The queen then turned her gaze to the south, where the milky blue haze of the sea was hovering just over the horizon. And directly between the queen and that haze was a simple and heavily weathered two- story shack on the very edge of a white sand beach.
The cottage was right where she had been told it was. The hunters the queen had hired had been right. Their payment was meseta well spent.
The queen took a small ocarina from her belt and blew an airy little tune into it. Then she replaced it in its loop on her belt, and stepped out of the copse of trees, into the bright light of the sun. She looked up at the clear sky and rolling clouds above. As a girl, she had believed that the clouds and sun were real. But her husband had shown her the truth. There was no sun. There were no clouds. All of it, even the very blueness of the sky, was nothing more than a holographic projection on the bottom-side of a titanium-enforced dome. The glow of the traveling sun came from a massive projector light mounted to a track on the glass. She had been a little disappointed by that, when first she was told, but the glory of Lune's other revelations had more than made up for it.
There was no one about, but if anyone would have seen the queen walking by they would have at once realized her station. She wore silver royal boots with shining blue buckles and a blue royal robe made of the finest eindon fur, tufted with luxurious white down from a warbler. There was a silver circlet on her head, and a silken bandanna hung from her hair. She walked with an air of regality earned not through pride of her position, but pride in great deeds done. What a far cry from the simple girl who had once flinched away from the love of the man known as Lune!
No monsters or cyborgs attacked her, or even approached. Once she thought she saw a trio of spysats peering from behind some shrubs, but they did not come near. Lune had been right. Those ancient things known as "hidapipes" really did work.
It was only a few moments before the queen of Dahlia stood before the seaside cottage. She was at the summit of a small ledge overlooking the beach; her face was level with the top of the cottage's chimney. The place had certainly seen better days. The queen frowned. Maybe she could change things. She hoped she could, if it were not already too late. The queen snapped her fingers and blue light enveloped her again. When next she opened her eyes she was standing several meters below her prior location, directly in front of the cottage's front door. The Grantz technique was yet another thing her husband the king had taught her.
Standing before the door, the queen grew hesitant for the first time. Perhaps she had been wrong in coming there. No, she could not think so. And yet, what if she did not receive the reception she expected? Could there be some violence? She doubted it, and yet she was glad that her Moonslicer was still hanging at her side.
The queen took a deep breath and knocked on the door with a gloved hand. And then she waited. Nearly a minute passed. A silent minute. There was the distant crowing of some sea birds, and the whisper of the waves hitting the sand, but little else. She had grown up on an island, but suddenly hated the smell of the sea. The queen of Dahlia sighed and began to turn away. And then a voice called out to her from inside.
"Who is there?" it asked. The voice was deep and raspy. It had always been so, but not to such a degree. It had changed much since the queen last had heard it.
"It is me..." she said.
"...it is Thea."
Now the sighing came from the other side of the door. "How did you find me?" the voice asked.
"I knew you would return to this place," Thea said. "Have you forgotten my lineage?" The thought made her smirk. "I know all about the habits of the Dragon Knights."
The other said nothing.
"I admit, I have had you followed," Thea went on. "I needed to find you, and Lune forbade me to come out here by myself, what with the robots, I mean the cyborgs, still on the loose. But I had to know. I had to see you. I came to Endora in disguise several months ago and hired a posse of hunters. I had them track you down, and then follow you here." She paused. "I am sorry."
A head was shaken on the other side of the door. "So that is who those men were. I was becoming alarmed."
Thea blinked. "You...you knew about them?"
"Of course. And I knew you were coming ever since you appeared in the trees north of here, though I didn't know who you were... I assure you, the senses of the dragon are far and beyond the senses of any man...or woman, for that matter."
Thea pressed herself against the door. "May I come in?"
The door opened. And the sight that meet Thea's eyes made her heart weep.
The face before her, once familiar, had been changed. Age had been cruel to this one. Where once there had been smooth skin, now there was only a labyrinth of lines and wrinkles. The left eye, she could just barely see, had sunken deep within the skull. The hermit who lived by the seashore had a face that would have frightened anyone.
And Thea kissed it.
"Oh, Ryan," she said. "How long I have waited to see you again!"
Ryan bowed his head. "I am honored. You are not the simple girl I remember. You are a queen. You should not deign so as to come to a place like this."
Thea smiled and raised Ryan's face so that his eye met with hers. "That is one of the finer points of being a queen," Thea said. "I can do more or less as I please."
They embraced. When they had parted, Ryan looked about, embarrassed, and said, "I wish I could offer you something, Your Highness."
Thea shook her head. "No, Ryan. I am Thea."
Ryan shrugged, but smiled. "As you wish. Now, as I was saying, Thea, I wish I could offer you something, but I have little. All I can offer you..." He pulled out a chair next to a simple table. "...is your seat."
Thea went and sat in the chair. Ryan sat across from her. He glanced out a nearby window which offered a remarkable view of the sea. Thea took the opportunity to examine her old friend more closely. He looked so ill. He looked just as her father had before he died. Perhaps that was the curse of the Dragon Knight. Or perhaps not.
"It is hard to believe that all of this, our very world, was made by people no different than ourselves," Ryan said, nodding in the direction of the sea. "This planet of our origins, this Palm, must have been a remarkable place."
Thea nodded and looked outside, too. "Yes. I think about it often."
"Oh, yes. Lune...Lune must tell you much about it. He lived there after all, did he not?"
Thea nodded again and returned her gaze to Ryan. "Yes, he did. He lived in a very large city called Pair-o-lee. He says that thousands upon thousands of people lived there, in that one town. Can you imagine it?"
Ryan shook his head. "No. And I think I'd rather not."
Thea chuckled. "I know how you feel. There weren't half so many people in Cille, Shusoran, and Endora added together. All those people..."
After a minute passed, Ryan said, "Lune must tell you a lot of remarkable things. They have many ancient luxuries on the moon, don't they?"
Thea nodded again. "Yes. There is running water there. You turn a handle and water comes out of a small fount. It is quite remarkable. And there are lights, like lanterns only brighter, that come on at the flick of a switch."
"Amazing," Ryan said. "I should have stayed longer, seen more of these wonderful things."
Thea reached across the table and took Ryan's hands. "Indeed you should. You have no idea how I missed you."
"At your wedding, you mean," Ryan said.
"Yes," Thea said, nodding and looking out the window again. "But more than that, I wanted you there when Kara was born. Alair was there, and Nial, Laya, and Mieu and Wren, of course. And my father, I know my father was there in spirit, and my mother, and my cousin Maia, and her father..." Thea blinked and shook her head. "But it wasn't the same with you already gone. I've missed you these long eighteen years. Terribly."
"I could not bear to look at him," Ryan said. He stared down at the table. "I am sorry, Thea, but I could not."
"I know, and I understand. But Ryan, it is as I explained it to you. Lune was under a wicked spell. Alair believes it was the work of the Dark Force, the one the minstrels speak of. Lune himself fought it, you know. And if it was not the Dark Force's work, then it was an ill- affect caused by the long sleep. Can you imagine a sleep of one thousand years? I cannot imagine what sort of affect it might have on one's mind."
Ryan did not move or speak.
"Lune was still under that curse when he stole me away from you," Thea went on. "He admits as much. He repented as much, and to your very face! But it cannot be helped that Lune and I fell in love after he was cured of his affliction."
"And to think, you have me to thank for it."
Thea squeezed Ryan's hands tighter. "Indeed I do. Without your efforts, Lune would have remained mad, and untold suffering would have befallen our entire world. That makes you all the more the hero in my eyes, Ryan, as if rescuing me from that wretched cell in Lensol wasn't enough."
Ryan looked up. Thea searched his eye for a long time. A great wave crashed outside and Ryan smiled. Thea smiled back.
"Tell me about this daughter of yours," Ryan said. "I have not heard of her since she was born."
Thea looked up at the ceiling and sighed. "Ah, Kara... Lune says it is sometimes hard to believe that she is his daughter. He says that he and Kara are nothing alike, as evidenced by how often they argue. But I say that they argue only because of how much alike they actually are!"
Ryan laughed. "Then she is well?"
"Oh yes, she is exceedingly well. Lune has taught her to throw a slicer. He has trained her with his own, in fact. And I have done my best to teach her the things a mother teaches. I believe I have done an exceedingly good job." She beamed. "But of course, Alair helped."
"I am sure the lion's share of the credit falls upon you, Thea," Ryan said.
Thea shrugged but continued to grin. "And I believe you would be right in so saying."
"Tell me," Ryan said. "Is she very much like your father?"
Thea smiled but looked down at the table. "Yes. It is remarkable, sometimes, how much Kara reminds me of my father. And how he would have loved her! You never had a chance to know my father, either. He was such a master with children."
Ryan nodded and grunted. He drew his hands back and stood up. He walked over to Thea's chair and helped her up. "Come with me outside," he said. Thea nodded and they left, arm in arm.
They walked through the fine sand to the very edge of the water. Thea's eyes had become adjusted to the dim light within Ryan's cabin, and she had to shield her eyes from the sun. Ryan kneeled down in the damp silt and ran his fingers through the sea. He picked up a few small, smooth-sided stones and skipped them across the water.
"It is so beautiful here," Thea said. "Laya herself could not have designed a more perfect world."
"How do you know she didn't?" Ryan asked. "Perhaps you should ask Lune about it, eh?"
Thea nodded. "Maybe I should."
Ryan stood up and stretched. "It is wonderful here. I did not feel comfortable within the town, but I knew that I could not live in any place but Draconia. It is fortunate that I was able to build this house. It was not easy. A carpenter from Lensol helped me."
"Lensol?" Thea asked, shocked.
"Yes," Ryan told her. He nodded and stared out over the water. "I suppose he didn't recognize me. Or maybe he simply didn't care."
Thea wrapped her arm around Ryan's. "It is so lonely here," she said. "Can this beauty and quiet alone sustain you? Dahlia is large. You could live in seclusion there, if you wanted. There is even an arboretum, near my quarters. It has false nature, like this dome does. It was the arboretum that sustained me my first few years there. Please, Ryan. You could be near me. And you could meet Kara. I've so missed you..."
"Years?" Ryan asked. "You would ask me to spend years on that cold moon, trying simply to get used to it? That cold moon, with its endless metal and eternal night? I am sorry, Thea, but I cannot. Not even for you."
Thea nodded. "I understand."
"No," Ryan said, separating from her. "You do not." He took Thea's shoulders gently but firmly and stared directly into her eyes as he spoke. "I have said much of the beauty of this place, and how I would never wish to leave it. But it is not by choice alone that I live on Cape Dragon Spine."
Thea shook her head. "I do not understand."
"Dragon Knights have long lived here, in secret," Ryan said.
Thea nodded. "Yes, of course. I know that. My father--"
"But your father did not tell you everything, woman. He did not tell you why it is that the dragons come here, year after year after year. Did he?"
Thea stared at Ryan, and then shook her head very slowly. "No. No, he did not. I thought it was because this is where the dragons originally come from..."
Ryan closed his eye and said, "No, Thea. This is not where the dragons come from. Not at all. The dragons themselves came from that other world, that Palm. The first of the dragon knights were created far, far away from here as well, in a distant part of the ship unknown to me. Where exactly I do not know, but somewhere in the heart of Layan territory. In a place that doesn't exist, that hasn't existed for a thousand years or more. In a place where monsters were made. They made us to lay waste to worlds, to destroy Orakians wherever we found them. It was we who destroyed the dome known as Terminus. It was we who were designed for a task we can never possibly accomplish."
"Ryan, what are you talking about?" Thea asked. "How do you, how can you know all these things?"
Ryan released one of Thea's shoulders and held his head. "I do not know. These are things I have known since my birth. The...origins of the dragons. Their memories are my inheritance." Ryan had to sit down on a nearby rock. Thea sat beside him and put her arm around his shoulders.
"They created us to destroy Techna," Ryan said. "As you know, it is below Techna that the engines of our world-ship are located. If the Layans could control the engines, so they believed they could control the ship, and win The War. But alas, the Orakians were well prepared. They turned the dragon invaders away, turned them to dust, with terrible weaponry, with guns, and cannons, and needles, and shots. Nearly all of the dragons were slaughtered. Those who remained were ordered never to go back to Techna."
Thea put her hand to her mouth. "By the Old Bows..."
"But what those fools failed to realize was that they had made us too well. For years the dragons who survived tried to live again as men. They tried to return to their towns and villages. And they tried to forget the horrible Battle of Techna. But they could not. Every day, as they cradled their children or slept beside their contented wives, the clamor of battle called to them. The intrinsic urge to attack and destroy Techna resounded too deeply within them."
Ryan looked up to the sky. A tear rolled down his cheek. Thea tried to wipe it away, but Ryan turned his face too quickly.
"Laya knows how many years they were able to resist. The lucky ones died young. But eventually the day would come when each of them could resist no longer. They would steal away in the dead of night, leaving their families, the very fabric of their lives, behind. They would take the form that felt most native to them, and they would fly for days on end until they reached this very spot. And they would soar from Cape Dragon Spine to the skies over Techna...where they were abruptly destroyed by the castle defenses, still active even now, centuries after The War ended here. This much I know for fact. I have seen the carnage many times myself. And I can tell you that this place is named not for any legend, but for the dragons' bones that litter its shores."
Ryan stood and walked ankle-deep into the water. Thea ran after him.
"Ryan," she whispered. "What are you going--"
"Now the dragon is calling to me," he said. "Get away, Thea. Get away, now."
Thea just stood there for a moment, not knowing what to do. She grabbed Ryan's arm, but it was like steel. Her one-eyed savior could not be budged.
Thea hesitated for another moment. When Ryan turned to face her again, the ancient spectacles he had long worn fell away. His empty socket had sealed itself shut. His other eye had grown and was a solid yellow color. It was glowing.
"Please. And promise me you will hold your daughter tightly."
Thea began to sob. She released Ryan's arm and ran. She ran as fast as she could, away from the man and his house and his sea and his achingly beautiful world. And she kept running. She didn't stop until she had reached the trees. She didn't want to see what Ryan would become. It was different than what she had seen before. The eyes of the old dragon had been kind, tame, tranquil. They had been nothing like the flaming eye that had plunged its fangs deep into her soul as she stood like a crane in the water.
But she did hear him. She heard, as she climbed the small hill behind the cottage, the most horrific war cry. It sounded like the noise she'd heard a moos make once, when one tried to ambush her and was swiftly garroted by a bodyguard King Lyle had appointed to her. It was awful. It was the sound of nightmares. She knew she would never, could never, forget it.
When she reached the trees, Thea stopped running and looked back over her shoulder.
Ryan was gone.
High above, an illusory cloud rolled past a fictional sun. Waves continued to lap against the beach, one after another after another. As she watched the repetition, Thea thought of Kara -- Kara, in whom Lyle's blood flowed. And she thought of herself, as well. And it occurred to her, for the first time, that the dragon lived inside inside the both of them. As she stared down at the water, Thea couldn't help but wonder if she, the queen of Dahlia, would find herself in the dragon's bind again.
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