Ron straightened his coat one last time. He wiggled his fingers at his mouth and rolled his tongue over his teeth, tasting the sudden burst of mint. He took a deep breath and knocked.
"Go away, Gavin," Riselmian immediately yelled. Too quickly to have been woken up by the noise. Ron quietly let his breath out.
"It's just me."
There were the sounds of motion from inside. The door jerked open to frame Riselmian like an angry Greek goddess -- piercing green eyes glaring at him as a naked arm held a pastel green sheet in place around her torso. Ron involuntarily looked down at her cleavage, feeling his face flush.
"What is it?" Riselmian asked.
"Is the boss back?"
Ron forced his gaze upward to meet her stare. "Ah, no. I just wanted to drop by before I left to keep an eye on the kids."
"Oh," Riselmian said, tone icing over. "Lovely. Nice seeing you." She pushed the door closed.
Feeling his chance slip away, Ron wedged a foot in the door frame. Riselmian looked down at it, back up at him, and frowned. "What."
"I -- ah. It's just -- look, I think we got off on the wrong foot. We're going to be working together an awful lot --"
"So I just," he hurried on, "wanted to apologize for Gavin."
Riselmian opened her mouth for a comeback, and stopped. After an awkward pause, she blinked several times and said: "I, uh, wasn't holding his behavior against you."
"Well, it's obvious he's aggravating you, and somehow I doubt he's going to say sorry on his own."
Riselmian adjusted the sheet and leaned against the doorway. "Against my better judgment, I'm going to ask: why are you feeling guilty enough to apologize? Were you the one that drove him crazy?"
"No, but it's my fault he's here." Ron lowered his head. "I told the Shadow King I wouldn't help him unless he took care of Gav too."
"Oh," Riselmian said faintly.
"I think Gav snapped when he was out by himself in the Wastes. Couldn't accept the whole world disappearing. And I ... I felt sorry for him. There but for the grace of God go I, you know?" Ron looked back into Riselmian's eyes. "I don't know anything about him except his name and the fact he's a mage, but I couldn't leave him behind. If I hadn't helped, nobody else would have."
Riselmian looked away. "You're probably right. He's lucky you found him."
"Thanks," Ron said, surprised. It was the first nice thing he had heard her say. Riselmian muttered something inaudible and glanced back into her room, but didn't move from the doorway.
"How many others do you think are out there?" Ron asked, trying to keep the conversation alive.
"I don't know. ... Were you thinking about going back out into the Wastes for them?"
"Honestly? I don't know. The Shadow King seems to have that covered. And I'm not sure how long I could stay out there without going insane myself ... or if I could even make it back here, or back to Earth, if I left. What about you?"
"Are you kidding?" Riselmian muttered, shaking her head. "I'm no mage. I hadn't even worked up the nerve to enter the Wastes before the boss found me. All I can do is help out with the big plan and wish like hell that I can make something worthwhile out of whatever pathetic half-life I've still got."
"You, uh, sound bitter," Ron said cautiously.
"Why shouldn't I be?" Riselmian said. "I'm a dragon, Ron! I spent my entire crazy-fundie childhood knowing I was different -- not even knowing why until after I ran away at age 18 -- and getting the shit beat out of me for it. Then the Changes hit, and I changed too. For a brief, shining moment I thought I had escaped -- I thought I had a new life in front of me, in a new world where the people who made my life hell were finally exposed for the frauds they were. Do you know what it's like to have that hope snatched away from you? What it's like to spend weeks praying you'll wake back up into your original nightmare of a life, because it was actually better than the new life you had always dreamed of?"
"Oh. Geez. No."
"Now we've gotten out of the Wastes by teaming up with some mindreading demon thing -- and with every passing day she's turning more and more into a stereotypical evil overlord." Riselmian threw up a hand. "You think I'm in on this because I have hope for anything? I'll consider myself lucky if I can just get revenge before I snap. And, believe me, that's the real challenge. Video game characters and green flashing martial arts strikes and shadows that turn into people and now our lives are controlled by prophecies? I'm sorry if I'm being harsh on the coyote, but it's hard enough maintaining my grip on sanity even without having to babysit a fucking lunatic."
"I hear you there -- the world we're in is definitely weird enough," Ron said sympathetically. "I had no idea what to make of the Shadow King's lecture about the stars, either. But I was going to wait until I found out more to say anything. I mean, I know for a fact magic works -- so maybe there's something to prophecies too."
Riselmian sighed heavily. "How do you do it, Ron? Stay sane in the face of all this."
"Me?" Ron said. "Uh, I used to do tabletop gaming a lot, before the Changes. I guess all this just doesn't seem as strange to me as it must to you."
"Tabletop gaming? You mean, like Dungeons & Dragons?"
"That sort of thing. But more modern. Secret conspiracies of mages, vampires in the shadows, things like that." Ron shifted his weight. "I'm used to getting inside my characters' heads, reacting like they would to all the freaky stuff. Honestly, I think I've been doing that since the Changes, except with myself as a character."
"Doesn't it bother you?" Riselmian asked. "That was all fantasy! Fiction! And now here it is all around us."
"Same with dragons."
"I didn't actually expect that to come true. When it did, I thought that would be the end of it." Riselmian sighed. "Now it's just too much. I need to know the life I'm living is real. How can I unless there's a line somewhere between real and imaginary? What if I did go nuts out there, like Gavin did, and now all of this is something my brain's making up?"
Ron glanced around and bit his lip. "Um. Speaking of Gav, has he been here? I haven't seen him since the meeting, and I'll be damned if I can magically locate anyone here in the palace. I really should make sure he's somewhere safe before I leave."
"Are you serious? He's been at my door the whole time. I can barely get a minute of silence before he pipes up with another nonsensical question. I'm ready to strangle him."
Ron blinked. "I didn't see him here. I swear I've checked this hallway at least five or six times. I didn't want him to bother you."
"Well, he did. He said he was done and that he was ready to be a hero now. Then lots of questions about which one of us was the refugee. Then he said I should stay away from the ocean. Then he asked me where the ocean was and whether the dark thing in the sky was the moon. Then asked why the stars aren't talking about Tarot cards any more. Then whether I had a Tarot deck and which card I thought he was. I said he was going to be the Hanged Man if he didn't go away. He said, 'Oh, that doesn't end well,' and shut up. That was a few minutes before you got here."
Ron sighed. "I'm sorry. I'll find him and lock him in his room with a Rubik's Cube or something."
"I'd appreciate it if you would." Riselmian reached up for the door. "Oh, and Ron?"
"Good luck with whatever you're doing with the kids." As she pushed the door closed, Ron thought he caught a fleeting smile on her face.
"Thanks," he called, smiling himself, and trudged off through the palace.