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A Courtship of Dragons

 

A

COURTSHIP

of

DRAGONS

~ A Dragonlands Romance ~

 

 

BECCA LUSHER

 

 

 

 

All characters and events in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

 

Copyright © Becca Lusher 2017

Cover design Copyright © Becca Lusher

Except: Dragon Silhouettes Copyright © [+ Freepik+]

 

Shakespir Edition

1st Edition

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people.

It was intended as a free gift from this author to the readers. If you would like to share this book with another person, please download an additional copy for each recipient or go to beccalusher.com to find out where you can read it for free online.

Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

 

 

 

[]Table of Contents

 

A Courtship of Dragons

Introduction

1. The Daisy

2. Rock Cakes

3. The Dinner Bell

4. Banquet I

5. Banquet II

6. Banquet III

7. Humming

8. Tea

9. Elder Blazeborn

10. The Morning After

11. Making a Meal of Things

12. Sigh

13. Smooth Awakening

14. Sleeper Awakes

15. The Second Gift

16. A Gift of Meaning

17. Chores

18. Pout

19. Rainstorm

20. Courage

21. Thoughts

22. Shells

23. Gossip

24. Run

25. The Cavern

26. Breathe

27. Talk

28. Well…

29. Party

30. Two Sides…

31. Cooking

32. Fifth Gift

33. Dinner

34. Rose

35. My Precious

36. Wooden Heart

37. Delay

38. Waiting

39. ARGH!

40. Surrender

41. Enough

42. Scales

43. Tease

44. Risk

45. Fury

46. Um…

47. Water Awakening

48. Goryal’s Gift

49. The Seventh Gift

50. Love

 

Overworld Terms

Blazing Dawn

Storm Rising

Wingborn

About the Author

 

 

 

 

~ ~ ~

To love and friendship.

For the romantics and the sceptics,

the shy ones and the deep ones,

the jokers and the anxious.

To light-hearted smiles and warm-hearted hugs.

To companionship and knowing that even if you don’t fit

the mould, you don’t have to be alone.

Embrace your differences,

and may you be blessed to find those who will embrace you.

~ ~ ~

 

 

 

[]Introduction

h1={color:#000;}.

WELCOME TO THE Overworld, or more precisely, the Dragonlands. For those who aren’t familiar with it, the Overworld has been cursed by Gods to be covered in clouds, drowning the lowlands and oceans and leaving mountaintops as isolated islands. The reasons for this have been lost over the centuries, but tension still remains between humans and dragons over who was at fault. (The dragons blame the humans, the humans can’t remember, the Gods aren’t talking.)

Not that any of that is particularly relevant to this book, it’s just a bit of background as to why my travellers are holed up in the mountains during the Storm Season.

If you are familiar with the Overworld, and the DRAGONLANDS series in particular, then this story is set a few weeks after the events of Blazing Dawn. You don’t have to have read that book to enjoy this, although it will have introduced you to all the necessary characters.

Chief amongst them being Estenarven kin Boulderforce Clan Stoneheart and Mastekh kin Rainstorm Clan Flowflight, my two young dragons, whose courtship this book is about.

If you’re familiar with the Overworld because of the WINGBORN series, then this is set about two hundred years before Mhysra and co, back when dragons still interacted with humans and women were still part of the Rift Riders. Although the focus in this book is primarily on my young dragons, a few Rift Riders do make appearances, along with a few other characters from Blazing Dawn.

So whether you’re a frequent visitor to these lands or new to the whole place… Welcome! I hope you enjoy this sweet little romance between a watery, anxious dragon and the stone stubborn Boulderforce who loves him. And hopefully I’ll see you around this world again soon.

 

 

 

 

[]1

The Daisy

h1={color:#000;}.

Highstrike, Tempestfury Kinlands

2nd Storm Month, 579 Cloud Era

THERE WAS A flower on his pillow.

Mastekh kin Rainstorm Clan Flowflight paused just inside the narrow chamber he’d been assigned for this unplanned but necessary stay with kin Tempestfury. Beyond the narrow window slit, the Storm Season raged in all its fury, filling the sky with force and making it impossible for most dragons and skyships to fly. Safely inside and protected from the weather, Mastekh clutched his recipe book to his chest and cautiously approached the bed.

It was narrow and carved from stone, in the traditional draconic style, but the blankets were thickly woven wool and the pillows were plush and soft and smelled like goosedown. Not that he spared much attention for the furnishings as he reached out a cautious hand towards the flower.

Small and straggly, it was a weed. A plain, common weed with bright white petals overlapping and crowding around a sunshine-yellow centre. The whole thing was barely the size of his thumbnail, with a dark green stalk trailing forlornly below in search of roots it could no longer feel.

A daisy.

Mastekh pinched the stalk between thumb and finger and raised it slowly towards his nose. He breathed in deep: meadows, sunshine and Estenarven.

Sighing, he smiled and held the flower up before his eyes, twirling it first one way, then the other, thinking about the big, broad-shouldered Boulderforce dragon and the way his bright smile softened whenever Mastekh came near.

And who had once kissed him as though Mastekh was the very air he needed to breathe.

A kiss and a rescue. Wonderment and joy. Strength from weakness.

That had been ten days ago and there hadn’t been any sign of anything more since.

Estenarven hadn’t been ignoring Mastekh exactly, but he hadn’t sought him out either, and Mastekh had never been the sort to make the first move. Or any move really. They had both been busy and Mastekh had begun to think it was a one off, a mistake, a case of excited emotions overwhelmed by the moment.

He twirled the daisy again, this common little weed that flourished everywhere, including strange, out of the way places and brought a splash of sunshine inside on this gloomiest of days. A little ray of hope.

Something bubbled up inside him and he tucked the daisy behind his ear, flopping onto the bed to crack open the recipe book and flip through the pages. So many delicious treats and delicacies awaited him inside, but he already knew what he wanted to prepare next.

Rock cakes.

Grinning, Mastekh brushed his thumb over the soft petals beside his ear and studied how best to begin wooing a Boulderforce.

 

 

 

 

[]2

Rock Cakes

h1={color:#000;}.

ESTENARVEN KIN BOULDERFORCE Clan Stoneheart was hungry. It wasn’t quite time for dinner yet, but he’d missed lunch – and breakfast, now that he thought about it. His day had been all go since before dawn, when a particularly nasty storm had struck the Skylark, threatening to throw the human ship from the sky and into the cursed Cloud Sea below.

Obeying the orders of Elder Blazeborn, Estenarven had done his best to bolster the ship and keep it airborne while Mastekh and Jesral kin Lightstorm Clan Skystorm had gone ahead with Elder Goryal in search of sanctuary and shelter.

Which was how they’d ended up here: Highstrike, home of kin Tempestfury. A rocky, spiky, exposed and unforgiving tower that dug deep into the crag it had been built upon, while the steep ravine below provided shelter for both dragons and skyships alike. It wasn’t a place Estenarven would have personally chosen to visit or stay in, but so far the Tempestfury dragons had been welcoming and it was an easy enough place to learn his way around.

Getting the Skylark to Highstrike had been only the start of his busy day. The rest had been spent moving Elder Blazeborn’s things to his suite, unpacking the blankets, quilts and oddities that would make the elder feel at home without Khennik even noticing they were there. Then Estenarven had met up with the other aides to ensure that they all knew exactly how best to serve their elders in this new environment.

Estenarven was exhausted, quite frankly, and his stomach was threatening to take his legs hostage if he didn’t do something about its emptiness soon. Honestly, anyone would think he was still a dragonling, needing five big meals a day. He was old enough that one meal should suffice, but he was a big Boulderforce – even in human shape – and he had been rather busy. No one would begrudge him a mid-afternoon snack to tide him over.

The trouble was, in order to have said snack, Estenarven would have to trudge down fifteen floors to reach the kitchen and, even though it was all downhill, he couldn’t quite face the exertion. Which was why he opted to find his room instead.

Situated off the main area of Elder Blazeborn’s suite, Estenarven’s temporary quarters weren’t much to write home about. He had a bed, a tall, narrow window, a tiny alcove that some might optimistically described as a dressing area and a wash basin with its own hot and cold water taps. It wasn’t exactly spacious, and too small by far for him to assume his native form inside it, but it would do. He’d had worse and at least he didn’t have to share it with anyone.

Although, he wouldn’t necessarily mind sharing with Mastekh – if only the bed was bigger. Estenarven eyed the item in question, doubtful he could fit into it on his own, let alone share it with anyone else. True, he was on the larger size of the kin and Clan scale, but Tempestfury’s were hardly small. There was no excuse for such puny furniture.

Oh well, he would make the best of it. He usually did.

Filling his basin with warm water, Estenarven washed his face and ran some cold water into his hands for a drink. His stomach gurgled in anticipation before rumbling its disappointed opinion of such a weak offering.

It was no use, he’d have to visit the kitchens. If not he might start eyeing the furniture and none of it was really big enough for him to pick off a piece here and there. Besides, as a Boulderforce Clan Stoneheart, some might deem a little pebble nibbling to be cannibalism.

Chuckling, Estenarven straightened his dark grey robe and left his room, wanting to check Elder Blazeborn’s things one last time before visiting the kitchens.

Warm, sweet, sugary goodness stopped him in his tracks.

Estenarven paused in the doorway, head raised like a hunting hound. He sniffed the air, wondered if he was imagining things and sniffed again.

Food. There was food in the room. Fresh and warm and delicious.

Following his nose, he walked cautiously forward. Knowing his luck this would be a welcome gift intended for the elder – which he wouldn’t be allowed to touch. Except there wasn’t a hint of spice to the scent, nothing fiery or remotely tempting for a Sunlord.

No, this treat was sweet. Not the usual fare one might use to coax a Stoneheart from his lair either, but the perfect fodder for this particular Boulderforce.

As he crossed the room, he was drawn to the seating area, where a series of chairs and settees had been arranged to promote conversation. Estenarven didn’t care about any of that, all that mattered was the table he could now see over the back of the nearest settee.

There was a platter. A stone platter piled high with chunky, round, fist-sized cakes. Flecks of dried fruit showed in one, melted spots of chocolate in another, another was dusted with sugar and icing. They were golden and bulging, and by the Family, he couldn’t resist any longer.

Jumping over the back of the seat, Estenarven landed in a crouch before the table. He reached for the platter, hesitated and glanced over his shoulder.

Nothing stirred. No one moved. He was alone.

He touched the edge of the platter and paused again, sniffing cautiously. Cakes, sweet, tempting and delicious, underlain with the faintest hint of dampness and pond lilies.

Mastekh.

Chuckling with delight, Estenarven snatched the topmost cake and took an enormous bite. He groaned, shoving the rest of the morsel into his bulging cheeks. There was nothing dainty or delicate about these cakes. They were thick and heavy and doughy.

Rock cakes. Proper rock cakes. The way they should be baked. The way a Stoneheart would make them. And packed with additional sweetness.

Snatching up the platter, Estenarven clutched them protectively to his chest and stood up, looking around the room again. Empty. Still.

Estenarven chewed his delicious mouthful and glanced at the door on the opposite side of the suite from his own. It was closed. If it had been open even the smallest crack he might have approached, but it wasn’t. Probably for the best. He still had fifteen cakes to scoff and right now his manners weren’t at their best.

Hording his prize like an ancient drake of old, Estenarven hurried back to his room where he could enjoy himself in peace.

Halfway there, the main door of the suite clicked open. Estenarven paused, the second cake already on the way to his open mouth.

Elder Blazeborn swept inside in a swirl of bronze silk, heat and fiery power. Golden eyes fixed upon Estenarven and slowly dropped to the platter held protectively close to his chest. His gaze narrowed as Estenarven unconsciously hunched his shoulders inwards, turning slightly away to better conceal his prize.

The elder’s lips twitched. “Hungry, Estenarven?”

Feeling half-foolish, half-defiant, Estenarven cleared his throat. “A little,” he replied, voice thick with the first cake he’d devoured.

Elder Blazeborn snorted. “Carry on then.” He waved him away and Estenarven didn’t hesitate to obey. Any longer beneath those knowing golden eyes and his manners would have prompted him to offer the other dragon a cake, which would be awful.

These rock cakes were his. Mastekh had made them for him.

Scuttling into his room like a dragonling after a kitchen raid, Estenarven shut the door by leaning back against it and shoved a cake into his mouth.

Sibling Stone, that tasted good. Chocolate and sugar and doughy goodness. Nothing could compare to this. He slid down the door, propped the plate on his knees and methodically worked his way through the stack.

After his sixth cake, he paused. Now that the sharpest edge had been taken off his hunger, he studied the seventh offering. He could still smell water lilies, a little more strongly now that the cakes had cooled and were no longer overwhelming his olfactory senses with temptation.

Mastekh had made these for him.

Mastekh had been thinking of him.

While it was true his fellow aide did enjoy cooking, especially for Elder Blazeborn – using his newfound skills to try and win the fiery dragon’s favour – he’d never baked rock cakes before. He’d never made anything without the sole intent of pleasing their elder.

He’d never made anything for Estenarven.

Until now.

Nibbling on his seventh cake, Estenarven rested his head back against the door and smiled.

The daisy must have worked.

Placing the remains of the cake on the platter, Estenarven licked his fingers and put the rest of his treats aside. He crawled across the floor and pulled a small travelling chest out from beneath the bed.

For ten whole days the kiss he’d shared with Mastekh had been all he could think about, but storm winds, troublesome dragons and aide duties had left him little time for action. Until he saw the daisy.

It had been a feeble effort at best, a spur of the moment decision when they’d paused overnight inside a small ravine surrounded by empty meadows. He wasn’t even sure that Mastekh cared about him. They’d grown close while working together to look after Elder Blazeborn, but although the kiss had been an enjoyable joint effort, Mastekh had shown no signs of following up on it. He’d barely been able to look Estenarven in the face since.

Then again, Mastekh was so shy and nervy that this wasn’t necessarily a new development and might have had nothing whatsoever to do with the kiss.

But perhaps it had. Perhaps the kiss had overwhelmed him as much as it had Estenarven and now his dear little Puddle was at a loss for how to act next. Estenarven certainly was. Which was why he’d picked the daisy. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, especially as duties had kept Estenarven too busy to worry about it ever since he’d stolen a brief moment to lay it on Mastekh’s pillow.

Now rock cakes.

Estenarven took another bite and opened his chest, digging through his meagre collection of belongings in search of the small box he’d been certain had been left on the top.

No matter, he soon found it, nestled inside a screwed-up blanket. He cracked open the lid and smiled at the contents.

If the last ten days had taught Estenarven anything it was that Mastekh was not his usual type of lover, not someone as bold and brash as himself, unafraid to take what they both wanted without always needing to ask.

No, Mastekh was quiet, he was sweet, he was shy. He wasn’t a taker, nor was he one to be flattered by sudden demands.

He needed to be coaxed, wooed, won.

He needed to be courted.

Smiling, Estenarven shut the box and ran his fingers thoughtfully over the top.

Let the gifting games begin.

 

 

 

 

[]3

The Dinner Bell

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MASTEKH HAD WOUND himself into a fine state by the time the bell rang for dinner. Anxiety pinched high and tight inside his chest as he paced the narrow confines of his room. He knew such restless movement wasn’t helping, but sitting still was worse.

What had he done? Oh, what had he done?

Courting a Boulderforce, him? What had come over him? How did one even go about courting a Boulderforce anyway?

Mastekh paced and wrung his hands, wondering if he’d done the right thing or made a terrible mistake. Had Estenarven liked the cakes? What if he’d hated them? It could be the sand bread all over again, when he’d tried so hard to impress Elder Blazeborn and got it terribly wrong.

Maybe Estenarven hated him now. After all, rock cakes weren’t normally made with chocolate or so much sugar. But Estenarven loved sweet things. Yet rock cakes were supposed to be savoury. What right had he to change an ancient Stoneheart recipe?

And what business did a puny little Rainstorm have in courting a Boulderforce anyway?

Did Estenarven even know they were a courting gift?

Sibling Water, he couldn’t cope with this. His heart was beating triple time and he was only pacing his room.

Breathe, he counselled himself. Breathe.

It was unlikely that Estenarven thought it was a courting gift anyway. He probably thought it was just something Mastekh had made while bored.

Whoever heard of a Flowflight and a Stoneheart anyway? While other Clans might mix romantically with different dragons without a second thought, ever since the Curse had covered the lowlands of the world in a thick layer of clouds, Flowflights had kept to themselves. With so many of their kin lost in the water beneath the Curse, they had pulled inwards, determined not to dilute their diminished bloodlines any further. Romances were frowned upon, mate-alliances refused. Flowflights had learnt to keep to their own.

Oh, but…

Mastekh shook his head and wrung his hands, feeling them starting to drip. He was loosing control. He couldn’t lose control, not in here. His hold on his human form was improving every day, but stress made it worse and he’d always had trouble focusing. If he wasn’t careful his thoughts tended to spiral and when they went down, they went all the way down into the depths of anxiety and worry and oh, oh, oh —

“S-stop it!” he hissed at himself, standing still and closing his eyes.

He couldn’t lose control in here. The room wasn’t big enough. If he gave into his fears his human skin would slide off like oil over water and he’d be left cramped and cursing and embarrassed in a room too small to hold him.

Deep breath. In… and out.

He had to remind himself that the pinch in his chest was just anxiety, not a heart attack. Though he wouldn’t be surprised if he did worry himself into a heart attack one of these days. It was so hard to breathe at times.

Oh, no. Oh, no! He couldn’t breathe!

Stop.

He clenched his damp fists and forced his heavy tail to vanish again, settling down his rippling skin and pulling in all of the water that kept trying to escape.

He was stronger than this. Better than this.

Elder Blazeborn expected better. Mastekh would be better.

Allowing a shaking breath to escape his tight lips, he opened his eyes and sighed. Much better.

“Mastekh?” Elder Blazeborn called from the room beyond. “Are you coming to dinner?”

Oh no, oh no, he was making the elder wait.

Panic swept over him again as a knock sounded on his door.

Oh, oh, he hated being a bother. He hated being late. It was so rude, so terribly rude.

He wrenched open the door and barrelled out, bubbling apologies – and slammed straight into a wall.

A wall which shifted so that two strong hands could grip Mastekh by the elbows, holding him steady when he would otherwise have reeled backwards.

“Oh!” He looked up into a dark face and beautiful, laughing black eyes.

A slow smile spread across Estenarven’s mouth. “Hello, Puddle.”

Mastekh gulped and the anxiety melted inside his chest, warmth seeping in where there had only previously been cold. “Hello, P-Pebble,” he whispered.

“I’ll go on ahead, shall I?” Elder Blazeborn muttered, seemingly aware that no one was paying him the least bit of attention.

The sound of the door thumping shut made Mastekh jump. Estenarven tightened his grip on his elbows – and that was when Mastekh noticed where his own hands were.

On Estenarven’s chest.

Not just on the dark silk robe the other dragon wore, but on his chest. Because Estenarven was careless with how he tied his sash and didn’t much care if he left a lot of skin showing. Mastekh didn’t much care either because Estenarven’s chest was like the rest of him – broad and sturdy and strong and smooth, so smooth. Warm too, with a hint of softness that was missing in the Boulderforce’s much larger and more solid native form.

As a dragon he lived up to his kin name, but as a human he had a little give in his strong muscles. Which Mastekh couldn’t help but notice as he stared straight ahead at where his fingers were flexing… and squeezing.

A low rumble hummed against his hands: Estenarven was laughing.

“Oh!” Mastekh snatched his hands away, staring down at them as if they belonged to someone else, a mortified blush rushing to his face. “I’m s-s-sorry.”

“Don’t apologise, Puddle,” Estenarven chuckled again, grabbing Mastekh’s hand before he could scuttle back inside his room and bolt the door for eternity. “Never apologise for touching me. You can do it a bit more later if you like, but sadly we don’t have time for that now.”

Mastekh could only blink as the other dragon towed him towards the door.

“The banquet,” Estenarven explained, smiling at Mastekh’s blank face. “Elder Blazeborn is expecting us.”

“Oh.” This time he couldn’t hide his disappointment inside the small but eternally adaptable sound. He flexed his fingers inside of Estenarven’s and felt a warm, reassuring, wonderful squeeze in return.

Chuckling again, Estenarven pulled Mastekh out into the corridor. “We’ll talk later,” he promised, brushing a brief yet astonishing kiss across Mastekh’s knuckles.

Heat rushed to his face again, but Mastekh didn’t mind so much this time and spent the rest of the walk through the halls of Highstrike grinning like a fool.

 

 

 

 

[]4

Banquet I

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KIN TEMPESTFURY WERE a lively bunch. Especially during the Storm Season, when their powers were high and they seized upon any excuse to throw a party. Hence this banquet, which had been dragged together at short notice to welcome the human ambassador, her Rift Rider guard and the dragon delegation assigned to accompany them throughout the Dragonlands.

Estenarven had visited a few dragon courts in his three and a bit centuries of life, but he’d rarely seen any quite as relaxed as this one. A high table stood at the head of the great hall, where the dragon elders, ambassador and Rider captain were seated alongside the Elder of kin Tempestfury with a certain air of formality. The rest of the hall was taken up with long tables, a hundred Rift Riders and nearly three hundred dragons, all talking at once, reaching over each other for food and frequently swapping seats in search of a more interesting conversation.

He loved it. This was just his sort of night. Good food, even better wine and friendly people: what more could a dragon ask for?

Well, a seat closer to Mastekh might have been nice. Not that Estenarven wasn’t enjoying his present companions. He’d been seated next to two Rider lieutenants, Anhardyne and Vish, who were a lot like him – loud, friendly and frequently flirty. Estenarven had liked them both from the moment they’d met and any dinner spent next to them was bound to pass in laughter and merriment. It was just a shame that Mastekh had been seated with the other lieutenants on the opposite side of the table. One that was wide enough to support Estenarven in natural form and currently piled high with all kinds of delicious food – which had the unfortunate effect of obstructing his view.

They were unable to share anything more than the occasional glance between platters, but Estenarven had still managed a fair few at the beginning of the evening, wondering how long it would take before the seat beside Mastekh was empty. However, as time progressed, he noted the way the humans were taking care of his Puddle and started to relax. Mastekh would be safe with Nera and Gharrik. They were quiet and steady and would never drink too much or let the nervous dragon be overwhelmed by unwanted company.

Unlike Estenarven’s side of the table.

“A toast!” Anhardyne shouted, seated on Vish’s lap, her stone goblet raised high. Whether there was much wine left in it, Estenarven was highly doubtful, but he still admired the fine sight the human pair made. She was tawny and gold, her fine blonde hair like a cloud around her head. Vish, by contrast, was dark and brown, with long eyelashes that he fluttered in his lover’s direction to make Anhardyne laugh.

“To love and friendships and wine and song!” Anhardyne’s words raised a rousing cheer and she leant towards Estenarven, goblet first. “Drink, drink!” she urged, almost dropping the whole lot in his lap as Vish reeled her back in.

“Leave the dragon room to breathe, Hardy. You’ll never gain his attention that way.”

Catching the goblet before it could soak him, Estenarven grinned and raised it in response to Vish’s flirty wink. Once he might have taken them up on their not-so-subtle offer. Rumour had it that neither human minded too much who shared their bed, as long as they all had fun, and it seemed that even after the pair of them had finally given into their mutual attraction and formed a partnership, they were still open to offers, so long as both of them could partake.

He would have been tempted not too long ago. They were tall and athletic and exuberant – everything that Estenarven had revelled in since gaining control of his wings and changes. But their kind of fun no longer seemed so appealing, and all because of the small dragon sitting hunched up on the other side of the table. Estenarven stared at Mastekh until he looked up, raised the goblet in a silent toast and held Mastekh’s eyes as he drained every last drop, slowly licking the last few from his lips.

The Rainstorm flushed green with embarrassment and looked away, pretending to be interested in something Lieutenant Nera had to say.

A drunken giggle drew his attention to find both Vish and Anhardyne watching him with knowing smirks.

“You do like a challenge, don’t you?” Anhardyne snickered, closing her eyes as Vish ran his fingers up the back of her head, spreading them through her hair.

“I’m pretty sure those are the only ones worth having,” the second Rider chuckled as Anhardyne pressed into his hand, practically purring.

True enough. Estenarven reached across the table for the wine jug and refilled goblets for them all. “To worthy challenges,” he said, raising his drink.

“And rewards well won,” Anhardyne agreed, smiling slyly as she tapped her goblet against his.

Now that was definitely something he could drink to. He smiled and sat back, ready to make the most of whatever else the evening had to offer.

 

 

 

 

[]5

Banquet II

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MASTEKH HATED BANQUETS. They were always so noisy, so full of people, so full of food. Sitting hunched in his chair, he stared at the soup in front of him. It was cold. It had to be by now. Soup had been the first course, the only one brought in by the draco servants. The rest of the food had been piled in the middle of the table for all and sundry to serve themselves with as much or as little as they liked, while extra dishes were added as and when they were needed.

Mastekh hadn’t eaten any of it. He couldn’t. He was too edgy, his stomach a mass of confusion and anxiety.

Estenarven sat directly opposite him, across the wide expanse of tabletop, laughing and completely at ease. As well he might be in a crowd such as this; the Boulderforce was naturally gregarious and always popular. Lieutenants Anhardyne and Vish were seated next to him and they made quite the striking trio – young, beautiful, tall – but where the humans were slender and lithe, Estenarven was broad and dark and —

Oh, dear. Mastekh sighed and stared down at his untouched soup. He felt like that soup: cold, colourless and utterly unappetising. Why would Estenarven ever want him when he had such a rich feast available?

Rumour had told him all about the young Boulderforce long before Estenarven had been assigned to Elder Blazeborn as an aide in punishment for playing too roughly with humans. Mastekh cast him another glance and sighed again. It seemed little had changed, since Estenarven appeared as eager as ever to play with the Riders.

Not that Mastekh could blame him. Humans were vibrant and fun, and those two in particular were extremely flirtatious. And more. Mastekh had heard rumours about them too. Their reputations for excitement and experimentation more than matched Estenarven’s before Mastekh had ever met him. The dragons of Teirenlai had had only good things to say about the Boulderforce in all areas.

Mastekh shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He wasn’t a prude, nor was he shocked or even surprised. He was a Rainstorm and Flowflight dragons were known for being fluid in most aspects of their nature, be it relationships, gender or sexual preferences. Flowflights rarely settled forever in anything. But sitting in that hall, watching Estenarven flirt rather outrageously with the humans, Mastekh felt young and inexperienced and small.

He may have grown up a Rainstorm, but attraction was new to Mastekh. He’d always known he wasn’t like his other clutch mates and fellow fledglings. He’d never been attracted to them, couldn’t imagine ever being intimate with any of them. He’d thought he wasn’t much that way inclined. It happened, even amongst the fluid Flowflights, and he’d been happy enough with that thought. After all, he could barely make it through the day without spontaneously melting into a puddle, so throwing romantic entanglements into the mix would surely only make things worse.

Not that anyone would ever choose to get involved with him. Why would they? He could barely stand his own company, so why would anyone else ever choose to willingly spend time with him?

But Estenarven…

Mastekh was staring again. He couldn’t help it. Estenarven was everything he wasn’t. People wanted to be close to him, and who could blame them? It wasn’t just that the Boulderforce was handsome, it wasn’t even that he was friendly. There was just something about him that made Mastekh feel safe, made him feel calm, and that wasn’t anything he’d ever encountered before. No one had ever made Mastekh feel safe, no one had ever quieted the doubts and fears that constantly warred and chattered inside his head.

With Estenarven he could breathe.

But that was selfish. What could Mastekh possibly have to offer in return?

Feeling miserable, he stared across the table as a laughing Anhardyne picked up something sticky with sauce and pressed it to Estenarven’s lips. The Boulderforce opened without hesitation, licking her fingers clean afterwards.

Mastekh stopped breathing.

Dark eyes flickered his way, shimmering with the pale blue of the surrounding glow globes.

Mastekh dropped his gaze, fists clenching in his lap. He had no right to feel this way. No right at all.

But the daisy…

He’d baked rock cakes…

Nothing had been said. No promises exchanged. Even if Estenarven had kissed him, there had been no vows offered, no words given. If there was even anything between them, it didn’t mean they were exclusive. Estenarven was a free dragon; he owed Mastekh nothing. Kisses weren’t anything to get flustered over.

He looked up, blinking away a wash of tears and found the seats opposite now empty.

They’d gone then. Vish, Anhardyne, Estenarven. Off to have even more fun together somewhere secluded and private. Mastekh wished them well of their evening, even if his chest felt hollowed out and his heart trampled beneath their carefree feet.

“They don’t mean anything by it.” A soft voice drew his attention sideways.

Mastekh tilted his head the tiniest fraction to see Lieutenant Nera watching him with compassionate dark eyes. Mastekh twitched his head away, unable to bear her pity, barely holding himself together.

He felt like ice, cold and frozen, but knew that ice was just a thin layer over the roiling waters beneath. If he moved too much or too fast, the ice would crack and all the hurt and fears and unworthiness would come flooding out. He’d lose control and embarrass everyone. He had to hold on. He couldn’t afford to crack.

“It’s only flirting,” Nera continued, her voice low beneath the babble of excited chatter. “They can’t help it. It’s as easy to them as breathing – Esten too. But he’s barely taken his eyes off you all evening. They’re just having fun.”

Mastekh’s breathing hitched, almost a sob, but he couldn’t respond. He wanted to thank Nera for trying to be kind, wanted to tell her it didn’t matter. He knew they were just flirting, that it didn’t mean anything. He also wanted to tell her that she was wrong. It was more than flirting and it meant everything, everything bad and hurtful, proving everything that was wrong with him.

Why else would their seats be empty? Where else could Estenarven have gone, except back to the room the lieutenants would have been assigned, along with a big bed that offered so many more opportunities than the cramped, shared quarters available to them on the Skylark? Estenarven was a big dragon, even in human shape, he would need room to stretch out. More room than he’d been assigned in Elder Blazeborn’s suite. They could offer it to him.

Stone scraped over stone as the chair to Mastekh’s left was dragged out. He didn’t move, couldn’t, didn’t want to know who was sitting there now. He hadn’t even noticed that the other dragon had left. He’d been seated beside an older Tempestfury all evening, one who had been interested in nothing but the food in front of him. His lack of conversation had suited Mastekh perfectly, although he wished the gobbling old drake hadn’t left so early. He was not in the mood for fending off the conversation of strangers.

A warm, heavy hand settled on his thigh and Mastekh jumped. The ice threatened to crack as he stared aghast at the newcomer.

Dark eyes, pupils blown wide, gazed back, accompanied by a lopsided grin in a broad and beautifully familiar face. “’lo, Puddle.”

Estenarven.

Mastekh could have cried. Estenarven was here. He had come to him. He could have the pick of the room, he’d already had two humans enjoying his company, but no, Estenarven hadn’t chosen to be with any of them. He’d come to Mastekh. He was here. Mastekh breathed in a short, stuttering breath, trying to hold back the tears.

Estenarven smiled and Mastekh melted.

The ice covering him faded away, but he didn’t break. No flood of feelings poured forth, he didn’t lose control. Instead the waters inside him settled and calmed and he was back, safe inside his own skin, wanting to be nowhere more than where he was right then.

“Missed you,” Estenarven mumbled, pitching sideways until his head rested on Mastekh’s shoulder, his face pressed against his throat.

Oh.

The calm waters began to bubble and fizz beneath his skin, sending a wash of heat rushing through him.

He hadn’t expected that.

Just as he didn’t expect Estenarven to half-turn towards him, one hand still pressed against his thigh, the other stretching across Mastekh’s body to link their fingers together. The Boulderforce hummed with contentment, setting Mastekh fizzing and bubbling once more. Their hands were so different – Estenarven’s broad and strong, with thick fingers and calloused skin. Mastekh’s hands were slender and cool and soft – not to mention trembling as Estenarven shifted his grip to Mastekh’s wrist. Then he slid his fingers slowly, slowly down, over fragile veins and tendons, tickling against his palm then teasing between his fingers, where fine webbing extended between each to the middle knuckle.

By the Family! Mastekh shivered.

Estenarven hummed with approval. “Sensitive?”

He swallowed as the Boulderforce’s lips brushed against his throat and nodded. He hadn’t known, he’d had no idea but, gracious, as Estenarven teased his fingertips over the webs again, Mastekh couldn’t restrain a full body shudder. Nothing had ever felt so strange, yet wonderful, and oh, he wanted more.

“Es-t-ten…”

Chuckling, Estenarven slid his other hand down Mastekh’s thigh towards his knee. He circled his thumb slowly, keeping time with his fingers as they stroked the webs, Mastekh’s palm, his wrist, slipping inside the sleeve of his robe and up to the crook of his elbow.

What was he doing to him?

Sibling Water, have mercy.

“Oh…”

Estenarven opened his mouth against Mastekh’s neck and licked, just as the hand on his thigh began to move upwards.

A loud laugh broke the spell and Mastekh flinched, raising his shoulder quick and sharp and catching Estenarven on the cheek. He also pressed his hand hard against the one on his thigh, stopping it from exploring any further.

“Not h-h-here!”

Grumbling, Estenarven shifted back onto his own chair and rubbed his cheek. “Sorry, Puddle, forgot you’re not one for exhibitions.”

Mastekh hadn’t thought himself one for sensual touches either, but look how wrong he’d been. “S-sorry.” He hugged his arms miserably over his middle. Yet another way that he was less than other dragons.

“Don’t apologise,” Estenarven said, clucking his tongue and prising one of Mastekh’s hands loose. He pressed the palm against his lips and sighed. “Never apologise. I’m the one who should have known better.”

Yes, he should have known far better than to have ever expressed interest in an inexperienced, anxious, watery, wimpy, useless excuse for a dragon such as —

“Oh!”

Estenarven smiled against Mastekh’s palm, then slowly licked the web between his fore and middle finger again.

“Oh, m-m-my.”

“Bad thoughts gone?” Estenarven chuckled, lowering Mastekh’s hand.

He shivered all over and stared at the Boulderforce. “What th-thoughts?” he asked, dazed and then dazzled as Estenarven smiled at him. It was wicked and sultry and all for him.

Mastekh’s insides fizzed and bubbled again.

“Perfect.”

 

 

 

 

[]6

Banquet III

h1={color:#000;}.

ESTENARVEN WAS DRUNK. Oh, he’d known he was a bit merry when he was sitting with Anhardyne and Vish, basking in their attention and drinking far more wine than was probably wise. But it had been right there and it was a very good vintage. Plus he’d felt Mastekh’s eyes on him, so he might have been showing off a little.

But still, he’d kept his head. Mostly. Enough to enjoy himself while he waited for the gluttonous drake to finally finish stuffing his face and leave the seat beside Mastekh empty. It had taken longer than Estenarven had anticipated – hence the wine.

Still, he’d been fine until after he’d bid the lieutenants a fine and adventurous night and made his way around the long table. He’d been completely in control of himself when he’d pulled out the chair and dropped into the space.

Then he’d put a hand on Mastekh’s leg to gain his attention… and completely lost his head.

Mastekh was cool and sweet and smelled like water lilies. The shivers, the closeness, the sounds he made.

Yes, Estenarven was drunk, utterly and completely soused, foxed, pissed, rat-arsed, tap-shackled, scale-shucked, loose-winged and every other description on the Overworld. But it had nothing to do with the wine and everything to do with his companion.

And Mastekh had absolutely no idea, if the way he was blushing was any indication. His poor dear Puddle was utterly green in the face, the colour also spreading down his neck.

Estenarven stared at where the blush vanished beneath the collar of Mastekh’s robe and couldn’t help wondering how far down it went. Was his chest pale or dark, mottled or clear, muscled or slender? Where were his scales? Every dragon had them, regardless of form, but the small patches they retained in human form could show up anywhere.

Estenarven had two patches, one small smudge on his left buttock, the other a slender line that spiralled around his right thigh. Where were Mastekh’s? Somewhere naughty, he hoped, since scale patches were often sensitive. As sensitive as the webs between his fingers? Estenarven certainly hoped so.

He couldn’t wait to explore, to uncover his Puddle’s every last secret, to —

“Estenar-v-v-ven?” Mastekh’s shaky breath was accompanied by a sharp, insistent tug.

Estenarven paused and looked down. By the Family, he really was drunk. He’d been licking Mastekh’s hand again, focusing all of his attention on those same webs, eyes closed, lost to the exploration.

Poor Mastekh’s face wasn’t just green now, he was blushing so hard it was almost black.

Estenarven reluctantly released his hand. “Sorry.”

Mastekh’s mouth moved, but no sound came out. Poor Puddle, he’d been shocked speechless. All because Estenarven was drunk on the nearness of him and had forgotten himself. Again. They were in a crowded room and even though no one was paying them any attention – nor would they be shocked even if they were – Mastekh was not an exhibitionist. Estenarven had to stop forgetting that, forgetting himself, forgetting where they were. It might not bother him, but it would bother Mastekh and that was not something he should ever forget.

“Forgive me.” He pressed a hand to his heart and bowed his head with remorse.

A cool hand slid over his cheek and he looked up into green eyes almost swallowed by dark, wide pupils. “Don’t,” Mastekh whispered, rubbing a thumb over Estenarven’s cheek.

He closed his eyes and leant into the touch, thinking of all the things he could do if that hand moved closer to his mouth. All the things he wanted to do, to start, to explore.

Huffing in frustration at himself, Estenarven opened his eyes and forced himself to pull away from the temptation of Mastekh’s hands. He’d never been particularly interested in hands before, not on their own, but with Mastekh everything was different.

He couldn’t resist taking hold of Mastekh’s hand again, but forced himself not to bring it back to his mouth or to stroke it. He just held it pressed between both of his and tried to think sweet, pure, innocent thoughts.

Which was tricky in a room that had grown as loud and as rowdy as this one.

Estenarven frowned, rapidly losing his happy, wine-induced haze and passing into an grumpy, irritated aftermath. “Let’s go,” he urged, pushing back his chair and getting to his feet.

Mastekh’s eyes widened, but he didn’t object when Estenarven hauled him upright.

“We can talk in the morning. Everything will be better then,” he said, weaving through the raucous crowd and making for the nearest door.

“You w-won’t,” Mastekh replied, cringing against Estenarven’s side as a drunken mixed party of dragons and Riders attempted to drag him into their dancing circle.

“Won’t what?” Estenarven asked distractedly as he stepped over a passed-out Rider still clutching a flagon of ale to his chest. He turned and lifted Mastekh up and over the man without thinking.

Wide eyes stared down in surprise. Estenarven blinked up, clasping Mastekh against his chest and barely noticing the weight of him. Liking the feeling of keeping his Puddle so close, Estenarven strode the last few steps until they were out of the hall and in the much quieter corridor beyond.

Then he had to put him down, because the temptation to pin him to the nearest wall was just too great.

Mastekh kept his hands pressed against Estenarven’s chest, eyes still wide, barely blinking.

Smiling, Estenarven rubbed his knuckles down the Rainstorm’s cheek and pressed his thumb beneath his jaw to close his gaping mouth. It was simply too tempting left open.

“Won’t what?” he repeated, remembering the question he’d asked before.

Mastekh snatched his hands away and folded his arms across his chest, rubbing at his shoulders, face flushed green once more. He shivered and offered up a tremulous smile. “You w-won’t feel b-b-better in the m-morning.”

Estenarven blinked in surprise – and burst out laughing.

Mastekh folded his arms, huffing with indignation. “Well, you w-won’t. After all the w-wine you’ve d-d-drunk, you’ll have a t-t-terrible headache. And don’t c-come c-crying to me when you d-d-do.”

It was one of the longest sentences Estenarven had heard the Rainstorm mutter and it made him laugh even harder. “Oh, Puddle,” he sighed, draping an arm across the smaller dragon’s shoulders before he could storm off in a huff. “We really have to work on your seductive invitations.”

Which earned him a slap on the chest. “It w-wasn’t an invitation you l-lout. As if I’d in-v-v-vite you any-wh-where.”

“A dragon can dream,” Estenarven sighed soulfully, slightly embarrassed to realise his wistfulness wasn’t entirely feigned.

“F-fool.”

“Yes,” he agreed cheerfully. “Completely. I’m a absolute fool for you.” He pressed his lips against Mastekh’s cool cheek, delighted to feel it heat beneath his lips. “And now to bed, before I ravish you right here. I know you’re not one for exhibitions.”

This time the soulful sigh came from his companion. “A dragon can d-d-dream.”

Estenarven could only hope that his wistfulness wasn’t entirely feigned either. “Don’t tempt me, Puddle. You might not like the outcome.”

“I’ll s-save it for when you’re not d-d-drunk, P-Pebble. You might dr-drop me.”

“Oh, really?” Estenarven roared with mock indignation, spinning Mastekh around. Catching the Rainstorm by surprise, he upended him over his shoulder and started running towards Elder Blazeborn’s suite.

“Put me d-d-down, you f-fool!”

Laughing, Estenarven ignored the kicking legs and fists thumping his back, knowing that if Mastekh really wanted to escape all he had to do was shift and flatten him. “I heard a challenge, Puddle, and a good dragon never turns down a challenge.”

“You’re d-d-drunk!”

Yes, utterly. Completely drunk on Mastekh and the light, silly, foolish feelings he stirred up inside. Estenarven hadn’t been lying when he’d said he was a fool for Mastekh. He would be anything for this Rainstorm; he only needed to ask.

As Estenarven jogged up staircase after staircase, Mastekh’s struggles slowed and shifted. The fists that had been thumping his back turned to caresses smoothed over silk. By the time Estenarven reached their suite, his breath was heaving, his legs were shaking and he felt rather light-headed. None of which had to do with the weight of his captive or the distance he’d travelled. His back tingled all over from Mastekh’s teasing touches.

Unlocking the door, he staggered inside and carefully lowered his burden.

When Estenarven straightened, Mastekh grabbed hold of his head before he could reach his full height. Green eyes glowing with determination, the Rainstorm stared intently at him for a long moment.

There were so many silent questions in his eyes that Estenarven couldn’t bear it. So he kissed him.

At first it was clumsy: a hard push that mashed their lips against their teeth. Mastekh clenched his hands around the back of Estenarven’s neck as if afraid he would try and escape.

Estenarven wasn’t going anywhere. Reaching back, he touched Mastekh’s wrists and rubbed the insides with his thumbs, urging the Rainstorm to relax. Then he slid his fingers over the back of Mastekh’s hands to slip between his fingers and stroke the sensitive webs.

Mastekh gasped, relaxing his firm grip.

Estenarven took full advantage, pulling back to take a breath and gain some room, then darting in to bring his tongue into play.

Ah, such play. Mastekh melted against his chest and Estenarven turned their kiss into a lazy, thorough exploration that left them both panting and shaking, holding tight to shoulders and waists in an effort to keep standing.

And they were both still fully dressed.

Estenarven had never felt like this with anyone before – certainly not without naked skin and a solid, supporting surface involved.

It was too much.

It wasn’t nearly enough.

And Mastekh wasn’t ready for more.

Estenarven eased the kiss until he could pull away, cupping Mastekh’s face in his hands. Wide eyes, more black now than green, gazed up at him, kiss-swollen lips trembling with uncertainty, anxiety already draining the passion from his face.

No, they would go no further tonight.

But Estenarven stole another kiss anyway – a sweet, delicious sip – before pulling away with a sigh.

“Goodnight, Puddle,” he murmured, resting his forehead against Mastekh’s.

“Goodnight, P-Pebble,” came his reply.

Then they parted for their tiny, solitary rooms on opposite sides of Elder Blazeborn’s suite.

It turned out that Mastekh was right: Estenarven was not going to feel better in the morning. He certainly wasn’t about to sleep any time soon.

But it had been worth every single moment.

And he would willingly do it all again on the morrow.

 

 

 

 

[]7

Humming

h1={color:#000;}.

3rd Storm Month

MASTEKH WOKE IN a very good mood, having slept extremely well the night before. He hadn’t expected to. After his time with Estenarven and the kisses they’d shared, he had expected to spend the whole night awake, reliving the sensations and agonising over what it all meant.

Instead he’d slept peacefully – and woken with a smile. Estenarven had been right, everything did look better in the morning. Apart from the weather, of course, but that was to be expected when spending the Storm Season in the Tempestfury kinlands.

Rising early, Mastekh slipped away from Elder Blazeborn’s suite and headed for the kitchens. Time for tea. The elder enjoyed a refreshing cup in the morning and, as Estenarven often joked, Mastekh was good at tea. There were times when he felt it was probably the only thing he was good at, the only truly helpful thing he did for the elder, but not today. Today was not a day for doubts. Today was a day for… humming.

He’d never thought of himself as particularly musical before, but for some reason this morning music kept bubbling up inside him. A rippling little melody like a mountain spring bursting up through rock and ice after the winter thaw.

That was what he felt like – lively, vibrant and new, refreshed after a long period of cold and dark. So he hummed, exchanging shy smiles with the busy dracos who worked around him while he waited for the elder’s water to boil. Normally he felt useless, gawky and in the way of the smaller servants and their industrious work. Today they welcomed him into their pattern, murmuring appreciatively over his little tune. They even thanked him when he had finished preparing the tea and headed for the door. As if any draco ever had a single thing to thank a dragon for. The servants always worked so hard – surely any gratitude went the other way.

So he made sure to thank them with shy, stammering words, then picked up his tray and headed back to the suite. Humming all the way.

 

 

 

 

[]8

Tea

h1={color:#000;}.

SOMEONE WAS HUMMING. Elder Khennik kin Blazeborn Clan Sunlord frowned down at his desk and the report he was supposed to be writing to his Clan elder. The suite was too quiet, magnifying the clatter of hailstones against the windows and the shudder of the wind as it whistled around the tower. Lightning flickered and thunder snarled. Khennik attempted to ignore it all as he hunched over his desk beside the fire on the opposite side of the room. Usually the crackle, pop and hiss of the flames would be enough to settle him, but it was early and he was tired after a late night.

And now someone was humming.

Sighing, he dropped his quill and rubbed his eyes as the main door to the suite opened, admitting the hummer with his tray of tea.

Mastekh.

Khennik’s eyebrows rose in surprise and he rested his chin on his hand, watching his usually anxious aide back into the room before turning and closing the door with his heel. Still humming.

Mastekh didn’t hum. In fact, Khennik’s Rainstorm aide rarely made any sound at all, except for squeaks and the occasional stuttered sentence. Not that he was a quiet or restful presence. Mastekh might not have used his voice all that often, but his emotions were often loud. Trembling, shuffling, jittering, wringing his hands, lurking in the background, trying to be unobtrusive and always failing. It had driven Khennik distracted when they’d first been assigned to each other. However, he’d grown used to it over time and occasionally even missed Mastekh when he wasn’t in the room.

Khennik wouldn’t have said he was fond of humming, especially wordless tunes that bubbled and rambled without any form or reason, but it was an interesting change. He was almost certain he knew what had put that small smile on his younger aide’s face too.

“Oh. Elder B-Blazeborn. You’re up al-r-ready.”

The happy hum faded but, much to Khennik’s surprise, the smile remained. Mastekh didn’t smile at him, he was usually too worried or anxious to please, holding himself tense as if always braced for a reprimand or a blow. Khennik tried not to ever give the former and would never use the latter. The mere prospect of being mistaken for such a thuggish bully had often made him moody and equally tense at first, until he realised that the only way Mastekh would relax around him was if he relaxed first. So Khennik mostly attempted to ignore his aide, since Mastekh appeared happiest that way.

Not this morning. This morning he seemed prepared for conversation, so Khennik cleared a space on his desk for the tea tray and nodded congenially. “Good morning. I trust you slept well.”

Mastekh bobbed his head in agreement, placing the tray on the table with a lot less clatter and rattling than usual. There weren’t any stray water drops either. Progress.

“Estenarven is still abed, I take it?” Khennik asked as Mastekh began pouring the tea.

“P-p-pardon?” Mastekh flinched, sending hot water all over the stone tray and across the desk. “Oh, n-n-no!” he wailed, dropping the tea pot with a clatter and flapping over the spilled liquid.

Sighing, Khennik rescued his most important papers and stood before the tea reached the edge of the table and dripped into his lap. “It’s all right, Mastekh. No harm done.” After all, this wouldn’t be the first time Mastekh had almost dumped a pot of tea all over him – nor the second. Khennik had learnt to be perpetually wary whenever his aide was holding anything in his vicinity and to move quickly when necessary. He had hoped the humming and smiles would herald a new era in their working relationship.

No such luck. One offhand question and his aide had collapsed back into a bubbling, anxious, apologetic mess and Khennik could feel all his old irritations rising. He tried not to get angry, because he knew Mastekh couldn’t help being the way he was, but it was frustrating.

One tiny tiptoe forward, a massive leap back. That was how things seemed destined to always be between them.

“I’ll finish this in my room,” he said, unable to hold back a sigh as he gathered the rest of his papers into his arms and shook tea from the end of his quill pen.

“I’m so s-s-sorry, el-d-der,” Mastekh whimpered, patting the desk with his palm and leaving dry stone behind. His hand had darkened to the shade of ginger tea.

The sight reminded Khennik of how thirsty he was, so he piled his things on his chair and poured himself a cup of what little was left in the pot. Mm, spicy.

“It’s all right, Mastekh,” he murmured again, retrieving his papers and sipping from his cup. “These things happen, and there was no harm done.”

Mastekh hung his head pitifully. Khennik considered reaching out and patting the young Rainstorm’s shoulder, but he wasn’t a particularly tactile dragon and the last thing he wanted was to make Mastekh recoil. Their relationship was shaky enough as it was.

So he contented himself with another sigh – mostly filled with bafflement over what his young aide needed from him – and retreated back into his room. It would probably be safer for all involved if he stayed there until the Storm Season had passed and the Skylark sailed onwards.

“I’ll be in my room if anyone needs me,” he said over his shoulder, shoving the door shut with his heel.

What a day – and it was barely midmorning.

 

 

 

 

[]9

Elder Blazeborn

h1={color:#000;}.

MASTEKH CLEANED UP the spillage, feeling like a fool. All his happy feelings from the morning had fled in the face of an innocuous question and a dropped teapot. He patted the last pool of water and stared at his hot hand with a sigh.

Wonderful, he was now full of tea. It might take days for the gingery stain to fade.

Served him right for being a jumpy, clumsy, overreacting fool. How Elder Blazeborn must rue the day their paths had not just crossed but unfortunately interwoven.

Picking up the pot and swilling the liquid inside, he realised there was just enough for another cup, so he poured it out and placed it on the hearth to keep warm while he got on his knees and made sure he hadn’t ruined another carpet.

His very first meeting with Elder Blazeborn was engraved on his memory, never to be forgotten. The trip to Teirenlai had been Mastekh’s first solo expedition outside of his kinlands. Well, sort of solo, since he’d flown alongside Rishen, the Rainstorm kin elder, but all of Mastekh’s previous trips had been with dragons his own age and older caretakers to watch over them. For all that Rishen was his elder, the dragon hadn’t spared Mastekh much attention during the flight. Which was how Mastekh preferred it; Elder Rishen made him nervous. Most dragons made him nervous. Most everything did, actually.

Carpet checked, Mastekh sat back on his heels and paused for a moment, trying to come up with something that didn’t make him anxious or nervous. He would have said Estenarven, except the recent shift in their relationship had caused a few of those old, unwelcome emotions to bubble up, so not even he counted anymore. Baking and making tea also felt good, but handing them over to their intended recipients usually caused anxious moments – or foolish ones, he reminded himself, climbing to his feet and sighing at the empty desk and the now-seemingly innocent crockery lined up on the tray.

Arriving at Teirenlai Palace had been overwhelming for Mastekh. Too many new faces, a whole new layout to learn, new servants to try not to annoy. He would have hidden in his room and never come out, except he’d quickly found out that he was expected to share it with two other young dragons. Strangers. Ones who already knew each other and were noisy and constantly laughing. Not necessarily at him, though it had felt like it at the time.

Panicked, Mastekh had fled into the labyrinthine corridors until he’d ended up quite, quite lost. Eventually he had wandered into a sunlit garden where a great bronze dragon was curled up. Not wanting to disturb the sleeper, he’d backed away as quietly as possible only to trip over an uneven flagstone. Tumbling down with a splash and a cry, he’d felt a hot, weary sigh pass over him and looked up into glowing golden eyes.

At which point Elder Goryal Starshine had materialised between them, beaming a joyful smile. “Oh good,” they had chuckled. “You’ve met. Khennik, this is your new aide, Mastekh kin Rainstorm Clan Flowflight. Congratulations, Mastekh, you’ve been assigned to Elder Blazeborn as part of the delegation overseeing the visit of the new human ambassador.”

The huge bronze Blazeborn had turned his head towards the small human-shaped Starshine and huffed out a warm breath. “A Rainstorm, Goryal, really?”

Mastekh had cringed, though he hadn’t disagreed. The Flowflight and Sunlord Clans were not well known for their compatibility.

Goryal had laughed and patted Elder Blazeborn’s cheek. “Patience, Khennik. Something you once had in droves. It would do you good to remember such skills.”

Grumbling, the bronze dragon had curled up again, wrapping his tail tightly around himself and using it to cover his eyes. “Aren’t the humans punishment enough?”

Goryal had laughed their silver bell laugh and rested a hand on Mastekh’s arm. “Ignore him, he’s always grumpy after a long flight. He’ll feel better once he’s soaked up some sun. Come with me, young Rainstorm. I’ll take you to your new accommodations and find someone who can show you your new duties.”

And that had been that. Neither one of them had been given a choice; they’d simply been shoved together through the whims of a meddling old dragon. No one knew precisely how old Goryal was, but all the Starshine Clan were over a millennia, even if they rarely acted it. Goryal felt it though, with a prickle of power that could grow painful if they forgot to rein it in. Goryal rarely forgot such things, since they were too fond of company to risk driving it all away, although they did frequently meddle more than was good for those around them.

Even so, Mastekh couldn’t be sorry that his path had crossed Goryal’s, nor that of Elder Blazeborn either. Because both had brought him, in a roundabout way, to Estenarven and the night before. Mastekh wouldn’t give that up for all the Overworld, even if he had spent most of the evening hurt and confused. The end had been worth everything that had gone before.

It was a shame about the tea, though.

Sighing, he picked up the cup from the hearth and crossed to Elder Blazeborn’s door. Where he dithered, not wanting to disturb the elder any more than he already had that morning. Yet he knew of no one else who liked ginger tea and didn’t want it to go to waste.

So he took a deep breath, tried to summon up a little of his morning happiness and knocked.

“Enter.”

Clenching his free hand into a fist and warning himself to stay in control, Mastekh slipped into the room. It was as spacious as the outer chamber, but with a lot less furniture. A wide bed stood off to one side, while a small desk had been placed beside the fire. Beyond that there was nothing except for three tall, narrow windows much like the ones in the other room. The rest of the space had been left empty as a courtesy to allow the elder to assume his full dragon shape if he so wished.

Thankfully for Mastekh’s nerves, Elder Blazeborn was still in human form, sitting at the desk, one hand propping up his head while he toyed with his quill and flicked ink over an otherwise empty piece of parchment.

Golden eyes glanced up and the elder froze. He said nothing, didn’t even blink as Mastekh crossed the room in a shuffling hurry, placing the stone cup down with exquisite care on one side of the desk. He then picked up the empty cup Elder Blazeborn had carried in earlier before retreating as swiftly as he’d entered, robe flapping against his legs in his haste to reach the door.

As he pulled it open and slipped through, he heard a softly murmured, “Thank you,” over the rush of his own escape.

Mastekh paused and looked back through the gap of the half-closed door.

Elder Blazeborn held the cup cradled between his hands, golden claws glinting at the end of dark bronze fingers. The elder raised his tea in silent acknowledgement.

Ducking his head shyly, Mastekh muttered, “You’re w-w-welcome,” and shut the door between them.

Taking several wobbly steps into the empty outer room, he collapsed onto the nearest chaise. He felt exhausted and it wasn’t even lunchtime.

Still, he smiled, content that he might have managed to fix any fresh damage he’d done to his working relationship with his elder after yet another foolish mishap. Perhaps there was still hope for him.

Feeling refreshed, he popped to his feet and gathered the empty pot and unused cups onto the stone tray. Noon was approaching and neither the elder nor Estenarven had eaten anything today.

Mastekh could and would do something about that.

Happy to feel useful once more, he hurried out of the suite towards the kitchens for the second time that morning, a fresh hum rising in his throat. Perhaps the day would be salvageable, after all.

 

 

 

 

[]10

The Morning After

h1={color:#000;}.

MASTEKH WAS ABSOLUTELY correct: Estenarven did not feel better in the morning. In fact, he felt so awful when he opened his eyes to the pallid light sneaking through the narrow window that he went straight back to sleep again. Mornings were vastly overrated anyway.

With a head banging to the painful beat of its own internal drum, a mouth in which a bear must have hibernated and skin that felt dry enough to crack, Estenarven was in no mood to move, even after he woke the second time. Scales rubbed against the inside of his skin, making his bones ache and his head pound worse than ever. He needed to shift, badly, but this room wasn’t even large enough to contain his tail, let alone the rest of him.

Groaning and cursing his own foolishness, he slithered from the bed. Cold air instantly nipped at his naked body, but there was so many other discomforts assaulting him that Estenarven didn’t much mind it. The hard floor beckoned, the old stone calling to the stone within him.

Not yet, he reminded himself, dragging his aching body over the roughly woven carpet. He considered pausing to stand up, to try and put his legs to use, but the mere thought of raising his head so high from the ground made his stomach churn. With his hold already tenuous upon his human form, Estenarven opted for speed over elegance.

He had to get out of this room. Now. Before he ended up squashed and stuck or smashing through the walls.

Stone hummed beneath him as Estenarven raised a desperate hand and scrabbled the door open. He tumbled out into the wider room beyond – and not a moment too soon.

The pounding in his head rose to a crescendo, his dry skin cracked and his stomach revolted as his draconic form burst through his control. Pain, pain, pain. He hadn’t experienced such an agonising shift since his early changeling days.

Sibling Stone! That hurt.

Lifting up on trembling legs, Estenarven had just enough awareness to realise that his tail did just about fit inside his room before he staggered forward a couple of steps and collapsed.

Stone called to stone – and he dropped into blessed unconsciousness.

 

 

 

 

[]11

Making a Meal of Things

h1={color:#000;}.

MASTEKH MERRILY HUMMED an old Flowflight dragonling rhyme as he returned to Elder Blazeborn’s suite. He even dared to sing the odd line where he could remember the words, since the halls of Highstrike were empty and quiet while a ferocious storm raged beyond the walls.

According to the dracos in the kitchen, most of the kin court were out in it, indulging their Tempestfury natures and revelling in the wild weather. Mastekh had always known Skystorms were loose in the scales, but here was extra proof.

Still, he didn’t much care what his hosts were getting up to, just so long as it meant that he – and his elder – were left alone. Those who weren’t out in the storm were likely still recovering from the banquet the night before anyway. Like Estenarven.

A frisson of excitement rippled through Mastekh as he picked up his pace. His arms were starting to ache from the sheer amount of food he’d piled onto the tray in a bid to satisfy the appetites of a Blazeborn and a Boulderforce. Sunhigh would be long past at this rate if he didn’t hurry up and get back to them both.

With a light skip in his step and an adventurous warble to his tune, Mastekh finally reached the door of his elder’s suite. Since his hands were fully occupied, he cast a quick glance up and down the corridor before allowing his tail to uncurl beneath his robe. Elder Blazeborn would frown at such a move, deeming it uncouth to mix his human and dragon forms in such a way. He’d accuse Mastekh of losing control or focus, but Mastekh was perfectly in control of himself, he just needed a little extra help.

If he’d been one of the more aquatic Flowflights – a Seadrake or a Riverstone perhaps – he could have used his tail like a tentacle and opened the door with it. Alas, he was just a simple Rainstorm, so he propped up one side of the tray with his sturdy tail and used his free hand like anyone else might.

The latch clicked softly and Mastekh hurriedly wriggled his tail beneath his robe, tightening his grip on the tray as he twitched his shoulders and forced his extra limb to vanish back to wherever the rest of his dragon form went when he was in this shape. The recall sent a shudder right up his spine and he listed sideways against the doorframe as he adjusted to the shift in balance.

Straightening up, he twisted his hips to ensure that his robe was lying straight once more and nudged the door open the rest of the way. Satisfied that there was no sign of what he’d done – beyond a damp line on the hall floor that was swiftly drying – Mastekh stepped into the suite, humming triumphantly.

He turned to bump the door shut with his hip and yelped as he collided with the massive snout of Estenarven’s dragon form. Foot slipping on the puddle of drool beneath the Boulderforce’s slack lips, Mastekh overbalanced. The rounded ridge above one nostril caught him right in the gut, both knocking the wind out of him and toppling him forwards.

The door slammed and the heavy tray smacked down right in the middle of Estenarven’s slumbering face.

“Whuh!”

Up went the Boulderforce, taking Mastekh with him, food tumbling everywhere.

“Oh n-n-no!” Mastekh wailed, feet kicking as he was lifted towards the ceiling, toes catching on the soft insides of Estenarven’s bottom lip.

The Boulderforce drew in a deep breath, his right nostril sucking Mastekh’s belly tight against him. Which was good because as Estenarven’s dark eyes crossed in an effort to focus on what was clinging to his face, his mouth gaped open in surprise and Mastekh began to slip.

Estenarven snorted with shock and Mastekh squeaked, fingers scrabbling uselessly against the cold, smooth scales of the dragon’s muzzle. Sharp teeth loomed and Mastekh pulled his hands back as he fell past the wide open mouth.

And grunted as he landed firmly in the centre of Estenarven’s paw.

Rumbling in confusion, the big Boulderforce placed Mastekh on the floor and lowered his head to squint at him. “What happened?” he asked, sounding more than a little sleepy.

Regaining his feet, Mastekh looked down at the food he’d so carefully selected, prepared and carried all the way back to the suite, now lying ruined and scattered all around them. No matter how happy he tried to be, this day just kept turning awful. Vision blurring, his lip began to wobble, defeat and sadness welling up inside of him.

Until a big, cool nose nudged him in the belly.

“Mmm,” Estenarven rumbled, sending delicious tingles racing all through Mastekh’s body and driving away any wobbles with ticklish giggles. “You brought breakfast.”

Pushing Mastekh gently out of the way with another affectionate nudge, Estenarven proceeded to clear every last crumb, splash and splatter from the floor with barely a pause for breath. Nor did he complain over the unorthodox method of presentation.

Instead he devoured the lot with a litany of contented noises that swiftly overcame Mastekh’s disappointment and even raised a smile.

“Perfect,” Estenarven announced, once the floor was clean, licking his lips to savour every last speck. Then he lifted his great head up towards the ceiling and gave an enormous yawn. “Just what I needed.”

A rush of satisfaction that he’d done the right thing filled Mastekh and he stepped aside as Estenarven squirmed forwards, tugging at his tail which seemed to have been mostly left behind in his room. When it didn’t budge, he gave up and yawned again instead.

“Are you well?” Mastekh asked as the Boulderforce rolled slightly to one side and stretched out all four legs like an exhausted dragonling.

“Mm,” Estenarven murmured, reaching out to snag Mastekh around the waist. Then he curled inwards, clutching Mastekh against his chest, head turned inwards to cuddle him in closer. “Am now.” He gave a sleepy huff and shut his eyes.

Entirely surrounded by the dozing Boulderforce, Mastekh raised his hands and looked down. Though Estenarven’s hold was gentle, neither hurting nor squeezing him, it was still secure enough to ensure that he wasn’t going anywhere. He’d been captured like a treasured toy.

Mastekh was vaguely aware that he should feel annoyed. How could he possibly get any chores done this way? And just think of all the things Estenarven was neglecting while he lazily slept the day away.

And yet, as Mastekh slowly relaxed into the sure grip that held onto him so tightly, surprised by how soft the inner pads of a Boulderforce’s front paw could be, he placed a hand on the cool scales of Estenarven’s cheek and felt all gooey inside. The dragon holding him was sleeping now, peacefully and deep, but when Mastekh made a token effort to extract himself, Estenarven muttered a sleepy protest and curled up even tighter, imprisoning his prize between his heart and his cheek.

Mastekh melted, his legs turning to jelly as he sank into the soft support of Estenarven’s grip. A strong heart beat against his back, while ahead of him a charcoal lid flickered over Estenarven’s closed eyes. He reached out, smoothing his hand along the delicate scales beneath that eye, marvelling that some were even smaller than his human fingertips.

The charcoal lid lifted ever so slightly, revealing a glint of blackness beneath. “Stay,” Estenarven rumbled, his deep voice making Mastekh’s whole body hum.

As if Mastekh could do anything else. Pressing both hands against Estenarven’s face, he rested his cheek against Estenarven’s and sighed. “Yes.”

Unfolding a wing to cover them both, Estenarven huffed a great sigh of his own. Curled up in the corner of the suite, the pair of them drifted into sleep regardless of duty or the storms that raged beyond the walls.

 

 

 

 

[]12

Sigh

h1={color:#000;}.

IT WAS TOO quiet. Khennik had worked deep into the afternoon, forcing himself to finish his hated report, determined not to let anything distract him. Nothing had.

Which was most unusual.

Standing up, he stretched the aches and kinks from his body and glanced down in surprise as his stomach rumbled. He was hungry. He’d almost forgotten what that felt like. Whatever else Mastekh’s faults may be – and they were legion – his Rainstorm aide always made sure Khennik had food, whether he wanted it or not.

Yet here he stood inside his private quarters with a belly growling from hunger. Most unusual indeed.

Frowning, Khennik rolled his shoulders as he crossed his bedroom, ready to unravel this latest mystery.

A dragon lay snoring in the main room. No, not just any dragon: Estenarven.

Big and bulky and grey, the Boulderforce lay stretched out across the entire front of the suite, completely blocking the door, his bulk extending from one wall all the way to the other. Resting halfway between his right side and his back, one wing trailed limply across his side and the other was most likely crumpled between him – explaining his in-between position.

With his head completely upside down, the end of his nose poking into Mastekh’s bedroom, the Boulderforce huffed and wheezed and sounded rather less than comfortable.

Khennik clenched his jaw. Well, this surely explained why he hadn’t been interrupted or fed all day. With Estenarven blocking the door, there was no possible way for anyone to enter or leave the suite. Poor Mastekh was probably cowering inside his room, wondering how best to evict this invading monster who was holding him back from all his duties.

Blasted Boulderforce! If he hadn’t drunk so much the night before he wouldn’t still be sleeping it off now, well into the next afternoon.

If his behaviour had unsettled Mastekh in any way, Khennik would —

He blinked.

At some point during his internal tirade, he’d begun marching across the suite, dodging seating clusters and travel chests, aiming for Estenarven’s head and the ear into which he intended to roar.

Until he rounded the edge of Estenarven’s wing and saw the Boulderforce’s front feet. And what lay cradled inside them.

Mastekh. Estenarven had fallen asleep with Mastekh. The Boulderforce was cuddling the Rainstorm like a toy, and the Rainstorm lay limp and smiling as if he was entirely at peace with the situation.

Well.

Khennik rubbed a hand over his head, uncertain quite how to feel about this turn of events. After all, he could hardly be angry with Estenarven for unsettling Mastekh when Mastekh seemed more than happy with everything. He certainly couldn’t scold the Boulderforce for invading the Rainstorm’s room when the pair of them were sleeping together.

Nor could he get angry over having the entranceway blocked, since the only people Khennik was willing to tolerate on a daily basis were already inside.

Nor could he be annoyed about feeling hungry, since he was constantly trying to get Mastekh to stop fussing over him, assuring his aide that he was perfectly capable of taking care of himself.

Hm.

Khennik eyed his slumbering aides, unable to deny how content the pair of them seemed. It made warmth kindle inside his own chest and Khennik rubbed suspiciously at it.

Estenarven heaved a huge sigh and rolled onto his side, curling around until his head rested alongside Mastekh. The Rainstorm stirred just enough to tuck his face under the Boulderforce’s neck and the pair slept on, oblivious.

Khennik ran a hand over his head and rubbed at his chest again. Then he snorted, shook his head and turned around.

Let them sleep. Peace was hard to come by these days, ever since he’d left his desert homelands and especially since he’d been assigned to the human delegation.

Yes, let his noisy, disruptive, ridiculous aides sleep, just so long as they kept blocking the door and holding the outside world at bay. Khennik could survive being hungry for a little while longer.

In fact, now that his report was finished and no one had succeeded in breaking down his door, Khennik decided to follow his aides’ example. Shutting himself inside the bedroom, he shoved his desk and papers safely out of the way and gave into the urge to release his own true form. He might not have had enough room to sprawl inelegantly from one wall to the other, as Estenarven had done, but there was space to flex his wings a little, just so long as he curled up first.

Doing just that, Khennik shifted his wings, yawned and settled down for a deliciously unplanned afternoon nap.

 

 

 

 

[]13

Smooth Awakening

h1={color:#000;}.

ESTENARVEN WOKE SLOWLY, a feeling of great peace washing over him as he steadily rose back towards consciousness. The pain and hammering of his overindulgence had faded away and even the sour taste was gone from his mouth. He felt like a dragon again.

Yawning, he stretched, long and languid, revelling in the ability to spread out all his legs, though when he tried to flex his tail it seemed to be stuck. And now that he thought about it, only one of his wings was moving.

He frowned at the discomfort and rolled onto his belly. His second wing was instantly free but hit a wall, and his tail still wasn’t moving. Grumbling and muttering, he opened his eyes.

And blinked.

“Awake at last, are we?”

Elder Blazeborn sat in an armchair directly in front of Estenarven’s nose. If he’d stretched just a little further in his half-awake state he would have knocked the elder clean over. Hunching back in on himself, Estenarven drew in his neck, wings and tail.

At least he tried to move his tail.

Scowling, he looked over his shoulder and found that the stupid appendage had somehow become coiled and wedged inside his bedroom.

The same room that was part of Elder Blazeborn’s larger suite.

The same suite that he should have been taking care of today.

Belonging to the dragon he was supposed to work for, not snore in front of.

Wincing, Estenarven abandoned all attempts to free his crumpled tail and cringed before his elder. “Umm…”

Khennik wasn’t paying him the least bit of attention. An enormous book of maps lay open across his lap, the thick pages of which he turned with a delicate pinch of his golden claws before spreading a hand to flatten out the next plate in order to study it more closely.

Somehow that made everything worse. Here was Estenarven, sleeping the day away, while his elder was forced to entertain himself by studying maps. Not that there was anything wrong with maps, they certainly had their uses, but…

Oh, what did it matter? He’d messed up, that was the important thing.

He flattened himself to the floor apologetically – and realised there was something under his chin.

“As enjoyable as abject grovelling is,” Elder Blazeborn drawled, not looking up as he turned another page, “it’s probably best not to do it while Mastekh is under your chin. It rather spoils the look of the thing.”

“Mastekh!” Estenarven raised his head so high and fast that he cracked his horns against the ceiling.

Ow, ow, ow, ow. He might have slept off his pounding hangover but, by the Family, the lightning bolt that shot through his brain now was so much worse.

“Ow.”

The wheeze that echoed his thoughts had him looking down. Mastekh lay sprawled on the stone floor, flat on his back, a hand pressed against his diaphragm. He looked like he’d been crushed beneath a boulder.

Which, Estenarven conceded as he cautiously lowered his throbbing head, he had.

“I was going to ask if you’d both enjoyed your rest, but I can see the answer well enough for myself.” Elder Blazeborn slapped the heavy book closed and eyed the pair of them. One eyebrow arched as Estenarven curled a claw and eased Mastekh into a sitting position. The Rainstorm wheezed and bent over, still struggling to get some air into his recently flattened lungs.

This was not how Estenarven had imagined he would feel the first time he woke up with Mastekh beneath him.

“At least now that you’ve cleared the door I can finally go out and feed myself.”

Estenarven flinched at this further proof of his neglected duties, and really wished he hadn’t when it sent an answering jolt through his brain and sore horns.

“I’ll bring you something back, shall I?” Elder Blazeborn smiled ever so slightly as he left his book of maps on the chair and sidled around Estenarven’s bulk to slip out of the room. “Play nicely while I’m gone.”

Estenarven huffed at the wall as the door clicked shut. There wasn’t an ounce of play left in him right now and a quick glance downwards suggested that Mastekh was even less inclined towards such things.

The Rainstorm was on all fours, attempting to get to his feet, but either his legs were still asleep or Estenarven’s carelessness had knocked more out of him than he’d thought, because Mastekh didn’t get very far.

A quick lift of a foot prevented his fellow aide from landing flat on his face, and Estenarven decided to save Mastekh a lot of bother by picking him up and dumping him on Khennik’s vacated chair. The Rainstorm plopped down on top of the book of maps like a sack of vegetables, looking dazed and unaware of quite what was going on.

Worried about him, Estenarven finally hauled his tail free of his bedroom and shrank to a more manageable size. Crouching in front of Mastekh, he cupped his hands around his face and looked into his eyes.

Watery green-blue stared back, along with a rather soppy smile.

Sibling Stone, it was worse than he’d thought. He hadn’t just knocked the breath out of Mastekh, he’d clearly crushed his wits as well.

“Can you stand?”

“Mm.” Mastekh moved forward, but seemed to forget to engage any part of his body in supporting himself. Luckily, Estenarven was there to catch him. Mastekh sagged into his arms like a scarecrow missing his stick.

Which wasn’t the worst place he could land. In fact, Estenarven rather liked having his arms full of a relaxed Rainstorm. Especially when Mastekh nuzzled his neck like that.

“Mm dr-dreaming,” Mastekh murmured, and Estenarven realised his fellow aide hadn’t really woken up yet. Despite being dropped on the floor, crushed by a Boulderforce and having all the air squashed out of him.

Apparently his Puddle was a heavy sleeper. Just one more thing that he hadn’t known.

And the last thing he would ever take advantage of. Which was why he hauled himself to his feet and hefted Mastekh more securely into his arms. The Rainstorm mumbled something against his neck and snuggled closer, making Estenarven smile. One day he might have fun with this, but not today. Instead he carried his limp burden through the door on the far side of the suite and laid him very carefully down on the stone bed within. The covers had all been kicked off when Mastekh had risen that morning, so Estenarven gathered them up and tucked them around his sleepy Puddle.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, he ran a hand through Mastekh’s fluff of green hair. Turning into the caress, Mastekh wriggled until he was curled around Estenarven and heaved out a contented sigh. Estenarven knew just how he felt.

It was right to be here. Right to be next to this dragon. He didn’t want to leave.

He peered around Mastekh’s tiny, private quarters, unsurprised to find it as sparse and cheerless as his own cell on the other side of the suite. Except for the stone bowl on the narrow windowsill, positioned just right so that when Mastekh woke it would be one of the first things he would see. A stone bowl full of water and containing a single straggly daisy.

The first courting gift. One that had been answered with rock cakes.

It was Estenarven’s move now. He thought back to the box he kept tucked in the chest beneath his bed. One that had followed him throughout his life, from his last few years as a dragonling, through his wingling century and onto the wandering ways of his change time. He ran mental fingers through its contents, assessing and discarding each item, until… He smiled.

Yes, that would do nicely.

But not yet. Estenarven looked down at the dragon curled on his side against him, his green hair soft as it slid between Estenarven’s blocky fingers.

No, not yet. He wanted to sit a while longer, enjoying this moment to the fullest. Elder Blazeborn would be back soon and Estenarven would pick up all his dropped and neglected duties, but not yet. Not just yet. He wanted to enjoy this peace for a little while longer, make the most of this gift he’d been given. He’d never seen Mastekh so relaxed and wondered when he’d have the opportunity to relish such a rare sight again. If he’d have the chance again. So he sat there, stroking Mastekh’s head, making plans and counting breaths.

Until Elder Blazeborn returned and Estenarven had to leave. But before he joined the elder at the low table, where he was spreading out the food a couple of draco servants had carried up for them all, Estenarven slipped into his own small room and pulled out the chest from beneath the bed.

Promising the elder he would join him soon, he returned to Mastekh’s bedside, placed his latest gift on the windowsill beside the daisy, allowed himself one last stroke of his dear Puddle’s hair, then left, closing the door behind him. Mastekh had earned his rest, but Estenarven had apologies to issue and some making up to do.

With the dracos dismissed, Elder Blazeborn watched Estenarven cross the room and raised a golden eyebrow. “Well?”

Unsure quite what he was being asked, Estenarven lowered himself to sit cross-legged at the low table in the space opposite his elder and bowed his head. “All is well.”

The corner of Khennik’s mouth twitched. “Good. Now eat, before I devour the whole lot myself. You and Mastekh have been blocking the door since breakfast. I can’t remember the last time I felt so famished.”

The last tension in Estenarven’s shoulders relaxed and he grinned at his elder in relief. “Shouldn’t we save something for Mastekh?” he asked, even as he picked up a whole chicken for himself. Now that his hangover was gone and his head and horns were no longer hurting so much, Estenarven realised he was starving too – and with so much food in front of him, it would be rude to feel otherwise.

“No,” Khennik replied, piling his own plate high with pastries and pies and the occasional piece of fruit. “If he wants some, he’ll have to claim it for himself.”

And even though he was courting the dragon’s heart, Estenarven shrugged in agreement. Love and romance were all very well in their own way, but he was hungry. At times like this, it was every dragon’s stomach for itself.

Especially at a time like this, when the pastries were divine and Elder Blazeborn had almost eaten the lot. Resisting the urge to growl at the other dragon – barely – Estenarven snatched two of the last three for himself and hunched over his plate to protect it from the long arm of the elder.

Rolling his eyes, Khennik moved on to the fruit tarts and Estenarven forgot all thoughts of Mastekh in a bid to claim his fair share of the feast. He had to keep up his strength, after all, and there was a lot of him to feed. Slapping Khennik’s grabby hands away from the bread basket, Estenarven seized two handfuls of rolls and swept the jam and butter dish into his temporary protection.

Elder Blazeborn glared at him over the table before picking up the platter of doelyn slices and slowly placing it on the floor beside himself.

Estenarven narrowed his eyes. So it was to be like that, was it? He annexed the quail eggs and let war commence.

 

 

 

 

[]14

Sleeper Awakes

h1={color:#000;}.

SOMETHING WAS DIFFERENT. Mastekh lay in bed, staring muzzily at the murky light coming through his narrow window and tried to work it out. He didn’t remember going to bed. In fact, the last thing he remembered was…

His eyes shot open and he sat upright, clutching the covers.

Estenarven. He had fallen asleep in Estenarven’s arms. On Estenarven’s chest. True, one of them had been in vast dragon form while the other had been a puny, watery human, but still. He had slept with Estenarven.

Groaning, Mastekh slumped flat on his back and stared at the ceiling. He’d slept with Estenarven and he couldn’t remember it. Although, he supposed, at least this way he was saved the embarrassment of waking up and having nothing to say.

He snorted derisively. As if he ever had anything to say. Grimacing, he lowered his eyes to the window again, beyond which a storm was once more raging, and smiled at the daisy.

The first courting gift, something pretty and insubstantial, designed to show interest.

Or, perhaps, just a sweet little daisy that Estenarven had found and thought Mastekh might like. It might not have been a courtship gift at all, for all that Mastekh had intended his return gift of rock cakes to be regarded as well.

How could a dragon tell? Mastekh could hardly march up to Estenarven and ask. He hadn’t even been able to thank him properly. He’d just made rock cakes.

One gift, however sweet and thoughtful did not a courtship make.

Feeling deflated, Mastekh sat up and wriggled down the bed towards the windowsill. And frowned.

Something was different. He had sensed it when he woke, now he was certain of it. Something had changed inside the room – but what?

He reached out to stroke the delicate petals of his daisy and flinched as a flash of lightning lit the room. A shimmer of green caught his attention and he finally realised what had changed.

The stone bowl that had previously held his daisy was gone.

His hands shook ever so slightly as he reached for what had replaced it. Cool to the touch, smooth and pale green – as revealed by another timely flash of lightning – a small jade pot now took care of his daisy. It was simple, plain and polished, smooth and unmarked, and utterly, utterly perfect.

The second gift: something solid and permanent to show long lasting intent.

Mastekh cradled the pretty jade piece and its straggly daisy against his chest, closing his eyes and bowing his head over them. Two gifts. Two courting gifts. Estenarven was serious. He was courting him.

A deep breath shuddered out of Mastekh, full of relief and gratitude. Estenarven wanted him, he truly did. He thought he was worthy enough to court. By the Family, Mastekh had never expected such a thing, and from Estenarven of all dragons.

“Oh n-n-no.”

Mastekh’s eyes flew open and he clenched his hands around his prize. A second gift.

Now it was his turn.

He jerked his head around the tiny room he’d been given, looking over his meagre belongings, trying to think of something, anything that he could give in return. Something solid, something permanent. Sibling Water, what in the Overworld did a Rainstorm have to give a Boulderforce?

Panic built inside Mastekh’s chest, his breath turning shallow and fast. He needed a second gift and he needed it quickly. He had a day to respond or Estenarven would think he wasn’t interested.

But he was. By the Family, he truly was.

Yet what to give him? What did anyone give a Stoneheart that was permanent and solid? They already were the epitome of such things – what could Mastekh possibly give Estenarven that he didn’t already have?

Think, think, he ordered, putting his precious jade pot back on the windowsill in order to ball his hands into fists and thump himself on the head. There had to be something he could come up with, something that would show his own intent, while also being unexpected and a bit of a surprise.

He could always take the easy way out and find a pebble or something boring like that. It would be symbolic, if nothing else, but that wasn’t what Mastekh wanted. Estenarven’s jade pot showed thought and caring. It was green, like Mastekh, slightly translucent like water, and practical enough to support his first gift. It wasn’t an obvious, easy gift. It had meaning above and beyond the usual symbolism. Mastekh could offer up nothing less in return, not if he wanted this courtship to be equal.

So he needed to think.

His first gift had been rock cakes, because Estenarven was always hungry and had a sweet tooth that most Stonehearts didn’t. It had shown that Mastekh knew him and cared about him and what he liked.

Now he had to find a small, permanent symbol of that.

As he sat there, alternately tapping his fingers against his mouth and thumping himself on the forehead, thinking about rock cakes and more permanent alternatives, Mastekh’s belly let out a loud, ferocious growl. Even though he was completely alone, heat flooded his face as he pressed a hand against the sound. He considered when the last time he’d eaten had been and recalled fetching breakfast for Elder Blazeborn before falling asleep with Estenarven.

Which must have been ages ago, he realised, jumping out of bed with a squeak. Here he was, dreaming, thinking and sleeping the day away when he had duties to perform and an elder to take care of.

Oh, he was making such a mess of everything.

Hurriedly securing the tie of his robe around his waist, he ran his fingers through the fluff of hair on his head and scurried from his room.

The main space of the suite was empty, but a fire roared in the grate and the low table in front of it was littered with empty plates. Mastekh walked cautiously towards the mess, searching for scraps.

Nothing. Every last plate – and there were enough of them for a feast – was bare of anything but the tiniest of crumbs and occasional smear of jam.

Mastekh’s stomach snarled in protest. Pressing a hand against it, he sighed and began gathering up the empty plates. Since he had to pay a visit to the kitchens for himself anyway, he might as well save the dracos a journey. And perhaps, while he was down there, he might spot a suitable second gift.

Biting his lips, he piled his arms full of crockery, careful not to make too much noise as he edged towards the exterior door. The mumble of voices sounded inside Elder Blazeborn’s room, but Mastekh didn’t want to draw attention to himself. Willing his belly to remain quiet a little longer, he allowed his tail to slide free and support the plates while he turned the handle and slipped out into the corridor beyond.

First food, then a gift, then back to work. Nodding determinedly, Mastekh hurried through the tower’s hallways, his way lit by lightning and glow globes and the occasional smile from a storm-addled Tempestfury. It was a strange and somewhat crazy place, but Mastekh found himself growing fonder of it by the day.

 

 

 

 

[]15

The Second Gift

h1={color:#000;}.

4th Storm Month

IT WAS LUNCHTIME and Estenarven hadn’t seen Mastekh since he’d put the Rainstorm to bed the afternoon before. He knew Mastekh was shy and likely more than a little embarrassed about what had happened between them, but this long absence was beginning to worry him. Estenarven had been so excited at breakfast, sitting in the suite, waiting for Mastekh to return from the kitchens so he could ask about the gift.

Did Mastekh like it? Had it made him smile when he saw it?

Was he willing to accept it? Accept him?

Were they courting now?

He’d paced the main room of the suite for ages, fighting the urge to knock on Mastekh’s door – or simply barge inside – to see if the jade pot was still there. To see if it had been accepted, if his courtship had been accepted. To see if Mastekh liked it.

But just as his patience finally broke, someone knocked on the outer door and three dracos entered carrying breakfast. Confused, Estenarven had waved the servants towards the appropriate table to lay the food on and knocked on Mastekh’s door.

No answer.

When he looked inside he found it empty, as expected, but the presence of the dracos implied that Mastekh wasn’t coming back. He always joined Estenarven for breakfast. It was a chance to catch up and sort out what chores they would each do for Elder Blazeborn through the day – well, when Estenarven didn’t have a hangover, anyway.

The dracos finished putting everything in its place and there was still no sign of Mastekh. As the tallest servant poured out a pungent cup of ginger tea, drawing Elder Blazeborn out of his lair, Estenarven had to accept that his fellow aide wasn’t coming. Clearly, Mastekh had already been down to the kitchens that morning and ordered breakfast, but he had no intention of returning to share it with Estenarven.

Which hurt more than he’d expected it to. Rubbing at the ache in his chest, he’d asked the dracos where Mastekh was, but they’d ducked their heads shyly and giggled behind their hands instead of answering. Sipping his cup of tea, Elder Blazeborn had rolled his eyes, thanked the servants and dismissed them.

“Trouble?” the elder then asked, folding elegantly to his knees before the low table and filling a platter with breakfast fruits.

Baffled and hurt, Estenarven had shaken his head. When Elder Blazeborn had ordered him to eat, Estenarven joined him at the table to find that his usually robust appetite had fled and he’d only been able to pick at some eggs.

Now it was lunchtime and Elder Blazeborn had dismissed him to take his meal in the grand dining hall, telling him to stop sulking and sighing around the suite and find someone else to mope at. Normally Estenarven would have jumped at the chance to spend time with others, but since a single glance on entering the dining room was enough to assure him that Mastekh wasn’t there, Estenarven didn’t feel much like company.

Before he could think of somewhere else to slope off to in search of Mastekh, a cheerful slap landed on his shoulder and a friendly arm hooked through his.

“Hey, Pebble, why the sad face? Tired of all the storms already?” Vish grinned at him, while Anhardyne tugged him towards a long table filled with familiar Rider faces.

“Come sit with us,” Anhardyne urged, pushing him into a seat beside Nera.

“Oh, I, er, was just leaving,” he protested weakly.

“Nonsense,” Vish chuckled, slapping him on the shoulder again. “You’ve only just arrived. A dragon like you needs to keep up his strength. Go on, tuck in.”

Wedged in between the female lieutenants at an already crowded table, Estenarven realised he didn’t have much choice but to stay. He sighed. Nera shot him a commiserating smile, and he knew he couldn’t be rude enough to get up and walk away now. Anhardyne and Vish might be a pushy pair, but Nera was a friend. So he gave in and slumped in his seat.

“Try the soup,” Nera said, surprising him with a wink.

Estenarven frowned; Nera was not the winking sort. Rubbing a hand over his head, feeling more than a little unsettled, he accepted a soup bowl from a passing draco and stared down at it in confusion.

There was something in the bowl – but it wasn’t soup.

“Ooh, what do you have there?” Anhardyne asked, leaning against his arm.

“I…” Estenarven put the bowl in front of him, dipping a finger inside to stir the contents. “I have no idea.”

“Look like beans to me,” Lieutenant Gharrik remarked from across the table.

Estenarven frowned even harder. Beans? Why would a draco give him a bowl of uncooked beans? He stirred the small, dark shapes with a claw and drew in a sharp breath.

Pebbles. Mixed in amongst the dark beans were small, oval pebbles. But not just any random pebbles, each one was a different stone, a different colour, but all almost the same size and shape, polished to perfection. A collection, painstakingly gathered and smoothed to perfection. Hidden in a bowl of beans.

“Blimey, you could crack a tooth on one of those,” Anhardyne chuckled, reaching for a pebble.

Estenarven smacked her hand away without thought. No one was touching anything within this bowl. No one but him.

“Ow. You could have just told me not to touch,” the blonde lieutenant grumbled.

“Don’t touch,” Estenarven growled.

“All right then.” Hands raised, she shifted as far away from him as possible at the crowded table, while Nera snickered on his other side.

“Boundaries, Hardy,” Vish said. “We’ve talked about them. Apparently they’re something other people have and good manners state that we must respect that.”

“That’s because good manners and other people are boring.”

Ignoring them, Estenarven stirred his precious bowl again, studying the beans more intently this time. Why beans? Raw, untouched ones at that.

“Looks like quite a crop you have there,” Gharrik said, leaning across the table for a better look. “I didn’t know you dragons cared that much for farming.”

Most dragons didn’t, but a rare few, mostly Rainstorms, showed an occasional interest. “Ah…” It was starting to make sense now.

Pebbles for him – small, sturdy, permanent – and beans for the future – full of potential and possible nourishment. Mastekh hadn’t just given him a meaningful gift in return, he’d given him hope.

Smiling, Estenarven lowered his hand into the bowl and let beans and pebbles run between his fingers, smooth and rough and small and perfect. A wonderful second gift.

Only five more to go.

Feeling his appetite return with a rush of good cheer, Estenarven placed the bowl carefully on his lap and shuffled forwards to reach for the nearest platters of food, his mind racing.

“So what happens next?” Nera asked, passing him a basket piled high with seed rolls. “I take it you’ve accepted his gift, yes?”

Of course the Riders had been in on Mastekh’s plan – well, one of them, at least. That explained Nera’s uncharacteristic wink. Reaching for the mulberry jam, Estenarven slathered it all over his roll and took a big bite, shrugging.

“Are there more gifts?” Vish wanted to know.

“I hope so, because… beans? What kind of a gift is a bowl of beans?” Anhardyne shook her head, making Estenarven smile. If anyone had asked him such a thing just that morning, he would have agreed with her. Now he couldn’t think of anything he’d rather receive.

Swallowing his mouthful, he realised he was the centre of a lot of Rider attention and raised his eyebrows. “Dragon courtships are private things.”

“Does that mean you don’t want any help?” Anhardyne asked, nudging him with her shoulder. “’Cause we have a few ideas, if you’re interested.”

He turned an enquiring glance her way.

“We’ve already helped Mastekh,” Nera pointed out, drawing his attention in the opposite direction. “It’s only fair to help you too.”

“If you would like us to,” Gharrik added, with a warning glance at the younger lieutenants.

Estenarven reached for the jam and slowly spread it on a fresh roll, considering the offer. It was true that Mastekh had enlisted the Riders’ assistance in making sure Estenarven sat down to lunch and received the special bowl at the right moment. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if he did something similar.

Licking a bit of jam from his thumb, he pondered the next gift on the list and smiled. “There might be something you can do for me. But not a word to Mastekh,” he warned.

Anhardyne and Vish both mimed locking their lips and throwing away the key, while Gharrik and Nera smiled. “Not a word,” they promised.

“All right,” he agreed, motioning the four lieutenants closer and gaining a few extras Riders who were also within earshot. “The next gift needs to be something meaningful for Mastekh. I already have something in mind, but getting him to the right place in order to give it to him might be a bit tricky, so here’s what you can do for me…”

 

 

 

 

[]16

A Gift of Meaning

h1={color:#000;}.

5th Storm Month

THE THIRD GIFT had to be one of great meaning to the dragon being courted, to show how well their prospective lover knew them. Even though Mastekh had only delivered his second gift the night before, he was already fretting over the next one – and also what to expect from Estenarven.

Mastekh didn’t have much in the way of possessions. He’d never needed them before. He wasn’t a very material-minded dragon and he struggled to think of anything Estenarven could possibly give to him, almost as much as he worried over what to give in return.

“Third gift, is it?” Elder Blazeborn enquired, not even looking up from his letters when Mastekh delivered his morning tea. “Any ideas yet?”

Mastekh was so thrown by the idea that the elder was paying attention to their courtship that he babbled something incoherent and scurried away before he could drip all over the carpets.

It was one thing to have enlisted the assistance of the Rift Rider lieutenants the night before – they were friends of Estenarven and seemed delighted to help – but including Elder Blazeborn would be unthinkable. He was far too busy and important to worry about his aides’ private lives. He was an elder and, more than that, he was working to undo the Cloud Curse that had covered the world in a thick blanket of cloud.

No, Mastekh wasn’t about to draw Elder Blazeborn into his planning. It would be unseemly.

All of which had him flustered and dithering as he finished setting out the breakfast things and sat down to await Estenarven’s arrival.

Placing the beakers and platters down just so, Mastekh reached across and tweaked things ever so slightly before lowering himself onto his knees in front of the table. He drummed his fingers on the polished marble surface, twitched his feet, wriggled to get comfortable again, shifted to sit cross-legged, then stood up with a huff. It wasn’t working. He’d never been good at sitting still, even when he wasn’t waiting.

So he took a quick walk around the table and, when that didn’t settle his jitters, made a lap of the room. Pausing before Estenarven’s door, he half-raised his hand to knock, wanting to get this meeting over with, yet also fearing to disturb the other dragon. What if Estenarven wasn’t awake yet? Just because both he and the elder were up, didn’t mean the Boulderforce would be too. Mastekh clenched his hand into a fist and paced back the other way.

Passing the table for the third time, he stopped dead as Estenarven’s door swung open and the Boulderforce stepped out into the main room, arms stretched over his head, yawning widely. Rolling his shoulders, Estenarven rubbed his jaw and glanced sleepily around until he found Mastekh.

His smile was sweet. “Morning, Puddle,” he rumbled, voice deep and rough with sleep.

Mastekh’s knees wobbled and he folded swiftly down in front of the table again. “M-m-morning,” he mumbled in return. “Tea?”

“Mm,” Estenarven agreed, sauntering over to join him and settling down on the opposite side of the low table. “Thank you for my gift.”

Heat flooded into Mastekh’s cheeks and he ducked his head. Water sloshed out of the teapot, barely making it into the beakers, so he put it down and took a deep breath. “You’re w-welcome. Thank you for m-m-mine.”

“You liked it?” Estenarven asked, sounding almost shy as he reached for the seed rolls, fresh fruit and the honey pot.

Mastekh knew he had to be completely green in the face by now – he felt so warm and his throat was tight with nerves – but he managed a nod.

The Boulderforce let out a soft huff and Mastekh blinked at him in surprise. Estenarven beamed with relief – had he been nervous too? Mastekh couldn’t see why. He was Estenarven, after all, no dragon – or human – in their right mind would ever turn him down. Nor dislike such a lovely gift as the jade pot.

It made some of his own nerves ease and Mastekh managed to ask, “And y-you?”

Estenarven’s smile this time was pure joy. “I love my gift. Beans and pebbles. The best of you and me. Hope and endurance. It was a perfect second gift, Puddle. Thank you.”

“Oh.” Mastekh ducked his head again, face so warm he almost expected it to start steaming. He was pleased and embarrassed and confused by just how happy such simple words could make him. After all, the gift had been a strange, silly one that he’d had to explain over and over to the confused dracos watching him in the kitchen. But Estenarven understood. He liked it.

Flexing his fingers to remove the jitters, Mastekh picked up the teapot again and carefully poured them both a beaker of steaming liquid. He’d gone with honey and lemon today, needing something sweet to help battle his nerves. Estenarven took a deep sniff before he drank and hummed with approval.

After that they ate in silence, but it was a good silence, filled with companionship of a kind that Mastekh had never dreamed he would encounter. He’d never been good with words, but silence often made him anxious, certain he should be saying something if only he could think of what. But not with Estenarven, never with Estenarven. The Boulderforce had words enough for both of them, so when he chose quiet it was because he knew there was nothing that needed to be said. It was a relief and a relaxation all in one. Mastekh drank his tea, picked at his blackberries and breathed easily.

This was what he wanted: peace, companionship, quiet. This was what he needed.

Polishing off the last of the seed rolls and shining an apple on the front of his robe, Estenarven straightened his long legs beneath the table. “So, what chores are on the list for today?” he asked, planting his elbows on the table and crunching into his apple.

Mastekh jumped as Estenarven’s feet knocked against his knee. “Um…” He shuffled aside to give the Boulderforce more room, only for an ankle to press against him instead. He twitched and rolled off his knees, opting to sit cross-legged.

Estenarven grinned and plunked his feet in Mastekh’s lap, toes wriggling happily. “I thought we might clean out the elder’s cabin on the Skylark, scrub the boards, plump the cushions, clean the windows, that sort of thing.”

Mastekh stared at the Boulderforce’s feet in confusion. He’d never really looked at someone else’s feet before – he barely paid attention to his own. Estenarven’s were long and dark, broad and strong, much like the rest of him. His toes were blunt and tipped with dark pewter claws. Mastekh wanted to touch them… which felt weird.

Was this the beginning of a foot fetish?

“I thought we might also move the walls a bit,” Estenarven continued, tipping his right foot sideways until it rested on Mastekh’s thigh.

Mastekh twitched, hands on the floor behind him, claws scratching lightly over stone.

“Maybe make a side room.” Estenarven flexed his foot, stroking Mastekh’s thigh.

It sent a tingle right through his body. It also tickled. He twitched again.

“Which I thought we might, um, share?”

Another rub, another tingle, more of a tickle.

Mastekh grabbed Estenarven’s foot and squeaked as the toes flexed against his palm, tickling even more over his sensitive skin. “S-stop!”

Grinning, Estenarven tried to pull his foot away, but Mastekh had hold of him now and turnabout was fair play.

Gripping the broad foot with one hand, he ran a claw softly down the centre.

Estenarven’s huffed out curse was drowned beneath a crash as he twitched, his knees bashing the underside of the table and making all the crockery rattle, almost upending the whole lot.

It was Mastekh’s turn to grin. A delighted giggle bubbled out of him as Estenarven snatched his feet away to the safety of his side of the table.

Mastekh hugged his knees to his chest, rocking side to side with triumph. “I think c-cleaning out the c-cabin is an excellent i-d-dea,” he chortled.

“And the side room?” Estenarven asked, scratching the sole of his foot and trying to scowl but not quite managing as a smile kept escaping.

Mastekh blushed from head to toes, yet somehow managed not to look away. He stared deeply into those laughing dark eyes and smiled. “I’d l-l-like that.”

“The perfect gift for both of us,” Estenarven agreed.

Even though Mastekh knew it wouldn’t count for any of their seven, he dipped his head in an agreeing nod. After all, there could be no greater gift – in courtship or out – than the long term companionship of the dragon opposite him.

And just like that he knew what his third gift to Estenarven would be. Now all he had to do was arrange it.

 

 

 

 

[]17

Chores

h1={color:#000;}.

ESTENARVEN COULD NOT remember the last time he’d felt so happy. Breakfast had been a delight, teasing Mastekh and being tickled in return had been wonderful. He was even enjoying a walk in the rain because he had a particular Rainstorm by his side.

Mastekh was humming again; Estenarven loved to hear it. Not that his fellow aide was particularly musical, but the bubbling, rippling sounds only emerged when the Rainstorm was happy – and that was a gift beyond price as far as Estenarven was concerned.

So even though he was soaked through by the time the Skylark came into view, moored inside the mouth of a vast cave, Estenarven approached the skyship with a light heart.

“Ho, there young dragons, what brings you back aboard my vessel?” Captain Hornvel planted himself at the top of the gangplank, preventing them from taking the last few steps onto the deck. The man was short, even by human standards, but the skyship captain more than made up for his lack of inches with the force of his personality. He ran his ship with a loud voice and a firm sense of duty. Gruff but not grumpy, the man nevertheless was wary of dragons. And considering how many of them had come aboard the Skylark since the humans had entered the Dragonlands, Estenarven couldn’t much blame him.

“We’re here to clean Elder Blazeborn’s cabin,” he said, keeping his smile to himself since it would be wasted on this man. Estenarven had never met anyone more resistant to his charm – thankfully.

The captain eyed the pair of them sceptically, seeming to take extra note of their lack of cleaning supplies. He sniffed. “Think my sailors aren’t capable of cleaning below decks now?”

“No, of c-c-course not,” Mastekh babbled quickly, clearly appalled that the captain might take their presence as a slight.

Estenarven rested a soothing hand on the Rainstorm’s shoulder. “We have every faith in your sailors, captain,” he replied. “But as Elder Blazeborn’s aides, we know our duty too. Why should we make extra work for your crew when we’ve time enough to do our own chores?”

Captain Hornvel stared at him for a long, considering moment before inclining his head the tiniest fraction. “Aye, well, see that you do then. We’ll be checking,” he added, standing aside so they could board in peace. “Cleaning cloths, mops and buckets are alongside the galley.”

“Thanks, captain,” Estenarven called, as the man strode swiftly away, already barking a set of instructions to the sailors scrubbing the top deck.

“Maybe this w-wasn’t such a g-g-good idea,” Mastekh muttered, sticking his soggy hands under his armpits, most likely to stop himself from dripping on the clean deck as he scurried in Estenarven’s wake. A wasted effort, in Estenarven’s eyes, since the pair of them were already soaked and sodden from walking in the rain. The same rain that even now was getting blown in through the cave entrance, under the balloon and over the freshly scrubbed decks.

“It’s fine. We’re fine,” Estenarven assured him, making for the nearest hatch and catching the faintest smile on the captain’s lips before the man turned away. If Estenarven didn’t know better, he might almost think Hornvel approved of them being here. Excellent. That meant his Rider friends had been busy preparing the way.

Clambering down the ladder, Estenarven was surprised at how quiet it was below decks. It was his first time on the Skylark while it wasn’t in flight, and the lack of crew, Riders and other dragons bustling about made it all seem a lot bigger. Lighter too, he thought, passing a golden glow globe that pulsed with the heat of Elder Blazeborn’s power.

Now that he was out of the weather, Estenarven couldn’t ignore the clammy way his silk robe was clinging to his skin. The cool discomfort tempted him to pick up the next glow globe they passed, since the warmth was extremely inviting, but stealing the passage lights would be a sure way to get in Captain Hornvel’s bad books, so Estenarven rolled his shoulders and walked on.

It wasn’t far to the front of the ship, where the great prow cabin had been divided into two, turning a fine state room into a couple of slightly cramped spaces to accommodate Ambassador Jesken and the Rider captain on one side, Elder Blazeborn, Estenarven and Mastekh on the other. It wasn’t a perfect solution by any means, but it certainly beat sharing the divided rear quarters with Elders Goryal, Leasang and Rishen, plus their aides and Reglian.

The door to the ambassador’s room had been left ajar, allowing Estenarven to peer in as he passed. The space was dominated by an enormous map table, with a bed and a desk crammed into separate corners either side of the big window. The same window that stretched into Elder Blazeborn’s room and provided a perfect view of the sunset whenever they were in westward flight. Which, of course, was the main reason why he had claimed this spot for his elder in the first place. That and the extra quiet away from the rest of the dragons. Elder Blazeborn liked things to be quiet. After a moon of sharing this ship with the Riders and other dragons, Estenarven had come to appreciate a little silence and solitude himself.

“Well,” Mastekh sighed, stepping into the cabin and looking around. “W-where to b-begin?”

Estenarven looked around the space and wondered the same thing himself. Unlike the ambassador’s cabin, there was no great map table planted in the middle of this room to take up most of the space. Instead Elder Blazeborn had a narrow bed stretched out beneath the window and a sturdy desk tucked against the foot. Beyond that, everything else was empty.

When in flight there would be trunks and papers and soft furnishings cluttering everything up, but Estenarven had carefully packed everything up and removed it to Highstrike for the duration of their stay. Not because the elder would need all of it, but because it was the surest way to keep everything private and safe. Besides correspondence, maps and personal journals, Elder Blazeborn had a fine set of blankets and pillows, which had helped to make this whole journey bearable for Estenarven and Mastekh – who slept on the floor of the cabin in whichever corner felt most secure, unless they moored up somewhere overnight and could sleep outside instead.

Even though dragons were hardy and shouldn’t need such things, soft comforts were still nice to have, and Estenarven wouldn’t trust any of his fellow dragons not to steal a blanket or a cushion or even a handkerchief if left foolishly unattended for long. Just because they didn’t need them, didn’t mean they didn’t want them. Jesral kin Lightstorm in particular had very twitchy fingers.

None of which was helping him clean the place up. Reaching for the nearest glow globe, which Elder Blazeborn had left glowing softly in the corner, Estenarven studied the grey view beyond the glass and smiled. “I’ll tackle the window, you sweep the floors?”

Mastekh wrinkled his nose, but sighed in agreement. “Let’s g-get to work.”

 

 

 

 

[]18

Pout

h1={color:#000;}.

SURELY, IT HAD to be love. Mastekh couldn’t think what else could possibly leave him feeling so content as he worked alongside Estenarven, sweeping floors, scrubbing walls, swabbing floors and sweeping all over again. It wasn’t difficult work, but it was quite tiresome, and Mastekh found himself humming through most of it. He even laughed a time or two when Estenarven told him what the Riders were up to outside the window, offered up the juiciest bits of crew gossip and even whistled off-key as a counterpoint to his hums.

It wasn’t even as if the work was particularly satisfying, since the cabin was small and cramped and made mostly of dark wood, leaving it looking pretty much the same when they finished as when they started. The windows did gleam quite nicely, but Mastekh couldn’t claim any responsibility for that.

And yet, when the light outside the window began to dim, Mastekh still felt as if he’d had a good day.

“There,” he said, sweeping the last of the dirt and dust into the pan and emptying it into the bucket, ready to be carried up the ladder and tossed over the side of the deck. “All d-d-done.”

“Perfect,” Estenarven replied, wiping his cloth over the door handle to provide one last flourish. “I spoke to First Mate Galha earlier. She says she’ll bring some crew and Riders in tomorrow to shift the walls about. It won’t give us much space, but there’s some extra crawl space behind here that we’re not using.” He knocked on the outer wall with his knuckles. “I doubt I’ll be able to stand up inside it, but I don’t need to while I’m sleeping.”

Mastekh felt his face warm at the thought of sharing such a tiny space with the big Boulderforce, but he didn’t protest. He wanted to share a room with Estenarven, even if they did nothing more than sleep in it. As long as they were together.

“Sounds g-g-good,” he mumbled, wishing he could be more sophisticated or seductive, or knew the right words to make everything sound right.

Estenarven didn’t seem to mind. Smiling, he curled a finger beneath Mastekh’s chin and tilted his face upwards. “A space of our own,” he murmured, his voice a low, seductive rumble. “I can’t wait.” He brushed his lips ever so gently across Mastekh’s mouth, the tiny kiss sending heat washing right down to his toes.

Mastekh puffed out a tiny sigh, lips parting in search of more, but Estenarven had already pulled away.

“Ready to go?” the Boulderforce asked, winking.

No. Mastekh was ready for more kisses here in this empty room. He was ready to hear more about the space they were going to share. He was ready for anything, as long as it didn’t involve moving from this spot – nor included Estenarven moving either.

But Estenarven was already gathering up their buckets of dirty water and dust and opening the door. Leaving Mastekh to swallow his disappointment and trail after him in a way that was becoming all too familiar.

Dragging his feet and indulging himself in a tiny bout of petulance, Mastekh allowed Estenarven to pull ahead, returning their cleaning tools to the galley while the Boulderforce climbed the ladder to get rid of the dust and dirty water outside. Then he gave himself a stern talking to as he climbed to the top deck in search of his fellow aide.

Estenarven was gone.

Frowning, Mastekh looked around the deck. Beyond the usual mess of ropes and chains and the occasional skysailor, there wasn’t a single sign of the tall Boulderforce. Mastekh’s frown deepened. Yes, he’d taken a little extra time to follow, but it hadn’t been that long, had it? Certainly not long enough for Estenarven to grow bored of waiting and set off without him.

A loud burst of laughter spun him around and he flinched.

Oh, of course. Why would Estenarven bother waiting around for a petulant Rainstorm when there were far more interesting people to talk to?

Dread weighing his shoulders down, Mastekh slunk towards the gangplank, prepared for the sight of Lieutenants Anhardyne and Vish flirting with Estenarven again. Possibly even hanging all over him. Mastekh knew he didn’t have any right to feel jealous, he knew there wasn’t much going on between the trio, but it still hurt. Mostly because Mastekh could never match up and it made him feel small and petty and insecure.

Another burst of laughter made him twitch, but he squared his shoulders and strode towards the side, ready for whatever would meet his eyes.

“Safe flight!” Anhardyne shouted, charging up the gangplank and almost colliding with Mastekh at the top. “Oh, sorry, Puddle, I almost splashed straight through you.” Chortling at her own joke, she patted him on the arm and hurried away across the deck.

Not that Mastekh was paying her any attention – his eyes were fixed on the sight before him.

Riders surrounded Estenarven, just as he feared, but not in a flirtatious way. No one was sitting in his lap, trying to steal kisses or vying for his attention. They weren’t even really talking to him, except Lieutenant Nera who was smiling at something Estenarven muttered in a low rumble that turned Mastekh’s knees all watery as he stumbled his way to the bottom of the plank.

Then he looked up. Up, up, up into the glinting, laughing eyes of the dragon laid out before him. There was a reason why Estenarven wasn’t on the Skylark anymore – he wouldn’t be able to fit. Stretched out in full dragon shape, Estenarven was huge and magnificent and the finest specimen of kin Boulderforce that Mastekh had ever seen.

Winking a large black eye at Nera, Estenarven lowered his great head and nuzzled Mastekh. The touch, even a gentle one, was enough to make him stagger, but a firm grip on Estenarven’s snout saved him from falling over.

“Ready to go?” Estenarven asked again, only this time Mastekh felt very differently about his answer.

It might not have been a kiss, but it was better than heading straight back to Elder Blazeborn’s suite in the Tempestfury towers.

This was flight. Together.

“Yes, p-p-please,” Mastekh bubbled, hugging Estenarven’s snout and pressing his cheek against cool grey scales.

Rumbling a chuckle, Estenarven nudged him away. “Then get your wings on, Puddle. It’s time to rejoin the rainstorm.”

 

 

 

 

[]19

Rainstorm

h1={color:#000;}.

ESTENARVEN WASN’T PARTICULARLY fond of rain. At least, he never had been before. It was cold and clammy and felt unpleasant on human skin. In flight it snuck into all the secret places between his scales, reminding him of all the ways water could break down rock if given long enough to work.

But that was before.

Before Mastekh. Before this courtship. Before attraction and affection and love.

And flight.

It felt like they spent an eternity in the cold, damp, bitter air of the gathering dusk, weaving between raindrops, wingtips touching, tails brushing. The storm stayed away, along with the Riders and Tempestfurys, making it feel like they had the whole sky to themselves.

Estenarven’s third gift to his Puddle wasn’t anything that could be pinned down. It wasn’t something that could be picked up, put in a pocket and carried around. It could be touched, it could be tasted and it could be heard, but it was no object that could be kept or admired or shown off to others.

But it could be remembered – and treasured.

His third gift was a rainstorm for his Rainstorm, shared together in flight.

And Estenarven would never think of rain in the same way again.

 

 

 

 

[]20

Courage

h1={color:#000;}.

6th Storm Month

DEEP BREATH IN, deep breath out. I can do this. I can do this. Mastekh tried to focus his thoughts in a positive direction, but his hands were shaking and he felt all liquid inside.

He was nervous.

Some might say that wasn’t unusual, but Mastekh knew better. He had a nervy disposition and was often anxious, but full nervousness was a whole other step into the jitters. He was twitchy, jumping at every sound – and considering the thundering storm currently crashing down on top of Highstrike, there was a lot of sound – chewing at his lip, pacing the floor.

All because of the best flight of his life.

Oh, how wonderful it had been to soar through the raindrops with Estenarven by his side. His tail had fluttered accidentally against the Boulderforce’s side at one point, blown by the swirling wind. Before Mastekh could apologise for the shocking breech of etiquette, Estenarven’s tail had returned the caress. Their tails had twined. Only for a moment, only for a breath but, by the Family, Mastekh’s heart had pounded.

A wing brush, a mid-air nuzzle from Estenarven as he’d drifted beneath Mastekh’s chest.

Small touches, barely discernable to any watching eyes. Tame, by most dragons’ standards, but they had been everything to Mastekh. Everything.

He hoarded the memories inside his chest and squeezed himself, hugging them close. Such a gift, such a wonderful gift.

Which reminded him that it was his turn again.

“Oh, oh, oh,” he puffed to himself, trying to remember to breathe. Steady, slow, deep. Every so often he forgot and snatched a shallow gasp, leaving him light-headed enough to stop pacing and wait for the moment to pass.

He was so nervous.

“S-stop it,” he ordered himself, but he couldn’t help it. The third gift was important. He had to get it right.

Something meaningful to Estenarven. Something meaningful… He knew what he wanted to do, had it all planned, but that was the easy part. Now he had to do it. And Estenarven’s gift to him had been so perfect, Mastekh wasn’t at all sure his own could compare.

He shook his head, aware of a small scattering of droplets flying from his clammy skin to splatter on the table. He needed to take hold of himself. These nerves would not do. At this rate he would fret himself into a panic. Estenarven wouldn’t get his third gift and the courtship would be over and Mastekh would be alone again and no one else would ever think of befriending him so he would be outcast and adrift his whole life. The sad, pathetic, soggy Rainstorm that other dragons laughed at and talked about in low voices and no one wanted to be around. He wouldn’t be able to blame them either, because it would have been his own fault. All because he’d fretted himself into a fever over his turn to try and give a gift of meaning to the most wonderful dragon he had ever met.

Black spots appeared in his vision and Mastekh breathed in on a giant gasp, aware that panic had sprung upon him and he was swaying where he stood.

This would not do.

Taking himself firmly to task, he scolded his own stupidity inside his head and stomped across the room, forcing himself to sit down. The carpet squelched beneath his feet, but he refused to feel bad about it. He’d been dripping all day, going over and over his plans, preparing for the big moment.

It was almost here and it would do no one any good if Estenarven returned to find Mastekh passed out in a puddle.

So he sat down, clasped his hands firmly on his knees and stared at the blotchy green patches on his grey-blue skin. He’d dispelled so much water today it was a wonder he could still stand. At the very least he must have shrunk a good four inches, and there was no knowing how much weight he had shed. At this rate his third gift was going to be to drip out of existence and, as shocking as it often was to Mastekh, that didn’t seem to be what Estenarven wanted.

He wanted Mastekh’s company, his presence, his touch. Swirling himself down the nearest drainage hole would be a poor repayment for Estenarven’s thoughtful courtship.

“All r-r-right,” he sighed, flexing his hands and placing them palm-down against his thighs. “G-good.” He could breathe again. His heartbeat was only slightly faster than normal and his skin felt only slightly moist.

I can do this. I can do this. It was what Estenarven wanted, the least he deserved. Mastekh could do that.

A rattle startled him as the doorknob turned. Estenarven was back.

“Well, what a merry dance that turned out to be,” the Boulderforce growled, stomping into the room and slamming the door behind him. “I’ve been all over this wretched crag, searching for a special set of flowers and herbs on behalf of the ambassador, and when I finally track down something that might just pass muster, I go back and find Captain Wellswen had the special soap in her trunk all along. What a wasted morning!”

He slumped onto the stone couch opposite Mastekh with a weary grunt and collapsed flat on his back, eyes closed. “Humans.”

Mastekh dug his claws into his thighs, unsure quite how he was supposed to react. The Riders had kept Estenarven occupied all morning as a favour to him. While he was grateful for that, he hadn’t expected them to return his Pebble in a grump. That had definitely not been part of Mastekh’s plans.

A dark eye opened, pinning him in place. “How’s your morning been, Puddle? Better than mine, I trust.”

Since Mastekh had spent all of it fretting and most of it pacing in anticipation of this moment, he could only nod. Once again his throat had tightened up, leaving speech impossible.

Estenarven didn’t seem to mind, just closed his eye again and arched his back in a lazy stretch. “Good.”

Staring at the Boulderforce sprawled opposite him, all power and confidence, Mastekh felt his resolve crumble. This was a stupid idea. What kind of a gift was this for a dragon so fine as that?

A narrow slice of black appeared between Estenarven’s lowered eyelids, a dark glint amongst the shadows of his face. He stretched again, slowly, languidly, raising his arms to fold his hands beneath his head. The broad sleeves of his robe slid down, revealing the taut muscles bulging beneath the skin. Another arch of his back had the top half of his robe parting to reveal the broad expanse of his chest.

Mastekh stared at the display – and it certainly was a display intended for his benefit if the smug tilt of Estenarven’s lips was anything to judge by – and swallowed hard. Sibling Water, if this was his fourth gift come early, he wasn’t about to object.

“Did you know the Tempestfurys have a hot house?” Estenarven asked, his voice a deeply contented rumble. “They grow roses.”

“No, I d-d-didn’t,” Mastekh mumbled, still staring at Estenarven’s chest, though he filed away the interesting titbit in case he might need it later. “How s-s-strange.”

“It’s Elder Gwyllen’s,” Estenarven said, yawning. “Cultivates her own special varieties. Blue and black and lightning white. Quite impressive.”

“Mm,” Mastekh agreed, though in truth the only thing impressing him at the moment was the magnificence of the dragon in front of him. He balled his hands on his thighs again, claws biting into his palms. He wanted to touch, he wanted to pet, but didn’t know if he should.

Would he be welcome? Would Estenarven mind? He didn’t think so, but he couldn’t bear it if his Pebble rejected him.

A dark eye opened to stare at him again. “Why are you still sitting over there?” he rumbled, low and deep and inviting. “Come and talk to me.”

Even with the clear invitation, it still took a long moment before Mastekh could force his legs into movement. He felt watery and weak, but he wanted to be closer to Estenarven, so he got up and padded closer.

Every footfall was a squelch and a frown appeared between Estenarven’s brows. “What’s the matter?”

“N-n-nothing,” Mastekh replied, perching on the very edge of the seat, careful not to touch the Boulderforce lounging beside him. He was trying so hard to gather his courage, trying so hard to remind himself that Estenarven had started this courtship, had led the way with the gifts and now it was Mastekh’s turn again. It wasn’t the best gift in the world, but Mastekh thought Estenarven would like it.

He hoped he would.

He really, really did.

Because if he didn’t…

Not allowing himself any further time to think, fret, worry or panic, Mastekh leant forward, bending stiffly like he was made of wood and planted his lips on Estenarven’s.

Well, he tried.

Only, he wasn’t very practised at this and Estenarven hadn’t seemed to realise what was happening. He moved his head and Mastekh’s nose got in the way, bouncing off Estenarven’s cheekbone, and now it hurt and he was embarrassed —

Mastekh somehow ended up on the other side of the room, face flaming, hands dripping, while Estenarven rubbed his cheek and looked confused.

“Puddle?” he asked softly, carefully, as if walking on precarious ground. “Did you… Did you just kiss me?”

He sounded so baffled, so incredulous that Mastekh wanted to wail at his failure. But his throat was tight again and he couldn’t speak. He just wrapped his arms around himself, shook his head and crouched down, turning himself into a ball of dragon misery.

“S-s-s-s-” He tried to spit out the word, but it wouldn’t come. All he had were bubbles.

“Don’t.” Estenarven was across the room in an instant, sitting behind him and hauling Mastekh onto his lap, into his arms. “Don’t you dare apologise. Never apologise for trying to kiss me, Puddle. Never.”

Lip shaking, Mastekh bit down on it and nodded. He wasn’t sorry for trying – he was sorry for failing. For making a mess of everything. As usual.

“The only thing you should ever be sorry for,” Estenarven murmured, his big hand running over Mastekh’s bony back and soothing away his nerves, “is stopping.”

Relaxing into the reassurance of his stroking hand, Mastekh risked a peek. Estenarven was watching him intently, eyes solemn, expression blank.

“I m-m-missed,” he said mournfully.

“Only because I’m an idiot and moved. I’m sorry I didn’t realise.”

Well, why should he have? It’s not like Mastekh had ever tried to kiss him before. Their entire relationship until this moment had been instigated by Estenarven. Even during their first meeting, Estenarven had spoken first. He always spoke first. He looked for Mastekh, he touched him, he kissed him. Always. Estenarven was a leader. He had confidence, finesse.

Courage.

Mastekh pressed against the warm hand on his back and tried to steal a bit of that for himself. Loosening the clasp of his arms around his knees, he straightened and turned towards the Boulderforce whose lap he was seated on.

He swallowed hard over the lump in his throat and reached out, slowly, carefully, saw Estenarven’s neck move on a swallow of his own.

Was it possible? Could his Pebble be nervous too?

Mastekh didn’t think about it too deeply, he didn’t think about anything. He placed his hand on the solid line of Estenarven’s jaw and leant forward again. Still wooden, still awkward, but he moved closer nevertheless.

Estenarven gasped in anticipation and – at the last moment – tilted his head ever so slightly. There were no bashed noses or cheekbones this time, just a slow, incremental, creeping closeness and the warm brush of air across his mouth. Mastekh licked his lips, so close, so very close, and flicked a glance towards Estenarven’s eyes.

They were closed, lids trembling as the Boulderforce held still, so very still. Waiting. Patient. He’d always been patient with Mastekh, had never rushed him. Not when he was speaking, and not in this. He would never rush him. Even now, if Mastekh pulled away and fled once again from this gift Estenarven was offering, he would remain patient. He would still wait.

The knowledge settled deep inside Mastekh’s watery heart and gave him the final push to close the last, tiny gap.

He laid his lips upon Estenarven’s, light at first, just a whisper, just a brush. Then again, to take a taste, to savour, to learn.

Estenarven breathed in deep and his lips parted, allowing Mastekh inside. He was in control for once, he was leading. Estenarven was an eager partner, but he only followed, only reacted. It was Mastekh’s move, Mastekh’s kiss, Mastekh’s gift.

To both of them.

He cupped his hands around the back of Estenarven’s head and hitched himself closer to the Boulderforce’s chest, revelling in the warm, secure weight of Estenarven’s arms closing around his waist, pulling him closer, holding him tight.

The mouth beneath his widened in a smile and he was soon grinning back, the pair of them laughing even as they kissed on and on and on. Until breathlessness threatened them both and they hugged each other, giddy as fools.

“Oh, Puddle, my Puddle,” Estenarven chuckled, rocking them both side to side. “I never dreamed…”

But Mastekh had found his confidence and wanted to make the most of it while it lasted. Seizing Estenarven’s jaw again, he shifted to align them just right. “Happy third g-g-gift,” he murmured, and plunged back into the kiss.

 

 

 

 

[]21

Thoughts

h1={color:#000;}.

7th Storm Month

ESTENARVEN KNELT BESIDE his bed, studying the meagre belongings he’d packed for the trip. He’d never been an acquisitive dragon – Boulderforces rarely were – and such a lack of material possessions had never bothered him. Until now. The small stone box inside his travelling chest was half full of beans and pebbles, the sight making him smile in memory of all that they meant.

It was the lack of much else that brought on a frown.

A tap on the door made him jump and he instinctively reached out to hide his treasures, only to relax when Elder Blazeborn leant inside.

Sighing, Estenarven sat back on his heels and half twisted towards the door. “Yes, elder?”

Khennik tilted his head, taking in the open box on the bed, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Fourth gift?”

Estenarven snorted derisively and glared at his little box of treasures. He’d thought them so special once. Now he could hardly remember why he’d considered any of them precious. Stones and letters and scraps. Nothing good enough for his needs.

The Blazeborn elder took another step into the tiny room and asked for permission to sit with a tilt of his hand. Estenarven nodded, balling his fists against the instinctive need to hide his treasures. Just because Boulderforces were rarely acquisitive, didn’t mean they weren’t possessive. And Sunlords were known for their hoards.

Something about the tension in his body must have alerted Khennik, because while he sat carefully beside the box and leant over for a closer look, the elder kept his hands carefully behind his back. “You have a lot of pebbles and beans.”

“Second gift.”

“Ah.” Khennik tilted his head and squinted. Moving slowly, he looked at Estenarven for permission before gently shifting some pebbles aside to see what lay beneath. “Well, now. Wherever did you come by this?”

Estenarven wrinkled his nose, laying his palms flat against his thighs to stop himself from snatching the little object out of his elder’s claws. “Found it,” he mumbled.

Khennik arched an eyebrow and placed the wooden figure on the rumpled blanket covering the bed. “Unusual keepsake for a Boulderforce.”

Estenarven shrugged, feeling a touch of heat rising to his cheeks. It was an unusual possession for a Boulderforce, since it wasn’t made from stone, but despite its small and delicate appearance, this little object held a raft of memories for him.

Reaching out, he scooped up the figure carved out of some unknown wood, smoothed and shaped into the appearance of a well-rounded human, faceless and strange, with only the faintest traces of where it had once been painted. Estenarven didn’t know where it had originated from or how old it was, but it wore its age in the form of scratches and scars and weathered cracks. He’d found it many, many years ago as a dragonling first venturing out of the safety of his kin nest. He’d been digging with his clutch mate, Estenarix, pretending that they were fierce dragon explorers searching for new minerals to mine.

They had uncovered five figures that day, of varying shapes and sizes. Estenarix had thought them ugly and boring and tossed them all aside, reburying them in her quest for something solid, something stone, something shiny and exciting. She’d scoffed at him when he’d said he wanted to keep them, so he’d had to sneak back later to dig them up again. He’d only been able to find four that time and over the years they’d slowly been broken and lost.

This was the only one left. It had been through so much with him, so many years, so many changes. Yet despite the memories and centuries they’d shared together, it didn’t look like much.

“I can’t give him that,” he said, instead of voicing all the thoughts running through his mind.

Elder Blazeborn watched him quietly, golden eyes scanning Estenarven’s pensive face. “Does it mean that much to you?”

Estenarven stared at the tiny figure, nestled so securely in his palm, and bit back an instinctive denial. It did mean a lot. Khennik wouldn’t judge him for feeling a connection to such a strange object, but that wasn’t what he was asking. Estenarven stroked a finger over the familiar curves, feeling the smooth patches and rough places, the scratches and cracks and flecks of paintwork.

He sighed. “Not more than Mastekh,” he admitted. “But it’s not much of a gift. Look at it.”

Khennik didn’t look at the figure – he looked at Estenarven. “If it means so much to you, Estenarven, it will mean everything to him. As long as you are willing to share its significance. That more than anything contains its worth.”

Estenarven curled his hand around the precious, pathetic object and nodded. Of everything he owned, of all that he cared enough to carry with him, this was what mattered the most. Except for Mastekh.

“Then I have my gift.”

“So you do,” Khennik said softly, smiling ever so briefly before getting to his feet. “I’ll be out for the rest of the day. Elder Gwyllen has invited me and the other elders to dinner. Don’t wait up.” He slipped out of the tiny room, silk robes whispering in his wake.

Leaving Estenarven to frown at the tiny figure in his hand and wonder how good a gift it would prove to be.

 

 

 

 

[]22

Shells

h1={color:#000;}.

LIKE ANY DRAGON dwelling, Highstrike had many secrets. Of the few Mastekh had managed to uncover so far, the cavern behind the main kitchens was his favourite. As a Rainstorm, he’d never been entirely fond of enclosed spaces – his kind were made for storms and sky, and he usually preferred places where no roof closed him in – but this cavern was special.

Humming happily, he hitched the basket he was carrying higher on his hip, having offered to help the dracos out with their morning chores in exchange for having the cavern to himself. A few days ago they would have refused, too conscious of the divide between dragons and dracos to ever countenance such a breach of societal structure. However, over the many mornings Mastekh had spent working alongside them in the kitchen, they had slowly come to recognise him as one of their own. He was a dragon who worked, who served, who treated them like living, thinking beings – and they extended the same courtesy to him.

It didn’t hurt that his courtship with Estenarven was providing them with extra entertainment. All he had to do was hint that he wanted time alone to work on his fourth gift and they let him do anything he asked. Even clean the dishes. It was a strange sort of power, but Mastekh liked it.

So basket on hip, hum in his throat and a light-hearted skip in his step, Mastekh made his way down the narrow passage that led from the kitchen deeper into the mountain on which Highstrike was rooted. The way was winding and dark, the warmth of the kitchen ovens swiftly fading, leaving nothing but a cool wind to draw him onwards. As a Rainstorm, cold didn’t bother Mastekh, especially when its source was so magnificent.

Pale light began to grow, along with a familiar roar and Mastekh stepped out into the cavern with a wide smile on his face as he tilted his head back to take in the wonder before him.

A waterfall. Gushing, powerful, immense – and entirely underground.

The cavern was almost big enough to contain the Skylark, and almost all of it was shrouded in ice cold spray as a torrent of water thundered through a hole near the roof of the cavern and plunged fifty or more feet down to where Mastekh stood. There it formed a deep, narrow pool which in turned drained away somewhere out of sight.

It was glorious and sodden and marvellous. Mastekh loved it.

Away from the falls, large glow globes, the size of a human head, had been embedded in the wall around the cavern entrance, shining in Tempestfury shades of grey, blue and white. A carpet of plush moss covered the floor, shimmering in the clouds of spray. It was a magical place and it wasn’t until the dracos had brought him here two days ago that Mastekh had realised how much he’d missed running water. The Flowflight Clanlands were richly forested, full of streams and lakes and rivers, all of which had been rather lacking in his life of late. Not now, not here.

Sighing with happiness, Mastekh flexed his toes in the carpet moss and bustled to the edge of the pool. There he knelt with his basket beside him and set about washing dishes, as he’d promised the dracos he would. It was a mindless, easy chore that allowed his mind to drift while his senses soaked up the water in the air and the roar of the waterfall. A perfect place.

Before long the basket was empty, the clean crockery stacked beside it, and Mastekh could finally turn his attention to the real reason why he was there. Utterly at ease with his surroundings, he slid a hand into his pocket and pulled out the two small shells within. He shed his silk robe, folded it up and placed the shells on top. At peace with the world, he slithered into the cold pool.

Bliss. The water was deep and dark and icy, but the constant pounding and churning of the waterfall turned the pool into a swirling, bubbling mass that massaged and tickled his bare skin. It felt marvellous, but Mastekh knew a way to make it even better.

Arching his back, he stretched out his arms and kicked his legs, diving into the depths. Then he changed.

The water stroked and soothed him, invigorating him with new life as it rippled around him, absorbing the shock of his magic when he expanded from a puny human into a long, lean dragon with wings pressed tight to his back. The webs between his toes spread and he powered down into the darkness until he felt the insistent tug of the current drawing the water out of this cavern and into the next.

Having no desire to explore the underground course of the river – at least not today – Mastekh swirled around and kicked off the side of the pool. He shot upwards through the bubbles, loving the rush and roar all around him.

Hitting the surface, gasping and grinning, he spread his wings to keep himself afloat as he lowered into the water again.

Humming happily, he rolled onto his back and drifted for a lazy moment, tail stirring slowly to stop the force of the falls from shoving him into the edge of the pool.

Eventually, though, he recalled the real reason for coming here today – and why he had desired privacy. And since it was all for Estenarven, he didn’t even mind having to roll over and paddle back to where he’d left the clean crockery and his robe.

Ducking beneath the surface and amusing himself by blowing out a stream of huge bubbles, Mastekh surfaced with a chuckle – and recoiled with a yelp.

He wasn’t alone.

Someone was sitting beside his robe, the two small shells Mastekh had placed there now lying in their lap.

His first reaction – after surprise – was embarrassment at being found frolicking like a wingling. Then anger at having been interrupted. Finally fear that, in having left his treasures unguarded for a foolish moment, he might have lost them altogether.

“Good morning, Mastekh. A lovely day for a swim, is it not?”

Paddling uncertainly in the water, unsure whether he should get out or remain where he was, Mastekh pressed his ear fins miserably against his head. “M-morning, Elder G-Goryal.”

The Starshine elder smiled, their eyes shimmering with rainbow shades in the bright light of the glow globe they had placed by their feet. “You need not fear me, young Rainstorm. Your treasures are safe. I was merely guarding them for you.”

Mastekh swallowed hard, not entirely relieved. He hadn’t truly believed that the elder would try to steal the shells – they weren’t that sort of dragon – but that didn’t make him feel any more comfortable about seeing his treasures in Goryal’s hands. Nor did it make him feel any less foolish for having left them unattended in the open. He should have known that a place as marvellous as this wasn’t used by dracos alone.

“It’s no good, Goryal, I can’t find another exit point. It must be at the bottom of the pool.”

The rumbling voice had Mastekh sinking even lower into the water until only his eyes and the top of his crest remained above the surface. Of course Junior Archivist Reglian was here – he and Goryal were seldom seen outside of each other’s company on this journey.

“Keep looking,” Goryal advised in a placid voice, though their eyes remained on Mastekh. “I’m certain you will find something of interest if you try.”

Reglian planted his hands on his hips and frowned down at the diminutive elder. “I’d rather look at those shells.”

Alarm shot through Mastekh and he surged out of the water, not caring that he sent a wave of water over the pair in front of him as he stretched out a webbed foot and snatched the shells from Goryal’s hands.

“No, Reglian, they are not for you,” the Starshine elder said calmly, apparently unconcerned that they’d almost been knocked over and drowned by a desperate Rainstorm. The fluff of white hair that normally swirled about their head like a cloud was now plastered across their forehead and down one cheek and their pearly white robe had taken on a grey hue, but they smiled as Mastekh slid back into the pool, clutching the shells to his chest.

Reglian wasn’t nearly so sanguine, spluttering as he stared down in dismay at the way his pristine black robes now clung to his legs from mid-thigh down. “Mastekh!”

Mastekh ducked until only his eyes showed above the surface and blew bubbles.

Goryal laughed, the sound like silver bells, chiming clearly even over the roar of the falls.

Grumbling unflattering things about Rainstorms and Starshines, Reglian peeled the silk from his legs and flapped it ineffectually. Then he ran a hand over his gleaming bald head and stomped off into the misty spray. Mastekh was not sorry to see him go.

“You see now why I was holding your shells for you,” Goryal said, once the rumbling Thunderwing had been drowned out by the falls. “There is no other reason why I would have presumed to touch so sacred and precious a possession. I do hope you will forgive my trespass. It was not lightly done.”

Issuing another stream of bubbles, Mastekh rose enough to mutter, “My f-f-fault,” before sinking again.

Goryal smiled. “It is a shame that even in so well hidden a place as this a dragon cannot leave their treasures unattended, but sadly, it has ever been thus. Especially when nosy archivists are around.”

“I heard that!” a distant rumble revealed that Reglian wasn’t quite as far away as Mastekh might have liked.

Sighing, knowing he couldn’t hide in the pool forever, Mastekh drifted to the edge and carefully placed his shells in front of him. Then he shrank to his human form and hauled himself out of the water. Goryal held out Mastekh’s robe for him and he quickly shrugged into the familiar silken weight, keeping a firm grip on his shells this time.

Much though he wished he could now run away, he still hadn’t done what he’d originally come here to do, so he held the shells against his chest and silently willed the Starshine elder to go.

“It has been a long time since I was last lucky enough to see a Flowflight naming shell,” Goryal said, either oblivious of Mastekh’s mental turmoil or – far more likely – choosing to ignore it. “Yours is particularly fine.”

The darker of the two shells was a curved fan shape that sat perfectly inside Mastekh’s palm. He rubbed a finger over it, loving the contrast between the smooth interior and the roughly ridged exterior. All his life he had wished he could be as tough as the outer edge of his naming shell but had known he would always been as sadly soft as the interior. That was the side his name had been carved into shortly after his hatching and he seemed unlikely to ever defy that unthinking choice.

Still, it was beautiful. The outside might have been a rather uninspiring fan of white and buff brown, faintly striped in places, but the inside was a glorious blush of purple, blue and cream, starting dark at the base and slowly lightening as it spread out to the edges. He had always wished he could be so beautifully coloured.

He glanced down at it now, running his fingertip over the dull outside and silently agreeing with Elder Goryal. It was a fine naming shell, but such things were supposed to be private. Flowflights didn’t share their treasures lightly. Knowing the elder had not only held it but studied it too felt like an invasion of privacy. It shouldn’t have – it was just a shell with his name on it – but Mastekh had never shown it willingly to anyone. The only people who had ever seen it had been those who had stolen it for a glimpse or simply to tease.

Yet he couldn’t be angry with Goryal. Mastekh would much rather the Starshine elder had looked at it than Reglian. Not that he didn’t like the Thunderwing, but… well… Reglian was nosy. Not to mention an archivist – they recorded everything. Mastekh would rather his naming shell wasn’t described on paper somewhere for all the Overworld to read.

Sighing, he relaxed his tight grip on his shells and lowered his hands to his lap, letting his naming shell slip from his hand to settle on his leg. Then he looked at the second shell.

It was the other half of his naming shell, which had been joined at the base centuries ago, when it was still a living creature in the ocean. Before the Curse came. Before the clouds covered the world. Before Flowflights became so rare. It was a precious remnant of the old world and intended to be the most precious thing Mastekh owned.

Because it was his future, his hope. Flowflights weren’t well known for permanence in anything – abode, form, gender, sexuality and especially relationships. But it was also known that those rare Flowflights who did choose to settle were like the shelled sea creatures of the long-lost oceans. They found their spot, their person, their home, and they stuck there through all the tides of time.

That was what the second shell was for, for those few Flowflights who made their choice and decided to stick. The second shell was for a partner, a beloved and, once given, it could not be returned.

Mastekh had never expected to give his second shell away. He’d almost forgotten its existence. He had been so certain he would fly through life alone. Any time he’d considered the possibility of giving up such a thing in the distant, nebulous future, he had expected to fret about the moment, to worry, to hesitate.

Except he didn’t. Ever since the night before, when he’d given Estenarven the gift of a kiss, had seized his courage for the first time and shown that he truly wanted this courtship as much as Estenarven did, he’d known what he had to do next.

The fourth gift had to be something meaningful to him, to show how much he valued Estenarven. And he could think of no better gift than this. His choice. His forever decision.

He would never make such a choice again, even if things with Estenarven didn’t work out – for whatever reason.

And Mastekh was at peace with that.

“Estenarven is a lucky dragon,” Goryal murmured softly.

Mastekh had almost forgotten they were there, but this time he didn’t feel their presence as an intrusion. It felt like a blessing. Clan Flowflight had withdrawn since the Curse, refusing to mix their bloodlines with other Clans, keeping to themselves and shunning any mating overtures, so Mastekh knew they would never approve of his courtship with Estenarven. But Goryal was a Starshine. It might be the smallest Clan, but it was also the most powerful, the one Clan that had no kin because it was made up from all dragons, all Clans, and only the best and rarest would ascend to their ranks. Starshine didn’t claim lordship over the other dragons – though they likely could should they ever choose to try – but their opinion was respected. Their approval was desired.

Hearing Goryal acknowledge Mastekh’s courtship, and not disapprove, eased a tightness in him that he hadn’t even noticed.

Mastekh’s Clan might never support his love for Estenarven, but Goryal thought it good.

“Th-thank you,” he whispered, bowing his head and shivering with relief.

Even though Mastekh didn’t hear them move, he felt the light touch of Goryal’s hands against his shoulders before the Starshine brushed a gentle kiss across his forehead.

Be happy, Mastekh,” they said, their voice an airy whisper inside his mind. “And come see me when you need your seventh gift.”

Mastekh looked up sharply at that, gaining a wink in reply.

The seventh and final gift was meant to be something hard to get. Mastekh hadn’t even dared to think so far ahead – but now he was and panic started to set in. “Th-th-thank you,” he stammered again, hands clutching the shells he’d been so proud of only moments before. But this was only the fourth gift. He still had three – the hardest three – to go.

Sibling Water, why had he ever started this foolish courtship?

Smiling, Goryal stood up and shook their head. “One gift at a time, Mastekh,” they advised, their chiming voice clearly amused. “And don’t forget your ultimate goal.”

Estenarven. This was all for Estenarven. To win his affection, to claim his heart for Mastekh’s own.

Drawing in a shuddering breath, Mastekh closed his eyes and let that settle inside him. Yes, this was all for Estenarven and Estenarven was worth it. Even if the next three gifts proved to be the most difficult tasks of his life.

Breathing out a relieved sigh, he smiled and opened his eyes to thank Goryal again – but the Starshine was gone.

Of course.

Mastekh shook his head and chuckled, rolling up onto his knees and bending over the edge of the pool to wash the shells in the chilly, bubbling water. That was his whole purpose for visiting the cavern in the first place. A hum rose in his throat as he worked each shell between his fingers and thumbs, feeling the carved ridges of his name and imagining how Estenarven’s would look on the blank outer edges of the second. He looked forward to finding out.

The touch of the water and the roar of the waterfall seeped back into his senses, washing away his anxieties and worries until he was once more at peace. Slipping the shells back into the protection of his pocket, he tucked the crockery into the basket and stood.

Reglian loomed behind him, arms crossed, foot tapping. “Don’t tell me, Goryal upped and vanished again?”

Chuckling, Mastekh nodded.

“Starshines,” the Thunderwing grumbled. “I trust you know a way out of here, Puddle, because I – fool that I am – followed Goryal down here and now can’t find the passage he used. Which is bad enough, but if I spend too much more time around here, I’ll turn mouldy. All this damp might work for you, Rainstorm, but we Skystorms prefer a breeze and lightning with our wet air.”

“Follow m-m-me,” Mastekh invited, trying not to laugh at the miserable look on Reglian’s face, or the limp way his black robe hung about him. He was used to seeing the Thunderwing as the most confident dragon in any room, but right now he looked half-drowned and fully wretched. “It sh-should be almost l-l-lunch time.”

“If you can take me to the dining room, Puddle, I’ll be forever in your debt,” Reglian promised, breathing a sigh of relief when they stepped into the smaller but infinitely drier tunnel.

“I’ll go one b-b-better,” Mastekh offered. “We’re h-heading for the k-kitchens.”

The air of the tunnel hummed with the rumble of Reglian’s amusement. “Sister Storm, Puddle, if Estenarven wasn’t already courting you, I’d be tempted to fall for you myself. Lead on, dear Rainstorm. Lead on to the kitchens and our salvation.”

A warm blush spread through Mastekh and he was grateful for the dark tunnel as he touched a hand to the shells in his pocket and smiled. Because Estenarven was already courting him and there was no dragon in the Overworld who Mastekh wanted more.

And soon Estenarven would know it too. But rather than feel nervous about the evening ahead, Mastekh was excited. A rare feeling for him and one he intended to enjoy to its fullest.

The last three gifts were a challenge still looming in his future, but Mastekh would enjoy the fourth first.

“Come on,” he urged Reglian, picking up his pace as the light and warmth of the kitchen grew up ahead. “N-nearly there n-now.”

“Good,” Reglian huffed. “I’m starving.”

So was Mastekh, but not for food. It hadn’t even been half a day since he’d last seen Estenarven, but he missed him already. Time to track him down. Mastekh couldn’t wait.

Excitement fizzed and bubbled through his veins as he greeted his draco friends, returned the washed crockery and left the hungry Reglian in their capable hands. Then, with murmurs of thanks and luck, he allowed the servants to pile him high with food and treats, and left the kitchens to return to Elder Blazeborn’s suite.

 

 

 

 

[]23

Gossip

h1={color:#000;}.

ESTENARVEN WAS NERVOUS. It was an exceedingly rare occurrence and he didn’t like it one bit. He couldn’t imagine how Mastekh managed to survive constantly being in such a state. Estenarven found himself pacing and sweating and fidgeting as he roamed the empty suite, wondering where Mastekh was and when he would return.

By the Family, this was awful. He would never go out and forget to tell Mastekh where he was going again. He couldn’t bear the suspense – nor the thought that his Puddle went through such things on an almost daily basis. His heart was pounding at such a rate it left him breathless and light headed. It made him wonder how Mastekh had managed to survive as long as he had.

Clearly his Puddle had a stronger heart than many would have guessed. Except Estenarven had always known Mastekh was great hearted. It was partly why he was being so selfish as to hope he could claim such greatness for himself.

A rattle of the doorknob had him wiping his sweaty hands against his robe as he strode across the room to open the door, full of anticipation.

“Oh!”

Wide eyes blinked up at him and Estenarven’s shoulders slumped. “What do you want, Jessie?” he sighed, unable to feel anything but disappointment at finding Jesral kin Lightstorm Clan Thunderwing, aide to Elder Leasang, outside the door.

“Well, there’s a fine welcome,” she said airily, stepping forward, no doubt intending to saunter straight into the suite.

Except Estenarven didn’t move, so she bounced off his chest instead.

“Esten!” she protested, laughing. “Why so unfriendly? With all the elders off to dinner, I thought we might catch up. I feel like I haven’t seen you in a season, and I’ve heard the most delicious gossip that I simply have to share with you. You’ll find it ever so funny, I promise.”

In the past Estenarven would have been delighted to sit down and gossip with Jesral. She was light and fun and flirtatious, and he found her good company. But he wasn’t looking for good company tonight: he wanted the best. Only Mastekh would do.

“I’m busy, Jessie.”

She wrinkled her nose and smoothed her hand over the white stripe that made her otherwise dark hair so striking. “What, with Mastekh?” she scoffed. “Don’t be silly, Esten. At least with me you can have a proper conversation, and besides, I must share this most ridiculous rumour with you. I know you’ll laugh. It’s so silly that it can’t possibly true. A Rainstorm and a Boulderforce? How in the Overworld would that work?”

Her chatter dissolved into laughter, but Estenarven had long ceased listening. Because they were no longer the only two dragons in the corridor. At some point during the exchange, Mastekh had appeared from the stairwell, a tray piled high with treats clenched between his hands.

Eyes wide, the Rainstorm stared at the way Jesral clung to Estenarven’s chest, laughing so hard she could hardly stand.

It’s so silly that it can’t possibly true. A Rainstorm and a Boulderforce?

Her mocking words echoed inside his head and Estenarven’s own eyes widened.

How in the Overworld would that work?

“Puddle,” he whispered, frozen with horror as Mastekh’s bottom lip began to wobble.

The tray rattled between the Rainstorm’s trembling hands. Then, with a great crash, he dropped the lot.

Food smashed against the stone floor, bowls cracked and cups bounced, the wine bottles and teapot breaking open to spill their contents across the hallway.

“Oh!”

Still clinging to him, Jesral stopped laughing long enough to realise they had an audience, but Mastekh was already gone, fleeing in a slap of wet feet and soggy puddles.

“Mastekh!” Paralysis broken, Estenarven shoved Jesral aside and ran. “Mastekh, wait!”

“It’s true? Esten? Estenarven!” Jesral’s incredulous shouts followed him, but he didn’t care. He didn’t care about her laughter, her disbelief, her gossip or anything else.

All that mattered was Mastekh.

But as Estenarven reached the door to the stairwell where his beloved Puddle had gone, he hit a dead end. No more puddles, no more slapping feet, only darkness and a spiral of stairs leading both up and down.

“Mastekh!” he shouted, listening hard as his echoes returned to him.

Nothing else. No reply, no footsteps, no indication where the Rainstorm had gone.

Growling with frustration, Estenarven turned and slapped his hand hard against the doorframe.

The stone door frame that was part of the stone stairwell in a tower also made of stone.

And there he was, a Boulderforce, throwing a tantrum like a hatchling because he couldn’t hear where Mastekh had gone.

Snorting derisively at himself, he flattened both hands against the wall. “Wretched fool,” he growled, sinking all his senses into the rock under his palms and coaxing the stone to reveal its secrets.

 

 

 

 

[]24

Run

h1={color:#000;}.

MASTEKH DIDN’T NEED to bargain for privacy this time. As he ran through the kitchens, his gasping sobs and the misery on his face were enough to have the dracos leaping out of his way. One or two called out as he passed, but he didn’t spare them so much as a glance as he fled down the tunnel to the cavern for the second time that day.

How different he felt.

Such a fool. Such a stupid, brainless fool.

Of course there had been gossip about them. Of course any right thinking dragon considered them ridiculous. It wasn’t just that he was a Rainstorm and Estenarven was a Boulderforce. It was that he was Mastekh and Estenarven was Estenarven. Two more different and ill-matched dragons the Overworld could not hope to create.

Estenarven was everything wonderful and friendly and beloved by so many, and Mastekh was… not. He was none of those things. He was nothing.

Chest tight with mortification and pain and disappointment and heartbreak, he didn’t even pause to take off his robe. He didn’t pause for anything. He just burst into the cavern and ran across the moss. He didn’t even bother to jump or dive, he simply ran over the edge and crashed into the pool below.

Inelegant and clumsy, but that was who he was.

At least down here he was safe. Down here, beneath the water, no one would ever know where he was. No one would ever find him.

He was safe.

He was alone.

He was lonely.

A burst of bubbles escaped on a silent sob as he released his inner dragon and curled up in a miserable ball, hanging in the darkness and the depths, determined never to surface again.

The water would hold him. The water would care for him. No one else ever would.

Estenarven might have thought he could, might have even wanted to try, but everyone would laugh at him. Mastekh couldn’t bear that. He refused to let Estenarven become an object of ridicule. He deserved better than that.

So down here was where Mastekh would stay. Down here all he could hear was the thunder and rush of the waterfall. Down here he couldn’t hear their laughter. Down here they couldn’t reach him.

No one could.

Another burst of bubbles escaped as Mastekh twisted the end of his tail between his front paws and closed his eyes. This was where he belonged now. Better for him, better for Estenarven, better for everyone.

The water would keep him safe until everything else went away – and he would be alone once more.

 

 

 

 

[]25

The Cavern

h1={color:#000;}.

THE ROCK WELCOMED Estenarven instantly, absorbing his power and presence and wrapping around him. It had been a long time since a Stoneheart last walked these halls and the mountain had missed the power that had shaped it. Before he could get too lost in the welcome, allowing his mind to drift apart and wander the strata for days, Estenarven clung to the reason why he was there.

Mastekh. He had to find Mastekh.

The walls and floors of Highstrike were eager to help him, showing flashes of contact where the Rainstorm had passed. It was hard to miss him, in fact, since his trail was marked by water and upset.

Estenarven’s heart clenched and he drew himself back from the rocks. He had to find him. He had to apologise.

“Thank you,” he whispered to the walls, allowed himself one final stroke with his palm and power, then set off down the stairs as fast as his feet would carry him.

Because although part of him had wondered if Mastekh would go up, break out onto the roof of the tower and take to the skies in his dragon shape, merging instantly with the thunderous rainstorm crashing above, deep inside Estenarven had known Mastekh would go down. Down to the kitchens, down where he felt safest, where the draco servants welcomed him without mockery or judgement. Down to the one place where Estenarven would always be a stranger and Mastekh felt at home.

So Estenarven went down to the kitchens – but Mastekh wasn’t there. And the dracos weren’t talking to him. They scurried out of his way, keeping their heads down and eyes averted. Which was normal behaviour for dracos in many ways – millennia of subservience to dragons having taken their toll – but Estenarven had always treated dracos well and, while they might still struggle to meet his eye, they usually spared him a smile and were eager to provide assistance.

Not today. Today they avoided him. Which more than anything proved that Mastekh had been here, even if he wasn’t here any longer.

Frowning, Estenarven made his way through the vast complex of kitchens and larders, just in case his Puddle was hiding somewhere and Estenarven had simply missed him. No, the Rainstorm was nowhere in sight and the dracos were getting restless as he prowled amongst them. Not wanting to risk his standing any further with the people responsible for feeding him during his stay, Estenarven paused inside one of the deserted pantries and took a moment to reconnect with the stone.

Once again, the faintest brush of his power was welcomed with the same thirst as rain on desert soil, and Estenarven felt his magic expanding with relief at the contact with his own kind. It was a seductive feeling, one that urged him to release his unnecessary hold on the flimsy anchors of the physical world, to surrender wholly to his magic and step into the bones of the mountain. To become the mountain.

A crash in the kitchens and the sizzling slap of hot liquid on the floor snapped Estenarven back from his trance. Water on stone. It was a timely reminder and he brushed his fingers against the wall again, ignoring the temptations calling him and searching only for Mastekh, for the only water on stone that mattered to him.

A trail, faint and fading, but still present as it led through the kitchens to a narrow, shadowy passageway beyond. Unexpected but not far. Estenarven had mistakenly allowed his hopes to get ahead of himself earlier, assuming that when Mastekh had run to the kitchens they would be his final destination. He’d been wrong, and it reminded him that he didn’t actually know what Mastekh did with all the time he spent away from Elder Blazeborn’s suite. Estenarven had always assumed Mastekh spent it all in the kitchens, but clearly he’d been wrong. Perhaps he didn’t know Mastekh as well as he thought.

The depressing possibility pulled Estenarven even further away from the mountain’s lure and his hand slid from the wall with only a rasp of skin over stone.

Heart heavier than it had been in years, Estenarven crept out of the pantry and edged his way through the kitchens, searching for the shadowy passage. Thankfully, most of the dracos were too busy cleaning up the mess of a dropped broth pot to pay attention to him. No one stopped him when he slipped into the shadows and crouched down to make his way through the narrow passage.

The darkness held an unexpected chill and Estenarven grimaced as the walls closed in tight around his shoulders. He was a Boulderforce so it wasn’t the rocks that bothered him, but he was big and he liked room to be able to move or stand up without risking cracking his head open. Still, at least his magic warned him when invisible threats loomed too close, so he could duck or crouch or hunch over to avoid injury. Not all dragons would be so lucky.

As he walked through the cramped space, Estenarven’s hands brushed against the rough rock walls, gifting him glimpses of Mastekh’s presence. His Puddle had definitely passed this way, dripping and at speed, yet the further Estenarven walked, the wetter the ground became.

Until everything ahead of him turned damp and Mastekh’s trail was lost.

Raising his head, Estenarven had been concentrating so hard on following the trail through the stone that he hadn’t realised several important things. Firstly, light had sprung up around him from glow globes embedded in the walls. Secondly, those same walls had opened out into a vast cavern that, thirdly, contained an enormous, gushing waterfall that looked powerful enough to blast the scales off a Stoneskin’s hide. And, fourthly, the ground before him was no longer bare stone – it was covered in a carpet of plush, sodden moss.

If Mastekh had passed this way, Estenarven no longer had any way of knowing.

Cursing, he looked up and noticed the fifth and most important fact that he had previously missed.

Elder Goryal Starshine was standing alongside the waterfall, studying him with their inscrutable rainbow eyes.

“It’s about time you got here,” Goryal said, the chiming sound of their voice somehow cutting through the roar of the falls and managing to sound disapproving.

Estenarven stepped onto the carpet of moss, feet flexing at the softness. “Have you seen Mastekh?” he asked, knowing he sounded desperate and not caring. There was no hiding anything from Goryal anyway – the Starshine was too old and wise and powerful not to know everything. “Did he pass this way?”

“He did.” Goryal tilted their head, studying Estenarven slowly from head to toe. “He was upset.”

Estenarven’s fists clenched, angry at himself as much as anyone for the way things had unfolded. He knew how sensitive Mastekh was. If he’d been paying more attention to what Jesral was saying, he could have corrected her and sent her away sooner, or stopped her before she even started. Then Mastekh would never have had a chance to feel doubt or get upset over some foolish gossipy nonsense. But he’d been distracted. Too worried about what Mastekh would think of his fourth gift to realise he might lose the chance to give it at all.

“I know. I need to find him. I… I need to…” Estenarven didn’t even know what he needed to do. Apologise, yes, even though he couldn’t be entirely blamed for what other dragons were thinking. But he’d apologise anyway, especially if it brought Mastekh back to him. Sibling Stone, he’d stand under that brutal waterfall and let it scour off his scales if it would ease Mastekh’s pain. If only he could find his Rainstorm and hold him again and tell him everything was all right. Estenarven didn’t care what the gossips said about him. Didn’t care what anyone else thought. Just as long as Mastekh wanted him.

“Please,” he said, swallowing around the tightness building in his throat and constricting his chest. “Elder, please, tell me where he went.”

Goryal tilted their head the other way and sighed. “Mastekh is a Flowflight, Estenarven. Where do you think he went?”

Frowning, Estenarven looked around the cavern, searching for another exit. He found none. Until he looked at Goryal again and realised the Starshine wasn’t just standing beside the waterfall, they were by the edge of a deep, dark pool.

“Oh.”

Water. The heart of a Flowflight. The heart of Mastekh. And the one thing that could truly destroy Estenarven, if given enough time.

Swallowing hard, he stepped across the springy moss until he stood at the edge of the pool. Bubbles and ripples ran across the surface, hiding anything and everything that lay beneath. Wriggling his toes, Estenarven managed to make contact with a tiny patch of stone and pulsed his power. Nothing. Wherever Mastekh was at this moment, no part of him was touching any stone within this mountain or the tower built above it.

He was down there, in the dark and the cold. In the water.

“Well.” Estenarven swallowed again and, not taking his eyes from the bubbling surface, gave a slow nod. “My thanks, elder.”

“Your heart is strong and true, Estenarven,” Goryal replied softly.

He snorted, wishing the same could be said about his swimming skills.

Since it couldn’t, and before he could lose his nerve, Estenarven took a deep breath, stepped into the cold, dark pool —

And sank like a Stoneheart.

 

 

 

 

[]26

Breathe

h1={color:#000;}.

SOMETHING WAS IN the water with him. Drifting in his lonely sea of self-pity, Mastekh noticed the instant his sanctuary was invaded. A pulse of magic brushed against him, cold and frantic, tapping along his side as if searching for something to cling onto.

He frowned and uncurled a little from his ball of misery, just in time to feel something brush against his wing as it plummeted into the dark depths.

Another pulse, a wave of magic so strong, so familiar that it almost stopped Mastekh’s heart.

Estenarven!

Arching his back, he dove, senses outstretched for the one thing that would never belong in the water.

A Stoneheart. Attempting to swim. Sibling Water, what had possessed him?

Mastekh’s nose bumped against a small, plummeting shape and he darted forward with a swish of his tail. Webbed paws outstretched, he gathered Estenarven against his chest and twisted around in the darkness.

By the Family, he was heavy!

Mastekh paddled his back legs and swished his tail, but only succeeded in slowing their descent. Estenarven thrashed once in his grip before falling worryingly still.

Panic tried to take hold, but Mastekh was kin Rainstorm Clan Flowflight, he would not let water defeat him.

He opened his wings and, preparing himself for effort and a bit of pain, flapped down as hard as he possibly could. It felt slow and heavy and tugged hard on tendons unused to so much resistance, but it worked.

Bubbles swirled around him as they shot upwards, aiming for the tiny speck of shimmering surface and the safety that lay beyond.

Legs kicking, tail swirling, he beat his wings again and again until, with a great lurch, he hefted them both out of the water and onto the mossy cavern floor.

They landed with a thump and Mastekh instantly stood up, water streaming away from him as he curled his neck and pressed his head against Estenarven’s chest.

Nothing. Cold and hard and silent as stone.

Keening, he folded his wings and draped himself across his would-be lover’s chest, careful to keep most of his weight off the silent dragon. Magic sparked across his scales, sending tingles and shivers running through him as he called the water away from Estenarven.

Steam filled the cavern, but Estenarven remained stubbornly silent.

“Please, please, p-p-please,” Mastekh begged, once Estenarven’s robes were dry and his magic was of no more use. He rubbed his head against the Boulderforce’s chest, nuzzled at his throat and nudged his neck.

“B-b-breathe…”

Still nothing.

Worming his snout beneath Estenarven, he rolled the Boulderforce onto his side and, whispering prayers to the Divine Family – and an apology or two – pulled back his tail and slapped Estenarven’s back.

A gasp, startled, harsh and wonderfully welcome.

Mastekh slapped him again – harder – and Estenarven started to cough.

Crooning apologies and encouragement, he patted Estenarven’s cheek with a webbed foot the size of his head. Magic sparkled again and this time, when Mastekh called to it, the water inside Estenarven’s lungs answered.

More coughs, a few moans, followed by heavy gasps as Estenarven rolled onto his back, eyes closed but alive, so wonderfully alive.

“Th…thank you… P…Puddle,” he panted after a long moment.

Mastekh hung his head, every part of him trembling, and collapsed beside Estenarven in the moss.

Groaning with effort, Estenarven rolled onto his side and gripped Mastekh’s foot. Clutching the sodden limb to his heaving chest, he curled around it and let out a deep sigh. Eyes still closed, he dropped into sleep.

Leaving Mastekh staring down at him, exhausted, wrung out and utterly bemused.

“Ah, I see he found you then.” Goryal appeared out of the mist, smiling benignly.

Mastekh glanced between the dragon he had almost lost and the Starshine he was never quite certain he could trust, and narrowed his eyes. “You s-sent him after m-m-me?” he asked in a deceptively calm voice.

Goryal raised their eyebrows. “He would have found you eventually. You seemed determined to sulk down there for an awfully long time and Estenarven was bound to jump in sooner or later. I merely speeded things up a little.”

Unable to deny that Estenarven’s loyalties did indeed know no depths, Mastekh ground his teeth together and glared at Goryal, still angry that the Starshine had stood by and watched while his Boulderforce had tumbled into danger.

They were gone.

Of course.

Growling beneath his breath and calling silent curses down upon the interfering old wyvern’s head, Mastekh shifted until he could curl up around Estenarven, wriggling his tail between the Boulderforce and the moss. He tugged on the foot Estenarven still wouldn’t release and ended up on his back with the Boulderforce sprawled across his narrow chest. Draping a wing across Estenarven, to hold off the worst of the waterfall’s spray, Mastekh’s head to flopped back into the moss.

He heaved a heavy sigh, prepared to wait for however long it took for Estenarven to wake. There were questions that needed answering and a conversation that had to happen, but they’d both been through an ordeal and Mastekh could be patient.

He owed Estenarven that after almost allowing him to drown.

He could wait. And while he did, he would watch over his would-be lover and make sure he came to no more harm. Pulsing his magic, he gathered the fresh dampness that had settled over Estenarven and dashed it away with a flick of his wing.

He would keep him safe and dry until Estenarven woke and told him to stop.

The gentle rhythm of Estenarven’s heart beat reassuringly against his own and Mastekh closed his eyes, the better to savour their closeness while it lasted.

 

 

 

 

[]27

Talk

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ESTENARVEN WAS WARM and dry, snuggled down on something soft. The ground rose and fell gently beneath him, making him think he was back on the Skylark. Back in Elder Blazeborn’s cabin with Mastekh sleeping tantalisingly close, yet still out of reach. Estenarven could smell him, even in sleep, the mossy, damp, water lily scent of him somehow stronger than ever.

Not wanting to get up yet, even though he knew he probably should, Estenarven refused to open his eyes and snuggled deeper into his bedding instead. Something cool pressed against his cheek, a slightly abrasive hardness that didn’t seem to fit with everything else. Frowning in his doze, Estenarven flexed his fingers and pressed against the object he was clinging to.

Hard, sharp, then smooth and cool. He stroked his palm over the smoothness and grunted as his world turned over and he was unceremoniously dumped onto a bed of soggy moss.

“Nugh?” he said, as eloquent as ever, raising his head from the moss and spitting out his inadvertent mouthful. It might be soft to land on, but Sibling Stone, he definitely did not want to eat the stuff.

Making more incoherent noises, he shoved up onto his hands and knees and spat uselessly for a few moments, trying to remove the unwanted taste of pondweed and wet feet from his mouth. Realising it was a fruitless endeavour, he sat back on his heels and scrubbed his arm across his mouth, looking up and up at the Rainstorm sitting demurely beside him, wings half mantled, head curiously tilted to one side, absently rubbing the sensitive webbing of one front foot with the other.

And it all came rushing back. There was no Skylark, no soft, gentle sleep in a cabin with Mastekh not quite close enough. Not here, not now.

Instead there had been gossip and hurt feelings and a chase through the tower. Then water and… Estenarven didn’t remember much after that.

A quick glance around told him that they were still in the cavern beside the gushing waterfall, but not only was Estenarven no longer in the water, he wasn’t even wet, except where he’d recently landed in a pile of soggy moss.

“Mastekh?” he asked tentatively, uncertain where they stood now that he’d almost drowned himself and had apparently needed to be rescued. He wished his fellow aide would shed his scales and shrink down to human size. Mastekh might not have been very big for a dragon, but he currently topped Estenarven’s kneeling height many times over and Estenarven wasn’t used to feeling small. He didn’t like it.

Shimmering green eyes blinked down at him as the crest on top of Mastekh’s head rose, the side fins where his ears would be fanning out. Neck flexing to full height, the Rainstorm tilted his chin and looked down his long, narrow snout.

Unsure what to expect, Estenarven swallowed hard and dredged up his most charming smile. It was a bit wobbly, but he knew it was an expression Mastekh could rarely resist. Estenarven counted it amongst his greatest assets – and his most effective weapons.

Mastekh growled – he actually growled, like a feral, uncivilised wyvern – and dropped his head until his soggy, grey-blue snout was pressed right against Estenarven’s chest.

Startled, Estenarven leant backwards, knees protesting the strain, eyes wide, charming smile gone. “Mastekh?” he squeaked.

“Why?” The angry Rainstorm snarled, giving him a hard nudge in the chest that sent him toppling onto his back. “Why d-did you d-d-do it?” The question bubbled up as if from the depths, words popping like angry bubbles.

Holding up his hands in a defenceless plea, Estenarven shook his head. “I had to find you.”

Growling, Mastekh withdrew his head and stomped angrily away. Whether by accident or design, his long tail flicked around and smacked Estenarven across the face. Cursing in surprise, he curled away from the soggy limb and rolled over on the moss.

When he sat up he found a distinctly human-shaped Mastekh glaring down at him, hands on hips, scowl firmly on his face. Probably not an accident then. Estenarven winced, rubbing his tingling cheek and hunching his shoulders. He might be more than a head taller in this form, but sitting at Mastekh’s feet, he felt small and meek and exceedingly sorry.

“You f-fool,” Mastekh snarled, dropping to his knees in the moss the better to thump Estenarven’s chest with his fists.

He emitted a feeble “Ow,” and rubbed the spot, even though it hadn’t really hurt. Mastekh wouldn’t hurt him, not even when he was so angry his face had turned grey.

Mastekh thumped him again for good measure. “What were you th-th-thinking? You’re a B-Boulderforce. You can’t s-s-swim!”

Hearing the distress in his Rainstorm’s voice and seeing the way he was shaking, Estenarven gave into his instincts and wrapped his arms around Mastekh. Though the Rainstorm wriggled and continued to swat at him, he wasn’t really trying to escape.

He was angry. He’d been frightened. But he was here and he was Estenarven’s to comfort and contain. Even if Estenarven was to blame for all of it.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, burying his face against Mastekh’s neck and breathing in the cool, clean scent of him. “I’m so sorry, Puddle.”

“Never d-do that a-g-gain,” Mastekh growled, pummelling him on the back for good measure. Then he sagged limply in Estenarven’s grip and let out a sob. “I thought I’d l-l-lost you. Stupid St-Stoneheart.”

“Never,” Estenarven vowed, squeezing Mastekh until finally, thankfully, his arms gripped him back as equally hard in return. “You could never lose me. Don’t you understand yet, Puddle? I’m yours. Eternally and entirely yours.”

Shaking, Mastekh buried his head against Estenarven’s chest and didn’t answer. So Estenarven held him, rocking slowly from side to side, waiting for the storm to pass.

He knew it would be worth it. It would always be worth it, especially if the chance to hold Mastekh was his prize.

After a seemingly endless moment, Mastekh regained control of himself and pushed free of Estenarven’s grip. Swiping at the moisture on his face, the Rainstorm folded his arms across his chest and shuffled out of arm’s reach on his knees. Then he glared.

“What were you th-thinking?” he demanded again, the feral growl from earlier back in his voice.

A light chill chased up Estenarven’s spine and he tried not to reveal just how attractive he found that sound. It probably wasn’t appropriate to be attracted to such a tone at such a moment, and he doubted Mastekh would appreciate the knowledge when he was trying to be serious. Still, Estenarven filed the thought away for later exploration and summoned up another smile. This one was a little bit sad and rather wistful.

“You were upset. I wanted to find you.”

“You c-couldn’t have w-waited until d-d-dinner?” Mastekh sniffed.

Estenarven snorted. “Would you have shown up for it? The way you fled, I feared I might never see you again.”

Mastekh looked away, not denying anything. Instead he shifted his hands back to his hips and resurrected the glare. “So you t-tried to d-d-drown yourself?”

“Got your attention, didn’t it?” Estenarven replied teasingly, unable to help flirting even at a moment like this.

Mastekh’s arms dropped by his sides as his mouth formed a hard, narrow line His jaw worked noiselessly for a long moment, then his fists clenched and he growled.

Estenarven didn’t even try and hide his reaction this time. His smile turned lazy, his eyes half closed and he allowed his shiver to show.

“St-stop it!” Mastekh snapped. “This is s-s-serious!”

“So is this.” Estenarven waved a hand up and down himself and shivered again. “I like you as you always are, Puddle, but I can’t deny that this angry, growly Mastekh is a delicious surprise. Who knew you could be so… forceful?”

Snarling, Mastekh shoved Estenarven into the moss again.

Except this time Estenarven was prepared for the move and, since Mastekh had helpfully shrunk to a smaller, more manageable size, it took very little effort to grab his upper arms and drag him along for the fall. Landing on his back, Mastekh flopped gracelessly over his chest and Estenarven smiled smugly.

“L-let me g-go,” Mastekh growled, putting them nose to nose after a few moments of useless tugging failed to free him from Estenarven’s grip.

Having no intention of doing anything so foolish, Estenarven curled a leg around one of Mastekh’s and easily flipped them over. Grinning with triumph, he settled his heavier weight on top of the Rainstorm and lowered his nose to brush teasingly against Mastekh’s.

“Make me,” he challenged softly.

Mastekh snapped his teeth, clearly in no mood to kiss and make up. Claws pricked warningly against Estenarven’s sides and Mastekh arched his back, trying to throw the other dragon off him.

Trying not to take too much pleasure in his escape attempts, Estenarven held very still, knowing his greater Stoneheart mass would do most of the work for him. Besides, Mastekh clearly had a lot of anger and frustration to work out, so he let him snap and snarl and wriggle fruitlessly for as long as he wished. If Mastekh truly wanted to get away, he could use those claws and teeth and really fight – Estenarven wouldn’t fight back. Or he could shift.

The fact that he did neither gave Estenarven hope.

As did the way Mastekh kept arching against him. The move was useless in a general escape scheme of things, but when it came to the private fight between the two of them… Estenarven couldn’t deny that each full body caress was very effective.

His Rainstorm might not be quite ready to kiss and make up just yet, but he also wasn’t above a little teasing.

“You’re b-b-better off without m-me,” Mastekh finally grumbled, once he’d run out of energy and stopped fighting. Now he lay still and quiescent beneath Estenarven, head turned stubbornly away.

“If you truly think that,” Estenarven murmured, resting his forearms alongside Mastekh’s head, encouraging him to face him once more, “you should have let me drown.”

Green eyes clashed with his, wide and horrified. “I could n-n-never let you d-drown!”

Stroking the back of his fingers against Mastekh’s cool, grey-tinged cheek, he smiled sadly. “Not in water, but without you, Puddle, I’ll drown anyway.”

His Rainstorm frowned at him. “N-nonsense.”

Estenarven shook his head. “Now that I’ve had a taste of you, beloved, I don’t want to live without you.”

Rolling his eyes, Mastekh began to struggle again, bringing his surprisingly sharp elbows into play. Cursing, Estenarven took evasive action and moved off him, but remained within easy tackling distance in case his Rainstorm decided to flee.

“You’d th-thrive without m-me. I’m no g-g-good for you,” Mastekh insisted, getting to his feet.

“I might survive,” Estenarven corrected, standing up and ducking his head to try and catch Mastekh’s eye as he looked aside once more. “But it wouldn’t be living, it would just be existing. I love you, Mastekh.”

Watery green eyes stared into his, faintly pleading. “You c-c-can’t.”

Estenarven’s mouth twisted in a wry half-smile. “Haven’t you learnt better than to tell a Boulderforce what to do? We’re stone stubborn –”

“And t-twice as f-f-foolish,” Mastekh agreed, with a soggy little chuckle. “You could h-have anyone. Jesral s-s-said –”

“Forget Jessie. Forget everyone. I don’t want anyone, Mastekh, I want you. You’re all that matters. Who cares what anyone else thinks?”

“I c-care.” Mastekh folded his arms across his chest again. It seemed Estenarven wasn’t the only stone stubborn one around here.

“Why?” he asked.

For such a small word, Mastekh gave it a lot of thought, until he finally offered up a sad smile of his own. “I won’t b-b-bring you d-down.”

“You won’t,” Estenarven agreed.

“They’re l-laughing at us,” Mastekh’s voice dropped to an ashamed whisper. “At you. I’m u-used to it. You sh-shouldn’t be.”

Now Estenarven was the one getting angry. “Neither should you. No one should be laughing at you, Puddle. I dare them to do it in my presence.”

Mastekh smiled that sad, defeated smile again. “See. I b-b-bring you down.”

Estenarven frowned. “Even if I wasn’t in love with you, I’d still set people straight. No one should be laughed at for being who they are. It’s a horrible way to behave.”

A soft snort answered that, making Estenarven’s frown deepen. He hated it when his Puddle was sceptical; Mastekh should never be that way. It made Estenarven wonder about what it was like growing up in the Flowflight Clan, though he had a feeling he wouldn’t like to find out.

Moving slowly, he caught one of Mastekh’s hands and gave it a gentle squeeze. “I’m not afraid of gossip.”

“You sh-should be,” came the stubborn reply. “It’s b-better if no one kn-knows about us.”

“The Riders know,” Estenarven pointed out. “You’re the one that told them. And the dracos – they’ve been helping you all along.”

Mastekh gave a sharp shake of his head. “That’s d-different. They’re d-different. Humans and s-s-servants are not d-dragons. They don’t m-m-matter.”

Surprised to hear such a sentiment from Mastekh, Estenarven dropped his hand. “They matter to me,” he said sharply. “They’re our friends. I thought they mattered to you too. The dracos love you.”

“You’re just p-proving my p-point.” Mastekh hugged himself. “A friend to h-humans and d-dracos isn’t much of a d-dragon. You deserve b-b-better.”

As Mastekh turned to leave, Estenarven jumped forward and seized him by the shoulders. He gave him a firm shake. “Now who’s talking nonsense,” he growled. “If you don’t want me, Puddle, just say it. Stop making stupid excuses. If any opinions don’t matter, it’s those of the dragons who gossip and laugh at us for not meeting their ridiculous standards. I like our friends, and yes, I care what those friends think of us, but no one else. I love you. Don’t tell me what I do and don’t deserve when all I want is you.”

He took a deep breath before continuing: “But if you’ve changed your mind, if this courtship isn’t what you want anymore, tell me. Send me away. I’ll go. I won’t fuss or fight. But only if I hear the words. Tell me you don’t want me. Tell me to leave.”

Wide green eyes stared at him out of a face that had gone deathly pale. Mastekh’s hands shifted until he gripped both of Estenarven’s wrists where he held his shoulders. The Rainstorm’s grip tightened, as if he needed the support of something sturdy. He licked his lips.

Eyes skittering away from Estenarven’s, Mastekh huffed out a hard breath. “I…” he began, swallowed and closed his eyes. “I d-d-d–” He coughed and tried again. “I d-d-don… I w-w-w-want you to l-l-l-l-…”

Estenarven allowed him to keep trying for a little longer as each stutter became more pronounced, each lie more difficult to tell. The bubbles in Mastekh’s voice popped all the words, until finally, Estenarven moved his hands from the Rainstorm’s shoulders to his jaw. Turning his face towards him, he bent until their forehead pressed gently together.

“Puddle,” he murmured, cutting through the bubbling words. “Stop lying to me.”

“I’m not l-l-lying!” Mastekh was indignant. “I d-d-d–”

“No, you’re not lying,” Estenarven agreed. “You’re a terrible liar. You can’t even get the words out.”

“I c-can,” he protested. “And I w-w-want you to l-l-l–”

Estenarven kissed him, fierce and strong, hauling Mastekh in close until all the lies and hurt were squeezed out between them, leaving nothing but the feelings that neither could deny.

Only when Mastekh’s hands were clutching him hard enough around the neck to near-choke him, and one of the Rainstorm’s legs had somehow wrapped itself around his waist, did Estenarven relent and soften their kiss.

Face flaming green, Mastekh untangled himself and stumbled away a few paces, hands pressed against his mouth. “This changes n-n-nothing,” he mumbled through his fingers.

Estenarven grinned. “Of course not, love.” Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the little wooden figure, turned Mastekh’s hand over and placed it firmly in his palm. “We’re exactly where we were this morning. Happy fourth gift, Puddle. Thank you for saving my life. It makes a fine fourth gift.”

Stealing another kiss from his spluttering Rainstorm’s mouth, he bid a hasty retreat before Mastekh gave into his incoherent frustration and decided a drowned Boulderforce wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

Whistling cheerfully, Estenarven sauntered back through the tunnel – as well as one could saunter when bent in half and squeezing through gaps not designed for one’s impressive stature anyway – winked at the nearest dracos as he left the kitchens and jogged towards the dining hall.

Now would probably be an excellent time to leave Mastekh alone for a bit. In the meantime, there was a certain gossiping Lightstorm he needed to have a word with. If there also happened to be a few Rift Riders around to help him prove a few points, all the better.

 

 

 

 

[]28

Well

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MASTEKH STARED AT the little wooden figure on his palm. It was obviously old and had clearly been handled often. It was battered and scarred and featureless and strange, yet his fingers curled instinctively around it, feeling a powerful need to protect.

He wondered where Estenarven had found it, how long he’d carried it for, how many memories it held. The fourth gift was traditionally something of meaning from the giver, although since there were no hard and fast rules to the order of the gifts – past the first two and final one – it might also be something precious or handmade, like the fifth and sixth gifts.

Yet the strange little figure was clearly too old to have been made by Estenarven, and though Mastekh instinctively wanted to protect it, he didn’t think many would find it precious. Which meant that it had to be meaningful to Estenarven.

And the wretch had run off before Mastekh could ask any questions.

Or try and give the thing back, which was far more likely the reason why Estenarven had run away, infuriatingly wonderful dragon that he was.

Mastekh held the little figure up to the nearest glow globe and studied the flecks of long ago paint still clinging in tiny patches. The fourth gift. If he was truly serious about letting Estenarven go, believing he was better off without a soggy Rainstorm dragging him down, then Mastekh would have to give this back. Along with the jade pot and the daisy. He couldn’t do much about the memory of flying through the Rainstorm together, which he was selfishly glad about. Everything else, though, had to go back. The longer he kept them, the longer the courtship went on.

He stared at the figure again. The thought of returning it, of never finding out what it meant to Estenarven, had his fingers closing into a fist, locking the figurine tight inside his grip.

He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t give it back; he couldn’t halt their courtship. Just as he couldn’t lie to Estenarven and tell him that he didn’t want him, that he had to leave. There was nothing in the world he wanted less.

“You’re h-hopeless,” he whispered to himself, thumping his closed fist against his forehead.

Yet he was smiling as he did it. Because Estenarven had come for him. Again. He’d heard the same gossip, realised that they had become a laughingstock amongst the dragons, but he’d come looking for Mastekh anyway. Because Estenarven didn’t care.

He. Did. Not. Care. Not about gossip or gossipy dragons. He only claimed to care what Mastekh thought.

Which was too heady and wonderful a thing to give up.

He mattered. Mastekh mattered to Estenarven.

His heart felt so full it hurt.

Mastekh stared at the figure in his hand again and felt his eyes fill with tears.

By the Family, what was he going to do with his stubborn, wonderful, foolish, glorious Boulderforce?

“L-l-love him,” he vowed to the strange little figurine as he tucked it into his pocket. “That’s all I can d-do.”

Which since he already did and had no idea how to stop doing so, should prove simple enough.

Patting the pocket where the figure nestled between his naming shells, Mastekh headed towards the kitchens. Who knew that saving lives and mending hearts would prove such hungry work?

 

 

 

 

[]29

Party

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AFTER FAILING TO find anyone he knew particularly well in the dining hall, Estenarven traipsed back up into the guest tower. Creeping past Elder Blazeborn’s suite, in case Mastekh was inside and heard him passing by, he climbed the next set of stairs until he reached Elder Cloudflight’s rooms.

“Come to join the party?” Lieutenant Anhardyne asked, standing outside the door with Lieutenant Nera.

Estenarven arched his eyebrows, surprised to find them together. Not that it was unusual, since the women were friends, but the room beyond the door sounded raucous and a little bit wild, which didn’t seem like Nera’s kind of evening.

“Where’s Vish?” he asked instead of answering.

Anhardyne heaved a big sigh. “With Gharrik somewhere in the depths of this place, evicting our rambunctious Riders from another party.”

“Why isn’t he here with you?” he couldn’t help asking, since Nera and Gharrik were a far more sensible pair. He was a little surprised that Anhardyne and Vish weren’t the ones being tracked down themselves. Which rather answered his question, he realised, seeing Nera’s wry smile.

“Apparently we can’t be trusted together on a task like this,” Anhardyne grumbled, arms folded across her chest. “Captain Wellswen split us up.”

“To save her the trouble of tracking you down later?” Estenarven asked, making Nera chuckle.

“Very funny.” Anhardyne rolled her eyes and knocked on the door. “Enough about us. What are you doing here? Where’s Mastekh?”

It was Estenarven’s turn to fold his arms defensively across his chest. “I think we just had our first fight,” he admitted, torn between sadness and a bit of pride. If they cared enough to fight, it must mean their relationship was progressing – or so he hoped.

Nera gave him a sympathetic pat on the arm. “Nothing too serious, I hope.”

“I hope the opposite,” Anhardyne teased, waggling her eyebrows. “The bigger the row, the better the making up. Are you here to make him jealous?”

“No!” Estenarven protested, while Nera smacked her friend on the arm with a reproving, “Hardy, behave.”

Grinning, Anhardyne opened the door to the suite – since no one was coming to answer it – and threw a wink over her shoulder. “Have fun making up, Boulderboy. Mastekh is in for a real treat.” Wiggling her fingers in a wave, she sauntered into the crowd of entwined Riders and dragons.

Nera stepped across the threshold and stopped, eyes wide as she looked around.

Estenarven took in the scene for himself, chuckling at the lack of inhibitions currently on display. Squeezing the small human’s shoulder in sympathy for the task ahead of her, he shoved her forwards. “Best of luck separating this lot. I’m off to talk with Jesral.”

Giving him a distracted nod, Nera rolled up her sleeves and waded after Anhardyne, leaving Estenarven to track down his quarry alone. He found Jesral on the far side of the suite, talking quietly with a Tempestfury, their heads bent close together.

“All right, everyone, fun’s over. Time to clear out. Riders, duty calls. Let’s go!” Anhardyne had climbed onto a table and was clapping her hands sharply for attention.

When it didn’t seem to have much effect, Nera jumped up beside her. “Captain’s orders, everyone!”

There was a loud, collective groan of defeat and, amidst much grumbling and complaining, the room began to empty. Estenarven fought against the tide until he loomed over where Jesral and her companion sat. Though both dragons were fully clothed and not even touching, there was something undeniably intimate about the way they looked at each other, oblivious to the world around them.

Relishing a chance for a bit of payback, Estenarven cleared his throat loudly. When that didn’t work, he snapped his fingers. “A word, Jesral.”

The Tempestfury blinked first, drew back and glanced up at Estenarven. With his face set in its most blank and looming Boulderforce expression, the pale-skinned dragon seemed to pale even further.

“Oh,” she squeaked, looking around at the suddenly empty room and deciding to follow the crowd. “Excuse me.”

Within moments, he and Jesral were alone.

Frowning at the ruins of her party, the Lightstorm slumped back on the couch and glared up at him. “You certainly know how to clear a room.”

“I learnt all my best tricks from you.” Under normal circumstances he might have delivered the words with a smile or a tease before dropping down to sit beside her. But he wasn’t feeling particularly friendly right then, so he remained on his feet, arms folded over his chest.

“Must you loom so?” she protested, rubbing her neck where she was craning back in order to see his face. “Urgh, Stonehearts.”

When this elicited absolutely no response, she sighed and climbed onto the settee in order to sit on the back. “I take it you tracked down your watery Rainstorm and both survived the experience.”

Estenarven arched an eyebrow.

Jesral fidgeted. “This strong silent treatment doesn’t work on me, you know.” She squirmed again, tapping her claws against each other. “You’re no good at it.” Nevertheless, he said nothing. Eventually she dropped her head back and sighed loudly. “All right! I apologise. There, happy now?”

“Not in the least,” he replied. “Stop behaving like a wingling, Jesral, and look at me.”

Rolling her eyes, she did as ordered, propping her elbows on her knees and resting her chin in her hands. “Oh, do stop pouting, Esten. No harm was done. I am sorry he overheard us, but truly, you can’t blame me. All I did was repeat what I’d heard. It is a ridiculous rumour, even more so if it’s true. Mastekh is far too sensitive. Whatever are you thinking?”

Estenarven ground his teeth together, struggling to control his temper. He never lost his temper; he rarely got angry. He’d thought he wasn’t the type. Turned out he just needed something to care about enough in order to get riled up.

“Harm was done, Jessie. That gossip was pure spite. There’s nothing so unusual about the pair of us. Not that it’s anyone else’s business, but why shouldn’t I court him? We’re both dragons and of age. Stonehearts and Flowflights have mixed before. Yes, he is sensitive, but can you blame him after the way most folk treat him?”

“But he’s so watery!” Jesral whined. “If he didn’t make such a fuss over things, he wouldn’t be half as interesting. Even then it’s only a mild interest at best. He’s so dull, Esten, duller even than dishwater. What in the Overworld can you possibly find in him to attract you?”

He narrowed his eyes and studied her from head to toe. “Plenty. Such as goodness and kindness and friendship, good company and compassion.”

She pulled a face. “By the Family, you’ve changed.”

“As have you,” he agreed. “And not for the better.”

“Nor you.” She wrinkled her nose. “You used to be fun.”

“You used to be decent,” he retorted. “Now you’re just spiteful.”

Her laugh was hard and entirely without humour. “Decent? That feels more like an insult than a compliment. Is any dragon truly decent? Any that hope to survive, that is. You understood that once, Esten. You were like me.”

“I was never like you,” he protested, thinking back on his time at Teirenlai before he met Mastekh, before he was assigned to Elder Blazeborn. He’d been friends with Jesral and plenty of others then, had run with a fast crowd. They’d enjoyed late nights and gossip and games of teasing and seduction. Yet there had been some goodness in all of them. Jesral had known how to be kind. She would never have laughed at Mastekh then.

Smirking, she stood on the couch, her face level with Estenarven’s as she leant forward and rested her hands on his shoulders. “You’re a dragon,” she told him softly. “You will always be like me. Deep down, underneath it all, you’re a survivor, same as me. We’ll do whatever it takes when times get tough to ensure we make it. Every dragon for themselves, isn’t that how the saying goes? Only the strong survive. Where will your precious little Rainstorm be then?”

“Right beside me,” Estenarven replied, holding her gaze firmly with his own. “Where he belongs. It takes more than one dragon to truly survive. You won’t get far alone.”

The tension between them snapped as Jesral released a peel of laughter, lightning flashing beyond the narrow windows. “How the mighty have fallen,” she chortled, patting him none too gently on the cheek. “It’s to be like that from now on, is it? You have become two. I don’t know whether to admire Mastekh’s ingenuity in snagging you, or pity you for getting caught.”

“Envy us both for the gift we’ve uncovered,” Estenarven said, pulling her hands away from his face and shoulders, suddenly uncomfortable at having her claws so close to his throat. That was a trust he was no longer certain she deserved. “If you’re lucky, you’ll find it yourself one day.”

Her smile was almost a sneer. “Save me from the smug contentment of newly mated pairs.”

“I’ll do so and gladly, if you’ll return the favour of keeping spiteful gossip to yourself.”

She wrinkled her nose and sat on the back of the settee again with a put-upon sigh. “Very well. Rumours are no fun when they’re true anyway. It takes all the entertainment out of things.”

Suppressing a relieved sigh, Estenarven stepped back. “Thanks, Jessie.”

She tilted her head and stared at him, her expression one of confusion. “Are you truly serious about him, Esten?”

“I gave him his fourth gift today.”

“Oh.” She blinked and stared down at where her bare feet pressed against the cushions. “I never thought you’d… That you were more like… Hm. Well, I wish you luck with the other three. They say they’re the hardest to find.”

“As they should be.” Turning, he sauntered back across the suite. “Maybe one day you’ll find that out for yourself.”

He could practically hear her rolling her eyes. “You said you’d spare me!”

“And I will.” Reaching the door, he turned towards her again. “But think about it, Jessie. I’d hate to lose every last part of that fun, playful dragon I used to know.”

She snorted and leapt off the settee. “I’m not sure you ever truly knew her, Esten. I’m not sure she truly existed. Now, if you don’t mind, would you stop hogging the doorway? Since someone wrecked my party and drove away my newest friend, I find myself in need of company again. Move aside, do, and let me go in search of them.”

“Try not to corrupt too many Tempestfurys while you’re at it,” Estenarven chuckled, stepping into the empty hallway.

“Ha! They’re the ones corrupting me. You know yourself how sweet and innocent I am.”

“I do indeed. That’s why I’m worried about them.”

Chuckling, she pulled the door shut with a firm click and turned the key in the lock. She touched him on the arm when he turned to leave. “Don’t let him change you too much, eh, Esten?”

“He makes me a better dragon, Jess. I can’t fight against that. I don’t even want to,” he said placidly, no longer angry since she seemed to have accepted that he truly was serious about Mastekh.

She bit her lip, expression pensive. “I didn’t really hurt him, did I?”

“A little,” he replied, looking down at her with a sigh. “But only a little. And you’re right. He is too sensitive.”

“Then maybe this courtship will make him a better dragon too.” She smiled with a hint of that old sweetness she used to have. “You can change each other as you go along.”

“I think we all change each other in life, all the people we meet and know,” he mused, tucking her arm through his and escorting her towards the stairs. “Lovers, friends, enemies and acquaintances. Life is experience and we’re always learning.”

Jesral wrinkled her nose and pulled free. “A philosopher, Esten, you? Family help us, I’m beginning to feel sorry for Mastekh. Much more of this and you’ll be duller than dirt.”

“I’m a Boulderforce, Jessie. I’m made of dirt.”

“Which explains so very much about you and this strange new turn. And on that note, dear friend, I’m off.” Waving a dismissive hand, she strode ahead of him. “Go paddle with your Puddle and make silly faces at each other where sensible folk won’t be nauseated by it. I have a party to find and new friends to make. If I hear any good gossip, rest assured I shan’t bother you with it.”

“Good!” he called, as she moved out of sight down the stairs.

Her merry laughter floated up in reply and he sighed, following her down, but only one flight. He had no interest in parties and new friends, not right now, not anymore. He had a far more interesting evening planned. It might have been interrupted for a time, but what was life without a few hiccups?

Smiling, he reached Elder Blazeborn’s suite and opened the door.

Estenarven and Mastekh, nesting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G!” A giggle drifted along the hallway.

“Good night, Jessie!” he shouted, stepping inside and slamming the door firmly behind him.

 

 

 

 

[]30

Two Sides…

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MASTEKH HELD HIS breath and pressed his back against the wall of his tiny bedroom as Estenarven chuckled in the main room and moved away, hopefully towards his private quarters.

An echo of Jesral’s teasing song looped inside Mastekh’s head, bringing a warm flush to his face. Mastekh and Esten, nesting in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G.

Mastekh could only hope. Even if a tree did make a most impractical nesting site for a dragon. Far too flimsy and exposed.

Shaking his head, Mastekh took in a deep breath and moved towards his door. Estenarven should be safely inside his room by now, hopefully looking at the gift Mastekh had left on his pillow.

He hoped he liked it.

Then again, would he even understand it? Naming shells weren’t spoken of much outside the Flowflight Clan. Just because Goryal had recognised them at a glance, didn’t mean Estenarven would have the faintest idea what Mastekh had given him.

Just a flimsy shell.

Sibling Water, what if he didn’t even notice it and lay straight down, shattering it into pieces?

By the Family! Cursing himself for an idiot, Mastekh burst through the door. “Esten!”

Estenarven was already coming towards him, marching across the suite, an intense look on his face.

Mastekh froze, eyes skimming over the Boulderforce. Estenarven’s hands were clenched into fists, his face looked angry.

“You!” Estenarven growled, reaching for him.

Mastekh flinched, but Estenarven grabbed his face between his hands – and kissed him.

While all their other kisses had been passionate but ultimately playful, this one was intense. Estenarven’s hands softened around Mastekh’s jaw, cradling him gently, while his mouth took and took, as if he could devour Mastekh whole and make them one.

Too stunned to do much other than let him, Mastekh’s knees turned all watery and he sagged against the Boulderforce. If he had melted into a slushy puddle at Estenarven’s feet, he wouldn’t have been at all surprised.

But he wasn’t devoured and he didn’t melt. Instead he ran his hands from Estenarven’s wrists, up his arms until he could hold onto those broad shoulders and kiss him back.

Grabbing a quick breath, Estenarven growled his approval and returned for more, sliding a hand down Mastekh’s neck until that broad palm rested over Mastekh’s heart. Then his lips moved, nibbling little kisses up towards Mastekh’s ear and under his jaw and down his neck.

Mastekh’s knees gave way.

Chuckling, Estenarven rested his face against Mastekh’s throat and squeezed him around the waist, lifting his feet off the floor.

Unable to do much other than hold on, Mastekh pressed his cheek to Estenarven’s head and sighed. “You f-found the sh-shell then?”

Lowering him gently, Estenarven pulled back and cupped Mastekh’s face in one broad hand. The other he raised between them, the blank naming shell looking plain and unexceptional on his palm.

“Do you really mean it, Puddle?” he asked softly. “My name with yours, two sides of the same shell?”

Mastekh swallowed hard, thankful that Clan Flowflight’s secrets apparently weren’t so very secret after all. “Yes, I m-mean it. Two s-sides, one sh-shell.”

Estenarven stared at him for a long, unfathomable moment before closing his eyes and pressing their foreheads together. “I never dreamed…”

Mastekh shut his own eyes and cupped Estenarven’s face. “You st-started it.”

Estenarven chuckled, a deeply contented sound. “So I did,” he agreed, kissing Mastekh lightly and pulling away, taking his hand to tug him across the suite to the nearest settee. Once they were sitting alongside each other, he opened his palm to reveal the shell again and shot Mastekh an uncharacteristically shy look. “May I see yours?”

Trembling a little at willingly choosing to show someone his naming shell for the first time, Mastekh reached into his pocket and lined his hand up beside Estenarven’s. The two shells were almost identical, except one was ever so slightly darker and had Mastekh’s name etched inside it.

“Two sides,” Estenarven whispered, running a reverent finger over the marks.

“One sh-shell,” Mastekh completed, turning his hand over to place his shell atop the unmarked one, joining them together as they would once have fit when the sea creature had been alive. He gently wove his fingers with Estenarven’s, the shell caught between their hands, linking them together in much the same way.

“Puddle,” Estenarven gasped in a choked voice, kissing the back of Mastekh’s hand and pressing it against his chest. His dark eyes shone with emotion and Mastekh felt his throat grow tight. The Boulderforce bowed his head to rest it on Mastekh’s shoulder. “Thank you.”

Wrapping his free arm around Estenarven’s waist, Mastekh pulled him in tight and vowed to never let him go. Estenarven had nothing to thank him for; it was Mastekh who was grateful. He’d found his stopping place, his stone to stick to, and not even the strongest tides of the Overworld would make him leave. Not now. Estenarven was stuck with him.

 

 

 

 

[]31

Cooking

h1={color:#000;}.

9th Storm Month

TWO DAYS LATER, Estenarven stood in the middle of Highstrike’s biggest kitchen, trying to follow the dracos’ instructions without much success. It was time for Mastekh’s fifth gift and, because he hadn’t thought of something suitably precious yet to give his Puddle, Estenarven had skipped forward to the handmade one.

Being a Boulderforce, he wasn’t particularly gifted when it came to working with his hands. He would never be favoured for delicate tasks and wood tended to snap beneath his fingers with very little effort. So he’d come to the kitchen, because it was a place Mastekh valued so highly, and with a little help from the dracos, he’d managed to sneak in a few secret cooking lessons without his Puddle noticing.

Not that he was doing much cooking, since his attempts so far had been woeful and often inedible. But at least he’d ruled out pastries, pies, bread and tarts as options for his gift. The less said about his attempts to filet a fish, the better. However, he was proving pretty effective when it came to venison, so he’d scaled up his plans from a delicate dainty to tempt Mastekh’s appetite, into a full roast meal. The vegetables might not win any prizes for the neatness of their cut, but he hadn’t destroyed them utterly in the skinning and preparation and they were either bubbling nicely in the water or roasting in an oven. It would do. All he needed was a sauce.

While the dracos fussed and teased him over his clumsy efforts, Estenarven smiled and tried not to get too lost in his thoughts. That was what had happened to the bread, when he’d allowed himself to dwell too long on the last two evenings with Mastekh and kneaded the dough all to pieces.

He didn’t beat himself up too much for his distraction, though. Because the last two evenings had been everything to Estenarven. To some they might have seemed tame and perhaps a little dull, and even the dragon Estenarven used to be probably would have laughed if someone else had near-swooned over the memory of just talking, but this was Mastekh and… Estenarven chuckled at himself, knowing he was a hopeless case.

He’d never been one to deny himself pleasure, had in fact indulged in every sybaritic experience that had crossed his path, yet somehow, simply sitting and talking to Mastekh was better and more satisfying than anything else. Not that he’d object to sex, because he really liked sex and knew how to enjoy himself and his partner, but he wanted to take things slowly with Mastekh, to make sure they were both comfortable. For the first time in his life, Estenarven was nervous about sleeping with someone. Because it mattered. Mastekh mattered, and Estenarven would never forgive himself if he messed it up now.

When Estenarven had discovered his fourth gift was the matching half of Mastekh’s naming shell, he had nearly broken down in tears with sheer relief. Not just at the meaning of such a gift, but because Mastekh still wanted him. Naming shells were too important to be shared lightly and if Estenarven hadn’t already been serious about Mastekh, his feelings would have deepened right then.

It was more than just the shells, though. Mastekh had asked about the figure Estenarven had given him and grown quite possessive when Estenarven had apologised and tried to take it back, vowing to find something more appropriate, more akin to the naming shell. That had led to another appearance of growly Mastekh, which had all but crumbled Estenarven to pieces.

Thinking back on the delicious way Mastekh had ordered him never to talk so disparagingly about the figure again brought a fresh wave of shivers to dance down Estenarven’s spine.

“Stir, stir, stir!” the frantic cry broke through his thoughts and Estenarven dutifully did so, bowing his head and mumbling apologies to Vilree the head chef for almost ruining her foolproof sauce.

Pushing all thoughts of Mastekh and the long, lazy conversations they’d recently had, learning all about each other’s lives, from hatchling through to their change times, and the way Mastekh so easily draped himself across Estenarven’s chest now, perfectly at ease with the contact, Estenarven focused on what his draco teachers were telling him. There would be plenty of time later to daydream, or better yet, to talk more with Mastekh. But only if he pulled himself together and finished preparing this meal.

Then there would only be two more gifts to go. Something precious and something hard to get. No idea he’d come up with yet came remotely close to what he wanted for Mastekh, so Estenarven knew he’d have to ask for more help. Although from whom he wasn’t yet certain.

“Too hot, too hot,” Vilree barked at him, and Estenarven shifted his pot away from the oven top. “Pay attention.”

“Yes, Vilree. Sorry, Vilree,” Estenarven murmured automatically, lifting the spoon to take a sip. Perfect. Well, edible, anyway, which was perfect by his standards. “I think we’re done.”

“Hm.” Vilree sniffed and fetched her own spoon to test the sauce. Wrinkling her scaled nose, she flattened her head crest and sighed. “To anyone else I would say – make it again – but you will not stay for that.”

“Nope,” Estenarven agreed cheerfully, already pouring the sauce into a jug and asking a different draco to drain his vegetables so that he could take everything up to Elder Blazeborn’s suite, ready to be eaten. He had to hurry if he was to get everything ready and still catch Mastekh before he headed for the dining hall. “It’s now or never, Vilree. Thanks for all your help.”

He blew the head chef a kiss and Vilree flapped her dishcloth in his direction. “Pah. No patience. No artistry. Go, get out of my kitchen.”

“Gladly.” Lifting the laden tray that contained all the important parts of the evening, Estenarven bowed grandly to the busy room. “My thanks to you all for your superior patience and artistry. I promise never to bother you again.”

“Ha! We can but hope,” Vilree scoffed, sending snickers through the working dracos. “I feel almost bad that we are letting you serve our good friend Mastekh such things, but tell him we tried our best and good luck to you, Estenarven kin Boulderforce.”

With more good wishes and teasing comments flowing in his wake, Estenarven left the kitchen and headed for the suite. He just hoped Elder Blazeborn had remembered his promise to make himself scarce for another night, and that Mastekh hadn’t already gone searching for his supper elsewhere.

“Fifth gift,” he murmured as he began climbing the stairs, “here I come.”

 

 

 

 

[]32

Fifth Gift

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“AND CAH…CAH…come back any… any-tishoo! Anytime, anytime at all. Always wuh…wuh…wel-tishoo! Welcome.”

Mastekh smiled and waved and tried not to look too obvious as he all but ran out of the glasshouse, relieved to leave the dank, humid air behind, along with the sniffling Tempestfury who was allergic to storms and crackled with static every time she sneezed. Which was often. Mastekh’s right arm had gone completely numb after he’d been zapped repeatedly during his short time in the glasshouse.

However, when he looked down at the glass dome clasped between his hands – and the specimen within – the whole debacle was worth it.

“What a precious thing you are,” he cooed to his prize and, hugging the dome to his chest, hurried through the storm-chilled hallways towards Elder Blazeborn’s suite. Hopefully he’d return before Estenarven and have time to hide his latest treasure.

The last two evenings had been a wonderful gift in their own right, filled with the luxury of spending so much time with Estenarven, touching, kissing and talking, so much talking. Mastekh had fallen asleep with his head on Estenarven’s chest last night, drifting away to the sound of his deep voice. Contentment wasn’t anything Mastekh had ever known he was missing, but now that he had it, he deemed it the most precious gift he’d ever received.

Not that Estenarven would agree to list that as one of his seven. No, the silly Boulderforce insisted on doing everything properly, but Mastekh would always count Estenarven’s faith and belief in him as well as his trust and the contentment he evoked among some of the most wonderful gifts anyone had ever given him.

Then again, Mastekh refused to count saving Estenarven’s life as his precious gift either – on the reasoning that saving a life wasn’t something Mastekh would ever choose not to do or to somehow take back, so it wasn’t a gift. Which was why he had spent much of the afternoon in the greenhouse with a sneezing, staticky Tempestfury.

He just hoped Estenarven would deem it worthy.

Biting his lip, Mastekh peered down at the dome cradled firmly in the circle of his arms and smiled. Even if Estenarven didn’t want it, Mastekh would keep it for himself – and count it as one of Estenarven’s seven gifts. Just let the stubborn Boulderforce argue against that.

Laughter echoed down the corridor as Mastekh paused before the door of Elder Blazeborn’s suite. Taking a quick glance in either direction, he fetched the key from his pocket and slipped quietly inside.

The room was dark, save for the flickering of the fireplace and two lone candles. Mastekh studied them curiously – they were such a human thing; glow globes were much more efficient – but since Estenarven wasn’t in sight, he hurried into his own room and shut the door.

“That you, Puddle?” a call came from across the suite.

Panicking, he put his prize on the bed and threw a blanket over the dome before hurrying back out again. “Yes, I’m b-back,” he said, smiling as Estenarven stepped out of his room.

Eyes widening, Mastekh dropped his gaze to the Boulderforce’s feet and slowly ran it all the way to the top, mouth gaping in astonishment. Estenarven, as tall and broad and beautiful as ever, dressed in the finest human evening attire. Highly polished shoes gave way to snowy white stockings, which were tucked into the pale-grey knee breeches that elegantly clung in all the right places. The top of him was resplendent in a matching waistcoat beneath a pewter velvet, swallowtail jacket. The whole ensemble was completed by a frothing waterfall of white lace at his throat.

His face was set in a solemn expression that was much belied by the teasing glint in his eyes.

He looked magnificent.

Fearing he might drool, Mastekh quickly closed his mouth and cleared his throat. “What is this?”

“Happy fifth gift, beloved,” Estenarven purred, executing a courtly bow in the finest human style. “Dinner is now served.”

 

 

 

 

[]33

Dinner

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MASTEKH’S WIDE EYES shone as he drank Estenarven in before turning to stare at the table laid out in the centre of the suite. There had been a moment or two when Estenarven had worried that it was all too much. Not the meal, because that was his handmade gift, but the dripping candles – a most impractical human invention, far too fiddly for his bulky Boulderforce hands, but thankfully Elder Blazeborn had been around to help set them up – the table cloth, the fine china and his own courtly outfit.

One look at Mastekh’s face as he took it all in, however, was enough to reassure him. No, not too much. It was perfect. All of it, perfect.

Well, apart from the food.

Trying not to grimace and give the wrong impression, he strode across the suite to offer his elbow and escort Mastekh to the table, where he seated him and poured a large glass of wine. His Rainstorm would need it to choke down the food.

“Would my lord care to serve himself or be served?”

Mastekh opened and closed his mouth wordlessly, overwhelmed by the occasion, so Estenarven took pity on him and did the honours himself. Which was what he’d hoped to do anyway. This way he could pick out the best of the vegetables and the better cooked pieces of venison.

Which he swiftly did and placed it before his Rainstorm with a theatrical flourish.

“Enjoy.”

“You d-did this?” Mastekh murmured, staring down at his plate as if he’d never seen food before. “All of this?” He looked around the room, eyes slightly glazed as he returned to scan Estenarven’s face once more.

Unable to resist preening just a little under the attention, Estenarven turned side on and bent a little lower than necessary to fill his own plate, aware of how the breeches tightened in all the right places.

Mastekh whimpered.

Smiling, Estenarven carried his plate to his seat, flicked out the tails of his coat and sat down. “I made the meal, at least, with my own two hands.”

“Esten,” his Puddle whispered, clearly overcome that someone had gone to so much effort for him.

“Don’t thank me yet, not until you’ve tried some of it.” So saying, he picked up his cutlery and sawed at his venison. Hmm, not as terrible as he’d feared. A little chewy, perhaps, and rather overdone, but manageable.

“I…”

Putting down his knife, Estenarven reached across the narrow table and squeezed Mastekh’s hand gently. “It’s only food, Puddle. You bake for Elder Blazeborn and me all the time. I thought it was time to return the flavour, but it turns out that I’m no good at sweet and fiddly things. So I cooked you a roast. The dracos helped.”

Mastekh turned his hand beneath Estenarven’s and raised it to his mouth for a kiss. “You’re w-w-wonderful.”

“Say that again after you’ve chewed your way through this mess. If neither of us ends up poisoned, I’ll gladly claim the victory.”

Mastekh’s smile was tender as he ducked his head and cut into a carrot. Then he proceeded to clear not just his plate but a second and third helping too, despite never having had a particularly large appetite.

Which in Estenarven’s eyes was a greater show of love than anything he’d prepared that evening. And left him almost as starry-eyed as his Rainstorm while they finished off the wine, gazing happily at each other in the candlelight.

He could almost hear Jesral gagging at the pair of them and their soppy ways, but Estenarven smiled and didn’t care a bit. Because his fifth gift had been received.

Only two more to go and Mastekh would be his.

“Happy fifth gift,” he said again, weaving his fingers between Mastekh’s and stroking the pads.

“Oh!” Mastekh leapt up and dashed away before Estenarven could register he was even moving. But before he could grow too alarmed, Mastekh was back, a glass dome cradled in his arms.

“Happy f-fifth gift, P-Pebble,” he murmured, placing the dome in front of Estenarven and backing slowly away.

Then it was Estenarven’s turn to be speechless and overwhelmed as he gazed down at what Mastekh had found for him.

 

 

 

 

[]34

The Rose

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THEY BOTH STARED at the rose that was just visible through the fog on the glass. Mastekh bit his lip, hoping against hope that he’d done the right thing.

“May I?” Estenarven asked softly, placing his hands on either side of the dome.

Mastekh nodded, making a low sound of agreement. Unlike some of the roses and flowers in Elder Gwyllen’s collection this one wasn’t delicate, but the shock of going from the humid glasshouse to the cold hallways had prompted the gardener to provide the dome. Hopefully by now the air inside would have cooled enough for it to be less of a shock.

Estenarven lifted, revealing the rose beneath in all its understated glory. When the Boulderforce said nothing, simply stared at the grey bloom that was the size of Mastekh’s fist and appeared to be growing out of a bed of pebbles and moss, nerves struck.

“It’s a r-r-rock rose,” he rushed to explain. “Hardy, I’m t-told. They g-g-grow all over the n-north. But this one is sp-special. They’re mostly wh-white, sometimes p-p-pink, but this one is g-g-grey. Like you.”

The Boulderforce kept looking at the rose and Mastekh felt the first tendril of panic. Even though he’d jokingly thought that he would keep the rose if Estenarven didn’t want it, the simple act of refusing a gift would bring their whole courtship crashing down.

Estenarven couldn’t refuse. He couldn’t.

Mastekh wrung his hands, unable to help the fact that they were dripping. He’d thought he was being so clever. Estenarven’s first gift to him had been a flower. The fact that Estenarven had chosen food as his fifth gift seemed a beautifully positive sign, since Mastekh’s first gift to him had been food. They had mirrored each other without even knowing it.

Except Estenarven was a Boulderforce. Who would be stupid enough to give such a solid, sturdy dragon flowers?

Fine tremors shivered up Mastekh’s spine, turning his knees to water. After everything they’d been through, after the wonder of the last few evenings, he’d gone and ruined it with a stupid gift. A rose from Elder Gwyllen’s private collection was special, yes, but only if you cared for such fragile, frippery things.

“A rock rose,” Estenarven said at last, his voice sounding like he was gargling gravel.

“Yes,” Mastekh breathed softly.

“It’s beautiful.”

The relief was so strong that Mastekh had to hold onto the table to stop himself from melting all over the floor.

Estenarven didn’t notice, he was too busy touching the pebbles and moss that made up the rose’s bed. Despite his big, broad hands, he was exquisitely gentle as he brushed the winding stem and stroked a grey petal.

“No one has ever given me flowers before,” he said wistfully. “People don’t think Boulderforces need them. They don’t think we value pretty, fragile things.” He looked up, dark eyes shining straight into Mastekh’s heart. “But I do. Because they’re not frail, they’re survivors. They’re strong.”

That did it. Mastekh’s knees collapsed and he would have fallen, except Estenarven was there to catch him, pulling him onto his lap and cradling him tight.

“Thank you, Puddle. Thank you.”

Tucking himself beneath Estenarven’s chin, head resting on his broad chest, Mastekh closed his eyes and sighed with relief. He’d chosen right, the courtship would continue. He thought about protesting that he wasn’t strong, that Estenarven had got it wrong, but he wouldn’t allow anything to spoil this moment. No negative thoughts. Just relief – and acceptance.

Only two gifts left to go. Something handmade, something hard to get.

Listening to the steady beat of Estenarven’s heart, Mastekh smiled as his Boulderforce cooed at his rock rose and knew he would never find a more precious, hard to find gift than the love and trust of this dragon.

But he’d try his best anyway, because that was what courtship was for. He would live up to his Estenarven’s expectations and be strong. Then he would hold onto this amazing gift he’d found with all the strength in his heart.

 

 

 

 

[]35

My Precious

h1={color:#000;}.

12th Storm Month

“I DON’T SEE what all the fuss is about,” Lieutenant Vish remarked from the back of his miryhl the next morning. “You’re a stone dragon. Don’t you carry lots of shiny gems around with you all the time? They’re precious, aren’t they? Can’t you just use one of them?”

Taking advantage of a lull in the weather, Estenarven and three of the Rift Rider lieutenants had escaped from Highstrike to fly into the mountains. With the storms lying thick and heavy around the Tempestfury kinlands, all of them – humans, miryhls and dragon – were starting to go a little crazy from being inside all the time.

Although some of Estenarven’s restlessness was down to the fact that two whole days had passed since his dinner with Mastekh and he was still no closer to knowing what his sixth gift should be.

“Maybe he wants to be a little less obvious,” Anhardyne said, her miryhl flying directly over Estenarven’s head. “A diamond or an emerald from a stone dragon? How predictable is that?”

The other Riders and miryhls murmured in agreement, but Estenarven kept his thoughts to himself. He knew they were just trying to be helpful, but contrary to human beliefs, not all stone dragons (as they crudely insisted on labelling him) collected shiny gems. That was the province of kin Jewelwing, as their name suggested.

Yes, all right, Boulderforces did like shiny things every now and then, but they were just as likely to collect a piece of quartz or hematite as gather up diamonds and sapphires.

“But if we rule out precious gems as too obvious,” Nera called from her position on Estenarven’s left, “what else is there?”

And therein lay Estenarven’s problem. He had limited time and extremely finite resources, yet somehow he had to uncover something precious enough to give to his Puddle. Not because the courtship demanded it, but because he wanted to. The rock rose that now sat pride of place on his narrow windowsill was the most perfect and unlikely gift anyone had ever given him. He loved it. The feelings that had bubbled up within him when he’d first laid eyes on it – tenderness and love and a sense of awe at being thought special enough to care for such a thing – were wondrous. He wanted Mastekh to feel every last one. So he needed a good gift, a precious gift, a thoughtful, well considered gift.

“Urgh, rain,” Anhardyne muttered as big fat droplets began splattering down. “I’d hoped we’d escape it.”

“Try down there,” Nera shouted, her miryhl already diving for a gap between the spurs of two mountains.

Estenarven allowed the miryhls to go ahead of him, his scales rippling in protest at the worsening weather. The rain was drumming on his wings now. It wouldn’t hurt him, but that didn’t mean he had to like it. As he dove after the miryhls, his magic tingled through his bones and he grinned as he realised what Nera had spotted.

A cave, low and narrow but with space enough for three miryhls, three humans and one human-sized dragon to fit inside with reasonable comfort.

“Good eyes, Ni,” he remarked, back-winging and shifting midair to land on bare feet. As he crouched to absorb the drop, his hand brushed the ground.

With his magical senses still open, exploring the parameters of the cave, something bright and cool flashed across his mind and he looked up.

“Very good eyes indeed,” he murmured, smiling at the veins that rippled through the stone like ancient, fossilised rivers, glinting in the pallid light of the overcast day.

When he slowly stood, head canted backwards, the three Riders and their miryhls looked up too.

“Is that…?” Nera asked softly.

“Gold,” the others agreed in a reverent whisper.

“In quartz,” Estenarven said, pressing his palms against the nearest wall and grinning with excitement. “Rivers of quartz and gold flow right through the heart of this mountain.”

Anhardyne chuckled. “Well, there’s a gift to please any Flowflight.”

Estenarven grinned. “We may need a little more light,” he suggested, keeping one hand pressed against the wall as he moved deeper into the cave, following the shining river in search of the perfect piece to take home.

 

 

 

 

[]36

Wooden Heart

h1={color:#000;}.

IT WAS ALL thanks to Lieutenant Nera that Mastekh finally figured out what he would do for Estenarven’s handmade gift. After running, literally, into him in the hallway, she’d asked him how everything was going while they helped each other up and dusted themselves down.

That had been two days ago and, after quickly ascertaining that he had neither the skills nor the time to learn to knit, quilt or crochet, Nera had led him through the winding passages of Highstrike to where the rest of the Riders were staying. There, she’d left him in the capable hands of her sergeant, Zantho, and that was where Mastekh still was, staring down at his carving knife and lump of wood, trying to decide if he’d made the right decision.

“Coming along well,” the quiet sergeant said, looking up from his own exquisitely whittled doelyn and calf, small enough to sit on his hand yet detailed down to every feather.

“Mm,” Mastekh replied doubtfully, running his fingertips over his lump. He had made progress, of a sort, since he’d started with a rectangular block of wood the length of his index finger. Now he had an elongated sand timer shape, which he had spent most of yesterday whittling and smoothing down. Which was something, but not nearly what he wanted.

Zantho sighed and put aside his own work, shifting forward to take Mastekh’s lump from his hands. “Show me again,” he invited, holding out his other hand.

Reaching into his pocket, Mastekh reluctantly brought out his fourth gift from Estenarven.

“Curious little thing,” Zantho murmured, his voice almost as deep as a Thunderwing’s, but lacking the rumble of distant thunder. “So old. I wonder who made it, who it was supposed to be, if it was an ancestor or a deity, and what it was meant for.”

Mastekh had wondered the same things himself at first. However, after listening to Estenarven’s tales of how he’d found it and all the ways it had been with him throughout his life, Mastekh no longer cared what its first life had been. All that mattered to him was that it was precious to Estenarven. So even though this one wouldn’t be as old or as precious as the other ones he’d lost, Mastekh hoped that by making a new figure for his Boulderforce, he could lessen the loss of having give the last one away.

“Well, it’s simple enough,” Zantho said briskly, jolting Mastekh from his thoughts. The sergeant handed the old figure back and held the lump up between them. “You’ve smoothed this down well, now you need to carve the final shape.”

“C-c-carve?” Mastekh looked at the knife he was holding and swallowed hard. It wasn’t that he was afraid of the blade, but after spending two days working on his lump, he really didn’t want to ruin it. Who knew how long it would take him to reach this point again?

“Like this.” Zantho fetched a fresh piece of wood from the satchel where he kept all his carving tools. It would have been so simple to let the sergeant do all the work, but they had both agreed from the beginning that the only person to work on this piece would be Mastekh. So the sergeant had created his own lump while showing Mastekh how to whittle and smooth, and now he would show him how to carve.

“Hold it firm.” He passed Mastekh’s lump back to him, picked up his own piece of wood and readied his knife. “Just like peeling an apple. Soft, light strokes. Gently does it. Now dip in a fraction, just a touch. Don’t force it.”

For a man who didn’t seem to talk much, Zantho had a wonderfully soothing voice – and he never expected Mastekh to talk back. With that pressure removed, Mastekh was free to concentrate on Zantho’s words, watching his hands and trying to mimic the movements as best he could. Press and carve, press and carve, turn a little, press and carve. The process was repetitive and easy, almost meditative, allowing Mastekh’s mind to drift away to a quiet place of nothing.

No worries, no anxieties, just the knife and the wood and the soft, gentle movements.

“There now. Take a look. How’s it seem to you?”

Mastekh blinked out of his trance and looked down at the lump, surprised to see that his elongated shape had become more defined, with a longer, more slender blob atop a sturdier, rounder base. “Oh. I d-d-did it.”

“So you did,” Zantho agreed, putting his neater version aside and handing Mastekh a piece of leather covered with fine sand. “Now you have to smooth it. After that, it’ll be time for details.”

Sighing, Mastekh accepted the leather and settled back into the monotonous task of rubbing the wood smooth again. “Details,” he grumbled gloomily. “Another ch-chance to r-r-ruin it.”

Zantho clicked his tongue disapprovingly as he picked up his doelyns again. “You haven’t ruined it yet, have you?”

“N-no.”

“And you won’t. I’ll see to that.”

Buoyed up by the quiet confidence in the man’s tone, Mastekh put his doubts aside and got to work. The sooner he smoothed this down, the sooner he could carve and the sooner he could finish. Then he could give it to Estenarven and be one step closer to the end of their courtship.

Bending over his double-blob, Mastekh bit his tongue to help him concentrate and rubbed all the rough edges of his carving away.

 

 

 

 

[]37

Delay

h1={color:#000;}.

DESPITE CARRYING A substantial rock, large enough to fill both hands, Estenarven felt light and merry as he entered Elder Blazeborn’s suite later that afternoon, while yet another storm raged around the tower.

“Ah, there you are.” Khennik looked up from the desk in the main room just as lightning flashed through the narrow windows, glinting off the gold veins in the quartz Estenarven was holding. The elder eyed the object admiringly. “Sixth gift?”

Not liking the way the Blazeborn was staring at the quartz, well aware of the reputation Sunlord dragons had when it came to shiny precious things – along with delicious foods, sumptuous furnishings, grand artwork, swathes of territory and, well, everything, since Sunlords were the most acquisitive of Clans – Estenarven tucked the rock against his chest and wrapped his arms around it, hiding most of it from sight.

“Something precious,” he explained, entirely unnecessarily.

The corner of Elder Blazeborn’s mouth curled ever so slightly upwards. “Fret not, Estenarven. I won’t steal your gift. There are some Sunlords who cannot control their possessive urges. Luckily for you, I am not one of them.”

Even so, Estenarven had prepared for a moment such as this and reached into his pocket. While he’d been searching for the perfect piece of quartz, one with a vein of gold that looked like a river, he’d happened upon a several smaller chunks that might not have been what he’d sought for Mastekh but had still caught his eye. One of which was almost entirely gold with only a few glints of quartz.

He placed it carefully on the table before Khennik. “Thank you, elder.”

The Blazeborn eyed the palm-sized stone warily. “For what?”

His obvious suspicion made Estenarven smile, since he’d intended the rock as a bribe to convince the elder to let him give the bigger piece to Mastekh uncontested. Apparently he needn’t have bothered, which made him perversely all the more eager to give Khennik something.

“For allowing my courtship of Mastekh to continue. For not interfering. For being reasonable. For not trying to take this,” he nodded at the stone now tucked into the crook of his arm, “from me. For keeping Mastekh safe at Teirenlai. For not refusing Goryal when he insisted I should be assigned to you as punishment. For not getting angry when Mastekh drops things, for not getting annoyed when we bicker, for not complaining when one – or both – of us wander off for most of the day.”

Khennik blinked in astonishment at the words that kept on coming, but now that Estenarven had started, he realised he had so much thank this dragon for. More than he’d ever realised.

“Thank you for saving Mastekh’s life at Boltspike, for keeping us with you. For being you.” Taking a deep breath and stopping before he got too carried away, Estenarven picked up the gold rock and leant across the table to place it directly in front of his elder. “Thank you.”

Khennik stared at the rock as if it was about to explode and blinked. Then cautiously, carefully, he picked it up. A flicker of lightning lit up the windows, making the flecks of quartz embedded in the gold glow. Elder Blazeborn turned the rock around in his hand, stroking his fingers over the uneven, ragged edges before his fist closed possessively about it.

When he looked up at Estenarven, his golden eyes glowed with power. “Thank you,” the elder said, and Estenarven sighed with relief that his gift had been accepted. That his thanks hadn’t been rejected. A sense of achievement and approval washed over him and he grinned, hugging Mastekh’s gift against his chest.

“Do you think he’ll like it?” he couldn’t help asking.

Busy admiring his gold stone again, Elder Blazeborn looked up and tipped his head. “I see no reason why he wouldn’t. It looks like a river captured within the stone. You give very thoughtful gifts, Estenarven.”

Unused to praise from his gruff elder, Estenarven had the unfamiliar sensation of flushing with pleasure. Thank the Family his skin was dark and wouldn’t betray him like Mastekh’s paler complexion.

He cleared his throat awkwardly. “I was hoping to give it to him tonight, if you have no need of us.”

“Ah.” Khennik finally put down his rock and laid his hands flat against the table. “Tonight. Has Mastekh given you your sixth gift yet?”

Any happy, light feelings began to fade at the question. “No,” Estenarven said slowly. “Not yet.”

Khennik’s frown turned into a grimace. “Then I regret to inform you that you cannot give this to him tonight. I sadly do have need of you both.”

Disappointment threatened to pull Estenarven’s shoulders down, but his elder had asked so little of them lately – rarely asked much of them even when he had every right to – that he forced himself not to show it. “Whatever you need, elder. We are both here to serve.”

At that moment the door handle rattled and Mastekh entered the suite as if summoned by their elder’s request. Estenarven’s eyes widened as he looked down at the gift he was still holding. Elder Blazeborn stood up swiftly and walked around the desk, taking Mastekh’s attention with him and away from Estenarven.

“Ah, Mastekh, I was just explaining to Estenarven that I shall be dining with Elder Gwyllen tonight and require both of you to attend. It would appear that our host has finally decided to take advantage of our presence and do business with the humans. As a delegate to the embassy, I am told my place is to sit there and ensure all are dealt with fairly.”

“Oh.” Mastekh murmured, sounding as if he too was struggling to hide his disappointment.

Having looked around the room and found nothing big enough to hide the quartz in or behind, Estenarven grimaced and stuffed the rock inside his robe. Though he tucked it between his arm and his body, there was no way he could disguise the fact he was holding something.

“Yes,” Elder Blazeborn continued, keeping Mastekh’s attention away from Estenarven as he began shuffling towards his bedroom door. “Tiresome, I know. The other elders will have their aides attending on them, but if you and Estenarven have other plans, I will likely be able to cope alone. Perhaps Reglian will assist me.”

Estenarven and Mastekh both bristled. As disappointing as it was not to be able to share his sixth gift just yet, there was no way on this Overworld that either he or Mastekh would allow their elder to dine with the other dragons and their aides alone, leaving him as the only one not being properly cared for. Nor would they permit another dragon to take their place.

The care of Elder Blazeborn was their task – no one else’s.

“We’ll be there,” Estenarven announced, forgetting for a moment that he was supposed to be sneaking away before Mastekh noticed the ill-concealed gift inside his robe.

Thankfully he was in a shadowy portion of the room, so even though Mastekh glanced at him, nodding firmly in agreement, he didn’t seem to notice anything amiss.

The corner of Elder Blazeborn’s mouth curled up ever-so-slightly. “So be it. The bell will sound soon – I trust neither of you need too long to prepare.” He cast Estenarven a brief but knowing glance, which Mastekh again failed to notice.

“Not too l-long at all, eld-d-der,” the Rainstorm bubbled, pressing a hand against his robe pocket and rushing into his room.

“Glad to hear it,” Khennik murmured, raising an eyebrow at where Estenarven still stood in the shadows. “I trust that all my hard work providing you with a distraction won’t go to waste now while you stand around daydreaming until Mastekh returns and catches you once again in the open with a badly hidden gift.”

“Ah. Yes, right.” Having been distracted by the sway of Mastekh’s robe as he hurried away, Estenarven cleared his throat and started moving again. “I’ll be back in a tail swish.”

Over the sound of Khennik’s amused snort, Estenarven raced into his room and bundled Mastekh’s gift beneath his pillow. Sighing with relief at finally having the precious thing out of sight, he emptied his pockets of his smaller treasures and turned to his wash his face in the basin. Straightening his robe, he peered into his mirror and smoothed a hand over his bald head.

A little more harried than usual, but otherwise he looked well enough.

“One more night won’t make any difference,” he told his reflection. After all, there was no set time limit between each gift. There could be days, moons, even years between one courting gift and the next if the dragons involved so required. The only time limit applied when it came to reciprocating one gift to another in order to complete the set. Which was why Elder Blazeborn had asked if Estenarven had received his sixth gift yet. If he had, he would only have a day to respond, else the courtship would be ended. However, since neither of them had yet given their sixth gift, there was no real harm in deferring their courtship for another day.

Much though he might wish otherwise.

“Pull yourself together,” he ordered, poking a finger at his reflected nose. “You’re a Boulderforce. You won’t crumble in the meantime.”

Even so, he would miss the long, leisurely evening chats that always started with them sitting side-by-side – Mastekh usually keeping a decorous hand’s span of space between them – and ended with a Rainstorm draped across his chest, sleepily listening to whatever nonsense Estenarven could come up with to keep them together a little while longer. He had hoped that tonight, after their sixth gifts had been exchanged, he might be able to coax Mastekh into staying with him all night. Sleeping, only sleeping, but sadly it seemed as though the elders had other plans.

A heavy bell tolled somewhere overhead and Estenarven relinquished his hopes with a sigh. He had work to do. He wasn’t here for his health, but because Elder Blazeborn needed him.

With that in mind, he rejoined the others and they set off through the halls of Highstrike for another tedious evening of trade talks and diplomatic dancing.

 

 

 

 

[]38

Waiting

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ALTHOUGH IT WAS disappointing that he wouldn’t be able to give his sixth gift to Estenarven that night, Mastekh found that he didn’t mind too much. Not when Elder Blazeborn needed them. Which was why he found it extra annoying on reaching the Tempestfury elder’s private dining quarters to be reassigned to wait upon Elder Goryal instead, leaving Estenarven to take care of Elder Blazeborn alone.

That wasn’t at all what he’d had in mind and he still hadn’t forgive them for allowing Estenarven to jump into the pool, knowing full well a Boulderforce could not swim.

“Good evening, Mastekh,” the Starshine greeted cheerfully, ignoring Mastekh’s scowl.

“Elder G-Goryal.”

“I’m glad to see you this evening,” they continued, oblivious as always to the resentful thoughts being sent their way. Or, rather more likely, choosing to ignore them, since they were perfectly capable of plucking the thoughts out of the heads of every person present, human and dragon alike. “Have you shared your next gifts yet?”

“No.” Mastekh turned with the other aides to the sideboard that ran around the edge of the room and picked up the first course, which had been just brought in by the dracos. Picking up a bowl of soup, he placed it in front of Goryal with a distinct lack of grace.

Not that they cared. They smiled and thanked him and, with an equally distinct lack of consideration for the protocols of private dining rooms, continued to talk with their server rather than either of the people they were seated between. To their left, Captain Wellswen was busy listening to the Tempestfury on her other side, but Ambassador Jesken on their right had every reason to feel offended – if she hadn’t been so obviously amused by the conversation between Mastekh and the Starshine.

“Which gift are you on now?” Elder Goryal enquired, sipping their soup and making a sound of enjoyment. “This is delicious. Please pass my compliments along to the dracos.”

Mastekh would gladly have done just that, but before he could step back into the shadows where all good attendants belonged, Goryal snagged the edge of his sleeve, holding him in place.

“Which gift, Mastekh?”

“Sixth,” he replied grumpily. “Hand-m-made.”

“A handmade gift,” the ambassador sighed happily. “What a delightful idea. May I ask what you’re making?”

Mastekh flushed to the tips of his ears and shot a worried glance across the table. Unlike him, Estenarven had been left free to return to the shadows after serving the first course. Instead of being asked impertinent questions, he was chatting with Reglian. The smiling young archivist was toying with a quill rather than taking the notes that were supposedly keeping him from being able to wait upon Elder Goryal. Leaving Mastekh to take his place – and answer impertinent questions.

Gritting his teeth, he muttered, “A w-wood carving.”

“Oh, how delightful.” The ambassador smiled at him. “Have you done much carving before?”

Mastekh shook his head and managed to twitch his robe free of Goryal’s grip. “Excuse m-me,” he murmured, escaping back into the shadows where the ambassador’s human servants were talking quietly with the dracos. Jesral kin Lightstorm was there also, barely bothering to conceal her yawn as she waited for Elder Cloudflight to require her attendance. On the opposite side of the room, Kalaha kin Windheart Clan Swiftwing stood at silent attention behind Elder Rainstorm’s chair, jumping forward whenever the dragon snapped his fingers for more wine.

Just looking at Elder Rainstorm’s face as he smiled at the Tempestfury dragon beside him made Mastekh’s blood run cold. Rishen might have been his kin elder, but Mastekh had never felt comfortable around him. He was too sly, too loud and frequently too uncaring to inspire trust. And far too insistent on loyalty to kin and Clan.

The elder looked up at that moment and Mastekh turned hurriedly away, pretending to fuss with the next course as the dracos brought it in. Ever since the disaster that had been Boltspike, Rishen had been ignoring Mastekh and, since he wished that to continue for the rest of his natural life, Mastekh had no intention of drawing his kin elder’s attention.

Taking a deep breath, he stepped forward with the other attendants and removed Goryal’s empty bowl before returning with the next course.

“Remember what I said,” Goryal murmured, as Mastekh leant forward to place the plate of steaming vegetables in front of them. “When you are ready for the final gift, come and see me. I know of something hard to get that will be perfect – for you and Estenarven.”

“More w-wine, elder?” Mastekh said, giving the faintest hint of a nod, aware that Rishen was still watching him.

“Thank you, Mastekh,” the Starshine agreed, smiling as he poured. Thankfully they then let him retreat back into the shadows, where he lost Rishen’s attention once more.

Something hard to get, Mastekh thought as he leant against the wall, eyes locking with Estenarven’s on the far side of the room. At the moment the best gift that fit that description would be time alone together, but in truth that wasn’t a gift either of them could give. Not when they were both assigned to Elder Blazeborn.

So he would have to find something else. Since he had no idea where to even begin in this storm-wracked place so far from his home, he would accept Elder Goryal’s offer. It would cost him nothing to listen and, possibly, might lead to Mastekh getting everything he wanted.

He just wished he didn’t have to wait.

“Patience,” Elder Goryal chuckled, when Mastekh served the next course.

He eyed the elder grumpily, which only made them laugh, and stepped back into the shadows resigned to an impatient, interminable evening at the Starshine’s expense. His only comfort was that he wasn’t the only one trapped here. Catching Estenarven’s eye again, they shared a commiserating smile and he felt instantly better.

It was only one night, after all. He could last one more night.

 

 

 

 

[]39

ARGH!

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18th Storm Month

AFTER SIX NIGHTS of dull diplomatic dinners, Estenarven was on the verge of tearing his hair out – if he had any. They’d been at Highstrike for more than half a moon cycle now, with likely just as long left to go before the wretched Storm Season would abate, and Estenarven was starting to feel trapped. Elder Blazeborn had offered several times to let them off for an evening, but Estenarven and Mastekh were both stubborn. If the other aides were going to be present, waiting on their elders, then they would be there too. Not that they both got to serve Elder Blazeborn each night, instead they had been alternating between serving Khennik and waiting on Elder Goryal. Estenarven didn’t much mind which dragon he looked after, but Mastekh always seemed a bit more sullen after a long night of tending to Goryal. Luckily for all concerned, tonight it was Estenarven’s turn to serve the Starshine, so hopefully Mastekh would only be tired at the end of the meal, instead of grumpy on top.

The only good thing that had come out of the non-stop dinners, followed by days in discussion rooms, was that Mastekh no longer kept any distance between them when they had a rare chance to sit together. Few and brief as these precious moments were, Mastekh now pressed up against Estenarven as if they’d been joined at the hip, no longer wasting time creeping closer over the course of the conversation. Estenarven was secretly hopeful that he might manage to coax his Rainstorm into sharing a bed that night. Or at least a significant amount of cuddle time before sleep. Which neither of them seemed to be getting enough of anymore. If only his bed was bigger…

“How goes the courtship?”

Estenarven blinked, startled out of his pleasant thoughts by the low rumble of Reglian’s voice. The junior archivist was supposed to be taking notes on the chatter around them, but he was mostly picking out the choicest morsels from the draco platters before the elders were served. Each evening the Thunderwing settled down near a different dragon aide for company and it seemed that it was Estenarven’s turn again tonight.

Searching for Mastekh on the opposite side of the room and several seats further down the table tonight, Estenarven gave a heartfelt sigh. “Slowly.”

“Rumour has it you’d reached the sixth gift, but that was several days ago,” Reglian said. “Shouldn’t you be finished by now?”

“Give us a few evenings to ourselves and we’ll take care of it,” he growled, annoyed at the questions.

Reglian smirked. “A few evenings, eh?” He nudged his elbow into Estenarven’s ribs. “Got lots to take care of, have you?”

“Shut up, Reglian.”

The Thunderwing rumbled his deep chuckle. “Someone’s touchy. Have the elders been keeping you up too late?”

“Shut up.”

“I’ll take that as a yes then.” Licking the end of his quill, Reglian dipped it in his inkpot and scribbled something in a small notebook.

“What are you doing?” Estenarven asked, having never seen that little book before. Usually the archivist was busy with scrolls and large tomes. Notebooks like this were far more human in nature.

“Just keeping track of the facts for the betting pool.”

“Betting pool?” Estenarven blinked, then grabbed for the book. “What betting pool? Let me see that!”

“Ah, ah, ah.” Reglian held the notebook out of reach. “Nothing to concern yourself over, young Boulderforce, don’t you worry.” He shoved it back in his pocket and straightened the inkpot before Estenarven could knock it over. “A little decorum, if you please.”

Half-sprawled over the table, Estenarven growled and spat a quill out of his mouth, suddenly aware of how quiet the room had fallen. Looking up, he found all eyes upon him.

Heat washing through him, he straightened up and adjusted his dishevelled robe with an embarrassed cough. “My apologies, elders, ambassador, captain,” he murmured, since attendants were supposed to stick to the shadows and never draw attention to themselves.

More than a few amused smirks were thrown his way, though there was also a scowl or two, but thankfully everyone soon returned to their meals and conversations. Leaving Estenarven free to scowl and punch Reglian hard on the arm.

Ow!” The Thunderwing managed to keep his outrage at a sub-vocal level, rubbing at his bicep. “Blasted Boulderforce. I need that arm to write with, barbarian.”

“Give me that book,” Estenarven growled low in reply.

“No.” Reglian sniffed and picked up another quill, his arm apparently fine despite his protests.

“Do I have to punch you in the head next time and knock some sense into you?” Estenarven threatened in a hiss.

“Violence is never the answer, Pebble,” Reglian informed him in a haughty tone.

“It always works for me,” Estenarven promised.

“Fine.” Reglian dug out the notebook and handed it over just as the next course arrived. “Heathen.”

Cursing the timing, Estenarven tucked the book into his pocket and quickly dealt with switching the empty plates for full ones. Then he hurried back to the shadows and flicked through the small pages. Each one was crammed with lists of names and numbers, few of which made any sense to him. Except for the occasional line here and there.

Dates. Predictions. Two names repeated over and over.

“This is a betting book,” Estenarven whispered, flicking to the last page. “About Mastekh’s and my courtship!” Mastekh to turn him down… 10,000 – 1. He slapped the book against the archivist’s chest. “Reglian!

“Calm down,” the Thunderwing rumbled, rescuing the notebook before they drew the attention of the whole room again. “No one took that bet. Look.”

Estenarven scowled, refusing to acknowledge any relief at the lack of names. Especially as a different heading caught his eye. “What of this?” He grabbed the book and jabbed an accusing finger at The whole thing is a joke… 1,000 – 1. “That’s vicious, even for you.”

“Er, well, yes. Hm, that one wasn’t my idea. I just take the bets and calculate the odds. Look, I gave it a long one, so clearly I have faith in your intentions. Even if others don’t.” Snatching the offending book back, he shoved it into his pocket again. “If people want to throw their coins at me out of spite, I won’t refuse.”

“Don’t ever let Mastekh see this thing,” Estenarven snarled.

Reglian smiled weakly in return. “Not a chance. I promise.”

Eyes narrowed, Estenarven glared around the room, recalling all the names that had been written on the pages and how many of them corresponded with the dragons and humans gathered here right now. “Hang on.” Eyes widening with realisation, he snapped his fingers. “Let me see that again.”

“No.” Reglian covered his pocket with his hand. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. Just forget you ever saw it.”

“Not with you making such a tidy profit out of it,” Estenarven argued. “You’d better be planning on sharing those proceeds, you mangy wyvern. Especially if I just saw what I thought I saw. Elder Goryal’s in there, betting that we won’t get this wrapped up until the twenty-fourth of this month. The twenty-fourth! They’ve been running us all ragged because of a bet? Sibling Stone, I could throttle the lot of you!”

“Now, now, Esten, keep your voice down,” Reglian murmured soothingly. “It’s not just because of the bet. These are serious talks. You’ve been at most of them. Not even Goryal can make up this much stuff.”

Estenarven emitted a loud and extremely sceptical snort. Elder Goryal was a Starshine with enough power to do whatever they blasted well pleased. “The profits, Reglian.”

“Oh, well, you know, after running costs and payouts – and there will be an awful lot of those since most of the Riders only betted on you getting together – there really won’t be much left. Truly.”

Folding his arms across his chest, Estenarven stared the other dragon down.

Reglian deflated beneath that disapproving glare. “I suppose you are owed a small slice. Say, twenty-five?”

“Fifty.”

“Thirty?”

“Seventy.”

“You’re supposed to go down, not up!” Reglian protested, drawing attention himself this time. After a hurried apology, it was his turn to glare at Estenarven. “All right, blast you. Fifty-fifty. You can’t get fairer than that.”

“Fifty-fifty,” Estenarven agreed, after pretending to think about it for a long moment. “But if Mastekh ever finds out, we split it evenly three ways.”

“He won’t find out,” Reglian promised. “And as a sign of good faith, I can help with your seventh gift.”

Estenarven arched an eyebrow. “Who said I was looking for help?”

Reglian raised an eyebrow of his own.

And since the quandary of the seventh gift was something that had been keeping Estenarven awake during his brief periods of rest, he tilted his head in reluctant acknowledgement that he did indeed need help. A little. Maybe.

“Remember when Mastekh tried to make sand bread for Khennik?”

The memory made Estenarven wince. Mastekh had been so excited, desperate to impress Elder Blazeborn with his cooking. Having somehow managed to get his hands on a special sort of desert honey, he’d tried making the Sunlord speciality bread for the first time. And it probably would have been fine, if Estenarven hadn’t insisted on helping and reshaping the lot before adding salt. Which had ruined the whole batch, rare, expensive honey and all.

In front of Reglian.

“I remember,” he murmured, face hot with embarrassment and a touch of shame. Mastekh had been so upset.

“Well, it’s no hyssem honey, but I know of an ingredient that some count almost as good. And rare. They say Sunlords will do almost anything for a taste of it.”

“All right.” Folding his arms across his chest, Estenarven tilted his head a little further. “I’m listening.”

 

 

 

 

[]40

Surrender

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MASTEKH WAS SO tired. Six days of sitting around boring meetings, taking notes, fetching meals and doing nothing, followed by whole evenings of standing around, serving food, waiting for the next course and doing even more nothing, should not have been so exhausting – yet it was. This wasn’t the first time he’d been through meetings like this, but it was the first time he had somewhere else he would far rather be: anywhere else with Estenarven.

Sighing as he entered Elder Blazeborn’s suite, Mastekh rested a hand over the pocket by his hip. There they were – two wooden figures and one shell. At first he’d wanted to stage his own candlelit dinner for Estenarven before presenting him with his sixth gift, but over the last few days his ambitions had been steadily whittled down. Any spare moment in which they could be alone together, breathe for a space and exchange gifts would do. Yet even that seemed too much to ask.

Elder Blazeborn had tried to take pity on them by only taking one each day to the meetings, but Mastekh and Estenarven were stubborn and refused to be shown up before the other aides. Besides if Estenarven was busy, Mastekh had no interest in being left behind.

So he’d made a decision. Since it looked increasingly like they would never be allowed a moment alone again – at least not for the foreseeable future – Mastekh was going to give Estenarven his sixth gift anyway. Which was why he’d hurried back to the suite this evening, aiming to arrive before anyone else and before his exhaustion overtook him and landed him face down in his bed.

With the help of the dracos, he’d slipped away after the last course had been served and now here he was, alone in Elder Blazeborn’s suite, moving through the shadows until he reached Estenarven’s room.

He’d never been inside before. Estenarven had invited him, of course, but Mastekh had wanted to build up to the big moment. When he slept with Estenarven properly for the first time – their naps on the suite floor and by the waterfall didn’t count, since they’d been in different forms at the time – Mastekh wanted it to be special. He wanted candlelight and wine and romance and…

He rubbed his eyes, unable to remember what else he’d wanted and why it had to be so important. Nerves, most likely. He was too tired for nerves tonight and pushed open the door to Estenarven’s room.

It didn’t look all that different to his own, unsurprisingly. Narrow and gloomy with a stone bed. Estenarven had a big travel chest tucked underneath it and a pile of blankets disarranged on top. Sibling Water, they looked comfortable.

Yawning, Mastekh reached into his pocket and pulled out the two wooden figures. It was too dark to see them clearly so he rubbed his thumbs over them, trying to work out which one was battle-scarred and old and which was just roughly made. Tricky.

While he tried to sort it out, he climbed onto the bed, intending to leave the gift on Estenarven’s pillow, but his foot caught on the hem of his robe and he slipped, landing face down in the blankets.

Dust and musk and Estenarven.

By the Family, those blankets really were comfortable.

“No,” he told himself, struggling up onto all-fours and shaking his head. He had a task to do. Leave his gift for Estenarven.

On the pillow.

Now.

He reached out in the dark, fumbling for the pillow. Then he paused, sinking down until he was on his knees and elbows, a figure clasped in each hand. Which one was it again? He couldn’t remember. He couldn’t see. He could barely think.

His eyes kept closing, they felt so heavy. He couldn’t even remember why he was bothering to keep them open. Why was he fighting? He couldn’t remember.

So soft. The blankets. It wouldn’t matter if he just lay down for a while, surely? No one would object.

Snuggling into the folds, he yawned again and curled up, the wooden figures clasped in his hands. Then he surrendered to the undertow and let sleep sweep him away.

 

 

 

 

[]41

Enough

h1={color:#000;}.

“I AM SORRY about this, you know,” Elder Blazeborn said, as he and Estenarven walked back to their suite. “I had no idea this would turn into so many meetings. I’m not even certain what they’re discussing anymore.”

The elder had never been one for trade diplomacy. Not that Estenarven could blame him. He hadn’t been able to work out what all the meetings were about either, until he’d caught a glimpse of Reglian’s betting book and discovered Goryal’s stake in the proceedings.

“It’s not your fault,” Estenarven said, entirely truthfully.

Elder Blazeborn rubbed a hand over his head and blew out a weary sigh. “Perhaps not, but since neither of you will help yourselves, I’m putting my foot down. We’re all taking tomorrow off.”

“But the meetings…” Estenarven protested, a little less forcefully than he probably should.

“Burn them. I have nothing to contribute and won’t be missed. And if I’m not there, nor will you be. Let them fetch their own blasted food and drinks for once. My patience has ended.”

A huge smile of relief broke through Estenarven’s tiredness. The Blazeborn elder had never been well known for his patience, but while he continued to attend it was up to Estenarven – and Mastekh – to support him. But if he wasn’t there…

“Thank you.”

Khennik waved a dismissive hand and pushed open the door to their suite. “Just don’t wake me in the morning. In fact, I don’t want to see either of you all day long. Finish your courtship. I have sleep to catch up on.” So saying, the grumpy elder walked into his private room and shoved the door shut behind him.

Estenarven watched him go with a fond smile. Khennik would never be the friendliest of dragons, but beneath his grumps and growls, there was a good heart. Even if it wasn’t particular gracious at accepting gratitude.

“Thank you,” he murmured again, yawning as he glanced over at the closed door to Mastekh’s room. He’d noticed his Puddle slipping out early from the dinner and sighed with disappointment. So much for coaxing Mastekh into a cuddle or two before bedtime. Ah well, he wouldn’t disturb him now. His poor Rainstorm had been run ragged over recent days, back and forth to the kitchen, up and down the stairs. Estenarven would let him sleep. He could surprise him with the news of their reprieve in the morning.

Rubbing his hands together in anticipation, another yawn overtook his smile and he rubbed his hands over his eyes instead.

“Time for bed,” he muttered, pushing into his room and collapsing onto his blankets.

“Wuh!”

“Ah!”

Not only was his bed not nearly as soft as he remembered, it also contained a frenzy of thrashing limbs. Estenarven jerked back and hit the floor with a bone-rattling thud.

“What the blazes!” Khennik arrived in a swirl of fire and light – and froze in the doorway, taking in the sight before him.

Estenarven lay sprawled on the floor, wincing as he sat up on his tender backside. Meanwhile, the pile of blankets on the bed continued to thrash and moan, until Mastekh’s head popped out, squinting at the bright glow of Elder Blazeborn’s power.

“Mastekh?” Estenarven and Khennik asked together, one slightly more incredulously than the other.

Moaning, Mastekh pressed his arm over his eyes and curled up tighter, wincing as he moved his legs. Estenarven winced in sympathy, remembering how heavily he’d fallen on his bed. Because he’d expected it to be empty. He’d thought he was alone.

“Ah, ahem, well,” Elder Blazeborn cleared his throat awkwardly and Estenarven looked at him properly for the first time since his arrival. Bronze skin glowing with power, Khennik’s robe hung half off his shoulders, the silk still smoking. It seemed like they’d given their elder as much of a shock as they’d given themselves.

“I’ll just leave this here, I think.” Khennik let a small golden globe drop from his fingers. “Good night.”

“N-n-night,” Mastekh whimpered from the bed.

“Good night,” Estenarven called, picking up the globe and gingerly climbing to his feet to shut the door. “And thank you!”

Khennik made a grumbling reply about keeping it down as he returned to his own room. Leaving Estenarven alone with Mastekh. Finally.

“Puddle?” he murmured, placing the glow globe on a high shelf and crawling onto the bed. “Are you all right? Did I hurt you? Speak to me.”

Silk sighed as Mastekh shook his head, his face still hidden by his arm. “Sur-p-prised,” he mumbled.

Estenarven snorted in agreement and carefully eased down until he was lying alongside the other dragon. “You and me both, Puddle.” He pulled his Rainstorm closer.

Mastekh flinched and rolled away, hugging his knees tight against his chest, back to Estenarven. “I’m s-s-sorry,” he gasped, covering his head with his arm again.

“I’m not,” Estenarven grumbled, inching closer. Mastekh inched away. Estenarven followed and, since he was on the wall-side of the exceedingly narrow bed, Mastekh swiftly ran out of space and was caught. Estenarven pressed his chest against Mastekh’s back and buried his face against the nape of his neck. He sighed. “You’re in my bed. Best surprise I’ve had all century.”

Trembling, Mastekh uncurled a fraction and peered over his shoulder. “T-t-truly?”

Estenarven took advantage of the slight softening and wrapped his arms around Mastekh’s waist, hauling him as close as possible. “Truly,” he rumbled in reply, kissing his Puddle’s wet cheek. “As long as you’re not hurt.”

“I’m not h-hurt. Just em-b-barrassed.”

“Mm,” Estenarven hummed, yawning against Mastekh’s shoulder. “Never mind now. Leave it to tomorrow. Sleep.”

Mastekh hummed in agreement, shifting around until he could tuck his head against Estenarven’s chest. “You’re not h-hurt?” he whispered.

Ignoring the throbbing in his tail bone, Estenarven breathed in a lungful of Rainstorm scent and smiled. “No.”

“G-g-good,” Mastekh yawned, and went boneless with relaxation.

Running a hand up his back to stroke the Rainstorm’s soft cloud of hair, Estenarven wondered if he should offer to take Mastekh back to his own room. Except his Puddle seemed exceedingly comfortable where he was and Estenarven was in no mood to move either. He wanted to sleep, needed to sleep, and having Mastekh in his arms made everything ten times better.

So he closed his eyes and breathed deeply, aware that tomorrow was a free day in which he didn’t have to do anything. Neither of them did. They could stay in bed all day if they wished.

Bliss.

Mastekh snuggled deeper into his arms and made a sound of contentment as he wriggled his way beneath Estenarven’s robe and pressed his cheek against bare skin. The Rainstorm was cool to the touch but perfect. Utterly perfect.

Estenarven released the last of the day’s tension and sank into the depths of sleep.

 

 

 

 

[]42

Scales

h1={color:#000;}.

19th Storm Month

MASTEKH WOKE FROM the most wonderful dream, where he’d slept the whole night in Estenarven’s arms, dozing against that strong, broad chest.

Sibling Water, what he wouldn’t give for that to be true, he thought, stretching and yawning, opening his eyes —

And finding that it was true.

“Whuh?” His arms shot out, lifting him above Estenarven’s rock solid chest.

Rock solid, bare chest.

On which he’d been sleeping and… drooling?

Mastekh closed his eyes against the glistening patch on Estenarven’s superbly muscled chest and prepared to move. It would be a struggle, but by the Family, the poor dragon had been used as a pillow all night. He deserved a little consideration.

Before Mastekh could talk himself into doing what he really didn’t want to, strong hands curled around his elbows, drawing him down again.

Mastekh’s eyes shot open and found a sleepy smile awaiting him.

“Morning, Puddle,” Estenarven rasped, his voice rough with slumber. He pressed firm lips against Mastekh’s, drawing the affection out into a long, easy kiss that ended with Mastekh once more sprawled all over him. When Estenarven finally released him, the Boulderforce’s smile was a smug as the Jewelwing who got the diamond. “What a way to wake up.”

Mastekh could only nod in agreement, his hands busy petting their way across Estenarven’s granite hard muscles, enjoying the vital warmth beneath his cool palms. Such a delicious contrast, like the places where Estenarven’s hands had snuck inside Mastekh’s own loosened robe and were resting against his back.

When one of Mastekh’s wandering hands slid along Estenarven’s side and found an unexpectedly ticklish spot, the Boulderforce made a sound of surprise. When Mastekh returned to that same spot, he breathed in deep, arched his hips ever so slightly and flexed his hands. Those same hands that were big enough to span from Mastekh’s waist all the way down to a sensitive patch of his own.

“Ah,” Estenarven chuckled, his left hand rubbing down from the base of Mastekh’s ribs to the top of his backside, pausing to circle over a particularly smooth patch. “There they are.”

As the Boulderforce ran his thumb over the sinuous spiral of scales, Mastekh shuddered from head to toe. No one had ever touched his scale patches before and he’d had no idea how wonderful it would feel.

“Sensitive?” Estenarven murmured, blowing a teasing stream of warm air against Mastekh’s flushed face.

“V-v-very.”

“Good.” He played with the scale patch until Mastekh was a trembling puddle of desire, his claws digging ever-so-slightly into the muscles of Estenarven’s chest.

Then the infuriating Boulderforce stopped.

“I’ll keep it in mind for later. Please tell me you have another patch somewhere else.” Estenarven sat up, chuckling as Mastekh slid off him like melting ice.

Sprawled on his back in the covers, Mastekh stared as his Boulderforce leant over and stole a kiss.

“Puddle?” he murmured, stroking his nose over Mastekh’s burning face, which was no doubt currently a deep green shade. “Scales?”

Sensations running too high to form words, Mastekh took hold of Estenarven’s hand and placed it where his robe gaped widely open. There on his rather less than spectacular chest, slightly to the left of centre, a ragged-edged area just a little smaller than palm-sized formed a silky patch on his cool skin.

Estenarven’s smile turned tender as his fingertips traced the edges of the scales before he flattened his hand over the top. “May I?” he asked, touching the edge of Mastekh’s robe.

He swallowed hard, but nodded permission. Nudity wasn’t a taboo amongst dragons, who only wore robes to protect their frail human skins rather than because of any sense of modesty, but Estenarven had always made him feel shy. The Boulderforce was so beautiful and striking and strong, while Mastekh was… not. Just a skinny streak of human skin. His dragon form was sleek and swift, especially when he was in the water, but his human shape was underwhelming in all ways. He really didn’t want to disappoint Estenarven, but with his Boulderforce being so generous with his own body, Mastekh didn’t think it fair to keep hiding. Nor did he want to, not really. He wanted to be touched, even if he would never be admired. He wanted to press his skin against Estenarven’s, to feel his heat everywhere. So he held still when Estenarven brushed aside the edge of his robe and tried not to cringe when those dark eyes roamed all over him.

“Oh, Puddle,” Estenarven breathed, staring down at his pale, skinny, slightly clammy chest.

Mastekh peered down himself, wondering what it was the Boulderforce could possibly be taking so long to look at. His scale patch did look rather nice, actually, shimmering with iridescent hues beneath the golden light of the globe. Mastekh had never spent much time looking at it, but the blues and greens were quite pretty, shifting and shining as he breathed.

“Beautiful,” the Boulderforce sighed, pressing his lips right on the scale patch.

“Oh!” Mastekh arched at the unexpected jolt of sensation. “I – I –” His chest heaved as he tried to breathe after electricity had zapped through every part of his body.

“Very sensitive,” Estenarven purred, licking the scales and chuckling deeply as Mastekh whimpered with pleasure. “Excellent.”

“Sh-shouldn’t we be g-g-getting up?” Mastekh asked weakly, chest heaving, a fine sheen of moisture breaking out across his entire body as he tried to process all that he was feeling. It didn’t help that Estenarven was stroking teasing fingers across his whole chest now and slowly peeling the edges of his robe apart so that he could explore further – and lower. “Esten!”

Estenarven waited for him to collapse back against the covers before nuzzling the opposite side of Mastekh’s chest from the scale patch he’d just licked. Again.

“Not today,” he murmured. “We don’t have anywhere to be today.” He tested Mastekh’s thin layer of muscle with his teeth, nipped a little harder and licked away the sting. Then he looked up to grin. “Elder Blazeborn has given us all the day off.”

“Oooooh,” Mastekh sighed, while Estenarven returned to his explorations. “That’s… that’s very k-k-kind of him.”

“Isn’t it?” Estenarven chuckled, shifting to make himself more comfortable as he moved a little further down Mastekh’s body. “Now all we have to do is find a way to amuse ourselves. Any ideas?”

Mastekh’s reply was a squeak, followed by a moan, followed by a sigh as he surrendered to his delicious fate.

 

 

 

 

[]43

Tease

h1={color:#000;}.

20th Storm Month

ESTENARVEN SPENT THE next day in a happy haze, uncaring that he was back in meetings and once more serving Elder Blazeborn at dinner. Not only had he spent the last two nights sleeping with Mastekh beside him, but his Puddle had finally relaxed enough to let them explore each other. Just a little, just enough to give them both a taste of what they might one day have. Compared to his previous lovers, some would deem it fairly tame stuff, but Estenarven was giddy with it all. Mastekh was becoming more and more his with each passing day, allowing him closer, trusting him more deeply. Their courtship was progressing beautifully.

With that thought in mind, he smiled as he brushed a hand against his hip pocket, where his sixth gift now resided. The thought and effort that Mastekh had gone to in order to replace Estenarven’s battered old wooden figure with a new one handmade by his Puddle… Estenarven hadn’t known his heart could hurt with happiness. Even now it still felt a little too big for his chest, inflated with all the feelings Mastekh stirred within him.

“Ugh, Sister Storm, do you have to ooze?”

Estenarven jerked away from the wall he’d been leaning against and looked down to find Jesral scowling at him. He glanced at his hands and the floor, but he was a Boulderforce, he didn’t ooze.

He frowned in confusion. “What?”

“You. You’re so happy, it’s practically dripping off you.” She waved her hand in front of her face as though dispersing a bad smell. “Stop it.”

Reglian snorted from his desk behind the pair of them, where he was once again getting out of having to serve at dinner by pretending to take notes on the conversation. “Don’t be jealous, Jesral. It’s unbecoming.”

The Lightstorm sneered at the Thunderwing, who smirked back. Just because the two dragons shared a Clan, didn’t mean they liked each other.

Not in the mood to get between the pair of them and one of their bickering spats, Estenarven shook his head. “I thought you were my friend, Jessie.”

Jesral paused her glaring at Reglian to sniff in his direction. “I am.”

“Then you should be happy that I’m happy.”

“I would, but you’re just so nauseating about it. Smiling all the time.”

“I’m a smiley person,” he protested.

“Not like this,” Jesral argued. “You look like you’ve taken one too many hits on the head with a boulder.”

“He’s a Boulderforce,” Reglian interjected, chuckling. “They’re all like that.”

Both Estenarven and Jesral shot him a withering look. He didn’t seem to care, twirling a quill between his fingers and smiling benignly.

“All I’m saying is, can you be a little less distracted, please?” Jesral said, turning her attention back to Estenarven. “If I have to hit you one more time to prompt you to serve the next course, I’m going to break my hand.”

“Maybe you could try not hitting me?” Estenarven suggested.

She glared at him instead, so he opted for Reglian’s solution and smiled.

“Lovebirds,” she growled in disgust. “I thought you of all dragons would never fall for any of that romantic nonsense. Now look at you. A good flirt, ruined.”

“Aw, I’ll still flirt with you, Jessie,” he promised, batting his eyelashes.

She looked at him like he was something disgusting she’d accidentally stepped in. “Save it for Mastekh,” she retorted, flicking her hair over her shoulder and stalking away to stand with someone else.

Estenarven watched her go, shaking his head and sighing, wondering if he would ever understand what was wrong with her.

“Don’t worry, Esten, she’ll get over it,” Reglian said, putting down his quill and linking his fingers together. “Unfortunately for you.”

“What’s the problem between you two anyway?” Estenarven demanded, resting a hip against Reglian’s desk and reading his notes upside down. They looked more like a handful of games of noughts and crosses to him.

Reglian hurriedly covered up his games and shrugged. “Thunderwings and Lightstorms have never got along. Blame that age old question, which came first the thunder or the lightning? We’re simply not meant to be friends.”

“Sounds foolish to me,” Estenarven said, shrugging himself.

“Which is a bit rich coming from a kin Boulderforce, who all the Overworld knows can’t stand the rest of your Clan.”

“I can’t help it if the other Stoneheart kin are full of rubble brains and eroded integrity.”

“Mm,” Reglian agreed, twirling his quill again as the next course was brought in and Estenarven had to step away and serve his elder. By the time he returned, the Thunderwing actually appeared to be doing some work, so he rested his hip against the desk and tried some more upside down reading.

“You missed a bit,” he said, indicating a few runes that had only been half-completed, changing their meaning completely. “Unless you meant to compare Elder Cloudflight to a bat, in which case carry on.”

Reglian growled softly, making the correction and tucking the page out of sight. “Have you exchanged your sixth gifts yet?” he asked, changing the subject before Estenarven could ask about the interesting notes he’d just glimpsed on Elder Blazeborn’s attempts to turn back the Cloud Curse – and the lack of help he’d received so far from his fellow elders.

The subject of his courtship with Mastekh was something which Estenarven was more than happy to be diverted onto and he felt another soppy smile creep over his face. Thank the Family Jesral wasn’t around to see it.

“We have,” he admitted, fully aware that he sounded besotted but not caring because he was. The look of awe on Mastekh’s face when Estenarven had presented him with the gold-veined quartz would remain one of his favourite memories for the rest of his life. His dear Puddle had literally melted over the gift, unable to believe that anyone would give him something so beautiful. Estenarven felt the same way about everything Mastekh had given him, so he knew they were even.

“And the seventh? Have you fetched it yet?”

Estenarven scowled at having his happy memories interrupted again and rubbed his neck. “When would I have had the time?”

“You had yesterday off,” Reglian pointed out. “Surely it didn’t take you all day to exchange your sixth gifts.”

“Not all day, no.” Estenarven sighed, sinking back into memories of what had led up to the gift giving and all the gratitude that had followed. Sibling Stone, if only all free days could be so wonderful…

“So when?” Reglian once more prodded him back to the present.

“I don’t know,” Estenarven growled. “When these meetings end or Elder Blazeborn takes pity on us again, I suppose. Not that it’s any of your business.”

“Ah, but it is, remember.” Reglian raised an eyebrow and tapped a golden claw against the pocket where his little betting book resided.

Estenarven narrowed his eyes. “You shouldn’t remind me about that,” he warned. “I’m still angry with you and Goryal.”

“If you’re truly angry with Goryal then you’d best speed things up. You know they’ve bet on your courtship wrapping up on the twenty-fourth of this month. No one else has gone longer, so even if you and Mastekh exchange your seventh gifts after that, they’ll still win the pot.”

Estenarven growled again.

Reglian smiled. “Better get a move on then, hadn’t you.”

Estenarven gave a sharp nod and plotted how he might convince Elder Blazeborn to give them another day off, preferably tomorrow. He was so preoccupied, in fact, that he forgot to ask Reglian who would win if Goryal was thwarted.

Still, as he curled up with Mastekh in his narrow bed that night, smiling at Khennik’s promise not to need either of them on the morrow, he decided he didn’t care. All that really mattered was securing his seventh gift so that he could make Mastekh his forever.

And if they happened to ruin Goryal’s win along the way, that was just a bonus.

 

 

 

 

[]44

Risk

h1={color:#000;}.

21st Storm Month

MASTEKH WOKE UP cold and alone. Which wasn’t unusual across the course of his life, but it was unexpected after enjoying two mornings in a row of waking with his own personal Boulderforce furnace. Dazed and still a little drowsy after another late night of waiting on Elder Goryal, Mastekh yawned as he looked around Estenarven’s cramped room.

It didn’t take very long, and since there was no possible place for a Boulderforce to hide, he soon realised his lover was gone.

Disappointed, he dropped back onto the bed with a grunt and snuggled back amongst the covers. He knew he should get up, he just didn’t want to. A few more moments wouldn’t hurt.

Something scratched against his cheek and he tried to ignore it, but the irritation broke through his sleepiness and woke him fully.

Sighing in defeat, he swiped the offending thing away and sat up, frowning as a piece of paper fluttered to the floor. He bent over to retrieve it, squinting and twisting the page this way and that until he could make sense of Estenarven’s terrible scrawl.

 

Puddle,

I’ve gone to fetch your final gift. EB doesn’t need us.

See you later.

Love,

Pebble

 

Mastekh stared at the word love, tracing it with his fingertip. It was all very well for Estenarven to say such things in the dark and the quiet where no one would hear him, possibly not even Mastekh himself, but to put it into words… He smiled and read the note again.

Then gasped and fought his way free of the blankets. If Estenarven was out fetching his final gift, then Mastekh had to get a move on. Even though he already knew what he wanted for Estenarven’s last present, he still had to actually get it.

Racing across the suite to his own room, he washed his face in the basin and straightened his robe before digging through his meagre belongings for the old foraging bag he used to use in his home forest. Tattered and frayed, held together by knots, it nevertheless would do. He slicked his hand over his hair, smoothing it away from his eyes and hurried back into the main room of the suite.

Elder Blazeborn sat in a chair beside the fireplace, sipping at a cup of tea. “Seventh gift?” he enquired, in the face of Mastekh’s disarray.

“Yes.”

“Know what you’re getting?”

“Y-yes.”

“Try not to get killed. Good aides are hard to find.”

Mastekh gave a distracted nod and ran for the door. He was halfway down the hallway before he registered what Elder Blazeborn had said.

He stopped dead. Good aides are hard to find. Aides, plural. Meaning him as well as Estenarven.

Heat rushed to his face even though no one else was around and he patted a hand against his fluttering heart. It hadn’t been an easy adjustment for either him or his elder, but to know that Elder Blazeborn valued him…

“Oh.”

A smile crept over his face and warmth filled him. Then he started running again. He had a seventh gift to find and, according to Goryal’s advice, he had to battle through the foul weather to the top of this mountain to reach it.

Arriving at the nearest platform, he stepped out into the rain and looked up. Lightning split the sky, followed almost immediately by a heavy growl of thunder.

Perfect.

Shedding his human form, Mastekh uncurled his long body and picked up his raggedy foraging bag once more. Wings open, he slithered off the platform and merged with the storm.

It took no time at all for him to swim his way between the bolts, up and up, right to the mountaintop above Highstrike, where the storm was at its thickest. Vast clouds squatted over the ridgeline, spitting out light and sound and fury and force, but Mastekh was too focused to flinch. Not even when a bolt narrowly missed his wing and showered him with rock shards.

Instead he waited for the worst of the smoke to clear, turned mid-air and pounced on the spot. Blackened rock and charred earth. Useless.

Grumbling, he landed and tucked in his wings, using his claws to pick around the dirt. Nothing of interest caught his attention and he sighed. Overhead the sky snarled, drawing his attention to the highest part of the ridge. The clouds were thickest there, but not so impenetrable that he couldn’t make out the flashes coming at short, sharp intervals.

Just as Goryal had promised.

Flexing his wings, Mastekh folded them in tight against his back and scurried over the broken ground. Sharp stones dug into his paws, but at least the rain streamed straight off his scales. When he reached the bottom of the ridge, he looked up at the broken slope and sighed.

A narrow gully led all the way to the top, jagged and rough but protected from the worst of the lightning flashing about. It was also too narrow for even a slender Rainstorm to fit inside.

Well, it wasn’t supposed to be easy, he reminded himself, forcing his comfortable dragon form to slide away, leaving him shivering and exposed as a human wrapped in silk. Nor would staring at it make it any easier. Sighing, he pulled the strap of his foraging bag over his head, clambered into the gully and began to climb. Digging his claws into the silt and dirt, he hoped that Goryal’s advice would prove worth all this effort.

Lightning spat against the edges of the gully, but Mastekh ignored it and continued to climb. Nothing would stop him from fetching this final gift and completing his courtship. Nothing.

Although, when he crawled, dirty, sodden and panting out of the gully at the top of the ridge, the swirling clouds, pounding rain, howling wind and flashing lightning made him pause. The seventh gift was supposed to be difficult to obtain, but no one had bothered to mentioned it might also be dangerous. Resting on his knees, he studied the storm ahead and gulped, wondering if Goryal’s word could really be trusted. After all, anyone could predict that the storm would be fiercest at the top of the mountain. That didn’t mean the rest of Goryal’s promises were true.

Then he caught sight of flames and rainbow sparks flourishing the highest point.

Just as Goryal had promised.

So maybe there was some truth in the old Starshine yet. All the hopes of his seventh gift and courtship were now resting on it. Clenching his hands in the knotted rope of his bag strap, Mastekh straightened his shoulders, took a deep breath and walked into the heart of the storm.

 

 

 

 

[]45

Fury

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ESTENARVEN SHOULD HAVE known better than to trust Reglian. The blasted Thunderwing had made it sound so simple. Fly to the top of the mountain in a storm and look for the grove of raggedy trees. According to legend, a very special type of tree grew around here, found almost nowhere else across the entire Overworld. Even then, this special variety could only be found under extremely particular conditions.

“You’re a fool,” he told himself, as he hunkered against the side of the mountain, waiting for a brutal gust of wind to pass. Thunder snarled as if in answer, and Estenarven uncurled enough to crawl forward. Even though his large dragon size made him more of a target in this place of frequent lightning strikes, he was loath to shrink to his human form. At least as a full Boulderforce, he could absorb a direct strike with little more than a few choice swearwords and a new scar for his troubles.

He hoped.

Truth was, it would hurt like fury in either form, but it was less likely to kill him in dragon shape. Unless, of course, he got hit multiple times in quick succession.

The storm chose that moment to punch the ground directly in front of him.

Hissing, Estenarven scrambled back, shaking both front feet and his head as the glancing blow made his ears ring and his claws and teeth buzz. Unpleasant, but not entirely painful. Still, it had barely even brushed him. He’d have to be more careful.

Sinking down, he crawled forward on his belly, looking for these fabled trees and wondering how it was possible for any such thing to survive out here. This mountain range might not be the highest he’d encountered across the Dragonlands, but the sheer number of storms that wrapped themselves around it didn’t make for ideal growing conditions.

Then again, it was the Storm Season, so perhaps it wasn’t like this most of the year. Yet it was also the chosen home of kin Tempestfury, so it probably was.

“Stop waffling,” he growled, aware that he’d stopped moving, allowing his useless thoughts to distract him from his mission. Creeping along like an insect was bad enough, but cowering like a coward under the storm was never going to locate these wretched trees and he’d never find out if storm cinnamon was anything more than a myth.

“Move,” he ordered, and scuttled up the slope like a beetle, scanning the shadows on either side for anything that resembled a tree. He’d originally hoped to fly around the mountaintop, avoiding lightning strikes as best he could while scanning the ground. That idea had failed almost instantly, thanks to the thick, dark clouds that shrouded the peak. Which left him no choice but to land and scuttle.

He should never have trusted Reglian. The Thunderwing had probably sent him on a wild basilisk chase in order to win one of his blasted bets.

“Always question your sources,” he told himself, dashing from one pile of rocks to another and crouching as lightning once more split the sky.

The thunder that followed was close and loud enough to make him flinch, the sound pummelling his scales like a wave.

Another flash, another flinching rumble, but this time something caught Estenarven’s eye.

There. Up on the ridgeline. A tree. No, more. Five trees.

He squinted into the darkness, uncertain of what he’d seen until another flash revealed that there were actually four trees – and a slender figure running between them.

“No,” Estenarven whispered, because surely there couldn’t be anyone else foolhardy enough to come to such a dangerous place at such a perilous time.

Not unless they were also searching for a seventh courting gift, one that was extremely hard to get in order to show their lover how far they were willing to go for them.

Mastekh!” His roar was drowned out by a boom of thunder, the lightning of which struck right in the heart of the trees.

“No!” Estenarven scrambled over the uneven slope, claws slipping and sliding through the mud and scree as he struggled to get his feet beneath him. Digging in, he opened his wings and shoved himself into the air. It was untidy, ugly, difficult work and barely lifted him off the ground, but he managed to snatch a passing gust of wind to power himself halfway up the ridge. Lightning seared his back, crackling heat all along his spine before striking the ground directly below him.

Estenarven hissed and pushed off again. “Mastekh!” He barrelled into the grove of trees, taking out two of the twisted, gnarled, misshapen things. Charcoal filled the air, along with an unexpectedly sweet scent. “Mastekh!” Estenarven roared, casting desperately around, expecting to see a sprawled and smoking figure cast out along the ground.

Nothing. Only shattered tree limbs and that strangely sweet scent.

Storm cinnamon.

Estenarven held still and breathed in deep. He closed his eyes as lightning cracked against the ridgeline once more, then he moved. Cursing himself for a fool, he shrank to his human shape and filled his bag to the brim with charred tree limbs and scattered bark. He didn’t know which particular bit of it made storm cinnamon, so he took as much as he could and hoped it would be enough.

Then he shifted back to full size and, ensuring the bag was tightly tied around one front leg, cast around for Mastekh again.

Lightning flashed so brightly he had to turn away, convinced his eyes would never be the same. Yet even as he pawed at them, the afterimage burned behind his eyelids, showing the highest point of the ridge and the tiny figure outlined against the dark sky.

Mastekh!” he roared, shaking off his spotty vision and charging out of the ruined grove. Thunder snarled overhead, the wind shrieked and clouds roiled, but Estenarven ignored them all. He had to get to Mastekh, he had to stop him before he got himself killed.

A Rainstorm dragon was soft enough, with his smooth scales and lack of body armour, but his human form was ten times more vulnerable. If he took a direct hit there would be no shrugging it off. Mastekh was composed almost entirely of water – he’d burst and fry all at the same time. Estenarven had to save him.

“Mastekh!” Desperately clawing his way onto the ridgeline, he scuttled upwards as fast as the treacherous ground allowed, not even pausing when lightning bounced off the nearby rocks and crackled over his scales. It burned and stung, sending his muscles into twitching spasms, but he fought through until his body was his own again. Climbing, always climbing, until, finally, he reached the top.

And found Mastekh scrabbling around at the base of an enormous smoking crater.

Estenarven roared, wordless with fear, and the storm answered.

Lightning struck. Once, twice, thrice. Estenarven lost count of the flashes as he leapt into the crater. The bolts zigzagged before him, bouncing from one set of rocks to another, forming a web of livid, crackling power all heading towards the centre of the crater. Where Mastekh knelt, holding a white rock aloft.

“Yes!” the Rainstorm yelled, eyes widening as he suddenly realised what was heading towards him. His face twisted with horror, one hand reaching towards Estenarven, mouth opening in a cry.

They collided – Rainstorm, Boulderforce, lightning and storm. Everything met in a blast of heat and energy.

Estenarven curled up into a tight ball of agony, praying to the Divine Family that Mastekh was safe somewhere within his hold. He couldn’t feel him, couldn’t feel anything as lightning shot across his scales, charred his senses and sent him plummeting into the numbness of nothing.

 

 

 

 

[]46

Um

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“WELL, THAT WAS rather dramatic, and far from what I intended.”

“What in the world did you expect, sending them both to the top of the mountain in the midst of the Storm Season, you crazy old wyvern?”

“There’s no need for names, Reglian. You’ve been spending far too much time with Khennik.”

“Not nearly as much time as you’ll be spending with him after he hears about this.”

“Ah. Yes. He may be a little upset.”

Upset? Goryal, I know you’re old and think you’re subtle, but that is the ancestor of all understatements, even from you.”

“Hyperbole, Reglian, really? I thought archivists were chosen for their intellect and skill with words. Yes. Exactly. See. You turned your furious exasperation into a single look. What a marvellous skill.”

“Sister Storm, help me, Goryal! You may be old and powerful, but you’re not immortal. One of these days…”

“Yes, yes, Reglian, do stop fussing and help me move these two, please. I think I shall have to shrink Estenarven, much though he won’t thank me for it with all those scars his human form will be wearing, but I truly don’t think it’s possible to move him at this size.”

“Not with only two of us, no.”

“There you go again, ignoring all your words and intellect and stating the obvious. It’s not funny, you know.”

“Goryal?”

“Yes.”

“Shut up and lift. You take Mastekh, I’ll carry Esten.”

“Are you sure? The storm seems rather partial to him after taking such a large bite, I could…”

“Argue about this all day, yes, I know. But I’d rather we moved. Just because I’m Clan Skystorm, doesn’t mean I actually enjoy getting struck by lightning. Repeatedly.”

“Ah, yes. I see. Of course. You should have said, I could have… Hold on. Better?”

“Please don’t tell me you could have been holding back the lightning all along.”

“All right, I won’t tell you. Oh, don’t look at me like that, Reglian, I was distracted.”

“You’ll be dismembered if you don’t watch it.”

“Violence is not the answer.”

“Perhaps not, but it will make me feel better.”

“Oh, hush, a little lightning won’t hurt you. You’re a Thunderwing, absorb it and turn it into power.”

“I can do that?”

“Of course you can! You’re a Skystorm, aren’t you?”

“No one’s ever taught me that. No one’s ever even mentioned that.”

“Of course they have. I taught you… Didn’t I teach you? Oh. Well, I meant to. Goodness, look at that sky. I do believe it’s time we moved on. Poor Mastekh could do with a soak in the pool and as for Esten… Hm, we have work to do.”

“Not least in figuring out how you’re going to explain this all to Khennik.”

“Oh, that’s the easiest bit of all.”

“Indeed?”

“You’re going to tell him.”

“What? Goryal? Goryal! Get back here, you crazy old wyvern! You can’t just – argh! This blasted lightning. Ow!

A deep and long-suffering sigh filled the lull between the thunder.

“Wretched Starshines. Constantly popping in and out like soap bubbles. Insufferable.” Another sigh. “Ah well, come along, Esten, let’s get you somewhere dry and see what little the storm has left of you. Khennik is going to love this.”

 

 

 

 

[]47

Water Awakening

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24th Storm Month

MASTEKH WOKE ON a gasp, breaking through the surface and thrashing around as he tried to get his bearings.

Water. He was in water.

By the Family!

He sank mid-flail, swallowing a lungful as he plunged beneath the surface again. Surrounded by cold and dark, his senses evened out and he sighed. Bubbles streamed out of his nostrils and he dived, letting his body line up before he swooped back around and headed for the surface again.

Bubbles in the water, a roar in his ears, he burst upwards once more, filling his lungs with air this time.

The cavern. He was in the cavern, in the pool formed by the underground waterfall. Shaking the moisture from his eyes, he opened his wings and floated for a moment, trying to remember how he’d come to be here.

He looked around, but the cavern was empty. He was alone with no idea of how he’d got to this place, nor how long he’d been there.

Snorting unhappily, he dived back under the water and swam to the edge of the pool. Once there, he crawled onto the moss and sank down. He ached, trembling in every limb as though struggling to recuperate after a long illness.

The proximity of the water and the roar of the falls soothed him and before long his trembling subsided. The ache persisted, but Mastekh ignored it, rolling onto his back in the moss to slough off the worst of his damp. Straightening up again, he pulled his power inwards and shrank to his human form.

His silk robe hung heavy and wet on his frame, and even the small exertion of shifting left him panting and trembling on hands and knees once more.

What, by the Family, had happened to him?

He cast his mind back and back. He remembered night after night of interminable dinners, the brief glory of the free day with Estenarven and the sheer joy of his sixth gift: a golden river forever captured inside the quartz. He remembered handing over his crude little carving and the way Estenarven’s whole face had lit up with delight.

He remembered… sleeping, waking, waiting and serving again.

He remembered sleeping… He remembered Estenarven’s note about the seventh gift.

The seventh gift.

“Oh.”

He remembered lightning and rain and the ridgeline. He remembered the tree grove and the crater. He remembered the diamonds, lightning diamonds. He’d picked one up and raised it to the sky, triumphant that he’d found his seventh and final gift.

Estenarven was there. Falling.

Lightning.

Collision.

Pain.

“Ah.” He curled in on himself, the memory of the pain enough to leave him gasping and sobbing and shaking on his bed of damp moss. In the cavern that he could not for the life of him remembering entering.

The last he knew he’d been on top of the mountain, buried beneath a Boulderforce, wracked with lightning, feeling the breath of Ancestor Night, the End Dragon, fierce and icy upon his neck.

Then he woke in water.

Was this a rebirth?

He raised a trembling hand before his eyes, but it looked no different than it always had. Pale, yes, but he was a freshwater dragon and the light was pallid here. Damp and watery, but what else could be expected in a cavern filled with spray. He curled his fingers inwards and studied his nails: black. Where normally they were silver tinged with green, there was no mistaking their dark hue now, as if covered in soot. His fingertips too were unmistakably charred. He looked down at his feet and saw the same pattern repeated, except his soles also bore a jagged, silvery tree-branch pattern.

Still, if that was all he had to show for his adventure, he’d take it.

He was alive.

Thank the Family.

He pushed up onto his knees again and this time managed to make it all the way to his feet. The first few steps were wobbly and weak, but as soon as he had the tunnel wall to lean on, he made quicker progress. Which increased again as more things came back to him – and one thought in particular.

Estenarven.

His beloved Boulderforce had been there, had knocked Mastekh down and shielded him from the worst of the storm.

He had saved him.

Mastekh was alive because of Estenarven.

But that didn’t mean his Boulderforce could say the same.

His legs suddenly weakened again, but for a different reason this time. The pain wasn’t all over his body now, just centred on his heart.

Estenarven.

He had to find him. He had to know.

Sibling Water, please, please, let him be all right. Let him live.

Stumbling as fast as his shaking legs would allow, leaning hard against the sturdy walls, Mastekh burst into the kitchen, scattered the dracos and hurried onwards, ignoring the calls and questions of his friends.

None of that mattered now.

Only Estenarven mattered, and Mastekh had to reach him, even if he had to crawl.

Reaching the tower stairs, he stared up at flight upon flight of steps and lowered to his shaking knees. Then he crawled, because while the water might have brought him back to life, only one thing had saved him.

And Mastekh would not be parted from him another moment.

 

 

 

 

[]48

Goryals Gift

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KHENNIK RUBBED HIS eyes and sighed. It had been three days since Reglian had burst into his suite, babbling tales of lightning, seventh gifts and Goryal’s interference, but all Khennik had really cared about was what the Thunderwing had been holding. Estenarven, bleeding, smoking and soot-stained. Estenarven was naturally dark-skinned, his grey Boulderforce scales transferring into a deep brown in his human form, but this was a shade darker than anything he’d ever been before.

Ignoring Reglian’s babbling, Khennik had remembered to ask about Mastekh and learnt that Goryal was taking care of him. Then he’d shifted into recovery mode and arranged a bed for the Boulderforce in the main space of his suite, summoned dracos for salves and herb water and done his best to tend to his aide.

Kin Boulderforce were tough dragons. It was something he’d had to remind himself often as he wiped away the soot and soothed on the salves, watching as day by day the wounds became scars and the scars began to fade. But despite the encouraging signs of healing, Estenarven wouldn’t wake.

Desperate and worried, Khennik had finally remembered that he was treating a Stoneheart and had stripped away all the soft bedding, rolled up the carpets and cleared a space until he could lay Estenarven directly on the stone floor. Which had invoked a deep sigh and rapidly speeded up the last of his aide’s healing.

But he didn’t wake up.

Now it was deep into the third morning of Khennik’s watch and he was utterly out of ideas.

Which, of course, was the moment that Goryal decided to appear.

The Starshine had been flitting in and out over the last few days, bringing favourable reports of Mastekh’s recovery somewhere watery and cool – and utterly unsuitable for Blazeborns, which was why Khennik had been forced to stay away – replenishing the supplies of salves and herbs and bringing along soothing incenses for Khennik to burn. All of which had been well received but ultimately useless.

“He won’t wake,” Khennik said, as Goryal came to stand beside his chair, the pair of them staring at where Estenarven slept.

“Still no fever?” the Starshine asked, kneeling down and feeling the Boulderforce’s forehead for themself.

“None.”

“Good. He’s recovering swiftly, all things considered.”

Khennik clenched his jaw, trying not to consider all those things and just what role this dragon had played in it. After all, it was a well known fact that Goryal Starshine was a first class meddler. But it was also well known that the seventh gift of any dragon courtship had to involve something that was hard to get. Considering the two dragons involved in this particular courtship, Khennik knew it was inevitable that disaster had struck. The only positive in this situation was that at least Goryal had been on hand to rescue them afterwards.

Sort of.

“How is Mastekh?”

“Improving.” Goryal smiled, their chiming voice light with happiness. “I expect him to wake any time now.”

“And Estenarven. When will he wake?”

“Soon,” Goryal promised, passing a hand over Estenarven’s face. “When the time is right.”

Khennik arched an eyebrow, too tired to have any patience with such ambiguous answers.

They simply smiled at him again. “Trust me, Khennik.”

“As these two trusted you?”

Goryal winced. “Ah, well, perhaps not in quite the same way.”

Khennik sighed. Goryal would always be Goryal, a Starshine through and through. “Never mind.” He wasn’t likely to ever get an apology, because it was unlikely that Goryal would ever admit to doing anything wrong. They’d tried to help Khennik’s aides and, if the bag he and Reglian had unwound from Estenarven’s arm on his return could be trusted, they had succeeded. Which would be all Goryal cared about.

Storm cinnamon. By the Family, just the thought of it made Khennik’s mouth water, even at a terrible time like this. He couldn’t imagine what reason Mastekh had also had for visiting such a dangerous place, but had little doubt that it would prove worthy of a seventh gift.

If either of them ever woke.

“Goodness, look at the sun. I must check on Mastekh again before lunch. Don’t lose heart, Khennik, your aides are strong. They will pull through.” Patting him on the shoulder, Goryal scurried towards the door, just as the handle rattled.

“Ah, perfect timing,” they chimed happily, drawing Khennik’s attention as a ragged, bedraggled and exceedingly soggy Mastekh tumbled inside on his hands and knees.

“Looks good to me,” the Starshine announced, stepping lightly over the panting dragon and dancing out into the corridor. “I’m off for lunch. Shall I have the dracos send something up for you, Khennik?”

Growling, Khennik strode across the suite and slammed the door in Goryal’s face, then he scooped Mastekh up and carried him to where Estenarven lay so silent and still.

“Es-Es-” Mastekh panted, sounding half-delirious.

“Hush,” Khennik soothed, lowering to his knees and placing Mastekh ever so gently alongside the Boulderforce. “He’s here. All is well.”

“Esten,” Mastekh sighed, rolling until he was pressed along his lover’s side, head tucked into the crook of his neck.

And Estenarven stirred. For the first time in three days, the Boulderforce moved of his own volition, head turning towards his Rainstorm. His arm shifted, hand rising to his chest to cover where Mastekh’s hand already pressed atop his heart.

Khennik watched them for a long, silent moment. His aides slept on, curled towards each other, wounded but healing. Together.

“All is well.” He nodded once and turned away, going in search of his first meal for three days.

 

 

 

 

[]49

The Seventh Gift

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AFTER WANDERING IN the endless darkness, numb and separated from his body and senses, Estenarven felt life in himself again. It burned at first, painful and sharp, zapping through each of his muscles, running through his bones until his teeth hummed with it and his head felt like shattering.

Then he breathed. A shallow gasp full of pins inside his chest, inside his lungs. Followed by the scent of water lilies and moss. It soothed him.

His skin prickled, burning, burning, burning. Until a cool touch drifted over it, tracking across his body and turning pain to pleasure.

His mouth was parched, but water came.

His ears were ringing, but whispers of affection broke through.

His eyes were last. Heavy eyelids, lightened by kisses. A gaze full of black spots and strained muscles, until a beloved face filled his vision.

“Mastekh,” he croaked in a voice of shattered rubble. “My Mastekh.”

A brief kiss, too brief, but full of life and love. “Esten,” a whisper in return.

Estenarven lifted an arm that felt as heavy as the boulders of his kin and cupped that precious face, more meaningful to him than any number of gifts. And he smiled.

Mastekh smiled back, eyes swimming with tears. One escaped, splashing against Estenarven’s cheek. It burned, but in a good way, scouring him clean.

“Sleep,” his beloved urged. “Rest. There’s no r-rush.”

Except… except… Estenarven fought against the undertow threatening to drag him back into the darkness again. “The gift,” he gasped. “I… Did you…? Do you have it?”

Mastekh stared at him, green eyes shining and stroked a cool hand over his face. “I h-have it,” he whispered, looking deep into Estenarven’s eyes. “The only g-gift I’ll ever n-need.”

Sighing, Estenarven sank back and closed his eyes, taking Mastekh’s hand in his and pressing it against his chest, against his heart. “And I have mine,” he murmured, and let the tide of sleep sweep him away.

 

 

 

 

[]50

Love

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28th Storm Month

IT TOOK SEVERAL days for both of them to get back on their feet. Mastekh recovered first, since he had so much less to recover from. Except the pain of watching Estenarven sleep so soundly, knowing he’d almost lost him.

All for a stupid lightning-struck rock. A lightning diamond. Not a true diamond but still precious to many. Yet it was worthless to Mastekh. He held it in his hand now, turning it this way and that to admire the rainbows permanently trapped within the fissures carved by heat burning its way through the crystal’s structure, scarred and forever changed, beautiful and unshattered.

Glorious in its own way, but it was worth nothing when weighed against the cost of Estenarven’s life.

Mastekh had almost lost everything, all because of a stupid tradition and a ridiculous idea.

“Is that for me?”

Mastekh looked up and smiled at where Estenarven leant against the door of his tiny room. A casual pose, the kind he’d so often seen his Boulderforce adopt, especially when he was in a flirtatious mood. Necessary today, since he was still too weak to stand unaided for long.

Patting the bed beside him, Mastekh moved over to leave a space and looked at the diamond again. Even without being a true diamond, it was rare and precious enough to still count. “Happy s-seventh gift.”

Estenarven lurched from the door to the bed and sat down with a grunt, draping himself over Mastekh’s shoulders with a sigh. “Let me see it.”

Mastekh held it up in front of both their faces.

Estenarven rested his chin on Mastekh’s shoulder and hummed approvingly. “Very pretty. I’ve never seen one like that before.”

“It’s y-yours.” He tucked it into the pocket of Estenarven’s robe and gave it a pat. “That’s the l-l-last of your g-gifts.”

“Does that make you mine now?” the Boulderforce rumbled, wrapping his arms around Mastekh’s waist and nuzzling his neck.

“I always have been,” he replied, aiming for playful and missing by a human mile.

Estenarven didn’t seem to mind as he planted a hand on the bed to support his weight, using his other hand to tilt Mastekh’s face towards him. His expression serious, he cupped Mastekh’s cheek and rubbed his thumb along his jaw.

“Good,” he whispered. “Because I’m yours, Puddle, completely.”

“Is that m-my seventh g-g-gift?” he teased, managing to hit the right tone this time.

Estenarven smiled. “Only if Khennik hasn’t eaten the real one,” he murmured, leaning in for a kiss.

Mastekh turned his head aside, suddenly too curious for distractions. “Eaten it? W-why would he e-eat it? What w-was it?”

“Nothing important,” Estenarven grumbled, kissing Mastekh under the chin since he couldn’t reach his lips. “Hardly matters now.”

“It m-matters to me,” Mastekh protested, squirming off the bed and getting to his feet.

Estenarven collapsed facedown in the blankets with a groan.

“What w-w-was it?” he persisted, prodding his lover’s back. “T-tell me!”

“Can’t it wait?” Estenarven’s complaint turned into a very un-Boulderforce-like squeak as Mastekh poked one of his rare ticklish spots beneath his arm.

“G-give me my g-gift,” he ordered stubbornly, tickling Estenarven some more. “Or else.”

“Or else what?” Estenarven asked, rolling over and grabbing Mastekh’s arm before he could poke him again. Yanking hard, so that Mastekh sprawled across his chest, putting them nose to nose, he smiled smugly. “Wotcha gonna do now, Puddle?”

Contemplating the gift that lay beneath him, Mastekh spread his hands across Estenarven’s broad chest, petting possessively. It was still hard to believe that all of this was his to touch whenever he wanted.

“Not so bossy now, eh?” Estenarven chuckled.

“Oh, I don’t kn-know,” Mastekh mused thoughtfully, hitching himself higher up Estenarven’s chest. “P-positions like this g-give a dragon i-d-deas.”

“Oh?” Estenarven enquired innocently, craning his neck and angling for a kiss.

“Mm.” Mastekh obliged, brushing their lips together and running his hands down Estenarven’s chest, then up again. Straight into his ticklish armpits. “G-give me my g-g-gift!”

“Ack!” Estenarven rolled sharply, throwing Mastekh to the floor and barely preventing himself from landing on top of him. “Sneaky fiend!” he laughed. “I don’t think you deserve a gift after that little stunt.”

Breathless but proud of himself, Mastekh popped to his feet and tugged on Estenarven’s arm to pull him up. “Come on. The s-sooner you g-give it to m-me, the s-sooner this is over. You’ll be m-m-mine as much as I’m y-yours.”

“Excellent point.” Estenarven heaved himself up and almost knocked Mastekh flat by leaning on him. “Sorry, Puddle. Just prop me up a bit, thanks.” Between Mastekh and the wall, Estenarven made it back into the main room of the suite, where Elder Khennik was sitting beside the fire, flicking through a book of illuminated manuscripts.

He looked up as they staggered into his peaceful afternoon and raised an eyebrow. “Where are you two off to?”

“Nowhere special,” Estenarven panted, resting most of his weight on the back of a settee, much to Mastekh’s relief. “I don’t suppose you know what happened to the bag I brought back from the mountain with me?”

To Mastekh’s surprise, Khennik sat up, golden eyes aglow. “Finally that time, is it? I wondered when you’d remember. I put it in your room.”

Mastekh’s curiosity increased as Estenarven eyed their elder warily. “Untouched.”

Elder Blazeborn gave an offended sniff. “As I have mentioned to you before, Estenarven, I do have some control. Go, give your gift.” He waved them away and went back to his book.

However, Mastekh noticed that the elder didn’t turn a single page in all the time it took for Estenarven and him to lurch their laborious way from furniture piece to furniture piece and eventually the wall, so that they could reach the Boulderforce’s cramped little room.

“He better not have,” Estenarven grumbled, slumping onto the bed and looking around.

Mastekh waited impatiently in the doorway, trying not to hop from foot to foot. Considering how lacklustre he’d felt about his seventh gift before he gave it to Estenarven, he was suddenly excited all over again about their courtship. He might have already won the ultimate prize of Estenarven’s heart but, well, it was still nice to receive presents. Especially when they were a surprise.

“Ah.” Estenarven heaved a sigh of relief and beckoned him over. “Would you fetch me that bag from behind the door, please, Puddle?”

Curious and a little wary now, Mastekh stepped into the room and closed the door. Then he picked up the ragged bag that was almost as tattered as his own foraging sack. This one was more than a little scorched and, as he carried it over to Estenarven, smelt pungently of charcoal.

“Well, go on, open it,” Estenarven encouraged after Mastekh sat beside him and stared at the bag for a long moment.

This was it. The last gift. After this their courtship was over. After this anything could happen. Estenarven might even lose interest. The courtship wasn’t binding, after all. Their relationship could end in another month. There would be nothing left to keep things interesting between them. Why wouldn’t Estenarven lose interest then? Mastekh was not an interesting dragon.

“Puddle,” Estenarven murmured, running the tip of his nose from Mastekh’s shoulder, up behind his ear, filling him with the most delightful shivers. “Open the bag.” He followed his command with a nip.

Shying away, Mastekh bumped back against him playfully and sighed. “I don’t w-want this to b-be over.”

Estenarven rested his chin on Mastekh’s shoulder and smiled. “Silly Puddle,” he chuckled affectionately. “This isn’t the end, it’s just the beginning. Of everything. Now open the bag before I resort to tickling tactics of my own.”

Warm hands brushed against the spiral patch of scales low on Mastekh’s back and he twitched. Even with a layer of silk between them, it was still a highly sensitive spot – but only with Estenarven.

“All right, all r-r-right,” he yelped. “I’m o-opening it, I p-p-promise.”

Estenarven rumbled another chuckle and rested his palm flat against Mastekh’s back, stroking up and down in long, soothing strokes. “Nothing is more precious to me than you, Puddle, but let’s finish this properly. Happy seventh gift, love.” He kissed Mastekh’s cheek.

Feeling suddenly shy, he nuzzled his Boulderforce in return and finally opened the bag.

“Oh…”

Sticks. Charred, broken, burned-up tree branches and flakes of sooty bark.

“Um. Th-th-thank you?”

Estenarven cracked up, laughing so hard he had to lie down on the bed, gasping in an attempt to get his breath back.

Scowling, Mastekh picked up the sturdiest looking branch and waved it at the highly amused dragon beside him. “I s-see nothing f-f-funny,” he growled, raising the stick warningly.

“Ack, no, don’t hit me with that. Please, Puddle. Don’t waste it.” Estenarven sat up, still chuckling as he seized Mastekh’s wrist and stole a kiss from his angry mouth. “It’s just – your face. Smell the stick, Puddle. Go on, try it.”

“Smell the st-st-stick?” he repeated incredulously. “Is that some w-w-weird Boulderforce g-game?”

Estenarven snorted and shook his head, picking up a piece of bark and inhaling deeply. “Go on,” he urged. “Try it.”

Regarding his lover suspiciously, anticipating a trick at any moment – along with a lungful of charred soot – Mastekh raised the branch towards his nose and sniffed delicately.

Charcoal, yes, but also a surprising sweetness.

“W-what is that?” he whispered, breathing in more deeply and gulping in another gasp, growing more and more enamoured of the scent each time. “It’s like ci-ci-cinnamon, only r-richer.”

“Storm cinnamon,” Estenarven said, looking smug.

“Storm cinnamon,” Mastekh echoed reverently. “Oh.” He looked down at the bounty spilling out of the bag on his lap. “Oh!” He leapt to his feet. “No w-w-wonder!”

“Puddle?” Estenarven lurched after him, but too late – Mastekh was already through the door and running across the suite. “Puddle, come back!”

“Oh.” Mastekh skidded to a halt and, right in front of Elder Blazeborn’s amused eyes, planted a smacking kiss on his lover’s mouth. “I’ll be b-back later. I h-have to go b-b-bake now.”

“I prefer mine in scones, if you please, Mastekh,” Elder Blazeborn called as Mastekh headed for the door again.

He made an agreeing noise and twirled on the spot, storm cinnamon clutched against his chest. As he wrestled with the door handle, too giddy and excited to manage such a simple task, Estenarven caught up and leant against the wall beside him.

“Here.” He twisted the handle. “Don’t be too late.”

“I w-won’t,” Mastekh promised, dancing from foot to foot but knowing it would be rude to simply dash away. Besides there was something he needed to say, something he’d not managed yet and that Estenarven deserved to hear. “I l-l-love you.”

Estenarven’s smile was tender as he reached out and drew Mastekh into a sweet kiss. “And I love you, Puddle. Go have fun.” He nudged Mastekh through the doorway with a wink. “We’ll be waiting.”

“Scones and r-rock cakes for t-t-two,” Mastekh promised, blowing a kiss over his shoulder and dashing down to the kitchens.

Even though their courtship was officially over and life still went on, didn’t mean he couldn’t still spoil his lover whenever he got the chance.

He had to keep Estenarven interested, after all, and if cakes and treats were the way to his Stoneheart, so be it.

 

 

  • * * * * * * * * *

 

 

 

 

#
p={color:#000;}. Overworld Terms

#
p={color:#000;}.

Boltspike the kin Stormdrake court.

Bonded – the partnership between Rider and miryhl. Considered sacred. They fly with no other and (traditionally) the miryhl speaks only to their Rider, except in emergencies.

Change Time – when a young dragon begins to shiftshape for the first time. At the start they can usually assume many different forms, but as they grow older and their control deepens, they will settle on one secondary form, which they will use for the rest of their life. Most (but not all) choose a human shape.

Changeling – a young dragon under-going their change time. (Dependant on Clan, but usually between 200-300 years old.)

Cloud Curse – the clouds that cover the world. Cast by the Gods, but no one remembers why.

Cloud Sea – When the Gods cursed the world, a sea of clouds covered everything, leaving only mountaintop islands to live on.

Council of Elders – Comprised of the leading dragons from each kin and Clan, and all of Starshine.

Draco(s) – a lesser dragon species. Human sized, walk on two legs, but with wings and scales and reptilian features. Many work as servants to dragons.

Draconet – a young draco.

Dragonlands – dragon-inhabited lands, in the southwest of the Overworld.

Dragonling – an infant dragon. (Usually anything up to 35 years.)

Drake a wild, lesser dragon species. Fierce and unfriendly, some breathe fire.

Drakkan Embassy – human embassy in the Dragonlands.

Eyrie(s) – a stable for miryhls. Lots of perches required.

Fledgling – a juvenile dragon, just growing into their wings and learning to fly. (Usually between 25-30 and 100 years old.)

Flight – Rift Rider term. Four flurries, under the command of a captain.

Flurry – Rift Rider term. Twenty five Riders, under the command of a lieutenant.

Glow globe – dragon lights made from raw power. Usually fist-sized spheres, taking on the colour of the creator’s magic. Khennik’s are gold, Goryal’s are rainbow-infused white, etc.

Miryhl – Giant, talking eagles, created by a Storm Goddess and the dragons for human use. They are reserved for the Riders, with a few political exceptions.

Moot – a meeting of the dragon Council, usually at Midsummer and Midwinter.

Overworld – Human-inhabited lands. Mountainous islands in a sea of clouds.

Rift Rider – The elite air corps of the Overworld.

Skyship – ships that make use of gasbags and airstones to fly. Chief means of human transportation.

Teirenlai a neutral dragon court. Gateway to the Dragonlands. All communication from the Overworld pass through here.

Wingling – Dragon adolescent, able to fly, but not yet able to change form. (Usually between 100-200 years old.)

 

 

 

 

Was this your first taste of the Overworld?

Want to explore some more?

 

For more dragons and to see the beginnings of Mastekh and Estenarven’s relationship, read on for an extract from Blazing Dawn.

If you’re already read that and want more DRAGONLANDS, check out the Storm Rising extract.

 

Or, if you haven’t already, check out Wingborn, a free Overworld novel, set two hundred years after Blazing Dawn, where the Rift Riders face a far different threat.

 

 

 

 

[]Blazing Dawn

h1={color:#000;}.

Nera has been fascinated by dragons all her life. Now, as a Rift Rider Lieutenant, her chance to see them up close has come. The appointment to spend five years as an escort to the human ambassador seems like the ultimate honour and gift, but the dragons she studied in training don’t come anywhere close to the reality awaiting her inside the Dragonlands.

 

Elder Khennik kin Blazeborn Clan Sunlord has no interest in humans. Thanks to the Cloud Curse that their kind brought down upon the Overworld, Khennik’s kin are close to losing their ancestral desert homelands forever. When he’s assigned as a delegate to the humans upon their arrival, he can’t believe his bad luck. Unlike some dragons, he has no wish for more power or responsibility, but he can’t seem to avoid collecting them. From his desperate kin to his nervous aide, right along to the useless humans, Khennik dreams of the day when he can return to his desert home.

 

Regardless of personal dreams and opinions, both humans and dragons are about to learn that they often have more in common than they might think or wish. And when trouble descends, the true friends you can count on have little to do with species – and everything to do with spirit.

 

Book 1 of the DRAGONLANDS series is available now!

 

Read on for a sneak peak, or visit beccalusher.com for more details.

 

 

 

 

One

Nera

h1={color:#000;}.

On board the Skylark

20th Fledgling Month, 579 Cloud Era

NERA STUDIED HER reflection critically and straightened the collar of her coat. It was pristine, cut so fine as to look moulded on, the midnight blue shade so much more palatable than the garish red of the her officer dress uniform. Fiddling with the throat fastening on the high collar, she brushed her thumb over the gleaming silver stripes on her shoulder – still so beautiful, even six moons on – before she tugged her cuffs straight and ran nervous hands down the sides of her three-quarter length coat. The white breeches looked so very bright beneath the dark blue, but at least her flying boots reached her knees, leaving barely a couple of unprotected pale inches to the vagaries of a dirty world.

“You look fine,” Lieutenant Anhardyne told her for the twentieth time. The past moon and a half of sharing the confined cabin had given the other woman plenty of opportunities to watch her friend preen and fuss over her uniform. “Which is good, because we’re finally here and you haven’t even touched your hair.”

With a squeak of dismay, Nera’s hands shot to her head, messing up all her last moment adjustments. “Not funny, Hardy,” she growled, spotting her friend’s grin in the mirror.

Anhardyne ruffled Nera’s short black crop with a laugh. “Good to see that there is still a girl in there somewhere. You spent all that time in front of the mirror and not once did I see you look at anything above your shoulders.”

“That’s because there’s nothing there worth looking at,” Nera said, turning away from the mirror at last, as familiar with her small, snub features as she needed to be. “My time is much better spent focusing on my uniform.” She rubbed her lieutenant stripes affectionately, until Anhardyne knocked her hand away with an exasperated tut.

“You’ll wear them out if you’re not careful, newbie. Anyone would think you only got them yesterday.” Having earned her own stripes three years earlier, Anhardyne was far less impressed by such marks of rank. Winking, she stepped in front of Nera and tucked a few stray wisps of her own hair back into place. “I’ll tweak yours if you’ll tweak mine.”

Nera turned and submitted to her friend’s fussing with a laugh. “Hold on while I fetch a box to stand on.”

The two lieutenants couldn’t have been more different, looks wise. Where Nera was dark and kept her straight hair short and manageable, Anhardyne was tall and tawny, with long golden hair. Their only common feature was their brown eyes.

Looking up into those dark eyes now, Nera searched for any scrap of the anxiety she was feeling. Anhardyne looked as serene and amused as ever. Then again she was five years older and had seen considerably more of the Overworld than Nera. Still, not even Anhardyne had been to the Dragonlands before. Wasn’t she the least bit excited?

“Settle down, Half-Pint. Don’t froth up.”

“I’m not frothing.” Nera tugged firmly on Anhardyne’s lapels and narrowed her eyes at the irritating nickname. “And don’t call me that. I’m trying to make a good impression.” What had been fun and affectionate for a young Rider was rather less dignified for a new lieutenant.

“Aren’t we all?”

They certainly should be. Being assigned to the Drakkan Embassy might not have been the most exciting post in the Rift Riders, but it was one of the most prestigious. Nera’s father, a well-respected captain, had covertly wiped away a tear of pride when she’d told him about it. That the news had arrived alongside her promotion to lieutenant had made it all the sweeter.

“Seriously, Nera,” the cool tone of her friend’s voice, along with the firm hand on her shoulder, warned her to pay attention, “stay focused. I know that this is a big day for you – for all of us – but remember we’re here to work. We have a job to do.”

“I know that.” Nera brushed Anhardyne’s hand away, hurt that her friend could possibly think she had forgotten. “I’ve seen dragons before.”

Well, a couple, here and there. At a distance. None to speak to, perhaps, but she knew the protocol inside out. It had been her favourite subject at Aquila, the Rift Rider training school where she’d studied since she was sixteen, learning not only how to fly her giant eagle miryhl, but how to protect the Overworld through words as well as deeds.

She’d excelled in all her etiquette and political history lessons, which was why she’d been personally recommended to Commander Bethnelm by Dean Renlyn. It was also why she’d spent the last five years training under Captain Wellswen, ever since she’d graduated. Her life had been leading towards this moment for the last eight years. She wasn’t about to ruin it all at the welcoming ceremony by being an overexcited fool.

She hoped.

“Hm.” Anhardyne sounded far from convinced. “Just remember that we’re here for five years, so there’s no rush to get to know everyone. Take it steady.”

“Har-dy,” Nera whined, in the same tone she used to use on her mother when she was twelve and didn’t want to practice her fan dances anymore. It would probably take her five years to get to know anyone. Unlike Hardy, who never seemed to meet a stranger, Nera was shy and not good at meeting new people. That didn’t mean there weren’t still a thousand ways to embarrass herself and the others, but rushing to get to know everyone wouldn’t be one of them.

“All right, lecture over,” the older lieutenant sighed, tapping Nera on the nose and taking a final look at herself in the mirror. “I think we’re ready.” She tucked her waist-length golden braid into the belt loop on the back of her flying coat. “Though why we went to all this bother when it’ll just get ruined on the flight in, I do not know.”

Nera cast one last anxious glance at her reflection and tugged her cuffs straight again. “My mother always says it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing or what you look like, if you feel comfortable in your skin you can take on the world.”

“Well, your mother should know,” Anhardyne said, since Nera’s mother was famous across the Overworld for her performances. “Chin up, Half-Pint, we’ve a world to take on.”

“All set, lieutenants?” Captain Wellswen poked her head around the door after a cursory tap. “Ambassador Jesken would like a word before we leave.”

Both women saluted as the captain vanished again to round up the others. Anhardyne raised her eyebrows at Nera. “Sounds like we’d best put off the excitement a little longer.”

Feeling fidgety at the prospect of yet another lecture standing between her and the chance to hop on her miryhl and fly some of her nerves away, Nera flexed her fingers and shook out her tingling hands. “I supposed we’d best see what Her Excellency wants.”

The friends shared wry smiles, having been called into the ambassador’s cabin every second day since leaving Aquila. Nera just hoped this wasn’t another tea ceremony. Not that she had anything against tea, but the ambassador was from Etheria: the day an Etherian could teach a Sutherelli like Nera anything about the beverage, was the same day the clouds disappeared.

“Try not to sigh so loudly this time when she adds sugar to her Red Leaf, please,” Anhardyne muttered, opening the door.

Nera wrinkled her nose at the memory of such sacrilege and followed her friend along the narrow skyship corridor. “I make no promises.”

“Snob.”

“Barbarian.”

They grinned at each other before Anhardyne took a deep breath and knocked on the state cabin doors.

 

“ELDER B-BLAZEBORN? ELDER B-BLAZEBORN?”

Khennik kin Blazeborn Clan Sunlord sighed and rolled his eyes towards the ceiling. Ringed by hanging fronds of fragrant seisflowers, the sun was perfectly framed by the circular opening, pouring its life-giving warmth over his bare head. Seated in the brilliant spot cast upon the floor, Khennik had been deep in meditation, dreaming of his home far to the west, where the clouds were thin and the mountains arid. Every breath there tasted of dry heat, stoking the fire that ran through his veins, where to fly was to bathe in Father Sun’s glory.

“Elder B-Blazeborn?” The voice this time was much closer, even more timid than before and full of apology.

Khennik glanced towards the irritant with narrowed eyes. “What is it now, Mastekh?”

Mastekh kin Rainstorm Clan Flowflight sweated with nerves as he stood on the edge of Khennik’s precious sunlight. Scarcely past his change time, the youngster had barely mastered a human shape, his skin almost blue-grey today instead of a more traditionally acceptable shade. Merely being in Khennik’s annoyed presence loosened what little control Mastekh had and a soggy tail uncoiled behind him.

Trying not to snap at such a poor showing of focus, Khennik closed his eyes again and lifted his face towards the sunlight. “You will have to work harder than that, wingling, before the humans arrive. Else you will unsettle them and be asked to leave.”

If it were up to Khennik the youngster would have been long gone. Whoever had decided to pair a nervous Rainstorm dragon with a Blazeborn elder not well known for his patience was a fool indeed. Yet it was a rule between the kins and Clans that youngsters had to gain experience with others outside their own, especially those opposed to their own nature. To toughen them up, the Starshine elders claimed. Khennik thought it was all rather cruel, if he thought of it at all.

“That’s j-j-just it, Elder B-B-Blazeborn,” Mastekh stuttered, his voice turning increasingly bubbly – a clear indication that he was about to lose his hold on his form altogether and revert to dragon shape.

Khennik’s eyes flashed open in a glare. “If you’re going to liquidate, do it outside.” The only water he permitted in this sunroom was for the plants. Everything else took too long to dry, and if he had to see to it himself the flowers might not survive. Which would put him quite out of temper.

Gulping nervously, Mastekh clenched his clawed-hands together and stared at the ground for a long moment. A shudder rippled over his scales and skin, the blue shade darkening as more water dripped from his nose and elbows, until he finally mastered himself.

“A-p-p-pologies, elder,” the young dragon whispered, lowering his head as if expecting a beating.

Khennik had never been one for physical punishment. He sighed. “Fetch a cloth and clean up after yourself, then leave me be. I must prepare for the arrival of our human guests tomorrow.” If meditating and brooding over his poor fate could be considered preparation. Which in Khennik’s book it definitely could.

Humans were useless. Once they arrived they would need constant supervision and support, leaving him no time for anything other than irritation at their hopelessness. A foolish task for a Blazeborn, especially one with as important a mission as his.

“Not to-m-morrow, Elder B-Blazeborn,” Mastekh squeaked, wringing his hands so hard that yet more water dripped onto the beautifully dry floors. “N-n-now.”

“What?” Khennik snarled, losing patience as he opened his eyes yet again. “Stop this brookish babbling, Mastekh, and speak clearly.”

“The h-humans are er-er-early, elder,” the Rainstorm dragon bubbled in a rush. “By a whole d-d-day. They’re h-h-here. Now!”

 

 

* * * * * * * * * *

BLAZING DAWN

The Dragonlands Book 1

Available now!

  • * * * * * * * * *

 

 

 

 

[]Storm Rising

 

Trouble stirs in the Dragonlands and Elder Khennik kin Blazeborn seems trapped at the very heart of it. After a disastrous stay with the Stormdrake kin, it’s time for the human delegation to visit the Skystorm Clan, yet their welcome is less friendly than anticipated.

 

Whispers and accusations fly, but something is definitely not right inside the Clan. And with the Dragon Moot fast approaching, can the Rift Riders and dragons sort things out swiftly enough to save the Khennik from another catastrophe?

 

The Cloud Curse is changing – but is anyone willing to listen to reason? Or will politics and arrogance combine to bring down all the kins and Clans for good?

 

Book 2 of the DRAGONLANDS series is coming soon!

 

Read on for a sneak peak, or visit beccalusher.com for more details.

 

 

 

 

Flight Games

h1={color:#000;}.

Tempestfury Kinlands

21st Gale Month, 579 Cloud Era

IT WAS ANOTHER beautiful day in the Dragonlands. Winter might have started to creep in around the edges of each morning, but for now the sun remained bright and the sky clear. It was a marked contrast to a month earlier, when the Storm Season had been in full blow. Despite attempting to push on through the unfriendly weather, with a skyship and the human ambassador to protect, the Rift Riders had had no choice but to seek refuge, which had led Nera and her companions to take shelter in the Tempestfury kin court for more than a moon.

Now the storms were over and they were on the move again. The wind had a chilly nip to it as Nera snuggled down against her miryhl eagle’s back. Drifting high above the Cloud Sea, with her flurry and the bulky Skylark for company, Nera relished the freedom of flying again, even if her hands were wrapped in heavy gloves and her coat was buttoned up to the neck. Anything was better than being trapped, day after day, inside the well-built but austere fortress of kin Tempestfury.

Not that she or her friends had complained. After spending half a moon flying flat out to escape their disastrous visit to the Stormdrake lands, it had been an unexpected delight to be warmly welcomed by a different Skystorm kin. However, even the nicest hosts on the Overworld could do little to soften the stony interior of their court. Dragons were sturdy creatures who built their homes to last, but stone was rather less forgiving on softer human forms.

Still, that was behind them now. Nera had passed through the courts of two exceedingly different dragon kins and survived with all her friends intact. It had felt like a close run thing at times, thanks to the Stormdrake elder’s cruel ways and the various attempts by Tempestfury dragons to seduce different members of their party away, but they were all still together and heading onwards once more.

Beneath Nera, Teka beat her powerful wings, keeping them aloft for a little while longer. Though cold, the air here was peaceful – an unexpected boon considering the kinlands they were in. Nera and her flurry of twenty-five Rift Riders had been patrolling since dawn, but other than a noisy flock of geese passing overhead, there had been little worth noting in the day so far.

Giving into a jaw-cracking yawn, she rubbed her eyes and sat up with a shake. Wrapped up so warmly against the chill and with a bright sun on her back, she was in danger of falling asleep if she didn’t do something to distract herself.

“Wake me up, Tek,” she called to her miryhl, shaking the reins to gain her bonded’s attention.

Tilting her head, the giant eagle glanced back with one dark eye. “Oh?” she murmured, in the goddess-given voice that she shared only with her Rider. “Boring you back there, am I?”

“Just a little,” Nera agreed, unable to resist another yawn.

Sighing, Teka turning to face forwards again. “So sorry,” she cooed with false concern. “Why don’t you count miryhls and see if that’ll keep you awake?”

Grinning, Nera looked ahead past the sails and vast gasbag of the Skylark to where a second flurry was in the air. Lieutenant Gharrik, Captain Wellswen’s second-in-command, had his own Riders neatly spaced out to escort and protect the passage of the skyship. It was up to Nera and her flurry to ensure that all stayed well behind.

“Count them off, Tek,” she called to her miryhl, twisting in the saddle to check on her own Riders and scan the sky.

“One,” her eagle called slowly.

Nera caught the eye of her sergeant, Zantho, flying steadily at the back of the group and waved.

“Two.”

Zantho waved back and Nera moved on, scanning the seemingly endless blue horizon stretching unbroken all the way around, with the shining Cloud Sea below. Nothing stirred out there beyond the clouds and the breeze.

“Three!”

Without warning, Teka folded her wings and dropped.

Luckily for Nera, she was strapped in, but she’d also been relaxed in the saddle, ready for the slightest change in air currents or pressure. Years of flight experience with Teka had also alerted her to the momentary stiffening in her miryhl’s body before the bird dropped out of the sky.

So instead of screaming with surprise or even fear, Nera laughed as her miryhl plummeted out of formation, rolling slowly sideways until both were on their backs, staring up at the sky. From there they tilted forward, heading beak-first towards the turbulent Cloud Sea below. White wisps swirled and frothed, breaking against a jagged shoal of rocks barely visible above the surface.

Down there entire countries had been drowned in the flood that had once cursed the old world and left it awash with clouds. Seas had been shrouded and flatlands had been lost, until all that remained were mountaintop islands, marooned in an ethereal ocean.

Nera couldn’t imagine what the world had been like before the Curse. The idea that people had once been able to look down and see nothing but the ground, or perhaps even water, while clouds only ever scudded across the sky above, seemed utterly alien to her. Probably as strange as the Overworld would have appeared to those poor souls, who hadn’t known what was coming when the Cloud Curse fell.

All thoughts of the long ago disaster fled from Nera’s mind as Teka swooped into the violent air of the Cloud Sea. The surface was colder than the harshest winter, with winds to rival any of the worst Storm Season gales. Teka skipped and surfed the turbulence with the natural ease of her kind, not seeming to notice as cloud frost gathered on her beak and feathers and Nera’s gloves and coat. Instead she tilted and jinked from one gust to the next before finally snatching a fierce updraft that threw them back into the sunlit winter sky.

Whooping, Nera urged her miryhl on and on and up as Teka beat her powerful wings, scooping wave after wave of air under and behind them. They flapped up and above the rest of Nera’s flurry before Teka looped all the way over and shot downwards once more.

This time they did not fall alone.

A black shadow swept over them, followed by a powerful buffet of air, as a gigantic dragon rushed by.

Well used to such interruptions after two months of travelling together, Teka showed no surprise as the monstrous beast passed them. Instead she lunged forward to snag the dragon’s tail.

“Ha!” Nera crowed. “Got you, Pebble!”

Roaring with mock affront, the great stone dragon opened his wings, and soon Rider and miryhl were dangling precariously below him. “You dare,” Estenarven rumbled, flicking his tail up and over his back, sending Teka zipping through the air.

Tucking herself in tight against her miryhl’s back as the eagle corkscrewed along the dragon’s length, Nera waited for her moment, and reached out just as Teka straightened up. The leather of her gloves rasped as it brushed over the rough scales of Estenarven’s nose.

“You’re it!” she shouted, and Teka shrieked in triumph as the pair of them darted back up to the safety of their flurry.

Estenarven’s answering roar was curtailed by an explosive sneeze.

“Gets him every time,” Teka chortled, rolling over midair to allow the upside-down Nera to grin at her sergeant.

Zantho raised his hand with a weary sigh, connecting with her victory slap. “Go hide,” he ordered, entirely unnecessarily since Teka was already beating double-time back to the Skylark before swooping out of sight beneath the skyship’s hull.

With the chase now on, Estenarven roared in challenge and powered after them. As a lieutenant in charge of escorting the ship through the Dragonlands, it wasn’t strictly within the rules for Nera to break off and play tag with a young, and far too large, Boulderforce dragon while on duty. However, since she caught a glimpse of her captain slapping hands with another dragon on the upper deck of the Skylark, Nera thought they could get away with it.

“Quick, Nera, he’s coming!” Ambassador Jesken called over the rail, moments before Estenarven came roaring around the side of the ship.

For such a vast creature, Estenarven could be surprisingly nimble, managing to twist his bulk about and come in close against the Skylark’s hull without knocking the entire ship off course. Chortling in triumph, the stone dragon swept out a paw – but Teka was already gone.

Just because Estenarven was enormous and had to be careful where he flew in relation to the Skylark, didn’t mean Teka did. And, since the dragon had a huge advantage in size and speed, Nera felt no regrets as her miryhl shrieked defiantly and swept over the Skylark’s main deck.

It was a risky manoeuvre at the best of times, with the side rail to clear, numerous sailors and spectators to avoid, not to mention the ropes and chains and the gasbag itself, but Teka was small for a miryhl and exceedingly agile. With a flap and a swoop, she hopped the rail, avoided smacking into the ambassador, put down her feet to bounce once, twice, thrice, across the open deck, tucking in her wings to avoid the chains holding the gasbag in place, then with a final bound and a crack as she unfurled her wings, they were over the other side and in the sky again.

Teka whooped with triumph as they dove down the ship’s side. Cheers and whistles followed them, along with a highly inappropriate shout of, “That’s my lieutenant!” from Captain Wellswen.

Nera’s heart was pounding so fiercely she could hardly breathe as she clung to her reins and glanced frantically from one side to the other. Estenarven wouldn’t have given up yet, and surely there were only so many places the dragon could spring from.

“Hold on,” Teka warned, dropping once more.

The hull of the Skylark zipped past so close that Nera could have reached out and touched it. Tucked into the cool shadow of the ship, all she could hear was the pounding of her heart and the roar of the wind as they fell faster, faster, faster.

Whoosh! Estenarven swept beneath them.

As the long, long and very solid length of the stone dragon rushed by, Nera squeezed her eyes shut, fearing at any moment to feel the crunch of impact as Teka and she collided with the dragon. He was too big and they were going too fast for them to miss.

Her stomach dipped and she opened her eyes to find Estenarven gone and the world passing swiftly along beneath her. Sunlight blazed as they emerged from the shadow of the ship and Teka darted back up to the scant protection of the Skylark’s hull.

“Did… he… suh… see… us?” the miryhl panted, gasping between wing beats as she kept pace alongside the great ship.

“Not sure,” Nera gasped back. “I didn’t see us pass him.”

“Me neither!” Teka laughed. “So close!”

Nera snorted, too breathless and giddy to worry that even her miryhl had closed her eyes at the end.

“In here, quick!”

Miryhl and Rider snapped their heads to the right. The hull hatch was open and a hand was beckoning them inside.

“Isn’t this cheating?” Nera wondered, as Teka spread her wings to slow them down and twisted to land.

“Nah!” The grinning face of Lieutenant Vish greeted her as he and Lieutenant Anhardyne shoved the doors shut moments before the black shadow of Estenarven swept past. “You can’t cheat a dragon. They never play by the rules.”

Which was true enough, Nera had to concede and, since poor Teka was puffing like a blacksmith’s bellows, she was more than happy to give her miryhl a rest. Kicking her feet out of the stirrups, she hopped out of the saddle and stroked her bonded’s face.

“I think that was our best run yet.”

Resting her beak against Nera’s chest, Teka gave a weary hum of agreement.

“He couldn’t get near you!” Anhardyne crowed, slapping Nera on the back and dislodging a shower of cloud frost. “He could barely catch sight of you!”

“And when you went over the deck –” Vish whistled in admiration. “Teka, you are one in a million. I don’t know another miryhl who would have dared.”

“I thought Hornvel would explode!” Anhardyne laughed, while Nera grimaced at the thought of what the Skylark’s captain had made of their stunt. She’d have to keep her head down for the next few days or receive a roaring earful.

The hull doors shuddered as Estenarven swept around the ship again, growling with frustration at having lost his prey.

With her breathing having settled back to normal, Teka pushed Nera lightly away and tilted her head. Even though miryhls were fully capable of talking in any number of human tongues, tradition stated that they only ever spoke directly to their Rider. Since Anhardyne and Vish were so close, Nera understood her bonded’s silence. She needed no words to understand anyway: Teka had recovered and was ready to finish their game. Hiding in the hull was fun, but it wasn’t a victory.

Nera grinned and bounded back into the saddle. “Doors,” she ordered her fellow lieutenants, who leapt to obey. Leaning down, she ran her gloved fingers through Teka’s abundant neck feathers.

The Skylark shuddered as Estenarven approached once more.

“Go get ‘im, Tek,” she whispered.

The doors opened just as a dark tail flicked past and her miryhl leapt out to chase it.

 

 

  • * * * * * * * * *

STORM RISING
The Dragonlands Book 2

Coming soon!

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[]Wingborn

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Lady Mhysra Kilpapan was blessed from birth with a distinguished family, a glorious home and a giant eagle miryhl of her own. Fully aware of her luck, she wants for nothing in life – except a chance to become a Rift Rider. The elite force of the Overworld has been closed to women for over one hundred years and not even the legendary Wingborn are allowed to join. Until now.

 

Women are being admitted to the Riders again and Mhysra wants to be first in line. Except her parents have other ideas, and there are plenty of others who are less than pleased about the change. Yet if Mhysra can find a way to reach Aquila, she will let nothing stop her.

 

But the Overworld is in trouble and the vicious kaz-naghkt are destroying Rift Rider bases one by one. The Riders need help. Can Mhysra and her friends really be the difference between survival and destruction? Or will they fail before their first year of training is through?

 

Book 1 of the WINGBORN series is available now.

Read on for a sneak peak, or visit beccalusher.com for more details about where you can find it for free.

 

 

 

Prologue

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Feather Frost, Etheria, the Greater West

32nd Cold, 784 Cloud Era

THERE WAS NO BLOOD.

A hint of smoke lingered in the air, more imagined than real, and charcoal crunched beneath Lyrai’s boots as he entered the remains of the base. Mist twisted and crept across the ground, drifting on gentle breezes that were so at odds with the season. A blanket of snow had fallen overnight, but the damage was too great to be hidden.

Feather Frost was dead.

Once it had been the pride of Etheria; a defensive bastion that protected trade and lives right in the shadow of the Worlds End mountains. From a humble military camp to an impressive citadel, it had been home to over five hundred Rift Riders, half of the Greater West’s entire force. Feather Frost was both the heart and the frontline of the war against the kaz-naghkt.

Gone.

Nothing remained, neither feather nor bone. All was ashes. The ground was snow-locked, the buildings burnt, the reek of death long faded away. There was no blood. How could almost seven hundred men – the barrack staff, attendants, Riders and all their miryhl eagle mounts – simply vanish? No one had escaped. This attack could have been as much as a month old, leaving plenty of time for survivors to have reached safety and sent out word. It was only due to a returning circuit messenger that anyone had discovered the attack at all.

“How could this happen?” Stirla joined Lyrai on the take-off platform, which commanded a complete overview of the destruction.

Unable to speak, Lyrai shook his head. Flying sweeps with their captain out of Kaskad, they had been the closest Riders when the news broke. Not that anything in the hysterical messenger’s report had prepared them for this. Nothing could have prepared them for this.

“Lieutenant Stirla, take your flurry down and see if there’s anything to salvage.” Captain Myran emerged from the mists, limping up the slope. “Fleik’s waiting for you. Lieutenant Lyrai, divide your Riders. Send half with Stirla, the rest remain with you. Find shelter and get a fire going. We’re going to need it.”

Both men saluted, and Stirla and his Riders were soo picking their way across the frozen remains. Numb from both cold and shock, Lyrai watched them go, his captain by his side. The wind picked up, scattering snow over their boots.

“Speak, lieutenant.”

Freshly graduated from Aquila, the silver stitching still bright on his stripes, Lyrai wasn’t sure that there were any words for this, except: “There’s no blood.”

Myran rested a hand on his youngest lieutenant’s shoulder. “Shelter, Lyrai. Fire and food. There’s plenty in life that we can’t change, so let’s focus on the small things we can. Look to your men, lieutenant.” With a nod of dismissal, he called for his miryhl and Lieutenant Imaino’s flurry.

Left alone, Lyrai watched his fellow Riders searching through the wreckage, while others took to the skies. A fierce wind howled over the ridge, wiping the platform momentarily clean.

Blood. Mostly hidden by the scorched wood and stone beneath but there nonetheless. Hunkering down, Lyrai chipped at the ice with his knife and at last found evidence of struggle and slaughter.

He rested his palm over the stain. “Be at peace in the halls of Typhaestus, brothers. Rest well. We shall avenge you.”

Shivering beneath a fresh gust of wind, he straightened up and called for his Riders. It was time to seek shelter beneath an ever-darkening sky.

Overhead, it began to snow.

 

 

 

 

One

Wrentheria

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Wrentheria, the Lowlands

15th Gale, 785 CE

NOT EVERYONE COULD handle raw meat first thing in the morning. Then again, Lady Mhysra Kilpapan had never considered herself entirely normal. Not when she spent every possible moment in the eyries. Dawn was her favourite time of day, when the rising sun spread golden fingers through the hatches to make the feather dust dance. Even in winter, if the sun rose cleanly, the eyries became a slice of Heirayk’s own heaven. Except for the meat in her hands.

Sadly the sounds of the eyries rarely matched the perfection of its sights. Miryhls were far more raucous than their smaller, wild eagle cousins. They muttered constantly, like discontented dowagers at a ball. At all times the eyries bubbled with their low purring hum, occasionally shattered by a shriek, just because they could. Breeding miryhls were a fractious lot, but the chicks were the worst.

Which was why Mhysra was there before the sun, bird dust in her nose and chunks of raw venison in her hands. Five chicks jostled around in front of her, trampling each other in their eagerness to gain her attention. Barely a month old, the ugly chalky-white creatures were covered in clumps of ash-grey down, long scrawny necks wobbling beneath their oversized heads. They were already as large as a medium-sized dog and growing fast. Not too long ago, their enormous beaks had seemed too heavy for them, meaning they spent more time on their faces than their feet. Yet with increased size came strength enough to lift their heads and gape plaintive demands for the bloody meat clenched in her fingers.

Behind them, two yearlings waited. The size of pit ponies and highly irritable, they looked like hedgehogs; glossy brown bundles pinpricked by the emerging quills of their first flight feathers. They tried so hard to act fully grown, but hunger always defeated them and the squalling chicks were drowned out by a cracked scream, silenced only when Mhysra tossed a chunk their way.

“Dignified,” a hoarse voice muttered behind her, rough-edged with sleep.

She glanced over her shoulder, smiling. “As if you weren’t the same at their age.”

On first glance, the young miryhl looked barely any different to the other adult eagles slowly waking in the glowing dawn. Their feathers shimmered through every shade of brown, from near-black down to honey-gold. The bird at her back was a conker-coloured giant, streaked with hints of gold. Cumulo, her Wingborn.

Snorting, he glowered at the chicks vying for her attention. “Remember it well, do you?”

Mhysra chose to ignore him, preferring to focus on feeding the babies instead. Of course she didn’t remember Cumulo as a chick; she’d been a helpless babe at the time. He had hatched at the exact moment she came into the world, creating that most coveted and rare of bonds – the Wingborn – tying them together for life. Rift Rider legends were full of daring Wingborn, describing them as one soul divided. One will, one reason, one heart.

She’d tried reading such stories to Cumulo once. He told her not to be so soppy and, that if she insisted on reading to him, could she please not make it such sentimental drivel. Whatever the Wingborn bond meant to historians and storytellers, to her it was family. No different than siblings or cousins. Quite disappointing, really.

Oblivious to her thoughts, Cumulo eyed her jealously as she fussed over the baby miryhls. “No Rider in their right mind would choose to partner creatures like these,” he muttered disdainfully. Which was slightly unfair since the chicks weren’t exactly at their best – covered in strips of meat, their down clogged with blood. One tripped over its own feet and Mhysra bit back a smile.

“You’re such a snob, Cue,” she said. “And anyway, expecting a Rift Rider to have any mind, let alone a right one, is asking a bit much.”

“As if you wouldn’t sign up tomorrow if you were a boy.”

She answered his grumbling with a wistful sigh. It would be wonderful to join the Riders, the miryhl-riding protectors of the Overworld, the pride of the Flying Corps. Except the entire Corps, from Rift Riders to doelyn scouts, were men, and had been for the past hundred years. It was a waste of time to even dream of joining. So she didn’t. She was happy breeding miryhls on her aunt’s farm; Cumulo was the one who wished for more.

Throwing down the last chunks, Mhysra rinsed her bloody hands in a bucket and watched her sated chicks settle inside their nesting pen for a nap. Another two bells and they’d be shrieking again, but it was no longer her task. Her life was about to change –sadly not for the better.

Eager for a distraction, she unlatched the gate and entered the pen. “Don’t come in here,” she warned as Cumulo shuffled along his perch.

“Why would I want to?” he sniffed, preening his shining wings, a stark contrast to the scrawny babies.

Mhysra ignored him and started grooming the fledglings, running her fingers through their new feathers and rubbing away the quill-tips they couldn’t reach. It was a task she’d been doing for years and she loved it. These fledglings in particular were extra special – she’d selected and paired the parents, turned the eggs, watched them hatch and seen them through their first year. They were as much her babies as the miryhls who’d conceived them.

“You’re practically clucking.”

She scowled at Cumulo, though silently grateful for the distraction. The thought of leaving her fledglings almost brought her to tears. Cumulo would never let her live that down, so she sniffed and plucked a loose feather from the nearest wing.

“What’s wrong with that?”

Cumulo eyed her coolly. “Nothing. So long as you stick to feathered things.”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m barely sixteen, Cue. I’m hardly breeding age.”

“Nor me,” he agreed. “Which is all I’d be fit for if you took up such a ridiculous notion.”

Mhysra chuckled. Male miryhls didn’t sexually mature until they were twenty years old, so even a precocious Wingborn would be lucky to father anything before eighteen.

He huffed reproachfully. “Don’t deny you’ve been broody this past year.”

“Over chicks, Cue! I don’t even like the boys around here.”

He snorted scornfully. “I don’t blame you. A more pitiful human flock is hard to imagine.”

She grinned, tugging on a wing stub and stroking the crinkled skin, making the chick chuckle in its sleep. “They’re not all bad.”

“You’ll have more to choose from when we reach Nimbys,” he said, reminding her of what she was desperately trying to forget. “Best set your priorities now.”

Turning her back on the thought, and on him, Mhysra worked on the chicks, running her fingers through their fluffy down. They soon woke, making her task significantly harder, thanks to their lively mood. Since playful miryhls – even chicks – usually resulted in copious amounts of blood loss, she left the eyries with a shallow scratch on her face, two deep ones on her arm and a crunched toe.

“Such rewarding work,” Cumulo teased, when she emerged into the slushy snow. Perched on the paddock fence, he looked like an overgrown rooster. An impressive one. Big for his age, shining, beautiful and hers, just as she was his. Neither had been given a choice, but on good days Mhysra acknowledged that the gods had smiled on her.

This was not a good day, so she flipped a rude gesture in his direction and limped on. He cackled and flapped to the next post. Mhysra eyed his landing, waiting for the tell-tale groan to assure her that he was still enjoying his growth spurt. Another half-moon and she’d have the delight of watching him break another rail made brittle by the winter frosts. She was looking forward to it, if only because Cumulo was a tad too fond of his dignity.

Or she would have been, had she been permitted to stay. Muttering the foulest words she knew earned her whistles of approval from the nearest stable lads, donning their armour before feeding the pyreflies. The screaming beasts kicked at their doors, flames spouting around the edges, and Cumulo soared on the rising heat.

“Hurry up and stop growing, Cue,” Mhysra murmured, watching him spiral higher, wings spread wide. Her chest tightened with longing. Soon, her aunt said. Soon, Cumulo promised. Soon, one way or another, she would fly again. If only on the deck of the Illuminai.

As she passed the horsat barn a silky ball of fluff scampered out of the shadows, yipping with excitement. Laughing, Mhysra knelt and caught the eager pup, smoothing ruffled fur and tugging loose down from its undeveloped wings.

“You found me.”

The black and white nakhound pup licked her chin. Mhysra grimaced and held it at arm’s length, rubbing her face on her shoulder. Bright eyes glittered, while a plumy white tail whirled.

“Cute,” she conceded, putting the dog down. It yapped and gambolled about her feet before lolloping up the slope.

Sighing, Mhysra turned to follow and looked up at Wrentheria Manor, her home for the past sixteen years and the place she loved most in all the world. Except her view was spoiled by the three-tiered skyship coming into land: the Illuminai. The countess had arrived.

 

 

  • * * * * * * * * *

To read the rest for free,

visit beccalusher.com for more details.

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[]About the Author

h1={color:#000;}.

Becca Lusher is an indie fantasy author from the wild British Westcountry who learned how to fly a bird of prey, gallop bareback and survive as the youngest in a big family all before she was a teenager. Sadly, the years since haven’t been anything like as exciting.

Nowadays she saves her adventures for writing, her weekends for walking and her days for dreaming.

 

Website: beccalusher.com

Wattpad: @starlightmagpie

Dreamwidth: starlightmagpie

 

 

 

 

#
p={color:#000;}. Also Available

 

OVERWORLD

DRAGONLANDS SERIES

Blazing Dawn

A Courtship of Dragons

Coming soon

Storm Rising

 

WINGBORN SERIES

Wingborn

Rift Riders

Coming soon

Dragongift

 

 

AEKHARTAIN UNIVERSE

Sisters of Icarus

The Crying Child

The Icarus Child

 

Unbound and Free

Be With Me

 

Dark Rebel

The Rebel Returns

 

Orion’s Kiss

Sing to Me

 

 

 

 


A Courtship of Dragons

Friends and lovers have always come easily to Estenarven kin Boulderforce, until Mastekh. For the first time in over three hundred years, Estenarven has found a dragon that matters. Now all he has to do is convince him. Mastekh kin Rainstorm doesn’t expect much from life; he mostly wants to be left alone. Until Estenarven leaves a gift on his pillow. For the first time someone is paying attention to Mastekh, but can this shy, downtrodden dragon ever learn to trust another – and himself – enough to give in to life, joy... and maybe even love? Warning! This romantic side-adventure contains a watery dragon with no confidence and a stone-stubborn Boulderforce with confidence enough for two. May also contain an interfering Starshine, a slightly perplexed Blazeborn and kissing. Enjoy!

  • Author: Becca Lusher
  • Published: 2017-08-04 12:20:25
  • Words: 67405
A Courtship of Dragons A Courtship of Dragons