The wind was nice, but the sun was brutal as always, Morgan thought as she patted her hip absently for her water skin. For a moment she thought she had dropped the precious container, but then remembered passing it to her passenger. It would have been a waste to drop it, since they had already left the cliff side and were now flying over the water.
She twisted partly to the side and directed her voice to the bard strapped in the saddle behind her.”Hey Fern, are you done with the water?”
“No” was the sullen answer.
“My, you are grouchy,” Morgan said, grinning.
The bard responded with a scathing remark about Kenton’s parentage, his body orifices and something rather obscure concerning sea urchins. Morgan decided she could do with the spare flask.
A deep rumbling responded to her query and she felt his muscles shift as the dragon delicately teased apart buckles and leather straps. The rider caught the leather loop that was thrown over his shoulder and tugged when she had a firm hold. Kenton let the last tether unravel and she drew in the rest of the strap, hauling in a large water flask. Awkward from its size, it had been carried in his belly nets, shielded by the dragon’s body and was relatively cool to the tongue.
She took a gulp, ignoring the snort that came from behind her. “How are you holding up, partner?” She asked capping the flask and tying it to her harness.
“The sun is glorious, the water is perfect and the company can’t compare,” said the dragon cheerfully. “Fernando? I am sure that you are eager to see a bed. We will be stopping in Sulphur City this evening. I hear the bath houses are a tourist attraction there. Will that please you?”
There was a pregnant pause. Then: “That would be wonderful.” Fernando sounded mollified to Morgan’s amusement.
Kenton’s sunny mood was hard to deny. Bronzes were notorious for their charisma and they were natural peace makers. The dragon himself had said that grudges were energy sapping. They weren’t worth cultivating. It didn’t mean that he had no grudges, Kenton went on to say, it only meant he had few. And they were special ones, he had declared with a show of sharp teeth. Morgan had let the subject drop.
“Why were you late?” The bard asked. Morgan winced. Kenton’s wing-strokes turned forceful and tense, losing the relaxed smoothness.
She turned in the saddle to look at him over her shoulder. “We are sorry about that, Fern. We got held up at the Eagle’s Ridge. The chiefs had called a clan meeting. There’s talk of war.” Morgan paused and listened to the wind whistle by. Fernando didn’t seem to have anything to say. “You did know about the rumours didn’t you?” She twisted all the way around to see him.
Fernando’s eyes were on the water below, his hands clenched in the harness. “I knew. How could I not? The villages I travelled through all asked the same questions. Was there war? When? Would they have to fight or hide?” He shook his head. “I told them I had no answers. They believed me, because they are pure people, the Senoi.”
Scowling, Morgan turned forward. “They will need to hide if there is war. The Berdashi are not kind. Fantastic with art and gorgeous to look at, but not merciful.” She stroked a finger along a bronze scale edge beside the saddle. “I would not force an encounter with those fencers on them. There would be no contest.”
“Are we going to war?” Fernando sounded miserable.
Kenton snorted. “No.”
Morgan didn’t wholly agree. “Rather, it’s not for certain. Yet.” She lifted empty palms to the sky, cupping them to mimic holding water or sand. “Our spies come back with empty messages, but they come back all the same.” She opened her fingers, the imaginary water poured out. “We have no information but rumours. The Berdashi are as charming as ever, but they have closed their trade routes and borders without telling us why. Our only hope is that they have closed everyone out, not just Verum.”
“And we certainly don’t think they are willing to declare war upon all of us at once on their own.” Kenton said.
“When you say “we” are you referring to the Alliance or just you and Morgan?” asked the bard.
The bronze twitched, the full body spasm felt by both riders. “The ministers think there may be a war.” Kenton growled, “I could hear the warmongers gnashing their teeth. We have no proof and absence of communication does not mean hostility!”
Morgan made a shushing sound and patted the dragons shoulder in front of her. “Not everyone is itching for war, my friend.”
“But those in power are,” said Fernando gravely. “And those are the ones who count.”
Clenching her hands around the buckles, Morgan said nothing. She felt a hand on her shoulder as the man leaned forward to watch her face.
“Morgan. How many other countries think that Berdah is arming for war?” His voice was thick with frustration and worry. “How many countries are arming themselves for war?”
The dragon pilot turned weary eyes to the worried bard. She was tired and worried herself. The Continent had been at peace for nearly a decade. Long enough to feel comfortable, but not long enough to forget the last war that had spanned eight years and consumed over a dozen nations. Ten years was too short and so fleeting.
She considered leaving the man in ignorance. Just for a few days of bliss. “Ignorance is bliss Fernando.” She said softly, watching his eyes.
The man shook his head. “Happy ignorance is bliss. But I’ve spent a month among natives, who are usually happy natives, who are instead very frightened.” His lips thinned as he frowned at her. “I am past ignorant. Now I want information and I know you can answer my questions. Now, who else?”
She closed her eyes and groaned. “Six. The Mountain Nations and all of the Northern coast.”
“They all want Berdah on a plate. Served up with glory and a nice helping of gold and marble.” Kenton snarled. “The greedy bastards want to scatter the Berdashi to the four winds and tear the country to shreds.” The dragon down-stroked hard and they lurched upwards. Morgan felt Fernando retract his hand at the abrupt change in altitude. Her own hands, still fixed around the harness, were cramping.
Forcing her fingers to open, she leaned forward, placing both hands and cheek against the dragons spine. So much for Kenton’s sunny charismatic mood, she thought sadly. Morgan rubbed gloved palms hard along the vertebrae. “We can only do what we can. And the Senoi have been warned. They will be safe.”
“If only because the forest is so far removed from the Continent.” It sounded like the bard was talking past clenched teeth. Whether from the vertigo or from anger she wasn’t sure.
The bronze only grumbled.
Morgan pressed her forehead hard against the scales, her spine in a vulnerable curve to accommodate the saddle horn. “But they will be safe.”
“If you could only assure me all innocents were safe, I would be a happy dragon.”