Cross-eyed Dragon Troubles – Chapter 3

 

TALIA WOKE TO the call of birds again. The lilting chirps were high and strong, nothing like the familiar whistles of the red speckled Talerns or even the noisy cacophony of the rooster in the hen house. The call came again and this time was answered by one closer still. She slowly sat up in her bed, glanced out toward the balcony doors, and spotted a bright blue and green bird eyeing her from the rail. It dipped its head as if bidding her good morning and then left with a flurry of wings.

She smiled at the greeting but soon sobered. The sun was out, and she had an appointment. In a half panic, she scrambled out of bed and glanced at the clock in its niche in the wall. She felt suddenly foolish, as she saw it was only ten minutes to six. By this time, her mother would already be up, busy preparing breakfast, while her father would be out looking over the fields making his plans for the day.

She wiped at her face as she felt a warm tear trickle down her cheek. She was being silly and she knew it. She’d never thought of herself as the sentimental type before. Just as all the other children in Queegam, she’d known her whole life that sooner or later she would be apprenticed. She just never thought it would be so hard… Or that she’d miss home so much…

Shaking herself out of her growing sadness, she made the bed then quickly took a bath. Once she’d gotten dressed it was twelve after six. She wanted to go down to breakfast early, but this was too early. She eyed the blank papers and quills at her desk and thought of starting a letter to her parents then put the idea aside, not wanting to run the risk of calling up more tears, especially since she was supposed to attend a meeting with the Administrator this morning.

At six thirty, the globes in her room turned on. Already slightly startled by the unexpected event, she started when someone knocked hard on her door. “Time to rise!”

Talia rushed to her door, but when she opened it no one was there. She looked down the hall and spotted a watcher knocking on a door three down from hers and calling out it was time to rise. The watcher then moved on to the next one.

Since the whole school was being awakened, she decided it would be all right for her to go downstairs. Stepping out into the hall and closing the door to her room, she headed for the nearest set of stairs. She got a couple of surprised looks from some of the watchers she passed along the way, but they said nothing so she went on.

The dining hall was empty when she arrived, but the sounds of voices and the rattle of pots and pans echoed softly through the room from an open kitchen door. The smell of baking bread teased her nostrils.

She glanced around and then drifted closer to the Administrator’s table. She decided on the one closest to it, hoping this time she might be able to catch a glimpse of the woman before she met her later this morning. The strange way in which Mandee spoke of her had made her a bit more nervous about the coming meeting than she might have been otherwise.

As Talia waited for Mandee and the others to appear, a lone person came into the room from the door leading out into the garden. As she wondered what they’d been doing out there so early in the morning, she realized she knew this person-it was Kel. The squire spotted her at about the same time and waved a greeting to her as he walked toward the open kitchen door. She tentatively waved back.

People were pouring into the dining hall in earnest by the time she saw him come back out of the kitchen. He held a large basket of fruit in one hand and a filled plate in the other. She was a little surprised as she saw him walk over to the Administrator’s table and take a seat at the far end. Kel set his things down and started eating, seemingly paying attention to nothing or anyone. She frowned.

“What are you looking at?”

She almost jumped out of her seat at Mandee’s soft question. She’d been paying so much attention to Kel she didn’t hear her come up. “Ah, nothing.” She looked away at the slight lie. “Good morning.”

“Morning.” Mandee sat down next to her. “You sure got here early. I way overslept on my first day.” She grinned.

“I-I guess I’m just used to it. We got up early at home everyday.”

“Not me. At least, not when I could get away with it.” Her grin grew into a mischievous smile.

Yllin and a few of the others Talia met the day before joined them. Greetings were passed all around.

As the watchers started serving breakfast, she noticed Kel finishing his. Though some teachers now populated the table, he didn’t speak to them other than to trade pleasantries. As soon as he was done, he got up, picked up his basket of fruit and left the dining hall the same way he’d come in.

“There goes the useless one.”

Talia snapped to look behind her. The table next to theirs was filled with mostly older-looking students. A couple of them were chuckling as they stared in Kel’s direction, but she couldn’t tell who’d voiced the comment. Was this how people really felt about him? Just how long had he been trying to pass his test?

The Administrator’s table was soon full but her chair remained empty. Talia wondered if this was a good thing or not.

As before, the watchers maintained an unobtrusive vigil over the students as they ate. Talia found it hard to put away all she’d been served, though everything was delicious. She felt stuffed as time ran out and they all stood to go for their walk through the garden. She admitted she did feel better by the time they were through.

“We’ll see you at lunch, okay?” Mandee said, “We’ve got to go to class now.”

Talia looked at her in surprise as they reached the hallway inside. “Oh.” She stared at the two girls as they prepared to go, realizing she’d forgotten they’d be leaving her. It meant she’d have to spend the rest of her time alone before going upstairs for her appointment with the Administrator.

“You’ll do fine at your meeting,” Mandee said, as if reading her mind. “Yllin here made it through, so how bad could it be?” Mandee put Talia between her and the grim-faced girl as she spoke, her eyes filled with mirth.

“Hey!” Yllin threw the redhead a dirty look. Then she glanced at Talia. “You can’t do any worse than Mandee, and they kept her too.” Yllin looked glum, yet a small grin was trying to tug the edge of her mouth.

Mandee laughed at her attempt to get her back. “You’ll have to tell us all about it when we see you again.” She grabbed Yllin’s arm. “Come on, sourpuss, or we’ll be late.”

Talia stepped to the side of the hall, out of the way, and watched them and the other students go past. Once almost everyone was gone, she made her way back to her room. After pacing there for a while, she sat down on her desk and began a letter to her parents. At the moment, she was distracted enough by the coming event that she felt disassociated enough to do it. She felt extremely nervous and skittish. Her stomach knotted inside her, making her wish she’d not eaten breakfast. Still, how bad could this interview be? They wouldn’t send her back if she failed, would they?

She set the quill down, unable to write anymore.

She’d heard of such things. It was rare, but it happened on occasion. And once rejected by a guild, it became doubly hard to get accepted by another. Some found they were unable to ever get any training at all. It was people of this sort who became beggars, bandits, and worse. She wouldn’t be one of them.

Five minutes before the hour, she left her room and made her way upstairs to the fourth floor. As if she were a condemned criminal on the way to the block, she slowly approached the golden door at the end of the passage. The door towered over her the closer she came; she felt smaller with each step.

Staring up at it, she finally came to stand before it. Talia took a deep breath, trying to calm herself even as her hand came up to knock on the door. Before she got a chance to do it, however, a soft voice whispered out to her from within.

“Come in. It’s not locked.”

Her brow furrowed as she looked around her, wondering how in the world the Administrator knew she was there. With a different kind of worry now gnawing at her stomach, she pushed on the door. It gave way to her touch easily and opened silently before her. She stepped inside.

The room beyond was deep but not wide. A large blue and gold rug covered the cold marble floor, the scent of incense wafting through the air. Three doorways led from the long room, one on the right and two on the left.

“Come on over. I’m back here.” The sweet voice came from the second door on the left.

Feeling uneasy, Talia headed in that direction.

The room the second doorway opened into was large. Columns similar to those she’d seen bordering the garden were set along the walls, a shimmering, sheer azure cloth strung between them. In the center of the room was a large oval tub, with what looked to be the remains of an unusual amount of bubbles. Beyond it, sitting on a long settee, was the woman she’d come to find.

The Administrator looked over at her, reclining comfortably in the settee, a long thick robe covering her from neck to ankles. “Come in, come in. Take a seat. I’m a little late this morning, but it won’t interfere with what you need to do.” She waved Talia over to a chair on the other side of the room.

Tearing her eyes away from the woman, she took a seat. So this was the Administrator. As far as Talia was concerned, she was one of the most beautiful women she’d ever seen. A far cry from what she’d half expected. The Administrator’s skin was light with a hint of a tan. Her face was round, with a small nose and full lips. Black, wavy hair was piled on her head to keep it above the soapy water, and accentuated her deep blue eyes. But Talia at no time expected to conduct her interview in a bathroom. Surely this wasn’t how normal people conducted meetings in the outside world? Then she remembered her encounter with Tammer, and how it didn’t go exactly as expected either.

“My name is Lareen,” the Administrator said in the same soft voice Talia heard from the outside. “I’m this school’s administrator.” Lareen changed position, turning on her side, to get a better look at her. “Welcome to Dragon’s Peak.” She gave Talia a large, warm smile. “I love my job. It has many benefits. For example, no early morning wake-up calls. Unfortunately, though, sometimes I have a tendency to oversleep.” Her smile turned sly.

Talia felt embarrassed for her. Though from the look of her the Administrator seemed less than bothered by it. Not exactly what she expected from someone in such a high position. Surely she took her job seriously?

“Welcome to my school, Talia. How have you liked it so far?” Lareen’s intense blue stare seemed to bore into her.

“Fine, ma’am. It’s very nice.” She tried her best not to fidget.

“Don’t worry,” Lareen waved her hand lightly, “you’ll get used to everything. Your homesickness will pass before you know it.”

Talia stared, wondering how she knew about this. She’d never mentioned it to anyone.

The Administrator moved to sit back as she’d been before. “Our guild is very large. This school is one of many. But it’s also one of the best.” Her tone turned serious. “You’ll be here with us for four years and then you can either decide to stay for more general training or go to a more specialized school. Unlike most guilds, you have choices on what you decide to become. Almost anything is possible here.” Her intense stare locked with Talia’s own. “Do you have any thoughts on what it is you would prefer to be?”

Talia looked away, caught off guard by the question. She possessed no idea what she wanted to do before her parents took the decision from her and knew no better now. The stories she’d heard didn’t really speak of what jobs this guild offered. She assumed the only one they had was to be a Dragon Knight. Wasn’t that all they trained for here? “A knight?”

Lareen smiled again. “You have no restrictions here. You can be anything. We have need of more than just knights. Since our guild is self-sufficient and a government unto ourselves, we need people with skills in all walks of life-farmers, weavers, cooks, even administrators.” Her eyes were bright. “We don’t have enough dragons for everyone and there exist more challenging roles for some than being a knight.”

Talia stared at the floor, more surprised by this than she wanted to admit. So she would still have to make a choice sometime after all. She wasn’t sure whether she was relieved by this revelation or not.

“Don’t worry, though. If a Dragon Knight is what you want to be, you’ll get your chance. Everyone can play the lottery. And until the time comes, you’ll learn all manner of things and perhaps see what else is out there which might interest you.”

Talia nodded, trying to absorb all she was being told, even as dozens of questions sprang to her mind. She could be anything? How truly big was this guild? What was a lottery?

“If you wouldn’t mind, would you be a dear and go into the room to the right of this one and bring in the cart that’s there?”

“Yes, ma’am.” She rose immediately and went in search of the cart. She quickly found it, but upon seeing its contents a whole new slew of questions intruded on her mind.

The cart she pushed back held three tiers. Each of them was full, and their contents were not anything she’d have expected to find in them.

“Ah, yes, that’s the one.” Lareen waved her closer. “If you would, please go through what’s on the top and pick out the best five you can find.”

Talia’s mouth opened, but it still took her a second to be able to respond. “Y- yes, ma’am.” She turned to look at the contents of the cart’s first tier and swallowed hard as she again stared with disbelief at the sparkling gems that filled the shelf to the brim. Never in her life did she think she’d see so many, let alone be asked to pick five of them. Worse, she didn’t know anything about precious stones. She hadn’t even seen any of any real worth until Kel bestowed some to her parents.

“Take as long as you need to pick them,” Lareen said. “There’s no hurry.”

Talia couldn’t quite bring herself to even touch them.

“Maybe you should dump them out on the floor,” the Administrator suggested. “It might make it easier to look through them. You can use the corner over there.” She pointed off to the right.

Talia nodded, swallowing hard, and then touched the gems. They felt strange to the touch, slick and cool. She handled them gingerly as she set them out on the floor, a little horrified she was being allowed to treat them this way. The gems before her were of every size and color. She didn’t even know what half of them were. She was only too aware she didn’t have a basis on which to make her choices. The Administrator wanted her to pick the best five, but she didn’t know how to make that determination.

She stared at the treasure before her and quickly tried to think of everything she’d ever heard about precious stones or other precious things and how they were normally valued. Talia knew a little about cloths, how the finer the weave the more expensive it was, but couldn’t quite figure out how she could apply the knowledge here.

Her father, as a hobby, worked with wood. He’d made a lot of the furniture in their home himself and occasionally made a piece or two to sell in town. She’d always thought he was good at it. And every time, before he ever started a project, he carefully checked the wood for rotting, consistency, and cracks. Maybe those criteria would work here as well.

She shrugged her shoulders, not able to think of anything else, and got to work.

Picking up each gem and looking at it carefully, she set aside any which were cracked, chipped, or weren’t consistent in color. Of the forty gems before her, she was able to get rid of ten.

After he gathered the wood, her father would normally take painstaking care to measure out the lengths he’d need and make sure all the parts would be even when he got done. Keeping this in mind, she looked through the remaining gems and took out any which were cut unevenly or which weren’t symmetrical. That got rid of twelve more.

Softly biting her lip, she stared at the gems left before her, trying to find some other way to narrow her choices further.

When her father worked on his projects, she recalled that the ones he took the longest to make or that were made up of the most components usually looked better than those he just quickly threw together. If she remembered right, he normally got paid more for those too. Not sure if the same could be said of precious stones, she still set out to separate them with the same idea in mind. She separated the eighteen remaining gems by the number and shape of their cuts.

Of the eight most intricate of the lot, she picked out five whose colors she liked best.

“Are you done?”

Talia looked up surprised, long ago having forgotten about the Administrator. She quickly nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Let me see.” Lareen sounded suddenly eager.

Gathering up her choices, she brought them over to her. Lareen critically studied the gems in her hands.

“Very well done,” she finally remarked. “They’re yours to keep.”

Talia felt her eyes grow wide. Lareen couldn’t be serious. This was a small fortune.

“You’ll find some small bags lining the bottom of the top shelf of the cart. Pick one to keep them in.”

She hesitated. She just couldn’t believe the woman was serious.

The Administrator insisted, waving her on. “Go on.”

“Y- yes, ma’am.” Talia retreated with her prizes. She was still utterly confused. How could they let her keep these? Everyone knew apprentices were not usually given money of their own. And even if they were, this was just too much.

Almost in a half daze, she studied the small bags that lined the first shelf of the cart. After looking them over, she realized they were all the same size but their colors were as varied as a field of flowers. She picked a dark blue one to call her own and quickly dropped her prizes inside. After tying the bag shut and latching it on to her belt, she picked up the other gems off the floor and put them back in the cart.

“Let’s move over to my bedroom so I can get dressed while you start in on the next shelf.” The Administrator stood up from the settee and released her bound hair, combing it as she left the room barefoot. Talia grabbed hold of the cart and set out to follow her. Lareen led her out into the entry hall and to the room across the way.

The Administrator’s bedroom was twice as large as her bathroom. A wide, canopied bed dominated the far side and yet the room still didn’t look crowded. Two sets of doors led out to separate balconies. As Talia watched, Lareen sauntered over to a marble-topped vanity and sat down before the large mirror. She set down the comb, picked up a large brush, and gently stroked it through her cascading hair.

“You’ll find a number of papers on the second shelf of the cart. I want you to read through them and then tell me which of them would be the most useful.” Lareen glanced at her in the mirror’s reflection.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Why don’t you make yourself comfortable and use the chair back there?” Lareen pointed toward the corner of the room closest to the door where a bulky but well padded chair and a small table sat nestled.

Talia steered the cart in that direction and sat down. Gingerly, she pulled out the four sets of parchments and set them on the table. As she saw that the Administrator was paying her no attention whatsoever, she pushed herself farther back on the comfortable chair and opened the first parchment.

Within, she found what looked to be a list of common items-rope, hoses, eggs, chickens. It also listed their weights, quantities, and prices. The list was quite extensive, almost ten pages worth. She read through all the items, unsure whether something important might be hidden within. She didn’t find anything.

After looking through the list a second time, she rolled it back up, set it aside, and moved on to the next.

The new parchment contained a long poem. It was simple, the rhymes not well thought out, but it was very funny. The poem told of how the sun learned of the beautiful moon by the gossip of the clouds and then went on to spend his every waking moment trying to see her for himself. This could not be, of course, since the moon would normally only show herself once he’d gone from the sky. The sun however kept on, and on, oblivious.

Talia was forced to put her hand over her mouth a number of times as she read through the poem to keep from laughing out loud.

“Say, which one of these do you think I should wear today?”

She glanced up and found Lareen standing before a long dresser holding up a number of brightly colored and strangely cut clothes. Talia frowned, not having seen the like before. “Uh, ah, I’m not really sure, ma’am.”

“Oh well, never mind.” Lareen put the clothes back and then pulled out others which looked even stranger than the first.

Wondering what that was about, Talia rolled up the poem and reached for the third parchment.

The next one was sixteen pages long. And though it was written in a somewhat winded and dry style, she still found herself instantly fascinated. The contents went into some detail about the proper daily maintenance of dragons. A section was even devoted to the likes and dislikes of the different colored types of dragons. She was surprised at the many distinct types. The paper only listed eight, but suggested there were more.

A point of interest, common to all types, was their almost compulsive love of cherries. If the pits were left in them, the fruit even tended to have an intoxicating effect. Bold lettering strongly proclaimed though that if given too many pits, it could prove dangerous for the dragon. While small quantities were inebriating, large quantities of pits were poisonous. Cherries were poisonous?

The last section of the parchment dealt with a common vermin to dragons called worms. From what the parchment said, it seemed these worms worked to get underneath a dragon’s scales and latch on to the skin beneath. While the parasite was mostly an annoyance to the dragon, the parchment said they could be dangerous to a rider. It didn’t say how, although it did go to some length to explain the steps for their proper removal. Talia never heard of such a creature before, though now one of Kel’s references when he first picked her up made sense. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know more, though.

Talia glanced up to see what Lareen was doing before going on to the last parchment in the cart. She spotted the Administrator looking in her direction. The robe was gone, replaced by a frilly red dress of gossamer material, which seemed to accentuate certain parts of her and didn’t look overtly utilitarian. This was how the top person in a school dressed?

“Do you like it?” Lareen came closer and twirled before her so she could see all of it. Talia was hard-pressed to say anything, though Lareen did look beautiful in it.

“Hmm.” Lareen pouted lightly. “Maybe it’s not quite right for today. Oh, well. Carry on.” The Administrator went back across the room and pulled out other dresses as fully inappropriate and as strange as the first before disappearing behind a tall set of screens to change.

Talia forced herself to stop watching her and grabbed the last of the parchments.

This was the thickest of all-over thirty pages long. Unlike the previous one, however, it was written simply and was easy to read. It was a story of a Dragon Knight.

The whole tale was fun and interesting, though it seemed to be lacking in substance. The knight in the story was very busy-he was off saving princesses, slaying monsters, and doing other courageous deeds. Yet the descriptions in the story were vague and didn’t impart much of anything. It did have a good ending though-he married the most beautiful princess he’d rescued and got his own kingdom. She doubted anyone could ask for more.

When she finished with the last and set it down, she found Lareen sitting quietly on her bed staring at her. “Finished?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Talia noticed with some amusement the Administrator was wearing the same red dress she’d originally put on.

“Which of them do you choose?” Lareen asked, sounding almost as if out of rote rather than interest. “Or do you need more time?” She lay down on her side on the bed, in no way appearing as if she was in a hurry.

“No, I… I’ve made my decision.” Talia took the parchment on dragon maintenance.

Lareen’s brow rose on her lovely face. “That one? Why not the first?”

The Administrator’s seeming amazement at her choice surprised Talia. Her mind stumbled to come up with an explanation even as a small part of her now doubted her choice. “The, the list is nice and is made up of useful things, but other than to maybe be used for figuring out the general weight of things, you can’t really use it. Though it has prices on it, there’s no way to tell whose prices they are so the information is worthless.” She hoped she didn’t sound as unsure as she felt.

Lareen nodded. “And the poem?”

“It was funny. But other than possibly cheering someone up it has no real use.” Her stomach knotted as the notion occurred to her that Lareen might have written it.

“Hmm, and the story?”

Talia forced herself to take a breath and plunge on. “Entertaining, but lacks any real information.”

“All right, then why did you pick the one you did?” Lareen asked, her eyes bright.

She looked away from the woman’s suddenly intense stare. “Well, it has good, practical information. Things which as a guild member I could use.” She tried to come up with more to say but her brain wasn’t cooperating. She hoped it would be enough.

“Keep it then. I think you’ll definitely find it helpful.” Lareen rose from the bed. “Let’s go on over to my office. Bring the cart, won’t you?” Her colorful skirt rustled as she crossed the room. Talia picked up the other parchments, dumped them into the cart and, tucking the one she was to keep inside her vest, rushed to follow.

The Administrator’s office was the door closest to the golden door. A large, abused looking desk sat prominently in the back. Papers lay in neat stacks on one side of it. Lareen waved her toward the three padded chairs facing the desk.

Talia rolled the cart to the closest one and sat down.

“If you’ll look at the last shelf on the cart, you’ll find a nice assortment of knives there. Look through them and find one you like. Sheaths for them are in the drawer beneath it.” As she spoke, Lareen sat down and picked up one of the stacks of papers.

“Yes, ma’am.” She turned to do as she was told.

The last shelf of the cart held thirty-two knives in all. Some were made of silver, others of bone, some even of gold. Some held long blades; others were curved like snakes. Just as she’d done with the gems, she took all of them out of the cart and spread them before her. At least this was something she knew a little about.

Without much thought, she set aside the strangely curved blades and those made of precious metals. The curved blades would be too awkward for her to handle and the others were either made of a metal which would be too soft to prove useful for anything but decoration, or would tarnish too easily. The blacksmith’s son, Lir, taught her these things even as he learned them. Unlike her, Lir knew all along what he wanted to be. He too would be apprenticed to a guild soon. She wished he were here with her now.

Telling herself she had no right to think such things, Talia studied the eleven blades left. One by one, she picked them up and tested their balance and weight as well as how they felt in her hand. She put three of these quickly off on the rejected pile. After several more minutes, she finally settled on a thin, double-edged blade with a leather grip. She very much enjoyed the comfortable fit of the grip in her hand. The blade was also light, possessed good balance, and appeared to be able to take a good amount of abuse.

She placed all the other knives back in the cart, then opened the drawer beneath and sifted through the sheaths there until she found one that would handle her blade.

Once done, she stood up and glanced at Lareen, wondering what the Administrator would want her to do next. The fact she was being tested was obvious, but what the results of the tests would be used for she wasn’t so sure. Lareen was still at her desk, busily writing, her eyes moving over a number of other papers set before her. Her round face was set and focused, almost as if she were a different person from the carefree one Talia met not long before.

Before she could decide if she should interrupt her, the Administrator looked up as if sensing her stare. “All done?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Lareen beckoned her over. “Let me see what you picked.”

Talia brought over the sheathed blade and handed it to her. Her eyes glanced down at the papers on Lareen’s desk and she noticed the neat handwriting on the papers. One of them contained her name at the top. She was about to try and see what it said about her when Lareen spoke.

“Very nice choice. You’ve done quite well.” The Administrator’s smile was warm.

Talia guiltily looked away from the papers. “Thank you.”

A knock reverberated into the room from the hallway. Lareen glanced in that direction. “Ah, lunch is here. Perfect timing.” She turned to Talia. “Would you mind getting the door?” She gave her back her knife.

Talia nodded, amazed so much time had gone by, then took the knife and walked to the hallway. To her surprise, she saw the overwhelming door wasn’t gold on the inside but a deep, dark wood with steel reinforced supports. She went ahead and opened it.

A severe-faced, middle-aged woman nodded at her as she wheeled in a cart full of food. Her hair was cut very short and was colored black and gray. The woman immediately headed toward the Administrator’s office. Talia quickly closed the door and followed.

“Ah, thank you, Tula. Your timing is as impeccable as ever.” Lareen rose from her desk.

The scent of roasted pork and a tangy sauce whisked in the air making Talia’s stomach rumble in expectation.

“Tula, meet Talia, our newest recruit.” Lareen said.

“Pleased to meet you.” The newcomer’s accent was thick.

“Tula is our head cook. She rules the kitchen with an iron fist.” Lareen smiled as she spoke. “She has many talents.”

“Don’t listen to her, child. She’s just trying to flatter me to get more dessert.” Tula’s blue-gray eyes suddenly twinkled, brightening her face perceptively.

“Pleased to meet you too, ma’am,” Talia said.

“None of that, please. I’m nobody’s ma’am, just Tula.” The head cook started uncovering the dishes on the cart.

Lareen brought over a small table and lifted two wings on its sides to make it larger. Talia jumped in to help and quickly brought over a couple of chairs for them to sit on.

Tula served them both, making sure both their plates held plenty of vegetables and meat before taking her leave.

Lareen poured them cups of watered wine. “This is to celebrate your addition to the guild.” She raised her cup high. After a moment, Talia rushed to follow suit. “Congratulations and welcome.” Lareen beamed. Talia tried her best to return her smile, feeling suddenly a little overwhelmed and awkward.

“The rest of your class will be arriving over the next week. Until then, your time will be your own,” Lareen said. “Since you have money now, you might want to visit Nertak’s store. It’s located in a cave in the back of the grounds. I’m not sure how much you actually brought with you, but if you have need of anything, you should be able to find it there. If he doesn’t have it, he can order it for you.”

Talia nodded. She wondered if the Administrator knew what rumors were being spread about this man.

“He can also take care of any mail you might need to send.” Lareen stared at her knowingly. Talia truly didn’t know what to make of her.

“Your teacher will be Helyn. She will probably introduce herself to you sometime before your classes officially begin.”

As they ate, Lareen added little pieces of information to the meal. The building and the school it housed had stood for over eight hundred years. Over time, the rooms were given the names of knights who’d studied there and gone on to gain great fame. Lareen told her she herself was only one of a long line of administrators, and had cared for the school for the last five years. The school was one of six teaching the general, rudimentary skills. Specific schools for particular lines of work were seeded throughout the world.

“School is six days a week. The seventh day is your own, but part of it is to go toward the changing of the water in your tub and the linen on the beds,” Lareen told her. “There’s a bag in your closet for laundry. You just put what needs to be cleaned in there and set it out in the hallway on the way to breakfast. You should find it returned by the next day.”

Talia tried to commit all this to memory.

“Do you have any questions?” Lareen asked her amicably.

Talia sat back and seriously considered if she should ask anything. One of her many questions from earlier came up to the fore. “What is the lottery?”

“Ah.” Lareen appeared intrigued by her choice of question. “It’s a process we use to assign a knight to a dragon. Every year we have more people than there are dragons available. With the lottery, those who want to participate choose the color dragon best suited to their personality and then numbers are drawn to see who actually will be paired with one.”

“Is it how Kel got Clarence?” She inhaled quickly, not sure if she’d stepped out of line in asking this. She saw Lareen’s brow rise.

“Well, as you’ve seen, Clarence does have a certain flying disability. Though he’s spent quite a long time with the guild, he wasn’t normally included as part of the lottery-it was his choice. After Kel won his draw he specifically requested Clarence. Since Clarence agreed to it, it was done.”

Lareen sighed, a wistful look crossing her face. “Unfortunately, to become a full knight, the rider and dragon must pass a final test once they’ve bonded. Though expectations were high some of Clarence’s deficiencies would be overcome once he and Kel joined, it wasn’t the case-and so the final test proved beyond them.”

Talia nodded, Lareen’s words explaining a lot. She now understood where some of the jeers came from. But why would Kel have chosen Clarence in the first place? Surely both of them were aware there’d be a chance the idea wouldn’t work. And how would Clarence’s deficiencies have been overcome by this anyway? Was there more to the bonding than just getting to know each other?

“You’ll learn more about all this in your classes,” Lareen went on. “But there is one point I need to make. Dragons are not beasts of burden or just mounts, though I’m sure at times they might seem that way.” The Administrator’s eyes caught her own. “They’re our partners. Their time with us is a kind of apprenticeship for them. They are as smart if not smarter than humans and have the wisdom of long lives. Our partnerships are beneficial to both sides. Don’t ever make the mistake of thinking of them as nothing more than winged horses. They care, they think, they feel. Their bodies are different, but inside we’re very much alike.”

At Lareen’s words, Talia found herself feeling guilty. She’d already committed the mistake. Though Clarence spoke to her when they first met, she had still just thought of him as Kel’s mount-she’d thought Kel was the only one who was miserable. How much worse was it actually for Clarence? He was the one with the deficiency; he was the one who wasn’t thought of as a true dragon in the first place.

“Any other questions?”

She couldn’t bring herself to ask any more.

“Well,” Lareen said, “if you come up with anything else, just ask any watcher or teacher. They’ll be happy to help. And I’m always available, of course.” The Administrator gave her a warm smile. “One more thing though-I would truly appreciate it if you kept all details about this meeting to yourself where any of the other new students are concerned. It wouldn’t be fair to you or the others if they came to see me knowing what to expect.” Her eyes held a mischievous glint.

“Yes, ma’am.” Talia nodded, not entirely understanding.

Lareen stood up and came around to her side. “Unfortunately, I’ve got work to do, so I’m going to have to shoo you out now.” She led her to the main door. “Enjoy your time off before the work begins in earnest. I think you’ll make a nice addition to the guild.” Lareen gave her a big smile before shutting the golden door and leaving her alone in the hallway.

 


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