Ezra and the stone dragon continued to devour one book after another the rest of that day. So much new information, so much knowledge. When Cleeves came that evening he seemed to know something was up. Ezra had made sure to put the books back exactly where she had taken them from, but it was impossible to get it exactly right. Thankfully, he didn't comment on it. Even he seemed to be in a better mood than usual. He was smiling for once. Yet it still made Ezra feel uneasy. He had a strange look in his eyes, there seemed to be some sort of fire burning within. But she didn't hold her gaze. He would see it as a challenge otherwise. That never ended well.
She decided to ask him a question to lighten the mood.
"So, err...master, I heard you were trying to find the boy. The one who defied you (she tried her best to sound innocent). Have you managed to arrest him?"
Cleeves eyed her carefully as if trying to find something beneath the question. Finding nothing he replied gravely, "Not yet. He claimed sanctuary here then apparently escaped. I have guards out looking for him as we speak."
"Maybe he has fled the city. I don't see why he would want to risk staying here."
Cleeves seemed a little surprised by this, "You're a smart girl, Ezra. That's the belief among the guards. But no, I know he's still within the city. I doubt he'd be able to resist another opportunity to rebel if it came along. But don't worry, Ezra. He will be apprehended whatever the cost."
"Whatever the cost." this chilled Ezra to her core. What would Cleeves sacrifice just to apprehend Aldawin? Cleeves could be ruthless. When he caught those he hunted, he showed no mercy. Sometimes it didn't matter who got in his way.
"What will happen if...when he's apprehended?" she asked.
Cleeves raised his eyebrows at this question. Ezra had never asked this many questions. Nor shown this much interest in his work.
"He will be thrown in prison until his sentence is decided. Most likely he will be hanged."
Ezra suddenly choked on the piece of chicken she had been eating. Cleeves calmly pushed her goblet of water towards her and she accepted it gratefully. Downing about half of it she coughed violently, noticing Cleeves did not react at all.
Cleeves nodded slowly.
"I must make the punishment fit the crime, Ezra. The punishment for treason is death."
"Of course, master." said Ezra still trying to sound innocent.
She hoped Aldawin would not be apprehended soon. But Aldawin did say he was easily evading them so far. That it would be a long time before they would be able to catch him. She silently prayed he would not be caught. She couldn't bear to watch him hang.
"If I didn't know any better. I would think you had feelings for him." Cleeves narrowed his cold eyes.
Ezra did not reply trying her best not to react. The dragon had become animated again and lowly growled at Cleeves' back. Ezra widened her eyes as she noticed and shook her head slightly. Spotting her, it fell silent and soon froze again. Cleeves eyed Ezra suspiciously.
"Are you alright?" he asked slowly.
"Of course." replied Ezra smiling.
Cleeves downed the rest of his wine then stood up.
"I'm afraid I must leave you now, Ezra. I have business to attend to."
Ezra also stood up and bowed before gathering up the plates. Cleeves picked up the basket that had originally contained the food. He put the empty wine bottle and water flask into it before recovering them with the cloth.
"I will see you in the morning. Sleep well." he then descended the spiral staircase closing the trap door behind him.
No sooner had he left than the dragon quickly became animated again. It jumped up and down on the stone balcony flapping its wings as if trying to fly away.
"What's the matter?" asked Ezra putting the plates and goblets away on the shelves.
"Something's flying towards us!" it cried darting to and fro, "Some sort of giant bird."
Ezra scanned the skies. The pink-orange sky seemed clear apart from a few clouds that provided dark contrast. Then she saw it. A large bird. Red and golden yellow feathers. About the size of a swan. A phoenix.
"It's alright." said Ezra reassuringly patting the dragon's head, "Let it come."
The phoenix swooped in through the window and landed on Ezra's shoulder gently squeezing with its golden claws, its large wings folding against its sides. Ezra stroked its warm feathers as it gently nuzzled the top of her head. It then hopped to the floor and dropped a piece of parchment it had been holding in its beak into Ezra's hand. It was another letter from Aldawin. The stone dragon glared at the phoenix as Ezra unfolded the parchment and read the letter.
More and more people are changing their views. Changes are spreading fast. Cleeves is still after me. Don't worry, I'm still easily evading him. I've sent Blaze because he can get anywhere quickly.
I'm writing to you because I don't think I will be able to visit you. It's too risky. Cleeves is apparently doubling the guard to find me sooner. I hate to think what he wants to do to me. However, I do want to see you again. The sooner the better. Can you come to me tonight? Phoenixes can carry any load so Blaze can take you. It will be faster than walking. When we are free everything will change for the better. Cleeves won't have power over us forever. Soon we will be free.
I love you, Ezra. There is no one else I want to spend the rest of my life with. Not even Cleeves can prevent that. I hope I can see you tonight. Just tell Blaze where you need to go and he will take you.
Finishing the letter, Ezra looked up at Blaze who she now knew was called Blaze. He rubbed his head lovingly against her leg. The dragon continued to glare menacingly, clearly irritated at the visitor.
"Once I ring the evening bells, can you take me to Aldawin?" she asked Blaze politely.
Blaze blinked then bowed his beautiful head. Ezra smiled then went to ring the bells for the evening.
As the sound of the bells died away, Blaze flew up and gently wrapped his claws around Ezra's wrist. Ezra held his leg feeling a little anxious.
"Ok, I'm ready." she said finally.
The stone dragon waved, smiling, as Blaze spread his wings and took off out the window. Ezra gasped and tightened her grip hard, her other hand shooting up and grabbing Blaze's other leg. Blaze squeezed her wrist reassuringly and she relaxed her grip a little, letting her other arm fall again. She was actually flying! A gentle breeze stroked her hair and she looked all around at the city below. The fiery ball of the sun slowly fell towards the shadowy buildings in the distance. The dying causing Blaze's feathers to sparkle like sun rays on water. As they flew over the river that ran through the centre of Gransys, Blaze turned right then slowly descended a little. Ezra took in their surroundings. Mainly houses with narrow streets running between them. Ezra noticed a light in one of the houses. On the first floor. Blaze continued to descend seemingly aiming for this house. She saw the front door open and light stream out onto the narrow street. They touched down outside. Blaze unfurled his claws then perched on Ezra's shoulder again. Aldawin stood grinning in the doorway.
"Hello again." he said holding out his hand.
Ezra took it and he gently pulled her towards him, gently kissing his lips. Blaze hopped to the ground watching them both. Aldawin patted his head.
"Thank you, Blaze." he said.
Blaze bowed his head and flew away again. Both Aldawin and Ezra watched him go. His fiery feathers blending well with the darkening sky. When he eventually vanished from view, they went back into the house, Aldawin closed the door behind them but didn't lock it.
"Is this where you live?" asked Ezra.
He nodded, "I left my parents' home a few years ago. Made my way working as an apprentice in the local armoury."
"Is this where you have been staying all this time? I'm surprised the guards haven't yet found you."
Aldawin laughed, "I have moved around a bit. Here and there. The guards haven't looked here yet. I'm lucky to live in a rather out of the way place. Where most people would not think to look."
The house was nothing special. One room on the ground floor and, she assumed, one room upstairs. There was a small open fire burning in the grate with a small cauldron to use as a stove. A small handful of candles nailed into the wall. A couple of wooden chairs and a table on which some parchment, a quill, an old inkpot and a small pile of worn books sat. There were some wooden shelves against the wall holding a plate, a goblet, a jug, a bowl, a spoon, a knife and what looked like a folded woollen blanket. A wooden staircase in the corner led to the first floor.
"It's not much." said Aldawin, "But it's home."
Ezra smiled, "That's what matters."
"I'm sorry," he said quickly, "are you hungry?"
Ezra looked around. it was clear there was no food. But she was still full from the dinner Cleeves had brought.
"It's okay," she replied smiling, "I've already eaten."\
She noticed he was gazing into her eyes.
"What?" she couldn't help grinning.
"Nothing." he said grinning back, "I just can't get over how beautiful you are."
Ezra felt her face flush. Seemingly annoyed with himself, Aldawin preceded to walk in a full circle round the room.
"Sorry, I'm not very good at this."
Ezra laughed, "It's okay. I'm not either living in a bell tower for twenty years."
"I can't imagine what that must be like. Spending my whole life locked away from the outside world."
Ezra shook her head, "Neither can I being free my whole life."
For what seemed like a lifetime they just stood watching each other. Neither knowing what to say next. Yet Ezra couldn't help feeling this was the best conversation she ever had.
The glow of the fire brightened as the daylight faded. Silver light peeked in through the windows as the moon and stars came out. Ezra guessed it was late. About 8:30 or so. She would be expected to ring the bells for the final time at 9. But she had no desire to go back yet. She suddenly found herself gazing at the staircase in the corner. Aldawin seemed to quickly take the hint. He gestured for her to go up while he followed.
At the top of the stairs was what seemed to be his bedroom. There were no adjoining rooms. What seemed to be a bed adorned the corner. Facing the bed there was a table with a bowl and jug on top. A cabinet serving as a wardrobe at the foot end of the bed. A candle sat on a small bedside table burning low. Ezra ran her fingers along the cabinet doors, caressing the smooth wood. It was plainly carved. The wood was splintering a little. But the wood was sturdy. The bed itself was nothing remarkable. A small single with a wooden frame, slightly thick mattress, a thin sheet and a thicker blanket piled untidily on top.
Ezra looked at Aldawin who still stood at the top of the stairs, "I'll sleep on the floor if you want."
"No need." he said grinning again.
He clicked his fingers and the bed including all those upon it expanded into a double.
Later that night they lay together exhausted, wrapped in each other's arms. Waiting for sleep to take them. Ezra had never felt so happy, so safe. Her head rested against Aldawin's chest. She closed her eyes hearing his beating heart beneath her and feeling his chin resting on top of her head. The sheet and blanket warmly wrapped around them. Their beating hearts synchronised, their breaths coming slow and deep.
"Did we really just do that?"
Aldawin gently stroked her hair, "I know, I can't believe it either."
"If Cleeves found out I'd be executed. I know it's only one night. But I'll treasure this forever."
"I'm sorry this has to end." his voice ached with sadness, "It's not fair that red heads can't do it. This city is so determined to see them die out."
"Maybe if I didn't have the hair colour I have, we wouldn't have to hide like this."
"If you didn't have red hair, you wouldn't be special."
She smiled at that. It must have been around midnight now. She knew she'd be in trouble tomorrow but she didn't care. She wanted to enjoy this moment and remember this night. Especially if she never got to do it again.
"I hope this isn't the last time I see you." she said yawning.
"As do I." replied Aldawin.
Ezra yawned again. Sleep wasn't far away.
"You should know, Aldawin, I love you too."
Aldawin didn't respond to this. Raising her head, she realised he had fallen asleep. Smiling, she rested her head on his chest again. Closing her eyes, she soon drifted off.