“Greetings, dragon and rider,” a melodious feminine voice called out. Hearing it, Duo shot up from his relaxed position on Wu Fei’s back and looked to the direction from where it had come. A girl he’d never seen before, dressed in clothing dissimilar from the peasant garb common in the Gerza Valley, stood by the opening in the hut’s wall, smiling up at him.
“Hello,” he answered back, wondering where she’d come from and why she was there.
“I’m Tiana,” the girl continued, introducing herself. “Would you come down here so we can talk?”
Duo was amazed that the stranger didn’t seem to be afraid of Wu Fei. Even the children in his village showed some fear of the growing black dragon. He’d heard the parents of the village telling their little ones that the black dragon ate naughty children, so their fear had been more or less instilled upon their innocent minds. He could feel Wu Fei’s curiosity but his dragon remained silent and watchful as he climbed down from his back.
As his feet hit the ground he straightened, and he realized that the girl was taller than he was; the top of his head reaching her eyebrows. She was without a cloak and her dress was cinched tightly at the waist, showing off the feminine curves of her body, telling him that she was more of a woman than a child. She appeared young, maybe just a couple of seasons older than himself, was slender and had a pretty face with delicate features that were framed by dark brown, almost black curls which danced about her shoulders. The darker color displayed her pale complexion and slightly pink cheeks to perfection.
“What’s your name?” she asked with a teasing smile.
Flirting wasn’t a behavior he received from the girls of his village and so her manner confused him. Still, he found her strangely warm and inviting. “Duo,” he replied, feeling a bit nervous as she stepped closer, almost touching him.
“What’s your dragon’s name?” Her voice was different, he thought, almost purring as she spoke.
“Wu Fei,” he answered, nearly choking on his dragon’s name.
“He’s rather frightening, being as black as night as he is, and from watching the way he taunted the wildebeasts, I can only assume he’s bad tempered.” Duo felt a bit unnerved that even as she spoke about the large dragon behind him, her eyes never strayed from his face.
“No, he’s not mean. Wu Fei was only playing with them. He finds their reactions humorous.”
“Dragons have a sense of humor?”
“I don’t know about other dragons, but mine enjoys whatever he believes is humorous, though it’s not necessarily something you or I would laugh about.”
The girl leaned forward until her nose was almost touching his own. “You’ve got beautiful eyes. How old are you?”
Duo leaned back a bit, unused to anyone standing so close. “Thirteen,” he answered.
“I’m fifteen,” she admitted proudly. “I should have married by now but I want something more than being a merchant or trader’s wife. Ever kiss a girl, Duo?”
The braided boy shook his head, eyes wide.
“I kissed my first boy when I was twelve Springs. Do you want me to kiss you?”
Duo licked his lips nervously. Of course he’d seen people kiss before. His village had several celebrations during the year: one at the beginning of the planting season and other celebrated the end of the harvesting. Young men and women sometimes got carried away with drink and song and playfully kissed each other while the younger ones took it all in. But he’d never been the one doing the kissing, just the watching. “I don’t know how,” he told her.
“I’ll be your guide,” she whispered and then suddenly her lips were on his, pressing against them and moving back and forth.
Duo wondered for a moment what was so great about kissing. He felt the girl’s arms go around his neck and she pressed her curvaceous body close to his own. He worried, with a little bit of panic, whether or not she’d let him breathe soon. When at last she pulled back, her cloudy expression gave the appearance that she hadn’t enjoyed the kiss either.
“When someone kisses you, you’re supposed to kiss back,” she unhappily informed him.
“How was I to know?” he asked, frowning back at her. “I told you I’d never done it before.”
She gave him a questioning look. “Why aren’t the girls in your village trying to kiss you? You’re pleasing enough to the eye, don’t you want to kiss and touch them?”
“Why would I?” He was getting confused.
“Because boys always want to. I usually have to push them off of me.” She thoughtfully studied him for a moment, then once again gave him that warm, alluring smile. Bringing her hand up to her shoulder, she took one finger and slowly ran it over the gathered front and down towards her bosom, then pulled the blouse down a bit, showing the swelling of her breasts.
“Don’t you want to touch it?” she asked in a breathy voice, a growing come-hither grin on her lips.
Duo eyes followed that finger, unable to look away. He wondered what it would feel like? Was it as soft as it looked? Without much thought, he found himself nodding his reply.
“Go on. I don’t mind,” the girl urged, shaking her dark hair back behind her shoulders so he could have full view of the part of her bosom that was exposed.
He thought it odd when she thrust her chest out, but quickly decided she wanted him to touch the proffered area. He carefully reached up to the neck of her dress and slipped his two fingers just under it, with his thumb on the outside of the fabric, and slowly brought them down, the pads of his fingers running over the soft cloth and stitched flowers, the other side sliding against smooth and warm flesh. After a moment, he removed his hand and gave the girl a shy smile.
“That’s very nice cloth. Soft to the touch. It must have been costly.”
The girl’s eyes widened for a scant moment and he couldn’t tell if she was angry or surprised.
“That’s all you wanted to touch? My dress?” she asked with shocked disbelief.
“We’ll maybe your skirt,” he replied, his eyes drifting down to the finely woven brown material.
“You peasants are all so slow and dim witted,” she spat out disgustedly, and he wondered what he’d done to make her angry. “You’re supposed to want to touch my bosoms,” she snapped angrily.
“And you want me to?”
She leaned in close yet again with a warning look in her eyes. “Yes, I do.”
Duo shrugged, not wanting to make the girl any more angry than she appeared to be. “Okay.”
His answer seemed to be what she was waiting as she closed the distance between them and placed her lips against his once more. He did his very best to follow her example, moving his lips against her and turning his head slightly to the side. A moment later his hands were grabbed and the girl pressed his palms against her rounded breasts. The material was soft, as was the mound beneath. He squeezed them gently, seeing that they fit perfectly in his hands. He wondered, after a moment, what else he was supposed to do with them.
“What in dragon’s breath is going on here?” Howard’s voice was sharp as it came from behind the girl, causing both young people to jump back from each other. Tiana turned to flee, but was easily caught by the arm by Howard. His eyes narrowed as he studied the girl and noted the fineness of her clothing and that she was a stranger to the village.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
“My name is Tiana.” The girl’s earlier bravado was now gone as she stood in the angry man’s clasp. “My father is Shael Gladstone of Rydell.”
Howard kept a hold of the girl as he turned to look at Duo. The boy wore a confused expression on his face.
“What were you doing, Duo?” He used the same firm voice with him as he had the girl.
“She asked me to kiss her and to touch her bosoms,” he answered honestly. “Was that wrong?”
Howard turned back to the girl, his expression disapproving. She had lost her flirtatious manner and was looking quite uncomfortable. “It was certainly wrong for this girl to ask you to do such a thing. She knows better, and when I see her father I’ll certainly inform him of her loose behavior.”
At last the girl had the decency to look fearful. “Please don’t tell my father,” she pleaded. “I didn’t mean any harm.”
“Go!” Howard released the girl’s arm and gave her a gentle push towards the outside of the hut. “And don’t let me find you behaving in such a manner again.”
The girl ran off, her dark hair bouncing on her shoulders. Howard turned to Duo, looking disappointed. He walked up to the boy and sighed, putting a hand on the slender shoulder. “I see it’s time we have a little talk.” The former hermit looked at the boy, studying his appearance. With his hair gathered and pulled back to his neck and secured with a leather tie, his large, stunning eyes were hard to ignore and a give away to his heritage, identical in shape and color to his father’s. With Shael coming to meet him in a short while, Howard knew the merchant would probably recognize the similarity and say something about it, even if he didn’t managed to figure out who the boy’s sire was. It was imperative that he do something to try and hide Duo’s most distinguishable features.
“Before we have our talk, I’d like you to loosen your hair from its tie. I want to try something.”
Duo gave his mentor a curious look, but quickly obeyed him. He stood unmoving as Howard combed the front of his hair forward, sectioned it, then took out his knife from the sheath affixed to his belt. Holding the sectioned forelock of hair straight up, he began to saw a portion of it off.
Duo kept his eyes closed, wincing now and then at the sharp pull at his scalp, until Howard finished cutting his hair. When he opened them, large strands of hair fell over his forehead and partially covered his eyes. Howard stood before him, a look of satisfaction on his face.
“Why did you do that?” Duo asked, rubbing his slightly sore scalp.
“I’ve been thinking of it for a while and, yes, it suits you.” Howard knew it was a lame excuse, but Duo was used to accepting his judgment in all things. He hoped it would work. “You look more grown up,” he added, knowing Duo desired that more and more lately. Putting his arm around the boy’s shoulders, he led him over to a work bench and they both sat down. “Now, I want you to tell me all that transpired between you and that girl.”
Howard listened as Duo told him everything from the moment the girl entered the hut. Of the girl kissing him, telling him he wasn’t doing it right, then giving him instructions on what to do. Howard sniggered when Duo demonstrated how the girl stuck her chest out so he could touch her neckline and his descriptions of how the soft material felt between his fingertips. He told the older man that until the girl said something, that he hadn’t realized she meant for him to touch her bosoms. “She said I was slow and dim witted because I didn’t know what to do,” Duo told his mentor, looking and sounding confused and a little hurt by the older girl’s comments.
“You’re neither, Duo,” Howard said with affection. “Your body is just a bit slower to mature. One day you will know what it is to desire someone, and you will want to show your affection for them in a physical way. Away from Hab’er, you will find many people who will be eager to win your affections merely because you hold a very prestigious position. Being a dragon rider is second in station only to being a member of the royal family. You must become wise, lad, in determining who you want to have as a partner in your life, and you’ll want them to choose you because of who you are inside...” Howard paused to put his finger over the place where the boy’s heart beat steady, “and not merely for the fact that you are a rider. Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you?”
The boy thought about Howard’s words for a moment, then nodded his head. “It’s like the people of the village. They now take better care of me because I’m a rider. Before Wu Fei, you were one of a small group who really cared about me simply because I was Duo.”
Howard patted the boy on the shoulder, pleased. “Trust your instincts, Duo. That girl wanted your attention because of what you are. She doesn’t know you at all but she was willing to share the more intimate parts of her body to get your attention, to have some part of your life or claim on you. You must beware of that type of person, for they care only for their own happiness, what you can do for them and not for your true feelings. When you go to Rydell or its sister city, Skeer, you’ll find that life is different there. There are men and women like that girl, too loose and free with their affections. Most dragon riders tend to avoid them and seek out ... companionship with each other, even affection, especially during the time before their dragons choose a mate.”
“Will Wu Fei have a mate?” Duo asked.
Howard looked over at the black dragon. “That is the hope of the rider’s guild and why his egg was brought here from the lands over the Osporin Sea,” he answered. “He will help to strengthen the blood lines of our dragons. And when he does mate, it will for life, and that’s another good reason not to be too free with your... affections. In most cases, your life mate will be the rider of the dragon that chooses Wu Fei.”
“Wu Fei doesn’t choose his mate?”
“Yes and no. When the female dragon goes into season, she attracts all unattached males. She almost always has an idea of who she wants and gives that male the advantage, but he still has to catch her before any other does.”
Duo frowned. “So I don’t have a say in who I want as a life mate? Another dragon who doesn’t know or care about me chooses?”
Howard could see the boy was troubled by the idea. “A female dragon rarely chooses a mate whose rider is not compatible with her own. Plus Wu Fei can accept or decline the female’s offer to mate. I think you can trust him to make a wise decision on your behalf. There’s no reason to worry overmuch about this now for young dragons don’t usually take a mate until their riders are old enough to also be mated, which is sixteen. You’ll have at least two years in the Halls to become acquainted with everyone and their dragon.”
Trust me to make that decision for us, Wu Fei said, having listened to their conversation. Your happiness is my happiness.
“I will trust Wu Fei,” the boy told his mentor, his manner serious.
The older man smiled and ruffled the newly cut hair. “Before you leave Ha’ber for Rydell, I’ll tell you more about the desires of a man for a companion so that you’ll not be totally ignorant when you walk the Halls of Dornan.”
There is a man approaching, Wu Fei reported, his head turning towards the direction from which the man was coming.
“Someone’s coming,” Duo told Howard, and together they looked to the open wall and waited.
Shael rounded the corner of the hut and stopped abruptly, gasping with surprise in getting his first sight of the black dragon. His eyes then shifted to the two males sitting on a bench on the other side of the hut. “There you are,” he said to Howard. Duo watched as Howard stood and rapidly moved to intercept the stranger and spoke to him in close conversation for several moments before the man turned and walked quickly out of the hut.
Howard watched with relief as the trader left in search of his wayward daughter. It was almost too good to be true that the girl had provided a way to distract her father away from the young dragon rider, for Shael had only a moment to give a cursory hello to the boy before he rushed away.
It wasn’t long before other traders came for a closer look at the dragon and his young rider, their curiosity being much too great to let their fear deprive them of a glimpse of the well talked about black dragon. Duo was gracious with their visitors, turning his eyes once in a while to search out Howard’s presence and silent reassurance as he conversed with them. All in all, Howard was pleased with the boy’s behavior, but he was relieved when the night finally came to an end. The village slowly quieted, with the traders retreating to various dwellings offered by the villagers for their rest.
After Duo had fallen asleep, tucked neatly into his bed, Howard silently left the dwelling for the hut behind it to have his nightly chat with the dragon. Of course, he couldn’t hear Wu Fei as Duo did, but he knew the dragon understood him. It was to the black dragon he told all his worries and fears for his young charge, trusting in the wisdom of the dragon to guide the naive lad.
As he entered the dragon’s shelter, a lantern in his hand to light the way, Wu Fei raised his head to acknowledge his entrance. The dragon’s dark eyes and black scales reflected the light of the lantern as Howard carried it across the space to place it on the work bench against the right wall.
“Well, that was an interesting evening, wasn’t it?” The dragon set his head back down but the dark eyes remained open, indicating he was listening. “I was remiss in not preparing the boy for the wiles practiced by some young women. Even though his life in Ha’ber hasn’t been ideal, the people here live to a higher standard of conduct than those who live within the larger cities.”
He walked over to the dragon and absently stroked the leathery skin along the bridge of his nose. Wu Fei’s hide was beginning to harden, evolving into nearly impenetrable scales that would shield him like chain mail protected a soldier. The steady movement of his hand caused the dragon to close his eyes and purr with contentment. “You’ll need to guard him from people like that girl, who will want him only for his standing as a rider. He deserves love, Wu Fei. I too will rely on you to choose wisely for him. Your wisdom and protection will be needed when the truth of his parentage comes out. No doubt he’ll be angry with me for withholding it from him, and he will turn to you for guidance when that time comes.”
One jeweled eye opened and Howard could read the question in it. “Why not tell him now?” he guessed. “Because he probably wouldn’t believe me. Or maybe it’s just selfishness on my part to keep him unspoiled and untainted. He’s innocent in so many ways and ignorant as well.” He paused a moment, phrasing in his mind his real concern before expressing it to the boy’s dragon. “I suppose I’m afraid he’ll never forgive me when he finds out all that I’ve hidden from him. I don’t look forward to his anger or the hurt he’s bound to feel once he knows. I’ll no doubt lose that look of respect and admiration in his eyes that I seemed to have earned from him.”
Absently patting the snout of the dragon, Howard thought of the past nights that he’d spent with Wu Fei, telling him of Rydell, of the Halls of Dornan. Even though the black dragon had never been anywhere other than the Valley of Gerza, nor flown farther than Gambia’s Claw, he was at least familiar now -- a result of their nightly talks -- of that far away place where he and Duo would fly to next spring. The former hermit of Ha’ber was determined that neither boy nor dragon would be totally ignorant of their new home when they arrived as the newest members of the rider’s guild. Feeling he’d said enough for one evening, he gave the dragon one last pat. “Sleep well, Wu Fei,” he said, then went to retrieve his lantern and make for his bed.
Winter came late that year and lingered well into Spring. The planting of the fields was delayed until the rains eased off, giving Duo and Wu Fei more time to linger amongst the familiar.
It was on one of the warmest mornings they had experienced in a long time that Howard inspected the black dragon. He measured the thickness of the ligaments in his wings, making sure they were dense enough to carry the extra weight of his rider.
Duo had been riding on the dragon’s back for a year as the two wandered the flat valley and nearby hills on foot after Duo’s daily chores had been completed. Getting used to balancing on the back of the dragon was an important step towards preparing the two to fly together, as was Wu Fei’s getting used to having a person sitting on his back. Duo stood nearby and watched Howard intently as he studied Wu Fei, and when he saw the older man look up and smile at him, the boy knew that he and his dragon were about to experience their first moments of flying together.
Wu Fei was visibly excited, his taloned feet shifted, his tail twitched and his eyes glittered darkly with anticipation as Howard finished his inspection.
Duo moved stiffly to stand in front of his dragon, whose eyes were shifting back and forth between his rider and the older man. Although the both of them had been looking forward to this day for a long time, the dragon could sense the boy’s fear, that it was growing by leaps and bounds now that the moment had finally come when they could take to the sky together and chase the floating clouds.
What if I fall off? Duo asked, fear evident in his mental voice.
I won’t let you.
You won’t go too high at first, will you?
Not too high.
The nervous questions and reassuring answers continued as both boy and dragon watched Howard secure a rope over and around Wu Fei’s shoulders and tied the two ends securely beneath his belly. When he finished, he patted the dragon’s flank and turned to the suddenly timid-looking boy.
“Ready?” Howard asked.
Duo nodded and woodenly moved towards him as Wufei lowered himself closer to the ground so his rider could climb on his back.
With a reassuring smile from Howard, Duo swallowed the worry-knot in his throat and used his dragon’s forearm to climb up to his shoulders and straddle his neck. Howard then instructed him on how to wrap his feet around the rope and to hold on tightly, especially when Wu Fei launched himself up into the air. Duo listened to his mentor, following his directions with his face pinched with worry. His usual smile had deserted his face.
“Don’t go too far or for a long period of time, Wu Fei,” Howard cautioned the dragon, whose tail was stirring up clouds of dirt as it moved back and forth on the ground as his anticipation grew. “Until we have a proper seat and straps for Duo, your time in the sky should be kept short, for your rider’s sake. Your scales are sharp and are wearing on human flesh.”
“He wants to know if we can go now,” Duo said, his face grim and pale as he gripped the rope tightly in his hands.
Howard chuckled and stepped back. “Go, and have fun.” Wu Fei immediately rose and began to move away from him and towards the open field with Duo sitting rigidly on his back. When the dragon cleared the buildings, he took three fast, large and jarring steps before extending his wings. He leapt into the air on the fourth step and began beating his wings.
Duo held tightly to the rope, fighting the urge to close his eyes as he clutched at the only thing holding him on the dragon’s back and from certain death. Like his first time flying on Rayer, his breath caught in his throat, or maybe it was his stomach, as they began to climb upward. Beneath his thighs he could feel his dragon’s powerful muscles working as well as the rough scales already chaffing the skin beneath his clothing. His heart felt as if it would burst it was beating so frantically in his chest when, with each flap of Wu Fei’s wings, they rose ever higher into the sky.
Relax yourself. This is most enjoyable, Wu Fei told him, his own feeling of joy coming through their connection.
Duo had been staring down the length of Wu Fei’s long neck to the back of his head, watching it as it bobbed up and down, countering the motion of his wings as they gained distance from the ground.
Look at the village below, Wu Fei urged his rider. See how small everything is, the dwellings and people.
Duo tried, he really did try to look, but found himself frozen with fear. He bent over and put his forehead against the scales of his dragon’s strong neck and closed his eyes to fight back the rising fear welling up inside him.
Open your eyes, the black dragon said firmly.
I can’t, Duo cried out. Take me down. Take me down now!
Please, Wu Fei. I’m scared.
And that is why I cannot do as you ask, the dragon said calmly yet firmly. You are my rider. You must overcome your fears and meet your destiny and mine as well. Sit up and let the wind blow in your face, then open your eyes and look at the beauty that surrounds you.
Duo tried to comply, but his fear was a formidable thing to overcome. He did manage to raise his head from off the cool scales, but he remained hunched over the rope, now wearing at the palms of his hands. The dragon’s body tilted slightly as he banked to the right and Duo’s body instinctively leaned towards the opposite direction.
Lean into the direction of the turn, Wu Fei instructed.
I’ll fall off.
No you won’t. It makes it easier for me if you place your weight in the direction of the turn. Lean into it, not against.
Then don’t turn, Duo mentally shouted.
Open your eyes. Duo winced in hearing his dragon’s patience wearing thin.
As soon as he sensed Wu Fei had straightened, Duo opened one eye and then the other, still looking at the back of his dragon’s head.
Look, the dragon commanded sternly.
And so Duo tilted his head, just enough to see the ground below him, far below him. We’re too high, he said panicking. Howard said not to go this high.
Look out, not straight down, Wu Fei told him.
Looking to the side, Duo did as he was told and was surprised to find they were sailing past the top of the mountains. There was snow still resting on the highest peaks and the land beneath it was brown yet showing faint signs of green as spring began to burst through, refusing to be held back any longer by winter’s stubbornness to yield.
Though his grip remained firm on the rope, the tension in Duo’s shoulders eased slightly. Wufei then descended a bit, holding his wings out straight and smoothly gliding down towards the valley below. Duo’s breath hitched in his throat, and for the moment he found it hard to breathe as the wind increased and took his breath away. Gradually, he managed to take in some air and he slowly lowered his eyes to glimpse the valley below him.
Woldebeasts, Wu Fei announced and tilted slightly into a gentle turn, his wings folding slightly as the ground began to rise up to meet them. Duo hadn’t seen the herd of animals when Wu Fei announced their presence, but as the large black wings began to move again, he caught a glimpse of them to his right. The herd was running in a frenzy, their eyes wide with terror as they tried to escape the looming dragon.
They were much closer to the ground now, and for the first time since he’d taken flight with Wu Fei, Duo felt a shiver of excitement ripple up his spine. Can you go over Ha’ber again? Maybe a little bit lower this time, he asked, a smile beginning to grow as he began to relax and enjoy the ride.
Wufei began to climb again, moving higher into the sky in order to turn safely. Hold on , he warned a moment before he made his move. The suddenness of the turn surprised the boy, even with the warning. It was as if Wu Fei had planted his wing on a solid cloud and flipped over to go in the opposite direction.
“Oh!” Duo gasped, wide eyed.
A pleased sensation came from the dragon. Wu Fei was obviously very pleased to at long last be flying with his rider.
A few moments later the two were gliding over the village, low enough for Duo to see the villagers pause from their work to look up at him with expressions of surprise and delight on their faces. Many of them waved their arms and followed their path as they passed overhead. Duo didn’t wave back; his hands were still gripping the rope with all his might.
They stayed in the air, flying over the white capped Gabria Mountains tops and the lushly green Gerza Valley, until Wu Fei was certain his rider was over his initial fear. By mutual agreement they landed in the meadow just outside the village. Wu Fei walked back to his hut, strutting with pride, and Howard would say later that his rider was beaming with an unforgettable smile of happiness from atop his dragon’s back.
Howard and many of the villagers ran out to greet them with smiles and cheers of congratulations. Later, in the privacy of their dwelling, the boy’s mentor happily listened to Duo’s retelling of his first flying adventure as he bandaged the boy’s blistered hands. The sores alone spoke to the man of Duo’s initial fear, which was to be expected. He’d known some young riders who’d panicked, even passing out or becoming ill on the back of their dragon in reaction to the unnatural distance from the ground on their initial flights. From the boy’s excited chatter and the brightness in his eyes, Howard could see that any fear Duo experienced had been conquered.
After Duo had calmed down enough to eat his lunch, Howard found a chance to speak privately to him about an upcoming matter. “Now that the weather has warmed, we can expect Garron to arrive soon.”
Duo looked up from his plate with a hint of worry in his eyes. This was a time they’d talked about and looked forward to, but it meant so many changes, unknowns, and worst of all, leaving Howard and the familiar behind. He held his fears inside while Howard continued speaking.
“I asked him to bring a proper seat and straps for Wu Fei so that your ride to Rydell will be more comfortable. He and Rayer will guide you to the Halls of Dornan where you will receive a proper education amongst other riders, your peers. There are things I need to tell you in preparation for your stay there.”
Duo remained silent as he listened to every word his mentor spoke. His bandaged hand remained in place, holding a piece of bread with a slice of cheese resting on it, half way to his mouth. “Continue eating while I speak to you,” Howard said, looking pointedly at the raised hand. Duo grinned and finished bringing his meal to his mouth and continued to eat.
“As I told you before, the Halls of Dornan are set high above the city of Rydell and is carved out of the mountainside. It’s tiered with the younger dragons housed at the bottom lair with the older, more respected and experienced dragons resting above. The dragons’ lairs are naturally on the outside of the structure, their rider’s quarters are adjacent to it, with only a door separating the two resting places, giving you an easy access to Wu Fei.
“There is a hierarchy within the Halls. Respect is always given the more experienced riders, which is basically everyone other than yourself. You will be considered a fledgling, a beginner. It is not uncommon for the youngest dragon riders and newest arrivals at the halls to be the brunt of jokes or mischievous pranks. Do not take them personally. If they go too far, you must inform your mentor. At no time should yours nor Wu Fei’s welfare be compromised.”
Duo nodded again that he understood. Being the brunt of other people’s jokes was something he’d been used to. He decided to hide the fact that he was feeling anxious about going to a strange place far away from all that was familiar to him.
Howard smiled at the boy, belying his own nervousness at the subject he knew needed to be addressed. “It’s time I spoke to you of relations between a man and a woman.” Both the boy and the man’s face blushed at the subject as Howard began to explain the sexual act between male and female bodies and explaining it was by this means that babies were planted in the woman’s womb.
After taking a long drink from his mug of ale, Howard prepared himself for the next sensitive topic. “As I told you before,” he began. “The riders tend to seek out relationships within their own ranks. You’ll notice immediately that there are very few female riders. It would seem logical that a female dragon choose a female rider the time when she takes a mate. But the dragon’s reasoning for whom they choose is uncertain. When asked, they’ll answer that they just knew that a certain child was destined to be their rider. A good number of female dragons have chosen male riders.”
Duo scratched the top of his head, messing up the fringe of hair in front that Howard insisted he keep, trying to figure out what it was that Howard had just said to him. “Then what happens to a male rider when his female dragon chooses a mate?” he asked, his head tilted to the side in a questioning pose.
“You have to understand that the dragons have emotions and a drive to mate that equals or surpasses that of man,” Howard explained, pushing his plate aside. “Their desire to mate is a natural instinct, a female dragon chooses her mate as mysteriously as they choose their rider. Their mating is emotional and overpowering and those feelings are transmitted to their riders, who take on a life mate as well.”
Duo’s forehead pinched together. “That hardly seems fair. How are two males suppose to mate if they have the same parts?”
Howard took a deep breath and let it out slowly, his cheeks beginning to color once again as he dutifully informed the boy under his care on how two men would mate. To his great relief, Duo took the information for what it was, and pretty much grouped it together with what he’d been told earlier about how to copulate with a woman.
“Anything else I need to know?” the boy asked.
“Just my personal advice,” Howard said with a relieved smile that soon turned serious once more. “Once your desires for others awaken, be cautious and selective. Do not give your affections too freely, but only to those you are drawn to or trust implicitly. It has been my personal rule to be intimate with only one person at a time, and to be faithful to that person, not straying in thought nor sharing your affections with another. I want you to remember, Duo, that to share your body fully is something very special and personal. In doing so, it leaves you open to love, which is a powerful emotion. But to fall in love with someone who is not your chosen mate can only lead to heartache for yourself and future mate, which also brings sorrow to the dragons. It’s my personal opinion that it is better to not give yourself fully to another until the time comes when Wu Fei is chosen to be a mate by one of the female dragons.”
Duo studied his mentor as he spoke to him, and the boy could sense a sadness within the man, as if he’d come to his conclusions the hard way, by his own experience. “Have you ever been in love, Howard?” he asked.
“Yes, I have,” the man answered with a sigh. “But it wasn’t meant to be for my love was chosen for another.”
“Have you always been alone, like me?”
Howard reached out his hand to clasp the boy’s forearm, resting on the table. “No, of course not.” He gave the boy a soft, comforting smile to back up his answer. “I had parents and two sisters. They have children which makes me a proud uncle, though it’s been many years since I’ve seen them. And I’ve also had many close friends and enjoyed a few lovers, so no, I haven’t always been alone - and neither have you. You have a whole village as your family, Duo, and me. You’ve never really been alone.”
The boy shook his head. “I can count on one hand how many people care about me for who I am, and not what I am.”
Despite the sadness coming from the boy, Howard smiled. Duo had taken to heart his words, spoken on the night Shael’s daughter had kissed him. Duo continued speaking. “Only you, Howard, truly cared enough about me to become my guardian when Garron insisted I have one. If I could have chosen anyone as a father, it would have been you.”
The room blurred as the older man roughly brushed at the moisture that threatened to spill over his eyes. “And if I were ever to choose a son, Duo, I could never have found a better boy than you.”
It was near evening five days later that Wu Fei informed Duo that Rayer and his rider were approaching. Their time in Ha’ber was coming to an end.
Note: I know you’re anxious for the other guys to show up, and they
will, in the next few chapters. I'm going on vacation, so I'll probably not
update for 21/2 weeks. Sorry!