Kiss of the Dragonfly

4. Diplomacy

The aroma of baking waybread filled the camp.

Petra had been working at the baking pits since dawn, molding grain and nutmeal into patties. She tossed the patties to women who pressed them between plates of fire-hot clay. Hers was a job for a nine-year-old. As punishments went, being assigned a kid’s chore was a mild one. Scrubbing pisspots was sure to come.

The women told her that the council had selected thirty-two men to accompany Elder Genna in the relief party. Thirty-three wayfarers could eat a lot of waybread, so they’d be baking all day.

The smell of it made Petra’s stomach cramp. She’d had no breakfast—another punishment. But she wasn’t about to pilfer waybread that a kinsman’s survival might depend on.

Elder Jess Stray stopped by. She was a tall woman of regal bearing. Her plait of silver-gray hair hung down to the small of her back. Even her working clothes—an embroidered crimson tunic over gray camp trousers—looked elegant. Jess was Petra’s favorite grandaunt after Genna Stray, and an important one, because she adjudicated Clash.

“Petra Big-Ears, what have you to say?” said Jess, sternly. The other women laughed.

Petra met the elder’s gaze, but suppressed the temptation to roll her eyes. Eavesdropping was an offense for which a contrite demeanor was expected.

Jess snorted and put her hands on her hips. “I suppose you want to know about Clash.”

Petra nodded. Her pulse quickened. Surely her mother hadn’t got her banned. That would be unbearable.

“Tash Gronnor holds that we must not allow the Flays to unnerve us,” said Jess. “I agree with him, and so would Ward. The Clash will begin at noon today.”

Petra said a silent ‘thanks’ to Herm, but kept her face blank.

“Now get over to the council tent to help Tegan. The poor girl needs company.”

Petra left her patties to the bakers and went.

Tegan was working with other girls to pack supplies for the mules to carry. On the far side of the tent, some boys were waxing blades. Though morning sunlight glowed cheerfully through the canvas, the chatter was subdued. Tegan had dark circles under her eyes.

Petra wasn’t surprised. The thought of Tegan’s father coughing out his life with a bone splinter in his lung had cost her sleep, too. She was more fond of Jorn Drakhorn than she was of her own father, though of the three brothers, she loved Ward best. She took her cousin’s hands in hers.

Tegan smiled wanly. Then her eyes widened. “What happened to you?”

Both of Petra’s ears were red; her mother had boxed the one the teacher spared. She made a face. “I listened in on the council last night and got caught because of Otger’s stupid nose. So now it’s cold baths and starvation.”

Tegan proffered a boiled egg. “Here, I couldn’t finish breakfast. Was it worth it?”

Petra took the egg but ignored the question. She looked into Tegan’s eyes. “Listen. Genna’s the best healer in the uplands. Every man in camp volunteered to go with her, even Legless Cob.” In truth, Petra had heard few Broks volunteer, and Gronnor had held back the ones who did. It didn’t matter. If anyone could reach Jorn Drakhorn in time, it would be his own kinsmen. They’d move like the blazes.

Tegan nodded and looked down, blinking.

Petra pulled her into a hug. “And if I can convince Ward, I’ll go, too.”

Her cousin jerked back to glare at her. “I know you mean well, but that’s stupid. The last thing I want is for you to get yourself killed.”

Petra opened her mouth to argue, but thought better of it. She muttered, “It’s a narrow path I tread, anyway.” Then, remembering, “Jess says the Clash is on, but I’d understand if you …”

“I’m still in,” said Tegan, hoarsely. “Dad would want that.”

The tent had gone quiet. All the girls were listening. Even the boys on the other side had stopped their banter.

Petra swept them with a frown. She was the oldest of the girls there. “Don’t you have something to do?”

The girls resumed their work.

She stalked among them as she shelled and ate Tegan’s egg. There was Danna, who liked Otger’s rat nose. She and a Brok girl were filling a waterproof sack with cheese rounds. Petra looked down at them. “Danna and Ola, pack cheese, salt meat, and waybread in each sack, or the men will have to open several at a time.”

Sniggers erupted from the boys on the far side of the tent. A zephyr of giggles blew through the girls’ side.

Petra had heard the words that prompted the sniggers: a vulgar crack about a goat princess becoming herd queen. She pressed her lips together. She couldn’t let that go, not just before Clash. She strode across to the boys. They were older.  She’d have to be diplomatic.

Ked had spoken the words. Nearly seventeen, he was the oldest in the Drakhorn Clash team. He was also the most resentful. Despite that, she’d picked him to be raid commander because he was good with his fists. And to do him a favor—he needed command points.

She’d beaten him to the captaincy by just one point that spring. He’d been locked out of it since and would soon be too old to play. Everyone knew what that meant for his future: no command of his own, a smaller share of the snatch, fewer prospects for marriage.

“Ked Drakhorn, have you something to say?” she demanded, trying to muster Jess Stray’s—and Ward’s—commanding presence. She kept her voice and expression neutral.

Ked grinned insolently up at her. He had a long knife in his hand. “Not for your glowing ears to hear” He turned to his mates. “That ear blush looks cute on Princess Petra, don’t you think?”

The boys all laughed, though some Drakhorns snorted it back. The twins Borak and Bruno Brok, oldest and biggest in Otger’s team, guffawed as though Ked had said the funniest thing ever.

Petra’s face burned as fiercely as her ears. She shouted, “That’s Commander Petra to you, Nest Uncle.” The words were out before she could stop them. Her face grew hotter with mortification. For a boy Ked’s age, ‘Nest Uncle’ was a dire insult. Petra could see it in his eyes; if she were a boy, she’d have to fight him.

The tent was silent and growing dark. Godshade was falling.

Ked’s fist whitened on the knife hilt. His grin was a rictus and his voice a dangerous snarl. “That’s what I get for making Ward’s pet look good—because having the scores fiddled isn’t enough.”  He turned to the other Drakhorn boys. “We’ve more important things to do than saving her ass from Otger. Let him have it, I say.”

There was a confused rumble, whether of assent or opposition, Petra couldn’t tell. But this was going to sheep shit. So much for diplomacy.

“What about me?” purred a soft voice near her ear. It was Tegan, who’d come silently up behind her.

Ked’s head snapped around and his eyes went wide.

Tegan’s voice was mild and sad. “Seriously, Ked—we’ve no chance without you. You know how rough the Broks are. They’ll pound me and the nestlings.”

Ked scrambled to his feet. “Tegan … I didn’t mean—”

From the floor, Borak and Bruno protested, their words tumbling over each other’s, and Ked’s. “Hey, there’ll be no pounding girls. We Broks, we’re decent, we’ve got respect.”

Tegan hugged herself. “Will you really leave me to Otger’s mercy?”  She threw a slant-eyed glance at Petra. Look what an idiot I’m having to make of myself for your sake, the glance said.

Someone switched on the lamps and the rest of the boys surged to their feet. For a second, Petra thought it was the Tegan Effect. Then she felt the footfalls. She spun.

Tash Gronnor Brok had entered the tent. Stooped though he was, his head nearly brushed the roof. After him came Cort Brok and Fallon Drakhorn.

Fallon was Ward’s son, and so a first cousin. Petra disliked him, but he was not close enough in age for that to matter. He was nineteen now, broad and muscular. His hair was curly, like Ward’s. His expression was dour, as always.

Cort was seventeen, tall, dark, and lean. His was the sinewy strength of a swordsman. His step was confident. His eyes twinkled. Even in the tent’s dim light, the teeth behind his grin were bright.

The eyes of the girls followed him.

Petra’s would have too, but just now, they were fixed on Gronnor.

Between Fallon and Cort, Gronnor Brok resembled nothing so much as a starved troll.

He stopped in front of her and leaned on his cane. He swiveled his angular head, taking in the silent tableau with eyes that reflected lamplight from under massive brow-ridges. When he spoke, his voice was like rocks grinding.

“Pe-tra Drak-horn,” he said, grinding out the syllables. “Here was a tent busy with preparations for an important mission.  Now, all within waste time squabbling about Clash. It takes little wit to know why: you are here. Petra Drakhorn, once again, you are where you should … not … be.”

Petra fought the urge to lower her gaze. Gods, why was he picking on her? She wasn’t the one who’d started it.

Tegan spoke breathlessly. “Tash, we’re all doing our best to help, and we honor the importance that you and Tash Ward place on the tradition of Clash. Even now.”

Gronnor smiled at her, an unpleasant sight. “Well spoken, Tegan. Tradition. Even now.”  He turned his glittering troll eyes on Petra and leaned forward on his cane, so that she had to take a half-step back. His breath smelled of almonds. He rasped, “Our first ancestors played Clash in the imprisoning Hell of their birth, more than two thousand years ago. They played to survive. To grow strong. To escape. Petra, is there something you wish to escape?”

Petra’s heart thudded. The clanmarks on her neck tingled. But the prickling she felt now was cold, not hot. She didn’t want to escape—she just wanted to stay in her birth clan and be useful.  She gave a slight shake of her head.

Gronnor continued. “In the millennia since, your clan has produced uncounted champions. Ward’s father was a champion. Ward himself, an All Clans Grand Champion. Your father, a Grand Champion.”

Fallon spoke, his voice flat. “Don’t forget Kastra. Petra bleats on about those old stories.”

“Indeed,” said Gronnor. “The legendary Kastra Stray-Drakhorn of yore, who played in the guise of a boy. Champions all. On that path, each swept the clan’s summer Clash, as your brother Tarran did, Petra, the year he died. Only such champions have joined the hunt early. Only they have become commanders. Only they have forged tradition. The rest, even favored heirs, have followed orders—and accepted tradition.”

Gronnor peered at her a long moment, then turned and limped away.

Petra puffed out a breath. His message was plain. If she lost this match, she’d better accept tradition, like a good girl.

Cort gave her a sympathetic grin. “I guess you’ll just have to win.”

Petra’s gaze met his. The warmth in his eyes kindled warmth in her, and resolution. She managed a lopsided smile. Yes, she’d just have to win. For that she’d need the boys. She’d better make up to Ked.

Cort winked, then followed Gronnor out of the tent.

That left Fallon. Fallon looked at Petra. His grim lips twitched up just a little. He pointed at Ked and two other Drakhorn boys. “You three will join the relief party. You’re excused from today’s match. You’ll each receive a command point. Follow me.”

He left with Petra’s three strongest players in tow.

Petra stared after them in the silence of the tent. A void seemed to open beneath her feet. Not only would this cost her the final match, but they had been chosen to go, not her.

Tip: You can use left, right, A and D keyboard keys to browse between chapters.