Chapter Thirty Six - Markesh-Dwynwen
Much too soon, Dee was shaking me awake again. “Come on, love,” she was saying. “You’ve got to get going. There’s porridge with fruit and a cup of tea here for you. Old Rhiannas is wanting to take you out flying and it doesn’t do to keep his sort waiting.”
“What time is it?” I mumbled.
“It’s four o’clock in the afternoon,” Dee answered. “You’ve slept for five hours.”
I was still knackered but it wasn’t the same brain numbing exhaustion it had been when I’d arrived. I picked up a spoon, but then looked up to Dee. “If you don’t mind me asking,” I said, “who are you?”
“You eat, I’ll talk,” she told me.
So I set to work on the porridge.
“Like I said, my name’s Markesh-Dwynwen, but everybody calls me Dee. I’m a retainer of the Family of Markesh and have been since the current Markeshnon was a lass. Markesh is a vassal of the House of Rhian and, as Rhiannas is not too hot with servants…”
“He looked too hot for one! I saw the bones!”
“Keep eating. Yes, you’ve got to get used to that sort of thing if you’re around dragons for any length of time. Anyroad, Rhiannas can’t really manage servants of his own so he asked Markeshnon to send someone up to look after you.
“Now, if you’re done, go and get yourself dressed. There’s clean clothes for you in the bathroom.”
After throwing on the clothes, I hurried out into the main bit of the lair where I found Rhiannas relaxing on his dais. When he saw me, he told me to collect Liberty.
The sleek, black dragon had been fed and looked surprisingly fit after our morning’s exhausting session. I locked him, brought him out onto the veranda and buckled on my spurs.
“You chose to take him through a vigorous ride this morning,” Rhiannas said
“Yes, sir. I wanted to make as much use of today as possible. I hoped that, if we did some hard work this morning, you would be able to concentrate on technique this afternoon.”
“That in spite of your evident fatigue,” he said as he made his way down the chamber in long, wing assisted hops. “The due import you are applying to the upcoming challenge inspires optimism.”
“I have no intention of failing, sir,” I said, carefully shielding my thoughts as I made Liberty bow down to let me mount. He probably didn’t want to know what I thought about the whole ‘due import’ thing.
“Admirable! Then, to business! We fly.” Rhiannas stepped casually off the veranda and, as ever, held his wings closed for a moment to build up speed before scooping in the air and pulling up towards the mouth of the Edifice in graceful circles. Liberty and I followed. He let us pull ahead of him so he could study us in flight.
“He is a powerful and enthusiastic beast, though young, yet, and unschooled,” Rhiannas observed dryly after a few moments. “Your choice is sound.”
He continued his inspection as we flew out of the Edifice and began to fly in long circles around the mouth. “The beast has a tendency to clip the end of one wing stroke in his zeal to attack the next,” Rhiannas observed after a while.
“He also has a tendency to hang with his wings in the advanced state prior to catching the air,” he added after more inspection. “Not only is this inelegant and wasteful, but it also contributes to his somewhat erratic balance.”
Liberty must have heard. I mean… he didn’t much like being criticised but I could tell he was trying to sort the things out!
After watching for a bit longer, Rhiannas flew back to join us. “You must remain ever vigilant against those defects,” he warned me, “for they will doubtless re-emerge at times of heightened endeavour.”
I guess that made sense.
“I understand that you and the beast are capable of performing a sheer climb,” he said. “I would observe.”
“I’d be happy to show you,” I answered, “but I’d rather not let the competitors know what we can do. Wouldn’t it be better to practice them away from the Edifice?”
He studied me for a moment - inside my head as well as out. “You show guile beyond your years, young tyro. I grow ever more confident that my decision to race you will afford the most advantageous outcome.”
I couldn’t think of a single thing to say which wouldn’t get me reduced to a pile of smoking bones so I decided to keep quiet instead.
“Daylight grows short,” he told me. “Let us return to the Rhian flute. There you may practice your transitions.”
As we approached the peak of the mountain, I looked down on the main Edifice mouth. I mean… I more or less knew the layout from the peak runs but it was a whole new thing to be studying it from above like this. The main opening was so enormous that it was tricky to keep a sense of scale but I knew that even the narrowest of the cobweb-like struts down there was plenty wide enough for me to run along.
With a casual mental nudge, Rhiannas got my mind back on business and steered me towards the Rhian flute. As we circled round its mouth, he pointed out the ‘slashed sunrise’ markings on its lip and reminded me that I’d have to learn the insignia of the other Houses and the order that I had to fly the flutes and gates in.
“Will I get the chance to practice on the other flutes before the race?” I asked.
“By convention, in the week leading up to the race, the Houses grant competitors leave to access their flutes, and indeed gates, to hone their transitions.”
“That’s a relief. I’ve heard Dai is really tricky.”
“That flute does, unquestionably, present unique challenges,” he said as he lined himself up on his flute. “It does, however, provide singular opportunities to achieve a decisive advantage at the end of a closely contested race.”
I had to smile. I’d heard that somewhere before!
“Entry transitions are relatively straightforward,” he told me as he flashed into the mouth of the flute, “as the wings are partially folded during their execution. By contrast, exit transitions require fully extended wings.”
Once he was through the flute, he circled round through the mouth of the Edifice to rejoin me. Then he told me to repeat his manœuvre.
I cautiously took Liberty down towards the flute, following, as closely as I could, the line that Rhiannas had taken. I was appalled. It was a narrow tunnel, about fifty yards long, and there was barely room for Liberty to spread his wings. There was also a slight spiral and, towards the end, the stone was tearing past alarmingly close to my head.
But Rhiannas wasn’t at all happy with my first attempt. I was going much too slowly and cautiously and I guess it was obvious that I was nothing like ready for the race. “Consider that speed shed at the flute will not be regained in the subsequent descent,” he warned me. “The loss will continue to hamper you until you reach the Henge.”
After about six more tries, Rhiannas was getting dangerously angry. “Has Zalibar taught you nothing of flute transitions?” he roared at me, as I narrowly avoided damaging Liberty’s wing on a wall.
“I’m still only a transitor, sir,” I explained in a soothing tone, with my hand rising automatically up to the torque at my neck. “Zalibar won’t let anyone but primes do that sort of close quarter work with his nags.”
“That is true,” Rhiannas replied, calming down a bit. “I had overlooked the fact that you had not yet been promoted to prime.”
“Maybe it would be best for you to take me through a few times to show me how to do it properly,” I suggested. “I’m sure that would help.”
“Your proposal is not without merit, young tyro,” he answered. “However daylight fails.”
“Then why don’t you let me practice on my own for a bit now?” I suggested. “I could fly with you again tomorrow.”
He agreed and, after instructing me to be ready for him at noon the next day, he casually dropped through the flute and returned to his lair.
Without Rhiannas hovering over me, I began to relax and even started to enjoy the transitions. “Come on, work with me here,” I said to Liberty. “You’re much better than me at this sort of thing.” He didn’t give any sign that he’d heard, but he started to give me a bit of help with a lazy flick of the tail or twitch of a wing.
After we’d done another dozen transitions, it was getting pretty dark and I was basically having to rely on Liberty’s excellent night vision to steer us through… and by now he was getting tired. “Last time,” I told him encouragingly as I took him up, a little way above the flute.
But, in the gloom, I must have got the height all wrong because, diving down, we hit the entrance much faster than ever before. My eyes flashed shut and Liberty was basically so startled that his self-preservation instincts took over. He just sailed through the flute… much more cleanly than we’d ever managed with my clumsy efforts… and without losing any speed. I let out a little ‘whoop’ as we burst out into the Edifice and sort of pummelled the back of his neck with my fists… and I could tell he liked it.
“You can do it after all,” I teased Liberty. “I’ll be expecting that every time from now on.”
I carried our speed as we glided down towards the Rhian lair, dropping way below the veranda then using the climb back up to shed speed, the way Rhiannas did. As we stepped onto the lip, I realised that he was watching us.
“You begin to truly relish flight,” he observed. “That bodes well for the race.” He sounded cool and condescending, as usual, but I could tell he was pleased. “I must away to attend to my patrol duties. Markesh-Dwynwen will see to your comfort.”
“I didn’t thank you for getting her to make things so nice for me,” I said.
“It is of no import,” he replied. “Your time between now and the race is too significant to be squandered in the drudgery of household chores.”
“I’ll make the best use of it I can,” I replied.
“There are books in the library that you should study in preparation for the race,” he told me. “Markesh-Dwynwen has the necessary information.”
With that, he stepped off the ledge and disappeared into the blackness of the night Edifice.
I wearily climbed down off Liberty. “Come on, big boy,” I said as I took him across the dark lair into the mews. As I turned away, I sensed a buzz of contentment as he coiled into his bedding at the back of the stall.
I staggered out into the main lair and was pleased when a door opened in the far wall, over on the human side. The light and warmth spilling from the room looked wonderfully inviting. “Come on, love,” Dee called. “The kettle’s on and there’s sandwiches and cake.”
“Cake!” I replied. “I haven’t eaten this well since I came to the island.”
“It shows,” Dee said, looking me up and down as I approached. “You’re nowt but skin and bones!”
I walked through the doorway into the room beyond. It was an old-fashioned kitchen with a fire in the range and food on the table.
“Go and sit yourself down, love,” Dee told me, guiding me towards a rocking chair then taking a steaming kettle off the range. “Just dump my embroidery on the table.”
I sank back and allowed myself to be swallowed up by the warmth and the comfort… and the cake.
“Where did you find the mattress and things for my room?” I asked as I stretched my feet out towards the fire.”
“There’s rooms full of furniture and so on back there,” Dee answered, nodding towards one of the doors in the back wall of the kitchen. “Rhian used to be a big House with twenty odd servants and half a dozen dragons.”
“Old Rhiannas has never been very good with servants and the numbers have been dropping ever since he took over.”
“How come he ended up in charge?”
Dee sighed and took a sip of her tea. “The old Head of House and his wife were killed at the start of the Year of Flame and Sword,” she explained. “Their son, Rhiannonda, had taken over but soon Rhiandu, as he was then, decided that the lad was not up to the job and that the future of the House was in danger.”
“So he flamed him. He saw the chance and grabbed it.”
“To be honest, I don’t think that was what he had in mind. Though he’s powerful enough, he knows he really doesn’t have the subtlety for the politics of running a major house. My guess is that he was expecting the younger sister, Rhian-Ceridwen, to take over. He always had a soft spot for her. When she didn’t like the idea, he lost his temper and flamed her too.”
Without thinking, my hand slipped up to the torque at my neck. “Hello,” I said, sort of half to myself. “I’ve just flamed your brother. You’re boss now.”
“There’s many as would have jumped at the chance.”
I settled back into the rocking chair and tried to get my head round what I’d just learnt. I mean… I could sort of see that it was important… and might even help me to understand the funny way that Rhiannas treated me sometimes.
But I must have nodded off. I was startled back awake by Dee’s voice. “You must be shattered, love,” she said. “You should get yourself off to bed,”
I gave a sigh and realised that I was way too tired to think about the vicious world of Edifice politics right now.
“I am tired,” I agreed, “but Rhiannas said something about some books I need to look at.”
“Mature dragons can go for weeks without sleep,” she told me sharply. “You can’t.”
“But he’ll still be expecting me to have had a look at them before I see him tomorrow. Where are they, please?”
“They’re in the library, up in the Family Apartments,” Dee answered. “I’ll tell you what… I’ll take you up there now and show you where they are… but then you get yourself straight off to bed. Let’s face it, you’re just going to fall asleep anyway if you try and read now!”
“Fair enough, I suppose,” I said with a bit of a yawn.
Dee took me through a door in the back wall of the kitchen and led me through a maze of corridors and staircases. Then she opened an inconspicuous door and we stepped out into the main stairwell in the Family Apartments… I don’t suppose I should have been all that surprised that there was a set of back-stairs for the servants.
The library was on the floor above the House Hall. This room, too, had the wonderful, inlaid wooden panelling. and, even though the ceiling wasn’t quite as high, the room was just as grand. The whole back wall was one big bookshelf which looked a bit menacing in the lantern’s dancing shadows and it took me a little while to work out that all the book covers were plain… not colourful like ordinary books.
But my eye was caught by the four grand windows to my left which stretched from floor to ceiling. They’d have given a wonderful view out over the lair if it’d been light. In front of each one was a heavy wooden desk.
Dee took me over to the first one where there were already half a dozen books laid out.
“He told me which ones you’d be needin’,” Dee explained when I gave her a puzzled look. “So I got ’em out for you.”
“But how does he know what’s in here?” I asked.
“I’d wager he’s read every one of them books and, once a dragon like him’s learnt summat, he’ll never forget it. For his sort, knowledge is power.”
I started to look at the books. ‘Architectural Artifacts of the Edify’ seemed fairly dull, though, when I flicked through, I could see there were quite a few diagrams that might come in handy, including plans showing the layout of the flutes and gates. At first glance, ‘Gates Races: the Highs and Lows,’ didn’t seem to be much more than lists of the results of the races over about a hundred years including, I noticed, a worrying number of competitors marked with the footnote ‘rc’ which meant ‘rider combusted’.
I was just about to reach for the next book when I was startled by Dee clearing her throat behind me. “Come on you, bed,” she said, “or you’ll be good for nothing tomorrow!”
Ad I couldn’t really argue with that!