War of the Dragon – Jessica Drake

Tick, tock. Tick, tock. I stared at the ornate clock on the mantelpiece, as if I could urge its silver hands to spin faster through the sheer force of my glare. Unfortunately, the gears within seemed immune to my agitation, continuing to turn at the same consistent, dependable rate the clockmaker had designed. One slow, dull, infuriating second at a time. “Relax, Zara. Tavarian will be back soon.” “Soon?” I jumped up from the settee to pace Tavarian’s sitting room. “He’s been gone for hours, Lessie.” Ironic that my spunky, impulsive dragonling was telling me to calm down. Usually she was the impatient one in our relationship, but the more time I spent sitting idle, the more restless I became. “So what?” Lessie argued. “As far as I’m concerned, he can stand to be gone a little longer. I don’t know about you, but I’m enjoying the luxury of a little time and space to myself. We’ve been running and flying and fighting non-stop for weeks.

This is the first time we’ve had a breather.” I exhaled through my nostrils and forced myself to stop pacing the carpet. Lessie was right. Between multiple kidnappings, rescue attempts, espionage missions, and several harrowing brushes with death, the two of us had been through quite an ordeal. I couldn’t fault Lessie for her exhaustion. A large part of me wanted to do nothing more than find a thick, heavy blanket to curl up under and hide from the world. But I couldn’t do that, not when worry gnawed at my brain. The bulk of our dragon rider force had mysteriously disappeared just when Elantia needed them most. Jallis and his dragon were likely among them, while my best friend Rhia, whom I had left in a camp to the north, was right in the path of the invading army. Our country was on the verge of being conquered.

These weren’t exactly problems I could hide from, not when I knew the enemy would come knocking at the gates of Zuar City any day now. We might be on a floating island, but in this age of airships and cannons, no one was safe. “He’s back,” Lessie said, interrupting my tension-filled musings. “His airship just landed.” I raced out the door before she’d even finished speaking, my spelled boots silent on the parquet floors despite my utter disregard for stealth. I beat the surprised stewardess to the door and gripped the porch railing as I watched a carriage approach via the winding road that led to the landing strip on the other side of the island. “Tavarian.” I almost rushed toward him as he disembarked, then forced myself to stop. He was handsome as ever in his tailored grey suit, his inky hair secured at the nape of his neck to leave his arresting, angular face unframed. But his skin was paler than usual, and shadows dodged his silver eyes, reminding me that he, too, had been through quite an ordeal.

He’d spent weeks trapped at the Traggaran court, dodging assassination attempts while trying to get an audience with the king, then immediately rushed back to Zuar City as fast as he could to defend me at my court-martial. I’d had plenty of time to rest while locked up in a dormitory room awaiting trial, but Tavarian hadn’t. “Zara.” Tavarian gave me a warm smile as he scaled the steps with his long-legged stride. “I’ll debrief you in the dining room in thirty minutes. I’m absolutely starved.” “Of course.” I moved to the side, allowing him to step past me and through the door. A whiff of his bergamot and leather scent teased my senses as he passed, and my cheeks heated as I remembered our kiss. Had it really only been a few hours since I’d thrown my arms around him and found myself in a passionate, heated embrace with a man I’d once thought as cold and emotionless as Salcombe? It seemed like weeks, or even years.

And where did that leave us now? Was Tavarian truly interested in me, or had we just gotten caught up in a moment of passion? This is the last thing you should be thinking about, I told myself as I followed him inside and shut the door. But I couldn’t help it as I stared at Tavarian’s retreating back, watching the way his coat clung to his broad shoulders even as the hem billowed out behind him. Even now, with exhaustion clinging to him, those shoulders refused to slump. I wished I had half his strength. “Don’t be ridiculous,” Lessie huffed, and I jolted in surprise. “You’ve twice Tavarian’s mettle. The fact that you’re still standing after all you’ve been through is a testament to the strength of your will. You’ve made it through ordeals that others with five times the amount of training would have failed.” “And how would you know that?” I asked, only half-teasing. Lessie had the vocabulary of a full-grown adult—one of the perks of listening to human conversation for hundreds of years while trapped in her egg, waiting for the right rider to come along—but at six months old, she was still fairly naïve and inexperienced.

“Because the other dragons have said the same thing,” she said stoutly, unperturbed by the doubt she sensed in our bond. “And as your dragon, I heartily concur.” Unexpected tears pricked at the corners of my eyes, and I stopped in the middle of the hallway, surprised by how much the sentiment touched me. I had no idea the other dragons had any opinions of me, much less favorable ones. But it made me even more determined to figure out where they’d gone and rescue them if I could. I rushed up the stairs to my bedroom and freshened up, then joined Tavarian in the dining room. Lunch was an array of cold meats and cheeses with bread and fruit. The servants also left a bottle of red, but neither of us made any move to touch it. The situation we were in could drive any man to drink, but we needed to be clearheaded if we wanted to come up with a viable strategy. “Well?” I asked once we’d both piled our plates and gotten in a few mouthfuls.

“How did the council meeting go?” “Not very well,” Tavarian admitted. “We have been trying to formulate a plan to deal with the invasion, but we are crippled by our lack of information. No one seems to have any idea why our dragons and riders have not arrived. Even the dragon courier who comes from the western front every day never arrived yesterday, and no one has seen him yet today, either.” My stomach turned into a ball of lead, and I was forced to push my plate away. “So, it’s official, then. The dragons and their riders are missing.” “The council is reluctant to admit it, but at this point I must concur,” Tavarian said gravely. “Without them, our prospects are bleak. The best the council was able to come up with is to marshal our remaining forces and station them a day’s march from Zuar City to meet the invasion before they reach the capital.

It’s an absurd plan, which will only result in our forces being slaughtered. I told the others as much, but they are determined to fight the Zallabarians to the last man.” “Oh?” I raised an eyebrow, clenching my fists against the anger pounding in my blood. “Are they going to be on the front too, then?” Tavarian snorted. “If only they were that brave. No, the chancellor and my fellow council members are preparing to evacuate and govern from the southwest as long as possible, and then move to one of our overseas territories if that becomes necessary. They intend to govern in exile while they figure out how to take back the country.” “And what exactly are they going to be governing if Zallabar takes the entire country?” I asked through clenched teeth. “Are you making similar preparations as well?” Tavarian’s eyes flashed. “Of course not.

I have lent the councilors one of my airships, but I will be staying behind. I thought you knew me better than that, Zara.” “Sorry,” I muttered, averting my gaze. Was that hurt in his eyes? I turned back to look at him again, but the cool mask was back in place, and I buried a sigh of frustration. “I’m just furious we’ve even come to this point. We’ve been complacent as a nation for so long, secure in the power of our dragons and the knowledge that we’ve been the conquerors for as long as we can remember. When I was down in the city, helping the citizens prepare for invasion, I could tell most of them were still in denial that we were really in any danger. They don’t seem to realize that if we don’t do something, we’re all going to be speaking Zallabarian in twenty years.” Tavarian nodded. “Unfortunately, I’m not sure there is anything they can do.

The number of soldiers required to hold back such a large host is far more than what we have available. It is possible to mobilize the men in the towns and villages and fight back, guerilla-style, but that will be very bloody and costly, and the chances of success are still slim. It might be best for the civilians to lie low while the respective governments sort out their problems.” “So basically, you’re saying we should all just submit and hope the councilmen will get their shit together and save us all?” I couldn’t believe what he was saying. “We might as well start hanging Zallabarian flags from all our government buildings right now.” “I am saying that just as I think it is foolish for us to throw our soldiers onto the pikes of the enemy when there is no hope of defeating them, it is foolish for our citizens to actively resist, at least not without a solid plan in place. I have experienced guerilla warfare firsthand,” he said darkly, his silver eyes swirling with some evil memory, “back when Muza and I were still together. We were quelling an insurgency in one of the colonies, and the locals were fighting back with ambushes. It was a horrible, bloody business with many dead and mutilated on both sides, despite the advantage of our dragons, and Muza in particular was disgusted.” His face softened with sadness and regret.

“Perhaps this is the universe’s way of repaying us for our hubris.” The ball of lead in my stomach eased, melted away by a wave of sympathy. “You and Muza did the best you could under the circumstances.” The fact that the two of them lived apart, separated by thousands of miles of ocean because they couldn’t bear being forced to fight wars they didn’t believe in, spoke highly of their integrity. “But whether or not you think Elantia deserves this, we can’t allow our country to be taken. Who is to say that Zallabar is going to stop here? After all, they took Dardil without hesitation. Once they have our territory and resources, they might very well decide to conquer the rest of the continent as well.” “I agree—” Tavarian began, then stopped when a servant rushed in. “Apologies, my lord, but there’s an urgent missive for you.” He handed Tavarian a thick cream envelope sealed in wax stamped with Elantia’s symbol—a dragon eating its own tail, representing the infinite power of Elantia.

Ironic, really, considering the state of the nation now, but I pushed that thought out of my mind and waited on tenterhooks as Tavarian tore open the letter. “Well?” I asked after a minute had passed. “What does it say?” He arched a brow, and I flushed a little, remembering that just a few months ago, I wouldn’t have dared push him to share his correspondence with me. After all, he was a lord, not to mention my benefactor and head of the house I’d pledged myself to. But after all we’d been through, I figured I’d earned the right to push him a little. Especially considering what was at stake. “It’s a letter from the chancellor’s aide,” he said, pushing it toward me. “They are leaving Dragon’s Table now, and the chancellor implores one last time that I join them.” His lips curved into a lopsided smile. “I think I’d rather take a trip to the western front, if it’s all the same.

Will you join me?” The knot that had formed in my stomach at the mention of him leaving again loosened, and a spark blossomed there instead. “Hell, yes,” I said. Since the missing dragons had come from that direction, it was possible we’d run into them, or at least find some clues as to what had happened to them. “Excellent,” he said. “We’ll be leaving in three hours, so I suggest you pack and complete any errands you need to run before we leave.” F 2 inished eating, we both left the sitting room, Tavarian to do who knew what, while I checked on Lessie. She’d recently eaten as well, and was flying in restless circles above the grounds, clearly anxious to get going. “Come down,” I called, an irrational fear in my gut despite no signs of danger. “You’re an easy target, flying around like that!” Lessie swooped down, then landed in front of me with a disgruntled huff. I threw an arm up to shield my face, and coughed as her wings kicked up a cloud of dust around me.

“Be a little more considerate, would you?” I scolded. “Sorry,” she said, a little sheepishly. But then she tossed her head and eyed me with a gleam in her fiery irises. “Since when have you become such a worrywart, Zara? Dragons are meant for flying, not cowering in our stables just because we’re worried an enemy might come by.” “I’m just thinking about that airship ambush,” I muttered, shoving a hand into my hair. I still remembered finding Ragor and Ullion in the forest, broken and bloody and battered from a shrapnel cannon strike during what was supposed to be a simple training exercise. Not seeing any airships when I’d spotted the Zallabarian force back in Dardil was heartening, but it made me wonder if they’d truly given up on using the airships, or if they were saving them for another purpose. What if they’d built an armada of them, and had used them to take out all the dragons at once? “That can’t be what happened,” Lessie insisted, but I could feel the chill in her bones at the thought of her fellow dragons being slaughtered. “Then what did?” I argued, frustration making my words harsh. “What else could cause an entire fleet of dragons to disappear? Do you think they all lay down in a field somewhere for a nap and just haven’t woken up yet?” “Dragons can hibernate for long stretches of time if necessary,” Lessie said with a sniff.

“But no, I don’t think that’s likely. I just don’t want to believe they’re all dead. Is that so hard to understand?” “No.” I sighed. “No, of course not.” I wanted to believe they were alive too. I wanted to believe that Jallis and Rhia were safe, and that Lessie wasn’t one of a handful of dragons left alive on this planet. But what had happened to the dragons? Could it be their disappearance had nothing to do with the Zallabarians? Why else would they have failed to arrive? Knowing I was just chasing my thoughts in circles, I mounted Lessie and flew by the Treasure Trove to tell Carina that I was leaving again. Needless to say, she wasn’t even remotely happy about my decision, but she knew finding the dragons was paramount if we were to stand a chance against the Zallabarians, and in the end, it was better that Lessie and I do something productive rather than sit around and wait for the invasion force to arrive. “I still think you should leave,” I told her as she scribbled something in the ledger.

“Not gonna happen.” She barely glanced up from the thick book on the counter, and I noticed she’d nearly run out of pages. A smile tugged at my lips despite our grim circumstances, and I remembered the days not so long ago when we’d stared forlornly at the mostly empty pages of the book, trying to juggle our finances and conjure enough coin out of thin air to keep ourselves afloat. I honestly wasn’t sure where we’d be today if I hadn’t found Lessie’s egg in Tavarian’s vault, which had led to Captain Marcas recommending our shop to the higher-end clientele that now patronized us regularly despite being a ground-dwelling establishment. The skydwellers living on Dragon’s Table and the floating islands many dragon riders called home only came to the ground on business or to seek amusement and cheap thrills. I was proud we were one of the few places that lured them from their luxurious mansions and spectacularly manicured grounds. “There’s no way I’m leaving the shop unmanned just so criminals can bash down the doors and plunder all our hard-earned inventory,” she went on, oblivious to my train of thought. “Even with all the preparations we’ve taken, looting is bound to happen once the city’s under siege. Brolian and Kira are already reinforcing the doors and windows, and we’ve taken on a few more employees to help us guard the place.” She glanced up at me, finally catching the look on my face.

“What?” “Nothing—” I said, then shook my head, blinking back a sudden wave of tears. “I’m just thinking you’re a giant idiot, and I’m going to miss you so much.” Carina jabbed a finger in my direction, her eyes narrowing to slits. “You are not allowed to talk like that,” she insisted, marching around the counter. “You and I are going to see each other again, so don’t act like you’re going away for good.” “Of course.” I wrapped my arms around Carina and hugged her tightly, partially to hide my tears. Despite Carina’s words, I knew after everything I’d seen that there was a very good chance I might never see her again. But what really made my throat ache and my eyes burn with unshed tears was both her stubborn refusal to accept the inevitable and her unfailing optimism. She only thought of criminals looting the store, and not Zallabarian soldiers storming the city and destroying everything we owned.

Though I wanted to shake her shoulders and scream at her about all the dangers until I was blue in the face, I didn’t want to shatter the illusion. There was no point in dashing her hopes, and even if I did warn her, Carina still wouldn’t leave. This shop was as much a part of her as Lessie was to me. If the Treasure Trove went down, so would Carina. Then you just have to make sure it doesn’t, I told myself fiercely. I finished my goodbyes to Carina and the other ground dwellers, then took off for Dragon’s Table, a letter clutched in my hand. I didn’t know if Rhia was on another mission, or if she was fighting the invaders, but on the off-chance that she’d eventually return home, I wrote a letter updating her on all that had happened and where I was headed now. I knew the chances of her being at her family home were slim to none, but my heart still plummeted when the housekeeper opened the door and informed me she wasn’t home. “Is that Zara at the door?” a female voice called, and I straightened at the familiar voice of Mrs. Thomas, Rhia’s mother.

She appeared at the door, peering over the housekeeper’s shoulder at me with wide blue eyes and flushed, rounded cheeks.

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