Rell shouldered the heavy door open and let Ariella into the tower before closing it as quietly as he could. The walk from the inn had sobered him up somewhat but a chill had crept into his bones. Ariella had followed Rell in brooding silence, the joy of the fight leaving her and a listless state taking its place.
“This tower’s a wreck.” Ariella's words caused a flutter of feathers somewhere up on the rafters. The central shaft was a series of thick black beams that jutted out and a rickety staircase spiralling up with doorways leading to each floor. "Are you sure it's not going to collapse?"
“Hang on I left a lamp around here somewhere,” Rell said shuffling around in the shadows. He let out a small cheer and worked the lever, pumping it until metal rasped and a small flame leapt to life. Rell’s grinning face was lit up as he turned up the flame, and Ariella let out a laugh.
“Is this where you slink off to when you're supposed to be working?”
“I don't slink, I pretty much just walk off. Say I'm on a delivery and happily stroll out of the shop. I live here most of the time. I raid the kitchen at the house, but I like it here, the family doesn't know about it.”
“You moved out, when?”
“Shortly after you left. It wasn't the same and the kids were a nuisance.”
“I didn't think, I just assumed you were still there.”
“It doesn't matter, I like it here, it's quiet.” It was warm in the tower, heated by gurgling pipes that carried water from deep below the foundations to circulate around the central axis and into the rooms. Superheated chambers sat just below the surface of most of the city and ancient plumbing gave some of the buildings enough heat to do without fires. Rell had spent some time repairing the one in this tower and had managed to unblock it, much to the delight of the tower’s other occupants.
“We’ve really got to find you a wife. It's not healthy you spending this much time on your own.”
“Come on I want you to see something. Stick to the wall, some of these steps are a bit wobbly. I've tried patching some of them up, but I ran out of nails.”
“You’re a carpenter now?”
“I was until Barris caught me stealing nails from his forge. Made me return the hammer.”
Rell led the way, shining the lamp around so Ariella could get a good look at the decrepit building. Large rooms led off the hall, a kitchen and servants’ area at the rear and reception rooms that looked onto the courtyard out front. The tower was on the edge of the city and not far from where they'd grown up. At first, when Rell had altered course and gone past the pub, she’d thought he was taking her back to their old home, but this was somewhere new to her.
The floor was rotten in places and weeds grew near the empty window frames. Anything of use had been stripped away and what remained was crumbling but the black stone was solid and would stand for a hundred years. The wood was another matter though and needed replacing. Rell paused on the stairs and nodded for Ariella to follow him.
They passed derelict rooms as they climbed higher, creatures moved out of sight, scurrying for the hiding places.
“There's someone here,” Ariella said touching the knife at her waist. Rell turned the torch just in time to see an elderly woman duck out of sight.
“It's just me, Camille. I brought my sister to show her the view,” Rell said softly.
A mass of grey hair poked around the door frame and Rell tilted the lamp, so that the light fell away from her. Old eyes set in a wrinkled face stared out from the doorway.
“She lives here?” Ariella asked in unconcealed disgust.
“She doesn't have anywhere else to go.” Rell descended a few steps until he was on the landing outside Camille's door. He reached inside his coat and pulled out a paper parcel and set it on the floor. “There’s a sausage, an apple and a bit of cheese. It’s a bit random I'm afraid but it was what I could snag on my way out of the inn.”
There was a muffled sound from behind the door frame and Camille slipped from sight. Rell jogged back up the steps and carried on his way.
“I saw you pocketing your food at the pub. I wondered what you were up to,” Ariella said as they climbed higher.
“She doesn't have much, just her and her cats.”
“It occurs to me, Rell, that I haven't seen that much of you the past year.”
“You’ve been busy. I’ve had things to do.”
“Like making friends with strange homeless people?”
“She’s not homeless, she lives here. Come on we’re almost there.” Rell climbed faster until they reached the apex of the tower and a small landing with two doors and a narrow staircase that jutted out over the internal void. Rell turned the lantern flame down and set it by the bannister before taking the stairs.
The air grew colder, and the wind whistled under the broken tiles of a round peaked roof. Rell stepped aside to make room for Ariella to come up. It was a small space set under the pinnacle of the tower with a pointed roof that vanished into the darkness above them. A rickety table littered with green bottles sat next to a worn chair. There was something vaguely familiar about both items and Ariella imagined her brother sneaking them out of the family home and carrying them through the streets.
“So, this is your haunt. A bit windy,” Arielle said but when she saw Rell nod from the side of the attic’s only window she came to have a look.
She gasped at the view across the city, but it was the clear view of the Dragon Eyrie that caught her breath. She could see directly into the upper deck and the nests of the royal dragons. An enormous fire must have been lit at the base because the inside was lit up in a warm orange glow.
“That red one, that's Argen the great and the blue mottled is its mate Mozro. Rell, this is amazing.” Ariella's eyes shone as she leaned out over the lintel ignoring the long drop to the city below. Suddenly the air was full of the beating of wings and they both looked up in time to see the underside of a dragon as it flew over the tower, the stomach was a light brown and the wings stretched out to at least fifty feet in span. The long neck swung low as it angled itself to line up with the eyrie. Rell looked at his sister's face and saw a tear form in the corner of her eye. She left it there unable to take her eyes from the dragon as it dipped lower than the tower, its long-barbed tail coming close enough to almost touch. A rider, clad in leather padded against the cold, sat upon a high-backed saddle just before the wings. They hunched forward and ran a gloved hand over the dragon's neck and the creature flared its wings displaying to its siblings in the eyrie the markings on its underside, dark brown ribbons mirrored on each wing with bands of gold that shimmered in the night. Ariella gasped and gripped the windowsill tightly, her leather gloves creaking across her knuckles. The dragon flapped its wings and slowed before landing on a platform in front of an open arch. The beast shook itself and the rider wobbled from side to side before ducking low as they passed inside.
Rell let the silence linger, his sister unwilling to tear her gaze from the tower and the dragons within. He sat down heavily in his chair and pulled his thick woollen coat around him, making sure to cover his legs. Once settled he withdrew a flask from a deep pocket and took a long swig.
“I saw you take your first flight.”
“You saw that?” Ariella asked turning at her brother’s words.
“You were flying little lemon. At the back but from what I saw you were the best rider out there, except for the instructor of course.”
“Little lemon?” Ariella asked incredulously.
“It was small and had a stomach like a lemon, I didn't think it could fly as fast as the others, but you got it too.”
“Rell, it’s a predator, a perfect hunter, you can’t call it little lemon.”
“Well snuggles was already taken and golden arse, that one that just flew over, doesn't mind its name.”
Ariella laughed and snatched the flask away. Rell pouted and sank deeper into his coat.
“You're an idiot.” She took a deep swig. “I was the best out there. I aced every one of their tests, but the bastards still wouldn't let me in.”
“The family curse.”
“I used to think that was nonsense, but now… To the pits with them. If they won't let me do what I was born to do then I’ll just have to go around them.”
“You going to form your own dragon club? They don't just grow on trees you know. The eggs and little ones are locked away in Orphin's Breach and guarded by an army of bald monks.” Rell closed his eyes and stifled a yawn. “I think Aunt Esmay would realise if you kept one under your bed.”
Ariella ignored her brother and took a spot by the window where she could drink and watch the dragons.
Rell sat quietly for as long as he could before the cold started to get to him.
“Let's go to the pub. I'm freezing and hungry and thirsty.” Rell stood up and smoothed his coat out pulling the collar tight around his skinny neck. When Ariella turned back to the room it was with a look that unnerved him. It was a look that portended trouble, usually involving him. A look that had got him innumerable beatings but also a fair bit of fun. “What?”
“Nothing, come on, I'm buying.” Ariella thrust the flask into Rell’s hand before skipping down the stairs.
“I know it’s not nothing. I'm not a kid anymore that you can bully into one of your hair-brained schemes.” Rell took a drink before pocketing the flask and running after his older sister.