William sipped his cup of green tea and sighed. The view of the city from his lofty estate balcony under the sunset was always a beautiful sight. Tones of red and orange painted the cobblestone roads making the intertwining passages resemble the blood flowing through the veins of a proud beast. The “beast’s” denizens below were carried through the red flow to their destinations. If the people were its blood, then the cacophonous sounds emanating as they went about their business were its breath. When the sun rose, the beast was awake and active, and when the sun descended below the horizon and there was only darkness and silence, the beast was asleep.
William had always believed that “beast” was a fitting analogy, for in many ways the city was like a living thing. It had no true pulse, but it could be killed just like any living thing. It would break down if it were not maintained. It could be dirty if it were not cleaned. And like any creature, cities came in one of two forms: a peaceful place providing safety to all, like a calm domesticated animal, and a place of nightmares—a predator that made meals of the weak, poor, and unfortunate. That was why this beast had to be protected, nurtured, and guided into the light, or else it would become feral and untamed.
He turned his gaze to the slanted rooftops which glowed like flickering flames. He always believed he was the guardian the city needed, even if he didn’t look the part. His tall and thin frame did not inspire. His soft brown eyes did not carry the steely gaze of a strong leader. All the same, he and only a select few knew he was perhaps one of the few reasons why this city was still standing. Why people could live here in relative peace.
Humans and dragons lived together, but their union was anything but peaceful. The city was thick with tension. Dragons were proud and feral. Once, they ruled over humans. But here they were little more than servants eking out a meager existence within city walls because no wild clan wanted them. And the humans still feared being under the dragon’s reign again even after centuries. It would only take one incident to make the beast tear itself apart in fear and rage.
William quietly sipped his tea while thinking of all the ways he protected the peace until a knock at the bedroom door took him away from his thoughts.
Without looking over his shoulder, he called, “Yes?”
The door opened soundlessly on its hinges, but he still heard it whisper across the carpet. “Sir. I just received word that the expedition team. They have been successful, but they found something important.”
William nodded and placed his cup of tea on the table. “Were there casualties?”
“No, sir. But the thing they found—”
“Good. Send word ahead that I am on my way, and go find Mr. Gardner. Tell him to meet me there.”
The informant said nothing, but the door whispered again before the soft sound of its closing announced William was alone again.
William quickly rose then retrieved his jacket hanging on the closet door and the suitcase next to the bed. He was alone in the room, but he resisted the urge to smile. In his line of work, it wouldn’t do to be easy to read. Once he was certain he regained control of his facial expression, he left the room, heading downstairs for the carriage that should be outside waiting for him.
His fiancée Marie stood at the bottom of the stairs. Her brown hair hanging loosely around her narrow shoulders. He loved to see her inside their home when she wasn’t dressed up with fancy jewelry and dresses, her face uncovered by makeup, and her hair left wild and uncombed. A special side of her only a select few were allowed to see. To him, it was her true face, her true beauty. Even resembling a commoner who just crawled out of bed, she exuded confidence and carried herself with pride, and that was what he truly loved about her. She beamed at the sight of him, the smile threatening to split her head in two, but when she noticed the suitcase in his hand and the jacket hanging on his arm, her smile fell. “You’re leaving today, aren’t you?” she asked.
William placed his suitcase and jacket on the floor and pulled Marie into a tight embrace. He felt her tense, but she didn’t struggle. “I have to. You know what I do is for the benefit of all of us.”
“I…know. So…how long will you be gone?” she asked softly.
“I expect only a few hours. The researchers returned from their expedition, and they’ll need to debrief me on what they found.” He kissed her on the forehead. “At worst, I’ll return in the morning.”
“I don’t think you should go. If it’s just a briefing, why can’t they send you a written report or a messenger?”
“Because written reports can be intercepted and messengers can forget details. Marie, I promise you, I’ll be fine. I’m not even doing anything dangerous this time. It’s a harmless conversation.”
Marie frowned at him. “We both know words can prove deadlier than any weapon.”
“Then you know I should have nothing to fear for no one knows how to wield words better than I,” William said, smiling reassuringly. He kissed her again before leaving for the carriage waiting outside for him.
“Are you ready, sir?” the driver asked.
William nodded and climbed inside. He took one last look at Marie waving to him from the front door as he rode away.
I promise Marie. What I am doing now, I do for not only our sake but for the entire world, he thought.
The ride to the safehouse was shorter than William would have liked, more so because they went to a shadier part of the city. Like any part of a beast, it had its pits, holes, and crevices that were less…clean than others. If he had to give this area a name, he would equate it to being the armpit. A place close to the cleaner and more important head, but hidden and quickly soiled if not properly cleaned regularly. He still hadn’t fully taken his mind off Marie. Such distractions could prove fatal if he wasn’t careful, or worse give his enemies the idea that he had weaknesses. Even as a high-ranking member of the Scale Guild, he feared letting the wrong people know about Marie’s existence.
The driver steered the carriage into a narrow alley and stopped in front of a beat-up green door. William watched the door through the window, his hand pointing the pistol in his lap at the green portal.
The door opened and his closest friend, Lance Gardner, stepped out. Like himself, Lance didn’t appear dangerous at first glance. Tall and thin with kind, green eyes didn’t scream “threatening”, but the aggression radiated from him like heat. Seeing his friend there put William’s mind at ease. Lance was nothing if not reliable. They had known each other for years, and not once had Lance failed him.
William tucked the pistol into the inner pocket of his coat before exiting the carriage. “I take it everything is well?”
“Well as can be given the circumstances,” Lance replied. He quickly added. “The men are nervous about what they found.”
The explanation made William raise a brow. “Nervous, you say? What on earth did they find?”
“Better to show you.”
William followed Lance inside. He hated the idea of traveling through such a decrepit building, but for it to function as a safehouse in this part of the city, it had to look the part. That meant worn, creaking floorboards, peeling walls, and ratty second-hand furniture. As a security measure, the windows were all boarded blocking most of the light from outside. The semi-darkness gave the room a gloomy, abandoned feel. On the upside, it didn’t stink too badly. William felt sorry for the poor people assigned to watch this house.
They walked up the stairs and to the open door at the end of the hall. The room was meant for quick meetings, so it lacked any sort of furnishings. An old table surrounded by eight chairs was the only piece of furniture inside the room. Three men, covered in dirt, sat in the chairs on one side of the table. None of them looked pleased. They were a squirrely-looking bunch with thin builds and round faces. A far cry from the rugged, seasoned adventurers William had expected when he hired them. He assumed it was his fault for not meeting with them and trusting only the word of others.
After a quick headcount, William frowned. “I hired five of you. Where are the other two?”
“They didn’t make it,” the man in the middle replied. He was the filthiest of the bunch, his lower jaw covered in a dark shadow William hoped was facial hair. Lance leaned over and whispered the man’s name was Chester.
“That info you gave us was a load of pig shit,” Chester spat. “You didn’t say anything about the place being booby-trapped.”
“I informed you I lacked any specifics as to the nature of your destination,” William replied coolly. “I expected you to be seasoned travelers of hazardous environments.”
The man on the left stood, fists at his side. Lance quickly drew his pistol and pointed it at the travelers. Chester stood and pushed his companion back into the seat. “Calm down, Mills. He’s just trying to rile you up is all.”
“I assure you, it was not my intention to upset you,” William said. “I must expedite our meeting. I’m a very busy man. Where is the item you discovered?”
The men pointed to an ancient book sitting in the middle of the table like a group of children blaming the fourth for the broken window. Just looking at it, William could tell this book had seen far better days. It had turned grey from the coating of dust and its pages had turned yellow from age. It was impossible to read the book’s title from the door, but William assumed it was likely too faded regardless. Hopefully, that wasn’t the case for the rest of the pages. If the book was illegible, the whole case was a waste of time.
“This is what frightens you so?” William asked, holding his temper in check. “I can assure you, gentlemen, that reading is not something to be feared.”
“It’s not that,” Chester said. He played with his hands. “It’s…well…”
“Out with it, man,” Lance commanded.
The man flinched as if struck. “The book was hidden and protected by traps. Whoever left it behind didn’t want it to be found.”
“And it’s written in some chicken scratch I’ve never seen before,” the man on the right said. “That book is cursed. The only reason we brought it back is because you already paid half up front.”
William rolled his eyes and sighed. “This is what I deserve for hiring amateurs,” he mumbled to himself. In a louder voice, he said to the men. “Thank you for your concern, but your role ends here. You will be compensated and then you will—”
“No way,” Chester said firmly. He and his companions stood and backed away from the table. “We only brought you that book so we could be done with this whole business. Keep your coin.”
Their refusal aroused his suspicions. There weren’t many reasons to make anyone turn down coin. Matters of principle were one thing, but he knew these men had very few of those. They weren’t above lying, cheating, or even murder to get what they needed (another reason why he hired them).
“Did someone threaten you?” William asked.
The men shook their heads. “No one threatened us, but we know a bad move when we see one,” Chester said. “We take coin from you, we’ll never live to spend it. We just want to be done with this.”
“Then go, and speak of this to no one,” William said. If they weren’t willing to take the coin, he wouldn’t force it down their throats. Their silence was the only thing that had to be assured no matter what. At least it didn’t end with Lance having to dispose of three bodies.
The three men rushed out of the room, leaving William and Lance alone. William would’ve found it comical if he wasn’t so busy mulling over the reasons for the sudden change of heart. Each theory he considered raised more questions and increased his apprehension.
“What do you think?” Lance asked.
William snapped out of his trance at the sound of his associate’s voice. “I’m sorry?”
“I was saying that it seems odd they would have such a reaction to something so trivial. They said they couldn’t read it, so what do they have to be afraid of?”
“Yes, I was thinking the same. Either someone approached them, or they found more in that ruin than they are saying.”
Lance nodded and reached for the book. The moment he touched the cover, he froze and his eyes widened. “I see, now. That’s what frightens them.” He turned to William and said, “This book is made of dragon leather.”
William’s brow rose. Dragon leather was rare these days. Centuries ago, it was quite common during the Great Rebellion, a war in which the humans and dragons fought each other. Humans often made things from the dragons they killed as a source of pride. It answered a lot of questions including why the men were so frightened. The dragons would not take kindly to this discovery.
He walked over to the book and gently grazed the cover. His fingers left a trail in the dirt-and-dust-covered surface. This item was a rare and dangerous find. The dragon clans would want the book destroyed as it signified a time when the humans got the better of one of their own. To the humans, it would serve as a powerful tool and an iconic reminder that the scaled beasts were far from invincible.
He carefully opened the book to a random page. The pages were stiff, and the writing was badly faded but still legible or it would be if it had been written in a language he recognized. So far as he knew, humans still used the same written system as they had centuries ago. Perhaps some changes to words and sentence structure, but he should still recognize it. This was a different language entirely.
Lance scratched his chin as he looked at the book. “I don’t understand. What are we looking at? What language is this?”
“An ancient one. Or this book was written in code. It was hidden after all. And we were at war with the dragons. Someone clearly didn’t want it read.”
“Then why write it?”
“Because it was meant for certain eyes, but I imagine the intended reader never got around to looking at it.” He closed the book and picked it up. “We will need to take it to an expert. I’m certain a historian will have no difficulties deciphering the language for us.” It was something he had already anticipated. He hired several well-known historians and dracologists from all over Geolga for such an event.
“Would you like me to send letters?” Lance asked.
“No. Now that we know this book is made of dragon leather, it is imperative the dragons never learn we possess it. We will need to be careful.”
“In that case, it would be better to bring them here than to risk transporting it,” Lance offered. “Also, I imagine Marie will be quite upset should you return home and tell her you’re leaving again.” With a small smile, he added. “I know you hired me to be your bodyguard, but I’m afraid not even a matriarch could protect you from her wrath.”
William smiled at that. Matriarchs were the leaders of dragon clans, and anyone who ruled over a group of dragons was certainly worthy of respect. But he would still rather face one than risk Marie’s fury. “I did promise her I would be home soon. Very well, Lance, I’ll entrust the task of gathering those capable of deciphering this book to you.”
Lance bowed and left the room. After placing the book in a suitcase, William followed, going back to the carriage awaiting him outside. The driver was still in the same place he had left him.
The driver smiled at William’s arrival. “Did you acquire everything you needed, sir?”
William climbed inside the carriage. “We’re done here. Take me home.”
The entire ride back, William stared at the book. His mind raced with ideas as to its contents and what it could mean being the first human to discover such an artifact. It was just a matter of keeping it quiet from the dragons until he learned what it said. Once the book had been copied, he could hold on to it. It would make a great bargaining chip later down the road as the dragon clans would no doubt be grateful to whoever brought them such a thing.
The carriage stopped and the driver announced that they had arrived. William got out and turned to the driver. “What was your name again?”
“It’s Morgan, sir.”
“Well, Morgan, it would behoove you to refrain from making inquiries.” Without waiting for a reply, William turned and headed to his home. Morgan asking about his meeting back at the safehouse didn’t go unnoticed. He made a mental note to have Lance do a more thorough background check on the man.
William was greeted by the butler who informed him that everything had gone well and nothing required his attention. After thanking the butler, he headed upstairs.
Instead of going to bed, he went to his office further down the hall. The office was where he spent most of his time, something Marie always complained about. There was even a cot tucked into the far corner. He spent more time sleeping on it than on his bed. It pained him to be away from his fiancé, but in time he knew she would understand. What he did was important for everyone and would usher in a new age of peace. He turned on the lamp on top of the desk and placed the book on it.
What the explorers he hired had said still stuck within his mind. Clearly whoever left the book behind didn’t want it to be read, but then why keep it? Why not destroy it or hand-deliver it to who it was intended for? So badly he wanted to learn its secrets. So far as he knew, dragons back then couldn’t read. It wasn’t as if the humans were teaching them. Even today, he had never come across a dragon with a desire to read. But that would suggest the book was being hidden from other humans.
He leaned back in his seat, a wide grin on his face. It appeared the discovery was bigger than he imagined. “Maybe they were right to be afraid after all,” he whispered. “But like my ancestors, I will not be claimed by trepidation. I will unlock your secrets, and humanity will reap the rewards.”