Chapter 4, Part 1
They call her broken doll,
soulless monster …
…all she wants is to be a real girl.
Chapter 4, Part 1
~ Dare ~
“To Jade.” Irongut raises his pint, the mug nearly as big as his head.
I slug back the sweet elven wine, which burns a path down my throat. What I really need now is a bottle of whiskey. Nothing I can say will make this better; nothing I can do will make it all go away. I can’t erase the pain in my team’s faces. I couldn’t save her then, and I can’t fix things now. Tonight was supposed to be a celebration. Instead, it’s a wake without a body.
Grinding my teeth, I slam the goblet down on the table. Who will I lose next? I look at each of them. Nine tired, haggard faces, some still smeared with blood. My team. The only friends I really have. The only ones I can trust. But one is in the hospital with a missing arm, and another is gone forever. I’d give my life for each and every one of them.
Jade’s words echo in my mind. But what about us? What do you think will happen to the team if you die? Sir.
And what will happen to the team if I stay? If the Emperor’s chief snoop, Kage, has a vendetta against me, then who will be the next victim? How can I possibly protect them?
But what about us? Jade had faith in me, and I let her down.
I haven’t felt a loss this deep since I found out they killed my brother. It was my fault then. Was this my fault too? What could I have done to save her?
I slam the cup down, and the table rattles. The innkeeper’s daughter hovers at my elbow, a tray of drinks in her hand. Lost in my memories, I’d barely noticed her until her spike of fear bit into my own bitter thoughts.
The inn’s common room is rather quiet for the evening meal, but instead of boisterous drinking and dancing, the patrons cower in the booths along the walls, giving us apprehensive glances. Time to reign it back in. I swallow down the pain and anger, feeling it burning deep in my stomach, just as I did when my brother died and then later with my father. A bitter taste. I take another swig of wine, to wash it down.
“Sir.” Filigree touches my arm lightly and, when I glance her way, she gestures her head across the table, toward Ember. As the heart of the team, she watches out for our well-being.
Ember sits apart from the rest of us. His black clothes and spiky black hair make him look like some gothic punk rocker from an Earther music video. Half hidden in the shadows, he grumbles a half salute with a bottle of elven absinthe and drains it in one pull.
“Let him grieve in his way, Fili. He’ll be all right.”
She nods, but the frown etches deeper into her face. I can’t blame her for her worry.
Rygris ‘Gristle’ leans forward, looking for all the world like a feathered lizard-man. The frill he normally keeps pulled against his throat now quivers with emotion. “Remember when that Ogre Lord tried to convince us to attack his rival’s camp, claiming they were part of the rebellion. Lord … what was his name?”
“This is fucking bullshit,” Ember growls, slamming his bottle down on the bar table. “Telling fucking stories about her isn’t going to bring her back. I’m fucking done with this.” Shoving the table out of his way Ember storms out of the bar.
Gasps and murmuring quiver at the edges of the room. A few patrons get up to leave, their pale faces ghastly white in the dim lighting. Fear hovers over the room like a suffocating blanket.
Around our table, everyone is silent for a moment, busy staring at their drinks.
Kr’ash shakes his head wearily. “Lord Hopecrusher. Dare was so angry he wanted to break his arms and legs and hand him over to the clan he wanted us to attack. Some idiots just never believe dragons can actually read their thoughts.”
I chuckle at the memory, forgetting for a moment the subject of the story is gone before reality crashes back down on me. “I remember, Jade convinced me to let her handle it. I still don’t know how she tricked him into entering his wives’ compound dressed as his rival Lord Gut Ripper.”
“She convinced him,” Tundra jumps in, “that sneaking into his rivals harem and having sex with all his women folk would be a way of proving he was the better ogre or something. Then she led him through the woods for a couple of hours getting him all turned around. She sent me ahead to warn his own wives Gut Ripper was coming to rape them and that they should take appropriate measures. I think he might have had a better chance of survival if Dare had broken his limbs.”
“I can’t believe she’s gone.” Filigree sobs. Kr’ash pulls her in closer, wrapping her into a fierce hug. “She was always there when you needed her, whether you needed someone to give you good advice or cover your back.”
Pulling her onto his lap, Kr’ash kisses the top of her head, his arm around her possessively. “Yeah, if it wasn’t for Jade, I’m not sure we would have ever gotten together.” His lip twitches in an almost smile until the pain wipes it out. “I thought you hated me.”
“I can’t help it you were too thick headed to notice.” Filigree sniffles.
That gets a round of brittle laugher from the flight.
<Do you want to head up to our room?> Kr’ash asks Filigree telepathically.
<That could have been you today. I don’t know what I would do if something happened to you.>
I strengthen my mental shields to keep from hearing the rest of their conversation. Besides, they were moving beyond the point of thinking in words. I try not to notice as they start kissing or how she clings to him, desperate to feel his warmth, to know they’re both still alive, still together, and for a moment, I envy them. I wish I had someone to remind me what it feels like to be alive, but then what happens when I lose her too? Or when I find out she only wanted me for the power and position of being with the elite general? It’s not worth the pain.
Whisper stands up and says in a quiet voice, raspy with disuse, “Jade was an excellent scout, a comrade in arms, brilliant, wise, fiery, and strong.” He lifts his glass. “I have never much cared for the company of sentients, but Jade was a dear friend. She knew how to share the silence without intruding on it. Without her I never would have opened up enough to become part of this flight, I would have missed out on all of you. She will be greatly missed.”
Kr’ash and Filigree rise together holding hands. “Elite General, by your leave we shall retire to our rooms,” Kr’ash says.
I snort and wave a hand dismissively, “Get out of here. Don’t stay up …”
A few of the flight snicker, but the levity is short lived.
Irongut starts another story, but I can’t concentrate on it, grief and exhaustion taking its toll on me. I stand to leave. The rest of the flight stands with me, well they try at least. Gristle lands briefly in his chair before both crash to the floor, startling him enough that his crest feathers puff out in a brilliant spectrum of color.
I offer Gristle a hand up. “At ease,” I tell them. “As far as I’m concerned, you are all on leave until noon. Goodnight, my friends.”
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