Flight of the Dragon – Jessica Drake

This is ridiculous, Zara.” I winced as Lessie shot me a baleful glare from the floor. She was curled up on top of a pile of hay—a makeshift bed in a makeshift stable that had been converted from a saloon, the door torn out so she could fit through. It had only been a day since we’d left Zuar City, but the room had already taken on the same musty scent of the stables back home. Which in itself wouldn’t be so bad if Lessie wasn’t forced to stay indoors round the clock. “I’m sorry,” I said, sitting down next to her in the hay. I ran my hand over the iridescent scales on the side of her neck, gleaming like sapphires in the lamplight. “I wish I could take you above, Lessie, I really do. But we can’t chance someone spotting you on deck.” “I am a dragon,” Lessie huffed. “It is not in my nature to cower inside the belly of a ship. And it is certainly beneath my dignity to be flying inside a ship when I could be flying outside.” I smiled, scratching behind the crown of spikes protruding from her head. “I know.” She tried to resist my touch, holding fiercely onto the grumpy attitude that had been brewing inside her these past twenty-four hours.

“But it won’t be like this forever. Tavarian says we’re landing in a couple of hours.” “Are we?” A kernel of excitement bloomed in Lessie’s heart, echoing my own. She craned her neck to look through the porthole—her only view of the outside world. But her mood immediately soured when the only thing she saw was a world of fog. “Hmph,” she said, laying her head back down in the hay. “Wake me when we arrive.” I snorted, a smile twitching at my lips. Lessie had the soul of a grumpy old man and the heart of a toddler, highly intelligent and capricious all at once. Sometimes she was wise beyond her years, other times petulant and even bossy.

The combination would have driven me crazy in a human, but as a dragon, she was utterly endearing. I wonder if that’s because of the dragon rider bond, I thought as I left Lessie’s room and headed for the saloon. Would I feel the same way about Kadryn or Ykos if I had to spend a week with one of them instead, and they could communicate with me? The thought of Jallis’s and Rhia’s dragons gave me a pang of homesickness. I’d only known them for a few months, but already I felt as if they were part of my little family. The thought of being holed up at some secret estate with only Tavarian for human company was a bit depressing, even though he was fascinating in his own right. I’d been told I could write to them, but that wasn’t the same as actually curling up on one of the common room couches, talking about our lessons and pondering our dreams and futures. Speaking of Tavarian… I entered the saloon to find him sitting at one of the tables. He had a cup of tea in one hand and a thick leather tome in the other, with several more stacked on the table in front of him. History texts, I thought as I tilted my head to study one of the titles. “Ah.

Miss Kenrook.” Tavarian shut the book and gestured at the chair across from him. “Sit.” I did, leaning back in the chair and crossing my legs at the ankles. “Are you finally going to tell me where we are going?” I was pretty good at navigation, but we were flying high through thick clouds, and I’d barely managed to get a glimpse of the ground. Tavarian raised his eyebrows. “You already know we’re going to one of my estates,” he said. “What more do you need to know?” I rolled my eyes. “Maybe I don’t need to know, but it would be nice to have some details. Are we going to another floating island? Some kind of bunker? Will there be an opportunity for me to do any treasure hunting?” Tavarian’s silver eyes flashed.

“This is not a vacation or an expedition, Miss Kenrook,” he said. “I am taking you into hiding from this unfortunate character you have chosen to ally yourself with so you and Lessie can continue to train in relative safety. As I am devoting myself to training you full time, you should be able to finish much faster than the average academy student.” My heart leaped despite the clear rebuke in his words. “Really?” I asked, unable to keep the eagerness out of my voice. “How much faster?” “We may be able to cut it down to a year.” Tavarian gave me a small smile, pleased at the change in my tone. “Once you’re finished, you’ll be able to start your military service.” Those last two words deflated my optimism faster than a spear thrown into a hot air balloon. “About that,” I said carefully, preparing myself for a fight.

“Is there any way to get out of it?” “Out of what?” “My military service.” Tavarian was silent for a moment. “Why?” I took a deep breath. “Because I don’t believe in fighting wars that I don’t support,” I said in a rush. “From everything I’ve studied, Elantia has spent the last thousand years throwing its weight around and bullying our surrounding neighbors into submission instead of working to establish real alliances. Nationalism is all good, but this idea that we’re superior to everyone else just because we have dragons is asking for trouble. I don’t want to risk my life or Lessie’s just because my government can’t pull its head out of its ass long enough to realize that it might not be the biggest power in the region anymore.” I expected Tavarian to scold or berate me, to be angry or disgusted at my lack of patriotism. But to my surprise, he sighed and set down his cup of tea. “You are right,” he said, and I nearly toppled out of my chair.

“Elantia has not been particularly kind to its neighbors since the Dragon War. Lord Lyton and I have been attempting to repair relations and establish trade again, and while we have had some success, several countries would still love nothing more than to crush us. I do not personally support the use of dragons in combat, not when we could invest our resources into upgrading our warfare technology, but tradition will not be denied. Thankfully, it has been a good while since Elantia has made war on another country, and we have no plans to do so in the near future. My hope is that Lyton’s and my efforts will continue to improve relations, and that you and Lessie will come out of your ten years of service relatively unscathed.” “I…what?” I gaped at him. “You mean I don’t have to be stuck in the military for the rest of my life?” “Of course not.” Tavarian didn’t smile, but there was a distinct twinkle of amusement in his eyes. “How do you think we dragon riders managed to get so wealthy? After ten years, riders have the option to join the reserves and live on their own private estates with their dragons. They still must come in twice a year for training and take up arms again if Elantia finds itself in another war, but for the most part, their lives are their own.

That leaves plenty of time for us to start businesses and invest in all sorts of ventures.” “Huh.” I tapped my lower lip as I considered this. Ten years still felt like a long time, especially since I was starting later than most dragon riders, but it was still a hell of a lot better than a lifetime. “I’m guessing you’d be in the reserves if your dragon was still around.” “Indeed.” A wistful look entered Tavarian’s eyes for the briefest moment, then vanished. I wondered what he’d been like when his dragon was still alive—if he’d been more joyous and carefree. It was hard to imagine Tavarian soaring through the skies on dragonback, whooping and laughing like so many of the cadets did during the free portion of our flying lessons. The image of him in his silver dragon armor rose in my mind.

I shivered as I remembered the cold, almost savage blaze in his eyes, the blood coating his sword. Tavarian might not be a fan of warfare, but I had no doubt a warrior lurked beneath those perfectly pressed suits and that calm façade he wore. One who could, and had, cut down his enemies with ruthless efficiency, and possessed a will so powerful, he had even managed to survive the death of his dragon. An impossible feat for an impossible man. Tavarian opened his mouth to say something else, but I felt a familiar shift that could only mean one thing. “We’re landing!” I exclaimed, jumping out of my chair. “In a manner of speaking,” Tavarian said as he rose from his chair. “Grab your things and come to the upper deck. We will be disembarking soon.” “Yes!” Lessie cried in my head, and I jumped.

Clearly, she’d been listening. “Does this mean I can come up too?” “Of course it does, silly,” I said. “I’ll be right there to get you.” But Lessie refused to wait. She was standing outside the door of my cabin, practically vibrating with excitement and impatience. “Hurry up,” she whined as I gathered up my belongings. “I want to breathe fresh air again!” “If you want to hurry, then help me out here.” I shoved a bag against her muzzle. “Carry that for me, and don’t shred the straps with your teeth.” Lessie grunted, but she did as she was told, gingerly holding the bag by the straps with her mouth.

While she was occupied, I strapped her saddle on so I wouldn’t have to carry it, then made my way through the corridors and up the stairs, Lessie following close behind. “Son of a hoggleswaith,” I chattered, wrapping my arms around my body. I was wearing a light jacket, but it was no match for the stiff, cold winds battering the ship. “It’s freezing up here!” “That is because you are on a ship, not a dragon.” Lessie pressed her warm body against me. She was right. When I’d ridden with Jallis on Kadryn, the body heat the large dragon generated had kept off the worst of the chill. “I will keep you warm.” “Thanks.” Smiling, I patted her neck, and together we moved to stand by the bow of the ship.

We were careful to stay out of the way of the crew rushing about the deck as they prepared for landing—it was a skeleton crew of only five, and they needed every spare second they could manage. As we stood at the prow, the clouds gradually fell away, revealing a mountain range below. We seemed to be headed straight toward a valley nestled between two of the giant mountains, lush and verdant and entirely enclosed by sheer, rocky cliffs. “This is Tavarian’s secret estate?” Lessie asked. Her fiery gaze swept over the valley, which, while beautiful, appeared to be completely abandoned, with no signs of human life. “I can hunt and roam aplenty here, but I imagine you will be quite uncomfortable.” She sounded decidedly unimpressed. “Maybe we really are going to live in an underground bunker,” I said aloud, only halfjoking. Was this really the place? Maybe the crew had made a mistake. “Over my dead body.

” “We are not going to live in an underground bunker,” Tavarian said in a dry voice from behind me. I jumped, then twisted around to face him—I hadn’t heard him approach! “My estate wouldn’t be hidden if it was easily visible from the air, would it?” “No,” I admitted, looking over my shoulder at the valley. We were halfway through our descent, low enough for the cliffs to tower around us on all sides. It would have felt like a prison if the valley wasn’t so large—I estimated it to be at least six miles of fields and meadows, bordered with lushly wooded areas that butted up against the edges of the mountains. “But I make a living looking for hidden sites, and I can’t see any trace of human life at all from up here.” I couldn’t even get a signal with my treasure sense, though that wasn’t surprising. It only had a radius of about a mile, after all. “Shouldn’t there be a farm, some way to raise or grow food?” Tavarian gave me an enigmatic smile. “That would be logical, wouldn’t it?” I gnashed my teeth as he turned away, leaving me to ponder the mystery. But my annoyance quickly vanished when the ship finally touched down—even if I hadn’t been glad to be back on the ground, Lessie’s excitement was so palpable that it completely eclipsed my own emotions.

Before I could even blink, she’d launched herself over the side of the ship and onto the ground. “Oooh…the grass smells so good here, Zara!” she exclaimed as she rolled around in the field, wriggling like a puppy…if puppies were the size of small elephants. Her tail thrashed about, and I was glad she was a good distance from the ship, as her spikes were long enough to gouge holes in the wood. “Come down and play with me!” “Hey, be careful!” I called, hurrying down the gangplank with my bag. “You’ve still got your saddle on!” I was thankful I hadn’t strapped any of my bags onto her body—the one I’d asked her to hold was luckily discarded on the grass, but anything else on her would have been crushed. “Oh. Right.” Lessie immediately rolled onto her stomach, then craned her neck to sniff at the leather saddle perched between her shoulders. “It has a few grass stains on it, but it should be okay with a good polish.” “I hope Lessie is done playing,” Tavarian said as he joined me.

“She is going to need to help carry a few things, as we have quite a hike before we arrive at our destination.” Lessie wasn’t happy about it, but she let us strap our bags to the saddle as the airship took off again, leaving us alone in the field. Thankfully, we didn’t bring much—only two bags each, and I carried my pack on my back so that Lessie could do some flying. She soared overhead as Tavarian led us through the meadow, spurting little gouts of fire from her nostrils as practice. Her joy at being in the sky was infectious, and if not for Tavarian being grounded, I would have jumped onto her back and joined her up there. “I don’t blame you for wanting to fly with her,” Tavarian said, reading my thoughts in that uncanny way of his. “If my dragon were here, I would vastly prefer to be up in the air with him than rooted to the ground like this.” That hint of wistfulness, of emotion, was back in his voice again, giving me the courage to ask what I had dared not the first time. “How did you lose your dragon?” Tavarian was silent for so long that I thought he’d decided not to answer my question. “It was during the Ivory War against Zarabos.

We were put in an impossible situation, and it ended badly for us.” “I’m sorry,” I said, my heart aching. The thought of losing Lessie to the horrors of war, especially one as unnecessary as that one, was enough to make my blood run cold and my stomach turn to lead. “Is that why you decided to work in foreign relations after you… er…retired?” Tavarian nodded. “It is my hope that by improving our relationships with countries across the world, both those we have made war with as well as those we’ve stifled in other ways, I can save dragon lives. Using these magnificent creatures”—he tilted his head up, his silver eyes briefly fixing on Lessie—“is such a waste of life, especially since dragon numbers have dwindled.” “Wouldn’t you think that they would exempt Lessie from service since she’s female?” I demanded. “Surely she’s more valuable than most, since there are only a handful of female dragons around to reproduce.” “Her status as a female will guarantee that you are given low-risk missions and kept away from the front lines as much as possible,” Tavarian said. “But no, the council will not exempt either of you from service.

It is a stupid rule, but that is the way it has always been, and they are very slow to change.” The rest of the hike was spent mostly in silence as we trekked our way through the hilly forest. Despite my misgivings and homesickness, it was easy enough to get lost in the magic of this place—the colorful birds that sang as they flitted from tree to tree, the whisper of wind through the branches, the sweet, earthy smells coming from the shrubs and blossoms. My treasure sense activated automatically, and I had to resist the urge to follow the sounds coming from several valuables trying to lure me from the path. There would be plenty of time for treasure hunting later, once we were settled. “Ohh, I see it!” Lessie crowed about a half hour later. “An entrance in the side of the mountain!” Her excitement spurred me forward, and soon enough, the tall trees gave way to a sheer cliff. A large, rectangular door was set into the wall, reminding me of tomb entrances I’d happened upon before, and I shivered a little. There was no handle I could see, but as we approached, I noticed a small depression in the door, maybe the size of a coin, with the Tavarian sigil carefully etched into it. Tavarian fished a small bronze disc from his pocket that had a matching sigil, except this one was a relief instead of an etching.

He pressed the disc against the spot in the door, and it immediately crackled with a distinct power that could only be one thing: Magic. “Dragon’s balls,” I breathed as the door immediately melted away, revealing a long corridor. Tavarian waved his hand, and the gas lamps lining the walls sprang to life, revealing deep purple carpeting and wainscoted walls. “Welcome,” Tavarian said with a grin, sweeping his arm out in dramatic fashion, “to Maravel Hall.”

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