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The Women’s Tricathelon had been a grueling competition that hot and dry day in Trepezund. Years of training, effort, sacrifice and work had come to this one day, and thus far it had been a grueling test that Azara had met. But only just. The unarmed combat competition proved to be unexpectedly difficult, as she was matched against the highest ranked opponents round after round. Her own style was challenged, matched and met with sometimes unorthodox techniques from near, and very far, indeed. Her first place in that portion of the competition cost more of her than she expected, but she managed it.

By comparison, the long distance running was relatively easy for her. It wasn’t that there weren’t fast women with her, or ones that showed a fair amount of endurance. None of them, however, seemed to have that combination of speed and endurance. A late push by one of her compatriots made her sweat as she reached the end of the 20,000 meter course, which was arranged to be one lap around the main stadium after running from the base of Mount Piscos and to and through the city to get there. Her opponent put on a great burst of speed as they came around the penultimate turn, but Azara managed to match it. As she did so, she felt something within herself ... something she had never felt before. It dampened down, but like a banked fire, not quite extinguished.

Or was fire the right elemental metaphor at all, though?

In any event, the sword dancing competition was the highlight of the Tricathelon. Held in the same indoor stadium as the unarmed combat, it drew the highest audience out of all three events, since it was in the dancing rings that the winners would be determined. The long oval of the indoor stadium allowed for three participants to dance at once, with the lower ranked participants in the competition going first.

Inside of the locker room, Azara could hear the cheers, the calls, the cries out of the crowd as dancers rose, fell, succeeded and failed. The looks of triumph, adversity and dejection on the athletes that had already participated gave her a map toward just how well she and the last two women with her, the three of them the highest ranked participants, and the ones set to go last together, must do.

And then she heard her name, and Melkara’s, and Saqquara’s being called, above the drum roll announcing that they were next.


Azara took a deep breath, smiled brightly at her fellow competitors, and led the way toward the arena. As they passed through the tunnel under the stands, she silently repeated her self-prayer: "I shall turn and dart like the lark; I shall be lithe as the wheat-stalks bending; my grace shall be the envy of the moths fluttering in the night's garden."

At the entrance to the arena they all three paused, lined up and waiting for the official's signal. Azara tugged unnecessarily at her crimson costume, designed to be airy and light without much compromising modesty. Saqquara, she noticed, had gone rather the other way in her choice of costume, whose deep shade of turquoise would probably stand out as well against the arena's sands as it does against her exposed skin. Melkara's golden raiment was a bit more in line with Azara's thinking, and set off the Nubian shade of her skin beautifully.

But Azara had no business thinking about the others now. She shifted her weight onto her toes, repeated her self-prayer again, resisted checking the sturdy attachment of the crimson scarves to the hilts of her swords once more, and waited.

In time, it came: a flurry of beats on a great drum. Instantly, Azara ran out into the center of her circle, the central one in front of the seats of the noble and wealthy - running lightly, almost on her toes, and seeming to float across the sands. She stopped all in an instant and stood motionless, head bowed. The other two took their places several moments behind her.

A second roll of the drum, and the three of them drew their swords, raising them in salute to the Bey, sitting up there in the shade somewhere. "As God wills it!" they shouted, and returned to their chosen resting positions. Silently, Azara repeated, "I shall turn and dart like the lark ..."

And then the music stopped her internal chant. Every year's contest had a new, secret composition, and all the contestants had been hearing it in their dreams for weeks. There were drums, as always, this year of several types, and also a skirling of pipes and flutes that wove around them. Azara liked it, though others had complained there weren't enough slow sections.

The beginning of the piece was rather slow, giving the dancers a chance to show that they were strong enough to hold these lengths of sharpened steel and make it look easy. Forward, back, turn, cut. Then a second, sharper drum began, signaling the more energetic sections.

Azara paced through all this, intent on grace, on lightness. Ahead was the section that she and her mentor hoped will make the difference for her: the rapid, excited pace of the music encouraged them to plan two back flips and then a spectacular series of jumps and kicks - standing, spinning, surrounded by arcs of shining metal and swoops of the red scarves.

It was odd, though, how those two puffs of sand she deliberately kicked up as part of the dance seemed to be taking too long to settle back to the ground.

The crowd cheered and shouted as the compositions of Azara and her two rivals progressed. It was impossible for her to really see what they did and concentrate on her own program, but the sense of the crowd from her performance suggested that all three had risen to the occasion, pushing their artistic and physical capability to the limit. That series of jumps and kicks looked like to correspond temporally with equally impressive set pieces from Melkara and Saqquara.

There was a chill in the air, but Azara only noted that it was a chill, not that it was cold. The chill seemed to come from inside of herself, that same feeling she had gotten in the race. Something extra, as the music picks up and the high point of the program. Something Azara might tap, focus, use, and unleash. It could be the difference between good, perhaps good enough, and truly spectacular.

Whatever it was, Azara was not about to reject any source of energy or inspiration. Stepping into the first of a series of sweeping, spinning turns - which would soon lead to the dance's conclusion, which she privately thought of as 'the deadly whirlwind of grace' - she tried to make this feeling a part of her center of balance, another part of the strength that kept her moving as if she was doing nothing more strenuous than ambling through a garden.

As this whirlwind started up, that reservoir of energy, unrejected by Azara, seemed to just flow through her, and out of her, and around her. The energy of air, of wind, honed and focused through the deadly whirlwind of grace, spilled out of her, in a more than metaphorical way. A cold wind, laden with snowflakes swirls around her. It was cold, Azara knew it was cold, but she didn't quite register as being discomforted by the cold wind around her.

The rest of the stadium, however, had definitely noticed Azara's cold wind. There were shouts, cries, cheers from the stadium. Even her competitors, seen through her peripheral vision, had stopped in jealousy, awe, and wonder.

One corner of her mind registered alarm - this was very strange and unnatural. But long-practiced discipline kept her locked in the course of her dance, dipping and swaying at a slower pace. The musicians, apparently oblivious or equally disciplined, took the music into its closing measures. There was the flourish of drums, the false ending followed by the pipes closing their melody. Azara finished, as planned, on one knee, swords crossed over her head. Panting, she stared upward into the vortex of cold, snowflake-studded wind, unable to come to grips with what had happened. Was happening.

As she watched, the snowflakes seemed to form patterns, flowing together and breaking apart. She squinted, trying to see what they might show her.

And between one breath and the next, a shape formed, billowing and and unsteady at first, then abruptly coalescing into a white creature with enormous wings outspread and gently beating, its long neck curved in a graceful arch.

A swan.

The entire stadium held its breath as Azara came to a stop. Saqquara and Melkara stood, looking at her in open amazement. The crowd in the stadium, unsure how to react. The dance, the swan

Finally, there was a loud sound of a clap, preternaturally loud. A figure in the dignitary box, clapping as he, followed by two other figures, walking down the steps, and jumping down the wall and onto the stadium floor itself. As he, and the two figures behind him scrambled to keep up, Azara could see he was not dressed in local garb, but rather the official robes that marked him as the Ambassador from the Dragon Empire. One of the figures behind him has, seeming from nowhere, produced a banner with the curled dragon of the Empire emblazoned on it, a white dragon on a black field.

The Ambassador walked right up to Azara, clearly affected by the swan-shaped cold image, being battered and beaten by it, but accepting the punishment.

[Casting call: Al Roker]

"Follow my lead," the man said quietly. "You want to be free, right? You won't be, otherwise, I think. And I can help you control this." He offered her his hand.

By this time, Azara had lowered her arms and sheathed her swords, though she was still kneeling. She stared up at the ambassador with wide, frightened eyes, trying to assemble a response. Using magic in the competition was strictly against the rules, and he had just dashed her unformed hope that this was some kind of divine intervention. There was no way that "But I didn't know it was magic" would help. No victory, no freedom, and nothing else of what she'd hoped and dreamed.

She put out her hand and let him pull her to her feet. "I can control it?" she asked in a small voice, glancing up at the swan.

"You can," the Ambassador said. His grip was strong, and he continued to hold her hand. "I will bring up mine, and we will take them down, together."

"Together!" The Ambassador's repeat of the word came out as a roar. The cold swirled around him, as it had Azara. Instead of a Swan, the form of his magic is a leaping, tall fountain, bursting over with water and coldness. Azara had seen this before, on a very hot day last year that had seen the Ambassador walk through the streets with it blazing. It had been fearful, it had been wonderful.

So, she thought now - that hadn't been a magic spell of the usual kind, as she assumed at the time. It was ... more like a talent. At least, she knew that she certainly hadn't engaged in any of the rituals that were said to be needed for magic, but there were these two similar images.

"Now you must concentrate, bring down the Swan, return it to within you," the Ambassador said. "Find your still center. Quell it. As I shut down my fountain, bring back your bird."

Through all of this one else in the stadium has moved or done anything but stare, and watch.

Calmed a little by her quick observations and analysis, Azara nodded once. "Finding" her center was hardly necessary; it was where she lived for most of every day. She drew a deep breath, looked up at the swan, and imagined it folding its wings, collapsing back into snowflakes, and - her imagination faltered for a moment, then supplied an idea - flowing down into the well from which it came.

Finding Azara's center, given her years of training, was indeed as easy as pie, once the image of the well was firmly within her mind. The Swan folded, descended and returned to the space within her that it now inhabited. Or more correctly, Azara realized, the spot it always inhabited, though she did not know it. At the same time, the gushing fountain of the Ambassador similarly tempered, descended and folded within this.

He smiled and reached for her hand to grasp and raise.

"Under Article twenty three of the treaty between the Dragon Empire and the Bey of Trepezund, I hereby declare that Azara is a Lost Egg of the Dragon Empire. As such, she is declared to be under the jurisdiction and laws of the Empire in regards to the use of her Imprint in the Tricathelon. As such, she is not only not under any indictment for doing so, her slavery is also, hereby, under article twenty three, and under the laws of the Empire itself, considered null and void immediately."

The two figures behind the Ambassador, at this signal, came up and bowed to Azara.

She blinked in confusion. Lost Egg? Dragon Empire laws?

The crowd didn't quite know what to make of this either, until, amplified, the Bey's voice came across the stadium.

"Come approach the royal box, Azara."

"I'm with you every step of the way," the Ambassador said quietly in her ear. "I will not let harm befall you."

She frowned at him and shook her hand loose from his. The possibility of harm hadn't occurred to her until he mentioned it, and she still didn't believe in it. The possibility of being freed, but without any money - now that was a real worry.

Her years of training kept her back straight and her pace easy as she walked toward the royal box, though her bewilderment and dismay probably showed in her face, even though she kept her eyes properly lowered. When, in her peripheral vision, she saw one of the Bey's attendants signal her to stop, she did so. Then she dropped to her knees and pressed her forehead to the sand, as custom required of nearly everyone in Trepezund.

Beside her, Azara heard a resigned sigh from the Ambassador.

"Rise, Azarak" the Bey of Trepezund said, giving her a few moments of obeisance on the sand. Once she did, the Ambassador gave a respectful bow to the Bey but he waited for the Bey to speak again.

"How long have you known our precious Azara has been a Dragon Blooded?" The Bey demanded. "This is a mockery of the Tricathelon to have this one compete."

"A mockery?" The Ambassador shook his head slightly. "Far be it from me to disagree with the esteemed Bey of Trepezund, ally of the Empire. If I had known that Azara had the blessing of the Elemental Dragons, I would have told you, great Bey. In the Empire, those who do not manifest their gift, at puberty, often does so under great stress, or performing a great work. Such as winning the Tricathelon."

Azara's round-eyed astonishment at this exchange was almost comical. Dragon Blooded, she knew, were the Dragon Empire's elite warriors and sorcerors. That her long-lost parents were part of that group is nearly as much of a shock as the appearance of her swan.

"I see," the Bey said. "And what do you say, Azara? What do you wish, now, that you are a beautiful, if cold, Swan? The Empire has a claim on you, but if you were to freely choose to stay, the Empire could not possibly object."

Azara quailed a little. She had been keeping her eyes properly downcast, of course, but now she carefully peered up at the Bey through her lashes. He'd called her 'precious' ... but she might have family in the other Empire! She couldn't decide, here and now, what she should do.

"Oh munificent lord," she finally said, struggling to make her voice loud enough to be heard. "This unworthy one cannot have won this part of the contest. That would be unfair to the others." That much, she was sure of. "But if this one has been made free anyway ..." She glanced aside at the Ambassador. "But without any money or, or plans, then this one probably must go to the Empire."

Did that make it clear that she hadn't really made up her mind yet? She hoped it did.

"Perhaps our friend the Ambassador," the Bey emphasized the word 'friend,' "might bring you to a place of rest within the embassy, and let you come to terms with what has occurred.

"I so declare that the results of the Tricathelon are held in abeyance for the time being," the Bey announces. A very disappointed murmur goes through the crowd at this.

"Come with me if you want to rest. And you want to rest," the Ambassador said quietly to Azara. "First Manifestation can be traumatic, especially for the unprepared. There may be side effects." He offered Azara his arm again. "We'll just take my carriage to the embassy, get you some rest, and eventually food. And then we can talk."

Azara hesitated, then took the offered support. She couldn't deny that she was feeling off, but not whether that feeling was any different from from more ordinary over-exertion.

He then spoke aloud to the Bey, lifting his head. "The Dragon Empire accepts this abeyance of the results of the Tricathelon. We of the Dragon Empire will see to the health and well being of Azara, as the Bey wishes."

The Bey gave both the Ambassador and Azara an encouraging nod. The show was over.

Uncertain about the protocol, Azara made a good effort at a formal bow toward the Bey, hampered by her hold on the Ambassador's arm.

Then she allowed the Ambassador to lead her away toward wherever his carriage was. But not without a long look backward over her shoulder. Her head still insisted that she would probably have to leave for good; her heart protested against having to leave everything and everyone she knew.

Three hours later, Azara had taken a brief journey in the Ambassador's carriage (done in green and white, with four white horses, a distinctive vehicle Azara had espied before from afar), been received at the lacquered wooden building that was the Embassy of the Dragon Empire, and brought to a spacious room with a four-pillared bed. Sleep had come easily, and her dreams had been of flying, soaring over an impossibly gigantic mountain.

When Azara woke, a servant was sitting in the room, watching her. The middle aged, dark haired woman rose, and bowed. "I will fetch his Lordship, lady," she said. "There is water," she indicated a nearby pitcher, and cups, "and I can bring tea, and food if you wish. The bathroom is outside this door and to the right."

"Is there anything else you desire?"

Azara sat up slowly, still feeling too muzzy to follow an impulse to look around to see who the "lady" was. She vaguely remembered being helped out of her sweat-soaked and dusty costume into the silken shift she was now wearing. The bed was still amazingly comfortable. Not that her bed at the training camp was uncomfortable, exactly, but like the rest of her life, it fell well short of luxurious. And now, one way or another, she would never sleep there again.

The servant was still waiting, she realized with a start. "Clothing?" she asked tentatively. "And ... food would be good."

"Clothes appropriate to your status and station will be brought," the servant said agreeably, with a bow. "Along with your food. And then his lordship when you are done." The servant backed out and away, giving a bow before she exited the room.

While Azara awaited their return and looked around, she discovered two trunks near the bed. Inside one of them were all of the meager possessions she owned. In the other was her costume, cleaned and folded, and her swords.

For some reason, she was reassured by these discoveries. Enough to stop and drink half a cup of water and consider necessities, at least. She stepped into the bathing room and economically took care of the rest of the dust and sweat, pausing only briefly to marvel at the marble and colored tile, and to figure out the taps on the bath. That done, she returned to the sleeping room and tried to decide whether to take down her hair. The tight braids had survived the dance competition and her sleep well enough, so perhaps just the dampening she'd given it to take off the dust was enough ...

In a short time two servants, the middle aged one and another, slightly younger woman arrived, bearing a change of clothes (a modest dress in Empire style, white with purple trim and a new shift) and food (a bowl of noodles covered in chili oil, dumplings in broth, and a bowl of rice)

"We will bring his Lordship when you are finished with your meal," the middle-aged servant said. "Do you require a body servant to change?"

Taken aback, Azara stared at her for a moment, then considered the dress; it looked simple enough. "No, I don't think so," she said. The food was much more interesting than clothing anyway. She approached the table they'd set it on. "What are your names?"

"I am Liaen," the older woman said. "This is my niece, Dracaena." Both curtised as Liaen gave their names. "Our family has served House Nellens for generations. When the Ambassador was given the very great honor of this post, he brought us with him so as he would not be so homesick, and more comfortable, in your land, Lady," Liaen said. "My sister, my brother, and my other brother, Dracaena's father, all still serve in the ancestral Estate back in the Empire."

"House Nellens prefers paid servants to slaves. I am glad you are no longer a slave, Lady," Dracaena blurted out, as if she had held the words within her forever and could not hold them any longer.

"Dracaena!" Liaen looked at her niece sharply. "That was rude to say to the Lady."

Azara took a deep breath and chose to focus on the one thing that really made sense here, which was the food. "I've been very lucky," she said, which was both true and avoided directly engaging with the matter. She took her seat at the table and began drinking another half-cup of water, thinking that the broth and dumplings would be a good place to start.

"You have been touched by Mela, the Elemental Dragon of Air," Liaen said, in a tone of reverence. "It is a most fortunate occurrence that you should be so chosen. Even a child of the best breeding and parents can fail to be so exalted, if none of the Dragons find her worthy. It is considered a sign of poor moral character for such a child, given every opportunity to fail to do so.

"For someone like you, with no visible marks of the Dragon Blooded, to be so anointed, is a sign of great favor, and of the recognition you could do great things. Mela is the Dragon of Perfection, of reaching Spirituality through personal perfection," Liaen added.

"Is that why Mela chose her at the Tricathelon?" Dracaena asked.

"Perhaps," Liaen said. "And perhaps we should leave the Lady to her food, unless she wishes for us to stay."

"I would like to hear more about this Dragon Mela," Azara said. "While I eat."

"Very well," Liaen said.

"There are five elemental Dragons, one for each of the elements Air, Earth, Water, Fire and Wood. Mela is the Dragon of Air. The Empire worships these five Dragons as patron deities, for it is from them that the Dragon Blooded, the chosen such as yourself, are given their blessings and a small plenary portion of their power."

The dumplings proved to be not spicy at all, a mild, cleansing flavor to them, filled with lamb. The rice was well cooked, but was a chewier kind of rice than what she was used to. The noodles in the chili oil were fairly spicy, with an undercurrent of another spice that was not precisely a chili but did provide a slight numbness and flavor to the tongue.

"She is said," Liaen continued, "to be the eldest of the Five Dragons, and represents, as I said, spiritual perfection through personal perfection. Chosen of Hesiesh are great warriors, but Chosen of Mela make for the best athletes, as they share Mela's love of physical prowess, ability and triumph. It is said that she convinced her brothers and sisters to anoint the Empress with their power, and thus her descendants, for she wished to see humanity strive toward perfection. Her special symbol in her temples is the Transcendent Fan of the Five Winds, signifying her strength and ability to be a stormbringer, as well as more gentle winds.

"She has temples all across the Empire, of course, but she dwells at the Elemental Pole of Air, far to the north, beyond the sea. Only the most dedicated and strong attempt that journey, but it is said that she will converse and teach any who dare and succeed in it."

Azara listened, taking small bites of her food and pausing frequently for sips of water. "I see," she said, when it was clear that Liaen had stopped. "I ... would like to think about this for a while, thank you."

"Very well. Come, Dracaena," Liaen said.

Exeunt Dracaena and Laien.

After they'd gone, Azara thoughtfully spooned up most of the rest of the broth, but didn't going to try to finish all the food. She knew better than to over-eat after over-exertion.

Satisfied for the time being, she left the table, went to the box of her things, and extracted the smallest and most battered of her three books. For a few minutes, she sat on the edge of the bed, letting the new information run through her mind until her surprise and unease had settled. Then she began leafing through the book, glancing through the familiar pages, reading a word here, a phrase there. Finally one half-remembered line caught her attention, and she stopped to read:

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don't go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don't go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don't go back to sleep.*

She breathed deeply, in and out, the open book resting on her knee. Well enough, she thought.

And now she really had to get dressed. The white gown had a properly loose and forgiving fit, but she found they hadn't brought anything to cover her hair. That wouldn't do, but fortunately her belongings included a few scarves. She chose the orange one, which had been a moderately expensive gift from some anonymous admirer, and contrasted well with the white and purple.

Then she sat at the table and picked at the rice, waiting.

A couple of minutes further alone in her thoughts, the sliding door of the room where she had been waiting opened. Two individuals came through the door. First was the Ambassador himself, having also changed to a different, more formal Empire dress. The second person was a silver haired woman, tall, thin, with a piercing gaze and a hawkish nose.

Azara popped to her bare feet and bowed to them - a matter of reflex.

The woman spoke first in an alto, deep voice. "Greetings, Azara, I am Kevarian of the House of Ledaal. The Ambassador contacted me with the happy news."

"Lady Kevarian," The Ambassador said, "is here to assess your abilities, Azara, and if you have so decided, escort you to the Empire."

Azara studied the woman, her greenish eyes wide and a little worried. "I would like to see my friends," she said quietly, "before I think about leaving."

"Friends?" Kevarian looked puzzled and turned to look at the Ambassador with an accusatory air. "I thought that she was a slave, you said?"

"Peace, Lady Kevarian," the Ambassador replied. "Azara has been in training for the Tricathelon for years. She has formed bonds with her fellow contestants in training, naturally. Even in a state of indentured servitude such as this, social relationships are natural and inevitable."

"Ah, well." Kevarian looked mollified at this, and returned to studying Azara. "If you wish to see your friends and fellow entrants, we can certainly arrange for them to come here. See to it Ambassador," Kevarian said casually, without turning to look at the Ambassador.

"Perhaps Azara would like to return to her quarters and see them there? After we settle the business at hand." The Ambassador turned his eyes inquiringly on Azara.

How could the lady imagine any person could have no friends? Azara wondered. Aloud, she supplied, "There are really too many to bring here, I think."

"Then we will arrange an outing," the Ambassador said.

"Yes," Kevarian said. She pulled out something from a pocket, a stone in black, with golden tips on the four corners. She held in her hand, and it vibrated excitedly as she did so. "Well, you are at the very least blessed by the Dragons, and perhaps more. Let's see what you are made of. Follow me." Kevarian, with the air of someone used to being obeyed turned and walked out of the room, still holding the stone in her hand.

Callous, or focused? Azara wondered. The only thing that was immediately clear was that the lady outranked the Ambassador.

Azara caught the softest of sighs from the Ambassador. Gathering herself to hurry after Lady Kevarian, she paused long enough to ask him, in a murmur designed not to be overheard, "What did the Bey decide about the contest, my lord?"

"Her Ladyship might have not cared to tell you," the Ambassador replied. "However, I am given to understand that the Bey wishes to award you the victory, regardless of the technical violation of the rules regarding sorcery and magic in the contest. I believe he will send a formal invitation for you to attend upon him to give you the prize and his congratulations."

Azara came to a complete and astonished halt at this, staring at him.

"He may do it a public ceremony," he added. "But now, we should follow."

She nodded, and got herself moving again. Catching up with Kevarian proved not to be difficult, as it seemed that she had slowed her footsteps halfway down a hall. She waited until Azara and Ambassador were close, and then picked up her pace again. Kevarian climbed a staircase, passed through a couple of receiving rooms, and finally led Azara to a lacquered wooden door with a gleaming brass handle.

"The Door in the Fort is the official one," the Ambassador murmured to Azara. "It's also the more useful one. But there are reasons why we took this building."

"Attend, Azara," Kevarian cleared her throat. "This is a Door to the Grand Staircase," she said to Azara. "It is not the public one, in the Red Fort, and as it so happens, not a useful one, as it leads to a currently under-valued portion of the Stair. This may change, or not, under your tutelage. If you can open the Door and reveal the Staircase. Think on the Dragon that you summoned. Know that this Door opens up onto the true reality. Open it, and know the truth and reveal it, if you can."

Her voice and demeanor softened as she added, somewhat to herself "May the Dragons have doubly blessed you."

Here was another surprise: though all the world knew about the Grand Staircase, since many a man of Trepezund and other regions had traversed it with the Empire's armies (and of course the Dwimmerlaik had also used it during the war), the implication that not all Dragon Blooded could open the Doors was new to Azara. And then there was the idea that she'd actually summoned the Dragon without knowing it ... She looked from Kevarian to the Door twice, sorting through the implications in her mind.

Then she faced the Door, brow knitted in thought. Perhaps it wasn't much different from knowing, when she leaped, that her legs really would carry her high in the air, and catch her perfectly when she came down to the ground. Only this act seemed to call for this new sense of power ... the blessing of the Dragon. And she was standing in a house, not in an arena or training ground; not pushing herself to her physical limits. That moment seemed terribly distant from these mundane surroundings.

But discipline is mental as well as physical. Azara closed her eyes, calling to mind the feeling of that cold energy from the dance, the entrance to which lay at her center. She breathed, remembering; shifted her balance minutely. There.

She opened her eyes. A cool breeze tugged at her scarf and toyed with the hem of her skirt. She smiled, and opened the Door.

And the Door indeed opened, not onto a hallway in the embassy, but rather the Staircase. It was not the Staircase as described in the reports and stories, the plush room and wood paneling, with short staircases, and numerous signs of the power of the Dragon Empire. Instead, the Staircase, here, was a dingy, low-ceilinged dark corridor running from left to right. Flickering lights provided fitful illumination. The floor was made out of something hard and white--concrete, judging from the rough texture. The walls were painted in a drab and desaturated green.

Curiously, but with enough trepidation to keep a grip on the doorjamb, Azara stepped into the hallway and peered down it at the stairs going up and down, just within sight at each end. The floor was cold, gritty, and slightly damp under her feet.

"Not an appealing and frequented area of the Staircase," Kevarian said. "Yet this is the staircase all the same. Congratulations, Azara. You are not only blessed by the Dragons, but you are a Warden as well."

"Thank you," Azara said, finally letting go of the door's edge. "If it was used more, would it look better? By itself, I mean. Or would that take sledgehammers and carpenters?" She eyed one of the ugly light fixtures dubiously.

Kevarian shook her head. "The nature of each section of the Staircase appears to be the will of whatever and whoever actually runs the Staircase. It does seem that areas more commonly frequented are in better condition, if only because people redecorate as needed. Wholesale change and destruction of the existing architecture, however, is repaired by mysterious processes. There is a whole area of study in the Heptagram devoted to such investigations."

"I didn't know that not all the Dragon Blooded could open the Doors," Azara continued. With her light voice and eager countenance, one could almost have thought that she was prattling, except that her questions were so much to the point. "How rare is the ability, really?"

"There are millions of ordinary mortals in the Dragon Empire," Kevarian said. "There are around 11,000 Dragon Bloods, according to the last census. That includes all of the Minor Houses, members in tributary states, anyone who has taken the Second Breath."

"That sounds about right," The Ambassador says. "And given the extreme closeness of the Fort door to the Empire, Azara, it is easy for Dragon Bloods of any stripe to come here."

While they spoke, Azara crossed the Door's threshold, back into the hallway.

"There are far, far fewer Wardens, and much fewer than recently." Kevarian's tone turned somber as she took up the conversation again. "The Empire has lost a great many of them to recent war and deprivation. There is a project the Empress has set to find Wardens descended from us amongst the many Gossamer Worlds.

"You, Azara, are an unexpected and very welcome addition to that list. There are less than a hundred Wardens, if I had to decide on a count. Too few, for so large a civilization as ours. And we are special. I know of no Gossamer world that has created so many Wardens even as we have remaining."

"We are truly blessed by the Dragons, even so diminished." Kevarian bowed her head, in outward piety. The Ambassador, Azara noted, did so as well.

The moment passed while Azara hesitated over a gesture that wasn't going to be a reflex any time soon. "I see," she said instead, her mood also sobering. "Well, then I'll visit my friends, and perhaps see the Bey about the contest, and then go with you to the Empire, my lady."

"Very good," Kevarian says. "I trust I can leave all of this in your hands, Ambassador?" she says.

"Yes, Lady Kevarian," he agrees.

"Good. I will remain at the Embassy until Azara is ready to travel with me back to the Empire. I will trust you to handle the arrangements. I have some business to attend to with my House superiors." She turned to regard Azara once more. "I look forward to getting to know you better, and you to know us better."

And with that, Ledaal Kevarian walked out of the room, leaving Azara and the Ambassador, for the moment, alone and in privacy. The Ambassador's relief of breath is subtle but unmistakable.

Azara blinked after the lady. Folding her hands in front of her, she asked, "Was that ... polite, by the way things are done in the Empire, my lord?"

The Ambassador considered Azara for a few long moments after she spoke. His eyes were full of regret, pity, and hope.

"Not precisely, no. Lady Kevarian, however, has suffered personal loss and tragedy in the wake of the Dwimmerlaik War. I had heard that a group of Wardens were sent out to find Lost Eggs such as yourself. Due to her ... personality, and to politics at Court, she was not chosen for one of these expeditions."

Azara bit her lip, visibly chagrined by her implied criticism of the lady.

"As I've said," The Ambassador continued. "You were a complete surprise, and that allowed her to seize the chance to come here. But you see why she was not initially chosen. She is brilliant, terrifying, talented, but she would never be suited to, say, my role."

"But come, shall we go and see your friends?"

"Please," Azara said, relieved to have a change of subject. "I'll just need to get my sandals."

Before long, they were back in the carriage and it was picking a usable way to the place Azara had called home for so long. She kept her face close to the window, watching the sights pass by, things that she might not see again for a long time, if ever. Activity on the streets was picking up now that the worst heat of the day was ending, but the carriage stayed to the wider streets until the last possible moment. Azara approved; the driver obviously knew what he was doing.

She hopped out of the carriage almost before it stopped rolling. This street was narrow enough that only a camel might be able to pass the carriage on either side - if it was in a good mood - but on the side she faced there was only the familiar wall and the iron lattice of the gate, and the familiar pedlars lined up at the base of the wall.

One of these jumped to his feet and approached, his arms spread wide in welcome. He was an aging man who wore a striped robe that was a bit worn but neatly patched, and a colorfully-embroidered cap. "Ah, our fleet-footed Azara! Our crimson star! I knew you would come to visit us."

"Mahmoud," Azara smiled, as the man stopped just out of arm's reach and unexpectedly (though she should have expected it) bowed. "How much did you bet?"

"Hah! What does it matter? I won!" he beamed. Passers-by were gathering to see what was going on. "Oh, but tell me, dear one, is it true that you turned into a swan?"

"No," Azara said, suppressing a laugh. "I just made a sort of an image of a swan. Out of snow."

The basket-seller from the other side of the gate had come close enough to hear this. "They're saying you're Dragon Blooded," she said, her voice awed.

"It is as The Beneficent has decreed," Azara said, bowing her head piously for a moment.

"As God wills it," several of the onlookers replied. The Ambassador politely bowed his head.

"All right, move out of the way!" Mahmoud said, abruptly breaking the moment and placing himself in charge of clearing a path to the gate, though it was only steps away. "Azara wants to visit her home. If any of you want to know more, then for a small fee, I, Mahmoud the Storyteller, will recite the tale of Azara's Tricathelon!"

Although he had hung back slightly, giving Azara room, the Ambassador pulled up to her at this point for the path to the gate and to head inside.

Azara shook her head, smiling, but let him go ahead and ring the bell for her. After a moment, the elderly porter shuffled out of her hut and peered through the gate. "Oh! Azara!" she said, showing her many missing teeth in a broad grin. "What a surprise, eh?" With much clanking and creaking, she got the gate unlatched and pulled open enough for Azara and the Ambassador to slip through. "They're all at supper, dearie," she said, and then, "Mahmoud, you rascal! Don't be blocking the gate with your show!"

Azara did try to keep pace with the Ambassador, but she couldn't help leaving him behind in the last few feet before the door. From inside came the chatter of girlish voices, which paused when she pushed the door open and then erupted into many repetitions of her name. Within moments, a crowd of girls and young women (ten or a dozen of them) surrounded her with hugs and babbled questions. "Did you really say you shouldn't win? - Why a swan? - Really Dragon Blooded? - Are you going awaaaaaaay?"

The last was one of the smallest girls, who was crying. Azara picked her up and hugged her. "Yes, I'm going away, sweetheart," she said frankly. "You know that I was going away no matter what."

"Don't waaaant you to!"

Four adults had gotten up from their separate table. Two women and two men, they took the time to greet the Ambassador courteously and invite him to join them.

Azara handed off the weeping child to one of the other young women and approached the adults. "Süheyla," she said to one of the women, whose face still showed the softened lines of once-great beauty. She found that she herself was crying now, and hugged her mentor rather than deal with that.

"Well now," Süheyla said, patting her back. "It seems that everything is music."

Azara sniffed and nodded, recognizing the quotation. "I'm doing my best," she said.

Süheyla smiled. "As do we all. But you have quite a few small things to deal with now." She half-turned and pointed to a bench standing against the back wall. It, and the floor beneath it, was piled with packages wrapped in cloth and paper.

The girls' chatter switched back from talking to each other to excitedly telling Azara about how *many* gifts had arrived for her and would she look at them now? Two of them brought another bench for her to sit on and they actually quieted down, waiting for her to begin.

"Very well," Azara said archly, "since you're all so patient." Then she laughed with them, and started opening gifts and giving them away. Scarves, jewelry made of enameled clay, copper, and even silver, three different copies of a well-known book of ardent love poetry (these she handed off to Süheyla), a pretty lacquered tray, and quite a lot more.

"You've more admirers than I thought," the Ambassador observed, "and a home life that I did not quite imagine. I expected something more ... spartan."

"What's a spartan?" one of the children asked.

Azara glanced around at the plain whitewashed walls and simple wooden furniture, then at the pile of things. "This is unusual," she noted.

She paused over one of the larger gifts, a lacquered wooden box that contained a traveler's tea set - glass cups with silver stands and handles, a flat-sided teapot, spoons, tea, and even a small canister of sugar; nothing wanted but some hot water. "I think I'll keep this," she decided, looking to see if there was a note; but as with many of them, there was none. It was too bad; this was a very expensive and practical gift. And though she'd never answered any letter she'd gotten before, now she could choose to, if she wished.

"A very fitting gift," the Ambassador agreed.

Each girl got one or two of the gifts, and Azara also chose two bits of jewelry that especially pleased her, but there were still quite a few things left over. "The usual, then," she said to Süheyla, who nodded serenely. Azara had to pause and breathe for a few moments, because this was the last time for this pleasant ritual.

After that, supper went on and the girls went off to bed (but not without saying goodbye) while she drank tea with the teachers and the Ambassador, rehashing the competition. That talk was not all about the surprising end; one of the teachers had heard some rumors about the Greek girl who'd given Azara such trouble in the footrace, and she wanted to hear about the parts she'd missed because she was competing herself or waiting for her turn.

Then, finally, it was time to go. The carriage, they found, had been brought around through the back gate and waited for them on the bare dirt of the yard. Azara clutched her tea set and looked up at the glimmering of the early stars. "Do they have stars in the other worlds the Empire knows?" she asked.

"They do, although the stars and the skies are nearly all different," the Ambassador said. "And such skies, Azara. The skies of home, with the brilliancy of the Five Maidens wandering across the night sky. Or the many other worlds. There's a satrap of the Empire where one can see a gigantic disk of stars rise every night, faintly filling the entire sky with its beehive of stars. Worlds with two, three, five moons. Worlds where the planet orbits a *larger* planet that often hangs hugely pregnant in the sky, day or night.

"Such skies. Such worlds. I've only seen such a few," the Ambassador said. "You, Azara, are going to see so many more."

"Truly, the Glory is everywhere," Azara murmured, still looking up at the stars. Then she turned back toward the Ambassador. "Tomorrow, then," she said. "I'm ready to go."

"You will be able to visit them again, I am sure," the Ambassador said, once they were back in the carriage, and moving toward the Embassy again. "And I can send word on them now and again, if you so wish.

"I knew you were talented, skilled ... but I didn't quite realize what sort of common touch, likeability, rapport you have with the people," the Ambassador said. "I'm just Nellens Eridus Arvina, who managed to parlay himself into a position that a larger House probably should have and could get if they pushed for it. Not lady Kevarian, but one of her cousins, say. But you, Azara, I see greatness within you. Not only because you're a Warden and I'm not. I see the potential for you to shake the pillars of Heaven.

"Just don't topple them, or topple them without cause, all right?" Eridus finished.

"Me?" Azara said, astonished. In the uncertain light from the carriage's small internal lamp, she was bracing herself against the carriage's motion with casual ease and shaking her head. "I don't see how such a thing is possible, my lord."

"Kevarian said it as much," Eridus said. "There aren't a hundred wardens in the Empire, in a host of ten thousand Dragon Bloods, and millions of ordinary mortals, to say nothing of the myriads of worlds beyond the Doors. To be a Warden is to be chosen, and to have the power to shape things by your nature. And I see that you have potential even within that small population.

"Others will see it too and will seek to move you toward their ends," the Ambassador continued. "But what you showed me this afternoon," he gestured out the window and behind, "gives me hope for the good you can accomplish."

His reminder about the numbers clearly made her rethink her instinctive disbelief, and she nodded slowly, though with a certain reservation of judgment about the rest. She looked down at the box in her lap for a moment, then up at him again. "Ten thousand ..." she said wistfully. "Do you suppose there's a way to learn anything about my parents? I don't know anything about them."

"Possibly," Eridus replied after a few moments' thought. "There are records of official visits to this Gossamer World, we could look for who came here roughly your age plus nine months ago. Find some clues in them as to who your mother and father might have been. The most likely answer is that your father is from the Empire and your mother is a local.

"We could also go to the Orphanage, together," Eridus said. "Their intake records may tell us more.

"Either way, if we can get a fix on their identities, we can learn more about who and what they were." Eridus looked compassionately at Azara. "Families and raising children are important to the Empire. For you to have been abandoned here is odd. It may also be that your descent is more than one generation removed from the Empire. It might be that one of your grandparents was a Dragon blooded, rather than one of your parents themselves. There are stories of peasant families where a Dragon Blooded manifested where the nearest known bloodline was four generations back. The Dragons choose her, and exalted her, although they found her ancestors not worthy."

"Ah," Azara said, a little disappointed. "I didn't know that. And I don't think I was born here in the city - I remember coming here for the first time, when I was very small. My earliest memories are of camels and a lot of traveling in the sun. I don't know if my parents lost me because of war or bandits or bad luck." Left unsaid was the fact that if it was one of her grandparents who was Dragon blooded, she would probably never know.

"Less than two decades ago, local time..." The Ambassador looked thoughtful for a moment. "The timing would have coincided with around the official beginning of the Third Dwimmerlaik War, the latest conflict. It's possible, Azara, that your parents were running from them because of that, and in that case it could be that one or both of them were Dragonblooded themselves. We can do the search in the records, if you wish. The fact that you were not born here is a piece of data to point at that.

"Your choice," Eridus added. "You have status and sway, now, Azara. Or will, in short order, which amounts to the same thing."

"That will take time to become accustomed to," she replied soberly. Then she managed a small smile. "But I would like for the records to be searched. Thank you."

(Continued in A New Day Dawns)

* This poem is from the real world and is by Rumi, as translated by Coleman Barks et al.
Page last modified on August 18, 2015, at 01:02 AM