Faces in Fire
Prince Zehava squinted into the sunlight and smiled his satisfaction. All the signs were good for the hunt today: claw marks on the cliffs, wing marks on the sand, and the close cropping of bittersweet plants along the canyon ridges. But the prince’s perceptions were more subtle and had no need of these obvious signs. He could feel the presence of his prey all along his skin, scent it in the air, sense it in every nerve. His admirers said he could tell when the time was ripe for the hunt simply by glancing at the sky. His enemies said it was not surprising that he could sense such things, for he himself had been dragon-spawned.
In truth, he seemed a human version of the dragon he hunted today. A long, proud nose reared out of a lean and predatory face, saved from ruthlessness by the humor lurking at the corners of his mouth. Nearly sixty winters had framed his eyes with deep lines, but his body was still tough and supple, his pose in the saddle easy, his back straight as his sword. The proudest of old dragons was Zehava, a cloak as black as his eyes billowing out behind him like wings as he rode a tall black war-horse into the Desert he had ruled for thirty-four winters.
“We advance, my prince?”
Zehava glanced at his son-by-marriage. “We advance,” he replied in the time-honored formula, then grinned. “We most certainly advance, Chay, unless your sword arm is already growing tired.”
The young man grinned back. “The only time it ever did was when we fought the Merida, and then only a little, and only because you kept tossing so many in my direction!”
“Tobin wanted to boast of your prowess, and I’ve never been able to deny my daughter anything.” He pressed his heels to the horse’s ribs and the troop advanced into the Desert behind him, bridles muffled and saddles devoid of the usual trappings that might clatter a warning to the dragon.
“Another ten measures, I make it,” Chaynal said.
“Ten! That son of the Storm Devil will be holed up in the hills and strike from there.”
“Five,” Zehava said again. “And he’ll be at the mouth of Rivenrock like High Prince Roelstra at Castle Crag.”
Chaynal’s handsome face pulled into a grimace. “And here I was enjoying myself. Why did you have to mention him?”
Zehava laughed. Inwardly, however, he was wishing that this fine young man was truly the son of his body, his heir. He felt much closer to Chay than he did to his blood son, Prince Rohan—a slight, quiet youth given to study and thoughtfulness rather than devotion to the manly arts. Rohan was a credible swordsman, an excellent hunter of everything but dragons, and a cunning whirlwind in a knife fight, but Zehava found his son incomprehensible in that these things were not the end and aim of life to him. Rohan’s taste for books and learned discussion was utterly beyond Zehava’s understanding. Honesty compelled him to admit that Chaynal had interests other than the hunt and the skirmish, but at least he did not prefer those other things to all else. Yet when Zehava attempted to press Rohan into other activities, his own wife and daughter flew at him like furious she-dragons.
Zehava grinned to himself as he rode through the scorching heat toward Rivenrock Canyon. Tobin should have been born the male child. As a young girl she had been able to out-ride and out-knife any boy her age. Marriage and motherhood had calmed her, but she was still capable of black-eyed rages to match