An announcement on the overhead speakers roused Ambassador Javis Zevos from his nap. He sat up in his plush seat and stretched, and rubbed his eyes beneath his small, rounded glasses. He peered out the window to his right at the forested city far below. The massive trees made the city appear deceivingly close as the airship prepared to land. Javis sat back, pulled his bag onto the little table in front of him, and checked over the paperwork he needed to give to the Board one more time.
He had just flown out of the mountains outside of Erothel’s southern border a couple hours before, where he had spent the last several months negotiating with the neighboring drād clans. Life was usually peaceful there, despite the dragons’ reputation as a tricky and often reclusive people. There were rarely any problems with the drād, so Javis’ job mainly consisted of learning their various cultures and the seven local dialects of the drenen language. And of course, keeping the clans satisfied.
The latter task was easier said than done as of late. For the last eight hundred or so years—which for a drād was just over one lifetime—the clans had been relegated to two locations: a mountain range to the South, and a range across the sea to the West. They had lost their lands during the wars against the humans of Taevalear, when many countries throughout Arai sought to take advantage of the genocide the humans had committed against the drād. The drād wanted their lands back.
But Javis was only one man, and the Board was difficult to convince on even minor issues. Today, Javis had to report a less-than-minor and rather worrying issue. In the last two months, someone had noticed the discontent simmering within the clans, and was trying to use that to turn them against Erothel. There was always a different person sent to stir up trouble, always appearing in a clan where Javis wasn’t, leaving him to sniff around at nothing but rumors. But rumors were enough for concern.
Javis had hired a man to look into the matter, and what he found was alarming. Someone in Erothel’s own government appeared to be the suspect. Javis checked his aspectacaster. He was waiting now for word from his contractor, hopefully with evidence from a meeting that would give the Board a reason to act on his findings. As the airship came to a stop, however, it seemed Javis would have to attempt to convince the Board without it.
He was escorted off the airship into a carriage that drove him from the outskirts into the heart of Arkaven. From ground level, the city was a forest. Most of the buildings were built into or built to blend in with the surrounding trees all nestled close together. The forest proved too dense around the buildings in most areas for any sonnes to get proper light, so the roads and pathways glittered with them instead, curving and twisting wherever the sunlight and space dictated.
The only exception to either was the capitol building in Arkaven’s center. A lone, round structure built atop pillars that stretched for the sun with its conical roof stood above the woodland.
A guard escorted Javis inside. He looked up with a sigh at the rows and rows of balconies that circled the inner circumference of the capitol building. The only way to reach them and the rooms on each level was the large spiral staircase in the center of the building that stood from ceiling to floor and the hanging bridges connecting to the stairs like the branches of a tree. With another sigh, Javis began his trek up the winding stairs. A sylfan fluttered past him, knocking one of the many floating bulbs of light into his path. He groaned in envy. He reached the top level, then gave himself a minute to catch his breath before he pulled himself together and entered the Board’s meeting room.
He turned his head to look around. He was the only one who had yet arrived, so he sat to wait on the side of the ovular table where no one would be able to come in and sneak up on his right.
Bright and warm sunlight filtered into the room through the South-facing windows despite the late-autumn chill that hung in the air. Javis yawned. He bounced his knee and rested his chin in his palm. He scratched at a knot in the table with his thumb. He yawned again. Finally, the door opened, and the others began to arrive. Any longer and Javis might have fallen asleep. He stood.
The elven ambassador to the drād clans in the West took her place next to Javis. She acknowledged him with a nod but kept her four violet eyes trained ahead. The next to arrive were the ambassadors to Ortrus and Iles, another elf and a sylfan respectively. They greeted the Western ambassador and took their seats. Among the rest to trickle inside were the ambassadors to Lus Natia, Nymn, Belvar and Ushal, and then Dalmos, Talmeya, Creus, Sovrona, and finally, Adonis. They were friendly with each other and bowed or shook one another’s hands.
Javis stood out from them like a plague victim. All of the other ambassadors were some manner of fae—elves mostly, a couple naols, a dwerin. One was half caelkin and faun. But Javis was the only one who was nalingur; part human.
It didn’t matter to the others that he spoke Yrlun with the accent of a naolen language, or that his light brown skin glittered just like a naol’s. In fact, Javis was sure he could have looked fully naolen and that still wouldn’t have mattered to the others. His father had been a human, and because Javis had the red blood of the Betrayers to prove it, his presence among his fellow ambassadors was only just tolerated. He ignored it like he always did and greeted them kindly. One of the ambassadors returned the gesture with a thin smile.
The door opened again, and the members of the Board entered. All sylfans, Erothel’s leaders took their seats. The ambassadors followed suit. Minister Lhorsan Phar removed his red cloak and stretched out his glass-like wings, twisted and flightless. The sunset feathers on his face were slightly ruffled, and he took a moment to smooth them out. Then, he stood to address everyone.
“My friends, it’s good to see all of you. We’re eager to hear what you have to share with us today. It seems you’re all in attendance, so I would like to get started.”
The Minister returned to his seat and gestured to the dwerin on his left.
“How are our neighbors to the North?” he asked.
“Things are going quite well in Dalmos. The King agreed to your terms for expanding trade. He wants to start right away,” the ambassador said.
Javis waited in silence while the others updated the Board on their respective countries’ situations. He didn’t expect to have a chance to speak anytime soon. The Board was more interested in the nations they saw as their equals, the ones they could benefit from; the dragons had no influence or power anymore. Javis met eyes with the Western ambassador. She gave him a tired look in agreement. The two of them always went last.
After an hour, Phar finally addressed them. “I expect the clans are faring well?”
The Western ambassador nodded. “There haven’t been many changes in the last six months. They’ve been relatively content since the Council agreed to let them move freely through the territories surrounding the Algaern mountains.”
“Good, very good,” said Phar.
When the Western ambassador concluded her report, his gaze passed over Javis and he started to turn his attention to the rest of the Board.
Javis cleared his throat. “The Southern clans are still discontent.”
Phar looked at him, the corners of his mouth tugging down. “Ah, of course. We are getting around to that,” he said dismissively.
Javis pulled out the paperwork he’d prepared and slid it in front of Phar. “Then you’ll want to get around to it soon. People are beginning to notice, and someone is trying to get them to direct their anger towards Erothel,” he said.
Phar looked over the papers. “And these are?”
“Flight records. Every airship that’s arrived at and departed from the foot of the mountains in the last two months. Most track back to the capital of Adonis and Talnoq-Vyn,” Javis said.
Beside the Minister, board member Tavyn Marvec narrowed his pink eyes.
“I’m not sure what you expect us to do with these,” he said.
“There’s more,” Javis said. “I decided to look into the rumors surrounding Governor Sius Mavell Evi, and I think you should do the same. If you keep looking, you’ll also see that within hours of flights to the mountains, carriages have arrived at the airstop from Sius Mavell Evi’s home. I have good reason to suspect he’s sending people there in his place.”
The Board muttered amongst themselves and the light gray feathers on Marvec’s head stood on end.
“Know when to hold your tongue, nal. Sius Mavell Evi is as loyal as any.”
Javis’ face flushed. “I—I don’t mean any disrespect. But you’re all aware of the rumors—” he started.
“We don’t have time to do as we please based on mere rumors,” Marvec retorted.
Two other board members nodded in agreement. Phar waved Marvec to be silent.
“What you have to say is indeed concerning, Zevos. I will have someone look into it.” Phar slid the papers to the side. “However, Marvec is right. We can’t afford to waste our resources on rumors, especially not on such bold accusations as the ones you make against the Governor. Now, if you had actual proof…”
Javis felt for his aspectacaster. “I’ll have your proof. Any day now,” he said.
“Then I would be happy to listen. But until you do. . .”
Phar moved on to discuss more important business. Javis sank in his chair. Whatever came next in the meeting, he only half listened. Marvec’s pale eyes remained trained on him the whole time.
The ambassadors were released after another couple of hours, and Javis got back on the airship and left Arkaven. He ordered a bottle of spirits for the flight home and poured what he could of it into his flask. He sat back with the remainder in hand and heaved a sigh. Removing his glasses, he rested his face in his hand.
He didn’t know why he expected things to go any differently today. Phar may have said he would look into the situation in the clans, but Javis knew he wouldn’t. He never did. Maybe, if someone else had reported in place of Javis, Phar would have been more inclined to care. Javis couldn’t blame him, though. The Minister had as much reason as the drād to hate humanity.
The only hope Javis had was that his contractor would get back to him. Even then, there was no guarantee the evidence would be what the Board wanted. Then again, knowing Javis’ luck, his contractor probably took the money and ran.
He knocked back the rest of the bottle and ordered another.
It was late in the evening when he entered the small house tucked deep within the birch forest on the outskirts of Kerevel Tul. He sighed in relief. Home at last.
Javis fell into an armchair next to a wood stove and melted into its soft cushions. He closed his eyes. He never minded being away, but there was something comforting about having a place to return to when he wasn’t in the clans.
Of course, it wasn’t really his house. When he first moved in, he thought it had been abandoned, only to find it was already inhabited by a large family of brownies. They let him stay on the condition that he left one of the rooms upstairs for them and that he bought them food when he was around. He would need to go to the city to take care of that in the morning, needing to resupply food for himself as well since he wouldn’t be returning to the clans for a month or two. But for now, he was going to let himself have a much-needed rest.
He didn’t know what time during the night he brought himself up to bed, but when he awoke early the next morning, he fell right back into his routine. He stumbled blindly down the dark stairwell and made his way to the kitchen. He lit a dim lantern and heated a pot of tea, which he drank seated at his messy desk upstairs in his study. He was in no hurry, so he sketched in his leather journal until his tea grew cold.
He dressed, then stopped in front of the bathroom mirror to try to tame his curly, chin-length hair. He started at the sight of the deformed and sightless atrocity that was his right eye. Usually he had it disguised with a glamor, but he must have accidentally let the magic fall while he slept.
He hated the sight of the old injury. It was a reminder of his mistakes from his youth. He cast a glamor again so that the eye matched the beautiful electric blue of his left one.
The sky began to lighten as he left for Kerevel Tul. He walked there, as he always did; the forest too dense for vehicles to get through. Javis didn’t mind the long walk though. The forest put him at ease.
By the time he reached the city, street vendors were setting up for the day market. He took advantage of the hour and had all of his shopping done by the time the streets woke up. He stopped at a deli for breakfast.
Kerevel Tul was a peaceful city. It was technically not a part of Erothel, but its own neutral territory. This lent itself well to the attitudes of people around. For the most part, its inhabitants welcomed all who lived there, even nalingur to some extent. The culture was one of the main reasons why Javis moved back there. The other reason was for the Citadel.
One part observatory and one part meeting hall for the members of the High Council—Arai’s collective leaders—the Citadel was a grand, stone building that stood watch over the city on a hill. Scholars, students of astronomy, philosophers and others frequently gathered there to study and speak their theories. Its size was only rivaled by the Kerevel in the center of the city. Javis visited the Citadel every chance he could, as it was also home to Kerevel Tul’s library.
He visited again after leaving the deli. He meandered up to the Citadel’s entrance and stepped inside. The old building’s cool, earthy air washed over him. His footsteps echoed over the polished floors as he made his way into the library’s unnatural quiet.
The library was bigger than all of the rooms in Javis’ home combined and doubled. Placing his groceries at a table near the front, Javis wandered into the crowded maze of shelves. He had a specific book in mind, but he took his time and stopped occasionally to take in the scent of old parchment while he browsed.
As he went deeper into the maze, a sweet sound drifting from over the shelves caught his ear. He surprisingly knew the song: a drenen folk melody about two lovers who were turned to stone after their failed efforts to be together. Javis didn’t know anyone who knew it outside the clans.
He followed the tune to the back of the library and peeked around a shelf. A drenen woman balanced a stack of books and returned each one to its proper location, humming as she did so. A signature characteristic of the drād, her skin was gray, although hers was lighter than most. The scales dotting her high cheekbones sparkled silvery-blue in the light that shone through the skylights high above them. Her glossy, obsidian hair spilled in a waterfall down her back and in two braids down her front, framing her face.
Javis grinned. “Why, is that Talara I hear?”
Talara startled, her cheeks darkening in color. “Javis! I didn’t know there was anyone else here,” she whispered. Her voice pitched higher than Javis last remembered; her practice proved effective.
Javis approached and beamed up at her. Although several inches shorter than most drenen women, she still stood taller than Javis by a foot, and at a height just shy of six feet, he was by no means a short man. And this was discounting the pair of curved horns that added three more inches to the top of her head.
“You sound lovely, my dear. I almost didn’t recognize you,” he said.
Talara rubbed the back of her neck. “You don’t mean that.”
“Of course I do. Eslu’lir isel’ahn giwen ther,” Javis said in the drenen language of Qo’yul. Your voice makes my heart sing.
Talara’s face flushed an even darker gray. Javis took her hand to kiss it, but she slid it away and occupied it with the last book in her arms. Javis drew back his own to flounder for his pocket.
“You’re always so poetic,” she said, averting her amber eyes. They stood out against her black sclerae, and Javis could have stared at them for hours.
“What are you doing here?” he asked. “I thought you were back in Talnoq-Vyn.”
“I remembered you were coming back this week, so I came to visit. But I didn’t think I would see you so soon,” Talara said. She turned to put away her last book. “How were the mountains?”
“Beautiful as always. Your mother sends her well-wishes.”
Talara’s shoulders drooped. “I am sure she does. I’m sure she wants me to go back, too. I won’t.”
Javis shifted his weight uncomfortably. It seemed Talara’s relationship with her mother remained rocky. “I would never ask you to,” Javis said, “…but I hope you don’t mind if I do ask you to lunch this afternoon? We could walk around the city after.”
“I have had enough of exploring the city for one trip, and knowing you, you will try to buy me another piece of jewelry I don’t need,” Talara said. Despite her words, there humor played in her voice.
Javis chuckled half-heartedly. It was true, he did still try to buy her gifts whenever they met, but he didn’t see anything wrong with that.
“Can I not do things to show you how much I care?” he asked.
Talara gave him a warm smile. She stepped closer and straightened out the folds of his jacket.
“We both know that’s not why you do it. If you really care, start by helping yourself,” she said.
Javis looked into her eyes. They only held kindness. “How do you know I’m not?”
“Because I know you. You are stubborn and prideful,” Talara said, “and neither of us can change so much in such a short time.”
At Javis’ raised brow she grinned, adding, “Well, maybe one of us can. I am serious, though. Let go of the past and forgive yourself. You will be a better and happier person for it.” She pulled away from Javis, and he longed to follow, but he remained where he was.
“I am trying, Ara. I really am,” he said.
But what Talara was asking was much easier said than done. He rubbed his right eye. He had no right to forgive himself, and the only one who could had been dead for sixteen years.
“Now about that lunch? I just bought groceries, I could fix you something at home,” he suggested, ready to move on.
“That would be lovely,” Talara agreed.
He held out his arm for her, and she moved to take it when he heard a soft chiming in his pocket. He rummaged for his aspectacaster and held it up. He gasped.
Talara creased her brow. “Who is it?”
Javis held up a hand. He let out a breath of relief. Finally. He looked around and pressed a finger to his lips before answering the chiming device.
Normally, a projection of one’s face would appear above the screen, but his contractor liked his anonymity, and Javis liked his own.
He whispered, “There you are. I was beginning to think I would never hear from you again. Do you have it?”
A gruff voice replied, “I have it. Do you have the rest of the money?”
“Of course I do. We made a deal.” Javis glanced at Talara. She gave him an inquiring look. Later, he mouthed.
“Good. Where do you want to meet?” the voice asked.
Javis looked around again and lowered his voice further. “Kerevel Tul. There’s a pub with a rooster painted on the side in the Lower District. We’ll meet there.”
The voice grunted in reply.
“You know, this would have been much more beneficial had you actually contacted me when we agreed,” Javis couldn’t help but add.
The voice grumbled, “Oh fuck off. I would have if I was able. You’re lucky I even have anything for you.”
Javis frowned. “What happened?”
“He heard me trying to leave, sent his guard dog after me,” the voice said. “And he has a message for you.”