Index | < Bandits (Chapter 9) | Longjing (Chapter 11) >
Dredging up the past.
Written January-June 2021
Saitai village teemed with life in the dusk. Adults milled about, minding to their business or clustering together to chat, the scarce dragons joining the occasional group. Children ran about, screaming, shouting, and disturbing their parents. The newest village hatchlings ran about with them. The next youngest clutch, two of whom had left Saitai in search of mates or a different life, were already at an age greater than that which the village children would likely ever reach.
Towards the periphery of Saitai’s centre lay their oldest resident: a dragoness ancient beyond the villagers’ comprehension, her body scarred and deformed from the war of a time gone by. She watched over the inhabitants of her village. Guided them, taught them. They treated her with deep reverence. Her wishes and commands were as law.
Beside her stood a man not of Saitai. The villagers recognised him as the man who arrived with a strange orange and green dragon a couple days ago. For a reason unknown to them, she gave him much of her time while he had been present. While his fellow travellers had been out with the military, he’d spent almost all his time with her. Perhaps he simply had nothing better to do.
“We sense your companions returning,” Fenlan finally spoke, breaking her silent observation of her village. “You’re certain that I can tell the scholar about what happened, even with the imperial mages present?”
“Yes. These two are not malicious. I have hopes that I can continue to influence their point of view. Your telling of a more honest history than what they’ve been fed might aid that.”
“How long have you known them? How do you know their true intent? Even if you were gifted such as them, they would protect their minds from any inquiries you might make.”
“They might protect their minds, but they’re not practiced at social deception. Their faces and body language speak volumes,” Kamon explained. “I’ve learnt about them during our months of travel. They are inexperienced in the wider world. They haven’t fought on the fronts. The master has had a soft life, and while the kid still has some wariness and caution from his days on the streets, he’s still easily impressed and impressionable.
“Let them know what’s going on, but don’t tell them of your involvement. I trust them to not act maliciously, but I don’t want to risk them feeling that it is their duty to report an active dissident.”
“And the tumen? Is he actually sympathetic? He let us touch his mind, but we only saw what he wanted us to see. He willingly joined the military in their hunt, even though he had no obligation to do so – unlike the mages.”
“He’s mostly self-interested and self-serving, but his heart isn’t bad. He still follows his own principles. He wants to see himself as ‘good’. Lucile convinced him to come here specifically to help the ‘peacekeeping’ force, and motivated him with the prospect that he’ll be able to record the stories of the bandits. Both think that they are doing a good deed. They think they are saving lives by helping. Technically, they are.”
A deep rumbling half-growl came from the dragoness, indicating her opinion of that sentiment.
“That aside, I doubt he would be brave enough to disregard imperial authority overtly during this journey of his. But he will eventually be reporting back to the Tumen elders once he returns home. If he has negative views of what the empire is doing, I’m sure he’ll share them once he’s safely back home. It’s a long shot, but Tumenzar holds much power in Vrakura. They would be valuable allies.”
“We doubt that this grand scheme of yours will pay off. The Tumen are making the same mistake we did centuries ago. Thinking this empire is someone else’s problem. No, they are worse. You said they’re even training imperial mages?”
“There is still hope,” Kamon simply said. The despondent guardian met his eyes with a questioning expression, which eventually changed to one of acceptance. Kamon had to fight his urge to tell her more. She knew all too well why no one could be allowed to know too much.
The Tumen were masking their preparations well, and Kamon did not want to risk knowledge of that getting out. They might have tipped their hand by sending Irikshan. Although, it could – perhaps – have been more suspicious if they did not send anyone. Even if the dragon did genuinely believe he was touring and recording the empire’s cultures, lands, and people purely as a scholarly pursuit, a lot would depend on his report once he returned to Tumenzar. Kamon wanted to make sure that the scholar saw not only what the empire wanted him to see.
“Thank you, Weaver.”
“Anyway, I should leave before they arrive.” He slipped off, down an alley between two houses, and briskly walked towards the inn via a back pathway where he wouldn’t be seen from the road approaching the village.
The room he entered was now filled with patrons talking and drinking. They had quickly returned the furniture to its normal arrangement once the military had left. He ordered himself a mug, paying upfront, then retired to the periphery of the room. Taking a taste, he barely suppressed a cringe at the poor quality of the brew, then downed more than half of it with barely a pause for breath. That done, he settled back, one hand lazily fidgeting with the wooden mug. He mentally relaxed, not enough that his thoughts would be exposed, but enough that he’d be easier to find for those who sensed the world through magic.
From his position near a large dragon-sized window, he could hear the sounds of the village outside as well as the men inside. Soon a quiet wave spread through Saitai, villagers hushing or ceasing their conversations as the strange dragon and his imperial mage escort returned. This time, however, the villagers had not been ordered by soldiers to retreat to their homes. They remained in the open, gawking.
The silence did not reach the interior of the tavern, where the men obliviously continued their raucous dialogue right up until the orange head appeared through the window to his right.
“You look bored,” the tumen said in a mock-pitying tone. “Missing us?”
“Terribly so. Took you long enough.” Kamon looked disdainfully at his mug, then back to Irikshan. “Anything interesting happen?” The upper half of Lucile’s head appeared beside Irikshan. He assumed Jared was there too.
“Got some field testing on my refractor-type enchantments. Saw my first real battle. Saved a man who almost got himself killed trying to save his friend. Actually, I’m not sure you could even call that a battle. Well, anyways, I want to talk to the Guardian. Guardians. I’ll speak with you later.”
“Can’t I come?” He rushed towards the entrance, leaving behind his unfinished drink. He caught up with the others as they walked towards Fenlan.
“These are not matters for a ‘wandering storyteller’. Please wait for us to return.”
Kamon sighed, but halted and watched the others continue without him. Fenlan still lay where he had left her, at the edge of the town’s activity, but now two other dragons spoke to her. He recognised them. He’d met them from the last time he’d visited the village. Fen and Lan’s daughter, the only child of theirs to remain in Saitai, and the daughter’s mate. He’d come from a village across the mountains. Together they’d be the village’s next guardians. Irikshan, then the others, stopped a respectful distance from them while the last few words were said.
“Welcome back, knowledge seeker.” Lucile was impressed by how easily Fenlan switched to Imaadudish after her previous conversation concluded. “We are glad to see you remain unharmed.”
“Thank you, Guardians. I was sure to keep my distance from the fighting, what little there was. If you do not have other commitments at this time, could I please ask to speak to you in private?”
“Let us return to our home.” She stood up, body listing to the left as she strove to keep her centre of gravity above her one remaining arm. As she hopped forwards, Lucile noticed her subtle use of her magic to make the movement less strenuous.
The ancient dragoness’ home was not far from where she’d been sitting. She mentally pushed the heavy curtain that was her door to the side, holding it from swinging back down so that Lucile and Jared would not be knocked over.
Once everyone was inside and she had settled herself, Fenlan asked, “What did you wish to speak about, seeker?”
Irikshan removed his journal from his bags and opened it up, pencil poised to write. “Guardians, were you aware that some of the bandits whom the imperial force was here to capture were from your village?” Lucile looked at him in surprise. Not at the information, but that Irikshan had been so direct about it. She’d thought he would have approached the topic more gracefully.
“Yes, we were.” Fenlan’s lack of evasion was also a surprise. In any case, she was glad that Irikshan had followed her advice to leave Kamon behind. Whether or not the story he had told, on the night of the Xinbi’s attack, about his past held any truth, this could easily turn into a messy affair she’d rather have him involved in. Imperial nobility knowing of this would be a problem one way or another.
Pencil scratched away at paper. “Did you provide them any support?”
“We provided some food and wood, yes.” Lucile clenched her hands into fists.
“Did you know the bandits were working with a rebel cell? Receiving targets from them?”
“We did.” Why was Fenlan answering so truthfully in front of her and Jared, imperial mages? The dragoness would be tried for treason if Lucile reported this. She reached out mentally, peeking out from behind her barriers to sense the minds of the two dragons. They were having some effect on or communication between one another. A weak one. Emotional. She dared not intrude further. They’d already know she was watching.
“Thank you for being direct, Guardians. I spoke with Shun in his thoughts. After I saved his life, which he had almost lost to Guiying after he speared her whilst trying to save Zhi. He asked me to tell you that he, Zhi, Quing and Guanting are still alive. He also said that if I want his story, I should speak to you.”
“We can tell you his story, and others. But first, Magi Lucile, you seem to be of two minds. In a manner quite more mundane than our own.”
“I don’t… I should… Uhh…” Lucile trailed off. Words failed her. Instead, she decided to follow the example of the dragons, mentally exposing herself just enough that they could sense her conflicting emotions. They, who sensed the world around them with their minds just as easily as their other senses, quickly noticed. Irikshan’s presence shared some satisfaction and encouragement, likely regarding her choice to join them in this communication. Fenlan’s strange presence returned acceptance and calm. She was ready to die for her choices. She felt a pain that had not dulled with the decades, regret for failure, and a desire for justice. Fenlan’s pain caused an echo in Irikshan. Something far more recent. But he quickly hid it.
Lucile then sensed a third presence. It was Jared inquisitively joining in, likely driven to do so because of their silence. As Irikshan had demonstrated, the dragons could still hide parts of their true emotions, but Lucile decided she would trust them enough to remain honest with hers as she spoke. “I should report you to imperial authorities for aiding and abetting rebels. Yet, I also know they can be unkind and unforgiving. You seem to feel your actions are justified. Why is this so?”
“My memories would be a far better answer than words, if you would permit?”
Lucile paused, raising her mental barriers once again to hide her emotions. To share her memories, Fenlan would have to open her mind far more than was safe, but Lucile would also be greatly exposed as she reached out with her own mind. “Jared, guard me please.”
“Yes ma’am,” the boy replied. A deep chuckle emanated from Irikshan. Lucile didn’t believe the boy would hold out if either of the two dragons attacked. Neither, likely, would even she stand against them with her full focus. Even so, she felt that she should show at least some caution.
Lowering her barriers and closing her eyes, she reached out to Fenlan’s mind and let herself be drawn in. She felt Irikshan there too. Fenlan’s memories faded in. They were dulled by the centuries, but still felt drastically more real than the dim recollections she herself had of mere decades past. She’d read that dragons had exceptional memories, often priding themselves on the fact, but this was the first time one had invited her to see them.
She saw another dragon. Lan. Far younger than Fenlan was now. A peaceful village life shared. A love so strong they could not stand to be apart. They joined in love, but even this was not enough. They joined in mind, not wishing to be separated for a moment. They spent so much time this way that they began to feel almost tangible pain when physically apart. It became a problem at times, requiring them both to do absolutely everything together. Lan contrived a way that they could be together in one another’s hearts even if they were physically separate, and their lives continued in a joyful manner which they wished would never end.
It did end. Word of war came to the village. The Meihianese royal court was losing strategic locations and scrambling too late to muster a force. All dragons and humans of fighting age were summoned. Thrust into a battle unprepared, the skies set ablaze with weapons never before seen, both Fen and Lan were torn from the skies, barely surviving the fall and awaking as prisoners once the battle had been lost.
After months of captive labour, having made promises of loyalty to the empire, they were returned to their village as the new Guardians – their predecessors slain in the war. Yet they were together. The village survived. That was what mattered. The humans began to repopulate, and Fen and Lan decided to have their own young. The lovers lived on.
Centuries passed, the village yoked to the empire’s taxes like the royal court before them. Eventually there were even attempts to suppress religion and history, but that fire too died down once it had sated itself in major population centres.
The village returned to a normalcy resembling that from before the war. Fen and Lan watched over their village and their hatchlings. Although they were both hampered by physical injuries and all but one of their hatchlings eventually left the village, they still had each other.
Until they didn’t. Lan eventually succumbed to an infection, which noone in the village was able to treat. Outside help achieved nothing either, and the body was taken away for study. Fen felt half of herself fade away beyond her reach. Her remaining half was consumed with grief. Only the small part of Lan that remained in her heart ceased her attempt to join her lover in the void. Something it said turned her grief into anger. Anger which festered. Fen sought someone who could help her-
The memories replaying in her mind were cut off as Lucile found herself ejected from the guardian’s mind. “Why won’t you show me the rest?” Her eyes were wet.
“I will accept my fate if you wish to report me, but I will not endanger others.”
“What prompted your sudden anger? Why is it directed at the empire? Injuries and age aside, your life under the empire does not seem all that different to that before the empire. You can’t blame the current authorities for the war of their predecessors, nor fault them for not being able to provide the latest medical care to remote farming villages, can you?”
“Did you notice the piece of Lan that he left with us? With me?”
“Yes, it’s true that our loved ones live on in our hearts, and you should take comfort in that. Not seek rebellion.”
“We see you misunderstood our memories. Reach with your mind to our heart.”
“Our heart-crystal, yes.”
She looked at Jared with a concerned expression, who nodded. Protected again by him, she tentatively reached out towards the shiridite crystal that she knew would be inside the right-hand side of the dragoness’ chest. It was far larger than the one she kept in a pouch at her hip.
To her shock, she found a weak mental presence emanating from the crystal. No, it was more like an echo of a mind. One that moved with Fen’s own mind but was also different. She had not previously identified it within Fen’s larger presence, but it was certainly there.
“Is that… Lan?”
“The piece of him left with me. He discovered he could do this before the war. This piece of him that was left showed me the truth about his ‘death’. It was beyond their reach to fully destroy.”
“Let him show you.”
Sighing, Lucile let herself be drawn in again. She felt peculiarly as if she was being split in two, but was able to direct her focus towards the heart-crystal. She once again began to sense the memories, but they were patchy and distorted as if trapped within a damaged crystal prison.
She caught glimpses of a large imperial company visiting the village. They were led by a middle-aged Scriven dressed in fine armour and conducting himself with a great sense of self-importance. He ordered everyone into their homes under guard.
Fen and Lan talked to him in their own home, when they both suddenly came under mental assault and were subdued. Lan was dragged from their home while Fen’s struggles and anger faded and were replaced with depressing stillness and the depths of mourning.
The next patch of memory showed Fen watching, grieving, as the dragon went door to door in the village, informing them that Lan had passed on, before he departed from the village.
Lucile returned to the real world once again, emotions in turmoil and mind struggling to grasp the whole matter. “He… kidnapped Lan… And changed your… memories? Everyone in Saitai?”
“Yes, mage. Did you notice he travelled with an imperial company, wearing imperial finery?”
“Do you understand my motivation now?”
“Yes, but I don’t believe that such a commander exists in the imperial army. He must have been some pretender, seeking personal gains.”
“Believe what you will. I know only that he claimed to be here in the emperor’s name. So, what is your choice?”
“I… need time to think.” Lucile turned towards the door. Jared moved to follow.
“You can take all the time you need.”
She looked back at Irikshan, who had not moved with her. “Can you come?”
“As I said on our way here, this is not a matter for me to advise on. I did not come to the empire to get involved in politics and rebellions. I am here to record places, people and culture, which I shall do so. Whatever your decision, the Guardians’ story will live on in my memories and my journal.”
Lucile sighed, but he was right. This was not a matter for him to decide, and she figured she already knew what he would choose. She reached for the curtain, but Fenlan moved it for her and Jared. Once outside, the curtain once again obeyed gravity, and she sighed again.
“What is it, ma’am?” Jared would not have seen the memories.
“Let us go for a walk outside the village. I shall fill you in, then we must decide what to do.”