The Dragon’s Devotion
Antonia Aquilante © 2017
All Rights Reserved
In the privacy of his small office, Corentin circled his neck and rolled his bare shoulders and back, trying to loosen the stiffness there—impossible because his muscles weren’t really stiff. But he did it anyway. It was just that he hadn’t changed and stretched his wings in far too long. Whether real or imagined, it had always been this way if he didn’t use his Talent regularly. Only how was he to accomplish that in this place?
There wasn’t anywhere in the capital city where he could change unseen, and few places close to Jumelle where a large dragon would go unnoticed.
But while he was in Tournai, he’d have to deal with it. He’d managed a few night flights out over the sea when there wasn’t much moonlight. He’d have to get away for another as soon as he could without rousing suspicion. Not that he was being watched, or that anyone suspected what he was, but if a foreign scholar slipped away too many times with no explanation and someone were to notice… He didn’t want to take the risk. He’d come to the principality of Tournai to make sure no one knew of dragons; he wasn’t going to risk anyone finding out from him.
With a sigh, he reached for a fresh shirt from the cabinet in the corner. It wasn’t entirely appropriate for the university, but the more formal shirt and tunic he’d been wearing for this morning’s early lecture had been ruined when he’d walked into a sorcery student’s experiment out on the lawn. The lack of formality of his new attire wouldn’t be a problem since he’d only be working in his office.
He’d just lifted the shirt over his head and was letting it fall over his shoulders when he heard the creak of the floorboard a step inside his office, warning him too late that he wasn’t alone.
His own fault. He’d gotten complacent about pushing the door closed since he was usually the only one on this corridor. And he’d just been chastising himself about not giving away his secrets.
He whipped around, and the man who’d caused the creak froze just inside the room. His tall frame was elegantly and expensively attired, his pale blond hair perfectly styled, his exceedingly handsome face brimming with shock and curiosity. Corentin’s stomach sank. He knew what this man was—he’d made a point of avoiding him because of that knowledge. Master Savarin, the most powerful sorcerer in Tournai, stood just inside his office. He’d obviously seen the markings on Corentin’s back, the faint, shimmering scale pattern that marked him as one with the Talent to become a dragon.
Corentin froze as well, a litany of curses running through his mind. Anyone who saw the pattern would know what he was. Or, anyone at home would know, at least. He’d come to Tournai because there were whispers of the prince’s cousin Etan looking into dragon legends. Lord Etan, a young scholar who often lectured at the university, was well-respected, and his interest was enough to worry Corentin. But Etan had only theories—some quite close to the truth but nothing proven.
The question was: what did Master Savarin know? He was a powerful sorcerer, and a scholar as well, which was why Corentin made a point of avoiding him. Corentin had already displayed too much of his power by using it recently to help find a kidnapped child, but it could still be passed off as merely a powerful fire Talent. Dragons were myth and legend these days. He could bluff his way through this… as long as Master Savarin didn’t know what the markings signified.
Corentin forced himself to relax, to present a casual demeanor he didn’t feel. He reached for his spare jacket, shrugging into it as he spoke. “Master Savarin, isn’t it? What can I do for you?”
Silvery gray eyes focused on him. “What are those? On your back.”
Corentin buttoned the jacket, keeping his movements unhurried. He would not look as if he was trying to hide anything. “On my back? You mean the tattoos? I suppose they’re not quite genteel, but…” He shrugged.
Master Savarin’s gaze sharpened. “Those are not tattoos. I’ve never seen tattoos that look like that.”
“Have you seen many tattoos?” Corentin asked, keeping his voice mild.
“I wouldn’t think they’re very common in the circles you move in. Or at least I haven’t seen many tattoos during my time here at the university.” Was this argument going to get him anywhere except into more trouble? He needed to divert attention from the markings, not discuss them interminably.
“Perhaps I know different people than you think.” Master Savarin’s attention never wavered even as Corentin used his most forbidding stoney mask.
“I got these on my travels. Perhaps they’re different from the ones you’ve seen.” Maybe that would be the end of it.
“I’m rather well traveled myself. I still haven’t seen anything like that.”
“You can’t have seen everything.”
When he saw the suspicious glint sharpen in Savarin’s eyes, Corentin wondered if he’d gone too far. Was it the words or the smooth tone with just a hint of flirtation that took him a step further than he should have gone? The question was what would Savarin do. And what did he know?
Savarin laughed, a smooth, practiced laugh probably not out of place at the court of Prince Philip and his consort Amory. “No one could, but I’m certainly doing my best.”
Corentin propped a hip on the edge of his desk, letting out a laugh of his own and fixing a charming smile on his face. He could still divert this conversation. “A fellow traveler. I’m doing my best to see everything as well. Insatiable curiosity, I suppose.”
“A thirst for knowledge and new experiences.”
“Yes, I’m always eager to see and experience new things on my travels.”
“I am as well.” Savarin tilted his head slightly, regarding Corentin in a way he couldn’t decipher. “Of course, sometimes I don’t have to leave home to find new experiences.”
For a moment, he wondered if Savarin was flirting. “A true scholar is always learning.”
“It’s why I came here, why I travel in the first place.”
Savarin nodded. “I don’t think I ever heard where you’re from.”
Corentin’s guard went back up. “Far from here. A small place in the foothills of the Nashira Mountains.” Not exactly the truth but close enough. “No one’s ever heard of it. A reason to travel, yes? If you come from somewhere so small and isolated?”
“I suppose it is. I grew up here, so I didn’t have the same experience.”
He hadn’t heard much other than that about Savarin’s vague origins. “No, you wouldn’t have. Jumelle is a vibrant, busy city from what I’ve seen. So many people from so many places. So much knowledge here at the university.”
“Yes. And with all that, and all my travels, I’ve never heard of magic of the kind you performed.”
Corentin forced himself to remain calm, to appear calm at least. “Magic I performed?”
Playing dumb to stall would probably get him nowhere, but he did it anyway. And of course Savarin proved him right, because the man wasn’t stupid. “Yes, the magic you used to help recover Master Tristan’s baby daughter when she was kidnapped earlier this year.”
Since the incident, he’d been kicking himself for using the magic, and he’d done his best to avoid Savarin’s attempts to question him about it. But what could he have done? He hadn’t met Master Tristan, who was a merchant in Jumelle, before that day. He’d gone to have lunch with Etan and found the palace in an uproar because his infant daughter was missing. As much as he wanted to not draw attention to what he was, he couldn’t have lived with himself if he hadn’t offered to help.
And his help had aided the royal guard and Savarin in finding the baby. Both Etan and Master Tristan had been extremely grateful, and Etan, who was soon to marry Tristan, had said he was in Corentin’s debt.
“It was no great or special magic, but I was happy to be able to help. Horrifying that a baby would be stolen from her home,” he said.
“I have to disagree about the magic being special. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“You didn’t see it, so I can’t imagine how you would know.” His words came out sharper than he intended, and he regretted it immediately, but there was nothing for it now.
“It was described to me in detail,” Savarin said, showing no reaction to Corentin’s slip in tone. “You told Lord Etan, Master Tristan, and Lord Flavian that you have a fire Talent, but I’ve never seen someone with a fire Talent do what you did.”
“I doubt you’ve met every person with a fire Talent in the world.” He tried to say it lightly, almost joking, but annoyance at the questioning was layering over his worry.
“No, but I’ve spent my life studying magic and the different Talents people possess. I have a touch of a fire Talent myself. So I know something about it.” Before Corentin could decide what to say next, Savarin continued. “At first, when I’d heard what happened, I was simply curious. I wondered what you’d done and if I could learn how to as well. But when I asked to talk with you, you put me off. And soon I realized you were avoiding me. That’s when I got suspicious. Because you had no reason to avoid me.”
“Perhaps I didn’t feel the need to be interrogated about an uninteresting bit of magic used to help someone recover his child.”
“But the magic wasn’t uninteresting to me. And it wouldn’t have been an interrogation. It would have been two scholars—two men with Talent—discussing magic. From what I’ve heard, you have no problem engaging with scholars here. You and Lord Etan meet often to talk about your respective work. Given that, surely you can see how I might suspect you’d done something you wouldn’t want anyone to know about? Something that might even be dangerous to Tournai or its royal family.”
“I resent that implication. You’ll remember I used the magic to help Tournai’s royal family.” Corentin kept his voice steady, but he silently cursed himself. He hadn’t meant to become more conspicuous by putting Savarin off, but he’d needed more information, and a plausible story. Keeping away from him had seemed best if the alternative was giving away who and what he was. Now he wasn’t so sure.
“I haven’t forgotten.” Savarin’s tone wasn’t anything other than what could be termed condescending. But Corentin expected arrogance from him. “Neither does that mean you don’t have bad intentions. A smart man knows to bide his time, to gain the trust of others, before—”
“Before what? Betraying it? I do have some loyalty, and whatever you think, I helped out of the desire to see an innocent child brought home to her father.” Corentin regarded Savarin steadily, not giving him a flicker of anything he might twist into more suspicion. “I assume you used your magic to help for much the same reason.”
“I did. But it’s your behavior afterward that reflects poorly on you. You’re lucky I haven’t alerted anyone else to my suspicions.”
Corentin forced himself not to react to the threat in those words. He’d heard rumors, whispers, of spies being found in Jumelle, sent to ferret out information by the conquest-mad emperor of Ardunn. The Ardunn empire had been conquering and absorbing countries to its east for years, and it was rumored that its emperor had his sights set on Tournai, which was wealthy and strategically located on the western half of the continent. He had no love for Ardunn himself—the empire’s borders had expanded far too close to his home, which remained safe and hidden only due to the impassable mountains—so he could understand that there might be an air of caution. Would vague suspicions be enough in Tournai’s current climate? Savarin was trusted. Would his word be taken without any other proof?
“I don’t know what you think I’ve done, or am planning to do.”
“My suspicions might be nebulous, but my concern is for the safety of my country and its royal family when they are in such close proximity to an unknown and potentially dangerous magic.” Savarin seemed about to say something else, but at that moment, the university bells chimed the hour. He cursed under his breath. “I have to go to the palace for a meeting with the princes.”
Corentin nodded, glad for the reprieve. “Of course. We’ll finish our discussion at another time.”
A time long in the future, if ever.
Savarin hesitated and then seemed to come to some sort of decision. Dread flooded Corentin. “No. I’m not going to chance you getting away from me again.”
“I’m going to make sure you’re here waiting when I return from my meeting,” Savarin said as he stepped back through the doorway.
“I say again, excuse me? I might agree to wait for you, but I can’t see what you can do otherwise.”
Savarin’s lips curled into something that was almost a smile, but very definitely smug, and Corentin’s dread grew stronger. Corentin strode toward Savarin, not sure whether he would throttle the man or stride past him and away, putting an end to an infuriating and nerve-wracking confrontation. Before he could make the decision, he hit an invisible barrier in the doorway and stumbled back a step.
He put a hand up, flattening it against the magic that barred his path, a wall he couldn’t see. “What have you done?”
“Ensured that you’ll still be here to finish this,” Savarin said, as if it made complete sense for him to trap another person against his will, as if it was all right.
“You think I’m going to run away?”
“I think you’re going to go back to avoiding me, and I can’t have that. We’ll continue our discussion when I return.”
“You can’t do this,” Corentin bit out, but the sorcerer had already turned away, and a moment later he had disappeared down the stairs.
Bastien propped himself up on his arms in the open window of his study and took a long, deep breath. Fresh air filled his lungs, fragrant with grass and horse and a hint of woodsmoke—the familiar scents of home. He liked this time of year, this shift of season when the trees changed color and the estate was awash with gold and red, before the weather turned colder and the gray of winter set in.
He didn’t want to leave, didn’t want to miss all that color, but he likely would this year. It was absurd to feel so wrong about leaving, especially for so short a time. Just a trip to Jumelle for a month, maybe two. It wasn’t as if he would never return.
Still, the trip would be the longest he’d be away from home since his father died and he inherited the title and the lands that went with it. He could have done without inheriting so early when it meant losing his parents so young. He’d shouldered the responsibility, of course, for his family and his estate and their business, but he hadn’t wanted it so soon. He’d been content working with the horses, and he didn’t like leaving them for so long, especially with Ligeia accompanying him to Jumelle. His sister was young, but he could trust her to keep the house and stables running properly for short periods of time, and he was never away for long. Except this time he would be, and Ligeia would have to be with him.
But perhaps he could do something about investigating the letter while he was in Jumelle. He had no idea how to go about it, but he’d find a way.
A knock on the door interrupted his thoughts.
“Come in,” he called and turned from the window.
The door opened, and Ligeia slipped in. She was dressed for work with the horses in a white shirt, green divided skirt, and scuffed boots, her light-brown hair in a long braid falling over one shoulder. She didn’t look like the sister of an earl, and she would certainly scandalize any number of the more staid nobility in Jumelle dressed as she was. It was one of the reasons they were going to the capital city earlier than they needed to—Ligeia needed appropriate attire for attending court and a wedding.
He smiled. He wouldn’t change her. “Didn’t you say you were going to pack?”
“Yes, I started to, but then I wanted to check on Crimson,” Ligeia said and flopped down into one of the chairs in front of his desk.
“How is she?”
“Better—enough so I won’t feel too bad leaving tomorrow.” She worried her bottom lip between her teeth.
Their family had bred horses, the best horses in Tournai, for generations, but Bastien doubted any who had come before had loved or devoted as much to those horses as Ligeia did.
“That’s good.” He paused and studied her. He’d been her guardian and stand-in parent since their parents’ deaths; he knew her. “You do have to go to Jumelle. I wouldn’t make you if it wasn’t necessary.”
She looked up at him, her features soft and almost sweet, the image of their mother, but the look in her eyes was sharp and very reminiscent of their father. “I know. It’s a royal wedding. We can’t exactly decline the invitation. And I don’t want to anyway. I like Etan.”
He did too. While they weren’t strictly related—Etan was Prince Philip’s cousin on his father’s side, while Bastien was Philip’s cousin on his mother’s—Bastien had always been friendly with Etan, if not as close as he was to Etan’s older brother, Cathal. So he certainly wasn’t opposed to attending the wedding of a friend, even if it was taking him away from home.
“And I do understand why we’re going early. I have nothing appropriate to wear to a wedding like this one. I probably don’t have anything appropriate to wear to a wedding at all.” She paused as if to consider the statement and then shrugged. “So it’s for the best. Thank you for thinking of it.”
“I could have sent for seamstresses to come out here from the capital. I mean, not now, because we don’t have the time, but you shouldn’t hesitate to ask…”
She smiled. “You know I wouldn’t, but it hasn’t mattered. I haven’t had need for formal gowns. Not since Philip married Amory anyway. I might have worn the same gown now if it still fit.”
Only his sister wouldn’t care about being seen in the same gown at two such events. But in addition to the dress being too short and tight on her, he could only imagine it would be a bit young for her now too. Bastien knew next to nothing about ladies’ clothing, but he knew Ligeia was of an age to be dressing more like a woman than a girl, as disturbing as the thought was.
“You can have some things made up along with the gown for the wedding. You could probably use some new dresses.” He took her to Jumelle infrequently, both because he only traveled when he had to and because she seldom wanted to go. In fact, he didn’t think she’d been to Jumelle since the princes’ wedding almost three years ago. They hadn’t even attended Cathal’s wedding, which had been a small private affair in the wake of Cathal’s investiture as duke and other more tumultuous events Cathal probably wanted to forget. But perhaps for Ligeia’s sake, visits needed to be made more often. She was a young lady after all, and he’d probably been failing her in that respect.
“Maybe a few things. Elodie wants to help me, but I’ll have to try to rein her in if I can. From her letters it sounds as if she’s looking forward to helping a little too much.”
Ligeia frowned, and Bastien had to bite back a laugh. Princess Elodie, Philip’s younger sister, was by all accounts quite fashionable, and it sounded as if she wanted to share that with Ligeia.
“Get what you like. Just don’t bankrupt us while you’re doing it.”
Ligeia snorted delicately. “Oh, very funny.”
“Who’s being funny? I’m making a serious plea.”
Ligeia’s lips curved into a smile. “I like it when you tease. You do it far too rarely these days.” Before he could respond to that assertion, she sobered and continued. “Are you worried about leaving for so long? The stewards are all capable of running the estate in your absence.”
“I know.” And he did, but he couldn’t help wanting to be here to make sure everything was run properly.
She obviously saw his doubts. “I could stay here, and then you wouldn’t have to be away so long. You wouldn’t have to go early. Would that be better?”
He would feel better not being away from home as long, but he didn’t only have a responsibility to the family property, he had one to the family as well. He had to care for Ligeia and make sure she had everything she needed, which included time with other young people and all the experiences that went with being a young noblewoman. Experiences she wasn’t getting out here spending all her time with their horses. Never mind that she was excellent with them.
“No. We’ll both go. We’ll visit with family. You’ll have your new gowns. And we’ll celebrate Etan’s marriage. Thank you for offering, though.”
She watched him for a moment, probably trying to confirm his sincerity, and then nodded. “I suppose I should finish packing, then. Are you packed?”
“I am. Just waiting on you.”
“Ha. I’ll be ready to leave in the morning as scheduled.” She stood and walked to the door. “See you at dinner.”
He murmured a reply and turned back to the window as the door closed. After another long breath, he went to his desk. He might be packed, but he had many other tasks to accomplish before they left for Jumelle in the morning.
He almost wished there was a way to send Ligeia to Jumelle on her own and stay behind himself, but he wouldn’t shirk his duty to his family, even if it meant juggling others.
Time passed. And Corentin fumed, his anger simmering just beneath the surface.
He wasn’t a sorcerer in the way Savarin was; he didn’t have the skill or the proper kind of Talent to break the spell. He’d examined every inch of the barrier in the doorway, running his hands along its invisible surface, and found no break in it. The only other way out of the office was the window, but he found the same barrier in place there, and he was far too high up to climb out without hurting himself anyway.
His own Talent couldn’t help him either. He had no room to transform inside, not that it would aid his escape, as flying to a safe landing brought with it too great a risk of discovery. And his fire would do nothing. He might be able to burn the building to the ground, but that would only kill him and anyone else who remained inside.
How could Savarin do this?
The man had no right, not even in some misplaced defense of country.
Corentin would have a difficult time restraining himself from doing murder when Savarin returned. He’d worry that Savarin wouldn’t, leaving him here to rot, but Corentin knew he would come back—he was far too curious not to. And if Corentin didn’t miss his guess, Savarin had a theory. Perhaps not fully formed yet, but he had one. He would come back to try to confirm it.
If only he knew what that theory was. Savarin had given no clues away, not that Corentin had seen. But just because Corentin hadn’t seen it didn’t mean Savarin didn’t know something, or think he did.
Corentin paced his office like a caged beast.
He let out a short, bitter laugh. He was a caged beast.
Over an hour later, when Savarin finally reappeared in his doorway, Corentin didn’t bother hiding his rage, but before he could say anything, Savarin spoke.
“The delay was unavoidable I’m afraid, but now we can talk.”
“Are you mad?” Corentin roared. “You’ve imprisoned me in my own office, and you expect me to talk to you? To answer your questions?”
“That was unavoidable as well.”
The arrogance, or perhaps obliviousness, of the words was astounding. But Savarin was smart enough to s