While Collin attended to matters at home, Jake used the extra time to get to know more people. They all wanted to know him, to touch him, to have a little ride, and logic told him that he and Collin were safest when most of the people of the village trusted him. To trust him they had to know him. And Jake did admit, with Kayden’s teasing, that he loved to have people exclaiming how beautiful he was.
Some even treated him as if he were a god, but Collin warned him not to give in to that temptation. “Treat everyone equally, and remember that you are no better than they are. You have just been gifted with a different body.”
And Jake recalled his sacred texts which he lived by. When he reviewed them he realized that perhaps, now that he could go out during the day, he’d be able to participate with the human believers. That Sunday he flew over to the church and sat outside the open window, observing and listening to the service.
Afterward he stayed to meet the people coming out. The minister, a man about Geoff’s age, tentatively greeted him. “I’m Pastor Gavrie. I didn’t realize you were listening in. What did you think?”
“I have longed to meet others who have studied this book.” Jake plopped down on the grass to speak earnestly. “Tell me, will God forgive dragons from sins? Did Jesus die for us also?”
The minister laughed nervously. “With any ordinary dragon, I could answer that easily. You….” He glanced at the crowd which had gathered around. “Do you have the ability to comprehend that you are too sinful to approach God?”
“Yes. I know I’ve done wrong. And pride is a big problem.”
“And you know that one can only approach God through Jesus, that you need to trust him.”
“Yes. I know that,” Jake said, watching the minister, but aware of everything around him from the brightness of the sky, to the feel of the cool green grass beneath him. “I wondered, though, if the grace is open to non-humans.”
“Of course it is,” someone said.
“No, humans are….”
“He’d be included as a gentile….”
“Man and woman in the image of God….”
The arguments became heated, alarming Jake. “Wait!” he shouted, and the crowd stared at him. “Please do not fight on my account. I’ve lived with the uncertainty for years. I guess it is not a flaw in my logic that precludes an answer.”
“But you can go to heaven,” a woman shouted.
“It is not heaven so much as the renewing of my core. The defect is at the core of every human and of me. I am wondering about regeneration, as Calvin spoke about.”
“Calvin? Where does he preach?” asked a man near the minister.
The minister cleared his throat. “I’m afraid I am not familiar with the ancient writers. I just read the scriptures.”
“Yes. So have I, in every language, and Calvin….”
The minister shook his head. “You don’t need anything but the scriptures.”
“True, but can’t we learn from those who came before?”
“Don’t follow another man.”
“No, I just….”
“Join us each Sunday, if you wish,” Gavrie invited. “We’re straight from the Bible. The Earth Eden Edition. Do you have one?”
“I have translations in every language.”
“Those are probably corrupted.”
“No, the files… books are in good order. No corruptions.” Jake did a quick internal check to make sure.
“You’ll come back, won’t you?” asked a woman earnestly, approaching and placing her hand on his shoulder.
“Yes. When I am not away. I should go now.” He carefully made his way from the crowd and launched into the air. He’d enjoyed the service, even though he had wished to debate a few details of the sermon. But he often found humans mildly inaccurate, and could tolerate that in them. But afterward… He wasn’t sure why he felt so disappointed or let down. He didn’t think it was because they couldn’t answer his question. Maybe it was that he realized they wouldn’t even consider discussing the things he found fascinating.
He hesitated to talk to Collin. He never wanted to discuss religion either. But he finally did.
“I have the same problem with medicine, my friend,” Collin said softly from his office. “I can never debate the merits of a procedure because they either don’t have the resources to perform the procedure or they don’t have the background knowledge and retreat into their own ‘dogma’.”
Jake sighed. “I had hoped. Perhaps I shouldn’t go back.”
“For me, some contact is better than none. You’ll have to make your own decision.”
“I wish you would study it, so you could discuss it with me.”
“Maybe someday when I have more time, Beloved. A patient has arrived.” He wouldn’t be able to interrupt him for a while now.
Jake really hoped that Cee would eventually study it all. She’d accepted the files, but she hadn’t pored over them like he had. She didn’t have the conviction that she needed them.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Geoff and Quinn sat in the armchairs of his room. They’d spoken quite a bit over the last few days, and Quinn was adjusting to his flippant humor. There wasn’t much to do with Collin gone except talk, enjoy the artwork, and explore. The more he explored, the more artwork he found. Cee had shown them how to activate the Archive computer to show them moving pictures, and he and Geoff had asked to see medical information. After a myriad of menus they finally watched quite a few graphic operations and procedures.
Cee rolled up to Quinn, her metal arms holding a drinking glass full of fresh roses, lilies, greenery and white sprays, each with an exotic cast he was unfamiliar with. “I found a garden,” she said, and her voice sounded a bit shy. “Archive said I could cut them for you.” The arm stretched toward him.
Quinn took the glass of flowers, remembering not more than a couple weeks ago when Shanika had brought him a fist full of drooping field buttons which grew wild beside the pasture fence. Cee had surely noted the exchange and hoped for a similar response. “Thanks. These are great, Cee. I don’t think I’ve ever seen these flowers before.” He took a moment to study each plant and memorize it as he did when Collin showed him a new plant for cures. “You’ll have to show us where the garden is later.”
“It’s on the far other side in a large room with a robot caretaker, but it appears no humans have been to appreciate it in over a hundred years – not even Collin.”
“That’s odd for a man who worships his garden,” Geoff said.
“The soil in this garden has a common Terran mineral content, as most space station gardens do. Perhaps he does not go there because he cannot easily share the plants or the beauty with others,” Cee suggested. “There are food crops there also, and I have had some fresh fruit and vegetables taken to the kitchen for our lunch.”
“Really?” Geoff leaned forward. “Real food instead of that mush we’ve been eating? I could kiss you.”
“You are happy with me, Dr. Napier? If Quinn agrees I could go and see what other possibilities the kitchen might have.” But then the robot’s top slid open. “I am sorry. I can do no more. Jake is back.” A metallic arm entered the hole on top and withdrew Cee’s core, handing it to Quinn.
Quinn took her and enclosed the small, thin rectangle with his hands. “No need to be sorry. You’ve done good.”
The robot slid its top closed, and when it spoke his voice was deeper, richer. “We’re back,” he said, as Collin turned the corner.
“Just in time for lunch,” Geoff said. He nudged Quinn’s arm. “We’re still going to get those fruits and vegetables she promised, aren’t we?”
“Fruits and vegetables?” Collin asked. “Oh, the old garden is still producing them? You have been wandering.”
“Cee said she had some taken to the kitchen for us.”
“Oh. Hey, Mauve. Go bring us that fresh lunch waiting for us in the kitchen.”
“Yes, Dr. Hansell.” The mauve colored cart rolled out of the room.
“Collin, Geoff has asked about an implant.”
“This instant information might prove quite useful,” Geoff said with a slight grin.
Collin smiled. “You’ll receive yours right after lunch.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
They arrived home two and a half weeks after Geoff’s surgery. Quinn had come home for four days, but then gone back to help tend the garden at the mountain cabin where Collin told Geoff and reminded Quinn of the properties of each new experimental plant. The outing had been good for Geoff, but he did not do any of the gardening and took frequent rests on the bed inside.
But now they were back in Hope. Every time Quinn saw a patient, he was asked about Jake. Often it was a simple, “how is he doing?” But others wanted detail after detail, and Quinn was required to field questions until he could politely excuse himself. He found that the young men, which he’d often felt uncomfortable around because his own youth had been filled with teasing and name calling, flocked to him and asked their questions in a hushed awe. They wanted to know how to kill reptile dragons and how they might obtain a special dragon friend. The outcast was now a hero, and one day, in a moment of weakness, he arranged to meet the group of them with Jake at dusk.
He was afraid Collin would be upset with the “showing off” of Jake, but instead he gave that soft smile, which meant he understood Quinn’s needs and fears. “I’m afraid Jake is right again, Quinn. Good public relations will be good for us in the long run. Stay in control, but be as open as possible. Make friends, but let them know you can’t visit often because you work two jobs.
And then miracle of miracles, that night, a reptile dragon dared show its face. Jake darted away from their group, and then came back ten minutes later, dropping a dead dragon into their midst. Quinn was forced to use the sharp knife he now carried at his waist instead of the easier laser when dehiding the beast, but he gained so much respect from the boys over the event, that even the fresh blister from the knife handle was worth it. He asked Collin if he could somehow have a souvenir of the night made for each of them from this turquoise hide.
Amazingly Collin was again receptive and suggested belts. They were simple for Ulan to make, and there’d be plenty of hide to spare.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
But then it was time to go to Dannel’s wedding. He’d stopped several weeks before to see his pegasus. Quinn suspected that next time he came, the little guy would be ready to follow him home, and Quinn would need to sit with Shanika until she cried herself to sleep. But that wouldn’t be for another week or two. Collin and Quinn donned their Hans and Rock Trapper outfits, and Jake flew them to Alexandria early that morning. They stayed in the barn, however, out of everyone’s way and discussed the difficulty of combining a bird and mammal genetic code in the Erikan Pegasus – that is until people became numerous and noticed them. Then they had to mingle with the crowd.
Ulan had briefly spotted them, and as he made his way toward them, he was stopped, so that they didn’t speak with Ulan before the ceremony.
The wedding was outside in the small public park which bordered the hospital on two sides, the back of the shops in the block which Ulan’s storefront sat, and the large tannery building on the fourth side. The tannery had been a small carriage factory which sat empty for two years until Ulan had needed to expand with Jake’s increased delivery of raw hides.
The bride dressed in a creamy white dragon-hide dress. Collin leaned over to Quinn. “And here Michael and Kayden just wore their everyday work clothes. Do you think she’d even wear a dress?”
Quinn grinned. Kayden didn’t like to be unpractical. “I do like that cream though. If we get another, perhaps you should have something made for her.”
“There’s Dannel,” he said pointing to the man approaching the platform in black dragon-hide.
“Noooo,” Collin said slowly. “That’s Seavan. That’s odd.”
But indeed it was Seavan marrying Irisha, and Dannel stood beside his cousin, smiling and joking.
“He doesn’t seem upset,” Quinn said, a bit amazed.
“I think we’ll hang around.” He glanced at Quinn with a quick grin. “You know Kayden will want the details.”
Quinn gave a slight laugh. “Yeah. Do it for Kayden,” he said, knowing his mentor was just as curious.
Later that night, after all the partying was over, and the last of the guests had congratulated the couple, introduced themselves to Hans and Rock, and finally left, Hans and Rock stayed to help clean up. Dannel came out to work beside them as they took down the marriage platform. The guests had all talked about the switch, and the consensus was that this was good for business. Dannel would never follow his father to stay home and tan hides.
Collin straightened and placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “So what is the real truth, Dannel?”
Quinn studied Dannel’s face as intently as Collin did, and he detected no hesitation in the grin. “Kayden was right, you know. I’m not cut out to marry a girl like Irisha.”
“So he didn’t steal your girl or….”
Dannel shook his head and waved his hand to dismiss it. “I had to practically beg him to take over my job as heir apparent. Not that he doesn’t like her. He was just afraid I’d be upset. Actually Mom suggested the change. She knew I couldn’t stay home, even for this, and Seavan gets along well with her.” Then he nudged Collin. “I’m not married. You need another apprentice, I’m free.”
Collin gave a deep laugh. “The truth comes out, doesn’t it? We’ll see. We’ll see.” He sobered a bit, but kept a slight smile. “Part of being my apprentice, though, is living up to your obligations. Don’t let me hear that you’ve neglected the little girl, or left any other women struggling to care for your children alone. I have a strict code of honor, Dannel, but I’ll keep my eye on you.” He patted his shoulder, and then immediately turned back to the corner of the platform he’d been easing apart.
Quinn could tell that Dannel had not expected the reprimand, nor the implication that perhaps he had a chance in the future. Dannel noticed Quinn’s look and jogged over to the other side of the platform to work.
Later Ulan gave Quinn a package. “Twenty turquoise belts, as ordered.”
Quinn smiled. “Thanks.” Only fourteen boys between the ages of 13 and 21 had been with him that night, but he knew of at least three others who had not been, and he planned to pay them a special visit. The three extra belts were in case he’d miscounted.
As they rode home on Jake, Quinn asked, “Will you take him as an apprentice?”
Collin was behind him, so Quinn could not see his face. “I don’t anticipate doing so, but then I never anticipated that Jake could ever enjoy the respect he does among the villagers. I just wanted to give Dannel a reason to resist the temptations open to a good looking, rich, young man who travels excessively. It also might knock away another piece of the glamour he imagines belongs to someone working with me.”
They made it home before dawn, and slept in before joining the group at noon.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Geoff was recovering steadily and had even seen a few patients while Collin and Quinn were at the wedding. And he was adjusting to the voices in his ear, often seeking out information from Cee or Jake. He still had to remember to be discrete about it, though. Collin teased him that people would think he was becoming senile if he wasn’t careful.
But Niles and Marta, Par and Gwen were all in their new house now. Collin decided to temporarily give Geoff one of the two patient guest rooms with a single bed. They had never needed both of the them, as most of the patients stayed in the double room.
Geoff’s son, Vince, came a week and a half later than the three weeks he’d declared the last time he’d seen Collin. He strode confidently through the waiting room and office to the surgery. Collin was just finishing with a patient and was leading her out, when Vince stopped him.
“Ah, Vince. I’ve been anticipating your return. One moment and I’ll be with you.”
“Is my father here?”
“Your father is resting at the moment.” He returned his attention to Mrs. Leniski and led her back through to the waiting room, chatting as though their conversation had not been interrupted.
When he returned Vince was in the double bed patient room. “Where is he?”
Geoff shuffled out of his room. “Can’t you keep it quiet in here? An old man can’t get a wink of sleep with all this racket.”
“Recovering your sterling good humor, I see,” Collin teased back.
“Are you ready to go home?”
“I am home,” Geoff said with a scowl. Then he gave Collin a slight grin. “I’ve bought into this practice. I’m a partner here.”
Collin knew he was joking and hoped Cee didn’t relay the joke to Quinn. He didn’t want him hurt because of previous promises.
“Don’t be silly. You’re too old to start over. Let’s just go home. Misti and Raini want to see you.”
“I’ll visit them when my doctor thinks I’m well enough to travel.”
“You made it back here from wherever, and I have a wingdeer. It’s a much smoother ride.”
“Than what?” Geoff said dryly. “A dragon? Ever flown on a dragon, Vince. Beautifully smooth flight.” He slowly walked through to the waiting room.
Vince followed, and Collin did also to head off any trouble.
“You’ve been listening to the village cultist, haven’t you?”
“Not a cult….”
“They’re probably a break off of that mountain cult your parents were a part of. Don’t tell me….”
“Those people were not my family!” Geoff said sharply. Then he glanced at Collin and shook his head. “When Vince was fourteen a group of gypsies came through with our last name. A young girl was half eaten. Had been out singing to the dragon-god. Idiots. Not my people.” He walked out on the porch and sat in one of the two armchairs on the right.
Geoff’s parents had been mountain gypsies. If Collin had stayed a few years longer, he’d have been there when they reentered his life.
Vince stood before him and leaned back against the porch rail. “Mom said they were your family.”
“Don’t bring your mother into this.” Geoff shook his head. “Look, Vince. I’ll visit when I’m able, but I’m not ready to spend the rest of my days on anyone’s front porch. ‘Cept Collin’s. I’ll stay here, watch the wheat grow, and deliver a few babies. No one else has offered me a more tempting life.” He winked at Collin. “Work when I want, sleep when I want, ride wingdeer when I want, tease the children….”
“You’ve got grandchildren to tease. You shouldn’t be practicing medicine. You told me yourself that’s why you had to sell the place. You didn’t trust yourself to look after Mom, so you took her to die away from all her family and friends. You should at least give Misti and Raini the courtesy to die at home so they can attend your funeral.”
“Maybe my daddy did it the right way, getting himself dragon eaten so his kid wouldn’t beg to watch him die. Surely I wasn’t so stubborn in my youth.”
“You were probably worse,” Collin said with a slight grin. “Wanted the old man to remain forever in your shadow.”
“Unlike you who has no shadow at all, is it?” He chuckled. “I’m not going back to Shade, Vince, but you’re welcome to quit your job and move to Hope, if you can’t stand to be that far from your daddy.”
Vince straightened. “And how long will you remain with Dr. Collin? Until he weasels away the rest of your money and kicks you out?”
“Dad! We’re passing laws on this right now. You don’t know how many people are out there to tear the money away from the elderly, and how many families just let their parents be abused by crooks. Well, I’m not letting it happen to you.”
“Don’t you just admire that kind of stubborn loyalty?” Collin asked. “So like his father. Vince, didn’t Mayor Talbert assure you I was a long time upstanding citizen?”
“And I also heard how you cheated Gaben Blanne out of his rights with promises and low pay. How you’ve always cheated your apprentice Quinn Stone, how you hire thieves and new convicts so you don’t need to pay them.”
He flung his arms out toward the barns. “Just look at all this, Dad. In a poor, rural village, he owns more wingdeer than the City of Shade. The only way to get that kind of money is through taking advantage of innocent people like you.”
Geoff winked at Collin again. “I guess he knows me about as well as I knew you. Innocent, he calls me.” He struggled to stand. “Didn’t get my nap. This poor innocent needs a nap every afternoon. Still recovering from surgery and all that. I’m sure Doc Collin here will put you up for the night if you want to visit with your old man for a few days.”
“Don’t dismiss me like I’m a child!” Vince roared. “If you’re going to endanger yourself, I’ll take you over my shoulder.”
Geoff stared up at him, “After my nap. My pet dragon is sleeping right now and can’t be bothered to rescue me until later.” Then he walked between Collin and a startled Vince back into the house.
Vince turned to follow him, but Collin caught his arm. “He does need his rest. Let me show you to your room.”
“I was not planning to stay.”
“Dragging your father against his wishes is not good for his health.”
“Doc Collin! Doc Collin!” yelled a boy as he ran toward them. He stopped and drew in deep gulps of air. “Quick. My dad. The axe slipped.”
“Go tell Kayden to get my wingdeer ready.” He sent the boy on the errand but knew Jake had relayed the message. “See you later, Vince.” Collin ran inside to gather his pack and add some extra bandages. Then he met Kayden, Angie and the boy out front. Collin lifted the boy up on Angie’s back, and then he was on his way.
© 2007 by Deborah K. Lauro. No part of this book may be published in any form without permission from the author.