The Dragon Prince: Reflections
Chapter 1: Familiar Ghosts
Written by Devon Giehl
Illustrated by Caleb Thomas and Emily Marzonie
As Rayla’s boots hit the dock, she gulped a deep, salty sigh of relief—and nearly choked on it when the ground kept moving under her feet.
The old, warped wood pitched and rolled, echoing the awful movement of the Wanderer’s Maw, the vessel docked just behind her. Rayla realized that somehow, in her time spent stowed away in the horrid ship’s cargo hold, she’d actually gotten used to the sickening swells of the ocean. Now the land seemed to lurch beneath her like water.
“Ugh,” Rayla groaned. “That’s not fair!”
She knelt, waiting for the queasy sensation to pass. In the shadows of the enormous ships docked around her—their creaking hulls, their towering masts—Rayla felt quite small. Stella crept out from the folds of her hood and chittered in concern.
“I’m okay,” Rayla told her, patting her on the head with a gentle finger. “I’ll be better in a moment. It’s land, it’s got to stay still eventually. Well—it’s an island, I suppose…”
“An island is land,” said a voice in her head, so playful and cheeky she could almost see his smile.
She shut the voice out. Rayla would not humor his haunting. Not today. Not now. She had come to Scumport stowed away in the belly of the Wanderer’s Maw chasing a shadow—and that shadow was close. She only had to find it. Rayla got to her feet.
At the end of the docks, a shady harbor town rose up like a cluster of barnacles, shrouded in sea-fog and the gloom of the clouds above. Scumport looked as though it had been broken down by ocean and rebuilt again a hundred times with flotsam and fishing nets. The silhouette of a great tower loomed over the town’s jagged rooftops, three times as tall as anything else and just as scrapped together, with a window that reminded Rayla of an eye.
Worst of all, the whole place smelled like salt, rotten wood, and fish guts. Rayla watched a pair of gulls tear a crab in two and bicker over its pulpy insides. Stella crept back up onto her shoulder and pressed all four of her hands against her nose.
“C’mon, now. Be tough,” Rayla said with a grin. “We won’t be here long.”
The cuddlemonkey scrunched up her little face.
Rayla made her way up the docks towards a busy marketplace bustling in the glow of the fog lanterns: covered stalls, stacks of boxed cargo, and the shouts of merchants hawking their wares. A crowd of boisterous patrons meandered through the market, bartering and bargaining. Rayla pulled her hood up over her hair and horns to join them. She fell in easily, rubbing shoulders with salt-crusted sailors, human and elf alike.
“Sale on sailcloth!” called a merchant. “Our sails are on sale!”
“Deck hammocks!” cried a second. “Catch a fish, then catch a nap!”
“Cabbages,” shouted a meeker voice. “Just… uh, regular cabbages over here!”
Rayla’s eyes skipped past the hawkers to a stall displaying hundreds of little gleaming crystal baubles, and she sauntered nonchalantly over to peruse the collection. The tiny constructs looked to be of Lux Aurean craftsmanship, likely rare in the aftermath of what had befallen the city. Rayla had to wonder where the seller—an Earthblood elf with similar baubles dangling from his antlers—had acquired such pretty, precious things.
She only had to think on Scumport’s reputation to imagine a multitude of possible answers. Rayla had only heard of the place after months of sniffing around for clues, and even then the name only came in whispers from loosened tongues. The town was a hub of Xadia’s most unscrupulous denizens: hunters, pirates, and thieves. With the Border open, humans of similar stripes had found their way to Scumport’s all-too-welcoming docks, too—and with them came dark mages.
Rayla idly ran a finger along one of the crystal baubles and caught the merchant’s attention. He leaned towards her, the metal and glass dangling from his antlers clinking together as he sized her up. “What’re you buyin’?”
She cleared her throat, fiddling with one of the intricate crystal ornaments. “You won’t have it on your shelves.”
The Earthblood elf crossed his arms. “Go on.”
“I need information,” she said. “On someone who might be here in Scumport.”
He lowered his head just slightly to scowl, his baubles jingling.
“There was someone on a ship that should’ve docked here this morning,” Rayla told him, her voice low. “A human man. A dark mage—”
“I sell charms,” the merchant growled. “Won’t find what yer lookin’ for here.”
He thudded his thick hand against the wood of his stall. “Leave.”
Rayla jumped back. The crowd jostled and spun her, and she fought to regain her focus. She set her sights on another stall, this one set up in the shadow of a ramshackle old building that Rayla almost mistook for a pile of rubble. Spread upon its table were long, delicate ropes, knots, and cloth made of oddly translucent threads.
“Boneweave,” said the merchant. Rayla squinted at the figure, but could see little beneath the thick cloth wrapping around their head. Fierce blue eyes glowered out at her from the cowl. “Strongest boneweave in the archipelago.”
Rayla leaned across the display. “I’m looking for information, actually.”
The merchant narrowed their eyes.
This time, Rayla kept her voice hushed. “A ship that docked this morning was carrying a specific passenger. A human. A dark mage—”
“Boneweave,” growled the merchant. “Not secrets.”
Frustrated, Rayla sighed. “Well, tell me where to go, then. Who to ask. Someone here has to know something.”
The merchant gestured across the market with a barely-perceptible nod. “Ask them.”
Rayla turned to see a pair of burly Tidebound elves striding towards her from the far end of the marketplace. As their heavy footsteps rattled the wooden dock, one of them cracked his knuckles. Rayla’s hands slipped to her back to find the hilts of her blades—
—but someone grabbed her by the neck of her cloak and pulled her backwards.
“There you are,” came a loud and unfamiliar voice. “I told you to come find me when your ship docked, not wander around the market.”
Rayla fought the tug on her cloak and the voice’s owner let go. She spun around and balked.
A Moonshadow elf stood before her, tall and muscular and draped in mismatched clothing. Pale markings framed her eyes, and an equally pale scar traced a path from chin to ear. Rayla could not quite tell her age, but the woman looked old in the way people looked when something other than time alone had aged them. Her white hair hung in thick, rough braids made coarse by sea-wind and salt, and her skin shone in the sun like worn leather. Still, she grinned, and the gleam of her smile made her still somehow young.
“Sorry,” Rayla blurted. “Who—?”
“Save your apologies! We’ve got work to do. Come with me.”
The woman spun around with a wave of her hand, rings flashing in the sun, and strode through the crowd. Rayla stood rigid and weighed her choices: she could stay with the Tidebound elf enforcers for a fight she didn’t want. She could run—but where? Scumport was an island.
“An island is land,” said that haunting voice, no funnier the second time, but she could still hear his smile—
Rayla grit her teeth. She had only one real choice: follow the stranger.
“I’ve got to say—that was bold,” remarked the woman as she threw open the door to what Rayla could only assume was her home. It was as patched together as the rest of Scumport, all weather-worn old stone and wood turned warped and white. “And stupid.”
Rayla hesitated at the uneven threshold. Stella chittered in her ear and pulled on her horns.
“It’s okay,” Rayla reassured her. “We’ll be fine.”
Stella gave one last petulant tug before retreating into Rayla’s hood to pout.
Rayla stepped through the door. She nearly bumped her head on a bottle dangling from on a rope, but the woman snatched it out of the way and rattled what looked like a fire ruby inside of it. The bottle lit up, casting the cramped little space in light the color of a sunset. A thick hammock hung from the ceiling and a crooked desk on driftwood legs held a precarious stack of chests and scrolls. Amongst the mess was a fingerprint-covered jar filled with what appeared to be little wooden coins.
“So, newcomer. What should I call you?”
Rayla’s attention snapped back to the other elf, who sprawled back into the desk’s equally questionable chair and kicked up her scuffed boots.
She straightened her spine and made her voice strong. “My name is Rayla.”
“Oh!” the woman raised a white eyebrow. “A real name. Surprised you kept it.”
Rayla frowned. “What do you mean?”
“You’re a Ghost, aren’t you?”
It stung—how casually she said it, how little the word seemed to matter. To Rayla, it always felt like poison in her mouth. It made her sick with guilt. She swallowed hard, stricken.
“Don’t worry,” the other elf said, holding up her hands in a vague apology. “When one of our kind washes up in Scumport, well…they’re rarely in good standing back home.”
Rayla caught her meaning. “So, you’re… also…?”
“Of course. For…” she chewed her lip and counted on her fingers. “Hrm, maybe fifteen years now. Anyway, you can call me Redfeather.”
She gave a somewhat dramatic little half-bow of her head with a flourish of her hands at her sides. For the first time, Rayla noticed a slash of color in her pale hair: a red feather woven into one of her braids. In the light of the glowing bottle, it looked almost like a streak of blood.
Rayla felt her heart turn soft in her chest in just the way she hated. She wanted to know more, had to know more. “What did you do?”
“Nothing I regret.”
Redfeather eyed her and swung herself back into a sitting position, her boots thudding against the floor. “Don’t tell me you’re still hung up on what’s behind you. Listen—if they hadn’t made me a Ghost I wouldn’t have ended up here.”
Rayla glanced skeptically around the dim room.
“Don’t make that face!” Redfeather laughed. “This is all a gift, once you learn to see it that way. It’s freedom—don’t you feel it? Why else would you be in Scumport?”
Rayla felt a great many things, and all of them hurt. She thought of the Silvergrove. Ethari at his workbench, metal marvels at his fingertips. Mushcup and moonberry surprise. And beyond the Border, a warm castle, and a mage—
—but Redfeather peered at her, waiting for an answer.
Rayla made herself strong. “I’m looking for a dark mage.”
Redfeather’s eyes gleamed in interest. She leaned forward, her tone low and silky behind a smirk. “So you’re a hunter, then. Seeking bounties, I assume?”
“No,” Rayla shook her head. “I’m only looking for one. Just one dark mage.”
“Ah. A grudge.”
Rayla grit her teeth. “You could call it that.”
“Well—whether you’re hunting bounties or revenge, you won’t find anyone willing to give up that kind of information for free at the market.” Redfeather stood and stretched, lazy and lithe. “They’re all reasonable business folks up front, you see. You can’t just fall off a boat and start asking questions. People here work hard to protect their interests—mostly.”
Redfeather snapped her fingers. “Offer up a fair price, and, well…tongues will wag.”
Rayla considered her light pockets. She carried only what she needed: dried moonberries, a sparse few gold pieces, her weapons, and of course Stella. The cuddlemonkey poked her head out of Rayla’s hood and glowered over Rayla’s shoulder at Redfeather, chittering little threats.
“Nothing on you? You can always offer a favor.” She propped her chin on her palm. “You could even offer one to me.”
Rayla’s pulse quickened. “Do you know something about the dark mage?”
Redfeather traced her scar with salt-roughed fingers. “I’m not sure. Depends, of course. Are you offering a favor, or not?”
Rayla looked up at the other elf. Redfeather met her gaze, eyes pale and sharp with wit, with secrets—and with a well-hidden pain that reflected Rayla’s own. The eyes of a Ghost.
She’s like me, deep down. She has to be.
Stella chittered nervously in her ear.
Rayla ignored her. She’d come this far, and she wouldn’t turn back.
“I’ll do it,” Rayla told Redfeather, stepping closer. “Tell me what you want.”
To be continued…
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