A Dark Shadow has fallen over the Proud Caslean... Their good King has taken ill. King Nicodemus had been a man of profound will, and sense of justice. He had led them with a firm and steady hand, had guided them from ruins and ashes to the solid country they were now. No more a crumbling excuse for a Country, their King had turned them completely around after thirty years of sitting on the throne. Now their oldest Prince... Aiden has to step up and take the mantle. But it is more than just that, something is just beyond the horizon threatening to fall from the skies to destroy all that has protected them...
This time our story does not begin in the Halls of one of the many beautiful Palaces across the Kingdoms... but we return to the Summerlands... To the beginning of it all.... to the youngest of the Dragon Riders...
This is where the Story begins...
Through self discovery, heart break, and love, loss and victory... the Final Chapter...
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Hero did not expect the arm that come around her, pulling her back flush to a broad, strong chest; wings crushed against him. The heat that came with it, warmed her from the chilly night and she blushed; embarrassed at knowing he could likely feel her heart beating out of her chest. “You could always fly off with me,” he said, his chin resting in her hair, the words whispered in her hair. She shivered.
“You… you mean… leave?” she managed, turning to stare up at him. He smirked, eyes catching the moonlight off the pond.
“We don’t have to tell anyone. When I leave after your birthday, you can just leave with me. I’ll take you wherever you want to go… and if you don’t want to, you don’t have to come back.” Lifting his hands he stroked her wings. The sensation had her gasping. Her wings were a part of her. She could feel every delicate touch and it made her body spark. “You’ve got wings Hero… maybe it’s time to use them,” he whispered roughly. Hero trembled, suddenly looking dazed.
“M-Maverick,” she breathed, her hands trembling as she pressed them to his chest. She swallowed, her whole body tingling with sensation. “Please… kiss me,” she whispered. Her fingers curled in his vest. “P-please.” He obliged her and Hero gave a small moan as he held her.
“Asshole!” Bastien spat from where they were hidden, watching, and went to leap out between the hedges. Against his wishes, Nolan reached out and grabbed Bastien by the arm, stilling him. The look he got seethed with anger and confusion, and Bastien frowned, his anger quelled by the look on his friend’s face. Quietly Nolan pulled Bastien back to a safe distance where they could whisper. “What are you doing!?” he demanded.
“I’m not spying on her anymore,” Nolan suddenly said. Bastien looked taken-aback.
“If you want to go out there and push Hero away, do it. I want her to stay because she wants to stay with me. Not because she’s been told.” With that Nolan turned on his heel and left back for the manor. He didn’t get very far before he was yanked back by the shoulder. Bastien was staring at him, his silver tipped lashes glinting like daggers.
“Do… do you love my… sister?” he suddenly asked. Nolan swallowed and suddenly nodded and Bastien released him with a look Nolan didn’t recognize. Glancing back in the direction of where Hero and Nolan were hidden, he dropped his head for a moment before stepping away. “Lets go in,” he muttered and the two of them slunk back to the house.
“It is,” she finally said, her voice soft. Maverick blinked, caught off guard by how soft and pained her voice was. She sounded so sad and tired, that he was enraptured by the words she said. Perhaps suffocating was the perfect way to describe her life. Always told what to do, where to go, what to dress, what to eat, what to think… Maverick felt awful for her. He couldn’t imagine a life like that.
“When I was younger, I did not notice it. Now? I simply wish to be…left alone.” Maverick frowned, uncertain of what to say as he watched her under the moonlight.
“Alone? I flew a hell of a long way for you to be left alone,” he chided in an attempt to cheer her up. She only looked at him with more depression than before.
“I am… so very jealous in you, Mister Maverick. You’ve seen the world. Gone places I can only dream about… I’ve only seen what I have been allowed.” Tears glittered in her gaze but she quickly stood, to walk towards the pond and drop a stone in it. Maverick watched her closely, and while she was a beautiful woman… she had wings. Wings made him think of birds, and Hero was certainly a birdie locked up in a gilded cage. “I’m trapped in this place. And I don’t want to be…” she whispered. “There’s no one here who understands me.”
Maverick tossed the words he was going to say around in his head. Wondering if they were really worth saying out loud, or if they even should. He was about to suggest a rather wild idea, and one that could certainly take her away from this prison, but it would also mean saying goodbye to her family with the potential of never returning. Licking his lips he stood up and moved to stand behind her. He didn’t hesitate to wrap his arms around her shoulders, bringing her back flush against his chest, and dropped his chin right into her hair. “You could always fly off with me.” There he’d said it! “We don’t have to tell anyone, when I leave after your birthday, you can just leave with me. I’ll take you wherever you want to go… and if you don’t want to, you don’t have to come back. You’ve got wings Hero… maybe it’s time to use them.”
From his place Nolan’s brow furrowed, and while he desperately wanted to jump out and tell Hero she couldn’t, her brother was more apt and about to do such a thing. Against his wishes, Nolan reached out and grabbed Bastien by the arm, stilling him. The look he got seethed with anger and confusion, because why on Earth would Nolan actually stop Bastien from stepping in? Nolan could only shake his head no, not wanting Bastien to make their presence known, or he really would lose everything with Hero. Quietly Nolan pulled Bastien back to a safe distance where they could whisper.
“I’m not spying on her anymore,” He suddenly said. “If you want to go out there and push Hero away, do it. I want her to stay because she wants to stay with me. Not because she’s been told.” With that Nolan turned on his heel and left back for the manor.
“Supper was nice.” Hero didn’t bother to answer. Nor did she look at him, her eyes staring at the water; watching the ripples coaxed by the wind spread out along the surface. When he’d first shown up her heart had pounded, thinking it was Nolan, but when she realized that it was Maverick, something in her fell. She quickly pushed the feeling away. What right had she to be disappointed. She was angry at him, wasn’t she? Quickly he plopped down on the bench beside her, his crooked grin pinned on her. “You left before desert, which by the way, you’re mom is an amazing cook. It was delicious! You missed out,” he teased taking a finger and poking Hero on the nose. Hero blinked and looked away, hand folded in her lap. After a moment of silence, Maverick leaned back; crossing his hands behind his head. “So you gonna tell dear ol’ Mav what went on in there? Nothing I did was it? I hope I wasn’t too embarrassing. I will give The Caislean this much, they were a lot more laid back than that table. It is like that every night? How do you breathe? It’s got to be suffocating.”
“It is,” she finally said, her voice soft. He blinked and stared at her, but she didn’t meet his gaze. “Suffocating. My whole life I have been told where to go, how to dress, what to study. Who to…” She bit her lip, not daring to finish such a sentence. “When I was younger, I did not notice it. Now? I simply wish to be…” She swallowed tightly. “Left alone.” Finally, she lifted her gaze, the moonlight edging the brilliant hazel in silver; making them luminous. She stared at him; a longing in her gaze. “I am… so very jealous in you, Mister Maverick. You’ve seen the world. Gone places I can only dream about… I’ve only seen what I have been allowed.” Tears glittered in her gaze but she quickly stood, not allowing him to see it. Strolling to the edge of the pond she plucked a pebble from the banks and peered down at it, before tossing it idly into the water. The splash was tiny, and the ripples made her reflection waver. “I’m trapped in this place. And I don’t want to be…” she whispered. “There’s no one here who understands me.”
Dinner had been casual, and even though Maverick Tulane was competition… Nolan wanted to get to know him. It was unexplainable really, the more Maverick spoke, the more questions Nolan had. The two seemed to converse with ease which also seemed to make Bastien a bit annoyed, but that was probably due to Hero. Quiet Hero. Silent Hero, who said not a word and had only managed a few spoonfuls of her soup. Nolan’s only annoyance -Maverick seemed completely oblivious…
So it wasn’t such a great surprise when Hero shot up from her seat as Desert was being served. Nolan knew by the glitter of her eye, he must have really messed up. He wasn’t trying to control her! He only wanted to keep her safe! He had only aired caution, knowing damn well General Talik would [i literally] murder him if he had let her go encouragingly. Nolan was so distracted watching Hero run off, he almost didn’t hear Lady Talik offer him a slice of Pear Tart and an apology. He nearly stammered trying to appease her that no misgivings had happened, and it dawned on him that eyes were on him. The General looked at him with mild caution and confusion, possibly wondering what he had done or said to his daughter. His parents looked ready to explode -fearful he might have damaged his future within the Royal Military, or that he had irrevocably destroyed things with Hero. Maverick was just content to take a bite of his tart as he watched Hero storm off.
“Huh,” was all he managed, culling the attention away from Nolan and to himself. “That’s weird,” he commented munching on his tart. He took another large bite and promptly stood up. “This was great though,” he managed with a mouth full of tart. The look on Mrs. Ewing was priceless. Nolan also stared in awe wondering what the vagabond was up to. “Seriously, so good. You’re an angel of baking legends,” He called to Lady Acruze as he headed for the exit. It wasn’t hard to figure out, Maverick had left the table to follow Hero.
“My Word!” Gasped Mrs. Ewing. “I don’t think I’ve ever laid eyes on a child so ill mannered.” Nolan could only manage a glance to his mother, before the General cleared his throat and looked to both Nolan and Bastien. It took no genius for them both to know what the General wanted.
Maverick swallowed down the last bit of that tasty tart and rubbed his swollen belly. That was by far the best food he’d eaten in a long time, and the most! It was a shame he couldn’t get more of that pear tart, but Hero had bailed so quickly. He wondered what could have sent her from her excitement to sadness. Those tears in her eyes had been shocking, and damnitall if Maverick didn’t feel somewhat responsible. Why? He wasn’t sure, just an anxious tick. Generally things were Maverick’s fault, so why would this be any different?
He followed behind just far enough he never lost Hero, and she never realized he was back there. He gave her a moment at the lovely little spot of greenery and water to collect her thoughts before he strolled over and stood beside the bench. Hands in his pockets and eyes on the water, he rocked on his heels.
“Supper was nice,” He commented after a long moment of buzzing insects and soft sniffles. He looked to Hero with a playful smile, but all he saw was her daintily try to hide the fact she’d been horribly upset by something. “You left before desert, which by the way, you’re mom is an amazing cook. It was delicious!” He said taking up the space on the bench beside her. “You missed out,” He teased taking a finger and poking Hero on the nose. After another long moment he grinned at her. “So you gonna tell dear ol Mav what went on in there? Nothing I did was it? I hope I wasn’t too embarrassing. I will give The Caislean this much, they were a lot more laid back than that table. It is like that every night? How do you breathe? It’s got to be suffocating.” He admonished her playfully, but in truth he was serious, and that was clear as day in his mellow green eyes. Completely unaware that Nolan and Bastien had found them out and stood silently.
They stood unseen or unheard from the shadows. Only intervening if it proved necessary, and as Nolan shared a glance to Bastien, he felt a twinge of guilt. Was he any different?
Dinner went even better than could be expected… or at least Hero might have noticed that if she had been paying much attention. She spent the two hours they sat at the table, dragging her spoon through her soup and picking at the salad and pheasant that decorated her plate. She had no appetite, and she refused to look up and meet the gaze of her parents who shared a confused look between them at their daughter’s odd behavior. Even her wings seemed to droop. Bastien was frowning too but his gaze wasn’t on his sister. Rather he’d pinned it on the rider; focused on his every word as if waiting for the bastard to slip up. Maverick seemed completely at ease, answer the questions posed to him with a practiced nonchalance, his mouth perpetually curved into a half-smirk that had the young Talik growing ever more irritated. Why hadn’t his father just thrown this son of bitch out.
“My that was absolutely delicious!” Mrs. Ewing finally exclaimed, as the servants removed the last of the china from the table. She dotted the corner of her lips with her napkin and passed a smile to Acruze who returned it. “I cannot wait to see what we have in store for our desert.”
“Oh, Lady Ewing, you flatter me,” she replied and stood, sweeping the wrinkles from her pale blue silk gown.
“Nonsense,” Mason smiled, his eyes filled with nothing but love for his wife, and praised her baking skills. She leaned in and pressed a kiss to his cheek before crossing the room to the adjacent doorway that lead to the kitchen. A maid stood there, holding a covered dish and Acruze relieved her of it and brought it to the table. She set it down and pulled off the lid, revealing a golden-brown steaming tart. Looking over to Maverick, Acruze regarded him with a kind smile. “I do hope you enjoy pears, Mister Maverick. They’re a Katkos specialty.” She served up slices of the treat to the gests, and when she got to Hero she held out the plate. “Hero, darling?” Hero looked up at the offered plate but shook her head; a rogue curl brushing her freckled cheek.
“No thank you mother,” she said quietly. Acruze frowned.
“Now Hero, you hardly ate any of your dinner.”
“I’m just not hungry,” she said, trying to end the conversation.
“But you love pear tart-” Acruze began but Hero cut her off, shooting to her feet, causing the table to rattle.
“I said I’m not hungry! Excuse me!” she all but snapped, her eyes glistening, and quickly left the table; leaving Acruze in shock. Quickly the woman swallowed and forced a smile and handed the plate instead to Nolan.
“I’m so sorry,” she quickly apologized to everyone. “I… I don’t know what’s come over her…”
Hero all but ran outside, the ground crunching beneath the heels of her shoes- shoes that her mother had chosen… saying that she should dress her age… As if such high heels should matter! She nearly tripped, and in a fit of anger she quickly ripped them from her foot and raised them, prepared to throw them. Her hand stilled in the air, however, chest heaving as she stared at the trail before her as it disappeared between the tall trees of the orchard. Night had fallen and the air was filled with the gentle music of insects and the call of night birds nestled between the hanging fruit. Slowly her arm lowered and she stood there, a tear falling from her cheek. And the worst part? She didn’t quite understand why.
Why had Nolan’s words hurt her so much? Why did they feel so much like betrayal? It wasn’t as if she cared for him… right? Another tear spilled and she quickly wiped them away. Taking a breath she began to walk further along the trail until she came to what had always been one of her favorite spots. It was a clearing, spilled over with moonlight which gleamed off the small pond in the center where she knew selection of colorful fish lived. A single bench was set near to it, bushes with yellow roses growing between the trees. Her father had created this oasis for her mother years ago, long before Hero was even born; an ode to their undying love. The sight of it had Hero biting her lip and she crossed the grass to sink down onto it. It was a chilly night but Hero hardly felt it. She was completely confused. She should be back at home, laughing and smiling with Maverick; letting him steal kisses from her… In two days it was to be her birthday- a fun occasion. So why was she sitting here by herself feeling as if her heart was breaking? A heart she’d never even given away…
Nolan felt ill, and it was all due to jealousy. All of the tedious work he’d put in to be exactly where he needed to be in order to be there for Hero was falling like sand through a cracked foundation. It was surprisingly painful to watch Hero so enamored with a man who clearly was only toying with her. Perhaps toying was a bit harsh, but any decent man could see she was smitten and possibly in love, and instead of doing to honorable thing and letting her go, Maverick Tulane played with her emotions for a bit of sport and fun. Nolan had seen countless men like Maverick get their way with enamored young women, only to get what they wanted and move on to the next. He could say nothing though, for Hero would never hear of it. It was much to his delight that their near kiss was halted by the knocking of a door informing them Tea Time had ended and supper was being served.
“Great!” Maverick exclaimed. “I’m starved!” Jumping to his feet and starting out the door. Nolan frowned, as once again, the man had no sense of propriety or manners. Still, he made Hero smile and he couldn’t exactly be upset about that. Only jealous, because Nolan was so lacking at the skill.
Nolan took up the rear, more inclined to let Hero and Maverick take the lead, instead of awkwardly trying to inject himself into their time together. He half expected Hero to simply ignore him and pretend he wasn’t around, but instead she grabbed him by his arm and jerked him to a halt at the door. With a confused expression, Nolan looked to Hero, but her face told all. She was clearly upset with him. Fantastic. He had an idea what he’d done.
“Just who the hell do you think you are, Nolan Ewing!?” she demanded, glaring at him. Bingo. Nolan sighed and frowned at her, but he made no comment. She knew damn well, Nolan did not have an identity crisis, and had always known exactly who and what he was. “How dare you think to control what I do- as if you are somehow… in charge of me!” Nolan couldn’t help but fold his hands behind his back and did his best to remain impassive.
“I would never dream to imagine that you could be controlled, Hero. I know better. My only concern is your well being-“
“It I no concern of yours whether or not I chose to fly with Maverick!”
“Hero, I simply wish to ensure your safety. I’m only looking out for you. I thought we were friends-“
”No!” she managed, voice wavering, and Nolan blanched at the sight of her tears.
"You are not my friend!”
“I am!” He tried, but she wouldn’t hear it.
“You just want to control me! Just like my father!" shaking her head she released him, wings twitching. "I thought you were different," she said softly and hurried past him. Nolan stood there, unable to chase after her or incur more of her anger. He sighed, defeated in that moment and feeling utterly helpless.
[i -I thought you were different…-]
Those words repeated over in his mind as he took slow steps to join the rest of the group for supper. He could hear the din of conversation from the hallway and paused at the sound of Maverick’s voice talking easily about the biology of Dragons to the table and answering the questions posed by his parents. Nolan didn’t have an appetite, as he thought again about Hero’s words. Was he any different from the other men that surrounded her? Nolan didn’t want to control Hero, if anything he wanted to see her free. Sure she was free to do what she wanted here, but there were limitations placed on her. Nolan didn’t want that for her, but he did want her safe, and there was something about Maverick Tulane that Nolan didn’t trust. Maybe it was the man’s immaturity, maybe it was naivety. Whatever it was, if left Nolan green with jealousy -something he was not accustomed to.
His thoughts were interrupted as he was introduced to the table, and his mother called out to him. “My dear Nolan, it is not like you to be the last to the supper table,” she chided him. Nolan offered her a kind of placating smile and took his seat at her side.
“My apologies, something was brought to my attention and it’s been heavy on my mind,” he said taking his seat and glanced at Hero, who clearly was more interested on what food was sitting before her than what he’d said. Mason was looking at Hero as well with a look of concern, but without much hesitation called for everyone to give their thanks to the Amphi for blessing them and the meal. Nolan gave his prayers dutifully, while Maverick sat and watched them all confused, something Mason called him out on.
“You seem unaccustomed with Amphi traditions, Mr. Tulane. Do they not worship the Amphi in Aparimna?”
“Oh we do…” Maverick began and pulled the bones from his game hen. “We just do things differently.”
“How so?” Baron Ewing asked, observing Maverick rather closely.
“Well, for starters food is set on a table in large portions and we all share off of one another plate, not unlike the Anglos do. We don’t get our own plate with a serving of food. Before and after the meal an Elder will usually thank the gods and always leave a vow never to waste what we are given,” Maverick said setting the bones of his game hen aside.
“And do the bones have significance?” Mason asked mildly interested.
“Bones are used for tools, broths, and rituals. While leftover meat is given to other animals, and greens are buried back in the soil to feed the earth and grow healthy crops.” Maverick placed the bones he pulled onto a napkin beside him.
“That must have been very hard for you,” The Baroness commented from her place at the table. Maverick looked up from his food confused. He didn’t understand why it would be hard. “You must have felt so alienated with those people, and their primitive lifestyles… just obscene…”
“Mother,” Nolan warned from his place. The woman simply scoffed and dropped the subject, and for a moment Maverick and Nolan locked eyes. Maverick in his own way, thanking Nolan.
“It wasn’t hard. I was born on the island according to my Ubaba. So I was raised there, know no different. Your lifestyle is nice and comfortable, but I think its lacking something,” Maverick stated.
“What is a Ubaba?” Nolan asked. “And how did you end up on there?” Maverick finally frowned and shrugged.
“Ubaba is my father. Or well… I call him father. He’s the true rider of the Moores. Dartarian was the one who found my mother and took her to the village. He says he and the Shamans cared for her for over a week, that she had a fever, and when she died they cut me from her. Dartarian vowed to raise me and care for me, and well… the man is my Ubaba. As for getting to Aparaima… Dartarian says my mother was shipwrecked, and that she came from across the sea.”
“Do you think she might have come from here?” Nolan asked.
Maverick shrugged, not giving the conversation much thought. Aside from informing his new hosts about who he was and where he came from, he wasn’t too put off by the question of his origins.
“Have you ever been curious about where you come from?” Nolan asked again. Maverick might have otherwise been irritated by all the questions if it wasn’t for the fact that Nolan Ewing seemed genuinely interested.
“Yes…” Mason observed from his seat. “You do look like you have Trothian features…”
“Whoa,” Maverick laughed holding up his hands and grinning at the faces around the table. “I’ve never cared about any of that. It’s always been me and Dartarian, and I never once felt outcasted by anyone. I was treated no differently, and was included in everything the other boys were included in, so I’ve never desired to know where my mother came from. I grew up in Aparaima, that’s my home, that’s where I’m from. It’s who I am.”
From there dinner seemed to go rather smoothly, and as Nolan observed Maverick he was remiss to admit that if the man was not competing for Hero… Nolan would have liked him very much. He could see why Hero was so drawn to him. He answered every question posed to him, managing to be himself while maintaining the role of a delightful guest. It also did not go unnoticed how his father kept staring at Maverick, and kept asking him questions about his life with the Moores. Maverick was indeed a charismatic individual, he new he was a unique character and used it to his advantage. He was adventurous and different, with an easy smile and penchant for making other people smile. He was truly all games and fun, a man who would always be a boy at heart. A Shame, they could have been such good friends…
“Well, let’s hope your right, and change the conversation. I think it’s upsetting Miss. Hero,” Nolan observed. All eyes turned on Hero who sat clasping her tea cup between two pale, slender fingers; her expression one of nervous discontent as she took a sip.
“I’m fine,” she said quickly. But she wasn’t. Still, she told herself that Maverick’s lack of tact simply came from his ignorance. After all, it’s not like he’d been in the country for very long. How was he to know how bad the fever was? Forcing herself to accept this thought process, she swallowed her tea and glanced at him with a smile. “Let us change the subject, shall we?” she asked. “Maverick… perhaps you might tell us of your travels? You must have seen so much since we last parted.” He smirked at her and gave a tip of his head before beginning to regale them with his experiences while traveling with Julian and Grace. All in all, Maverick reported an uneventful trip. He didn’t get into any fights, spoke about Wolfram becoming the new Rider for Latika and Soulstice; he even spoke about his opinion of Ta’tarans. It was no surprise Maverick found them dull, similar, and loud. Hero listened to his words with an eager expression, captivated by his descriptions of the places he’d been. She was jealous, having wanted to travel and see the world. She asked him questions, giggling at his devil-may-care smiles and beguiling tone. In his own seat, Nolan watched on with a frown, arms crossed.
“So, what shall we do while I;m here?” he finally questioned. “You’ll have to show me around since I’ve never been to his place. What’s port like? I hear it’s pretty damn snazzy.” Hero set her tea cup down with an apologetic look.
“I’d love to give you a tour, but…” she sighed and glanced towards the window where the rain fell lazily from the darkened sky. “Due to the fever, we’re rather confined to the manor’s grounds.”
“Well since there’s nothing around here to do, we can go for a ride…” he chided, leaning towards her with a smile that had her blushing and nibbling her lip. Irked beyond reason Nolan quickly cleared his throat.
“Unfortunately, that won’t be possible. The use of our horses are quite limited to important errands, or for use in state business.” Maverick chuckled, giving him a lazy look.
“I’m not talking about a horse ride… I’m talking about taking Hero for a ride on Merceron.” Hero blinked, her expression lighting up.
“Oh Maverick! Truly?!” Nolan, however, tensed; his face going pale as if horrified by the thought. He glanced to Hero nervously and then back to a smug looking Maverick.
“Is that safe?” he interrupted. Hero immediately gave him a look.
“No safer way to travel,” Maverick informed him.
“It sounds positively exciting!” Hero exclaimed.
“I don’t know if your father would approve…” Nolan murmured to Hero, his look unsure. Again she gave him a glare.
“Well it’s good you’re not my father, isn’t it?” she said, her tone cutting. Nolan met her look with one of his own before turning back to look at the Rider who was watching them both with a look that said he was trying not to laugh.
“But,” he suddenly said, catching even Maverick off guard. “If you do take her flying, no flips, no turns, no tricks. You fly as safe as if you are carrying a babe, if she comes back with even the slightest inconvenience, I will deal with you myself personally,” Nolan warned. Maverick stared at Nolan, and Nolan stared back -a silent challenge between them.
“I promise no harm will come to Hero while she flies with me, truly,” he said tuning to look at Hero. Scooping up her hand he brought it to his lips. “I wouldn’t let anything hurt you,” he said, his gaze cunning and his tone seductive. Hero blushed as he pressed a kiss to him, her gaze going starry-eyed.
“I-I’m so… looking forward to it,” she managed, and he grinned at her as he kissed her hand again.
“As am I,” he murmured and Hero’s lids grew heavy as he moved in to quite obviously kiss her.
Before their lips could meet, there was a knock on the door as the maid entered and curtsied.
“Begging your pardon, m’lords, m’lady. Dinner is served. Your parents are waiting at the table.”
“Great!” Maverick exclaimed. “I’m starved!” With that he made his way from the sofa and followed the young woman out the door. Nolan followed suit but before he could manage exiting the room, Hero stopped him, yanking him to a halt with her hand gripping his wrist.
“Just who the hell do you think you are, Nolan Ewing!?” she demanded, glaring at him. “How dare you think to control what I do- as if you are somehow… in charge of me! It I no concern of yours whether or not I chose to fly with Maverick!” When he attempted to explain that he was her friend and only cared about her well-being her eyes suddenly filled with tears.
"No!" she managed, voice wavering. "You are not my friend! You just want to control me! Just like my father!" shaking her head she released him, wings twitching. "I thought you were different," she said softly and hurried past him, refusing to let him see her tears. Before she came to the dining hall she wiped the few that had fallen away, and entered with her head held high. The table was full with her family and the Ewings, and she hastily took her seat between Bastien and her mother, keeping her eyes on her plate.
Nolan made sure Hero was seated, unlike her vagabond friend who just sat right down to help himself. No propriety. Nolan didn’t care, it gave him the extra chance to mess with Hero a little bit. He brushed his fingers on her arm as he pushed the chair in and left her flushed and disturbed. It was adorable. He flashed her a handsome grin as he sat down and allowed her to sit between Maverick and himself.
“I would love to hear about your adventures in the tundra!” Hero exclaimed. Maverick smiled reaching forward to grab a spoon and dig into his cup of soup.
“I had a good time… for the most part,” Maverick answered truthfully.
“What do you mean by, for the most part?” Nolan asked taking a spoonful of his soup.
“I left Bayadair shortly after the Guild meeting, and headed north with Dartarian and the Ta’taran Dragon Rider. It wasn’t shortly after we got there that he got attacked while escorting his queen. He didn’t make it back, but one of the Valkyrie that served with him lived through it and had to give the news to his wife. Real messed up, no body to bring back, and he took the head with him…”
“Who attacked this Ta’taran?” Nola asked genuinely curious. Maverick glanced at Hero’s horrified expression, but continued on.
“Another Dragon Rider, and a bad one too. Goes by the name of Vincent. His mount is the Gold, Grendel the Barbarous.”
Maverick shrugged, “We don’t know, that’s why we had a guild meeting. Apparently it was the first one in a hundred years… so we’re kinda at war,” Maverick shrugged. Nolan frowned as he stared him down, it made Maverick feel like he was a bug being studied by some annoying kid.
“You don’t seem particularly worried about this Vincent Character,” Nolan observed.
“There’s no reason for me to worry. I’m probably not even on his radar, or else I’m sure he would have attacked me already,” Maverick said with a grin. He reached out quickly to take Hero’s hand and gave it a firm squeeze. “Ain’t nothing gonna happen to me,” He declared confidently.
“I think you underestimate your enemy’s intentions.. You yourself just said he was bad, and clearly bad enough to kill a man without provocation,” Nolan warned from his seat giving Maverick a strange look. “To blindly assume you are not on his ledger is foolish,”
“Oh yeah? And what would you know about fighting an enemy, pretty boy?” Maverick jabbed back defensively. Nolan calmly set down his spoon and looked Maverick directly in the eye.
“I am Captain of the Fifth Battalion, a member of the General’s Alpha Team, and hopefully I will replace Hero’s father as the King’s General but I’m willing to settle as Military Advisor,” Nolan replied back without any malice, or defensiveness. Maverick pursed his lips, not expecting that answer.
“Well I’m not much of a fighter… more of a lover,” He said looking back over at Hero with a devilish smirk. “So maybe I’ll be lucky and this Vincent guy will just move along. I leave him alone, he should leave me alone.” Nolan didn’t say anything else on that matter, and decided to keep his opinions to himself. So far Maverick Tulane, in Nolan’s eyes, was a reckless, arrogant, man-child with no proper manners, or drive to excel. “The Rider he killed would have fought against him, and I’m not looking for a fight.”
“Well, let’s hope your right, and change the conversation. I think it’s upsetting Miss. Hero,” Nolan observed.
Maverick noticed that Hero did look a trite upset at the present conversation and instead decided to do as Nolan suggested. He told her all the fun stories he experienced while traveling with Julian and Grace. All in all, Maverick reported an uneventful trip. He didn’t get into any fights, spoke about Wolfram becoming the new Rider for Latika and Soulstice; he even spoke about his opinion of Ta’tarans. It was no surprise Maverick found them dull, similar, and loud. However once it became clear to Maverick that there was no ‘going out on the town’ ever in the near possible future, he suggested something else, but only to Hero.
“Well since there’s nothing around here to do, we can go for a ride…” Nolan informed Maverick that the horses use was limited to important errands, or for use in state business. Maverick chuckled. “I’m not talking about a horse ride… I’m talking about taking Hero for a ride on Merceron,” Nolan tensed, his face going pale as if horrified by the thought. He glanced to Hero nervously and then back to a smug looking Maverick.
“Is that safe?” Nolan asked.
“No safer way to travel,” Maverick informed him. It wasn’t safe for the last Ta’taran rider, as far as Nolan was concerned.
“I don’t know if your father would approve…” Nolan murmured to Hero, his look unsure. If there was a crazy Rider out killing other riders, the last thing Nolan wanted was for Hero to get caught in that cross fire. “But,’ He suddenly said catching even Maverick off guard. “If you do take her flying, no flips, no turns, no tricks. You fly as safe as if you are carrying a babe, if she comes back with even the slightest inconvenience, I will deal with you myself personally,” Nolan warned. Maverick stared at Nolan, and Nolan stared back -a silent challenge between them.
“I promise no harm will come to Hero while she flies with me, truly,” he said tuning to look at Hero. “I wouldn’t let anything hurt you,” and from where Nolan sat -it was the first thing he believed was the truth coming out of the vagabond’s mouth.
“Am I interrupting anything important?” Hero’s eyes snapped open on a gasp and on instinct she pulled back and blinked, still a touch dazed from the kiss. Her eyes went to the door and her face grew hot. Unlike her, however Nolan didn’t seem the least bit phased.
“Nope,” he answered with an almost smug look. Nolan kept his expression vacant, even as he turned to gaze upon the flushed Hero.
“N-Nolan!” she exclaimed, her hand curled into a fist against her chest. “What is it?!” And why was she suddenly feeling guilty? The realization was concerning. It wasn’t as if she were doing something wrong. Nolan was not her fiancé no matter how much their families wanted him to be…
“Lunch is to be in the sunroom,” Nolan informed them. “Hero, let us leave Mr. Tulane to freshen up, I’m sure he’s starved for something to eat, and a bath…” he observed with a slight jab to Maverick. He delighted in how Maverick’s jaw clenched. “Tea is currently ready and waiting for us. Mr. Tulane can meet us there once he’s cleaned himself up.” Hero blinked, brow furrowed and she looked up at Maverick.
“Um yes… that is… I suppose. I-if that’s what you’d like? I mean-”
“He’s right, Hero,” Maverick interrupted and slung an arm around her shoulders with a vagabond grin. “I need a bath, I’m starting to smell myself!” Her concern eased into a smile and she pressed a hand to his chest.
“Well, if you’re certain. Should I come and get you when you’re done? I know you’re not yet familiar with the estate.”
“Nah! I’ll figure out how to find you. I made it this far didn’t?” Maverick he teased and swept his thumb against her cheek in a teasing caress. Her expression went dreamy. Nolan merely grit his teeth.
He offered her his arm when she crossed the room, and she took it with a proper hand against his sleeve, and suddenly it was Maverick’s smile that faltered. Seeing the two of them together was like looking at a painting. It was something Hero had yet to realize- that together they looked quite perfect.
“See you guys in a short!” he offered and Hero looked back at him with a smitten smile as they shut the door. Out in the hall she preened as they walked and Nolan ached a brow. “It’s nice to see you so happy,” he admitted. Hero looked up at him with a frown.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“The past couple of weeks have been difficult, what with the Rebellion ready to blow at the drop of a hat…” Nolan shook his head. “I haven’t seen you smile like you did today in a long time… It was… nice.” Hero blushed and stared at him as they walked. Finally she looked ahead and tried to keep from letting her embarrassment show.
“Mister Maverick is just a very good friend. That’s all. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen him and… I’m glad he is safe.”
“Oh really?” he intoned with a look.
“Yes really,” she snipped, nose in the air as they reached the sunroom door.
“Well he’s a lucky man to have culled such a [i friendship] with you. But don’t think I’ll be so inclined to leave you alone with him again.”
Hero stopped in her tracks and turned to glare at him, hands fisted at her sides. “Excuse me!? And just what do you mean by that!?” Nolan merely settled a hand to his chest.
“I consider myself to be a gentleman and yet frequently find myself fighting the urge to swoop down on you to steal a kiss.” Hero’s eyes widened as her face exploded in a blush.
“I-I-I beg your pardon!” He smirked at her, eyes glittering with an endearing playfulness; undeniably in love with the way he could get her flustered.
“Mr. Tulane is clearly not a gentleman… and I would hate for him to steal any more kisses from the girl I wish would gift me with just one.” And with that he opened the door and bowed with a hand fluttering up towards the door. Hero was left speechless. She thought they were over this. She thought that she had spent enough time getting the idea of being with her out of his thick head. The memory of the moment in her collection room suddenly flashed in her mind… and she hated it as she realized that she [i had] almost let him kiss her. “Why you-you-you [i insufferable cad]!” she spat and turned on her heel, arms crossed over her chest as she turned with her nose in the air and a ‘hmph’ on her lips.
The sun room was open and spacious, with entire walls made of glass windows and a set of glass doors that opened to a back garden, now choked to death from ash. Thankfully the potted plants inside the warmed sunroom were flourishing and were able to help distract from the outside where life was not doing so well. Nolan walked over to a serving tray to get tea as a servant went about setting a small round table in the corner for lunch. Hero, however, stood staring out the window, still stewing in her own irritation at him. When he offered her tea, she took it without looking at it him and he sighed as he watched her. “Come Hero, don’t be cross with me,” he said softly. “You know I was only teasing you.”
“I do not care to be teased in such a manner!” she told him, taking a sip; eyes closed.
“You’re right. I should know better. I just… I’m completely smitten with the way you look when you’re flustered.” Hero’s eyes snapped open and she turned to stare at him.
“What!?” He immediately pointed a her.
“There! Like that!”
“And smitten,” he gently teased. “You’re so… lovely when you’re cheeks flush like that. And you’re always so perfect. When you’re flustered you stammer… and it makes me feel like I might have a chance to get closer to your perfection…” Hero was left speechless even as he smiled and turned to seat himself at the piano. He took a single sip of tea, set it upon the top of the piano and then set his fingers upon the keys and began to play. And all the while Hero stood and let her tea grow cold as she watched him. He’d completely caught her off guard, leaving her speechless and irritable. Why!? Why did he do that!? He made her head spin with the way he could make her so damn angry one moment… only to have her heart pounding the next… Why couldn’t he be like Maverick? Maverick was easy… Nolan was completely daunting…
Maverick finally arrived shortly after lunch did. Freshly shaven, and in clean clothes, however worn in, he looked confident and complete. Nolan thought he looked more like a pirate than a Dragon Rider. Hero thought he looked delicious. She smiled brightly at him as he walked in.
“I hope you didn’t get lost,” Nolan said, still sitting at the piano.
“Nah, nice maid in the hall told me where to go,” Maverick said, and walked over to stand beside Hero, putting an arm around her shoulders. “You gonna sit beside me today?” Maverick whispered into her ear, his lips teasing against her ear. Hero blushed and giggled, a finger crooked against her lips.
“I’d love to!” she whispered back and he chuckled and snuck a kiss from her cheek, leaving her starry eyed as he led her to the sofa.
“So what do you guys do for fun around here?” he asked as he grabbed a tea cookie from the trivet at the table. Nolan said nothing until he finished the last set of notes. Once complete he turned around and faced Maverick. Hero looked away, not daring to meet his gaze. She was still left confused by his earlier comments. “If everyone is dying of some fever, I don’t imagine the city has much of a night life going on… let alone any kind of life,” he chuckled. For the first time Hero didn’t smile at him, her expression shocked at the carelessness of his words.
“The capital has been most affected,” she tried, giving him the benefit of the doubt. After all, Maverick had just arrived. It wasn’t his fault he didn’t realize the magnitude of danger. “Katkos has been closed off for now. We… we spend most of our time here. But it isn’t so bad.”
Just then the doors opened and two maids wheeled in a cart piled with dishes. “Lunch is ready,” Nolan said with a flourish of his hand, changing the subject. “Why don’t we go eat? Maverick you can regale us with the details of your trip. You went with Prince Julian, I heard… what’s he like? Hero says he’s… oh what’s the word you used… charming?” Nolan grinned. “I heard that in battle, he’s savage…” Hero stood from the sofa and handed her cup off to the maid, stepping up to the table. Maverick followed suit and plopped down into one of the chairs. Meanwhile Nolan took the time to pull Hero’s chair out and see that she was seated. She tried to ignore the way his fingers brushed against her arms as he did… Did he do that on purpose? No, surely not.
“I would love to hear about your adventures in the tundra!” Hero exclaimed, trying to act as if Nolan hadn’t just made her heart skip again. Why was he so damn confusing!?
Bastien had been right, Maverick was a problem. Nolan had smelt trouble the second he came face to face with the rider. At first Nolan had thought, Bastien was just being an overprotective brother, but now Nolan knew why. Maverick was quite the flirt, and Hero was clearly eating his crap out of the palm of his hand. He wished she could see how much of a scoundrel this Maverick Tulane was. He’d seen her smile in a way, he’d never seen before when she rushed the green to hug the rider and hang off his arm and every word. Naturally Nolan felt the green stains of jealousy creeping in, but the war was just beginning, and he refused to loose it. No part of him wanted to have to pick up the shattered and broken pieces of Hero if Maverick was as much of a scoundrel as he anticipated the rider might be.
Still there was something painfully familiar about his face, his gait, and mannerisms. Nolan was a quick and efficient observer, and could easily sum up a person based off of a quick appearance. Nolan had already figured out, whoever Maverick Tulane was… he was without a doubt a pure blooded Trothian. That much was clear by his build, the tawniness of his skin, and the smell of his blood. It was there, and it was particularly strong. He might have been covered with the smell of Moore and other less mentionable things… but there was the strong scent of Trothian Blood flowing through his veins. Now he just needed to figure out how a Trothian ended up living on a Moore Island and becoming a Dragon Rider. And wasn’t that disappointing? That vagabond was a Dragon Rider, and Nolan was not… Hell, Nolan knew men far better than he who would have made honorable and good Dragon Riders. Yet, there was Maverick, a testament to the harsh truth, that it is not so simple what Dragons decide to do.
He left Hero alone with Maverick, at least for now. Nolan intended to continue spending as much time as possible with Hero, and he wasn’t going to change the routine he’d established with her. Besides, leaving Hero alone with Maverick, showed a level of trust and respect for Hero. It also showed Maverick that Nolan did not openly perceive him as a threat. It wasn’t true though… even Nolan saw how excited Hero was, and Maverick was certainly a threat, and that made Nolan very cautious.
Nolan had been wise however, in his foresight to make sure he helped Hero in preparing Maverick’s room. It allowed him to know exactly where Maverick would be staying and where he should be every single night he was here. His first trip was to inform a servant to have lunch prepared and ready with tea, by the time they all arrived to the sunroom. Then he took his time making his way to Maverick’s room; knowing that, that would be where Hero had no doubt taken him. Nolan just hadn’t anticipated he would find them the way he did…
Maverick was kissing Hero. Pressed against a wall in his bedroom, and the door partially closed. When he opened the door he almost didn’t believe he was seeing it, but it was real… Hero’s body language and reaction told him everything he needed to know. However, it also didn’t escape his attention that her wings didn’t move. He frowned, seeing that Hero would tempt him with a near kiss, and yet kiss Maverick so willingly. He would be remiss to say that it didn’t hurt… but it did.
“Am I interrupting anything important?” Nolan suddenly asked, breaking apart their moment. It did as intended, shocking them apart, except Maverick did not move as quickly as Nolan would have liked. Maverick kept his body close to Hero’s for a moment longer before finally giving her, her space and staring Nolan down.
“Nope,” Maverick answered with an almost smug look. Nolan kept his expression vacant, even as he turned to gaze upon the flushed Hero.
“Lunch is to be in the sunroom,” Nolan informed them. “Hero, let us leave Mr. Tulane to freshen up, I’m sure he’s starved for something to eat, and a bath…” Nolan observed with a slight jab to Maverick. He delighted in how Maverick’s jaw clenched. “Tea is currently ready and waiting for us. Mr. Tulane can meet us there once he’s cleaned himself up.” Maverick, impressively held Nolan’s cutting stare.
“He’s right, Hero,” Maverick suddenly said turning to look at Hero fondly and smiled. “I need a bath, I’m starting to smell myself,” the bastard chuckled. Was everything a joke with him? What was worse, his tactic worked on Hero. “I’ll figure out how to find you. I made it this far didn’t?” Maverick asked and finally tilted his head back to smirk at Nolan. Now it was Nolan’s turn to grit his teeth.
Nolan waited at the door for Hero, and offered her his arm, Maverick stood there with a grin and waved to the door as they left. “See you guys in a short,” and the door was shut. Nolan steeled himself from saying anything emotional, or out of jealous ire, and instead stared ahead. He knew he couldn’t just remain quiet either, so he turned to speak, but Hero did at the same time too. They stopped and Hero urged him to speak, so Nolan did. “It’s nice to see you so happy,” He admitted, and it was… even if it wasn’t because of something he did. “The past couple of weeks have been difficult, what with the Rebellion ready to blow at the drop of a hat…” Nolan shook his head. “I haven’t seen you smile like you did today in a long time… It was nice,” Nolan told her, with a wan smile. “But don’t think I’ll be so inclined to leave you alone with him again. No ma’am,” he proclaimed settled in hand to his chest. “I consider myself to be a gentleman and yet frequently find myself fighting the urge to swoop down on you to steal a kiss. Mr. Tulane is clearly not a gentleman… and I would hate for him to steal any more kisses from the girl I wish would gift me with just one.” Nolan grinned at her, stopping at the door to the sunroom, and bowed letting her enter.
The sun room was open and spacious, with entire walls made of glass windows and a set of glass doors that opened to a back garden, now choked to death from ash. Thankfully the potted plants inside the warmed sunroom were flourishing and were able to help distract that outside, life was not doing so well. Nolan walked over to a serving tray to get Tea as a servant went about setting a small round table in the corner for lunch. Nolan carried two cups of tea over to a small couch on the other end of the room and handed one to Hero, for a moment her hand touched his and Nolan couldn’t stop one of his fingers from reaching out towards hers and making the contact last for as long as possible. Across from the sofa was a small piano and Nolan sat himself down at it. He took a single sip of tea, set it upon the top of the piano and then set his fingers upon the keys. Nolan had not played in a long time… not before coming here, but as he played it was clear he had retained his talent. It was only getting better as he was playing more frequently these days spent with Hero. His fingers played out an improvised piece, light and flowing, with a sense of content and appreciation. Nolan didn’t know what to say next, and sometimes it was best to say nothing at all.
Maverick finally arrived shortly after lunch did. At least the man could clean himself up decently. Freshly shaved, and in clean clothes, however worn in, he looked confident and complete. Nolan thought he looked more like a pirate than a Dragon Rider.
“I hope you didn’t get lost,” Nolan said, still sitting at the piano when Maverick walked in.
“Nah, nice maid in the hall told me where to go,” Maverick said, and walked over to stand beside Hero, putting an arm around her shoulders. “You gonna sit beside me today?” Maverick whispered into her ear, his lips teasing against her ear. Nolan continued to play until his piece was finished. Having had Hero agree to sit beside him, Maverick sat down on the couch, arm still around Hero and grabbed for himself a tea cookie. “So what do you guys do for fun around here?” maverick asked. Nolan said nothing until he finished the last set of notes. Once complete he turned around and faced Maverick. He sat comfortably beside Hero and like he didn’t have a care in the world. “If everyone is dying of some fever, I don’t imagine the city has much of a night life going on… let alone any kind of life,” he chuckled and cringed at himself. Nolan wasn't laughing -he didn’t find it even remotely funny. People were dying and there was nothing to be done about it. He hated it.
“Lunch is ready,” Nolan said with a flourish of his hand, changing the subject. “Why don’t we go eat? Maverick you can regale us with the details of your trip. You went with Prince Julian, I heard… what’s he like? Hero says he’s… oh what’s the word you used… charming?” Nolan grinned. “I heard that in battle, he’s savage…”
“Be to my liking…” he smirked back at her and shook his head. “I sleep on a knapsack, under trees, and beside a Fat Dragon-” Hero bit her lip, trying to stifle a giggle as he walked over towards the bed. He grinned at her and it made her heart flutter. “It’s great! I haven’t slept in a real bed in a couple months!” he exclaimed, dropping his bag on the floor and falling backwards into the bed with a great flop. His body bounced about on the mattress, before he tossed himself over to lay on his side and looked at Hero. He pat the bedding next to him for her to sit down. She blushed and averted her gaze, trying not to look at the way his shirt has shifted upwards to reveal a stomach nicely muscled. Though… and maybe she was just being silly, but… Nolan had a six pack. And for all his definition, Maverick wasn’t as impressive. Which was such a stupid thing for her to be thinking about. It wasn’t like she was interested in Nolan [i that] way. He smirked at her knowingly.
“So tell me what you’ve been doing since I’ve been away,” he said, and she leaned up against the desk in the corner, a well-manicured finger tracing the lines in the woodwork. Dressed in a proper grey skirt with elegant pleats, a white ruffled blouse, and a wide black belt around her thin waist, the difference between the their two classes was stark. His wild dreadlocks were a direct contrast against her coifed and shiny curls pulled back in a demure updo, and her wings were tucked tightly against her back. She’d been trying to keep them pushed back as much as possible since she’d first seen Maverick. She wanted to make a good impression on him. Wanted her to continue to see her as cute. And surely a pair of mutant wings wouldn’t do that.
“Oh, there’s nothing to tell, really,” she said. “Since the country has come under quarantine we’re quite stuck here I’m afraid. I’ve just spent my time attempting to keep busy without going mad from bordem.” She glanced over at him and her expression was purely smitten as her cheeks went rosy. “Not at all like you I imagine! How exciting it must have been for you to be traveling. I’m jealous!” He chuckled handsomely and gave a wave as if the thought were silly.
“Aw, my trip was terribly boring. I flew over the black forest twice and never once saw Trolls, or Ogres. I was in the Wastelands and never once saw a Wendigo or a Frostbite. Not even a damn Arctic Lemur,” Maverick shook his head, dramatically disappointed in Mother Nature. “I did see an Aquean in their finny form… that was neat. I think she has it for a mate of mine, Nero. You remember him?” Hero furrowed her brow in thought.
“Perhaps. There were a few people in your group…”
“Lanky kid, blonde hair, funny accent? I think she’s a princess or some nonsense like that,” Maverick shrugged. He looked over at her again. “So you gonna show me around this place, or leave me to get lost on my own?” Hero smiled.
“Of course I’ll show you around! I’d… I’d love to show you my home,” she smiled shyly and looked to her feet. Her expression was purely enamored. She was indeed smitten with him, and completely taken with the realization that she had come all the way to see him. She was utterly convinced that he’d done so because he felt something for her too…
A shadow fell over her and she looked up, eyes widening slightly to realize that he’d gotten off the bed and approached her. His arm stretched out, hand against the wall and he leaned in with a cocky smirk, his crooked smoke making him look boyishly handsome. She blushed. “You don’t have to show me around your place, you know,” he teased, reaching out with his free hand to tug at a curl that rested against her cheek. The sensation of his fingers brushing against her skin had her shivering.
“We… we don’t?”
“Nah. We could just stay here and explore… other things…”
“O-other… things?” He smiled at her naivety and Hero sucked in a tiny, sharp breath when he slid a knuckle beneath her chin and pulled her head up.
“Maverick…” Was he really going to kiss her? She closed her eyes and gasped as his mouth slanted over hers. It was as amazing as the first time and she made a small whimper at the feeling of his tongue teasing her lips. She didn’t even hear the footsteps in the hall, or smell that same delicious earthy scent that belonged to Nolan as he came looking for her to tell her, lunch was being served…
Maverick watched as Nolan Ewing vanished inside the building, and with a slow breath to settle his nerves, he draped his arm over Hero’s shoulders.
“so this is it, huh?” He asked looking up at the dark and dull brick and black iron Manor. Hero smiled sweeping up her arm to show him the old castle, because Maverick was pretty sure this was a miniature castle. To think she had to grow up in this dull place…
“Welcome to Katkos Plantation. It’s older than even the palace.”
“Oh yeah?” He asked entering through the opulent foyer. He arched his brows. The Caislean had been nice, and Maverick wasn’t about to rank Katkos much higher than the Bayen Keep. “Just how old?” Maverick asked, not that he cared -but she had made a point to mention it, so might as well let her finish her little factoid.
“Over 600 years.” She smiled at him, and he met her smile with a grin of his own.
“You’re cute,” He teased, looking away for a moment to take in the finery of the house she led him through. How the Hell would he ever find his way around in this place? The only way he’d made it around the Caislean was thanks to Dartarian, Grace, or Nero.
He felt Hero still staring at him, and he saw her out of the corner of his eye. She was looking at him odd. He knew that look… smitten. He grinned, and tugged her closer. “What are you looking at me like that? I got a bug on my face or something?” Suddenly she was blushing and grabbing his hand. It drew them both to a stop in the hallway.
“I… I’m just so happy you’re here!” she admitted and her gaze went soft. “I missed you.”
“Missed who?” a voice asked tiredly, but curious. Maverick stepped back from Hero and looked down the hall to see Lady Talk walking the hall in a somber blue day gown and looking like she’d seen better, brighter days.
“Just me!” Maverick waved, making his presence known, and not giving a shit to propriety.
“Ah Mister Maverick. How lovely to see you again,” she said, and unlike her husband, her tone was at least genuine. Still, Maverick called: [i -Bullshit-]
“He’s come for my birthday,” Hero smiled and hugged his arm.
“Really?” Acruze replied, surprised. “Well… have you introduced him to Nolan yet?” she said slyly and Hero rolled her eyes. He knew it. Nolan was definitely competition, any doubts he’d had earlier were now laid to rest.
“Yes mother!” Hero griped.
“He seems like a swell guy…” Maverick said, playing the part well, but it was also pretty clear he didn’t care for Nolan. He’d already made up his mind.
“Well I’m very glad you made it safe,” Lady Talik told him.
“Wasn’t a bad trip…” Maverick shrugged.
“Though I must say, it was not at all a smart move to cross over the current quarantine lines.”
“Why?” Maverick asked with a shrug -he had no idea what had happened here.
“Many people have died.”
“Oh…” Maverick was genuinely shocked. He’d heard there was a fever, but never imagined it would be an epidemic.
“I do not want that illness in my house. I should thank you to tell us should you feel sick, immediately.”
“Of course, I’m so sorry. I had no idea… none of us did…” Maverick’s brows furrowed with genuine concern then. Were Julian and Grace alright? Was it really that bad here? Was that the strange smell he could sense in the air?
Lady Talik left them after that, and Hero was left to stem the furrow of Maverick’s brow.
“What?” he asked, culled from his own thoughts and concerns regarding Julian and Grace, when he heard Hero’s apology.
“My mother just… isn’t the same these days,” she told him with an apologetic smile before opening the door to a room dressed in blues and greens. Maverick turned around to gaze inside the room and his brows rose in surprise. “Here you are. I hope this will be to your liking.”
“Be to my liking…” he smirked back at her and shook his head. “I sleep on a knapsack, under trees, and beside a Fat Dragon-“ Maverick suddenly snorted at something Merceron said in his head. He turned his attention back to Hero and grinned. “It’s great! I haven’t slept in a real bed in a couple months!” he exclaimed, dropping his bag on the floor and falling backwards into the bed with a great flop. His body bounced about on the mattress, before he tossed himself over to lay on his side and looked at Hero. He pat the bedding next to him for her to sit down. She didn’t though, and he wasn’t surprised. He’d get her in that bed before he left, or he’d get in hers… Gods willing… he’d never been with a Debutant before.
“So tell me what you’ve been doing since I’ve been away. My trip was terribly boring. I flew over the black forest twice and never once saw Trolls, or Ogres. I was in the Wastelands and never once saw a Wendigo or a Frostbite. Not even a damn Arctic Lemur,” Maverick shook his head, dramatically disappointed in Mother Nature. “I did see an Aquean in their finny form… that was neat. I think she has it for a mate of mine, Nero. You remember him? Lanky kid, blonde hair, funny accent? I think she’s a princess or some nonsense like that,” Maverick shrugged, not really sure and not really caring.
Seeing she was definitely not going to join him on the bed, he finally got up to his feet and put his arm back over her shoulder. “So you gonna show me around this place, or leave me to get lost on my own?”
It was quiet that afternoon, save for the patter of rain against the glass of the windows. In any normal circumstances, Hero would have hated the rain. It kept her from things outdoors, which she much preferred over the more lady-like activities her mother enjoyed… And it’s not that she disliked sewing and cooking and ballroom dancing. It wasn’t even that she was bad at them. It’s just… well… couldn’t other girls do them instead? But the rain, even now, was a welcome thing. It helped clean the soot from the outside walls and windows that came on the wind from Padjua; miles away. While she didn’t really mind the soot, she hated it for one reason and one reason only- it made her mother so incredibly sad. The soot had choked their once pristine air, killing off the orchard and leaving behind dried, dead trees that stood silent and white; stretching up to the sky like boney fingers. No longer did the birds come here, but to simply rest their wings before flying on in search of greener pastures. And worst of all… it had killed off the yellow roses her mother had loved so much.
It had sent the delicate Acruze into a depression, claiming that she had lost the beauty of sea and had now lost the beauty of the land. It didn’t help that she worried day and night for the safety of her husband. Hero worried for her father too, and for Bastian; the two of them forced to work over time trying not only to protect the King and his family, but help them find a way out of the drudge the country had sunk into. Mason was the King’s right hand, and Garreth now relied on him almost exclusively for council. It had turned her father’s hair grey and but wrinkles in his forehead where there didn’t used to be any. Acruze’s undeniable sadness only added to his worry. And while Hero still had not forgiven him for trying to use her to further his own agenda… she did wish there was something she could do to ease the shadows beneath his eyes. More than once when she had woken up at night to sneak out and watch specimens of nocturnal insects, she’d happen across him awake and staring out one of the windows as if he might find the answer amongst the shadows beneath the moon…
A knock on the door interrupted her thoughts, but she didn’t even pause her hands, which moved slowly and carefully over the square of plate glass where she was attempting to pull apart the bottom and top wings of an large dragonfly that was strategically pinned in place. Her tweezers clicked gently as she called out, “Enter,” her eyes peering through the lenses of a pair of magnifying goggles that made them several times larger than they really were, and gave her the look of a bug herself. The door opened and a set of sure steps echoed on the wood floor behind her, but she didn’t bother to turn. She knew who it was, and it took everything she had not to shiver slightly at the scent that came with him… Earthy and slightly sweet… like grass warmed by the sun. She was so glad she wasn’t prone to blushing.
“Should have known I would find you here.” Letting out a slow breath to steel her nerves, Hero set the tweezers down and pressed her fingers to the sides of the goggles, gently lifting them from her face and leaving them to rest atop the curls in her hair, before she turned to face him. Nolan Ewing greeted her with a smile.
He really shouldn’t have done that. Smiled, that is. His smile did funny things to her stomach. She felt strange and not… normal when he smiled. It was even worse when he laughed. He had such white teeth. And dimples. And his nose did this stupid wrinkle-thing that made him look younger… Ok maybe it wasn’t stupid. But she wished she didn’t like it so much. Because when he smiled at her… just at her, the way he was doing now, it made her feel as if that smile was somehow only hers. And that was a dangerous thing to feel, because it meant that he was under her skin- and she wasn’t supposed to let him. She was supposed to be saving her heart for someone else and not the man her father had picked for her.
Suddenly his smile turned into a full on Cheshire grin and Hero blinked as she realized he’d been saying something. “I-I’m sorry… What?” He chuckled.
“I said- I even looked outside on the off chance you braved the rain for more research.” Hero sighed, pressing her fingertips to her cheek.
“Yes well… even I know when to call it quits. The ground is positively saturated. I wouldn’t have gotten a thing done!” He walked over towards her desk, motioning to her that she did not have to stand for him, and instead he came to her and leaned over her shoulder.
“Oh!” he exclaimed looking the dragonfly over. “Isn’t that the dragonfly I helped you catch the other day?” he asked and reached over to carefully pick up the glass beneath it and examine it. If that wasn’t a testament to how their relationship had grown she wasn’t sure what was. Usually she let no one touch her things. But Nolan had shown that he could be trusted. He was careful and methodical as she was.
“Isn’t it lovely?” she asked, taking it from him and turning it so it caught the light. “I removed the film over the wings- just there, you see? The membrane is so much for defined! And I brushed it down with the alcohol derivative. It really made the colour shine.”
“Brilliant!” he noted and turned his head to grin at her, just as she did the same. Instantly they both blushed, going still as they realized the close proximity they were. This close she could see everything… his smooth, tanned skin. The way his golden hair caught the light. His eyes and their glittering hazel colour. She could smell him and feel the warmth from his body. It made her swallow attempting to keep herself from getting too dizzy. It would not have been the first time he’d made her feel unsteady either. A few days after the fabled dinner he still claimed to have demanded on his own, the Ewing family had gone to leave Troth’lenka and go back to their plantation on the islands, when they were cut off by the monarchy releasing a ban on travel, save for state business. Unable to leave, Mason had invited them to remain at Katkos until the banns had been lifted. It had meant that Nolan had spent more time around her, and they had managed to move past their initial awkwardness and had become exactly what Nolan claimed he wanted. Friends.
Except that Hero was beginning to wonder if that’s all they were now. Sure they hadn’t done anything improper. She still hadn’t kissed him, despite him teasing her relentlessly for that very reason, but they had spent evenings walking the grounds, and he- seemingly happily- helped her collect specimens for her ever growing collection. During one of their forays into the fields she had tripped and sprained her ankle, and while she had told him she could walk, he had demanded he carry her all the way back to the house to ensure she didn’t injure it further. She no longer found him annoying, but rather had begun to truly enjoy his company. He was honest, well mannered, and not at all snobbish; unlike his parents. He was kind, compassionate, and most of all intelligent. He seemed sincerely interested in learning about her hobbies, and he confided in her about his business and sought her council. But it was more than that. These days, with a political uprising quickly becoming for reality than threat, the two of them had begun to come together to calm one another’s fears. And just a few nights ago, they had been sitting on the porch, talking softly as they watched the shadows of night grow… and he had reached over and placed his hand on hers… and she hadn’t pulled away...
“I apologize… I-” he stammered.
“N-no! I…” she attempted at the same time. A moment later they were quiet and continued to stare, and Hero felt her heart thunder beneath her breast, and the lightheadedness returned, but this time it was accompanied by a sudden all-consuming desire for something she’d never, ever wanted in her life. She thought she actually might want him to… kiss her. “Nolan, I…” she said softly, and as if he knew, he dipped his head. She closed her eyes.
[center [b [i “RAAAAWWWWWAAAGHHH!!!!”]]]
Hero gasped, so startled by the noise and the sudden shaking of the house that she didn’t have enough of her wits about her to struggle against Nolan’s body as he braced her against the table. The vibrations rattled the glass cases and frames that hung on the walls and she gasped again and lunged practically over top him to catch one of them as they fell, just as the shaking cease. Letting out a sigh of relief she set it carefully down on the desk’s surface, only to look at Nolan and freeze- realizing exactly what position they were in. She was all but lying on top of him, as he leaned backwards against the desk top. She swallowed tightly, finally unable to hide the blush that painted her face when a soft smile spread across his lips. “F-forgive me,” she stammered, attempting to push up from him, hands pressing against his chest. A very firm… very muscular chest.
“For what?” he asked, his voice slightly deeper. She stared up at him, well aware of the way his hands slid from her sides down to grip her hips. If it had been anyone else, or even a few days before, she would have had no qualms of slapping him across the face and demanding to be set free. But for the first time in her life… she couldn’t bring herself to say ‘no’. She couldn’t bring herself to stop the way he held her. He didn’t seem to mind in the least.
“So…” he finally said after a moment of silence. “Do you think I might have that kiss now?” he asked softly, and dipped his head. Hero closed her eyes and turned her face upwards, a silent and very obvious acquiescence.
The door to the study slammed open, interrupting them before their lips could meet, and they both tensed and looked to the doorway to find Bastian of all people standing there. His mouth was half-open, as if he’d been prepared to speak, but he’d paused seeing the two of them as they were. Quickly Hero pushed away, and Nolan released her without a word. “You’re supposed to knock brother,” she said with a look as she quickly brushed the wrinkles out of her heather-grey skirt and white blouse. “What is it.”
“Don’t go outside,” he replied quickly. She blinked.
“I came to tell you not to go outside.” Hero arched a brow and set her hands on her hips.
“So… you came all the way in here to tell me… not to go outside?”
“Yes,” he said, face stony.
“Well then… of course I’m going to,” she answered and went to walk passed him. Bastian quickly put his arm across the door, his sable locks cut just like their father’s, fluttering over his forehead.
“Hero,” he growled a warning. She merely came to a stop in front of him, took up her boot and slammed the heel down on the top of his foot.
“Damn it!” he yelped grabbing it and hopping about while she passed him,. When Nolan followed her with a comment he glared and snagged his friend’s arm. “It’s that asshole, white moore!” he snapped.
“The dragon rider?” Nolan demanded, his attitude completely changing.
“I don’t want him near my sister,” Bastian warned.
It was too late, however. By the time they reached the foyer, she was already on the porch and her face had transformed from irritation to complete delight. “Maverick!” she exclaimed, her green eyes glittering. The cocky, dragon ridder turned and grinned, his arms out wide.
“Hero!” She immediately ran from the porch and he laughed as he caught her, hugging her tightly and spun her around for good measure. She giggled, her dark curls flying out in waterfall of chestnut. “Why you are a sight for sore eyes!” he exclaimed as he set her on her feet and walked with her towards Merceron to collect his bag. “Did you miss me?” Hero grinned, her hands behind her back, and her heart bursting with joy. He’d made it!
“As a matter of fact I did! I… I thought you might have forgotten,” she blushed, glancing shyly at her feet.
“Flew practically nonstop from Soulstice to get here, and it wasn’t very hard to find you either,” he told her as he collected his bag from Merceron’s saddle, tossing it over his shoulder. Reaching out he crooked a finger beneath her chin and she stared up into his eyes with a dreamy expression. “So do I get a hello kiss?” he teased her, his voice sultry. “I have to check if you’ve been practicing.” Hero’s lips parted, prepared to answer, but before she could a voice cleared from behind them. She tried very hard not to roll her eyes. Was she ever to be kissed today!?
“Who’s the grumpy git at the door?” Maverick asked nonchalantly as he released her. Hero sighed and turned, intending on seeing her brother standing there with his usual scowl, but she was shocked to see Nolan instead. He didn’t look happy… but at least he wasn’t glaring the way the men in her family so often did. Taking Maverick’s arm, she smiled up at him and led him towards the entrance, and they came to a halt up on the landing where Nolan stood. “Maverick, this is Nolan Ewing, the heir to one of our nation’s most prized sugarcane plantations.”
“Name’s Maverick,” he said holding out his hand. It was much to his surprise that Nolan reached out and accepted his hand giving it a firm shake.
“Nolan. I’m glad you could make it. I’ve heard a great deal about you.”
“All good things I hope?” Maverick asked giving Hero a flirtatious look. She bit her lip and and tried to reign in her grin… and heart palpitations. Gods she’d forgotten how handsome he was. He was here! Truly here! She couldn’t believe her good luck!
“Yes, all good things,” Nolan assured, and he looked to Hero. “I shall leave you in Mr. Tulane’s capable hands, and seek out the company of your brother. I’ll see you at supper,” he said and bowed respectfully.
“Yes of course. Thank you,” she said. He smiled softly at her before turning to leave and when he was out of sight, Maverick draped his arm around her shoulders.
“You must be dying of boredom surrounded by so many stuffed arses,” he chuckled. Hero arched a brow at him.
“Nolan isn’t stuffy in the least,” she said, reaching up to take his hand and lead him inside. “He’s actually very kind. And smart. We’ve had a great many conversations. He’s…” She didn’t see the way her eyes grew misty with delight at the memory of him. “He’s a true gentleman.”
“I thought you were tired of gentleman,” he teased her. “That’s where I come in.” Hero giggled.
“Yes. No gentleman are you!”
They stepped inside the foyer and Hero turned with a flourishing hand and gestured to the surrounding room as they headed to the stairs. “Welcome to Katkos Plantation. It’s older than even the palace. Over 600 years.” She smiled at him as he looked around while they walked, and couldn’t help but notice how out of place he looked standing amidst the finery of the place with his dreadlocks and worn clothes in their bright colours. To Hero it was a breath of fresh air, and her heart pounded with the realization that he was here. When he saw her expression he asked her what it was about and she blushed and gripped his hand, coming to a stop outside the door to a vacant room. “I… I’m just so happy you’re here!” she admitted and her gaze went soft. “I missed you.”
“Missed who?” a voice asked, and Hero turned to find her mother coming down the hallway. She was dressed in a simple blue daygown… but her usual bright and cheery expression was delicately muted. She looked tired. Still she smiled as she came to a stop near them.
“Ah Mister Maverick. How lovely to see you again,” she said, and unlike her husband, her tone was at least genuine.
“He’s come for my birthday,” Hero smiled and hugged his arm.
“Really?” Acruze replied, surprised. “Well… have you introduced him to Nolan yet?” she said slyly and Hero rolled her eyes.
“Yes mother!” she intoned with exasperation. Acruze smiled and cupped her daughter’s cheek before looking back to Maverick.
“Well I’m very glad you made it safe. Though I must say, it was not at all a smart move to cross over the current quarantine lines. Many people have died. I do not want that illness in my house. I should thank you to tell us should you feel sick, immediately.” Maverick agreed and apologized and Acruze nodded, bade him to make himself comfortable and then moved off down the hall. Hero sighed and watched her go, but her expression was one of concern.
“I’m sorry. My mother just… isn’t the same these days,” she told him with an apologetic smile before opening the door to a room dressed in blues and greens. “Here you are. I hope this will be to your liking.”
[b Palazzo de Padjua]
The distant echoes of battle lingered in Nolan’s mind. Around him everything was quiet. It was almost peaceful…. Almost, if one didn’t remember that just outside Palace grounds it was a verifiable Hell. Despite how the sun shined, the birds sang, and it seemed nothing had changed; the heavy rain had washed away a lot of the soot put off by the fires and dark murky puddles everywhere. Droplets still fell to the earth as gravity pulled them from the leaves they rested on, and on the horizon another storm was moving in. Nolan knew the truth. Times were changing. He'd fought in it. The fever was destroying Troth’Lenka. Rebels surrounded them on every side, and Nolan was keenly aware they were in the midst of a civil war they probably can't win. Between the rebellion and the Island Separatists, the Trothian army was out numbered. The Islanders wanted to separate and become their own province, while the Native Trothians wanted Political reform. So far their reform had claimed the lives of several lower noblemen and their families along with some members of the monarchy, including the Grand Duchess Estelle Fergus. Nolan’s family was not part of the monarchy, but they were part of the aristocracy. They had refused to leave their home; something Nolan found admirable, but also needlessly dangerous. Where could they flee to though? The entire country's boarders were closed. Even worse, Nolan couldn't be with his family. Currently stationed as the General and Commanders’ assistant. Nolan knew exactly what that meant:General Talik was keenly aware he might not live through this war, and so Nolan was competing against the infamous Sora Johansson for the role of General. Nolan was confident in himself -despite how Sub-commander Johansson had experience and years on him.
Nolan shadowed Mason’s every move. When Mason slept, Nolan did, when the general trained, Nolan trained with him. This meant Nolan had moved in at Katkos for the time being. He wasn't complaining, quite the opposite. He loved it. He had all the time to spend with his best friend, and continued to work on building a relationship with Hero. He valued their fragile friendship more than anything else, but nothing was more frustrating than being kept at arms length. She didn't trust him. She didn't believe that he honestly found her beautiful, but the dragon rider she spoke of often, she seemed to trust. She was also determined in the belief that he would risk the inherent dangers to see her for her birthday. He didn’t want to call her foolish, because even if he could, he couldn’t bring himself to do so. He respected what he saw, and he saw that she was a woman smitten. He respected her enough he stemmed his own advances and resigned himself to be her friend, because she clearly wasn't interested in him romantically. A shame really, he would have worked hard to be a good husband for her. Don't get him wrong. He hadn't given up yet. The dragon rider might be a tool, worst case he was upstanding and stalwart... Nolan decided to wait and see what he would do after meeting this rider. If he ever showed....
Hero’s birthday was within the next week, if the fool wasn't here by the first of the week, he wasn't coming at all. Nolan was sure of that. If that happened, Nolan was entirely ready to step up and prove to Hero he cared about her. A part of him felt guilty for planning to utilize such an underhanded technique, and at the same time: All’s fair in love and war. And wasn't he currently involved in both? If Nolan was nothing else, he was a fighter, a strategist. He didn’t just strike, he was methodical about it, and the way he viewed the world was as if it were a giant chess board, and he had to anticipate and prepare for all possible moves. Currently he was anticipating the move, or potential lack of one, from the Mysterious Islander Dragon Rider. Right now the most important game was proving to test his cool patience like no other.
"Ewing!" Nolan jumped out of his thoughts to see the General addressing him; he marched down the hallway leaving the war room with the King and his many advisers. Commander Valerius Johansson flanked his right, while Sora flanked his left. Seeing her march proud beside the General left Nolan feeling slightly intimidated by her natural ferocity. He’d heard she fought the World Joust Champion from Soulstice, and held her own easily against him. She was, of course, eventually bested… Prince Odin was not World Champion and Warrior of the Realm in Soulstice for nothing.
“General,” Nolan saluted.
“We are done here, let’s move out,” Nolan clenched his jaw, the General’s tone was enough to let Nolan know he’d argued with the King again, and was once again silenced. All the General and the King seemed to do was argue these days, and by the glare on the Commander and Sub-commander faces, he was being shipped out again. Nolan turned sharply to follow, donning his sharp cap and marched just behind them. Outside the sky began to darken, and Nolan sighed, more rain was on the way. Nolan dared not ask what was said in the meeting, and instead waited until the General was ready to talk about it. Waiting outside for them were their horses, but before they could mount the MacKenna stock, the Herald came running out.
“General! A Moment please, The King!” Nolan watched as the General gripped the pommel of his saddle in a near crushing grip but removed his foot from the stirrup and turned back to find the King himself standing in the door. He stood tall with an air of arrogance, and entitlement. The Herald seemed to cower seeing that the King had followed him out.
“Mason, I am not finished speaking. I [i AM] your King,” King Garreth reminded darkly from the open doorway. Nolan looked between the King and the General, and spied how Valerius glowered back at the King, and Sora remained indifferent with pursed lips. They watched in stoney silence as Mason stalked towards the palace and, towered over Garreth as he crossed the foyer and entered.
Valerius and Sora turned to move out and Nolan, watched them go. He could not follow, and would have to wait. He too dismounted his horse and started back towards the Palazzo and inside. He’d have to wait, but no one said he had to wait in the foyer… He quietly followed towards the King’s study, where he strained at the door and tried to listen, just as much as the guards that barred the door did. Inside Nolan heard the smallest bits of the conversation, but for the most part it was arguing. The Cane Islands, Garreth refused to admit defeat, refused to flee, and Mason refused to continue letting the Country fall into disrepair. They couldn’t agree on the course of action. The Naval fleet was locked in port due to the Quarantine, the Rebels were advancing and Nolan knew Mason didn’t think he could keep the Palazzo safe much longer if the people continued to die in the streets. Nolan had to agree, twice now small rebel groups had tried to breech the Palazzo walls. The survivors were currently locked up in the underbelly of the Palazzo. Nolan had seen to their interrogations with the General, himself. They had left a bitter taste on his tongue.
Nolan was straining to listen when he heard a voice clear itself from behind him. He straightened up and turned around to see none other than the gorgeous Fey SummerQueen. “Oh! Queen Phaela, my apologies… The ahh, General is conversing with his Majesty.”
“Yes,” she said eying the door. “I can hear that…” Nolan took a closer look at the queen and saw her own exhaustion and fear in her green eyes… but he felt her fear was more for her husband than that of the state of affairs they were in now. For a moment they stared at one another before looking back at the door. Nolan picked up the sounds of heavy footfalls rushing towards the door, and he moved quickly to sweep the Queen away from the door before it came flying open with a red faced General hulking in the doorway.
“I am your king!” Garreth snapped angrily from inside the room. Mason gripped the door jam so tightly it dented. He turned back to growl at Garreth.
“Stephan was [i my] King,” Nolan felt his blood run cold to hear the General say that. “My Loyalty is not to the King, however, Garreth. It is to the [i CROWN]. To my [i country] and its [i people!] Forsake the damned islands for now, and focus on what’s happening HERE!” He barked. “Your father understood that! I refuse to send Valerius back there for any reason other than to sign an armistice or truce!” Mason barked, for once the King was silenced and stared at the General, with nostrils flared and face red.
“I cannot let the Islands go… My Great Grandfather won them from the Spaniards. To let them go would be an insult to his memory and this crown. You’re wrong, General. My father would never let the Islands go. I won’t either,” The King warned. Nolan watched the General fume with his restraint, even as his eyes flickered a dangerous amber hue.
“If it pleases the Crown, then so be it…” He growled and turned sharply from the room. He bowed respectfully to Queen Phaela, before hurrying down the hallway. Nolan quickly followed after him back through the foyer, down the front steps, and onto their horses.
They galloped towards the gates even with several civilians shouting angrily through the gates, hoping their voice would be heard. Nolan braced himself. The guards opened the gates just enough, while others guarded the gate with pikes raised, for Mason and Nolan to gallop through. Mason came to a trot however in the mist of the mob and looked down at a particularly haggard man.
“WHORE! The King’s WHORE!” the man called Mason. Nolan was stunned to see he did not react. “We starve and off you go to fight another war while we are left to die in the streets! He,” The man shouted pointing towards the Palazzo. “Sits in his Bella Palazzo, comfortable, safe, and with plenty of food and clean water! We have nothing!”
“I understand your anger-“ Mason tried, but was quickly cut off.
“How could you ever know?!”
“You’re titled and rich!”
“You’ve never known hunger!”
“You’re a murderer!”
“General?” Nolan tried, bringing his horse closer, but the General silenced him.
“How could you understand our anger?” The man asked. Nolan looked between them curiously, and watched as Mason sighed deeply.
“Because I have been to War once before, and I do not look forward to returning to it… least of all against my fellow Trothians,” Mason said. “These are trying times, I know… I am sorry you have to suffer… The crown is trying to find a solution, I ask for your patience. In the meantime… I will personally see to it that food stuffs are supplied to the Hospital where it will be distributed within the week. Good day,” Mason told them. They were still angry, Nolan could clearly see that, but the prospect of food was enough to quiet them and let them pass. Nolan frowned… dark days indeed.
They arrived at Katkos soaked to the bone from the rain, and soggy from the humidity. Mason looked exhausted by the time they reached the front doors of the small Castle. “General?” Nolan tried again, as he dismounted his horse and fell in line with the sour looking man.
“Yes, Ewing?” he sighed. Ahead of them, the door opened and the doorman stood with two maids who each carried a towel ready to take their wet things.
“Do you really believe we should let the Islands go? When did you change your mind?” Mason’s scowl deepened.
“When I saw our people starving and dying in exchange for a war with savages who think they have a claim to the land.”
“Well.. it was their land-“ Nolan stopped at the cold seething glare the general gave him.
“Was. Now it belongs to Troth’lenka, and they should accept that. Instead they fight with us, using up resources that should be staying here for the populous. They are proving to be a greater hassle than need be.”
“What would you suggest we do?” Nolan asked curiously.
“In a perfect world?” Mason asked exhaustedly. “Relocate them. Send them North to the Moore Islands where they belong,” the General gruffed, shaking out of his jacket and cap and handing it off. Nolan mimicked him, handing off his cap to the waiting maid. “However, that is not possible… I’d be pleased with a temporary armistice. Something to buy us time to focus on the Mainland. Solve this damn fever…” Mason eyeballed Nolan then, looking him over and stroked at his chin in thought. “What would [i you] suggest we do?” Nolan blinked, caught off guard. He didn’t anticipate the General wanting his input.
“Well… I agree that an armistice is a good start. It won’t fix things though, they will make more demands in time. The Crown refuses to let the Islands go, the Natives want their land back, and we are currently facing a full blown civil war. The people versus the Crown versus the Islander Separatists. We are stuck. We can’t help the people if all of our resources are tied up in the Island Conflict. What if we offered them representation within Parliament?” Mason, to Nolan’s disappointment, chuckled.
“You’ve been speaking with Prince Stephan too much, I think.” Nolan’s brow furrowed. It wasn’t out of curiosity, but frustration. He would rather go to war than find a diplomatic solution? He didn’t understand. To Nolan, and Prince Stephan, it seemed the best course of action to take. To many his age, it did. Nolan didn’t let his dismissal put him down though. Perhaps… if only he could convince the man…
“I think the Prince has a valid point. Its tactic is favorable, with a high probability of success. We offer the Sugar Islands representation, and bequeath them land as penance. They would be free and legal citizens of Troth’Lenka, protected by her crown, and yet free to live on their land once again. We give it back to them, in the agreement we retain the right to keep a naval base there.”
“It would never work. You are being too generous-“
“Am I?” Nolan challenged, stopping and forcing the General to stop with him.
“Would we not wish the same if we were invaded? Followed by a war between two countries that took place on our land. Now we are occupied and our land is no longer ours, and we are no longer free to live our life in our own land. Hated by the invaders who now call the land theirs?” Nolan sighed. “I cannot help but sympathize with them, for if I were in their position, I would fight to reclaim my home… that’s what so many of you older generations fail to see. They are fighting for their home… you are fighting for resources.” Mason studied Nolan for a moment, and Nolan couldn’t be sure if the man was pissed, amused, or convinced.
“You make a good argument… planning on becoming a politician?” Nolan frowned.
“No. I can’t be one. Too honest,” Nolan murmured, and Mason chuckled warmly.
“I admire your ideal of diplomacy and not war… but the sad truth remains… man will always be at war.” Nolan wanted to argue, but the General clapped his shoulder firmly and turned to walk again. “Enough of this chatter… Supper is in two hours. Spend that time wisely. Go now,” He waved his hand dismissively to him as he stopped at the door of his study and opened the door. Nolan heard the gentle voice of Lady Talk from within as she greeted her husband, and Nolan knew he had better get going if he wanted to enjoy the next couple hours. First things first… he needed to change.
Dressed in dry clothes and fresh from a bath, Nolan departed his room in search of Bastien, but this search also included one for Hero; as he always liked to make a point of finding her and greeting her when he returned with the General. He searched all the regular places they spent time in. The orchard’s gazebo, the music room, the billiard room, the library, and her favorite sun room in the off chance she was having tea. When it finally dawned on him where she was, it was the last place he had looked. Her Hobby Room. He walked right up to the door and knocked lightly, until he heard her permission to enter. He found her as he should have suspected on a rainy day like this; hunched over her work preserving a large gold and green dragonfly.
“Should have known I could find you here,” Nolan greeted warmly and welcomed himself into the room. He’d been in it several times now, and he thoroughly enjoyed reading through her nature journals, and her research. She had pressed leaves framed on the wall, along with flower pressings, drawings, and preserved bugs all with glittering wings. It was a colorful and beautiful collection. He’d always loved nature as a small boy, and a part of him was envious of Hero’s ability to pursue her interests… his career had been chosen for him. Perhaps Mason was right… perhaps he would be better suited as a diplomat. “I even looked outside on the off chance you braved the rain for more research.” He grinned at her. He truly didn’t put it past her, and he would have gone out with her, mucking the rain and mud if it made her happy. He already had the perfect birthday present for her wrapped in his room. He knew she’d love it.
He walked over towards her desk, motioning to her that she did not have to stand for him, and instead he came to her and leaned over her shoulder. “Oh!” He exclaimed looking the dragonfly over. “Isn’t that the Dragonfly I helped you catch the other day?” he asked and reached over to look it over and he grinned. “Brilliant,” He noted and turned his head to grin at her. He quickly flushed realizing his close proximity with her. He could smell her perfume, the oils in her hair, he could make out the faint pale freckles that dotted her nose, and it had his heart quickening. He carefully moved away from her and chuckled nervously. “I apologize… I-“
Nolan braced Hero as the Estate began to shake from a boom like sound outside. Wind rushed the windows open, including the rain, and Nolan ran to them when he realized the sound he heard belonged to a very large creature. He wasn’t expecting that creature to be a Dragon, a very large, sunstone dragon, circling overhead. Nolan truly felt his stomach drop. The Rider had arrived… Check.
Maverick parted ways with Julian at the Harbor and headed south east towards Katkos. He’d never been, but she had told him to look for the Apple Field. Too bad the storm made visibility shitty. He didn’t have to fight the storm for much longer, it was moving fast, and he had a feeling Grace was going to get caught in it. With the clearing rain he spotted a sprawling estate of brown stone and red brick, with black iron gates at the front of a long drive. He spotted the Apple trees planted in neat little rows for hundred of acres. This had to be the place.
“Better let them know we’re here,” Maverick chuckled. Merceron, only smirked, a mischievous glimmer in his eye. Maverick felt Merceron give a great flap of his wings, sending them pelting through the air towards the estate. Maverick shouted from the rush, and Merceron roared a terrifying shriek as he circled the main house. “I don’t think they heard you Merc, let’s make a second pass and land at that turnabout.”
“I shall endeavor to deliver this time,” Merceron wryly chuckled, and banked to the side to make his second pass. He roared, if possible, louder and more terrifying than before. He finally came to land on the front drive, with wings spread wide… and they were greeted by a contingency of guards.
Maverick poked his head up from behind Merceron and waved to the guards. “Hello!” He greeted with his goofy grin. “I am looking for a Miss. Hero Talik? I was told this might be the place to find her. It was a very reliable source…” The guards glared, only retained their position.
“State your name and business!” A guard shouted.
“I am Maverick Tulane. This here is my old friend, Merceron the great flame. We are here for the festivities in regards to Hero’s birthday,” Maverick said, mocking them slightly with his puffery. They guards clearly didn’t find it funny.
“Stand down,” He heard an angry shout. “What are you doing here?” Maverick smirked wickedly. Oh What fun… the Papa General was here.
“Oh good, you’re here. That means I’ve found the place!” Maverick called with a clasp of his hands and jumped down from Merceron’s saddle. The guards eyed him with distaste, as Mason Talik stomped towards him. Maverick didn’t miss the two figure that appeared at the door either. Hero, and the guy she was with.
“Go away,” the general said sharply. “You are not welcomed here.”
“I was told differently,” Maverick grinned. “The birthday girl invited me. We wouldn’t want to disappoint Hero on her birthday, would we?” He taunted. Mason looked ready to throttle him. Maverick stifled his laughter. This was too much fun.
“We are in the middle of a quarantine. Are you insane?” Mason demanded. Maverick’s answer was a simple shrug.
“Sounded like fun.”
“I should have you arrested,” Mason growled, but before he could step closer to Maverick, the hair heated to boiling as Merceron flared up in warning.
“I don't think Merceron likes that idea very much.” Maverick stepped towards Mason then, feeling rather emboldened, and clasped Mason’s shoulder. “I’ll make you a deal. I don’t want to disappoint Hero. You don’t want to disappoint Hero. She’s a good girl, and I came because she asked me to. I promise once her birthday is over, I will leave, and I won’t come back here. After I’m gone, you can ban me for life. I don’t care,” Maverick confessed. Mason’s eyes flashed red, and his hand snapped up to pry Maverick’s hand off of him. Maverick yelped in pain.
“You will leave before she wakes up in the morning after her birthday. Understand?”
“Crystal clear!” Maverick whimpered trying desperately to tug his hand back. Mason jerked him closer, and tightened his angry grip on Maverick’s hand. He felt his bones being crushed. “OW! Gods Damnit, alright!” The mason let his hand go. “Alright,” Nolan repeated. “You have a deal. I can sleep outside too.”
“You’ve clearly never met my wife,” He growled and turned his back on him. Nolan sighed, as the guards turned and followed the General. Behind him, Merceron chuckled.
“Bloody genius you are,” He teased poking Maverick with his tail. “Don’t get attached.”
“I didn’t really plan on it. I’m just here for a good time,” Maverick murmured to the dragon, stepping away from him towards the building and opening his arms wide. A Smug grin cracking across his face when he watched her bolt from the door and right for him.
“Hero!” Maverick laughed when she finally jumped into his arms. He hugged her tightly and spun her around for good measure. “Why you are a sight for sore eyes!” He exclaimed as he set her on her feet and walked with her towards Merceron to collect his bag. “Did you miss me?” he asked with a dashing smile, despite his haggard appearance from travel. “Flew practically nonstop from Soulstice to get here, and it wasn’t very hard to find you either,” he told her as he collected his bag. When he turned the man from earlier was still there, a furrowed brow etched in his face. “Who’s the grumpy git at the door?” Maverick asked nonchalantly. Inside he was curious. The man had an almost familiar face, and he didn’t like competition. Nolan Ewing was his name, and Maverick decided he didn’t like him. He looked as stuffy and pompous as Daddy Dearest. He looked as interesting as a bucket of sand. Hero made the introductions, and Maverick looked Nolan up and down.
“Name’s Maverick,” he said holding out his hand, deciding: What the Hell, why not? It was much to his surprise that Nolan reached out and accepted his hand giving it a firm shake.
“Nolan. I’m glad you could make it. I’ve heard a great deal about you.”
“All good things I hope?” Maverick asked giving Hero a flirtatious look. He relished in her smile and giggle. The subtle discomfort of his counter part did not go unnoticed either.
“Yes, all good things,” Nolan assured, and he looked to Hero. “I shall leave you in Mr. Tulane’s capable hands, and seek out the company of your brother. I’ll see you at supper,” He said and bowed respectfully, and took his leave. With Nolan gone Maverick grinned and draped his arm around Hero’s shoulders letting her lead him to a prepared room.
“You must be dying of boredom surrounded by so many stuffed arses,” he chuckled.
“Quinn,” William’s voice called out as he approached them all with Julian at his side. Grace looked up from where she stood with Belle and Quinn to see a look of sympathy on his face. “It’s… it’s time for Belle to go.” Quinn swallowed thickly glancing around as if he might find a way to keep them longer. Grace frowned, feeling herself grow slightly emotional at the scene. “D-do… do you really gotta go now?” he suddenly pleaded, turning to face Julian. Julian stood his ground and gave a solemn nod of his head. Quinn’s face grew nearly desperate. “You only just got here. And we got a lot of rooms. You could stay here. For awhile. I could… maybe…” He fell quiet when Belle placed a hand on his head, and he turned to look up at her. Julian observed the tender moment, and in it saw strength in both Belle and Quinn. He felt saddened to take Belle away, but resolved in the fact he would not change his mind. It was time for them both to go and find their destiny. Grace looked on as well, watching as Belle turned to William and gave him a stern warning.
[i “Quinn is my brother. He’s yours too. You must care for him. He’s still young. Do you understand me William.”] William nodded, responding in kind.
[i “I understand, Annabelle. You take care of yourself. And… my brother,”] They all looked to Julian who had ushered quinn over to have a word with him, and was knelt before the boy talking in whispers. Grace was caught off guard as Belle touched her shoulder and began to sign.
[i“Take care of him, Quinn needs a good heart to guide him. And I can’t be there anymore.” Grace smiled at her, her own eyes going glassy and nodded.
“I promise,” Grace whispered, holding her own emotions back and quickly embraced Belle.
From beside the saddle knelt Julian looking up at Quinn with understanding and empathy.
“You have nothing to fear, Quinn,” Julian tried to tell him, a firm hand to his shoulder.
“You better take good of her. That’s my big sister. And if you’re mean to her, I’ll come and punch your face in.” Julian blanched and grinned.
“Oh yeah? And where did you learn that?” He asked. Quinn puffed his chest out with pride and it forced a larger smile from Julian.
“My dad showed me how to do that. You gotta… you gotta keep her safe and make her happy. She’s not very brave sometimes.”
“I know,” He replied softly.
“She gets scared of the dark. And heights.”
“And she doesn’t like it when food on her plate touches.”
“Her favorite colour is purple.”
“I’ll be sure to remember that,”
“And she really likes flowers and bunny rabbits.”
“Flowers and bunnies. You got it.”
“And if you marry her, you can’t never leave her. Or make her sad. Or… or cry…” he managed, rubbing at his eye to try and stem his own tear. Julian only continued to smile and reached out to cluck the boy in the chin.
“Head up, Quinn. I will guard her and love her with my life, and when I do marry her, because I intend to… I would be honored to call you my brother too,” Julian told him and held out his hand to shake with the boy. “You’re not losing Belle. She will always be your sister, and I promise you, you will get to see her again. This is not the end. I look forward to the day you can come and visit us. I’ll take you anywhere in the North that you want to go. If you wish to see The Baltic Port, we shall go. If you want to see the temple in Stronghold, I shall take you there too. The White Cliffs of Shtravanger? Done,” Julian told him. “Shall I tell you a secret though?” He whispered leaning in towards Quinn and glanced over at Grace, who was still standing with Belle in a tight embrace. “You’re not losing a sister, but you are gaining another. Grace has lived a hard and lonely life, she could use a good little brother like you to keep her company. William is a busy man, he has much to do in filling his father’s shoes, and well they both mean a great deal to me. Would you keep an eye on them for me? See that they are happy? Can you do that for me?” When Quinn assured him that he could and he would. Julian smiled and nodded. “That’s a brave lad. You have my thanks, and an Angel who is in debt to you,” Julian stood up then and waited for Belle.
Grace noticed Julian was ready to leave, and so she stepped away from Belle and walked with her over to Atma and Julian mounted. He held his hand out for Belle and Grace smiled, reaching out and helping Belle place her foot in a stirrup, and Julian pulled her up the rest of the way to sit infront of him. His arm held firmly around her waist. “Until we meet again,” Julian said, bidding them all farewell.
“I await you, Fair Atma,” Lando rumbled from his place. Grace looked to him and gave him a firm look.
[i –Be safe flying alone. I cannot ride with you today,-]
[b – No, there is another who needs your company more that I, or Prince Julian…-] Lando said his eyes moving to look at the quivering Quinn. Grace smiled, nodding her head and stepped back as the dragons both took flight, rushing air out from underneath them to breeze past Will, Grace and Quinn.
They stood on the green, watching them leave and Grace let out a little sigh. “Be safe…” she whispered nervously to the shrinking silhouettes of Atma and Lando. That was when she heard the pitiful sniffle, and she turned to see Quinn barely holding it together. “Oh baby…” she cooed, and opened her arms to envelope him inside them. She cradled him close to her heart and rocked him gently where they stood. “You will see her again,” Grace promised. “Even if I have to fly you all the way to Soulstice myself,”
“You would do that?” he asked
“I most certainly would,” Grace promised him. “Besides, Lando says your good fun up in the air! I bet you didn’t know that huh?” she teased forcing a smile for him as she looked down at him, “And hey,” She said coming to crouch before him, holding her own emotions back. Seeing Quinn so saddened and pained, so bravely holding his strong front, was tearing down Grace’s. “I know I can’t replace her. I know I never will, but I was really touched by what you said at supper last night. I’d love to have a little brother, and when I marry William you will be my little brother, but is it alright if I go ahead and call you my brother? You don’t have to call me sister yet, or ever… but I really like you Quinn, I feel very lucky… to have finally… found a family.” Grace looked up from Quinn her eyes finally unable to hold back her own tears and she locked eyes will William.
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