He was right. Everything would always be taken from him. If Seavan had to go to Alexandria with Dannel, why couldn’t he go with them? Aben lit the lamp, although his hands were shaking. He needed to see his proof — proof that he’d actually ridden the dragon. He pulled his red squares from beneath his pillow and lifted the soft hide to cover his face, breathing deeply of the raw dragon hide. It was not Jamel’s scent, but he’d smelled it when he’d fallen into the bundles of raw hide, and if he kept his eyes closed he could imagine that night again.
“Looks like Hans gave him a souvenir,” he heard Dannel say softly.
Aben whipped the hide from his face and under his pillow.
Dannel chuckled. “Too late. We already saw it.”
Seavan appeared to be ill. He sunk down on his bed. “Why, Aben? I thought….”
“He couldn’t tell you, Seavan. If Hans binds you to a promise, you have to keep it or he won’t trust you again.” He sat beside Seavan and clasped his hand on his back. “You’ll meet Hans when you come south. You’ll find out then.”
“But what’s such a big secret?”
“Perhaps Aben saw him kill a dragon. Man, I wish I could have seen that. I’d like those details myself. You know there has to be some secret way to do it, or else everyone would be able to do it. A tech spy went through a couple months ago asking about Hans and how he killed dragons.”
“A tech spy? You’re sure?”
“Dad met him. I didn’t. But the guys at the pub about slaughtered him for suggesting Hans might have a laser. Hans could get into big trouble if he has a laser. Not that I’ve ever seen him with one, or even know what one looks like. But if that’s how he does it, he could get zapped.
Seavan’s eyes widened and he shivered. “The government would zap Hans Trapper?”
“That’s why it’s a secret. That’s why we can’t say much about him. We have to protect him, because he’s the only one out there risking his life to kill those dragons. Not that I don’t want to join him,” Dannel said again. “Almost ran away with a sword when I was fifteen to try it myself. Fortunately Hans stopped me. Wouldn’t teach me how, but he did convince me it was suicide.” Dannel studied Aben intently.
Aben lowered his gaze to his dragon-hide, wondering if Michael Jamel had been that tech spy. But revealing that he might know the tech spy wouldn’t help anyone. He didn’t even know where Michael was now.
Seavan reached for the squares of hide, and Aben let him take them. “Three red ones. I can’t believe it.”
“It’s not supposed to happen that way,” Aben said. “Apparently Hansell made them randomly non-repeating,” he said, hoping he remembered the term right. “Spent a whole year on the color alone.”
Seavan stared at him. “They teach you that before you came?”
He shook his head, realizing he’d said too much.
Dannel chuckled again. “So you and Hans had a nice talk. Isn’t he great?”
“He… he… yeah.”
Dannel chuckled. “You’ll meet Hans, Seavan, and you can ask all your questions then. Not that he answers half the questions anyone asks him. He’s rather enigmatic that way.” He fingered the hides. “You did a good job. How’d you guess that you worked only one side?”
“I figured working the other would destroy the color. But I don’t have the preserving agent.”
Dannel grinned. “Maybe I’ll be able to scarce up a drop or two for you before I leave so you can finish them right.” He stood. “I better let you two get some sleep. You don’t look well either, Seavan.”
Seavan fell across his bed with his face against his pillow. “Let me sleep.”
“Sure.” Dannel left them.
Aben suddenly became afraid, not that his best friend would leave in a few months, but that he was ill. He shifted to sit on the edge of Seavan’s bed. “Seavan? Should I get the doc? Maybe some medicine?”
Seavan rolled over. “Are you feeling worse?”
“Not me. You. You look rotten.”
“My father exiles me days away from anyone I know, and I’m supposed to look like I’m enjoying myself?” He rolled over so that his face was again in his pillow.
Aben rested his hand on his back. “Let me go with you. I’ll serve you any way I can. I won’t get in the way, I promise.”
“You just want to see Hans Trapper.”
Aben squeezed his shoulder, letting his fingertips dig into him so that Seavan would know he meant what he said. “You’re my best friend, damn it. This has nothing to do with Hans Trapper. I don’t even think Dannel and I are talking about the same person. He didn’t call himself Hans, and man, Seavan, every time I get to care about something or someone, they’re torn away, and I never see them again. I want to go with you.”
“What about your parents? Your little sister?”
Aben bit his lip. He didn’t want to think about them. It always hurt too much. “They’d be safer with me gone.”
“Dad wants you here. He wants you but not me.”
“Seavan,” he said with a low cry. Seavan had always been strong. Strong and calm with a gentle sense of humor. Without his constant encouragement and friendship over the last month and a half, Aben was sure he’d be living alone in a cave in the woods. And now Seavan was hurting as he had. How could he possibly help him? He couldn’t think his father was rejecting, could he? “Your father doesn’t want me. He wants you to have his inheritance that he’d have if he’d stayed at home twenty-five years ago. Not Rigel, not Jimmy, not Shalina. You. It’s a reward, and I don’t know what I’m going to do when you’re gone.”
Seavan didn’t speak, keeping his face in his pillow.
The bedroom door was slightly ajar from when Dannel left to sleep in Jimmy’s room. Aben stood and softly shut it tight. Then he settled next to Seavan again. “What do you want to know, Seavan?” he whispered. “I did see him kill the dragon. I think it was a laser. Sliced its head right off. The body fell on me, and I must have been knocked out for a while.”
Seavan rolled over. “You don’t have to tell me, Aben.”
“Yes, I do. You’ve done everything for me.”
“But Hans saved your life.”
“I don’t even know if it was Hans. Yeah, he was all silvery blue, but….” Aben shook his head. “He told me another name. The name of a man who I met coming down. He was a prisoner, but then I saw his tech, and he told me he was a sheriff. I don’t know. Somehow the hides got to Hans later, and then they got to Ulan. Wait. No. He said he was taking them to Ulan. He said Ulan’s name, I remember now. I don’t know. Maybe he was Hans, and Dannel is lying about his size, and he lied about his name or something. Or maybe I dreamed half of it. I was knocked unconscious, he said, but I had no brain damage. He told me that, too.”
Aben sighed and slipped from Seavan’s bed to his own. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I’m not even sure my memories are accurate. All I have are these scraps of hide, and the rest was just a dream. Just a stupid, childish dream.” He blew out the lamp.
The room was quiet for a long while. Then Seavan said, “I’m going to really miss you, Aben. Write to me, okay? The others won’t write, except maybe Shalina, but you write, please?”
“Yeah. I promise.”
Even though Aben was exhausted he couldn’t sleep. Had he betrayed Jamel’s trust? Or had he betrayed Seavan by not revealing that the person he’d actually spoken to was a mammal dragon. Had he really spoken to a dragon, or was it a six and a half foot man dressed in dragon hide, and he’d dreamed the rest. After all, why would a dragon have the same name as his friend Michael? How would a dragon even have a voice to be able to speak to him?
Even though Seavan made no noise, Aben didn’t think he slept much at all that night. As they both readied for the day, Aben noticed the puffiness around his eyes.
“Are you sure you’re feeling better?” Seavan asked. He took Aben’s upper arm to keep him still as he studied his face. “You still look too pale. I don’t want you overdoing.”
Aben couldn’t help the smile. “I had to herd and milk cows, carry milk, and work fields, all after being beaten much worse. You’re too easy on me.”
But Seavan didn’t smile as he’d hoped. “I don’t care what you did before. You tell me if you need to rest.” He stalked from the room.
For a moment Aben was stunned at the sharpness, but then he ran down the stairs after him. He caught him at the foot of the steps and kept his voice low. “You, too, Seav. I know you didn’t sleep, and I can see this is tearing you up, just like I felt when I had to leave. Let me help. Now and then. I’ll write every week if that’s all I can do for you, but you let me know, okay?”
Seavan’s lips pressed tight together. He reached to grasp Aben’s upper arm as he gave a slight nod. Then he turned away to the workshop instead of the kitchen. “Best decision I ever made,” he mumbled. “Never had a friend closer than my brothers.”
Aben barely heard him, but then he realized it was embarrassing Seavan to speak about their relationship and how Seavan had coaxed Aben until the friendship was as strong as the mentorship. Now he knew it meant a lot to Seavan, too. Aben vowed to be as good a friend to Seavan as Seavan had been to him.
Seavan began an unnecessary straightening of the tanning equipment — the extra frames, the jars of preserving agents and dyes, the works in progress. Aben worked beside him, guessing that Seavan just needed to think. They remained until Jimmy came in. “Here you are. Hurry up and eat. Dad says we can’t look at the dragon stuff until everyone eats. You’re holding us up.”
Seavan grinned and reached to ruffle Jimmy’s hair, which Jimmy hated.
He dodged away. “Come on. You’re wasting time.”
“You should be in school, young man.”
“Dad said I could stay until after we saw the dragon stuff.” He stuck out his tongue.
“So you can show off whatever you can snag?” Seavan teased. “If you take something to school, you better make sure you don’t ruin it the first day getting into a fight by making your friends jealous.”
Jimmy grinned. “I can handle it.” Then he shot back into the kitchen.
Seavan shook his head. “The little teasel probably can.”
Aben guessed Seavan was right. Jimmy cheerfully passed through life, and he had a bunch of friends who walked home with him, sometimes stopping to pet Queenie. Queenie enjoyed the attention for a little while, and then she’d fly away and not come back until the gang left. Aben had been concerned about the group at first, but after discretely watching, he noticed that Jimmy was in charge, and he made sure none of his friends grabbed Queenie’s halter or wings or leaned against her. He still wondered if Queenie might someday switch her primary loyalty to Jimmy. The boy took every opportunity to be with her.
After breakfast Ulan and Dannel brought two large duffel bags outside. Aben wondered if he shouldn’t be working inside as this was obviously a time of family gift-giving and he was not family. But his desire to see his nemesis scattered into pieces of clothing helped him ignore his jealousy. After all, Dannel had given him a halter for Queenie.
The sun glistened off the pieces, either predominately red or with red highlights. “This is why I was a couple weeks late getting back here,” Dannel admitted. “I actually stayed home and helped Dad get these things ready.”
“Thought you delivered mail,” Dan said. “You mean people paid good silver for airmail just to have it get there after the wagon?”
Dannel laughed. “Oh, I’ve got others doing the mail route, now. I just fill in when I’m going to a city anyway or one of them needs some time off.”
Dan shook his head. “Maybe I was wrong about this kid. Has he really organized his own business and employees, and expanded yours? He’s not any older than Seavan, is he?”
Ulan smiled. “Yeah. He’s got a head for business. He just can’t stand to conduct it inside one building, nor stay in one place long enough to supervise anyone. And he now collects no profits from the mail. He gave it over into the hands of workers.”
“They deserve it.” Dannel focused his protest to Dan, as if hoping for his approval. “I don’t do anything but fill in. They take all the risks now. Besides it’s not really a high profit business. There isn’t much there, and what do we need the gold for when we’ve got this.”
Ulan gave a slight roll of his eyes, and Dan laughed. By Dannel’s defensiveness, Aben suspected his father had voiced his dissatisfaction with the way Dannel ran his business before. Dannel, apparently realizing that Dan would not take his side, turned his attention back to the bag he held, withdrawing several tool belts and hanging them across the clothes line for viewing.
Ulan withdrew a midnight blue jacket with reddish orange trim. “What do you think of this one, Dan?”
Dan whistled in appreciation. “Nice.”
“Fits me,” Ulan said. “Might fit you,” he said, eyeing his brother with a teasing grin.
“If Dad doesn’t want it…,” Rigel began and then hesitated. They were all like that, Aben noticed. They admired the items, but were hesitant to actually claim them.
But Ulan grinned, handing it to Rigel. “Go ahead. Try it on.”
“Now, Ulan,” Dan said, shaking his head. “Didn’t you offer it to me first?”
Reluctantly Rigel handed the jacket to his father. But Ulan withdrew another, this one burnished bronze and red. He handed it to Rigel.
Seavan sat beside Aben in the shade of the house. Aben wished they were in the sun, as it was a little chilly that morning, but he stayed by Seavan’s side. All the items were withdrawn, and what the others weren’t trying on or claiming hung beautifully bright in the sunlight. Several neighbors passing by stopped to visit and admire the wares.
“Seavan!” bellowed his father. “Quit hiding and do your choosing. We’ve got people wanting to buy here.”
Dannel grabbed a belt and a black-violet jacket with orange-red trim. “Since you like to hide, you probably don’t want the bright red.” Jimmy had chosen the bright red jacket, which was muted only by the blue trim, apparently the same blue that his father’s jacket was made of. Another stood on the line with bronze trim. Shalina had chosen the violet which had none of the red killer dragon’s hide, and Vanya opted for the orange red, after her husband complemented her in it. The packs hung on the line also, only a couple in the red, several in two tone with red over half, most another color with red as a highlight. They were each urged to choose one of those also.
Seavan sighed. “Yeah. This is nice. Thanks, Dannel.” He glanced at Aben and then back at Dannel.
“Come on, Seavan. Pick out your pack.”
“Pick me out one, Aben. My eyes are too tired to see straight this morning.”
Aben wished he could get one for himself. He used an old cast off Seavan had when he snuck home now, but someday, after he replaced his clothes, he’d like a nice one. But dragon hide would cost over twice what a good sturdy cow leather would cost and almost three times what a serviceable burlap would. But Seavan deserved the best, so he immediately pointed out the bag he’d had his eye on — a nice copper, almost a wingdeer shade when the sun hit Queenie just right, with brick red trim.
“Hey, if you get that, maybe you want that copper coat, too,” Dannel suggested. He brought both over to Seavan. “Whatever,” Seavan shrugged. “I’m not picky, and I guess in a few months I’ll see so much dragon hide, I’ll be sick of it.”
Dannel slapped his shoulder affectionately. “You never get sick of it. Every piece is unique. Now getting sick of tanning the stuff, yeah, that wears out pretty quickly.” Dannel focused on Aben. “As soon as I help get this stuff to Neville’s, we can meet in the barn to go over Queenie’s care.”
“She’s doing fine,” Aben said, trying hard to convince himself he wasn’t upset at being overlooked in the giving. He wasn’t family, after all. Just a hired hand.
But Seavan smiled. “Just let us know when you get back, Dannel. Come on, Aben.”
Aben followed Seavan inside, and Seavan took his new gifts to his room, putting them away.
“Aren’t you going to switch your stuff?” Aben asked as they walked back downstairs.
“I’ll do it some other time,” Seavan said, and started them working.
Go to Chapter 18
© 2013, 2000 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.