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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #20: To the Exile Post


Valin didn't want to fight to be fully awake, and he squeezed his eyes closed harder, resisting. Sleep was better. His whole body ached, his shoulder was on fire, and his hand...was curiously numb. Still, voices intruded on him in this place where he was neither awake nor fully asleep.

"—four days. Everyone sent to the Posts must endure four days up there, without water or food, tied in the sun." The familiar baritone nearly made him open his eyes. "And you think I'll allow them to take him to his death? You humans expire in three bedamned days without water. Must I have Innari recite what an agonizing death that is?"

Another voice. Female. His mind thought there might be a scarred grimace in response. His First. "There's a loophole in the rule about water. Or at least there is among our people. I can't imagine that the Wheelteeth would alter their rules far beyond that. Even the Lesser Clans observe that right."

He heard the sharp bark of a laugh from another female...his Second. "I fail to see how that's supposed to help him."

"What loophole?" demanded his dragon. 

Another male voice, sounding weary. His Third, then. They all sounded exhausted. Defeated. "Only a member of the condemned's bloodline may bring the him water. And only what they can scoop into one hand. Once a day. Doing so brings blood shame to the person who gives them water. There have been stories of people surviving the Exile Posts this way—"

He heard bitter laughter from the dragon. The squad was silent as Zefir continued to laugh, the sound shrill and hysterical enough that Valin could no longer remain with his eyes closed.

Blinking, he stared up into a brass snout—this one slender and smaller. It took him several moments to put together who it must be through the fog surrounding his thoughts. The dragon blinked its violet-colored eyes at him, and lifted its unclawed hand to his chest, cocking its head to listen—gleaming horns caught his attention and his techworker fascination soon overrode his hazy thoughts.

"Hello," greeted the dragon in a pleasant contralto. "If you still have pain in your hand, please let me know. I can administer more localized numbing agents. I've already re-bandaged it."

He blinked again at it—her?—and shook his head. Which was a bad idea as pain shot through his temples and forehead. That dragon hand restrained him as he tried to sit up, and she said with implacable insistence, "Don't try to sit yet, Valin-Zefir-friend."

Seren's battle dragon, she must be. But why was she here in...the prison?

He blinked again, eyes aching, when another dragon snout invaded the whole of his world. Zefir's quicksilver eyes were gleaming; his dragon friend held back large tears, but Valin could tell only barely. Warm breath puffed in his face, and gently, Zefir nudged him with that velvet-soft nose. Valin lifted his hand—his good hand—and placed it over the vast expanse of Zefir's snout, patting.

"Innari said you weren't dead, and I could hear you breathing," Zefir said, voice choked. "I listened to your heart, but I didn't know—you couldn't, I won't let you, never, never, never. You can't...die."

If Valin had begun to see Zefir as growing from a child to an adult through this horrible experience, then in this single moment, the dragon sounded again like the newly minted creature he'd found in the Inventrix's lab. Slowly, Valin tried to smile, but was aware it no doubt looked strained. "Still here. Besides, I've crashed before and made it through."

Zefir snorted, but it sounded like he was holding back a sob. "I couldn't stop her, I couldn't. I won't let them have you, even if I have to-to, I don't know. If I have to use all my flame, and—"

Valin held up his good hand to stop his friend from babbling. "It's not your fault, Zef."

"So, you know? You heard?"

His mind still refused to focus like a true techie needing to analyze what parts were on the table. "I'm not certain what you're talking about, no."

"Move aside for a moment, Zefir," said his First, and Nyru's scarred visage appeared in his sight, her expression the grimmest he'd ever seen. "We only have until sundown, which is in less than an hour, so I'll make this brief. Leader Kirwen condemned you to the Exile Posts for trying to murder the Lyth boy."

His heart lurched into a gallop. The Exile Posts were every Clan member's worst nightmare, the idea that he would die in shame and agony, one's own bloodline spitting on him in disgust rattled even Valin's deep sense of fear. Perhaps the fear of the Posts was bred in.

He swallowed around the dry sensation in his throat. "I doubt there's any arguing that I didn't try to escape, and I didn't want to shoot at that damned fool boy. He wanted to kill me, so I defended myself. But no one will listen to the words of an enemy." A thought slowly made its way into the forefront of his mind. "Kirwen claimed me as of her blood, didn't she? Otherwise they would've just shot me and been done with it."

Zefir's eyes narrowed and a terrifying expression of hatred contorted his dragon-face into something even Valin would tremble to encounter. "She did so to torture you. To send us all a message. A warning to our Clan. A lesson—"

Ferrei intruded with, "I'm not so certain, Zefir. I think...she did so to give him a fighting chance. The only chance he might have to survive. You saw the mob, calling out for his blood. They would've torn him apart with their bare hands if Leader Kirwen hadn't stopped them. Though part of me is skeptical, from what I've seen...I think she doesn't want him dead."

Jarre drawled, "Well, she has a funny way of showing it, if that's true."

But Valin knew it was. "I'm a descendant of her granddaughter. It's almost as if her Inventrix-like possessiveness for those under her rule is...stronger. Dangerously so. And maybe because I'm of her bloodline—" saying it out loud to his squad still felt strange, and a tingle of guilt lingered, "that possessive nature is increased. I doubt it's purely out of sentimentality."

"Inventrixes aren't bred for sentimentality," said Jarre, making the signs for this is how it is meant to be. "That's how they're able to function and see the Clan as a whole, rather than its parts, so they can set long-term goals for the health and prosperity of all."

Even that statement was almost verbatim from their history lessons. Lessons Valin was beginning to question.

"What I've seen of the mirrors," Valin said, "it seems that's not true. Whatever their predecessor did to their blood—Varess wasn't it?—it seems none of them were bred or raised how the First Inventrix set down in law. And there's the fact that there are three of them, not one. And that Kirwen was able to have normal-born children at all."   

Nyru frowned. "So you believe her claim...that you are of her blood."

He sighed, and felt that the flight strap had left a bruise across his ribs. "Undoubtedly. There are things of my blood that the Lyth know. I do believe it. And as such, I believe that your line, First, is also of the—"

"That I refuse to believe," Nyru snapped. "I'll die before I'll let that Wheelteeth demon sully my bloodline name."

Zefir let out a frustrated growl. "None of this bedamned bloodline shit matters. They're going to take him to die, and all you people can talk about is your blood. Damn you all to the ten hells!"

That silenced everyone in the prison. Valin's heart raced. He certainly wasn't ready die, not strapped to the Post. He'd always envisioned either a quiet death at home surrounded by his progeny, mourned as an honored Elder, or out there in the sky, taken quick. Navs even had a song about it, one of Jarre's favorites to sing: At Home in Bed, or in the Sky.   

The little dragon stirred, cocking her head to the side, ears swiveling. "You're upsetting my patient, Zefir-sibling. Calm those outbursts, if you please, or I'll banish you from the healing bedside."

Zefir shook his head, his voice increasing in volume, grating on the ear, "The only way to save him is to escape. Please, Innari. Cut me open. Then we can use the bomb to—"

"I told you no, Zefir-sibling," the little dragon said, arching her neck primly. "If you, or anyone, forces their way into your chest panel, it will trigger a switch. A design flaw to be certain, but it stands that you'll enter your deepest sleep mode until someone with the key awakens you. I'm not certain how I know that, but I do, and I have no idea what that key is. And I know that if you enter your deep rest mode for too long, the likelihood of awakening you is...slim. Your parts will malfunction without you in full working order."

Part healer, and part Inventrix, thought Valin. Stunning.

Zefir bared his terrifying rows of blade-teeth. "There's no time. And I don't care."

He lifted his clawed hand, and with his pointer-claw, began to drag it in a line down his chest, his mechanical black-red blood welling from the cut. The small dragon leaped upon Zefir. Her wings wrapped around him—good Gods o' the Forge, they were huge and beautiful—squeezing tight as she gripped at Zefir's wrists. As he struggled, she countered with lightning quick grappling movements, and when Zefir unleashed a deafening roar at her, she made an ear-piercing noise like a warning siren.

Valin rose to his feet, his head whirling. But he lifted his hand and shouted, "Zefir!"

Zefir sagged, and his sibling dragon held him, her sharp eyes looking for any sign that he might harm himself again.

His friend croaked, "I have to do something. I won't let you die, Valin."

"Zef, it's not your fault," Valin said quietly. "Come here."

The dragon sibling nodded slowly, and cautiously released Zefir, her long tail flickering like a displeased feline. Zefir came toward him, footsteps heavy, when Valin noticed the burn marks on his dragon's palms and the splotches across his broad brass chest. Valin only hoped Zef hadn't sustained those injuries trying to reach him...

Zefir lowered his head, eyes brimming. On level with his own face now, Valin reached up, and uncaring of his numb hand or the pulling at his shoulder, he touched either side of Zefir's snout. Closing his eyes, he pressed his forehead against the smooth brass skin, and felt the warm puff of breath he'd once marveled at. Oh, it was still a marvel.

"Listen to me, Zef. You must believe that the thing I hold dearest in all my life—is you. You must swear to me," and he heard a choking noise from his friend, "yes, swear to me you'll never try to harm yourself again. Not for me. This isn't your fault."

"But if I'd stopped her—"

"It wouldn't matter," said Valin, still keeping his eyes closed. He would have to drink in this moment, to take it with him. Whether to death or not he didn't know. "Know that I choose this. I'll go willingly. I do this for the squad. For my blood and honor." He swallowed. "For you. Do you understand?"

Valin opened his eyes and met with those large quicksilver orbs. One of those huge crystalline tears detached itself from the corner of Zefir's eye and cascaded down his long nose, flowing over Valin's hand.   

Though he hadn't understood the Nav saying before, now it felt right. "First flight, last flight."

His whole squad intoned, "First flight, last flight."

"My happiest memory will always be our first flight, Zef. And I'll take it with me when I go. If it's to be, it's to be."

Jarre had his massive arms around himself, but the big Third tried to shoot Valin his one-and-only grin. Ferrei met his eye, nodded firmly, and gave him the elegant signs for we'll meet again on the sun, squad brother. And Nyru's grimace was so fearsome that for a moment Valin wondered if she was threatening to melt his skin off with the sheer power of her furious stare. But he saw it for what it was: a leader's failure to bring all of her people home. The anger was at herself. After a long silence, Nyru bowed her head to him in a sign of respect.  

Zefir was careful when those brass hands plucked him up and his dragon settled him in the crook of that arm. He remembered when Zef had first done that after the exhilaration of their first flight. Valin had been without any flight gear, and though he had been terribly cold, he was warm inside from joy. But sensing it, Zefir had cradled him, and placed a wing up to keep him warm.

Tired, Valin wanted to fall asleep again. But instead, he listened to the sound of each of Zefir's breaths, memorizing the steady sound of his friend's mechanical heart-mind.

They passed the time in companionable silence until the sun went down.

#

The little dragon—Innari she had proclaimed herself—snuffled at Valin's chest, eyed him dubiously, and extended one of her claws. "I can make most of your body numb—it'll make you happy and see things too. But it will cause more dehydration. I can give you a little saltwater solution to help, Valin-friend, but there's little else I can do. My sibling says that I can't fight the people here to take you, even though you're my patient and therefore your health and safety is my..." she seemed to search for the appropriate word, "concern-responsibility-duty while you heal."

If Seren were alive, Valin thought he might very well embrace the mad Inventrix for the beauty and cleverness of her last invention. A healing dragon in the midst of a never ending war. Remarkable. "I'll take the saltwater, Innari, but I'll pass on the numbing agent."

With a rapid, well-trained movement, her claw pierced his skin. He felt the cool rush of the solution she pumped into him, and then she withdrew the claw, nodding. "All done, Valin-friend."

"Thank you," he said. When he turned to look at Zefir and his squad, and the guard standing impatiently at his side, he said to the little dragon quietly, "Promise me you'll keep an eye on your sibling. He'll be..."

"I know," she said solemnly. "Sadness can impair healing. And the others...they're your kin?"

He found himself chuckling softly, and with a tight-lipped smile said, "Yes, they are." A squadron is beyond blood.

"Then they'll be sad too," she said thoughtfully. "I'll watch them all carefully."

He placed his good hand on her nose, noticing she was even softer than Zefir, and she released a contented purring noise, eyes at half-mast. The rumbles made their way up his arm, a curiously soothing susurration.

He turned to follow after the guard when he heard Zefir shout, "Wait! Valin I..."

Valin looked over his shoulder. Zefir's expression was wretched, a mix of helpless misery and sorrow. The big dragon swallowed, and choked back on a sob. Jarre moved to stand next to him, patted Zefir on the arm, and then his Third said, "He wants to make sure you know that when you get back, he's challenging you to a game of cards. And this time, he'll let you win."

Valin barked a laugh that hurt deep within, and said as he followed the guard out, "Oh, I'll win with a techworker card, just you wait."

"As you say, Navigator Seven," drawled Jarre with a haunted gleam behind his eyes.

#

Valin swore to himself that he would meet this with pride and honor, two things that the Wheelteeth could never strip from him. When he rounded the corner, he gasped to see his path lined with people wearing pure white—the color of mourning, of death. He expected them to curse him, or spit on him, at the very least to shove at him even with the guard at his side, but the silent glares of hatred bored into him until he was trembling to keep his head raised. He noticed as they descended to the mountain's entrance that a select few were wearing a strip of red cloth on their forearm. Perhaps they were Lyth, or other techies who knew and loved the boy who'd tried to kill him.

Maybe they'd cheered Zareth for trying.

The gas lights left an eerie glow on the walkways as he made it from the confines of the mountain and out into the chilly evening air. Standing by the entrance, Kirwen was also wearing the traditional mourning white, her flight jacket made of a soft leather, her tunic and trousers all spotless white. She nodded to him sincerely, no more than a slight bow.

He followed behind her when he heard the murmurs of dissent from those lined up on the soft grasses as they walked toward the crest of a small hill distant. He could see from the kindling piled near that this was likely the place that the Clan burned their dead in brick-lined underground pits. He had no doubt that the new pile of kindling...was for him. But they wouldn't sully their pits with him. He'd be burned out in the open.

"Tidy," Valin muttered.

But then he saw the Post.

Bloodwood didn't grow very large or well around the mountains he called home. No one knew why, but there were stories of men and women who, tired of living, fled to the cold, dry parts of the mountains and slowly grew into stunted bloodwood trees, their trunks the size of a slender man.

But this Post had been cut from a massive bloodwood tree, as big around as Valin was tall. It kept its shiny, blood-colored bark, gleaming as if still wet in the light of the large silver moon. And when the guard nudged him toward the Post, Valin almost lost his courage. Still, he forced himself to place his back against the strangely warm wood, and the guard tied his wrists behind his back, arms spread around the tree, his shoulder wound straining against the stitches. The ends of his rope were tied above to keep him from sitting down, forcing him to stand for all four days, and if he grew too weak, it would pull painfully at his shoulders.

He inhaled to steady himself, and surprised, watched as the Wheelteeth gathered with their lanterns into an orderly line. Valin didn't know why they did so. It wasn't part of his Clan's ritual, at least not that he remembered from the histories. But he found out why when the person at the front—Zareth in pristine white, arm in a sling—came to stand before him, eyes narrowed to slits.

"You and all your damned kind murdered my mother," Zareth growled. He took a menacing step forward, but Valin's stolid guard placed up a hand to halt the boy. "She was a Tamer, and was hunting near the disputed lands with her wolf pack. But you scum set fire to the forest. She died in agony because of you. And now, I'm returning the favor. I just wanted to watch your face as I told you."

Valin met the boy's eye, and said with all of the true sincerity in his voice, "I'm sorry for your loss, Zareth."

Zareth lunged forward, but Kirwen stepped in his path and caught him, pushing him away. She stood with her arms crossed over her chest, an immovable sentinel, as the next person in line stepped toward him.

A woman, middle-aged and careworn said, "You killed my daughter. I didn't want her to be a Navigator...but she wanted to...oh, gods..."

The woman burst into tears, lifting her hands to her face.

Gods o' the Forge, would Valin have to endure the entire Clan revealing their loss to him? What in the ten hells was this? But he couldn't let this woman go without letting her know... "I'm sorry, so very sorry."

There was nothing else he could say. And how horribly trite it sounded out loud.

The endless trail of people passed by him, some losing the will to speak, averting their eyes, others having to be restrained for fear they would harm him as they cursed his name, his blood, his entire Clan in bare hatred. And he forced himself to say to each and every one of them that he was truly sorry, and he met their eye, their faces etched into his mind.

A small family stepped toward him, the young father carrying a toddler who dozed on his shoulder, and another girl child of no more than eight walking next to him.

Valin flexed his wrists against the rope, wishing he could be free of this. His throat felt tight and dry, and he turned to Kirwen, demanding, "What is this? Why do you want me to know all of your Clan's losses? I already know, and dear gods, I'd put an end to the fighting in a heartbeat if it were in my power. Do you want me to list all of the fallen I've stood over for my own people? Is that what they want to hear?"

She shook her head. "The Wheelteeth have their own customs. This is one of theirs: that anyone in the Clan can tell one of the condemned how they've been wronged or hurt by that person's actions. Were you truly one of us from the beginning, raised in our halls, this would have nothing to do with the war."

"And yet I must be here as a stand-in for the actions of my entire Clan."

She firmed her lips. "You are of this Clan too. But these are their grievances, Valin, because they can't see that. And I can't break with tradition to deny them this, even as much as I despise it."

He leaned his head against the smooth bloodwood before he bit his lower lip, steadied himself, and nodded to the family standing before him. The father touched his daughter's shoulder, and the little girl wrung her hands. "I only remember my grandfere a little, but he was always my favorite. He gave me sweetberries he would hike to find so, so, so far away. Far as the sun, that's what he said."

Valin bit his lower lip until he tasted blood. "He was a very good grandfere."

"Yes, he was, he really was." She wrung her hands, and wouldn't meet his eye. "Father told me grandfere died because...Father didn't want to tell me, because I'm little, but finally he told me that grandfere was a fighter. And that he's not with us...because of the Cogs. I'm not really sure what that means, but I'm supposed to tell you because I miss my grandfere."

"Oh, gods," he croaked. "I'm so sorry little one. I truly am. Your grandfere should've come back to you. All granferes should. Dearest gods, all of them, I'm so, so sorry."

His eyes felt hot, stinging, and he couldn't hold back. Tears spilled down his cheeks—wasting precious water he would need to survive. He couldn't wipe them away. They would stand and dry on his cheeks as a testament to his misery...no, to hearing the misery of so many others.

The little girl ran toward him, her white robes flapping at her feet. The guard reached for her, but she took a handkerchief from one of her pockets—it had already been used, Valin noticed—and held it out to him. Kirwen waved away the guard, and knelt at the girl's side, booping her nose.

"Hello, grandmere," the little girl said. "Can you give him my hankie?"

Oh, gods, she was a Lyth.

"No!" snapped the girl's father. "Don't get too close. Mayra, come away."

"But Father," Mayra said, confused, "you told me that people crying are usually sad, and sad people need a hankie and a hug."

Valin sniffled at such beautiful innocence, and shook his head. "Not all tears are from sadness. Don't you cry when you're happy?"

The father glared at him, and the sleepy toddler on his shoulder made a mumbled protest. But Mayra nodded. "So, you're happy?"

"To have met such a thoughtful little girl such as you." Valin was certain his smile was devoid of anything resembling true happiness, as the little girl frowned dubiously and handed her Leader her handkerchief anyway. "But you should take your father home, as it's quite late and he should be resting."

Kirwen gently pushed the girl back toward her father. "Go on, child."

Mayra waved to him as she scampered off, her father grasping her hand and half running with her away, the toddler wailing to be so awakened.

Kirwen stood by his side, ever the sentinel. She said quietly, as she tucked the handkerchief into one of his hands—the numb one, "Save your tears. You need them more than they do."

Valin stared at the long line of faces. "That's where you're wrong, grandmere."

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