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Kira of Dematr woke from a dark dream of being pursued through an endless maze of boulders by faceless, implacable Imperial legionaries, dragons whose eyes glowed with mindless hate, and a mysterious figure in Mage robes who shadowed her every move with silent menace.
She looked up at the ceiling of her room, calming her breathing and her racing heart. Seventeen years old seemed too young to be having such nightmares built from real memories. For some inexplicable reason the twin scars made by a dragon's claws on her left shoulder were itching but the marks of newer injuries from swords and a bullet were not.
Who had the Mage been, though? The lightning Mage who had tried to kill her and Jason in Kelsi? But Kira had been certain that Mage was a man, whereas the Mage in her dreams had felt like a woman.
From the morning twilight visible through her window, she could tell it was very early, dawn still a little way off. The house was silent with the peace of undisturbed sleep for her mother and father, and for her fiancé Jason in the room next to hers.
Kira's eyes stayed on the door to her room. Sighing, she finally got up and walked to the door, turning the latch to assure herself that she wasn't locked in. The fear was silly, here safe at home, but at the same time as real as the memories of her imprisonment a few months ago on an Imperial warship whose burned-out hulk now rested half-submerged in the harbor at Caer Lyn.
Knowing that sleep would not come again, Kira went to the window to look out on the still, dark fields around the house. Several hundred lances off she could see a group of riders, Lancers on patrol around the house. Sentries and bodyguards like that had been part of her life for as long as Kira could remember, protecting her mother, and Kira, from the enemies who wished them dead.
Acting on a sudden impulse, Kira grabbed her clothes, slipping into her trousers and buttoning up her shirt. Strapping on the shoulder holster was a task as familiar as pulling on her socks. She checked her pistol to ensure the magazine was full and the safety set before holstering it. Pulling on her jacket, she paused to make sure the loose cartridge was still in one pocket.
She'd brought that cartridge with her from the Northern Ramparts. During the night when she and Jason had nearly died, it would have been her last shot. She wasn't sure of everything that it symbolized for her. Hope, definitely. Not giving up. Jason's love. There were plenty of reasons why she kept it close.
Not wanting to disturb anyone else, she opened the door quietly before going down the stairs carefully and as silently as possible, carrying her boots until she reached the front door. Once out on the front porch she pulled on the boots, then headed for the barn, grateful for her jacket in the predawn chill. The air held a faint scent of seawater borne by the breeze from the coast south of the house. The outskirts of the growing city of Pacta Servanda were still far enough off that no sight or sound of it intruded on the countryside here.
Her new horse wasn't in the barn, instead standing outside in the fenced field, looking toward the north. "Good morning, Suka," Kira said, walking up to stroke the gelding's neck. "Do you miss the mountains?"
Suka tossed his head in what might have been a nod before turning to nuzzle Kira affectionately. Obviously eager for exercise, the gelding waited patiently as Kira saddled and bridled him, not playing any tricks as she tightened the girth. Draping the reins across the saddle, Kira walked back to the gate, Suka following without any need for direction. Once outside the gate, Kira swung herself up into the saddle, leaving the reins loose as she directed Suka with her seat and her legs, falling quickly into the familiar rhythm of the horse's movement.
She headed out across the fields. Suka broke into a tentative canter, and when Kira indicated it was all right her horse went to a full gallop, racing across the grass, wind blowing back his mane as Kira leaned forward, enjoying the feeling of freedom.
As they approached one of the patrols, several Lancers on their own mounts, Kira shifted her seat to the back of the saddle and broke with the rhythm of Suka's movement, deliberately moving against it as she also lightly squeezed with both legs. Suka slowed to a walk again, almost prancing as he neared the other horses. The stocky mountain breed was shorter than the tall horses bred on the wide plains of Tiae, but the other horses gave him careful looks that testified to their wariness around the tough northern mount. Kira turned Suka by pressing lightly with one leg while opening the other slightly, so that she and Suka were riding alongside the patrol.
"Is there anything wrong, Captain Kira?" asked the corporal in charge of the patrol, saluting.
"No," Kira said, returning the salute and realizing they had misinterpreted Suka's gallop as a sign of urgency. "Sorry. My mount just wanted to stretch his legs. Is it all right if we ride along with you for a while?"
"Of course, Captain." The corporal looked Suka over. "He's pretty fast."
"Your mount could probably beat him in a dash," Kira said, "but Suka can outrun most in a long race."
"He's a Free Cities mount?"
"Yes. From the Fourth Lancers of Alexdria. I rode him when I was up there. His original rider had to retire because of injuries, so the Fourth Lancers were kind enough to send Suka to me."
The corporal nodded, smiling. "Any veteran of fighting the legions, woman or man or horse, is always welcome with the Lancers of Tiae."
Kira nodded in reply, feeling embarrassed by the praise. She'd heard people calling her a hero, but heroes were supposed to be brave and she didn't remember feeling brave. All she recalled of the long days and nights in the Northern Ramparts was being tired and hungry and scared, fighting to keep herself and Jason alive. The cartridge in her jacket pocket was a reminder of that, too, of how close they'd both come to dying, and how great a treasure it was to be alive and seeing a new day dawn.
Kira dropped back slightly, riding just to one side of the patrol, far enough out that Suka wouldn't be tempted to nip playfully at any of the other horses. Trained cavalry mount though he was, Suka had a mischievous streak that could surface without warning. But this morning Suka behaved himself, letting her relax.
The patrols never followed fixed routes and times, avoiding any predictable patterns that enemies could exploit. Occasionally the corporal ordered the patrol to a trot for a minute or so before dropping back to a walk. The reins loose before her, Kira directed her well-trained mount without having to think about it, enjoying the open spaces about her, the open sky above, and the growing light as the sun rose into view in the east. Riding with the other Lancers was also pleasant, giving her a feeling of belonging that Kira had often missed when she was younger and hemmed in by bodyguards. For their part, the Lancers were comfortable around her, seeing Kira as one of their own, though being careful to treat her as an officer.
Captain. It still felt weird, to be respectfully addressed that way by men and women who in some cases had been soldiers longer than Kira had been alive. She had been only an honorary lieutenant in the Queen's Own Lancers of Tiae, but after the fighting in the Northern Ramparts she had been field-promoted to Captain of Lancers by the Alexdrian forces, a rank that seemed to mysteriously follow her wherever she went.
The patrol met up with their reliefs, another group of Lancers. "Patrols are going to be doubled starting today," the leader of the new group informed the others.
They all turned to look at Kira, but all she could do was shake her head in ignorance. "I haven't heard anything yet." As the two groups of Lancers turned over duties Kira saluted in farewell and guided Suka in a walk back toward the barn.
When Kira got close enough, she saw her mother — Master Mechanic Mari of Dematr, the daughter of Jules — waiting outside the house in her dark jacket, trousers, and boots. Kira had once bridled at her close resemblance to her mother, the greatest hero the world of Dematr had ever known, but these days seeing Mari as an older image of herself felt immensely comforting. So did knowing that under her jacket her mother wore the same sort of holster and carried the same kind of pistol. Because the patrols couldn't stop every threat.
Kira swung down off of Suka as she neared her mother. "Good morning!"
"You're in a good mood," Mari observed, falling in to walk alongside Kira as Suka followed. "Of course you didn't wake up to find your daughter missing."
"I'm sorry. I didn't want to bother anyone."
"Next time leave a note, all right?" Mari grimaced as memories flitted across her face. "I worry."
"You have every right to," Kira said, leading Suka into the barn and removing his tack. "I worry, too. That's why I had to get out this morning."
"Yes. And ... I felt ... confined."
"I know all about nightmares like that," her mother said, and for a moment her eyes went distant and Kira knew that Mari was once again on the walls of Dorcastle as the city burned and the Imperial legions attacked. It had taken Kira a long time to realize that part of her mother had never left those walls. She would always be there, forever fighting to free the world.
But then Mari's eyes cleared and she was here again. "I'm glad you went out," she told Kira. "Is there anything you need to talk about?"
"Not right now," Kira said. "Riding is great therapy."
Her mother helped as Kira rubbed down and brushed Suka. Kira enjoyed the shared work, feeling closer to Mari at such times. "Suka likes you, you know."
Mari laughed. "I'm glad we finally found one horse in the world of Dematr who likes me."
"I'm serious. If you ever want to ride him, I'm sure Suka would be fine. You'd just have to be very light on the rein. He's used to being guided by a Lancer."
"Thank you, but I'm going to try to avoid riding until this little guy is with us safe and sound," her mother replied, patting the swell of her body where the pregnancy was now easy to see.
Neither one of them said anything about the last time, when Kira herself had still been very little, but yesterday Kira had noticed fresh flowers on the grave of her little brother, who had died during birth. She paused in her work with her horse to give her mother a long, wordless embrace. Some things didn't have to be spoken.
Kira poured out some grain for Suka before giving him a final pat and walking back to the house with her mother.
Inside, the delicious aroma of coffee met them. "Mother, out of all the things you've done, teaching a Mage how to make good coffee has to be your greatest achievement."
In the kitchen, her father Alain of Ihris, Master of Mages, offered them each a cup, even his Mage training at concealing emotions unable to hide his pride in being able to make coffee. Kira gave him a smile, knowing that even the simple workings of a coffee maker were beyond a Mage's comprehension and that her mother made up everything and set the brewer over the heat. All her father had to do was take the pot off at the proper time, but for a Mage that was nevertheless something special. Alain could do things considered scientifically impossible, making parts of objects disappear for a while or creating intense heat anywhere he desired, but he couldn't work any piece of technology more complicated than a knife even if his life depended on it.
"Where's Jason?" Kira asked as she sat down at the kitchen table and grabbed a piece of buttered toast.
"He is still in bed," her father said.
"You're kidding. People from Urth must need lots of sleep." Kira turned her head toward where the guest bedroom lay. "HEY, JASON! GET DOWN HERE FOR BREAKFAST!"
Her mother rubbed her ear. "Next time maybe you could go knock on his door. The security patrols probably heard that and went to high alert."
"The security patrols should be used to me by now." Kira sipped her coffee, watching her mother. "Speaking of high alert, I just heard that patrols around the house are being doubled starting today."
Mari raised her eyebrows in surprise at the news. "I didn't think they'd react that quickly to what are still vague warnings of trouble."
"Care to share?" Kira asked. "I saw that courier come in late last night with a half-troop of cavalry as an escort. Those must have been some pretty hot dispatches."
Mari nodded, smiling at Alain as he sat down next to her, then turning a serious face to Kira. "Yes. Something's up, but we still don't have enough pieces to see the picture. Queen Sien's security services here in Tiae are worried that the pieces they do have seem to point at us. There are reports of odd activity involving Mages in the Empire and the Western Alliance, and we still haven't located the former leaders of the Mechanics Guild since they went into hiding after the Empire cracked down on them. And the Empire itself is a source of concern as always, but especially now. Prince Maxim is safely out of the way, but his former followers blame you for his death and his failures."
Kira shrugged. "It's not my fault that cowardly, arrogant jerk was stupid enough to kidnap me."
"That's right, dearest, but that also means next time they'll just try to kill you right off rather than take any chances."
"Why are those followers still running around freely, anyway?" Kira demanded, letting her worries come through as irritation. "I thought the Empire was really good at locking up people and killing its enemies."
Her father smiled slightly. "That is usually true, except where this family is concerned."
"Which is no grounds for complacency," Kira's mother warned. "The latest secret dispatches from Palandur say the old emperor is very sick. With his grip on power fading, the empire is already feeling some turmoil. He could die at any time, which could render the empire unstable until the emperor's successor solidifies control."
"Princess Sabrin is securely positioned to become empress, isn't she?"
"Yes, but nothing is certain with Imperial politics. Nor can we be certain what Empress Sabrin would do."
"Mother, I talked personally to Sabrin. She was sincere in offering to ally with me. With us. And she did help me escape."
"I know." Her mother took a drink of coffee, her eyes hooded with thought. "But Sabrin is a pragmatist. She'll do whatever seems best for her and the Empire, and if that means changing her attitude toward me and you, she'll do that." Mari turned a sardonic look on Kira. "And for some reason Sabrin is concerned that the two of us may be what Imperial gossip claims."
Kira tried to make a joke of the Imperial superstition that she and her mother were what Jason said were called vampires on Urth. "They probably think we start the morning with hot mugs of blood."
"You'd almost think someone had encouraged the Imperials, and Sabrin in particular, to believe that we craved the blood of young men," her mother said, still looking at Kira.
"Excuse me. I was trying to survive." Kira took a bite of toast, reveling in the crunch of the bread and the rich taste of the butter. In the time since her ordeal in Imperial captivity and escaping at sea and through the mountains, she had been forced to fight a compulsion to squirrel away food. At times it still felt odd to know she wouldn't have to go hungry today.
But that brought up memories of the Ramparts, and her nightmare.
"What is wrong?" her father asked, having instantly seen the sudden tension in Kira. Mages were like that; their training allowed them to spot any emotion in others, no matter how well hidden.
"Nothing," she said. "I just had a nightmare before I woke up, that's all. The usual dragons and Imperial soldiers and ..."
"I don't know," Kira said, feeling irritable again at having to talk about it. "Some female Mage."
"A female Mage?" Mari asked. "One of those who attacked you in Kelsi?"
"I don't know. She had her hood up so I couldn't see her face, but everywhere I went in that dream she was right there, watching me." Kira took a sip of coffee to give herself time to think. "It was just another nightmare." She decided to change the subject so she could divert the unpleasant memories that had been brought up. "Wasn't the Western Alliance threatening to do something about the pirates hitting their shipping in the Jules Sea? Has that settled out?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Destiny of Dragons"
Copyright © 2018 John G. Hemry.
Excerpted by permission of Jabberwocky Literary Agency, Inc..
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