Chapter Thirty-One The Dragon Caverns
Arialla awoke to the light that shone on her. She pushed her body up from the pile of furs she found herself lying on and looked towards the light. It was dawn, with Ser’s light rising to pour over the mountains. Looking around, she realized that she was in a shallow cavern, surrounded by dark stone. It was quiet, she noticed, except for the crackling of a fire further inside.
Curious as to where she was, Arialla stood up and stepped across the cavern floor, her cerulean gown flowing around her despite how wrinkled it had become. At the mouth of the cavern, she leaned out to gaze over the land. It was covered in narrow, steep mountains as far as she could see. The dawn cast its orange light across the landscape, throwing such shadows that she wondered whether it would become any clearer or brighter at noon.
She realized that there was a steep drop just beyond the entrance to the cave, and stepped back, gasping at the thought of having nearly plummeted to the barren, swamp-like land below.
“Where am I?” she whispered to herself. Nowhere in Onsira was there a land as bleak and rocky as this.
Arialla returned to the deeper part of the cave, intending to stay away from the steep ledge. She pulled a fur close by the fire and sat before the flames, pondering what to do about her situation. She knew that the black dragon who’d kidnapped her had brought her to this strange place, but dared not imagine what he intended to do with her there. Clearly he’d wanted to see to it that she couldn’t escape while he was away; she would hardly have wanted to wander the rocks and swamps outside even if she could have found a way down.
The fire had a stack of wood near it, from which Arialla took a log to feed the flames. She supposed that whoever had built that fire had been away for quite a while. The warmth of it was pleasant, though she hardly needed it. The air outside was not exactly cold; more moist and uncomfortably still than anything else. There was a leather sack leaning against the wall. Arialla searched it to find day-old bread and a few berries, which she ate quickly to silence her demanding hunger. Below that were several slices of dried meat, which she also took a little of with her when she went back to the fire. Someone, it seemed, had anticipated her needs.
The empress had been wearing a woolen gown suitable for flying in, and a leather cloak edged in silvery brocade. Her lace petticoat had torn when she struggled in the dragon’s grip, but otherwise she’d come out of the ordeal with no more than smears of dirt. Arialla remembered that the dragon whom she’d been meant to ride with had her pack, leaving her without a change of clothes in that barren place.
Over an hour passed, with Arialla exploring the different areas of the cave and taking breaks before the fire, before a shadow blocked the entrance to the cave. Startled, she turned to the opening. Staring at her from the edge, as cautious as it was bold, was a massive dragon. Its blacks scales, each one edged in gold, shone in the daylight as his amber eyes took her in, seeming to look deep into her heart.
Arialla drew in a breath and she backed away slowly. Her heart drummed in her chest, and she feared that the beast could hear her blood rushing through her veins.
The dragon crept into the cave, folding his wings and keeping his eyes on her all the while. The cavern was just the right size for him to be comfortable while also keeping the empress within close quarters. He laid on his belly in the wide area opposite where she’d been sleeping, watching her, and said nothing for a long while.
Arialla gazed at the great black dragon as the firelight glimmered off his body, trying to quell the trembling in her body. She reminded herself that she’d befriended many a dragon in Onsira, some red, some green, some midnight blue. Nearly every color of dragon had learned to respect her because of what Z’Lé had taught her. But she was no longer in Onsira, she reminded herself. The dragons beyond her homeland may not see her in such a kind light.
Then she noticed his claws. They were stained red, as though from the blood of a fresh meal. Many of his scales were splattered with crimson as well, and a few of them seemed to fit awkwardly among the rest. This was the same dragon who had kidnapped her, the one who’d swooped down to scoop her up from the palace courtyard. What did he want with her?
“Ygar vas’ken sh- shrrgeth?” Arialla asked in her best attempt at Draconic.
The dragon gave a low growl and shook his head. “Your Draconic is weak,” he answered in Elvan. “If I did not know you so well, I would not have understood you.”
Arialla blinked and replied, “You speak Elvan?”
“Of course I do, Arialla.”
“But… how do you know me?”
Closing his eyes, the dragon looked away. He seemed saddened that she’d even asked. “You do not recognize me.”
“Have… have we met before?” She could hear her own voice trembling, and wished that she’d put more effort into keeping it steady.
“I have known you for decades,” he answered with a sigh. “But you do not know all of me. Still, I was hoping that you would have recognized me.”
He could tell by the look on her face that she didn’t understand.
“Is there nothing of me that is familiar to you?”
Arialla looked the dragon over again and shook her head.
“Come closer,” he told her.
“I–” she stood where she was, too afraid to approach him.
“Despite what I have already done, Arialla, I will not hurt you,” he assured her, his voice somehow tender. “Never again will I do anything to harm you. I ask of you… come to me.”
She was about to tell him no again when she realized that he could have snatched her in his claws and forced her closer. Black dragons were known to be vicious and quick to act, but this one was acting unusually docile. Arialla let out a slow breath, steeled herself, and edged towards the beast. As she neared, he lowered his head and watched her calmly.
“Surely something of me is familiar to you.”
“You are none of the dragons ridden by the kingdom’s dragoons,” she replied, looking over the pattern of scales on his head.
“That much is true, dear elf.” He turned his head so that his horns were within reach of her hands. “Go ahead… touch them.”
“Please,” he urged her.
Arialla swallowed hard and reached out her fingers to touch the horn closest to her. The dragon stayed still beneath her touch, allowing her the courage to run her ringers down the length of the horn, feeling the shape and curve of each bump.
“Is it true,” she asked, “that each dragon’s horns have details all their own?”
“It is so,” he answered her. “Despite all the similarities, there are fine differences that make each of us unique.”
Not wanting to admit the possibility of what she suspected, Arialla ran he hand down the dragon’s other horn. The pattern was pointed and overlapping, like scales, the underside ridged like his belly. She wondered, how could it be so familiar to her? The horns, the golden-edged black scales?
“You know me,” he said to her, his voice strong and sure. He turned his head to look straight at her. “I know that you know me, Arialla.”
She shook her head, backing away from him.
“Do not deny it,” he urged her, curling his tail around her back to keep her from moving further away.
“’Tis impossible!” she cried, shaking her head.
“You have seen all the evidence for it.”
“You– you cannot be him!”
The dragon let out a soft growl. “I promised not to hurt you again, keflay divan. This truth will be hard on you, I know, but you must accept it.”
The name that he called her, keflay divan– beloved elf– struck a chord in her heart. There had only been one man to ever call her that; he was probably the only elf who’d ever spoken to his beloved like that in Draconic. Arialla’s knees felt weak beneath her. She felt her body sink to the floor. Tears streamed down her face as she looked up at the black beast before her.
“Z’Lé.” She whispered his name, tembling, too afraid that she was right, but feeling almost as foolish that she might be wrong.
“Aye,” he replied, his voice soft and low. “It is me, sweet elf.”
She could not reply. Her mind was in a hundred places at once; the ruined library, the nights when he’d insisted, all too roughly, that she lie with him, the demands that she improve the kingdom’s relationship with dragons, the astral crests that Shu-Giri and the sorcerer had seen, the night with the wine– the blood–when she’d caught a glimpse of…
Was it all real? The horns and scales had seemed like only a nightmare. But it was not long after that that she’d become ill from the fertility herbs. He’d wanted another child so badly…
“Arialla,” he said, reaching a clawed hand out to comfort her. He forgot for a moment how large he was compared to her, and tried to wipe away her tears. She flinched under his touch, but could not avoid him for long.
“You…” she tried to catch her breath so that she could go on. “You’re a dragon?” The question seemed all wrong to her, so she rephrased it. “All these years, you were really–”
“Aye, my love,” he answered before she could finish. “I wish I had not needed to deceive you.”
“How, Z’Lé?” she asked through her tears. “How did you make us think you were elvan?”
He sighed, disappointed in himself for what he’d done, and explained it as best he could. “I had loved you from afar for so long, keflay divan. Every time your parents brought you to the mountains, I saw how lovely you were– not just your physical beauty, but also your kind heart. I could hardly bear it anymore when Métius sent his servant to make me the offer to change my form so that I could be with you.”
“You… you let the Destroyer change you?”
Z’Lé nodded solemnly.
“He has incredible power, Arialla.”
“That is why you wanted him worshiped in Onsira, isn’t it? You admire his power.”
“Arialla, no,” he answered quickly, denying it as firmly as he could. “I never cared about his power until Sasha told me that he had a way for me to be with you. I promised them what I did just for the sake of being with you. I needed you… I need you still!”
“Is that why you came back for me?” the empress wanted to know.
“Because I love you with all my being?” he asked. “Aye, keflay divan. I could not simply disappear from your life. After all that has happened, I could not let it all be for nothing.”
“You didn’t consider that taking me away from the kingdom when it needed me most was at all selfish?”
Z’Lé sighed and looked away from her. “If only it could show how much I love you.”
“After what you did, Z’Lé… the lies, the empire, the bloodshed, you would dare to expect something from me?”
“I expect nothing, Arialla,” he snarled in reply. Then he stopped himself. When he was calmer, he explained, “I needed to tell you, before you found out from anyone else, that everything I did was because I have always loved you.”
“You are somewhat late for that,” Arialla told him, her words cold and ill-tempered. “We’d already begun piecing it together when you came back.”
“‘We’? You mean that bard and his foolhardy sorcerer, don’t you?” He shook his head, weighed down with regret. “I should never have hurt you so much that you sent for the old shaman. But what right had he to bring those men with him?”
Arialla glared up at the dragon. “You have no place to ask me about rights after what you did, Z’Lé. I was dying when they arrived.”
“I am still your k’hurin, Arialla!” He forced the words out despite the shame that he felt. “Mearrk’hal was my only true competition as your suitor, and that bard has been far too close to you.” Z’Lé snarled Vincente’s title with all the contempt that he could muster.
“Then as my k’hurin, be honest with me. What else did you plan to tell me?” she asked, feeling anger boil up in her.
“You heart’s desire, my beloved. What is that you wish to know?”
“What did Métius want in exchange for transforming you?”
Z’Lé closed his eyes and let out a mournful sigh. She had cut straight to the heart of it all, just as he’d feared she would. When he opened them again, she was watching him intently. He could tell that she was going to insist on an answer.
“Where do I begin?” he though out loud. “We had so many years together where I did not have to even think about it.”
“You wanted the elves to have a closer relationship with the dragons,” Arialla told him.
“I wanted that even before Métius made me his offer,” Z’Lé explained. “What he wanted came later. I had promised that my second child would be dedicated to his temple. But I had to prepare for that ahead of time.”
“So you preached unity,” Arialla cut in, disappointment filling her voice.
“It made sense at the time, my love. Unity had so much to offer.”
“But in the end, the shrine to Aamh, and the white marble temple to Kearr were only a guise to let in the Dark One.”
Z’Lé hung his head in shame, and Arialla knew that she was right.
“Do you realize what you’ve done to my kingdom?”
“Stop it!” she shouted at him. “Onsira is Legend, Z’Lé. It is Jenh’s kingdom, and you disrupted that by making a pact with Métius.”
“What I said was true,” he replied, though sadness filled his voice. “The legend is no less if Onsira opens it doors to others. Even you believed in that, fifteen years ago.”
Z’Lé was right, she knew. Arialla had to agree to it for it to take effect, before any soil could be broken for the construction of the other temples. She had believed in him, whether or not she’d been deceived about what he really was.
“What else did you promise him?” she asked in a stern voice.
Z’Lé wanted so badly to not tell her, to make up some other sacrifice. He dreaded how she would react to the truth. But what could he do? The truth was as damnable as making up another lie.
“It was the child wasn’t it?” she asked, he voice quivering.
He looked to Arialla, to her cheeks stained red with tears. There she was, the mother of his two sons, his beloved empress, but years ago, when she was a youthful princess, he’d never imagined how precious his children would be to him. He’d promised something—someone—to Métius long before he knew that he would one day regret it.
“You… you really did that?” Arialla gasped, taking his silence as an affirmative. “The baby you kept trying to conceive… Z’Lé, how could you?”
“I…” his voice broke, but he forced himself to go on. “It was foolish of me. I did not understand what I was promising him. All I knew what that if I succeeded, I did not have to worry about him anymore. No more blood ceremonies, not more pacts to keep. I would remain elvan permanently.”
“By the blood–” too furious to continue, Arialla crawled free of the dragon and stormed across the cavern. She didn’t care whether he went after her, or if she couldn’t get beyond the reach of his arms; she could be near him no longer.
“Please believe me, Arialla,” he said, letting her flee. “I am relieved that I did not have to do it. I love you. I wanted to be your elvan king for as long as we both lived… but I do not think that I could have fulfilled the pact even if… even if we had a third child.”
Arialla sat down on the pile of furs, her back to the dragon, and pulled her cloak closer around her body. She didn’t want to listen to any more of his pleading or explanations. After a while, she heard him rustling around the cave.
Then the entrance darkened and a deep voice told her, “I will find you something better to eat than the scraps you have here. I shall return later this evening.”
Z’Lé waited a moment, hoping that his k’haarana would say something. Instead, Arialla sat unmoving, stubbornly silent. He thought for a moment that he might try again to speak to her, but knew that it would be for nothing, so he stretched wide the black webbing of his wings, and took flight into the afternoon sky. As the cavern brightened again, Arialla realized that she’d forgotten to ask him where exactly they were.