A full nest of them had gathered on the green of Mistfield Park: long thick-bodied serpents in bright metallic colors, some wider than a man and several times as long, others not even two yards from nose to tail. Half a dozen of the largest, in shades from sea-green to indigo, were slithering in a wide circle with a small orange-red one at the center. The back and ruff scales of all of them were raised in threat display, the red one coiled tight, head turning in a doomed effort to watch all the others at once. Perhaps a dozen other viper-dragons waited coiled at the perimeter, observing.
Aunbrel started for the disturbance, but Kinsley caught his arm. "Not our problem, kid."
"What are they doing?" Aunbrel hesitated, but his eyes were narrowed on the scene.
"Dragon business. Not our problem."
One of the large circling dragons snapped forward and back out in a motion too fast to follow, accompanied by the clashing rake of tooth against scale. The red one loosed a hiss of pain or warning, glaring at the assailant. Aunbrel's nostrils flared and he strode toward the scene. "They are in Hopestart, they are obliged to follow its laws."
Kinsley hauled on the elf's arm. "They've got dispensation for their customs. They're not violating any laws."
Aunbrel glanced sidelong at him. "This is a custom?" Another clash and a hiss jerked his attention back to the nest.
"Among dragons. Yes. They're allowed. It's only assault if they draw blood. See? No blood."
The red dragon's head lifted at Aunbrel's motion, looking past the larger dragons to stare at Aunbrel. Luminous orange eyes seemed to plead Help me.
Aunbrel shook off Kinsley's hand and marched into the park. Kinsley trailed after, grinding out in a low whisper, "Not our problem." The observing dragons turned their heads to mark the tall elf's progress as he walked past them.
At the edge of the circle formed by the largest dragons, Aunbrel stopped. "Is there a problem here?"
The nearest viper-dragon, midnight-blue, at least eighteen feet long and two wide, coiled, twisting to face him, rearing up until the draconic head was several feet above the elf guardian's. "No problem. Not for two-legged folk."
"Glad to hear it." Aunbrel tilted his head back to meet the midnight dragon's gaze. "I am Guardian Aunbrel of Hopestart, a keeper of the peace. As I'm sure you're aware, Hopestart's peace applies to all sapients of our fair city, regardless of number or lack of legs. Be they man, elf, felis ... dragon. So if there was trouble here for dragons ... "
The turquoise dragon next to the midnight one flicked out a tongue in warning at Aunbrel, scaled ruff mantling wider. "There is nothing here to concern you, Guardian."
Aunbrel took three steps sideways, to meet the eyes of the small red dragon at the center of the circle of larger ones. "If there was trouble here for dragons," he repeated, "I'd be glad to help."
The red dragon's bearing spoke of terror and desperation, but those orange eyes would not hold his. "No trouble," the little dragon echoed, in a voice haunted by hopelessness.
Kinsley's hand gripped Aunbrel's sleeve; the elf didn't need to look to know what words the human was silently mouthing. Aunbrel's teeth ground together, but he forced them apart to say, "Good. Good. Because it's near the end of my shift." Aunbrel glanced about, then walked to a nearby bench and sat. "And if there's no problems here, why, my partner and I can take a break." Kinsley covered his face with one hand and shook his head, but took a seat at the far edge of the bench. Aunbrel waved a hand to the viper-dragons. "Please, don't let us keep you from your peaceable enjoyment of this public park."
The dragons turned about, hissing at one another in their own tongue. Aunbrel had no idea what they were saying, although the hostile looks he was garnering were unpromising. The red one's eyes darted from the large surrounding dragons to the elf guardian and back again. After a few minutes, the dragons uncoiled and began to slither from the park. The largest ones herded the small one, keeping the little red dragon between them. Aunbrel grimaced, then leaped to his feet. "Ah, wait, just a moment." He stepped around and over the large dragons even as they reared back in anger at his intrusion.
"It is not your place to interfere, two-legs," the midnight dragon hissed.
"Right, I know, my apologies." Aunbrel raised a hand for patience and addressed the red dragon directly. "But I have just recollected that a dragon meeting your description is wanted for questioning. I am afraid I must ask you to accompany me back to the peacehouse." Kinsley cradled his head in both hands.
"What is this about?" an indigo dragon demanded.
"Burglary in the Merchant District. An orange-red dragon of about this length was sighted fleeing the scene."
"It is not her," the midnight dragon said.
"Oh, perhaps not, but that's not for you or I to decide. This way, miss." Aunbrel held out an arm to the small dragon, gesturing for her to follow him. She slithered up his arm instead, gliding higher to coil over his shoulders. Aunbrel checked his surprise as the giant viper-dragons seethed around them. Pretending that this had been his intention all along, Aunbrel put a hand on the red dragon's side to help her balance. The large dragons seethed and writhed around them, but Aunbrel stepped over and around them as necessary and the dragons were, apparently, unwilling to physically stop the guardian. Kinsley, peeking between his fingers at the scene, rose to follow on his partner's heels as the elf carried the small viper-dragon from the park.
"Air and Fire! Have you gone mad, boy?" Kinsley hissed as soon as they were out of earshot of the rest of the nest. "What do you think you're doing?"
Aunbrel wasn't sure either. "Keeping the peace." The viper-dragon was a heavy weight around his shoulders, coiled too tight and trembling.
She dropped her chin to rest on the top of his head. "Is there really a dragon wanted for questioning?"
"Yes." Aunbrel walked briskly. "Although I fear I will discover when we are back at the peacehouse that the description is not quite a match for you. Might have been tiger-striped in green and black, and five yards long. I apologize for the inconvenience."
"Thank you," she whispered. "Will you lock me up?"
Aunbrel shook his head. "Of course not."
"Please?" she begged. "For the night? Lock me in a cell?"
"Er ... " Aunbrel tried to decipher that request, giving Kinsley a pleading look. "Not for the burglary, surely?"
Kinsley scrubbed at his face and heaved a sigh. He started to push back the cuff of one sleeve, then changed his mind and did it to Aunbrel's indtead. The old human held the elf's brown wrist to the dragon's face. "Bite him."
Her head drew back, nictitating membranes flicking open and closed over her eyes. "I don't want to -- "
"Bite him," Kinsley repeated. "Hard enough to leave a mark, not hard enough to break skin. And by Fire's hells, don't poison him!" The viper-dragon slipped her head forward, glancing at Aunbrel for permission. The elf gave a little nod, and she closed her mouth around his wrist. "Harder," Kinsley commanded. Aunbrel winced, and the human said, "All right, that's enough." She drew back, leaving small tooth marks dented and red in his skin. "There, that's assault. We can arrest you for it tonight and dismiss the charges tomorrow. Fire and Air! I need a drink."