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Ionith: The Serpent and the Dragon

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 Mies-Thai slithered through the forest, still reeling from amazement. The thought They let me go! repeated endlessly in his mind. It nearly drowned out all other thought, but he retained a firm enough grip to keep silent as he wove his way between trees and through the undergrowth. Suddenly, a sound he had not expected to hear for a much longer time came drifting to him. It cut through his internal monologue like fangs through flesh. It was the sound of speech. And more amazingly, both Tam-speak and his 'native' tongue, if he had any right to name it such anymore. Sliding along at a cautious pace, he searched for the source of the noise. At last he came upon them, a Tam and a Tsaesci, together in the forest. There was not hint of hostility between them, and in his wonder Mies-Thai emitted a harsh noise that was his closest aproximation to a gasp.

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Samiya-Ela'eh reached for her katana, realised it was not there anymore, then stood as tall as possible and hissed loudly. She had let down her guard and had not noticed someone approaching. A grave error. As her senses told her it was kin, she hid her fangs. Cautious, but calm, she grabbed Kalindi's arm and pulled her behind her back.

<Tsaesci> she spoke in a whisper towards the stranger, not wanting to break the silence of the forest <I am Samiya-Ela'eh. Come forward, I am unarmed>

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Diminutive at eye-level, the girl was now a rodent at the base of a tree. Aisling peeked out from a hollow in the shadowed trunk of Samiya, eyes wide and inquisitive. She regarded the newcomer with suspicion, but in the presence of her sable chaperone, chewed on any words she might otherwise give sound.

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 MIes-Thai's green scales rippled in the light as he slid from the forest shadow to the illumination of the clearing. He held up both hands in a passive gesture as he approached the Tam and Tsaesci, amazement sparkling horridly in his cold eyes.

<I am Mies-Thai,> he began fitfully, still growing more uncomfortable with his native speech, <What are you doing out here? And with this Tam?>

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Clearly no warrior, seeing his movement and behavior. Clearly not one of the Tsaesci at the camp either, because otherwise he would have known how she got there. She wanted to make a remark about it, but left it in her throat .

Not used to hearing such direct questions from a Scaled, she loosened her shoulders slightly and adjusted her pose. The voice told her swiftly what to expect. She had no authority with this one, but she would have to keep an eye on him. She finally answered, <Kalindi is One-That-Was Catasseh-Sefu's hatchling. I look after her now.> More was unnecessary. <We can not stay here, the invaders are close. We are on our way to find Tseon-Xibha, One-That-Is.>

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The hatchling's posture unwound as the two serpents spoke. She draped herself around Samiya's lower half and watched and listened, picking meaning from the air and trying to fill the gaps.

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 Mies-Thai had no idea what this other one meant by One-that-was and One-that-is, but he knew better than to continue to go it alone out here in the woods with nothing but some rags on his back and his natural weapons. He had no idea how he had avoided all Tam patrols, unless they were truly too stupid to sweep the area around their conquests and marches. Mies-Thai shook these thought from his head and returned to the present. <I would join you in this, at your pleasure. Three is better than two in the forests, especially with the Tam's on the march.> Mies-Thai smiled, another very human expression he was perfecting quickly.

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Samiya nodded, <Yes, we are stronger with three.> The voice told her to doubt this. There was something strange with this Tsaesci, but she could not tell what it was. He came from the city, though, that much was clear, and it was likely he had been a prisoner there. One could easily lose Scale that way, she knew.

He was kin, so she trusted him.

She gestured to Kalindi and started moving again, "Come." The Tams would not stay at the camp, they had plans.

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Without a sound, she followed, craning over her small shoulders to keep her eyes on the new snake; Samiya may have decided, but the girl had not. At one point she reached upward and took hold of one of the ebon Tsaesci's fingers, much as she had done to Sefu in that previous silver age.

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Samiya's eyes shot down at the sudden touch. The unknown feeling was still in her scales, warm as a burning sun.

She then concentrated on the road ahead again, squeezing the tiny hand slightly and making sure the hatchling could keep up. The Tsaesci knew she would be calmer when Tseon-Xibha shared the silver Tam again.

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 Trailing cautiously behind, Mies-Thai followed his new companions. His eyes constantly darted around in suspicion, and his racing mind wondered what would happen next. He tried a few deep breaths, as his sire had taught him, but it no longer brought peace. He felt a brief sadness at this before his head rushed off in another direction, while his body continued stoically behind the Tam and Tsaesci.

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"Do you know how it's going to begin?"

Tseon considered this question gravely, halting his motion. Dax studied the snake, marvelling at the transformations that took place. The scales remained, the luminous copper plates laced with bronze ink, the twin cold gems that never blinked, and yet flashed as they did now, constantly; Rhade was somewhere under that molten statue, and the young trooper could only imagine the turmoil of that endless storm.

"If I did, I would not tell you."

Dax was startled by the sudden admission, not by the words, but because of who was saying them. "Why? We could use you, we could end this war if you--!"

The flicker again, the tempest cooled, the head shook slowly, "It would not make any difference, Tam. If I told you to surrender, you would not listen. If I told you how to win, you would fight harder, given new hope, and more would die."

The serpent animated again, slid almost soundless through sand and leaf, passed within a length of a certain clearing, and moved on with the troubled soldier in tow.

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The soft, short grass over the side was a refreshing change to the long prairie verdure of the more familiar landscape around Ionith. The march became easier, and as Septim passed his ranks the relief and fear on the soldiers' faces was evident in equal measure. Their posture was held high, but that in itself looked unnatural and awkward; they were tired. The war would not last much longer, regardless if they won or lost. Uriel hoped for the former.

The short stopover in the mountains at a location the Imperials had dubbed Palid Pass had been eventless, the night sky colorful and clinquant. The tents and their small fires illuminated on their exterior side the protective emblems which enveloped their inhabitants. The warm glow kept the spirit active, and the men slept soundly.

For Retal, the problem of supply lines had after that point become a nightmare. The supply convoy, which was supposed to have arrived the day prior, had not come. The only assumption that the Emperor could have made was that they were ambushed and killed. Although unfortunate, and a setback, it was anticipated and foreseen; as long as the Empire was victorious on this field, on this day, the pillage of Tsaesci lands would be quick, brutal, and easy.

Before the eyes of every man stood a shimmering mass of scales and steel, lining the horizon as did their troops, in stark contrast to the month of columned march precedent. Golden colors sparked like day-stars on the blue sky across the gale-struck place that was to be their battlefield. Indeed, the ranks of armored and shielded Legionnaires, quivered and strung archers, and the meager detachment of six hundred horsemen, were all of a single entity under the glowing scarlet banners of the Empire. These rustled in the wind, a strong one at that, blowing cold from the mountain across the plain. The Tsaesci, too, had their banners held high, adorned with hideous monsters not too dissimilar from the one so familiar to home. The chill of the range behind them toned the air to a calmer state, and the soldiers went with it.

With naught but a nod to his fellows in standard the Emperor turned his horse, and trekked out into the unspoiled, neutral land, his entourage following suit, mirrored by the Lord-Commander of the Tsacesci army and his. They met mid-field, Uriel paused to exchange his helm with the Red Dragon Crown. The Tsaesci, a black and gold of petillant shining skin, waited patiently.

The two strode to center. Uriel offered his hand, the snakefolk bowed. Upon his coutenance he bore expressions of dignity and a form of guile. It became apparent to the Emperor most highly adorned that the Snake was aware of his traditions and had shunned them purposefully.

"Greetings, Empreur," A slick Bretonic accent he bore along his bold-but-regal pose, and the 'Empreur' found it admirable that the man was so eager. There was no sign the man expected victory, something intriguing and disturbing and revealing all at once. "Something I can do for you?"

"Perhaps, commander...?"

"Xashes-Rehos, I may be called." He seemed a slight surprised, and interest was gained. In the black snake's eyes there gleamed a lust, combat aside.

"Xashes-Rehos," Uriel muttered, "The King's cousin." The old-handed ruler arched his brows in a sort of surprise. Where he had expected a general of renown and civilised stature - or possibly one who bore a barbaric and untamed hatred for those who wished to disturb their whole and only peace - was this Tsaesci here, a robust and aged warrior who was tasked with rending his innards and only felt to converse. "Interesting." He added.

"I'd be inclined to ask why, but there are grander affairs to be spoken of." He threw his hand in a gesture behind him, but didn't stop looking at his opponent. Some of his entourage were ill, a slouched posture plaguing all, which seemed to shift every few minutes. It wasn't possible to determine right away from merely looking at them, but they were restrained. The fact was slightly unsettling in itself. Perhaps Uriel was becoming infected.

His attention snapped back to the Snake in front of him. "Yes. Well. Perhaps you can stay your hand, Tsaesci. The Empire has been undefeated for a reason. It would be advisable for you to lower your swords. We will treat you fairly."

Rehos shook his head, "I can't do that," he muttered. "Death awaits on either side." He oscillated forwards some paces, and drew - slowly - his sword. The guards tensed, but Rehos held the naked weaopn aside. The object was fearsome and red, tinged a darker color in the middle and a slated black around serrated edges. "If I may, your hand, Empreur." The Tsaesci held out his.

After a cautionary exchange of glances between he and his captain, Uriel extended his hand. Rehos grew strange as the blade, gripped along the flat, pricked both their digits. Xashes swabbed up the blood with his untainted finger, and brought it to the mouth. His eyes went wide, the pupils dilating in a manner that unnerved the Imperial. The Tsaesci clutched the Emperor's head with one hand and a shoulder with the other, and in a quick movement brought him close. The blade clunked onto the grass below. <I do not believe in dragons.> he said simply. His breath was uneven and unsteady in the Imperial's ears, his body shook as if there were a conflict between the puppet and his puppeteer.

Uriel did not speak as the Tsaesci slowly let him go. The blood that had come from the snake's fingertip slid uncomfortably under the folds of his clothes, down the back of his neck, tingling over each vertebrae. For good measure, and seemingly on a whim, Xashes smeared his calloused and bleeding index across Uriel's lips. Still he did not move. This appeared to distaste the Snake, but soon after the commander was laughing. "This will be a grand battle, Uriel." He picked up his sword, and sheathed it. <Good honor.>

The Emperor's cloak rustled quietly in the winds as the snake slithered back to his kind. He still did not move for many a moment as the party disappeared, confusing itself with the mass in the distance. At length, the Emperor turned, and took to his horse.

"Let us fight."

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The drums rolled. In four lines the Imperials had themselves arranged, the spearmen of the force spread thinly in front, little numerous that they were, to break the Tsaesci warband from the charge. To follow them would be the three Legionary Forester divisions of the Fifth, Seventh, and Tenth. Behind them, the main line force of the same three, armed by longsword and shield, in a solid, impenetrable wall. The last reserve, behind the entirety, were mixed the contingents of the Emperor's Blades and the Marksmen. The cavalry, all six hundred, braced the north flank.

As they advanced slowly on the Tsaesci position the enemy's tactic became clear. The Tsaesci lacked an organized, distinguishable formation, which the Emperor and indeed every man on the field found strange, especially considering the force was on the defensive. But just as this observation dawned underneath the bronzed helmets of the Empire's finest, the Snake's speed troops came into view across the flank. The cavalry were majestic and frightening; large, armless serpents in contrast to their civilized brethren, carrying on their backs two score of Tsaesci warriors. From the indistinguishable mass of soldiers slithered forth the archers, spitting volley after volley of venom-tipped arrows into the ranks of Imperial might.

They may have been strong enough to pierce scales, but these were never meant to breach the Legion's armors. A few men fell from formation, some injured, most merely struck. As the second wave of arrows approached the Emperor raised his clenched fist and thereby ordered his men to cease. The Foresters drew back their bows 'till the strings screamed of snapping and let loose their barrage.

Shimmering scales danced, silently some decided to accept death rather than put up a fight. The soldiers seemed unaffected, and a great hiss a thousand voices strong echoed back the whisses of the archers. With the noise came retaliation. This time the Tsaesci arrows found their mark. The spearmen dwindled, and in the lull of the fire the moaning of the dead was heard carried by the wind.

They came. With speed that surprised the soldiers standing armed and armored the cavalry forces met first. The horses were startled, but the lances and blades still found the muscle beneath those massive keratin plates. The beasts hissed, as the soldiers atop them struck down at the horses with knives that wrought heads from shoulders and limbs from their sockets.  But the Imperial horsemen held fast, and through the fear and confusion the blackness of the striking vipers seemed to swallow everything. Lines and formations disentegrated into a throbbing mass of bloody flesh and slicing steel.

And then, horribly real even to the battle-hardened troops of the Legions, smashed the spinning dais of the Tsaesci warband. Like a tide on the ocean meeting the sandcastle of a child the units were eaten away. The spears were crushed nigh-instantly, almost surgical strikes bypassing the shields and rolling the heads. The Foresters fared little better, slowing the Tsaesci charge but doing little to inflict injury past the arrows and axes. As the blood sloughed from their fleshy throats the Snakes pressed forward to the mainstay of the Imperial line. A brief counter-charge by the soldiers found the melee becoming ten times bloodier, the swords thick-pressed notching throats and gutting bellies. Everywhere one turned there was a blade ready to meet him, the dark flame of the Empire masking the blood of fellow and foe on the soldier's tunics. The Tsaesci were slick with blood, shining with the veneer of battle that so many of them craved. Wrapping around the necks, strangling one man while still doing battle with another.

The Tsaesci fought well, but those who did not learn quick were cut down, until by dwindled numbers the foes were outmatched. Surrounded. The Snakemen steel went cold. The Emperor charged. The Blades ran forth, sparks flying as their battle cry cut through the swath and dealt the final blow, black in the afternoon sun. Akaviri who yet lived took it in their best interest to flee, but the Great Snakes, knowing no better,fought to the last.

The field was silent. Heaving sighs of shuddering, weeping dismay the wind resumed it's path along the shortgrass, carrying with it the hisses and moans of the dead. Not among them was a most interesting prisoner.
Xashes-Rehos did not struggle in the arms of the guards. Next to a mountain of corpses the Emperor ahead of him stood, his thoughts reeking to him of a sort of respect and disgust. There was his vanqiusher, a man barely five feet, soft-skinned and ridiculous and vile. He was less unfed glory and splendor undeserved than any known, and sought more. And yet, he was scaled like none other, and of kin were he Xashes might have called him brother.

Dragonborn. The word bounced inside his rock paining him more with each reflection. Like the Tiger-Dragon Emperor this man was dangerous and special. Dragons were dangerous and special. And powerful. There was a reason his people had them all deadened.

"A prisoner for you sir." Uriel turned from his census of the macabre to meet his battle-weary adversary. He almost wanted to extend a hand.

"You fought well-"

"Kill me."

A chill ran down Uriel's spine. That look, just like the one he was given at the Citadel. He knew now of what it composed. Defeat. Failure. Hopelessness. Grand realization upon his mind that this Tsaesci's suspicions were confirmed. This man was a dragon. This man was unkillable. To the snake that slithered by his feet his greatest fear was now undeniable truth. The taste of his blood was no illusion anymore. He glanced between the eyes of his soldiers and his enemy, and with a quiver in his voice, commanded the serpent away. "Lock him up. Keep him away from the other prisoners and keep him from killing himself."

Xashes chuckled, and Uriel snapped to. He was grinning. "You won't have to worry about that, Svahken, I only want your blade in my throat."

No words. Not him who'd do the talking. Not ever.

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The sound of the drums and battle cries had followed them for a long time and Samiya's heart was heavy. Kalindi was still at her side and Mies-Thai still followed silently behind them. After they had not been able to find Tseon-Xibha, the warrior had chosen a different path. This one no longer followed the trail of the heart, but of duty. She followed the path home, back to S'Dratha and took the others with her.

The journey was longer than last time. They moved slowly, even slower with Mies-Thai with them. He tried very hard to mimick the female's movements, but he was unable to. He felt clumsy in this forest, being used to the safety of the city walls. Leaves were carried off when he passed by and he almost even lost his balance on a root. Samiya-Ela'eh made no remarks about it, but he saw how she watched him. To his shame he noticed that even the Tam moved more subtle than he did.

After several hours the city finally rose out of the foliage as a dark mountain. Mies-Thai felt relieved, Samiya-Ela'eh felt only tension. Once she would have simply entered, her head high and with pride, now she was uncertain. They had failed their mission and she was the only one returning. The one in command, the one that looked over the others. Which made it worse was that she had Kalindi with her. Her trust in the Tam remained, but she was well aware that others would not be so kind.

The warrior raised her scaly hand to stop them and turned towards them. She briefly looked at the city Snake, before turning her attention to Kalindi. "I can not take you in city now, too dangerous. Wait here. I return."

Mies-Thai watched the two and remained silent. His mind, though, took it all in. Samiya knew quite a few words, but he was better. He saw a chance. <I can look after her for you, until you return> he said.

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Kalindi frowned. Her constant glances at the structures beyond spoke of her yearning to explore; she was curious, but understood her Nest-Mother's justified concerns. When the Other spoke up, however, her longing to remain with Samiya doubled in her eyes as she appraised the ebon mantle insistently. She gathered up fronds and made a hood, indicating wordlessly her intent at stealth.

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Samiya saw, understood and shook her head. "No, Kalindi. Later."

There was no point in arguing and as a commander of her fallen comrades, a no was a no. One did not go against an order. To Samiya, this was a fact. Her eyes shifted to Mies-Thai once more. <Very well, you look after her> she answered, <Stay hidden>

Mies-Thai almost smiled, then realised it was not something his kin would do and remained still.

A last glance at the little snake; a mixture of worry and solid trust. "Stay with Mies-Thai," the warrior said, <I will return soon>

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The girl pouted, but did not again upraise her branches. Instead she shone her soft paleness on the Other. She rubbed stubby digits across the nubbin between her eyes, shedding her scales and revealing a sliver of the tawny hide beneath. She sniffed and, without another glance, slithered up a trunk and dangled from a branch, where she dazed in a verdant cocoon.

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After the dark Tsaesci had disappeared, Mies-Thai looked up to the Tam and then tried to make his way up to her. It went not as smooth, but eventually he made it to a branch, where he coiled down. He looked at the strange creature for a moment in silence, trying to figure out what to do with her. Her pinkish skin in between her scales confused him. Why had she done that?

After another silence, he relaxed a bit. He felt a bit nervous in the forest, but he was close to the city and hidden, so he thought he was quite safe. He opened his mouth and started talking, not his own tongue, but the other's, which felt more natural. "So she calls you Kalindi. She says you were a hatchling of Catasseh-Sefu", <One-that-was> "What did she mean by that?"

He tried to sound friendly and comforting, as he had seen Tams talk among each other.

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"You talk like them pretty well," the Tam observed. She remained still on her branch, holding him within the glossy pool of a single autumn sun.

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And she was as direct as they were. "Yes, I was their prisoner for a long time."

He could be direct too.

"I did not expect to see you here, in our company."

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"They kept me prisoner too," her pools rippled under the cold stones of recollection, "Catasseh-Sefu found me, kept me safe." She quavered for only a moment, then was steel again. "He's gone; shed. Now there is Tseon-Xihba. They took him too, but I won't let them keep him like they did Sefu." She turned both jewels upon him, "We were looking for him when we found you."

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Now he understood. One-that-was, One-that-is. He nodded slowly. She pronounced his name wrong, but Mies-Thai was aware Tams had different ways. He felt something strange under his scales, something familiar. "They did not keep him," he said then, "he is free."

He thought for a moment, his green eyes directed to something else. He locked them with her as he spoke again, the feeling big as he had once felt before. "If Tseon-Xihba does not return for you, he still will."

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She reacted peculiar to the Other's words, "He is...free?" Creases puckered soft patches on either side of her lips, her brow and chin dimpled like the freckled shadows that sifted through the leaves.

She cast her head as though she'd been struck and sneered; climbing higher into the canopy, where she was invisible to Other, she perched and glowered at Snake Town.

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Mies-Thai had never seen such expression on the soldiers before and had no idea what to think of it. There had been sadness in her voice, though, and somehow confusion. He found it strange, but then again, he knew enough of the Tams to know they were different. He had said the words to comfort her, knowing it would comfort any other of his kin. Now he did not know what to do anymore. He turned away from her and broke the eye contact, letting his gaze wander off to the forest around them. He would wait; he had tried.

 

Samiya meanwhile made her way to the palace, slithering over the smooth stones underneath her. She moved fast, hasty and slightly uncertain. Before, she would have simply entered the throne room without hesitation, but now things had changed. She held her head as high and proud as she could, but it did not feel the same. She no longer felt like she deserved the name she was given.

Her task was simple: report to S'Dratha, that what he already knew about, and wait for new orders. Then return to the walls as soon as possible and get Kalindi to safety.

As she arrived at the doors, she took a deep breath and became herself again. She would not fail.

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He can't be dead, not again.

She couldn't let the plan fall apart now, not after risking so much. She needed Tseon, needed him to work like Sefu, to give her hope. She disliked this snake who walked like a man, he confused her, he sounded too much like them and that made him untrustworthy. There was too much potential for ruination here.

She watched him, saw the disappointment in his eyes, the hurt at her reaction. What's this?

From the whispering fronds the Bosnake stalked her new target.

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Samiya slithered inside, her yellow eyes fixed on the Snake before her. As once, she was small and he was enormous, but for the first time in her life she saw something different. He was no Dragon. He had Scales, but they were not rooted into his soul.

The moment passed quickly as she moved closer, the guard next to her announcing her arrival. Her neck stretched out to the ceiling and at the same time her eyes found the humble floor.

<Your Highness> she said as she bowed before him.

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The most highest thane turned his torso to look upon the returning warrior. In his darkness reflected the truth was felt but dismissed by reason. She had returned, had she not? <Samiya-Ela'eh!> His scales cracked open and a tongue not often seen exposed itself. Proper form did not need to be followed by an emperor — nor his empire — in times of war. It lapped out for the faintest whiff of a victory. Slightly less booming, cautionary, off the same tongue, <What do you bring me?>

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Samiya was slightly startled by his reaction towards her presence, although she did not show.

<I stand before you in deep shame, my Lord. I failed you.> She paused, trying to estimate his feelings. <I was unable to complete my task.>

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S'Dratha was silent. The feeling he had had from the moment he had witnessed those shimmering black and red banners had finally become a suspicion confirmed. Dragonborn. Fire burned in his veins like it did for the Tiger-King. That kind of power went hard, and the Emperor saw in Samiya's glass the crumbling mounds of dirt that once was his country. It took uncountable ones, thousands of cycles, the corpse of a dead Dragonkyne rotting among the pink blossom petals for his glorious vision to realize. And now the one and same had returned to take it from him.

He was fearful, yes, but not without esperaunces. The half-dragon had been beaten before, and this would follow likewise. He had to have confidence, faith! A hard-forged fist rammed the table in his Hall, and the noise of his plates resonated through the present. His face remained hard and cold as the scales that covered it.

In an instant the same hand clutched Samiya's throat. He leaned on her, coiling his length around her to desist her move. She began to feel the choke. <Shame.> The hand clutched a little harder. <Both us feel of that.> His eyes focused on hers, and the breath he drew was sharp, as if finding words for a thought undefined.

A messenger burst through the doors, wide-eyed and breathing hard. <Your Highness, General Xas-Rehos' army was defeated by the invaders at Reysashal—> He dropped silent at his sight of the wrapped female between the Emperor's palms.

S'Dratha cursed and released Samiya from his hands, his brow furrowed into a nervous, frightened frustration. He waved the messenger off, who bowed and slithered with no undue haste from the palace, before turning back to his would-be assassin. <Consider your dismissal blessing over rotting sockets.> He undulated to the war-room, slamming open the screens, and was gone.