Chapter 24:

21 - Errant Malcontent

The Fallen Diadem

The town outside of Vichtsteen felt like it had gotten bigger, but I was reasonably certain it was just pop-up tents from visiting merchants. Some of the nearby buildings in the pit had been reclaimed, and there was talk that it would be permanent if the fallen were really gone. When Xon and I had dropped off the armor with Gerald, he had been swamped trying to calculate expenses involved with resettling the lost city and complaining that he was just a blacksmith, not a city manager. Taking and fitting the fallen instructor’s armor to me had been a welcome relief. Selling the rest of my gear to him had barely covered the costs though.Bookmark here

“I need more money,” I grumbled, chewing on a piece of stale bread I had gotten out of pity.Bookmark here

“Why not get more from Claire?” the dragonkin asked. The two of us were sitting in Theo’s beer garden, at a table in the far corner away from the mass of off-duty soldiers trying to catch the eyes of Theo’s daughters.Bookmark here

“No, I need to earn money, not just go into debt. We need to be able to make a clean break after all of this, not just be indebted to her. Also I don’t want to have to beat her in a duel every time I come asking.”Bookmark here

“Why not?”Bookmark here

“Because I’ll lose about half the time. Getting you out of debt was just lucky. You’re not hiding something valuable we could sell, are you?”Bookmark here

He narrowed his gaze. “Nothing I’m willing to sell.”Bookmark here

I sighed. “Maybe we should be selling those art pieces Claire took. I think Charlie would murder me though.”Bookmark here

“You would be committing a grave sin,” Xon said, crossing his arms and nodding.Bookmark here

“Are you religious?”Bookmark here

“What do you mean?” he asked.Bookmark here

“Like, do you pray for help, or have certain things prescribed as taboo. I don't know, religious. Do you believe in a creator God?”Bookmark here

Xon stared back at me like I was crazy. “It’s not a question of belief. You can go to Throne yourself. The First King made the world,” he said, pointing at the sun.Bookmark here

I frowned and glanced at the light in the sky. It certainly wasn’t an enormous mass of hydrogen undergoing nuclear fusion. It seemed like a miracle to me. “But… did he leave behind any teachings?”Bookmark here

The silence that dragged between us answered my question better than Xon’s response. “Mark, The First King was one hundred thousand years ago. Maybe more. No humans, no dragons back then. Teachings come from the tribe. You could ask Sister Evey.”Bookmark here

I chewed another piece of bread and thought on that. The infirmary had been moved, the old temple to Helios now hosted the army hospital. She was only a short walk from town and I hadn’t checked on Charlie’s recovery recently. Instead, I asked, “where are you from Xon? I never really asked how you ended up here.”Bookmark here

“Dragonbreak Mountains. My family, the Ochag tribe, live beneath Bleeding Mountain where the god Corona resides. Dragonbreak is higher than the clouds. Can see it on a clear day,” he said, and pointed lower than the sun. If there was some different hue to the horizon, I couldn’t pick it out.Bookmark here

“Why did you leave?” I asked, making a mental note to check on who Corona was later.Bookmark here

It was Xon’s turn to sigh, and he held up his thumb and finger in a circle. “Money. The Order of the Red Hand needed porters. Didn’t say it was to a war. They lost. I fled,” he explained and his whole body shivered. He winced and groaned, closing his eyes. “Frijorn had just revolted. They put a bounty on prisoners. They wanted to negotiate with Throne to return the princess held ward by the senate. I wanted to go home, but couldn’t. The dogs; they used dogs to hunt us down in the middle of the night.”Bookmark here

My eyebrows rose and I suddenly understood why Xon was afraid of hounds. For a moment, I imagined laying in a field, exhausted from running all day, only to hear the baying of hounds and the stomping of hooves as hungry and poor men came hunting for me; my life nothing more than a few coins in their pockets.Bookmark here

I tried to figure out how big the world was; how many hundreds of miles he had been chased while trying to escape Frijorn only to end up even further from home. “Is that when you met Charlie’s dad?”Bookmark here

“After my brother had been killed, yes. I was covered in so much mud after crossing a river they thought I was a drake. The guards nearly stuck me with arrows. When they saw I wasn’t, they nearly stuck me with spears. Until the priest told them no dragonkin would work for Frijorn anyways,” Xon said, somehow managing to grin about it. Bookmark here

Picturing the huge scribe like a basking earth dragon was so absurd I had to laugh. The only person who took better care to bathe than he did was Neeka. I supposed that hadn’t always been the case for him. “So Drusca was marching on Frijorn? I thought you said they lost the war? The Order of the Red Hand.”Bookmark here

“Bah,” the dragonkin said, waving and scowling. “They abandoned the fight after the explosion. The Holy Lance was there only to test her weapon. They broke the city walls and left. The bloodshed was awful. I can still smell the worms that came, the corpse-eating monsters like writhing intestines. Ottrachichee.” He seemed to spit out the last word and lifted his hand to wave to the serving girl nearest us. When she sat down a drink to cleanse his palette of the memory, he shook his head. “The worms came to Drusca too.”Bookmark here

“When Fulvous attacked?” I asked, recalling the name of the Holy Lance that Charlie had mentioned. It was hard to believe there were more people as strong as Amaranth, all of them leading armies and subjugating kingdoms in the name of Throne’s empire, or squabbling over diadems.Bookmark here

“Yes. Drusca surrendered after one volley,” Xon said. “Fulvous loosed one arrow and he broke a castle tower.”Bookmark here

“What? Why?”Bookmark here

“Because their army was at the border. Few soldiers at the city. The king was defying the senate. Politics and the people paid with their blood. Sir Pepin was recalled afterwards. I joined the contingent going to the city. Thought I might find work on a caravan going to the mountains. Better than the frontlines with Frijorn. I was alone, my family dead or captured, Sir Pepin was like a savior. I saw them cut his head off.”Bookmark here

Xon lifted up his drink and drained it all down his throat. “So that’s how you met Charlie?”Bookmark here

The dragonkin wiped his chin off and nodded. “I was doing squire work. No training, but it paid. Charlie was too young for war then. Not too young to see Sir Pepin die… I could have stayed there and tried to find a caravan. I followed Charlie instead. Went to find Fulvous.”Bookmark here

“He asked for a duel, didn’t he?”Bookmark here

Xon nodded. “Was hopeless. Fulvous apologized, not like Amaranth. Apologies don’t bring the dead back. A kid with a sword can’t do much. We found Neeka a little bit after. Charlie declared he would become a knight of Throne.”Bookmark here

“So you’ve been following him ever since? Don’t you want to get back to your home? To the mountains? Now you’re helping me become a knight to help Charlie out. What about yourself?”Bookmark here

The dragonkin shrugged, rolling his shoulders in that enormous but languid way he could. “Would be wrong to go home like this. Would be empty handed. I have been gone for years, many seasons. To return with nothing earned and nothing learned would be shameful. Should it arise, I would like to go to Dalvurnia and meet the goddess Aquaria. We must free ourselves first.”Bookmark here

I nodded and turned my gaze across the town, looking at the people and the soldiers milling about. There was tension and anticipation in the air. Once again, Amaranth had declared a feast, once the two dragons he had slain could be processed. When that would be was anyone’s guess. Obviously, he wanted to have the diadem first, to display it and revel in it before asking his army to march again.Bookmark here

“When we’re rich then, let’s go to Dalvurnia. Get away from all of these armies and wars.”Bookmark here

Xon laughed, and he was grinning again. “When we are rich.”Bookmark here

“First step will be going and getting the rest of the wine that we can. That’s the quickest money I can think of,” I said as the two of us rose from the table. Xon dropped a copper on the table to pay. I didn’t have any armor to speak of, so I would have to hope that no drake decided we looked tasty. The fallen were nearly gone, but that only meant the ruins were as good as the wilderness. Bookmark here

I tried to imagine what kind of foreign kingdom Dalvurnia was, the land of the goddess Aquaria. I knew Sister Evey abided by that goddess’ teachings, so I decided I should ask her if the opportunity arose. With Charlie still in her infirmary, I was sure it would come up soon. I didn’t stress about it, it was just a distraction; something to think about instead of how to deal with Brekhart.Bookmark here

“Hey, you!” Bookmark here

Somehow, I was the only person that stopped and turned to face the shouting soldier. We were still in town, there were dozens of other people, and yet he had been able to single me out. “What?”Bookmark here

The soldier only had his breastplate and helm on over his clothes, the army’s equivalent to relaxed attire. “You’re the one Lord Amaranth freed, ain’t ya?”Bookmark here

“Yes. What about it?” I asked, noticing a few other soldiers take notice. I didn’t know any of them from the camp.Bookmark here

“That means you saw the Lord fight the king, didn’t you? Tell me, I wanna know. Was the king’s crown the diadem or was it not?” the soldier asked.Bookmark here

My mouth went dry. I really wished I had also gotten something to drink with Xon. Maybe it would have steadied my nerves. “Come on, you don’t believe your own commander’s report? Besides, it was the Queen’s diadem, not the king’s. That magic thing must have been made ages ago.”Bookmark here

The soldier crossed his arms and sneered. “Yeah well, I just don’t see much why the Lord would have made such a big deal out of a slave like you. My brother died taking that castle. He didn’t get no recognition like that. I think it’s a little unfair you get to run free while we’re digging through rotten larders looking for something that’s probably already been taken.”Bookmark here

I glanced at Xon. He hadn’t moved his hands; grabbing his pole-hammer would have been an open provocation. He was, however, strong enough to deal with one man, even unarmed. A fight would not go well for us even if we won though. Bookmark here

“Can’t help you there. How would I know where the diadem is if I’m not in the castle. Why don’t you try the queen’s bedroom if you’re looking for it? Unless you think she died stealing sugar from the pantry,” I said, and to my relief a couple of the other soldiers chuckled.Bookmark here

The laughter took the edge off the situation, it made the soldier in my face ease off. “Yeah well, why don’t you stay aware of yourself, kid,” he said, turning and marching off into town. Bookmark here

I swallowed and nudged Xon. We nearly ran down the sloping road to Vichtstein to get away from them. Amaranth was going to face a revolt soon.Bookmark here

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