"Ember needed our help." They'd learned the viper-dragon's name when they incarcerated her.
"Hah! If she'd truly needed our help, she'd've asked for it. 'No trouble', she said."
Aunbrel shook her head. "She was lying then. You saw how she was once she was away from them."
"Yes, I saw how she didn't want to tell us a blazing thing about what was going on there. Dragon business, boy. Don't imagine you've made anything better for her with that little stunt of yours." Kinsley pushed open the door to the Scarab, spilling warmth and firelight from the pub into the evening chill of the narrow street. "Hullo everybody! Drinks are on him!" Kinsley jerked a thumb over his shoulder at Aunbrel. Resigned, the elf forced a smile and followed his partner inside.
Elves were just as capable of intoxication by alcohol as men, and enjoyed liquor just as much, though elves favored wine and cider where men preferred beer and ale.
Aunbrel cared for none of it. He disliked the bitterness and pungent aftertaste lurking beneath even sweet wines. The substance made him sleepy, morose, and faintly nauseated. Every now and then, he would try drinking again to see if it had improved any from his last experience, and it never had.
He was nursing his second mug of mulled spiced cider, which was the least objectionable drink he'd ever tried. If he ignored the aftertaste and the effects of inebriation, it was quite tolerable. He couldn't help feeling he was missing the whole point, though.
Kinsley was on at least his seventh or eighth drink by now, roaring drunk and regaling the pub with a preposterous account of how he'd single-handedly put down a riot in the Iron District twelve years ago. Aunbrel couldn't help feeling that sobriety, if not honesty, would have improved the tale. Kinsley kept losing his place in it, starting over or going back to add forgotten details. No one else seemed to mind, laughing and toasting and drinking themselves further into a stupor. Surrounded by giddy cheerful drunks that kept smiling at him and encouraging him to "Drink up, Guardian!", Aunbrel felt more alone than he did at night in his peacehouse office.
After buying another round for the house, Aunbrel offered the pretext of going to relieve his bladder and made his escape during the crush to place orders. He turned up the collar of his brown rabbit hide jacket against the chill of the night, hoping the wind would clear the morbid weary alcohol-induced fog from his mind. His feet turned toward the peacehouse of their own accord, his mind unwilling to face the loneliness of his sparsely-furnished flat. I might as well get some of the blazing paperwork done. Then he remembered the Commander, observing the light of his office every night, and couldn't bear to disappoint her by turning the flame up again. Well, what is it all for?
He stepped into the peacehouse, hands stuffed in his pockets, and strode to the west wing, where the jail cells were.
Ember had a cell to herself -- more a cage, in truth, five feet on a side, built to hold belligerent felis. It was set at the end of a hall, far enough from the rows of iron-barred, stone-walled cells that a felis paw would not be able to claw out at another prisoner -- nor another prisoner poke into the cage. The small red dragon was curled atop a blanket, a book propped on her tail, turning the pages with her tailtip as she read. Aunbrel paced down the hall to her, ignoring the taunts and pleas from the drunks and petty thieves in the cells he passed. She stirred at his approach, body tensing at first, then relaxing when she recognized him. "Good evening, Guardian." Ember shifted to a narrower coil to raise her head as high as she could, which was about the level of Aunbrel's waist. Her head tilted back to meet his eyes.
"Good evening, miss." Aunbrel crouched next to her cage. "Thought I'd stop by to see how you were doing."
The dragon's chin dipped in a nod. "I am well, thank you. Thank you for the books, too."
The elf rubbed the back of his neck. "You're welcome. I'm sorry about the lack of selection."
"No, don't be. A Hope in War is much better than the procedure manual I thought I'd get when I asked for something to read. It's very engrossing." Ember lowered her voice and added, "I had to skip ahead to the epilogue just to make sure Guisonel would be all right in the end."
Aunbrel chuckled. "I thought I was the only one who did that." He shifted his crouched legs, then sat on the floor, leaning against the wall beside the cage.
Ember adjusted her coil and slithered closer to his new position, lowering her head to his level. "I only do it with tense novels. I hate wondering if it'll turn out well or not. Even if it's going to all end badly, I'd rather know."
The guardian nodded. "It's a shame one can't peek at the end in life. Is Guisonel your favorite character, then?"
"He's the one I worry about. He keeps charging into the middle of these dangerous situations. I think he's looking to be a martyr. So you read it too?"
A wry smile. "The Hope books are some of my favorites. That's why I had them here. Guisonel gets a little less foolhardy with time. A little." Aunbrel gestured with thumb and forefinger pinched close together. "Where are you?"
"The battle for Royale Wyenard. Just after the archers arrived."
"The first time I read it, I'd forgotten the archers were even on the way. I yelled out in triumph when they showed. Got the strangest looks from my school fellows."
The little viper-dragon wiggled her tailtip, orange eyes amused. "Did you really?"
Aunbrel gave her a serious nod. He looked at Ember, her tail stroking over the book cover now. "Miss ... what were they going to do to you, that a night in jail would be a pleasant vacation in contrast?"
Ember would not meet his eyes, shaking her head and looking at the floor of the cage instead.
Aunbrel put his palm against the crossed metal bars of the cage. "Did I make it worse, intervening?"
Her head darted up to look at him. She shook her head again. "No. No worse." She rested her cheek against his hand through the bars. "Is your arm all right?"
"It's fine. Do you still want us to release you tomorrow? We could hold you a few days before we'd need to prosecute or dismiss the charge." It's not as if we've gotten any paperwork done tonight anyway.
"No. I should go back." Ember dropped her head to rest her chin on the book. "I'll run out of books to read before tomorrow night in any case."
"I could bring more from home."
The viper-dragon parted her jaws in imitation of a smile, and gave another headshake. "I have to go back eventually. One night should be enough."
"Enough for what?"
Aunbrel let the silence stretch after his question this time, not insisting, not importuning, just ... waiting. "To lose the moment," Ember said finally. Aunbrel waited. The dragon exhaled. "It's a matter of dragons. You wouldn't understand."
"I certainly do not understand now," the elf admitted. "But I am willing to learn, if you are willing to teach."