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Dragon Ridden


Prologue

It was cold. So cold. The kind that sunk below the skin and dove straight for the bone. So deep she couldn’t even shiver. There was no sense of self or place, just a vast dark nothingness. The silence was so loud it practically screamed.

 Ages passed, each moment the same as before. In time, the tiny existence floating through the emptiness became aware of a second presence. It curled itself around her like a shield— unyielding. And silent. Sometimes she’d rail against its silence begging for a word, a feeling, anything. Through it all, the presence was a beacon of light that drew her like a moth to the flame. Sometimes it felt as if that light was simply a shadow on her mind, created to keep her company as the long years passed. Real or not, she watched its glow with the hunger of a woman starved for thousands of years.

She couldn’t tell you her name, what she was, or how she came to be. Her world revolved around that beacon of light. It was a hypnotic and soothing distraction that flickered and danced in the darkness just for her.

Time passed.

Pain ignited along her nerve endings. Startling, after an eternity of nothingness. The ground reeled beneath her as she shivered and convulsed. She prayed for the pain to end. An odd sort of keening began, assaulting ears used to silence. And then there was the thumping beat that was felt more than heard.

Her chest rose and fell. The keening developed into a pattern, one that started and stopped in time to her chests’ movements. The floor beneath her felt hard and unwelcoming. She shrank from it, rejecting the alien sensation. Something stirred against her skin, a gentle kiss of sensation. Air, her mind supplied, it was air.

Her nerve endings were alive with sensation and spots danced across her closed eyelids. Her eyes opened slowly and blinked rapidly against the encroaching light. She held up a hand against the assault. Unable to see anything but a blur, she closed her eyes seeking the relief of the previous dark. But the light was too much. It followed her. Even with her eyes closed, it sunk below the lids and seared her retinas.

Gradually, though, her eyes adjusted, and she stared curiously at the room she occupied. She was lying at the bottom of a glass cylinder, one big enough to accommodate her curled up body. Her knees were pulled to her chest, her arms hugging them close as she hid her face against her knees.

On weak arms she pushed herself upright and propped herself against the glass. The pants and thin shirt she wore did nothing to provide warmth.

What was her name? She couldn’t remember. She was a somebody. Surely. Her mind grasped desperately at a word that might define her. After eons locked inside the emptiness, her mind was slow to provide her information.

Name, she thought. Name. Name. Name.

And then, slowly, a word drifted up from the recesses of her mind. It was a short word, but it was hers nonetheless. Tate, her name was Tate.


Chapter One

The breeze caressed Tate’s face and arms, teasing several copper colored strands from its tight braid as she leaned against the ship’s railing. It brought with it the salty smell of the ocean, a smell she’d become familiar with over the last eight months she’d spent aboard the Marauder. It was a comforting smell, one that invoked memories of being rocked to sleep by the waves and sharing meals with friends.

She rubbed a finger over the weathered wood of the railing and folded her arms over it. It was time to make a decision. She grimaced and plopped her chin onto her folded arms. She’d spent the last week lying awake at night, unable to sleep as she went over every detail of her plan. Even now she didn’t know if she had the courage to leave the ship at the next port or if she would choose the familiar and stay.

“What do you think?” a voice said to her right.

Guilt made Tate jumpy, and she tightened her grip on the rail as she straightened, not wanting her companion to know where her thoughts had strayed. Instead she made a noncommittal sound and hoped he’d move along.

“When I first saw the jewel of the Aurelian Empire, I was in awe,” he said about the city, resting tanned forearms beside hers on the rail. His tall figure dwarfed her considerably smaller one. Standing straight, she still only came up to his shoulder. “It took awhile for me to see that it wasn’t so different from other cities. There’re still murders, double dealings and, luckily for me, work for men intent on skulking about.” 

“Is that so?” Tate said, keeping her attention on the city coming into view.

The captain was right; it was a magnificent view. The sun was just coming up and dawn gently cradled the city in its arms, setting it alight with orange and pinks. A slim peninsula embraced one side of the harbor forming a half crescent moon that was mirrored on the other side by high cliffs. It allowed a strip of open water that ships could pass through before deepening into the wide pool that formed the harbor. On one side a tower stood sentry. Its purpose was to house the massive chain that was strung across the harbor in times of siege and would protect the city from a sea invasion. Framed by the tower and cliffs the city sprawled in a maze of buildings and streets. A palace with its majestic towers and gleaming windows, sat atop cliffs formed from a black rock that sparkled brilliantly in the sunlight. It was an architectural wonder, the crowning piece of the city, and people came from all over the empire to see it.

“First time in Aurelia?” he asked lightly.

She kept her sigh to herself. It figured that he’d want to chat right then. He hadn’t had much of a presence on deck for the last few weeks, instead choosing to remain in his cabin and plan the next job. Now when she was thinking mutinous thoughts, he popped up like a bad luck charm. And leaving the ship would mean mutiny in his eyes. Since she hadn’t exactly volunteered to get on his ship in the first place, she saw her departure more as a continuation of her life’s journey. He, on the other hand, would see it as a revolt. It wasn’t that she wanted to leave, quite the opposite in fact. She loved the freedom of being on the open seas and seeing the world one country’s port at a time. But it had been made abundantly clear to her over the last few months that there was only so much weirdness a crew could take, especially from a female. When members of the crew cornered her in her bunk and told her to leave or else, Tate had gotten the message. Being a female on an all-male crew was difficult enough. Add odd things happening when she was around and the situation was impossible. She’d considered telling the captain. He might have even come to her rescue, but she knew that his involvement would only turn the rest of the men against her.

She was in danger if she stayed and more if she didn’t. There was no doubt in her mind that the captain would hunt her down if she left. She’d seen him do it before when a man jumped ship without a word in her third month on ship. She still had nightmares about what they’d done to him.

Tate faked a grin as she looked up at the captain. A tall man, his face was tanned and showed his age in the weathered lines around his eyes and mouth. Captain Jost’s brown eyes were fastened on the city as the ship’s crew bustled around him, preparing to weigh anchor.

“Not that I remember,” she said.

Jost stared at her with penetrating eyes. He was a canny old seadog, unused to not knowing a person’s secrets. Tate, however, still remained a mystery to him. He’d picked her up about eight months ago wandering a strip of rocky shore not known for being settled by humans, unable to speak any language he’d ever heard, and he’d heard a lot. She claimed memory loss, her past before the ship a complete blank.

“That’s right,” he said softly as if he’d forgotten. They both knew he hadn’t. The man’s mind was a steel trap. Nothing escaped. “It’s amazing how fast you picked up our language,” he said, changing the subject. “What language did you speak again?”

Used to his probing questions, Tate ignored him. He often tested her, throwing out random questions that seemed harmless but which were designed to catch her unawares.

His comment about her aptitude for the language was true, though. She had picked the language up quickly. Almost too quickly. Just another puzzle in her life. It was one of the many reasons that some on the crew wanted her gone. They called her a witch, and a witch had no place on a pirate crew.

“Is there something you needed, Captain?” Tate asked, hoping to move him along.

“Just wanted to make sure you won’t be going ashore alone.” One of his main rules for sailors was they were to have a buddy when visiting a city. There were two reasons for this. One to make sure the men had someone at their back in case of trouble. And two, it prevented malcontents from just disappearing or turning crew into the authorities.

“Danny, Riply and Trent offered to take me with them when they went ashore.”

“Good, good.” Jost seemed like he was waiting for something. Tate waited awkwardly, unsure whether she was dismissed or not. It felt odd to see the normally decisive captain acting unsure.

“Is that all, Sir?” Tate asked. His scrutiny was making her uncomfortable. It would be very easy to start acting paranoid and give away all her carefully laid plans. A knot of fear and uncertainty tightened in her chest the longer she was in his presence.

He seemed to come out of his thoughts. “Yes, of course. You’re dismissed.”

Tate turned to go, exhaling with relief until he called her back. Instantly she was on guard again, convinced that he knew her plans. A small leather purse sailed through the air. She caught it before it could hit her in the face.

“Tate, for your work these last few months,” Jost said. “Thought you might be able to use some spending wages while in Aurelia.”

More than he could know. The bag felt heavy to Tate. She knew without looking that it was far more than her usual shore allowance. It felt like all the extra wages she’d earned over the months. She hadn’t dared ask for them, not wanting to alert anyone to her real intentions before she’d even gotten started. Now that she had the money, there was nothing she wanted more than to return it. Jost didn’t need another reason to come after her when she was gone.

“A boat is ready, sir,” a sailor said from behind them.

Jost held out his hand to Tate, and she shook it. This was it. Goodbye. He’d never know how grateful she was to have been forced onto his ship and made part of his family. No doubt if she hadn’t met him, she’d be dead, killed by one of the monstrous beasts that roamed the northern territories.

His calloused skin was rough against her smaller hands. Though her hands had toughened over the months she’d spent on the ship becoming blistered and cracked and eventually developing calluses, they didn’t compare to a veteran sailor’s.

“Well, I guess I’ll see you when I get back,” she said. Her lips stretched tight over her teeth, but the smile she offered him was tense.

“Not if the boys take you to their usual place. Most of the crew stays there while we’re in port.”

She nodded. It was good to know. If she did this thing she was contemplating, she’d have to lose them in the city or sneak out in the middle of the night while they slept.

Still, she could decide to stay. Take her chances. She’d given the men who’d come for her more bruises and pain than they gave her. They knew she wouldn’t be an easy mark if they came for her again. But even as she thought it, she knew it wouldn’t work. They had the advantage of numbers. Next time there would be more until there would be no way she could fight them all. She’d never get a full night's sleep for fear of attack.

No, it was better to leave. She could control the risk better that way.

She savored the feel of the ship under her boots as she followed the sailor to the boat. It was unlikely she’d walk its decks again.

The small oar boat bucked against the ship as waves rolled gently under it. Several crewmen had already climbed in, eagerly anticipating shore leave, no doubt. She threw her leg over the side. The crewman standing next to the ladder grabbed her wrist tightly. His grip was firm and unyielding. Tate refused to let any sound of pain escape her. Weakness was a luxury she could ill afford.

“Remember, witch,” he whispered harshly. “This ship is no place for you. If you’re on it when we set sail we’ll consider you fair catch. Perhaps you’ll have a little pleasure before we throw you overboard.” His gaze darted down her body in case she missed his meaning.

She jerked away, her skin crawling. She more or less slid the rest of the way down. The rope ladder swayed jerkily under her weight, the hemp cutting into her hands as she raced down. Seawater made the rungs slippery, and she almost slipped. Arms steadied her as she stepped into the boat and sat down.

She didn’t look up, not wanting to see the cold eyes glaring down at her in anticipation. Tate folded her arms across the sick feeling in her stomach and hunched in on herself. He hadn’t been part of the group that had attacked her. Anger at the unfairness of it all churned within her.

Tate gripped the sides of the boat as it cut through the waves, the men steadily pulling on the oars. Stray drops of water landed on her neck, as the men withdrew the oars only to dip them into the water again. A small puddle of water had formed in the bottom, and Tate moved her feet to the side to prevent her leather boots from getting soaked through. She didn’t welcome the thought of having to walk around the city with wet socks for the rest of the day.

A steady stream of humanity moved along on the docks helping the ships and fishing boats anchored there unload their cargo. It was busy this time of day. People from all parts of the world came to Aurelia to do business. Tate saw the sleek lines of an Imelgram Schooner anchored next to the bulky hulk of a Fallat merchant ship.

A sense of exhilaration began to thread through Tate, as the boat pulled steadily closer to shore and to what she was beginning to hope was a new chapter in her life. No good would come of dwelling on the past so it was best to put it behind her and focus on the future.

She breathed deep of the intertwined smells of the sea and the city, allowing a small smile to play across her face. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.

A shout at one of the east piers pulled Tate’s attention from the ships. A group of people had begun to gather at its edge. Tate could feel the fear rolling off them even from where she sat twenty feet away. It was jarring against her previously good mood. She craned her neck to see what drew them but could barely make out a speck of blue and some fishing nets.

“I wonder what’s going on?” one of the boys said. He was only about 15 or 16 and was a thin scrap of youth serving as a cabin boy aboard the ship. In the midst of a growth spurt, his arms and legs were longer than he knew what to do with them. Most of the time he looked like an unsteady colt.

“Probably a body caught in one of the fishing lines,” another man said. He was about ten years older than the boy. He had a certain charm about him that belied the too sharp lines of his nose and boxy jaw. “It’s a favorite dumping spot for the Night Lords.”

The boat drifted up beside one of the smaller piers, and a crewman hopped out to tie it off. The dock partially obscured her view of the gathering and suspected body. With a mental shrug she put the net and it’s odd blue shape out of her mind. It was time to meet the city where she might be residing in the near future.

She tied the moneybag to her belt and pulled her shirt down to cover it. It wasn’t the best place to store money, but it was better than putting it in a satchel that could easily be stolen.

She paused a moment to absorb the sights and sounds of the city. After eight months on a small ship, the atmosphere of the city pressed close and threatened to overwhelm her senses. It was too much. Too loud, too noisy, too smelly, too everything. Gulls cried overhead and the smell of fish assaulted her nose. She swayed trying to regain her land legs as the ground beneath her mimicked the motion of a boat without the benefit of any waves.

She took deep breaths. Steady girl. You’ll get used to this too, she told herself sternly.

The other presence that was her constant companion uncurled from its small corner of her mind. It used Tate’s body to take a long sniff of the air and growled. The rumble of it, a tickle in her head.

Crowded. Noisy. Smelly. Its voice echoed Tate’s previous thoughts. She determinedly forced it back to its little corner. With a sigh, it went. 

An officious man stepped into her path. He wore a stiff gray jacket embroidered with the Aurelian Empire coat of arms, a dragon wrapped around a large blue stone. She hadn’t noticed him at first amid the stream of people loading and unloading their goods. Her inner friend had distracted her from his approach. Under different circumstances that lack of awareness could have gotten her killed. She frowned. She’d have to be more careful. There’d be nobody there to correct her mistakes if she messed up.

He was short and very round in his uniform.

“All visitors to Aurelia have to sign in and pay an entry tax before entering the city,” he said in an officious tone.

She watched as three crewmembers of the Marauder passed them, laughing and joking amongst themselves. They didn’t seem inclined to help her out.

“All visitors?” she asked in a dry tone.

“Of course. All visitors must sign in and pay an entry fee,” he said doing his best to look down his nose at her though they were about the same height.

She sent a pointed glance at the men lingering on the street at the end of the dock. He spared them a brief look before holding out a pen and paper. She sighed. Normally she would watch how the other crewmembers acted and copy it. Since she had no frame of reference for many things, she often preferred to see how others interacted before committing to a course. Since the little man seemed more interested in her than the others, she was a little unsure as to what to do.

What would Jost do? It was a question she often asked herself in unfamiliar situations.

She grabbed the pen from him and signed the line he was pointing at.

“How much is the fee?” she asked.

“Last name, too.”

Tate hesitated before taking the pen again. A pair of fishermen carrying their day’s catch passed by them. She scribbled a last name where he was pointing and shoved the parchment and pen back into his hands.

“Fisher?” he asked incredulously.

“You got a problem with my name?” She jutted her jaw out mulishly. Her normal fiery temper had begun to rise. The little man presented himself as an excellent outlet for her earlier frustration. She’d had about all she could take from him and was ready to be about her business. “Now how much do I owe you?”

“Five taros.”

“Five,” she gasped outraged. Jost would never pay such an outrageous amount.

Taros weren’t the most valuable of the four coins, but neither were they the most inexpensive. Why, that was enough for a night’s lodging and a nice place at that. Muttering under her breath about greedy government officials, she dug two taros coins from the bag tied at her waist.

“You’ll get two.”

“It’s five.” Spittle flew from the man’s fat lips as he enunciated the amount with all the offended dignity of his position he could muster.

Tate leaned forward. “You’ll be happy with two.” Channeling the confident pirate, she stepped into his personal space. “I know that a fine, upstanding government official such as yourself, wouldn’t dream of extorting money from citizens in the hopes of lining your pockets.”

Her voice remained calm as she stepped forward with every other word. He clutched the parchment of names to his chest as she steadily advanced.

“Would you?” for the first time her voice changed to one of anger.

“No, no.”

She suddenly smiled. It was a smile meant to say ‘no hard feelings; have a nice day.’ “Good.”

By this time the man had backed all the way to the side of the pier, leaving the way clear for Tate. She turned and strode toward her friends. They nodded a greeting as she joined them.

“How much did old stooge, there, want?” the man from the boat, Ripley, asked.

“Five taros.”

He whistled. “Entrance has gone up. So how much ya give him?”

“Two.”

“That’s our girl,” the young boy, Trent, said clapping her on the back.

“Why didn’t you have to pay, Riply?”

“Aw, Captain’s bribed the officials to look the other way when we come into town,” Riply spat into the street. “Wouldn’t due to have pirates’ names on the roster. The kitties might decide they want a taste of us birdies.”

“Why’d he stop me then?”

Riply’s shrug was eloquent. “He must not have thought you were crew.”

Tate didn’t comment. That was a sentiment she’d often faced. No matter how much she struggled to be part of the Marauder’s crew, she was always an outsider. Arguing it wouldn’t change the facts.

Her group was a motley bunch. None of them had seen a bath in over a week and Riply’s shoulder length blondish hair was tied back by a piece of twine. Trent, the youngest of the bunch, had a smooth baby face and clothes that were baggy on his teenage frame. He usually stuck close to Danny, a large muscular man with shaggy black hair and a thick beard that would disappear as soon as he had water to shave with. Danny had a rough face under that beard that said fuck with me and live to regret it.

“What’re you guys up to?” Tate asked.

“Captain gave us leave for the next week,” Trent volunteered. “We’re heading over to the Crow’s Nest for lodging and food.”

“Mind if I tag along?”

“It’ll be like old times.” Riply slung his arm around Tate’s shoulders and steered her up the street.

She rolled her eyes and slipped out from under his arm. Danny shared a wry glance with her and shrugged as if to say ‘what can you do.’ Old times, usually involved Riply pissing off the locals and the other three having to bail him out of whatever trouble he’d found.

For all his ability to antagonize people, Riply was a good guy. A little slow and a complete ladies man but generally had a good heart. She just hoped he’d keep out of trouble for the next couple of nights.

           

The Crow’s Nest was a modest inn and tavern about half an hour from the harbor. The well-off gentry and wealthier merchants probably wouldn’t spend a night’s rest under its slate roof, but normal folk wouldn’t turn their noses up at it.

The o and t were worn smooth and almost unreadable on the weathered board tacked above the door. Muffled shouts echoed from inside along with slightly off key singing. Someone had started celebrating rather early since the air still held the slight cool of midmorning. Tate chewed her lip thoughtfully. On second thought, it could be the celebration had just carried over into morning.

A second story with slightly dirty windows overlooked a bustling street filled with the morning’s foot traffic. A man bumped into Tate and moved on with a shouted apology. It had gotten busy as more and more people started their day. Tate had to stick close to the others or risk getting lost in the crowd.

She followed Danny and the others into the inn, which was lit by the soft light of glow lamps. Small, no bigger than Tate’s clenched fist, they were made of a thick glass and when shook could provide more light than a candle. Several tables had one of the glow lamps. A crowd had gathered next to the bar to watch a man strutting along its top holding a mug and singing as loudly as he could. The crowd heckled as his voice rose to new heights.

Tate shook her head as he reached a particularly high note. Men’s voices just weren’t meant to be used like that. “Are you sure you want to stay here?” Tate asked doubtfully. “The entertainment leaves a little to be desired.”

“Didn’t know you were such an expert,” Riply said with a sly wink.

“Anybody with a smidgeon of sense between their ears would know this isn’t music. What is he even saying?”

“Fair enough, but the food is good and their mattresses are free of flees,” Danny said.

“I guess you can’t complain about that.” Tate shook her head.

She cast a skeptical glance around, noting all the exits and anybody who seemed to be paying too close of attention. It had become a habit to know the best escape routs and as Jost would say, it paid to be vigilant.

To be truthful, the place wasn’t all that bad. Better than most, in fact.

Soon enough they had found the proprietress and rented two rooms, the guys sharing one and Tate taking the other.

Her room was small, with just enough space for a bed and a desk with a pitcher and basin for her to wash her face and hands in. She did so with an almost decadent feeling of luxury, relishing the crisp water on her face and hands. It wasn’t often one had access to fresh water on ship. That usually only happened after a storm and only if you were smart enough to put your own bucket outside. The inn wasn’t high class enough to have a full bath, just a small communal toilet and sink, but for a few extra rostry pieces, the least valuable coin of trade, she could use the baths down the street.

Tate leaned down and sniffed one shoulder of her shirt and wrinkled her nose at the smell. She stank.

While on ship, with the breeze a fairly constant companion that whisked body smells away, she hadn’t really noticed how awful she smelled. Her nose had grown accustomed to the smell even, but being in the city around better-bathed folks had made her stink more noticeable. It was a wonder she’d been rented a room at all. Her skin felt scummy, and her scalp itched from not being washed for a week. The guys weren’t the only ones who hadn’t had a proper bath in a while.

With a gleeful sense of excitement, she grabbed her soap and washcloth along with a change of clothes and headed to the baths. Anticipation of being clean ran through her. She didn’t even mind the walk and enjoyed the sites and sounds of this new city. Color was everywhere. From the clothes people wore to the painted doors on some of the houses. They’d even strung lines with brightly colored cloth sewn to it between buildings and across streets.

The communal bath was in a stone building with a large stone slab outside that had three squiggly lines carved into it that signified water. The building had the same symbols and design that all the communal baths in the empire used. Even communal baths outside the empire had them. Some things were just universal and getting clean was one of them. Thank the Saviors.

It was mid-morning, and thankfully the bath didn’t look too crowded. Although public baths were common in most places, she’d never gotten used to bathing in front of strangers. It made her uncomfortable having someone else look at and possibly judge her naked body. That, coupled with the fear she was going to step over some unspoken cultural rule, kept her from truly enjoying her time in the water. She’d had to get used to it as only the very wealthy could afford the exorbitant expense of plumbing. The rest of the city made do with the many bathhouses.

She paid a man handing out towels two rostry, one for the bath and another for a locker. He handed over a towel and a key with a bored expression.

She didn’t let his surly silence bother her and gave him a nod of thanks. It didn’t bother her one bit. In fact, she couldn’t help but feel a little grateful for the lack of attention.

Tate was the only one using the changing room, a large room with a row of lockers on one side and two long benches in the middle. She picked the closest locker to the bath’s entrance to store her belongings.

With a sigh of relief, Tate peeled off her clothes and set them on the bench. Once wrapped in her towel she carried her discarded clothes and her soap into the bathing area. Steam rose from the water in wispy snakes that lost form as they rose in the air. Small strands of hair started curling from the combination of heat and humidity. She blew one away from her mouth. It wouldn’t be long before her hair became an untamable mane and not in a good way.

Blue tile lined the lip of the sunken area of the bath and decorated the walls in complex patterns. The bath itself was done in a light cream with the soft shine of glow lights giving the entire area a faint air of romance and mystique.

Tate stopped and stared in awe. Impressive. It was by far the nicest bathhouse Tate had ever visited.

Little beads of sweat popped up on her forehead as the heat enveloped her. Gingerly, she tested the water with one hand. With a groan of relief she sank into piping hot water that rose to her hips. She dunked her head and wiped the water from her eyes when she came up before turning to where she’d set her clothes on the floor next to the pool. Never one to waste an opportunity, she wet her clothes thoroughly before lathering them with soap. She hummed under her breath as she scrubbed.

The constant circulation of the water carried any dirt away making sure the water stayed fresh. She held her shirt up for scrutiny. Was that a sweat stain or was it a shadow from the light? She couldn’t tell. She dunked it again and gave it another scrubbing. Washing them in the bath wasn’t as good as having a washerwoman scrub them, but until she got settled money was going to be tight. Once finished she wrung out her clothes and set them on the floor to dry.

With her clothes taken care of, she sank back onto the underwater bench and leaned her head back. This was heaven. She luxuriated in the feel of the water clasping her gently in its heated embrace and the complete absence of dirt and sweat after weeks of inadequate sponge baths.

Her lips curled in pleasure. There wasn’t anything quite like the first time you were completely clean after a long stint at sea. She didn’t mind the ship, but there were definitely times when she missed the comfort of civilization.

Absentmindedly, she scratched at her arm. The skin under the tattoo on the left arm had started to tingle. Again. The tattoo was of a sleeping dragon, intricate and beautiful. The beast’s snout rested on Tate’s bicep with one leg draped so that it curled under her arm and around to lightly clasp her elbow. Its tail wrapped around her wrist, the tip of it coming to a stop in the web between her thumb and forefinger.

The tattoo was so lifelike, that if she held her arm just right, it looked like she was cradling a baby dragon. A few people on ship had asked where she’d gotten it, but like so many other things in her life, the dragon was just one more mystery yet to be solved. She had no memory of how it came to be or why she had wanted it.

The tingling of the skin under the tattoo increased and she scratched harder. No matter how hard she scratched it wouldn’t stop. She could take a knife to it and the skin the tattoo covered would remain numb except for those annoying prickles.

“Saviors take it!” If scratching wouldn’t work. She eyed the lip of the bath. Perhaps.

She banged her arm against the bath, then dragged her arm down its stone lip. She cursed, letting loose a string of words she’d learned from sailors. It’d make most men’s ears burn, but it didn’t make a difference with the tingling. She sighed and sank deeper so the water reached her nose and blew bubbles.

She’d give anything to make the tingling stop. For eight months she’d had to live with it, it came and went and then came again. She was sick and tired of having an itch she couldn’t scratch.

She blew more bubbles and watched them pop. Her skin began to wrinkle, but she wasn’t ready to get out yet.

Voices carried in from the changing room, and Tate grimaced knowing that she’d soon have company. With a grumble at the interruption, she reached for her soap and began to work the lather into her skin. It would’ve been nice if she’d been able to keep the bath to herself for a while longer.

Tate had climbed out and was drying off by the time the two ladies gossiping in the next room exited wearing similar towels.

Avoiding eye contact, she scooped up her still wet clothes and slipped by them into the changing room. They eyed her suspiciously as she passed before sliding into the piping hot pool she’d left behind.

“Did you hear about that creature they found at the docks today?” Tate paused just inside the changing room, straining her ears to catch the women’s gossip. “My nephew was there, and he couldn’t believe what they found. He said it looked like something out of the old texts. You know— the ones with pictures of the monsters the ancients imprisoned. He said it was as blue as the sky on a summer day and had two extra arms.”

“My word.” The other woman sounded scandalized at her friend’s description. “This is the third one they’ve found this month. Something is wrong. The Black Order had better do something. It just disgusts me to think of them just standing by, while we are terrorized by these creatures. We pay the monthly tithes for protection, but when we need protecting they’re nowhere around.”

“Shameless,” the first woman agreed.

Tate lost interest in the conversation as the women began to talk of a celebration that night. She moved away from the door deep in thought. Perhaps the creature they spoke of was the ‘body’ she’d seen being dragged up in the fishing nets that morning. It had been blue— maybe even the blue of the sky.

What was the Black Order, though? Were they some kind of police force? If so, why did they collect money? With a mental shrug Tate resolved to ask Danny some of her questions when she met up with the men later.

Tate pulled on the change of clothes she’d brought and tied her wet hair back. The water from her hair quickly dampened the back of her tunic. After slamming the locker shut, she left before the women finished their bath.

She was still pondering what she had learned half a block later.

Too preoccupied to pay attention to where she was going, she jerked away when her arm was grabbed from behind. Without thinking, she twisted, pulling her attacker forward. Her knee was already flying towards his groin when he let go and stepped back.

“Ryu,” his name slipped from her as her eyes narrowed threateningly. The inner presence she had begun to refer to as ‘dragon’ after the tattoo on her arm became more attentive.

“Such violence,” Ryu said mildly with a raised eyebrow.

The presence inside her mind perked up at the sound of his voice and shook itself gleefully. Tate’s eye twitched at the feeling. That was what always happened when she was near Ryu. It was one of the many reasons she avoided him. She already felt crazy enough without some niggling mind thing struggling to get his attention.

The quirk of his lips said he’d known exactly what he was doing when he’d grabbed her. Tate struggled to keep her temper in check. For some reason he found it funny to catch her off guard. She didn’t.

Ryu wasn’t handsome as society would define it, not being pretty or chiseled, but having rugged features. He had a confidence and charisma that drew people to him, especially females. His very blue eyes twinkled merrily at her. There was a slight bump in his nose and a light scar bisecting one eyebrow. His black hair had gotten a little shaggy in the past few weeks and now touched his collar. His chin was smooth shaven as usual. Tate didn’t think she’d ever seen him with face hair. He was dressed simply in brown leather pants and a long sleeved tunic.

“What’re you doing here?” she asked after regaining a little calm and forcing her ‘other half’ back a little.

“The same thing you are, darlin’. Trying to obtain lodging,” he said, pointing at the inn they stood in front of.

Tate blinked. The weathered sign of the Crow’s Nest was not what she had expected to see. She would have walked past it if he hadn’t grabbed her. She wouldn’t tell him that, though. No need to let him know he’d done her a favor.

“You can’t,” she blurted when she realized what he’d said.

“And why not?”

“You don’t usually stay with us when we reach shore.”

Although Ryu was a member of Jost’s crew, he wore his breeding as another wears a coat. He’d shown up two months ago but according to the crew had been a member longer than most of them. He would disappear for a while and then reappear at will, and Jost never said a word about it. He was one of the few who seemed to come and go at will. Tate really would have liked to find out exactly how he was able to do that, but it would have meant spending much more time with Ryu and asking dangerous questions. No, thank you. She’d keep her own council.

Since rejoining Jost, it felt like Ryu was always watching Tate. At first she’d thought she was being paranoid, but every time she turned around, there he was. It felt as if he was weighing her, trying to find all of her secrets. As a result she was twice as guarded and twice as combative whenever she spoke to him.

“The Crow’s Nest is one of the finest inn’s in the city. There’s good food and–“

“Mattresses without flees,” Tate finished, rolling her eyes. “I know. Danny gave me the run down earlier.”

“Then there’s no reason why I shouldn’t stay here. Unless you have a problem with it?”

Tate bit her tongue on her response and stomped into the Crow’s Nest. He caught up within two of her strides and rested his hand on the small of her back. A sharp zing shot through her and her entire focus spun down to the weight of his hand resting against her.

“No touching,” she said, shoving his arm away. A part of her protested, but she shoved that down as firmly as she’d shoved his arm away. One of the first rules she’d formed was nobody was to touch her. Not crew, not city folks, and most definitely not Ryu. If one person got to touch her, then others felt they had a right. She had enough trouble as it was.

She didn’t know what his game was or what he hoped to find out. Her secrets were hidden, even from her. There was nothing that made her think he was attracted to her. She wasn’t exactly beautiful, but neither was she ugly. Her hair was nice enough. When the sun hit it just right, it looked like melted gold with flecks of a darker copper spun in along with blonde highlights. Her skin was pale and her eyes a bright green. At 5’6 she was neither short nor tall, just average for a female.

“Ryu,” Trent yelled from a table in the corner. “Over here.”

With a lingering look at Tate, Ryu headed over to the three at the table. Gritting her teeth, Tate followed. As much as she disliked him, she wouldn’t let him chase her off from spending time with her friends before they headed back out to sea.

Riply was quick to pull up two extra chairs for the newcomers while Danny flagged down a waitress for more beer. With only one chair left unoccupied, Tate was left with no choice but to take a seat next to Ryu.

Stop being a ninny, she told herself sternly. He’d be leaving with the rest of the crew once the week was out, and she wouldn’t have to see him again. She could be civil to him for that length of time. It wasn’t as if he’d really done anything. He just made her uneasy.

“Isn’t that too bad, Tate?” Trent’s innocent question cut off Tate’s inner lecture.

“What is?” she asked blankly. She’d lost track of the conversation while she’d been talking to herself.

“Ryu is leaving the crew here.”

Tate coughed as the beer she’d just taken a sip of went down the wrong pipe. “What?” she croaked.

Ryu thumped her on the back. She shoved his arm away once she’d started breathing normally again.

“Are you going to miss me?”

“I thought you were remaining with the crew until Brilady,” she blurted, ignoring his comment.

“Now what would give you that idea,” he asked, propping his head on his hand.

To give herself time to think, she took a long sip of beer. She’d overheard him and the captain talking about it. She hadn’t set out to eavesdrop; it just kind of happened. She wasn’t sorry for it either.

She took a deep breath and found herself on the verge of panicking. This wasn’t good. Aurelia was where she was supposed to cut ties. It’d be much more difficult if there was another person here who could exercise Jost’s will once he was gone.

No. Maybe this wasn’t that bad. The city was huge after all. Chances were she’d never see him once she made the break. She’d just have to make sure she got away from Aurelia and further inland quicker than she’d originally planned.

She avoided his eyes and looked down into her beer. What had spurred his change of heart?

“Just thought that was what you said,” she said nonchalantly.

“Hmm.” His regard pinned her in place a moment before he picked up his beer. It felt like she could breathe again. “As it turns out, I have business in the city. Don’t worry, I’ll be seeing you guys sooner than you think.”

Tate stared down into her beer. She doubted that. As soon as she left she had no plans to meet any of the Marauder’s crew ever again. Doubly so for Ryu. 

“What does everyone want to do while we’re here?” Trent asked in the ensuing silence.

Tate shrugged more than willing to move away from talk of Ryu. “I’ve never been here before. I wouldn’t know where to even begin.”

“We should probably start with walking around the city a little. There’s a lot of things to see during the day,” Danny said. At night, everybody knew they’d find themselves in drinking in some bar and having fun. It was such a given that Tate didn’t even try to beg off anymore. Those nights had led to more than one man finding himself detained until he sobered up. “I can show you some of my favorite spots in the city. I’d stick to the lower city for today. We won’t really have time to walk all the way to the Upper and look around before night fall.”

“Upper?” Tate asked.

Danny was the quietest of the group. Mostly he let Riply and Trent do the talking for him, but when he spoke, others listened. Tate had come to like the big guy over the last few months. He’d grown up in the city before putting out to sea and still remembered how to find his way in it.

“The city’s divided into two parts.” He smiled shyly at her. “The Upper is considered anything above the cliff line and the Lower everything below it. We can try for the Upper later in the week, but it’s considerably more expensive.”

“I can’t wait to see everything,” Trent said with wide eyes. His thin face was alight with curiosity. Like Tate, he’d never been to Aurelia, but he had heard stories of its splendor and opulence.

Tate frowned thoughtfully but didn’t comment, instead stealing a piece of bread from Trent’s plate.

“Hey, I’m a growing boy. Get you own food.”

“Why? Yours is so tasty,” she said stealing a vegetable.

He scooted the plate closer to him and guarded it with one arm while he shoveled food in his mouth.

“Stop teasing the pipsqueak,” Ryu said, flagging down one of the waitresses milling around the room. It had grown crowded in the short time since Tate and Ryu had joined them. “If you’re hungry, I’ll get you some food.”

“I can order my own food.”

Before she could say more the waitress arrived. Her voice was chipper as she gave Ryu her undivided attention, ignoring Tate. “You boys in for the festival?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “What can I get you? The Nest has some of the best food in the Lower.” She smiled flirtatiously and bent so her prominent breasts were displayed to their full advantage.

“I’d like a plate of whatever they had,” Tate said loudly, jerking her head towards the others at the table.

It was a moment before the woman transferred her attention to Tate. It was apparent she didn’t think much of Tate when her mouth quirked in satisfaction. “And how ‘bout you love?” she said dismissing Tate entirely. She rested one hand against Ryu’s shoulder and stood close enough that her skirt brushed his leg.

Tate blinked. It wasn’t that she expected to attract attention or even wanted it but to be totally dismissed? That was just insulting.

Perhaps it was her clothing.

Her worn brown pants and the top hanging loose on her slim frame, as it had originally been a man’s shirt, usually deflected unwanted attention. She was fine with that. It meant she had to do a lot less fighting. She’d had to roll the cuffs up twice on her tunic just so her hands could peek out from the long sleeves. Her hair, damp from her bath, was pulled back in a sloppy ponytail. When dry, it tended to frizz in the humidity.

The dragon hissed at the woman Mine. Don’t touch.

Tate found the table in front of her suddenly fascinating as she wrestled with a strong urge to strangle the waitress. Mine? Oh no, definitely not. Uh-uh. Tate wouldn’t know what to do with a male nor did she want to figure it out.

As to the woman’s clear disdain of Tate, it wasn’t the first time she’d been dismissed. The woman had a point and Tate was happy that she didn’t stand out. It made slipping about unnoticed a lot easier. Tate contented herself with stealing another vegetable from Trent’s plate as he gawked at the waitress’s cleavage.

Ryu shrugged the woman’s hand off and then shot a charming smile at her. “I’ll have the same as her.”

The woman pouted, disappointed to be dismissed, but took their orders and headed to the kitchen. Riply and Trent burst out laughing as soon as she was out of earshot.

“What is it about your ugly mug that makes you so appealing?” Riply asked, slapping him on the back.

“You must be crazy to turn down such a fine woman,” Trent stared longingly at the woman’s shapely rear as she sashayed her way around the room.

“Lad, you’ll find as you get older there are more qualities to a ‘fine woman’ than merely her breast size,” Ryu said.

“Don’t lie to the boy like that,” Riply said with a scandalized expression.

Tate took another sip of her beer and fought not to grin. The woman was pretty and it was surprising Ryu hadn’t been the least interested in her. In Tate’s limited experience while on ship, she had learned that women with nice figures were highly sought after.

Riply’s view was pretty normal for him. He made a point of bedding every willing woman in any port they stopped in.

Tate’s stomach growled at the scent of Trent’s stew. She hadn’t eaten breakfast that morning, and it was past time for lunch.

“Hungry?” Ryu asked.

Tate’s face turned red, but there wasn’t much she could say in response. This was why she didn’t like to talk much to Ryu. He had a habit of throwing her off balance and making her feel like a fool.

The food arrived before she could come up with anything witty to say. She dug in without another word. The first mouthful burned her tongue, and she had to suck in air around the piece of meat to cool it enough to swallow. She took a deep drink of the beer to sooth the sting.

“A pretty thing like you must get a lot of compliments from all the riff raff who float through here.”

Tate rolled her eyes as she listened to Riply’s opening line. Predictably, having struck out with Ryu, the woman was eager to have her ego soothed by Riply’s smooth tongue.

“I don’t know about riff raff, but the gents is mighty free with a kind word if it’ll get them their drinks quicker,” she cooed running her fingers through Riply’s hair.

“Ah, lovey, you’re a mighty fine woman deserving to have songs written to your beauty.”

The woman smiled and sidled closer to Riply. She ran a hand down his arm and lowered her eyelashes flirtatiously. “I’m supposin’ you’re the one to give me those pretty words are you.”

Tate dipped a piece of her bread in the stew’s sauce, eyeing the couple raptly. Maybe she could learn something. Riply was near legendary when it came to persuading members of the opposite sex. 

She’d put the talent to a slightly different use, though.

“If you and I were to spend a bit more time together I could convince you of that,” he said with a roguish smile.

A commotion at the Inn’s front door interrupted the flirting between Riply and the waitress. Tate peered around Ryu to see what all the fuss was about.

A group of three, dressed in fine silks, watched the room behind inscrutable eyes. These were the kind of patrons that normally bypassed places like the Crow’s Nest and headed straight for the Upper City. They stood out rather starkly.

The woman, flanked by two men, had long black hair, partially pulled back from her face by a black hairpin with a pearl dangling from its tip. Her sapphire gown had little pink flowers embroidered on it and just barely brushed the floor. Her features were delicate and even from where she sat, Tate could see she’d be considered a beauty.

Her companions were dressed more simply in full black pants and wore black-scaled armor over vibrant blue shirts. Their hair, like the woman’s, was black but pulled entirely back from their faces in a long tail down their backs.

A low whistle came from Ripley. “It’s unusual to see the Kairi so far from their island’s.”

“The Kairi? Who are they?” Tate asked.

“You weren’t with us the last time we were in their territory,” Danny answered. “They’re a sea people, mostly keeping to the islands down south and their stretch of sea. People say they can breathe underwater and swim as well as any fish. I don’t know if that’s true or not. They’re a very reserved race and don’t interact a lot with outsiders. I’m surprised to see a female in the city because they’re guarded as if they were one of the finest treasures.”

“Can they really breath underwater?” the waitress asked Riply.

“Oh aye, I once saw a man slip under water and didn’t see him again for a good hour.”

“You jest.” The waitress slapped his arm lightly.

Riply reached over and pulled her down into his lap. “Now love, why would I sully your ears with such a poor jest.” She giggled and squirmed out of his arms.

Tate watched the innkeeper scurry up to the newcomers who had still not moved from the door. One of the guards intercepted the proprietress before she could greet the woman directly. The two conferred briefly before the innkeeper led them upstairs.

As they left the woman looked around the room, her attention coming to rest on Tate’s table. Tate stiffened. The woman’s eyes were all black. Before Tate could take in any other details about the newcomers they were gone, following the innkeeper to their rooms.

“I wonder what they’re here for,” Trent said softly.

“Oh, didn’t you know? All sorts of folk are coming to the city for the Donza Festival. Don’t know why they’re not staying in the Upper City, though. They have quarters up there where their people normally stay when in town. Wouldn’t want to mingle with us common folk,” the woman said climbing off Ripley’s lap. “I’ve heard that even the Silva are traveling from their forests for it. Though with the recent trouble, this year might not see as many people from other cities.”

“Recent trouble?” Ryu asked straightening in his chair and fixing the waitress with a sharp look.

Pleased at the sudden attention, the woman preened a bit before answering. “They’ve been discovering all sorts of strange creatures lately. Most of them have been dead, but last week this bird-like thing attacked one of the markets and tried to carry a woman off. Thank the Saviors one of the dragon-ridden was there to stop it. The creature killed three men.”

Dragon-ridden? That sounded interesting.

“What are the dragon-ridden?” Tate asked puzzled. Five sets of eyes swung towards her. Tate shifted uncomfortably. You’d think she’d just announced she’d grown a third eye instead of asking a simple question.

“Where have you been living?” Trent asked, disbelief in his tone. “Under a rock? Everybody knows that.”

Tate flushed and dropped her eyes to her plate. Well, she didn’t. She didn’t know much about this world. Even all these months after waking up in that room, every time she turned around she was confronted with something she didn’t understand.

Her memories from before she woke up were hazy, and what she did remember didn’t mesh with the world around her. Sometimes it felt like she was still asleep and the world around her simply a dream.

“The dragon-ridden are a special part of the imperial government. They are bound to dragons and serve at the Emperor’s behest,” Ryu explained softly.

“I don’t understand. Why are they called dragon-ridden?” Tate asked confused. If they were bound to a dragon, wouldn’t it be dragon-rider.

“It’s not like that, Tate.” Trent forgot about his food for a moment and leaned forward animatedly. “The dragon and person form a bond, and afterwards the dragon lives inside the man. He can lend his form to the man, but otherwise he just lives as a tattoo, sharing his thoughts. Haven’t you ever dreamed of forming a bond with one? I have, even though no one has formed a bond with one in over a hundred years. People say the dragons have all died off, and the only ones left are the ones who’ve bonded to humans. I think they’re just hiding and-“

“Of course she didn’t dream of being a dragon-ridden,” Riply said scornfully. “No woman’s ever formed a bond with one.”

“I don’t know. When I was younger I always dreamt of being the first woman to bond with a dragon,” the waitress said dreamily.

Tate’s thoughts snagged on something Trent had said. “You said the last one had been bound 100 years ago? How could he have fought off a creature like that then?”

“The dragon-ridden retain the longevity of the dragons and can live for hundreds of years,” Danny said quietly. “They serve the Emperor directly and are considered part of the high nobility.”

Tate stared at him before nodding slowly, her mind digging through all the information that’d just been dumped on her.

There was a strong urge to touch her tattoo. It was tingling again.

Their information didn’t mean anything. It was just coincidence that her tattoo was a dragon. Nothing more.

Hadn’t Riply just said no woman had ever bonded to a dragon before? There, a coincidence.

She looked up to find Ryu staring at her with a considering look.

A chill slithered down her back. Suddenly the food she’d eaten sat like a hard lump in her stomach. Nevertheless, she picked up a fork and forced herself to take a bite of the food in front of her.

She’d think about this all later. When not under another’s watchful eye. ‘Til then she’d put everything in the back of her mind. Surreptitiously, she tugged the sleeve on her tattooed arm down further until it covered her hand.

Before walking away the waitress leaned over and whispered into Riply’s ear. He nodded and slapped her on the ass as she sashayed away.

After she left, Ryu said, “I’ll tag along with you this afternoon.”

Trent gave a cheer and even Danny seemed pleased with the company. Not Tate. Ryu usually went his own way once they got on land. She didn’t see why he wanted to tag along now. A part of her couldn’t help the paranoia that said Jost had set him on her in case she ran. That was ridiculous though.

“I don’t know about you deck scabbers, but I’ve got a date with a pretty little female,” Ripley said.“Big surprise there, you throwing over your friends for a bit of action,” Tate said sarcastically. The rest of the group laughed.