Irikshan is back in action, and so are others.
Written December 2021 – January 2022
“Yes, I believe you have recovered enough to leave the property. Do not travel on foot through the outer city until a week from now. It will not be good for your health to be exposed again so soon to the foul miasmas that caused your sickness.”
“Thank you, Doctor.”
The wizened Scriven nodded while he mentally crushed a mixture of potent-smelling herbs and put them in a strainer to brew a tea, which he eventually offered to Irikshan. Knowing from experience how bitter it would be, Irikshan gulped down the contents of the cup as quickly as he could.
After this, he quickly returned to the guest house to retrieve some money. There, he found Lucile packing her satchel again.
“The doctor said I am allowed out again. I am going to the university today,” he announced.
This caused Lucile to hesitate.
“You were planning on following him again, were you not?”
She nodded. Although Kamon had left for most of the day yesterday, as was the norm, Lucile had not attempted to follow him. He hadn’t acted out of the usual towards Lucile at all, but maybe he was pretending not to be suspicious of her just as she was of him.
“It is your choice what you do, but it is your current assignment to keep an eye on me, not him.”
“But I trust you and not him. It’s my job to do what’s best for everyone. To safeguard public interest.”
Irikshan gave a noncommittal rumble, took some of his money, then left Lucile alone with her thoughts. He paid and saw the doctor off, then returned to pack a day pack for his visit to the university. Only once he was ready to leave did he prompt her again for her decision.
“Take Jared with you, but I won’t come today.”
His body language conveyed the slightest hint of disappointment, or maybe concern – she still wasn’t completely accustomed to draconic body language. Whatever the case, he did not argue and called Jared to get ready to leave. After he was ready, they departed.
Lucile waited for a few minutes after they were gone before leaving the property herself. Once on the street again, she found the enchanted crystal to be pulling her in what seemed to be the same direction as two days ago, when she’d last followed it to the woodworkers’ shop.
Indeed, she found herself treading a familiar route all the way to the shop. She made sure to pass on the other side of the street, and not look in their direction, but she mentally scanned the building. The same person seemed to be out front, and the same two worked at the back as last time, but the dragon was not there and she couldn’t find any trace of the person she’d followed last time, even though the crystal shard was certainly within the shop.
She continued down the street, turning the corner she had before when seeking a back entrance to the row of shops, and leaning against the wall while she pondered her next move. It wouldn’t be a good idea to repeat ereyesterday’s events. She could try to talk to major general Benbow and get some sort of search permit. But why would he grant that without sufficient evidence? He probably wouldn’t approve of her neglecting Irikshan for this either. She eventually decided it was probably best to just find her way to the university and join Irikshan for the rest of the day.
She barely noticed as someone sauntered over to her, their mental presence entirely hidden. They dropped a crystal shard at her feet. “Care to explain why you have been following me?”
Lucile jumped back in fright, shoving her hand under her cloak and gripping the hilt of her short sword, but the man made no sudden movements. He gently raised his hands in front of himself, palms up. Finally getting a look at his face, she said, “It was you…”
“Yes, it was. But you did not answer my question. Did I do something wrong?” He somehow still kept his light and innocuous persona.
“I know who you are, Armstrong.”
“Ah, I get it now. You think I’m too important to not have an ulterior motive in everything I do?”
The part of Lucile that was hoping for him to drop the persona and reveal what he really was doing was sorely disappointed. She chose not to reply, but she released her sword.
“You see, this is why I hide my identity. Life is so much easier when people just take you at face value. Am I not allowed to travel the world in company, or to visit friends when returning to a city I’ve spent much of my life in, just because of who my family is?”
“You mean to say you’ve only been making social visits the past weeks? Why were you hiding your mental presence two days ago, and again today? What’s special about that woodworking shop?”
“Well, I haven’t only been doing social visits. I’m also investigating something.”
“How do I put this?” He hummed. “Do you remember me telling you about Cheng?”
“Your lover that got you disowned from your family?”
“Yes. Well, she was a Scriven.”
“I know,” she made no effort to hide her distaste.
“No no no, we had more of an intellectual attraction. We did nothing untoward. We simply enjoyed each other’s company far more than made anyone else comfortable.”
Lucile again declined to comment.
“Aaaaanyways, she vanished after I was disowned. Ever since then, during my search for her, I’ve taken an interest in investigating disappearance cases across the empire. But Longjing, in particular, is rife with them. Human and dragon, usually young – unlike Cheng. It’s not bad enough that there’s a general outcry about it, but – as unfair as it is to us humans – I don’t think there should be any hatchlings disappearing with how respected the Scriven are in Meihianese culture.”
“Have you found anything useful?”
“I found a pattern amongst some of the disappearances. I’ve come to believe that there’s a particular group responsible for many of them. My contacts and I have been investigating.”
“We should report this to the major general. He could do something about this!”
“I don’t know if Benbow is involved or not.”
“How could he possibly be involved? He’s in charge of keeping the city safe!”
“The group I mentioned seems to have many members in positions of authority within the empire.”
“If that’s the case, can’t you contact his majesty, your brother, about this? He won’t want a criminal group abusing the imperial system. Surely he’d listen to you. You said he still had sympathies for you when you were disowned.”
“There’s no way he could root them all out.”
Lucile thought for some time. It would be so easy to believe what he said, but she’d done that too many times. Despite the serious matter, his mannerisms and behaviour were too lighthearted and friendly. “You’re still hiding the truth from me.”
He sighed. “I am omitting information, but simply because I do not want you involved. It’s for your own safety. You’ll never be able to return to your comfortable life in Shormton. You’ll live life on the run and in hiding. You should return to Irikshan now and forget any of this happened. I can part ways with you if you’d like. I’ll make some excuse to Irikshan why I won’t be travelling with him anymore.”
“I’ve told him about you. He could help.”
“No.” The facade finally dropped as Kamon took on a grave tone. “You cannot get him involved in this. It would be disastrous. He’s certainly already being watched. If he starts investigating them, who knows what they’ll do.”
A note of fear tugged at her heartstrings, “What do you mean?”
“I am going now. Stop following me. Don’t get involved. You can tell me – discreetly – this evening if you want me gone, but stay out of my affairs.”
“Wait-,” Lucile started, but he turned and walked off at a brisk pace. She didn’t chase after him, instead picking up the shard on the ground and then leaning against the wall again while she thought.
Irikshan had found one of the university’s enchantment professors and they quickly began trading knowledge of such a technical nature that Jared had long since given up trying to follow the discussion.
The Scriven professor adorned herself with crystals hanging from golden chains attached with clasps to her horns. The crystals swung back and forth, chains jingling, as she moved her head while talking. She was easily as old as Fenlan, the guardian of Saitai, but bore far fewer scars. Collections of crystals, strange apparatus, and other keepsakes filled every surface of her office.
Having grown bored with staring at collections, Jared wandered out of the office. The dragons didn’t seem to even notice, though Jared sensed Irikshan keeping the slightest contact. He wants to make sure not to lose the child, Jared thought privately.
The university was very much built at a dragonic scale, with accommodations for humans seemingly added as an afterthought. The vastness still astounded Jared. The professor’s office alone was bigger than any building he’d lived in until Lucile had taken him in. The university was a sprawling complex larger than Saitai had been, yet it sat in the central region of a city so big that, in Irikshan’s sketches of the view from the sky, it deteriorated into nothingness against the mountains in the distance. I guess you could say that the dragons are very central to the Meihianese.
From what he’d heard, the dragons must be outnumbered maybe twenty to one in the city. Yet, amongst the attendees of the university, the ratio was closer to even than that. Amongst the staff, the Scriven vastly outnumbered humans. The first human that Jared had seen in the staff hall exited an office filled with temporary walls dividing it into smaller rooms. He supposed that there must be some more human faculty members there.
The elderly man noticed Jared staring, and approached. “You appear to be lost. May I assist?”
“No, just waiting. I’m here with a Tumen called Irikshan, but he’s talking with Professor…” Jared gestured to the office of the dragon whose name he’d already forgotten.
“Mofachen. What’s a Tumen?”
“Tumenzarian dragon. He’s exploring the empire, and my master and I were assigned to travel with him.”
“Ooooh, fascinating. Where are you from?”
“Shormton. It’s in Namhni.”
“My, you’ve come a long way. Do you have a university there? It’s plain to see that you’re a mage.”
“No. What I went to is… more of a military academy. It’s nothing near the scale of Shiloxue.”
“Hah, the dragons do take up quite a lot of space.”
“Do you mind if I ask something?”
“Of course not.”
“I don’t mean it in an offensive way, and you can decline to answer if you wish.”
“How do you compete with the dragons? Each of them has centuries more lifespan to study whatever interests them than us. Irikshan has already seen more years than I likely ever will, yet he’s still dwarfed by all the teachers I’ve seen here, save for the humans.” He paused, then realised how much of a mess that had come out as. “I guess what I-”
“I believe I understand your query. How are my fellows and I able to teach dragons much of anything?”
Jared nodded sheepishly.
“Well, first, many students – even dragons – are younger than me, despite my youthful appearance. But for me to have achieved this position was a combination of hard work, persistence, creative problem solving, finding my niche, and probably a dash of luck. The same goes for my colleagues. Age is not everything. What you do with your time matters, as limited as it may be. Does that answer your question?”
“Yes sir. Thank you.”
“Now it’s my turn. What do you want to do with your time?”
“Right now I can’t really do much other than wait around.”
“No, I mean for life in general. Life will pass by much faster than you’d think.”
“I… don’t know.”
“I won’t accept that for an answer. Think some more.”
“Well… I didn’t have much of a life to begin with. Surviving to see the next week was my only concern. Only started to matter to anyone after they found out about my abilities. I was given the ‘option’ to sign up to the military. I would be trained at the academy, housed, fed, and such, in exchange for my service. My master took me under her wing and has given me much of my training ever since.”
“I understand. Where do you wish to go from here?”
“Part of me just wants to try to lead the most comfortable life I can. Though the military might not be the best path to that, and I don’t think you’ll like that answer. Perhaps I should be like master and try to help people? She chooses weird ways to find people to help, but I can see she still tries. Or maybe I should explore the world and learn like Irikshan and Kamon do?”
“It is not my place to judge the answer. As a teacher, I only wish to encourage reflection and growth. You may settle into something comfortable if you want, but will that satisfy you when you look back? Think about it. I must go. I have a matter to take care of before my first afternoon class, and I’ll still need to eat lunch.”
“Thank you, sir.”
After they had bowed their goodbyes, Jared returned to wandering the hall and inspecting exhibits. Somewhere on the campus, a bell tolled twelve times. Just before he decided to return to Irikshan, he saw Lucile marching in. Her expression was worrying. “Is everything alright, master?”
“In that office, talking about enchantments with professor… Mofachen?”
“Have you seen anyone behaving unusually or following you two around?”
“Is there trouble?”
“No. Not yet, I think.”
Just then the Irikshan and Professor Mofachen exited the room. Irikshan paused the conversation to greet Lucile. He also asked her whether something was the matter.
“We can talk later,” she answered.
“Or now, while we wait for the professor. She is going to gather some of her colleagues, now that the noon bull has rung, for whom I shall demonstrate my illusions.”
Jared felt his master tugging on his mind, and opened up. He felt Irikshan’s presence there too. Kamon asked me to stop following him, she thought to them. Claims he’s investigating… a criminal group, who apparently might be watching you, Irikshan. He says that we must not draw attention by trying to investigate or the group could cause you harm. Offered to stop travelling with us if we would like him to.
Do you believe him?
I believe there’s a threat in there, whether it’s from him or he’s telling the truth.
Would the officer to whom you have been reporting not be able to assist in this matter?
The nature of the threat he described makes me uncertain of that.
Then we should part ways with him. If it is investigating the group that catches their attention, or if it is him that poses the threat, we should minimise our exposure to him.
Okay, I’ll tell him tonight.
Irikshan nodded, concluding their private conversation, before moving to greet some of the approaching dragons.
It was with relief that Lucile’s nose informed her that the Jinmengs were cooking tonight. They had left the university late, and she had not been looking forward to still having to prepare a meal if she wanted something warm. Irikshan and Kai had walked back with them out of courtesy, but neither had spoken much. It seemed Irikshan had had his fill of questions for the day at the university, and Lucile had little to talk to Kai about.
Before she could follow the delicious scents into the house, she noticed Kamon standing at the door to the guest house. He beckoned her over, and she excused herself despite her stomach’s protests. She didn’t feel completely at ease approaching him alone in the half-light, but there were enough dragons around that he wouldn’t try anything.
“I assume you have spoken to Irikshan and I hope that you only said as much as necessary to ensure he stays out of trouble?”
“Yes. We decided that we’d like to part ways with you. If you get into some sort of trouble, we don’t want to be collateral damage.”
“Hah, alright. Doesn’t really matter, though. I was going to tell you anyway that I’m leaving tomorrow morning.”
“You don’t need to know.” He started to walk to the main house.
Lucile blocked his way. “Why?”
“Don’t tell me you secretly want me to stay?”
“I want to know if you’re going to cause any trouble for us.”
“No, I won’t.” He tried to get around her, but she persisted. “Aren’t you being nosey?”
“I’ll tell Irikshan the full story you gave me if you don’t explain yourself.”
“Who’s to say you won’t just tell him this as well?”
“I guess you’ll just have to trust my word for a change.”
Kamon sighed. “My contacts informed me that… There’s a high priority individual who has returned to the city. I don’t know if this individual is up to anything nefarious on this particular visit, but they’re almost always present during a hatchling’s disappearance. I’ve got people that will be watching schools and other places tomorrow, but I need to do the rounds, make sure no one is compromised, and then be ready to move. Does that satisfy you?”
“Yes. I hope you manage to stop the kidnapping.”
“Even if one happens, we wouldn’t be able to stop it given how thin we’re spread, but my hope is that if I know where they’re going then maybe we can do something. Now let’s go eat. Not a word of this to anyone.”
They returned to the house. In the dining room, a veritable mountain of rice mixed with white meat and a variety of vegetables greeted Lucile. The others were all waiting for them to arrive, even the hatchlings. Once they were seated, the dragons let the humans dish for themselves first, making only small craters in the mountain, before they scooped heaps for themselves.
The ingredients mixed with the rice were chopped far larger than Lucile would have done if she were cooking a human-sized portion, but she wasn’t about to complain. The meal was far more flavourful than anything she’d cooked since she’d left Shormton, and she found herself even eating a second portion before the night was done.