“This was not a date,” Derek said firmly as we walked down the street.
I glanced down at his arm, which I was clinging to lightly. He had offered it to me in a gentlemanly way as we left the restaurant, and I had accepted it without complaint.
“Not that I care,” I admitted. “But a candlelit dinner at a restaurant with waiters is a date. Even you must know that. You even paid for me. I can pull up a definition for you, but I really don’t see how this is difficult to comprehend.”
“First, it was a thank-you for everything you’ve been doing decently.”
“A thank-you date.”
“Second, I didn’t realize there would be candles. Or wine. Or music. I just heard there was good food, and thought it would be nice to bring someone with me. Killing two birds with one stone.”
I smiled at the unintentional pun. “Well, I suppose being accidentally romantic is better than the opposite. Then again, you’ve always been unintentionally charming.” I felt the smile slide off my face. “This isn’t… you’re not still—”
“No,” he snapped a little too sharply. He took a deep breath. “No,” he repeated, softer this time. “I know this could have been a date. I’m still getting headaches, but they’re not as bad or as frequent. I just don’t want you to think I’m leading you on.”
I resisted the urge to make a comment about the fact that, with my hand in his arm, he pretty much literally was leading me on. “It’s all right. I was mostly teasing. And you were right—the food was very good.”
He grumbled something that sounded almost like agreement.
We walked in silence for a few more blocks, enjoying the cold night air and the simple joy of watching our breath mist out in front of us. More than a few of the vampires and other night-goers recognized us, and gave us quick and friendly nods as we passed them on the street.
It was November 25th, a Sunday, already three weeks after the MEE, and the city was slowly returning to something like normal. The streets were filled with people again, even if they were a bit sparse at this particular hour, and powers were being integrated into society slowly but surely.
The counter-song devices Clarke and I had made were selling well, though they weren’t used quite as much as I thought. I expected people to leave them on at all times for protection, at least in shops. Turned out that people preferred to have their own abilities active rather than to have those of potential enemies deactivated.
There were still a few dozen cases of people using powers for crimes that popped up every day, but that was unavoidable, and Butler’s CS Squad was containing them quite well. Clarke and I—well, mostly Clarke—were coming up with new and improved uses of the toy maker every day. His flesh morphing ability had proven a bottomless font of knowledge.
All in all, things were far from perfect, but they were as close as they ever got in Domina.
So I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Elizabeth was still alive, still out there. Silk had said she dropped her in a volcano, but we didn’t know how long that would hold her, and when she came back she’d be pissed. She wouldn’t be able to turn the entire city into screamers again, but she was far from harmless. She could recruit more Blackguards, I was pretty sure. Even if she couldn’t, an immortal—
“You all right there?” Derek asked with a small smile. Not one of his heart-stopping ones that had earned him affection from every girl he ever met, just a little one to remind me he cared. “You’ve been quiet for a while now.”
“Just thinking,” I admitted. “Trying to figure out where to go next.”
“Well, there’s an ice cream shop up ahead.”
“I meant more broadly. Goals for the future.” I paused for a moment, considering. “I know Akane is doing quite well with those kensei of hers. What about you? You planning to recruit and soldiers of your own?”
“Technically, the kensei are my soldiers,” he said with a grin. “I’ve been using them on some monster hunts, and that’s been going pretty well. Might even start sending them off on their own soon.”
I looked at him sideways. “Really?” I had no complaints, but he had a well-deserved reputation for refusing to let anyone do anything mildly dangerous without his direct supervision. Akane complained about it quite a bit, on the rare occasions she decided to talk around me. She was quiet around everyone, but more so around me, and I still didn’t know why.
“They’re a good bunch,” he admitted with a shrug. “And Akane is training them well. Plus, there are about a dozen of them now. There are just too many of them for me to oversee personally at this point.”
I still had a feeling he was less happy about that than he was pretending, but I was at least willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. “Well, good. You can’t protect everyone, despite your best efforts, and I don’t want you to feel like you have—”
“Hey, what’s that over there?” he said with a frown.
Annoyed, I followed his gaze, barely in time to see a dark shape dart down an alley and out of sight.
He ignored me, stepping forward. “C’mon, I want to see what it is.”
I held him back with a hand on his arm. “I do too, but we are not walking into an obvious ambush. You know better than that.”
He tugged, dragging me along behind him. “There’s something about this I can’t put my finger on. Something about the man. His skin, maybe? C’mon, we’ll be careful, but we need to see this.”
I fruitlessly tried to restrain him. “Be careful by not going.”
More ignoring me. It wasn’t too long before we were at the mouth of the alley, trying and failing to penetrate the darkness with nothing but our baseline eyes. I thought for a moment, then pulled out my phone and turned on the light, illuminating the corridor.
The shadow was waiting for us.
It was as tall as an ogre, seven or eight feet and change, but covered in thick bronze scales, almost like a croc or gator, but with a shiny metallic sheen and interlocking together more smoothly than those of the order crocodilia. Indeed, I nearly mistook him for an alligator at first, with his long, smooth snout with only a few teeth poking out. But his large ear-frills and the webbed spines edging along his vertebrae told another story. Whatever this thing was, it wasn’t a standard alligator or crocodile kemo.
A thick, strong tail, also lined with the same webbed spines that worked their way down his back, thrashed on the ground, drawing attention to his massive feet, strong and broad like a lizard and clawed like a dinosaur.
Then he spread his wings.
Just once, a short flap of agitation, but it was enough to see that they were some ten feet wide, webs of membrane supported by two long, thin arm-like limbs, with the membrane itself stretching from his shoulders down to his rear. He folded them away carefully, not quite managing to hide them behind his massive bulk, but doing a good job of trying. I doubted they would provide lift for anything of his size, but that was a problem with his weight, not the wings themselves. They were, without a doubt, fully and perfectly functional. If they were on my back, I would be able to keep up with Robyn in the air.
This creature, whatever he was, was a monster that even the toy box would have difficulty creating. Either another box had been stolen when I wasn’t looking, or he had some power that made such things far easier.
“Knight Derek,” he rumbled, his voice surprisingly low and refined. Not at all like the gravelly gargle most kemo anthros possessed. “Dame Laura. A pleasure to meet you both. Apologies for ambushing you like this. But your secretary has been blocking my calls.”
My face remained calm, but the light from my phone shook slightly. “The pleasure is ours.”
Derek, being Derek, managed to seize on the least important scrap of information in the world. “Secretary? What secretary?”
I sighed. “Not all speedsters are warriors. One of the kensei is a terrible swordsman, but a wonderful assistant. I’ve been using him as a secretary. He’s quite useful, most of the time.” And it was better than letting Derek answer his own phone. He tended to jump at any call for help.
“And Akane allowed this?”
“It was her idea.”
Derek frowned, but turned back to our… friend… and bowed slightly. “I apologize for the difficulty. But due to that, I am afraid you have us at a disadvantage. You know us, but we do not know you. To be honest, I am not even certain of your culture.”
The creature bowed in turn. “And I apologize as well. I am Chronepsis, the Silent, sixth child of Io, the Concordant Dragon, and warlord of the Dispassionate Watchers. I am a dragon. Second of my kind.”
“Chronepsis?” I asked, puzzled. Derek was puzzled for a different reason, of course—he never paid enough attention to politics; he rarely recognized warlords he hadn’t fought or worked for. “I was under the impression that you and your father were not on speaking terms.”
“I made an exception. When he called from his deathbed.”
“Ah.” That certainly explained why he had been more active recently, then. Some sort of last wish from his father. Such things were common. I definitely hadn’t heard about him making such extensive modifications, though. Last I checked, the sixth child of Io was completely baseline. Had he made such major changes in just the last three weeks? “I am sorry for the loss of your father, Honored Wyrm. What may I do for you?”
The dragon smiled in that strange manner of anthros without proper lips. It is difficult to explain, but they manage it well enough. “Ah, you have heard. Of my attempts to build my father’s dream. A culture, a true culture, not just a tiny little kemo clan.”
I nodded, ignoring the look of befuddlement Derek was giving me. “As I understand, you are having some trouble with your siblings. Bahamut and Tiamat are still at war, and the others have been taking sides.”
The newborn warlord started ticking names off on his fingers. “Aasterinian, Hlal, and Tamara fight with Bahamut. Astilabor, Garyx, and Falazure have taken Tiamat’s side. Thankfully, Lendys has joined me in neutrality. But he has never been the most powerful of my siblings.”
I struggled to remember the various colors assigned to each sibling. Io had always been a very well-known warlord among the laces, and his massive family wasn’t exactly a secret, but it was still hard to recall exactly what names and titles went with which personality. “So… they’re split by color, then? The metallics—minus you—side with the Platinum Dragon, and the chromatics are working with the Chromatic Dragon, not counting the Balancer. Is that right?”
“Correct,” he rumbled.
Derek crossed his arms over his chest. “And now… you want our help to sort everything out? To unite your feuding family under your banner?”
“Not in the way that you think. I do not wish to lead them. I do not wish to control them. I wish only to watch.” He spread his clawed hands wide. “But my father has given me a task. I must see it done. The dragons must become a culture. My siblings must take up our father’s mantle.”
Realization dawned. “You want us to talk to Butler for you, to talk to him about signing you in as an official culture, with all the associated rights and responsibilities. You really think that will work?”
“Correct,” he rumbled, stretching his wings briefly again.
“Need I remind you that the last time a culture was officially recognized, they turned around and declared a weird crusade thing on the city days later,” Derek pointed out, his gaze strong and unwavering. “And they’ve been suspiciously quiet ever since. What proof do we have that the dragons will not go the same way as the fey?”
“The fey are insane.” He didn’t elaborate.
In fairness, it actually was a pretty compelling argument all on its own.
“Still,” I said, pushing past the many questions I had. “What proof do you have that this will even work? Even if the dragons become a real culture, what proof do you have that your siblings won’t just ignore you and continue fighting?”
“We will wait,” he explained, webbed spines ruffling. “I will sign. Lendys will sign. And there will be eight other lines waiting for my siblings. They will come. They will sign. Their pride will not let it stand unanswered.”
“I’m still not sure they’ll care. Necessarius isn’t in the best of shape these days.” Failing to prevent the MEE made Butler look weak. There had even been a couple failed votes to oust him. His reputation was recovering, but slowly.
“You underestimate yourselves.”
I frowned. “What?”
Now it was Derek’s turn to nod in understanding while I was confused. “Ah, yes, I see. You don’t want us to just go to Butler, you want us to actually witness the signing. Along with the rest of the Paladins as well, I take it.”
Finally, I understood. “That will give a legitimacy to your culture that Butler alone could never manage. I’d be very surprised if any of them could stay back for long. I’d give it a month, maybe less, before they’ve all signed.”
“It will not be quite that easy,” Chronepsis warned. “My siblings are eclectic. Tiamat hates following. Falazure does not enjoy interacting with others. Tamara dislikes Necessarius. But this has a better chance of working than waiting.”
“Quite right,” I said with a sad smile. “When did you want to do this? Tomorrow? Friday might be better, though I understand if you don’t want to wait that long.”
The massive warlord remained silent.
Realization dawned. “We are not doing it now,” I insisted, forgetting for a moment that this creature was big and strong enough to crush me like a pea and not even notice. “For about a million reasons and more.”
“It’s not like we’re busy right now,” Derek said mildly.
I rolled my eyes. “We might have been once we got back, if you hadn’t just screwed up.” He frowned, trying to parse what I had said, before I turned back to the dragon. “Even ignoring the Paragon here being thick-headed, it’s already late. Butler is likely asleep, and waking him is a bad idea. You’ll probably also want this recorded for the news, and I’m sure most of the non-vampires are in bed.”
“Eliza Cassan has an insomniac gland.”
That explained a lot. “She’s still off work. And most of the vampire newscasters aren’t on work yet. You just picked a bad time for this.” I reached out to touch his scaled arm with a hand that trembled only slightly. His scales were mildly cold, and felt like metal. Or maybe it was just a trick of perception? “Just wait until tomorrow. We can do this in the morning.”
There was a long pause.
“Very well,” the wyrm rumbled. He retreated farther into the shadows, beyond where my light could reach. “I will be at Zero Forge at 0700 tomorrow morning. Bring Butler and the rest of the Paladins. Do not be late.”
Then he was gone, and only the sound of flapping wings marked his exit.
Derek gave me a pained look. “…maybe we should have checked with Butler first?”
I winced as well. “Too late now.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 248)
I initially had a previous scene with Chronepsis actually at Io’s death bed, but it added very little, so I removed it.