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Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #7: To Repair or Destroy

For the fifth day in a row, the wolf leader had come for him.

Still wearing the flight mask, the Clan leader entered their locked door with only a spare knock to alert the prisoners to her presence. Clad in reddish flying leathers, neck covered with a flying scarf, gloves hiding her hands, Valin still couldn't discern any true details about her.

His fellow prisoners quickly got to their feet. Ferrei the quickest, her movements smooth and predatory, her baleful silence aimed equally at the enemy and at Valin. Jarre simply crossed his massive muscled arms over his hard-rock mountain of a chest, eyes narrowed. And Nyru casually got to her feet as if unconcerned, the scar on her cheek contorting her expression into a half a challenging grin, and half grimace.

And Zefir still bristled, his wings unfurling, head cocked as if deciding on how best to roast the wolf leader without charring everyone in the cavern.

"Come Navigator of the war dragon," said the wolf leader, gesturing elegantly. Perhaps their own Nav sign language.

For the first two days, Zefir had snatched Valin up into his hands, hiding the Navigator behind his broad wings and growling like a feral beast. Now on the fifth day, Zefir paced nervously from one side of the cavern to the other, darting hateful glances at the woman who held them captive. But at Valin's insistence, the dragon reluctantly let him go with her.

Nyru gestured: eye watchful, downslide three degrees.

A common enough flight direction, but in the Nav language it meant more. Study the enemy. Get behind her guard.

"Of course, leader," he said mildly, more to Nyru than to the wolf-face.

He paced out of the combination lock doors to their well furnished and comfortable prison, and though he had studied the intricate cog-placement, timed the rotations, the combination was still beyond him.

The wolf leader paced silently beside him. As she had for five days. And for the past two days, their food had been given to them in a bowl large enough for only one person, much less four. They had rationed out the thin noodle and meat-paste stew.

Pacing beside her, stomach wrenching, Valin had to admit that the Wheelteeth's stronghold was not only enormous in comparison to the Cog Clan's caverns, but had been intricately carved out of the granite heart of the mountain. Feldspar-flecked spirals had been painstakingly chiseled into doorways, symbols he could only assume were bloodline affiliations, and the vaulted ceilings had been precisely water-and-steam blasted. Or perhaps controlled explosions had made the intimidating archways overhead.

They walked through the mess hall, and the smell of the roasted wild meat flanks made his stomach protest. Techworkers, only identified by the smudges of oil on their cheeks, and wearing no grey-and-red or brown uniforms to show their level, sat next to the very same Navigators Valin had fought but days ago. All ate with a hearty vigor, exchanging gossip, and in a few cases showed a startlingly open affection—Valin couldn't tell who was bloodbonded or more casual mates.

Children sat next to their elders, but he couldn't identify to whom they belonged, or to what bloodline they hailed from. Stooped old ones were given preference at the heads of long tables, and they ate from the flatbread plate before passing it to the next person.

Such...chaos. That was the only word that sprang to mind. Everything out of place. Where were the servers for the Navs? Why were the tech workers, and yes, vat-scrubbers too, mingled side-by-side with others?

"Why did you bring me here?" he asked the wolf-face, not expecting an answer. She hadn't answered him with more than tsking noises each day she took him from the prison's confines.

"To see your enemy," she answered. The carved wolf flight-mask seemed to shimmer. Anticipation? "To see what your Clan was like so very, very long ago."

"We're nothing like this." Even as he spoke the words they seemed true, yet untrue.

"Of course not, techworker." She gestured with her leather gloved hands. "Wonder if our flatbread tastes as good as your grandmeres?"

So, she had puzzled out his origins. Perhaps the saying was true: Blood always tells.

Valin smiled wryly. "The correct answer is always that your grandmere's flatbread is better. But a Nav such as yourself wouldn't know that. You eat with utensils."

"Do we?" The malleable ceramic-like wolf-face peered at him, and she gestured. "I've helped the cooks myself a time or two. Recipe's from the famine years when we made the flatbread out of the only grain we had left, which I am proud to say we stole from one of your Lesser Clans in the valley."

And he noticed that no one ate with utensils, not even those in their reddish flight jackets. "The famine years occurred long before my grandmeres were born."

"So they did. Your Inventrix had decided that the best way to cripple her enemy was to make them hungry. Ground forces set fire to our fields in the middle of our worst drought and we nearly lost everything." The bitterness seemed absent in her voice, but Valin gathered information with his eye too. Her spine had stiffened, her gloved hands rolling in and out of fists. "Luckily for us that year, one of her weaknesses is spare moments of compassion. She wouldn't have let the children starve, your oh-so clever Inventrix. But demanded we surrender them to her."

Valin shook his head. "It was the Wheelteeth who had attacked the Cog Clans first—"

"Do pay attention, boy," she snapped. Loudly. Her altered voice buzzed from behind the mask. "Do not spew the rote memorization of your so called 'histories.' Remember your lessons on the past, but remember who tells them. What is it that you think she did with our children, hmm?"

Several in the mess hall were watching them, the children gently shushed.

He had never heard such a thing. Taking in the enemy...even if they were children...he had never been taught that anything or the sort occurred.  

"Think, boy!" Her body was tightly coiled, her anger making her frame shudder.

When he lapsed into silence, she looked as if she might give vent to her rage and strike him. Instead, she made a dismissive gesture, sharp and curt. "Not as clever as I thought. Come, then. Back to your prison."

She whirled around, never fully turning her back to him. But her haughty stance told him the wolf-faced leader expected him to follow meekly behind her.

Instead, he turned in the opposite direction and strode for the nearest long table. The grandmere at the head, a wrinkled, pleasant-faced woman narrowed her eyes at him, saying in the accented dialect of the Wheelteeth, "If you think to intimidate us, scum, then—"

"Apologies, grandmere." While interrupting an elder went against his deepest instinct, he held up a soothing palm to her, and bowed at his lowest. "I only wish to beg a piece of bread from you."

She looked ready to spit out a denial, but she paused, mouth half-open in stunned surprise. A struggle proceeded to make its way across the planes of her weathered face, from anger, to disbelief, and finally to weighty consideration. "How does one like you know how to ask for starvation bread?"

Valin felt like his calculated effort had revealed more than he had even intended. He dropped to one knee, both chaffing to give honored obeisance to that which he named as enemy, and feeling like any elder, even a Wheelteeth, deserved such respect. "Honored elder, I didn't know. I only know that my fellow prisoners and I have not eaten in two days. If you denied me, I would still be hungry and I will have lost nothing by asking."

Her clear eyes still pondered his kneeling form. Weighing. "So you didn't know that once someone asks for food, no one would ever deny a plate of bread even to your ilk?"

"No, honored elder."

"It is our way, the compassion of the famine times," she said, lifting her chin to those gathered around her. "Let us show the honor of the Wheelteeth, as one hungry has so honored me to beg askance. And as we are blessed this year with plenty," she gestured, old arthritic hands still making the motion both elegant and self-assured, "you may have all of our bread."

Dutifully, men and women passed the plates down the long table, the young woman on the end scraping them onto a single plate that she passed with stiff formality to Valin.

"Fortunately for you," said the grandmere with a challenging baring of teeth, "you happened to ask the Lyths. And we make the best flatbread in all the Clan."

Valin kept his face neutral, barely avoiding a brief smile. "Thank you, Elder Lyth."

The wolf leader was staring, arms crossed. But he felt that he was being scrutinized—praised even—with that hidden stare.

Stomach rumbling, he followed behind the wolf leader and took a bite of the still warm bread.

It tasted just like his own bloodline grandmere's. Even with the extra spiceberry.

What did my Clan do with the children?


No one would talk to him. To take his mind and ears off the sound of their rumbling bellies, Zefir used his claws on the granite, leaving gouges. Enough raking and maybe, just maybe, he would eventually break through their prison...which was a very nice, if sparely furnished prison. But a prison nonetheless.

Ferrei gritted her teeth at the sound of his claws on the rock. "Nyru, for Sun's sake, tell that flyer to stop it!"

Nyru, leaning back on her cot, looking at the array of cards between her and Jarre, made a rude fly in circles gesture. "Tell him yourself. I'm winning."

"Are not," Jarre rumbled, setting down a pair of golden sundisk cards with a broad grin. "Glory be to the winner."

Another Navigator saying. Zefir wished they had one for how to survive boredom and loneliness and worry and—

Zefir turned away from them, panting the excess heat from his constant, frantic movement, piling up his new scoop of rocks. He glanced from the corner of his eye to see Ferrei leap to her feet, crossing the bright skylighted cavern to his little dusky corner.

"Look here, you," she spat, waving to his mess. "Quit it!"

He snaked his neck down to push his face close to hers. "Why? At least I'm doing something to get out of here."

"No you're not, flyer," she growled, taking up a firm stance. "Unless you chisel through the whole bedamned mountain, it's pointless. It's loud. It's driving me to insanity. And you'll stop right now."

The frustration built in his chest, an aching, uneven hot-cold sensation. He held back—but only just—from roaring in her stupid face.

"Stop it, flyer," she snapped, pointing like the tamers did to their obedient wolf-pups. "Or I'll find a way to bash you apart."

Zefir's tail lashed behind him. He wanted to pounce on her. And...and what? She was part of his squadron, even if she didn't see it that way. He spoke through gritted teeth, "My name's not flyer. Ask me nicely Second Wing Leader, and I will."

He heard Jarre chuckle, though at Ferrei or at Zefir, he didn't know. Nyru lidded her eyes like a sleepy feline, but was watching them with interest.

"I should ask you nicely?" Ferrei's brows rose. "To the one who's to blame for all of us being imprisoned in the heart of the enemy's stronghold?"

"I only surrendered myself," he came back. Calmly, he thought. The way Valin would say it. "I didn't surrender anyone else. You didn't have to come. I didn't want you to."

"Yet the Inventrix wanted us to be here to make sure they didn't ruin her precious battle dragon. So far, what battles have you won? Not worth it to have you around if you ask me. She should've given you over without a fight, 'cause you're useless to us and will be to the bedamned Wheelteeth." Ferrei made a gesture that Zefir had learned from Jarre, which brought into question ones lineage. And that meant Mother. "The Inventrix made a mistake with you."

Now his core did feel cold. "Maybe she did."

Ferrei seemed not to have expected that, and she began half-talking to the rock wall. "Talking flyers aren't right. An abomination."

"Maybe you're right about that too." Zefir retreated to his messy corner, curled up in the rubble, and lay amongst the uncomfortable rocks. "I caused this. And I am sorry. I didn't mean for it to happen. None of it." The hitch in his voice made his diaphragm-ballonet tremble, "I lost half the squadron because I couldn't fly high enough above the gryphons. I can now. And I killed a lot of the gryphons this time—" Valin had cleaned all of the mechanical oil and, well, other things off of his brass hide. But Zefir wasn't as naïve as Valin thought him; it wasn't all oil. "—and I thought I was doing the right thing. But it didn't prove anything. It didn't bring the lost ones back from the sundisk. It didn't matter."

Ferrei took a step back, mouth open in confusion. "I..." She shook her head, struggling, and automatically recited another Navigator credo, "Strike so your Clan may live."

Jarre and Nyru were studious in looking at their cards and nowhere else. No doubt they blamed him too.

He placed his head between his hands and flexed his wings to cover himself. "But if both Clans say that, then who wins?"

Ferrei shook her head, grunting. "You don't understand, flyer."

"Go on. I'll be quiet now. No more scraping. Promise. I'll not say another word to you." Zefir puffed out a cold breath. "I'm sorry, Ferrei. I didn't mean for any of this to happen."

The squad's Second stared at him in confused disbelief, shaking her head. She cut a dismissive gesture through the air and made her way over to her own cot, sat down on it, and raked her fingers through her Nav-short hair.

Nyru nudged her chin at Jarre, who dutifully picked up his set of cards. They both walked toward him until Jarre planted himself on the floor in front of Zefir's nose, and Nyru delt him a hand-set of cards while perching herself on the largest rock.

Nyru had never done something like that before.

"I...don't know how to play," Zefir started.

"Fly me backward, if I believe that," Jarre said, situating the cards. "You've been watching, you learn quick, you know how." He turned to Nyru and pointed at Zefir. "Picked up all of our best curses in an hour. Learned the Nav signs in a day. Like he was born to it."

He picked up the cards and flashed them at Zefir: Sundisk, ten of cups, five of wolves, six of thopters, one of tech, then set them on the stone between Zefir's hands, face down.

Nyru studied her own cards. "You do want to play, don't you? What else would you rather be doing?"

In the air, all of the First Leader's directions had been to Valin, not to Zefir. On the ground, she looked at him, but didn't talk to him much. Had never used his name even.

"I'd rather be flying." He grinned at her, before worrying that she might misinterpret it.

"Damn, dragon, we'd all rather be flying." Her scarred cheek jumped, and he couldn't tell if she were smiling at him or not. "Ah, flying. It's probably something else altogether for you. But do you know what my best flight was?"

Zefir shook his head, nose close, and Jarre held his cards back with a teasing, "No cheating by peeking."

"The first time I ever took my boy up in the air," she said, gaze distant, her mouth curling up into a real smile. "My bloodson couldn't wait. Neither could his same-age cousins. But that day was perfect. He handled the take off without a hitch, let 'er glide just so on the updrafts. Better'n I was at that age. The sun was shining, so warm, the breeze easy enough to where we took off our flight masks."

The bloodson that had been lost in that disastrous fight. The fight that was Zefir's fault. Oh, how she must hate me. Like Ferrei does.

"What's yours, dragon?" she asked, placing down a three of thopter card.

He adjusted his wings as if he could feel the air beneath them as he soared, but he slumped them to his side again. "All of my flights. Even the bad ones. Even the ones where I failed. Even the ones where I was so scared..."

Nyru made a harrumph noise. "I say this, Zefir, to all my squad. And I realize now, that I hadn't included you in this little talk. My oversight as First."

She'd called him by name. Zefir tensed his wings.

"Being afraid is a feeling. Like being angry, or happy. It's normal to feel, especially in the air when we fight. Understand?"

Slowly, Zefir nodded.

"But right now, I feel regret." Her scarred cheek pulled downward. "I had been training you and your Navigator wrong. Never mind that your tech qualities are far beyond my thopter skills. I'd been thinking of you wrong. Not as part of my squad, but as an accessory, as a flyer, a piece of tech. In these past five days, I've learned more of you than I ever have." And she shot a look in Ferrei's corner. "And my Second is wrong. You're not a mistake. Just not what we expected you to be."

"I don't know what I'm supposed to be," Zefir said lowly. "Mother said—"

"She's not here now, Zefir," the First Leader said. "Even she can't tell you what you're supposed to be. You've no bloodline purpose, so even that gives you choice."

Zefir blinked, his mind whirling over her words. "I don't know what I want to be, either."

Jarre slapped his meaty palm against the rock. "Rock dragon, excavator."

Zefir tapped one of the cards lightly with a claw, but his claw pierced it anyhow. He lifted it, knowing which card he played: the sundisk, the highest one in the deck.

"Strong lead," said the First Leader, plucking it off of his claw tip. "You always lead off strong, dragon. Even in the air. Sometimes, you need to save it for later."

Zefir wanted to press his nose against her chest to listen more closely to her steady heartbeat, to read her better—he had memorized her sound-scent profile long ago—but the First Leader wasn't the type to allow such a thing. But she would appreciate directness and candor. He met her eye. "I'm sorry, Nyru. About your bloodson. Denaru was an excellent Nav. I liked him."

Ferrei rose from her cot and fled to the farthest corner, pacing.

"If I had been faster—" Zefir began, wishing he weren't looking Nyru directly in the eye.

She held up her palm. "If I had called the retreat sooner. If I had deployed a backup wing before we left. If, if, if. One's mind can grow heavy with ifs, Zefir. Don't let it weigh you to the ground." Her mouth quirked. "As we're all so fond of flying, being grounded is the worst."

"How about," Jarre began, held up his next card, "I ground both of you into dust with my play." Jarre poked Zefir's nose. "Said no peeking."

Zefir snorted and the card flew from Jarre's hand. It flittered in the air, Zefir keeping it from the ground by subtle puffs of breath, until Jarre caught it. He flashed it: ten of techs.

Meant to fix anything already on the table, taking away the other player's advantages to even the odds.

Zefir wondered if maybe he, the so-called battle dragon, was meant to repair rather than destroy. 

Read Part 8: We Are The Shield

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