The city of Kiyosan, glittering jewel of Sifan, rose from the calm waters of the bay in whose center it was set. The rounded mountain island was roughly shaped like the narrow end of an egg, long since carved into steps and terraces and its entire surface covered by the city. Over time, ambitious building projects and strict zoning regulations had transformed the once-mismatched hodgepodge of structures to a beautiful, perfectly symmetrical edifice, surmounted by the towering Opal Palace, which soared from the very peak of the mountain like a gilded needle. By day, it was merely beautiful; in the night, it truly glowed.
Sifan was a nation of islands, occupying an archipelago northeast of the Tiraan continent, in balmy waters sheltered from the equatorial storms by a combination of fortuitous ocean currents and the protection of another continental shelf to the north. Several of its largest landmasses approached each other in one spot, near the geographic center of the archipelago, where the space between them was further marked out by small, rocky islands in the channels dividing the major isles. The result was a nearly perfect circle of calm, glassy water with the rounded mountain of Kiyosan at its precise center.
The city’s selection as capital was inevitable. The symbolism, its central location, its defensibility all made it an ideal choice.
It had the further advantage of being surrounded by several of the nation’s other notable sights. The Temple Island guarded the passage to the northwest, surmounted by a stunning temple of Ouvis and with multiple shrines to Naphthene at its base. The temple was a work of art to rival the capital itself, the bulk of the island terraced to form ingenious hanging gardens, while the ancient shrines mostly left to the wild—Naphthene had no organized worshipers to maintain them, but fishermen, merchants and others who depended on the sea’s grace for their livelihood chipped in when they needed repair.
To the south, ringed by fortresses and heavily patrolled, the city was faced by the Underworld entrance which led directly to the drow city of Nathloss. These were possibly the only drow in the world who had developed a knack for sailing, though that skill had lain fallow for some decades, the skirmishes between the two kingdoms having been ended by Sifanese fortifications around the tunnel mouth. In fact, given the duty of these surrounding sentinel isles in defending the capital, many of them housed garrisons and fortresses, or at minimum watchtowers. The only exception was the face of Tsurikura, a smaller but still major island in the archipelago, which for the last century had been home to the several orcish clans who lived in Sifan on the royal family’s hospitality. To post guards over the orcs would have been a dangerous insult, and anyway was not necessary; the clans were fiercely loyal to the human nation which had given them a home after the cataclysm in Athan’Khar.
North and slightly east, the towering cliff face of Kinosyuke Island rose toward a mountain peak, but broke off a bit more than halfway there. The jagged perimeter of the peak still remained around two thirds of the rim, but the rest had become a smooth, slightly bowl-shaped depression, tilted to face the bay and carpeted with lush grasses.
The meadow was nearly impossible to reach except by a single, terrifyingly dangerous staircase carved into the living rock of the cliff, which today was sealed off and guarded by royal samurai. Only the peak of the Palace itself rose high enough to overlook the lofty meadow, and on this day, the Palace’s upper rooms were closed and emptied of people, the Queen holding her court in the larger audience chamber at its base. There were few telescopes in Kiyosan powerful enough to enable a viewer to read the lips of those meeting there, and they had been moved to storerooms deep within the mountain and locked away. Samurai in their iconic armor patrolled the upper reaches of the cliffs surrounding the meadow, accompanied by robed mage-priests, without exception facing outward to safeguard the Queen’s guests’ privacy against any would-be interlopers. They carried no chains, ropes, or any means of securing prisoners. In this matter, Queen Takamatsu’s mercy extended only to a swift death.
They were not the only sentinels. At one end of the oval meadow, a green dragon sat, his long neck extended upright and slowly swiveling to study every detail of the surroundings. He would periodically rise, pace to a new position and resume his vigil. At the other end lay a larger specimen with sapphire scales, apparently asleep, except for his wide-open eyes. He had not blinked once since taking his position. The Sifanese watchers gave them both a respectful berth.
The Queen had not arranged any protections over the mountain against scrying. Laying spells of any kind on the place preparatory to the visitors’ arrival might have been taken amiss, and in any case, her guests were amply able to attend to such details themselves.
A veritable banquet had been laid out in the center of the valley, long tables heavily laden with delicacies of every description, and all of a quality fit to grace any royal dining hall. The whole thing seemed somewhat incongruous in its loneliness; no servants attended the tables, and no guests stood near them. Several servants had stood watch to protect the food from birds and rodents until the guests of honor had begun to arrive, at which point every small animal in the valley had very sensibly gone into hiding. Now, the visitors were all off to one side, ignoring the sumptuous feast and thronged in a huddle around a single figure.
Or, actually, two, counting the infant in her arms.
Razzavinax stood several feet back, keeping watch and looking thoroughly smug, but letting Maiyenn have the spotlight. She was nested comfortably in a basket chair piled with pillows, her earlier unease at the presence of all these dragons forgotten, and now looking serenely pleased with herself. Around her were piled gifts to the new dragonmother from various “uncles,” selected with care from over a dozen hoards and representing a staggering amount of wealth. Jewels, fine fabrics and powerful enchantments were the running themes among the miniature hoard that had taken shape.
The men huddled around her were of every race and description, though nearly all of them favored paler complexions that pleasingly offset their starkly chromatic hair and gem-like eyes. They rotated in and out, very gently pushing and jockeying for position so that each could have a moment in the front, with the best view of the little one, and all of them remaining respectfully quiet and not moving to touch either the infant or his beaming mother, though several were clearly tempted. Eager whispers and even incongruous cooing were constantly heard, the latter of which would be politely forgotten by everyone here who knew what was good for him.
Through it all, the child slept like a stone, his shock of thick, white hair tousled in the gentle breeze that blew over the valley. Everything else was swaddled up in a thick, quilted blanket of embroidered silk that could have graced a royal throne; only his sleeping face and the blunt fingers of one tiny hand emerged from his cocoon.
“Has he told you his name yet?” a slender human with viridian hair asked eagerly.
“Oh, don’t be an ass, he’s a newborn,” scoffed a more thickly built blue. “He’ll talk in his own time.”
“Hmf. How long’s that take?”
“How long did it take you?”
A piercing cry cut off their argument. The guest of honor had awakened.
“Gentlemen,” Maiyenn said with sharp reproach. “Quietly, please.”
Murmured apologies were all but lost in the infant’s wailing; the assembled dragons rapidly drifted away while his mother attempted to soothe him, breaking formation and then re-convening as they approached the banquet table. Razzavinax stepped up beside Maiyenn, stroking her hair once and bending to whisper to the child.
“They’re cute at that age, aren’t they?” Zanzayed noted. He had been the first to lose interest in the baby and make for the food, and was idly preparing a plate by the time the others got there. “Ah, how time flies. Before you know it he’ll be flying, then taking a woman of his own, siring the next generation… And possibly killing off a couple of you louts in the process. How time flies.”
“I see you haven’t changed in the centuries since I’ve seen you,” a green with an elven form said acrimoniously. “That’s excellent to know. I am spared wondering whether it would be worthwhile to look you up again.” Zanzayed just laughed at him.
“Let us please refrain from arguing, inasmuch as it is possible,” Ampophrenon said firmly. He was attired in flowing golden robes, having left off his armor as a symbolic gesture.
“One does not assemble eighteen dragons in one location and expect proceedings to be entirely peaceful,” remarked a blue in the form of a dwarf. He wore his beard in the old dwarven style, untrimmed all the way down past his belt. That plus its striking cobalt color made for an interesting sight.
“As I said,” Ampophrenon replied with a smile, “inasmuch as possible. Content yourselves with the bounty of her Majesty’s generosity, and be mindful of the little one present. I do not expect us all to agree on everything—or even much—but there is no reason we cannot limit our contention to words.”
“Well spoken,” Razzavinax agreed, joining them and nodding to Ampophrenon. The gold nodded back, somewhat stiffly, but politely. Several of the others muttered, but followed the advice tendered, occupying themselves with delicacies and wines. It sufficed, for the moment, to keep peace among the group. In the near distance, Maiyenn succeeded in rocking her infant son back to sleep.
They were an eclectic group, but in their variety were consistent themes. Human forms were the most common, though elves and dwarves and a single gnome were represented as well. Two others besides Zanzayed presented themselves as half-elves. One green dragon wore attire of homespun brown, and a blue was dressed in a dashing doublet and breeches (three hundred years out of style) in black, but all the rest dressed themselves to show pride in their colors, and in most cases to show wealth. Blues and greens overwhelmingly predominated, with a rough balance between the two colors. There were, however, four reds (including the gnome), and one youthful-looking human dressed in green, whose hair and eyes were an intermediate shade, signifying his ongoing transition to gold. He kept mostly to himself, and the others gave him a radius, politely ignoring him much as they would have averted their gazes from one another’s hoards.
“I, for one, am eager to hear the point of this meeting,” said a red, who wore a dashing cape over a sharp modern suit in black with scarlet accents. “It’s impressive indeed that you’ve managed to assemble so many of us. This has to be nearly everyone still alive on our continent. What’s the urgency?”
“Can’t it wait till after eating?” inquired a somewhat sloppily-dressed blue in disdainful tones.
“On the contrary,” said Razzavinax, “I am all in favor of discussing business over lunch. If nothing else, it may help keep the peace if we all have something into which to sink our teeth besides each other.”
There were several chuckles at this.
“Very well, then,” said Ampophrenon. “Zanzayed, you first brought the matter forth. Would you begin, please?”
“Wait, we’re here because of Zanza?” scoffed a green dragon, a human with a beard of almost dwarven proportions. “I do wish someone had warned me of that. I could have spared myself a long flight.”
“Hush,” said a fellow green curtly. The bearded one rounded on him.
“Did you just tell me to—”
“Will you think? Everyone here was rallied by either Ampophrenon or Razzavinax. This is important, to bring them into agreement. Besides, the very fact that Zanzayed is a self-indulgent twit is telling; what could be so dire that it would shift him from wasting time on his own tomfoolery?”
“It’s so gratifying to be appreciated,” Zanzayed stated with a beatific smile. “We really should have these reunions more often.”
“Zanza,” Razzavinax said dryly. “Your story, please?”
“Oh, fine, fine.” Zanzayed set down his plate, tucking a bite of sashimi into his mouth and chewing languorously before continuing. The assembled dragons stared at him with a mixture of expressions that revealed a unified opinion of his meager theatrics. Finally, he swallowed and continued. “Some of you may have heard rumors already, but to bring out the full truth: this is about Khadizroth.”
“I wondered at his absence,” remarked a young blue. “It’s unlike him not to insert himself into anything important occurring.”
“You’re about to hear why,” Zanzayed said darkly. “Khadizroth had himself a plan to take down the Tiraan Empire: he adopted a group of elves the Empire had thoroughly beaten and was raising their young females to be loyal to him. Once they were of age, he planned to use them to sire a whole family of dragons to contend with Tiraas.”
“Khadizroth did that? You lie. He’s even more puritanical than Puff and twice as pompous!”
“Oh, I don’t know, it sounds rather elegant to me. Anyway, what should it bother us if someone humbles this Empire?”
“No dragon needs that kind of power. What would happen once he was done with Tiraas? We would have been next, one at a time!”
“It’d never have worked anyway. If you attack humans on that scale, the Pantheon gets involved. Never fails.”
“Attacking overtly, yes, but there are subtler—”
“Please,” Razzavinax said firmly, cutting off the growing argument. “Let him finish. Everything will become clear, I assure you.”
“A thousand thanks, Razz,” Zanzayed said, smirking. “I assure you, gentlemen, I haven’t flown off in a tizzy about this without first verifying it. I spoke to the elven tribes currently fostering Khadizroth’s ex-harem. It seems the whole thing fell apart when some of his breeding stock decided that compared to serving in his plans, the pilgrimage to Athan’Khar was the lesser evil. He found himself with something in his nest that he was not prepared to contend with.”
“Is he dead?” asked the gnomish red, grinning.
“No,” said Zanzayed with uncharacteristic grimness. “No, that is where we come to the real problem. Khadizroth reached above himself and was humbled; if the story stopped there, I would consider it adequately resolved. First, he was attacked by Tiraan interests. Adventurers, specifically, including the Crow, who laid a geas on him binding him to his lesser form.”
“The Crow, working with the Tiraan?” interrupted an elven blue. “That’s even less believable.”
“If I understood why the Crow does anything, maybe I could manage to have a conversation with her that doesn’t degenerate into shouting and fireballs,” Zanzayed said sourly. “It hasn’t happened yet. I’ve not asked her, but I assure you, this happened. And I haven’t come to the serious part yet. Thus weakened, Khadizroth was…conscripted. By the Universal Church. Justinian means to use him as some kind of enforcer, in exchange for seeking a cure for his condition.”
Angry mutters circled around the group; one member actually growled.
“How certain are you of this?” demanded the red in the suit. “What’s your evidence?”
“This last part I witnessed myself, having tracked him to Onkawa.”
“And there the matter stands,” said Ampophrenon, raising his voice slightly over the murmuring of the assembled dragons. “As I see it—as well as Zanzayed and Razzavinax—Khadizroth’s temerity has been adequately punished already. The matter of chief concern now is that his situation reflects dangerously upon us all. It is unequivocally unacceptable for a mortal power to have a dragon under its thumb. Any mortal power, but Archpope Justinian is a particularly dangerous specimen. We must remedy this. Does anyone disagree?”
There were more angry mutters, but no voices raised in coherent statement until the gnome spoke again. “What are you proposing, then?”
“That is what we have assembled to discuss,” Razzavinax said smoothly. “Above all else, we must proceed carefully. The methods we have always used in such situations are simply not optional. The might of the Empire and the Church are sufficient to beat back any assault one or a few of us launched; if we attacked in unison, we would inevitably find ourselves contending with the Pantheon.”
“That’s awfully pessimistic,” the dwarven blue commented.
“Not at all,” Razzavinax replied, “I am simply explaining the situation. I consider this far from hopeless—at least, with regard to accomplishing our goals. The greatest difficulty, I think, will be adjusting our own habits to do what we will need to.”
He smiled. “We must think like mortals.”
“What, with our dicks?” A green with short hair grinned broadly. “Done and done.”
Several burst out laughing, several others glared at him in disgust. Ampophrenon closed his eyes and began whispering a prayer for patience; Zanzayed shook his head and picked up his plate again, resuming his lunch.
The ground shook as the large blue who had been standing guard at the far end of the valley landed beside them.
“Pay attention,” he growled, not bothering to shift into his smaller form. “We are old and set in our ways. We rarely if ever work together. Most of us do not like Razzavinax, or respect Zanzayed. These are facts. It is also a fact that the world has changed around us, and we have failed dismally to adjust to it… With the exceptions of Razzavinax and Zanzayed. The situation is too dire for this nonsense. Pay. Attention.”
“Thank you, Ramandiloth,” Razzavinax said politely, bowing to the elder blue. “As I was saying, gentlemen, what we must do in order to extract Khadizroth from Justinian’s clutches is move among the humans. Either ourselves, or more likely, using agents. We cannot fall upon them with fire and claws and magics; a subtler form of warfare is necessary.”
“Skulking and spying is beneath us,” scoffed a red.
“And diplomacy?” Ampophrenon asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Definitely beneath us,” the red grinned.
“Fine,” said Razzavinax. “Don’t participate. Go back to your den and wait for death.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Is that a threat?”
“I am far beyond needing to threaten any of you. Ramandiloth spoke correctly: those of us who have adapted most successfully to the way the world is now are myself, Ampophrenon and Zanzayed. I have bent my knowledge toward the establishment of my school, and carved out a place for myself in the politics of the mortal world. An important place that prevents them from moving against me. Ampophrenon’s Holy Order have credibility and history, even if their actual power is diminished of late. Zanza, though he rarely seeks to accomplish anything of worth, has grown adept at moving among mortal societies and even being accepted within them. Why would I threaten you? If I wished any of you dead, I would simply withhold my counsel and aid in reaching your own accommodations with the mortals and wait for it to happen.”
There were ugly mutters at this, but Razzavinax pressed on. “Beyond the immediate situation with Khadizroth, I must propose something even more radical: it is time for us to organize ourselves. Permanently.”
Another disturbance began to develop, made of equal parts laughter and shouted outrage, and managed to mature for all of two seconds before Ramandiloth snorted loudly. Everyone fell silent.
“This,” Ampophrenon said quietly, “is not what we discussed.”
“You are correct,” Razzavinax replied, nodding to him. “But I see no other way. In order to employ our power effectively against and within the mortal societies in which we must now move, we need to be unified in purpose and in method. This requires a common plan and a suitable division of labor. And while we are arranging this to contend with the present urgency, it is illogical not to look to the future. It’s a new world, gentlemen. We can’t live in it as we have. The simple fact is that the mortal races have less to fear from us than ever before, and no less reason to resent us. Right now the balance has shifted so that we are roughly even in power with many potential mortal enemies—a stark shift, for we are all accustomed to being the unchallenged terrors of their world. That balance will continue to shift, until we find ourselves at an outright disadvantage. The crisis forces us to act now. If you truly insist upon doing so and then going back to the way you were…” He shrugged. “As I said, I for one can simply wait for you to die.”
“Bloody hell,” Zanzayed grumbled. “If I’d known Khadizroth’s nonsense would lead to this I’d have just killed the idiot while I had him under my eyes.”
“Wasted opportunity,” snorted the gnome. “Story of your life.”
“Why are you so eager to establish at…permanent dragonmoot?” demanded a blue who had not spoken yet. “Since you’re so comfy with that school in which you take such pride.”
“A valid question indeed,” Razzavinax said gravely. “I am eager because however you argue the point—and I know many of you will—I am right, and you are all too intelligent not to see it eventually. Our species will not die out. We will see the truth and take the only possible action to face the future. And when that happens, I would far rather be a founding part of the draconic order that forms than hide on my island and wait for it to overwhelm me.”
“Hmph,” Ampophrenon grunted. “You do speak sense. And there are precedents among the mortals. Societies that govern along democratic lines.”
“Governed,” the dwarven blue said acidly. “Past tense. None of those last; democracy is inherently unstable.”
“Because such societies are comparatively enormous,” Ampophrenon replied calmly. “They are groups of thousands, even millions of individuals. They demand enormously complex rules and structures just to run, each its own manifold opportunity for the enterprising and corrupt to pick apart the system. We are eighteen. There are scarcely more than a hundred of us left in the world. If we cannot manage to bend ourselves toward a common goal…then perhaps we deserve to die out.”
A thoughtful quiet answered him.
Ramandiloth’s reverberating voice broke it. “This will not be decided upon, much less organized, easily. Certainly not quickly. But I support this goal.”
“We have not the luxury of years to dither,” said Razzavinax with a small smile, “but the matter is not of an urgency that will overtake us in the next day. There is time, brethren. Not much time, but enough. Come, we have a great deal to discuss.”