Chapter Twenty-Nine With the Empress in his Claws
Vincent rose early the next morning to submit his request to the empress. Sir Tamlin admitted him into her chambers, escorting him to the tea room where she sat reading the papers that her son had asked her to review before he signed them. Empress Arialla seemed glad to see the bard, and listened carefully as he explained their need to travel to Mékneh Forest.
To his surprise, as well as her honor guard’s, she quickly agreed to embark on the journey. Though Sir Tamlin protested, Arialla she assured her that they would have no trouble in assembling an entourage that could keep her safe. Additionally, she was feeling stronger that day, and felt ready to take part in anything that might help her kingdom. In the end, Tamlin conceded to her empress and the palace was sent into action making preparations to leave as soon as possible.
Mearrk’hal left the palace ahead of the others, flying with one of the speedy Jzamneh dragons to let the Mékneh leaders know they would soon have an honored guest. Empress Arialla visited the throne room to speak with Prince Loracaz, and was greeted by a crowd of adoring citizens. She shouldered him with the responsibility of looking after the kingdom while she was away, knowing that he would do as well for their people as he had been while she’d been ill. They wished her a safe journey as she left the hall, a sentiment that made her smile.
She and Sir Tamlin had not seen Zarrek at all that day, but he’d heard of the impending journey. By the time preparations were complete, it was late afternoon. Several dragons, among them Jza and Kestrel, Sir Tamlin’s mount, had gathered on the main platform of the dragon roosts. Across the platform, Zarrek stood beside Dettri, watching the travelers gather together.
Then the green-armored dragoon he knew as Tamlin emerged from the palace, the empress at her side in her fur cloak, ready to ride the skies. Zarrek walked over to his mother and asked her what was going on. She would not explain much, and he started to become visibly frustrated.
“Zarrek,” she scolded him, “If you could tell us where your father is, we would not need to travel all the way to Mékneh.”
The young prince scowled. “Even if I knew, why do you want him now? You haven’t wanted to listen to him in ages!”
Arialla was about to reply to her son when a shadow passed over them. She gazed up at the sky and saw a black form turning to glide back down towards the platform. Its wings were spread wide, catching the air as he flew, as graceful as he was fearsome. Vincent and Tamlin both saw the dragon’s rapid descent and moved closer around the empress. Vénes clutched his Rrandah’s hands as he focused his eyes on the dragon above.
The black dragon flew lower, releasing a deep growl. Tamlin called for her spear, and the guards scrambled to bring it to her. Arialla stared as the beast swooped down, reaching out his claws to grab her frail form. She shrieked when the claws wrapped around her, squirming in an effort to free herself before the dragon was able to get higher up. Vincent reached for his knife, only to be knocked aside by the dragon’s tail as he growled angrily at him. Then the dragon rose into the sky, fleeing before any of the guards could stop him.
“Mother!” the young prince called out. He climbed onto Dettri’s back and shouted for him to follow the beast who had taken her. The dragon complied, leaping to the sky and soaring as fast and as high as he could.
From the platform, Vincent watched Zarrek chase after the other dragon. Sir Tamlin mounted her own dragon to give chase as well. Ultimately, the beast was already far ahead of them both, and did not slow down or turn back to fight. Tamlin pulled Kestrel to fly alongside Dettri and called out to the prince.
“What’s going on, Zarrek?”
“Stay out of this, Tamlin!” he ordered the dragoon, glaring at her. “Go back to the palace!”
“What does that dragon want with her? I have a feeling that you know, Zarrek.”
“I said leave us alone!”
Zarrek urged Dettri to fly higher and faster, but before the dragon could get very far, Kestrel clawed at his leg. Dettri growled and turned to retaliate, letting the black dragon fly further into the mountainous horizon wit the empress. The prince cursed, trying to get Dettri to obey him, but the dragon was too angry to listen.
“You let him get away!” Zarrek screamed.
“You owe us an explanation, Zarrek,” Sir Tamlin told him, her voice stern.
“I owe you nothing, dragoon!”
The prince pulled at Dettri’s reigns and flew him past the green dragon, back towards the palace. He leapt from his back even before he’d landed, shouted something to the squires, and stormed into the palace. Vincent watched him go, rubbing the bruise on his arm and wondering what explanation there was for what had just happened.
“That was him,” Vénes whispered, still staring at the sky where the black dragon had flown away.
“Who, Vénes?” Shu-Giri asked him.
The sorcerer and looked into his Rrandah’s eyes, and Shu-Giri could see the sigils of astral vision glowing faintly over his darkened irises. He understood then why Vénes had been staring so intently at the black dragon.
“Z’Lé,” the sorcerer told him, his voice hoarse.
Vincent turned and looked at his brother is disbelief. “What are you talking about?”
“That black dragon… that was Z’Lé.”
“You’re certain that they were the same astral crests that we saw in the empress?”
Vénes nodded slowly. “I remember Arialla’s k’hurin crest clearly. But also… the Kuetzarrin ties…”
“Then that was indeed her k’hurin,” Shu-Giri finished for him.
“That dragon is Z’Lé?” Vincent was dumbfounded. “Then the elf we met before…”
Vénes shook his head. “I cannot explain it any more than that.”
Shu-Giri looked to the bard, concern on his face. “If that dragon really is the emperor, where could he be taking her?”
“Anywhere,” Vincent replied. “Which is why we need the Mékneh’s help even more.”
Sir Tamlin returned moments later, looking aggravated and dissatisfied. She seemed alarmed when she heard about what Vénes had seen, and hurried the group inside to speak with Loracaz. The populace had already left the royal hall for the day, and the crown prince was finishing up his duties when the dragoon entered.
Loracaz listened carefully, unsettled though he was, as Tamlin explained what had happened to the empress, followed by the sorcerer’s belief that the dragon was Z’Lé himself. He rubbed his brow, feeling overwhelmed by all the recent events.
“And with the Spring Council so near…” he groaned. “What in the world does he plan to do with her? He– he really is a dragon?”
“That is what the clues available to me point to, Your Highness,” Vénes answered him. “I am sorry that I cannot be more certain.”
“But the Favored of Métius whom you saw… could she have anything to do with this?”
The sorcerer shook his head uncertainly. “I wish I could answer that.”
“But the Mékneh can, your highness!” Shu-Giri added, hating to see Vénes so discouraged. “They understand the astral better than I do; the shadows and all things mysterious are their specialty.”
“And they would be willing to help us?” Loracaz asked, his words weighed down by the gravity of the situation.
Shu-Giri took a breath and told the prince, “They can be difficult to predict, sire, but they are not heartless. As it is, they will be expecting a royal visit from Onsira. Perhaps you could go in your mother’s stead.”
“He could not!” Sir Tamlin cut in. “Their imperial majesties have already gone missing. Onsira cannot lose her crowned prince as well.”
“Then who is going to visit the Mékneh?” Vincent asked him. “If we tell them that we are not coming after all, they will see Onsira as fickle and unreliable. Then who will help you?”
“Watch your tongue, bard!” the dragoon snapped.
“Ah, woe,” Vincent replied. “Not a king nor a queen in sight, but two princes, one in the light, the other in night. Whom shall we choose to take their flight?”
“Are you mocking me, bard?”
“Enough, Tamlin!” Loracaz ordered, and the dragoon stood down, though her temper was still high. “I shall go.”
“But your highness–”
“Dragoon!” the prince shouted back, weary of her overstepping. He dismissed her for the evening, ordering him to report back in the morning. Then he turned to the heralds. “Send word to Priestess Liriel. I would like to see her in the morning. Cancel my regular court, and give the people my regrets. I am needed elsewhere.”
The heralds bowed to him and hurried from the room to carry out their duties. Loracaz turned to his visitors, the stress of his station obvious in his demeanor.
“I do not understand how my father could be a dragon, sorcerer. I believe in your honesty when you say that his astral symbols are a part of mine, but none of it makes sense. I don’t know what he is up to, taking her away like that, but I intend to find out, and to return her to the palace before he does her any harm.”
“Of course, your highness,” Vénes replied.
“Your help is greatly appreciated, men,” the prince added. “Return here in the morning, and I will explain what I plan to do. For now, get some rest. Jenh knows that I need mine.”
When Vincent and the others reported to the royal hall the next day, High Priestess Liriel was already at the prince’s side, sitting on the throne meant for a princess. She held Loracaz’s hand, watching High Priest Yanve pace the room nervously, looking up suddenly when the bard’s party entered the room. Vincent sighed as the prince welcomed them, apparently having been waiting for a long time already.
“We have only to wait for Zarrek,” Loracaz told them, “but he is being stubborn once again.”
“I suppose we should be thankful that he is even in the palace,” Vénes commented.
Loracaz nodded. “He does spend a lot of time at the Temple of Métius. I had the guards prevent him from leaving during the night.”
As he finished his sentence, the doors to the royal hall opened, and young Zarrek burst into the chamber. He turned and cursed at the guards behind him, then Sir Tamlin as she walked in behind them. The dragoon ignored the boy, but had clearly had enough of him, and stood before the crowned prince.
Zarrek turned to his elder brother, glaring at him coldly. “What have you called me here for? I thought you wanted me to have no part in governing this kingdom.”
“You are needed, Zarrek,” Loracaz told him evenly.
“For information?” the boy scowled. “I have nothing to say to you! Stop asking me questions!” He muttered in Draconic and looked away from his brother.
“Not today, Zarrek. Just listen.” Loracaz asked the group to assemble themselves and give him their full attention.
“Yesterday, my mother, Empress Arialla, was about to leave on a diplomatic mission to Mékneh Forest. She could not make that trip because a dragon came to the palace and stole her away.” The prince paused to give Zarrek a stern look. Vincent had expected Liriel to be surprised by the news, but since her attitude hardly changed when Loracaz explained the matter, he assumed that she’d been told earlier. “Since we have reason to believe that the dragon was my father, Z’Lé himself, and we have no way to know where they went, I have decided to go to Mékneh in her stead.”
This surprised the younger prince, and he looked up, wide-eyed, his brother. “You are leaving the kingdom?”
Loracaz nodded. “I must get help from the Mékneh elves, Zarrek. If you have little to tell, and truly cannot say it, then I have no other choice.”
“But…” The boy was too surprised to finish the thought, but Loracaz knew what he was trying to say.
“You will look after the kingdom while I am gone, Zarrek.”
“Vahrre?” Zarrek asked, dumbfounded. He said something else in Draconic, then remembered that Loracaz did not speak it. “Are you really putting me on the throne? With power?”
Prince Loracaz nodded. “Is that not what you wanted? I do not agree with your methods, Zarrek, but I also do not believe that you would harm the kingdom. As Onsiran law states that you must be coroneted in order to act alone, I have asked Yanve and Liriel to remain by your side until I return.”
The younger prince did not look entirely satisfied. “So I must be looked after if I am to exercise my birthright? Very well,” he said with a shrug. He looked over the priest and priestess, wondering just how much they planned on interfering while Loracaz was out. “When do you depart?”
Prince Loracaz looked to Tamlin for the answer to that question.
“Jza is nearly ready, your highness,” she told him.
“Wonderful,” Loracaz replied before looking back to his brother. “Very soon, Zarrek. With Mother’s life in danger, I have no time to waste.”
Zarrek scoffed. “You believe that that dragon was our father? Then why would she be in any danger?”
Loracaz looked at Zarrek as though his question was ridiculous. “After all the times he’s hurt her, after he nearly killed her with those herbs… you still believe that he intends to treat her well? That he is taking her somewhere safe?”
“Take your journey, then.” Zarrek’s tone was bitter and frustrated. “I can watch over the empire while everyone else is away.”
Loracaz rose from his throne and stepped down from the dais. As Liriel followed him, Zarrek hurried up the stairs and sat on the prince’s throne. Loracaz whispered to Liriel, then embraced her and kissed her cheek.
“Safe journey, my prince,” the high priestess said to him.
He nodded to her, gave his brother one last look, and headed out of the royal hall. Sir Tamlin followed him, Vincent, Vénes, and Shu-Giri not far behind. Now alone with Zarrek in the throne room, Yanve and Liriel looked up at him.
“Why so silent?” he asked after a moment. “Are there not people waiting to seek aide from the throne? Start court and let them in!”