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The Elvenbane

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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That showed mastery of the air, more than any gymnastics in gentle thermals ever could.

Calling the lightning to herself as it leapt from cloud to cloud, letting it run over her skin and arc up into the thunderheads above, every scale, every spine outlined in white fire –

And a single momentary lapse of concentration would let the lightning flow through her instead of over her impervious skin, paralyzing her or even killing her.

Casting lightnings of her own, from wingtip to wingtip, or from wingtip to cloud –

Most dragons could arc while on the ground; only the ones with skill hard-won from years of practice could arc and fly. That Alara could even arc to another point was a measure of her skill, skill that had won her a most desirable mate after the last Dance.

If she had possessed lips, she would have licked them at the memory of Reolahaii, shaman of Waviina’s Lair. Long, lithe, lean – in color a dusky gold beneath the rainbow iridescence of his scales – a mind as swift as the lightning and a wit as sharp as his claws; in short, he was a combination Alara found irresistible. He was the FireRunner now, for both their Lairs, until the little one was born and she could resume her full duties. Double duty – twice the danger, for Running in so many Thunder Dances, but twice the thrill as well. And, unless circumstances threw them together again, it was unlikely they would meet except at Dances, much less become permanent mates. Neither his Lair nor hers would be willing to do without their shaman. The duties of the shaman were too time-consuming for either of them to make the three-day flight between the two Lairs very often. She permitted herself a moment of self-pity. A shaman’s life was not her own.

But Alara was not of the temper to wallow in self-pity for long. Duties, yes, she mused, but pleasures as well. Best of all was being the FireRunner –

There was nothing like it; choosing the fiercest of the weather patterns, forcing the lightning to hold back until the breaking point –

Then calling it, a hundred killer bolts at once, and streaking down out of the sky with the fire a spine’s length away from her tail, diving, falling like a stone out of the heavens and down, into a narrow cleft just wide enough for her to drop through it, lined on all sides with carefully placed jewels, gems that the lightning would tune and charge …

Gems winking, a rainbow of stars set in the walls, the rock itself a breath away from her wings, the air actually splitting with her passage, and the fires of heaven chasing her down into the earth – while the gems in her wake blazed until the cleft behind was alight with a hundred colors of glory –

Until at the last minute she would break through into the cavern beneath, spread her wings with a thunder of her own, and snap-roll out of the way as the last of the lightning discharged itself into the floor of the cavern, fusing the rock and sand at the contact point, and stray discharges crackled over her as she landed …

She started to sigh; then, when she couldn’t, recalled her form and purpose for being here. She was supposed to be contemplating Fire. Earth-fire. She didn’t think lightning counted.

She stretched her earth-senses again, sending them resolutely downward. She hoped she was doing it right. She wasn’t a shaman when she carried Keman. And all Father Dragon would tell her when she had left on this pilgrimage was: ‘Do what you feel is right.’ She still felt more than a little disgruntled by his apparent lack of cooperation. She knew it was part of a shaman’s work to give no direct answers, but she thought it was carrying things a bit too far to play the same game with another shaman!

And she could almost hear Father Dragon saying ‘Oh, no it isn’t …’

There were times when this business of being contrary got on her nerves, and she was the one being contrary!

But that was what she was supposed to do. She was supposed to keep the Kin awake; supposed to see that they didn’t become too complacent and look for easy answers. Or frivolous ones …

Easy answers and complacency were very much a danger among the Kin. Ever since they had come to this world, there had been very little to challenge them.

Alara herself had been born here, but she had memorized every tale and image Father Dragon had imparted to the younger shamans. Home was a place no one wanted to return to, a world of savage predators fully a match for a grown, canny dragon; of ice storms that blew up in a heartbeat and left the hapless dragon caught in them to freeze to death within moments of shelter; of ruthless competition for food. Their shape-shifting abilities had been forged of necessity, hammered into shape by competition, and honed by hunger and fear. Life was brutal, ruthless, and all too often, short. Then, one day, one of the Kin discovered something odd in the depths of a cavern he was exploring with an eye to making it a Lair.

One of the entrances off the main cavern gave off, not into a side cave, but into another world. And such a world! A place of green, growing forests, long, lazy summers, an abundance of food – and nothing, seemingly, large or savage enough to threaten them.

And yet not all of the Kin chose to escape through that Gate, after Shonsealaroni had stabilized it with one of his precious hoard-gems. Some stubbornly insisted that Home was better. In the end, perhaps half the Kin passed through – and the moment Shonsea took away his gem, the Gate collapsed.

By then, however, the Kin had learned how to create Gates of their own. Some of them had taken a liking to the place. Though accident and murder were the common shorteners of life among the Kin, if violent death could be avoided, a dragon lived a very long time indeed. In the new world, which they named ‘Peace,’ they discovered how long, and that the one common bane to the long-lived is boredom.

That was when some of the Kin took to world-hopping, seeking challenges and amusements.

There was certainly enough to keep them occupied here! Once Father Dragon discovered the elves and their slaves …

The first Gate had probably been a construct of the elves or something like them, or of a mage ill taught. Father Dragon suspected that it was, indeed, these elves, in an attempt ill directed to bridge the worlds, that bridged instead Home and Peace.

For when the Kin found the elvenkind, they learned that the elves themselves were alien to this place, and had built themselves a Gate to take them from a place in which their lives were imperiled to a place where they would be the masters. It was somewhat ironic that the Kin had been gifted with a Gate and thought only of escape, where the elves who had constructed it thought only of conquest. Father Dragon, who had studied the elvenkind the longest of any dragon, speculated that the peril the elves had found themselves in was a peril caused by their own actions. Alara had never yet seen nor heard anything to disprove that, and many things seemed in accord with that theory. The elvenkind occasionally spoke in Council of Clan Wars, the destruction of vast stretches of land, of strife by magic ‘until the rocks ran like water,’ and the overwhelming need to prevent another such conflict. There were no evidences of any warfare on a scale that vast here; conflict between Clans or individuals was kept within acceptable bounds.

So perhaps they warred until their own home-world was destroyed. Or perhaps they were the losers in a conflict that would permit the survival of no one but the winners. Another reason to keep our existence from them …

Only the humans were native; whatever level of culture they had achieved before the arrival of the elves was long lost by the time the Kin appeared. By then, the elves had firmly imposed their order on the world about them, with the elves as undisputed masters and the humans as subject slaves.

And that, of course, was a situation creating fertile ground for mischief …

She was drifting again. She became annoyed at herself. She had managed the other three shifts easily enough. She had been able to keep her mind on her element. What was wrong with her now?

She started to stretch; remembered, again, that she couldn’t and decided irritably that the problem was the simple one of boredom. As the eagle, she had learned entirely new things about flying and wind and air-currents; feathers behaved in a manner altogether unlike membranous wings. As the delphin, she’d had a whole new world to explore; it had been very hard to leave that form and journey onwards. Even as the cedar, there had been a forest full of life around her, and she had been able to move, at least to a limited extent.

Here, in the desert, there was nothing but herself and the magical energies of the spring.

Maybe if she did something instead of sitting there – like a – a stone!

Alara had not seen even fifty of this world’s summers – as the Kin of her Lair went, she was very young. Some said too young, especially for the position of shaman. Some said too headstrong, too contrary, never mind that the shaman was supposed to be the dissenting voice.

She broke custom too often for comfort. She broke it in taking the rank so young; she broke it whenever it seemed to her that ‘custom’ was just an excuse for not wanting to change. They listened to her, but they thought she was reckless, headstrong. And maybe they were right. But maybe she was right, and the Kin were letting this soft world lure them into a long dream in the sun.

At least they still listened to her.

So far. She wondered how far she could push them. They couldn’t unmake her, but they could ignore her.

If the others knew of her forays into elven lands, though, they’d have been outraged. Not that taking elven form and brewing trouble wasn’t a standard game for the Kin – tricks of that kind were fine if you were an ordinary dragon.

But that a shaman would so risk herself would have horrified the rest of the Lair.

That was part of the problem right there; the Kin were only taking acceptable risks. Ever since Shoro had been hurt, no one wanted to take high risks anymore.

That was why no one had come here in so long; they didn’t want to risk being seen, however unlikely that was. And they didn’t want to risk playing with energy this powerful; it might lash back at them.

Which was why no one else wanted to be FireRunner, except another shaman. Father Dragon said that the Kin used to compete for the privilege, but now, if there was no shaman, there was no Thunder Dance, and that was the end of it. Was it laziness, or something else? Why, in the past year, there couldn’t have been more than a half-dozen of the Kin among the elvenkind, and those were mostly quiet spying trips! It was almost as if the others were afraid to go –

She certainly enjoyed her forays among the elves.

The last expedition had gone particularly well. V’larn Lord Rathekrel Treyn-Tael was not a patient soul –

And Alara had exploited that impatience, weaving a web of trouble for him with the dexterity of an orb-spider …

Why was it that flowers never smelled so sweet as when they were dying?

Alara reached out to the bouquet of white blooms on the dressing table, and caressed the stem of a wilting lily, reviving it with a touch. Once again, she glanced up at the mirror above the flower arrangement; once again, she could find no flaw in her disguise. From the white-gold hair, to the narrow, clawlike feet, she was the very epitome of highly bred elvenkind. Her hair cascaded down her back to the base of her spine; her wide, slanted eyes glowed the preferred blue-green. Her face could have been carved from the finest marble, with high cheekbones, broad brow, thin nose, generous mouth and determined chin. She spread out her hands before her; strange, to see long, slender, talonless fingers instead of five claws, and equally strange to see pale skin, translucent as fine porcelain, instead of rainbow scales, with the iridescence overlaying a deep red-gold.

And stranger still to walk upright, balancing on two legs. She felt as if she were always about to fall.

She had chosen to be female this time; simulating a male could be awkward, especially with some of the assumptions the elven lords made about guests. Once she had even been offered the services of a concubine, and had escaped the situation only because she had not planned to spend the night.

She would not even know how to go about mating as a male dragon, much less one of them!

There was another advantage, one which made the current jest possible. Being in female form – most lissome and, as elves reckoned, desirable female form – she could create a situation built on pressures and assumptions that not even the cleverest of elves could anticipate.

She knew from her study of him that Rathekrel was very susceptible to certain pressures. Although he was nothing short of a trading genius, there his expertise ended. He was hot-tempered, inclined to indulge that temper, and had a long history of making disastrous mistakes where the females of his kind were concerned.

Alara had decided to help him make another.

She turned away from the silver-framed mirror, and back towards the important decision of choosing a gown.

She considered, then discarded as too girlish, a high-necked autumn-rose brocade. A sable satin piece, displaying as much bosom as the previous gown concealed, was too obvious. Finally she settled on a flowing robe of shimmer-silk in emerald green, with sleeves that swept the floor, a bodice that clung to her like a second skin before flaring out into a full skirt and train that could have concealed an army of midgets. Although the neckline was high and demure, the cut and tight fit of the garment above the waistline left nothing to the imagination.

She summoned the maids and waited passively while they gowned, coifed, and bejeweled her at her direction. The human slaves had gentle, deft hands, and they worked in complete silence; it was easy to imagine that she was surrounded by invisible sprites of the air instead of a bevy of young girls in the uniform household tunic of white banded with silver.

Rathekrel’s manor was not the largest she had ever visited, but it was by no means the smallest. Containing twenty-five guest suites alone, it was staffed by hundreds of human slaves, and supported a good hundred subordinate elves. The chamber in which she sat was plushly appointed, and one of three that made up the suite of rooms – lavish dressing room, sitting room, and bedroom, all decorated chastely in the house-trademark white-and-silver, with a private bath sculpted to simulate a hot spring sunk in snowbanks, an illusion broken only by the silver spigots in the form of fish, and mounds of plush, frost-white towels beside it.

In fact, most of the house was done in white-and-silver. The decor made Alara cold and uncomfortable. And she recognized it as a subtle means for Rathekrel to overwhelm his guests, no matter what reason had brought them here.

She was willing to bet that Rathekrel’s chambers didn’t look as if he were holding court in a glacier.

Even the furniture was just slightly uncomfortable. The style was slim, unadorned, austere. The padding on the seat-cushions was a shade too thin. The lack of ornamentation made the white-lacquer furnishings seem to fade into the white-satin walls. The bed was just a trifle too hard.

Her gown, a vivid green, shouted defiance at the rest of the room, as she sat quietly, with her hands folded, on the little white-lacquer stool in front of the mirrored white-lacquer vanity table, surrounded by her white-clad attendants.
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