The Sultans of Schwung

Walking 'cross the sand lost in thought 
the breeze cools down the day, as night time 
falls on the desert 
you stop and take in the view 
Someone is drumming a beat 
Double four time
The rhythm sticks 
As you start walking anew
                                                  (-Sing to the tune of Sultans of Swing)

<to know why Hakim, Nuri and Fadil are absent, read the alternate story)>

Maram rushed through the hallways. Hakim hadn't been on the agreed upon location for their meeting. Hakim never missed a meeting, no matter how many Maram requested. He was just that conscientious. Maram knew he was being a bother, but he was young and very new. Ideally his father would have taught him, but his parents had died well before their time. Maybe Maram could have learned what there was to know from his custodian, but the man had disappeared as soon as Maram had been given the reins, maybe scared for his life as the North-East had felt the loss of their previous leader keenly. 
Maram tried to breathe as he was headed to Nuri's work chambers. The other councillor would know what to do. She was a formidable woman with years of experience. But when Maram reached her chambers, he found them empty and her staff ignorant of her whereabouts. Something was very wrong. 
Maram exited and paced back to his rooms. He was very close to a state of utter panic, but he knew that would not help. He let his thoughts run through his options. He would still prefer to talk with someone about this. Fadil maybe, the next youngest vizier on the council, but it was anyone's guess what the man was thinking at any given time. Asra, the vizier of state would not be awake yet, Ziad would be too rowdy. Tahira always frightened him a little with her unbending conservative ways and Ruya was likewise intimidating. 
The choice Maram had to make however, was taken out of his hands when he turned a corner and bumped straight into Ruya who was headed to her offices. Maram flushed and apologised profusely. 
"Take it easy, Maram." Ruya said, trying to quiet the young man down. 
Contrary to what he seemed to believe, Ruya did have a soft spot for the earnest young councillor. He was nervous still, but his insights were good, his plans valid. He would be a valuable ally in the future. Ruya had after all, plenty of plans for the future of the nation. 
As Maram stopped talking, Ruya could see that he was distraught about another matter. As if out of nowhere, one of Ruya's attendants appeared and handed her a message before getting lost again. Ruya quickly looked over the note and arched an eyebrow. Well, now she knew why Maram was so rattled.
"Come." she took charge and walked away, expecting the younger man to follow.
"Where are we going?" Maram asked.
"Asra's residence isn't all that far and she'll need to know of this."
The two of them hurried through the halls of the chambers of state, exited through one of the side entrances and were at Asra's door after only 15 minutes. All of them had residences in the capital for when meetings ran late. Ruya knew for a fact that Asra was in. She kept close tabs on all of the council members. Which was why she now knew that three of them were missing. 
Ruya knocked loudly on Asra's door and they were led in by a meek-looking young maid. The woman wore the pink colours of the Eastern region and was clearly displeased with their un-ceremonial visit.
"The mistress is currently busy." Fatima told the viziers, standing regal despite their much higher station.
"I know she is sleeping. Wake her up, she needs to hear this." Ruya commanded.
Fatima tensed, intending to argue, but movement from behind the visitors made her reconsider. She nodded and left the room. In the hallway she met up with Nasir, one of the guards. He quickly whispered a message which left Fatima wide-eyed and she hurried up the stairs to her mistress' room, confident that Nasir would keep an eye on the visitors. 
Asra woke up when her maid entered, yawned, stretched and then jumped out when she saw the look on Fatima's face.
"What's happened?" she asked.
"Nasir reported that their highnesses Hakim, Nuri and Fadil are missing. Vezir Maram and Wazira Ruya are requesting your presence."
Asra was dressed by the end of Fatima's explanation and gestured for her to help braid her hair. Only 10 minutes after she'd been woken, Asra was downstairs, greeting Maram and Ruya as if she hadn't just rolled out of bed. The vizier of state gave a tight smile and said:
"I've heard Hakim, Nuri and Fadil are missing."
Maram gasped, but Ruya just nodded and returned:
"We just found out this morning. My people report that they met up yesterday in a bar but never left. When they went in to check this morning, they could not be located. They tried looking for them at their residences and questioned all the gatekeepers. They haven't been seen."
Asra nodded, noticing how surprised Maram was by the amount of information Ruya possessed. The wazira of agriculture, water and energy had far more power than most people realised at first glance and her network of spies was presumably even larger than Asra's own network of police officers. 
"What can we do?" Maram asked, feeling once more pretty inadequate.
"We'll have to call a meeting." Asra deduced.
"Are we ready to bring everyone together?" Ruya asked.
Not all of the viziers saw eye to eye, though all of them had pledged allegiance to Hakim. If the Wazir-al-Akbar who ruled the rest of them was missing, they were in for turbulent times.
"We can't keep the others out of this." Asra argued, "I'm not fond of it but it needs to happen."
"I'll send out messengers." Maram agreed. At least he had a task to complete now.
"I'll continue to search for clues." Ruya added.
"Let's combine our networks on that one." Asra supplied. 

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Ziad marched to his seat and looked around. It was certainly unusual to have been summoned to the capital on such short notice. And though he'd been late, there were three other seats still empty. As he sat down, Asra stood up and addressed them.
"Fellow Viziers, we've called this meeting to discuss the disappearance of three of the council members."
Ziad saw only Tahira react with surprise. Ruya of course knew, she always knew. And it seemed that Maram had gotten wind of this too. But then, the newest councillor was still training and spent most of his days in the capital. 
"Why, pray tell, "Ziad interrupted Asra, "were we not informed immediately."
Ruya glared daggers at him and Asra answered: "This information was deemed too volatile."
"Imagine a messenger getting intercepted." Ruya added.
Tahira stood up next and though she loathed to agree with the Southern Wazir-al-Harb, she did think they needed to have been told before this meeting. The council worked because there was trust between it's members. That's how the 9 regions had come together in the first place, to form an alliance that would make the stronger. Being truthful was one of the first vows they had to swear to when they took up their titles. 
"I know you certainly have people you would trust with such information." Tahira told Ruya.
Tahira wondered briefly if this could have been a ploy by the other three to seize power. But no. She would have suspected Nuri to have plans to usurp the throne. Asra was far too whimsical to actually want to take over ruling and her station was the most powerful after Hakim's anyway. And though Ruya was certainly able, she would not do it in such an obvious way. No, if Ruya would want to seize power, Tahira suspected she'd wake up one day and everything would have changed. But that left her to wonder about what was really going on. 
"Do we know if Nuri or Fadil might be behind the disappearance of Hakim?" Tahira offered, returning to her previous musings about who of them would actually want to seize power.
"While we waited for you to arrive we have investigated all three of them, checking their last days for anything unusual. We came up empty." Ruya grudgingly admitted. 
Ziad was secretly pleased that the knowledgeable wazira of the West had run into a mystery she couldn't solve. It felt good that something had finally been able to knock her down a peg or two. Maybe if he could figure things out, he'd make his grandfather proud. Though the previous minister of war had retired, he was still very much involved with the ruling of the Southern region. Would it be worth it to get a message to his grandfather to get his opinion? Or would it be wiser to keep this all quiet as Ruya and Asra hinted. Certainly the disappearance of three of the nation's rulers had the potential of throwing the country in turmoil and invite in some opportunistic neighbours. Ziad knew those neighbouring threats all too well. It was his job to monitor them and to make certain they got no chance to invade. 
"Has anyone delivered a ransom demand?" Ziad asked.
"No." Maram said, "Not even the council staff seem to have noticed the absence yet."
Tahira shook her head, if anyone wanted to cause a commotion, they would have started rumours by now. She understood better why Ruya and Asra had insisted on secrecy. 
"Our first order of business should be to see how we proceed from here." Ruya continued.
"I suppose you'd like to be elected as interim head-vizier?" Ziad sneered.
Ruya had indeed been thinking along those lines but she knew better than to admit it. Four of the five people present would presumably feel they were the best fit for such a position. And as they quarrelled and discussed, Maram sat down and distanced himself from the pleas of his fellow council-members. 
Once more, Maram wondered what could have happened. Was it a ransom-plot? But who could have gotten in to kidnap not one but three of the highest ranked officials? And if one of them was in cahoots with the kidnappers, why would they vanish themselves? Or was the kidnapper one of the people here in the room with him? Doubts and paranoia fought for dominion of his mood. But neither one as it was disbelief that took the lead. Disbelief to suddenly see Hakim's winged reptilian pet Nijiri fly in through the window.
"Quiet!" he called, surprising the other four.
Maram stuck out his arm and waited for Nijiri to land. The black lizard with her rainbow wings handed him a message and Maram opened it. He didn't care for proper procedure, they needed to read this now and not wait for whomever ended up in charge.

My fellow council members, 
Don't worry as I, Nuri and Fadil are safe. 
We shall return shortly from an unforeseen trip.
In the meantime I leave the council in the hands of Maram.

Best of luck, 
Hakim.

Maram recognised Hakim's handwriting. He'd read the message out loud so he could not take back the words that seemed to hint that he was now the one in charge. Asra had taken the message from him:
"He's telling the truth." she said and passed down the note for the others to read.
"Could this have been written under duress?" Ziad asked.
"It is possible...." Ruya said, "But wouldn't Hakim have hinted at something then?"
"Maybe this is all a test." Tahira suddenly said, "A test for Maram."
Her brown eyes focused on the young man who'd gone ghostly pale and she felt that maybe she truly was right to think this. It made sense in more ways then one and she quickly told the others her suspicions:
"Ruya knows they had a meeting prior to vanishing." Tahira stated, "The three of them are the people Maram would most trust to help him." she continued, "And lastly, it's about time he became more confident."
Maram flushed and sank down on his chair. By the looks on the faces of the others he could see that they all believed that Tahira was right. Even Maram had to admit that the prospect of this all being a test was far less frightening than the alternative of something bad having happened. At least they knew that Hakim at least was alive.
Maram turned to Nijiri who sat patiently next to him. 
"I'm really not sure they would test me in such a way." he said so quiet it was barely more than a whisper, "Nijiri, can you get help? I don't know what to do."
The black firelizard looked into his eyes and in a flash, she was gone. Ghosted away just like her master. Maram felt close to tears but only a few seconds later Nijiri returned and chirped, taking hold of Maram's robes and dragging him along.
The other Viziers got up to follow as the winged reptilian led them to a large, deserted field, far away from prying eyes. And there, Nijiri chirped again and suddenly three larger winged reptilians appeared in the sky above them.  

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Some time passed before the three dragons had landed and their riders had disembarked. The most pressing question was maybe why none of the five viziers had run and gotten reinforcements, but all had in fact stayed and waited, wondering what these visitors were going to say.
"Greetings." the most handsome of the three, a light-skinned individual with black hair and hazel eyes said.
"My name is Ishaan and my dragon is Pederth." he gestured to one of the blue dragons.
"Nyasha of Nidus Asteri and Pray For Dusk." the second dragonrider introduced herself, standing before another blue dragon.
>Introduction of third searchrider 
Though all three creatures were undoubtedly dragons, they were still different from each other. One of the blue dragons had nobs while the other had horns and fur. And the third...
It was Ishaan who continued:
"I'm certain my colleagues are here for the same reason. We were alerted by your little firelizard that we should come here to find people willing to join the ranks of dragonriders. I for one am looking for someone who would come with me to the Vella Crean to bond an imperial dragon."
"Nidus Asteri lies on the planet Kynn. We are looking for candidates to bond hatchlings that are part Imperial, part Asandus." Nyasha said, surprised to find someone from the Vella Crean here.
The last searchrider nodded and gave their origin as well as what clutch they were looking for: "..." 
Ishaan looked around and figured he'd best mention one of the rules early on.
"I have a genetic test to see if any one of you is compatible."
At this point, Asra found her voice: "Excuse me for asking what may be a silly question."
Ishaan nodded.
"You're asking us to come with you? As in, leave our nation, our people while we're already under stress because three others of our rulers vanished into thin air? How do you expect us to agree?"
Ishaan's eyes seemed to flash golden for a fraction of a second and then he nodded again:
"I believe the others you seek are also waiting to impress a dragon."
Nijiri chirped in agreement.
"I see that you are a very likely candidate for our clutch. If I juts may..." Ishaan continued and stuck a tiny needle into Asra's finger before she could pull away her hand. The needle didn't hurt much but the drop of blood was enough to confirm his suspicions. He felt the test was hardly needed with his skills, but his annoying creator would stand on protocol. 
"If you'd like, you would certainly be able to impress one of the Imperial Court Dragons. And don't worry. Our dragons know how to return back here with barely a day having passed. No-one should know you've been gone."
Asra wavered, these dragons seemed powerful. And if three of the council members were getting them, where would it leave the other five? Still, accompanying Ishaan by herself did not seem prudent, even to her usual disregard of safety.
Not too far from them, Nasir broke through the canopy.
"Mistress, I shall go with you to protect you. It's been my task to keep you safe for as long as I've been in your service."
Nasir glared at Ishaan, daring him to deny his offer. The bluerider did nothing of the sort. In fact he had been told that people were allowed to bring servants since the previous Imperial clutch when people had been requested to be royalty. Nothing much had changed so adding a few servants to Pederth's load wouldn't be too bothersome.
"Servants are allowed to come." Ishaan acquiesced. 
"I would ask that my ladies maid, Fatima accompany me as well." Asra said.
"Certainly." Ishaan said and waited for the maid to be fetched while the other searchriders made arrangements for the candidates that would join them.  
"Do you wish to take servants?" Nyasha asked Ruya and Maram.
"I don't have servants." Maram admitted, in fact he hadn't been all that different from a normal student until recently.
"My people will serve me better here." Ruya said, "I can take care of myself."

(searchrider 3 offering to take Tahira and Ziad) => ???

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|STORY|-;-*-;-|ASRA|-;-|MARAM|-;-|RUYA|-;-|TAHIRA|-;-|ZIAD|-;-*-;-|ALTERNATE STORY|

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Lantessama Isle
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