Astra: Chapter One

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A Long Dragon was missing.

This one had so many enemies it was hardly a surprise, but it was the only thing anyone was talking about. I milled between campfires, listening.  "If it could happen to Raptor, it could happen to any of us," Gob soldiers said;  “The men grow bold.”

I walked the shell paths to the Grands' quarters.  In the second tent I recognized the fattest shadow a Phyrnosian ever cast, shuffling towards the shadow of a sling.  It was Abtin, second Long of the Grand Dragon Eriphet.  

"It's just a trade gone sour," he said. He slid into his sling, chewing on a dead Uquelycra. Abtin was always eating. His ass waxed large as the moons over Phyrnos.  

A second shadow paced before him.  If you were smart, you prayed that shadow never crossed yours in anger. Or at all.  Eriphet was the most unpredictable of all the Dragons on Phyrnos.  His shadow was the last thing too many Phyrnosians had ever seen.   

His voice was low.  “Longs do not disappear,” he said.

Abtin shrugged. “This one did.”

“Very cavalier, considering he was your counter-point, Abtin."

Raptor had been first Long.  Abtin laughed. "Like I said, good riddance."

"Mm," Eriphet said.”  He threw open the tent. “Dai Lumen!” he said. “We’ve been expecting you.”

Dai Lumen.  That’s me.   “At your service, my lord.”  

He nodded, gesturing for me to enter.

Abtin gave me a waxy grin. "Your reputation precedes you," he said. He took a bite from the Uquelycra and then rooted through it, looking for its choicest guts.  Veins and gristle winked between his long, yellowed teeth.  "We were impressed with your work on Maiden," he said.  

"Your stench preceded you as well," Eriphet observed.

I observed that, even in the rosy glow of the lamps, the skin of the Grand Dragon looked cold and white, as if he were ill or old.  But his eyes burned hot.

"Where is your pride, Lumen?  No Phyrnosian should wear such a stinking thing." he said.  “That hat.”

My hat.  I liked the way it hid my face. I liked the way its red silk tassels contrasted with its strange, silky black fur. It was a human’s hat and unlike anything on Phyrnos. I took it off and looked at it.  

"It suits me," I said.

"Quixotism will be the death of you, as it was for Raptor."

"Raptor is dead? Who could kill Raptor? He was-"

"The skin-bags," he said, his breath hot and sharp in my face. "They are a sickness that shames us, Dai. A pestilence. And we become more weak and pathetic the longer we tolerate them. They've shown us they are no longer afraid. We must cut them back. Tomorrow we send a message.  It’s why I’ve called you here.  I want you with us, Dai."

I paused.  I didn't know how to fight.  But his stare could melt teeth.  "You know the humans," he said.  I felt a flutter of pleasure in spite of myself.  “I need you.”  He showed his teeth.  “We’re moving out in the morning,” Eriphet said.

"To where?" I said.

"Maiden,” Eriphet said. He skittered his claw blades together.  Sand Maiden was a city-ship located on the outer lip of the Oup-Hind system.  Now and again Phyrnosians would get excited and talk about razing the place.  No one had yet, for the simple reason that the skin bags had interesting things to trade.  Their Evoks had given us the idea for Voks.  They had quality zuu.  Not that I was a sympathizer-just an opportunist.  Maiden always had one opportunity or another.

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