From the top of the dune it had seemed like a fine idea to charge down and rescue the sunburnt stranger facing down the sand dragon; something to break up the monotony of another day spent riding for lack of anything better to do. Struggling to keep his horse steady between his legs, the stranger slack and heavy across the front of his saddle, Isendiar realized the dragon was a lot bigger than he had first thought. It was occupied with snapping at the massive woman on an even more massive horse in front of it, and at the long spear she spun between her hands in deadly stabs and arcs, but he had an idea that it would soon lose patience. He called her name—Azima—and spun his horse around, giving the powerful mare her head to let her choose her own way across the burning sands.
The dragon launched itself into the air with a snap like laundry on the line in a high wind, the downdraft from its immense wings spiralling sand into miniature devils. Isendiar risked a look back over his shoulder to make sure Azima was following—she was, her stallion’s plate-sized feet throwing up sand almost as high as his thick hindquarters—then turned back and hunched over the unconscious boy in his arms. Beneath the healthy terror tightening his throat and chest he felt a thrill of excitement; his father’s viziers might disagree with his actions but personally he hadn’t had this much fun since he’d let a box of harmless-but-frightening sand snakes loose in the dining hall during the Empress’s visit three months ago.
His mare took a hard right turn around a jumble of rocks that lay like they’d been dropped by a careless child and charged up the center of Razhan Canyon, long ears laid flat back against her skull. The dragon roared high above, its shadow passing quickly over them as it flew ahead, obviously hoping to catch them coming out of the canyon. Isendiar grabbed a handful of mane with one hand and tightened his grip on the stranger’s shirt with the other, holding on as his mare stopped so fast she nearly went almost all the way down onto her rump. She spun the other way and went back down the canyon, and Isendiar freed the hand tangled in her thick black mane to wave cheerfully at Azima as they passed her.
They shot through a narrow chute in the rock that led from Razhan Canyon to Dragon Springs—where, ironically, dragons never went—and Isendiar grinned to hear the sand dragon’s bellow of angry confusion behind them. He let the mare run a little longer, then gently began to bring her back to a solid lope, then to a steady ground-eating trot. Azima moved up beside him, panting from the rough ride, her spear held stiffly at attention in one hand. The sun glinted off its wickedly sharp silver tip and glowed in the deep dark wood of the haft.
“You could’ve shot it,” Isendiar said, nodding to the rifle slung across her saddle.
“And you could have minded your own business, princeling.” She shrugged one meaty shoulder. “Didn’t deserve to get shot when it was just looking for a meal.”
“Well, it’s not getting this meal.” Isendiar looked down at the boy, wincing a little at the angry red of the sunburn across his face. Under it he looked young and exhausted, his lips dry and chapped, the shadows under his closed eyes as dark as thunderheads. “Pass me your water.”
He held out his hand and Azima silently unhooked the canteen from her saddle to pass it over. Balancing himself against the horse’s motion with his legs, Isendiar pulled the boy up with the arm behind his back and held the canteen to his lips, dribbling water into his mouth and massaging his throat until he swallowed. Satisfied for now, he handed the canteen back to Azima and concentrated on guiding his horse back towards the city, glancing back over his shoulder occasionally to make sure the dragon hadn’t decided to follow its lost meal.
They rode through the outskirts and into the busy city market in silence, weaving their horses around the clumps of people hurrying back and forth, arguing with vendors, and just standing in the middle of the road to chat to friends. A number of them gave Isendiar respectful bows and he saw one little girl hide behind her mother’s skirts as he passed, peeking out at them with wide golden eyes. Isendiar winked at her and continued on, trying to shield the boy in his arms from the curious stares.
He pulled up in the courtyard of the palace and waited until Azima had slid down from her stallion, before passing her the boy and swinging himself out of the saddle. Both horses were taken to the stables and a servant girl dressed all in gauzy red appeared silently at Isendiar’s elbow, offering him a cool glass of water on a gilded tray. He took it but didn’t drink, following Azima into the palace and down the ornately decorated halls until they reached his quarters, a set of four interconnected rooms where he and Azima both slept and spent most of their days.
“Put him on my bed,” he said when they’d stepped through into relative privacy.
Azima arched a dark eyebrow. “Now there’s a statement your father would disapprove of.”
“If I wanted something that boiled, I’d speak to the cooks. Go put him down and fetch something for his skin, there’s a good bodyguard.” Isendiar followed her into his bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed once she’d put the boy down, setting the glass of water aside.
He watched the boy, musing on where he’d come from, until Azima returned with a glass jar of soothing lotion. They worked together to remove the boy’s clothing—little more than tattered rags, though strangely made and even more strangely, crusted with salt—and gently worked the lotion into his sunburnt skin. Dark blue-black bruises covered his entire right side and gentle probing told Isendiar that one or two ribs were likely cracked there. He sent Azima for bandages and wrapped them snugly around the stranger’s torso, settling back when he was done with a pleased smile, proud of how neatly he’d done it.
“Too pale for this desert,” Azima said, looking the boy over with a critical eye. “Think he came from one of those caravans we had pass through a week back?”
“I didn’t see him with them.”
She snorted. “As if you regularly pay attention to anything beyond the tip of your own nose, princeling.”
“I do too.” He heard the sullen tone in his own voice and covered it with a bright smile. “I’m trying to take more of an interest in what happens around here, so when I go to the gods, I’ll be able to tell them how the Jinaani are faring.”
The look she gave him veered too close to pity for comfort, but the only thing she said was, “Well then pay attention, princeling, your little rescue is stirring.”
He glanced back at the boy and got a groggy look from half-open hazel eyes in return. Offering a smile, he asked, “Do you speak our language, little one?” When the boy only continued to look blank, he asked in the handful of other languages he knew, mostly those of neighbouring nations. None of them got a reaction and he glanced up at Azima, puzzled. “Think he speaks something else?”
“Or maybe...” She moved to the side, out of the boy’s line of sight, and clapped her hands sharply. The boy didn’t so much as blink, though the dazed expression was slowly fading from his face. “I think he’s deaf, Isen.”
“Ah. Do we know anyone who can talk in hand signs?” He made a few random gestures and noted the way the boy seemed to try and follow them, though it only made him look more confused. “Get him something to write on anyway. Maybe we can at least learn his name.”
The boy took the pad of paper and the pencil Azima brought him, carefully bringing his knees up to balance the paper on them. He paused a moment as though just realizing he was naked, then shrugged and scribbled on the paper, holding it out to Isendiar with a hopeful smile. Isendiar looked at the words written on the paper, then glanced at Azima, who tried to read what looked like gibberish to both of them then just shrugged her shoulders. Pointing to himself, Isendiar said his name as clearly as he could, repeating it a few times until the boy, who had been watching his mouth carefully, suddenly grinned and nodded. He repeated it with Azima, ignoring Azima’s half-amused and half-cynical expression, then raised both eyebrows at the boy.
The boy just shrugged and pointed at his own mouth, shaking his head. Assuming he needed water, Isendiar handed him the glass, letting him drink only a few swallows before taking it back again. When the boy only shook his head again and touched his own throat, then tapped the gibberish written on the paper, he understood that the boy was mute as well as deaf.
He exchanged a glance with Azima and handed her the pad. “Ask around and see if you can find anyone who knows that language, or a similar one. And while you’re at it, ask if anyone managed to lose a deaf-mute recently.” He turned back to the boy. “As for you, little one, sleep a little longer and regain your strength.” He pressed his hand gently against the boy’s forehead, calling up just enough power to send him into a deep and restful sleep, then pulled the silk sheet up over him and left the bedroom.
He was sprawled on the couch nearest the window, entertaining himself by building up tiny lights one on top of the other until they collapsed in on themselves, when Azima returned with one of the scholars scattered around the palace like particularly nervous statuary. Next to Azima the scholar—a young girl barely past the midpoint of her teenage years—looked as small and fragile as a toddler. She squeaked when Azima introduced them, bowing so low she almost overbalanced herself, and didn’t straighten up until he told her she could. Behind her Azima just grinned, the curve of her mouth wicked.
Isendiar’s father thought a palace full of scholars gave them an air of sophistication and intelligence, but as far as Isendiar could tell, all the scholars sent to them from the main universities were so timid they jumped at shadows. He’d once seen one of them faint when his eldest brother, Shian, glared at her, though he’d always appreciated it as an excellent way to grab everyone’s attention. He’d appreciated it even more when it gave him an opportunity to escape from a social function that he hadn’t wanted to attend in the first place.
“Got a name?” he asked this other scholar, trying to ignore Azima’s smirk at the way the girl trembled. “I’m not going to eat you.”
“Raksha, if it pleases the prince.” She bowed again, and by doing so missed him rolling his eyes.
“What if it didn’t please me? Do I get to rename you?”
“I... suppose so?” She looked taken aback at his response to her automatic respect.
“I’ll think about it. For now, can you read the writing on that paper?” He nodded to the pad of paper she was carrying tightly gripped in her hands.
“It’s a little... odd, but it resembles an old language I’ve been studying, which is actually rather fascinating because—” She caught sight of his expression and cleared her throat. “Yes, Prince. My translation may not be perfect, but I can probably make it out.”
“Good. You’ll be my official translator for as long as I need you, and you can start by telling me what he wrote there.”
“His name, Prince.” She wrote a series of letters in their language, below the boy’s writing. “I believe his people would pronounce it ‘Kee-ran’.”
He looked at her neat slanted writing, trying to figure out how she’d come to that pronunciation with those letters, then shrugged. “Fine, then we will call him Kee-ran. When he wakes, you can speak to him. I’ll summon you when I need you.” He nodded towards the door and Raksha bowed low again, shuffling backwards towards the door until she could flee out of sight down the hallway. Isendiar raised an eyebrow at Azima and said, “You couldn’t have found one a little more... brave?”
“They are all varying degrees of terrified of you and your family. Especially you.”
“I don’t know why they bothered to come here then,” he muttered, sprawling out on the couch again and closing his eyes. “I’m going to take a nap. Wake me if our new friend wakes, or if you find out anything about who lost him.”
“And if no one comes to claim him?”
Isendiar waved a negligent hand, the corner of his mouth turning up into a grin. “Then I guess we keep him.”