The lights came up on the main hall suddenly, piercing the darkness surrounding the box and revealing the rest of the chamber to its occupants.

The boxes, the tiers, the seats along the floor of the hall—every one of them was occupied by a silent, formally-dressed presence. Sean’s eyes widened as his gaze darted back and forth, taking in the scene.

He did not doubt that every Great Dragon in the world was currently in this chamber. His searching eyes took in forms—mostly human, a few dwarfs, no elves or orks or trolls—representing the racial characteristics of every human subtype. Everything from blond and pale Scandinavians to deep chocolate brown Africans, from Asians to Hispanics, was represented in the group inhabiting the hall. There were a roughly equal number of males and females—most looked young adult to middle aged, although a few looked very old and a few as young as Gabriel. Sean knew that these appearances were no indication of their actual ages and wondered how many thousands of years of life were represented here. Their formal clothes ranged from crisp corp-style suits to robes, wraps, and flowing gowns.

All of them were looking at the box containing Sean, Gabriel, and the others.

Sean felt Kestrel’s hand close over his shoulder as one of the assembled group stepped up to the elaborate podium at the front of the room. “It’ll be okay...” she murmured.

“Yeah...” he agreed. His voice sounded strangled in his ears. He wished he could believe her words, but with all these unnerving eyes on him, it was becoming more difficult to do so.

The man behind the podium was tall and radiated power. His long, steel-colored hair was only a shade lighter in hue than his suit, and his eyes were golden—the eyes of a predator who missed nothing. He stood silently, looking over the crowd, patient to wait.

“Who’s that?” Winterhawk whispered.

“Lofwyr,” Gabriel whispered back. “He is chairing the meeting.”

“Great.” Ocelot’s expression belied his words. “So Lofwyr’s in charge of the dragons? I knew he was big stuff, but not that big.”

Gabriel shook his head. “No. Although Lofwyr holds an important position among dragonkind, no one is ‘in charge’ of the dragons. We’re not an organization. If another Council meeting were to be held next year, it would have a different chair. The position is honorific, nothing more.”

“And we had to get lucky and get Lofwyr.”

“Shh,” Kestrel admonished. “He’s about to start.”

At the front of the hall Lofwyr did not have to raise his hands for attention. Suddenly as if everyone had simultaneously gotten the same message (which they in all likelihood had), all heads swiveled around to look at him instead of at the box containing the “guests.” Lofwyr waited for a few more seconds and then began to speak. His voice, which carried clearly through the hall without any visible means of amplification, spoke in a strange, flowing language utterly unlike anything Sean had ever heard before in his life.

“What’s he saying?” he whispered to Gabriel. His stomach sunk a bit as the fear struck him that the entire proceedings would be conducted in some language he didn’t understand, his fate decided without even allowing him to comprehend the discussion.

“Shh,” Gabriel said softly without turning. “It’s a formal greeting, welcoming everyone to the Council and thanking them for taking time from their endeavors to come. It will go on for awhile, but after that he should switch to English.”

Lofwyr continued speaking in the strange language for several more minutes, his expression solemn, his gaze cruising smoothly around the hall. For a moment it lit on Gabriel and Sean, then moved on. The cadence of the words did sound like some kind of ritual greeting, almost like the prayers spoken at the beginning of a church service. When he finished the other dragons responded in unison with a phrase in the same language, their voices echoing to the high stone ceiling of the hall.

Lofwyr stood silently for a moment as the echoes died and the crowd settled back down. When he spoke again it was, as Gabriel had predicted, in English. “Members of the Council of Great Dragons and—honored guests—” Here his gaze once again settled on the box containing Gabriel and the humans “—as you all know we have come together here for a grave and solemn matter: a great transgression has been committed against our Laws by one of our own, and we gather here to examine what has occurred and determine the proper course of action.” He paused a moment, allowing his words to sink in, and then looked over at Gabriel. “Gethelwain, son of Gilvirian, stands accused of violating the prohibition against the creation of the abominations known in the common tongue as dragon-kin. That this violation has occurred is not the issue—as you can all see, the evidence of Gethelwain’s crime stands here before us.” His golden eyes shifted for a moment from Gabriel to Sean, and Sean felt a shiver run down his spine. Lofwyr’s expression was utterly and completely neutral. “Rather,” the dragon continued, “the issue is what shall be done about it. Our Law is very clear on the matter, but it seems that some feel that these are new times, a new Age, and that perhaps the time has come to re-examine the Law in light of this fact. In any case, our Law also allows the accused and those who support him to offer a defense, and so it shall be done.”

There was another pause, and Sean looked around, feeling somehow odd. For a moment he didn’t realize why, and then it came to him: there was no low murmur of voices, no undercurrent of hubbub of the type one might expect after such a pronouncement in the kinds of trials Sean was familiar with: human and metahuman trials. I guess dragons don’t have to discuss things like this, he thought. Maybe they’re all discussing it telepathically. He looked at Gabriel, who looked a bit tense but nothing more, watching Lofwyr.

The Council’s leader was speaking again. “It is custom in matters where one of our own stands accused of a crime,” he said, “for members of the accused’s clan to stand with him, to defend him against the charges. Gethelwain, are there any who will stand with you?”

Gabriel rose. Sean could see the stiffness in his jaw. “My clan is gone, sir. There are none remaining.”

Lofwyr nodded. It was clear that he already knew that but that the ritual must be followed, the questions must be asked. “Have you no friends among us who will defend you, then?”

Gabriel’s voice was clear. “I will ask no one to become involved in my act. It was committed by me and any defense will be provided by me.”

Lofwyr paused. “There is no precedent for this,” he said gravely. “To provide one’s own defense against such a charge—”

“I will defend him,” said a voice. Strong, clear, female.

Everyone turned, even the dragons. On the opposite side of the hall from Gabriel’s box, a woman stood up. A tall woman with skin the color of chocolate and the fine-boned features of an ancient Egyptian queen. Next to her stood an even taller man, dark-skinned and bald, dressed in a formal robe.

“Neferet?” Winterhawk whispered, eyes wide.

“And Uneki,” Kestrel added. She looked as surprised as he did.

“Who—?” Sean began, but he didn’t get to finish.

“I will stand with him,” Neferet said again, meeting Lofwyr’s gaze with eyes as golden as his own. “I am not of his blood, but I have been his friend for many years. I believe that he is in need of friends at this moment.”

Lofwyr executed a slight respectful bow in Neferet’s direction. “You have the right, lady,” he said, “Assuming, of course, that the accused accepts your offer of counsel.” He turned to Gabriel. “The Lady Neferet has offered to assist you in your defense. You may accept or decline, as is your right. What is your decision?”

Gabriel paused for a long moment. He looked first at Lofwyr, and then turned and met Neferet’s gaze. Sean watched the two of them, wondering if there was some communication passing between them. She was very beautiful in an exotic sort of way, dressed in rich silks and African-style headdress. He wondered how she knew Gabriel, and for how long.

The seconds dragged on as the two of them continued to look into each other’s eyes. Sean was certain now that they were exchanging messages, and wondered if the other dragons could hear their conversation. Ocelot, Winterhawk, and Kestrel looked back and forth between the two of them, occasionally glancing over at Lofwyr who, for his part, stood still and silent at the podium. Dragons were nothing if not patient, Sean figured.

At last Gabriel nodded once and broke the strange gaze. Their eyes lingered for a moment on each other and then Gabriel turned back to Lofwyr. “I have made my decision,” he said formally. “I will accept the Lady Neferet’s kind offer to assist in my defense, and I am indeed grateful that she has chosen to stand with me in this matter.”

Lofwyr inclined his head in acknowledgement. “It is done,” he said. “Let the records show that the Lady Neferet will serve counsel to Gethelwain.” He looked around the hall at the others. “Is there any other who will stand in the accused’s defense?”

Silence. The others did not look at each other, nor look around to see what their peers were doing. No one spoke or coughed or even shifted in their seats. Sean looked at Gabriel, wondering if he would be disappointed that no one else had stood up for him. The young man’s face was a mask, unreadable.

Lofwyr nodded again. “Done. The record will show that no others have stood to defend the accused. It is truly unfortunate that Gethelwain’s clan has been lost, but the Law is clear on the matter. The Council will stand adjourned for one hour to allow time for communication between the accused and his counsel.”

“One hour?” Ocelot protested as some of the dragons in the hall began to rise and file out to some of the side halls off the main one. “I didn’t think that was enough time for dragons to say hello, let alone discuss defense.”

“Some haste is required,” Gabriel said softly. “It will not be possible to keep this many dragons from their own affairs for too long, as it might have been in previous days.” He stood. “If you will excuse me, the Lady is calling.”

“I want to go along,” Sean said, standing too.

Gabriel shook his head. “Not this time, Sean. Please remain here with the others. Our communications will not be audible to you—it is necessary to speak telepathically if we are to have enough time for our discussion. I will return soon.”

Sean watched him go with a sinking feeling. He was starting to feel seriously out of control here, like he had no way to affect anything that was going on. It was probably true, he knew. He was just a pawn, a toy for all these dragons to bat around until they all got tired of the game and someone swallowed him up. He sighed and turned back to the others.

Kestrel put a hand on his shoulder. “You okay?”

“No. Not really.”

Her arm went around him. She was only a little shorter than he was, and her arm felt strong, whipcord-thin and hard with muscle. Her brilliant green eyes met his. “I wish I could tell you everything was going to be fine,” she said. “I wish I could tell me that. But I can’t. We’re just going to have to trust Gabriel and Neferet. I will tell you I feel better now that we’ve got somebody else on our side.”

“Who is this Neferet?” Sean asked. “Nobody ever mentioned her. She’s not related to Ga—to Dad, is she?”

“No. She’s a good friend of his, someone who helped him—helped all of us out a long time ago. He still keeps in touch with her, and we’ve gone to visit her a few times after what happened. We didn’t know she knew about you, though—she never mentioned it. I think Gabriel was surprised when she spoke up.”

“What about the guy with her? Is he a dragon too?”

“Uneki? No, he’s a free spirit. Kind of like her servant, except not really anymore. He’s almost as powerful as a dragon in his own right.”

Sean shook his head in disbelief. He knew about spirits, of course—everybody did. But he’d never heard of one who could hold his own against a dragon. “Is he going to help with the defense too?”

“I’m sure he will, if they let him. I don’t know how hung up they are on having to have dragons do everything. We’ll have to wait and see.”

Sean nodded. “But this—Neferet—she’s powerful?”

“Very. She’s a lot older than Gabriel. He tells me jokingly sometimes that she’s kind of taken on the role of his mother since his real mother’s gone. She says he could use one.”

Sean smiled a little. The thought of a Great Dragon needing a mother struck him as amusing in a sweet sort of way. Sighing, he dropped back down into his chair and absently stroked Maya, who was now padding gracefully along the edge of the box.

The hour passed slowly. The others did not seem inclined to talk, so Sean passed the time by looking around the hall. Many of the dragons had left (he wondered with some amusement if they’d gone out to have a smoke or to use the Little Dragons’ Room) but many more had remained, gathering into little knots and chatting with each other like Old Home Week. He wondered what they looked like in their true forms, and if their apparent ethnicity had anything to do with their dragon type—for example, was the Aztlaner-looking gentleman in the black suit a feathered serpent, or the beautiful Asian woman an Eastern dragon? Or were they doing a sort of draconic cross-dressing, trying out a different ethnicity than their true one? He wondered if dragons always assumed the same human form or if they tried on different ones like a true human would try on costumes. He glanced up at the podium, but Lofwyr had withdrawn back into a chamber behind it.

When everyone came back it was simultaneous, as if they had all heard the same silent cue. No light flashed or bell rang but suddenly everyone was filtering back inside and taking their seats. Sean glanced down at his chrono and noted that exactly an hour had passed, but somehow he doubted that the dragons were wearing chronos.

The door to their box opened and Gabriel entered. His expression was neutral. Neferet was not with him.

“Where’s Neferet?” Kestrel asked, looking around. “I thought she’d be with you.”

“She and Uneki have returned to their seats,” Gabriel said. “There is no need for them to be here physically.”

“Did you—did she—figure anything out?”

Gabriel nodded. “Yes. But expect this session to be very long. She has been gauging feeling since she arrived early this morning. She says we are not without support, but that many will go against us.”

Sean swallowed hard and tried once again not to think about the fact that this might be his last day of life. He sat down and looked toward the podium.

Lofwyr was coming out now. He waited silently while everyone resumed their seats, and then spoke once again. “Honored Council,” he said formally, “as the accused has now spoken with his chosen counsel, the next stage of our proceedings can begin.”

He drew himself to his full height, somehow managing to convey the power of arguably the strongest dragon currently on Earth even in the guise of a mere human. “We will begin with a bit of history, for the benefit of those who might not be fully aware of the gravity of the situation we have before us.” Again he paused; Sean had a crazy thought for a moment that he was going to pull out a holoprojector and begin a slide presentation, but he didn’t. “Long ago, in an Age that has long ago passed into history, there were some among our people who sought to create servants of a new type. Not content with the traditional servants of dragonkind, these individuals devised a plan in which they would mate with members of the Young Races—almost always elves due to the length of their lifespans—and thus produce offspring who possessed the near-immortality of dragonkind combined with the adaptability and the—more tractable nature, relatively speaking—of the Young Races. These children would, in the minds of those who created them, become ideal servants. They would be obedient to their masters and they would live long enough that training them would not be an exercise in futility.

“Unfortunately for those creators, the plan did not progress as expected. Ah, it did for awhile—the dragonkin did make superb servants and agents for their masters, and unlike drakes, they bred true and, especially when augmented with occasional infusions of draconic blood, passed their traits along to their children. At the time, there were many—even some of the original detractors—who thought that the experiment was a success.

“However, as is the case with any unwilling servant who is not magically created for his purpose in life, the dragonkin began to be restless. Powerful beings in their own right, they chafed under the control of their dragon masters and sought freedom. Eventually they rebelled, nearly killing their creator in the process. Worse, when the dragons were forced to retire to their caves for the Great Sleep, these dragonkin had no such requirement. Many of them spent the time between the dragons’ withdrawal and the beginning of the next Age of Magic searching for the lairs of not only their masters, but other dragons as well. Many of our people were lost during this time. By the time the dragons had Awakened again at the dawn of the Fourth World, the dragonkin had amassed significant power in the world and were no longer the easy prey that they might have been in the beginning. Although many of them had moved on with the other concerns of their lives and no longer bore the dragons ill will, enough of them remained who did that there have been uneasy relations between their descendants and ours for thousands of years. It was at this point in the Fourth World history that the Council gathered and set in place the Laws we discuss today—the Laws preventing any dragon from creating dragonkin.” Here he glanced coldly, as he had done several other times during his speech, at one of the other dragons. The enmity between their gazes was visible to anyone who cared to notice it. “There have been transgressions in the intervening years,” he continued, returning his attention to the group at large, “but these have been few and have been dealt with harshly. This is the first such transgression that is known to have occurred in the Sixth World. We are gathered here now to discuss whether our Laws and the punishments for breaking them remain valid and just in this new Age.”

Sean’s eyes widened as he listened. No wonder dragons didn’t like dragonkin! To create children who would later rebel against their dragon parents—true, their intent back then was to make servants and slaves, not children, but still—He could certainly understand why they wouldn’t want this to happen again. If only such a decision wouldn’t affect him...

“Who’s that guy Lofwyr keeps giving the hairy eyeball to?” Ocelot whispered to Gabriel.

Gabriel’s expression was a little strange and his voice was flat as he answered. “That’s Alamais. His brother. They can’t stand each other.”

Kestrel stared at him; Sean got the impression that this was significant somehow, but he didn’t know why. He made a mental note to ask later—if there was a later.

Ocelot took a deep breath. He too appeared affected by Gabriel’s words. “Any particular reason?” he asked carefully.

“There are many reasons, most of which I am not privy to,” Gabriel told him. “But he is acknowledged to have been the first of our kind to create dragonkin as servants—including many of what are now known as immortal elves.”

“So he started this whole bloody thing?” Winterhawk asked.

“There is much more to it than that,” Gabriel said. “We’d best listen now—I will explain it to you later.”

Everyone nodded and settled back down to pay attention to the proceedings. Lofwyr was finishing up with the history, discussing the last dragon to have created dragonkin and his punishment, as well as the fate of the clan he founded.

“So dragonkin can pass on the dragon powers?” Sean whispered.

Gabriel nodded. “Without a regular infusion of dragon blood the traits eventually dilute out, but the power, decreasing somewhat in potency each time, can last for several generations.”

Sean mulled that over. So, if he was allowed to live and fathered any children, they too would be dragonkin? He hadn’t expected that either. He wondered if there would be any end to the weirdness that was persistently dogging his existence, and then wondered if he wanted there to be.

Lofwyr was wrapping up. “So as you see, honored Council Members,” he was saying, “the transgression for which young Gethelwain stands accused is a serious one indeed, and the laws that have been adopted by our people to address the situation have not been made lightly. The question before us is whether those laws still apply in this new Age, and if so, whether they should be dispassionately enforced or whether mitigating circumstances may be raised to temper our decisions.”

“Is he for us or against us?” Sean whispered to Gabriel.

“There is no way to know.” Gabriel didn’t look at him. He was still watching Lofwyr. “As Council Leader he will not offer an opinion, and his vote will come last.”

“Let us begin our deliberations, then,” Lofwyr said. “The remainder of this session will be given to a discussion in which anyone here may voice his or her stand on the matter. Discussion will continue until everyone who wishes to be heard has had the opportunity to do so, and the accused and his counsel shall be permitted to provide a rebuttal, if desired, to each statement. In deference to our human guests, recesses will be taken at the end of each day and the session will resume the following morning.” He paused a moment, looking around. “Honored guests, I wish it were not necessary for me to ask this, but I believe that all of us here would benefit from each speaker’s endeavoring to state his or her stand completely but briefly. These are not the days of old when our Council meetings could span months, and many of us have obligations from which this gathering has taken us.”

One of the dragons stood, an expression of annoyance on his face. “You ask us to decide such an important question in haste, Lofwyr?”

Lofwyr’s golden gaze swiveled around to meet the man’s. “I did not say ‘haste,’ Vast Green, but merely that each of us carefully consider his or her position before voicing it. This is not the place to bring up—outside influences.” His eyes held the man’s for several seconds, ending when the man nodded briefly, dropped his own gaze, and sat back down.

“What is he talking about? Who was that?” Winterhawk whispered.

Gabriel leaned a little closer to him. “That was Sirrurg. He has been waiting for a Council meeting to discuss some of his own interests, but Lofwyr isn’t going to allow it.”

“Did Council meetings really used to last months?” Sean asked under his breath.

Gabriel nodded. “Sometimes many months. In those days they were considered social events, as the dragons rarely got together—both by choice and by necessity, given the distances involved.”

“To that end,” Lofwyr was continuing, “Discussions will be confined to the issue under consideration, and each individual will be given a time limit of one hour to state his or her views. Is that acceptable to all?”

Again it struck Sean as odd that there was no low rumble, no undercurrent of discussion and grumbling, but simply nods of agreement. Some were a bit more grudging than others, but that was the only indication that everyone wasn’t in full agreement. He looked around—at a quick guess, it looked to him like there were several dozen dragons here. If each one of them got an hour to speak with intermissions each night, they would be here awhile. Maybe not months, but certainly weeks.

“Don’t worry,” Gabriel whispered to him as if he had picked up on his thought. “They won’t all want to speak. If this works as I expect it to, there will be around a dozen who feel strongly one way or the other, and those will represent the others.”

Sean nodded but didn’t answer. It was a relief—he didn’t think he could take sitting here for several weeks. Several days—or even several hours—were going to be hard enough.

Lofwyr wasn’t paying any attention to them; he was still speaking to the group at large. “After everyone who wishes to speak has been heard, we will adjourn one last time and resume the session the following morning, during which time a vote will be taken. A simple majority is required, and the will of the Council will determine the fate of the accused, as well as any other unanswered questions that might remain following the decision.” He looked around again. “If there are any objections to the method chosen for these proceedings, you are invited to speak now. If the methods are acceptable to all present, then we will continue.”

No one spoke. Even the man who had stood up before remained in his seat; he still looked somewhat annoyed, but raised no objection.

Lofwyr waited several moments in silence, then nodded once. “It is done, then. We shall proceed as has been agreed. Who among you wishes to speak first?”

There was silence for a few seconds and then an older Asian man in traditional Chinese garb stood. His eyes were hard, his mouth a thin line. “Honored Chairman, if I may be recognized—”

“The Council recognizes Lung,” Lofwyr said formally.

The man stepped out onto the main floor and took his place behind the podium as Lofwyr drew back once more into the shadows. He paused for a moment, looking out over the assembled group, fixed his gaze on Gabriel and Sean for a moment, and then spoke. “Honored Council. I must admit to being surprised that all of this discussion is necessary. As our Chair has said, our Law is very clear on the matter of what should be done in the case of one of our own who has committed the serious crime of creating an abomination such as the one you see sitting before you now.” Here he glanced at Sean again, and Sean shivered.

Kestrel squeezed his shoulder a little, but her eyes were hard too as she glared back at the speaker.

“The question here,” the man was continuing, “is not Gethelwain’s youth—he is young, yes, but he is undoubtedly old enough to know right from wrong. He was the son of Gilvirian, Leader of his region’s own Council—surely his father has taught him of such things, and if not his father certainly his mother or someone from his clan. I do not think that Gethelwain would deny it now, were I to ask him, that he knew that what he has done is wrong. The fact that he has attempted to conceal his transgression for eighteen years does nought but add to his guilt.”

Sean looked at Gabriel as if he expected Lung to turn and question him, but he did not. “Isn’t somebody gonna object?” he whispered.

“We will have our time,” Gabriel whispered back. He looked distracted.

“What we are faced with here,” the man continued, “is a matter of principle. Our Law is clear. There are no provisions in it for intent. Our Honored Chair Lofwyr has already explained to us—particularly to those of us who have perhaps forgotten, or were too young to be aware at the time—why these Laws have been put into place. Perhaps some of you, Awakened now in this new Age with its new technologies and new ideas, have forgotten that many of our own were murdered in their lairs as they slept by the very spawn that had been created by us to be our servants and our children. These ungrateful ones have turned against us and harbor great hatred for our kind, just as we do for them. If this young one’s transgression is allowed to stand, then what will stop others among us from attempting the same? What should stop them? Are we to set off down the same roads once more in order to spare a youngster who should have known better?”

He gripped the edges of the podium as he spoke, his sharp dark eyes moving around the hall, picking out a gaze here or there. He paused a moment here, staring challengingly out over the crowd. “My point is simple, honored Council members—our Law must take precedence over the actions, wishes, or intent of any individual. Our people have never been known for their ability to reach agreement on issues—without our Law we have nothing to stand on, and we will likely be thrown back into chaos should we, as we undoubtedly will, be confronted with another such issue in the future. Is that a chance you are willing to take to save young Gethelwain, regardless of his youth and his promise?

“Dramatic, isn’t he?” Winterhawk whispered out the corner of his mouth.

Sean didn’t answer. He doubted Gabriel even heard.

Lung stopped again. After a moment, Lofwyr stepped forward. “Have you anything else?”

The man shook his head. “There is more, of course, but as you have requested brevity I shall leave it to others to say. I am certain that there are many here today who feel as I do.”

Lofwyr inclined his head. “Indeed. Thank you. You may be seated.” He waited until Lung had returned to his seat, then addressed the hall again. “Who wishes to speak next?”

This time it was a woman who stood: tall, severe-looking, with short reddish hair, silvery eyes, and a long, almost military-looking black jacket that skimmed the floor at her feet. When Lofwyr recognized her to speak, she moved up to take her place where Lung had been before.

“I wish to state that I am in agreement with the honored Lung in all that he has said,” she began. Her voice was as severe as her expression and her posture. “But to these very serious accusations I wish to add another that he has not yet mentioned—the involvement of several humans in the situation. May I remind the Council that our secrets have remained secrets for thousands of years and that there are reasons for this secrecy. Yet the accused has chosen to reveal these secrets to his friends,—” her lip curled a little around the word “—thus compounding his already considerable crime. It is clear to me, and should be clear to this Council, that young Gethelwain has very little respect for our laws and customs—if he chooses not to follow them, then perhaps the mandated punishment for his crime, banishment from our society, might not prove such a hardship for him as it might for another who has more respect for our ways.” As she spoke her gaze came around and settled coldly on Gabriel.

“Now wait just a minute—” Kestrel protested under her breath, eyes blazing.

Gabriel put his hand on her arm. “Calm, Juliana,” he whispered. “I expected this from Anri. She will be one of our strongest opponents. She has hated my family since long before I was hatched.”

“But—we just have to sit here and listen to this?” She sounded like she was barely able to contain herself from jumping up and yelling her thoughts at the woman.

“We will have our time,” he repeated. Even Sean, who did not yet know him very well, could hear the tension in his voice. Winterhawk and Ocelot were grim-faced.

The woman was continuing. “Honored Council,” she was saying, “It will be said today, I am sure, that Gethelwain is young and that he should be given leniency for this fact. But I wish to reiterate what the honored Lung has already pointed out—that not only has he committed this act, but he has chosen to conceal it for eighteen years. If the honored Shaozu had not discovered Gethelwain’s deception, who among us knows how long he would have continued in his attempt to hide his crime from his people?”

Sean glanced over at Neferet, across the hall. She was watching Anri with great concentration. He wondered if this was the dragon version of taking notes.

“Further,” the woman was saying, casting a rather contemptuous glance toward Gabriel, “I wish to put to rest a point which will surely be raised by Gethelwain’s defenders—that he is a child.” She shook her head, turning back to sweep her severe gaze over the crowd and then back to Lofwyr. “This one is no child, Honored Council. Perhaps he was when he retired to his family’s lair for the Sleep, but he has grown since then, in size if not in maturity. Physically, as any of us can see when he is in his true form, he is old enough to fly a mate, to father children—the fact that he has fathered this—child—” again her lips curled around the word “—is proof of that.” She turned once again to look at Gabriel. “And if he does not know the gravity of what he has done, of the abomination he has created, perhaps I might be the one to remind him of what has befallen his own parents.” Her voice rang through the hall and then faded as she stood there facing her adversary.

Even though the room was otherwise silent Sean got the impression of a shocked hubbub nonetheless. He turned to Gabriel and was surprised to see his father’s head bowed, and expression of veiled grief on his face. “What—?” Sean whispered. “What’s going on?”

Gabriel didn’t answer. After a moment Kestrel, who had her hand on Gabriel’s back, leaned in and whispered in Sean’s ear: “His parents were both killed by what he calls ‘down-cycle hunting.’ Like Lofwyr said before, apparently some of the dragonkin who became the immortal elves spent most of the time while the dragons were sleeping trying to hunt them down and kill them in their lairs while they couldn’t protect themselves.”

Sean stared at her, stunned. “And—they—his—”

She nodded. “That’s what he told me. He doesn’t like to talk about it.”

Even Lofwyr seemed a bit surprised by Anri line of accusation, but he said nothing to indicate it. “Is there anything else?” he asked.

“No, Honored One. I am sure there are many others who will build on what I have said. This one is no innocent child, despite what his defenders will have you believe. He is a young adult, and one who clearly maintains little respect for the laws, customs, and history of his own people. I am sure that the decision will be made accordingly.” She primly moved back to her seat and sat down, nodding once for emphasis.

Ocelot glared at her. “Somebody stuck something up her ass, that’s for sure,” he muttered.

Kestrel nodded in grim agreement.

Another speaker, this one a male Aztlaner whose human form appeared to be in his late twenties, rose. After being recognized by Lofwyr, he launched into another speech condemning Gabriel for what he had done. He used many of the same arguments as the previous two, punctuating his words with passionate gestures. Instead of remaining at the podium he strode around the area behind it, pausing occasionally to make eye contact with some member of the assembled group.

“Who’s that?” Kestrel whispered. “He looks familiar, but I can’t place him.”

“That’s Dzitbalchén,” Gabriel told her. “Remember, from Amazonia?”

“He’s the one you—?”

Gabriel nodded. “Apparently he harbors grudges for a very long time.”

“But he’s not a Great, is he?”

“No. He must have obtained special permission to be here. I do not know how he managed it. There are a number of other non-Greats here as well, though all of those here are almost as old as the Greats.”

Sean was confused, but decided not to ask questions now. He added this one to his list of things he would ask about later when conditions were less stressful. That would probably be for the best, he decided.

As the speaker continued, Sean’s attention began to wander. He leaned back in his chair, looking around to try to gauge the reactions of the other dragons to the speaker’s words. Most of them were expressionless, listening with blank faces and neutral postures, giving away nothing—at least not to Sean’s mostly human perceptive powers. He wondered what they were thinking. Were they angry at what Gabriel had done? Did they feel sorry for him, as one might for a young man from a good family who had unknowingly committed some terrible deed? Were they even going to listen to the other side, or had they already made up their minds? He couldn’t tell. Most of them were looking at the speaker, and a few were looking at Lofwyr, who had once more retired back behind the podium. They were—

One of them was looking straight at Gabriel.

Sean tensed a little, turning so he could observe from the corner of his eye without having to look directly at the woman across the hall who was indeed paying more attention to Gabriel than she was to the proceedings. She was beautiful, a silk-clad Asian woman with a young but ageless quality to her features and long, lustrous black hair tied in a graceful bun at the back of her neck. Her expression, Sean could see, was a combination of interest and confusion. She looks like somebody who’s trying to figure out what she’s looking at, he thought. He glanced at Gabriel and noted that he was leaned forward in his chair, watching the speaker, but he seemed tense. Not surprising, I guess. They haven’t exactly been kind to him over the past couple of hours.

Sean leaned closer to Kestrel and nudged her. “Who’s that?” he whispered.

“Who?” she whispered back.

“The Asian lady across the way there. The one who keeps looking at Gabriel.”

Kestrel followed his gaze to the other side and paused a moment, doing the same thing Sean had done—looking without looking. “I don’t know,” she whispered after a pause. “I’ve never seen her before.”

Sean nodded, wondering if he should ask Gabriel about her later on. He supposed it wasn’t really important, though. He glanced over again and the woman had looked away from Gabriel and back to the proceedings.

But now Gabriel was looking at her.

It was only for a few seconds, but Sean watched with interest, noting that Gabriel’s expression was very similar to the Asian woman’s a few moments ago—like someone who had seen something they knew should be important but had no idea why. Finally he settled back again and the moment passed without comment. Sean decided to concentrate on the business at hand.

The remainder of the session passed with much of the same—it seemed to Sean that the dragons were spending an awful lot of time reiterating the same points, but he supposed that was just how they did things. Not all of them took their full allotted hour, so by the time Lofwyr resumed his spot behind the podium and announced that they would break for the evening, a dozen dragons had had their turn to speak. So far sentiment was running strongly against Gabriel, although there had been several of the dozen who had at least partially supported him. Sean tried hard not to get nervous, but it wasn’t easy—if things continued to go the way they had gone today, he didn’t think they had much chance of making it out of this successfully.

They had dinner in a small dining room off the main room. Sean noticed immediately that after the dragons left the hall most of them seemed to disappear; at least they didn’t show up for dinner. He thought about asking Gabriel where they’d gone but decided against it.

Neferet, the dragon who had chosen to defend Gabriel, and her spirit companion Uneki did join them for dinner, however. Sean looked at the delicious looking food that had been set before them and wondered if he was going to be able to eat anything at all. He nibbled at the food and settled back to listen to the conversation.

“How do you think things went today?” Winterhawk was asking Neferet, keeping his voice neutral. He, like the other human guests, had had little to say during the meeting itself.

“It is difficult to tell yet,” Neferet replied. “There are many others who have not yet spoken, and many who will not speak. Their choice will not be known until the vote is cast.”

“I’m wondering,” the mage continued, “How is it that with this many dragons present, all of you aren’t getting a sort of—psychic overload from each other’s thoughts and emotions? I assume that you can block this sort of thing out, but with emotions running as high as they are and so many dragons—”

Neferet nodded. “This building has been heavily shielded against just that. While it is still possible for us to communicate telepathically if we choose, it prevents us from receiving random impressions from the others. It is done in any place where dragons gather—in those places we control the shielding is a permanent addition.”

“So Gabriel’s lair would be shielded like that?” Kestrel asked.

Gabriel nodded. “Yes. As Winterhawk has surmised, moments of high emotion are difficult for even most dragons to block out completely, and we find it uncomfortable to be unwittingly party to others’ thoughts.”

“So what you’re saying is you can’t tell who’s gonna say what?” Ocelot asked. He too seemed not to be terribly hungry; for that matter, none of them were.

Neferet took a deep breath and let it out. “We can form impressions,” she said at last. “And I am, of course, familar with many of those here—more so than Gabriel is in many cases.”

“So how do you think they’ll vote?” Kestrel asked. “Those you know, anyway.”

This time the dragon paused so long it was uncertain whether she would answer the question at all. “I believe that many of the younger dragons will vote with us,” she said quietly. “Perianwyr, Arleesh, Hualpa, Masaru, many of the other Eastern Dragons, who have less issue with the dragonkin question than the Westerners—” She spread her jewel-laden hands in a graceful gesture. “But as for the older among us—it is difficult to tell. Alamais, for example. As he was the one responsible for the prohibition in the first place, he could go either way: he might choose to uphold the prohibition, or it is possible he might choose to flout the traditions of the Council and vote with us.”

“Are the votes determined ahead of time?” Winterhawk asked. “Or can the vote of one member influence the vote of a later member?”

“There is always influence,” Neferet said. “The vote is not predetermined. However, each Council member is expected to vote his or her conscience on the matter. Dragons are not easily influenced by other dragons. It is a matter of pride.”

“But somebody might vote one way and then the next guy might change his vote based on that?” Ocelot asked. “Great. As if this wasn’t hard enough already.”

Kestrel must have realized that Sean wasn’t joining in the conversation, because she looked over at him. “You okay?” she asked gently.

Sean was almost startled that someone had spoken to him—he had been staring into his waterglass and absorbing the conversation. “What? Oh—” he sighed and shrugged. “Yeah, I guess so. The suspense is getting to me, though. I wish they could just get it over with.”

“Do not worry, child,” Neferet said; her voice, too, was gentle. “At the rate the arguments are progressing, I predict that the matter will be put to a vote before the end of the week. Possibly as early as tomorrow.”

“I don’t know whether I’m happy about that or more nervous,” he said. “It sure didn’t sound like things were going our way.”

“We shall see,” she told him, unruffled. “Remember—we have not yet had a chance for our answering arguments.”

Sean nodded, but he didn’t think anyone at the table believed he was was convinced.

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