Chapter Nine

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Orven took the torch from the bearer's hand with a solemn nod. Wind tore at the flame as he walked slowly along the wall, toward the funeral pyre that now held his uncle.

In the streets far below, Svard was singing. Their voices blessed the mountain mist that would soon welcome their beloved king. Their words spoke of his valor, his kindness and wisdom. They entreated the flames to devour his mortal shell entirely, so that even his bones would be borne aloft and taken into the arms of the sky, where his spirit could enter the Myriad and be born again in a new story of his choosing.

Orven paused before the pyre, torch held just out of reach of the stacked kindling. He glanced to his right, across the city, over its slanted gray rooftops to the castle, and one window in particular.

A flash of gold told him that his cousin was there, watching. Perhaps leaning just a little too far out her window...

It occurred to Orven that it would be quite fitting and rather convenient for her to fall at this moment. But he knew better than to hope. Ygrael wouldn't kill herself, either by accident or intent. She was too stubborn, too clever and far too vexing for that. If she had any purpose in existing whatsoever, it was to make his life's work more difficult. Already, her meddling had delayed him two whole years...

Orven sighed. If you wanted something done, you had to do it yourself.

Perhaps I'll pay her a visit tomorrow morning.

Focusing once more on the task at hand, Orven bowed his head in reverence and touched the guttering flame to the waiting pyre. The dry wood was hungry for the flames, eager to be devoured. In moments, the structure of beams and twigs was set ablaze.

Orven stepped back quickly and returned the torch to the bearer. The ferocity of the blaze made his face and hands uncomfortably warm.

This really was an inefficient and rather dangerous form of antiquated burial. An oven and a tidy little box would be much more manageable. The ashes could be dumped somewhere afterward. All this fuss over a corpse was tiresome. A waste of time and good wood, really.

But the people expected it, and it was yet only days since Karth's death. There was a time for change, and a time for compromise. Concession to these obsolete dregs of the old system was necessary to usher in the new age. Orven understood this. He was an intelligent young man.

So, in the spirit of patient compromise, he turned to the people crowding the streets below and spread his arms, as if to embrace them. The wind plucked at his shaggy black hair and tugged the seams of his clothes.

"People of Svard!" he cried. "Your beloved king is welcomed into the arms of the sky! Soon, he will—"

His speech was interrupted by an bone-shaking roar. It rode the wind like thunder, and made the stones shudder beneath Orven's feet.

He turned, and saw dragons. They were flying in formation, slicing through the mist toward Svard. The golden hide of their king shone in the morning sun.

Orven's heart froze in his chest.

No. No, the war is over. Guin fixed everything. This can't...

With speed and grace that seemed to vye with their enormous size, the beasts arched their necks and soared upward, breaking formation to wheel through the sky. After a moment, Orven realized they weren't attacking. They were... dancing?

With screams and roars and strange, nearly musical whistling sounds, the dragons circled and whirled, their bodies snaking through the clouds. Yes, they were dancing, after a fashion.

But why? Is it—in honor of Karth? Yes, it would seem so. The king of the dragons has come to pay his respects.

Orven stood and stared, transfixed.

The dragon king wheeled higher and higher, until he met the sun. At the zenith of his ascent, he let loose a torrent of flame that arced through the sky and exploded into a shower of sparks. For a moment, it seemed that the sun wept. The king spun and descended once more, until he rejoined his kindred. Then, as swiftly as they'd appeared, the beasts halted their wild dance and directing their flight back toward Shard Mountain.

For a long time, nobody spoke. They were unable.

Finally, Orven cleared his throat. "Erm. Well. There you have it!" he called, attempting to draw the crowd's attention back to him. "The noble beasts of Shard Mountain have taken it upon themselves to honor our beloved king—um, we should, er, rejoice at this, this most fortuitous show of support!"

Orven's words echoed across the vast silence the dragons had left in their wake. Nobody seemed to really be listening. His voice sounded flat an ineffectual, even to his own ears.

He grimaced. Well, he supposed there wasn't much to be done now. He'd lost the stage to a pack of entitled flying lizards.

Once more, his eyes strayed to the distant prospect of Ygrael's window. He wondered, briefly, what she'd thought of that ill-timed display. He hoped it had frightened her.

And if not, well... she would know fear soon enough. It was a lesson she sorely needed to learn. Pity it would come too late.

In the meantime, he had certain urgent matters to arrange. 

Orven squared his shoulders, turned his back on the blazing pyre and walked resolutely across the wall toward the nearest ladder hatch. As he did so, he strode past Varyn, the torchbearer, the healers. He spared each a glance and a nod, as was befitting their station. They nodded back, though none met his gaze—all except Varyn, whose eyes seemed almost searching.

Orven frowned, but didn't let his thoughts linger on her. No sense bothering himself over the woman. Just another dreg of the old system. Varyn would be dealt with soon enough. They all would.

Behind him, Karth's body continued to burn. Ash drifted, caught up and carried away by the wind as the last echoes of dragonsong faded into the foggy breath of the mountains.

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