Night came shortly after to the village. Jakob slipped from the building at the same time that Mau made his exit, noting that Rei and Li Tan were beginning to look at one another with eyes suggesting that they would be quite interested in being alone for a bit. She slid closer to him, and sat with her head upon his shoulder.
The night was cool, but warm. Those still awake were beginning the cleanup of the feast, emptying leftovers into bowls which they then wrapped shut, gathering the dirty dishes into piles where they might be washed the following day. Jakob watched them work for some time, and then watched as the last of them went indoors to sleep, leaving only a few remaining to stay beside the dragon caves, a few faint torches glowing.
What now? he wondered.
He could not stay, hidden amongst these people, stealing food from them and listening for gossip of his homeland. If it were possible, he would have liked to go with Li Tan to Provia, but sneaking onboard a dragon’s back was a risk and danger he did not want to take. Still, if he did not stay here, where would he go?
Home. He wanted to go home. He wanted to go to Olivia and take her in his arms. He wanted to comfort her and assure her that he was not dead, assure himself that she was all right.
The last sight of her burned in his memories. She had stood on the balcony, one arm outstretched. Tears had flowed down her face. She had screamed his name.
She was beautiful.
He could never again see her, he realized. He could never again spend a night in her arms the way that Li and Rei now likely were. She would not see him, she would not hear him, she would never again look at him.
He was dead.
He was alive, but he was dead to the world – he could not speak to people, he could not be seen or heard by them. He could not kiss her, he could not talk to her or anyone else. This was the same as being dead, was it not?
No. It was worse.
He could not stay. He came to that decision as the stars began to twinkle overhead and the moon’s bright light illuminated the sleeping village. These were not his people, and he could not contribute, only take from them and steal their food.
He got to his feet, and only then noticed his clothes.
He had awoken in the forest dressed in the clothes he wore now, and had given no thought to where they had come from, simply accepted it and began the search for food and answers. He saw now that he was dressed aptly for summer, in a thin linen tunic and plain, thin trousers. His boots were ordinary leather footwear, tied on with cords, without embellishment or decoration. There was a thick leather belt around his waist, and this held no weapon of any kind but simply served the purpose of holding up his trousers.
A cool breeze danced through the valley. He would need more than food if he was to survive.
By the time the sun rose, Jakob had taken all he thought he would need to survive and stuffed most of it into a leather haversack that he could easily carry over one shoulder. He’d found a cloak, too, abandoned near the edge of the tables set out for the feast. It wasn’t necessary in the heat of the day, but come nightfall and colder temperatures, it would likely be quite helpful.
He stood at the edge of the village, having decided to wait long enough to view Li Tan’s departure, which happened not long after sunrise.
The Dragon Rider appeared in the clearing outside the caves, dressed in his best riding gear. He wore sturdy leather boots, tipped with metal accents, thick trousers lined with leather patches. His tunic was made of thin linen, dyed a dark green, and a leather jacket that he wore unbuttoned for the moment fell over his shoulders. His long hair was pulled back behind him, and a fur-lined cap, also made of leather, was upon his head. There were flaps that might shield his ears from the cold and wind, tied up for now.
On his belt he wore a short sword, and strapped to his back was a quiver of arrows and a longbow. In battle, Jakob knew that a Dragon was fierce on his own, but a Rider might need to defend himself as well. An arrow, shot from the back of a speeding dragon, was likely to meet its target before any saw it coming.
The woman followed after him, dressed far more plainly in a simple brown skirt and red top. Her hair was styled in the manner that seemed popular amongst the Dragonya women – loose but for a couple of simple braids tied back behind her head.
“I wish you didn’t have to go,” she said quietly, so softly that few heard her. “I wish I could come with you.”
He said nothing, but looked at her for a long moment.
A gust of sudden force sent her hair blowing into her face, her skirt fluttering in the wind. The Dragon had landed.
He was a shiny green, sparkling in the bright sunlight of the dawn. The fan of scales around his face was spread wide, making him look regal and dignified. Slowly, he lowered his long neck so that his eyes were level with the humans.
Rei took a half step back at his presence, but did not quaver or hide behind Li. After a moment, she took her skirt in both her hands and curtsied toward the dragon. “I do not mean to imply that you cannot protect him, Alorno,” she said, “and apologize for giving that impression, but I will always worry.”
The dragon seemed to take no offense, for he now lifted his head and turned his face into the wind. The humans present looked toward him for a moment, and then turned back to face each other.
“I promise you, I will be careful,” Li said, and gently brushed his fingers lightly upon her cheek. “I will return to you soon.”
“You’d better,” she replied, and he smiled as he bent to kiss her, softly at first and then melting into an intense embrace which they were both reluctant to end. At last, they did, and then each took a step backward, as though being any closer to one another would make it impossible to separate.
“Rei Hao,” he said then. “I will return to you.”
She had been studying the ground, and now she looked up at him with bright dark eyes. “Li Tan,” she replied, “You had better.”
He smiled then, and turned back to the Dragon that was waiting. He had been fitted now with the necessary accessories. A wide leather strap encircled his thick neck, providing a handhold for the Rider. To this same strap, several small bags were attached, holding supplies of food and other essentials (for the comfort of the Rider, as most dragons preferred to consume their meat raw and would hunt and eat on the wing during the journey).
“Here, sir,” said one of the boys that had been standing nearby, and held up to Li Tan a folded piece of fabric. The rider took it in his hands, unfolding it to reveal the large, dark green cloak that matched both his shirt and his dragon. He threw it over his shoulders, and then Rei stepped forward to fasten it in place beneath his chin.
“Have a good flight,” she told him, and then turned toward the dragon, who nodded his thanks. As she stepped back again, the dragon swung his tail around, and Li Tan stepped forward, using this as leverage to leap upon the dragon’s neck. He slid a pair of fingerless leather gloves over his hands and then took hold of the leather strap.
He paused for a brief moment, eyes upon the woman, and then he nodded. “Alorno,” he said. “Let us fly.”
The dragon drew himself up from the ground. He lengthened his tail so that it now stretched behind him, as long as his body and then some. He spread his wide, leathery wings and raised his front legs off the ground, then crouched, bending his back legs before leaping into the air. His wings flapped once, then again, sending dust and dirt into the air. Rei stepped backward, shielding her eyes. The boys nearby had already scurried to safety, nearer the caves.
With that, the Dragon was airborne. With each wing flap he drew higher into the sky. Before long, they were gone, vanished beyond the hills at the valley’s edge.