Lucile makes her report.
Written July-August 2021
The utilitarian stone architecture of the headquarters stood out like a sore thumb against the ornate wooden architecture of most of the inner city. Lucile felt intimidated as she approached. This wasn’t Shormton anymore. She’d never been beyond Namhni, let alone met a dragon. Now she was in the dragons’ capital she’d always thought of as a distant and wondrous place.
While she was employed by the imperial military, one of whose headquarters stood before her, she wouldn’t know anyone there. There was also an anxiety that perhaps they would not recognise her rank or simply tell her that she was no longer needed and send her back home after she had come all this way, but she tried to push her fears away. She marched up the awkwardly wide-spaced steps, passing between the guards who stood on either side of the dragon-sized door.
The entry hall was more lavishly furnished than the austere exterior of the building suggested, but not by much. Cushioned benches lined the walls of the nearest portion of the room, stopping at the doorways on each side. There were a couple of guards inside the room too, and some uniformed teens, probably around Jared’s age, sat on the benches nearest the doorways.
An ornate desk stood at the other side of the room, with some ceremonial weapon displays and other wooden furniture flanking it. Behind the desk sat a man scratching away at a book. As Lucile arrived before him, he looked up.
“Name, role, and reason for visit?” He dipped his pen into a pot and looked expectantly at Lucile.
“Lucile Manghka. Vice-mage of Shormton, Namhni province. My apprentice and I were assigned by Colonel Drew Anson to ensure the safety of a Tumenzarian scholar–Draco Irikshan Kennissoeker–as he explores the empire.”
The pen etched words into the paper. “Badge?”
“Here.” She deposited it into the outstretched hand. He copied the code on it.
“Where are your charge and your apprentice?” As he returned her badge, the man stared at the space behind her that was distinctly lacking a foreign dragon and another mage.
“They remained at house Jinmeng, who are providing us with lodging. I decided to make my report alone while Draco Kennissoeker interviewed the Jinmengs. He’s here on a sort of historical and cultural study.”
The man did not speak further while he scratched away at his book, then pulled a loose paper from amongst his stationary and scratched away at that too – occasionally dipping his pen into the inkwell. After a while, he stopped and looked at the group of boys. “Tao-Xia, please take this to the Major General’s office.”
The boy rushed to the desk, accepted the slip of paper, then dashed off through one of the doors.
Meanwhile, the man gestured towards the benches. “Please have a seat, Magus Manghka.”
“Pardon the interruption,” Kamon bowed as he entered the room. Several dragons and a teen turned to look at him. “I will leave for a while. Have some business to attend to. I might only be back in the evening.”
“Very well,” Irikshan replied. “Thank you for informing us. Mind leaving the door open? It’s hot in here.”
He bowed again and departed.
Almost immediately, Irikshan felt Jared’s mind prodding at his for attention. Yes?
Should we really let him go just like that? Shouldn’t we go with him or at least ask where he’s going? Ms. Lucile wanted us to keep an eye on him.
Lucile also doesn’t want us to make a fuss about it. I believe it will be better in the long-term if he still thinks we trust him. Besides, I don’t think he’s really done anything yet to show us that he can’t be trusted, aside from hiding his identity with apparently reasonable motivations.
Alright, Jared conceded and let Irikshan get back to his work.
A large board lay on the floor in front of Irikshan, a sheet of paper atop it and a pencil recreating the likeness of the family of dragons before him. Just besides this lay his notebook with another pencil scribing notes between each of his questions. The notebook was considerably lopsided. The pages Irikshan was currently writing on were amongst the last.
“So there are separate schools for hatchlings as human children because of the differences in curriculum. What happens if there is a human child with magical potential?”
“Then they study with the hatchlings,” Kai replied.
“Do you do it differently?” Su-Li asked. She wasn’t as stubborn about refusing to speak the imperial language as her mate. It seemed that Rong was alone in that amongst the household, but when asked he said that he did so out of a duty to ensure his family would not abandon their past for the present.
“It’s only since we started accepting refugees into Tumenzar that we had a significant human population to care for. Before that, what few children were raised in our lands were usually born of wealthy merchants, scholars or mages. Hardly enough of them to create entire schools. They went through the same curriculum, with separate activities where appropriate. If their parents didn’t want this, they could hire tutors.”
“Mister Kennissoeker,” one of the Jinmeng hatchlings asked, “Do hatchlings in Tumenzar have to do so much maths too?” Irikshan recalled that this one was named Yijun.
“Ours have to do plenty of maths, yes. It’s an important subject. Pretty much any respectable job relies on it in some way or other.”
“But what if I want to become a great mage like you or uncle Kai, Mister Kennissoeker?,” another asked. This was the only female of the trio, Rentik. “You do not need to do maths every time you enchant one of your crystals or do magic, do you?”
“Not with things I am confident in, but my studies in magic are heavily supported by my understanding of physics, which in turn is supported by my understanding of mathematics. And when the magic I need to do is particularly sensitive, I often do calculations beforehand. I would not have gotten here without maths.”
There were some disappointed groans from the younglings.
“What about further education,” Irikshan asked. “Back home, I occasionally heard humans comparing the universities and colleges of Tumenzar to those in Meihian, particularly Longjing.”
“Ours are very reputable, yes. Both humans and scriven attend these, because any humans that do attend are wealthy enough to afford it and know what they want to specialise in. As I said, I teach at Shiloxue university. I cannot really speak as to how it compares to your institutions, but I can take you there tomorrow, when it’s open, to meet other faculty members. You can probably interview anyone who is interested and available while I teach.”
“I would greatly appreciate that. Thank you, Kai.” He was feeling a little tired despite it being so early in the morning, but could barely contain his excitement to ask more questions. He turned his attention to Rong, who had worked in various parts of the construction industry across his long life, something in which his oldest–Jingyi, one of the dragons who Irikshan had encountered north of Shormton–had followed. “Would you mind telling me a bit more about your traditional woodworking and architecture? I found the styles on display in the city quite fascinating.”
“Ma’am, please come with me. Major General Benbow wants to speak with you.”
Lucile looked up to see the young man that had run off earlier waiting for her. She stood up and followed him through the wide stone passageways and up a flight of stairs. The second floor of the building was far more compact, designed only for human traversal.
Lucile was shown into a door at the end of the passageway.
“Good morning, Magus Manghka. Welcome to Longjing.” An aging man sat sternly behind a paper-filled desk. Grey hairs were invading his otherwise light brown and short-cut head. His eyes were a grey-blue. Something she’d only ever seen in people from Eleon. This man was probably Imaadudish, like Kamon.
“Good morning, Sir.”
“Please, take a seat, you’ve travelled far.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
“How is Drew? I haven’t seen him since he was reassigned to Shormton.”
“He’s been doing fine, Sir. Always busy with his duties.”
“Still too energetic for his age and refusing to retire?”
“No need to be so stiff and formal, Lucile. You can call me Wyatt. The communications I’ve received from Shormton indicate Drew thinks highly of you.”
“Thank you, S- Wyatt.”
“Have you had any difficulties with your charge on the journey here?”
“None caused by him. He has been a good travel companion, once we got accustomed to each other. He would certainly have preferred to fly large portions of the journey, but made peace with walking it.”
“But there were difficulties?”
“He was attacked one night by a Xinbi. It might have been trying to eat one of the horses at first, but he had set enchantments on his crystals to wake him if anything approached camp. It tried to lure him away from camp, but attacked anyway when he didn’t leave.”
“Kennissoeker is fortunate that he had you. I’ve heard that Xinbi even prey on centuries-old scriven when they think they can.”
“We didn’t save him, it was Kamon.”
“A storyteller that asked Kennissoeker if he could tag along on the journey. He shot it.” I should get ahead of this before it has a chance to come back to bite me. I don’t owe him anything. “Apparently he also blocked its mind as it was mentally attacking Kennissoeker.”
“Oh? Is he a mage?”
“No, but it would seem that he has nullification projection training.”
“Did you not find this unusual?”
“We did. Kennissoeker and I questioned him. He claims to have been noble-born, where he got this training, but he was disowned for a forbidden love. The Howard line, I think it was.”
“And you believed him?”
“I wasn’t exactly in a position to do anything about it at the time, and I believed the best course of action would be to inform a superior officer of it when I found one. I am not familiar with the noble families of the empire, I will admit to finding those classes boring in school.”
“A fair judgement. Where is this Kamon now?”
“He is staying with us at House Jinmeng. I asked Kennissoeker and Patamarrut, my apprentice, to keep an eye on him before I left this morning.”
“Thank you for the information.”
A wave of guilt washed over Lucile. She didn’t have reason to protect Kamon from the authorities, but it still felt like she had sold him out. She didn’t like the feeling. But she couldn’t take back what was said, lest he happen to be a criminal and she would appear sympathetic.
“I know that look. Don’t worry, you won’t be in trouble for travelling with him or becoming friends with him. You’ve just proven your loyalty, even if emotions are a troubling thing at times.”
“Wh- Will- Is he a criminal?”
“Depends on which noble-disowned-for-forbidden-love he is. Did he mention who his lover was?”
“He said she was from Longjing but vanished after he was disowned. He said he’s spent decades looking for her. I think she was supposed to be an art and writing teacher? Her name started with a ‘Ch-’.”
“An artist, writer, and a teacher. Cheng.”
“Yes! So you know who he is?”
“It seems so. Can you describe him?”
“Medium-brown hair, blue eyes. Pale skin and wide eyes, definitely of Eleon descent. A pretty broad jawline? I’m not sure how much better I can do. Kennissoeker mentioned that some scriven we passed said he looked like an imperial noble. Should I ask him to draw Kamon? His sketches are very lifelike.”
“No, thanks Lucile. Does the name Armstrong mean anything to you? I hope you at least remember that from school.”
“They’re the imperial family, are they not?”
“Yes. The story ‘Kamon’ told you did have some truth to it, but he still lied about his family. He’s brother to the emperor himself. He was third in line until he was disowned.”
Lucile felt a wave of dizziness hit her and gripped the arms of her seat to try to stabilise herself. The emperor’s brother. She had been right to hide her decision about Fenlan from him. There was no possibility that he did not have some ulterior motive in asking to travel with them.
“Are you sure?”
Wyatt waited for her to regain her composure. “I can’t be absolutely certain without seeing his face, but that’s something I never want to do again. This could just be someone who looks vaguely like him, knows his story, and has enough nullification projection training to mentally trap a Xinbi. But that’s a lot of effort to go to in order to impersonate a disgraced noble without any remaining political power or allies.” He shrugged. “Even though I do not agree with the decision to let him roam freely, the emperor himself has decreed that we are only to track his movements and not to interfere with him unless he is found to be involved with the criminal or insurgent elements.”
“So he really… just wanders about?”
“It’s hard to keep track of one man, but yes. It seems he is still searching for his missing Cheng. From what I can tell, he’s been all over the empire. He’s obsessed.”
“Who was Cheng? Do you know what happened to her?”
“A scriven.” Wyatt’s voice dripped with disgust. “Supposedly it was only a platonic relationship, but who wouldn’t claim that when they’re trying not to get disowned. It’s not natural.”
“But no, I don’t know what happened to her. She just up and left Longjing shortly after that pig was summoned home to be disowned.”
“What is his real name?”
“You can ask him yourself if you want. Please, let us change the subject. So long as he hasn’t tried anything funny with you or our guest or broken any laws, I don’t want to know what he’s doing.”
The commander shuffled some papers on his desk. “I got reports that you, your apprentice, and Kennissoeker helped out a peacekeeping force in the east.”
“I got word of a peacekeeping force sent to Saitai to deal with some bandits. I thought we could be of some assistance, so I convinced Irikshan to help.”
“Interesting. What’s your judgement on his combat capabilities and skill as a mage?”
“He was insistent that he’s not a fighter, and only played a support role in the fighting, but he is highly proficient with his advanced ability and his enchantments. He had many of the bandits running in terror before the fighting even started. I think without his involvement, there would have been significantly more casualties. He’s a talented mage.”
“Drew’s communications mentioned that he has some sort of advanced ability to create illusions. Correct?”
“Yes. He calls it a knack. Must be closer to the tumen’s word for it. He describes it as altering an individual’s perceptions of their surroundings, but I asked not to experience it firsthand.”
“Would you and your apprentice be able to detain him if he went rogue?”
“No, I don’t believe so. But I also don’t believe that he would do such a thing. He is genuinely here to learn about the people and culture of the empire.”
“Does he seem to be collecting any data about military placement, movement, equipment, combat tactics, and so on?”
“He probably is. He’s documenting pretty much everything he sees. I’ve seen his journal. While I can’t understand his language, it’s filled with drawings. Some of those are of fortifications, equipment, and soldiers, right alongside landscapes, cityscapes, civilians, markets, and pretty much every other novel thing he’s seen. As I said, he’s artistically skilled and here to learn about the empire.”
“This journal. Does he take it everywhere he goes?”
“He does. When it’s not floating in front of him, it’s in one of the bags he has strapped to his side.”
“Do you trust him?”
“I see. Do you have anything else to report?”
“Not regarding my current assignment, but there is something I would like to ask about if I may?”
“Do dragons go missing often?”
“Have you seen the size of this city? People go missing all the time. Dragons are no exception, there’s more fuss made about it because half the population still treat them like they’re descended from the gods.”
“What about in remote villages?”
“They probably do too, with all the wild animals out there. Your charge would have been taken by a Xinbi were it not for that pig. I don’t think the tumen would have been happy if their only kin in living memory to visit Otai did not return. Why are you pursuing this line of questioning? Is this about Cheng?”
“No. The guardian of Saitai told me that her mate was abducted decades ago. She said the force that took him were dressed in imperial military uniform.”
“This is the first I’m hearing of this. Why would we arrest a village guardian? Unless he was acting against the crown?”
“I also didn’t think it was likely. I believe the group that took him may have been impostors. I told her so, but she asked me to at least try to investigate, anyway.”
He penned a quick note on a paper and stamped it. “Try as I might, it’s been impossible to stamp out all organised criminal activity. You have my permission to visit the archivist and request records of arrest warrants for rural Fezho prefecture. Take one of the message boys. Should you not find what you are looking for, tell the boy to inform me, but do not investigate further. It would be a fruitless endeavour for you. It is a task better suited to other elements of the military.” He offered her the paper which she gladly accepted.
“Thank you, Si- Wyatt.”
“Thank you for your time, magus. Dismissed.”
Lucile returned to the Jinmeng’s property by mid-afternoon. She had decided on her walk back from the headquarters that Irikshan and Jared deserved to know who they were travelling with, but she would not tout his secrets from the rooftops.
Her visit to the archivist had yielded no clues about Lan, save for the lack of arrest warrants. While she was there, she had also inquired regarding missing person and dragon cases in and around the city. Many of them seemed to be children or hatchlings, and the pitiful quantity of documented efforts at finding them had disappointed her, but it was not her place to rectify this.
She pushed open the gate and found Jared and Kai sitting on the grass by the stream, talking in quiet tones until they saw her enter. She waited until she was nearer to them before asking, “What’s happening?”
“My father noticed that Kennissoeker was showing early symptoms of illness, and summoned a doctor. The doctor believes the foul airs he inhaled as he passed through the outer city caused the illness. He recommended that Kennissoeker rest,” Kai explained. After a pause, he turned to glare at the guest house and added, “Which he’s refusing to do…”
The door slid open moments later, Irikshan walking out. He looked tired and, briefly closing her eyes and focusing, Lucile noticed a fair amount of heat radiating from his normally cold scales. His normally night-imperceptible breathing was heavy enough she could hear it when he drew near.
“I slept earlier. I need some sun,” Irikshan stated. “I can recharge and participate in the conversation at the same time.”
Kai said nothing.
“Where are the others?,” Lucile asked.
“My parents are in the house, the hatchlings are at House Pengyoung with their school friends, and Kamon said he’d be back in the evening.”
“Did he say where he was going?”
“Only that he had business to attend to.”
“How did things go at the command centre?” Irikshan asked.
“Alright. There are some things I need to tell you.” She then looked to Kai. “Mind if we talk in private for a bit? It’s a sensitive matter.”
The dragon bowed politely and returned to the main house. Lucile then mentally prodded the two remaining besides her. Not that she didn’t trust the Jinmengs, but she didn’t want to risk even accidental eavesdropping on what she would tell them.