DONAR (Planet Of Dragons Book 4)
The great sun Catalan came up golden over the trees of the horizon, bringing dawn to the city of Greenscale on the planet Lacerta.
Brianne Heatherton drank in the first warm rays of the day, thinking that it should not be so remarkable that she was standing, dressed in her form-flattering work coveralls, on one of the terraces of a great and stately mansion built into a mountainside. As a xenobiologist, she had traveled all over the known galaxy. She had visited more planets and moons than she could count, throwing in an asteroid here and there, and once even a comet.
She had experienced environments that could kill a human being as quickly as one looked at them, and been to places so beautiful and delicious and congenial to human life that they could make one want to spend at least two lifetimes in them. She had observed, catalogued, touched, handled, petted, wrestled with, captured, and examined life forms of every description, from the most repulsive to the most exquisite.
She had met beings of every civilization and every stratum of society known to space-traveling humanity and seen or stayed in places as wretched as one could imagine and as fabulous as one could dream of. So, on the face of it, there should be nothing so extraordinary about the place where she had spent the last night. It was only a spectacular mansion constructed in the sheer face of a mountainside, wasn’t it?
Well, frankly, yes. But this particular mansion built into a mountain happened to be on one of the most storied planets in Commonwealth space, the home of beings who were as spectacular as the piece of architecture in which Brianne was lodging. This was, after all, Lacerta, home of a society of once-human colonists whom fate or nature, depending on one’s biases, had mutated into a species of their own—a species of men and women with the power to become living dragons. Brianne happened to be staying in the magnificent home of one of the most lavishly wealthy families of a magnificent race.
Greenscale, the city so lovingly crafted into its natural surroundings, was designed to exist in harmony with nature. The population of the place was mostly well-to-do or upper-class, if not outright rich, and that was the kind of place where they had decided long ago that they wanted to live. So, homes and shops and other structures were built into hillsides or constructed so that only their upper floors and rooftops were at ground level and covered with grass and flowers and hedge rows. Or they were built into immense rocks, tucked into stands of trees, or even constructed partly inside trees themselves.
And some places were actually built in the boughs of trees or placed between the trees and connected by walkways that served as streets and boulevards above the ground. There were even habitats and homes constructed at the bottoms of lakes and ponds or floating on the surface of them. Looking out from the terrace, Brianne could see handsome, gleaming dwellings that sat on a lake, and gazing out farther, she could make out more beautiful and elaborate homes dotting other mountainsides.
Seeing the homes on the lake reminded Brianne of the origins of the people who lived here and the care that visitors like her must always take, for all the waters of Lacerta were insinuated with a native mineral called Draconite, a mutagenic compound that had turned a lost colony of humans into a race of dragon men and women.
Visitors to Lacerta routinely took mutagenic inhibitors every day to ensure that they would not be so mutated themselves. Brianne had remembered to take her inhibitor this morning; otherwise, with one swallow of Lacertan water or one bath or shower in it, she would soon know a dramatic new meaning of the expression “going native.”
The entire community was made to feel almost as if one did not know where nature left off and civilization began, though once civilization took over, it was one of the most gleaming and luxurious expressions of civilization on this or any other planet.
And with a new sun overhead, out came some of the people that made Lacerta one of the most impressive places to visit or live in all of space. Brianne smiled to see them in their sleek, streamlined native clothing with backs either completely open or collapsible to make way for the thing that made them so impressive. A Lacertan had not a single shape, but two, and as Brianne watched, she could see some of them taking flight, soaring and swooping and circling along in the shapes that were not human.
At will, they could become creatures of myth, beings of scaly flesh covering hard, lean sinew, with serpentine tails and necks, cushiony spines down their backs, and long, proud, and horned reptilian heads. They commanded the air with broad and mighty wings that propelled them powerfully aloft, steering with wing beats and twists of those fantastic tails. Lacertans, by their very nature, inspired varying degrees of wonder, awe, respect, fear, fascination, and envy in common humans. There were some who admired them, and there were some who even wanted to be them.
Brianne, for her part, was grateful, for this was somehow her first visit to their planet, for their help. Thanks to the Lacertans—those who owned the property where she was staying—she was about to realize one of the greatest ambitions of her career.
Just visible between some of the trees in the distance was a gleaming spot of light that Brianne knew was the center of that ambition. Out there, in one of those places carved into the nature that the citizens of Greenscale so respected, was a project that Brianne had conceived, over which she had labored long and worked hard, to the point of venturing onto one of the more distressed planets in known space on what amounted to a rescue mission. A biological, ecological rescue mission. And today, that mission would enter its final stage, thanks to Brianne’s hosts at the mansion in the mountainside.
No sooner had she thought of them than she heard a voice, a male voice as warm as Catalan above, coming over her shoulder from the threshold of the terrace. “Good morning, Brianne. All dressed and ready, I see.”
The ones stepping out from the house onto the terrace with her were not nearly so dressed as Brianne. And it was all good that they were not: if anyone ever belonged naked or nearly so, it was the twin brothers Donar and Conran Quist. They were as dazzling to behold as the very star that warmed their planet. They were clad only in loincloths now, but Brianne was well aware that Lacertans liked to sleep nude and were not in the least shy about it; thus, they had stretched out in bed overnight wearing nothing but the solid and hard, perfectly sculpted, amazing muscles wrapped around their godlike frames.
Truly every muscle on those twin bodies was wrought and honed to be as perfect a thing as it could possibly be, each one lending itself to the overall perfection of the identical forms. They were blond, each one crowned with thick, golden, perfectly groomed hair. They had sparkling sapphire eyes set into shockingly handsome faces that spoke of the boundless energy and exuberance of youth passing into the beginning wisdom of young adulthood.
In a race of men who morphed into mythical beings, Donar and Conran Quist were things of mythical beauty, worthy of the best of men and dragons alike.
Brianne turned around to greet them. The gaze of the twins’ handsomeness fell on Brianne, her quiet beauty adorned by darker blonde hair pulled back into a braid behind her back. She basked in their morning looks as she basked in the warmth of Catalan. As she did when she first arrived on Lacerta, she noticed the slight differences in style between the twins. Donar kept just a bit of a stubbly goatee on the perfection of his face and had a tendency towards darker colors than his brother. Conran’s features were immaculately shaved, and he showed a preference for brighter, warmer colors.
Brianne guessed that what lurked under those loincloths, Donar’s dark green one and Conran’s golden yellow one, was also identical—and generously proportioned. Lacertan males had a tendency to be, frankly, very well-endowed. Very well. She had never had what must be the breathtaking pleasure of going to bed with one, but she had heard stories of those who had been bedded by these dragon men, and not one was ever a story of dissatisfaction.
Their ways in the bedroom were as legendary as the creatures into which they morphed. The twins would likely have thought nothing of giving Brianne a look. Lacertans were strangers to body shame. Brianne, however, kept that idea in check, reminding herself that she had come to their planet for other reasons and that she had a very specific relationship with these brothers, one that she did not care to complicate.
“Good morning,” Brianne said back. “You’re right. I couldn’t wait.”
“We can’t blame you,” Donar replied. “In your position, I’d be anxious to get things started too.”
Was there a double entendre in that statement? Brianne doubted it and chose to dismiss it as just the consequence of her seeing them this way after having seen them only clothed since they came to pick her up at the spaceport and bring her here. She swept from her mind all thoughts of the Quist brothers and whatever “positions” she and they might take up. Their positions were those of a scientist and the two men sponsoring her work, and so they ought to remain.
“I’m sure we’re about as anxious as you are to see the culmination of your work and our contributions,” said Conran. “You’ve put so much passion and dedication into bringing our guest to Lacerta, and we’ve put so much of the Quist Foundation’s backing into it, this morning is the reward for all of us.”
Brianne smiled. “Or the first reward. What I’m most looking forward to, still, is the payoff of everything we’ve done.”
“We’ll get it,” Conran said confidently. “Cardax III is standing by, just waiting to receive word that our guest is ready.”
“I like the way we’re talking about it as our ‘guest,’” said Donar. Noting Brianne’s reaction, he corrected himself, “That is, talking about her.” Brianne, from the beginning, had never once used the pronoun it to refer to their subject. She had always spoken of her in more personal terms. The “guest” was female, and Brianne had consistently used she and her, never it, in talking about her. He added, “‘Guests’ are usually invited, or invite themselves.”
Conran nodded, agreeing with the observation. “What we have out there is not so much our ‘guest’ as a refugee.”
“I guess the word ‘refugee’ would fit, in a way,” said Brianne. “Taking in a refugee is an act of mercy. Of course, refugees usually ask for the help they’re given. Damara wasn’t asking.”
“Refugees usually ask,” said Conran, “or someone sees that someone else is in trouble and volunteers. That’s what you’ve done, seeing that Damara and her kind are in trouble and stepping in. And we’ve stepped in with you.”
“And I’m grateful for that,” Brianne said admiringly. “Grateful for me and for Damara. Everything you’ve done has made all the difference. And the work you’ve had done out there… I was up late last night looking at the scans and video of the whole process of constructing and preparing the space after so many times watching it before.
After so much time preparing, and then the whole expedition to Torado IV to get Damara, bit by bit it’s all been becoming real. It’s been so long, doing the research, making the proposal, doing the work to get ready for this day—and now this day is here.” She looked out again to that gleaming spot in that one opening between the trees. “It’s finally here. It’s finally happening.”
“I’m only sorry I wasn’t along for the trip to Torado IV,” said Donar. “I would have liked to help with that part of it.”
Brianne looked back at Donar and Conran, her admiration unwavering. “You and your brother have done plenty,” she told him. “Without the two of you, this morning might not be happening at all. Like I’ve been saying all along, Lacerta is the perfect place for this to happen. There couldn’t be a better planet for this project. You have everything exactly right: the perfect type of planet, the perfect place to set up the habitat, the perfect climate-control infrastructure—everything is just the way it needs to be. And then there’s you and your foundation, and all the work you do.
I had backup candidates, as you know: other planets, other foundations as sources of backing. But Lacerta was my first choice all along. And the Quist Foundation. All my research said this was the place I most wanted to bring Damara. Really, I can’t tell you enough how grateful I am to the two of you.”
“We’re just as grateful that you came to us,” said Conran. At this, a look passed between him and Donar, and between them and Brianne, that made things seem very personal. Very personal indeed.
Shifting the tone, Donar added, “This is the kind of work I most like to see our family’s foundation associated with, the kind of work I most like to see us doing.”
“And you’ve made it all happen beautifully,” Brianne complimented them. “I couldn’t ask for it to have turned out better than it has.” She looked out again to where she had looked before. “Everything depends on her now. It’ll all come down to how she reacts to being here, how she takes to it. I think we have everything prepared as well as it possibly can be—but from this point, it’s up to her.”
“We haven’t come this far, and you haven’t done everything you’ve done, to see it fail,” Conran said confidently. “And it won’t fail. This will work, and we’ll get the result we’ve all been working for.”
“And the result we’ve put so much of the foundation’s money into, right?” said Donar.
“It’s not only about the money,” said Conran with a cocked eyebrow at his brother. To Brianne, he added, “He loves to prod me about the financial side of things because I’m always the one who takes the point with the foundation’s money and seeing where it goes—and dealing with the people we have to deal with in the process. I’ve always been the best at the ‘people’ side of our work. This is his perfect project because after the executive and administrative part is over, it’s not about people anymore.”
“Stop making me sound so antisocial,” Donar chided him. “I’m fine with people. It’s only the complications that people bring into things that I don’t care for. I like simplicity.” To Brianne, he added “Once you’re past a certain level, a project like this is simple.”
“As a biologist,” said Brianne thoughtfully, “I can tell you it’s not always as simple as it looks. There are always variables to work with. If one thing is ‘off’ in any way in a project like this, it gets to be not as simple as you might think. That’s why I wanted to come to Lacerta, a place where we can get everything as ‘right’ as it needs to be from the beginning.”
“I understand that,” Donar said. “What I meant was that people bring all kinds of different motives to what they do. Take away human motives and how they’re in conflict so much of the time, and everything gets simpler. Damara isn’t as complicated as we are.”
Rolling her eyes thoughtfully, Brianne noted, “Or at least she isn’t complicated in the same ways that we are. She represents a different set of complications.”
“We can start getting all that sorted out this morning,” said Conran, “after our morning flight, and then breakfast. I still hope we’ll have a chance to take you up flying with us while you’re here, Brianne.”
“Well, you two are more of a ‘natural’ for flight than I am,” Brianne replied with a hint of a chuckle. “You have the advantage on me. All I have is this one body.”
For just a second, the Quist twins looked her up and down as she had done them when they first stepped out. In the little eternity wrapped up in that second, some little voice inside Brianne hoped that they appreciated what they saw in her as much as she appreciated what she saw in them.
“You’d take to it well enough,” Conran assured her.
“You would,” Donar agreed. “Once we got you fitted with a flight rig, you’d be surprised at how easy it is to learn to use the wings. In fact, considering all the places you’ve been and the things you’ve had to do in your work, I’m a little surprised you haven’t tried it already.”
Brianne couldn’t help arching her eyebrows and rolling her eyes a bit at the thought of it. “Well, you’re right about that. I’ve had to go to some pretty high places sometimes. I guess I’ve always just gone automatically to the ways of flying that humans always use. It comes from not having another body with wings already built in, so to speak.”
“The first Lacertans adapted to it,” said Donar. “You would too.”
There was just a moment’s break in the conversation, with unstated admiration passing between the human scientist and her weredragon benefactors.
“We’d better get going, Brianne,” Conran said. “Donar and I cleared out our whole schedule for today because it’s so important, but I’d still rather not waste time, and I’m sure your two assistants are as anxious as you are.”
“I spoke to them earlier,” said Brianne, “and yes, they’re as ready as I am.”
Conran slapped his brother on the shoulder. “Then let’s be getting up there. We’ll see you soon, Brianne.”
Brianne stepped to one side, and the two brothers stepped slightly back and apart, making a little extra room for what came next. It was a sight she had seen before, of course, traveling in the kinds of circles and to the kinds of places that she did, but it was no less impressive for her being accustomed to it. The Quist brothers, with the casual ease of having done it every day since they were a year old, relaxed their bodies and released their human physical forms into another shape.
Their skin turned to green scales with golden stripes as if new flesh were being laid upon them with an invisible trowel. Long, thick reptilian tails of matching scalation emerged from their lower backs, and from their upper backs, mighty wings of green leather blossomed and unfurled. Their necks elongated into serpentine shapes with those same green and gold-striped scales, and soft spines erupted from the backs of their necks down to their wings.
The shapes of their heads changed, lengthening, morphing from human to reptilian, with blunt snouts in front and crowns of horns above the eyes. Their hands and feet turned to scaly, taloned things, capable of cutting gouges in stone. In place of the human Conran and Donar Quist stood two tall, proud dragon men of Lacerta. Had they so desired, they could have released their human shapes into complete, four-legged dragons, but these forms would serve them well enough.
They nodded their dragon heads courteously in her direction; then, beating those fantastic wings and stirring up a draft on the terrace, they lunged onto the railing and bounded into the air with powerful swishes of their tails. In less time than it took to say it, the Quist twins were airborne, soaring off away from the mountain and into the morning sky.
Brianne watched them go, admiring their grace in the air. They were truly as much at home off the ground as they were on it. She had seen the natural wonders of known space. She had seen the wildlife of dozens of planets. But in all her travels, Brianne had never encountered anything else that quite compared with the weredragons of the planet Lacerta. Especially the male ones.
And, she thought, of all the dragon men she had encountered, she had never seen any that quite compared with these two. They were a strikingly beautiful lot, all things considered, but these two, this Conran and this Donar, were special. They were not only beautiful, but they were also Princes of their planet, and they wore their stature as if it were the most natural and comfortable thing in the world. It came to them naturally.
The brothers cleaved their way through the air in the direction of Brianne’s project, which they and their wealth had made possible. The image of them standing so near her, so male, so incomparably beautiful, so perfect—and so close to being completely naked—lingered in her mind. They were awesome in their dragon way, but they were doubly awesome as young men.
Brianne noted again that it was only their deference to having a human as a houseguest that had prompted them to wear loincloths for their morning flight. Had she suggested that they needn’t be so shy, they would have very readily dropped even those rudimentary garments and presented themselves to her in their full awesomeness.
But no—that would have been a distraction, a very great distraction that might have led to even more distracting things. No doubt it would have led to things so distracting that it would have been easy to get lost in them. Lacertan males were notoriously sexual creatures and reputed to be insatiable. As they never got enough, those who shared a bed with them could hardly get enough of them. That was the last thing Brianne needed just now, especially as there were two of them.
That was not to say that she didn’t need it. She was a healthy young woman, and she did have needs that could have been more than satisfied by a man of this planet. Or two such men. That, however, was not her reason for being here. She looked down from the two dragon-man figures that had now grown small in the sunlit sky to that one spot on the ground that was now the center of her greatest ambitions.
That was the important thing now. Damara and her entire species, whose planet had come to such harm and was now inevitably doomed—that was the most important thing now. Brianne must not fail. The future of a part of the natural world was depending on her. There would be other times for the kinds of satisfaction that she had just indulged herself enough to contemplate. The one who needed her the most right now was one who could not even really comprehend what was happening to her. It was all about Damara.
It’s all right, sweetheart, Brianne thought to the subject of her work. It won’t be much longer before you’re awake and we can get started. You’re going to have a future, I promise. This isn’t the end of the cralowogs, not if I can help it.
She glanced up again at the twin man-dragons wheeling about in the sky and added with assurance, Not if we can help it.