Also known as Blazing Dawn: Chapter 1, Part 3. In which we meet the ambassador and she makes a few important points very clear before the humans go off to meet the dragons.
“AH, LIEUTENANTS. PLEASE, sit down and forgive this rather late request for a meeting.” Ambassador Jesken waved a hand in welcome without looking at either of them. That was because even the slightest twitch of her head made her maid twitter in protest, since she was working hard to ensure the ambassador’s wealth of curly brown hair was arranged just so.
Following Anhardyne across the room, Nera stared in fascination as the little maid tucked and crimped and pinned, transforming the ambassador’s usual messy bun into a stunning confection of loops and swirls and shining silk, all held in place with delicate gold net and diamond pins. As remarkable as the performance was, the result also turned the ordinary, plain-faced woman with an air of amused command into a dignified lady of wealth and stature. All because of a hair-do. Nera was most impressed.
“I know we have spoken often this last moon and a half about what to expect over the next five years, but there are two final topics I need to address before our arrival.” Regardless of her looks, Ambassador Jesken had a beautiful voice, rich and mellow, rolling with only the slightest hint of her Etherian origins. “Being as they are also the most personal, I had hoped to discuss them over dinner tonight, but as you can see, events have overtaken us somewhat.”
She waved a plump hand towards the wide window that allowed them a perfect look back over the glowing Cloud Sea, now peppered with forested islands and hints of stone buildings. The best view of this moment would have been found at the front of the ship, but still, even from the stern, the sight was breathtaking.
A flurry of squeaks drew Nera’s attention away from the window, realising that she hadn’t been the only one who’d turned to stare. The ambassador’s eyes crinkled with humour as she apologised to her maid for moving her head. Then she looked at the women in front of her again.
“There is little about our role here that you do not already know, and both Captain Wellswen and Commander Bethnelm assure me that you are each fine Riders, well-versed in etiquette and dragon behaviour. However, there is one topic that the books do not discuss: sexual relations.”
Nera felt her eyes widen, while beside her Anhardyne choked.
The ambassador smiled. “Indeed. My own initial reaction to the subject was much like yours. They are so much bigger than us, of course, and an entirely different species. But you will find that, inside their own lands, dragons are a little different to the ones we glimpse at a distance in our cities. The ones we do meet in their human forms tend to be the highest ranking officials, ones who have little interest in humans beyond political negotiations. Which is why they were chosen, of course. Things are a little different here.”
As the maid stepped back with a sound of satisfaction, Jesken thanked her and dismissed her to finish packing. “As you will soon discover, dragons are quite sensuous creatures, curious too. They can be rather flirtatious and are not afraid to touch. A new influx of humans is quite a novelty and you will find yourselves the centre of attention for quite some time.
“For the most part this curiosity is harmless. However, dragons can also be quite alluring. It is perfectly understandable to be drawn to them and personal relationships, while not encouraged, are not expressly forbidden either. Humans are a novelty to dragons, and they do not always take as much care with us as they should, but as long as you are aware of this, and make sure that your partner is also aware, little harm should be done. Provided that your partner is thoughtful.”
The ambassador’s smile was soft, her gaze distant as if recalling fond memories. Then she cleared her throat and fixed them with a stern gaze once more. “There are a few risks that rise alongside the obvious physical disparities. Some humans, for example, experience strange reactions on contact with certain dragons’ skin. No one is quite sure why, or who will be effected, but it can be treated with the right herbs and lotions and is something to bear in mind. The reaction can range from a small rash to something quite painful and debilitating, and may not be obvious on first contact. A good dragon lover will be aware of such possibilities and provide you with adequate care, but please know that myself and Captain Wellswen are always here if you need us.”
She settled back in her chair, taking on the same stance that Nera had grown familiar with during their journey: a lecture was coming. “But there is another, much greater risk to be found when lying with dragons. Despite the differences between a human and a dragon, when a dragon takes on a human form, they do so in all ways. Some trick or slip of magic means that when you lie with a dragon in human shape, you face the same risks you would with any human male.”
Anhardyne was the first to make the connection. “Do you mean pregnancy?” Her forehead scrunched in a frown. “We could end up having dragon babies?” The incredulous squeak of her voice made Nera smile.
Ambassador Jesken’s lips also twitched. “In theory, yes, though it is doubtful that you would carry any offspring to term. Dragon pregnancies are long and arduous. A female dragon will gestate her egg for a considerable period even before laying it and leaving it to incubate.”
“We’d have to lay an egg?” Anhardyne sounded horrified, and Nera didn’t blame her.
This time the ambassador chuckled. “No, no egg laying, just an excessively long pregnancy that will likely end up with a still born child and an infertile mother.”
Which sounded worse than trying to lay an egg.
“Human and dragon blood doesn’t mix well,” Ambassador Jesken continued firmly. “Just well enough to create a spark of life, one which burns up all too quickly. Best for all involved if you never fall pregnant in the first place.”
She would get no argument from Nera on that point – nor Anhardyne either, if her expression was any indication of her thoughts.
“So you’re saying we should stay clear of bedding dragons?” the older lieutenant asked, shifting in her chair.
Jesken smiled. “It is probably the safest course, yes, but I believe there are herbs that take care of such things. Slightly different to ones you may already use, but easy enough to obtain if necessary. You should investigate all the options thoroughly before taking any risks – should the opportunity arise.”
While Anhardyne looked thoughtful, Nera wrinkled her nose. It was unlikely that she would ever need such knowledge, especially when Anhardyne was close by. Her friend was golden and beautiful, bound to draw attention wherever she went, while Nera was small and plain and quiet and far too easily overlooked. Which was how she preferred things.
“I must also warn you about your hair.” The ambassador reached up a hand, as if to check that her elaborate arrangement was still in place. “When assuming a second form, most dragons take a human shape, but because they are more akin to reptiles and birds, hair does not come naturally to them. The most skilled and powerful dragons can produce a small amount of hair, but it tends to be short and straight and of only one shade. The prospect of curls and many colours absolutely fascinates them. Lieutenant Fennik will become very popular.”
“Fennik?” Anhardyne laughed incredulously at the mention of one of her Riders. “But he’s a squashed-nosed bruiser, with hair so short you can hardly see what colour it is. Except brown.”
The ambassador’s smile was indulgent. “The dragons won’t care what his face looks like. His hair may be short, but you can still see a hint of red amongst the brown. I’ve no doubt that before the first moon of our trip is through someone will have convinced him to grow it long, just to see what else is hidden in there. As for you, Lieutenant Anhardyne, you’ll be flooded with offers before nightfall. If you’re not careful, a bidding war might commence.”
“Bidding war?” Anhardyne echoed, startled. “For my hair?” She pulled the long braid over her shoulder and wrapped it around her hand, staring critically at it. “But why?”
“Wigs,” Nera answered before the ambassador could. Having spent her childhood watching her mother dance for the greatest courts across the Overworld, Nera had learned at a young age how a different hair colour could add surprise and a sense of the exotic to any performance with very little effort. “Your golden mop could make a fine few wigs, Hardy.”
“Indeed.” Jesken nodded in agreement. “Whether or not you choose to sell will ultimately be up to you, of course, lieutenant. However, try not to make any decisions for a good few days. I have a list of reputable names for if you do wish to sell, but either way, you will need to pay close attention to your hair tonight.”
While Anhardyne sat there blinking, Nera smiled at the ambassador. “I’ll remember for her, Your Excellency, thank you.”
Jesken smiled back, but didn’t extend the warning to Nera. And why should she? Nera’s hair was short, thin, stick straight and dull black, with nothing about it to interest any dragon whatsoever. Not when Anhardyne and Fennik were around anyway, and especially not when she considered all the other Rift Riders they travelled with, whose hair included near-white blonds, vibrant reds, myriad brunettes, a deep black with an almost blue shine, rich thickness and curls glorious enough to make a temple dancer weep. Even the ambassador’s hair was blessed with abundant curls, though the shade was a non-descript brown.
A brisk knock on the door interrupted Nera’s depressed thoughts and Captain Wellswen stepped inside without waiting for permission.
“Forgive the intrusion, Your Excellency, but I’ve come to reclaim my lieutenants.”
Nera eyed her captain’s wealth of dark, intricate braids, currently tied back in a simple knot, and wondered how much a dragon would be willing to pay for them. Not that Wellswen would sell. Mistrunan braids were gifts from friends and lovers, each design unique and highly personal to the wearer.
Oblivious to her lieutenant’s thoughts, the captain nodded at her Riders. “The miryhls are assembling on the foredeck,” she said. “Leave your luggage in your cabin to be taken care of and get yourselves in the air with your flurries.” Pausing only to brush her fingers across her forehead, in a semi-respectful, non-military salute to the ambassador, Captain Wellswen strode out again. Brisk and brusque and busy as always.
“Well,” Jesken chuckled, standing up. “Time you were off then. Thank you for your patience, lieutenants, and luck go with you. I shall see you at dinner.”
Scrambling out of their seats to bow, Anhardyne and Nera mumbled their agreement and hurried out of the door. The corridor was awash with Riders gathered around the ladders that led to the upper deck. While the captain and embassy servants would remain on the ship with the ambassador, it was up to Nera and the three other lieutenants to fly their twenty-five Rider strong flurries across to the palace and settle into whatever accommodations the dragons had provided for miryhls and humans alike.
As they awaited their turn for the ladders, Anhardyne smiled at Nera and raised her eyebrows. “So, Half-Pint, we’ve arrived at last. Ready to meet some dragons?”
Squashing a burst of anxiety into the pit of her stomach, Nera took her place on the ladder and summoned up a confident smile. “I’m ready.”
At least she hoped she was, as she climbed up to the deck where fifty giant miryhl eagles awaited their Riders, with fifty more already in the air. It was too late now to be otherwise.
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