THREE HOURS AGO

Dragonholt gazed down at District Rao from the blackened sky and chose his spot in the fire. He flapped his massive wings once, twice, then tucked them against his body and dove, avoiding the pluming smokestacks from the factories and the spot storms of ash from the sky. He hit the lava like a guided missile, his fall creating a massive wave of fire that just missed a group of startled factory workers on their way to work that morning. The lava fell harmlessly back unto itself and the workers, used to all manner of dragonkind, shook themselves free of the shock and carried on working.

The Scarlet Tower’s lava stretched out beneath the earth like thick roots made of fire, forming large reservoirs throughout the district. Atop the lava were walkways and squares where the finest augments in all of Turrim were forged. It had made the district rich, although the economics had yet to trickle down to the class of workers responsible for creating the augments. The upper class and those at court enjoyed comfortable lives in their skyscrapers away from the sweat of the workers and the heat of the fire.

Dragonholt craved the heat. He swam through the lava as easily as any fish through the ocean. No, even better. Fish lived in the ocean. Dragons were made of fire. He only ever felt truly at home when in the depths of the lava, wherein he could burn away all thoughts of court and responsibility. Wherein he could simply swim, feeling the pleasant heat of the tower surrounding him, body and soul.

And yet that morning, he could not burn away his stray thoughts so easily. Something nagged at him, like a splinter in the mind. He couldn’t quite place a claw on what the discomfort was, only that his reticence to attend the signing of the Treaty of Accordance felt more pronounced than it had in recent days. He had argued against attending the signing, for princess Raoyenna was young and inexperienced with matters of state. Yet she had overruled him, believing it important that she begin to take her rightful place as the representative of District Rao.

“If the nobles are ever going to respect me, I have to start showing them I deserve it,” she’d said to him in private.

“Yes, princess,” Dragonholt eventually said, acquiescing to her will. It was not the place of the First Protector of the Princess to tell her how to run the district. If she decided to go, it was his responsibility to ensure her safety.

In that, he had taken all the proper precautions. He hired the finest band of gunslinger mercenaries in the district, a group called Heaven’s Flame. Using mercenaries was not his preferred method of safekeeping as those that could be bought by one could just as easily be turned by another, but District Rao did not have a standing army. He had used the group before and had a standing agreement with them: If anyone were to try hiring them away, he would double their pay to stay loyal. So far, the arrangement had kept him and his charge safe.

For backup, he contracted several acolytes as well, those who spent their lives studying the Scarlet Tower and channeling its power into their bodies, imbuing themselves with the fire of the tower itself. Plus, he would be there, and he was no weakling. Dragonholt was larger than most dragons and had trained in the Thar desert under the tutelage of Bahamute’s Disciples himself. He would protect Raoyenna. At all costs.

And yet…

Dragonholt, I need you.

The princess’s voice sounded in his head as clear as if she were next to him. The royals of District Rao had been chosen by the Scarlet Tower at the dawn of time to be its avatars in this world. Their bloodline had a psychic connection to dragonkind unlike any other. Dragonholt was always a mere thought away for Princess Raoyenna.

Coming, my liege, Dragonholt thought back, spinning mid-stride. He pushed himself off one of the walkway foundations and swam toward the cavernous openings underneath the Scarlet Tower. A hollow passageway ran up and down the tower caverns large enough for dragon flight.

Dragonholt flapped his wings once, twice, then propelled himself from the lava through the belly of the tower to a ledge where Princess Raoyenna stood. She was flagged acolytes, each like living furnaces just barely containing the fire underneath their chrome bodies, and the hired gunslingers.

Dragonholt landed and said, “Ready?”

Princess Raoyenna gulped. Her face was scarred with the royal birthmark of fire, rivulets that ran under the skin like veins. She wore a heavy gown with intricate weavings. “Ready.”

A portal of fire opened behind her. “Then let’s go,” Dragonholt said, stepping through.

To be continued...

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