Chapter Thirty Four - The Wager
I leaned in as low as I could over Rhiannas’s neck as we flew on into the horrible night. It didn’t just cut down on the wind resistance but it also gave me a tiny bit of shelter from the teeming rain. I quietly used Carrodocs’s trick to dry my clothes and warm my muscles. Luckily, Zalibar wasn’t there to see. I mean… he had pretty strong views about people ‘squandering cerebral capacity on matters of mere personal comfort,’ but I’d decided that, if I was called into action, it’d be better if I wasn’t frozen solid or struggling with cramp or something.
Rhiannas swung around to head north once more and, to relieve the tedium, I glanced, really carefully, round his mind. I mean… I’d never dream of trying to probe him… I basically knew what would happen if he caught me doing that… but when we were coupled in such a tight flying meld, I could have a quiet nose around at the thoughts and feelings floating about on the surface of his cloud.
As usual, his mind was locked solidly in on his job, keeping an eye on what the people round the island were doing and looking out for any possible threats. I was always amazed at how he managed to stick so solidly to such a boring task. I mean… no human could ever have kept concentrating like that on such a horrible night.
I scanned the horizon, using Rhiannas’s eyes because, in the deep, moonless blackness, my own were totally useless. And, as I scanned, I had a moment of understanding. Dragons see in black and white. That’s why they use those wavy line things instead of the flags that people would use… the ‘Slashed Sunrise’ repeated S pattern for the House of Rhian and the ‘Permanent Wave’ thing on my mother’s bracelet.
Feeling rather pleased with the flash of understanding, I settled back into the mind… and body… numbing boredom of the sentry flight.
A soggy dawn was trying to break on the dreary eastern horizon and I was half dozing when I was blasted into full wakefulness by a shrill call of, “Be alert!” from Rhiannas. Another dragon, coming in from the south, had shifted course slightly to intercept us.
I secretly stretched and fed a bit more of my will into warming my chilled body, particularly my hands, which were numb with cold.
As the other dragon approached, I saw that it was Caronas, Carodoc’s mistress, and that he was riding neck guard for her. When she was still a respectable way off, she broke into a non-threatening circle. “Salutations, Edify Rhiannas, mighty guardian of our boundaries,” she said. Her carefully chosen words acknowledged his senior status and that he was currently busy with Council duties. “I, Caronas, would approach and parlay.”
“I consent to your approach, though the nature of my council duties allow for but a brief interruption,” Rhiannas replied, just as carefully.
I nodded to Carodoc as they approached but Rhiannas wasn’t happy with that. “Remain vigilant,” he barked as he leaned back in the air, shedding a little speed to let Caronas join us. The two dragons fell into a cautious circling formation, about six wingspans apart.
“I see you are sporting the new neck guard of whom I have heard so much,” Caronas said.
“I have high hopes for her,” was Rhiannas’s careful answer.
“Are we to have the pleasure of witnessing her participation in the Neopyte Gates Race, this coming quarter day?”
“I had not thought to enter her on this occasion.”
“Am I to conclude that you are of the opinion that she does not have the talent to make the grade in such a rigorous contest?”
“On the contrary, she has made considerable progress, these past months. Were I to enter her, I would have every confidence in her ability to make her mark.”
“So you would merely expect her to ‘make her mark’?”
“Oh no, on consideration, I anticipate she would prevail.”
“You believe she would…” Caronas paused significantly… “prevail? So you would indubitably be eager to take on a terminal bet… for your much vaunted neck guard… to win.”
Carodoc turned pale at these words and Rhiannas was shocked at the suggestion, too. “Oh, I’m not sure…” he began, but he was cut across by Caronas.
“I would, of course, understand, were you not to have confidence in the ability of such an inadequate neck guard…” I could tell that Rhiannas was letting himself be provoked into making a stupid mistake but there was nothing I could do about it.
“She is but a transitor,” he protested, “whilst your neck guard is a prime.”
“A valid point,” she conceded. “Do you suppose that awarding your guard first choice of steed would adequately compensate for her relative lack of experience?”
“That would be eminently fair.”
As Caronas broke out of the circling formation and headed back towards the Edifice, there was something odd going on in Rhiannas’s mind… it was almost as if he was embarrassed or something.
At last he spoke across our mind link. “I take it you recognise the import of what was just said.”
“You just agreed to enter me in the upcoming ‘Neopyte Gates Race’ and, from Carodoc’s reaction, I could see you took on a serious wager. Have no fear, Master. I’ll do my best to win.”
“Of that I am certain,” he said, as he stretched out his wings and headed eastward once more into the steady rain. “For, should victory not be yours, I shall be obliged to combust you. I regret to inform you that I allowed myself to be provoked into gambling with your life.”
With his words, the rain seemed to turn to ice. The tumult of fear and anger that ought to be running through me was being blocked by the implanted node, leaving me feeling totally numb and empty.
“What about Carodoc?” I asked, remembering he’d been mentioned in the bet too.
“Therein lies the gratifying aspect to the whole!” Rhiannas replied. Of course he didn’t understand that Carodoc was my friend. I mean… he was a dragon… so he’d never really get the whole ‘friend’ idea. “For, should you triumph, you will enjoy the spectacle of that arrogant Caronas combusting her own tyro.”
I threw up my most solid shield as a familiar memory jumped into my mind: a tumbling body, wreathed in flames. But this time it wasn’t Megan’s face I saw writhing inside that inferno. It was Carodoc’s.
And the picture just wouldn’t leave my mind as we flew on into the lashing rain. Luckily Rhiannas didn’t notice because he was deep in thought, too.
“The end of the circle,” he said suddenly in the thoughtful, almost regretful tone that I now knew meant he was thinking about the girl called Rhian-Ceridwen.
“I’m sorry?” I said, jerking myself out of my own thoughts and putting my hand up to the torque around my neck.
Rhiannas gave himself a mental shake and this unfamiliar emotion swept over him… some sort of strange, alien regret or something. “Pray ignore that remark,” he told me. “I was considering events of the distant past and how they resonate with those of tonight”
After a couple more circuits, you could tell that the sun was up, even though it was still hidden by the cloud and heavy rain. Rhiannas broke from his patrol and headed back towards the island.
“You should consider which of Zalibar’s beasts you wish to ride in the race,” he said.
“That’s easy,” I answered. “I’ll take Liberty.”
“I am not familiar with that particular creature.”
“Until recently, he was a wild dragon and we only took his formal submission a couple of days ago. But his power and passion are much greater than anything else in the mews.”
“A perilous choice,” Rhiannas observed, “but, then again, there is no path open to you that is without its perils. I shall trust your judgement in this matter.”
He flew on until we were almost at the island.
“I am not obliged to maintain a position of neutrality in this contest as I was for the honour duel and shall, consequently, be able to provide support and guidance to assist you in securing victory.”
“That will be very welcome.”
I could tell that he was still thinking and then he added, “To allow you to concentrate exclusively on your preparations, you and your steed will lodge in the Rhian Lair until the day of the race.”
“Thank you, master,” I replied formally. “I’d like to avoid Carodoc as much as possible from now on.”
“That is sagacious,” Rhiannas observed. “For, whilst I would not expect Caronas to attempt anything underhand, it is judicious to avoid that risk.”
I gave a bit of a sigh but didn’t bother saying anything about him being a friend. There was just no point.
The rain was easing as we slid down out of the leaden sky into the quad. As ever, the pupils, who were just starting their morning training, scrambled aside. Rhiannas landed on the platform by the staircase. “Ho Zalibar!” he hailed.
I hopped down onto the staircase, guiding myself with my will, and Zalibar hurried to join us. “Greetings, Rhiannas,” he said with his usual bow.
“I have entered Rhianadoc in the forthcoming Neophyte Gates Race,” Rhiannas announced without any sort of preamble.
“Thank you for informing me,” Zalibar replied. He still seemed to be doing his impassive thing but, by now, I knew him well enough to know that was only happening on the surface.
“To this purpose, she, together with the beast Liberty, will lodge in my lair until the next quarter day.”
“Very good, sir!”
Rhiannas hesitated a moment and then took off again into the heavy sky, heading towards the Edifice.
Zalibar watched him for a moment then his forehead wrinkled, “Okay, the party’s over, he shouted down from the steps to the students. “Get back to work!”
They hurried to obey. I guess they could feel his anger too.
He turned to me and held my eye. “So what’s going on,” he asked.
“Rhiannas accepted a terminal bet from Caronas on the outcome of the race.”
Zalibar gave a deep sigh and raised his eyes to the heavens. ‘There’s more to that than meets the eye, I’ll wager,’ I heard him sub-vocalise as he made his way back down into the quad.
As I headed over to our dorm, he gave Olwen a nod and she hurried over to join me.
“What’s up?” she asked.
So I told her. I sort of wanted to cry but my implanted node had me in its grip and wouldn’t let me.
Olwen turned completely white and looked pretty much like I felt… shocked… appalled… horrified… She was pretty much silent as she showed me how to pack my stuff into a couple of travel bundles that I could sling over the neck of my dragon in front of me.
But when we were done, she turned round and hugged me fiercely. That made me feel a bit better. I sort of knew that she’d be doing the same to Carodoc and I guess that made me feel a bit better too.
As we made our way down the steps to the quad, we saw Caronas approaching with Carodoc perched on her shoulders. I went over to the well to grab a drink. Cookie must have picked up on what was going on because she appeared with a sandwich for me. She gave me a hug too before bustling on her way.
So I sat there at one of the benches while Caronas spoke to Zalibar. As I waited, I watched the other students going through their familiar training routines. It just felt wrong that they were all carrying on as normal when, in just twelve days’ time, I was going to be locked in a struggle to the death with my friend.
Before long, Caronas, too, had made her way back towards the Edifice leaving Carodoc standing by the landing platform. Ignoring the yawning, empty feeling in my tummy, I walked across the quad to join him.
He was surprised when he saw me coming. He was quiet for a bit then looked up to meet my eye. “You’re off?” he said.
“Yeah. I’m going to stay with Rhiannas until the race.” I noticed that Zalibar was hovering just behind us. He wanted to give us space but we all knew how disastrous it would be politically if anything happened. We stood in silence for a while. I mean… the whole thing was so horrible that we just didn’t know what to say.
“Listen,” Carodoc said at last, “I’m really sorry that it’s come to this. I hate what I’m going to have to do to you.”
I was stunned when I realised that he’d decided I was already dead. He, of all people. I mean… he knew how good I was… and he also knew that I was going to be getting help from a mysterious stranger.
I was about to let him know what I thought about this when I suddenly realised that his stupid, arrogant self-confidence might be all that was saving me at the moment. If he thought he was in danger, he might use what he knew about my mysterious helper to try to save his own life.
I didn’t know what to do so I muttered something about “a horrible situation,” then fixed my eyes on the ground until Zalibar decided that we’d had long enough. “If you two are finished,” he said to Carodoc, “get up to the dorm and stay there until Rhianadoc’s out of the way.”
We watched as Carodoc made his way across the quad and up to the dormitory. Then Zalibar turned to the mews. “I’ll go and get Liberty for you,” he said.
But the moment he was gone, Quaro-Deryn flashed across the quad to stand in front of me. He towered above me and was obviously trying to intimidate me physically… but it wasn’t quite as intimidating as it might have been because he still had bruises on his face from Zalibar’s beating.
“There won’t be many tears shed when I win the race and get you both flamed,” he said. “I’ll be on one of the House dragons, rather than these dilapidated nags so you’ve not got a chance.” He looked down on me with this scornful sort of a smirk thing.
Luckily I didn’t have to worry about what he thought so I could let out all my pent-up spite on him. “We all saw your little demonstration of virtuoso flying the other day,” I told him with a bit of a smile. “Didn’t you hear? I’ll be flying Liberty in the race. At least one of us is competent to handle a superior creature like that.”
He sort of reeled back as if I’d hit him and I could see the frustration and humiliation flash across his face as his hand twitched towards the practice sword he wore at his waist. I just held his eye and smiled
There was a collective intake of breath from the surrounding students and, without any obvious movement, a ring formed around the two of us.
“What on earth do you think you’re playing at, Amendraig?” Zalibar demanded as he emerged from the mews with Liberty. “You should have more sense than that. She’s been adopted as Rhiannas’s contender in the gates race. If you do something stupid, it could easily escalate into inter-House warfare. Go to your quarters and remain there until she’s well away from here. Move now!”
“And get out of it, you lot!” he yelled at the circle of students. “If you can’t think of anything to do, I’ll think of something for you!”
Then he turned back to me. “You get out of here too,” he said. “I’m not going to wish you luck, and I’ll not wish Carodoc luck either, but I certainly hope one of you returns ’cos I don’t know what I’ll do if I lose both of you through this stupidity.”
He looked on as I hopped up onto Liberty’s shoulders, secured my bundles and took off.