s get some mages out there to act as beaters and flush the buggers out.”
“That might be a good idea,” said the prince. “Make your preparations and I’ll speak to the Archmage. Monforth, send for Archmage van Dastan, and send an escort to bring him back. We no longer have the luxury for dithering. Gentlemen.” He rose from his seat and the other men sprang to their feet. “Let’s meet back here in two hours.”
“Sire,” said the Chief, “your personal safety—”
“I’ll be perfectly safe in the palace,” said the prince, shooting a look at Monforth. Had he somehow slipped the Chief a message? It was the sort of thing he would do.
“Still, your personal guard should be reinforced, I feel.”
“Yes, yes, fine,” said the prince. “As long as they’re discreet about it. And the Tutt boy… increase the security around him also, but not overtly, that will only alert our enemies to his importance.” What was his importance? He would need to look into it more when he had time. When he didn’t have enemy dragons bearing down on the capital.
“Yes, sire. I will see to it immediately.” More smoke wafted around the Chief.
Prince Ranade turned and walked away, his gut telling him he needed to speak to someone more knowledgeable about the subject of dragons before he met with the Archmage. He just hoped the old man was in one of his more lucid moods.
Mol Carmine hurried to his waiting carriage and returned to the Ministry of Instruction while the other ministers held an impromptu conference among themselves. His portfolio did not involve the defence of the realm, not directly, at least. They wouldn’t miss his input, or even ask for it.
The Tutt boy’s involvement had come as something of a surprise, and his instincts told him this would not be the last time the name cropped up. His initial attempt to secure the boy for a ‘chat’ had also been correct. If not for the Archmage’s daughter, he could have mined the boy for information himself. Finding out through the Chief of Staff did his cause no good whatsoever.
“I’m not to be disturbed for the next twenty minutes,” he said to Stodar as he entered his office.
“You have a—”
“Yes, yes, I know,” he said, cutting off his assistant. The man was efficient and competent, but Mol couldn’t shake the feeling his predecessor’s staff — especially this man — had yet to fully accept him as their new commander. Things would need changing once he lost the ‘acting’ tag.
In his office, a man in dress uniform was standing by the window, staring out like he was basking in the sunshine, had there been any on this overcast morning.
“You have failed your mission, it seems, Rutga.”
Rutga turned and hurried to stand by the desk as Mol took his seat behind it.
“Sir? I completed my mission as ordered. Fort Neera was neutralised before anyone could raise the alarm.”
“Yes, you’re right. I’m a little tense at the moment, please forgive the unwarranted accusation. What I should have said was that we have failed in securing our objective. If anyone is at fault here, it is I. For not following my instincts and removing a possible problem before it could become a problem.” He shook his head.
“Is there something I can do to rectify the situation?” asked the old soldier, always ready to take action rather than dwell on failure. A good man.
“Yes, actually, there is. I want you to go to the Ransom School. There’s someone I want you to seek out there.”
Prince Ranade stood outside his father’s bedroom with his Royal Physician, Doctor Uajel. He was a thin man, slightly stooped from age or worry, it was hard to say.
“He’s been remarkably lucid so far this morning,” said the doctor. “Remembered my name and called me a few new ones.” He flashed a grim smile, a man under a great burden. He has been personally treating the king since his breakdown, and the old man wasn’t a very cooperative patient even before that.
“I only need a few minutes with him,” said Prince Ranade.
“As you wish, sire. I can’t promise you he’ll be very receptive, but you are certainly welcome to try.” He stepped forward and opened the door.
The prince turned his head and said, “Wait here,” to the otherwise empty room.
The room was dark, the curtains drawn and the blinds closed. His father’s ailment made his eyes particularly sensitive to light, although it wasn’t hard to find him even in the shadows. His eyes were burning a fierce blue.
“Father? It’s Ranade.”
There was the noise of chains rattling. “Ranade?” said a husky voice. “My boy?”
“Come closer, let me have a good look at you. Yes. You look so fine and fit, my boy.”
“Thank you, Father.”
“I remember you were such a fat child. Always demanding sweets from the servants. That poor nanny of yours, whatever happened to her?”
“She is retired, Father. She lives in Wallsham, in a cottage I gave her.”
“Yes, Father. She writes to my wife occasionally, with advice. I often suspect the two of them are in league against me.”
“Ha, a fine woman, a handsome woman. The only one to refuse your demands. I remember how you would demand she be replaced, but your mother wouldn’t hear of it.”
“No, she made her my governess.”
“Ha, yes, that’s right. Gave her permission to beat you. Did she?”
“No, sir. She only threatened to.”
“Good woman. I loved her, you know?”
“No, you impertinent boy. Your mother. I loved her greatly.”
“Yes, Father, I know. I came to ask your advice on matters of state.”
“Ah, how goes the running of the kingdom? Still sitting on the throne, or have one of your brothers ousted you?”
He did seem lucid, far more than usual. Even his most clearheaded moments tended to be filled with abstract moments. Today, he sounded like his old, mean-spirited self.
“Yes, Father, for the time being. We are having an issue with the dragons. They are refusing to fly, or eat, or follow any instructions.” Ranade stood by the bed, his hand on the post holding up the canopy housing his father’s frail but dangerous body. His eyes were accustomed enough to the gloom to make out some of the features on the old man’s withered face.
“Dragons? Ask the Archmage, that’s his provenance. Grayshall loves the beasts, feeds the exotic meats he says will keep their scales shiny. Ha!”
Archmage Grayshall had been the previous head of the Royal College, dead for over thirty years.
“It’s van Dastan now, sir. And I’m afraid he isn’t all that coherent on the subject. Says the link between the dragons and the other place has been severed. I had no idea there was even a link.”
“Not possible,” said the king. “Not possible. That would break the covenant, if the demons were to seal the dragons they gave us. Not possible.” It sounded like he was losing focus, his voice drifting.
“What if it wasn’t the demons’ doing but our own?” Ranade said quickly, sensing he was working with limited time.
“Yes, that’s their way, get us to do it to ourselves.” There was a chortle in the darkness. “Bring us to our knees without raising a finger.” More throaty laughs.
“Other dragons have been seen, in the possession of our enemies
“Not possible, not possible,” said the king. “Also against the covenant. No shadow dragons.”
“Vile beasts, prisoners of the night. They can’t exist in the daylight.”
“Where do they go when the sun rises?” asked the prince.
“Where do dreams go when you wake? They live in your mind, do not think of them.” His voice had turned stern. “Put all such thoughts aside.” He was barking instructions now.
“Yes, Father. I will. Is there any way to kill them during the day?”
“I told you, they cease to exist. How do you kill that which is not? Ignore them and they cannot harm you. They will not come, the demons vowed it, it is in the covenant.”
“They have come, Father, they are here.”
“Then find them and chase them away. The demons are bound by their word to not interfere.”
Find them? How? Perhaps the person who saw them arrive might know where they were now.
“Thank you, Father. I shall let you rest.”
“She won’t let you, you know, won’t let you.”
“That nanny of yours. Won’t let you have any more sweets, your tantrums won’t do you any good. Handsome woman. Proud, like that trout I caught that time, do you remember? Sparkled, it did. Fought like a monster and sparkled.” The king’s voice drifted off into mumbling.
Prince Ranade quietly left the room.
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