Blackbird Flies: Chapter Three

Promise

The egg was heavy.

“I cannot believe I let you talk me into this, your Highness.”

“Tell yourself it was an order, if that makes you feel any better.”

“I don’t actually take my orders from you. Your Highness.”

“Hmph. Just help me get it into the wardrobe. Please.” Eryl shot her a dubious look, but he hoisted the egg into the spot she’d cleared behind her gowns and tunics. She drummed her fingers on her thigh as he got it settled. “Be careful! We have no idea how close it is to hatching!”

“You’re really going to sleep with this thing in your wardrobe?” Eryl straightened up, shooting a worried glance at Senara. “Maybe I should stay, just in case.”

Senara raised an eyebrow. “And what explanation would you give your captain for spending the night inside my rooms?”

Eryl turned a satisfying shade of red, his face almost matching his hair, but he held his ground. “A poor guard I’d make if I let you get eaten in your sleep.”

“It should be safe enough for tonight,” she assured him. “It’s not as if I can leave it there. The last thing I need is one of my maidservants finding it when she’s setting out my clothing.” At Eryl’s questioning look, she added, “I’ve got to check a few codices in the archives. Once I know what sort of environment the egg needs, I can figure out where to move it.”

Eryl was quiet for a few moments, then he nodded and closed the wardrobe. “Its mother seemed to think under a bush in the woods was a good environment. Do you have any handy bushes in the palace?”

That surprised a laugh out of Senara. “None I can think of that wouldn’t be disturbed.” She turned serious. “I’ll find something.”

“If you can keep it here until tomorrow night, I’ll help you move it.”

“Thank you, Eryl.” She placed a hand on his arm and caught his eyes. “I truly do appreciate your assistance tonight. And your discretion.”

“Seems to me I’m in this just as deep as you are, your Highness. Besides, I can only imagine what the Alchemist might do to an egg. I don’t like that idea any more than you.”

“Thank you,” Senara repeated.

He nodded again and bowed, then exited her rooms to take up his post outside, leaving Senara alone with her thoughts. A wave of weariness washed over her and she sat in front of her vanity, pulling the pins out of her hair as she considered her predicament.

Leaving the egg had been out of the question. Her Father was still planning to find the dragon’s body in the morning. No matter that he’d find only a pile of ash–it was impossible to believe he wouldn’t search the area, which would have turned up the egg. Eryl was quite right that the Alchemist wouldn’t have anything good for the egg planned. She had no doubt he and her father would let the egg hatch, but the poor young dragon that emerged would live a tortured life, if it was allowed to go on living at all. According to everything she’d ever read or heard on the subject, dragons only produced eggs once every five hundred years. It was a grave misfortune that the egg’s mother had laid it on this side of the mountains. Such a find would be considered by the human population to be a blessing from the god and goddess themselves, meant to propel Sunpeak into superiority over its neighbors for decades to come. No, she couldn’t let that happen.

She stood and went back to the wardrobe, opening a door and kneeling inside, next to the egg. She wriggled so that she was sitting beside it and slipped an arm around the smooth, dark shell. “I’ll keep you safe,” she promised, resting her head against it, whispering the words into the egg as if its occupant might hear her. “I don’t know how, but I’ll find a way. You deserve better than you’ll find here.”

In her heart, she knew the egg couldn’t remain in the castle, but she wasn’t willing to send it off into the world without knowing it would end up somewhere safe. She’d just have to hope there was time to make a proper plan before it hatched. At least I’m not alone in this. It was clear to Senara that Eryl didn’t like the idea of keeping such a big secret, but she could also tell that he understood the consequences of being found out. Not just for himself, but for the egg as well. He’d offered to help her again tomorrow, which boded well. The more involved he got, the harder he’d work to keep the secret. It wasn’t much of a foundation for trust, but it was a start. For now, it would have to be enough.

~~~

The king’s dragon hunt disrupted the morning routine of the palace, upending all of the day’s plans. Senara would be expected to put in an appearance with her parents’ guests at some point, but for the morning, she had an opportunity to make her own way. When the maids came to wake her, she requested breakfast in her room, telling them she hadn’t slept well and didn’t wish to be disturbed again until lunch. By then, she hoped, her father would be back, and was sure to be in a foul mood. That should continue to disrupt the routine enough that she could get away with choosing her own clothing and prevent anyone from going into her wardrobe while the egg was still there. As soon as the breakfast dishes were cleared away, she dressed in a simple gown and slipped down to the archives.

This time she noticed the guard trailing her through the corridors at a respectful distance. Not Eryl, but a woman several years older than Senara. She kept her distance, her eyes watchful for any potential threat to the princess. Upon reaching the archives, the guard slipped inside, checked for threats, then bowed to Senara and took up post outside the entrance. Senara let out a huge sigh of relief once the woman was gone. Nineteen years of being shadowed by a member of the Royal Guard at all times and it was only now that she was truly aware of their presence. The feeling was unsettling.

“Are you quite well, your Highness?” The voice intruding her thoughts belonged to the head Archivist, Wes Kernow. He approached her with a look of concern, one hand holding a book he’d been reading, a finger marking his place. He tilted his head and looked her up and down. “Is the cold aggravating your injury? I’ve got a fire going. Why don’t you come settle in front of it, and I’ll bring you any book or codex you’d like?”

He didn’t wait for an answer, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder and guiding her toward the plush sofa in front of the fire in question as he spoke. Senara smiled up at him with fondness. “Thank you, Wes.” He was well aware of her injury, having been her tutor at the time she fell off her horse and broke her leg. When she could be convinced to remain in bed while healing, he’d been by her side, continuing her lessons or just reading to her in an attempt to keep her distracted from the pain. She settled onto the sofa with a grateful sigh. Her leg was bothering her, truth be told. But it had more to do with trekking around the forest last night and lugging the dragon egg back to the palace than with the weather. But Wes didn’t need to know that. She glanced up and found him hovering, waiting for her to tell him what she’d like to read. “I find myself wanting to know everything I can about dragons this morning.”

“One would think you already know quite a bit about them,” Wes teased, “given that you’ve already read most of the codices the palace has on the subject.”

“I suppose all of the uproar last night and Father’s expedition this morning have them on my mind,” Senara replied, trying for nonchalant.

“Well, yes, that is understandable. Is there any particular text you feel like revisiting today?”

Senara hesitated. There was a text she suspected would hold the most likely information, but she didn’t want to call attention to the possibility of a dragon egg in the kingdom. Still, she trusted Wes not to gossip about her reading habits. She couldn’t tell him what she was looking for, but decided she wasn’t worried about him knowing that she was looking. “Quick’s study, I think,” she answered, hoping he’d think her pause was just her weighing her options. She tried to remember the other topics discussed in the study and added, “it might hold a clue as to what a dragon would even be doing on this side of the mountains.”

“At once, your Highness,” Wes said, disappearing into the honeycomb of shelves that made up most of the archives. He returned after a few minutes bearing the requested codex, along with two more. “These are also accounts of dragon sightings and observers from the past. If Quick doesn’t answer your questions, perhaps one of these will provide a clue.”

“Thank you, Wes,” Senara said, settling the pile of codices in her lap.

“Happy to be of service. I’ve some documents to copy and send out, so I’ll be at my desk if you need me.”

She nodded in response; nose already buried in the first codex as he settled into the nearby alcove that held his desk. Quick was the last known Peakian to observe dragons in the wild. He’d actually gone over the mountains a few hundred years ago to find them and watch them in their natural environment. Senara hoped that he might have seen something around the rituals of egg-laying and care or talked to others who had. People were rare in the north, but they did venture there from time to time to hunt or harvest timber. There was a small scattering of unaligned settlements around the borders of the northern wilds. Surely those people who lived so close to dragons knew something of their ways.

It wasn’t to be, though. The only mention of dragon eggs Quick made was in reference to a legend he heard that eggs weren’t ever actually laid where dragons lived. Female dragons were said to disappear after mating season and turn up months later with young dragons in tow. Sometimes they’d turn up with an unhatched egg, but that was a rare occurrence. That was it. Nothing about how dragons cared for their eggs or what sort of conditions were needed for them to hatch. Let’s just hope in the back of a palace wardrobe is a less than ideal place for that. She tossed the codex to the end of the sofa in frustration and reached for one of the others. This one turned out to be an account from Sunpeak’s southern neighbor, Radia. Dragons were once a frequent sighting along Radia’s coast, and the codex gathered tales from sailors who’d observed the creatures. There was no mention of eggs or breeding, and Senara moved on to the next text, this time from the Dusk Isles. It read almost like a fairy tale, an outlandish recounting of a single island where dragons and humans lived and worked together, forming their own cooperative society. The author dismissed the story with prejudice, pointing out how many ships had been terrorized by dragons throughout the history of the isles. “Worse than pirates,” he called them. Coming from a Dusker, that was a damning claim. Senara noted that the account did repeat the idea that dragons did not lay their eggs in their group nests, but left to do so in solitary, returning only once the eggs had hatched.

“Which might explain what she was doing here,” Senara murmured as she gathered up the useless codices, “but it doesn’t help me with the current situation.”

“Did you say something, your Highness?” Wes looked up from his desk, eying her with concern as she rose. 

“Nothing of import,” she assured him. “Just noting that these don’t hold what I’m looking for. I’ll put them back and see if I can’t find anything else.”

“Leave them,” he told her. “I can put them back this afternoon.”

“The last thing I need is another lecture from Father about no longer being your charge,” Senara pointed out. He’d let Wes move to the archives when she’d no longer required a tutor, but in Massen’s opinion that meant focusing on his new duties, not continuing to instruct the princess. More than once he’d dressed her down for distracting Wes with her constant questions and requests for texts on topics she wished to study. “I’m capable of shelving codices. Do you really think I’d put them back incorrectly?”

“Of course not, your Highness,” Wes said, slipping off his spectacles to meet her gaze. “But if you’ll forgive me for saying so, your limp is rather pronounced this morning. I don’t want you to exacerbate your pain on my account. Besides, while I may no longer be responsible for instructing you, I am responsible for keeping the archives in order. I would say shelving codices falls under that classification, wouldn’t you? Besides,” the spectacles went back into place, “you know I don’t mind.”

“Oh, very well,” Senara gave in. She would, assuming she could find out anything useful, have to move the egg again tonight. There was no point in making it more difficult on herself than necessary. She left the discarded codices on the sofa and wandered back into the shelves, pacing herself to try to hide her limp out of habit. I wonder if dragon eggs are anything like bird eggs. If I can’t find the information I seek, maybe avian incubation methods will work.

She trailed a finger along the labels on the shelves, finding the section on mythological creatures with ease, being well-familiar with this part of the archives. While dragons were demonstrably real, their scarcity and constant appearances in ancient fables and myths had seen them relegated to archival shelves along with unicorns, gryphons, and phoenixes. Who knows, she thought for at least the hundredth time, maybe some of those are real, too. With Quick already dismissed, Senara was at something of a loss for where to look next. She didn’t need myths, she needed practical information. She tapped each label, reading them aloud, “Alchemical Properties, Known Breeds, Historical Sightings, First-Hand Accounts…ah! Maybe this will hold the answers.” She pulled down a handful of codices and–moon and stars! –scrolls from a cubby labeled “Habitats and Habits.” Something in here has to give me a clue.

When she reached the sofa, she found a cup of tea steaming away on the table beside it. She glanced up at Wes to find him engrossed in his work, making a point of not watching her. Smiling, she settled into the sofa, opened up the first codex, and picked up her cup of tea. She had better luck with this batch. One codex held references to dragon eggs found and kept on display as prizes throughout the various kingdoms. In one instance, an egg was kept in the grand hall of a palace in northern Astra for almost eighty years. Everyone believed it to be non-viable, until it was sent to the Dusk Isles with the Astrian princess as a gift upon her marriage to a Dusker prince and hatched a month after reaching the warmer climes. Senara set that aside, open to the passage so she could revisit it again after scanning the other texts. Perhaps dragon eggs needed decades to incubate and it had been a matter of bad timing. Or perhaps the temperatures had something to do with it? The other eggs mentioned never hatched, but from what she could see, they were kept in cool places.

Was the dragon keeping it hidden where it wouldn’t hatch for some reason?

She read on, finding three accounts of dragons leaving their group nests and returning with an egg rather than a young dragon. In two of those, the egg did hatch shortly after reaching the nests, both of them in warm locales. She didn’t know if the third egg ever hatched, because according to the account, the nest was raided by alchemists two days later and the egg was taken along with all of the other spoils. The final scroll held the most helpful piece of information she stumbled across. She held it with extreme care, aware of how fragile and ancient it was, her eyes going wide as she read what appeared to be an excerpt from a sailor’s journal. The sailor had been wrecked upon one of the uninhabited islets off the coast of Radia close to a thousand years ago. The scroll was only perhaps half that old, and she was thankful the account had been reprinted in a legible hand, for it told a tale of dragon after dragon descending upon the islet over the course of several months, each building a nest and laying an egg, then watching over it until it hatched. The descriptions of these dragons matched those that lived north of the mountains. From the sailor’s account, the dragons were there solely to lay and hatch their eggs. Each kept to herself for the duration and left with her young as soon as it could fly away.

Senara closed the scroll with care and leaned back against the sofa, considering what she’d found. The coast of Radia was known for its balmy climate, and those islets, though largely inhabited now, were still lush with vegetation. She was so lost in thought, she did not notice Wes approach to gather up her discarded texts. His eyebrows rose when his gaze fell upon the open codex and he scanned the passage on display. He took in the scroll in her hand and then looked again at all of the titles she’d retrieved herself. He settled a thoughtful look on Senara, clearing his throat when he realized she was oblivious to his presence.

“Oh!” Senara jumped and focused her eyes on him.

“Forgive me, your Highness. I was just wondering if you wanted me to send for some lunch? It’s nearing noon.”

Her eyes widened in panic. If Father wasn’t back yet, he would be soon. She needed to get back to her rooms. “Thank you Wes, but no. I should be going. I’m sure Father will be–,” she caught herself and changed what she was going to say. “I’m sure he’ll want to have the family lunch with him so he can tell us all about his find.”

Wes narrowed his eyes, but offered her a hand, which she accepted. “Of course, your Highness,” he said in a mild voice. He tilted his head, then glanced at the piles of codices and scrolls. “Did you sate your thirst for dragon lore?”

“I suppose.” She tucked a loose lock behind her ear, wondering if she’d have time to neaten her hair before she was summoned to lunch. “I’m not really sure what to do with it all, though,” she murmured.

“You excel at puzzles, your Highness, I’m sure you’ll think of something.” He walked her to the door, still looking thoughtful. “It’s a shame that your grandmother’s solarium hasn’t been kept up. A chilly day such as this, it would be the perfect spot for lunch. Did I really hear that no one intends to restore it?”

Senara blinked at the change of subject, but her court training allowed her to answer. “I’m afraid so. Mother and Enyon have no desire to use the space, and Father can’t bear to go inside. He’s even ordered the servants to leave it be. It is a shame. You’re right that it would be lovely on a day like today. It was always so sunny and warm, and the plants made me feel like I was in the south…” she trailed off as all of the pieces did, at last, fall into place. She glanced at Wes, but he showed no sign that he realized he’d given her the answer to her problem. “If you’ll excuse me, Wes, I really should be going. Thank you for your help today.”

“I don’t know that I did much, your Highness, but you’re welcome all the same.”

She smiled at him and made her exit, never seeing the satisfied smile on his face as he watched her go. “Whatever you are up to, Princess, I wish you well,” he muttered before returning to his work.

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