Blackbird Flies: Chapter Five

Renew

Eryl almost dropped the egg but caught himself, lowering it with gentle hands to the spot she’d indicated. “I beg your pardon, your Highness?”

“We’re going to hatch it,” she repeated. “I don’t think it’s fair to leave it tucked in some dusty corner forever, never getting the chance to be born. Besides, the only real way to get it out of the palace without sending you off with it is for the dragon to fly away on its own.” She paused. “Unless you think you could contrive to leave the palace for a few weeks to take it somewhere else it could hatch in safety?” Did the Royal Guard get that sort of time off? She didn’t think so, but frowned to herself, thinking that was something she should know. Her lessons focused on managing the palace staff while Enyon was in charge of the Guard and the martial forces. Still, for the first time it occurred to her that she should have at least a basic working knowledge of the Guard’s practices.

“I don’t think so,” Eryl said after a few moments of silence. He set a hand on top of the egg, sounding apologetic. “Not without resigning.”

“That’s what I thought,” Senara said, nodding. “We can’t let anyone else know about the egg, so that leaves hatching it as our only real option.”

“What do we need to do?”

Senara held up her lantern, looking around the overgrown space. Sitting on the southern side of the palace, it got the most sunlight, and still retained some of the day’s heat. But not as much as Senara remembered. It was damp, too, despite no one having been in to water the plants. Somehow the rain was getting in. “First, we need to hope that none of these glass panels are broken,” she told him, “unless you know how to repair them, because I certainly don’t, and we can’t really ask for help… Ah! Here we are!” Because the solarium was a sitting room as much as a hothouse, several of the panels at shoulder height were designed to swing open if needed to alleviate the heat during warmer months. She found two in the back hanging open. Grandmother died late in the spring. Senara supposed they had been open at the time and no one had bothered to come shut them after. She pulled them to and turned to Eryl. “Help me check for any more open panels.”

Eryl nodded and moved to the other side of the solarium, working his way around to meet Senara in the middle. They found another two that were open and once those were shut, Senara set her lantern down on the table in the center of the space. It only gave off a small circle of light, but it was enough for her to see Eryl watching her with unmasked curiosity. She arched an eyebrow and he shrugged. “What’s next?”

“That’s it? No other questions?”

He cleared his throat and dropped his gaze. Senara thought she caught a smile before he did. “Oh, dozens, at least, your Highness. But it’s not my place to ask.”

“Go ahead,” she told him, smiling in return. “Like you said last night, you’re in this just as deep as me. I’ll admit I only have half a plan. I think we’re going to have to figure this out together.”

That surprised him. His head jerked up and he stared at her for several seconds before nodding and relaxing again. “All right.” He fell silent, and Senara realized he was trying to decide what to ask first. After a few moments he walked back over to the egg, resting his hand on it again. “What happens when this hatches and we’ve got an actual dragon in the palace?”

“I had really hoped you’d start with something easy,” she said, her lips twitching. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and moved to join him, also resting a hand on the egg. “From what I’ve read, the dragon should be able to fly right away. There are signs when hatching is close, so once those happen, we can make sure one of us is always with it–we’ll figure that out when it comes,” she said, seeing his eyebrows shoot up. “After that, it should just be a matter of opening up one of those big panels and sending it on its way.”

“That sounds easy,” he said in a skeptical tone.

“I know. I do. But I’m working from limited information, Eryl. I can do more research before it hatches, and we’ll make contingency plans, but for now at least, that’s what we’ve got to aim for. Dragon hatches, dragon flies away, no one else ever knows it was here.”

He didn’t look convinced, but he also didn’t argue. “All right. So I guess my next question is, how long will it take to hatch?”

“That will depend on how long it takes us to get the solarium in shape, I think. At least a month, maybe a little longer since we’re easing into winter and these plants aren’t exactly thriving.”

“We need to tend to the plants?”

Senara could have imagined it, given the dim lighting, but it seemed like his whole face lit up at the idea. “That’s going to be our primary duty,” she confirmed. “That’s the best way to make the solarium the right environment for hatching. After that, it’s up to the egg. For tonight though, we’ll just see the egg settled and figure out what we’ll need to set things to rights here.”

“You’ll want better lights,” Eryl said, considering. He stepped away and walked toward the table, reaching for the lantern. “May I?”

Senara nodded, curious as to the transformation that seemed to have come over him. Up until now he’d been patient, cautious, reserved. She hadn’t been sure how he felt about the situation. But now he seemed like a different person. He was confident, eager to get started. “Do you have much experience with gardens?” She noted the way he moved from plant to plant, checking the pots and beds with clear intent.

“I tended the gardens at home before I came to the city,” he answered, more focused on his inspection than what he was saying. “I like plants. When I’m not on duty, the Chief Gardener lets me help out in the palace gardens sometimes.”

Well isn’t that a stroke of luck? “If we need supplies, would you be able to get them?”

He turned to her then, considering the question. “I might, but there would be questions. It would be easier to go into the city and buy what we need. I can do that tomorrow after training. Might be able to sneak it up here before I come on duty.”

“Let’s do that,” she agreed. “I’ll give you coin for the supplies.” She glanced around as he finished the circuit and returned to her. “We should still try to keep the egg hidden, I think. Perhaps in that stand of palms?” They’d fared better than most of the other plants, as far as she could tell, and still held most of their leaves. They’d provide a decent screen in case anyone else did happen to wander into the solarium.

“Perfect,” Eryl agreed, bending down to scoop up the egg. He got it into place, rearranging the potted trees to more fully hide it. “Oh, what’s this?” His attention was caught by a tall cabinet tucked into a corner behind the palms.

“I think those might be gardening tools,” Senara recalled. “Grandmother liked to tend to the flowerbeds herself.”

“Oh, these will do nicely,” Eryl exclaimed as he opened the cabinet. “We can jump into pruning and weeding tonight if you like,” he glanced back over his shoulder with a grin, then sobered, his face smoothing. The stoic guard was back. “Forgive me your Highness, I got carried away.” His eyes flicked over her gown and he added, “I’m happy to make a start now, though, if you’ll direct me.”

Senara felt a pang of loss as he closed himself off. But he was right, she wasn’t dressed for gardening and her mother would hear about it if she soiled her gown. “Start wherever you think is best,” she told him, moving to settle beside the egg. She gathered a few fallen palm fronds and tucked them in around the egg for a little extra camouflage and warmth. Tomorrow, I’ll dress appropriately for gardening. I don’t mean for him to do this alone.

Eryl bowed to her and returned to rummaging in the cabinet. Senara watched him work, smiling to herself when his enthusiasm for the task began to return. He really did seem to know what he was doing. Better yet, he appeared to enjoy it. The goddess really had been looking out for her and the egg when Eryl was assigned as her evening guard. He moved around the solarium, stopping at each pot and flowerbed to trim or pull. A water pump had been installed in the corner when the solarium was built, and Eryl found a watering can in the cabinet and filled it. “These aren’t in bad shape for the most part, your Highness,” he told her. “We lost a few of the more delicate blooms to exposure due to those panels being open, but most of them just went into their regular dormancy. I think I can coax those back.”

“That’s good,” Senara answered, doing her best to stifle a yawn. The room was cozy, and in between the late evening last night and tension-filled today, her weariness was making itself known.

Eryl must have noticed, because he stopped working and put away the tools, then washed his hands and offered one to help her up. “It’s a solid start, your Highness.”

“Thank you.” She nodded, taking in the room one last time before they exited. “I’d forgotten how much I loved it in here,” she admitted. “Maybe after all of this, I can claim it as my own in truth.” A flash of hope lit Eryl’s eyes, just for a second, and Senara hid a smile. Yes, he’d keep her secret for her, if only to get to keep coming back. “Were you able to get an idea of what supplies are still needed?”

“Only a few things, your Highness. I can pick them up tomorrow, like I said.”

“Excellent.” They reached her rooms and she beckoned him to follow her inside. He hesitated, but she reminded him, “I’ve got to give you the coin.”

“Of course, your Highness.” He remained in her sitting room while she proceeded into the bedroom.

She didn’t have much in the way of personal coin, but Father always gave her some for spending when there was a festival, and she rarely used it all. She took a heavy codex off of the small shelf next to her window and opened it, revealing a small compartment rather than pages of text. The only items inside the false codex were her coin purse and a handful of feathers she’d found outside of the palace. The feathers were hidden because when she was little, her mother had caught her collecting them and been horrified. She’d burned Senara’s entire collection and ordered the maids to destroy any others they found in her rooms going forward. She believed she’d broken her daughter of the unbecoming habit, but Senara had just gotten smart about where she kept them. She still lamented the peacock feather that had been lost in the purge. The new jewel of her collection was a single scarlet quill she’d found over the summer. Wes had told her it came from a cardinal, surprised that one had been in the area. He’d shown her an illustration of the bird in question. She wished she could have seen it in person. But for now, the feather would suffice. She stroked it once and then took the coin purse, shaking out five golden sunpieces. The purse was replaced in the compartment and the false codex returned to the shelf.

“Here,” she told Eryl, handing him the coins. “Will this be enough?”

His eyes widened. “That’s far too much, your Highness. I don’t even think I’d need two.”

“Keep the rest,” she told him. “In case you find you need more than you thought. Anything left over can be your own pay for the extra work you’ll be doing.”

“It’s still too–“

“I won’t hear another word on the subject,” she cut him off, then reconsidered, “unless you realize you need more, of course. Now, if there isn’t anything else?”

He shook his head, then sketched her a bow and slipped out to take his post in the corridor.

~~~

After the recital the next night, Senara was excited to return to the solarium. She changed into her archery clothes and slipped into the corridor, Eryl falling into step behind her. She stopped short when they stepped inside of the room. Lanterns burned merrily at each corner, and already some of the balmy feel was beginning to return. She turned to Eryl. His face remained blank but his eyes sparkled. “You’ve been busy.”

A small smile and a nod of acknowledgment was her only answer.

Senara walked over to the egg, running a finger along its shell as she checked on it. The egg gleamed in the lit solarium, reflecting the flames of the lantern. The shell was an iridescent black, and its pebbled surface was cool to the touch. “When it starts to feel warm on its own,” she told Eryl, “we’ll know the hatching is close.” She’d managed to work in an hour at the archives earlier in the day.

“Is there anything else I should watch for?”

“Warmth is the first sign. After that, we should start to see fissures in the shell. Not full cracks, mind you, just places where the dragon is beginning to stretch, starting to feel confined and ready to leave. When it is actually ready to hatch, the egg will begin rocking.”

“Will it be safe for us to be here when that happens?”

Senara considered this. She believed in her heart of hearts that dragons were sentient beings, not mere beasts as so many others thought. But that didn’t mean a newly hatched dragon could be reasoned with. Still, if they were there to help it through its hatching, to greet it with food and kindness, or at the very least an open window, she hoped the risk would be low. “I don’t know that we have any other choice,” she admitted. “If it hatches alone, it might break out of here and get into the palace. We can’t let that happen.”

“Of course, your Highness.” Eryl was silent behind her for a few long moments, then asked, “Is there any chance I can convince you not to be here when it hatches, your Highness?”

Senara smiled and patted the egg, then smoothed her expression and turned to face him. “I believe you already know the answer to that.”

“Yes, your Highness,” he said, not trying to hide his sigh.

She understood his frustration. His primary job was, after all, to protect her. But there was nothing in all the heavens that could stop her from being here when the dragon hatched. Assuming it hatched at night. She frowned as it dawned on her that the dragon might well hatch when she was occupied with her duties and unable to slip away. Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it, she decided. There had to be a way for her to ensure she could witness the hatching. She’d find a way. This was the only chance she was ever likely to get to see a real, live dragon in person. She did not mean to miss it.

Eryl stood at rest, watching her. Waiting, she realized. “Well, then. Now that we’ve established that, let’s get to work, shall we? Where do we start?”

“I watered everything that needed it this afternoon, your Highness, and pruned most of the trees. Now I just need to clear out the flowerbeds. You can make yourself comfortable and I’ll get to it.”

Senara smiled. “We’ll get to it, you mean.”

“Your Highness?” He stared at her.

“If I mean to keep this as my own refuge, I’ll need to know how to tend the plants when you’re not available. You can show me what to do.” She gestured at her clothes. “I’m dressed for it, this time, and I’m sure Grandmother kept an apron in the cabinet for when she worked in here.”

“Ah. Right.” He rubbed the back of his neck, looking a little lost for a moment. Then he squared his shoulders and nodded. “First, we need tools.”

He led her to the cabinet and they armed themselves, then they moved to the flowerbeds and set to work.

Senara found Eryl to be a very good teacher. He was patient with her endless questions, more so than he needed to be. She considered that this might be in deference to their respective positions, but he didn’t truckle to her. He had no hesitations about correcting her mistakes or showing her a better way to accomplish something. More than that, he was kind, and he had a clear love for the subject. There were worse ways to spend one’s evenings than learning something new from someone who cared deeply about what they taught.

Senara settled next to the egg while they took a break, leaning against it with a satisfied sigh. “You,” she whispered, running a finger along its shell, “might just be the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

I just hope I’m able to return the favor.

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