Chapter 16 (3rd of Vashi in the year 6199)

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As darkness and death sails to the west, light and hope shall sail to the east.

A Forturne Not In Our Time by Pa Ced

From dragonback, Cassandra witnessed the billowing clouds of black emanating from one of the newly christened Dragon Ships. As the wide, mastless vessel sat in the harbor, a rhythmic, repetitive, and thudding chunk pumped through the air on regular intervals. The sound reverberated in her chest as much as it was heard with her ears. It grew stronger as she circled lower and lower, preparing for landing. Each time it occurred, the soot puffed thicker and then relaxed a bit until the next cycle.

Two more of the ships still sat in dry dock, fully equipped with their paddle wheels and towering smokestacks. Deran's latest message indicated that the second and third vessels were ready for launch. His note had been short and matter of fact, not the romantic narrative that she had grown used to receiving from him. But Cassandra took that as stemming more from the urgency and importance of the progress and her needed return than anything else.

She couldn't wait to regain footing on solid ground. While traveling by dragon was expeditious, the course wind on her face from the speed with which the beasts flew had stung Cassandra's cheeks to what she imagined was a vicious red. And the special saddles that strapped over a rider's legs and around her waist were tight and uncomfortable. She understood the need for them from a standpoint of safety, not wanting riders to fall off the creatures and hundreds of feet to their deaths, but she could never get used to being belted into them.

That unease translated into Cassandra forcing her mount down a little faster than it wanted to. Despite the resistance it put up against her requests, emphasized by how she pulled on and manipulated the reigns, the beast with scales of rusty red relented to her control. Both rider and dragon were on the ground in short order, although not in the designated landing area set aside for such.

Cassandra couldn't have cared less. She finished unbuckling her harness, allowing some nearby workers... maybe soldiers, she didn't know... to handle the problem of an ill-tempered dragon that undoubtedly only wanted some food after making the flight from Roatsburg. A trip that tested its range and endurance and probably exceeded both.

Marching her way along the suspended wooden platforms cantilevered above one of the soon to be launched Dragon Ships, Cassandra sought the main building overlooking the shipyard where she assumed Deran would be. Every time she passed a group of soldiers they stopped and snapped to attention, even as she ignored them.

The air had a thick, sulfur smell from the oil-laden coal burned as fuel in the furnaces used for making steel and the boilers Cabbat had designed to power the ships. Black, snow like flakes covered much of the planks and were ground into the wood.

At her destination, she stopped before entering and fidgeted with everything from the fit of her armor to the lay of her hair. Punctuating her preparations with a sigh, she opened the door and entered. Both Deran and Cabbat where there, reviewing full-sized plans spread out on the large, centrally located table.

With a wide smile plastered across her face, Cassandra couldn't help but let her enthusiasm fade when only Cabbat looked up and acknowledged her. The dwarf elbowed Deran in the ribs, as her love was too intent on what he was studying to apparently notice.

"Ow. What-" He glanced up and blinked once, then seemed to recognize Cassandra.

Although he smiled back, it was not as warm as she had hoped for, prompting Cassandra to chide him. "What? Didn't miss me that much?"

Deran shook his head, forcing his expression to take on a softer, more welcoming appearance. He stood up straight and went to her, his arms out. "I'm sorry, darling. I've just had a lot on my mind." He embraced her and kissed her softly, first on the cheek, and then the lips.

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