(A/N: Trying to get the dragons out of my head, but I just keep spinning more complexities. And I wasn’t kidding about this dragon world, there’s etiquette and everything. Two scenes, minimal background information — you’ll figure it out.)
Kiersta was nearly through reading the report on troop movements in southern Gathia when a knock came to her door. That was strange. Usually any visitor was preceded by a message to Balian. When she inquired, he gave her the mental equivalent of a shrug.
“Just a moment,” she called, setting down the report on her desk. For appearances, she picked up the riding gear she’d discarded around the room earlier and threw it into the bedroom. As for the mess of files all over the room… if her visitor would not deign to announce himself, then he would have to put up with the disarray of her quarters.
When she opened the door, a tall rider in the dark blue weyr-uniform of the Intelligence Flight was standing with one arm up against the doorframe, leaning such that he stood over her. His uniform had been hastily thrown on over the damp silks he’d ridden in recently, and a few days’ worth of scruff covered his chin and jaw. Intimidating as he was standing over her, Kiersta allowed herself an admiring glance — he was handsome, with dark hair and piercing eyes.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“This is weyr seven in the South Barracks, is it not?”
“And you’re a rider in the Land Division?”
He leaned down, close to her, his mouth curling with a smile that didn’t quite convey amusement but rather a polite version of vindictiveness. “You have my report.”
Unfazed, Kiersta smiled up at him politely. “And you are?”
“Astor, wingsecond in Intelligence,” he said, his eyes never leaving hers. “You have my report,” he repeated.
She pretended to think for a moment. “And which report is that?”
“Farmsteads in the mountain regions of Meenth. I’d like it back. Now.”
Kiersta searched his expression for any sign that he might ease up on this aggressive line of questioning. She found none. “That’s entirely possible,” she said evenly. “Please, come in.”
Astor straightened and followed her into the room. Kiersta strode to her desk and shuffled through the reports on her desk. Of course, she knew exactly where the report in question was, but she didn’t like the wingsecond’s tone and preferred to hold him in suspense.
Balian chose this moment to investigate the newcomer, dipping his triangular head into Kiersta’s quarters through the window above her desk. Who is this? he demanded. A deep growl rose from the depths of the dragon’s belly, vibrating the furniture.
“Balian, may I introduce Astor, wingsecond in Intelligence.”
A strange look crossed Astor’s face as he bowed deep. “Rider of Zene. Please forgive her absence—Zene is feeding for the first time in several days.”
Balian bowed his head in return, then retreated back to his weyr above.
Noting her dragon’s perfect disinterest for later, Kiersta turned to Astor with a stack of reports in her hands. “Farmsteads in Meenth, you said? Mountains or plains?”
“Mountains,” he answered. He was watching her, arms crossed over his chest.
“Mountains, mountains,” she murmured, sifting through the pile. The report was second from the bottom, and she took her time getting to it. “Here it is. Permanent farmstead developments in the mountain regions of Meenth since the Treaty of Azo?”
“Let me just sign the transfer to you then,” she said, taking the stack back to her desk. She perched herself on the arm of the chair, her hair falling over her eyes as she bent over the report.
“Did you make these yourself?” he asked. He had turned to the wall opposite her desk where her maps of Kethadros hung.
“Yes,” she answered shortly.
“The details are well done,” he said, bending close to examine Mishdar. It seemed with his precious report returning to him, he was less inclined to be rude with her.
“Thank you,” she replied. She held out the report to him. “There you are. Signed and dated.”
“My thanks,” he said with just a hint of facetiousness.
She smiled. “I’m sorry, I just realized I never introduced myself. Kiersta, rider in Land Division under Flarian.”
He considered her for a long moment. “I know who you are,” he said. When she didn’t say anything, he turned to leave. “Out of curiosity, why did you have this report?” he asked, pausing at the door.
He turned back to her, looking puzzled. “Flarian’s been flying missions over Gathia and Faitaille for years. Why would you need a report on Meenth?”
“I was pulling reports on farmsteads. It must have been included by accident.”
He shook his head. “Now you’re lying. You asked mountains or plains—you knew you had the report. You had both of them. You knew exactly where they were.”
She didn’t say anything.
“Did you read them?” he asked.
Kiersta nodded slowly.
She shrugged. “I felt like it.”
But he wasn’t done questioning her. “The stack you were holding earlier, those were all reports on farmsteads?”
She nodded again.
“You read all of them?”
“What did this one say?” he demanded, holding up the report she’d just signed to him.
She swallowed. “Two new farmsteads were established north of the main ridge within a month of the treaty, followed by four more in the following year. However, the areas south of the ridge are plagued by harsh weather and haven’t been able to support a developing farmstead beyond the growing season. Marching troops into the main canyon during the winter would isolate them from supply lines and would, effectively, be suicide.”
He stared at her then, caught between speech and silence in his surprise. “That’s exactly right,” he said finally.
Kiersta frowned. “If you knew what was in it, why did you need it so urgently?”
She just barely saw him smile as he turned to leave again. “Because I wrote it,” he said. “My respects to Balian.”
“My respects to Zene,” she replied, watching as he strode off down the corridor.
Kiersta watched as the other dragons in her wing landed in the Nightwing training fields far below. She and Balian were always the first in the air and last to land. They loved the sky more than anything—besides, Balian was still growing, and he needed the flight time to work his wings.
We’re being called down, he told Kiersta.
“By Flarian?” she asked.
No, the wingsecond from yesterday.
Zene says he’s angry.
She also says he’s watching us circle and wants to see some downward movement.
“Then show him some downward movement.”
Balian dove before she even finished speaking. Kiersta held on as he tucked his wings close to his body and went streaking down towards the training fields, rolling as he went so they spun dizzyingly down. Just as they seemed close enough to collide with the rest of the wing on the ground, Balian threw his wings out and angled upward, taking them in a high loop before coming back level and banking right in a wide circle that slowed them enough to land. He touched down light as a feather, his pleased thrumming vibrating under Kiersta as she unstrapped her legs and jumped to the ground.
“Showoff,” she murmured to him. “Go ahead to the feeding grounds, I’ll get the saddle later.”
It itches, he complained.
She saw Astor approaching from the fence where he’d been watching. “I would do it now, but it seems I have bigger problems.”
It itches, he repeated. It’ll give you an excuse to keep him waiting, and that’s what you want.
Kiersta sighed and applied herself to unfastening the straps on the saddle. Flarian had flown the wing long and far today, and the scales of Balian’s shoulder had worn away the lining so that the leather strap chafed. “I’ll oil that for you later,” she told him soothingly. “And I’ll have Master Wynn replace the strap so it won’t itch.”
Astor was close enough to hear her now, so she stopped speaking aloud. Studiously she ignored him as she circled around Balian’s formidable chest, undoing the saddle and checking the leather for weaknesses.
“Kiersta,” Astor called.
“Just a moment,” she replied. She undid the last strap and caught the saddle as it slid down to her. Balian stretched his wings and shook himself mightily, so close that he nearly knocked his rider down—though, of course, he didn’t.
“You have my report,” said Astor as she strode up.
“You have my report,” he repeated.
“I returned all the farmstead reports,” she told him. “And I read your revisions to the Meenth report in the records room.”
“You have another of my reports.”
Kiersta searched the sky for patience. “Which one?”
“Exports out of Mishdar.”
She shook her head. “I only just requested trade reports this morning.”
“They sent them over while you were training.”
“Then I’ll bring it to you as soon as I return to my quarters.”
Balian snaked his head forward to rest gently on Kiersta’s shoulder.
“Balian,” said Astor, bowing his head with due respect for the dragon. “Kiersta, I want it now.”
“Want it, or need it?” she asked.
Before he could reply, Balian demanded her attention by pressing down firmly on her shoulder. She glanced at her dragon, whose eyes were whirling in the late afternoon sunlight. I’m hungry, he told her.
“Go ahead to the feeding grounds,” she replied softly. “And don’t gorge yourself just because I’m not there.”
He gazed at her, projecting all the warmth and love he could give in that long moment. Then he coiled back and leapt into the sky, winging towards the feeding grounds.
“Come with me,” she said to Astor. “I’ll get your report right now.”
He helped her roll the straps and gather up the saddle to bring back to the weyr.
“The lining’s worn out here,” he said, pointing out the shoulder strap she’d noticed earlier.
“I know. Balian was complaining.” She hefted the saddle onto her shoulder, and they headed back to the barracks.
Astor looked off in the direction Balian had flown earlier, as if he could still see the black dragon. “He’s still growing?” he asked.
Kiersta nodded. “You can’t tell by his size, but he’s at least a year behind than the youngest dragon here.”
“I know,” replied Astor with the same vaguely arrogant, omniscient tone he’d had yesterday when Kiersta had introduced herself. Perhaps she underestimated her reputation and Balian’s. Perhaps even a wingsecond in Intelligence would know about the youngest dragon and rider ever to be recruited to the Nightwing.
Astor pulled open the door to the main hall and held it for her. They passed through the bustling room without adding to the noise, saving their conversation for the time being. One of the other Land Division wings had come in just before Flarian’s — Kiersta and Astor had to navigate a sea of deep red weyr-uniforms as the riders descended on the hall for the evening meal now that their dragons were fed. On the far end of the hall, a mix of riders in blues and greens mingled on the wide staircase. Kiersta and Astor nodded greetings to acquaintances as they passed, Kiersta too busy balancing the saddle for conversation, and Astor too focused on the return of his report. He held the door for her again as they entered the quieter barracks.
“Have Master Wynn check the sizing on the saddle,” he suggested. “With the breadth of Balian’s shoulders, it’s no wonder he’s wearing through the lining.”
“I’ll mention it to him, but Master Wynn rarely has the time.”
He paused, stooping to pick up the end of a strap that had come loose and coiling it up as he walked behind her. “You’re a combat rider, Kiersta,” he reminded her. “Your saddle may be the difference between life and death.”
She scoffed. “That’s true of any rider.”
“You think my life depends on staying in the saddle? Zene’s not flying aerial flips and spirals like Balian.”
“Well, in Zene’s defense, neither is most of my wing.”
Astor smiled. “I noticed.”
They had reached her quarters, and Kiersta pushed open the door with her free hand. The package of reports she’d requested that morning was sitting on her desk, bound and sealed by the records clerk. “Here, pull yours and I’ll transfer it to you.” She pulled a knife from her boot and broke the wax seal. “I’ve got to put this upstairs.”
She left him sorting through the files while she brought the saddle up to the weyr. Balian was still at the feeding grounds, so she took advantage of his absence to rearrange the dry grasses he slept on to cover the bare spots around the weyr. When she came back down, Astor was sitting on the edge of her desk, writing something.
“Did you find it?” she asked, undoing her riding tunic to change into her weyr-uniform.
Astor nodded, gesturing at his lap. “It’s right here.”
She fumbled for the sleeve of her uniform. “Here, I’ll sign it over to you.”
“No need,” he said, finishing his sentence with a decisive dot. “I’ve finished with it.”
Kiersta paused, half paying attention to the tangled sleeve, half thinking about what he’d said. “That was fast.”
“I am a wingsecond in the Intelligence Flight, you know.” He smiled. Setting the report on top of the stack on her desk, he straightened to leave. “Tell Master Wynn you’re worried about torsional strain. He’ll make the time for you.”
“The twisting force on the leather when Balian changes directions and momentum keeps you going in the other. Just mentioning it will get Master Wynn’s attention. And make sure he knows that Balian’s still growing, and that your current saddle is chafing at the shoulder. Just show him that you care. He’ll make the time.”
Kiersta couldn’t help but smile at this wealth of unprompted advice. “Thank you.”
He passed her on his way out, pausing to place a hand on her shoulder. “You’re doing well, Kiersta. Keep working this hard and you’ll soon be the best the Nightwing has ever seen. Even if you do keep stealing my reports.”
“I’m not stealing—”
But he was already out the door. “My respects to Balian,” he called back over his shoulder.
“My respects to Zene,” she said, though she wasn’t sure he heard.