“Ow!” Brick grabbed at the hand slapping his face and glared at its owner. If he hadn’t known who was hitting him, the selection of bright cocktail rings and the jingling bracelets she wore would have told him it was his younger sister, Scarlet. “Any reason you’re smacking my face?”
Scarlet tilted her head, her forehead creased. “Habit? Whatevs. Hold still—”
Brick held still enough for her to shove wads of cotton wool up his nostrils, then brushed her hand away. Scarlet’s sharp fingernails near any of his body parts made him uneasy at the best of times, and in the rumbling, jolting carriage he and she were currently traveling in, more so. Her nails were long and pointed and they gleamed the brightest mahogany shade she could find, all to mimic the talons they became when she shifted.
Well, that’s only natural, Brick reasoned. Wyverns in general were proud of being wyverns, the ruling family even more so and his sister, the youngest offspring of the Ruby Throne, in particular.
“Thanks,” he muttered, the thick clog in his voice not just due to his nosebleed and the wedges of cotton wool. “Thanks for staying with me.” He knew she’d rather be flying alongside the carriage with their father, Potentate Carnell of the Ruby Throne, and mother, the First Lady Cerise, not to mention the son and heir, Lord Gules, and their older sister, Lady Vermillion. But it was her turn to keep him company, and Scarlet, like all of them, put family duty first.
“Sit up straight,” she replied, wagging a finger in the direction of his face to tell him it was the best way to deal with a nosebleed. She knew. All his family did—Brick got them when he was around magic, and they were prepared for today. “Open wide for your pills.”
Brick obediently opened his mouth, and Scarlet, snickering, moved back to the farthest corner of the royal carriage and flicked in first one tablet, then another, using her middle finger and thumb to launch them as if she were playing a game and getting points. Scarlet performed her family obligations, sure…and made sure she had fun doing so. But she loved Brick, just as he did her.
He tried not to choke—the tablets were huge and foul-tasting. “Thanks,” he repeated, wishing she’d thought to give him a drink to swallow them down with. Actually, no—he didn’t want her squirting it in with a water pistol. He checked the cotton wool was still in place up each nostril. “There must be a lot of magic in the air here.”
“Well, duh,” his sister replied. “Inside the elven kingdom, and just approaching the capital? What d’you expect? They breathe it in and fart it out here, then breathe it in again.” Oh, she was a charmer. “I got orders to smarten you up—you’re not gonna bleed on me, are you?”
He shook his head and let her pull his smart suit jacket into place as if he were a baby, for all she was younger than he was. Well, that fits, with me being as useless as a hatchling. She tutted and brushed off the shoulders and lapels, as if he had flaking head scales. I don’t, do I? That’d be all he needed, with them having to look their best as they arrived for this regal state occasion.
As soon as Scarlet settled back again, grumbling that there wasn’t much she could do with his short hair, he took a sly peep in the glass of the carriage window to check for scale-flake. He caught a quick glimpse of his bronze skin and slitted gold eyes before the spectacle outside claimed his attention. Oh, not the well-maintained kingdom they were driving through, with its paved roads, sturdy-looking buildings and general cleanliness all signs of its good governance, but his family, in the air above the small procession.
Brick lowered the glass to see better. The four royal wyverns made a stunning, vibrant swoop of color as they flew, their wings beating with synchronized grace, their heads turning slowly on their long, elegant necks to incline this way and that at the gasps and applause from townsfolk lining the route, who were all eager to see visiting nobles and dignitaries.
“Elven folk must be used to flying beasts, right?” he asked Scarlet.
She scoffed. “Not like us.”
“Yeah.” Brick had to admit that. A woman stumbled, shading her eyes against the wyverns’ shimmering scales, the gleaming shades of red carefully arranged from his father Carnell’s shining cardinal to his mother Cerise’s glossy pomegranate—“the first seen in the kingdom in a hundred years!” as she often reminded people.
His brother Gules’ proud imperial red came next, then his sister Vermillion’s brash crimson. The family at wing, in the correct order, looked like flames burning up the sky.
Although why they should want to arrive anywhere making the place look like it was on fire, Brick couldn’t fathom. What he did know was Scarlet wanted to be up there too, making an entrance like a bold streak of lava against the blue and white of the sky. He jumped as the most jewel-colored creature of the quartet swooped low and stuck her beak through the window—his mother, checking in on him.
She couldn’t talk in her shifted form, of course, but he had no problem interpreting her caw and twists and jerks of her head. She was concerned for him—she loved him. They all did. Like they would any slow-witted hatchling. He wasn’t wily or cunning, no asset in statecraft or trade negotiations, so they gave him busy work. Grunt work. He nodded to show Cerise he was fine and reached up to pat her on the head, near the top, just after the brow ridge finished.
With a click of her beak, she took off again and rejoined Carnell, circling him with a slow flap of her wings before taking her place at his side. He flicked his tail out to slide along hers.
“Oh, ewww!” Scarlet, on the seat opposite him now, pointed up at the Potentate and First Lady and retched like a caterwaul bringing up a hairball. She made a show of rummaging for one of the sick bags they kept for Brick—there was no telling what form his sensitivity to magic might take. “Old people foreplay is just gross.”
Brick didn’t think it was that bad. Sure, he had no wish whatsoever to see his parents making out like subadults or immatures ever, anywhere, but that they were still loving and affectionate was…something he didn’t see himself ever having. The only people who’d wanted him so far had been those seeking a way into the ruling family and using him as their way to get within polishing distance of the Ruby Throne.
“Mommy, look!” A little girl on the sidewalk near a tavern, her eyes full of wonder, tugged at her mother’s arm. “Up there—dragons!”
“Wyverns!” yelled Scarlet, flinging herself so far out of the window to correct the kid that Brick, alarmed for her safety, grabbed at the back of her dress. “Look at the picture, small fry!” She tapped the crest on the side of the royal coach, a plain outline of an almost S-shaped beast, its wings stretched and its slim legs prominent. “Count the limbs, kid. There’s two, not four. We look like lumbering oxen dragons to you?”
She subsided into her seat again and shot Brick a glance. “No offense, bro.”
“I know.” Brick was wide and tall, built like a brick smokehouse, as the saying went, whereas wyverns, in addition to being wily, were light and lithe. Winged serpents, really. He tried not to feel like he was letting down the Ruby Throne, but…
“You’re not even red!” Olahf had scorned when, realizing a relationship with Brick wouldn’t bring him into the inner governing circle, he’d ended things between them. “Brick by name and brick by nature and brick by color!” Yeah, Olahf didn’t really have the gift of eloquence a senator or diplomat should, although his tongue could be said to have been silver in other ways… Brick shivered at the memory, then felt sad.
How much of that had been fake? Had Olahf even liked him? If not, their relationship had been, well, transactional at best and icky at worst. It had also made him dwell on his experiences with all the other wyvern shifters who’d befriended him over the years…and hadn’t seemed very friendly. How many had if not used him, then put up with him, for what they could get out of it?
Would life have been different if I were called Flame, or, or Rosso? Maybe if the former, he’d have been dashing and just a little bit dangerous, or if the latter, darkly seductive and a lot more dangerous?
“Persimmon’s a good name,” he mused out loud. “Then Sim would be a good nick. ‘Hey, Sim, coming out for a quick tankard of sack mead?’ Maybe Simmy? ‘Simmy, joining us for dawn patrol?’ Perse? Percy?”
“What? No—you know what? Never mind.” Scarlet waved a hand at him. “Because we’re nearly there.”
About to ask his sister how she knew they were almost at their destination—where they’d be doing some trade-and-aid diplomacy over drinks—Brick saw the ceremonial herald bird flying to join the four wyverns in the sky. The escort would please his mother, who was into appearances. Even his father had commented more than once that the elves had used to do things properly, and that he hoped the Storm King was keeping up traditions.
“He will as long as he has Jerrick advising him,” Cerise always replied. “Jerrick served Jade’s father, too, and Jerrick’s father, Jacron, was chancellor to the Storm Emperor before that. And Jerrick’s son—” She usually stopped herself there.
“Gotta love ya and leave ya!” Scarlet opened the carriage door even though the vehicle was still trundling along.
“I feel okay now the meds have kicked in,” Brick assured her. “Shouldn’t I join in?”
“And risk you having an allergy—sorry, sensitivity—attack up above and bleeding down on Jade or his big green groom?” Scarlet sniggered. “While it would be hilarious, best not.” Blowing a kiss over her shoulder at him, she launched herself from the open door.
Scarlet shifted effortlessly in midair and took her place just behind Gules and Vermillion. It was hardly worth her shifting, though, when the carriage jolted to a stop at the top of a meadow. Two ruby and pale jade pavilions stood proudly, their pennants waving in the early evening breeze, and councilors and nobles waited before them.
The Ruby Throne circled the meadow in a group, then made a tighter circle of the tents to finally drop into the space set up beneath the main pavilion’s awning. They descended one at a time from Carnell to Scarlet—all executing flawless landings and simultaneous shifts back to their other-forms the second their claws touched the ground, clothing themselves as they did so.
They’d left a space for him, and Brick decided he was going to take it properly, instead of scuttling to it, shamefaced. Ignoring his headache and throbbing nose, he ran a few paces and leaped as high as he could with a gurgled “Eaaarrgghhh!” to shift into his wyvern form and, oh, how good it felt to be in the air again, stretching his wings.
He liked the world better in his shifted form. He loved the view from up on high, how things looked when seen from his bigger, more golden than yellow eyes. Scents were more acute to his snout, with its slits for nostrils, than to his other-form nose, which was broad and had never worked as well after being broken during a heated game of tail ball. Which his team had still lost.
Okay, so he wasn’t all polished and gleaming reds like the others, but he liked his scales, with their rust and terra-cotta and ochre shades. Recalling Cerise’s insistence that his hues were “alternative reds” made him snort with laughter and swish his tail, the triangular barb it ended in swinging near his face.
He was going to do this! He dropped lower. I can do this! Can drop into that landing zone! The really small landing zone… I can’t do this.
“Believe in yourself!” Cerise had told him over and over since hatchhood. He would. He did! With a high-pitched squeal, a bit like a teakettle coming to the boil, he took a final squint at the target zone, landed, shifted and…belched. Oh gods. He’d meant to clothe himself, not burp one out. And certainly not such a loud one…or one that stank like a dragon’s taint.
“Oh, ewwwwwwww!” cried Scarlet, her longest ever. She pinched her nose closed with her talon-like fingers. She’d get the worst of the stench, being next to him. “How, how, is that so foul? What the fuck you been doing, bro, sucking off a troll?”
“Could have been worse!” called a voice from the crowd. “Just imagine if he’d farted!”