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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #8: We Are the Shield


Zefir craned his neck over Valin's shoulder as he sat on the floor, back leaning against Zefir's shoulder, holding one the pieces of rubble while he sketched out complex calculations on the stone, so enthralled by them that he was certain most of the day had passed. All he was aware of were the numbers floating in different sequences in his mind. To break the code.

At least it kept his mind from the question of what the Inventrix had done with the Wheelteeth's children all those generations ago.

 "They'll see your techworker scratching," said Ferrei, pacing, "and know what you're about."

"The Wheelteeth leader already knows I'm trying to break the lockcodes," said Valin offhandedly, his mind still on his work. "I'm setting out false calculations to mislead whoever might see it. I might not be able to break the doorcode, but that—" and he pointed upward toward the skylight, a series of pullies and levers that opened a trapdoor wide enough to let Zefir fly in, "I might. But I need to concentrate, Second Leader, so if you please, I'd be obliged if you leave me be."

Ferrei stopped in her pacing, and whirled around. She had always been the surly type, at least toward Valin "the upjumped techie," but as another week flew by she seemed unable to stop pacing. "That's if you wish to truly escape, which I'm not convinced, techie, that you are."

Zefir rumbled in his throat and Valin felt the vibrations through his sternum. "Of course he wants to leave. What nonsense is that?"

The Second strode to loom over Valin, her hands in fists. "The Wheelteeth leader takes you out every day. Gives you the food to bring back to us. Lets you see the enemy's stronghold. Who's to say you haven't made a deal with her to get preferential treatment?"

Before Valin could defend himself, or at least explain it to her again, Zefir slammed his hand down into the stone at the Ferrei's feet, and rose sinuously to tower over her. His claws dug into the stone as a flicker of flame burst from his nostril once and then was gone. The dragon quickly and gently—well, gently for Zefir anyway—pushed his nose against her chest until she stumbled back with the hit.

"Valin is not a betrayer." Zefir growled so low that some of the some of the stone rubble danced across the floor.

"You don't know that, dragon," she barked, standing her ground against the huge brass head arched toward her. "He abandoned his bloodline purpose as a techworker, his very essence and blood duty. He quickly surrendered to the enemy. And now, he consorts with this wolf leader. If you won't listen to me, listen to his actions."

This last he could tell was aimed at Nyru and Jarre rather than at Zefir. "I deny none of those things. But I have explained to you before, Ferrei, the whys of all of my actions." Valin rose to place a hand on Zefir's shoulder, patting it until the dragon's stance relaxed, Zefir's oddly human-like expression repentant. "I've also explained, Second Leader, that the wolf woman seeks to cause dissent among us by singling me out. And look at how it's working."

"Traitors have many explanations for holding the knife," Ferrei spat, "before they bury it in your back."

Zefir looked tensed to leap forward, but instead his startlingly rough voice croaked, "Don't do this, Second. You cannot believe it." When Ferrei turned her sneer on the dragon, Zefir's hand opened to make the Nav gesture of accept the wind direction. "Wasn't it you who told me, well you told Valin and I heard, but you said that 'A squadron is a family, something beyond blood'?"

That hadn't been quite what Ferrei meant when she told him that. It'd been more of a sneer at Valin's inability to truly be part of the squad because of his techworker blood. But Zefir in his innocence had uttered the true sentiment the Nav adage was trying to convey.

Valin patted the dragon again, tamping down on a proud grin. Zefir's pushing Ferrei out of anger had been childish, but this earnest reasoning was very mature. He could see that Zefir's words had taken the Second Leader aback.

Jarre stirred from his casual repose on one of the cots. "Aye, the dragon speaks a truer truth than you've been spouting, blood-cousin. We must believe in our squad brothers, because the squadron are your wings, and they will help you soar when you feel you are sinking."

Ferrei shook her head, turning to Nyru, who was leaning against the wall with her arms crossed. "First, certainly you see the treachery."

Nyru's accustomed scarred grin-grimace twitched. "What I see, Second, is a bored, terrified, and grounded squad ready to tear itself to pieces. We can't let doubts pull us apart. We need a plan in order to strengthen our minds, to give us purpose once more, to escape back home."

Valin nodded, and Jarre gave a gesture that he didn't recognize. But Ferrei responded immediately with the same gesture, which solemnly Zefir imitated. No, not imitate. Likely the dragon knew what it meant.

After they began to talk about their plans, flinging ideas back and forth until they were hoarse, Valin settled back down to his lockcode calculations. Zefir, finished with attempting to join in on the secretive plan when most of his ideas were rejected, settled next to him.

As Jarre continued the argument of his ideas—mostly involving brute strength—Valin asked the dragon, "What was that gesture you made earlier?"

"Oh, this?" Zefir replicated the elegant motion, and even with his intimidating claws the gesture was beautiful. "It means 'we are the shield.' You know, protectors."

"Protectors." There were many ways to shield. "Teach me the motion."

Valin's mind ceased its struggle with his calculations, ceased to worry over Ferrei's obsessive accusations, and even the mystery of the Wheelteeth children and the taste of the Lyth's flatbread.

Perhaps in order to shield his squadron, his small but divisive family, he might indeed have to act as a traitor.

He set his mind to a new task.

#

Zefir had been lying next to Valin, listening to the steady beat-and-thrum of his human heart in that space between being fully alert and half in his mechanical rest mode. While focused on his calculations, Valin became calm, and the sound of his body mirrored that. It pleased Zefir to hear it, and it soothed him into a semblance of his mechanical sleep as night wore on. But while Valin continued to scribble numbers and letters (though what business letters had with numbers he would never know), Zefir became aware of his Navigator's distress. Valin's heart began to thump, his breathing uneven as if holding his breath against an idea. Even the scent of him changed slightly, and Zefir raised his head to chuff at the air, noting the slight tang of worry-fear.

"Is something the matter?" Zefir asked quietly.

His Navigator shook his head. "Just tired is all."

"You can tell me you know. About whatever's bothering you." Zefir glanced sideways at the cots, but the squad was sleeping soundly in the dead of night. Even Nyru was snoring loudly. "I promise I won't tell anyone else."

Valin raised his gaze from the scratches on the floor, blinking. There were sleepless rings around his eyes. "Nothing's bothering me, Zef."

"No, something's wrong. I can hear it—" Zefir poked Valin's chest with a gentle wingtip, "—here. You can tell me, Valin. Or don't you trust me?"

His Navigator opened his mouth, uncertain, struggling for words. And that hurt, just a little.

"I do trust you, Zef." Valin tossed an errant rock in the middle of his calculations and rubbed at his tired eyes. "But you don't need to know my troubles."

Maybe Valin thought him too childish to understand. Or maybe, Valin didn't want the squad to know of his worries, and thought they might overhear, thought Ferrei might accuse him again.

"Okay," Zefir said slowly. "But if you ever need to talk of it, then I'll be here. Promise me if ever your worries become too heavy, that you'll tell me."

"Thank you, my friend." His Navigator smiled wanly, but it grew into a genuinely amused tight-lipped smile. "You're growing up. You know that, don't you?"

Zefir nudged him with his nose, and Valin patted him with that same look of wonder the Nav had when he'd first set eyes on Zefir. "Is that bad?"

Valin chuckled. "Not at all. It only means that one day I'll miss the child you were, but be proud of the man—" and Zefir snorted at that, "—er, dragon you've become."

Zefir could feel his cheeks warm a little. Mother hadn't said anything about giving him the ability to blush. But then again she hadn't told him about crying either.

With a playful pounce, Zefir scooped up his Navigator into his hands and settled Valin into the crook of his dragon-arm as he lay back down. Valin chuckled, but made no move to extract himself, eyes already lidded.

"I'll keep watch," Zefir said quietly.

Before he'd finished the sentence, Valin had already fallen asleep.

It was sometime later that Zefir listened to the sound of his squad sleeping, noting the rattling notes of Nyru's snores, the quiet wheeze-whistle of Jarre's breathing, and the tossing motions of Ferrei's disturbed sleep.

His squadron.

We are the shield. It was a notion that made him think of all the ways he might shield, not himself, or the whole Clan even, but the squad. The squad who was here because of him, who might be harmed, or forever imprisoned.

Zefir didn't know how, but he wouldn't allow that to happen.

"I am the shield," he whispered.

Glancing up from his Navigator, Zefir saw Ferrei's eyes watching him in the darkness. He made the gesture to her with his free hand, careful lest he jostle Valin. She studied him for a long moment, silent, before she returned the gesture and closed her eyes.

#

The wolf leader was opening the door, and Zefir watched the cog-wheel keys twist in place with a narrowed gaze, stifling a rumble in his chest. The squad was still asleep in this early twilight before dawn, and though Zefir remembered all of the ways in which Jarre and even Ferrei had suggested they overpower the woman and her guards, he quickly dismissed the idea as he had before.

If they broke the parole they'd given, and failed to escape, then the Wheelteeth might hurt them. And Zefir wasn't convinced he could protect the entire squad against such a thing.

Valin stirred at the sound, but it was Ferrei who leapt to her feet first, blinking her eyes of sleep.

The door opened, and the stoic guards entered, aeropistols casually holstered at their hips. The wolf leader marched into their prison, face still hidden by her pseudo-metallic flight mask. But something in her stance suggested that she was aggravated; Zefir sniffed at the air, hoping to detect a new scent from her, as she always smelled faintly like Zefir himself—that of metal and others scents from Mother's lab—and like Seren.

Valin strode toward her only for the wolf woman to raise her hand to halt him. "Not today, Techworker Eight."

"Seven," Valin corrected mildly. But Zefir could hear the surprised jump of the Navigator's heart.

So Valin hadn't given the wolf leader his bloodline name?

"Today," her voice buzzed from behind the strange flight mask, that odd sound that made Zefir cock his head to the side, "I'm here for the dragon."

Ferrei stalked forward and planted herself between his considerable breadth and the wolf leader. Zefir was surprised when Ferrei's hands curled into fists, stood her ground, and said, "You're not doing anything with the dragon. We're tasked with keeping him safe, and our parole, our oath, depends on it."

The wolf leader made a casual gesture with her gloved hands and the guards lifted their aeropistols. "I mean him no harm, Navigator. Stand down, or I'll consider it breaking your given parole."

Zefir stomped forward, snorting, his insides heating; he curled a hand around Ferrei's body and gently lifted her—astonished and squirming—before she realized his clawed hands had left no damage. Setting her down behind the bulk of his side next to Valin, he unfurled his wings to their utmost length and bared his teeth at this wolf woman who would dare to threaten one of his squad. Even Ferrei, who hated him.

No, especially Ferrei. Because even though she hated him, she was bravely defending him, holding to her duty and oath.

He angled his neck and stuck his snout to within a hairsbreadth of the wolf leader's face and puffed a hot waft of air at her; she didn't flinch, didn't stir or show any fear; he couldn't smell anxiety on her, nor could he detect the sound of her heartbeat.

"You've made your point," she said. "Be done with this childish stand, and come with me now."

He furled his wings back to his side, still shielding Ferrei and Valin, arching his neck primly as his voice deepened, "So be it."

At another gesture from the wolf leader, one of the guards went to the door and pressed a hidden series of levers in a panel that drew aside—cogs whirred, metal clanked, and the small door widened, folding back on itself until it was large enough to admit even Zefir's bulk.

Nyru still sat calmly on her cot, arm hanging casually over her knee. But her mouth contorted her scar, making her countenance frightening. "Leader, don't make me do something so crass as to threaten you."

Jarre chuckled and cracked his knuckles, grinning as he flexed his large muscles. "Oh, I'd like to threaten. Oh, please let me threaten."

The wolf woman made a sharp downward motion. "He will be well, Kerlan."

The First Leader didn't give any indication of surprise, but Zefir could hear her held breath. So, like Valin, Nyru hadn't given any whisper of her bloodline name.

The wolf woman spun on heel and left the prison, making no further comment.

Head held high, Zefir paced out of the docking-wide doors and followed after.

Read Part 9: The Wolf

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