Chapter 1: A Job Offer
Self-love is the most unselfish love of all. That way, no one else has to deal with a bastard like you. – The Chronicles of Rukus Shadowfoot
Corbin often considered how important blood was to life—especially his life.
His blood trickled down the drain in the floor as the jailer threw the bucket of water over his head. A tiny maelstrom of blood and water twisted down beneath him as he kneeled on the floor, coughing and dry-heaving. He wondered if it was a metaphor for his future.
“Get the hell up, Corbin,” Uncle Gage repeated.
“I was just enjoying my shower, uncle,” Corbin said. He wrung out his long, dark hair. The dirt and oil that flowed off of his locks joined the blood and vomit being washed away as the unsympathetic jailer threw a third bucket of ice-cold water over his naked neck and back. “Ah, that’s the spot!” He shivered from the frigid bombardment.
Gage pulled the cell door open and yanked Corbin’s slim form upright. Corbin weaved back and forth with a sarcastic grin on his face. Gage looked down into his bloodshot, devilish blue eyes. Corbin returned his uncle’s stare without alarm, despite the fingers digging into his biceps like talons. The craggy, gray-mustachioed man looked down at Corbin with a mixture of pity and disgust. The smell coming off the bedraggled form didn’t help his disposition.
“Hey unc.” He giggled. “Did you come to visit or bail me out?”
“Neither,” Gage replied.
A touch of genuine curiosity penetrated his whiskey-fogged brain.
“I came to offer you a job.”
Corbin raised an eyebrow. “I know I was the one drinking last night, so I guess it’s affecting my hearing instead of your speech.”
“You heard me right, Corbin.”
Corbin pursed his lips in curiosity and blew out a whiskey-scented breath. Gage recoiled.
“It’s a government job.”
“I hope it’s Minister of Alcohol, or I’m probably unqualified.” He snickered.
“Not quite.” He dragged Corbin out of the jail, handing a fistful of coins to the exchequer. Corbin shivered in the mountain breeze as they exited to the walkway circling around the jail. It was a magnificent view of the mountainside and mist-covered valley below. A triad of dragons sailed hundreds of feet lower in tight formation. The trailing wingmen gave contemptuous flicks of their tails as they banked. Corbin didn’t know if they saw him above, but the gesture effectively conveyed the opinion of the dragonriders towards him.
“It’s cold,” Corbin said.
“You’re not wearing a shirt and you’re soaking wet.”
Corbin looked around. “Where’s my shirt?”
“You didn’t have one when they dragged you in. No coat, shirt or shoes.”
Corbin looked at his feet. His pink, wet feet stood on the stone walkway. “Huh. Look at that.” He giggled.
Gage sighed and noticed the tiny droplets of blood that made a trail from his feet to the door of the jail.
“You’re leaving a trail of blood, Corbin. You didn’t . . .?”
“No uncle, I didn’t call anything up,” he said. “I don’t do that for bar brawls, especially when I’m too drunk to remember the names.”
“Well, thank the six winds for that. It would make it tougher to get you confirmed.”
“Confirmed?” Corbin leaned against the railing. The icy breeze cut into his flesh but it smelled better than the jail cell. A few fur-covered passersby gave the bare-chested young man odd looks. Corbin’s brain slowly reactivated as the dregs of alcohol drained out of it. The pain that would replace it hadn’t materialized yet.
“For your new job.” Gage knew better than to offer a coat to Corbin in his present state.
Corbin looked over his shoulder at Gage with growing suspicion. “What job?”
“A government job.”
“More specifics, unc.”
Gage leaned against the railing next to Corbin and looked out at the flight of hunting dragons. A cloud of his frozen breath mingled with his nephew’s.
“You know that I love you, don’t you boy?” Gage asked.
Corbin was taken aback by the change of tone in his uncle’s voice.
“Yes . . . what is this?”
“I love you more than my pit-spined brother ever did. You know that, don’t you?”
“Uncle?” A spike of real fear stabbed through his inebriation for the first time.
“I even love that misbegotten rock lizard of yours, no matter what he’s cost me.” Gage sighed.
Corbin felt his throat tighten.
Gage turned to look at him with steel in his blue-gray eyes. Corbin knew that look. It wasn’t one that he saw often, but when he did, it signaled dire consequences.
“But boy, you’ve played out your last length of rope. For the last six months I’ve bailed you out a dozen times. The council has done its best to look the other way, but I’ve been told in no uncertain terms that if it happens again, they’ll consider sanctions against the whole family.”
“Uncle . . .”
Corbin’s mouth snapped shut.
“I won’t bring our whole family down for you. I won’t. Do you understand me?”
Corbin nodded numbly.
Gage’s expression softened. “Don’t think I don’t know what you’ve been through here, boy. I know better than anyone. You’ve got more reasons than most to act like you have, but this can’t continue. Between you and Blood, every aerie in twelve mountains has heard about you—and not in a good way.”
Corbin looked down the mist-covered spire at the aeries and dwellings covering the mountainside. The frigid air crept into his heart.
“So I’ve done something about it. I got you a job. Somewhere else,” Gage said.
Corbin’s bare shoulders flinched. He looked into his uncle’s eyes.
“I’m being banished?”
“No!” Gage held Corbin’s shoulder in a reassuring grip. “Netherwind, no! I got you a job.”
“Why does it feel like I’m being banished?”
“Because the job isn’t in the confederacy. It’s in Sunal.”
“Wh-what is it?”
Gage let a smile curl across his lips. “An ambassadorship.”
“An ambassadorship?!” Corbin stood straight up. A passing alchemist nearly dropped a package in reaction. “You’re kidding!”
“I’m not. Technically you’ll be an assistant ambassador.”
“This is . . . you’re crazy.”
“No I’m not.” Gage’s expression hardened again. “It cost me a great deal to arrange this for you, but the alternatives were twofold. Either you took a merchant job in the foothills . . .”
Corbin stuck his tongue out in disgust.
“Or you’re banished—for real.”
Corbin’s tongue retracted. His eyes widened at the admission. He wanted to throw a flippant remark back, but the idea of banishment wasn’t a joke. He wouldn’t admit that the thought terrified him. He shivered again. Gage took off his coat and put it around him. It was a measure of Corbin’s unease that he didn’t even complain. Gage led him across the walkway and towards the yawning span of prismsteel that connected one mountain with another. It was covered, so the worst of the mountain winds were deflected. The long walk and yawning depths beneath him cleared up Corbin’s wits enough that he had more questions when they reached the next mountain.
“What do I know about being an ambassador?” Corbin asked.
Gage shrugged. “Nothing. You’ll learn. Plus, you speak Asuna like a native and you’re a decent scribe. The rest you can learn as you go. The senior ambassador in Sunal is an old friend of mine and he’s willing to show you the ropes. You can take over when he retires in a few years.”
“Uncle, I’ve never even set foot in Sunal!”
“It’s a good chance to expand your horizons.”
“What about Blood?” Defiance filled his eyes. “I won’t leave him here! I won’t!”
“Not a problem. We have a treaty with Sunal that allows diplomatic envoys to bring dragons. Mind you, no ambassador has ever brought a dragon since we started sending diplomats, but it’s written in the treaty.” Gage smiled. “Do you think I’d separate you two? Do you think I’d even try? I’d sooner try to pull down The Firemount with my teeth.”
“He can come?”
“Yes. How did you think you were getting there? Did you want to walk?”
A faint smile started on Corbin’s face. “All right. What do I have to do?”
“Right now all you have to do is clean up, sober up and put on something decent so that the Chief Ambassador can make sure you won’t get us in a war. If you can do that, you leave for Sunal by the end of the week.”
They reached the front doors of the Ilimas Spire. It had been Corbin’s home for the last twenty-one years. Within a week, it wouldn’t be. For a brief moment, terror welled up inside him. Then the same strength that sustained him in some of his darkest hours returned and he gave his uncle a wicked smile.
“So have you rented out my room yet?”
“We’re off to Sunal?” Blood’s telepathic question echoed in Corbin’s skull.
“Looks like.” Corbin sat down on his bench in the Ilimas aerie and leaned against the stained stone wall. Blood’s form towered above him even in a supine pose. His tail and wings curled around his serpentine body like a tarpaulin. Blood’s talons scratched the stone floor, adding slightly to the scratches already covering it. Dragons had to use stone to keep their claws sharp, since prismsteel was too hard. Blood was average in size for an adult dragon, measuring nearly a hundred paces from his snout to the tip of his tail. His wingspan was twice that. Unlike the other dragons, Blood’s scales weren’t the common shades of steel gray, cerulean blue or aquamarine. His coloration ranged from bright red to the dark crimson of blood in the larger scales. The color—and his heritage—were what had inspired his human name. His draconic name was nearly unpronounceable by humans.
Blood’s head lowered down to nuzzle Corbin’s leg. The dinner-plate-sized golden eye looked at him with its feline iris. Corbin scratched under his chin.
“Know anything about Sunal?”
“They like music.”
“That’s a plus, I suppose.”
“Their women are blonde and like to dance,” Corbin added.
“How about something you’d learn outside a bar.”
“Err . . . they like dairy products. And they’re northwest of us.”
“I’m truly stunned by your knowledge.”
“All right, what do you know about Sunal, smart-ass?”
Blood mentally cleared his throat. “It’s the former capitol of the Chulk Empire, although they cut ties with them before the Chasm War. Ostensibly a monarchy, they actually practice something closer to a Parliamentary system. Primary exports are grain, fish, craft goods such as instruments and songglass, plus a . . .”
As Blood continued, Corbin’s eyes narrowed and he glanced over to the corner of Blood’s aerie. A pile of books was partially concealed behind the grooming desk. Corbin walked over and moved the desk. Several history and geography books fell out. One was open to a map of Sunal. Blood stopped the rehearsed spiel as Corbin picked it up and showed it to the dragon.
“Very nice summary. Have you been studying all morning?”
“Yes. It’s hard to read the human-sized books, you know.”
“So unc already told you?”
“He told me last night when you went off on your bender. I’ve been studying up on it ever since.” He held a single talon under his jaw in a thoughtful pose. “If you’re an ambassador, what does that make me?”
“A pain in the ass,” Corbin said as he flipped through a book on Sunal.
Blood ignored him. “Maybe I’m the official draconic ambassador. I can represent the whole race.”
“That’d sure piss them off.”
“Undoubtedly. Rather satisfying, though.”
Corbin smiled. “It is, isn’t it? Why are you so sure that I’ll take the job?”
Blood raised a scaly eyebrow. “You’d rather be banished?”
“Not at all. I could be an alchemical merchant.”
The sound of telepathic laughter from a dragon is difficult to convey to anyone who’s never experienced it. It’s been described as the feeling of sparkling wine poured down the interior of your spine.
“You find that amusing?” Corbin fluttered his eyelashes.
“You couldn’t sell water in the desert. You might work as a wine merchant, but you’d end up drinking half their stock.”
“How droll.” Corbin pulled the riding harness around Blood’s back and neck. It was an old routine for them and neither had to waste much concentration on the activity. Corbin knew exactly how tight to fasten the buckles to make it secure without hurting his childhood friend. The scales where the straps lay were worn and dull from repeated flights.
“Kind of early for flying, isn’t it?”
Corbin nodded. It was actually an ideal time for flying, but the two rarely flew before noon. It was a way of avoiding their fellow dragonriders. Neither consciously admitted that, but both understood the tactic. If Corbin wasn’t a popular figure with his fellow humans, Blood was loathed even more by his dragon kindred. They didn’t walk away from fights, but neither did they go out of their way to pick them . . . at least in recent years.
Blood glanced out the prismsteel window at several hunting triads.
“Don’t you want to say some goodbyes before we leave?” Corbin grinned.
A second telepathic laugh trickled down Corbin’s spine as understanding hit Blood.
No matter what practiced cynicism Corbin displayed, he never lost his joy of flying on the back of his best friend. They dove out of the spire and plummeted down the side of the mountain in a death-dive. The g-forces that hit Corbin as they hit the updraft nearly compacted his spine into his pants. Once he could breathe, he smiled and let out a sigh of contentment. Tears formed at the edges of his eyes as the cold air stung his face. Despite scarves and goggles, it was brutally cold in the upper edges of the mountain range. The alchemically-fueled clothing radiated heat to prevent frostbite or exposure, but even it couldn’t keep a rider toasty warm at such altitudes. Corbin considered the chills a small price to pay for the experience.
“Nice dive. Were you hoping to hit the trees?” Corbin asked.
“Quiet. The snow fell off from the wind.”
“You sticking with that story?”
“If you don’t like it, you can walk home.”
“Like you could find your way back without me.” Corbin held tightly to the harness as the updraft drove them up with brutal strength. It felt like riding rapids that went straight up.
“I’ll follow the whiskey smell.”
They leveled out and coasted along the mountain range. Far below was a hunting triad patrolling along a mountain pass. Corbin pointed down.
“Is that who I think it is?” Corbin asked.
Blood squinted down. Dragon’s vision was far more acute than humans’.
“The gods are kind.” Corbin snickered. “Are you ready for a farewell gift?”
“We’ll probably regret it.”
“We can regret it in Sunal,” Corbin said. “Now let’s give him a surprise . . .”
“You can’t pull up a full-sized elk in that terrain without crashing, Jaxon,” Dallon yelled at him above the blast of wind. “Wait until we flush it out.”
“Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do!” Jaxon yelled back. He was extremely muscular and good-looking, but his midsection tended towards a pot belly, which wasn’t helped by a fondness for pies. His sky-blue dragon mount was modestly named Godstorm and was even more arrogant than his rider—no small feat.
“Do you want to get impaled on a tree, Jax?” Dallon asked. The third member of the triad was Ulger, who rarely spoke except to snicker. Both rode steel-gray dragons.
“I won’t!” Jaxon said in a whiny tone. The more frustrated he got in an endeavor, the more childish his voice became.
“Suit yourself, I think—!” Dallon started to say as a blood-red form flew between the two of them with a vortex of wind that threw all three dragons into uncontrolled spins. Screams of fear and outrage came out of their throats, but all of them were experienced fliers, and soon regained control.
“Who the hell did that?!” Jaxon screamed as they looked up into the sun.
“It’s the Skurga-spawn!” Dallon yelled back.
“Corbin!” Jaxon bellowed. “You’re dead! Dead!”
The three dragons wheeled around and started pursuit. Their wings flapped furiously to gain altitude.
“They’re following,” Corbin said as he looked behind them.
“Naturally,” Blood said. “Now what?”
“Now I give them a surprise,” Corbin pulled a tiny knife out of his sleeve. It was an heirloom from his birth mother and one of the few things she ever gave him . . . aside from his unique heritage and the label of bastard.
“Your uncle will be pissed if you kill or injure them. It’ll wreck the ambassadorship.”
“Who said anything about killing or injuring?” Corbin pulled up his sleeve to show his scarred and tattooed forearm. The knife was worn and old, but still had a wicked edge as it cut into his skin. Droplets of blood welled up and he shook his arm to scatter them in their wake. As he did, he intoned ancient Skuranese names that echoed in his mind. The cold air sizzled from the heat of the blood that incandesced in the morning light. The droplets of blood glowed, twisted and reformed into a swarm of golden luminescent insects that headed straight towards the rising trio of dragons.
“So what are you doing?”
“Don’t you remember the tiika bugs?”
“Oh. Ohhhhh!” Effervescent telepathic laughter slid down his spine. “You’re a cruel man.”
“What the Pit is that?” Jaxon said just before the swarm engulfed them. The glowing insects were the size of small bees and very aggressive. The three slapped at the pests in a panic. The stings were painful, but less than hornet stings. Within moments, they outflew the swarm and continued the pursuit.
“Is that the best you can do, Skurga-spawn?” Jaxon laughed and shook his fist. The stings merely redoubled his rage. Dallon was slightly worried that Jaxon might take the vengeance too far, as he’d done in the past. The authorities would turn a blind eye to beatings and torment, but murder . . .? Dallon hoped he could defuse it before anything fatal happened.
A painful twinge went through Dallon’s stomach, along with a loud sound of digestive distress. A much louder sound of digestive distress came from the depths of the dragon. The sounds were echoed by all three riders and dragons.
“What did they do . . .?” Jaxon whimpered as his bowels let go.
Blood circled the scene, barely able to keep airborne from paroxysms of laughter. Corbin’s eyes watered from more than cold and wind as he broke into another spate of hyena-like guffaws. He had trouble breathing.
They were too high to see every detail of the debacle, but they could see enough to tell them what was happening. First the dragons’ flight became erratic, and then trails of semi-liquid feces spurted from their hindquarters as if they were dumping ballast. They struggled down to poor landings on the mountainside, to let the three riders dismount. The humans stumbled off of their saddles and immediately dropped their trousers wherever they stood.
“I suspect a lot of cleaning will be happening in their aeries tonight. Do you know how long the effect lasts?”
“On me it was a couple of hours, but that was for a couple of stings. They got nailed by a whole swarm.” Corbin paused to laugh again. “They’re going to have a long night ahead of them.”
“Have you considered what they’ll do to us when they’ve recovered?”
“I was thinking we might leave for Sunal a little earlier than necessary.”
“Perhaps that’s a good idea.”
From the fire-hose intensity that the grounded dragons were defecating, it would be some time before they were ready to launch any scheme of revenge. Corbin caught a trickle of telepathic conversations between Blood and the three dragons. It must have been intense for him to pick it up.
“What did they say?”
“Nothing for polite conversation—but nothing we do is liable to make them hate me any more. I learned that a long time ago.”
Corbin wanted to comfort his friend, but knew it was futile. Instead he hugged his neck as they turned back to the Ilimas aerie.