CHAPTER TWO - THE KING AND HIS PEOPLE
Dragon King Valerius landed on the large courtyard. There was a dull thunderous sound as his massive dragon form settled on the thick stone slabs that held his weight. He folded his wings against his back before shifting into his human form with a scowl on his lips. He normally was pleased after a flight, but this one had been a show. He was doing this to please the roaring crowd below and not himself. He felt their presence with him instead of it being just him, the Spirit, the sky and the wind.
It may be a show, his Spirit, Raziel, said, But they feel awe towards us. This is good.
You are sounding like Chione now as if being seen as part of the entertainment is not beneath us, Valerius remarked about their Sphinx Shifter Counsellor.
She advised the Pharaohs of Egypt for millennia. Perhaps she could be right in her suggestions to us as well? Raziel chuckled.
Already, he could feel the Spirit curling in his chest to rest. Raziel was most active in the evenings, wanting to fly and hunt. Because of the Anniversary Valerius was prodding it awake on the hour to fly and show off. Not that Razial seemed to mind. It viewed humans with a sort pleased amusement as he might industrious ants on an anthill. Valerius saw them as tiresome and, occasionally, deadly. He ruled and interacted with them because he’d been given no choice.
Two Claw guards, dressed in their black and red articulated armor, crossed their arms over their chests and bowed their heads as he approached them. The stone slabs that made up the courtyard were each carved with a different kind of Shifter to represent his dominance over them all. The stones were hot under the beating sun and he moved more quickly towards the arched stone doors into High Reach. The guards opened the doors into his throne room. As he passed from sunlight into the cool dimness of the stone throne room, he went blind for a moment as his eyes adjusted to the difference in illumination.
Instead of just finding Chione there to greet him, the President of the United States Alyson Goodfellow and Canadian Prime Minister Hugh Stanton were present with Chione standing beside them with a small smile on her lips. She knew he would be annoyed at the world leaders’ presence. He was going to see enough of them and plenty of other tiresome politicians, human and Shifter, at the banquet that night. But if she had allowed them into the throne room to wait for him then it was something important that they must have to say- or rather, she thought it was important for him to hear. He raised an eyebrow at her, but she merely inclined her head, her long black hair falling in waves to mid-back. She was being of no help. He would have to get out of the world leaders what they wanted.
With dark amusement, he noted how careful the two human politicians were not to notice that he was naked. Goodfellow even stepped towards him with her hand outstretched and a smile plastered on her face before he had a chance to grab the black silk robe that was hanging off the arm of his throne to show just how much she accepted his Shifter ways.
She likely thinks of me, at least in part, as a dangerous animal. Clothes are not expected on an animal.
That was likely an unfair assessment. From what he knew of her - she was two years into her four year term as President of the United States - she was a compassionate leader who did her best to represent both Shifters and humans equally. But he could still remember right after the war was done and how the world’s former leaders alternately cringed and shook their fists at him. They hadn’t known what he would do back then. Should they be defiant assuming he would treat them as badly they had Shifters? Or compliant, and hope that he remembered every Shifter was a human once? The latter had won out and thirty years of relative peace had followed with humans and Shifters living together, if not fully accepting each other.
“King Valerius!” Goodfellow said enthusiastically. Her smile was so wide that her blue eyes were almost completely hidden by the wrinkles that formed around them. “How good to see you as always and on such a momentous day!”
“President Goodfellow.” He nodded his head and took her hand for a brief, firm shake.
Prime Minister Stanton also stepped over and offered his hand. Chione had gone over to the throne and grabbed Valerius’s robe. She opened it up for him as soon as he finished shaking the Prime Minister’s hand and he slipped it on, wrapping the cool silk around his overheated body. He walked over to the throne and sprawled out on it, grabbing the bottle of water that sat in an ice bucket to the side and took long swallows. He finished the entirety of the icy liquid. As if by magic, Katelyn, one of his most trusted servants, came from an alcove and replaced the empty glass bottle with a full one. He smiled his thanks at her. A brief smile, but still a genuine one. She curtseyed and disappeared into the alcove again, to watch him and anticipate his every need. He turned his attention from her and regarded the two world leaders through narrowed eyes.
“What can I do for you?” he asked.
Best to come to the point. Then they’ll leave all the faster.
The two world leaders looked at each other slightly nervously. They knew of his temper and likely didn’t wish to say something that would offend him.
Realizing that was likely part of the problem, he spoke to them again. “I know that you are here for the Anniversary, but what brings you to the throne room now? We will spend plenty of time together during the festivities this evening.”
More than enough time. I hope I will not see you for a year at least after them.
“I admit that I wanted to see your dragon form up close. I don’t know if you noticed us out on the courtyard while you flew,,” Goodfellow said with an almost girlish laugh. “You’re more magnificent than I ever imagined! So big!”
“I, too, wanted to take advantage of my position to get a closer look.” Prime Minister Stanton gave a chuckle. “I’ve only ever seen you in television when you are transformed. We had hoped to stay out on the courtyard for when you landed, but Counsellor Chione thought it best we wait inside.”
Because I might have - accidentally - spit fire right at you.
He let a thin smile appear on his face. Unlike the other Dragon Shifters, Valerius rarely met directly with the governments that part of his kingdom. And he did not shift as a party trick.
There was too much of a carnival atmosphere around this Anniversary than he liked. But Chione and Raziel seemed to think it a good thing. He was not so sanguine.
He waved a hand into the air languidly, as he said, “Well, now you have seen me so you can take your leave –”
“There was one other thing that brought us here before the feast. Something we couldn’t discuss then,” Goodfellow interrupted. She gave him a flash of a nervous smile, but continued on boldly, “There’s the matter of King Illarion. I do not know if you’ve had a chance to review the CIA’s reports regarding his activities in Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia.”
He stiffened on the throne. Today of all days when his temper was running hot he had to be reminded of his old enemy. “I am well aware of Illarion’s activities.”
And he was. But their deal thirty-years ago was that they would fight together under his leadership and then divide the world amongst them. Nothing more. Nothing less. How they ruled their kingdoms after the war was each Dragon Shifters’ business.
“Then you know that he must be stopped,” Stanton spoke next. His hands were clasped in front of him. He was sixty with steel gray hair and piercing blue eyes. He wore conservative suits and appeared mild-mannered, hardly ever raising his voice in public, but Valerius could see the determination in his straight shoulders and lifted head.
“The rumors that have been coming out of his kingdom are nothing compared to the truth,” Goodfellow added, her voice strained. She was ten years Stanton’s junior and probably half his size in her colorful mauve suit and white string of pearls around a slender neck, but she projected even more determination than Stanton did. “Many humans are confined to camps to work as slaves in the fields or in factories. Anyone who disagrees with Illarion disappears never to be seen again. Shifters, too, are kept in highly segregated areas. None are allowed to leave the kingdom.”
Valerius jaw tightened with every word as she continued on, describing the horrors in Illarion’s kingdom. What she told him was not news. Illarion, the Green Dragon, poisonous as his color would suggest was a thorn in his side and had been for over a millennia.
We will have to fight him again, Raziel said sleepily.
Valerius glanced at the magical mirror that covered one whole wall of the throne room from floor to the glass ceiling two stories above their heads. In it, he could see the Spirit in dragon form in place of himself. The humans could not, but other Shifters would see it, too. One of Raziel’s red and gold eyes opening slightly.
You know what will happen if we do. Millions will die, he replied.
You assume that we have a choice between no one dying and these millions. Illarion kills without compunction now. The poison he emits has scrambled his own brain, Raziel remarked.
If we leave him be, we save many more than our sacrificed to his insanity. This was an old argument between them. Their positions had not changed. The stakes had not changed. He saw no way forward other than to hold to the maxim that each Dragon Shifter did as he or she pleased in their own kingdoms. Interference would only bring disaster. You know it will not be a clean battle between us and Illarion. The others will choose sides.
And many will choose us. Illarion has made no friends. He wants none.
Without the need for secrecy, Illarion will simply kill those in our kingdoms. We cannot save everyone, he pointed out, not for the first time.
We never have been able to, Raziel remarked softly before settling back into sleep.
Goodfellow had stopped talking. He wasn’t sure how long she had been silent. The tension in the room was nearly physical. He could feel it skating up and down his spine. He swallowed the bitter rage in his throat.
“It is… interesting to me that you would bring up going to war on the exact date of the last one. I would think you would not be so eager to repeat it,” he said tersely.
“We do not want war!” Goodfellow argued. “We would only ask that you speak with him. You are the First Among Equals. You are their leader. He needs to listen to you.”
Chione’s yellow eyes were fixed upon him. The Egyptian Sphinx Shifter was as still as one of the statues of her hidden in the vast deserts. This was, of course, what she had wanted him to hear. The two countries that made up his kingdom were now intent on him stopping Illarion. It was not just rumblings he was hearing in his own conscience or from her lips. But he already knew that there would be nothing good down any road he took with Illarion.
“You think it so simple? That I speak to him and he will stop?” Valerius asked, his voice cool.
“He joined together with you against humanity. He listened to you then when you did not allow Shifters to seek revenge on humans, but instead, sought to bring us all together as equals,” Stanton pointed out. “Your will and guidance are the reason that the world is in as good of a place as it is today.”
The huge scar on his back ached as he heard these words. Illarion had not agreed to these terms of his back in the day. It was not as though he reasoned with the Green Dragon and got him to see sense. No, it had been a battle. He’d had to fight and defeat Illarion, almost kill the other Dragon Shifter, before he had gotten his way. This scar and the many others on his body was from that fight.
Some days he wondered if he shouldn’t have ended Illarion’s life then and there. But to win over all of the Dragon Shifters and others, he’d needed to show mercy as well as strength. How could he advocate mercy towards humanity if he’d shown known to Illarion? But it felt now as if he had simply bought trouble for himself down the road.
And are we at the end of that road now?
“If … if the fates of people not in your kingdom do not move you,” Goodfellow said carefully, “then perhaps you would consider the fact that unrest here is increased by Illarion’s activities. Humans First is gaining in strength and numbers as they provide video proof of the atrocities taking place in his kingdom. They claim that Shifters do not care what happens to humans and here is evidence of that.”
“You said yourself that Illarion targets Shifters as well as humans. He cares not whom he hurts,” Valerius pointed out as his fingers curled over the arms of his throne.
This throne had been carved out of a single piece of basalt by a brilliant human sculptor. Like the courtyard, it represented his reign over them all. It was a millstone around his neck. It was never something he’d wanted. He had never argued vociferously against revealing their existence to the humans, but he had been overruled.
And all Hell broke loose in the end. Now, I am stuck trying to balance the impossible.
For a moment, he wished fiercely that the hour was up so that he could simply shed his robe and human skin and flying through the air, performing tricks like a trained monkey to please the screaming crowds. Another part of him wished that Illarion was before him this moment so he could rip off his wings and shove them down his throat. Illarion could drown in his poison instead of infecting the whole of the world with it.
“I know that you have left our governments mostly untouched,” Stanton said as he licked suddenly dry lips. “And we appreciate that - the people do - more than can be expressed. You rarely step in, and then, only when there is something truly egregious that needs sorting. Again, you allow democracy to work and that is incredibly wise and generous of you. But … but people look to you for moral guidance. If you do not act against Illarion’s evil then others might not see why they have to follow the laws. Why they cannot just … follow their natures. And we know where that leads.”
“Death is the only thing that will stop Illarion from ruling as he chooses,” Valerius said flatly. “If it were a simple matter of battling him and winning, I would do it. But it is not. This balance we have is because the Dragon Shifters do not interfere with one another kingdoms. If I were to kill Illarion without another drop of human or Shifter blood shed, do you truly think that would be the end of it?”
His gaze went once more over to the magic mirror that was streaked with black and gold cracks. Raziel’s head was up and it was regarding Valerius out of those beautiful yet alien red-gold eyes.
First, there would be the fights over Illarion’s old territory. We would have defeated them, we should get them, but that is not how Mei will see it. Especially about Mongolia abutting directly against her kingdom, he said to Raziel.
The Red Dragon may be crafty, Raziel spoke about Mei, the Dragon Shifter who ruled over China and most of the East. But we can take her.
Valerius raised an eyebrow. Oh, you would have us kill Mei, too? Take her territory? Do you think even our allies like Esme would not rise up against us?
Esme, the Blue Dragon, ruled over most of Western Europe. They were fast friends, as much as Dragon Shifters were. She had been the first to come to his side to take control of the Shifter-Human war. Even now, they still visited each other’s kingdoms, which was rare among their kind. Staying far away from one another was the wisest course normally.
They would do well to leave us to our own devices, Raziel remarked, red fires appearing in its nostrils and smoke - black and sinuous - pouring out.
You would have us be alone in this world, wouldn’t you? Valerius sighed.
Yes, then everything would be as we wish it to be. Raziel’s head lowered down on its massive claws.
But we would be alone, Valerius pressed and, for just a moment, he felt a hole open in his chest that threatened to swallow him up.
We have each other. That is all we need. Raziel’s eyes closed.
“The balance won’t hold,” Goodfellow said and Valerius’ head snapped towards her from the mirror. “It’s already slipping. I can feel it in the rise of Humans First, in the growing network of the Shifter underworld that infects our kingdom, and the general unrest. Illarion is a cancer that is spreading.”
Chione clasped her elegant brown hands together and stepped between him and them. She was smiling gently. “There is a world of opportunities between speaking and destruction. You have expressed your concerns to King Valerius and he will take them under advisement. But today is not the day to discuss them, I think. We should focus on peace and what we have all gained over these 30 years of coexistence.”
The two world leaders struggled not to object, but her words were sensible. They could tell he was not in a receptive mood to their arguments. Goodfellow managed a smile. Stanton merely looked weary. Both of them finally nodded and Chione ushered them out.
The massive doors to the throne room closed behind them and Chione returned. She wore an off the shoulder soft gray sweater and white wrapped skirt with sandal strapped to her elegant feet. She did not return directly to him, but instead went to the doors that led out onto the courtyard. He frowned as she pushed open both doors. Framed in the golden light, she gestured for him to join her. He grabbed his water and stalked out after her. When he found her she was leaning against the stone railing, looking out at Reach below them one layer extending below the other. Her dark hair stirred in the wind.
“Why did you have me listen to that? I am well aware of Illarion’s activities,” he hissed.
She did not get angry - she rarely did - as she answered him in her lightly accented voice, “You had to hear it from your people.” He must have made a face for she was lectured him gently, “They are your people though you are loathe to accept them as such. Now that you have heard from them their desires, you cannot deny what is happening.”
“I am not in denial.”
“You are hoping it will go away. But Illarion will continue in his course unless you stop him.”
He shook his head violently. “I did not ask for this.”
“But you took responsibility, my king. You saved everyone before. We became all your children,” she said. “And now you are being called upon again.”
“Chione, you are not so foolish as to think like the humans do that I can simply take out Illarion without consequences, do you?” He stared hard at her beautiful profile.
Her pink-brown lips pursed as she answered, “No, but there is a limit to what one can accept.”
“You say that now, but you do not know what you are asking of me.” His hands curled into fists on the railing.
“Nothing yet. But to think. Just to think, my king. Just to think.”
He wondered what she would think of Raziel’s desire to simply wipe out all the dragons and rule absolutely. They also sought remote places from which to look upon their domain and not to be bothered. But that was the nature of the Black Dragon. They were the largest, most powerful, and meant to rule. But he had pulled back for the people that Chione thought he didn’t care for.
She smiled down at all of the teeming people in the Mid. There were even onlookers in the Sky Garden gazing up at High Reach, waiting for him to take to the skies again.
“It smells of popcorn,” Chione said with relish. “With lots of butter and salt. I think I smell caramel, too. Oh, I would so love a caramel apple!”
“Carnival,” he sniffed. “They have made this day into a carnival.”
She bumped her shoulder with his. “Would it not be fun to go down to the Mid and eat ice cream and cotton candy? To see the excited faces of the people? To be a part of it all?”
“They come here to watch me fly. They do not care about me.” And he had not meant to sound so very bitter.
“I think they would be just as fascinated by your human form as your dragon one.” She turned to face him, her expression full of mischief. “Why don’t we find out? Let’s go down and --”
She got to say nothing more, because at that moment he heard faint cries of distress that rose up to him. His head snapped towards Dragon Strike Square. He saw the people who had been milling about aimlessly, taking pictures, and eating ice cream were suddenly running in all directions away from where a plume of multi-colored smoke rose from the center of the square. Without thought, he shed his robe and leaped up onto the stone wall before launching himself off of it. He transformed into his dragon form in mid-air.
While he was not yet ready to seeking out and take Illarion’s head, he would not allow anyone to harm his people.