Rejected by the Guild of Court Mages, Saturion begrudgingly joins the Jesters' Society and is assigned to serve as a "morale booster" for a warlord named Vicar. Meanwhile, a mob of murderous cultists march toward Saturion's friends.
Last time on Dragon Shield Kingdoms: Vicar's Conquest
High Mage Valera saved Saturion from certain death by transporting him from the Tower of Mages courtyard to her inner sanctum. He encountered two decanters of Dust, one that held shimmers of the White and one of the Black. Saturion found Valera at her desk and tried in vain to convince her to allow him into the Guild of Court Mages. He grew more desperate with each passing second until he instinctively performed a wild act of Dustcraft, breaking the decanters and conjuring an attacking dragon's head out of Dust. Valera evaded the attack and subdued Saturion. The act convinced Valera to grant him entrance to the sister organization of the Guild of Court Mages, the Jesters' Society. Saturion reluctantly accepted a posting in the society, unwilling to head home empty handed. Valera transported Saturion to the Jesters' Society headquarters but not before threatening that if she ever saw him again, she would end him. Valera then met with General Karosiv Vicar and asked him to take Saturion and Citrine with him on his mission to the outlands to discover the cause of the mysterious madness sweeping the countryside. Vicar accepted, knowing that he might have to kill Citrine and Saturion both.
A pie splatted in the face of a woman a few feet from Saturion. She wiped the cream from her eyes, smiled, and tried— but failed— to duck the next one.
"That's the most beautiful sound in the world, ain't it?" said the intake jester hanging upside down from a trapeze in front of him several feet in the air. He had on harlequin-pattern tights and held a scroll of parchment that tumbled to the ground like a dragon's tongue bursting between its teeth.
"What is?" Saturion said, handing him the handwritten letter from Valera recommending him for the society.
"Cream pie against an unsuspecting face," the jester said with a smile. He took the letter and crosschecked it against his list as Saturion tried to find where the trapeze ended. It simply ended, free floating in the air without being attached to anything. "Recommended by the High Mage herself, eh?" the intake jester said. "So you'll be skipping the preliminaries?"
Another pie, another splat.
"Yup," Saturion said. "Seems so."
"Would you like to go a round with the pies anyway?"
"For fun!" the intake jester said, swinging himself into the air, completing a backflip and landing gracefully in front of Saturion, scroll still in hand.
"No, thanks," Saturion said.
The intake jester frowned. "Well aren't you a downer," he said, scribbling something on his parchment and handing him back Valera's note. "Everything seems to be in order. If you would just follow the floating neon arrows, you'll be given your tools of the trade while we process your assignment."
"My what?" Saturion said.
"Your tools. You know. Of the trade?"
Saturion stared at him blankly. The intake jester sighed audibly and yelled, "Hey Lenny, take over intake for me, will ya? I'm gonna show this newbie the props."
"What do I look like, your pet?" another man said. He was naked from the waist up and had the unfortunate condition of Elephant-Head. As in, his entire head was that of an elephant, tusk and trunk and all.
"Just do it before I rip those tusks from your dead body!" The two guffawed like old pals. Saturion was confused but expected that that was a normal feeling when in the headquarters of the Jester Society.
The jester handed his scroll over to Lenny and led Saturion past several free-floating brightly colored and flashing arrows. "Name's Hollis," he said, leading Saturion into another room that was impossibly full of trunks, props, noisemakers, eccentric hats, tights, and explosive devices that boomed at random. The room was larger than any that could have physically existed inside the tent. Saturion was impressed at the level of Dustcraft that must have been used to create the space and thought perhaps he could learn something from these fools after all.
Hollis snapped his fingers and a trunk came flying from the inner depths to land in front of Saturion. It swung open and he grabbed a little bit of everything, filling the trunk full of robes, water-spraying flowers, confetti, hoops, flaming pins, self-bouncing balls, harlequin patterned undergarments, self-refilling pies, enchanted fruits, light-makers, and several other items Saturion could not name.
"There," Hollis said, sitting on the trunk to get it shut. "Everything a jester needs."
"Great," Saturion said dryly.
"Everything but a good attitude! Why the sourpuss?"
"I didn't think this was how my day was going to go," Saturion said.
"Didn't wake up thinking, 'Ah! Today is the day I fulfill my life's dream and become a fine member of the Jesters' Society!?'"
"No," Saturion said.
"Then you'll fit right in. No one ever does," Hollis said. "Oh, I almost forgot. Here," he took a large volume off the top of a stack and handed it to Saturion. "Read it from cover to cover."
"What is it?" Saturion asked, wiping dust off the cover. It read The Handbook to Avoid Tomfoolery: A Guide to Jesting, Second Edition. It had an introduction written by Sir Justin the Jester but mostly consisted of hand-drawn cartoons and blank pages.
"Our holy book," Hollis said.
"The first commandment of the Society of Jesters is to never take yourself too seriously. The lives of most folk end before they've even had a chance to realize they were living. We may no longer be eaten by dragons, but the real dragon, if you will, is life. Might as well do a cartwheel while you can. Jigging, too, is always acceptable," Saturion read from the introduction. "Are you serious?"
"No," Hollis said. "But that's kind of the point, isn't it?"
Saturion closed the book and tried to put it in the trunk.
"Wait!" Hollis called as Saturion unlatched it. The trunk snapped and roared as if it were alive and hungry. A long tongue came slithering out and whipped at Saturion but the jester smacked it with a fold-up fan he had gotten from somewhere and said, "Down boy!" He kept smacking it on the tongue until it receded into the trunk and he could latch it shut again. "I wouldn't open that unless you've got an offering," Hollis said. "Socks usually will do."
Saturion opened his mouth as if to say something but found himself, for the first time in recent memory, speechless.
"Right, let's go. Your assignment should be ready by now. I remember my first assignment. Dancing lessons for a mayor's daughter. I taught her a thing or two about all manner of fine dancing." Hollis danced by himself as he spoke, twirling his way forward until they left the room and came to a wall of neat rows of tin mail boxes. Each box had a slit in it that spit out pieces of parchment at rapid-fire pace and bells above that clanged whenever a new piece of parchment appeared. Underneath the slit were names that were magically scribbled in to tell who the assignment was for and then disappeared as soon as the intended took the parchment. The entire system had the effect of creating a never-ending clatter as the parchment came much to fast for the recipients to take. Most pieces fell to the floor, forcing people to crawl over one another to find their assignments. Saturion had no such trouble as Hollis swiped his assignment as soon his name appeared and the bell clanged. "Here you are," he said. "Let's see, let's see." Hollis examined the parchment. If he wasn't already wearing white makeup, Saturion would've sworn his face turned ghostly.
"What is it?" Saturion asked.
"You're assigned to General Karosiv Vicar," he said. "On his expedition to the outlands to find the source of insanity spreading from village to village." Hollis gulped and handed Saturion the parchment. "Tough break," he said.
Before Saturion could examine the parchment himself, he heard someone scream, "Watch out!" as a stray pie smacked him upside the head.
Saturion Deshane could take a lot of indignities. He could handle being passed over for the Guild of Court Mages so long as he had something else to fall back on, Jesters' Society or not. He would endure the work of joke-making and a life of servitude as a fool as long as it came with instruction in the ways of Dustcraft and access to Dust. He would wear the stupid hat, sing his little song, even take getting pied once and while, so long as in the end he would acquire the skills necessary to wield true power. It would be worth it, he told himself when High Mage Valera suggested he join the society. He would show her that he was worthy. That he had something to offer. That Saturion Deshane was more than a farmer's son, destined only to wield the power of Dust one disastrous night in his life. He would master that power. Make it his. And if the Jester Society was the means to that end, he would accept.
But that was before he'd received his assignment to join General Karosiv Vicar. That wasn't an assignment at all. It was a death sentence.
"Can I talk to anyone about this?" Saturion asked Hollis, wiping the cream off his face with a hand towel.
"Like who?" Hollis said. "You think there's an assignment fairy that you can seduce?"
"I don't know," Saturion said. "Anyone!"
"'Fraid not," Hollis said. "The assignments come from the top."
"The top?" Saturion asked.
"The very top." Hollis said.
"The Big Top," Hollis said. The Big Top, Saturion knew, was the equivalent in the Jesters' Society to the High Mage in the Guild of Court Mages.
"So all I have to do is talk to the Big Top," Saturion said. "Where can I find him?"
"You can't," Hollis said. "He's on holiday."
"Well then, when will he be back?"
Hollis shrugged. "He's been gone for about seven years and said he'd be back in two weeks, so you do the math."
"Great," Saturion said dryly.
Hollis pulled Saturion in close and whispered in his ear. "Look, I know you're new at this and I probably shouldn't say anything, but if I were you, I'd flee. Run in the night. Leave Sylvania and never look back. Word is General Vicar doesn't like jesters and if it comes down to you or his men, who do you think he'll save?"
Hollis smiled. "Anyway. Welcome to the Jesters' Society! We are so thoroughly amused you're here."
Hollis handed Saturion a plump bag of coin. "Your advance," he said. "Most of your expenses will be covered by the company but if you were to, um, become misplaced, it might help you get to where you're going." Hollis gave an exaggerated wink.
"Thanks," Saturion said taking the bag and pocketing it.
"So long, noble traveler!" Hollis called, backflipping into the tent to what Saturion assumed would be a particularly annoyed Lenny the Elephant-Man. As Hollis disappeared behind the closed flap of the tent, the tent itself poofed out of existence. One second it was there, the next, gone.
Saturion found himself now in an unfamiliar alleyway. It was night and he could smell smoke. The boom of marching footsteps rocked the glass in nearby window panes. He dragged his trunk noisily behind him as he made for the main thoroughfare where people ran screaming. Gaialists wearing off-white plate matching the color of their robes marched through the streets carrying torches and banners splattered with Gaial, their dragon god's image. They held lances and wore four-spiked metallic green helmets.
"Hey," Saturion said, grabbing a man as he tried to run by. "What's going on?"
"The Gaialists have found a Wyvern," he said. "They're going to execute her!"
Wyverns. Saturion's mother's voice rang in his ears and in an instant he was a boy again, no more than a handful of years old. His mother sat at the end of his cot and told him how he shouldn't hurt the farm animals. That they were living things and that all living things were to be respected. That if he did not behave, she would write to the Guild of Court Mages and tell them he was a Wyvern and they would send their mages to take him out of his bed in the middle of the night to whisk him off, never to return. Most Dustcrafters required the physical substance of Dust already siphoned to perform magical feats, practicing for decades before learning how to pull a limited amount of Dust from nothingness. Wyverns were Dustcrafters born with the ability to pull limitless Dust from existence itself. Their access to nearly unlimited power was viewed as a threat to the Democracy as well as a potentially useful boon if they could be controlled. Shortly before he left Nirgrend, Saturion had come across a Gaialist handing out leaflets decrying the blasphemy of those who perform Dustcraft without first sacrificing for the privilege. Wyverns were high on their list of blasphemers who required swift retribution for the sin of their powers. Their existence threatened one of the core tenants of the Gaialists' religious beliefs: All power comes at a price and all Dust must return to dust.
It seemed Andros's prediction that the newly converted governors would tip the power in Sylvania toward the Gaialists had come true faster than Saturion could have dreamed. "Gaial for all, all for Gaial. Wyverns will be sent to hell," chanted the cultists.
The man pulled away from Saturion's grasp. Saturion felt the need to run and hide although he was not a Wyvern and therefore had nothing to fear from the mob. At least, not yet. Not until they decided to turn their attention to the Jesters, who not only refused to suffer for their Dust but who actively used it as the punchline in most jokes. He could not pull away, however, and was pushed along with the mob down the road until he saw the swinging beagle-shaped sign of The Drunken Bunk.
"No," Saturion said. In a flash, he remembered the Gaialist messenger coming to the Bunk on behalf of the Democratic Military earlier that day to deliver a letter to Portia. He remembered Andros telling him it must have concerned Citrine to make Portia so hysterical when she read the letter. He tried now to remember what the Gaialist's face looked like. Was he disgusted? Was he in the crowd? Had he scurried off from delivering the letter on behalf of the government to round up this very mob so they might enact their own form of justice before the Democracy could usher the Wyvern away to some secret place? Is that why the Bunk's doors were closed, its windows dark? Did Portia know that the Gaialists were close? Was that why Andros had come to Sylvania early, to smuggle Citrine out of the city before it was too late?
Shattering glass shook Saturion from his thoughts. Flaming bottles were flung through the windows of the shuttered and dark Bunk. Flames danced across the tavern. Saturion left his trunk behind and ran toward the entrance calling for his friends. "Andros! Citrine!" A blast of wind lifted him off his feet and threw him to the ground as Citrine's scream cut through the street like ice.
From the fire came a shadow, thick and oppressive like tar. It seeped out of the broken windows, through the cracks in the foundation, underneath the door until it formed solid tendrils and struck.
The front row of Gaialists were taken down in an instant as the wooden door of the tavern blew to pieces. Citrine, the platinum-haired girl, floated in an orb of purple energy. Light twisted and bent around her and as she floated forward, Dust fell upwards like an upside down waterfall. Wisps of purple energy shimmered and formed new tendrils. Her eyes were filled with that energy, purple to the pupils as she lifted a hand and took out another three Gaialists. Her face, a broken mask of fury. Several of the remaining Gaialists roared and struck with their lances while others pulled out fistfuls of Dust. Civilians scattered, running and screaming into the surrounding maze of streets and alleyways. Citrine paid them no mind as the tendrils pushed off the ground, lifting her even higher in the air. She raised a hand and with it, three smaller tendrils rose and joined into one large tendril. She lowered it and the massive thing crushed the Dustcrafting Gaialists.
Behind Citrine, the Bunk burned. Saturion could just make out through the smoke Andros pulling Portia to the relative safety of his parked wagon.
"Retreat!" Saturion heard one of the Gaialists wail.
"Retreat?" Citrine said, her voice booming with unnatural resonance. "You come to my home, threaten my family, and think you can escape?" Smaller tendrils shot out from her energy orb and stabbed through the necks and spines of the retreating cultists. They fell without so much as a whimper.
Citrine willed herself forward and the tendrils moved her as if they were legs until she was on top of Saturion. "One left," she said, looking at him with those unnatural eyes and speaking in that voice that wasn't her own.
"Stop," Saturion said, a tendril wrapped around his neck. "It's me… I'm not… one of them…"
As his vision darkened and oxygen left his body, Saturion thought that at least he would not have to worry about fleeing in the night. He would be dead. That could be alright. Better dead now than after weeks on the road without friend or comfort.
A flash of gold and the tendril holding Saturion's throat dissipated into black smoke.
Saturion crashed hard to the ground. A man dressed in head-to-toe golden armor stepped in front. He held an obsidian sword that shimmered with inlaid red and purple Dust. A crimson cape fluttered in the wind.
"Stay here," the man said. He leapt at Citrine who screamed with animalistic rage. She struck with a tendril but he dodged, barreling past her and landing in front of the inn. He held his sword high and the red Dust inside began to glow. The flames eating the Bunk slowed their spread and somehow began to reverse, as if the sword called them home. The fire leapt off of the counters and tabletops, off of the flesh of those caught in the fray and disappeared inside the obsidian blade until all that remained was its smoking aftermath.
A tendril grabbed him by the throat and lifted him into the air.
"Citrine!" Saturion yelled. "He is not your enemy! He saved the Bunk!"
But Citrine did not seem to hear him. All she heard was Portia's singing.
"Swing little dragon, swing little welp
Sleep til the morrow, don't make a yelp."
Portia took a step forward from behind Andros's wagon.
"My egg, I will comfort, I'll light a match
My egg, you are safe now, safe so you can hatch."
The armored man breathed deep as the tendril slipped from around his windpipe and dissipated in a gust of purple Dust.
Citrine hummed the song along with her mother until Portia was close enough to pull her into a hug. Citrine collapsed and the unnatural shadows retreated inside of her. The light from the street penetrated the darkness again.
"It's okay, my sweet baby," Portia said as Citrine cried into her mother's shoulder. "It's okay."
Is it? Saturion wondered, surveying the wreckage. Eleven dead. The street destroyed. The Bunk almost burned to the ground. Citrine's secret was definitely out, which meant their lives had now changed forever.
"I do not mean to interrupt," the golden man said. "But we cannot stay here."
Saturion could hear more Gaialists approaching.
"Come, get in the wagon!" Andros called, already in the driver's seat. Portia helped Citrine in and Saturion dragged his trunk along with him as the golden man brought up the rear. They did not get far before a new crop of Gaialists surrounded them again.
"Halt, in the name of Gaial, the one True Lord," one Gaialist said. "You harbor a Wyvern, an abberation against nature itself and an affront to the lord Gaial. You will hand her over or taste the lord's teeth." Their lance blades flashed.
The golden man stood. "You will step aside for your god has no power here."
"How dare you!? Who are you? Take that helm off at once!"
The man shook his long golden hair out of the matching-colored helmet. "I am General Karosiv Vicar of the Democratic Military. You are too late, Gaialist. I have taken the Wyvern for the Democracy. She is under my protection. Now step aside and let party pass."
The Gaialist seemed to sum Vicar up. His fingers twitched on his lance as a furor snaked through his followers. He let down his weapon.
"Leave them be," the Gaialist called. "The General has claimed the Wyvern. For now."
Cautiously, slowly, the other Gaialists lowered their weapons and stood by as Andros drove through the parting crowd of off-white robes.
"Where to?" Andros asked.
"The Jet Fortress of the Democratic Military," Vicar said. "You will be safe there. Follow my direction."
But as Andros drove away from the smoldering wreckage of the Bunk, as Portia cried silently in the back of the wagon holding her daughter's head in her lap, and as Saturion felt his chance to flee disappearing with every passing moment, Saturion felt less like he was being whisked off to safety and more like he was being taken deeper into a dungeon where the only source of light would come from the fire he set himself on. Not for the first time that day, he heard his mother's dying laughter ringing in his ears.