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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #22: Bargains, Offers, Threats

Nyru had finished her prayer, and still paced when Jarre made the hurried signal for enemy approaches. Zefir nudged his sibling from her muttering and calculations, but she snapped her teeth at him, growling, "Ach, Zefir-sibling, I told you not to interrupt—"

He put his hand around her wrist and pulled her down, for she'd been on her hind legs, braced against the hangar door and staring at the lock mechanism. Then he pushed her with his nose, fluttering his wings at her until she moved to the far corner. He hissed, "Stay there, and don't say anything."

She gave him a hurt expression, her tail flickering uncertainly. "I won't tell them. I promised already. Don't you trust me?"

"Of course I do," he said. "Now hush. Stay put, no matter what. Understand? No matter what."

His insides trembled as he sensed the nearing—[confusion, anger, determination, guilt, overwhelming sense of having fouled her life and so many others]

He focused on whatever virul microcogs were swirling and remaking parts of his system, focused hard enough to send with his inner thought-voice: Unless you've come to tell me you're releasing my Navigator, turn and walk away, Kirwen.

No response. But he heard the door locks clicking, turning their gears; the bolt slid back from its housing and opened, not the small door, but both of the doors wide enough for Zefir to step through. Kirwen entered, wearing all white. Mourning white. And Zefir's heart-mind thrummed in panic. Gods, gods...he's gone. He can't be.

"He is still with us, child," said Kirwen. "Come with me."

Jarre stepped between them and Kirwen growled, eyes flashing. "I've no time for this, Quarethstra."

Jarre grinned, looking fierce rather than amused. There was a world of promise for violence in that smile. "Pardon me if I've little trust in his safety when you've already taken one of ours to die."

"Step. Aside. Now." Her glare was molten, her hands shaking in fists.

Zefir could feel the tension along his spine, sense the rage that was threatening to take hold. It flashed before his eyes, tingeing his own sight in hues of red. Before he could move, startled by his body's own response to her fury, Jarre took a single step toward her. With the speed of an Inventrix, she moved. No more than a blur, and she'd struck his Third with a brass fist to Jarre's side; Zefir saw Jarre crumble.

Zefir bounded forward, and though he saw the guards lift their rifles, he slammed his snout into her side and lifted; her body flew through the air, and though her reflexes were beautiful and feline-like, she crashed into the stone floor with a audible thunk of flesh. He felt the sting of an aerorifle sizzle along his shoulder, but Kirwen held up her hand to halt any further shots.

"Then stay here," spat Kirwen, lifting herself to her feet. "And listen to what I have to say in front of your squadron."

Ferrei was hunched in front of Innari, gritting her teeth, his Second's glare promising vengeance. But his sibling was prancing from foot to foot in indecision. Nyru took several marching steps forward, before Ferrei stopped her.

"You've made it clear that we are to find no common ground," said Kirwen, and her thought-voice echoed with: You are mine. One of mine. "Your squadron poisons your decisions, just as Mirena poisoned my people against the truth. The final battle is almost here. And in order to save my people, I must utilize what I have, for better or for ill. It gives me no pleasure to do this, child."

"That's what you said when you sentenced Valin to the Exile Post," Zefir barked.

But he knew it was true. She took no pleasure in her words.

"You called me a monster," she continued. "And so I was created to be. I still will take the difficult outcome every time if it grants me safety for mine. If they come back to me, all of them."

Zefir's insides were heating, and he kept his wings stiff against his back, lest the guards decide any movement was a threat. "What in the hells do you want from me?"

Kirwen's face blanked, cold as a mountainside. "Allow me to lead my people from your back. Fight in the air as you were made to do, but fight for me."

"What makes you think," Zefir growled, "I would ever betray my Clan? My own Mother?"

"Fuck your bedamned Mother, that demon-spawned bitch!" Kirwen trembled so fiercely that he could hear the microcogs in her mechanical hands grinding out of alignment, before self-correcting as they were meant to. "She started this war, all of it! And if I get to kill her with my bare hands before the end, I'll have died a good death!"

Zefir's own fury heated his breath. Flame her and be done with this all. Kill all of them. He wasn't certain if this last was his own thought-voice, or hers, and that terrified him. The rage made his breaths grow shorter, and smoke curled from his nostrils. Flame her to ashes.

"Fuck you, Kirwen," he spat, and a flicker of flame escaped from between his teeth. "Take your offer to the ten hells, and you with it."

She arched a brow. "Oh, the offer comes with a catch, child. Or did you think me too sentimental to dare use threats?"

Zefir swallowed, some of his anger cooling into fear again.

"You have until sundown to decide," the Wolf said. "Fly with me as my battle dragon, or I send both the Quarethstras to the firing squad."

His breath stopped. He blinked in disbelief. "But-but their parole—"

"Was broken. By them." The Wolf regarded him without expression, and even her emotions, her thoughts were beyond him. "Decide."

Nyru strode forward in a crisp martial step, unmindful of the rifles swiveling in her direction. "No."

The Wolf frowned at her, eyes glinting like a predator scenting prey.

"Take me, not the Quarethstras," Nyru said, her grimace-smile in full force, her scars both vicious and horrific. "I'm their First. I ordered them to break their parole. If anyone is at fault then it's me, and I will take responsibility. The dragon won't fly with you."

"Brave of you, First Leader Kerlan," said the Wolf, "but I'm afraid my threat stands as it is. You're of Xenthi's blood, one of her children, and you're mine. Returned to me, to us, to my Clan, and I won't sacrifice you. But the Quarethstras are not. If Zefir chooses to refuse me, then they die by morning."

Words stuck in Zefir's throat. Words of threat, words of hate, words of begging and pleading. But he knew there was only one true decision.

Kirwen whirled around and marched toward the door.

"Wait, Wolf Leader," he growled.

She stood, crossing her arms—those tremors starting slightly—and waited with a lifted brow.

"I'll do as you say. I'll be your battle dragon." He leaned his large face toward her, the heat of his breath scorching, though she didn't flinch. "But know if any harm comes to them, I'll be your death."

She smirked, and he could feel her bitter amusement along his insides. "I'll come for you this evening. And then we begin."

With that she spun about on heel and strode out the doors, her guards following quickly. When the doors closed fully, and the lock-bolt slid home with a final sounding cha-thunk, he hid his burning cheeks from his squadron, proof of his shame.

Innari bounded around him and went to Jarre, fussing about the potential for a bruised ribs, until his Third patted her with a wince. "It's fine..." He breathed in a painful breath, his voice hoarse. "Eh, I've had worse injuries fighting in the practice ring back home. Don't you worry, little moon dragon. Quarethstras are made of sterner stuff."

"I really don't think you are," Innari said seriously.

Nyru nodded to her Third, and Zefir was only conscious of her steps. And then her face was in his sight. "Listen, Zefir. I forbid you from this. Do you understand? We as Navigators know there are some things worth dying for. You would betray their memories by—"

"You're speaking like they're already dead." He wasn't angry. Not now that he'd made a decision. "And I can't let her kill—"

"Yes, you can. And you will." Nyru made the signs for what is to be—is.

Kirwen was going to steal Jarre's life. And Ferrei's.

"Respectfully, First Leader," he said, feeling more resolute than ever, "I won't stand by while she just takes Ferrei and Jarre."

Ferrei grabbed his nostril to pull his large face—so large compared to these tiny, weak, short-lived humans—toward her. "Listen, and listen well, dragon. When the Wolf comes to give you this offer again, you tell her to roast in the ten hells."

"No, Second Leader. I won't do that." He looked away from her ferocity, the iron-hard scent of her desperate anger.

"But think of how many of our people you'll harm as her battle dragon." Her grip on his sensitive nostrils pinched. "Damn you, Zefir. Listen to me as your Second."

Jarre said from the side of the room, still holding his ribs, "We've made it our life to become—" he made an awkward show of the we are the shield gesture, "protectors of our people. And when you joined us, that became your oath too." He winced as he moved. "Although, you could always give this up and become a professional card player."

Zefir's laugh hurt in the deepest part of his heart-mind. He couldn't let them die, no matter what. "I am shielding. I'm protecting you. If I do this, you'll have more time. Innari will have more time."

His sibling came toward him, one long wing extended hesitantly toward him as if to embrace him. "I-I'll try, Zefir-sibling. I'll try very hard, so Jarre-friend and Ferrei-kin can be safe. Then we can rescue Valin-friend too."

"You're the cleverest person I've ever met, Innari," he said, looking away from the judging stares of his squadron, from Ferrei's furious glare, Jarre's way of averting his eye in disappointment, and Nyru's unflinching cold regard. "I've no doubt you can open it with time."

Valin's throat was dry again, and sweat trickled down over his eyelashes, so he closed his eyes. The second day. Only the second day. The afternoon sun was a red, piercing halo through his eyelids, and for a moment he understood a Navigator's prayer to the disk. If it were possible, he'd pray for just a little less sun. Maybe some clouds to give a brief respite from the heat. His legs were shaking trying to hold him up, and he'd fallen asleep once only to be jerked awake when it felt like his shoulders would split in twain. He was certain he'd seen a newly minted brass gryphon fly over head toward the copse of trees nearly a mile from him, and he followed the desperate fancy that he could escape, imagining himself overpowering the Nav, stealing his poorly made mechanical beast, and being airborne again.

The line of people and their grievances were mercifully gone now. Even Elder Lyth had gone back to her mountain home, leaving him with just his guard, Renzu.

He opened his eyes as he began to drift off toward sleep, jerking awake.

Someone in all white carrying a shrouded figure came toward him. As the figure drew closer, Kirwen ignored him as she went toward the pits for the dead, and he watched as she gently placed Seren in the pit and built the pyre. Soot and dirt marred her pristine white clothes, but she seemed unaware of it.

He smelled the sweet-sick stench of death and burning before the brick lined pits incinerated the body quickly; the smell of sweetberry branches went up with the oily black smoke. Valin only hoped the wind direction wouldn't change, or he'd be enveloped by the dead's smoke.

Kirwen climbed toward his hill, and he gasped as one knee gave out beneath her and she fell. Renzu quivered, clearly thinking of assisting her, but also of remaining to show his Leader he adhered to his duty. Shaking, she got to her feet, and walked toward them again, head held high.

She stood in front of Valin, arms crossed; she nodded to the guard, waving him away, and so dismissed, Renzu made his way back toward the mountain.

Her fingers tapped a hurried cadence against the hilt of a knife she had sheathed at her side. "I've a bargain to strike with you."

He swallowed slowly, trying to gather enough saliva to speak; all that came out was a dusty cough.

She glanced at the bucket, and cupping one hand, she brought one handful of water up to his lips. Greedy, he lapped at her gloved hand, and would've licked her fingers without remorse if she hadn't pulled away.

"Time is short, Valin."

"For me, or for you?" That stumble of hers...perhaps proof that her failing Inventrix-like body was closer to the end than she liked.

Kirwen snorted. "Mirena tested you, didn't she? Code breaking, most likely. Be glad you didn't stay in her clutches. She has a way about her like Varess, and who knows what she would've pushed you to."

Valin took simple pleasure in the water sliding down to his stomach. "How could it have been any more than what you're pushing me to, grandmere?"

Kirwen shook her head, looking weary, yet oddly resolute in her mourning white. "My bargain, kin. The Cog Clan is drawing near, but none of my scouts have returned to tell me how far she's encroached on our territory, or where exactly in the mountain range she's hiding her forces."

Valin arched a sweaty brow. "I don't have that information, Leader. And if I did—"

"This is no game, boy. And if it were, this would be the final blow." She met his eye, and the Wolf said, "You care for your squadron. I would go so far as to say more than your own blood. And the dragon, well, you love Zefir far more than I could put into words. And yes, I understand it all too well."

His heart lurched into a rapid gallop, and more sweat poured down his cheeks. "You know, Leader, I'm growing weary of your threats. I'm tied to the Post, and while I may survive—"

"Good gods, boy, did you think I'd let you die like this?" She shook her head. "You're my kin. My blood. I was born when the Cog Clan was the strongest of all, and our bloodlines meant just as much to us then as it does to you now. You belong to me and mine, damn you. You're mine. Do you hear me, Seven Lyth Valin?"

He blinked at the vehemence in her voice. "And yet, you'll still try to manipulate me, and threaten my squadron. I remember your threats like a small cut, Leader. The Navs say 'each cut is a little death,' and that's what you're doing."

Her bitter grin made him squirm, and she laughed that barking laugh he'd heard from her before, the one that sounded unhinged. "Oh, dear boy, do you have any idea who first said that? I was young, and convinced our way of life was wrong. As it happens, I still do."

He narrowed his gaze at her. Hadn't he questioned the same thing? "That's not why you're still fighting this war. Even if you think that we shouldn't have an Inventrix binding us through each generation, like the Wheelteeth and their large, messy families, that's not why you're here now. You were made like yet unlike an Inventrix. And you feel a strong tie to protect your Clan as a whole. But it's stronger. Deeper. More violent for you. Isn't it?"

"And for Mirena." She crossed her arms, smearing more ash over her mourning white. "Seren was the lucky one."

"It's one of many reasons that multiple mirrors were outlawed by the First Inventrix. You're like two alpha wolves fighting for control of the entire pack."

"It makes my flight mask more apt, don't you think?" Again, that half-amused wry smile. "Well, at least you seemed to have learned something truthful from the histories Mirena let you hear." But her smile faded. "I'm taking back what should be ours. I'm returning our families, as you've returned. And you will help me, Valin."

It was his turn to bark a laugh. "Respectfully, Leader...go to the ten hells and see if it's hot there."

Her eyes flashed, and that wry smile turned dark. "Oh, I've been there, young one. All ten. But listen to my offer before you reject it out of hand."

"You mean threat."

"Just so." She seemed to realize that her white leather coat was smeared with the soot of the funeral pyre and she wiped at it once, before dismissing it. "I've sent a scout of ours to land a gryphon in the copse distant. No doubt you saw it, my clever, observant techworker."

"And?" he prompted.

"I will release you, and you take that gryphon and find the Cog Clan's forces. I'm certain you have a signal to give them so they don't shoot you from the sky—" when he reluctantly nodded, she continued, "—then land among them. Take stock of their numbers, the terrain, where they are. No doubt Mirena will be eager for you to give her the same about the Wheelteeth's forces. Miscalculate what you've seen with your own eye. Then find a way to return to me with this information."

The silence this time increased the sharp stab of fear that made sweat pour over his lashes. "The threat? Or must I ask?"

Her expression became cold. Unforgiving. "If you refuse me, I shoot the Quarethstras in front of you. They both die unless you agree to my terms."

"Dear gods," he gasped.

"The Gods of the Forge are busy listening to other pleas," the Wolf said, her white gloved hands flexing and unflexing. "If you refuse me now, I'll start with one of the Quarethstras. Then if you change your mind, perhaps you'll spare the other."

He believed her, dear gods, he believed her threat.

His heart was threatening to burst from his chest. His throat was dry, and he felt as if he would vomit. Valin began to shudder. Betray my Clan, or betray my squadron. He always thought his captivity would force him to strike the ultimate bargain—to turn against his own. Valin had set all of his hopes on escaping, so he wouldn't have to sacrifice his honor, wouldn't be forced to become the ultimate blood-shame: the traitor.

How many of his Clan would he unknowingly sacrifice by giving the Wolf what she wanted?

Her mouth firmed in a cold line, and she turned from him.

There was no time.

"Wait!" he yelled hoarsely. Ferrei and Jarre are Navigators, and would gladly die to save our people. I can't dishonor them.

But neither could he let them die. His refusal would cast their blood on his hands...and he couldn't live with that. He couldn't watch them...shot before his eyes, not if he could stop it.

"I..." he swallowed around the bile rising in his throat, searing his tongue with acid. "I'll take your bargain, Wolf Leader."

She nodded curtly, and withdrew an old, well-loved hunting knife from its sheath at her side. When she cut through the ropes binding him, he fell to his knees, his entire body wracking as if his bones would fly apart. Though he swore he wouldn't, he retched what little water was in his stomach—it had been too long without food as well—on to the ground. His body rebelled, heaving, trying to wrench the horrible, disgusting sensation of betrayal as if by force, as if it were a black bile that could be expelled so simply.

Valin squinted up into that face carved from a mountainside, and she looked just as remorseless.

"You have three days, Seven Lyth Valin." Her eyes looked so dead. Lifeless. "Three days to return to me, or I kill your Quarethstras. Or rather, I'll kill one, and if you're a day late you may be able to spare the other."

He wiped his mouth of the disgusting taste with the back of a sleeve. Slowly, she knelt next to him, her eyes glowing with the fire of terrible certainty. "And if you choose to stay with Mirena after all, know that I won't let her have you again. I'll come for you as I will all the others, and you'll be where you belong once more."

He scrambled away from the terrifying creature before him, and stumbled weakly to his feet. Valin began to run—or rather tried—stumbling toward his decision.   

Read Part 23: Bred for War

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