Father and Flammia led the group down the tunnel in pointed silence, competing to ignore each other the most. Zubin followed as fast as his camping leg would allow, leaving Prentyze to shuffle along in the rear. In fact, they all shuffled to an extent. The inner surfaces of the tunnel were slippery but the supposedly non-slip compound of the boot soles was not as effective as Father had hoped. The effort needed to avoid slipping and falling was tiring, exacerbated everyone’s developing cramps and slowed the party’s progress to a crawl.
Prentyze copied the others by resting his dragon-lance on his shoulder, so four lance-light beams stroked the tunnel’s curved ceiling, scattering off its uneven, shiny surface. The lance could not be carried for long ‘at the ready’ because the steel and copper harpoon made the balance tip-heavy – another detail left by his Father for product engineers to iron out. As Father’s assistant, Prentyze already knew it would be tiring to wield in a fight and, with his under-developed musculature, he doubted he could wield it long.
Like the others, he also carried his helm in his free hand and a quiver of soft metal mesh holding the spare harpoon heads bumped against an armoured thigh.
That would get annoying quickly.
Father and Flammia, ahead, were verbally sniping at each other. Prentyze could not hear their words but imagined they were ‘measuring dicks’. He sniggered – beauty aside, she was hardcore enough to have one!
If only he could talk to her – in private. He would show her how much he liked her and say how sorry he was for how Father had treated her.
But wishes were for children. This would get him into trouble with Father and Zubin, ending his own future prospects.
His boot slipped and he fought for balance. Again.
Stupid dragon hunt. It made no sense to drag a teenage bookworm into it. Why couldn’t people leave him alone to study?
To his ear, the sound of their progress was unusual for heavy armour. Nothing clanked or rattled. There was no crash of studded boots, typical of armoured warriors on the march. The old bastard and House Brassard’s craftsmen had surpassed themselves. The metal joints swished softly as well-oiled, precision-engineered metal plates telescoped over each other in near-air-tight joints. Their boots made only quiet, unnoticeable squeaks as soft, fireproof soles tried –and sometimes failed– to grip the rippled, glassy surface of the tunnel floor.
Wait. Rippled? Why was the rock rippled?
Prentyze hefted his helm around in one hand, probing with one finger for a switch, and triggered the crown-mounted light. Using it as an awkward, impromptu lantern he angled the beam for a better examination of the wall near him.
Fascinating. All the surfaces were shiny, smooth and … ripply, like a stream of water.
Ha! Was ‘ripply’ even a word?
It seemed the surface, once melted by a dragon blast, had solidified instantly, preserving the blast’s force in a wrinkly pattern. The overall effect was like a static sculpture of ripples on a pond.
He smiled at the sculpture analogy and swung the helm’s beam around to examine the tunnel. Wavelets covered every surface, explaining why their reflected lance lights scattered in all directions off the ceiling. They were randomly grouped and aimed but generally flowed in the direction he walked – down towards the lair. The tunnel was mostly circular in cross-section except for its lower surface, which flattened out to make a floor wide enough for several warriors abreast.
Or one, enormous, mature dragon.
The floor was different, though. Instead of solid rock, it appeared to have been a loose jumble of rocks held together by strands of the fused surface. Why was it different? Why only the floor? Perhaps the Reverend Priest would know? Not only was he knowledgeable, he seemed approachable, valuable traits from Prentyze’s point of view.
“Um. Reverend sir?”
Zubin slowed to let Prentyze catch up and shuffle along with him. “Yes, young man? And call me Zubin, please. We’re all warriors here.”
“Thank you, sir – I mean, Zubin! Um … the tunnel is so regular and smooth, but the floor has random, deep cracks in it. Why is it so different?”
“Another excellent observation. There has been a lot of study of smaller, abandoned dragon lairs on lower slopes. According to the papers I’ve read, this one is quite typical, though much larger. We think a dragon first creates the tunnel, somehow cutting through solid rock, shaping and smoothing the surface with its flame, like making hot taffy.”
That would explain the smooth and wavy surface. The rock melted and flowed in the blast. “Wow. If it is hot enough to melt rock, sir – Zubin! – no wonder dragon fire is so dangerous.”
“Indeed, and if your father ever devises a way to replicate dragon fire, Waldemar could burn Freeport and its damned tower to the ground.”
Again, both made the thumbs-down cursing gesture, this time made more awkward while keeping hold of their helms.
After they had completed the ritual by adding “May it fall”, Zubin’s brows furrowed as he cast a thoughtful glance ahead to the others. He continued in a more musing tone, as if thinking out loud. “Of course, House Brassard’s influence over the Council would then become … unassailable. That’s an … interesting thought –”
He collected himself. “I’m sorry, young man. Where were we?”
“You were telling me about the broken floor, um … Zubin?”
“Ah, perceptive AND tenacious. Admirable qualities. You have spotted the tunnel’s drainage system. After digging out the shaft and its lair, the dragon cuts away the entrance floor in a steep slope down the mountainside. It reassembles the loose rubble – we assume by partially melting the rubble – fusing it lightly into place, leaving the gaps that you see. When storms lash the tunnel’s entrance, rainwater drains through the rubble, down that hidden, steep slope, then it washes out and down the mountainside.”
The priest nodded at Prentyze’s helm, still casting its light. “That’s a remarkably clever trick. Be so good as to shine it further ahead for a moment, nearer your father’s feet. That’s right. There. See? No more cracks. We are deep enough to have reached the limit of the drainage system. From now, until we arrive at the lair, there will be solid rock under our feet.”
Knowing how the drains worked explained a lot, but it didn’t fully make sense. There was the obvious scholarly question “why?” to be asked.
“Um ... It must be really dry down in the lair. Don’t dragons get thirsty? If it allowed water to run downslope, it would always have a supply of drinking water.”
“A good thought, young man, but then its lair would be prone to flooding.”
That was true, as far as it went, but it ignored an obvious issue. “Um, Zubin? Sir? If dragons made their tunnels slope UP to their chamber, instead of down, they wouldn’t need drains. Why do they spend all that effort making them?”
“Oh … Um … An excellent question, young man, for which … I do not have an excellent answer. But, asking such questions is the hallmark of an outstanding scholar, and …”. Zubin broke off to see if the others could overhear; no, they were far ahead and still arguing. He continued with a quieter, more conspiratorial tone of voice. “… and I believe you would make a fine addition to our ranks.”
Prentyze felt his face blushing deeper and a grin lighting up his face. Did eyes really twinkle? He bet his were doing so right now.
Zubin saw his potential! He was on his way to a career in scholarship!
The priest’s voice now oozed with sympathy as he murmured, “You are so bright, young Master Brassard. It is such a shame your father insists on you taking over as Design Master of House Brassard when he returns to Dust. You must feel so disappointed by that.”
Prentyze felt tempted to retort, “Tell me about it!” but could not dare express such disrespect. Lacking anything better to say, he opted for a tactful “Um …”.
“No. Best not say anything you might regret later.” Zubin’s murmuring voice was now almost as quiet as their squeaking footwear. “Come and talk to me – any time. Perhaps ... yes … For such a shining intellect as yours, it might be possible to arrange a grant for a Temple Scholarship Commission.”
A Scholarship? Through a Commission? Such a wonderful pairing existed? This was news to Prentyze. Added together, it was like a dream coming true. An ambition within reach.
Yes! Yes! A Scholarship …
Military or Scholarship, it made no difference. There was no way his stupid Father would ever buy him a Commission if it meant leaving House Brassard. The Bastard would block all Prentyze’s ambitions, leaving him no choice but to occupy his father’s desk one day.
“Oh. What a suddenly sad face. I believe I infer the reason, so let me put you at ease. It’s an open secret that the Temple of Barys runs a Discretionary Bursary scheme for impressive Candidates like yourself. We should not have to present your parents with any … ah … ‘awkward’ decision about whether they could, or would, afford a Commission.”
Prentyze reeled with the possibilities. Father only offered – no, insisted on – a tedious life of weapons design, boring business and Council politics. Zubin offered a route into scholarship, without any obstacles. The door was wide open. This was his personal travel pass, his get-away from a dull, grinding life. And the best of it was Father would have no financial veto.
The old bastard had made him come on this stupid hunt, but this was turning out to be his lucky day after all.
He turned to Zubin to thank him – and slipped again. Floundering for his balance, the beam from his helm momentarily lit up Zubin’s expression.
Zubin’s face smiled. His eyes did not.
Above his smile, the priest’s eyes were like those of a soaring hawk tracking a mouse on the ground.
Tracking its prey.
Below his eyes, Zubin’s smile of encouragement was false. It was an act, but he was no actor.
Which meant … what?
Prentyze faked another foot slippage and dropped his head in case the priest saw his confusion. By the Gods! Was he the one being played now? By Zubin? First, Father played Flammia, now Zubin was playing him? What was the game here?
It was well known that Father hated both the Temples – he was forthright in his criticism of their increasing interference in business and politics, and for polarising society. Perhaps Zubin sought revenge for that? No – how would that work? Taking up Zubin’s Scholarship would not hurt House Brassard, much though it may disappoint Father. So where was the big pay-off for Zubin, or his Temple?
What was Zubin dropping Prentyze into?
Too much time had passed without Prentyze making an answer. But what could he say?
“Um, sir … I mean, Zubin … um –”
“I apologise; I didn’t mean to embarrass you. Let’s say no more about it, and let this be our little secret. Take time to meditate upon our conversation. My door will always be open to you. Whenever you want, call into my office at Temple Command Centre, and we can discuss this matter further.”
Zubin gave him a friendly nod, but Prentyze kept his attention on the slippery floor. Let the priest think the offer overwhelmed him. He needed time to think!
Zubin’s offer was like an animal trap hidden under the forest litter – Prentyze understood its trigger but not its effect. Would teeth snap, a net fall or a pit open? To escape this trap, he first had to find it.
A silence stretched out, punctuated only by the squeaks of not-so-sticky soles. After a while, Prentyze allowed a gap to widen between them, and Zubin once more shuffled and limped ahead to catch the others, resuming their original marching order.
The sounds of Father and Flammia arguing continued, though why she bothered, having already disgraced herself, was a mystery. She no longer had any position to defend.
Prentyze didn’t need to hear the words to know they wrangled over the merits of larger Founder Houses versus smaller, younger ones. He heard the arguments repeated every mealtime as his parents lectured him over monopolies and efficiency. That, or they droned on about the heritage of Waldemar, politics, the prudent caution of the wise, the need for stability in the Founder Houses and more. He was sick of it and let his mind wander while eating, preferring to ponder his latest studies. Provided he maintained a look of polite interest and nodded at random moments, his parents appeared none the wiser. It had worked so far.
Was this the full extent of adulthood? Hating everyone? Playing dominance games and making opponents fall in disgrace? He had seen enough of this through his father’s business and politics. And now he discovered that priests and scholars were no different?
Was there nothing more to life?
If not, what was the point of growing up?