Nothing like a series of vivid dreams to start the day.
Written January-February 2022
Stamping feet and rustling wings filled the hall with applause as Irikshan accepted his award. Hundreds of eyes were upon him. He basked in it for a time, but something nagged at him. He scanned the crowd. All the shifting oranges, yellows, and greens made finding them difficult, but he eventually laid eyes upon his parents. His sister was there too, beside them. Someone else was missing.
He approached them as the crowd milled about. His parents briefly showered him with praise before leaving to talk with their acquaintances.
Irikshan approached his sister. “Hello Rytie! Glad you could make it.”
“Hello brother, congratulations! You have worked so hard and earned it.”
Laughter came from a nearby conversation. No one was paying them any attention. When she said nothing further, Irikshan asked, “How are you doing?”
“I am alright.”
“How are things going?”
“Same old, same old,” she gestured noncommittally.
Maybe she’d be more talkative about something of interest to her. “Still working on the book?”
It seemed not. “Looks like Amev was not able to make it tonight.”
“He keeps busy.”
“I get it, military life and all that. Though sometimes it feels like he does not care about us.”
“He does not care about you.”
“Do you think he shall join us for the four moons festival?”
“I wish I could see him again. Would be nice to catch up.”
“Then go visit him.”
“Do you think you could come with? He always liked you.”
“Deal with your own mess!” Rytie shouted. The surrounding hubbub screeched to a halt. All eyes were on him now. He once again had people’s attention, but now it was so they could watch the drama. “I was the only one who ever cared about him! You could have tried any time if you actually wanted to!”
“I want to make things right now.”
Without a word further, he began to run, dodging his way through the crowd towards the exit.
Bursting through the doors, Irikshan found the officer waiting for him. The man immediately began leading him through the military base. Having never worked in the military, he felt sorely out of place amongst the dozens of humans and tumen performing training drills. They eventually stopped beside the command centre, where Irikshan waited with the guards while his guide went inside to summon Amev.
“What do you want?” came his brother’s voice just before he emerged from the building. He didn’t look well.
“I want to make things better.”
“You are too late.” Dried blood blackened large swathes of his scales and the underside of his neck.
“What happened to you?”
“I have been warning you all for years, but you did not want to accept reality.” Two parts of what was once one plate-scale slid back and forth across each other.
“They attacked? What about the peace treaty?”
“A mere delay. Did you really think that they’ve conquered their way halfway across the planet just to stop here?” How had he survived that wound?
“We should have prepared more.”
“But instead you wanted to play mom and dad’s favourite scholar.” Who had done this to his brother? “Is this what it takes to wake you up?”
“I am so sorry, I should have long ago.”
Irikshan sat up with a start, hitting his head on something as he did. He found a woman sitting on the floor next to him, cradling her jaw. He moved to check how badly she was hurt.
“Irikshan, finally!” a man elsewhere in the room said, while he shoved items into his pack. “They’re here! I can’t let them see me with you. I have to go.”
“Very bad people. Shield your mind from their influence, but don’t upset them. Play along with them. They can and will break your defences if you give them reason to.”
“What do they want?”
“They probably want to catch me. They shouldn’t be here. I must have been compromised somehow. Don’t have time to explain more now. I’ll meet with you later when there’s a chance. Otherwise, Lucile can explain what I told her last night. Now help me out that window.” He pointed to the window at the back of the room, hefting a couple of bags over his shoulders. Given that in the architecture of Scriven compounds, the buildings themselves formed part of the perimeter wall of the compounds, that window lead to a relatively small alley between the Jinmengs and the next compound over. Naturally, it was pretty high up. Far too high for a human to reach. Using his magic, Irikshan lifted Kamon up to the window, where he scrambled through before Irikshan helped him land more softly on the other side.
As footsteps rapidly retreated, Irikshan returned his attention to Lucile. “Sorry about that. Are you okay?”
She touched the back of her hand to her mouth. He didn’t see any red in the dim light. “I’ll live. Go to Kai. He’s waiting. I’ll wake Jared.”
Irikshan nodded, turning to his bags. They were a complete mess, with belongings strewn about, even the crystals lying at the edge of a pillow. Fortunately, he didn’t need to worry about Lucile or Jared trying to steal them, even if they would be worth a fortune. Looking over to where the humans slept, he saw Lucile gently shaking Jared awake – keeping herself at an arm’s length from him. Some clothes and food lay haphazardly where Kamon had been. He probably didn’t have time to pack properly. Or just wanted to travel lighter.
Irikshan exited the building and found Kai waiting outside the reception room. “What took you so long? Nevermind, our guests are waiting.”
Irikshan followed him into the room. Inside, he found three large dragons and a smaller creature waiting. Two of the dragons were scrivens, a male and a female. They looked pretty typical, golden horns bedecked in finery, and sporting alternating ultraviolet rings and stripes upon white scales. The female’s muzzle ended sooner than her last thick stripe did – giving the appearance that she’d dipped her snout in something, which wasn’t of any importance to Irikshan but it amused him.
The youngest of the dragons was an ostracation. His appearance was quite fearsome, with blood-red scales lightly striped by yellow and several jagged black horns jutting out from his head. He didn’t wear any finery. Beside him, stood a small creature that reminded Irikshan of a xinbi, but it had dark plate-scales like an ebonscale and its secondary arms were on the ground, rather than at its back. It had a collar strapped to its neck. If he had thought to bring his journal with him, he would have started sketching them both at that very moment.
“Good morning, Dres Kennissoeker,” the male scriven stepped forward and spoke. He was the most decorated of the three, his garb indicating a high-ranking government office according to his lessons with Kai and Rong. “Apologies for waking you so early, I wanted to be sure we did not miss you. I am Guandong, a humble emissary of the imperial court. My companions are Lingzan,” he gestured to the other scriven, “and Yeong-Gi.” The ostraca bowed as the others had.
Irikshan bowed to them in return. “Irikshan Kennissoeker,” he said even though they clearly already knew his name, “A pleasure to make your acquaintance. To what do I owe the honour?”
“The emperor apologises that you have been burdened with such an inferior escort for so long. He extends his apologies regarding the incident with the Xinbi and that you were dragged into the mess at Saitai. From now on, we shall serve as your guides – affording you far more freedom in travel and a far safer experience.”
Irikshan noticed that Lucile and Jared had arrived while Guandong was speaking. “I would not say my current escorts have been a burden. They have given me the opportunity to explore the lands at a more measured pace. I might have otherwise flown too quickly by the beautiful landscape and missed exploring minor towns along the way on my way to this city.”
“I understand, and we can discuss this further in a moment, but there is a more pressing matter. It came to my attention that you may have been travelling in the company of a man who may be a wanted criminal who could pose a danger to you. I see that he has not joined us, and would like to meet him to ascertain his identity.” He looked to Kai and beckoned towards the door. “May we?”
Their host nodded, stepping aside. “The guest house is the leftmost one.” Everyone filed out, following Guangdong.
Once in the house, Guangdong surveyed the room. Irikshan would have been embarrassed about the state of his belongings were other, more stressful, emotions not nagging at him. “It seems he is not present. Do you know where he went?”
“No, I do not know where he is.”
“I see. Yeong-Gi.”
The ostraca walked towards the humans’ belongings, the creature following him closely. He issued commands in a language Irikshan did not understand, and it began sniffing around. Soon, it turned towards the mages and began running at them before a command from Yeong-Gi slowed its pace. Jared and Lucile were clearly uncomfortable as the chest-high predator sniffed at them, but it soon left them. It quickly found Kamon’s abandoned clothing and began pacing the room. Eventually it stopped, staring at the window, and made some high-pitched jabbering vocalisations.
With another command from Yeong-Gi, it shot off like an arrow, leaping up and scrambling out of the window.
“That window is quite high for a human to get through,” Guangdong said, looking at Irikshan.
Irikshan didn’t reply.
“Let us return to the main reason for our visit,” Guangdong produced a sealed envelope and handed it to Irikshan. “Your invitation.” He also produced a folded paper and handed it to Lucile. “Your reassignment instructions.”
Irikshan inspected his one. The wax seal bore no sign of tampering, but he didn’t know the crest upon it. He showed it to Kai. “I’m not familiar with imperial seals.”
“This is our Emperor’s seal. One of his personal aides must have written it.”
Or someone skilled in forgery. Cracking it open, he pulled the letter out. A fine scent which he couldn’t identify drifted off the thick paper. The letterhead and border were too intricate to not be printed, unless whoever made it really thought he was worth all that time. The lettering was just inconsistent enough that it was likely done by hand, but even then Irikshan was not sure it couldn’t have been the work of a press.
Dear Dres Irikshan Kennissoeker,
You are cordially invited by Emperor Trent, Fifth of His name, to an audience at the Imaadudish Imperial Court at your earliest convenience. He wishes to meet with the honourable emissary of the enlightened nation of Tumenzar. This letter shall be borne to you by his representative and advisor, Guangdong, whose attendants will ensure you both enjoy a safe journey.
Aylmer, Court Scribe
Irikshan could not outright decline this letter without upsetting Guangdong, whether or not he was a pretender. The letter seemed authentic enough, and he had no reason to doubt Guangdong was who he said he was other than Kamon’s word. Perhaps Kamon remembered Guangdong as a particularly conniving member of the imperial court? You’d have to be to become and remain the advisor to the leader of a world-spanning empire. Plenty of dirty work that would need doing. Was fetching him dirty work?
“It was never my intention to be perceived as a political emissary. I am exploring the empire in my private capacity as a scholar, funded by myself. I do not wish to become involved in politics.” It was true, steering clear of politics was a solid life choice that he’d managed to mostly uphold so far. He didn’t want any part of the scheming and bickering.
“I’m afraid that, as the first Tumenzarian in Otai since before the Enclaves, your presence carries political weight whether you want it to or not. His Majesty would be pleased were you to accept his invitation.”
“I guess I shall accept. Would not want to disappoint his majesty.” He looked at Jared and Lucile, who’d started packing their belongings already. Was this dragon simply a pretender? In Meihian, the Scriven were placed on such a pedestal that it was hard to believe that they’d ever have evil at heart. Irikshan, however, knew from personal experience that his kind could be just as fallible as humans. The ones who thought they were beyond reproach could easily become the worst.
Irikshan examined Guangdong’s expression. He saw no body language indicating ill intent. Yet, for some reason, he still heeded Kamon’s warning. Closing off his mind had left him at a great disadvantage, having entirely lost one of his senses. If only he could touch Guangdong’s mind, he might be able to determine his truthfulness. Perhaps there was a way to confirm his identity from a third party. Maybe that high-ranking officer who Lucile had reported to would know of Guangdong, given he knew about Kamon. In fact, Guangdong was behaving very differently about Kamon than the “official policy” that Lucile had been told. “If you’d allow it, I’d like to see off my companions at the garrison?”
“Of course, it won’t be a big detour. I’ll give you some time to pack your bags.” He turned to exit the room, but had to wait for Lingzan and Yeon-Gi.
“Thank you.” That was unexpectedly easy. Maybe he really was legitimate?
Suddenly, a distant bang echoed across the neighbourhood. Almost everyone stopped, looking around in confusion. Guangdong was quick to speak. “Yeon-Gi, check on Min.” A worried expression reached the ostraca’s face as he lifted a crystal.
Irikshan felt a timid tapping on his neck, and gave a nod, splitting his attention so he could still follow what the dragons said. “We can’t let them take you,” Lucile spoke softly, but didn’t lean in towards his ear and whisper. Probably trying not to draw too much attention. “If they get you out of the city, you’ll never be seen again. Just like Lan.” He didn’t respond, both because his own voice would have been too loud and because he did not know how to respond. What did she know that he didn’t? “I’ll get Rong and Su-Li.”
Yeon-Gi’s expression had soured. “He’s hurt. The scum got away. I’m going to fetch him. You should have let me go with him in the first place.” He distanced himself from the others on the lawn, unfurling his wings.
“No,” commanded Guangdong. “We need you here. We can find Min later.”
The ostraca stopped, almost ready to take to the air. He hesitated to follow the order, but then folded his wings and growled his displeasure.
“Hey!” Lingzan called, “Where are you going?”
Everyone’s attention turned to Lucile, who yelped as she was yanked away from the front door of the Jinmeng’s main house by an invisible string.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Guangdong asked as she regained her breath. Kai looked to Irikshan with an expression that seemed to say that he’d only just realised that something was wrong here.
“RONG! SU-LI! HELP US!” Lucile shouted at the top of her lungs.
The garden erupted into chaos as Kai and Irikshan dashed for the building. All three of the other dragons leapt into action to intercept them. Irikshan realised that he would need to make an opportunity for Kai to get past, and he would not be able to do it against dragons who were so much bigger than him without his magic.
He shattered, then opened up his mind. The first thing he noticed was a strange effect emanating from Yeong-Gi that seemed to enclose all of them in a sort of bubble. He didn’t have time to investigate that, however, and launched a mental assault on Guangdong – the closest to Kai. The scriven was clearly well trained, Irikshan’s frontal attack being easily deflected, but he hoped to sneak another shard past to manipulate his senses to distract him.
A giant hand wrapped around his throat and painfully slammed him down onto the ground. He kicked and roared and flailed his free wing, making as much noise as he could while trying to escape, but then a wave of force, which he could not resist in his losing mental battle, pressed his whole body into the ground while Lingzan took her time making sure to pin him properly beneath herself. Irikshan could see that Kai had met a similar fate at the hands of Guangdong, while the humans struggled and squirmed on the ground against nothing.
“Shut up. They cannot hear you.” Yeong-Gi approached Irikshan, touching a claw to his chest. Irikshan did not stop, while Yeong-Gi walked to Kai and did the same. As busy as he was struggling both mentally and physically, Irikshan soon noticed himself feeling excessively tired. Too late he realised the cause: his body was running out of energy. It was as if his heart crystal had simply been plucked out, and he’d just wasted the last reserves he had kicking and screaming in vain.
As his wakefulness faded, he was faintly aware of Guangdong saying, “And this is why we needed you.”
Irikshan did not rest well. Nonsensical memories and half-remembered dreams flitted by. Tossing and turning like his illness had returned, it was a mercy when he was finally shaken awake. He let out a groan as he looked up to the kindly white and gold face before him.
“Sorry to wake you. Are you feeling ill again? You have slept quite late.”
“No, I do not think so. Feels like I’ve had a bunch of nightmares, but I can’t remember what they were about.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
Irikshan noticed that, Rong aside, he was alone in the room. “Where did the mages go?”
“They came to say their farewells much earlier this morning, around when Kai went to university.”
“Oh, yes! Of course. How did I forget that? They are heading back home.”
“Anyway, I woke you because Guangdong is here.”
“Good. I’m already packed for the journey.”
“It is a shame that the mages could not go with you.”
“Yes, I will miss them. More than I expected I would, at the start of my journey.”
“Let us not keep our guests waiting.”
Irikshan nodded and they went to meet the others. As they approached the reception hall, Irikshan heard talking.
“We should not be moving about with Min in this condition.”
“If you want, we can leave Min behind, but we are going and you are not staying.”
“I am not leaving Min.”
Irikshan entered the building, seeing three dragons – two scriven and an ostraca. He recognised them from when they’d met yesterday, though they wore less finery than before. They were ready for travel, with many bags strapped at their sides. The unease that his dreams had left with him dissipated as they greeted him.
Irikshan sensed that Lingzan carried another being on her back. Craning his neck, he caught sight of a curled-up neuntei. Lightly touching its mind, he sensed that it was hurting.
“What happened to Min?”
“Some bastard criminal shot him when we were trying to apprehend him,” Yeon-Gi spat.
“I am sorry to hear that. Will he be alright?”
“Yes, we managed to find a doctor who helped. Min got very lucky.”
“That is a relief. Are you sure we should travel with him like this? I do not mind staying in the city for longer.”
“Travel will not be strenuous for him,” Guangdong interjected, “considering he’s strapped to Lingzan’s back. We are needed in Pestowbo.”
“Oh,” said Rong, “you are travelling to the imperial capital?”
“Yes, I got an invitation for an audience with the emperor. Guangdong also agreed to give me a tour of the city. It is a good opportunity for me to study imperial culture, before I continue on my journey.”
“That does indeed sound like a great opportunity. I wish you safe travel and fruitful research. If you do visit Longjing again, please visit us. You will always be welcome in House Jinmeng. You have only scratched the surface of what can be seen in the city.”
“Thank you. If I do come here again, I shall surely visit. You have been a good host and friend. As I have told you, my original plans were to circle around westward, then travel back through the southern regions of the empire, but we shall see where the passage of time leads.”
Rong bowed his head to Irikshan, who reciprocated the gesture.
“Is everyone else out?”
“Yes. The hatchlings are at school. Su-Li is seeing to the workshop. Kai is at university, but he told me he had said goodbye to you already before you went back to sleep.”
“A pity I could not say goodbye to everyone, but Guangdong is in a bit of a hurry, so I shall get my bags.”
Irikshan entered the guest room for possibly the last time, followed by Guangdong, and looked about it. It felt very empty now. He’d grown used to having his belongings scattered about as they had become when he was ill, and the bedrolls and belongings of the two mages who’d travelled so far with him. He wondered whether they were at the garrison or had already departed for Shormton, and whether he would ever see them again. He could probably find an excuse to visit Shormton again. Northern Namhni had the shortest amount of water which he would have to cross to reach Vrakura. Even though he didn’t want to fly all the distance to the Vernon islands again and planned to fly over the Laiki strait, Shormton was a relatively small northward detour compared to traversing most of the empire.
Walking over to his bags, he felt the need to check through them to make sure he’d not forgotten something behind, even though he could see nothing amongst the furniture of the room. Opening them, he let out a groan.
“What’s the matter?”
“I did not pack properly. Things are in the wrong places.”
“Well, you have already packed. You can repack tonight if you like.”
“Fine. Let me just…” He opened another bag and his heart sunk with dread. “Where did my first journal go?” He lifted out the two remaining books. Their spines matched those of the two that he had not yet started on, but he flipped through them just to confirm that these were the blanks. He opened the other bags and rooted around in them in a panic.
“Did you maybe leave it behind somewhere?”
“This thing is the record of my entire journey,” Irikshan said as he started exploring under the pillows he had slept on. “I have taken it with me everywhere at all times.” He searched in every nook and cranny between and behind furniture that he could find. “There is no way I would have left it behind somewhere.” He couldn’t find it.
“Why do you need a journal? Are the memories of tumens dull and fleeting like humans’?”
Irikshan might have found that question offensive if he was not so worried about his journal. “No, our memories are excellent.” He moved around Guangdong and poked his head out of the house. “Rong, when was the last time you saw me with my journal?”
“You had it with you when you left after dinner last night.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. You were showing the hatchlings some more drawings.”
Irikshan returned to his room and began searching everywhere a second time.
“Why do you need it? If you plan to publish your work, can you not write it once you are home?”
“An excellent memory still does not mean a flawless one. Plus, I drew a lot. Even if I can do decent renditions from memory, it is not the same as when those memories are fresh. Losing this journal also means losing all the effort I already put into it.”
“I understand, but I do not know what you could do about it now. I could ask the local authorities to keep an eye out for it, if you would like?”
“Sure, we can ask for help, but I am not leaving without it.”
Guangdong snorted in annoyance, but said nothing while Irikshan dug fruitlessly through all his bags for the third time. Eventually, he said, “Stop panicking and think for a bit. Are you sure you did not do anything with it?”
Irikshan sat down, trying to calm himself with little success. His mind felt hazy and he couldn’t concentrate properly.
“Retrace your steps. Where do you last remember seeing it?”
“I had it… This morning. Oh! I gave it to Lucile to send back to Tumenzar after she returns to Shormton. But why would I do that…?”
“You tell me.”
“Oh, yes! I remember why. It was almost finished and I wanted my family to know what I had been doing, and that I would be gone for much longer than anticipated, since I have been travelling on foot.”
“There you go. Your journal is safe.”
“Yes. It is in good hands. Sorry about that. We can go now.”
Irikshan quickly prepped his second journal for usage, closed up his bags, and strapped them on. Together, he and Guangdong left the room and said farewell to Rong. The four travellers exited onto the street and used it to get to a running start before taking to the air, northward bound.