LAURA TAYLOR

Fantasy and Romance Writer

Just a Little Bit Awkward

Soaring over the rooftops of Minia on the back of his magnificent, black vreki, Rodgard grimaced and wondered for the fifteenth time why he’d agreed to come here.

Well, no, he knew exactly why he’d needed to come. It was because Koradan had his hands full, playing politics with the humans, troubleshooting the objections to having ‘dragons’ living in the mountains, as well as teaching his adopted son, Paul, to ride a vreki. And on top of all that, he was trying to spend a decent amount of time with Lynette, his soon-to-be wife. Not to mention the fact that he’d come on every single trip to Minia since they’d been given permission to start this flying carriage service, and it was high time he had a break.

Melowin would have been eager to come, but his mount, Bnaa, was still recovering from a serious injury to his wing. Bnaa had recently started taking short practice flights around their village, but he was not yet ready to make the three hour flight to Minia.

And Sigmore was busy raising his two adopted children along with trying to spend time with his new wife, a human woman named Hazel. Sigmore had also come on two trips to Minia already, while Rodgard had been on only one.

And aside from all that, there was the urgent need to help more vreki complete the terrifying journey across the Gate of Chalandros, before more of their species fell victim to heat and starvation in their dying world.

Plenty of pressing reasons. But that didn’t mean Rodgard had to like it.

He glanced over at Rigolard, riding on Lign, a little way to his right, and sighed. Gods, why couldn’t he have come with Koradan? Or Sigmore? Both men were far more comfortable in social situations, and would have shielded Rodgard from the worst of the conversation. But Rigolard was even more introverted than Rodgard, and far less inclined to feel awkward about it. Which meant that he was likely to just stand there and say nothing, oblivious to the glares from the warriors or the curious gawking from the human civilians.

Fuck. Even on his best behaviour, Rodgard came across as abrupt and stern, and could easily see himself putting his foot in their new alliance with the warriors, royally screwing up their chances of being allowed to continue their efforts to save the vreki.

Once they reached the town, they banked to the left, gliding northwards, towards the wide battlefield that sat before the mighty gate. There was a cleared area in the south west corner of the field, and Rodgard gave his mount, Mergh, a mental nudge to go and land down there. Vreki weren’t particularly good at landing on flat ground, so she landed in a tall tree instead, then slithered to the ground, while Lign landed above her.

On the ground, Rodgard dismounted and took a moment to brace himself, before turning to face the warriors.

There was a man marching towards him, a warrior by the name of Felden, and Rodgard had met him on his one previous visit to Minia. Felden had been put in charge of overseeing the capture of more dragons, and would report their activities in detail to Captain Renfold, the leader of the army.

“Good to see you again,” the man said roughly. “Gate’s due to open in about half an hour. I was honestly starting to worry you weren’t coming,” he added ruefully. “Sorry – Rodgard, was it?”

“That’s right,” Rodgard said. “And this is Rigolard. Sorry we couldn’t get here sooner. We were flying against a headwind the whole way.” He didn’t actually see the need to apologise to humans. They didn’t know anything about either vreki or flying, so why should he have to explain himself? But Koradan had emphasised multiple times the need to maintain good relations with the humans, and so Rodgard forcefully shelved his own irritation and played the part of friendly, helpful dragon-rider. Or, as well as he could, at least.

“Well, it’s not likely any dragons will come through right at the start, anyway. They generally come through at night. But it’s as well to have you here. Just in case anything unexpected happens.”

Rodgard nodded, and the pair of them went about setting up their tents, over at the far edge of the field, and then settled in for a long, boring wait. What Felden had said was true; most of the vreki came through at night, but that was nothing like the sort of coincidence that Felden likely assumed it was. Koradan had arranged to send several messages back through the gate, giving strict instructions to the salas warriors in Iddishmeil to only bring their mounts through under cover of darkness. The main reason for that was because the vreki were not coming alone. Each one would have its salas rider strapped to its underbelly, along with one civilian passenger. And given that, according to the humans, salases were still very much considered demons, it was imperative that this smuggled cargo not be detected. Hence the need to cross the gate under cover of darkness.

Rodgard took a nap in the middle of the afternoon, in preparation for a long and tiring night, while Rigolard maintained watch for a couple of hours, and then they switched. Rigolard woke up as the sun was sinking towards the horizon, and then they both headed over to the mess area, where the army provided food for its hard working soldiers.

Rodgard trod lightly through the throngs of warriors, some already eating, some being treated for minor injuries at the medical tent, while others were repairing their armour or sharpening their swords. A constant rotation of warriors defended the gate, and in another hour or so, the next team would head into battle, while the tired fighters came to get something to eat.

Rigolard took his place in the line, waiting to get some food from the long, buffet-style tables, and Rodgard slotted in behind him. After a few seconds, he felt the presence of another man behind him, but he ignored it. It wasn’t just the warriors who came here to get something to eat. There were carpenters, blacksmiths, nurses, messengers… anyone who had anything to do with supporting the army was given a meal, no questioned asked.

“Evening,” the man behind him said, and knowing he had to maintain a certain level of friendliness, Rodgard looked back with a forced smile.

“Evening,” he said in reply. The man was slightly shorter than Rodgard, with blond hair that was looking decidedly windswept, and the sort of worn, stained clothes that said he spent his days doing some sort of physical labour.

“I saw you riding today, when you arrived,” The man said. He glanced at the sky, streaked with orange and crimson as the sun set. “Pretty impressive.”

“Uh… thanks,” Rodgard said, reminding himself that according to the humans, he’d only been riding a vreki for a couple of months. Mergh’s easy circles and gentle glides would have been far less impressive if the man knew he’d been riding a vreki for pretty much his whole life. “It’s, um… pretty exhilarating.”

The man’s eyes darted away from his face, looking him up and down in a brief assessment that made Rodgard bristle in discomfort. He took a plate from the stack and shuffled closer to the food table as the line moved slowly forward.

“I haven’t seen you around here before. I thought I knew all the dragon riders.”

“I don’t usually come,” Rodgard said, suddenly on the back foot with this unexpected conversation. He and the rest of the salases had worked hard to come up with plausible stories about how they’d captured and tamed their ‘dragons’, along with backstories for them all, including where they’d grown up, where their families were currently living and what trades they’d learned as young men. But it had never crossed Rodgard’s mind that someone would question why he personally hadn’t travelled to Minia before, or what the hell he should say in response. “Mergh is, uh… Well, she’s not been the easiest of the dragons to train. She can still be a little bit temperamental, so we don’t come out very often.”

Knowing that Mergh was listening in on his conversation from her place over at the edge of the field, he sent her a quick mental apology. The truth was that Mergh had laid an egg a while back, and now that it had hatched, she spent most of her time caring for her hatchling. But humans certainly didn’t need to know that they were already breeding more dragons, in addition to the handful they were permitted to bring through the gate.

Rude, Mergh said, via their telepathic link, though beneath her indignation, Rodgard knew she understood his reasons for needing to lie to the humans.

“Mergh? That’s your dragon, right?” the man asked. “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m Ekan. I should remember to actually introduce myself.” He stuck out his hand.

Rodgard was just a little proud of himself when he took the hand without hesitation. “Rodgard,” he said.

“I’m a blacksmith,” Ekan told him, unprompted. “I come out here for about a week each cycle, to help with any repairs the army needs.”

Rodgard nodded, having no idea what to say to that. It wasn’t a question, and given Rodgard’s views on the army, it was probably better to say nothing.

“How long are you here for?” Ekan asked.

“Largely until one or two dragons come through the gate. Rigolard and I will round them up, then lead them back to Varismont for training. Then, depending on how difficult that is, we’ll come back and do it all over again. Maybe three or four times before the cycle is over.” The line moved forward, and Rodgard was grateful for the distraction of heaping meat and roasted vegetables onto his plate. Ekan followed suit, and the conversation lulled. But then he followed them, when Rodgard led Rigolard to an empty table.

“So… do you have anyone waiting for you back home?” Ekan asked, as he took a seat beside Rodgard. “A wife? Kids?”

“No,” Rodgard said, a little too quickly and far too emphatically for it to escape Ekan’s notice. “Uh… no,” he repeated, as he tried and failed to come up with any sort of padding or detail to add to the bare statement. Fuck, he was hopeless at this sort of conversation. He’d been raised to lead men into battle, not to make polite noises at humans as he pretended to be some warm, fuzzy version of a redios rancher.

“Oh. Uh… right. Me neither.” Ekan seemed about to say something else, some form of explanation for his own single status, but gave up awkwardly. He concentrated on his meal for a few minutes, and Rodgard felt bad about how stilted the conversation was being. In truth, he didn’t really want to talk to this human. But the man was polite and inoffensive, and aside from his own awkwardness, Rodgard had no reason to be rude to him. He glanced sideways at the man, surprised to find that he was actually a lot less ugly than Rodgard had expected. Chalandrians in general found most humans to be quite ugly. But that was largely due to the colour of their skin – dull brown, instead of purple, or blue, with none of the red stripes or horns or other adornments to make their bodies interesting.

But if he could look past the colour of his skin, he would have to admit that Ekan wasn’t bad looking. He had a strong jaw. A rough dusting of stubble lent him a wise, slightly mystical air. In Chalandros, facial hair was a sign of status, with young or low ranking men diligently shaving their chins. Ekan’s work as a blacksmith had given him a strong build, firm biceps peeking out from beneath his short shirt sleeves. And a lock of blond hair hung over his forehead, lending him a slightly unruly look, a teasing hint that Ekan could play the role of troublemaker – at least according to Chalandrian fashion standards.

Rodgard didn’t want to simply dismiss the man. But now that the conversation had ground to a halt, what the fuck was he supposed to say?

In the past, in response to Rodgard’s complaints about his own conversational floundering, Koradan had once told Rodgard that the key to keeping a conversation flowing was lowering the bar as to the quality of what he needed to say. If every statement had to be some witty gem or thoughtful insight, he’d never say anything. But if he just said the most obvious thing in the moment, he’d never run out of things to say. And other people, he’d added, were generally far less judgemental about anything he said than he expected them to be.

Deciding to go with Koradan’s advice, Rodgard cast about for an obvious line of conversation. “So what do you do when you’re not at the gate?” he asked, then immediately wanted to kick himself. Ekan had already told him he was a blacksmith. So when he wasn’t here, he was working as a blacksmith, right? Duh.

“I like playing the violin,” Ekan said, a suddenly shy smile gracing his lips. “On Friday and Saturday nights, I usually play at one of the pubs in town. It’s usually a pretty good crowd. One of my cousins asked me to play at their wedding next month, too.”

That piqued Rodgard’s interest. He’d loved listening to some of the string instruments back in Chalandros. Given the famine and the slow destruction of their world, it had been years since he’d had the opportunity to hear any real music – anything that wasn’t children humming or beggars scratching out a tune on a broken mendolute. “Really?” he asked, not having to feign any enthusiasm. “When did you learn to play? Do either of your parents play an instrument?”

It was about an hour later when Rodgard finally realised how late it had got. Rigolard had wandered off some time ago, no doubt already in his saddle and prepared to take to the air, should a vreki come through the gate. And while Rodgard should really be there with him, so long as one of them was ready to greet any new arrivals, it wasn’t a big deal. Nonetheless, he sat back from the table, tidying his knife and fork onto his plate. “I should go,” he said to Ekan. “I have to be ready in case any dragons decide to come through the gate tonight.” He was surprised to find that he hadn’t disliked the conversation. Ekan was far more interesting than he’d expected a human to be.

“Oh, yeah. Of course,” Ekan said, with a bashful smile. “Sorry. Lost track of time.”

Rodgard nodded and moved to push himself up out of his seat. But just before he did, Ekan’s hand suddenly landed on his, pressed flat against the edge of the table.

“Listen, I… I’ve got to head back to Minia in the morning. See to a couple of things at my shop. But I’ll be back in a couple of days. And if you’re around – I mean, if you’re not busy guiding dragons back to the mountains – then maybe… Maybe we could have dinner again?”

It was an innocuous request. Or it would have been, if not for the hand pressing warm and calloused against his own. Rodgard swallowed hard. This was not a surprise. There had been plenty of subtle hints, sideways glances and comments that skirted the edge of suggestiveness throughout the evening. But nonetheless, panic rose in Rodgard’s throat at having the sentiment voice aloud.

He slowly but firmly pulled his hand away. “I’ll keep it in mind,” he said, not quite meeting Ekan’s eyes. “I’ll have to see how busy I am.” With that, he stood, gathered up his plate and cup, and walked away.

 

 

In the three days that followed, Rodgard helped Rigolard round up two vreki, leading them away into the surrounding farmland to unhitch their riders from their bellies and then escort them back to Varismont. The civilians, in this case, where a pair of children, a boy and a girl, the boy only ten years old, and the girl, eight. The rider of the second vreki was a man Rodgard knew by the name of Kinolin. They’d served together in the palace in their younger years. Kinolin assured Rodgard that the children’s mother would be coming with the next vreki, in a couple of days, and he was more than willing to look after the children himself, while they waited for her to arrive. Rodgard delivered them safely to the small village that the salases were slowly building, up in the mountains, and then he and Rigolard headed back to Minia, after saying a quick hello to the rest of their team in Varismont.

It was evening when they arrived, and they settled the vreki quickly then headed over to the mess area for a meal. Rodgard was feeling a little more relaxed now. They’d successfully rescued two vreki and four salases, while this mission was under his command, and while they had a long way to go, the small success bolstered his courage and calmed his anxiety.

The long flights to and from Varismont had also given him plenty of time to think. And so, when he saw a blond head sitting at a mostly empty table, he nodded in that direction. “Over there okay?” he asked Rigolard, who was just finishing filling his plate.

Rigolard smiled knowingly at him. “You go ahead,” he said. “I’m going to go eat with the vreki.”

That was somewhat unnerving. Rigolard shouldn’t have been able to read him that easily. Rodgard felt his face flush. It wasn’t that he was concerned about Rigolard knowing he was interested in a male. Salases were very open minded about same-sex relationships, just as they were very accepting of inter-species relationships. No, the thing that made Rodgard feel all fluttery and off-balance was that Rigolard had known that he was interested in someone sexually. As a general rule, vreki riders didn’t form romantic relationships, spending too much time and energy bonding with their vreki to have time for a partner. But sexual liaisons were entirely common, with both men and women blowing off steam in casual encounters.

Except that Rodgard had never indulged in that particular pastime. He was too awkward, too serious, too intense to just meander casually through someone else’s bed. And okay, both Koradan and Sigmore had leapt at the chance for a wife, once they’d left the strict rule of Iddishmeil and their service to the Stone King, but how the hell had Rigolard jumped to the conclusion that Rodgard wanted the same thing?

That fact that he was right did nothing to mollify Rodgard’s indignation.

Still, there was nothing to be gained by dwelling on things beyond his control. Rodgard stepped over to Ekan and asked, “Is it okay if I sit here?”

Ekan turned, a look of surprise and delight on his face as he realised who had interrupted his meal. “Oh! Hey, yeah, take a seat.” He scooted over a little, making more room for Rodgard. He slid onto the end of the bench seat and set his plate down.

“You weren’t around when I got back to camp,” Ekan said, another of his typical non-questions that made Rodgard flounder for a response.

“We just got back from Varismont,” he said, making the bold assumption that Ekan actually wanted to know. “Two dragons came through the gate the other day. One of them was fine. Must have been pretty young. It was placid as a kitten. But the other one was…” Rodgard sighed and rubbed his face. “It was a handful.” This story, like most of the ones the salases told, was mostly made up. But they had to keep their adventures with training dragons interesting. It would create far too much suspicion if the only story they ever told was ‘The dragons did as they were told and didn’t cause any problems.’

“You’ll have to tell me all about it,” Ekan said. But then his eyes narrowed. “Maybe it’s rude of me for saying so, but the last time we parted, I got the impression you weren’t interested in me.”

Rodgard felt his face heat. “I’m, um… It’s not that I… You’re very…” Fuck, he hated this. “It’s just that I’m…” For the gods’ sake, could he finish a fucking sentence? He took a breath and forced his racing mind to slow down. “I’m very out of practice at this sort of thing,” he said eventually. “You caught me off guard a little.”

“Ah.” Did Ekan think he was an idiot now? But no, that wasn’t derision on his face, or impatience, or disinterest. A bashful little smile played at his lips. “Well, I’m glad you decided to… come and practice a bit more.” He took a sip of his beer. “So tell me about this handful of a dragon.”

Rodgard did, reciting the made-up story that was one of a dozen the salases had created to fill in the blanks of their supposed ‘adventures’ taming dragons. Ekan laughed at all the right places, cooed when Rodgard expressed alarm, beamed when Rodgard downplayed his own heroics. By the time the story was finished, so were their meals. Ekan made a show of draining the last of his beer. “Fancy another cup?” he asked, waving his empty one slightly. “Or alternatively, we could…”

Rodgard let his fingers trail over the back of Ekan’s other hand, still resting on the table. “We could what?”

Half an hour later, Rodgard lay naked and breathless on the sleeping mat in Ekan’s tent, feeling blissfully sated and thoroughly stunned. A moan of satisfaction escaped him, a deep sound that rumbled lazily out of his chest.

Beside him, Ekan chuckled. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” he murmured, running a soothing hand up and down Rodgard’s chest. He was still getting used to the slightly smaller frame of his human form, but Ekan didn’t seem to have any complaints.

“That was…um…” Rodgard grinned. “Wow. Yeah.”

Ekan smiled at him, but then his expression turned serious. “Maybe I should have asked this question before we climbed into my tent, but… is this more like a one time thing, or… would you like to do it again sometime?” There was something cautiously hopeful, perhaps even wistful about the question.

Rodgard rolled partially onto his side, turning his head to look Ekan in the face. “I definitely wouldn’t object to doing this again,” he said slowly. “I mean, I’m not… I’m not the sort of person who meets people easily, and I think we get along well…” He was leaving himself enough wiggle room to back out, if this wasn’t what Ekan wanted. Dressing it up as convenience, as being too much trouble to find someone else, rather than…

“Awesome,” Ekan said, a bashful smile on his lips. “Yeah, um… I think we get along well, too.”

“It might not be particularly smooth,” Rodgard said, practicality warring with desire. “I live in Varismont, and I’m only really around when the gate is open, but… next time I’m in town, I’d definitely like to see you again.”

Ekan sat up, then rummaged around in his pack, pulling out a rumpled sheet of paper and a stubby pencil. “I’d better give you my address then. So you know where to find me.”