Within the Veil...a Dragon and his rebellious charge
"Oops! A robust current!" Rocked by turbulence, Galvistor righted himself. An updraft from the warm land blasted him sideways. "A rude robustiousness!" he chided the sky and wind. A Dragon never acknowledged personal clumsiness.
Nor, he assured himself, was he ever ungainly; at least not in flight. Not even with the added weight of a human inside of him.
Wings tilted, broadened, slowed his speed. Breast muscles tightened to lift torso scales away from his body. Like tiny rudders, the half-moon edges channeled air around his sternum and angled him into a downward spiral. The sweet scents of Ambistron struck his nostrils-- greenery, ripe crops, fat cattle in the fields, deer in the woods farther north. Tastes borne on dust motes reached his flicking tongue, fanning his appetite. He was hungry, or would be once divested of the burden in his upper gullet.
According to his inner clock, he had swallowed Princess Shaila, the feisty heir of Ambistron, two hours, eight minutes, and thirteen seconds ago. Since then he had flown with her around the bracing Highgore Mountains, through the winding breadth of Bryst Valley in the northern Kingdom of Rynndinmire, over the gleaming Bryteflow River, and past the frozen peak of Mount Calist that marked Ambistron's northeastern boundary. Calculating the air available in his gullet relative to her size and lung capacity, and factoring in her rapid breathing--she had been angry at the moment of ingestion--it was time to eject her.
Ambistron Castle lay east of his current course, a sprawling bulwark of granite walls and rose-pink spires anchored to the mountainside like a gigantic wart. Telescoping his eye facets, he could make out the inhabitants moving about the exterior portions of the castle and in the lanes and market areas of the adjoining town.
His gaze traveled up to the mountainside above the castle and focused on a shadowy spot, the entrance to his own cave. Home.
Exquisite Riastor would be inside, crooning to her two eggs. He pictured her graceful neck and soft wings, the silver scales that rivaled starlight. She sang more frequently as the hatching time neared. He longed to join her, to hear her song, sniff her musky scent, but... not yet. First, the recalcitrant heir of Ambistron had to be regurgitated.
Anticipating a foul mood on Shaila's part, he selected to do the deed in less crowded circumstances than the courtyard where he normally brought her home. Another shift of wings and scales turned him toward open land to the west. He chose a grassy meadow cut by a stream where Shaila could rinse off the inevitable coating of slime that resulted from wallowing in his interior. A harmless excretion, but one she found distasteful.
Using tail and hind legs to absorb the impact, he sighed in relief as he settled. Although Shaila was small, the added weight in his gullet was discomfiting, like heartburn without the pleasure of re-tasting his last meal. A tiny movement at the base of his throat told him she was aware they were no longer airborne.
Ah--nothing for it but to face the sonata. Her anger vibrated through his bones. A marvel how that tiny body contained such an awesome temper.
Sucking in a quantity of air, he contracted his lower gullet, then his upper gullet, until the pressure belched up his esophagus to bring her from his depths. A wet heap of humanity plopped from his jaws.
He shifted, giving her room to stretch her limbs. It was not unlike a hatchling unfolding itself after confinement inside a shell. Not as cute as a hatchling, but he had a sharper eye for Dragon beauty than human beauty, although when he thought on it, his memory of hatchlings was faded. It had been several centuries since he'd seen one of those. His affection for this specimen of humanity led him to believe she was more attractive than the average human female. Indeed, the reaction observed from males when they met King Harrimore's only child confirmed his suspicion she was beautiful.
For the moment, with slime dripping off her skin and plastering her great wealth of bronze-colored hair, she appeared wilted, a flower bedraggled by his rumbling interior. Even the silky material of her dress, a wispy little cloth meant to enhance her conformation, was wet and clinging. What had been lavender two hours before had turned bluish.
Her tiny feet were bare. Where were her slippers? He belched, tasting silk and something similar to the smell of human toes.Oops. Apparently he had digested her slippers.
Perhaps it had been presumptuous to gulp her down; however, at the time it had seemed prudent. He had been certain she'd been about to break the imperial nose of the imperial Prince of Roberyll. King Harrimore had charged him not only with protecting his daughter from physical harm, but with restraining the less than diplomatic Princess from generating political discord in the course of her husband-quest.
What was a Dragon to do with such an imperative assignment, particularly when the husband-seeking female was intent on foiling the royal dictate?
Once extended to her full height of sixty-two and one-quarter inches, Shaila planted her hands on the hourglass swell of her hips and raised her slime-smeared head.
"Worm! Lizard!Begetter of toads and snakes!I'll--"
"Toads and snakes?" Galvistor huffed. "Not an intelligent comparison, dear girl. Amphibians, as you realize from your biology lessons, aren't at all related. And snakes are so far down on the evolutionary scale as to be--"
"Don't spout biology to me, you overgrown reptile. You swallowed me!" She fingered a drooping lock of hair, gathering goo into a thin, gleaming strand. "How could you?"
"How could I not?" A tail flick neatly severed the tops of bushes hugging the stream.Environmentally conscious, he removed himself from their proximity, settled his haunches again. "Did I misinterpret your intent? Misconstrue your objective? React, respond, do the deed outside the jurisdiction of my responsibilities? I think not. It appeared your fist was positioned to make contact with Prince Dandere's royal proboscis."
"I wouldn't have hit him!"
His hot snort of disbelief rocked her on her heels.
"Oh, all right," she admitted. "Maybe I would have. Not like he would have noticed with that enormous nose."
"Enormous?" Galvistor scratched an eye ridge with his claw, revisiting Dandere's countenance in his mind's eye. The nose.Noticeable, but had it been enormous?Huge? Immense? He couldn't compare such a small bit of human anatomy. "I thought his nose was one of his better features. Quite evident on his face, as it were."
"Too evident for my taste."
"A prodigious snout can be an admirable trait," he insisted.
"Only to Dragons and dogs."
"I beg your pardon?"
"You need your snouts to hunt food." Shaila crossed her arms. "How could you live among humans for so many centuries and not recognize their expressions? The arrogant fool was leering at me."
"Indeed? I thought he was scrutinizing the prospective bride, gauging the potential of your queenly ambiance. That is why we were visiting, was it not?" Galvistor tired to sound reasonable. "I imagine his intentions were honorable."
"I know what his intentions were, and none were honorable."
"Didn't you hear what he said about me?"
"I was...distracted." There had been an enormous sideboard piled with juicy meats and bright fruit that had turned his eyes and nostrils from the proceedings for a few heartbeats.
"Well, I heard it," Shaila said. "He's insufferable. Gansur knows he deserved a broken nose. How the King could think I would wed a man like that--it makes me shudder." Which she did, flinging streamers of goo. "Dandere was slimier than this disgusting slobber."
Interesting, how whenever she referred to her father in regard to this duty, he was 'the King' instead of 'daddy', her more usual appellation. Was the task so distasteful she couldn't associate it with a loving parent? Galvistor held his forked tongue. The longer they discussed the incident, the longer it would take to get home.
"I suppose this means the nose-enriched Prince Dandere must be added to the increasingly lengthy list of rejects?" he grumbled, resigned. Since the King had no other children, his daughter required a mate, but from Galvistor's perspective this particular approach to fulfill the requirement that Ambistron's crown pass to a male was ineffective. She would never be satisfied.
"Absolutely. No question." Shaila shoved at her hair. Her hand stuck to the soggy mass. Generally her hair was a storm of tight curls that surrounded her head and fell like a sheep's pelt down the length of her back. Right now it looked very…heavy. She grimaced. "I'm going to wash this 'yuk' off before I'm ill. Then you'll take me home and explain all this to the King."
Galvistor sniffed. "Me? How am I to explain another rejected suitor?"
Her honey-colored eyes were defiant. "There haven't been so many."
"Nearly a dozen by my count, dear girl."
"No! You've miscounted."
He had learned to read some human expressions, it seemed. At least this human's were clear. She was thinking hard, adding the names of the 'suitors' Harrimore and his Counselor, Ubinor Naeking, had determined to be good potentials for the kingship.
Shaila wasn't good with numbers, while Galvistor considered himself an adequate mathematician. His star subjects were philosophy and history, due to having had more years than most to observe their world and its inhabitants. Shaila, on the other foot, lacked a scholarly bend.Still, she had other attributes to speak for her as a desirable mate: beauty, a quick wit, and a loving nature. It was, he allowed, the pressure of the husband-quest that brought out her obstinate side, a fiery stubbornness a Dragon could appreciate in spite of the difficulties.
"Eleven!" she said. "No more than eleven, counting this latest fiasco."
He didn't point out that eleven was nearly a dozen."We have almost exhausted the available choices. Is there not one you would reconsider? Perhaps Prince Ludivar Gracildon? He has an impressive castle, a great deal of land."
"He's as thin a hoe-handle. I'd spend my life trying to lose weight so I wouldn't look fat beside him."
"Prince Rocemor Stilandslow? He seemed kindly."
She shook her head. "A man without spirit. How boring."
"Sweats like a pig."
"Bad teeth. Didn't you see his smile? The gaps are so wide a fish could swim through--and no, that's no more a desirable feature in a man than a huge nose," she added before he could comment.
The Princess knew him too well. He sighed. Too fat, too thin. Too tall, too short. If he recalled, one of them--Prince Zedir Cleerskyn of Asteron--suffered from perfection. Shaila insisted she could never live up to his expectations.
"Well," he said, "only two remain. Perhaps one of them will suit you."
With that pronouncement, defiance left her. She sagged as if the world weighted her shoulders, a heavier burden than the dripping slime.
"Two more? Must we?"
"Not today," he assured her, pointing a claw toward the low sun. "The day's nearly gone. Time for the evening repast and a good night's rest. Sleep. Slumber.Revitalization."
"I mean, must we at all? It will make no difference, you know."
He did. The remaining two were the last on his list, not for having been placed in alphabetical order, but because they were the least of the choices. If she rejected the best, what chance the two remaining would find favor in her eyes?
Galvistor had no answer. She had to choose someone. Only four requirements were unalterable--her husband must be of royal blood, virile to assure progeny, intelligent enough to bear the kingship of Ambistron, and, above all, calm in both demeanor and heart. Any other characteristics were at her discretion.
Unfortunately, there were few characteristics Shaila found acceptable. What did she want? Um…he didn't know. He had never asked her. Had anyone?
"What would make a difference, dear girl?" He lowered himself and brought his head closer to catch every nuance of her answer.
Tears welled and she plopped down, deflated. This distressed him. Shaila was no crier. On the contrary, she had always been staunch. Now water streaked her cheeks. Was her pickiness due to something other than obstinacy?
"Are you crying because you don't know what you want?"
"I know my heart's desire, but I'll never have it because it isn't here." She sounded desolate.
"Perhaps if you describe your heart's desire...?"
"Never." It was true. He had the capacity for most human responses, even sang with a fine bass, but laughter was denied him. Humor expressed itself in grunts that resonated like a grumble in his long throat, which usually scared the wits out of humans. So he avoided it, settling for a dry humor that kept his dignity intact. "Tell me," he prodded.
"I want a warrior," she said. Galvistor's ears jerked in surprise. "I want a husband who is bold, exciting, and--and well built."
"Well built?" He assumed that meant not too stout, not too slender. Surely several of the potentials had possessed the appropriate dimensions.
"You know," she said. "With muscles, so I can feel his strength and know I'm safe."
He snorted, the gust stirring wisps of hair that had escaped the slime. "Why would you not be safe? There is no danger in this world. And I am here to guard you against--well, whatever."
He couldn't say what. There had been no menace or war here in the close to ten centuries of his existence. Man and beast were tame and tolerant of each other. Men did not kill among themselves, and only slew animals for food.Even Dragons only killed to eat.A nice peaceful world. Not like what he'd been told about that place beyond the Veil...
"I knew you wouldn't understand." She sniffed, but it was pique, not sadness. "I mean safe as in cherished. I want muscles that will hold me."
The atypical tears were gone, which made him suspicion their spontaneity.
"All creatures have muscles," he pointed out."It's a necessary element of movement."
"I want muscles, hard and defined, so that at night..." her voice dropped to a whisper, "at night, in the dark, I want my hands to know I lay with a man."
Ha! Revelation. She spoke of sexual attraction.That indefinable 'wanting' of another that went beyond lust, convention, or habit. What he felt for Riastor long after the heat of mating, when she was a warmth against his side, a whisper of scales in the dark, a soft breath along his neck... He raised his head. There was no accounting for attraction. It was, or was not. But a warrior? In a land of peace?
"How do you know what a 'warrior' is? And why do you believe only one of those could fulfill your needs?"
"You've spoken of warriors in some of your stories.Vivid descriptions."
"Pure fiction," he grumbled, annoyed he might have fed her fantasies.
Her eyes narrowed. "Did you lie?"
"Fiction is not prevarication. Forget the how of it, explain the why."
She fiddled with the damp hem of her dress as if contemplating her response. "A warrior would be worldly, self-confident, sure of his place in the scheme of things. A man like that would be less inclined to focus on a woman's activities. He probably wouldn't be concerned with how she spent her time. He'd be busy honing his weapons and his muscles, don't you think?"
He at last grasped her logic. She was less interested in a male who made her feel safe than in one who wouldn't control her. "You want a mate who will ignore your unruly nature."
"I want a husband who won't be offended by my intelligence, or my interest in activities more exciting than stitching quilt patches or stuffing pillows with goose down!"
He scratched his eye ridge again, disconcerted. "It makes no difference. There are no armies here, dear girl, and thus no warriors. No use for them at all. In this environment a warrior would no longer be a warrior, a fact that would defeat your purpose from the start."
"He wouldn't have to be aggressive, just have the mental and physical capacity for it. Such a man would be concentrated on more manly pursuits, like-uh- raising horses, or sitting around bragging of his prowess."
She had it all worked out. Not so much illogical as unrealistic. "Can you not find these traits in another kind of man? If Zedir is perfect--"
"His perfection lies in being flawless of face and dress. Not a hair out of place. No scars. How can a man without scars have substance?"
She wanted scars? She had turned his literary efforts into odes! Did she think the stories were real, that such men existed?But--although he had never seen the reality, he knew it existed. His Dam, rest her bones, had told him. Fortunately Shaila would never see that reality either. She was not destined to be happy. A Dragon could only do so much.
"Facilitate yourself of the stream. Clean up. Wash.Bathe. Sluice away the day's disappointment before I take you home.Discuss this with your father.Perhaps he'll know what to do."Galvistor suspected the King had no answers she wanted to hear.
She stared at him with an intensity he hadn't seen since King Harrimore outlined her obligation to find a husband.
"I know where to find my heart's desire."
The scales lifted along his spine as if a chill wind had blown."Do I want to hear this?"
"Probably not." Shaila stood, looking determined. "If there are no warriors in this world, surely there are in another. You must take me in search, Sir Dragon."
Sir Dragon? She only called him that when she wanted something he would not normally give her. He felt it coming, the suggestion--nay, the demand he do something never done, the one act forbidden to all who dwelled in this land, even Dragons. Most of all Dragons.
Distress whipped his tail. "I am not hearing this!" His claw tips went into his ear holes.
He heard her anyway, a clear utterance from her resolute little mouth: "You will take me there, Galvistor."
Arm lifted, her finger pointed east, then swung to the north, the west, and finally the south. She could point anywhere because that other land did, indeed, surround this island of peace, this place of magic. The only place a Dragon such as he could exist. At least so history and bed-time stories intimated.
Shaila's tone ignored both history and bed-time stories."I will have a warrior. You must carry me in search beyond the Veil!"
* * *
On her knees, Shaila looked into the stream where a circle of white rocks stilled the flow, allowing a clear if rippled reflection.
The water had removed the slime from her limbs, face, and neck, and from most of her hair. The back of her head remained gooey. She would have to plunge her head all the way into the stream to clean it, which she wasn't inclined to do. A full washing had to wait for hot water and helping hands. She shoved the damp curls back over her shoulders and tried not to think of that unpleasant glob at the back. She stared at her water-warped image.
The wet little shift of a dress--a nonsensical fashion that tradition required to be worn for the husband-quest--clung with a vengeance, particularly to her breasts. These days, to her embarrassment, that part of her appeared to define her as a person. The water distorted them. Not their size--they were aggravatingly generous--but the shape. The water's movement made them angular and off-center. Would the leering Dandere have been so intent on her breasts if they were shaped as the playful stream suggested?
She could only wish. She still felt the insult of the man eyeing her like something to be purchased at market. He had discussed her 'wares' as if she was too stupid to take offense.
"You are lovely!" Dandere's father, King Draif, had said upon meeting her."Your father was remiss in not describing you more in his message."
Ah, she had thought, those darn notifications sent to inform the men on the list that King Harrimore's daughter sought a husband to inherit his throne. Humiliating enough to tell the world she was not capable of taking the throne, but the fact that her father had penned them without the aid of a scribe had given the impression of desperation. As if Shaila was eager to meet the prospects, eager to have a husband who would not only rule Ambistron, but her as well.
Even now, kneeling by this gentle stream, she could not find calmness for that fact.
"We are pleased you've come, that Dandere has gained consideration in your King father's eyes," Draif said."Is she not a treasure, Dandere?"
A treasure? Of course she was. A throne was at stake and the chance to rid himself of a second son, for second sons had no purpose where first sons inherited and lived long, long lives.Still, it was said in a kind tone and Shaila had liked the King. Not so the son.
"A bit too sun-colored," Dandere had said, looking down his large nose in an imperious perusal, "but I suppose that will fade in time."
Fade? Did he intend to chain her indoors, deny her the sun? Undoubtedly, since soft pale skin was the fashion for women. Never one for fashion, particularly not that dictated by the discretion of men, Shaila liked her sun-browned skin. Even her father had never made a point of trying to change her very color!
She had barely held her tongue. When Dandere had the gall to walk around her, a farmer judging a heifer intended to increase his herd, the ire her father ever preached against, had stirred. Even King Draif had found his son's manner irritating, and although he had remained calm of face, he had reddened.
"Dandere, please, root your feet. Your constant motion is disquieting."
The Prince had stopped all right, in front of her, where she could see the bristly hairs in his gigantic nostrils. Which made her rue being shorter than most Isoladians.
"Odd colored eyes as well. Rather like syrup," he noted, and frowned when she returned his gaze. "And too bold."
"I like her eyes," the King said."They're large, and she doesn't squint. Can you see clearly, Princess?"
Shaila narrowed her lids to refute his comment, but because he was King in this land and her father expected courtesy of her, she nodded. Her eyesight was keen, and saw clearly this so-called Prince would not suit. He didn't touch her, would never break that protocol, but his breath was unpleasant on her face so she turned her head away. And Dandere nodded, as if that movement confirmed she could be appropriately docile and obedient. Her jaw had tightened.
"Yes," Dandere agreed, "the large eyes are attractive. She'll show well. But this--" He gestured with crude directness at her breasts and hips, "By Gansur, she's built for reproduction! I may have several children of her." He leaned in closer and said in a suggestive tone, "I shall enjoy the making of them."
Her arm had risen, hand fisted--the world disappeared in darkness and she had found herself within the Dragon's smelly interior. She had forgotten Galvistor was there. Most courts were too small for him to escort her inside. The Roberyllians, however, enjoyed adding space where they could in their mountainous little land by The Only Sea, and Galvistor had fit comfortably inside their big castle. His attention, however, had been on the delicacies arranged on the sideboards in preparation of a celebration. Had Dandere thought she would select him, as if title and wealth were all a woman should want? Arrogant fool.
She would have flattened the man's outrageous nose, and the scandal would have disgraced her father. The Dragon had done the right thing.
She glanced at him. Galvistor was preening his wings, licking the membranous extensions, muttering about dust stuck in the folds. Dragons were as fussy as women about their appearance. Fussy... if they had to live the life of an Isoladian woman they would be more concerned with the injustice of their situation than whether or not their wings were dusty or their torso scales gleamed like jewels.Still, only the Dragon had asked about her heart's desire.
Had he not asked, she would never have spoken of it. Not only because a woman had no right to consider the cravings of that chaotic organ, but she had never brought her thoughts about it into any order. She had an unsettled temperament, not a popular condition in a land ruled by calm.Only this dilemma of the husband-quest made her focus on what she wanted, and on the restlessness that had blossomed along with her breasts.
Ladies of the court, the wedded ones, dismissed her restlessness, telling her things would clear up once she had a husband to take care of her needs. Her father said the same, suggesting she would understand after she married.Everyone made it clear the answers lay outside herself and in the hands of a perfect stranger. What stranger, perfect or otherwise, could understand her? How could she entrust her heart, body, and soul to a man on a list compiled by men?
She had made her decision about what kind of man to find after meeting the first candidates on that ridiculous list. One tempered by life who would sympathize with her situation.A self-confident man unthreatened by her need to maintain some control over her own life. A worldly man who wouldn't cringe at her freedom of expression, or force her to sit in the garden when she would rather ride Galvistor through the clouds. It went beyond wedding a man she didn't respect; far worse to wed a man who didn't respect her! Her father's laxity in her raising could not be undone, the taste of self-control not forgotten. She had to find someone more suited than what Isoladia offered. A warrior, if such existed, sounded perfect.
She stood while the Dragon completed his grooming.
His attention to his wings was an attempt to divert him from her demand he take her outside the Veil. He wasn't buying it, which meant she had to convince him. First, she had to convince her father, who had insisted on this awful quest. A difficult task. Her father loved her, but did not, she feared, care a whit about her heart's desire.This would require finesse.
Scales. Finesse had never been her strong point.