rowyn: (Aunbrel and Ember)
Before his rounds the next day, Aunbrel stopped by the captain's office. Captain Tasker was a tall stocky woman of middle years, hunched at her desk as she went over the day's assignments. He tapped at her open door. "Ma'am? May I have a word?"

Captain Tasker waved him in. "Yes?"

"I've noticed there's something of a chronic backlog in the matter of filing reports and logging case notes in this peacehouse."

"Are you offering to fix this?" the captain asked, dryly.

"After a fashion, yes," Aunbrel said. Captain Tasker raised her eyebrows, surprised. "My nest-partner has an -- "

"Wait," Captain Tasker interrupted. "Did you just say 'nest-partner'?"

Kinsley had found out two days ago and been teasing Aunbrel about Ember ever since, along with half the peacehouse, it seemed. Aunbrel had assumed everyone knew by now. "Ember. The viper-dragon who lives with me. Yes."

"'Nest-partner'?" Tasker repeated.

"If I may continue?"

Tasker shook her head to clear it. "Go ahead."

"Ember has a knack for organization, excellent penmanship, and an eye for detail. If you are amenable, I'd like to invite her to help with the peacehouse's paperwork."

"Huh. You want me to offer her a job? I don't know that we've the budget for more clerical staff, though you're right that we could use some. Never had a viper-dragon working here before. They can write?" The captain looked skeptical.

"And sort, shelve, file, and pretty much anything you would assume one would need hands for. So far as I can discern," Aunbrel said. "If Ember's willing to do it at all, I suspect she'll be amenable to part-time volunteer work to start." It's not as though I'm paying her to index my books as it is. "If you're happy with her after a few weeks, you could see about finding room in the budget for another clerk. It might be cheaper in the long run than the mad scrambles to produce needed documents at the last moment."

Tasker snorted. "There's that. I'll talk to the Bright Lady about it. It's the sort of thing she likes to be kept abreast of."

Of course. "Thank you, captain."

When Aunbrel finished his rounds several hours later, a message from the captain was waiting for him on his desk: Bright Lady gave it her stamp of approval, send Miss Ember to see me if she's interested.




When Aunbrel returned home, Ember was working on the book project on the kitchen table again. Dinner was in the oven. "Why are you samassas?" Aunbrel asked.

Ember raised her head to give an open-mouthed smile in greeting. "Because I'm tiny," she answered, returning to her writing. "I can't take care of myself."

"You can't really believe that." Aunbrel scrounged about the kitchen drawers for another pen.

"I can't?"

"You can cook, clean, and scribe. There's plenty of humans, and elves for that matter, living independently with fewer marketable skills." Aunbrel returned to the table with pen in hand, and took a seat.

"But I can't do that outside the nest."

"Because you're samassas. You do realize that's circular reasoning?" The elf took one of the books from the waiting pile, and one of the blank cards.

"I ... yes. But it's not safe for me, going outside alone. Any larger viper-dragon could ... what are you doing?" Ember asked, a note of horror creeping into her voice.

Aunbrel paused in writing out the author of the volume on the card. "Helping with your project?"

The viper-dragon shrank back. "I'm sorry it's just there's so many and it's slow going I am trying I didn't realize -- " she gabbled, trembling.

The elf blinked at her. "Er? I'm not upset, Ember."

"butyou'rdoingmywork!"

"Yes? I can do it while we talk and I don't have anything else to do with my hands." A flash of inspiration struck him. "It's an elf thing. We don't divide up work, so there's no worries about who does what."

Nicitating membranes flicked over orange eyes. "Ohhh." She digested that, and relaxed. "All right."

They returned to their respective cards and wrote for a moment in silence, before Aunbrel returned to the previous topic. "I understand that you're small, Ember, but it's hardly as though I am invulnerable. Any large viper-dragon could eat me for breakfast and be hungry again by dinner. Any large group of any people could kill me, for that matter if they were so inclined. I am not protected by my physical strength: I am protected by the rule of law. By civilization. Those protections may have ... certain exceptions, as regards nest matters among viper-dragons." Aunbrel made an effort to keep his tone neutral. "But those exceptions only apply to internal nest matters. I checked. You are my nest-partner now. No viper-dragon may assault, detain, abduct, or even harass you without violating that law. And I daresay they know that." Ember nodded, but didn't speak. Aunbrel forged on. "I don't know if that makes a difference. My profession is to keep this city and all its inhabitants safe, and the Air knows we don't always succeed. At protecting people in their own homes, for that matter. But it is a good system, and it works well enough that I do not think you should feel a prisoner here, Ember. I don't want you to be afraid to live in the world outside these walls."

Ember shifted her coil, pensive. At length, she said, "It's ... sort of like the whole city is your nest, isn't it? This is just a little part of it. You're protecting the whole city."

Aunbrel nodded. "I am."

"And the other guardians are your nest-partners in it. They keep the city safe too."

Aunbrel involuntarily tried to envision Kinsley or Captain Tasker in the role of nest-partner. "... I ... that might be stretching the analogy somewhat. After a fashion, perhaps." He gave her a curious look. "Does it help to think of it that way?"

Ember bobbed her head, nodding. "It makes sense. And it explains why you're not here during the day."

"I was wondering about that, after you were talking about samassas not working outside the nest," Aunbrel admitted. "Because ifisith don't either, do they? They stay to protect the nest. It's only the -- the mid-sized ones that work outsized."

"The mashisith. Yes. And you're not mashisith. But you're not really leaving, you're just protecting another part of the nest. And this part is being kept safe by the other guardians. Nest-partners." Ember gave an all-over happy wriggle. "So there's no reason I can't do nest-work at the peacehouse. It's just another part of the nest!"

Aunbrel smiled. "Does that make sense? To your hindbrain, that is."

"I think so? It's ... awfully large, as a nest. And encompasses other nests in a way, which doesn't make sense. But still. I think I can do it."

"Good. Because the Air knows we could surely use your help."




It took a few days to arrive at a good routine. Ember had to be introduced to every member of the peacehouse ("It doesn't feel right if I don't even know them"), although Aunbrel cautioned her against calling them 'nest-partners'. "Especially Kinsley."

After trying a few variations, they settled on going to the peacehouse together in the morning. Ember would work half a shift on filing, deciphering and transcribing notes, and organizing documents. Then she'd return to the flat to tend to home-chores or read, and cook dinner. Aunbrel had once or twice attempted to persuade Ember that he was, in fact, capable of feeding himself. "When I got here, your larder consisted of two tins of chicken, a half-packet of stale flatbread, and the remains of a bottle of wine turned to vinegar," she'd answered.

"I like chicken."

"You didn't have salt."

His heart wasn't really in it.

With her spending part of the day out of the apartment, the place was no longer obsessively immaculate, which was something of a relief to Aunbrel. The elf was inclined by nature to be tidy, but there was something vaguely unnerving about having freshly-scrubbed ceilings. Tonight, she was making a casserole of mushrooms, spinach, crabmeat, and rice when Aunbrel returned home. He sat at the kitchen table while she assembled the ingredients, and took up one of the blank cards and a book. They were still working in desultory fashion on the index project, because it was a terribly beguiling idea once conceived.

While dinner was baking, they talked about the day's incidents; Ember took notes to write up when she was at the peacehouse the next day. When the casserole was ready, they cleared the table to eat; Ember had grown used to Aunbrel's help and no longer took it as implied criticism.

During a pause in the dinner conversation, Aunbrel sipped at a mug of warm spiced cider, watching Ember snap up bites of food from her plate with quick and oddly dainty motions. "When I first invited you to stay, I had no idea what I was getting into. I daresay if I'd had the least notion what it would be like," he paused for breath, and Ember looked up nervously before he finished, "I'd have invited you weeks earlier."

Ember's tailtip wriggled in shy pleasure. "Truly?"

"Absolutely."

Ember dipped her head back to her plate. "I feel like an awful bother sometimes, with all my irrational impulses that don't make sense to you."

The elf shook his head. "I don't know that all my habits are based in strict rationality either. Not that it's not an adjustment. And more than a bit peculiar at times. I rather feel like I'm taking advantage of you, to be honest." She looked puzzled, and he gestured vaguely around the room. "You don't need to do all of this. Cooking and cleaning and whatnot. You're not my servant."

"But I like doing it." She glanced away. "Maybe because you don't expect me to."

"If you ever change your mind, I promise not to complain if you stop. But I think I am done trying to talk you out of it." Aunbrel smiled. "In any case ... thank you for accepting the offer."

The little dragon ducked her head again. "I think I should be thanking you. This is a very strange sort of nest -- and I love it. All my life, I've been told so many rules, so many codes of behavior, all designed to keep me safe. And it seems like none of those rules matter now. And you know ... for the first time ... I actually feel safe."

Aunbrel raised his mug in salute. "To our very strange sort of nest, then."

Somber, Ember curled her tail around her glass and clinked. "May it never be normal."
rowyn: (Aunbrel and Ember)
They stayed up too late talking, about everything. How to mend rugs (because Aunbrel had no idea and it seemed like magic to him, and still seemed like magic after Ember showed him, especially her deft handling of the hook and yarn with the curl of her tail). How Ember's former nest-partners had treated her on the visit ("Very well! I think we'll get along wonderfully now that I'm not living there.") Commander Lisia's informal commendation and attendant lack-of-enlightenment from her. Viper-dragon nest behavior. Elf home behavior. By the end of the evening, Aunbrel still did not feel he understood, but he was beginning to conceive that understanding was, perhaps, more journey than destination. And he might be farther down the road than he realized.

Aunbrel left Ember coiled up in her blanket on the couch, thinking I should get a bed for her in the spare room. Or something. What do viper-dragons normally sleep on? When he'd originally let the apartment, he had intended to use the spare room as a study, but all it had were more bookcases at the moment. He just hadn't gotten around to furnishing it yet.

He'd changed and settled beneath the thick furs of his blankets and was starting to doze off when a click at the bedroom door and a slithering sound snapped him to full wakefulness. "Ember?"

A little red dragon head peered at him over the side of the bed. "Um."

"Is something wrong?"

"No." Ember shifted uncomfortably. Her blanket was curled in her tail. Aunbrel waited. "It's just I know elves normally sleep alone and that's fine I'm sure I can get used to it eventually I managed to sleep last night and in the cage at jail for that matter but viper-dragons usually sleep in piles and -- "

Aunbrel threw back the covers, and bent to scoop her up. He settled her at his back, and pulled the furs back over them. "Better?"

She snuggled in against him, a warm solid weight at his back, tucking her own blanket against her other side. "Thank you."

"You're welcome. Sleep well, Ember."

"You too, Aunbrel."




Four days later, Aunbrel returned home to discover Ember at the kitchen table, with dozens of small white cards spread before her, and more in boxes beside her. A dozen books were neatly stacked at her other side. Ember was carefully printing on one of the cards, using a pen held in her tail. Dinner was simmering on the stove.

"What are you doing?" Aunbrel asked curiously.

"I'm indexing your book collection."

Aunbrel blinked. "What?"

"I thought it might be useful. You've got so many! And at least a third aren't even fiction. I thought I'd make an index first, and cross-reference them by author, title, and subject matter. Then maybe regroup them by subject matter. I mean, all the cookbooks should at least be together, for example. I'm putting the entries on cards so they'll be easy to reorganize. And add to." Orange eyes turned to him. "Oh! You got a new book!"

Aunbrel set his latest purchase on the table, feeling somehow guilty. "You're indexing. My books."

"It was that or strip the kitchen table and re-varnish it, and the novelty of housework without being interrupted is wearing off." Ember looked a little anxious. "Do you think I shouldn't?"

Aunbrel leaned against the table, giving the little dragon a considering look. "I think there is a growing mound of rather more urgent paperwork at the peacehouse that would benefit from your attention."

Ember wiggled her tail, amused. "It's a pity I can't do that."

"Why can't you?"

The viper-dragon's tail stilled as she saw he was serious. "I guess if you brought it home and showed me what to do ... ?"

"No, I mean, why can't you come to the peacehouse and do it? The filing cabinets are all there. Clearly you are capable of such organization."

Ember looked agitated. "But that'd be outside work!"

"No, it's indoors."

"I mean outside the nest! I can't work outside the nest! I'm samassas!"

Aunbrel took the simmering pot from the stove, inhaling the fragrance of chicken stew and dumplings, and set it on a trivet. "Is this a problem because someone else told you it should be, or because you feel it is one?"

"I don't know. Yes?" Ember coiled up on herself, her scales rumpled.

The tall elf sat in the chair beside her. "It's all right, Ember," he said, gently. "I'm not going to make you do it if you'd rather not."

"I'd do it if you told me to," she said in a small voice.

"... is this another viper-dragon thing?"

"Yes."

"I am disinclined to ask you to do things you don't want to, Ember, much less order you," Aunbrel said. Ember didn't reply. She gathered the loose cards with her tail and tucked them into boxes. " ... do you mean that you want me to tell you to?"

"... maybe?"

Aunbrel attempted to digest this concept. "I don't think I've quite got the trick of this nest-partner business."

Ember's tail gave a weak wiggle. "Me either, and I was born to it."

"So. Why might you want me to order you to do something you don't want to do otherwise?"

"Because then I'd know I was supposed to."

"And if I suggest it but don't order it?"

"Ifisith don't make suggestions to samassas."

"May we opt out of this rule of nesting behavior?"

Ember wiggled her tail again. "I think we already did. But it's still there, in my hindbrain."

"I didn't order you to index my book collection. I didn't even ask you to."

"But that's different. It's just another part of nest-care. I'm supposed to do that. I'm not supposed to work outside the nest. I'm not even supposed to go outside the nest without an escort."

"But you have been," Aunbrel pointed out. "To the grocer's. I didn't buy fresh chicken or rosemary. And I didn't tell you to."

Ember rested her chin on the table. "I know. That feels sort of wrong too, still, and sort of wonderful. I did sneak out from the Coalstone nest a lot. It's still strange not to be sneaking."

Aunbrel took a deep breath. "Why don't I talk to the captain about you doing the work, and you can think some more about whether you want to do it? Or need me to order you to, I suppose."

She nodded, clearing the rest of the book-index project from the table so they could eat.
rowyn: (Aunbrel and Ember)
After they finished their rounds the next day, Aunbrel was in even more of a rush to leave the peacehouse than Kinsley. The elf dumped the day's notes in his drawer and headed for the door. "What's gotten into you, elf boy?" the old officer asked, shrugging out of his uniform jacket.

Aunbrel had spent the day not explaining the situation to Kinsley, and wasn't about to ruin his record now. "I am taking the admonishment that I not work so hard seriously. You should be pleased."

"Hey, did I complain you worked too hard?"

"Yes."

"Really?"

"Yes."

"Huh. Don't know what I was thinking." Kinsley walked with Aunbrel down the steps to the main floor. "Want to get a drink?"

"No, thank you." Aunbrel crossed the big main room, headed for the door. "I just want to get ho -- "

"Commander on floor!" a senior guardian's voice barked. By reflex, every person in the large room, including prisoners, complainants, Kinsley (somewhat creakily) and Aunbrel, turned to the door and dropped to one knee, ducking their heads as Commander Lisia entered the peacehouse.

"As you were," the Commander said, her leopard pacing beside her. Everyone rose and returned to their purposes, stealing covert glances to the Bright Lady's fur robes and gold headdress. She carried a leather folder tucked beneath one arm. Aunbrel and Kinsley kept their eyes respectfully averted as they moved to the door.

"Guardian Aunbrel?" Commander Lisia touched his arm.

Aunbrel reflected that twenty-foot viper-dragons had nothing on the Bright Lady when it came to intimidation. And she's not even trying. "Yes, Bright Lady?"

"I'm glad to find you here. Might I have a word with you?"

Aunbrel wondered what he'd done wrong now. "Yes, Bright Lady." He trailed obediantly behind her as she entered the guard captain's office. The captain rose and started to kneel at her entrance, but stopped when she waved off the formality.

"Thank you for bringing the Coalstone nest matter to my attention, Captain Tasker," the Commander said. "You were quite correct; it's exactly the sort of thing I need to be informed about." The captain acknowledged this with a nod.

Ah, that. Naturally.

Commander Lisia turned back to the tall elf. "You've been causing quite a stir with the viper-dragon populace, Guardian Aunbrel. They're not used to interference in nest affairs."

"Yes, Bright Lady." Aunbrel held himself formally, hands clasped at his back. You did say I should get a hobby.

The commander leafed through the folder in her hands, saying absently, "Some of them did not appreciate it much, although Mistress River ... I'm sorry, Guardian, were you in a hurry this evening?"

'No' was untrue and 'Yes' was impossible. "Bright Lady?"

"No matter." She closed the folder. "I appreciate your efforts. Well done, Guardian. You may go. Have a good evening." The commander turned back to Tasker, taking a seat opposite her at the desk and putting the folder on the desk. "There's a few things I'd like to discuss with you, captain."

Aunbrel stood near the door, blinking, as his superiors fell into discussion. Need warred with prudence. He opened the door, and started to step outside, before need overthrew caution and prudence both. He cleared his throat.

His superiors looked to him. "Yes, Guardian?" Commander Lisia said.

"Permission to ask a question, Bright Lady?"

A graceful nod. "Speak."

"... do you know what's going on? That is, does any of this viper-dragon business make any sense at all to you? Because if you could explain it to me, I would be forever in your debt, Bright Lady."

A small smile formed on the commander's face. "I do believe, at this point, that you understand as much of it as any other person in Hopestart, Guardian Aunbrel."

"... that is not the reassurance I had hoped for, Bright Lady."

"Now you know what my job's like. Go home, Guardian."




When he got home, Aunbrel opened the door to an apartment he barely recognized.

It gleamed.

The hardwood floor in the front room had been polished and the tile in the kitchen waxed. The rugs had been aired and beaten, making them two shades brighter, and the threadbare patches in them mended so faultlessly they looked new. The tattered sofa had been patched artfully over the top and arms. The books stacked two-deep in the row of cases against one wall had been pulled out, dusted, alphabetized, and returned with the back rows stacked atop small empty boxes so that the spines were visible above the front rows. An appetizing smell of spiced beef and vegetables wafted in from the equally-pristine kitchen.

Ember called out from the kitchen, "Good evening! I know you weren't sure when you'd be home but I thought I'd try cooking something -- I remembered you saying that the izkawa beef from A Hope in War sounded good, so I found a recipe in one of your cookbooks ...." She slithered into the front room and trailed off. Aunbrel was standing open-mouthed by the entranceway. "Is something wrong?" she asked in a small voice.

"What happened here?"

Ember coiled up on herself. "I'm sorry I just thought I should straighten up a bit and I didn't think you'd mind you said it was all right to go to the grocer's if I needed anything and well I didn't mean to mess up your books I can put them back the way they were if you don't like it -- "

The elf threw his arms out. "I don't -- " He took a deep breath. "I'm not angry, Miss Ember. Surprised. Yes. Surprised. I thought you'd spend the day reading or somesuch. Did you do all this yourself?"

"... mostly? Glasscale, you remember him, he stopped by with Mistress River to bring some of my things and they helped with getting the boxes to prop the books on. But mostly me."

"... what happened to 'I'm lazy and hate all my work'?"

"Well. It's much easier to get things done when there's no one around to interrupt me. And I couldn't spend the whole day reading. And I thought I should try to start things off right. I'm sorry."

"Miss Ember," Aunbrel said, with a straight face but a smile in his voice, "You are as bad an overachiever as I am. Is that food ready? Because I am ravenous."

Ember uncoiled, her tail giving a tentative pleased wiggle. "Yes."

The viper-dragon insisted on transfering the meal from pan to serving dish before serving. Aunbrel hadn't even known he had a serving dish. The table was already set with plates and napkins; Ember looked chagrined when Aunbrel retrieved flatware for himself. Aunbrel was somewhat relieved to see that though the scuffed kitchen table had been scrubbed and polished, it had not been stripped and revarnished. Yet. He sat in one chair while Ember coiled atop the other. They ate in companionable silence for a few minutes, until Ember spoke. "Guardian ... do you think you could call me Ember instead of 'Miss Ember'? Since we're nest-partners?"

"Only if you'll call me Aunbrel," the elf replied.

Ember's eyes widened. "Oh, no, I couldn't do that."

"Miss Ember it is, then."

Her tail tip gave a nervous wiggle. "But you're ifisith! I ought to call you Master Aunbrel."

Aunbrel set his fork down and favored her with a look. "Don't you dare." She tilted her head to one side, puzzled. The elf sighed. "I understand this is all different from what you're used to, but I did not invite you here to be my servant. Or samassas, for that matter. I invited you as my friend. I should like us to still be friends. Ember."

She ducked her head, then opened her mouth in an imitation smile. "Me too ... Aunbrel."
rowyn: (Aunbrel and Ember)
River flowed down the street faster than Aunbrel could run; when the viper-dragon realized he wasn't keeping up, she scooped him into the curl of her tail and carried him. It was the most undignified mode of travel he'd ever experienced. Even when they reached the nest, she didn't stop. He had never been inside its labyrinthine halls before, but River bore him inside now, slithering through passages into a wide low-ceilinged chamber at its heart. The room was packed with seething viper-dragons in an echo of the situation he'd first seen them in: medium ones watching, big ones circling, Ember at the center. River bored through the pack. hissing "Stop," in their native tongue. Aunbrel could not speak it, but he'd learned to understand a bit of it by now. She deposited Aunbrel in the inner ring, between two of the large viper-dragons. They hissed their displeasure.

Aunbrel got to his feet, straightening as much as he could, though the low ceiling forced him to stoop. He stumbled to Ember's side. She was missing a half-dozen scales around her neck. "How bad is it?" he asked. She met his gaze with blank orange eyes, as if she couldn't remember how to speak his language. That bad, then.

River coiled between them and the other viper-dragons, repeating, "Stop" again and again, and then something longer that he didn't understand until she repeated it in the human tongue. "This one has protected the samassas. He has a right to be here. He is ifisith. He has a right."

I am what? "Ifishith"? That's ...a nest role? Leader? Aunbrel boggled, watching the viper-dragons around him. Frequent contact had given him a better feel for their moods, and he realized that the nest was not only angry and hostile, but pained. Wounded.

"Then he should stand with us," hissed the turqouise dragon. "Why does he stand by the samassas-fith?"

"And he must agree with the amendment," the indigo viper-dragon hissed.

"No." Aunbrel hunched, his head pressed against the too-low ceiling. "You're not fixing anything. Not like this." Like a wounded animal, gnawing at its own limb in an effort to stop the pain. "Tell me what's wrong."

A half-dozen voices called out answers in the dragon tongue: even if he understood it like a native he could not have made them out. River again slithered a circle just inside the ring of the leaders made, hissing a warning. They fell silent, then spoke one at a time.

"She defies the natural order."

"Refused work."

"Spoke against the will of a leader."

"Encouraged willfulness in others."

"Resisted all prior amendment."

"She must be amended." All of the leaders hissed in unison on the final words.

This is unbearably petty. Aunbrel licked dry lips. "Who was hurt?" He turned, looking from one viper-dragon to the next. They returned blank, uncomprehending gazes. "What did she damage? Because the only injury I'm seeing right now is on her."

"You do not understand." River slid into place in the circle of the other leaders. "She damages the order. The nest cannot continue like this."

Aunbrel choked. "Is your culture so fragile it cannot abide one tiny creature questioning it?" Then why am I here?

"This is the moment of amendment. We cannot lose it," the turqoise dragon hissed. "You need to understand."

"Well I don't! She's not broken!" the elf guardian growled, "And if she was, this wouldn't fix her! This is madness!"

"There is no other way!" Coils bunched about them, necks drawn back to strike.

Aunbrel shifted to a fighting crouch over Ember, truncheon in one hand and guardian blade in the other, painfully aware that neither was likely to do him or Ember much good against six dragons several times his size. He looked from one pair of dragon eyes to the next, waiting for the first strike. The elf's eyes fell on River, as ready to attack as any of the others. Why did you bring me here? To approve? You had to know I wouldn't. Is that a dragon custom too? What are you waiting -- Realization hit him. "You don't want to do this."

"Of course not!" River roared. "Do you think we would, if we had any choice at all? The nest cannot abide this turmoil."

'And where else am I going to go?' Ember had said.

"Ah." Aunbrel blinked, twice. "Ahh. Of course. Miss Ember, would you like to join my nest?" His tone was almost conversational. Around him, viper-dragons gaped, astonished.

Ember rolled her head back to stare at him, her eyes still blank. After a moment, she gave an all-over shake of her body, as if coming back to herself. "... what?"

"I know it's not an actual nest, as such. Just a flat. And I don't have any nest-partners so it'd be very different from what you're used to. But you don't seem exactly wanted here, as you are, and I'd like your company -- I hate living alone, in truth -- so. Er. Would you?"

Ember considered this for another two and a half seconds. "Yes."

"Splendid. That's sorted, then." Aunbrel holstered his weapons and lifted Ember. "Which way is out?"

The nest around them seethed in confusion. River sidled over to make a gap in the ring. Stooped by the cramped ceiling, Aunbrel made his way to the opening.

"Stop!" the indigo dragon cried.

"This is impossible," said the turqoise. "He is not even dragon!"

"I don't see how that enters into it." Aunbrel didn't stop. "Mistress River called me ifishith. You've let me protect your nest-partners before. If I am ifishith, I may lead my own nest. You cannot abide my nest-partner's behavior, and have failed to amend it to your liking; I have no such problem. Miss Ember is no longer your nest-partner, so you need not concern yourself with her any longer. Hence. Good night." Aunbrel moved forward on chutzpah alone. If I pretend convincingly enough that this makes sense, maybe we can get out of here before they realize it doesn't.

River slithered in a U-shape around the two, leading the way to the exit as her broad length shifted aside any other dragons. She ignored the protests and confusion, and Aunbrel followed suit. When they finally cleared the labyrinthine tunnels into open air, Aunbrel straightened, flexing his shoulders backwards and sighing. "Thank you, Mistress River."

"And you, Guardian. May your nest prosper. Farewell, Ember. Know that you both are always free to visit here." The giant dragon lowered her head to Ember, who lifted hers to bump noses gently, tongues flicking out. River turned and slithered back into her nest.

Aunbrel helped Ember up to his shoulders, wincing as his hand brushed one of the bare patches of skin where a scale was missing. "Will those grow back?" he asked quietly. "Do you need medical care?"

"I'm fine, now. They'll grow back in time." Ember rested her head on top of his. "Thank you."

"You're welcome. That is, you truly are. Honestly, I hate living alone, and I enjoy your company, and ... " A sudden horrible thought struck him. "... and ... and ... I didn't just ask you to, er, become my mate, did I?"

Ember convulsed with mirth, her coil shaking around his shoulders.

"You're laughing. That means no. Right?"

She bobbed her head, gasping. "No. Nest-partner is different from mate."

"Ah. Good. Good." Aunbrel exhaled in relief, and started walking home. "You know I don't have any idea what I'm doing, right?"

Ember nodded again. "Me either." After a moment, she added, "I think I like it. Oh, and samassas aren't normally allowed to mate. That's why it was so funny. That and your panicked tone ... you don't mind that I was laughing, do you?"

"No. Why would I?"

The little red dragon nestled her head in the elf's dark hair. "No reason," she said, with a happy sigh. "No reason at all."
rowyn: (Aunbrel and Ember)
Three days later, Aunbrel returned with a pack half-full of books: Ember's to return to her, and a few new ones to lend. A turquoise viper-dragon answered the door, eyed him suspiciously, and left him waiting on the stoop for several minutes. At length, the same midnight-blue dragon Aunbrel had met at Mistfield Park opened the door, upper body raised to fill the entrance. Ember was just visible beyond the dark dragon's body. The scales of both dragons were raised and ruffled. "Have you found some new false charge to place upon my nest-partner's coil, Guardian?" the midnight-blue dragon hissed.

"Not at all. I am quite convinced of her innocence in all things." More than I can say for you. "I lent her a few books by way of apology for my error. I'd like to speak with her, if she's so inclined."

"She is not. Go away, Guardian."

Aunbrel looked past the large dragon to meet Ember's worried eyes. "Is she a minor?" The midnight-blue dragon stared at him, and Aunbrel continued, "I was given to understand that minor viper-dragons had very fine scales, and that the large thick ones denoted majority, but perhaps I am mistaken. Is Miss Ember a minor?"

"You know she is not."

"Then by the laws of Hopestart, she's a right to determine for herself with whom she chooses to associate. As she is not three yards away, I should like to hear her answer from her own mouth. Miss Ember?" Aunbrel met her eyes. The large wedge-shaped head of the midnight-blue dragon turned to Ember as well.

Ember lifted her head as high as she could. "I am busy this afternoon, Guardian," she said, quietly. "Would you be able to come back tomorrow?" The big dragon hissed in evident irritation at this answer.

"Certainly," Aunbrel replied. "What time would be most convenient?"

"5 o'clock?" Orange eyes darted to the midnight-blue dragon. "Please, Mistress River. I'll be done with everything by then. And I want to."

River's hissing reply did not sound convinced. Aunbrel ignored the large dragon and bowed to the small. "5 o'clock. I shall see you then."




When Aunbrel returned at the appointed hour, Ember had the door open even before he knocked. "You came back!"

"Of course." Aunbrel shrugged off his pack, pulling out Ember's books. "I still had to return these." A dragon slithered into the hall behind Ember, glanced their way, then slithered off. "Did you have a chance to finish the other Hope novels?"

She nodded eagerly, taking her books back on her tail and stowing them atop a cabinet in the wall, then offering his own back.

"How did you like them?"

"I loved them! I think the second one is still my favorite, though. I miss Rielle."

"Do you? I always thought them well rid of her and her foul temper."

"Oh, but she had such wit! No one else gets half her good lines."

"If you call sarcasm wit." Aunbrel was dubious.

"I do! I think I could forgive all her misplaced anger, to have a travelling companion who provided so much entertainment." As Ember spoke, River loomed up behind her in the entranceway. Aunbrel noticed other viper-dragons were watching them through the round windows of the nest.

Aunbrel disregarded the audience and focused on Ember. They conversed for a quarter of an hour on the stoop. At length, Aunbrel massaged at the back of his neck. "I passed a little park about two blocks from here, with a few benches. Might we go there to talk? It would be nice to speak more on a level."

River hissed. Ember glanced back to the other dragon and sunk down. Aunbrel cleared his throat. "Is something wrong?"

"She is samassas," River hissed, slithering past Ember to interpose between her and the elf. The midnight-blue dragon rose up on her coils to loom over Aunbrel. "She cannot leave the nest without a protector."

"She will not be without a protector. I will be with her."

"You? An elf?" River circled around Aunbrel, looping coil on top of coil in a wide circle around the guardian's feet, head several feet above his, looking down. "What would you do if someone menaced my nest-partner?"

"I am Guardian Aunbrel of Hopestart, an official protector of this city." Aunbrel caught River's eye. "And, Mistress River, if I felt Miss Ember were being threatened, I would ask the individual, politely, to cease in such behavior."

"You would ask. I could swallow you whole, Guardian Aunbrel, and leave neither bones nor body for your fellows to find." The midnight coils drew in closer, not quite touching his legs. At the nest's round windows, the faces of other viper-dragons watched them. "So what would you do if asking were not enough?"

"Do you truly want to know, Mistress River?" Aunbrel's voice was low and dangerous.

"Yesss," she hissed.

"Then move just one inch closer."

The susurration of shifting coils stopped as the dark viper-dragon froze. She stared at him for a long moment. Aunbrel met those near-black eyes unblinking, and waited. After a very long pause, River uncoiled, widening the circle she formed around him as she withdrew, her head lowering until it was of a level with his. "You have leave to go with this one, Ember. He will keep you safe."

Ember watched open-mouthed, small pointed teeth white against her gums, as River slithered back inside. Orange eyes turned back to the guardian. Aunbrel extended his arm, and Ember climbed up to encircle his shoulders. He'd walked halfway down the block before Ember spoke. "That was amazing! I've never seen Mistress River back down from anyone, not even another dragon! What would you do if asking didn't work?"

Aunbrel shrugged. "Get swallowed whole, I suppose." Ember gaped at him. "That's a lot of extra weight for a viper-dragon to carry, even a big one. It would have to slow one down. Might give you enough time to escape. I suggest you use the opportunity wisely in the event."




After that, Aunbrel returned every few days, to exchange new books and to talk about the ones they'd already read. On the third or fourth visit, Ember asked if she could invite other viper-dragons to join them. It struck Aunbrel as the sort of thing she shouldn't need his permission to do, and he said as much.

"But may I?" she asked anxiously.

"Of course? Yes."

Then on some days it would be four or five little viper-dragons with him, some of them chattering about books and some of them just wandering around the park and enjoying the day. Sometimes Ember asked to go elsewhere: a museum, a café, a local landmark, and Aunbrel would escort her and her nest-partners around Hopestart. She lent him one of her favorite books in her native language, and a translation dictionary to go with it: Aunbrel puzzled through it slowly with her and on his own, gradually making sense of it.

On making sense of the dragons themselves, his progress was more uncertain. The large ones no longer threatened or postured at him. The small ones deferred to him. Ember, whom he saw the most, seemed to think him a friend.

That was nice.

The rest of it was as confusing as a burning labyrinth, but not all bad. If he had been sure the nest wasn't still try to 'amend' Ember via physical trauma, he might have been content.

If he had been sure.

Then, during one of his still-frequent late nights at the peacehouse, River's head appeared at his office window. "Guardian," she hissed.

"Fire and Air!" Aunbrel jumped to his feet and went to the window. River had risen two stories on her coil to stare at him through it. "What are you doing there?"

"You must come."

"What? Where?"

"To the nest." River started to slide back down the wall.

"Er. Why?"

The giant serpentine body stopped. "You said you would protect Ember. Did you mean it?"

"Yes."

"Then come."

Smoke and blazes. "I'll come. Let me assemble a squad. What's going on?"

River hissed in fury. "No! It is not their business. It is ours. You must come. Only you."

And if that doesn't sound like a trap.... "On my way. Wait for me out front."

Aunbrel stopped at the front post to tell the guardian on duty, "I'm going to the viper-dragon nest at 101st and Coalstone to investigate a disturbance. No, I don't want backup now. But if I'm not back in three hours, send a squad to find me, or what's left of me. Blazes, send a platoon."

[Did I say this story would have three or four parts? I'm thinking ... maybe seven. ]
rowyn: (studious)
Ember tried to explain.

Viper-dragon society was stratified based on the size of the individual. Certain roles were reserved to the largest: they were the leaders, protectors, and enforcers of order. It was their part to ensure that the nest was safe, that it ran smoothly, that everyone's needs were met and that everyone knew their role. Mid-sized dragons were providers, crafters and builders: the ones who gathered resources for the nest. Small dragons, like Ember, were tasked with maintaining the nest: repairing, cleaning, cooking, caring for hatchlings. "So everyone has their place and duties. The trouble is ... well ... I'm very lazy." Ember sunk to the floor of her cage, curling her head on her tail. "And disobedient. And insolent. There's a dozen different duties that I'm suited to, and I hate each of them. I do my part poorly if at all. I quarrel with the leaders if I disagree with their decisions. I sneak out unaccompanied. I ... it's a long list." She sighed. "Today I was caught alone outside. That's a very serious offense. It's for my own good, of course. I'm too small to be safe travelling alone."

Aunbrel bit his tongue to avoid saying that she hardly seemed safe in the company of her nest. Just listen. Try to understand.

"Since I'm not behaving the way I should be, endangering myself and the nest, it falls on the leaders to amend my behavior. They have to do it, you see. I have to learn my place in the nest and keep it. It makes the whole nest angry and upset when I don't. That's what you ... interrupted."

Try to understand. "They looked like they intended to beat you." Aunbrel strove to keep his tone neutral.

She nodded. "I've been ... very intractable. They have to escalate."

Do they. "You do not sound intractable."

Her tail tip wiggled a little. "It's easier to say you're contrite than to actually do better."

"Won't they resume this ... punishment, when you return?"

"No. The moment of amendment is past. The leaders need the anger of first realizing the error, in order to act so. And the correction would be too delayed from that moment, now, to do me any good." Ember closed her eyes, looking weary and sad.

"... does it normally do you any good?"

"Not so far."

Well, that all sounds perfectly barbaric and revolting, and if it's not illegal it ought to be. "So you want to go back to them."

Another nod. "They only want what's best for me. And where else am I going to go?"




When they released Ember the next day, Aunbrel escorted her back to her nest. The small dragon seemed at once embarrassed and appreciative of the gesture. They avoided difficult subjects by talking about books the whole way: the Hope volumes Ember had read in the cell, her favorites in dragon literature, other works that Aunbrel liked, human books they'd heard of but that neither had read yet, and so forth. The time passed quickly.

Her building had been constructed for use by viper-dragons, and was accordingly little-suited to the needs of those who walked upright. The stoop was a ramp leading to a round door four feet wide. Even the awning over the ramp was too low for Aunbrel. A pair of small viper-dragons opened the door from within as Ember slithered up the ramp. They hissed a greeting to her, touching noses and then twining necks in what seemed an affectionate gesture. Aunbrel, however, they viewed with suspicion.

The elf guardian responded with a tip of his hat and "Good morning." Turning to Ember, he extended a long-fingered brown hand to offer a pair of books he'd been holding under his arm. "I thought you might have an interest in some of the others in the series."

Her orange eyes lit with pleasure. "I would! But -- no -- I've no way of returning them."

"I'll stop by sometime to pick them up." Aunbrel still held them out. As she hesistated, he added, "And then I'll have someone to talk to about them." The guardian was not entirely sure, on reflection, if that last was disguising his ulterior motive of following up on the dragon's situation, or if it actually was his ulterior motive.

With only a little more reluctance, Ember balanced the books on her tail. "Oh! Wait here," she said, as a thought struck her. She slithered into the round carpeted corridor of the entranceway and disappeared up a tunnel. The interior of the nest looked labyrinthine, the ceilings everywhere too low for humans, nevermind elves.

A few minutes later, Ember returned with three different books balanced on her tail. She extended them to Aunbrel. "There. Now you can read something new, too."

The elf grinned and accepted. Tipping his hat again, he took his leave.
rowyn: (studious)
Kinsley was nowhere close to forgiving Aunbrel by the time they had finished booking their 'prisoner' and were en route to the Drunken Scarab. Aunbrel attempted to beg off from his earlier promise, but his partner would have none of it. "After that? After that? You owe me a drink, elf boy. You owe me a week's worth of drinks. By smoke and blaze, what do you think you're playing at, sticking our necks in the midst of dragon business?"

"Ember needed our help." They'd learned the viper-dragon's name when they incarcerated her.

"Hah! If she'd truly needed our help, she'd've asked for it. 'No trouble', she said."

Aunbrel shook her head. "She was lying then. You saw how she was once she was away from them."

"Yes, I saw how she didn't want to tell us a blazing thing about what was going on there. Dragon business, boy. Don't imagine you've made anything better for her with that little stunt of yours." Kinsley pushed open the door to the Scarab, spilling warmth and firelight from the pub into the evening chill of the narrow street. "Hullo everybody! Drinks are on him!" Kinsley jerked a thumb over his shoulder at Aunbrel. Resigned, the elf forced a smile and followed his partner inside.

*

Elves were just as capable of intoxication by alcohol as men, and enjoyed liquor just as much, though elves favored wine and cider where men preferred beer and ale.

Aunbrel cared for none of it. He disliked the bitterness and pungent aftertaste lurking beneath even sweet wines. The substance made him sleepy, morose, and faintly nauseated. Every now and then, he would try drinking again to see if it had improved any from his last experience, and it never had.

He was nursing his second mug of mulled spiced cider, which was the least objectionable drink he'd ever tried. If he ignored the aftertaste and the effects of inebriation, it was quite tolerable. He couldn't help feeling he was missing the whole point, though.

Kinsley was on at least his seventh or eighth drink by now, roaring drunk and regaling the pub with a preposterous account of how he'd single-handedly put down a riot in the Iron District twelve years ago. Aunbrel couldn't help feeling that sobriety, if not honesty, would have improved the tale. Kinsley kept losing his place in it, starting over or going back to add forgotten details. No one else seemed to mind, laughing and toasting and drinking themselves further into a stupor. Surrounded by giddy cheerful drunks that kept smiling at him and encouraging him to "Drink up, Guardian!", Aunbrel felt more alone than he did at night in his peacehouse office.

After buying another round for the house, Aunbrel offered the pretext of going to relieve his bladder and made his escape during the crush to place orders. He turned up the collar of his brown rabbit hide jacket against the chill of the night, hoping the wind would clear the morbid weary alcohol-induced fog from his mind. His feet turned toward the peacehouse of their own accord, his mind unwilling to face the loneliness of his sparsely-furnished flat. I might as well get some of the blazing paperwork done. Then he remembered the Commander, observing the light of his office every night, and couldn't bear to disappoint her by turning the flame up again. Well, what is it all for?

He stepped into the peacehouse, hands stuffed in his pockets, and strode to the west wing, where the jail cells were.

*

Ember had a cell to herself -- more a cage, in truth, five feet on a side, built to hold belligerent felis. It was set at the end of a hall, far enough from the rows of iron-barred, stone-walled cells that a felis paw would not be able to claw out at another prisoner -- nor another prisoner poke into the cage. The small red dragon was curled atop a blanket, a book propped on her tail, turning the pages with her tailtip as she read. Aunbrel paced down the hall to her, ignoring the taunts and pleas from the drunks and petty thieves in the cells he passed. She stirred at his approach, body tensing at first, then relaxing when she recognized him. "Good evening, Guardian." Ember shifted to a narrower coil to raise her head as high as she could, which was about the level of Aunbrel's waist. Her head tilted back to meet his eyes.

"Good evening, miss." Aunbrel crouched next to her cage. "Thought I'd stop by to see how you were doing."

The dragon's chin dipped in a nod. "I am well, thank you. Thank you for the books, too."

The elf rubbed the back of his neck. "You're welcome. I'm sorry about the lack of selection."

"No, don't be. A Hope in War is much better than the procedure manual I thought I'd get when I asked for something to read. It's very engrossing." Ember lowered her voice and added, "I had to skip ahead to the epilogue just to make sure Guisonel would be all right in the end."

Aunbrel chuckled. "I thought I was the only one who did that." He shifted his crouched legs, then sat on the floor, leaning against the wall beside the cage.

Ember adjusted her coil and slithered closer to his new position, lowering her head to his level. "I only do it with tense novels. I hate wondering if it'll turn out well or not. Even if it's going to all end badly, I'd rather know."

The guardian nodded. "It's a shame one can't peek at the end in life. Is Guisonel your favorite character, then?"

"He's the one I worry about. He keeps charging into the middle of these dangerous situations. I think he's looking to be a martyr. So you read it too?"

A wry smile. "The Hope books are some of my favorites. That's why I had them here. Guisonel gets a little less foolhardy with time. A little." Aunbrel gestured with thumb and forefinger pinched close together. "Where are you?"

"The battle for Royale Wyenard. Just after the archers arrived."

"The first time I read it, I'd forgotten the archers were even on the way. I yelled out in triumph when they showed. Got the strangest looks from my school fellows."

The little viper-dragon wiggled her tailtip, orange eyes amused. "Did you really?"

Aunbrel gave her a serious nod. He looked at Ember, her tail stroking over the book cover now. "Miss ... what were they going to do to you, that a night in jail would be a pleasant vacation in contrast?"

Ember would not meet his eyes, shaking her head and looking at the floor of the cage instead.

Aunbrel put his palm against the crossed metal bars of the cage. "Did I make it worse, intervening?"

Her head darted up to look at him. She shook her head again. "No. No worse." She rested her cheek against his hand through the bars. "Is your arm all right?"

"It's fine. Do you still want us to release you tomorrow? We could hold you a few days before we'd need to prosecute or dismiss the charge." It's not as if we've gotten any paperwork done tonight anyway.

"No. I should go back." Ember dropped her head to rest her chin on the book. "I'll run out of books to read before tomorrow night in any case."

"I could bring more from home."

The viper-dragon parted her jaws in imitation of a smile, and gave another headshake. "I have to go back eventually. One night should be enough."

"Enough for what?"

Aunbrel let the silence stretch after his question this time, not insisting, not importuning, just ... waiting. "To lose the moment," Ember said finally. Aunbrel waited. The dragon exhaled. "It's a matter of dragons. You wouldn't understand."

"I certainly do not understand now," the elf admitted. "But I am willing to learn, if you are willing to teach."
rowyn: (studious)
They were three blocks from the end of their round when they saw the viper-dragons.

A full nest of them had gathered on the green of Mistfield Park: long thick-bodied serpents in bright metallic colors, some wider than a man and several times as long, others not even two yards from nose to tail. Half a dozen of the largest, in shades from sea-green to indigo, were slithering in a wide circle with a small orange-red one at the center. The back and ruff scales of all of them were raised in threat display, the red one coiled tight, head turning in a doomed effort to watch all the others at once. Perhaps a dozen other viper-dragons waited coiled at the perimeter, observing.

Aunbrel started for the disturbance, but Kinsley caught his arm. "Not our problem, kid."

"What are they doing?" Aunbrel hesitated, but his eyes were narrowed on the scene.

"Dragon business. Not our problem."

One of the large circling dragons snapped forward and back out in a motion too fast to follow, accompanied by the clashing rake of tooth against scale. The red one loosed a hiss of pain or warning, glaring at the assailant. Aunbrel's nostrils flared and he strode toward the scene. "They are in Hopestart, they are obliged to follow its laws."

Kinsley hauled on the elf's arm. "They've got dispensation for their customs. They're not violating any laws."

Aunbrel glanced sidelong at him. "This is a custom?" Another clash and a hiss jerked his attention back to the nest.

"Among dragons. Yes. They're allowed. It's only assault if they draw blood. See? No blood."

The red dragon's head lifted at Aunbrel's motion, looking past the larger dragons to stare at Aunbrel. Luminous orange eyes seemed to plead Help me.

Aunbrel shook off Kinsley's hand and marched into the park. Kinsley trailed after, grinding out in a low whisper, "Not our problem." The observing dragons turned their heads to mark the tall elf's progress as he walked past them.

At the edge of the circle formed by the largest dragons, Aunbrel stopped. "Is there a problem here?"

The nearest viper-dragon, midnight-blue, at least eighteen feet long and two wide, coiled, twisting to face him, rearing up until the draconic head was several feet above the elf guardian's. "No problem. Not for two-legged folk."

"Glad to hear it." Aunbrel tilted his head back to meet the midnight dragon's gaze. "I am Guardian Aunbrel of Hopestart, a keeper of the peace. As I'm sure you're aware, Hopestart's peace applies to all sapients of our fair city, regardless of number or lack of legs. Be they man, elf, felis ... dragon. So if there was trouble here for dragons ... "

The turquoise dragon next to the midnight one flicked out a tongue in warning at Aunbrel, scaled ruff mantling wider. "There is nothing here to concern you, Guardian."

Aunbrel took three steps sideways, to meet the eyes of the small red dragon at the center of the circle of larger ones. "If there was trouble here for dragons," he repeated, "I'd be glad to help."

The red dragon's bearing spoke of terror and desperation, but those orange eyes would not hold his. "No trouble," the little dragon echoed, in a voice haunted by hopelessness.

Kinsley's hand gripped Aunbrel's sleeve; the elf didn't need to look to know what words the human was silently mouthing. Aunbrel's teeth ground together, but he forced them apart to say, "Good. Good. Because it's near the end of my shift." Aunbrel glanced about, then walked to a nearby bench and sat. "And if there's no problems here, why, my partner and I can take a break." Kinsley covered his face with one hand and shook his head, but took a seat at the far edge of the bench. Aunbrel waved a hand to the viper-dragons. "Please, don't let us keep you from your peaceable enjoyment of this public park."

The dragons turned about, hissing at one another in their own tongue. Aunbrel had no idea what they were saying, although the hostile looks he was garnering were unpromising. The red one's eyes darted from the large surrounding dragons to the elf guardian and back again. After a few minutes, the dragons uncoiled and began to slither from the park. The largest ones herded the small one, keeping the little red dragon between them. Aunbrel grimaced, then leaped to his feet. "Ah, wait, just a moment." He stepped around and over the large dragons even as they reared back in anger at his intrusion.

"It is not your place to interfere, two-legs," the midnight dragon hissed.

"Right, I know, my apologies." Aunbrel raised a hand for patience and addressed the red dragon directly. "But I have just recollected that a dragon meeting your description is wanted for questioning. I am afraid I must ask you to accompany me back to the peacehouse." Kinsley cradled his head in both hands.

"What is this about?" an indigo dragon demanded.

"Burglary in the Merchant District. An orange-red dragon of about this length was sighted fleeing the scene."

"It is not her," the midnight dragon said.

"Oh, perhaps not, but that's not for you or I to decide. This way, miss." Aunbrel held out an arm to the small dragon, gesturing for her to follow him. She slithered up his arm instead, gliding higher to coil over his shoulders. Aunbrel checked his surprise as the giant viper-dragons seethed around them. Pretending that this had been his intention all along, Aunbrel put a hand on the red dragon's side to help her balance. The large dragons seethed and writhed around them, but Aunbrel stepped over and around them as necessary and the dragons were, apparently, unwilling to physically stop the guardian. Kinsley, peeking between his fingers at the scene, rose to follow on his partner's heels as the elf carried the small viper-dragon from the park.

"Air and Fire! Have you gone mad, boy?" Kinsley hissed as soon as they were out of earshot of the rest of the nest. "What do you think you're doing?"

Aunbrel wasn't sure either. "Keeping the peace." The viper-dragon was a heavy weight around his shoulders, coiled too tight and trembling.

She dropped her chin to rest on the top of his head. "Is there really a dragon wanted for questioning?"

"Yes." Aunbrel walked briskly. "Although I fear I will discover when we are back at the peacehouse that the description is not quite a match for you. Might have been tiger-striped in green and black, and five yards long. I apologize for the inconvenience."

"Thank you," she whispered. "Will you lock me up?"

Aunbrel shook his head. "Of course not."

"Please?" she begged. "For the night? Lock me in a cell?"

"Er ... " Aunbrel tried to decipher that request, giving Kinsley a pleading look. "Not for the burglary, surely?"

Kinsley scrubbed at his face and heaved a sigh. He started to push back the cuff of one sleeve, then changed his mind and did it to Aunbrel's indtead. The old human held the elf's brown wrist to the dragon's face. "Bite him."

Her head drew back, nictitating membranes flicking open and closed over her eyes. "I don't want to -- "

"Bite him," Kinsley repeated. "Hard enough to leave a mark, not hard enough to break skin. And by Fire's hells, don't poison him!" The viper-dragon slipped her head forward, glancing at Aunbrel for permission. The elf gave a little nod, and she closed her mouth around his wrist. "Harder," Kinsley commanded. Aunbrel winced, and the human said, "All right, that's enough." She drew back, leaving small tooth marks dented and red in his skin. "There, that's assault. We can arrest you for it tonight and dismiss the charges tomorrow. Fire and Air! I need a drink."
rowyn: (studious)
Aunbrel was working another late night in the peacehouse, completing the case notes for the day's investigations. His partner not only disliked paperwork but was abysmal at preparing it, and as junior partner tradition dictated Aunbrel do it in any event. Aunbrel didn't mind; late night was the only time the offices of peacehouse lived up to the name. His uniform jacket was off and hanging from the back of his chair, shirt sleeves rolled back to keep them from smudging the ink. On the first floor the hubbub of the night's arrests and complaints continued, but up here all was still. Quiet enough that the soft pad of feet in the hall outside drew the guardian's attention from his task. He rose and stepped toward the open door. "Hello? May I help you?"

A human woman in a golden headdress and elaborate fur robes, a jeweled staff in her hand, peeked through the doorway. A spotted leopard prowled about her feet.

Aunbrel fell to one knee, dropping his eyes. "Bright Lady!"

A fair hand touched his shoulder. Aunbrel's tan skin darkened with a flush that crept to the pointed tips of his tall ears, in mortification at being caught out of uniform by Commander Lisia herself, the leader of all Hopestart. But the gentle voice that said, "Rise, Guardian. There is no need for such formality," held no rebuke, only a hint of amusement.

Reluctant, Aunbrel stood, eyes averted. With an elf's height, he towered over her, which only added to the sense of his own impropriety. He straightened his shirt cuffs self-consciously. "My apologies, Bright Lady."

Commander Lisia waved off his words. "There is no wrong to forgive. Be at ease ... Aunbrel, is it?"

His gaze jerked up to her face in a moment of surprise. Faint lines around her large dark eyes and at her mouth and jawline hinted at her age. Aunbrel dropped his head again quickly, giving an awkward nod. "Yes, Bright Lady." Her leopard sat at her feet, leaning against her leg and staring at him with unblinking eyes.

The Commander took a step back, dipping her hand to scratch the leopard's ears. "It seems there's light in this office every night, Guardian. Is it always you here?"

"Not every night, Bright Lady."

A smile played on her lips. "Almost every night?"

Aunbrel didn't know what to say to that. "I am only completing my work, Bright Lady."

"And perhaps the work of one or three others as well?" The Commander shook her head, smiling still. "Your diligence is commendable, Aunbrel. Relax." He would have rushed into a burning building at her command, or faced down a rioting mob, but Aunbrel had no idea how even to begin to follow that instruction. "I appreciate your service to my city, Guardian. And perhaps it is unfair of me to ask one more thing of you, but I shall."

"Bright Lady?" He raised his eyes to her lips, but no higher.

"Don't let the work eat you alive, Aunbrel." She touched his arm. "If you do nothing but Guard, you will forget the why of it. Do not allow yourself to become isolated, with no one and nothing to return home to. Remember to enjoy your life and the world you live in. Else what is it all for?"

"Yes, Bright Lady." Aunbrel had no idea how to follow that instruction, either, but there was no other possible response.

The Commander patted his arm. "Good night, Guardian." With her leopard beside her, she withdrew from his office. In the corridor, she shook her head and sighed to herself as she left.




Kinsley had been Aunbrel's partner in the peacekeepers since Aunbrel joined three months ago. Kinsley had been a Guardian for nearly thirty years, and no one would accuse him of working too hard. Not that he was corrupt, or bad at his job, exactly. Though Kinsley was lazy: he had a habit of splitting the two of them so Kinsley could take the shorter half of a patrol route, or sending Aunbrel to run errands or interview witnesses in inconvenient parts of the city. But that sort of thing had to be expected from a partner with seniority, and the old human had the insight and knowledge of law and regulation that one would expect from someone with his experience. If he left early every night to go drinking -- "You don't mind finishing up the casework, right, Aunbrel?" -- well, surely he'd earned that right.

The two were walking their usual circuit through the Iron District, narrow cobbled streets winding past dilapidated warehouses and aging smelteries, walls and roofs blackened by soot. Kinsley's pale face was open and smiling. He tipped his hat to the occasional passing human woman, offered a casual salute to human men, and a nod to members of other races -- elves, dragons, an unescorted panther. Aunbrel's own expression was grim, mouth thinned beneath an aquiline nose. After a little while, Kinsley elbowed him in the ribs. "Elf boy, you need to lighten up."

Aunbrel made an 'oof' sound and failed to lighten up.

Kinsley raised a graying eyebrow at him. "What's eating you? Your dog take ill?"

"I don't keep pets."

"Maybe you should start. Seriously, you look depressed even for you, and that's saying something."

"I am not depressed."

"Look in the mirror and you will be. You can't let the job get to you, kid. You work too hard." Kinsley slapped Aunbrel's back.

The tall elf sighed. "That's what the Commander said."

Now Kinsley raised both eyebrows. "The Commander was talking to you?"

"Last night. I am using too much gaslight at the peacehouse or somesuch, I imagine."

Kinsley laughed. "That'd be you all right. Look, it's been a quiet day. We wrap up this loop, why don't you come with me to the Drunken Scarab?"

Aunbrel rubbed the back of his neck. "I could stop by after I finished the day's paperwork."

The older guardian shook his head. "No no no. Just skip it. Take off early." At Aunbrel's look, Kinsley chuckled. "I'll let you in on a secret, elf boy: the paperwork's not going anywhere. You don't do it today, it'll still be there tomorrow. And the day after, and the day after that."

"Yes, and there'll be more of it," Aunbrel said sourly.

"Ah, you wait long enough, and some of it won't matter any more and you'll never have to do it at all. Don't give me that look, kid. I've been at this game longer than you have. Trust me, one night's not gonna kill any one." Kinsley punched his arm, and Aunbrel yielded with a nod.

[This is from the prompt [livejournal.com profile] tuftears left me last month, using cards he drew from the Tarot of the Cat People, and which I proceeded to not write. I finally coupled the prompt with a drawing by [livejournal.com profile] djinni and came up with "A Guardian's Companion". The cards Tufty drew are:

The Empress (right side up)
The King of Pentacles, reversed (7th picture in the link)
The Three of Cups, reversed (2nd picture in the link)


As short stories go, this one is not very short. There'll be another two or three parts. ]


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