Sean had not previously been inside the enormous hall that would play host to the Dragon Council meeting—up until this morning its massive double doors had been locked up tight, the tasteful little holo-sign next to them reading “Closed—Private.” It was one of the things he’d discovered last night during his prowlings.

Now, at nearly eleven o’clock (how ominous that sounded for such an innocuous number) he followed Gabriel inside with a growing feeling of trepidation. The doors were open now, swung wide and manned by two suit-clad beings that were undoubtedly spirits. The spirits bowed politely to the group (Kestrel, Ocelot, Winterhawk, and Maya were following) and one of them spoke softly to Gabriel. The young man nodded. Another spirit appeared in the hallway ahead of them.

“Come,” Gabriel told them. “This spirit will lead us.”

Sean moved as if in a daze, tugging absently at his tie. That morning there had been a selection of suits in his room’s walk-in closet that he was sure had not been there the previous night. He’d tried not to think too hard about the fact that not only did they fit him perfectly, but they’d also taken into account his tastes in color and cut. All of them were a bit too conservative for his liking, but he supposed given the circumstances conservative was good. He had even trained his hair down into something approaching respectability.

The spirit led them up a stone stairway that swept out to the left side of the main doors and then down a hallway lined with holopics of the city of Zurich. There were even a few old-fashioned photographs in frames, interspersed with closed and unmarked doors. The floor was covered with soft, plush carpeting that muffled the sound of their steps.

At last the spirit stopped in front of one of the closed doors and bowed again. The door swung open without any apparent intervention from the spirit, revealing what looked like a high-class version of a luxury sports box, or perhaps a group of balcony seats at an opera house. As the group moved in, the spirit closed the door behind them. “If you have need of anything,” Sean heard clearly in his mind, “you have only to call and I will provide it.

That was comforting. Spirit room service.

“So now what?” Ocelot asked, looking around the small box as the door closed. “We just sit here and wait?”

“Apparently so,” Gabriel said. He had already sat down in one of the chairs; there were six of them all together, large and well padded and comfortable looking while still managing the appearance of stuffy respectability. As was the case in all the other areas of the complex that they had already seen, this one was made of stone and plush carpeting and velvet upholstery. There was a low divider, perhaps a meter or so high, in front of the chairs, and above it, blackness. They could hear nothing going on outside.

Sean didn’t sit down. Instead, he prowled around the box, examining the divider (he discovered that he could poke his hand out into the darkness but when he tried his head he encountered only more darkness) and the door (which was not locked). Finally he dropped down into another of the chairs next to Gabriel.

Ocelot was exploring too. He looked at Winterhawk. “This place remind you of anything?”

The mage looked puzzled. “No, I don’t think so. I—”

“Long time ago. In another place. A courtroom.” Ocelot’s expression changed; it was clear to Sean that his words had a lot more meaning than they indicated.

Light dawned on Winterhawk. “Ah, yes. Of course. The box, the darkness—yes. But even given the circumstances I think I’d prefer to be here than there.”

“What are you guys talking about?” Sean asked. Normally he wouldn’t be rude enough to cut into another’s conversation, but he was bored and scared and nervous and his normal governers weren’t working at full capacity.

“You will hear the whole story, I promise you,” Gabriel said from the other side of the box. “After this is over.”

“You know how tired I’m getting of that line?” Sean asked with no rancor. It was almost a joking question. “It seems like my whole life lately has been ‘there’s all this weird stuff going on but you have to wait until later to find it out.’”

Gabriel sighed. “Sean, I—”

Sean shook his head. “No, don’t worry about it. I understand. But understanding doesn’t mean I have to like it, does it?” Without waiting for or expecting an answer, he slumped back down in his chair, leaning forward so his elbows rested on the edge of the divider and his chin rested on his crossed arms. Right now all he wanted was for something to happen, for this whole thing to get underway. He wasn’t in a hurry to have the dragons decide to eat him or whatever they were going to do with him, but the waiting was killing him. He glanced at his chrono and saw that it was now after eleven o’clock. Had they meant they were going to start then, or just that the accused and their friends had to be there by then? That second thought hadn’t occurred to him before. He sighed loudly. If that was true, then who knew how long they’d have to wait?

He was so caught up in his thoughts that he did not hear the door to the box open until he noticed that his friends were all getting up. Quickly he did the same. “What—?”

A woman stood there, and Sean would have bet the remainder of his inheritance that she was not another spirit. Tall, dark-haired, dressed in a flowing robe, she looked young and ageless and stern all at the same time. Her eyes were a blue so pale they were almost white.

She ignored the rest of the group and looked at Gabriel. “I am told you wish to allow humans to attend our Council meeting.” Her voice was soft and without emotion.

Gabriel nodded. “Yes. They are my friends and are—involved with the situation. I claim the right for them to attend the proceedings.”

The woman did not visibly react. “It is not encouraged, but the law dows not prohibit it. They must undergo the Oath, however, if they are to remain.”

“Wait a minute—what oath?” Ocelot demanded, stepping forward.

The woman did not answer, so Gabriel did. “Remember many years ago, when we first met? When I first revealed my true nature to you?”

Winterhawk nodded. “Yes. You asked us to take an oath never to reveal what we knew to anyone else. You later removed it.”

“Is this the same kind of oath as that?” Kestrel asked. She glanced at the woman and then back at Gabriel.

“Somewhat.” Gabriel was as expressionless as the woman. “I did not know whether they would require it. It is a magically binding oath that will prevent you from revealing anything you see here to anyone who was not in attendance. The process includes certain magical protections that will make it impossible for anyone to take the information from your minds by force.”

“Is there any danger involved?” Winterhawk asked. “What would be the consequences of breaking the oath? Not that I intend to, of course.”

Gabriel shook his head. “It is not that kind of oath. After you have sworn it you will not be able to reveal anything even if you should choose to. The magic blocks the memories from being revealed to anyone who did not attend the meeting.”

“Sounds like somebody’s gonna do some serious mucking around with our heads,” Ocelot growled.

The woman spoke again, but once more she addressed Gabriel as if the others were not there. “If any of them refuse to submit to the Oath then they must leave now.” Her tone had a finality to it that would not entertain any sort of compromise.

Gabriel nodded and turned back to his friends. “I fear there is no choice,” he said softly. “You cannot be forced to take the Oath, of course, but there is no question of your remaining should you choose not to.”

Kestrel stepped forward. “I’ll do it,” she said firmly. She smiled at Sean as if to say, I’ll do just about anything to stay here with you.

Winterhawk nodded. “As will I.” He glanced down at the cat in his arms. “Will Maya have to take the oath as well?”

For the first time the woman seemed to notice someone other than Gabriel. Her gaze traveled down and met Maya’s. For a moment they locked eyes and then the woman nodded, satisfied. “The blackberry cat need not submit to the Oath,” she said, again addressing Gabriel. “She understands the issues involved.”

Ocelot sighed. “Okay,” he grumbled. “I’ll do it. I don’t like it, but I’ll do it. It won’t be the first time dragons have mucked with my head.”

Sean stepped forward. “Me too.” He tried to keep his voice from shaking, and he thought he succeeded. This was the first time dragons would be mucking with his head—at least the first time he remembered. He imagined that there had probably been some serious mucking going on back when he was too young to remember it.

“There is no requirement for the young one to submit,” the woman told Gabriel.

Sean stared at her. “Huh? Why not?”

This time she didn’t answer, at least not aloud. An odd look crossed Gabriel’s face and he nodded soberly. “Let us continue, then,” he said. His voice sounded tired.

The actual oath itself was not complicated or dramatic. The woman moved down the line of humans, beginning with Kestrel, then Winterhawk, and finally Ocelot. She touched each of their heads, spoke some words in a language none of them understood, and then met their gazes for several seconds each. Sean watched from the sidelines, wondering what, if anything, they were experiencing. They didn’t look like the process hurt, or felt good, or anything. They just stood there silently until it was over and the woman stepped back.

“It is done,” she said. “You may return to your seats. The Council will convene shortly.” Without any farewell or acknowledgement, she turned and left the box. The door closed softly behind her.

“Bye...” Kestrel muttered under her breath.

“So you think this means they’ll finally get this show on the road?” Ocelot asked, glaring at the darkness at the front of the box.

Gabriel nodded. “Yes. We must be patient. As I said before, dragons rarely do anything quickly.”

“Why didn’t I have to take the oath?” Sean asked suddenly. He turned to face Gabriel. “You know, don’t you?”

Gabriel bowed his head. “Yes. I know.”

“Why, then?”

His gaze came up to meet Sean’s. “Because regardless of the outcome of this meeting, the fact that you have witnessed it will be of no consequence.” His voice still sounded tired.

Sean stared at him. “You mean...” he said slowly, “if things work out I’ll be—more connected to the dragons than a human would—and—if they don’t—”

“Yes.” It was clear he didn’t want to say it, but there it was.

Sean was about to say something else when Gabriel tensed and held up his hand. “We should be seated. The meeting is about to begin.”

“Guess they got their act together after all,” Ocelot muttered, but nobody replied.

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