After dinner Neferet and Uneki took their leave, promising to meet the others again in the morning, and the rest of the group retired to their suite. Sean was surprised at how tired he was—he hadn’t thought sitting in a chair all day would be all that taxing, but then he realized that it wasn’t his body that was tired, but his mind. He had been on the edge of his seat all day, listening to speaker after speaker condemn his father’s action and press for the full mandated punishment; even the few who had provided some support hadn’t been enough to get the knots out of Sean’s stomach. The little bit of dinner he’d eaten felt like a lump of lead, making him glad that he hadn’t done his usual trick of wolfing down everything put before him. Deciding that the best thing for him might be to just go to bed, try to get some sleep, and get all that much closer to the end of all this in the morning, he bid everyone goodnight and headed for his room. He noticed that Winterhawk and Kestrel were making similar moves, and even Ocelot was looking less restless than usual and more bleary-eyed.

He wasn’t sure what time it was when he awoke, but he knew it couldn’t be morning yet. The window next to the bed was still dark, with the moon high overhead silhouetting the mountains against the black sky. He grabbed his chrono off the nightstand and sighed. It was only a little after one in the morning, which meant he’d only been asleep for about two hours. Usually he didn’t have any trouble getting to sleep and staying there—why now?

He knew why, of course, and there wasn’t any helping it, either. Sighing, he swung his legs out of bed and sat up, running his hands back through his hair. He knew from experience that when this happened, if he remained in bed and tried to get back to sleep all that would happen would be that he’d lie there for the next few hours, counting spots on the ceiling and getting increasingly more frustrated. He’d be more rested in the morning if he just got up now, took a walk, and tried to work off some of his restless energy. After that he might be able to come back and get in a couple hours’ sleep before he had to get up.

Moving in near-silence he pulled on a pair of loose-fitting pants and a T-shirt, then crept out of his room. He halfway expected to see someone out front, but the living area was dark and quiet: Winterhawk’s, Ocelot’s, Kestrel’s, and Gabriel’s doors were all closed. Fortunately the moon provided enough light through the huge display window on the other side of the room that he didn’t stub his toes on any of the furniture—he didn’t want to wake anyone up. If they could get any sleep tonight he wished them well. Idly wondering if dragonkin powers would allow him to see in the dark, he opened the suite door and slipped out, closing it quietly behind him.

The hallways were lit only dimly by faint sconces hung at intervals along the walls. Sean headed toward the main complex and away from the residential area, taking the elevator back up to the ground floor. He considered checking to see if the gym was open, thinking a workout might help him, but decided against it. If he had any hope of getting to sleep tonight, the last thing he needed to do was get his body all wound up so it could be as restless as his mind. No, the walk would do for burning off restless energy. He wished he could go outside—he probably could, actually, but he wasn’t sure and he certainly didn’t want to get caught by some dragon security guard and accused of trying to run away. Better to stay inside where at least somebody might believe him if he told them he just couldn’t sleep. It didn’t occur to him to remember that dragons could read minds.

He spent the next half hour prowling some of the hallways he hadn’t checked out before—it had always been a trait of his that whenever he was in a new place he liked to explore it, to get the lay of the land as it were, in case he had to make a quick getaway or find something in a hurry. This complex was quite large but it had a logic to it once you figured it out: main hall in the center (it was locked up tight with the “Do Not Enter” sign back in front of the doors), smaller halls off to both sides, dining area and kitchen down one hallway, recreational facilities (including the gym, a large indoor pool, a well-stocked trideo entertainment center with games and trid movies, and a library with old-fashioned paper books) down another; storage rooms, maintenance areas, and other administrative-type rooms peppered throughout along with large and opulent restrooms. Truly a place for the jet set to get together—the combination of the state-of-the-art tech and the old-fashioned, ageless stone architecture appealed to Sean. He wondered if the dragons liked it because it reminded them a little bit of home.

After making a circuit around the whole area he still didn’t feel sleepy, so he retraced his steps to the rec wing. He’d poked his head in through the door to the library before, noticing the tables and the soft comfortable couches arrayed along with shelf after shelf of books. Maybe finding something to read for awhile would relax him. He liked to read, although he never got as much time as he wanted to read for pleasure because he was always either doing homework or out participating in some sport or stunt or his martial arts training. He was particularly intrigued by paper books—the Hunters (weird how he had already stopped thinking of them as “Mom and Dad,” even though his love for them and his pain at their loss had not lessened in the slightest) had a few but they were more for show than anything else—old classics with leather bindings and stiff heavy pages. Even now in the latter part of the 2070s paper books were still made, but they were usually considered to be either a luxury item due to their expense or else the province of fringe groups like mages and collectors—sort of like something Sean had read once about how some people still liked to listen to old-tech “compact disks” instead of music chips, claiming that the sound was more “real.” He had never seen this many physical books in one place before. His high school library had been mostly virtual, accessible via dataterminal, and the tiny collection of real books they had were available only to those who had documented reasons for needing them.

He pushed open one of the big double doors and went in, looking around to see if anyone else was here. He stood silently inside the door for a few moments, listening for footsteps, breathing, chair-scraping, or any other noises that indicated that he wasn’t alone. He heard none, so he moved inside.

The library was quite large, its ceiling extending up two stories. The bookshelves reached to the ceiling as well, with a narrow catwalk accessible at points by a rolling ladder providing access to the upper reaches. Down below were the tables and couches, including an inviting-looking arrangement of two chairs and a couch along with a low table, all set on a raised area and facing the floor-to-ceiling window at the far end of the room. Light was provided, as with the rest of the complex, by sconces placed periodically along the walls. It wasn’t a lot of light, but it was enough, along with the moonlight coming in through the window, to read by.

Sean moved along the shelves, glancing at titles occasionally. The books appeared to be arranged according to subject, although he couldn’t figure out the filing system. He didn’t try very hard. Instead, he just continued looking until he came upon a group of books concerned with various sports. He nodded approvingly as he found the martial arts section: it was fairly extensive, and had books dating from far back in the previous century and covering most of the common arts and a few that were not so common. He carefully pulled out a couple of books that looked interesting and carried them over to the couch, where he sat down, put his feet up on the table, and opened one of the books.

Time passed without Sean’s notice as he became more and more absorbed by what he was reading. After a time, however, he began to feel his eyelids drooping and realized that he hadn’t remembered the last couple of pages he’d read. He swiveled around and put his feet up on the couch, leaning back against the overstuffed arm. I’ll just close my eyes for a few minutes, he told himself. Then I’ll finish looking through these books and go back to bed. I’ll—

Sean awoke to the sound of soft voices and of the wooden doors closing quietly. He tensed. Was someone in here? Had they just arrived? Were they leaving? Did they know he was here? He forced himself to remain still, listening.

The voices continued. They were far away, probably over on the other side of the large room, but the silence in the library was so complete that Sean had no trouble hearing them. He couldn’t recognize them yet, though—they were too far away for that. He hoped they’d stay there. He didn’t like the idea of eavesdropping on anyone’s conversation, but there wasn’t much else he could do at this point. If he rose up and made his presence known, they would think he had been listening anyway—he had no idea how long they had been here. Also, he didn’t think he would be able to sneak out without someone catching him, since he’d have to pass very close to the voices’ location to get to the room’s only door.

Footsteps, and the voices moved closer. Sean’s eyes widened and he stiffened again. One of the speakers was Gabriel! He craned his ears to recognize the other one, but he could not. It was a female voice, but neither Kestrel’s straightforward tones nor Neferet’s strong cultured alto. This one was soft, musical, and a little tentative. For that matter, Gabriel too sounded tentative.

Sean took a silent deep breath. What should he do? Admit his presence now? Would Gabriel be angry with him for being here? He didn’t think so, but it would be an awkward moment. He wondered why they hadn’t noticed him, then remembered what Gabriel and Neferet had said earlier about the shielding—if it could block out unwanted dragon thoughts, Sean imagined that it must be a lot more effective against puny human brainwaves. Sighing softly, he sank back against the couch and tried not to listen, but his curiosity got the better of him.

“I didn’t expect to see you—anyone—here,” Gabriel was saying. Sean couldn’t see him, of course, but he could tell by the tone in his father’s voice that he was not upset or troubled by this meeting. His voice was soft and surprisingly gentle.

“I could not sleep,” the woman said. “I thought perhaps I might find something interesting to read here, or a quiet place for meditation.”

Seems like a popular thing to do tonight, Sean thought. He wished he could see the woman, but he dared not raise up. Even though his thoughts were hidden, he didn’t think the sudden appearance of even the top part of his head over the back of the couch would be equally safe from discovery.

The woman was speaking again; there was soft amusement in her voice now. “I likewise did not expect to see you here. You have had a long and difficult day. Should you not be resting?”

“I could not,” Gabriel admitted. “My friends are all asleep downstairs in our suite, but my thoughts would not allow me to rest tonight.”

“And your son?” the woman asked. Sean tensed again, wondering if she knew he was here.

“I suspect that he too will get little rest,” Gabriel said. “Although I hope that he will manage to sleep for at least awhile. I know this is not easy for him.” There was a pause, and then: “Forgive me—I have forgotten my courtesy. I am Gethelwain. I am sure you already know that.” There was faint amusement in his voice now, and Sean could almost picture him bowing over the faceless woman’s hand.

The woman chuckled; her laugh was even more musical than her voice. “You have been rather the center of attention today,” she said. “But still, I am pleased to finally make your acquaintance. I am Minhailreth.”

“I am honored to meet you,” Gabriel said. There was formality to his tone, but Sean could detect—something else. Something he couldn’t identify.

There was a long pause. “You are looking at me—oddly,” the woman said at last. She didn’t sound displeased about it.

Another pause. “I am—wondering if perhaps we have met before, but I do not see how it is possible. I certainly would have remembered you if we had.”

“That is strange,” Minhailreth replied. Her voice was softer than before; Sean realized he was straining a bit to listen and admonished himself to stop it, but he could not. “I feel the same. But I do not think we have met.”

“Your voice—sounds familiar to me, as if I have heard it before, a long time ago.” There was a pause, and then a chuckle. “Forgive me. I did not mean to subject you to my faulty memory.”

Minhailreth laughed quietly. “It is all right. I am just pleased that we had the chance to meet. I was watching you today during the Council meeting. I do not know how you can remain so calm in the face of all that has been brought down upon you today.”

“Calm? Hardly, my lady. I am anything but. But I do not wish to give them the satisfaction of—how does my friend Kestrel put it?—seeing me sweat.”

“Your detractors—or your son?” Minhailreth’s voice was gentle.

A pause. “You are perceptive, lady. I would say both. It is he I fear for the most, not myself. Even if they were to find me guilty and banish me, I could adapt. I feel no shame for what I have done. But Sean has done nothing. He has not asked for what has happened. He did not ask to be born. I am proud of him, of the way he has grown to the edge of manhood—I cannot allow his life to be ended because of millennia-old traditions that no longer have a purpose in this age.”

Sean held his breath, wondering how the woman would respond. He knew who she was now: the Asian woman he had noticed watching his father during the meeting today—the woman his father had been watching as well.

“Of course you cannot,” she murmured. “It would be barbaric of them to expect you to. You have done what you did not out of any desire for power, but out of love and innocence.”

“There are those who say I should have known better,” Gabriel said softly.

“That does not give them the right to punish you—or your son—for something that you did not even think was possible.” The woman’s voice rose a bit, and Sean thought she sounded somewhat indignant.

Gabriel sighed. “We shall see,” he said. “I am grateful for your words, Lady—it seems that there are few who support me, judging by the discussion today.”

“That number may be greater than you suspect,” Minhailreth said. “There are many who are silent, but the arguments on your behalf have been strong. Do not assume because they are silent they will go against you.” There was a pause. “Do not give up hope, Gethelwain. You have support. I realize I am only one and can speak only for myself, but I will stand on your side. And I will try to influence others as well. I cannot bear the thought of one of your youth and promise banished—nor the thought of an innocent life lost through no fault of his own.”

“Lady, your words give me hope. Thank you. I—” He paused and did not continue. Sean was almost tempted to raise up this time, even if it meant discovery. In his mind he could picture his father bowing to Minhailreth as he spoke.

“Be well, Gethelwain,” she said gently. “This is not over, and I sense that you have much yet to do in this life. They will see reason, and not allow such a waste.”

“Thank you...” Gabriel’s voice was barely audible at this point. Again, Sean heard something else in his tone, and again he could not identify it. When his father spoke again, he sounded more normal: “And now, Lady, I should go. I do not wish to interrupt your meditation.”

“It is not an interruption, Gethelwain. In truth I am pleased that we had this chance to meet, to talk.” There was a pause. “It is odd, but I almost felt—drawn to this place. As if perhaps we were meant to meet.”

“As did I,” Gabriel said softly. “Odd, indeed. But I have learned not to question such feelings—especially when they lead to pleasant outcomes. Good night, Lady Minhailreth—and thank you for your kind words and your understanding. They are profoundly appreciated.”

There was a smile in Minhailreth’s voice. “When this is over and these hidebound traditionalists have been shown the error of their ways, perhaps we might meet again.”

“I would like that very much, Lady,” Gabriel murmured.

“Good night, then—until we meet again. I too should be returning to my suite.”

There was silence again for a moment and then Sean heard the delicate clicks of Minhailreth’s shoes and the slightly louder sound of his father’s light tread as the two of them made their way back across the library. The door opened, then closed again behind them. Sean was alone once more.

He let his breath out slowly and sat up, looking at the space where they had been. He was filled with mixed emotions: on the one hand he was glad he had hear the exchange because now he was convinced more than ever that his father did care about what happened to him—cared very much, in fact. On the other hand, though he felt embarrassed at having eavesdropped on a private conversation. Should he tell his father he’d been there? Or would that cause more problems than it solved? He didn’t know the answer. Worse, what if Minhailreth had known? Here she was defending him—did she know he was sneaking around in the dark listening in where he shouldn’t be? If she didn’t know and she found out, would that change her opinion of him? Of his father? Sean knew they needed all the friends they could get right now. He couldn’t risk losing one.

With a sigh he swung his legs around, gathered up the two martial arts books, and returned them to their shelves. Regardless of what he decided to do, he knew he should get back to the suite and at least try to sleep. He didn’t think tomorrow was going to be any shorter or less stressful than today had been, so any rest he could get would be welcome. Besides, he didn’t want to explain to his father what he’d been doing out so late. He didn’t think he’d be able to keep a lie from a dragon—and he wasn’t sure he wanted to anyway.

Thanks to DeckerM for letting me borrow Minhailreth.

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