The next few days fell into a sort of rhythm. Mornings and afternoons were spent in weapons training with Nicandros, spending most of her time getting smacked with various training weapons over and over until she was sore. She was realizing, however, how much Karjon had taught her about fighting. Cat and Mouse, Catch the Tail, Trickstey Thief…all of the games they had played in his lair, her always laughing when she didn’t have to be quiet, they hadn’t been just games. Everyone had taught her skills that Nicandros was teaching her how to train to life and death conflicts.
“It’s…ugh,” she commented to Nicandros when he pointed it out to her.
The older man lowered his practice sword. He normally wouldn’t do that. He was far too fond of reminding her that she could expect no quarter from the soldiers that served the Alohym. But sometimes he’d notice something different about her protest and give her a momentary respite. “What is it? Your father tried to prepare you for this life, and it’s bothering you.”
“I know, I just…I hate that those memories are now being turned into weapons.”
Nicandros gave her a mournful nod. She’d never worked up the courage to ask him what tragedy drove him, and he didn’t seem inclined to share. “I think your father did more to prepare you for all of this than you realize. Don’t let it taint the joy it still brought you, girl.”
Tythel sniffed. “Yeah, you’re right. Thanks.”
“Now, tell me about how the Hitoram Dynasty retook their island from the Kaocan League?”
“Oh, well-” She’d learned this trick. Nicandros liked to make her recite history to him while they fought. So even as she said well, she brought up her practice hammer, a stick with a bundle of cloth wrapped around a weight at the end, and driftwood shield to prepare to defend herself. Nicandros gave her a nod and began circling her. “-the Hitorami Emperor’s line had been wiped out, but his Knights-” she grunted as she punched forward with the shield, catching his blow and trying to throw him off balance. She didn’t break the story as she did – Nicandros would come back twice as fierce if she let herself get distracted. “-created a council to run the government of exile, and reached out to Carthomere for ships and-”
By the end of every afternoon, even with a lunch break, she was exhausted and her throat was sore from speaking, but it was a good exhaustion. The kind that came from well earned exertion, not pain or fear or grief.
Evenings were spent with the Council, eating dinner as they planned the hit on the Factory for the crawlers. They’d kept the troops busy in digging a tunnel to the surface, allowing air to flow freely into their watery base. It wasn’t a permanent solution. With only one way in or out, they were trapped if the Alohym ever found them unless they wanted to try their hand at swimming up a good hundred feet. But it was something for now, and it had halted the ongoing desertion problem for now.
It had also let Lord Devos take his Abyssals out to scout. They were still waiting for their return, but they weren’t due back for another couple days.
“We should hold this place after we leave it,” Tythel said in one meeting, frowning at the map. “If we don’t need to drop the spell holding it up, we can farm the fish for as long as they last.”
“So long as you keep cooking them,” Duchess d’Monchy said with a wide smile. “I swear that’s half the reason the troops are staying.”
Tythel felt herself flush and shrugged. Just as eating dragonflame cooked meat had helped her grow as tall as she had, it was also helping the people who were eating what she cooked. Not much, but Haveron had noted that the wounded they fed her fish to were recovering just a bit quicker than the others.
“And it’s good to have a food supply,” Haradeth said. Since their altercation when they first arrived, he’d been perfectly professional with her. Tythel preferred it over his earlier acerbic comments.
“We still can’t count on it lasting indefinitely though, yes?” Lady von Bagget asked, looking at Tythel. “At least, I’ve never heard of somewhere not getting over-fished.”
“The shrines weren’t meant to be used for extended periods, so if they do somehow draw fish in from further away, it wasn’t recorded.” Tythel frowned at the ocean beyond them. This time of day, it was lit only by the Alohym fireless lights, which she’d learned were called glowrings. The reflection off the water made it impossible to see further into the depths.
“It hasn’t been back,” Haradeth said, his voice low.
Two nights before, Haveron had seen some great beast moving in the water, a creature that had been so massive he’d been able to see it without being able to clearly make it out, other than an impression of great tentacles. “Good,” Duke d’Monchy said, his voice resolute.
It was good that it had been the dour and humorless doctor to see it, and not one of the soldiers. Hopefully it had been a passing beast, and not something taking offense to the use of a long-vanished god’s temple. The troops would have panicked at it.
Speaking of gods, Tythel turned to Haradeth and said, trying to be as gentle as possible, “any change?”
Haradeth shook his head. “She still sleeps, she still dreams. She needs more sunlight, but it’s not safe right now.”
Tythel was at least relieved Lathariel wasn’t getting any worse. When she’d hidden them all beneath the sea, it hadn’t occurred to her the forest goddess would need sunlight. At least it wasn’t harming her to get what little they did, filtered through the water as it was.
“There’s still the issue of resources,” the Duke said, drawing them back into focus. “We have no way to acquire new weapons, no way to purchase food, no real supply lines to speak of.”
“The destruction of the factor could drive confidence,” Lady von Bagget said, waiving a dismissive hand. “Maybe even get some of the nobles who’ve been sitting out so far to lend their aid.”
“And their coffers,” Nicandros growled.
Tythel just nodded along. No one expected her to contribute to this part of the discussion. The truth was, she knew she could contribute here, but doing so…It doesn’t matter right now, she told herself. There isn’t anything you can do now anyway.
Because of the effect her flame had on the fish, after the meeting she spent a solid hour with the fish, giving each one they grabbed a quick sear before it was cooked the rest of the way for tomorrow’s meals. She liked the time mindlessly heating fish as they were passed to her. It gave her time to think about the day and hone her ability to maintain a flame as long as possible. She also chatted with some of the troops while doing so, idle conversation that kept her awake and alert. Three in particular; Armin, Ossman, and Eupheme, were becoming regulars during these sessions.
“So, your highness, what will you be seasoning the fish with today?” Armin said with a broad smile. He was a handsome young man about her age, from the northern part of the kingdom, so his hair was a sandy gold and his skin a dark red, almost like rust. “Shall it be dragon flame, dragon fire, or dragon hot lights?” At the last one, Armin made a few wisps of light dance along his fingers. He came from a line of mages, although with no formal training he was able to do little more than provide power for the packs that powered the non-unlight arcwands, which was still desperately needed.
Tythel giggled as Ossman rolled his eyes. A couple years older than Armin, Ossman looked much more mature, owing to his size – one of the few people here who stood well above Tythel, she only came up to his chest. He was broad enough to match it too, nearly half again as wide at the shoulders as he was tall. From the village of Corcliff, Ossman’s skin was a pale blue, almost like ice, and shaved his head down to stubble. His beard, however, was a brilliant shade of orange. “Armin. You know her highness only laughs out of pity, yes? Your jokes are as stale as the bread we had last night, and you are twice as dense.”
Before Tythel could open her mouth to object, especially given she had to choke back even more laughter at that, Eupheme spoke up, “And you, Ossman, think you can speak for a Princess? I’ve met cows with more sense for what royalty want than you.” Eupheme was actually from Hillsdale, and her hair was seafoam green and short, coming just down to her jawline. Her mother taught her the arts of the Umbrists, the now disbanded group of spies and assassins that had served the crown in times past. Tythel was uncertain if Eupheme planned on continuing that service, or just wanted to use her skills to fight the Alohym.
Ossman smirked at her. “I highly doubt that. How could a cow know what a royal wants?”
Eupheme turned to Tythel with a sly grin on her face. “Well, I’m sure her highness enjoys cheese, yes?”
Tythel gave an embarrassed shrug. “I’ve never actually had it?”
“Light and shadow!” Armin exclaimed, his eyes comically wide, “that is a travesty! Cheese is the greatest proof that the Light wishes us to be happy, until we are old enough to discover sex and ale!”
The other two frowned at the last line, but Tythel just shrugged again. “I’ve never had either of those either.”
Eupheme burst out into nervous giggles as Ossman clamped a massive hand over Armin’s mouth. “As is appropriate for royalty, your highness.”
“Of course,” Tythel said, although she knew she didn’t understand, not really. Thankfully Eupheme saved her from having to deflect any more by laughing so hard she almost fell off the stool.
After cooking came her time to study, a couple hours before exhaustion claimed her. She sat down with Karjon’s notes, her legs curled under her like she used to sit when he was pontificating on some topic or another.
Before opening the notes, she stared at his handwriting, and like she did every night, she started to talk quietly.
“Hey dad,” she said, imagining him perking up to hear her voice and giving her some happy blinks as she did. “So today was similar to yesterday. I’m learning some new things with Nicandros – including finally figuring out you were teaching me how to fight. Wish I could thank you for that. But I’m getting better at it!”
She could practically see him leaning in, tilting his head for her to go on.
“I’m able to block more of his attacks now, and Nicandros is basically one of the most dangerous warriors there is, so that’s something. We are going with the shield and hammer combo, it fits me well and means I can drop the hammer for flame without losing defense, which is good for not dying. I wish you could meet Nicandros, I think you’d like him. Things with Haradeth are going better – Lathariel came up and he didn’t start blaming me again, which was nice.”
Here she could see him letting forth a snort of annoyance with a little puff of flame. Karjon had never suffered fools well.
“Uh, so I think I’m making friends. It’s odd. Are friends people who mostly mock each other and then laugh about it? Because if that’s the definition, I definitely have made friends. I told you about them the other day, Antoi and Ossman and Eupheme? Well they were making fun of each other while we were doing the fish. I think they were making fun of me too. At least, I kind of hope they were.”
Tythel could feel the tears begin to well up in her eyes, and her nictitating membranes began to flash. “I miss you. I wish you were here! I have so many questions and…and even with all these people, I just feel so alone.”
She could imagine what Karjon would do here too as well. He’d reach out with his tail and pull her close against his scales, letting her feel his warmth the way he always did when she was sad or scared, letting her listen to the beat of his heart and hold her close until her tears dried away.
But he wasn’t here, and imagination was a poor substitute for reality. She dried her eyes and opened up the notebook to see Karjon’s neat handwriting in draconic. “The challenge of ghostflame is not, as one may assume, burning the soul. All flame does that to some degree, although with more mundane fires it is barely noticable. The challenge of ghostflame is making the heat only burn the soul, without harming anything else. The heat of it can then only burn its actual target, and in doing so…”
Tythel kept reading. She needed to know how Ghostflame worked. It might be the only weapon she could truly have against the Alohym. That alone would have been enough, but something else far stronger pushed her to learn it as soon as she could.
Ghostflame needed to be mastered before Heartfire could be learned. And Karjon’s notes had contained a very important detail: dragon eggs could endure almost forever, and would only hatched once they were heated in heartfire.
Tythel tried her best not to look at the gold egg that taunted her in her pack.
Once I learn heartfire…once I do, I can finally unlock your secrets.
It was longer than usual that night before she needed to put the book aside to sleep.