Estara’s palace was made of living trees grown and woven together much asÂ Waldhafen was, and the air was filled with the heady perfume of the flowers surrounding it. A single serpent like dragon coiled around the trees trained into the door arch. Virian nodded to the dragon, who uncoiled enough to nod back and flick its tail at the door, which swung open.
“Please excuse Analia. She doesn’t much care to take her human form,” Virian explained as he led them down the dimly lit arching hallway. “Bad memories. apparently.” He looked back over his shoulder at them. “So is Tal really okay?”
“She’s…” Kyle trailed off and looked at Darya helplessly.
“She’s getting there. I wouldn’t say she’s well yet. She didn’t take her transformation into a dragon at all well,” Darya said. “I think hearing that you’re safe will help. She was afraid that the bitch still had you.”
Virian nodded slowly, a gesture far too mature and replete with pained memory for someone his age. “I’m not surprised. I didn’t take mine well either. Do you think Ystelyan-mirian would let me see her?”
“I’m sure he will if your miria doesn’t mind.” Kyle looked back at Ema who was rubbing at her arms uncomfortably. “Are you okay?”
“It’s the number of dragons around here,” she said. “I didn’t factor for how the numbers would make things worse.”
Darya snorted. “You get used to it. I nearly collapsed the first time I walked in to Ystelyan’s Palace. I barely notice it any more.”
Virian paused and glancedÂ back at her with a frown, then looked up at the ceiling and snapped something in draconic. There was a scrabbling sound and the sense of dragons around them faded somewhat.
Ema relaxed visibly and stopped rubbing her arms. “What?” she said.
“Estara-miria ordered anyone who couldn’t at least mostly shield their hunger to stay away, so as not to disturb you,” he explained. “Some of them must have got curious.”
“How’s Hannah?” Kyle asked in the hopes of distracting her.
A frown flitted over Ema’s face. “She’s scared. I imagine you know why. Even more so now she’s worked out what I’m up to. She’s even more vulnerable than I am and I don’t suppose it will stand for it forever.”
“No,” he agreed. “You should get her out of there.”
“I know. I’m working-” she broke off as Virian stopped before a pair of intricately carved wooden doors.
“Here we are.” He laid a hand on them and they opened slowly.
“Um… is their any etiquette I should be aware of?” Ema whispered as they entered.
Kyle shook his head. “Not for you, anyway. Just be polite.”
“What the Water Warrior says, Earth Child,” Estara’s warm, soft words drew their attentions to where she sat on her throne. The dim light glinted off her pale skin, the purplish highlight in her dark hairÂ and the golden combs and chains which secured her complicated hairstyle. “There’s no need to stand on ceremony with me. Not for any of you.” She rose from her seat and walked over, revealing her outfit to be culottes, rather than the long, haltia-style gown Kyle had thought.
“Estara-miria.” He bowed his head. “Ystelyan-mirianâ€“”
“Is worried that Gerian is going to attack Waldhafen to try to get to your heart friend’s cousin?” she interrupted. “I know. I’m not unaware of the situation. It is happening on my doorstep after all.”
“Indeed, he wants me to request you put aside your differences with him andâ€“”
“Oh, honestly!” Estara snapped before he could continue. “Does he really think I’d let our differences stop me kicking Gerian in the face at any opportunity? I’m not him.” She shook her head. “Anyway he’s the one with the differences. I apologised – he’s the one who refused to accept it.” She pinched the bridge of her nose. “Of course I’ll intervene if Gerian attacks Waldhafen.”
“Who’s Gerian?” Ema blurted, then took a step back when all three looked at her. “Sorry, that wasn’t very polite.”
“That’s okay, Earth Child. I know this is stressful for you,” Estara said.
“He’s the red first dragon,” Kyle explained.Â “He’s one of the reasons that dragons have such a terrible reputation.”
“Ha!” Estara said. “He’s hardly the worst of us. It’s Shalriya and Mitakrian who really destroyed any chance of us being accepted as not monsters.”
“Excuse my bluntness, but your sister didn’t help, did she?” Ema said.
“She had her reasons – as I think you suspect. That’s what you want to talk to her about, isn’t it? And if it weren’t for Shalriya, none of that would have been needed. But I’m curious. What did you mean about something being wrong with the old stories?”
“There’s a miscoloured pebble in those stories,” Ema hesitated. “Something about the way the disintegration is supposed to have happened feels wrong, but I’m not sure why. I suspect you know more about it than me.”
“A little. I’m the last of the first – unless Andarian ever has to break his bounds. It was before my time.”
“Doesn’t your sister talk to you?” Ema asked.
“We talk all the time, but only rarely about that. Whenever I’ve asked she says that it’s not time yet. I’m beginning to have an idea why not. If I’m right then maybe it is time now.”
“Do you know where she is?” Ema asked.
“I do, but I don’t think she’d want me to say. I’ll send her an imp to say you wish to speak with her, though I’m sure our little brother already has.” Her lips twitched into a brief amused smile. “But I will tell you this: if you want to find her, look to your own past.”
“What?” Ema said blankly.
“You’re a clever girl. You’ll work it out.” Estara looked back at Kyle. “Now, let’s retire to somewhere more comfortable to discuss how to handle this Gerian issue without terrorising my neighbours any more than Ystelyan already has. I rather like them.” She looked back at Ema. “You can come too. I’d like to send a message to the Waldhafen Council and I believe you’re going there next. Besides, we need to discuss getting your heart friend away from her family before they find out what she is.”