Burn Red Skies
ABOVE REALM, DIVISORYA
14th/57R: We had set off at first light, hoping to reach home before the Hounds could ask too many questions. We failed. Now our ship is to be grounded in Port Haven until the Purge passes over the western shores. We will be granted safe passage, but being so close to the Firelands has put everyone on edge. Honestly, Elayne, I
The Smuggler lurched to the side, nearly sending Decker’s quill overboard. Surprise quickly eased into relief; he had no idea how to end the letter gracefully. What was he going to write? I miss you? As a trader—on paper, at least—he had traveled on hundreds of ships, both air and seabound, but that one sailed a long time ago.
“The winds are bellowing!” Merc shouted from the helm. Delight widened his grin until it took up half of his face. His enormous goggles took up the other. He may have looked like a Hound, but he was as Divisoryan as they came. For one, no self-respecting Realmborn would wear a flighter cap, even on the rare occasion they boarded an airship; the ear flaps and huge, tinted lenses were usually too much for them. Travelers could get away with short stints, but those who lived in the air cared nothing for appearance. It became more important to protect one’s eyes and ears, to keep warm against the winds—even if it meant wearing a stupid hat.
For another, the Realmborn did not favor turbulence in any form—the ocean, the winds… politics. Divisoryans, however, considered the winds guardians of the sky, and powerful gusts were welcome on any voyage. Airship traders lived to break routine. As any true-blooded Divisoryan would say, they already lived on top of the world—why stop there?
“I almost forgot how sensitive the wheel was!” Merc’s voice hollered over the wind.
Perhaps Decker shouldn’t have let him steer. “Remember what Wolff said,” he shouted back. “You have to treat it like a lady.” Words undoubtedly lost on him, he thought, laughing to himself. He closed the leather flap of his journal. Wolff had probably felt the heave, and neither of them would hear the end of it if he found Merc at the wheel. Again.
Decker stared out into the horizon and decided he could bear a few cranky words. He had always loved the setting sun, as it reminded him of home and what awaited him. Now, it signaled a darkness that no light could reach. They had steered the Smuggler into Port Haven hundreds of times, but today, the city donned a different skin. The clouds were tinged red, tracing the outline of the towers in the distance. Shadows of the city lifted and fell, and spires rose like silent sentinels that pierced the sky.
Even among the Realmborn, the Hounds were known for three things: their metal, their numbers, and their temperament. It was often said that their tempers flared hotter than fire, but their craftsmanship neared perfection. Wolff always said that in matters of the hand, they were unmatched. In matters of the head and heart, however… well, Decker had never heard of a Fireborne poet, let alone met one on his travels.
No, he much rather preferred life in the floating city, which his people still called Divisorya. Of course, the Realmborn had fashioned more insulting names for it—the Sore, for example—but it was the only place in the world that was free from their absurd reign, and it pissed them off to no end. Animosity ran between them, deep and ugly like an old scar.
Still, for all its faults, the world was beautiful, and he wanted to see it. Decker had joined the Smuggler when he was ten, but each assignment, each voyage, still taught him something new—even if it made the world seem like a darker place.
The Firelands were a good example: a marvelous civilization built on blood and bones, and they weren’t ashamed of their past. Even now, Decker could see blackened craters where whole settlements had once stood, burned off the face of the earth. Nothing human left traces like that. No one bothered to patch up the land, but the Fireborne rarely rebuilt ruin; instead, they relocated, making new versions in different places. Not many outsiders knew that, but Decker supposed it was easier to see from above.
The breeze startled him as the skies turned gray, accompanying his mood. Damn it, he thought. Not again. He was letting the Realms get to his head.
“Do you think Wolff felt that?” Merc roared over the clanking.
“Debatable,” Decker answered. Wolff probably did, but if he hadn’t stormed out by now, he was probably doing his best to ignore it.
“Debata-bell,” repeated Merc to himself, suppressing a grin.
Decker let it slide. It had been over twenty years since he stepped foot in the floating city, but sometimes he let his accent slip. He could not bind it to a concrete memory, but he had certainly heard about his early years. Once in a while, his tongue betrayed him.
“Well, who cares what he thinks? We’re doomed, anyway,” said Merc sullenly when he saw the towers draw near, ever the optimist. He pulled off his flighter cap and ran a hand through his matted hair. His eyes squinted against the light. “Fuck,” he cursed, rubbing them.
Unbelievable, thought Decker. As much as Merc hated the Hounds, he could definitely pass off as one of them. His wild, orange hair danced like flames between gusts of wind—a phenomenon of color, he claimed, caused by constant exposure to the sun.
Or the Fire in his blood.
It was as plain as the auburn in his eyes. He was no Fireborne, but at least he still retained some traces of Fire. He could even cast it if he wanted, but it was never stronger than a candle-flame. He couldn’t control it, either, and often ended up burning himself. Still, it was an entertaining trick he used in crowds to pass the time.
“Have some pride,” said Decker, cracking open his journal. “Those are your people down there.”
“Uh-huh. To them, my brothers and I are the shamefaced cousins they never speak of. They only get in touch when they need money. Hey,” said Merc suddenly, changing the topic. Talking about his brethren in the Firelands always managed to hit a sore spot. “Do you reckon Valerya is part-dragon?”
Decker sighed. He was wondering when her name would come up. Ever since news of the Purge spread, Merc’s interest in the summoner had increased substantially. “What, now?”
“You know. You always hear about dragon spirits living inside their summoners and all. Do you think it takes over somehow?”
“I think some people are just… born evil,” said Decker. He had said it so often that it rolled off his tongue like honey. They’d had this conversation before. As hard as it was to believe now, past summoners were known for great deeds. They had built the Scarlet Cities, abolished slavery, and catapulted their civilization to the top. Under them, their people flourished.
Yet twenty years after Valerya the Fireborne was discovered among the ashes, there was not a soul in the world that did not cower before her name, and it was said that her dragon grew stronger with every life it claimed. Merc insisted it was the dragon’s will that burned villages to the ground. He seemed to have forgotten that Summoners were only human; some had been cruel of their own accord.
“I suppose we’re screwed, then,” said Merc. “Not saying much, though.”
Decker turned away and began to write, skipping over his last line.
I saw the villages burn one by one. I even heard the roar of the dragon, but by the time I came out, it was gone. And where does the spirit of a dead beast go?
“You’d better get ready,” shouted Merc as Decker felt the airship slow to a near halt. The gears grumbled and groused, threatened to explode. Merc shrugged it off. It was nothing new. “We’ll be landing soon, and guess who’s steering into port?”
Decker smiled despite himself. He remembered the last time Merc tried to land. They took several ships with them, along with a significant chunk of the main seawall. They were still paying yearly in damages, and Merc was no longer allowed anywhere near the helm.
Decker rose. Against his better judgment, he glanced over the side of the ship. From above, the world looked nothing more than blots of orange knotted across a black tapestry. Down below, they probably told a different story.
“Do you think the scepter really exists?” asked Merc, tugging him from his thoughts.
“No,” said Decker absently, mesmerized by the torch-fire. “I think Morian is using it as an excuse to wreak havoc.” The Dragon Scepter was always being stolen, or so they claimed, but it had become so legendary that Decker doubted its existence. Historians were no liars, but they certainly bent the truth.
Decker smirked. Superstition spread among the common-folk like wildfire, especially when sanctioned by their Sun-sworn priests. He watched the fire below grow fiercer, reaching upwards. He stared at the cracked face of the land below. A village went up in flames.
“What village is that?” he asked, more to himself than to Merc. They had flown past the Scarlet Cities, that much he knew. That meant that they were passing into the Dragontail, a cluster of forgotten villages that stretched just beyond a narrow peninsula. Decker squinted, frowned. There were much fewer than last time.
“How would I know?” said Merc. “Didn’t I tell you not to look?”
Decker sighed and pulled back from the railing. Valerya the Fireborne was right below them with her band of Spades, and now no one stood in her way. He wondered how many lives had been sacrificed to give the dragon its strength.
“Move over,” said Decker gruffly, tucking his journal back into his cloak pocket. She-Jackals and scepters and spooks or not, pondering wouldn’t do anyone any good if Merc killed them all. And the sooner they landed, the sooner they would be able to leave…
“I’m afraid you can’t leave, outsider,” said the sentry the moment he and his Hound companions boarded the Smuggler. He threw Merc’s fire-colored hair a quick glance before shifting his attention back to Decker. “Ma’am commands it.”
“Commands it?” repeated Merc incredulously. His tone shattered even the slightest hope of diplomacy.
But the sentry’s face did not change. He looked like he had been dealing with outsider ships all day, and no crew liked being grounded. “In the name of our king, Morian of Pyrrheas, direct descendent of Imperios, the second Trueborne son of our Guardian and…”
Decker wondered what sort of food they would be serving at the tavern that night. He threw Wolff an anguished glance, but Wolff shrugged and took a swig from his wineskin. He was thickset and strong and had been in charge of the Smuggler for as long as Decker could remember, but he left all the talking to the crew—especially when the Hounds were involved. He only spoke when things got ugly, which often happened when Merc opened his mouth.
Decker turned his attention back to the sentry just in time to catch the end of his speech.
“…all ships will be grounded until our General clears the area.”
“Sorry,” said Decker before Merc could respond, “but what does ‘clearing the area’ have to do with us? We’re just traders.”
“Our General, Valerya the Fireborne, first Dragon Summoner of her bloodline and commanding General of the Fire Realm, leader and…”
Damn it, thought Decker, thinking back to dinner.
“…would like to make sure no one from the villages escapes the Realm.”
“Couldn’t you just inspect our ships before we take off?” asked Merc. “Make sure we’re not carrying any stowaways?”
“Traders tend to be… eclectic,” the sentry answered as his companions threw Decker a dark glance that spoke volumes. Decker knew they were trying not to stare at his hair, the swirls of black and brown that contrasted Merc’s own. The Hound glanced back at Merc. “You will remain grounded until further notice, Outsider.”
Merc tensed, bit back an insult. He might as well have called him a half-breed.
“Stand down,” said Wolff gently, putting down his wineskin. “These men are just doing their jobs, right? What’s your name?”
Decker never knew how Wolff did it. With a few soft-spoken words, he could command anyone to silence. It was all in the tone, he supposed. Or the subtle, misleading calmness that often preceded a storm.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that Wolff outmatched them in size. The Hounds didn’t even know he was sitting down until he rose from behind the table.
“Sunn,” said the sentry reluctantly. His eyes narrowed in suspicion. It seemed as though no one had ever asked for his name before. Typical Fireborne bureaucrat.
“Well, Sunn,” said Wolff gruffly. “How long, then?”
“Until further notice,” said Sunn, this time a few shades nicer than before. “Ma’am’s being productive this week. A couple more to go after this.”
“I thought it was just the Dragontail she was after,” said Decker, “but I saw villages burn well past the Scarlet Cities. That’s not far from here.”
“That was just a scare,” said Sunn’s companion to the right. “Effective, too. Now no one has the balls to stand up to Ma’am.”
“Are they really looking for that scepter?” asked Merc before anyone could stop him.
Decker almost laughed when the sentries straightened, shocked that anyone would dare speak of their mythical scepter with such disdain. One of them scoffed. “Well, if you ask me, I think it’s just an…”
“That is enough, citizen,” said Sunn coldly, turning back to Wolff. “You may disembark, but you and your crew are only permitted to stay in Port Hav…”
“Yeah, we know,” said Wolff brusquely. “Been here too many times.” He waved a hand dismissively, signaling the Hounds’ leave. Decker wondered how many crews they had checked today. The port was overflowing with ships, but it looked like some had been docked for weeks.
“Long live our King,” was all Sunn said. He slammed his fist against his chest before he and his posse took their leave. Once they reached land, their pace quickened.
“Well, then!” said Wolff, shaking his head. “Best start unloading.”
Decker did not know what they were unloading half the time, nor did he care to find out. Inventory was Merc’s world; Decker just steered the ship and trained the underlings.
He sighed as he turned his attention back to the torch-lit horizon. The Firelands, he thought darkly, suddenly cold. We meet again.