In the dim light, Jakob had not been able to clearly see the rider, though the dragon looked familiar to him. As the man strode quickly across camp, Jakob moved, carefully around tables and diners, to get a closer look. At the sound of the woman’s voice, he knew he had not been mistaken.
This was Li Tan.
“I am exhausted,” Li said now to the woman. “You are a welcome sight for my tired eyes, Rei. It is good to see you again.”
“It is good to see you,” she replied, and now stepped forward to embrace him. Their hug was short, however, for another man now spoke.
“What news from the South?” he asked. “What do you know?”
“Nothing pleasant,” the Rider replied. He paused, glancing briefly over the assembled. Most of them were still eating and talking, though some had paused to discretely eavesdrop. He nodded his head toward the building, indicating that he wished not to give his report in public.
The second man agreed at once. He was a few inches shorter than Li Tan, but he was older, with a bit of gray appearing in his dark hair, and a commanding air about him. They began to walk toward the buildings nearby.
“I’ll bring you something to eat,” Rei said, moving toward the tables of food and drink. Jakob watched her go, hesitated a moment, and then hurried to follow after Li Tan as he went into the village.
“It’s nothing good, Mau,” he admitted as they passed through an open door (through which Jakob quickly followed before it could be shut) and entered one of the smaller buildings. Inside, it was mostly dark, but the older man began at once to light some lanterns, using the flame of the light he had carried with them. He hung one from a hook in the center of the ceiling.
“Sit,” he said, gesturing toward a few cushions upon the ground. “Tell me, is all hope lost for the South?”
Li sighed heavily as he sank into the cushions. “I don’t know about all hope,” he admitted, “but there seems to be little remaining.” He sighed again and ran his hands through his hair.
“I know you have friends there,” Mau said gently.
“Had, at any rate,” the other answered. “I don’t know how many of them are left…alive.”
His voice had nearly broken, and it was with some effort that he composed himself again. Jakob felt at the thin line on his neck and wondered how many others grieved for him. Was their grief a mistake? How many others might now be dead?
The door opened, interrupting the conversation. Rei carried a tray with three mugs of hot, steaming tea and a plate of food. She set the plate before Li Tan without speaking and gave a mug to Mau, taking the third for herself as she settled upon another cushion.
“I’m not going away,” she said to his mildly disapproving look. “I want to know, too. If the Emperor decides to trek northward toward Edyon, our people will be in his way.”
“Will he, though?” Mau wondered. He blew on his tea to cool it, inhaling the sweet vapors. “Has he any interest in taking Edyon?”
“There’s no reason to believe he’ll stop with Damorey, is there?” she replied. She set her mug down upon the ground. “We digress. Tell us what news you have, Li Tan.”
Having by now devoured several bites of his meat, Li swallowed a gulp of tea and sighed heavily. “They’ve reached the capital, at least,” he said, fixing his eyes upon his plate. “There have been…executions…of those who would resist.”
There was a moment of respectful silence. Rei sipped her tea, waited, and then ventured to ask. “Those you know?”
He sighed heavily, collecting himself, and then nodded. “Yes.” He took a deep breath and shut his eyes. “One I would call friend.”
Mau frowned deeply, twisting his eyebrows into an expression of concern. Rei gasped aloud, and covered her mouth with one hand. “Oh!” she said. “Not the princess?”
“No,” Li replied at once. “Her husband.”
There was another moment of respectful silence between them all. Li continued his meal without speaking. Rei bowed her head and shut her eyes. Mau frowned more deeply into his tea.
Jakob breathed a sigh of relief. Though he had suspected that Li referred to his own “death” – if that was truly what it was – the question Rei had put forth nonetheless had sent a shiver of fear down his spine. He had not considered the possibility of Olivia’s demise.
“And what of her highness, then,” Mau asked. “Does she lead the rebellion?”
“Perhaps in secret,” Li Tan answered. “She remains within the royal palace. Prince Igor says he will have her as his wife, an easy enough task now that….”
He paused, cleared his throat, and then began again.
“I do not know that she will agree, though. Forcing her to accept will not endear him to the people, but I do not know that he much cares.” He sighed. “From what I hear, she has so far refused all offers.”
“How long has it been,” Rei asked quietly, “since…?”
“Nearly two weeks now,” he replied. “Which is not nearly enough time to grieve.”
There was further silence.
“Two weeks?” Jakob asked. “I’ve been dead for two weeks?”
“Is there any news of the King?” Mau asked, changing the subject, perhaps to distract Li Tan from his grief. “He had gone to Provia, last I heard.”
“Last I heard, too,” Li Tan answered. “I don’t know if he’s still there. Igor’s armies have halted at the capital, from what I understand, but there could have been another wave, coming up through the Southern Sea. There was one that landed near Rawae and then headed directly to the Capital, but perhaps there was another that bypassed the capital and headed northwest.” He shrugged.
“So there’s reason to believe he still lives,” Rei said.
“Some,” Li replied. “I don’t suppose we’ll know unless he decides to make a move.”
“One of us,” Mau said quietly, “could get to Provia quite easily.” He paused, as the others looked at him in surprise. “It’s nearer to us than to the capital, and would likely be barely two days of flying.”
“What happened to not interfering in the politics of Damorey?” Rei demanded. “What happened to not getting involved in incidents between the nations? The last time we interfered in a matter between Damorey and Edyon….”
“Was nearly two centuries ago,” Li pointed out.
“Yes, and we have still not completely recovered,” she returned. “Why should we not let them destroy one another?”
He shrugged. “Sentiment is my only answer,” he replied. “I admit that both myself and Alorno have grown quite fond of her highness. For her, I might be willing to involve myself.” He paused. “For her, and for my departed friend.”
Rei frowned at him. “Sentiment that will only lead to your own demise,” she replied, “and then what will I do?”
He had no brilliant response to this, but looked away.
“There is more than sentiment,” Mau said quietly, interrupting what might soon become a lovers’ quarrel. “If Igor means to conquer all Damorey, do you think he will allow the Dragonya to continue as we have? Do you think he will be half as accommodating as the kings of Damorey have been?”
The others were silent, and so he went on:
“And if he decides to head north and conquer Edyon, do you suppose we will not be caught in the middle?”
“No,” Rei admitted, “we likely will be, in either case.” She sighed.
“We will be forced to take a side before long,” he went on. “I think it is better if we are prepared, and it is under our own terms.”
“So you would have us side with Damorey, then,” Rei concluded. “Would you have us swear allegiance to their King and give up centuries of our independence?”
“No,” Mau answered at once. “The Dragonya answer to neither king nor emperor. If he does not accept us as allies then we will not assist.”
He turned toward Li Tan, who was frowning thoughtfully. “You have met his majesty,” he said. “Do you suppose he will accept the help of the Dragon Riders?”
Li raised a hand in protest. “I have met him only briefly. I cannot say with certainty,” he answered. “I know that his sister would. She showed no fear of Alorno, even while the bravest of the men around her would have hesitated.”
“But the King?” Rei asked.
He shrugged. “He would not turn down offered assistance, I don’t think,” he admitted. “But as to what conditions he will propose, I cannot say. He seems to be a nice enough King, but I am no expert.”
“Well, if he proposes that we bow and kneel to him, then I say we refuse,” Rei declared. “The Dragonya answer to no King.”
“And then what?” Li asked her. “Do we flee into the mountains with the dragons? We cannot hide from the war forever.”
She frowned at him.
“Let us wait,” Mau interrupted before an argument could commence, “and see what he has to say.” He waited a moment to see if there was to be any disagreement on that subject, and then continued:
“Li Tan, as our ambassador to the Southern Kingdom, will you fly to Provia and make contact with the King of Damorey?”
All eyes turned toward the dark haired man, who nodded. “I will go tomorrow,” he said. “I will offer our help to his majesty, and I will pass on the information I have gathered from his kingdom.”