â€œIt still feels like weâ€™re prisoners,â€ Andrew said. It was a couple of hours later and they were sitting in their assigned chambers.
â€œPretty nice prison cell,â€ Lydia examined one of richly coloured tapestries covering the walls of the main room. It showed a battle scene; a long-haired human boy and a svart alf on one side, and a sleek black dragon with unnaturally vivid green eyes on the other. The human in the image looked a little older than them and was dressed in 1970s-style bell-bottomed jeans and a beige shirt. It was hard to tell in the stylised woven format, but something about him was naggingly familiar.
â€œThere are people out there who want you dead,â€ Hreid said. â€œKing Dariad just wants you to stay here until heâ€™s sorted things out.â€ He looked over at Lydia, then at the tapestry. â€œThatâ€™s one of a large set which Dariadâ€™s mother had commissioned thirty years ago, not long after he ascended the throne. She was regent until he came of age. Itâ€™s King Indirian and his heart friend.â€
â€œKing Indirian?â€ she asked. Hadnâ€™t Korrig mentioned him and his human once?
â€œKing Dariadâ€™s father.â€
â€œThey died?â€ she asked.
Hreid shook his head. â€œNo, King Indirian was selected to be one of the Coreâ€™s guardians after the dragons destroyed its old safeguards.â€
Lydia was about to ask what that meant when a knock at the door disturbed them. The door opened and a guard clad in shining black mail ushered in the stone-skinned woman whoâ€™d assigned them the chambers. She was carrying a basket of alfen clothing.
â€œIâ€™ve bought you some fresh clothing. I know itâ€™s not what youâ€™re used to, but I think it should fit and yours look like it needs laundering. No offense.â€ She cocked her head causing her thick braid to swing round. It looked like intricately carved quartz but it moved like real hair.
â€œNone taken,â€ Karen said. â€œIs there somewhere I can get a bath?â€
â€œCertainly.â€ Brita pushed aside a different tapestry and pressed a stylised rose carving. A door opened to reveal another natural cave with a steaming pool at its heart, large enough for several people. â€œThere are towels over there.â€ She gestured to an alcove carved into the wall.
Lydia wandered over and picked up one of the towels. It was large enough but rather rough to the touch and not fluffy like at home. â€œLinen?â€ she asked.
â€œWell, yes, what else would it be?â€ Brita said.
â€œDonâ€™t worry about it. Just curious.â€
â€œOh, thank goodness!” Karen eyed the pool with obvious anticipation. â€œI feel so grubby.â€ She looked over at Lydia. â€œDo you want a bath as well?â€
â€œYou will want to lock that door over there,â€ Brita said. â€œYou share these facilities with the goblin delegation Iâ€™m afraid.â€
â€œGoblins.â€ Lydia turned away from the pool as she remembered what had been bothering her. â€œWhat exactly are they? Not Speakers, obviously. The one who saved Bennu looked almost human.â€
â€œTheyâ€™re the children of renegades or occassionally of victims.â€ Britaâ€™s voice dripped contempt.
â€œEh?â€ Lydia said.
â€œTheyâ€™re half speaker half dragon,â€ Hreid explained. â€œThough for some reason they breed true.â€
Lydia’s eyebrows shot up. â€œWhat? Dragons are huge flying lizards, right? Like the black one on the tapestry? How the hell does that work?â€
Brita snorted and Hried laughed warmly.
â€œWell theyâ€™re certainly fond of that form,â€ he said. â€œBut no one knows if itâ€™s their true form or even if they have one.â€
â€œDragons are shapeshifters,â€ Hried said. â€œItâ€™s lucky that they feel even more distinctive than the goblins or theyâ€™d be more dangerous than they are. But when they choose to breed with speakers rather than just devouring them, they take an appropriate form – usually human. Theyâ€™re as fond of human form as they are the giant flying lizard.â€
â€œI see.â€ Lydia frowned to herself.
â€œThis is all very interesting,â€ Karen interrupted, â€œbut Iâ€™d like my bath now and Iâ€™d rather the males werenâ€™t present.â€
The forest had been growing thicker and more tangled for the last several hours. The canopy was so thick now that not even the occassional hint of blue showed through it. Everything was stained green by filtered sunlight. It had been several hours since theyâ€™d last found a stream for Mela to bathe in and her head should be aching at least a little by now. But somehow, the fragrant wind carressing her hair and leaf-tinged light and shadow dappling her skin seemed to be drawing the aches out of her before they even began. All the same, she looked up when she heard what sounded like a stream bubbling over rocks. She sniffed the air and then blinked in confusion. She couldnâ€™t smell water anywhere close by – not enough water to fill a stream, anyway.
She peered between the trees in an attempt to locate the source of the sound and saw something glinting not too far in front of them.Â That must be the source of the noise, and it was in the direction they were heading. They would just need to negotiate the thicket of brambles and vines blocking the path. As she thought that, she noticed the plants move out of their way. Ebona must have seen it as well because she stopped.
â€œWell, thatâ€™s interesting,â€ the rider said.
â€œItâ€™s a trap?â€ Mela cast around mentally but couldnâ€™t sense any speakers nearby, but then surely the rider wasnâ€™t the only person who knew how to conceal speakers. Maybe that didnâ€™t mean as much as she had once thought.
â€œOr an invitation. Possibly both.â€ He glanced back. â€œBut it looks like weâ€™re going that way, anyway.â€
Mela followed his gaze and saw that the thicket had closed into an intimidating-looking wall behind them.
â€œWhat do you think, Eb?â€ he asked.
â€œI-â€ Ebona broke off as a dozen tiny wooden creatures, each no bigger than Melaâ€™s palm, came flying on leaf wings from the open direction and began tugging on the riderâ€™s cloak and her mane. â€œI think that if whoever is doing this is sending their imps to guide us itâ€™s more invitation than trap.â€ She paused. â€œAnd if they can animate so many at once, they are a force to be reckoned with. Of course I doubt the Core would have handed the bracelet to a weak guardian.â€
â€œYouâ€™re right,â€ he said. â€œLetâ€™s go see whoâ€™s so anxious to meet us, then.â€