The Dragonbone Petticoat

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Chapter Twelve

When the gate slowly retracted into the stones above, Beast ignored the sheep—bleating in its fretful circuit of the griffin’s lazy tread and flexing wings—and chomped the chain dragging at his hindpaw.

As the metal repelled his beak, Biter redoubled his efforts, for every mineral crumbled to a griffin’s bite, whether mountain rock, armor, or sword blade, and he often slurped the bitter scraps, relishing the taste. While the heavy manacle and its cumbrous chain were a new, bland flavor, it could not be said they had no bite at all, seeing that they bit back at Beast, grinding painfully against his beak without his leaving any mark at all.

While Biter hated the not-Masters, he disliked this unyielding limit they imposed even more. He was so accustomed to crashing through, to bursting, breaking, and chomping things, that even after gnawing for the better part of a day, Biter slavered at the links for another day, after which they glistened with drool, unbent and whole, as if the griffon had a puppy-mouth--the thought that finally turned Biter from his impossible task. While griffins are stubborn to the point of being obnoxious, Biter’s chain of thought was easily snapped by the pull of hunger, and thinking of puppies made him hungry for puppies.

When a whelp trotted by the cage, as if heeding the call of his feral imagination, Biter flicked his claw under the fence, dragged it through by its tail--bludgeoning its head on the bottom rail as it was squeezed through--then snapped it up slowly with his sore jaws, starting with the bloody, juicy head.

At the wailing of children and the hollering of an wizened female who clutched them to her, Biter cocked his head, crunched through its skull, and swallowed the oozy, gooey goodness.

When the whining children and their dam vanished into the crowds, Biter scanned for Master, and when he didn’t show, Biter sulked and lolled until he was as hungry as caged beasts get, the bored, optimistic rage at knowing they will soon be fed. And when he was fed soon after, his talons and paws curled around his sated stomach, and his beak slumbered on his feathered chest, but dream-Master rode dream-griffin until his eyes flicked open. When he pounced to his feet, he only pinned shadow.

When the not-Masters first brought a female, likewise chained, and with her talons tied in sacks, Biter sniffed and licked her tentatively, but when she boxed him with her bagged feet, he slashed back, licked the blood, and nosed the carcass. Another bled a different way, spotting the ground, and rubbed against him, dragged his eyes to her hindquarters, and he sported on top of her, then withdrew to the wall, confused and dreaming of Master. When she rubbed against him, he roared upright, roared at what crashed through his dream of Master, then roared at the body, quivering as it flowered with gore.

When the not-Masters thought to bag his feet, and human heads tasted as crunchy and gooey as puppy heads, Biter felt a streak of envy that his egg-sister had tasted it long before.

While Beast had few thoughts, every other was Master, and when his next thought of Master was contaminated with the flavor of the not-Masters, he sulked and lamented that Master was not there, but saw blood, a fusion that bore his first conception of revenge. It was such a sad thought that he keened the rest of the day, and though the not-Masters showered food from buckets wet with bloody gobbets of sheep, and cow, and horse, he wailed, snuffled, and curled against his wall, only idly checking now and then for wandering puppies.

When the not-Masters next brought a female, it was as if the lingering thought of blood rode Biter, so that he did not own the deed, and at its end, his talons were clean. The humans cackled and crowed like jackals, then showered him with more buckets of meat, this time of pig...and was that more human? Whatever it was, Biter devoured it with relish, but did not lift his head that day. While his disappointment and rejection were an old pain, the wound now seemed raw, for he had dipped his thoughts of Master in fresh blood,

While Biter never looked forward to the females more than the tasty flesh, by learning to tolerate them, he became fatter, and more thoughtful. Now he only thought of Master when it pleased him, a willed pining that flowed into an angry desire to have Master there, an image of Master so red with life that it exploded in blood. While Biter still liked to think of Master, he soon preferred the bloody surprise of his afterthoughts.

***

If Lord Unduruk was opposed to the idea, he was so accustomed to deferring to Lord Cassalia that he only cocked his head, nodded, and left his objections unsaid on his half-open, toadying mouth, where, as usual, his dissent slid down, at once stuck in his craw and buried in his guts.

Not that Lord Unduruk disliked Lord Cassalia. It was only that by the dynamics of their lopsided friendship, Cassalia theorized and speechified, and Unduruk actualized and applauded. Having been applauded in everything by his overindulgent mother, Lord Unduruk so liked the sound of applause that when it wasn’t forthcoming from his own actions, he heaped it on others, the most generous receiver of which was Lord Cassalia, who, for all his faults, could not be said to be ungracious.

Greedy to the point of rapacity, insecure to the point of neediness, and entitled to the point of constant, carnivorous plagiarism, which consumed Unduruk’s ideas without ever once crediting them, Cassalia was such a gracious monster that it was hard to pin down the offenses in his stream of well-mannered slights and the two-pronged flattery that reflected better on him than its recipient.

Not unintelligent, Unduruk realized long ago that their friendship was, in large part, a factory to feed Cassalia’s egotism, and when he had run out of new things to say, and the fiction of their friendship floundered, Unduruk suggested Cassalia’s biography as the next project worthy of their interests.

While Cassalia was a born windbag, and happy to produce hot air in biographical quantities, Unduruk was not a born sail, and found himself floundering, flagging, and sagging in the attempt to shape the canvas of his friend’s life. While his hand flew over reams of paper, despite all his efforts to prop up his vain friend’s mast in this sea of pages, the stream of Cassalia’s narrative wrecked the illusion of their relationship, until Unduruk felt cut adrift and marooned in the truth that he had wooed a preposterous whale, and all his flatteries were sharks, hungry to shred Cassalia in a fury of unintended parody.

He hadn’t dared to show a single page to Cassalia.

“This marks a new chapter, wouldn’t you say?”

“Oh yes,” answered Unduruk. “I thought that immediately, having brought the previous chapter to an end just yesterday.”

“I’m excited to see myself through your eyes,” said Cassalia.

“My Lord Cassalia, the thought of you ever deigning to read my little journal likewise fills me with a happy fear.”

“Little?” Doubt flickered in Cassalia’s eyes. “We had all those talks.”

“By little, I meant my contribution. Like fire rips through a Vanoori slum, the book in large part writes itself.”

“You flatter me. I’m not that exciting a subject.” While the truth of this claim would be decided by generations of readers too drunk with laughter to read straight, it was belied at that moment by Cassalia’s impish grin.

“It runs to two-hundred and ninety pages already.”

“You’re too modest, Unduruk. In riding my tails, you’ll become more famous than your wildest dreams. No one has ever done such a thing.”

“A biography?” Given paper and pencil, Unduruk would have crafted a two-fold response, but in the moment there was no rejoinder that was not at least slightly offensive to his subject. And he could not have Cassalia on his guard—not yet. “I think, Lord Cassalia,” he began delicately, “you will find that biographies...”

“You’re as dumb as a box of rocks, Unduruk,” said Cassalia. “I mean the subject of our next chapter.”

“Well,” started Unduruk. “I can think of at least one person--the beast’s owner. That said, while you lay no claim to originality, my Lord Cassalia, it is still a daring venture—dare I say, too daring.” While this act, successful or no, would no doubt find admirers and spawn imitators, if it killed Cassalia, Undurk would, with monumental reluctance, put to bed what was shaping into a comical epic. While he relished the contempt that rose from their literary project like an odious but tasty cheese, Lord Unduruk found himself begging Cassalia to think of some other enterprise, but having mined his life until both the tale and Unduruk seemed exhausted, Cassalia craved chapters and scenes worthy of veneration.

When Cassalia began to think of himself as a literary man, he wanted to embed in his life events resonant with his intended continuity, not only foreshadowing but immediate parallels. Having already had Gaspar’s wife, Bryttienne—a rolicking night in which Unduruk himself particpated with a show of reluctance that seemed to enflame Bryttienne more than Cassalia’s boasts —Cassalia thought it would be not only amusing, but a magificent parallel, to take Gaspar’s griffon for a joyride. While Unduruk had cast about for a more symbolic joyride, his vain friend had never forgiven Gaspar for trouncing him at Qamary, and would not be dissuaded from mounting the griffon.

Even when rumors rolled in of the beast’s taste for human flesh, whetted by Lord Chemeryn’s incomprehensible and atavistic decision to feed it condemned criminals--more as an experiment, the Chief Steward said, than as a measure of expedience--Cassalia allowed himself, if not to be talked down, to be counselled in how to accomplish it without loss of his own flesh.

While the Royal Stables were only accessible by the Emperor, the Chief Steward, and their bravest and most loyal followers, Lord Chemeryn was a born braggart, as most shy, retiring types are once you scratch through their vanity, and he was only too willing to conduct Lords Cassalia and Unduruk on tour after tour.

“My dear Lord Chemeryn,” Lord Cassalia would say, in his most unctuous tones, “I simply must see the wyverns again, for they are too large to take in on a single glance, and my imagination is beggared to recall them to memory. When others ask about the magnificence and splendor of the Emperor’s stalls, I can only dole out the blandest of praise. Do not allow my reputation as a wit to suffer, Lord Chemeryn.”

“I am only too happy for you to add another angle of his majesty’s monsters to your mental picture, Lord Cassalia. And you, Lord Unduruk...”

“If you please, Lord Chemeryn, having no better use, I would follow in the train of his lordship.”

“Even so, Lord Unduruk, it seems that you are the fortunate one, to gain another eyeful of the grandeur his majesty has collected, without even having the ambition to do so.”

“If it is as you say, Lord Chemeryn, that I am but a simple man, pleased with the two excellencies accompanying me, do not think me less of a Lord for that noble reason.”

While Lord Chemeryn was already a substantial man, these flatteries so swelled his already towering vanity that he puffed up sizeably, beamed ear to ear, and waving the Chief Guard to the throne, bent to whisper in his ear.

“At once, your grace.” The graybearded soldier was a tall but slight man, whose scarred, lanky arms had a chiseled musculature suggesting aged, brittle strength, as if he might shatter when he fell, and whose eyes were so blue that he seemed deeper than sky or ocean, with many purposes swirling in cross currents.

“Even sooner, Yumun.” Having dismissed the captain, Lord Chemeryn stood, and being a fat man under the sluggish influence of the meaty repast partaken of by Chemeryn, Cassalia, and Unduruk as they conversed delightfully, waddled down the throne’s steps so precariously that the twenty guards at the wall fell in toward the throne, seeming to fold all at once, less like a formation in unison than like a scroll rolled up by one will. When Lord Chemeryn waved them away, they fell in behind the three Lords as they exited the throne room.

“Steward is a better job when the Emperor is in,” sniffed Lord Chemeryn. “While he’s away, I can’t even head to the toilet without an escort. When I want to use a library ladder, they rip it from my hands and get my book for me, which can be particularly frustrating when the guard is barely literate, as I might wait five minutes and nine trips up and down the ladder before they bring the right tome.”

“It is a heavy burden to be so beloved.” Lord Cassalia pronounced this without a trace of irony or sarcasm, as if he also found it onerous to have so many dependents, a laughable suggestion, for aside from Lord Cassalia’s hairdresser, cook, butler, maids, and driver, there was only Lord Unduruk. While he felt the burden of his privilege, being not a landed noble, and never having been landed by a gentlewoman of means, Lord Cassalia had not the capital to contribute soldiers to the Emperor’s armies, nor any thralls aside from these few body servants. “To have charmed the hearts not only of The Emperor, but the masses and petty nobles.”

“On the contrary, my lords,” sniffed Chemeryn, “your attentions aren’t taxing at all.”

When his reference to petty nobles was redrawn to include him, Cassalia’s confidence dissolved, first into a nonplussed, blank expression, then into a pained, put-upon look that--with an effort Lord Unduruk savored, and might have long treasured had he the time to do so--Cassalia stretched into a smile.

“I appreciate the company, my lords,” Lord Chemeryn continued, “as without such amusing diversions, I grant audiences and read scrip from dawn to dusk. These are large burdens for such a large man.”

“I understand, Lord Chemeryn, being myself a duty-bound epicure like your grace. One day, I must invite you to partake of the last bottle from my grandfather’s winery.”

Having sold the family vineyards, Lord Cassalia’s father stored remaining stock in the cellar of the townhouse bought with the profits, and when Lord Cassalia inherited the small estate, the spirits soon dwindled to a single wall of bottles, each of which he styled the last, the better to spread his precious liberality even more liberally. While the final bottle of a celebrated vintage could only be shared one time, by splitting the title with the remaining bottles, he could confer the moment of distinction whenever he wished to woo, flatter, and win over to his squirrely ways. And when the bottles were gone, he had a slew of labels, and after that, there were the dies that had struck the labels. Lord Unduruk was not altogether certain that Cassalia had not stamped a rare vintage this past summer.

“Like yourself, your grace, its bouquet and flavor are larger than life.”

“I don’t know.” While a dark scowl caved in Chemeryn’s bushy eyebrows, a plump chuckle pursed his round cheeks. “Bryttienne said it was too bitter to be savored. Not that I, unlike you, would dare draw comparisons to present company.”

“If I may.” Lord Cassalia ignored Unduruk’s warning glares. “Such a wise father must know nothing satisfies your eldest, short of a dress sewn to her specifications, or a handmaiden aspiring to Bryttienne for her model.”

“While many of both were in her closet.” Lord Chemeryn’s mood grew pensive. “After Lord Gaspar--may the Dragon ever raise him higher for the luck he brings—my daughters are no longer in peril of becoming spinsters, or monsters like Bryttienne.”

“Fear no longer, your grace.” Lord Cassalia’s smile was wry and jaunty. “For that threat has passed over your two ripest darlings, who now mother the ones too young to care.”

“Very droll, Lord Cassalia.” When the coach rolled to a rest outside the Royal Stables, the driver opened the door and dropped the stairs. Lord Chermyn hiked up his robes before descending to the walkway with a pained grace. The crackling snores of snoozing wyverns hummed through the gated entryway. “Are my second and third such unmarriageable harridans, when one is just now twenty, the other only a year behind Bryt, and there is no shortage of dowry?”

“Had they not sharpened their tongues daily when Bryttienne was their dragoness, coin might have been a strong incentive.”

Lord Chemeryn’s face clouded. “This is the prevailing view?”

“My dear Lord Chemeryn, or rather, your grace, would I debase myself by gossiping about the beloved offspring of our acting Emperor?”

Lord Cassalia knitted his hands together in a sanctimonious show of pensive humility as they entered the Royal Stables. “That said, I could not help overhearing words to that effect on a number of occasions.” When Lord Chemeryn sighed, all his hard work of puffing up seemed to deflate, and he slumped to the wall. “You had better call for that wine.”

“Your grace?”

“Being unwilling to forego Unduruk’s company, with your permission, I will send a guard.”

“I would be honored.” Lord Cassalia’s smile seemed to grind even finer. “We want the bottle on the right hand top shelf. While they all have the same label, there are marks only I know to look for.”

“Of course. Is she not lovely?” Lord Chemeryn’s upturned palm swept upward in a grand flourish, indicating a gigantic wyvern. While the beast once held some novelty for Lord Unduruk, after its eighth viewing, the attribute which lingered the strongest was a fetid aroma like stable droppings and the sweetest peas, stewed in swamp.

“Yes, quite,” said Lord Cassalia, “has she been mated yet?”

Lord Undurk turned aside to cover his stifled laughter. If he loved Lord Cassalia less, he was still in reluctant admiration of his ability to turn a gibe.

“No.” When Lord Chemeryn voice dried to a leathery snap, a phlegmatic cough bubbled up before his normal, oily manners started to flow. “Do you know, Lord Cassalia, that if something happened to the Emperor, I would be the rightful ruler of Klyrn? The Emperor having produced no heir, neither son nor daughter, and being an only child himself, unless some unveiled bastard or clandestine adoption passed the lords’ scrutiny—I dare say, even if you were proved a royal bastard today, Cassalia, you would not pass muster with your peers while waging an uphill battle against envy—his acting Emperor would become Emperor, short of some vote of no confidence from your fellow Lords.”

“That’s quite an imagination,” said Lord Cassalia. “Me, a royal bastard!”

“We need not strain the imagination overmuch,” said Lord Chemeryn wryly, “given the highborn habits you so expertly mirror.”

“Your continued reflections on me do you credit, your grace,” said Lord Cassalia.

“Thank you.”

“Moving our backdrop would only improve this scene. Might we see the griffin?”

“You begged for the Emperor’s collection, Cassalia. Biter is my son-in-law’s.”

“Biter,” seethed Lord Cassalia. “An apt name, considering its master bit me as well.”

“Ludicrous prattle,” said Lord Chemeryn. “Gaspar’s a lamb.”

“Perhaps an ewe. I only meant he beat me in Qamary.”

“A most impressive win,” chipped in Lord Unduruk, “given our method was foolproof until then.”

“Method?”

Ruddy from puffing along the lengthy stables, Lord Chemeryn’s sweating face wrinkled in a sneer. “Are you saying, my lords, that you cheat? At Qamary, of all things? Was money ever won or lost at Qamary?”

“Not to my knowledge,” Long used to playing the weaker party, Unduruk knew that a pretended submission was as intoxicating as true power to a secondhand tyrant, but if they did not seem to stumble in this negotiation, the Chief Steward would be on his guard, and have the lawful authority to block their naked ambition. Conversely, if their pride seemed to crumble a little, Unduruk doubted Chemeryn would have the perspicacity to distinguish false humility from true. Which is not to say that Unduruk did not relish Cassalia’s anguished gestures, strangled groan, and inarticulate mutter, as he clasped the other lord’s hands to choke their flutter and continued: “only minds have been lost, and only in weak and foolish moments, such as when we contrived never to lose again, your grace. Such a foolproof method we fools contrived that we were astonished when Gaspar handed us our hind ends.”

“Most amusing,” said Lord Chemeryn. “You might have learned something by watching my son-in-law play. After a few games in which he seems to take the measure of the game, while losing as abyssmally as the rules permit, he never loses again, so long as we are speaking of games of chance and skill, not sport and skill at arms. It is good that you did not take it further.”

“Further, my lord?”

“My Gaspar is so skilled at provoking sore losers that I’ve had to send Yumun to fight duels secretly on his behalf.”

“I thought I was a fool.” Cassalia darted a dark look towards Unduruk. “Who but a foreigner would ever fight Yumun?” Yumun was greatly feared even at his late age, given his prowess with blade and lance.

“Indeed, a few displaced Vanoori lords. But a few of our own. While I never mind thinning the peerage, I’m glad when most bow out after a biting apology.”

“Speaking of biters, your grace.” Cassalia seethed through gritted teeth. “The griffin.”

“You’re quite determined,” said Lord Chemeryn. “I might think you mean Biter harm.”

“If seeing did harm, your grace, I would have stretched out Gaspar before this, and Lord Unduruk moments ago.” The tiny smile gleamed under inflamed nostrils in the lamplight-flecked sweat slicking Cassalia’s face like a golden burial mask. The smirk glinted for a moment, before fanning like a cobra’s hood to a broad, manic grin under wide eyes that bespoke anger and vengeance.

If Cassalia’s grotesque demeanor did not frighten Chemeryn, it was only because the Chief Steward’s eyes trained on the wyvern, which coiled and uncoiled continuously, as if it unraveled itself down to its constituent scales, then swelled up again. Lord Unduruk could never ride such a creature, whose writhing might dissolve its rider by externalized digestion, its slithering kinks and links as tricky as a small intestine, and as certain to smear any flesh pinched in those muscular folds.

Still not favoring the lesser lord with a glance, as if Cassalia was beneath not only reproach, but notice, Chemeryn continued. “Forgive me, Lord Cassalia. It is as if the wyvern, knowing my importance, seeks to sway me by this performance. Even your double meanings, verbal contortions, and the captivating sideshow of your flexible morality are not nearly so amusing as this indissolubly knotted monster, which mazes through its own bones by instinct.”

“Quite.” If air had not jetted from his nostrils, and his face had not reddened, Lord Cassalia’s forced smile might seem genuine.

“If you will not be dissuaded, I shall allow you to rush me,” said Lord Chemeryn. “However, I must insist upon more assistance, Lord Cassalia.”

When Lord Cassalia bowed deeply, his clasped hands wrung each other white, but as he rose from the bow, his beaming face now seemed not only unconflicted, but infantile and naive, and only one who knew him--or perhaps, Unduruk mused, a master of men like Lord Chemeryn, who had no doubt entertained guests even more vulturous than Cassalia would note that Cassalia’s shoulders, hunched in a travesty of humility, had knotted under the unbearable stress of repressing his predatory qualities. “I am only too willing to assist you in any way you’d like. You will find me an invaluable courtier, an exact adviser, and a staunch ally.”

“You put me in a lamentable position, Cassalia. I am only an old, fat man prone to unintended exaggeration. I meant only that, if you wish to see the griffin, you must help me down the hall.” Lurching away from his slump against the wall, the interim Emperor tottered as he reached for Cassalia.

Clapping his heels in a mincing salute, Lord Cassalia stepped forward to clasp Chemeryn’s arm, then led them forward with eyes so downcast that Unduruk feared they might run into the wall.

“Unduruk,” Lord Chemeryn called. “Why are you here?”

The penetrating honesty of the question so disarmed Unduruk that he nearly answered, to catch this fool as he is. Biting his tongue, Unduruk only said, “perhaps you remember my book?”

“I think you have mentioned it,” grunted Lord Chemeryn. Lord Cassalia set such an unconscientious pace that the corpulent Steward let loose undignified ejaculations every other step, not only moans and groans, but occasional curses. Chemeryn prefaced his next sentence with a particularly distasteful curse, loosely translated as the divine excrement good theologers deny; ”Kezzhike. I am getting even fatter, Unduruk. Last week, this wasn’t so difficult.”

“Should you not consult His Majesty’s royal physicians?” Concern flickered in Unduruk at the thought of Chemeryn succumbing to poor health, for with no Steward, the Generals would impose martial rule, a time of austerity which would sorely curtail many amusements of the nobility.

“I most definitely should not,” Chemeryn said emphatically, “or they will take my candies, ices, and wines. They will even make me take my tea green, without a single spoon of sugar or dollop of cream.”

“A little fasting now will stave off greater concerns.” While Unduruk wished to tread lightly in recommending a self-imposed rationing to the acting Emperor, his shudder at the thought of military rationing taking hold in Klyrn added a grave emphasis. “Without your health, what do you have?”

“I will think on it.” If Chemeryn strove for a weary tone, it was undermined by his actual huffing and puffing. “We need not talk about this again, Unduruk.”

As the Lords walked, and the Steward lumbered, the denizens of the Royal Stables seemed to mock them, the wyverns lolling and writhing lazily, dracoils slinking along their bars, and then the griffin, who at first seemed to hold his breath, for he hulked so much larger than when last they admired the beast. As Unduruk stared, however, the griffin never deflated, even as its snorts stuttered out in some fretful dream. Not only had Biter grown in the two weeks since their last visit, but each of the half-dozen times he had seen it, the griffin had spurted into a new monster. By the time Gaspar returned, his pet beast would be unrecognizable.

The better to show the griffin off to passersby, Biter’s pen had an attached, fenced yard bordering the avenue cutting through the palace district, so that as Biter took his meals and exercised in the pen, the Klyrnish would get a show. The manacle, chain, and post that tetherred Biter must have cost a pretty penny, for they appeared to be anteles, an alloy imported at great cost from Ardem.

“Mind your distance,” panted Lord Chemeryn. “Biter can reach a few feet through the fence. And he’s smart enough to know it.” Having been hastened by Lord Cassalia to the bench opposing the cage, Lord Chermyn sat, slumped against the wall, and wheezed as he strove to regain his breath and composure.

“Even now?” asked Lord Unduruk. “He is not so slim as he used to be.”

The Emeperor darted a dark look at Unduruk. “It’s a good look for the beast. Weight adds repose and majesty.”

If only it added grace, your grace, Unduruk mused. You can’t eat your way to the throne.

“I agree,” said Lord Cassalia. “He’s such a majestic creature. If some say a little too majestic, well, there’s no accounting for taste.”

Cassalia cautiously approached the cage. “Those bones look pretty wet.”

“Biter is drowsy by nature, prone to sleeping after eating or mating. I’d wager he sleeps off a fresh kill.”

“Unduruk,” bade Lord Cassalia. “Your dagger.”

More of a short sword, Lord Unduruk’s blade was more habit than weapon, having belted it over his finery for decades without once drawing it. “It was a gift from...”

“Yes, yes, your well-meaning father, who meant such good things for you. Give it here.”

“What mischief do you intend,” said Lord Chemeryn.

Unduruk was so reluctant to yield his weapon that his fingers whitened around the hilt like bony talons, pinching so hard that Cassalia took three tries to wrest it free.

Like a haggler kicking the wheels of a coach, Cassalia flicked the steel with his thumbnail, took a ceremonial swish at the air and, with a magnanmous sniff, prounounced it “quite a good blade, Unduruk,” before rattling the edge along the cage bars, racking it back and forth to drown out the indignant cries of Unduruk and Chemeryn.

When Biter’s eyes brushed open, he yawned, and his shivering paws stretched so far that Cassalia backpedaled from the cage.

“He’s bigger,” said Lord Cassalia.

“Are you so sure?” asked Lord Unduruk. “Perhaps you’re smaller?” While Unduruk’s tone was bantering and light, he was delighted when Cassalia scowled at this bland witticism, which Unduruk had, indeed, intended metaphorically.

“Was that supposed to be funny?” Cassalia crossed his arms. “While I appreciate your compansionship, I never meant you to stoop so low as to become a jester.”

Unduruk shrugged off Cassalia’s slight. He had already given so many years to this small, petty man in the hopes of advancement. When his writing had, like a magnifying glass, burned through the artful facade to expose Cassalia’s imperfections, Unduruk felt his suppressed growth begin to flourish. To keep feeding on the flames, he would pin Cassalia under glass until he was ashes.

“My lords.” After bowing stiffly at the entranceway, Yumun proferred the wine bottle not to Cassalia, but to Chemeryn. Six armored guards and a servant bearing a tray of wine glasses filed in after the captain.

“Yumun, your timing couldn’t be better,” said Lord Chemeryn. “Many thanks.”

“No need, your grace.” With short bobs from the hip as jerky and mechanical as a well pump, Yumun decanted three glasses of wine.

Holding his glass waist level, Cassalia stared in its violet swirl as if looking for the best diving angle. His eyes darted to the guards, then Unduruk, whose eyes flicked, as if in silent gesture, toward Lord Chemeryn. This was not as they had planned. If Lord Chemeryn sipped the drugged wine, and fell asleep too quickly, they would certainly be jailed by Yumun. Even if the Chief Steward succumbed in a way more in keeping with his ill health and overexertion, the guards would not stand by while they looted him for the keys. By the time Unduruk had exhausted the possibilities and resigned himself to the necessity of turning on Cassalia, Chemeryn spoke.

“My good Cassalia, there is no need to stand on ceremony.” It was considered ill manners to dine or drink before the Emperor had the first bite or sip. “Please drink. I am no Emperor, and you are more beast than lord. You toe the line of good manners as if they were iron bars, and would tear free of all restraint given the power.”

“If you mean that I would exercise my will if elevated to your position, who would not? Who would mind the cage, given the run of the griffon’s nest?” Having brought the glass to his nose for a dramatic whiff of its contents, Cassalia lowered it to his waist, then continued to contemplate it.

“You would mind the cage if it was always there,” lamented Lord Chemeryn. “As the months drag on, audiences, conferences, and councils drone endlessly, and there isn’t a day I don’t sympathize with our ruler, given his thankless job and his questionable privilege.” Chemeryn sighed. “For instance, today’s tragic turn of events.”

“Your excellency?” Unduruk’s heart beat so low that it seemed to be answered by a groaning echo in his guts.

“You had your chance. I’m fat, not blind, Unduruk. While you have been under his influence for far too long, his failing, ultimately, is also yours.”

Unduruk scowled. “Failing, your excellency? There is no one more loyal.”

“You were followed, Unduruk.” With a trembling hand, Lord Chemeryn poured and poured, until wine trickled to the wall, pooling in a crevice. “While I am sometimes the fool you believe me to be, Yumun has served two Emperors and a half-dozen Stewards, and had you followed the second time you begged to see the Royal Stables.”

“What have we done?” asked Cassalia.

“Nothing yet,” said Chemeryn, “but you were overheard. And while in the lower courts I could not punish you for Yumun pouring tainted wine, intention is all I need to pass judgment where the good of the crown is concerned.”

“As you have pointed out,” sneered Lord Cassalia, dropping all pretense of civility, so that his mask of composed courtesy flashed to a rictus of rage barely constraining an animal howl, “you are no Emperor.”

“It is well for you that I am not, for he would have you beheaded on the spot and fed to the wyverns. As I am less imperious and more foolish, I will entertain your explanations.”

“Your excellency,” said Lord Unduruk. “He thought only to sport with Gaspar’s griffon.”

“To sport with it?” Chemeryn was aghast. “You mean to ride it?” When Yumun’s mouth twisted into a cruel smile, and the guards took this rare lapse in the Chief Steward’s self-discipline to hoot in derision, Chemeryn waved them silent.

“Are they mocking me?” Hearing Cassalia’s wounded tone, Unduruk momentarily repented of his ill will toward his old friend. “I’ve ridden a wyvern,” Cassalia howled, “Gaspar’s beast is half the size.”

Chemeryn snickered, then convulsed with laughter for a minute or more before regaining his composure. “Such foolery might have saved you, Cassalia. It would be too ironic to order you executed, when had you succeeded, they would have had to scrounge to find enough of you to bury.”

When this witticism prompted another gale of laughter from the guards, Unduruk could no longer restrain his mirth, and Cassalia, still holding the dagger, rounded on him savagely. “You too, Unduruk?”

Unduruk backed away until his back smacked stone. “It’s not that I think you couldn’t ride it, Cassalia. On the contrary, you have so much panache that you might succeed in straddling it before the bewildered beast threw you to the ground and clawed you to bits.”

“You thought I would die!” shouted Cassalia. “You wanted it to kill me!”

“This is proving a most entertaining conspiracy,” said Chemeryn, whose tone sounded more sad than amused. “Each has a separate agenda, Yumun.”

Having nodded, Yumun’s smile retired to whatever belfry it had winged from, until his immaculately blank face suggested nothing buy readiness and duty.

“Lord Cassalia,” Cheremyn continued. “Stabbing Unduruk would save me the trouble of passing judgment upon a lord.” When both turned incredulous stares, Chemeryn sighed. “If not, please drop the blade.”

“Your excellency,” said Unduruk, “if I might be permitted to speak?”

“If you had spoken your mind more, Unduruk,” said Chemeryn, “you might not be in this execrable position.”

“Why not allow it?” Lord Unduruk now sweat so profusely, it drenched his brow, stung his eyes, and soaked his mustache, wetting his words with the taste of sweat. “If you would let him stab me here and now, why not throw open the cage to let him find his fate? If you were willing to let him settle my trial by accident, let him be tested by nature.”

“Trial by nature,” mused Chemeryn.

“You’re not considering it?” howled Lord Cassalia.

“Where is your resolve, my lord?” asked Chemeryn. “Only moments ago, you were willing to vault onto its back.”

“That was before I was roundly mocked by your hardened soldiers. I submit to your mercy, your grace.”

“Mercy?” snorted Lord Chemeryn. “You think it is so easy.” Lord Chemeryn turned to Yumun with a fretful gesture. “As if he will not report all I have done to the Emperor. You think of me as Chemeryn, when I must stand in for the Emperor in all things. I might even be chastised for listening to your excuses, Cassalia.”

“Let him.” As the voice was dry and raspy, like the scrunch of leather, Unduruk was uncertain if Yumun spoke, until the captain’s eyes met his, then seemed to bore through Unduruk’s skull.

***

Having torn the sheep to tatters, Biter cracked its bones until marrow flecked its jaws, then tucked his head under his wings. While his drowsiness was real, it was to conceal his beak, clicking and teasing the link he had worried in the chain.

Without Master to occupy his thoughts, Biter had come to know every inch of the chain as if it was a part of him, and finding a tiny bubble in one metal curl, he had picked at it for weeks, until his beak dulled, split, then cracked, until it was so painful that Biter had to wait a week for the horn of his beak to regrow before resuming his sly but relentless pecking at the link.

While he had snapped through one side of the link days ago, so that one ferocious yank might break it, he had continued to widen the gap, for while he desired open sky more than food or mating, what he desired most was Master. If what he wanted from Master was now muddled by the bitter taste of metal, the sweet scent of freedom, and the heady thought of blood, Biter knew by the simplicity of animal logic that having caged Biter, Master would be sure to return. If Biter could not forget Master, Master had not forgotten Biter. And if forgetting had not hurt Master as much as it had hurt Biter, it was not that Biter wanted to hurt Master back, it was only that he must make Master understand.

At the creaking of the gate, Biter cracked his eyelids, continuing to feign sleep. While the tread was cautious, the fearful breathing was so loud and obnoxious, that Biter only restrained his annoyance with effort. Through the slit of cracked eyelids, he saw boots plod near, then felt his feathers twisted and the offensive pressure on his back. Master would never clench tight like a stone, or fidget the toe of his boots, digging into Biter’s flanks. While the feel of the not-Master was all wrong, having not been ridden in months, Biter felt a wistful nostalgia, a sudden and overpowering longing that rose up in a rush, and following the wave of this instinct, Biter jerked upright, snapping the chain and bucking the not-Master, who fell flat on Biter's back, clutched feathers painfully in both hands, and kicked his hindquarters with the heels of its boots.

The chain could not be unsnapped. Biter could not be unridden. The skies could not be unflown. Desire drew Biter on, so the metal links, the cage, the cries of the not-Masters, and the flailing rider, fell away like flesh from a bone.

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