Lost Dragons of Barakhai
(The Books of Barakhai #2)
When Benton Collins returned from Barakhai-where magic had turned all but the royal family into inadvertent shapeshifters-he thought his adventures were at an end. But the friends he'd left behind still needed his aid, and Ben had to return to join in their desperate quest...
Ijidan flicked his bushy tail and stopped eating.
Zylas scurried up Collins' pants, then his shirt, to settle on his shoulder. "Aisa has decent overlap and the rare ability to speak our human tongue in switch form."
Collins nodded. The development of overlap, he knew, had to do with the amount of time spent as an animal, some natural talent, and practice. He had no means to gauge Aisa's bird age, but he guessed she would prove to be mature when she took her woman shape. It made sense that a parrot might have a propensity for remembering things between forms, given that they seemed highly intelligent. He had watched a television special in which African grays verbally identified objects, placed shapes into their proper holes, and sorted toys by size and color.
"She's one of our few Regulars," Zylas continued, using a term Collins remembered from his last visit to Barakhai. It meant her parents were also macaws, having bred in either human or animal form. If parents who assumed different creature forms created offspring in human form, their progeny would take the animal form of the mother for the first thirteen years, then become something ostensibly random. "Both her parents were Randoms, though, lucky enough to find one another and commiserate."
Apparently, Falima overheard Zylas. "Made a lot easier by the fact that they were cousins."
That made sense to biology-trained Collins. At least some of the propensity of Randoms to assume a certain animal form seemed to have a classical multifactorial inheritance pattern, as evidenced by Zylas and his late wife, both distant descendants of Prinivere, producing a daughter who became a dragon.
Zylas continued as if Falima had not interrupted. "The big advantage being that she's not registered."
Collins' brows beetled as he considered Zylas' words. "Registered?"
"Registered," Zylas said again, as if simple repetition could work as explanation. "As a Random."
Collins still did not understand.
Falima took over. "Remember how we told you the king's men attend all coming-of-age ceremonies?"
Collins nodded, deliberately avoiding Zylas' stare. When the rat's daughter had turned thirteen, revealing her new animal form, royal soldiers had taken her and killed the mother who tried to stop them.
"And that it's because the law states that obligate carnivores must be summarily executed."
Collins could not forget. "The king said that, before the law, those carnivores murdered an average of six people before they got caught." He waited for his companions to correct him, to expose the king as an evil liar.
Falima only shrugged. "That may be true."
Zylas fidgeted on Collins' shoulder.
Collins tried to shift the focus of the discussion a bit. "Last I knew, the king had issued a ban on all Random breedings." He turned his gaze to Aisa, who remained quietly perched, listening to the conversation but adding nothing. He wondered just how much she understood. The squirrel flitted around and up the box at lightning speed, nails skittering, objects shifting and slapping back into place as he moved.
Falima confirmed, "That law just went into effect. The royals gave it enough time to assure that all the women already pregnant with Random offspring could safely and legally bear their children."
It surprised and irritated Collins that the king chose to mitigate his new law with reason and apparent kindness. Collins wanted to hate King Terrin, to see him as a consummate villain as unequivocally evil as Cinderella's stepmother or Osama bin Laden. But, in all his dealings with Barakhai's king, Collins had found the man likable and logical. He only disagreed with two of the king's decisions. The first was choosing to execute innocent children barely into their teens even before they committed any crime because of the misfortune of transforming into a meat eater. The second was the king's decree against Random unions, which seemed little more than genocide through breeding. According to Zylas and Falima, the royal family planned to do away with "undesirable" animals, such as vermin, snakes, and certain types of carnivores, all of which were already forbidden, by previous laws, from Regular breeding.
"Anyway," Zylas said, returning to the original point. "At coming-of-age, Randoms are registered in a large book. It all looks rather special and important to the child and families, but it's just an elaborate way for the royals to keep track of us."
Without warning, Ijidan made a flying leap from the box to Collins' chest. The squirrel scampered to Collins' unoccupied shoulder, then along his left arm, leaving a line of pale scratches with each skittish movement.
"What the hell?" Collins finally managed, watching the animal scamper over his clothing and flesh indiscriminately. When Ijidan held still long enough, he ran a hand along the soft, grizzled fur. "Does he have to do that?"
Aisa let out a loud squawk. "Just checking you over."
Collins jumped at the sound, heart pounding, and the sudden movement sent the squirrel scurrying over him for another pass. This time, the animal sprang back to the box when it finished.
Collins found himself missing Ialin, their previous companion, a hummingbird/man who had despised him. At least, Ialin's actions had seemed comprehensible, after a time, and his noises weren't ear shattering. "Where's Ialin?"
Falima's gaze followed Ijidan, and she smiled, apparently reading the barb beneath Collins' otherwise innocent question. "He's spying. Didn't think you'd care if you saw him again."
Collins made a wave of dismissal. In truth, he did not care, though he still thought the tiny man's mature quietness would trump anything Aisa or Ijidan had to offer. What am I doing? This is insane. He thought about the greeting the king's men had given them. Now they knew Collins had returned to Barakhai, and they knew about the dragon. Even with the crystal, Prinivere's magic was severely limited by her advanced age. The shabby band of renegades had lost their one other advantage: surprise. The king, on the other hand, still had money, power, an army of trained and armed guards, and Carrie Quinton.
Collins pictured the woman, a genetics postgraduate who had originally come from his own world and now served as an adviser to King Terrin. Once, Collins had slept with her, and he found himself easily picturing the smooth curves, her cascade of naturally golden hair, her long legs and large firm breasts. She had the face of a model. Had, he reminded himself, wincing. When he had stolen the crystal she wore as a necklace, inadvertently cutting her neck with it, she had turned on him. To escape the swords of the guards, he had thrust a torch into her face. His last glimpse of her was with her hair aflame, her screams echoing through the stairwell.
Collins shook off the memory. He had also burned the king's brother, and he knew he would die, and die horribly, if the royals caught him. This isn't a game; home or in Barakhai, dead is forever. We escaped once by the grace of a dragon. Next time, it may not go so well. He glanced at Prinivere, who lay still with her head on her forelegs, eyes closed. Exhaustion weighed heavily on her, but Collins had to test Zylas' promise. "I want to go home. Now."
Falima looked stricken. Zylas said nothing, but he rubbed his thin, pink ears with a paw. Prinivere opened one enormous, green eye and rolled her attention to Zylas, still perched on Collins' shoulder.
Driven by his need to know exactly where he stood, Collins demanded, "I want to go home right now."
"Please . . ." Falima started, stayed by a tired wave of the dragon's claw.
*Come,* Prinivere sent to Collins. *I will send you back.*
Certain his companions would use the dragon's fatigue as an excuse to delay his return, Collins stammered out, "Y–you will?"
The dragon's expression did not waver, but she did open her other eye. *Of course, I will. I would not ignore Zylas' promises. Such a thing would dishonor us both.*
Collins glided toward the dragon, shaking. Though he knew she was old, feeble, and had no intention of harming him, he still suffered from a deep instinctive fear.
Prinivere continued as he approached, *Last time, we brought you here under false pretenses and kept you with trickery. If you choose to help us this time, it must be of your own free will, because of the goodness in your own heart.*
Collins cringed. Her final pronouncement, though delivered without emotion, cut deeply. He liked his Barakhain friends, agreed with their mission, and wanted them to accomplish their worthy goal. He also knew that they needed him in order to succeed. Sighing, he lowered his head. They're risking their lives for their own futures and those of their children. What do I have to gain from this? It was a bitterly selfish question. If I could save the lives of thousands of children in my own world by sacrificing myself, I would do it. Why are the children of Barakhai worth less? Though he saw the flaw in his own question, Collins still paused. Because it's not a sure thing. I could die, and the Barakhains could still keep their curse, their king, and all that goes with them.
Suddenly remembering that Prinivere received all of his thoughts, Collins looked at her fiercely. She lay in place, expression impassive, eyes nonjudgmental. It was a quandary he had to face alone, but he wished someone would say something to sway him either way.
Finally, Prinivere did. *Wouldn't you like to stay until Korfius changes? So you can talk to him, I mean?*
It was as good an excuse as any to put off a difficult decision. Collins glanced around for his dog, finding him lying on the floor near the mouth of the cave chewing on a dangling vine. "Good idea," he said. Thinking back, he knew that Zylas became a man at noon, Korfius a boy two hours later, then Prinivere became a woman about an hour after that. When he had set his watch by Zylas' switch time, Korfius changed at 2:00 P.M. and Prinivere at 3:00 P.M. Because they were Regulars, Korfius and Prinivere spent less time in human form than the others, who split their time exactly half and half.
"In the meantime," Falima suggested carefully, rolling her gaze from Prinivere to Zylas to Collins as if waiting for one of them to silence her again, "maybe we could explain why we brought you. Then you can make an informed decision."
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