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Highland Dragon Master by Isabel Cooper (1)

One

Bordeaux was far emptier than it had ever been in Erik’s long life. In the past two centuries, he’d been accustomed to seeing the cities of men grow greater and more crowded, pushing out their borders every time he visited and building new houses almost atop the old.

Now many of the houses sat empty, their windows black as the empty eyes of a skull. The noises of the street were almost a whisper compared to what they had been. Sellers of fruit and fish, meat and leather still plied their trades in the markets, but there were far fewer, and their voices sounded muted, afraid. The rumbling of carts easily drowned them out, and while most of those carts held goods for the market, still there were many with a cargo of the dead, open eyes oft staring up to an unseeing heaven.

Man was a fragile creature. Never had Erik seen that more clearly than in the last ten years.

He walked without fear down the pitted cobblestone streets. The dragon-blooded took no harm from mortal plagues, save perhaps to their mind and soul. That horseman might ride after him and the other MacAlasdairs in vain—or perhaps simply leave the duty to his brothers. Certainly they were War’s creatures often enough.

War was the root of Erik’s mission, after all.

Although far fewer ships sat in the harbor, there were yet enough that their masts made a bare-branched forest against the blue summer sky. Men crossed the docks with their burdens: barrels of goods, pails of tar, even the occasional horse or cow. Other men stood or sat in mere idleness, fishing off the docks or talking over mugs of ale.

Some such idlers stopped Erik, as men in their position always had done with a well-dressed man who carried a nobleman’s arms. They asked him to join them in drinking—and doubtless stand them a round later—which he declined; asked if he’d found himself lodging and care for his horse, which he had; and asked if he’d need of fresh fish, which he didn’t. He did accept one offer from a young towheaded man for directions.

“I look to hire a ship,” Erik said. “And men. I wish to make a voyage westward.”

“Hmm,” said the young man, and put his head to one side like a spaniel seeking a bone. He had great brown eyes that only heightened the impression. Those eyes scanned the ships in the harbor with alertness, though, and he gave answer promptly enough. “The Hawk might do it, m’lord. She’s small, but she’s been known to take human bundles from time to time, and she’s not beholden so far as I know.”

It sounded promising. “And where might I find her captain?”

“Aboard, most likely. They made port but two days ago. She’ll be looking at every board, if the past’s any measure.”

“She?” Erik asked. It was no shock—among his line, the women fought nearly as much as the men, and such had been more common even among mortals in his parents’ day—but it was a surprise to hear as much from modern lips.

The young man rolled his eyes. “Not that there hasn’t been a bit to say about it. But her husband’s dead, and they’d no children, so…” He shrugged. “The world’s not over-blessed with men these days, no?”

He crossed himself as he said it, and Erik joined him. “The Hawk,” he said.

“Down at the end,” said the young man, and waited expectantly until Erik handed him two pennies.

The docks creaked beneath Erik as he walked toward his destination. That sound, and water lapping against wood, brought back memories from his youth: fishing out in boats on the loch with his cousins, with more joking than actual fishing being done in the end. Cathal and he had been of about an age, or close enough to make little difference among the MacAlasdair youths. Together they’d hidden from tutors, run races, and later planned to court kitchen maids.

Cathal had been the one to explain Erik’s current mission—or, rather, his wife had. A charming woman, unnervingly intelligent and more unnervingly familiar with the magic that Erik had only half learned in his youth, Sophia had been the one to unearth the relevant legends. Sophia and Cathal’s two daughters had served the evening meal while Sophia told stories, their eyes as grave and brown as their mother’s, but with a dragonish gleam in their depths.

Such an evening left a man brooding, apt to consider his own past and perchance the future to come.

Such a man, Erik told himself, would do well to concentrate on the task at hand, ere he fell into the harbor and earned himself an unpleasant evening. He turned his attention to the ship he was approaching.

The Hawk was a flat-bottomed cog, its oak boards weathered smooth by the ocean but to all appearances solid and sturdy. As it lay in harbor, the single sail was furled against the mast. Above it, a blue flag displayed a single yellow silhouette that might have been a hawk, an eagle, or indeed a giant bat. For certain it had a head and wings, but that was all Erik could make out from a distance. The ship looked to be a good length, eighty feet or so, and sat well in the water.

Two figures stood on the deck. At such a distance, a mortal man might not have known that one of them was female. The dragon-blooded had better eyes, but save for her sex, her height—greater than that of most women—and the gleaming copper-red of her hair, Erik could make out no more of her.

Approaching, he hailed the ship. The captain set her hands on her hips, considering, and then nodded. “Wait there,” she called, gesturing to the docks, “and I’ll come ashore.”

Erik heard a familiar note in her voice, but he couldn’t place it. Not until she reached the docks and he looked into a tanned face with wide, almost-black eyes, in which gleamed small specks of golden fire, did he know her. Then, laughing in amazement, he saw the joke of the flag.

* * *

If the man before her hadn’t gaped and then broken out laughing, Toinette would have thought herself wrong about his identity. The world had big men in plenty, and blond men—whole countries full of big, blond men. There might even have been a few big, blond men with the same shimmering blue-green eyes as this one.

But his expression convinced her.

“Erik MacAlasdair? What are the odds?”

Not so great as all that, come to think of it. The world could be small, and it was growing smaller of late. In truth, there’d been times when Toinette had wondered if her blood would be all that was left.

Best not to brood on death. Better to step forward and let Erik embrace her. His lips brushed lightly over hers: a quick kiss of greeting, as between any friend and another, quite unlike the rather messier and more daring one that she remembered receiving behind the forester’s cottage at Loch Arach so many years ago. His arms were stronger, though, and Toinette stepped back feeling a tingling echo of the same thrill she’d had at sixteen.

“A pleasant surprise,” he said, and the accent of Scotland in his voice called back memories of hunting and hawking, of stone halls and the triumph of controlling her heritage for the first time. “Captain Toinette?”

“Captain Deschamps, rightly.”

“I heard,” he said, and bowed his head. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you. It was ten years ago now, so—” She spread her hands, smoothing the air as time did pain.

Erik looked slightly surprised. “Ah. Not the plague, then?”

“Only mortality—though you might say the plague counts. He was middle-aged when I met him. A very kind man, and not a very curious one.”

“God rest his soul.”

“Yes,” said Toinette. “Quite likely. And how many times have you wed since we last met?”

“Two.” He made sure that none of the crowd were likely to be listening, and then added, “Both longer past than your man.”

“Quite a crowd in heaven, I’m sure. Children?”

“No.”

“I’m sorry.” He didn’t ask in return. Toinette would not bear to a mortal; the blood didn’t cross that way. Men could crossbreed, with difficulty and rituals. The older ones, like Toinette’s father, didn’t even need those. Whether mortal or magical, though, bearing the child of a man with dragon’s blood had certain risks unless you yourself had it to begin with. To Toinette’s mind, it was a bad deal either way.

To her relief, she saw no great pain in Erik’s face, nor heard any in his voice when he spoke again. “It happens. You look to have done well.”

“I have.” She smoothed her hands down the crimson wool of her skirts. “Amber and wax from Muscovy this trip. Lighter than furs, and less likely to leave the crew scratching.”

“Only half frozen, I’d think.” Erik laughed.

“As long as it’s the right half, gold does a lot to thaw a man again.” The setting sun glinted red-gold off the water, catching Toinette’s eye. “Here, you didn’t come all this way just to compare our lives or ask for a rematch at archery, did you?”

“No, no more than I did to let you redeem yourself with a falcon. I need to hire myself a ship.”

“Welcome words. There’s a tavern down that way”—Toinette jerked a thumb to indicate where—“that’s half-decent if you watch the landlord while he’s pouring the wine. I’ve a mind to talk over meat and drink.”

* * *

The tavern was small and reasonably clean. The table wasn’t sticky, and the rushes had been changed within the last fortnight. Toinette had been right about the wine too, and the pottage, though mostly cabbage, tasted as if the bits of meat might truly have been rabbit.

Such qualities drew a number of guests, mostly the quieter sort of men from the docks by the look of them. None sat very close to Toinette or Erik, and all seemed absorbed in their own affairs. Still, Erik switched into Gaelic as he put down his spoon and asked, “You’ve perhaps heard of the Templars?”

Toinette thought for the time it took her to sip wine and put the cup back down. “Crusader knights, weren’t they? And maybe devil worshippers?” A hundred-odd years since their parting had left her accent rusty, but Erik could understand her well enough.

“Aye, so the king said at the time, I hear.” He hadn’t bothered about it much on that occasion. Moiread MacAlasdair had said she didn’t care if they’d each kissed Satan’s cold arse in person; the men didn’t matter, only their artifacts. “They had a great deal of treasure.”

“Had?”

“Philip claimed most of it.” Indeed, those who felt safe speaking of such matters suggested that greed had been the fuel for those pyres. Erik wouldn’t have been surprised. “But there are those who say he didn’t find all—that a small company of the knights smuggled some out and brought it to an island west of England. Of those tales, a few say that it wasn’t only gold. They speak of magic enough to reshape the world, or a part of it.”

Toinette’s crimson lips pursed. “Ah,” she said, amused. “And I daresay you’ve no wish to hire an English captain. The war progresses?”

“It does. That’s the reason I’m going,” Erik said. “It’s a small chance, but I’ll take it for my people’s sake.”

“How very loyal of you.”

As it had always done, her gaze grew remote when speaking of such matters, and the humor in her voice was lofty: These affairs have so little to interest me. When Erik was fifteen, he’d blushed and stammered and grown angry. When he was eighteen, he’d blushed and stammered for different reasons, and the anger had taken a distant place.

Toinette had been his first kiss. He’d never asked, but he was dead certain he hadn’t been hers.

Older, he drank wine and composed an answer. “There’s not so much fighting these days. We’re preparing for David to return. I’ve been told I can be most helpful in this manner.” When Toinette’s dark eyes didn’t waver, he added, “And I’d like a reason to be away just now.”

War grew weary for most men. For the dragon-blooded, it could be dangerous. Too much death without a respite could lead to bloodlust, or to enough distance from mortals that their lives became playthings. Artair MacAlasdair was very careful about such tendencies in his kin, even in the cadet branches.

“I’d imagine many people would,” said Toinette. “For all there are fewer men about, we’ll likely find a crew easily enough. But first,” she added, raising a slim sun-browned hand, “let us talk payment.”