Jhetarya’s life hadn’t been any easier after Arosambyth’s maiden flight. Indeed, after that damnable Ivo had left her high and dry, life had gotten a little more complex. Not only had Al’jan made known his opinion of Aro’s choice, but Jhetarya had responded to the flight just as her golden lifemate had. A child…
But that was neither here nor there. What she most dreaded was her beloved queen’s second flight, and the day was ever drawing nigh. She had noted on the board that she would prefer something a little more than a one-night stand. Arosambyth had noticed, and had gotten unusually fierce, forbidding anyone who rejected her rider to enter into the chase.
The gold had meant it for the best, but what had happened was depressing. Week after week, not a single male name showed on the flight board. Not only did the queenrider have to cope with the growing ferocity of Arosambyth’s temperament, but she also had to accept that not a single person thus far was interested in her as Jhetarya.
Then, at last, the dam broke, and a few names were scribbled on her list. Jhetarya pretended she didn’t notice who was participating, but every time she looked at that sharding flight board, her cheeks flushed red. Finally, when Arosambyth’s touchiness told her that the flight would be within the week, she had a visit from Al’jan.
She didn’t see him much any more. He’d taken a turn for the worse after Xiorayith had died. It had nearly shut off the sparkle of him completely. But, him being Al’jan, she wasn’t surprised when he came nosing around her weyr.
“Jher, you never could resist coming to nose around in my business. What’s up?” she said bluntly.
His face, when he turned it toward her, was a little brighter, and there was once again a sparkle of gaiety in his blue eyes. “Jheta, fancy meeting you here. I’ve been scouting, in case you were wondering. I only came to offer you a little advice.”
One thick black brow arched sarcastically. “Do tell.”
“W’ren. Don’t underestimate him, and don’t judge him by his silence. And...don’t be surprised, Jheta, if something does come out of this flight.” With an oddly formal bow, her cousin left.
In the next four days, she’d met two more prospective partners, Kmarks and Istin. She wasn’t quite sure how she felt about either. Kmarks brought up the old memories of Ivo, and certainly caught Zarca’s eye, but…he was a little too much like Ivo. And Istin seemed anxious, as well as being from elsewhere.
On the fifth day, Arosambyth rose.
* * *
Just so you know, said Arosambyth haughtily, eyeing her entourage, None of you have a hope of catching me.
The gold was sitting poised on a mesa-like rock formation, but as the males’ heads snapped around, amber haunches bunched and released. Propelled in a graceful arc, Arosambyth opened her wings as her momentum began to lose its war with gravity. Then, deliberately, she tilted her narrow honey-gold spars to spill some of the breeze. Like a shot, the glowing queen stooped for her prey.
In a private little hollow on the ground, Jhetarya winced, seconds before the wet crack of breaking vertebrae announced Aro’s kill. There was a grisly staccato fanfare as the males hastily fell on their own meals. She opened her mouth to comment. Blood only, I know already. You keep to your business, and let me handle mine! Arosambyth was overheating, but even so, she wheeled once after she let the carcass drop to check out the males. Who here would get the closest to catching her?
The first, a very intent, very intense brown with the legendary lines of Alabaster Weyrhold, was Hirlath. He looked fast and stubborn, and she made a mental note to watch this one. Hirlath appeared all too eager to give her the problem she was trying so hard to avoid. His rider was W’ren. Fivrith had spoke of him, had told her about this couple…if only she could remember what!
Then there was an unknown, Iztitath, a duo-winged spice light of the latest Flurry. He looked very young and inexperienced to her eyes. Arosambyth wasn’t sure about those wings, either--wouldn't they get in the way? That is, if he caught her, which, of course, he wouldn’t. His rider, Mike, was similarly new to her.
She beat her wings once, lazily, as she gave Ilybikyfth a once-over. He was a big, solid-looking bronze, Ryslen-bred and shining with health. Ilybikyfth also seemed to be genuinely interested, like Hirlath. He was probably the biggest dragon there, however, and the way she intended to fly, the bronze would probably get left behind. She hoped. His rider was Istin, who also seemed genuine to Aro’. His weakness was hesitancy. She’d have to see if it translated to his dragon...
Next was a shiny one, partial glitz bronze Idolon from Cy Dragonstake. The gold got the feeling that he didn’t really want to be here. He seemed to have left his kill mainly out of nervous energy. He was also quite small. He didn’t have a proper rider at all. Idolon was bonded to another dragon, of all things, and a female at that. Aro’ snorted to herself. What, did he think she was going to share?
The last male she saw before she beat her way up past the cloud level was Vaillanth, a big brown-copper who was definitely enthusiastic about this flight. He’d been enthusiastically courting her all week. His prey was enthusiastically dismembered all over the ground. If he didn’t stop pouring so much effort into everything, he was going to wear himself out. And that, to Aro’s mind, was a good thing. His rider was Kmarks, a furry cheetah-person and a musician. Jhetarya’s feelings were very muddled about him. Still fussing about Ivo…bah.
Above the clouds, she changed her ‘stride’, winging for speed until the males came back into view. Unsurprisingly, Iztitath was close behind, his doubled wings whirring as he flew. As light and quick as he was, the duowing was getting uncomfortably close.
He doesn’t have any experience, Arosambyth reminded herself, and she beat her wings rapidly, trading speed for altitude. Then she stopped short, using those massive ‘sails as a brake. With his considerable momentum at this point, even the agile young duowing couldn’t have stopped. He overshot Arosambyth, and kept right on going. By the time he’d thought to turn, Aro’ was already in a shallow dive, pumping her wings to gain speed once again.
The smaller Idolon, now nearest to the front, took the dive after Aro’ too steeply. He shot downward like a stooping falcon…but the partial glitz bronze couldn’t get back up in time. Gaining altitude lost Idolon most of his speed, and when he saw how far behind the chase he was, the dragon from Cy turned back to join Iztitath.
Two down, three to go. Arosambyth was exultant. They’d never catch her…she’d fly forever in the cool blue world above the clouds.
Brown-copper claws caught at her hindquarters, and she screamed her rage. Don’t touch me! The gold twisted in her captor’s grip, and slashed with saberish talons at Vaillanth. Shocked and hurt, the Utopian dragon released his prize, tumbling through the clouds before he got his wings under him. Arosambyth hissed her triumph.
Only two left, and they wouldn’t take long. She was sure she could outfly them, Hirlath and Ilybikyfth. She’d make them eat her dust. Even if her rider had not chosen between them. If Jhetarya didn’t know what she wanted, then Aro’ sure as shards wasn’t going to let either of them have the satisfaction. With this confidence streaming through her, the lithe gold curved sharply to the right. This had worked for other dragons…
But these chasers weren’t following that closely. The darker-hued of the two matched her curve, but immediately, cutting her off. All of a sudden, there was another dragon in her air. When she struck at him, he twisted on a wingtip, clasping her shoulders firmly. He saw her head snake back for a bite, too, and yanked her hard sideways. Aro’ missed.
I don’t think my company is quite that objectionable, lovely Arosambyth. Will you surrender? her captor purred.
No. But I will parley with you, Hirlath.
As the brown and the queen spun and fell, Ilybikyfth turned and power-stroked for home. There was something unfair about a chaser catching the prize before every other had been eliminated. But Arosambyth had chosen, and it hadn’t been him. That’s cheating, the Ryslen bronze muttered. The tumbling pair took no notice.
Below, Jhetarya was already in tall W’ren’s arms, lost in a kiss with real passion behind it. There was no regret or reluctance this time. Indeed, there was the real possibility that both riders were, incredibly, smiling.