The Snowball Effect

Dheginsea watches as everyone he cares about is taken away from him, one by one.

“Our people need help,” my brother had pleaded all those years ago. “We don't have to fight – I'm not asking you to – but can't we do something? They're suffering so much at Begnion's hands.”
“If we get involved, we get entangled,” I said. “So much the more likely to be pulled into a fight.”
“Look, I know you're trying to take your vow seriously and keep the peace,” he said, “but this is for the peace of the rest of the world, too!” He stepped back a little, frail fists clenched in determination. “I'm going to do something about it, whether you help me or not. I just... hoped we could work together, as we once did.”
“...I'm sorry,” I said. “But Goldoa simply cannot be involved in-”
The door burst open. “Dad, we were wondering if- oh,” Almedha stopped short when she saw Lehran. “I'll just come back later.”
“No, stay,” Lehran said, scowling at me. “We had nothing more to say.” He turned on his heel and stalked out.

It had been a blow, but I'd held firm. I had to. For my people, for his. For the world.

“At least he had the will to change something,” my daughter had snarled a few centuries later. “Not like you. You just let everyone walk all over you, and our people, too. Some mighty dragon king you turned out to be!”
“We hold our peace to protect the world,” I said quietly. “Everyone else is so swift to warfare; if it weren't for our neutrality, the dark god would awaken in short order.”
“I'm not talking about war!” she yelled. “You don't just hold back from fighting. You hold back from everything!”
“Almedha, compose yourself. Someone will hear you losing your temper.”
“And what if they do?” she growled. “Maybe they'll all realize what a pathetic old man you are.” She turned and reached for the door handle. “Don't wait for me at dinner,” she said. “I'm leaving.”
“I'm going to find a more sensible country to live in, where people stand up for themselves.”
“Watch, you won't even be able to stop me!” She jerked the door open, and sprang back just in time.
“Father!” Rajaion shouted, rushing in past his sister. Ena was riding on his back, clinging to his shoulders, laughing, and blushing furiously. Rajaion skidded to a halt in front of me, positively beaming. “Father, I have an announcement!”
I glanced up at the door. In the commotion, Almedha had slipped away.

“Have I not instructed you well enough about the risks of meddling in others' affairs?” I'd asked a few years after this.
“Of course you have, Father,” my son said gently, “and I know your way is the right way. I don't want any trouble, either. I'm just worried about Almedha. All I want to do is check on her; if things look bad enough maybe help her get home, but not by fighting. I'd try to bargain or sneak her out, if that's what's needed. But maybe everything's alright. Maybe... I could help bring peace back to the family.” He sank onto one knee. “I'm not asking for your help – I'll be less threatening alone – but I do seek your blessing.”
I took him up by the shoulders, and embraced him. “You have it,” I said. “But be careful, Rajaion.”
“I will.” We broke apart and he headed for the door. He stopped there and smiled over his shoulder. “Until we meet again, Father.”
“Farewell, my son.”

About a year later, the door had been ajar, so Ena didn't knock. “Father,” she said, bowing. She'd called me that since she was young.
“What is it, my child?” I'd called her that since she'd entered the family.
“Before he left, did Rajaion say anything about how long he would be away?”
“No, Ena,” I said. “I doubt he knew how long his business would take him.”
“But... shouldn't he have returned by now? And he's stopped writing. The last letter I got was ten months ago, and it barely says anything.” She showed me a scrap of paper with a familiar scrawl on it:

Arrived in Nevassa. Haven't seen Almedha; will write when I find her.
Love to Dad. Keep Kurth out of my stuff. Say hi to Nasir.

“Perhaps he cannot write at the moment,” I said. “He said he might resort to stealth to get to his sister.”
“Stealth for ten months?” she said.
“That is not a very long time, in the grand scheme of things,” I said. “...Is something troubling you?”
“Well... well, no,” said Ena. “I just miss him. And I'm pregnant.”
“You are?”
“Yes,” she said, smiling. “Don't know how much longer I can stand not getting to tell him.”
I smiled too. “No despair, Ena. I'm sure he'll be home soon.”
But Ena had growing misgivings, and it wasn't long before Kurthnaga found a note on the mantlepiece:

Gone to find Rajaion. Be back as soon as I can. Ena

“Who's next, I wonder,” Kurth had groaned when he gave me the note. I wondered the same thing.

“My lord,” the night watch said, saluting as he came in. He looked grim.
“What news, Galahad?” I said.
“...Lady Ena has returned,” he said.
“She has?” I said, standing up from my desk.
“She wasn't long,” said Galahad. “Already she has left again, with her grandfather.”
“What did you hear from her? Did anyone return with her? Why did Nasir go? Answer me!” for Galahad had looked at the floor.
“She was alone, sir,” he said quietly. “She said she'd found both Almedha and Rajaion....” I heard an unspoken 'but'.
“Why did they not return with her?”
“They were unable, sir.”
“Why? Speak, man!”
“Princess Almedha is, practically, a prisoner in Daein. She is heavily guarded, both by soldiers and in her mind. She has a son, and apparently her husband, King Ashnard, is using him against her as surety for her cooperative behavior.”
Poor, wretched Almedha... at last, she'd found someone who could control her.
“Is my son also held captive there?” I asked softly, trying to keep the strain out of my voice.
“Yes, in a sense,” Galahad said hesitantly. “He's...” he mumbled something.
“Speak up!” I barked. Galahad flinched.
“He's a madman!” he blurted. I opened my mouth and closed it again. He continued very quickly, “Ena says that Daein has been experimenting with a drug that traps laguz in their shifted states, and reduces them to bloodthirsty animals. The king had Rajaion poisoned, and he's been his mindless slave ever since.”
I sank back into my chair.
“Lady Ena has not given up, sir,” Galahad said after a pause. “She's going to try to retrieve the prince, and Nasir went to help her.”
“...Good,” I said thickly. “He is cunning. But the two of them may not be enough.”
“We have a delicate situation before us, Galahad,” I said, standing up again. I began to pace, forcing my mind to focus on a plan. “Daein cannot be allowed to meddle any further with our people. Still, we mustn't risk a fight with them.”
“With all due respect, my lord, would this not be a fight in self-defense? Daein is hurting us.”
“The covenant was to have no war, just or otherwise,” I said. “We cannot do battle. But we can take my children back.”
So it was that Nasir left Goldoa, and soon, Galahad went after him, a troop of red dragons in his train.

Two decades later, Ena, Nasir, and Rajaion came back. They'd tried to get to Almedha and gave it up as a bad job. Rajaion was dead. Ena was broken and battle-scarred. So it fell to Nasir to tell me everything – how they'd been working for Ashnard to try to get closer, how they'd been thwarted at every turn, how they'd only gotten to my son when it was too late, and how the herons had saved his soul at the last moment. He told me Galahad and his men had been taken by the drug, and that Almedha's son had vanished into the aether without a trace.
I found Ena that evening out in the garden, burying my son. As she patted down the last of the earth, I heard her sniffle. She wiped her face with a grubby hand, hesitated, and suddenly fell to the ground with a moan. Her shoulders shook with every sob.
I would have said something... tried to restore her composure... at least told her to stop lying in the dirt... but I felt a lump in my throat. So instead, I knelt beside her and pulled her up into my arms. She clung to me gratefully, burying her dirty face in the folds of my robes. I sighed – a long, low sigh – and let my head sink down onto hers.
“...Peace, my daughter,” I whispered. A single tear leaked out of my eye.

Never again, we all agreed. Never again should a dragon leave Goldoa. The results were disastrous.