Constantine of Norka, once the famed warrior leader of the sept of the silver dragons, jerked upright from where he had been dozing in the weak morning sun. The air in the small sitting room was still and quiet, the gas fireplace gently blowing warmth into the room, leaving him with a sense of being frozen in an endless moment of time. He cocked his head and held his breath, wondering if his mind had been playing tricks on him.
“Baaaaaghhh.” The distant noise started out in a thin, mechanical approximation of a sheep’s bleat, but ended in what sounded like the cough of an asthmatic toad. One with a heavy smoking habit.
“Constantine!” The bellow that followed the horrible noise all but shook the stone walls of Dauva, permeating even the farthest point of the castle. The gas jet sputtered as if in sympathy with the noise.
With a martyred sigh, Constantine got to his feet, taking a corporeal form despite the desire to fade into the spirit world where no one could see him.
“Is it too much to ask you to keep your deviant sexual aids from my son?”
Constantine pursed his lips, crossed his arms, and leaned against the wall as the dark-haired, dark-eyed man strode toward him, clutching in one hand a fast-deflating blow-up sheep clad in fishnet stockings.
“What makes you think that belongs to me?” Constantine asked, taking a conversational tone. He’d found through centuries of experience—not including the time while he had been inconveniently dead—that doing so had the tendency to enrage Baltic even more. And there was nothing Constantine liked better than to push Baltic’s emotional buttons. It was payback, he felt, for all that he had suffered at the hands of his once friend, later mortal enemy, and, finally, reluctant housemate. “That guard of yours—what is his name? Pablo? Pachelbel? You know who I mean, the one who enjoys both sexes—he has many such things. You do me wrong to accuse me when it likely belongs to him.”
“His name is Pavel, as you well know,” Baltic said, breathing heavily through his nose.
Constantine gave himself two points for the loud nose-breathing. He wondered if he could get Baltic to grind his teeth—that was a worth a full five points, and getting that would push his daily Aggravating Baltic score over twenty. It would be a new high, and one that he had long sought. “Pavel? Are you sure?” Constantine rubbed his jaw as if he was considering the fact. “Doesn’t sound very likely to me. You’ve probably gotten it wrong. Such things happen when you get old, you know.”
Baltic’s jaw tightened, but Constantine didn’t see any sign of teeth grinding. “I’m younger than you, a fact you like to forget.”
“Well, strictly speaking, you were younger than me. But my beloved Ysolde had my spirit form summoned just a short two years ago. That makes you older.”
Baltic took a deep breath. “I don’t know why I bother conversing with you. You never have anything of intelligence to say and simply use up air.”
“You talk to me for the same reason you begged me to join your sept—you know I am the superior wyvern.”
“You are deceased,” Baltic said, enunciating with deliberation. “You are a former dragon. You no longer exist. You are, in effect, a nonentity, and the only reason I went against my better judgment to include you in the sept of the light dragons is because Ysolde—my Ysolde—pleaded with me to keep you from being without a sept.”
Constantine sniffed. He disliked the way the conversation was going and said the one thing he was sure would derail it. “Perhaps Ysolde got that sheep with the charming garters and stockings to distract your lusty attentions. Perhaps she is tired of you, but is too kind to tell you. Perhaps she desires another. Say, for instance, me…”
“Out!” Baltic bellowed, pointing dramatically at the door. The sheep gave a feeble “Baaagh” before the last of the air slid out of it with a rude noise.
“Out?” Constantine brushed his fingernails along one arm, and lazily examined the results.
“Out of my castle! Out of my sept, and my hair, and most of all, out of my life!” Baltic yelled, glaring at the sheep when it uttered one last rude noise before falling limp in his hand. He flung it to Constantine’s feet.
“My beloved Ysolde wouldn’t allow you to kick me out,” Constantine said, buffing his fingernails again. Should he give himself a point for the wisp of smoke that emerged from one of Baltic’s nostrils? No, he decided after a moment’s thought. All dragons tended to such things when under the grip of strong emotions. Even he had the tendency to get smoky about the nostrils when he was riled.
“She is not your beloved!” Baltic snarled. “She is my mate! She always has been, and she always will be. Stop referring to her in that obscene fashion.”
“It’s not obscene. I love her.”
“You do not. You simply desire her because you know she prefers me to you.” A little smile curled the edges of Baltic’s lips. “She is my mate, not yours.”
Constantine sadly deducted three points for that blow. Dammit, how was he to reach his goal of twenty irritation points if Baltic made zingers like that? “I gave my life so that she might live. If that does not show eternal dedication and love, then I do not know what would. Besides, my beloved Ysolde enjoys having me about the castle. She told me so just the other day.”
“Then she is in the grip of brain fever, and I will have her doctored as soon as possible.” Baltic pointed to the deflated plastic sheep lying in a heap on the floor. “See that you keep your sex toys from my son.”
“I can’t help it if Alduin favors my beloved Ysolde with his shared fascination of all things…unique…,” Constantine said with a little smile of his own. He figured mentioning Baltic’s eighteen-month-old child would push his former foe over the edge, but, alas, Baltic had a better grasp on his temper than Constantine liked.
“Ysolde has many tastes, all of them unique, but she does not try to corrupt our son with them. See that you do the same.” Baltic strode off before Constantine could goad him further.
“Fourteen points,” Constantine said with morose pleasure, idly looking through the window to the wilderness beyond. Dauva, the home of Baltic and Ysolde, and all the rest of the light dragons (whose numbers totaled six, including Constantine), was situated outside of a remote town in Russia. Constantine had been born and raised in a region that was now Poland, but he much preferred the south of France and its balmier climate.
“Only fourteen points, and I used my best weapons. What has gone wrong with my life that I find myself here, at this time of year, cold even when it’s sunny? I am unwanted, undesired, and alone,” he said aloud. No one answered him, which was exactly what he expected. All too frequently he’d found himself on the outside of the family that was made up of Baltic and Ysolde, and their two children. Even Pavel, Baltic’s right-hand man, was a part of the family, whereas he, Baltic’s oldest friend and once (for about two minutes) mate to the lovely Ysolde, existed on the fringes of their attention. He’d never felt so ghostlike and insubstantial as he had the last few months. Lately, there were days when he didn’t even bother to slip into his corporeal state.
A woman with long blond hair bustled into the room, speaking as she did so. “…told him that we do too have to worry about it, but will he listen to me? No, he won’t.” Ysolde de Bouvier stopped in front of Constantine, a toddler perched on her hip. “Honestly, there are times when I could just whomp him on the head with the nearest blunt object.”
“If you’re speaking of Baltic, I would be happy to be of service. Bashing him over the head is always high on my list of things to do,” Constantine said, rising and making a formal bow before chucking the child under his chin. Constantine had a love of babies that led him to making secret forays into the child Alduin’s chambers, bringing toys that he thought would amuse.
Alduin said, “Uncle Connie!” and held out his arms for Constantine.
“Lovey, Uncle Constantine doesn’t want to hold you, not after you’ve been helping Uncle Pavel make baklava. You are one sticky little boy, and are going to have a bath just as soon as I’m done here.” Ysolde set the boy down and gave him a look of mock regret before turning a smile onto Constantine. “Good morning. Why do you look so sad?”
Constantine affected a martyred look. “Baltic was here belittling me.”
“Pfft,” Ysolde said dismissively, whapping him lightly on the arm as she did so. “Since when do you let that upset you?”
“No one wants me,” he found himself saying. Part of him cringed at the words, but the other was a bit relieved he had finally spoken of the darkness that had claimed him of late. “No one even likes me except you.”
“Of course people like you. You’re smart, and you have a good sense of humor, and you’re handsome as all get-out. Just look at you! You’re all broad shoulders, and pretty browny-gold eyes, and your manly stubble could make any woman swoon.”
“Does it make you swoon?” he asked without hope.
“No, but I’m madly in love with Baltic, so I don’t count.” She glanced down at his feet. “Wallowing in self-pity never did anyone good. Do you have a moment, or are you busy planning something with your blow-up doll? If so, please let me have a little talk with you first. It’s really most important. No, lovey, leave the sheep alone. Uncle Constantine doesn’t want to have to clean honey out of that faux sheepskin before he uses his toy.”
“It’s not mine,” Constantine started to say, but stopped because he made it a point never to lie to the woman who had claimed his heart so many centuries before…and then stomped all over it in her mad dash to fling herself into Baltic’s arms.
“Of course it’s yours. I was in the sex toy shop with you when you bought it. But that’s of no real matter. I want to talk to you about this curse.”
Constantine frowned. “The one afflicting the dragons, or is there a new curse?”
“No, that’s the one.”
Alduin clasped the deflated sheep to him with a cry of delight. Both Ysolde and Constantine ignored the sheep’s plaintive baa. “We’ve had a message from Aisling Grey—she’s mated to Drake Vireo—that they have a Charmer planning to break the dragon curse by using Asmodeus’s ring.”
“Did they find the ring, then?”
“I gather so, or they wouldn’t have a Charmer lined up to break the curse. Now they’re looking for something that belongs to Asmodeus to use to help break it…a talisman of some sort.”
Constantine scratched his chest, wondering if he should make his daily declaration of love to Ysolde now, or if it would be better to wait until Baltic was around. He decided on the latter—it was usually worth an irritation point or two. “What has this to do with us?”
“I told Aisling that you’d get the talisman.”
He gawked at her, outright gawked, something he never did. “Ysolde—”
“Now, hear me out,” Ysolde interrupted before he could express his displeasure at the idea of her volunteering him for any such act. He was a wyvern…or at least he had been. He once led the famed silver dragon sept, with well over five hundred members! He was no mere flunky to be sent after a trifling artifact, and he told her that.
“It’s not trifling. It’s hugely important.”
“I do have some standards, after all,” he said stiffly. “Just because I don’t actually lead a sept anymore doesn’t mean I don’t have important demands on my time.”
Ysolde pursed her lips and raised an eyebrow at the deflated sheep.
Constantine sniffed again and looked away.
“I know you have lots of important things to do,” Ysolde said soothingly. “But don’t you see just how ideal you are for the job? For one, you think well on your feet.”
He had opened his mouth to protest, but at the words of praise, hesitated. “This is true. But—”
“And you can blink in and out of the physical world, which no other dragon can do.”
“Not to mention the fact that you are clever enough to get in and out with the artifact before anyone even knew you had been there.”
“Again, you speak the truth, but I must point out—”
“And you would be saving all dragonkin,” Ysolde ended triumphantly. “You would be a hero!”
“I’m already a hero,” he protested. “I am the wyvern of the silver dragons! I fought the dread wyvern Baltic—”
“Whom I love.”
“And defeated him at the gates of Dauva—”
“Which he rebuilt.”
“And gave my life for yours,” he finished with a dramatic sweep of his arm. “That act alone makes me a hero.”
“Constantine,” Ysolde said in a distinctly chiding tone of voice. Constantine did not care for it at all. “I can’t believe you’d be such a coward.”
“Coward?” he asked on a gasp of disbelief. “Me?”
Ysolde brushed a bit of lint from her sleeve. “Well, what else am I to think when you, a brave and heroic dragon who has sworn himself to my eternal service, won’t even do this one simple little task for me?”
“If you think such ridiculous statements are going to bait me into jumping to your command, you are mistaken,” Constantine said dryly, but despite that, he began to seriously consider her request. He didn’t want to do it for a number of reasons, but he had to admit that when he reached the state where the high point of his day was irritating Baltic, he should reassess his life plan. Perhaps a little adventure would be just what he needed to shake himself of the sense of gloom that pervaded him of late. “You say this talisman belongs to Asmodeus?”
“Yes. He’s the head of Abaddon, isn’t he?”
“So I’ve heard.” He thought about that for a few moments. “Asmodeus is sure to be in Abaddon.”
“I assume so.”
“I don’t like going to Abaddon,” he said slowly, still considering the idea.
“Really?” Ysolde looked mildly curious as she picked up Alduin. “I’ve never been there, myself. Baltic always said that the demons of hell—sorry, Abaddon—don’t like to mess with dragonkin, so I didn’t think we had much to worry about. Other than the curse, of course.”
“It’s not for that reason—” Constantine stopped himself from continuing. It would do little good to explain his preferences to her. “All I would need to do is find this object, a talisman? Is there one in particular, or will any item do?”
Ysolde pulled a strand of her blond hair from her child’s sticky grip. “I think it’s safe to say you can get anything that suits the bill.”
“Which means any object of a personal nature to the being in question.” Constantine thought about this. He added, more speaking aloud to himself than to her, “I suppose I could get in Asmodeus’s palace and find an object quickly enough. I wouldn’t have to spend any time in Abaddon, not that—” He remembered he wasn’t alone, and once again bit down on his words. With a brief nod at Ysolde, he added, “Very well. I will undertake this quest for you, my beloved former mate. But only because I live for you.”
“Oh, you do not. One day you’ll meet a lovely woman who will make you forget all about me.”
“Never will the sun set on a day in which I do not spend my time devoted to your welfare,” he said, suitably dramatically. He thought of striking a noble yet humble pose, but she was watching her child at that moment, and he hated to waste a good pose.
“Uh huh.” She rolled her eyes briefly. “I’d think that bringing about the end of the curse would be reward enough without the dramatic declarations. Just the thought of having the world be a normal place with all the septs able to talk to each other again, and no one at war, would be heaven compared to how things are now.”
Slowly, so Ysolde would not notice, Constantine nudged the deflated sheep behind him. “I will pack my things. Where must I go to accomplish this burdensome task?”
“Pack?” Ysolde looked amused and curious at the same time. “I didn’t know ghosts had luggage.”
“Of course we do.” He waited until she was looking at Alduin before snatching up the sheep, and holding it behind his back. “We have need of things just the same as you do. I wear clothing, do I not? I must shave, and bathe, or I would be unpleasant to be around.”
“Yes, but you’re a spirit. You can wear the same thing every day if you like, and I doubt if you’d stink if you didn’t take a bath.”
He pulled himself up to his full height, and shook his finger at her. Unfortunately, it was the hand holding the sheep, which baaed forlornly before he jerked his arm behind his back again. “Just because I’m a spirit does not mean I wish to appear unfashionable or be unclean!”
Ysolde giggled. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. Of course you must pack your clothes and…” She glanced at his arm. “…accessories if it makes you feel better.”
“You did not answer the question of where I must go in order to accomplish this mission.”
“You are the cutest sticky child in the world,” Ysolde said to her son when he started to sing in a high, singsong voice. “Hmm? Oh, the Charmer is evidently in Paris, so it’s probably best if you get into Asmodeus’s palace by one of the French entrances.”
“Evidently?” Constantine picked out a word that made him frown. “Do you not know for certain where the Charmer is?”
“I don’t know the Charmer personally—this is just what was passed on to me.” She dropped a kiss on her son’s head and started toward the door. Thank you so much for doing this, Constantine. I would tell you how much I appreciate it, but it’s so much more than just my wishes that’re at stake here. You’ll free all the dragons, and be a hero forever. All right, my darling, it’s the bathtub for you…”
Constantine’s frown grew darker as he absently watched the love of his life leave the room, his thoughts, for once, not on his own grievances, but instead reaching back in time to his youth. “I wouldn’t do it if Bael were not safely confined in the Akashic Plain,” he said softly to himself. “But as he is, and has no way to get out, then I will act the hero. I will save the dragonkin. I will take my place in the annals of modern dragon history. I will do this for the glory of the silver dragons.”
With a little nod at his noble intentions, he took the sheep to his bedroom, already planning the items he would need on the trip. It didn’t occur to him until later that he never once thought of undertaking the job for Ysolde’s sake alone.