Epilogue (Or The Prologue to Book 2)
“Hail, Janenas!” I called as I guided Rhiandu down towards the Jane lair. “I would parlay.”
“Hail, Rhiannon,” Janenas responded. The elderly, bronze dragon stepped cautiously out onto his lair’s veranda. I could tell he didn’t want to fight but he was as prepared as he could be if I didn’t give him any choice. I mean… he had combat shields protecting his mind but he’d thrown them up in a hurry and they were pitifully inadequate.
“Alight in peace,” he said to me, formally. Psion swept down and landed on his veranda.
“I was informed of your intended visit,” he said. “What, pray, do you wish to discuss?”
“I intend to take your servant, Janedoc.”
“What could possibly possess you to do that?” he exploded… But it was more shock than anger.
“I can see strengths in him far beyond those you recognise.”
“But the boy is bound to me by a mind lock.”
“I am well aware of that. Indeed, it was so clumsily emplaced that it massively hampered his effective training. If the damage you caused when you inserted it had not been corrected, he would not have survived to be promoted to the status of transitor that he now enjoys.
I paused for a moment then added, “Not, of course, that I’d ever admit to having anything to do with the mind lock of somebody else’s servant.”
Janenas thought for a moment.
“Whilst he is all but worthless, he is, nonetheless, my final servant. Were you to take him from me, it would be beyond my powers to save the ancient Family of Jane. You put me in a position where I have no choice but to fight you.”
“I have been appraised as to your situation. Would it make your decision easier if I were to offer Jane the formal protection of the House of Rhian?”
Janenas thought about my offer for a moment. “Though I find it personally degrading to be forced to accept such vassalage, the advantages of such an arrangement for my Family are beyond question. It would provide a continuity and stability we have not enjoyed since the Year of Flame and Sword.”
“I can’t have made myself clear,” I said. “I am not looking for a vassal. I would like to join your Family to my House with bonds of mutual trust and understanding.”
“But I have nothing to offer in such an arrangement,” Janenas exploded, astonished at how generous the offer was.
“You have your name and your honour and, with my support, you will be able to restore your Family to its former prestige and beyond. But make no mistake.” My mind suddenly grasped his and, for a moment, I let him catch a glimpse of my ambition. “Though I do not demand Jane’s vassalage, I am placing my trust in your Family and, if you ever breach that trust without the customary quarter year notice of termination, I will personally destroy the Family of Jane as utterly as if it had been declared anathema.”
Janenas was quiet for a long time as he thought about what I’d just said.
“Were you to accept my offer, I may be able to provide you with a much more competent neck guard. This neck guard would ride without the encumbrance of an implanted node and be bound to us both by ties of personal loyalty.”
“Such a neck guard would, beyond doubt, greatly enhance the puissance of my Family, but I was not aware that Rhian possessed such resources.”
“The rider I have in mind goes by the name of ‘Jenko’.”
Shining sparkles flashed across the elderly dragon’s mind.
“You know, of course, that there is no realistic option open to me but to accept,” he replied once he had managed to sort himself out. “The brazen insolence of the offer, however, goes some way towards placating me. You will fly high, Young Lady.”
“I intend to do so, Sir, and, what is more, as you have chosen to accompany me on that flight, the Family of Jane will do the same.”
The students in the quad scurried aside as Rhiandu circled down out of the clear, blue, spring sky to land on the mounting platform.
“Hail, Zalibar!” I called as I hopped down from his shoulders.
“Good morning, My Lady,” he replied with a bow. “To what do I owe this pleasure?” He walked across with his usual arrogant swagger but I knew him too well to be fooled by that. The sturdy shields protecting his mind didn’t quite hide the unease washing around inside his head.
“A couple of things,” I replied as I walked down the steps to join him. “Firstly, I wish to thank you for the education you gave me here. Though it was, at times, not the most gentle, without it, I would not have survived to achieve what I have today.”
Slight flickers of relief leaked through his shields. “You put it to good use,” he answered gruffly. “After that duel, I’m going to have to rewrite a couple of the chapters of my manual.”
“You could get Geraint to help you,” I suggested.
“I could do that,” he smiled. “He already knows it better than I do myself.”
“Secondly,” I went on after a brief pause, “I’m going to take Liberty away from you. You know as well as I do that he’s never going to be of any use to you here. However, I’ll see to it you get a couple of solid nags as compensation.”
Zalibar didn’t look happy with this at first but, as he thought about my offer, I saw him relax. “Fair enough, I suppose. He’s a superb beast but you’re right. Since the Gates Race, he’s barely tolerated me riding him, let alone the clumsy dolts we have round here. A couple of steady nags will serve me much better.”
“And lastly, if we can sort out some final details, Jenko is going to be moving to the House of Rhian, though he’ll still be riding neck guard for Janenas. I’d like to send him back down here to finish off his education… as a nonda.”
Zalibar nodded his agreement.
“If you’re done, lass…” he began, but then he saw Rhiandu stir menacingly and caught my eye.
“Excuse me, ma’am. Old habits die hard.”
I said nothing but gave him a bit of a smile. For a moment, Zalibar looked embarrassed but then he regained his familiar poise. “May I give you some advice, My Lady?” he asked.
“I would be extremely foolish not to pay careful attention to any well-intentioned advice,” I answered cautiously.
“Be careful. Them as rise too far, too fast, can attract unwelcome attention. There are forces at work around the council that could see you as a threat. Things could get dangerous for you.”
“More dangerous than trying to survive as Rhiannas’s tyro?”
“Aye, I suppose you’ve a point there. Just don’t think you’re safe because you’re out of here,” he said, glancing around the quad.
I smiled. “Thank you for that. I’ll bear it in mind.
I started to walk back up the stairs but suddenly turned round and looked at my teacher. “Did you know?” I asked.
“I certainly didn’t know,” he answered promptly, “or I’d have been obliged to inform your master.” He nodded to Rhiandu. “But let’s say, I was less surprised than some others when I found out who your mother was.”
He paused for a moment then added, “And yes, she was the other person who wounded me with a rapier!”
I hopped back up onto my dragon’s shoulders but then I paused. “By the way,” I added, as an afterthought, “you’ll have to satisfy one condition before the nags are delivered.”
I sensed him stiffening. “And what might that be?” he growled.
“You have to get the scullery roof fixed,” I told him with a smile. “You could even see to the steps up to the tyro dorm at the same time.”
As I took off, I could hear Zalibar’s course tones ordering the students back to practice but, by now, I knew him well enough to spot the laughter bubbling just below the surface.
“Good afternoon, Markeshnon!” I called as I cruised down toward the Markesh veranda.
“Enter my lair in peace and friendship,” the middle-aged lady responded warmly. She led us to the back of the lair where a young green dragon was stretched out - young but bigger than any horse. Markeshnon moved to sit on him and started casually massaging his first vertebrae. As the creature stretched into her stroking, I couldn’t shift the image of an overgrown pussycat from my mind.
“To what do I owe this pleasure?” Markeshnon asked.
“I have a favour to ask.”
“Please name it? I’ll do my best to oblige.”
“I’d like to borrow Markesh-Dwynwen, please, just until I get myself sorted out.”
“Of course you may.”
She thought about my request for a moment. “Indeed, we have something of a tradition that friendly Families and Houses mark the transfer of leadership with a gift. Would you care to take her permanently? Though, of course, we would miss her terribly, she has trained her successor well. I see she will be of yet greater value to you.”
“Thank you,” I said simply. “That is much more than I could have hoped for.”
“One further thing,” Markeshnon added after a moment’s thought. “On occasion, good Dee will proffer unsolicited advice or warning. When she does, pay careful heed to her words for I have never known her prophecies to go awry.
I nodded thoughtfully as I returned to the veranda, remembering what Dee had said… her warning… or was it a prophecy… just before the start of the gates race.
“Clang!” Rhiandu, who was perched at the back of the dais, flicked the House gong with his tail.
“Janedoc, Markesh-Dwynwen, and Liberty are summoned to attend the lady Rhiannon,” Psion announced. He was perched in his most erect pose, near the front of the dais and, for once, he wasn’t even preening himself.
I tried to settle myself more comfortably into the elaborately carved stone chair… well… more of a throne, really. In the two hours that Dee had been back in the Rhian lair, she’d had it brought out of the storeroom, polished and set on the dais. I had no idea how she’d managed to shift it - the thing must weigh a ton - she’d probably bullied Rhiandu into moving it with mind power.
At least she’d managed to find a couple of cushions. The thing looked really impressive but it wasn’t exactly comfortable.’
“Janedoc, Markesh-Dwynwen, and Liberty will approach the dais,” Psion announced.
The little dragon had made it clear that we needed to have a proper ‘induction ceremony’. I shuffled uncomfortably inside the ridiculously ornate formal robes that Dee had insisted I wear. I’d no idea where she’d found them - they were probably some of Rhian-Ceridwen’s old things or something.’
Dee gave me a bit of a look as she approached and I just knew she wasn’t happy about the way I was fidgeting. I mean… in a way, it was a bit funny to be being told off by someone who was not even a member of my House yet, but I guess it was quite comforting too! Another servant who’d tell me what she really thought and not just what she thought I wanted to hear.
The lair fell silent. All eyes were on me.
“I have summoned you to formally take your oath of service to the House of Rhian,” I began clearly and without hesitation, “but, before I do, I would like each of you to make a decision.”
The faintest hints of surprise came from the minds of Psion and Rhiandu, but I shut them both up with a mental nudge.
“Jenko, Dee and Liberty, I am inviting you to accept significant positions within the House of Rhian. But I’m not going to take anyone into my House who does not join me willingly.”
I paused for a bit to let this sink in.
“If you wish, you may leave the lair now. You’ll go with my blessing and my thanks for what you have done for me so far. We’ll be happy to help if you want to leave the island.”
This was met by a bit of a stunned silence.
But at last Dee spoke. “It’s a kind enough offer, and all,” she said gruffly, “but I can’t imagine anywhere else I’d like to go.”
“Then I take it you wish to remain and take the oath.”
“I certainly do,” she answered.
“I’m delighted to hear it,” I said with a smile.
“And you, Jenko?” I said, turning to him. “Psion has now removed your implanted node and the artificial ties of loyalty that bound you to me though, if I know our mutual gluttonous friend, he may just have ‘forgotten’ to remove the impulse to feed him regularly.”
“That’s an outrageous suggestion,” Psion protested.
“I note you describe it as outrageous rather than untrue!” I replied. The complicated little dragon knew that I like to catch him out and so, I was starting to suspect, from time to time, he was deliberately giving me the chance to do so.
“Let it remain,” Jenko said with a laugh. “If that’s the price to pay for having him save my life then I’m happy to pay it!”
I smiled briefly then my face turned serious once more. “So, will you accept the offer to leave this place with my thanks and good wishes?”
“I wouldn’t know where to go either,” he answered, “but I do have one thing to ask.”
“What might that be?”
“I’d like people to stop using my old name. Jenko is a hopeless, stumbling boy. If I am to be fit to serve the House of Rhian, I need to be more than that.”
I thought for a bit then asked, “How does the name Rhian-Jestyn sound?”
The newly named Rhian-Jestyn froze. To simply be a servant in one of the Great Houses had been as much as he’d dreamt of. Now I was inviting him to become a member of my House. He stared at me with his mouth wide open until Psion gave him a friendly mental nudge.
“Thank you…” he managed to reply. “Thank you, cousin. There is no name in the world that I would rather bear.”
“Then, cousin, from today, that is your name,” I told him with a smile.
“And you, Liberty,” I said, turning to the sleek, black dragon. “What will you choose? Though I made the offer to all three of you, you were the only one that I ever thought might take me up on it. I know you quite well and, though you cannot speak, I know that you understand that you are now free to leave if you wish.”
“Mayhap you know me not as well as you presume, My Lady,” the black dragon responded in a low, sonorous tone. “I am perfectly capable of speech however, hitherto, nothing has been said to me that I deemed worthy of a response. The situation now presents itself otherwise.”
I stared at the black dragon, wide mouthed with shock, whilst, to my right, bubbles and sparkles danced through Psion’s cloud.
“It was proper to consider the contingency that I refuse,” Liberty continued, “for, of the three of us, I, alone, have known the true taste of freedom and, for that reason, its removal aggrieved me beyond reason.
“But your offer eliminates, at a stroke, the fountainhead of my grievance. No longer is this simply the imposition of a more sophisticated and onerous form of servitude. Rather, you are freely offering me a place in one of the Great Houses, with all associated duties and privileges.”
He paused for a moment.
“As you offered me license to refuse, I choose to accept.”
“I thank you, Liberty in the name of the House of Rhian,” I answered him formally.
Then I rose to my feet.
“The three of you shall step into the House Hall,” I announced. “There, I shall take your oaths.”