By the time Jan had dismissed him for the day, Quatre and many of the other young riders were long gone. Duo returned to his room, disappointed at having missed the outing Quatre had proposed. He went straight to Wu Fei and hugged his dragon’s muzzle.
"Miss me?" Duo asked out loud as Wu Fei’s chest rumbled with pleasure at his rider’s contact.
Ever practical, Wu Fei replied, //Your absence was necessary, but I do wish we could have flown together. The day is pleasantly warm and the winds are favorable for flying.//
Duo moved to get the harness, kept in a large box in the corner opposite his dragon’s bed of straw. "There’s no reason why we can’t fly now. Just let me get this strapped around you and we’ll have some fun of our own."
The young rider worked at securing the straps, testing its tightness after the knots had been tied while Wu Fei playfully nudged at him for some extra attention. Before long the two were happily airborne and Duo related to his dragon all that had happened that morning: of the unpleasant scene between Zechs and Heero, his own clash with the tall blond after his derogatory remarks and what he’d learned in the training room. He also described the bathing room and how Quatre and Ze’an had thrown him into the pool, and that the blond had washed his hair. As they circled high above the valley, Duo gave a long sigh and told Wu Fei of Quatre’s invitation and of his disappointment about having missed the outing because of his lessons with rider Jan.
//I can speak to Sandrock and find his location,// the black dragon suggested.
//No. By the time we locate him it will be too late.// He looked with regret towards the distant mountains to the east where Quatre had said they’d go for the afternoon. //Let’s fly to the city where Quatre went yesterday. I’m sure we could find something to do there.//
Wu Fei banked sharply to the right and Duo leaned into the turn, eyeing the green planted fields far below. Before long, the city of Skeer, almost twice the size of Rydell, came into sight. Wu Fei spotted a green and blue dragon resting on a grassy knoll just outside the outskirts of the gray city and decided it would be a pleasant place in which to land and become acquainted with the other dragons. To their surprise, several people came running out from the city to greet them, even before Wu Fei had landed.
Once on the ground, Duo began to unstrap his legs from his seat atop his dragon and watched from out of the corner of his eye as the small group of people approached.
"I’ve never seen anything like it. A magnificent beast," a thin man in simple yet garish-colored clothing gushed enthusiastically as Duo’s feet hit the ground. "The rider of this mighty black dragon will surely want to spend his coins on my fine wares."
As Wu Fei turned to properly greet the other two dragons, a woman with black hair, her bosom heaving from the exertion of rushing up the slight knoll, grabbed Duo’s arm and held it fast. "No. Spend your coin on the company of my daughter. She is fair to look upon and would gladly serve a young rider as handsome as yourself," she said earnestly.
Stunned by her suggestion, Duo didn’t see the other people approaching until they were upon him. They enthusiastically began to try and solicit his attention and business.
//Wu Fei, what do they want from me?// the boy asked nervously, trying to back away from the aggressive adults.
//They want you to pay for what they have to offer.//
//I have no coin.//
//Tell them that and they may leave you alone.//
Taking his dragon’s advice, Duo spoke to the small gathering. "I’ve only arrived at the Halls of Dornan and I have no coin to spend," he told them, his hands open in front of him, displaying his lack of funds.
The expectant look on the faces of the people surrounding him suddenly changed. "Then why do you bother coming to Skeer?" the ebony haired woman asked snidely before turning with a huff and making her way back the short distance to the city. The other men promptly dismissed him also, seeing no profit was to be made, then followed in the wake of the disgruntled woman.
//So they were only interested in what coin I have to spend?// Duo asked thoughtfully watching them leave.
//That is something worth remembering when we visit such places,// Wu Fei advised as his nose nuzzled the back of his rider, looking for one more scratch above his eyelids before he left. //What will you do here?//
//I’ll explore, like we used to do in the mountains near Ha’ber. I’ve never been to a city before.//
//Be careful of hidden dangers, uncertain ground and falling rocks. Each new endeavor has unknown dangers.//
Duo turned and hugged his dragon’s face, smiling at the warning. He and his dragon knew well the dangers of the mountains near their former home, and Wu Fei was warning him, describing those familiar dangers, unaware of what lay within a city like Skeer, a place completely unlike Ha’ber. //I’ll be careful,// the boy assured his dragon. //Enjoy visiting with the other dragons.// With a final wave to Wu Fei and the two dragons behind him, Duo ran down the knoll and across the short distance to the city, eager to discover why people lived in such a place instead of villages like Ha’ber.
The boy from a small village, unfamiliar with city life, found Skeer to be a strange place filled with odds smells and a great many people living too closely together. He walked the many dirt and stone-paved lanes, lined on both sides by homes, shops and stables, all were built with stone and mud-bricks. Merchants called out to those passing by, enticing them to buy their wares, a practice he’d never seen before. Yet what offended him the most was the smell. It permeated the city. His nose wrinkled with disgust at it, and he wondered whether or not the people of the city disposed of their chamber pots properly. From the ever present stench, he could only conclude that they must all empty their body waste onto the walkways. He was careful to walk in the center of each lane to avoid such unpleasantness.
As he continued exploring, moving towards what he believed was the city’s center, he became aware of the many stares directed at him. He was confused by the contemptuous expression on some of the faces of those he passed by. He knew his clothing and yellow sash marked him as a fledgling rider and that those living in the cities would recognize them, but he also believed that his honored position as a dragon rider would lend him respect. Certainly the people of his village had always shown such respect to dragons and their riders. They had felt honored to receive riders and to care for them during their short visits. He’d never dreamed that a rider could be looked on with such disdain. It made him uncomfortable and wary.
//Wu Fei?// He mentally reached out for the security of his dragon.
//I am here.//
//Don’t leave me here, all right?//
//What is wrong?//
//It’s just that the people here don’t seem very friendly. No one has bothered you, have they?//
//No. I’ve been conversing with Relena and Madia. There is much I can learn from them.//
Duo paused. Wasn’t Relena Heero’s dragon? Could Madia be Trowa’s? He hadn’t seen either rider since entering the city, but it was large and the lanes were many. He’d keep an eye out for them, but didn’t know if he’d join them or not if they met up. //Are the other dragon’s nice to you?//
//Yes, they are both very friendly.//
//I’m glad you’ve made friends,// Duo said distractedly as the number of people on the lanes seemed to increase the closer he got to where he thought the city’s center was.
//Are you safe?// Wu Fei’s question was accompanied with a strong sense of concern.
Duo searched his surroundings, and although people were openly eyeing him, he could see no obvious maliciousness in their gazes. //I’m fine for now. Don’t worry. I‘m just not used to the strangeness of a city. It’s very different from Ha’ber: very big, noisy and smelly.//
//The scent coming from the stone dwellings is most unpleasant. I don’t like it.//
//Are you coming back soon?//
//I think so. There might be something to do here, but without someone showing me I don’t know where to look.// They both ended the conversation with Duo continuing his walk, hoping his momentary fear of the unfamiliar hadn’t alarmed his dragon too much.
As the shadows of the day lengthened with the sun sinking deeper into the western sky, Duo sat on the edge of the well in the city’s center. He observed a group of women chatting easily amongst themselves while taking turns drawing full buckets of water out of the well, carefully pouring it into vessels they’d brought with them from their dwellings. He was fascinated by how they accomplished their chore in almost the same manner. A ladle, hanging off the side of the bucket, was used every time the wooden pail was pulled from the stone well. Each woman would use the scooping cup to take a small amount of liquid out of the bucket, bring it to her lips and take a sip, as if to judge the purity of the water. After tasting the water, she would then replace the ladle in its former place and pour the contents of the bucket into her own container.
A pretty, red haired woman, freckles sprinkled over the bridge of her nose and appearing to be only a couple of years older than himself, was the next in line. She had a shapely figure that was made more so by her brown skirt and white, low neckline blouse that displayed more than a hint of cleavage. She drew the bucket from depths of the well and paused before taking her drink to look up at him with a smile on her pleasant face. "Would you care for a drink, young rider?" she asked, a teasing light in her eyes.
Duo decided he was thirsty, so he nodded his head. "Yes, but only if you’ll let me draw the next bucket of water for you," he offered, thinking it was only polite to exchange one kindness for another. He wondered at the twittering that came from the other females watching their exchange and why the woman he’d spoken to held onto the ladle as he reached for it, her fingers slipping over his for a moment, touching his skin longer than necessary as he took the handle from her.
He took a long drink from the cup, ignoring yet again the knowing looks the women exchanged with each other. Having finished, he gave the ladle back to the redhead, waited as she set it in its place and emptied the contents of the bucket into her vessel. Duo then stood and took the bucket from her hands and lowered it back into the dark hole. He felt the line slacken, waited a moment until it pulled tight, signaling the bucket was full, then began to draw hit up.
From out of the corner of his eye, Duo glanced at the woman standing close by his side. Her red hair was pinned up to the top of her head allowing a profusion of curls to tumble down from the crown. He guessed that she must be poor for the bodice of her dress appeared much to tight, causing her bosoms to nearly fall out of the low, round neck. She wore an odd sort of smile as she watched him in return, reminding him of the girl who’d given him his first kiss. He wondered if that meant the woman expected him to kiss her and fondle her breasts also. He hoped not. Howard had warned him to be wary of those who would try to take advantage of him just because he was a rider.
Once the bucket reached the top, the woman took it from him and filled her second container, then lifted it and set it on her shoulder, only slightly wavering as she sought her balance. Picking up the other one, she turned to him with a smile. "Come with me, rider, and I’ll feed you your supper."
"No thank you," he replied. "I’m required to return to the Hall for my evening meal."
The woman stopped short to level a glare at him. "Do you believe that I am incapable of preparing a decent meal and properly entertaining a rider?" she challenged.
"Oh no, I didn’t mean that at all," the boy rushed to reply, fearing he had somehow insulted the frowning woman.
"I don’t believe you," she said, narrowing her green eyes. "Now I must prove that my house honors the dragon riders. I will meet your approval or my reputation will be for naught. Come with me or I will be very cross with you."
The expression of disapproval on the faces of the other women watching their conversation confused Duo, and he wasn’t sure whether they were directed at him or the woman who so desperately wanted to fix him a meal. Not knowing what to do in such a situation, he decided to humor the buxom redhead and try to decline her invitation once they were away from the crowd of eavesdroppers.
"Very well," he answered. The woman gave a nod of satisfaction at his acceptance, then turned and walked away. Duo followed in her wake, surprised by the speed of her step while carrying two containers of water on her shoulders. She led him through the growing crowd of women, men and children, and while remaining a step or two behind her, they continued past shops, taverns and into an area that appeared to be family dwellings. As the woman approached one of the mud-brick buildings, Duo suddenly found himself picked up from behind by the waistband of his britches and the neck of his tunic and thrown down to the ground. He immediately rolled to his back and look up at his assailant. Above him stood a giant of a man
"Jazel!" the large man’s angry voice roared above him. He then bent forward and grabbed the front of Duo’s shirt with a meaty fist, bringing the upper half of his body up from footpath. The giant then bent over to get a good look at him. With his black beard and dark eyes flickering with anger, the man was the most frightening person Duo had ever seen. The man looked up with an angry glare at the redheaded woman again and demanded, "What in Gorgon’s belly are you doing with him?"
"What does it look like, Dirk?" The woman who had led him to what most likely looked was his last breathing moments, had turned around and was giving his attacker a severe look of warning. The mountainous man was still holding him firmly in place by the front of his shirt as the woman continued. "I’m going to entertain a dragon rider." Duo was baffled by the woman’s tone of boasting, her stance and expression denoting pride at what she obviously deemed a privilege. Was she trying to get him killed?
"You are to be my wife," the man countered. "You will not lie with this boy or anyone else."
"What?" Duo yelped, suddenly understanding what the two were fighting about. "No, you have it all wrong," he protested. "Sir, she offered to feed me supper. I thought it would be rude to decline, especially when she said I’d insulted her. I have no intention of lying with her."
"You don’t?" The woman looked angry by what he’d said. "But you clearly accepted the drink from my bucket at the well and drew water for me."
"You did?" the man breathing on Duo’s neck asked, then gave the boy a shake. "Not that I want you follow through on your acceptance, but do you think you’re too good for Jazel?"
Duo wondered what in Amulah the man wanted him to say. He’d learned enough about women from those he’d known in Ha’ber to not say anything unflattering, such as she was too old for him, or that he just wasn’t interested; so he blurted out the truth. "No. Absolutely not. I... I’m saving myself for my mate." Then looking sheepishly he asked, "Did I do something wrong?"
The man lifted Duo completely off the ground by the front of his clothing and effortlessly held him, bringing the boy up to his frightening, hair-covered face. Dark eyes looked into Duo’s, and the boy stopped breathing after getting a whiff of a repellant smell coming from the giant man’s clothing. The man’s breath proved equally bad when after a moment’s pause he asked, "You’re new to the Halls, aren’t you?"
"Yes," Duo replied. "Could you... ah... please put me down?" He wondered for a moment if he should call Wu Fei to help, but stalled that thought, not knowing what damage his sometimes protective and temperamental dragon could cause if he rushed to his rescue.
"Not yet," the man growled, looking unhappy. "What’s a fledgling like you doing in Skeer all by yourself?"
It never occurred to the boy that he shouldn’t be there without an escort. "Was I not suppose to come here alone?" he asked a bit shamefaced by his lack of knowledge.
A devious grin began to grow on the man’s face causing the boy begin become alarmed. "Looks like we get to introduce the newest rider to the ways of Skeer," the man chuckled darkly as he was joined by the woman who’d led him to this place like a wolderbeast to the slaughter.
"That we do," she laughed, a bawdy sound. "Bring him inside and let us get acquainted." The redhead led the way into the dwelling, while Duo, his eyes filled with distress was inelegantly carried in by the man named Dirk. He called out to any bystanders for help only to have his host and hostess double over with laughter.