"Not at all. I am quite convinced of her innocence in all things." More than I can say for you. "I lent her a few books by way of apology for my error. I'd like to speak with her, if she's so inclined."
"She is not. Go away, Guardian."
Aunbrel looked past the large dragon to meet Ember's worried eyes. "Is she a minor?" The midnight-blue dragon stared at him, and Aunbrel continued, "I was given to understand that minor viper-dragons had very fine scales, and that the large thick ones denoted majority, but perhaps I am mistaken. Is Miss Ember a minor?"
"You know she is not."
"Then by the laws of Hopestart, she's a right to determine for herself with whom she chooses to associate. As she is not three yards away, I should like to hear her answer from her own mouth. Miss Ember?" Aunbrel met her eyes. The large wedge-shaped head of the midnight-blue dragon turned to Ember as well.
Ember lifted her head as high as she could. "I am busy this afternoon, Guardian," she said, quietly. "Would you be able to come back tomorrow?" The big dragon hissed in evident irritation at this answer.
"Certainly," Aunbrel replied. "What time would be most convenient?"
"5 o'clock?" Orange eyes darted to the midnight-blue dragon. "Please, Mistress River. I'll be done with everything by then. And I want to."
River's hissing reply did not sound convinced. Aunbrel ignored the large dragon and bowed to the small. "5 o'clock. I shall see you then."
When Aunbrel returned at the appointed hour, Ember had the door open even before he knocked. "You came back!"
"Of course." Aunbrel shrugged off his pack, pulling out Ember's books. "I still had to return these." A dragon slithered into the hall behind Ember, glanced their way, then slithered off. "Did you have a chance to finish the other Hope novels?"
She nodded eagerly, taking her books back on her tail and stowing them atop a cabinet in the wall, then offering his own back.
"How did you like them?"
"I loved them! I think the second one is still my favorite, though. I miss Rielle."
"Do you? I always thought them well rid of her and her foul temper."
"Oh, but she had such wit! No one else gets half her good lines."
"If you call sarcasm wit." Aunbrel was dubious.
"I do! I think I could forgive all her misplaced anger, to have a travelling companion who provided so much entertainment." As Ember spoke, River loomed up behind her in the entranceway. Aunbrel noticed other viper-dragons were watching them through the round windows of the nest.
Aunbrel disregarded the audience and focused on Ember. They conversed for a quarter of an hour on the stoop. At length, Aunbrel massaged at the back of his neck. "I passed a little park about two blocks from here, with a few benches. Might we go there to talk? It would be nice to speak more on a level."
River hissed. Ember glanced back to the other dragon and sunk down. Aunbrel cleared his throat. "Is something wrong?"
"She is samassas," River hissed, slithering past Ember to interpose between her and the elf. The midnight-blue dragon rose up on her coils to loom over Aunbrel. "She cannot leave the nest without a protector."
"She will not be without a protector. I will be with her."
"You? An elf?" River circled around Aunbrel, looping coil on top of coil in a wide circle around the guardian's feet, head several feet above his, looking down. "What would you do if someone menaced my nest-partner?"
"I am Guardian Aunbrel of Hopestart, an official protector of this city." Aunbrel caught River's eye. "And, Mistress River, if I felt Miss Ember were being threatened, I would ask the individual, politely, to cease in such behavior."
"You would ask. I could swallow you whole, Guardian Aunbrel, and leave neither bones nor body for your fellows to find." The midnight coils drew in closer, not quite touching his legs. At the nest's round windows, the faces of other viper-dragons watched them. "So what would you do if asking were not enough?"
"Do you truly want to know, Mistress River?" Aunbrel's voice was low and dangerous.
"Yesss," she hissed.
"Then move just one inch closer."
The susurration of shifting coils stopped as the dark viper-dragon froze. She stared at him for a long moment. Aunbrel met those near-black eyes unblinking, and waited. After a very long pause, River uncoiled, widening the circle she formed around him as she withdrew, her head lowering until it was of a level with his. "You have leave to go with this one, Ember. He will keep you safe."
Ember watched open-mouthed, small pointed teeth white against her gums, as River slithered back inside. Orange eyes turned back to the guardian. Aunbrel extended his arm, and Ember climbed up to encircle his shoulders. He'd walked halfway down the block before Ember spoke. "That was amazing! I've never seen Mistress River back down from anyone, not even another dragon! What would you do if asking didn't work?"
Aunbrel shrugged. "Get swallowed whole, I suppose." Ember gaped at him. "That's a lot of extra weight for a viper-dragon to carry, even a big one. It would have to slow one down. Might give you enough time to escape. I suggest you use the opportunity wisely in the event."
After that, Aunbrel returned every few days, to exchange new books and to talk about the ones they'd already read. On the third or fourth visit, Ember asked if she could invite other viper-dragons to join them. It struck Aunbrel as the sort of thing she shouldn't need his permission to do, and he said as much.
"But may I?" she asked anxiously.
"Of course? Yes."
Then on some days it would be four or five little viper-dragons with him, some of them chattering about books and some of them just wandering around the park and enjoying the day. Sometimes Ember asked to go elsewhere: a museum, a café, a local landmark, and Aunbrel would escort her and her nest-partners around Hopestart. She lent him one of her favorite books in her native language, and a translation dictionary to go with it: Aunbrel puzzled through it slowly with her and on his own, gradually making sense of it.
On making sense of the dragons themselves, his progress was more uncertain. The large ones no longer threatened or postured at him. The small ones deferred to him. Ember, whom he saw the most, seemed to think him a friend.
That was nice.
The rest of it was as confusing as a burning labyrinth, but not all bad. If he had been sure the nest wasn't still try to 'amend' Ember via physical trauma, he might have been content.
If he had been sure.
Then, during one of his still-frequent late nights at the peacehouse, River's head appeared at his office window. "Guardian," she hissed.
"Fire and Air!" Aunbrel jumped to his feet and went to the window. River had risen two stories on her coil to stare at him through it. "What are you doing there?"
"You must come."
"To the nest." River started to slide back down the wall.
The giant serpentine body stopped. "You said you would protect Ember. Did you mean it?"
Smoke and blazes. "I'll come. Let me assemble a squad. What's going on?"
River hissed in fury. "No! It is not their business. It is ours. You must come. Only you."
And if that doesn't sound like a trap.... "On my way. Wait for me out front."
Aunbrel stopped at the front post to tell the guardian on duty, "I'm going to the viper-dragon nest at 101st and Coalstone to investigate a disturbance. No, I don't want backup now. But if I'm not back in three hours, send a squad to find me, or what's left of me. Blazes, send a platoon."
[Did I say this story would have three or four parts? I'm thinking ... maybe seven. ]