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I didn’t move again until Cloud Skimmer’s scales had dried, then I rapped the top of her head. “Cloud…Cloud…”
She humphed and lifted her head out of my reach. I stood up slowly and straddled her neck, bending down to hiss her name in her ear. Cloud Skimmer cracked open an eye to glare at me, then growled. I growled back and yanked on her crest to pull her head up.
We struggled for another minute and then Cloud Skimmer dutifully stood up. She hopped a few steps forward, shaking the sleep from her muscles and then jumped into the air. I wrapped my arms around her neck and slid down to the rider’s seat.
Fire Temper and Druk were up in the air a second later. The others were more reluctant to leave the ground. When they were all in the sky, I leaned forward and motioned to the road. All human bonded made roads led directly to the King’s City- all we had to do now was follow it. Cloud Skimmer nodded and turned to fly parallel to it. I urged her to hurry and fixed my attention at the horizon. I didn’t want to hear the complaints behind me.
Cloud Skimmer stayed low at first, keeping close to the road. As soon as the first human bonded village came into view, she climbed higher. My gaze slid down to the village for a moment, but as looked back up I caught a glimpse of a shadow to my left. I stiffened and shifted forward, swinging my head around slowly so I wouldn’t attract attention.
More ___ birds? Storm clouds? My thoughts raced. I leaned forward so that my chin was lying against Cloud Skimmer’s head. I couldn’t make anything out of the shadows, except that they didn’t seem to be moving closer. I thought I’d left all of my weakness back at the lake, but watching the shadow made me think of home, and suddenly I thought that I could see the mountains.
What I told Druk was true, but right now I felt the pull toward the mountains almost unbearable. Everyone would be getting ready for the celebration that started tomorrow. The Spring celebrations were meant to welcome the turning of the seasons from winter to spring. There would be singing and dancing everywhere, contests in flying and combat, all day feasts. It lasted three days.
They weren’t expecting us until the third day. If business with the king didn’t take all day we could make it there before the celebrations even started.
At that thought, the knot in my throat loosened and the red haze that had begun to fill my vision receded. Storm Cloud, who had been trying to get my attention pursed her lips and whistled a high note. I sat up quickly, my vision flickering again as I realized that we had arrived.
The human bonded villages were all behind us and in front of us lay the King’s City. It was the largest human bonded settlement, reverently referred to as the King’s Seat of Power and the Heart of the Land. I had been there many times as a child, then later as a member of the Guard, and twice since I had taken leadership of the Guard. But it had always failed to impress me. It did not have the beauty of the mountains: bottoms spread out in rich valleys, winding paths that climbed to every corner of their recesses, tunnels that barreled into the cool depths of the earth and tops capped with snow year round.
Nor did it have the peaceful feel of the elves’ fields, the ___ of the gnomes’ barrens, the mystery of the ___ forests. The King’s City was full of cramped spaces and noise for the sake of noise. I respected the human bonded for living as they did, but I never envied them.
I tightened my knees around Storm Cloud’s middle and leaned back, trailing my hands up her sides lightly. She understood and climbed higher into the air. Even with the added altitude we were spotted quickly. The streets emptied, most people returning indoors, but a small crowd was making its way toward the New Palace.
The first Palace had been built along the edge of the King’s City, before the walls were added. Not long after the walls were built to surround the city, a New Palace was built further inside the walls.
The Old Palace, significantly smaller than the New Palace, was said to be the official home of visiting ambassadors. In my life time I had never known of any ambassadors staying more than a day in the King’s City. It was given instead to the use of the King’s high officials and nobles, which meant in essence, that it was a vacation home and a place for private business combined.
Circling the New Palace was a large courtyard, separate from the people’s courtyard, but still used by the people. Today it was full of King’s men instead of stalls. They were trying to stop people from entering the courtyard. At the sight of us, a shout arose from the crowd and they rushed the swordsmen.
Before I could gather my thoughts to act, Fire Temper shot out from under me. Druk was thrown back and he almost lost his seat, but he managed to grab hold of Fire Temper’s neck.
Fire Breather dropped quickly, spreading her wings to bank away at the last moment. She opened her mouth and took a deep breath as if to call her fire. I shook my head, trying desperately not to smile as the crowd turned and ran in the other direction, jumping over each other in their haste to get out of the way. The guards were trying hard to maintain formation, but I could see them shaking from Cloud Skimmer’s back.
Two boys who had broken through the line of guards realized their mistake too late to escape back the way they’d come. Fire Breather paid them no mind, banking to the side and then circling tightly to land near the square’s opening. The older boy now had his younger brother pushed up against a wall, shielding his body from my view. I almost called Fire Breather back up, but when she turned her back on the boys they ran.
I held Cloud Skimmer up and made her wait until Druk dismounted and waved up at us.