Blaze’s only real objection to staying apart from Senara and Eryl until the solstice was that they wouldn’t get to hear Senara play her flute at the inn. After a promise from Senara to bring said flute with her when she visited the dragon, Blaze agreed to the arrangement. They found the ruined temple fascinating but didn’t think it would make a safe place for the humans to stay and seemed relieved their companions had found other lodging. I will miss you, of course, Blaze assured them, but we can still talk from here and I wouldn’t want you to get hurt by loose stones. Do you think your twilight deity will be upset if I take some of these gems? Only they don’t really serve any purpose as decoration if no one is here to see them and I’ll promise to think about the deity whenever I look at them. Those emeralds look so nice against my scales.
“My father always called the twilight deity Dusk,” Eryl mused. “He said they were more interested in the intentions of their followers than offerings. Don’t strip the ruins bare, but if you offer up thanks every now and again, I think you’d be all right to take a few gems.” He looked to Senara to see if she agreed.
She shrugged. “Wes worships Dusk, I think, although he didn’t talk about it much because Father is so devoted to the goddess. What he did tell me was that Dusk is about change. So I can’t see them getting upset over a few forgotten stones. You’ll be giving them a new journey, and taking part of Dusk with you on your travels.”
Encouraged by this, Blaze did claim a few of the gems for themself and added the stones to a pile of shiny rocks and feathers they had collected along the way from Sunpeak. They managed to burrow their way into the basement of the old temple, making a den that they lined with some of the blankets Eryl had brought when they were still in their egg. Shifting the rubble, remnants of an earthquake that had hit the coast some years before, long after the temple had been abandoned, caused some of the remaining structure to topple. Senara decided Blaze was right to say that she and Eryl should not stay there. They visited often though, managing to sneak up to the ruins most mornings, where they’d have breakfast all together and Senara would play a song or two before everyone got on with their days.
Blaze spent much of the daylight hours sleeping or hunting in the wild vegetation that surrounded the ruins. At night, they would launch themself from the cliff, trying to strengthen their wings, and then swim until they were ready to climb back up the cliff. Their presence did not go wholly unnoticed, but everyone in Silverfin chalked up the shifting stones and restless wildlife around the ruins to the curse of the twilight deity. Senara got the impression that if the Radians weren’t so frightened of Dusk, they would have destroyed the ruins long ago rather than live under their shadow.
Senara told Mistress Angela she could play at the inn until Solstice, and so every day at lunch and in the evenings she provided music for the inn’s patrons. Many of them left her tips, which she added to their cache of coins. She also learned several new songs, requests from the patrons that she decided to seek out in her down time. Other than that, her time was her own. She spent much of it exploring the city. Silverfin had a small public library not far from its modest academy, and she found codices there she’d never seen in Sunpeak–including a few on the Dusk Isles and their inhabitants. She didn’t find any specific mention of Isola by name, but there was a passing reference to the “dragon people” and an illustration of a flag bearing the silhouette of a coiled dragon. She also discovered a park near the marketplace and liked to sit there and read when the weather was fair. Winter was upon them, but on the coast it was much milder than any she’d ever experienced, and the damp didn’t bother her leg as much as she had expected it would.
Eryl often joined her in the park or on her walks, but he spent a lot of his time in the port. He befriended the harbor master and offered his services at the docks whenever a runner was needed or there was cargo to be moved. Between his efforts and Senara’s, they were saving up enough, they hoped, to start a life for themselves in Isola once they reached it. “I’m hoping if everyone at the docks gets used to seeing me and thinks of me as reliable, they’ll be more likely to point me in the direction of the best Duskers to help us once they start showing up,” he told Senara as they picnicked in the park after her lunchtime playing one afternoon.
“That’s smart,” she agreed. “I just hope someone from the Isles is willing to talk to us. Even better yet, I hope someone from Isola comes to Silverfin.” She sighed and pushed a lock of hair behind her ear. “I wish I knew what they traded with the coast. That would make it so much easier to find them.”
“Someone will know,” Eryl promised, reaching over to take her hand. “We’ll find them.”
She smiled at him and leaned against his shoulder with a sigh. “I’m glad you’re here, Eryl.”
“Yeah? You wouldn’t rather it had been Annalise or Roger on duty that night?” His tone was teasing, but she thought she heard a hint of true curiosity there too.
“I think,” she sat up and turned, taking his other hand, “if one of them had been on duty that night, I either never would have made it to the dragon or they wouldn’t have followed me and I’d likely be dead. But you were paying close enough attention to see me go and trusted me enough to just shadow me instead of stopping me. I think that ended up with the best outcome for all of us. So yes, I am very glad you’re here. I don’t think I could have done this with anyone else. I know I wouldn’t want to.” She squeezed his hands, surprised when he dropped his gaze, face flush.
“Thank you. That means a lot.”
“What about you? Do you ever wish you hadn’t been on duty? That I hadn’t upended your whole life with my dragon hunt?”
He looked up, brow furrowed. “Me? Never. This,” he slipped a hand free and gestured at the city around them, “it’s nothing I ever would have expected, nothing I would have planned, but it’s amazing. Getting to know you and Blaze, getting to see a new part of the world–I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
Senara smiled and he returned it. “What did you have planned?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Did you plan to be a guard forever?”
“No. Don’t get me wrong, I was in it for the long haul, but I thought that if I was ever injured or reached retirement age, I’d find a house in a small town or village and have an orchard. Maybe a vegetable garden.”
“That sounds just like you,” she laughed. “It also sounds wonderful. I’m sorry I caused your path to change.”
“Who knows,” he shrugged, “they might have orchards on Isola. That dream might not be out of reach. I’m sure we’ll have to do something to earn our keep once we get there.”
“I suppose we will,” Senara said, considering this for the first time. She wrinkled up her nose, trying to imagine what her future might look like. All she could see in the picture was that Blaze and Eryl had to still be in in it. She drummed her knee with her free hand and glanced at Eryl. “I don’t suppose you’d want help with that orchard?”
“I like the sound of that,” he said, wrapping his free arm around her and pulling her against his side in a half hug. “I think we make a good team.”
“So do I,” she agreed.
It felt like no time at all before solstice decorations began appearing around Silverfin. Ships from all over Radia entered the harbor, bringing goods for the city’s celebrations. Then ships from the Isles started popping up, each with a flag bearing an emblem that announced its origins. From the inn’s attic, Senara and Eryl had a clear view of the harbor and they watched these ships arrive with excitement. All of the solstice preparations kept Eryl too busy to ask many questions at the docks, but he listened as he worked, trying to discern which crews and captains might be able to point them in the right direction.
Two days before solstice, Senara was in the middle of her midday performance when she received a sending from Blaze. Where are you?
I’m at the inn, playing, she sent back, trying not to lose her place in the song. Why?
There was quiet in her mind for a few moments and she finished playing. The dining room was mostly empty, so she decided her set was done and was stepping off the stage when Blaze replied. Eryl says you shouldn’t leave the inn. He’s on his way to you and he’ll explain when he gets there.
She frowned. Is something wrong?
I’m not certain. He feels worried, but he’s not saying much. He’s just asked me to ask you to wait for him.
All right. I’ll be here. She slipped into the kitchen and accepted a bowl of soup and wedge of bread, settling down to try to eat while she waited for Eryl to arrive. She focused on the food, trying not to let her imagination get the better of her. So intent was she on making herself eat that she didn’t hear Eryl come in and jumped when he sat down beside her.
“I’m sorry!” He reached out to steady her and ducked his head at her glower.
“Tell me,” she managed to get out.
“I’m probably overreacting, but a ship just came in with the Blackbird banner.”
Senara sat up and dropped her bread, her appetite vanishing. Blackbird was the Poe family legacy and the royal emblem of Sunpeak. She realized she was shaking when she tried to speak. “We stayed here too long, didn’t we?”
“It’s not a navy ship,” he assured her, sliding her across the bench and wrapping an arm around her. She leaned into him, steadying, and he went on, “I think it’s a merchant. I’m going to try to find out more, but it doesn’t look like they’re here searching. They’re just…here. I didn’t want you to get seen by someone and recognized, though.”
She let out a slow breath. “So I need to stay inside for now.”
“I think it’s for the best.”
She managed a wry smile. “At least I just went to the library yesterday.”
“It’s not for long,” he promised, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear. His fingers grazed her cheek and she shivered at the touch, then sat up, realizing how close together they were sitting. Eryl seemed to notice this at the same time and he flushed, sliding a bit away on the bench and dropping his arm. “Anyway,” he cleared his throat, “I should get back to the docks. See what I can learn.”
“Have you had any luck finding a good contact among the Duskers?”
“Maybe. I overheard that one of the ships got in later than they meant to because they had to evade a dragon. I was hoping I could help unload their cargo and find out more, but the islanders don’t seem to want much outside help.”
Senara frowned, her shoulders tensing. “Did the dragon attack them?”
“I don’t think so. Sounded like they saw it and decided to give it a wide berth.”
“Oh good,” the tension drained away. “The last thing we need is to be asking for help finding dragons if they’re attacking ships again.” In many Radian stories, dragons featured as fierce predators of the sea, going after ships daring to sail in their waters and plundering cargo for their own. Historical records, on the other hand, showed that a few centuries ago dragons were a menace to contend with upon the sea, just like other pirates, but that they hadn’t attacked any ships in generations. “If they’ll go that far out of their way to avoid dragons, the Duskers still might not take kindly to us asking about them.”
“I’ll be careful,” Eryl said. “I can put it so that I’m trying to find out where they’re seen so we can avoid sailing too close.”
“That helps us pinpoint their location,” she agreed. “I’m not sure it helps us reach them.”
“I know.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “But it’s a start. I’m going now, you stay safe, all right?” He took her hand again and squeezed it, then left.
Senara turned back to her lunch and tried to finish it. Blaze, she sent, do your memories tell you whether or not Isol dragons are likely to attack other Dusker ships?
Not really, the dragon returned, feeling thoughtful, but I would be surprised if they did. To do so would invite retaliation, wouldn’t it? And their purpose is to live freely on their own where the dragons can be safe.
You’re right, Senara agreed, I just thought I’d check. One of the ships from the Isles saw a dragon on their way here. I was hoping you might be able to tell me if we have any animosity to look out for.
I wish I knew more.
So do I, she agreed with a smile, about everything, really.
She got the impression of laughter and agreement. Did Eryl find you? Is everything all right?
He did. There’s a Peakian ship in the harbor. He wanted to make sure I stay inside until we can confirm it’s not anyone searching for me.
Oh! Does that mean you won’t be visiting me tomorrow?
I’m afraid not. I’m sorry. Until we know who is here from Sunpeak I can’t risk being recognized. But Eryl should still be able to come.
Eryl can’t play the flute.
She laughed. He can read to you though. I found a book of dragon stories when I was shopping yesterday. I’ll send it with him.
I suppose that will do. The excitement in his thoughts belied his nonchalant response. Be safe, Senara.
You too, Blaze.
They broke contact and she cleaned up her dishes, then made her way to the attic room that had become her home. She peered out the window into the harbor, spotting the Blackbird banner with ease, the sky blue standing out among the yellows, reds, and oranges of the Radian and Dusker banners. She hoped Eryl was right and it was just a merchant stopping to trade for the solstice celebrations. Sunpeak mostly traded in metal goods and fabrics with Radia. She was sure some of that might be useful somewhere over the next week. Surely if her father had sent searchers to Radia, they would be on a smaller, swifter ship, and news of a royal party would have reached the inn’s patrons. The gossip at lunch had all been about the upcoming celebrations. She’d heard nothing about an envoy from the king of Sunpeak.
A few ships appeared on the horizon as she watched, and her breath caught in her throat as the wind pulled one of the banners taut so that she could see the emblem it bore.
Senara? I’m here, what is it?
I need you to find Eryl right away! I think…I think we might have finally found what we’re looking for.