“Grandessa,” Leelan says urgently, staring into her unseeing eyes as if he could make her see his thoughts. “I was attacked by a Gerlen, a –“
She stops him with her hand on his mouth. “Leelan, that is ridiculous and I don’t want to hear such silly lies.” She shakes her head; her cloudy eyes turned to him, her fingers moving up from his lips towards his eyes as if she tries to make up for her eyes not meeting his.
Leelan almost grabs her by the shoulders to make her understand but his hands hover in the air without touching her. He is not allowed to touch her without permission. She is a goddess.
He takes a breath to tell his tale once again but stops when he feels a bump against his leg. When he looks down, he sees Verkesh looking up at him with a frown on his borky face. Leaves are sprouting once again on his head and he twirls one of them between his fingers. The tip of the leaf points toward a row of shelves on the other side of the library and when Leelan risks a glance he sees a tall figure standing in the shadow.
Understanding, he lets his hands drop and straightens. “Of course, you’re right. I should not bore you with silly jokes. Would you care for a stroll through the gardens?” He offers her his arm but realizes that she can’t see it.
A smile appears on her face and she bows her head. “I would love to take a walk through the garden. As a matter of fact, it has been such long time ago that I’ve been at our old favorite place. Why don’t you take me there?”
Leelan takes her hand, touching her skin as little as possible, and places it on the crook of his elbow. He racks his brain for what she could mean and the only place he can remember are the kitchen gardens behind the stables. Utilitarian, simple and dusty, a far cry from the beautiful arrangements in the palace courtyards. But he remembers how they played around in those gardens as children, hiding from the cook and picking leaves from the herbs to smell or eat them.
Her hand securely in the crook of his arm, he leads her to a backdoor and into the servant’s hallway. When the door closes behind them, her grip on his arm becomes more urgent and she pulls at it to make him go faster. “Quickly,” she whispers, “before they catch up with us.”
“Who?” Leelan asks, picking up Verkesh with his other arm. The Grandessa clings to him with both hands now, trusting him to guide her through the winding hallway.
“The elves and dragons of the grand advisor, they watch me,” she whispers.
Leelan listens to the hurried steps that echo through the stone corridor behind them. Verkesh, who has been unusually quiet, jolts awake. “The door on the left is open, the room is empty.” Leelan understands. Verkesh has used his spirit to scout out their way and has looked into the room. It must have taken him a monumental effort to go in and out of his spirit form so quickly.
Verkesh struggles in his arm to lean over and press the handle down. Leelan leads the Grandessa in first and quickly closes the door behind them. He leans against it and listens for footsteps in the corridor. At least three people walk swiftly past. He can make out the faint sounds of bronze and leather armor.
They wait in silence, not daring to even breathe until the footsteps have disappeared. Verkesh keeps growing and dropping leaves, they fall to the hard floor and the root tendrils fail to find hold on it. He squats down anxiously and piles them up neatly in his green hands.
“Grandessa,” Leelan says, keeping his voice low, “what is going on?”
“Why don’t you call me by my name anymore?” she says, her face turned towards him. Her voice sounds soft like when she was still a little girl. His wings had not grown enough to carry him yet. He had watched over her back then, too, but they had also been friends.
“A dragon can’t call the Grandessa by her former name,” he says, hiding his face from her. He remembers that she cannot see how he has lowered his eyes and rakes through his hair in embarrassment.
“You used to call me by name, please do it again.”
Leelan hesitates, recalling everything he had learned when he became a dragon. The Grandessa, ruler of the realm. She has become a goddess and is not to be addressed by a lowly name.
“Sonne,” he says, tasting the word like a forgotten flavor. “Sonne, what happened? Why are you afraid?”
“They hide it from me.”
“Everything. I don’t know what happens outside of the palace, I don’t know about a war, what the elves in the outskirts do, the dragons, the elflings. I can’t read it for myself and they’re not telling me anything.”
Leelan needs a few moments to take all of this in. “But you are the Grandessa, if you order them —”
“The Grand Advisor controls all of them, they only say what she allows. The maids and the kitchen helpers are not permitted to talk to me and they are all afraid of her.” She lays her head to the side, listening like a bird. “We can’t hide here any longer.”
Leelan nods, forgetting once again that she can’t see, then makes a sound to indicate to her her that he agrees. “We should go to the gardens or they’ll alarm the whole palace.” He turns to Verkesh to pick him up and is shocked by his appearance. His bark has turned grey and fallen leaves of a drab color have formed a ring around him. He is in sleep, using his Spirit form again to scout the situation outside of room.
“No my friend, no no,” Leelan says, picking him up. Bark splinters under the pressure of his hands. “Wake up, this is too much.”
“What has he done?” Sonne asks.
“Changed into his Spirit form too often and too quickly. It’s not good for him.”
Verkesh stirs, the leaves on his head twitching. His voice is rough when he speaks: “Now, now we must go.”
Leelan opens the door, trusting his old companion implicitly and takes Sonne’s hand. They walk quickly towards one of the servant’s entrances and edge along the overgrown wall outside, keeping in the shadow. The kitchen gardens look empty and Leelan puts Sonne’s hand back into the crook of his elbow, slowly walking her to the herb patches. He keeps their pace casual, just strolling as if they had no other care in the world.
Sonne takes a deep breath. “Oh, this smells wonderful. I haven’t been here in such a long time.” She pulls on his arm, taking small steps towards a patch of bushy plants with leaves that seem to try to each form a bubble. The scent grows stronger the closer they get and even Leelan has to admit that it smells nice.
The Grandessa kneels down and picks a leaf from a plant. She hold it up to Leelan. “Smell it, taste it. This is basil; it’s one of the plants that also grows well in the human world. It says in the books that humans eat it with fruits and cheese.”
Leelan nibbles on the leaf, surprised by the intensity of the taste. He hasn’t really taken the time to explore the food over there, he just ate what looked alright. It had taken him weeks to realize that most things he ate were meant to be cooked first.
The sound of footsteps comes up from the building. Sonne takes his hand in hers and squeezes it. “You have to find out what is going on in the realm and tell me about it,” she whispers urgently. “Do you promise?”
“Of course,” Leelan answers, returning the pressure with his hand.
“Don’t talk to anybody from the palace; you can’t trust them.”
Verkesh clears his throat. His bark has almost returned to its original color and only three leaves bob on his head. “Grandessa, would you know of anybody we should speak to?”
She shakes her head and drops Leelan’s hand. A group of angry looking elves and dragons comes towards them with a tall elf of grey skin leading them. Leelan pretends not to see them and picks a twig from a random plant at his feet to show it to Sonne. He guides her hand to the twig but makes sure not to touch her any more than that.
Sonne smells at the twig, a smile on her face. “Wonderful. It must be new, I don’t know what it is.”
Their pursuers arrive in a cloud of dust rising from their feet. The grey elf turns to them and a forced smile spreads on her face. “Grandessa, your Highness, these gardens are not appropriate for you.”
Sonne turns towards the sharp voice, not bothering to fake a smile. “I like it here, it smells good.”
“I will tell the gardeners to plant nicely smelling plants in our presentable gardens,” the woman says, still with that forced smile. She turns her gaze towards Leelan and Verkesh, brushing over the small wood troll as if he’s not worth her attention. “The Grandessa has given you enough of her time,” she says towards Leelan.
“I’m sure the Grandessa can tell me herself if she wants me to leave,” Leelan says. He keeps his tone as neutral and polite as possible but the scales on his back are prickling and he has to consciously hold his wings in. He looks over the group and can see that the other dragons are not quite so good at keeping their wings tucked in. They display their aggressiveness rather openly.
A short hand wave from the leading elf signals the dragons to lower their wings and she turns her fake grin to Leelan again. “As the Grand Advisor to the Grandessa, it is my duty and sometimes burden to have to remind her Highness of certain obligations that come with her honoured position. It pains me to have to cut your visit short but the Grandessa has many more appointments today. ” She looks from one to the other, the smile on her face one of pride now. She knows that the Grandessa will not deny her.
The defeat is visible in Sonne’s sagging shoulders but she raises her head high once more and turns her cloudy eyes towards the Grand Advisor. “I will be with you in a moment to continue my studies. Please wait for me at the kitchen door,” she says and turns away, facing Leelan.
Leelan can feel Verkesh tremble next to his leg, the little troll sprouts another leaf already. For a moment it looks like the Grand Advisor is about to object but then she bows her head stiffly and says: “Very well, your Highness. Please don’t take too long, people are watching.”
Leelan isn’t sure if that remark is meant as a warning or a threat.
The group of elves and dragons shuffle away, kicking up a cloud of dust again on the garden path. Sonne waits for them to be out of earshot and keeps her back turned to them so that they can not see her speak quietly to Leelan. “You have to find out what is going on and come back and tell me.”
Leelan turns his face away from the stares of their watchers and whispers, “I doubt they’ll let me get close to you again after this.”
“I will think of something; we will meet in secret.” She giggles quietly. “It will be just like in our old books we read as children.”
Leelan sighs and his heart hurts for her and the careless childhood she has lost. “I’m afraid it won’t be quite like that.”
“I know,” she says, the happy smile dropping from her face. “But I will think of something, just… just find out what is going on. Something is threatening the realm, I can feel it and they’re keeping me in the dark!”
“I promise to tell you everything,” he says and places her hand in the crook of his elbow. “But now you must go back and be a good Grandessa for them.”
She holds her head up high and whips her black long hair back. “Of course.”
As soon as they are close enough, the Grand Advisor grabs Sonne’s hand and places it on her own elbow. “Come, come now, we have lots to do.” She looks over her shoulder as she pulls the Grandessa forward. “Beltrane, see to it that our guest finds his way out.”
A dragon with impressively wide shoulders and white scales steps forward. his wings are not quite spread out, but he keeps them just vaguely threatening. He blocks out Leelan’s view of Sonne as she is lead back into the palace so he can only call out his goodbye to her.
“Thank you for your time, Grandessa.”
“It was my pleasure,” she calls back before she disappears into the hallway.
The dragon ushers him forward, guiding them away from the palace and front entrance. Leelan picks up Verkesh and spreads his wings a little more. It is not enough to be an aggressive act but he doesn’t want to appear like some weak elfling either. The dragon squints at him but asks them to follow. He takes them through the kitchen gardens and past the orchards to a door in the back wall.
It’s one of the many servant entrances, the Gerlen of the palace go in and out through these doors on their errands. A group is busy pulling a loaded cart through the narrow door and some shriek in panic when they see two dragons approaching.
The guard snarls at them to hurry up, his wings spreading and his white scales rising and shimmering. He finally grabs the handle and pulls the cart through the door in one go. The Gerlen flutter their tiny wings, bowing and squeaking their thanks to the dragon. Leelan stares at them, tiny, bow-legged creatures, half as tall as him, more crawling than walking around; their tiny wings useless for flight. If he had not been attacked by a tall, strong Gerlen himself, he would not believe a creature like that could be dangerous to a dragon.
The guard spreads one wing towards the opening in the wall and waits until they have stepped through and stand outside on the street. Leelan turns back and the guard spreads out his wings to their full size.
“You will not be welcome here again,” he calls out to. He stretches his wings even more, flexing the claws on the tips in a clear warning. Leelan fights his instincts to answer the threat like any dragon would — with an attack.
But he doesn’t. He does not spread his wings, he does not drag his claws over the cobblestones, he does not flare his back fins. Only his blue scales rise up in an involuntary reaction to his anger but he doesn’t take the bait. He turns and walks away.
Verkesh in his arm lets out a breath and two leaves fall from his head. “Very good, Leelan; very good, my friend and Master.”
“Another time, another place, my friend,” Leelan says, “there will be another time, I’m sure. But now we have an order from the Grandessa herself and we better —”
He freezes in his steps. Something tries to reach him through space and time, like a giant bell ringing that only he can hear. It hits him like a physical force, a connection that crushes him under a planet’s weight. He stumbles forward, curling in on himself, the tips of his wings holding him up so that his face doesn’t hit the ground.
Verkesh has fallen from his arm and rolled over the cobblestones until he can stop and get up again. He runs back to Leelan on his short legs, a trail of leaves flying away behind him. “Leelan, what is it; is it your wing again?”
It takes Leelan a few long moments until he can breathe again and unfold from his crouched position. He leans on his wingtips a bit longer, grasping for that pull he has never experienced before. That feeling of a bell droning for him is still there, somewhere far away but tangibly close.
“Something’s happening, my friend,” he says, his voice rough as if he has screamed for hours. “I don’t know what it is but something is happening.”