Dragon Champion

Page 30


“Why do you keep calling me skyking?” Auron asked, sniffing the air in the hope food was on its way.
“That’s the old Dwarvish word for ‘dragons,’ in happier times. Funny, but I heard it used just the other day. . . . Enjoy the view while the food is being prepared. Excuse me, and Sekyw, as you value your position, don’t let our visitor leave without further negotiations.”
The smell of food brought Auron away from the view of the great river valley: hills reduced to hummocks and trees foreshortened to blades of grass. He and Djer left the balustrade and returned to the office, where platters were being uncovered on an end table.
Emde came in from the main door. Auron got a peek at the tops of the assembled dwarves’ heads. They were bowing to two wizened figures, whitebearded and wrinkled, shuffling into the office supported by canes of carven crystal. Djer sucked in his breath and bowed, and Auron had to tear himself away from the food.
“Shut the blasted curtains, Emde,” one said, a little more red-faced than the other.
“We’re not petitioners you need to dazzle,” the other said.
Dwarves appeared as though by magic and closed off the view, then disappeared as suddenly as they arrived.
“Young skyking,” Emde said, ushering in the two, “it is my honor to introduce Vekay and Zedkay, of the original Charter, our senior Partners. I told them we would be happy to join them in their quarters, but they insisted on coming down for a meal and a talk.”
“Ach, most pleased,” the red-faced one introduced as Zedkay said, in an accent enough like Djer’s for Auron to like him better than the other dwarves he had met today. “Don’t stand on ceremony when you can stamp on it, I always say. Dig in, young skyking—there’s an entire roast for you at the end there.”
“Or if it wasn’t for you, it is now,” Vekay added.
Auron and Djer started in to their meal with day-old appetite; Emde and Sekyw ate a polite morsel or two. Sekyw ate with more enthusiasm after Vekay elbowed his brother and said, “That’s a hard-working dwarf’s appetite if I ever saw one,” pointing to Djer.
Djer smiled with grease running down his chin.
“There’s a question of a bargain young Djer made with this dra—skyking,” Sekyw said.
“The dragon is insisting that he’ll keep the bargain with our tradesdwarf alone, and the Partnership rules . . .”
The oldsters mumbled at each other. “Why, yes, he’s young,” Zedkay said, more loudly to the assembly, “but so were we at the Chartering. I hardly had hair below my ears, and Vekay had but a tuft on his chin. The elders treated us as good as any other of the Company, though.”
Vekay tucked his beard in his belt and buttoned his frazzled woolen vest. “Just the other day we were speaking to Emde about the Charter, and how it was modeled on the Ancient’s Riian Partnership. Ages past, long bankrupt, but in those days, the Riians had elves, men—yea, even dragons—working for them. Happier times.”
“Happier times,” Zedkay agreed, before his brother continued.
“They had several skykings, the stories go, young males who were making a nuisance of themselves otherwise to their families. We kept their stomachs full, and they flew as couriers, across the Inland Sea, to the east, to the lost kingdom of Wyang, even. Didn’t lose a single pouch in hundreds of years, or so they claimed. A very lucrative business, courier service.”
“Very lucrative,” Zedkay rasped. “So don’t be so quick to throw away the goodwill of a skyking over a niggling matter of procedure.”
“But the Charter,” Emde said.
“The Charter won’t be hurt,” Vekay said. “There are provisions to add Partners for contingencies in it.”
“That takes a Significant Majority in a Quorum Vote,” Emde said, “and we don’t have anything like a quorum—”
“Or a Simple Majority of the Founding Partners, as you’ll find in Paragraph Two of Article Nine, methinks,” Vekay said.
Emde reached into a pocket, retrieved an ivory scroll-tube, and uncapped it.
Sekyw pulled at his beard, wincing at the pain.
“I move that we make this hungry young dwarf a partner,” Vekay said, looking at Djer.
“Seconded,” Zedkay said as Sekyw fell into a barrel chair with a thump.
“All in favor?” Vekay said, as he and Zedkay lifted their supports high.
The ancient dwarves held aloft their crystal canes, the tips at the base sparkled through some inner incandescence.
“Motion carried by Simple Majority, for the record,” Vekay said. “Off the record, it was a unanimity. I’d like to welcome our new Partner, Djer, and invest him with all the responsibilities and privileges therein. ’Bout time this leaky mountain had some new blood.”
“By my beard, it’s legal,” Emde said, looking at the tightly spaced fine print on the scroll.
“Will you take the bargain, Auron?” Djer said, blinking as if he had stepped into bright sunlight.
“Of course, my friend,” Auron said, inspecting the banquet on the side table. He found a platter of sausages, conveniently linked, and began to eat. After they disappeared, he moved on to the roast.
“Is there anything you’ll require, young Partner?” Vekay asked.
“I’ll need an assistant, to help with sundry matters relating to the dragon,” Djer said. “I’d like Sekyw—he’s a good dwarf, and he could do with a taste of travel.”
“What sort of sundry matters? Feeding him?” Sekyw said in a quiet voice.
Djer watched Auron eat. “Yes, and other things. You’ll see what you’ll be dealing with within the hour of that roast disappearing.”
The three partners laughed.
“You’ll head up the Iron Road tomorrow,” Zedkay said. “If I remember my tallies for this year right, you’ll have to hurry; most of the tradegoods have made the trip to Wallander. Too bad your young skyking doesn’t have his wings yet.”
“We’ll leave at once. No sense wasting a night. We can sleep on whatever cargo’s making the run now.”
Auron held the roast in his forepaws, dribbling juice on the carpet. “No, after we eat. And stock up on sausages.”
Chapter 13
Wallander was just that: a land surrounded by a wall. The palisade enclosed gardens, pastures, the riverbank, and landing. A few houses, with only half-walls of clay bricks keeping them from being called shacks, sat at the riverside. There was no dock proper. A long spit of mud had been built up with gravel to form a dike. Shallow-draft boats just pitched up on the dike; deeper ones lowered planks to the spit.
The wall had a single tower in the center and at each end: round wooden constructs of three rings, each one smaller than the first, ending in a mast as Auron had seen on ships. The familiar red-and-gold banner of the Diadem waved there, a long pennant as narrow as a dragon’s tail. Something about the foundation of the towers looked strange to Auron. There was an arch underneath, tall enough for a dwarf to walk upright. Auron thought it an unusual kind of gate, but one that would allow dwarves and their flocks to pass easily outside the walls. Over the walls Auron saw the dust-streaked backs of a herd of wraxapods.
There were wagons, though not as many as Auron imagined when the Caravan had been described to him on the weeklong rail-to-river trip. Djer and Sekyw pored over maps, tracts, and books, trying to prepare themselves for the bargaining that would take place in the fabled bazaars at the other side of the steppes.
Auron studied the maps, as well.
Wallander marked the gateway to the dangerous steppe country. Auron had seen some of it in mind-pictures from his father, and heard more from Djer and his new assistant as they discussed the Caravan’s journey. The steppe was a brown land of extremes: heat and cold, mud and snow, with dust in between. It was owned by the fabled Ironriders, endlessly warring clans who were born, lived, and died on their horses. They were nomads who traveled light, trading pelts and cattle even for the horseshoes that gave the clans their name in Parl. There were principalities here and there along the rivers cutting the plains and ruins that hinted at a greater culture before that of the Ironriders.
Djer’s new role as Partner, complete with red velvet vest closed by a golden chain—a last-minute gift from Zedkay, who claimed to have a closet full that he did not need—gave him instant deference on the rails and river, except by the captain of the Suram, an irascible river elf named Windcheek with hair growing in imitation of cattails.
“Full of wind, and cheek,” Djer said after he asked the captain if they would make Wallander in time for the Caravan for the second day in a row. The vessel, named in the nomad-tongue for the warm south wind, was a single-masted galley that could be rowed—even by Partners, as Djer learned—on the few occasions when the wind didn’t serve. She sailed crammed with last-minute supplies and travelers for the Caravan.
To pass the time and settle his nerves, Djer fashioned a “rooster claw” for the stump on Auron’s tail. He took a dwarvish fighting-gauntlet and modified it into a sock that fit over the stump. A tiny round shield covered one side, and Djer fixed a point taken from a pike to the end. Auron found it light and handy, entirely satisfactory except for one item.