Aja Skytoucher was good at two things: driving a Carriage and killing the bad guys. Luckily, those had been her only duties while a coachman with the Alliance, so the job had suited her skill set perfectly.
Until she retired.
The problem was that she used to be good at killing the bad guys. She couldn’t number how many times she, driving a Carriage with Emalkay at her side, had engaged in battles that brought the residents of Drakor to their metaphoric knees. True, just as many as those battles had been lost as they had been won, but never because of Aja’s actions. If she had to guess, she’d slaughtered at least three or four of the enemy by direct action, and that was no small feat with an enemy so large.
Until recently, none of their weapons had been tough enough to penetrate such thick hides. She’d had to outsmart her foes: luring one into a solar flare that had burned its wings to a crisp, allowing it to be sucked into a gravity well; getting into a wild game of chicken with another that had ended in the dragon smashing beak-first into a mountain at thousands of kilometers per second.
Her kill rate had been among the highest in the Alliance.
That used to be her claim to fame—a reluctant claim that had never sat well with her values—but no more.
On the other hand, even if she were no longer good at the killing bits, she was still a good coachman. A great coachman.
She didn’t belong back home on the farm on New Dakota, a strictly agrarian Colony world where there were no Coaches to drive or bad guys to kill.
She especially didn’t belong with a tiny dragonet, hardly bigger than a cat, exploring her childhood bedroom.
Neither of things suited her skill set. Not one bit.
“Well,” Aja said, planting her hands on her hips as she studied the dragonet as it crawled around her bed on weak legs. “Here we are.”
It responded by sneezing. A tiny bit of Fog gusted out of its nostrils, melting a hole into her quilted bedspread.
“Oh, Lords.” After an instant’s hesitation, she scooped the dragonet off of her bed, tucking it under her arm. Despite having more tail than could ever be considered sensible, the dragonet was easy to lift, and its scales were soft-edged. It retained its maple syrup like smell from being hatched days earlier. “Don’t do that!”
It gazed up at her with eyes too large for its skull and chirruped, trilling high and then low. The sound was apologetic. Not too unlike the lowing of a baby calf, should the sound have been run through several audio distortion filters.
With her free hand, she lifted the bedspread to inspect the damage.
“Mama won’t believe me if I tell her that this is a cigarette burn,” Aja informed the dragonet. “And if she does, then she’ll beat my butt for smoking again.”
The dragonet continued to gaze at her in silent contrition. Its tiny beak was scaly and looked soft aside from the pointed tip, which it had used to break its egg open from the inside. Her heart softened at the memory. She had pulled the baby from its egg herself, shortly after murdering the dragon who had been protecting its nest. It was her fault the dragonet was here, so far from home—a home that had just been conquered by humanity, its other residents slaughtered—and burning holes into her bedspread with Fog.
“It can be your blanket,” she decided.
Aja tugged a drawer out of her dresser and put it in the bottom of her closet. She placed the bedspread inside. Then she nestled the dragonet at the bottom. It was blinking sleepily, lidded eyes sliding shut and open again slower each time. The dragonet’s hide rippled as it marched in tiny spirals within the drawer, kneading the bedspread with diamond-bright claws. It plucked many threads free, leaving holes. Aja certainly wouldn’t be able to claim that the hole was a burn anymore. Not unless her cigarette had also had daggers.
The dragonet seemed satisfied with its bed. It hunkered down to sleep with its nose tucked under its tail and wings enfolding its body.
She tapped her foot, arms folded, and watched its sapphire-blue flank rise and fall with sleepy breath.
It was not the first time she’d seen the small beast sleep. It had done little else on the journey to New Dakota. It was also not the first time she’d thought how cute it looked.
This dragonet. The baby of the enemy that had slaughtered thousands—perhaps millions—of humans throughout the Expanse.
Perhaps the last survivor of its species, if she didn’t learn to communicate with it quickly enough to initiate negotiations with the few lingering residents of Drakor III.
“Thal be blessed,” she muttered.
Aja hadn’t smoked ever since the last time her mother had smacked her for it, but she was tempted to take it up again.
Aja’s mother, Haliene, was waiting in the kitchen with a hearty bowl of bone broth. “Drink, drink,” she encouraged, shoving the bowl into Aja’s empty hands.
Knowing better than to argue, Aja lifted it and sipped the steaming fluid. She wondered if Haliene would be able to smell the maple syrup on her skin. Hopefully the broth would be pungent enough to conceal it. “It’s good,” Aja lied. In truth, the chunks of marrow floating on its surface were repulsive to her, but she daren’t say that aloud any more than she dared to refuse to drink in the first place.
“Of course it is,” Haliene said, bustling away to wash dishes.
Aja glanced toward her bedroom door. Her name was written on it in crayon, which she had done twenty years earlier. A dragonet lie on the other side. She wondered if it would like bone broth. Then she wondered if it would be able to drink at all. Did dragons nurse their young, like mammals? Masticate and regurgitate, like birds? Devour the souls of ignorant coachmen who had taken them home to mother?
Well, she wasn’t willing to surrender her soul or perform any regurgitation. That left one option to attempt.
“How’s the herd been doing, Ma?” she asked, sitting at the table with her broth. She took another token sip when Haliene glanced at her from the sink.
“Oh, as good as can be expected,” Haliene said. “Blasted summer’s been going on too long. All the grass has gone yellow. Not enough hydration. And the Alliance has been putting ridiculous limits on irrigation, so there’s little to be done about that. Fortunately, so much dead corn means plenty of feed for the less picky members of the herd.”
New Dakota wasn’t exactly a fertile world. Never had been. Its solar rotation took ages longer than a standard Sol, and it was nearly always summer in the northern hemisphere, where the Skytoucher farm was located. But it was spacious and geologically stable, so the Alliance had built several water synthesizing plants and colonized it anyway. What water they couldn’t gather from their short rainy seasons and the synthesizing plant, they imported. It was expensive. And that meant their family suffered a miserable subsistence life. It was the exact reason Aja had run away to the Alliance military when she hadn’t been accepted to the Academy.
But now she was back, preparing to sleep in her girlhood bedroom and sipping her mother’s atrocious bone broth like she’d never left.
“Lots of calves this year?” Aja asked, turning her mind from the cramped sleeping arrangements she’d enjoy that night.
“Enough,” Haliene said.
“How are they nursing with such a drought? The cows can’t be any better hydrated than the grass.”
That was what Aja had been hoping to hear. Water was expensive to import; milk was relatively easy to synthesize, given all the corn they grew. They often fed calves by bottle.
The bottles were big, with sturdy rubber nipples.
Perhaps perfect for a dragonet.
“What’s with the interest in the herd?” Haliene asked, drying her hands on her apron. The brassy sunlight reflecting off the grass outside cast her gnarly curls with a golden halo.
“It’s been so long since I’ve been here, I’m just trying to get my bearings, Ma. I still don’t have a taste for working the fields, so I’d like to get in on handling the herd. Is that trouble?”
Haliene’s lips pinched. “S’pose not, since your Pa…” She sighed. Tucked a few curls behind her ear. Untied the apron and hung it on the same hook she’d used since Aja was a baby. “We can go out and look at the herd when you’re done eating.”
“No trouble,” Aja said. Her heart was heavy with the mention of her father. Her appetite, already minimal, had turned nonexistent. “I’ll show myself around. I could use some fresh air after dealing with all the recycled O2 I’ve been inhaling.”
Haliene watched from the back door of the farm as Aja trudged into the pasture, still cupping the bowl of bone broth she’d barely sipped.
Aja wondered if Haliene suspected anything.
She doubted it. Haliene hadn’t been her sharp self in years.
Not since they’d lost Pa.
Much like Aja, the dragonet wasn’t interested in the bone broth.
“Please?” Aja pleaded, teasing its beak with the bottle’s nipple as she might with a calf. “I promise you, the broth is good and fatty. You need some weight on that tummy of yours.”
The dragonet gave her a mistrustful look. It seemed perfectly happy to be nestled in her lap, head against her shoulder, tail curled around her legs. But it wouldn’t open its beak. Not a centimeter.
The bottle was a no-go.
“I’m going to let you know right now,” Aja said, “if you expect me to regurgitate anything for you, then you’ll simply have to starve.”
She felt guilty when the dragonet trilled sweetly at her again.
Lords, but a baby dragon was precious. Hard to imagine the warm weight on her lap would someday be larger than the average space-faring vehicle and capable of spewing enough Fog to murder hundreds in a single breath.
Aja bent down to touch her nose to the dragonet’s beak, and she tried thinking at it instead.
How do I feed you?
The dragonet trilled a third time.
Perhaps she was imagining that the dragonet had communicated with her mentally when she’d scooped it from the wreckage of its nest. She had been under a lot of stress: recently crash-landed on Drakor III, stranded on an alien planet under a hostile red sun, watching Emalkay destroy the nest in the name of self-preservation. It would have been no surprise if she had snapped from those conditions.
Regardless, Aja needed a way to talk to this dragonet. She needed to know how to feed it. She’d never seen a dragonet before, but she suspected that the frailty of its limbs was unnatural—a result of its premature hatching. It wasn’t even a proper baby yet. The thing shouldn’t have come out of its egg.
If Aja and Emalkay hadn’t crashed so close to its nest, it would not have yet emerged.
Of course, then the war wouldn’t be over.
Aja sighed, shifting the dragonet’s weigh to one hip so she could stand. It remained nestled against her when she turned on the radio. It crackled faintly before the voice began speaking, shooting off a rapid-fire report of the news. There was little to be said, now that the war had officially ended. The plasma rifles they’d adapted from dragon Fog had made short work of their enemies. All that remained were stragglers, apparently: dragons hunted down on their home world, driven to extinction.
Because colonists were quickly bored of post-war mop up, when loved ones in the military were no longer in real danger, news was dull. There was gossip about theater performers. Aja didn’t care at all what was happening on vaudeville. Disappointed, she turned it off.
A glance through her window showed all of Ma’s equipment resting in the storage sheds. A few Tractors darted through the nighttime sky, moving from one farm to another, on their way to repairmen or storage. The vast expanse of the Skytoucher fields were dark, though. Nights were incredibly dark on New Dakota without a moon. It was tidally locked, never appearing on their hemisphere.
Nobody would see if Aja took the dragonet outside with her.
She still tucked as much of the beast within her jacket as possible before heading out. She didn’t encounter Ma on the way, so there was no need to hide the dragonet for long.
The herd was slumbering in the pasture, but cows stirred when they smelled the dragonet’s passing. Or perhaps they were hoping Aja had arrived to feed them. She gathered a following as she headed toward the barn where they kept veterinary implements.
“No food until morning, you tubs of lard,” she said with no small amount of affection, rubbing the spotted hip of one cow. Though Aja hadn’t raised these particular cows, she had helped nurture enough of them during her childhood on the farm that she was deeply fond of the species as a whole.
Cows had a reputation for being stupid, slow animals, but anyone who believed that had never worked with them. They were quite smart. Often playful. Not entirely unlike very big cats without the attitude. Aja had spent many an afternoon nap curled up among the herd, breathing deep their earthy scent and dreaming of driving through the stars.
In that sense, cows and dragons might not have been so different. Just because the residents of Drakor had—rightfully—earned a reputation for being murderous didn’t mean that they were killers by nature.
The dragonet squirmed free of Aja’s arms. It stood under a confused cow, stretching its head forward, touching its beak lightly to the other animal’s snout. Aja wondered, with some amusement, and equal frustration, if the dragonet was speaking mentally to the cow.
A nose nudged her elbow. She looked down to see a calf head butting her. Aja had forgotten she was still holding the bottle.
“Might as well,” she muttered, offering the nipple to the calf. It slurped eagerly and then gave her a loathing look when it realized that there was broth inside.
The dragonet watched the interaction, eyes sparkling with intelligence.
“Don’t change your mind now,” Aja said. “I’ll think that I might have a chance of keeping you alive.”
But the dragonet didn’t seem to have changed its mind. Aja wished it would have. The thing looked frail, delicate—most likely a preemie. It needed to eat, or else Aja wouldn’t get the time to converse with it.
Aja rubbed the calf under the chin as it licked at the bottle with a long tongue, unwilling to drink but hopeful enough to keep probing it, as though corn milk might appear.
“Sorry, no luck here,” she said, tossing the bottle into a bin outside the barn.
She popped inside to grab a medical bag, such as the kind they used to give checkups to cows grazing in distant fields.
When she returned, the dragonet was gone.
“Oh, Thal,” she swore.
She pushed through the herd, bag slung over her shoulder, to search for a glimmer of soft silver scales.
A pained squeak caught her attention.
Aja changed directions, heart thudding as she raced to the edge of the pasture.
There she found the dragonet: not, as she feared, injured by some kind of predator, but crouched over a patch of grass.
“You can’t run off like that, little dragonet!”
Aja kneeled beside it, more admonishments on her lips. Words failed when she saw what the dragonet was doing.
It had caught a rather fat mouse, such as those that raided the grain silos, and was shredding it to pieces with its beak. Its adorable dragony face was covered in mouse guts.
A dozen horrible memories of the war washed over her: the photos of dragons crouched over human bodies, just like this mouse, awash in their blood. The dragon she had killed on Drakor III. The aftermath of battle.
The dragonet chirruped excitedly and snapped the remainder of the mouse’s carcass into its gullet, swallowing it whole.
“Well,” Aja said.
At least she didn’t have to worry about feeding it now.
Aja awoke at dawn two days later to find the dragonet had doubled in size.
“Thal be blessed!” she exclaimed, leaping backwards from her closet door.
The dragonet, formerly the size of Aja’s childhood dog, was now the size of a calf. It didn’t fit in the drawer. Its limbs and tail spilled over the sides. This fact didn’t seem to bother the dragonet; it was snoozing happily, Fog curling from its nostrils on every exhale.
It had literally grown overnight.
“My lords.” Aja had to grip the closet door for balance.
The dragonet had spent most of its waking moments in the past two days chowing down on every mouse it could find in the barn. Haliene had made an offhand remark about how the ratting cats were doing better than usual for the season, and Aja had suspected that the dragonet would likely wipe out the population if given free rein.
She hadn’t suspected…this.
What had she been thinking, bringing such a creature to her home? To the place her mother lived? She knew nothing about it. Truly nothing, aside from the fact that its species would have likely wiped out humanity across the Colonies if they hadn’t developed plasma rifles when they did.
There were no books to tell her that dragonets would have such growth spurts. She didn’t even know how long they lived. She’d assumed she had weeks—hopefully months—before it got too big for her closet.
Yet there it was, surely as tall as her hip when it stood now, though it looked far too contented to stand.
She would no longer have been able to conceal it within her duffel bag.
Aja didn’t awaken the dragonet. She closed the door slowly, leaving it propped open an inch, as she had been for the last few nights together.
Then she pressed her back to the wall beside the door, sank to her knees, and let her face fall into her hands.
What have I done?
Her mother was calling her from the kitchen.
She straightened instantly, jerking the hem of her shirt to ensure that she was covered properly, though her civilian clothes didn’t get rucked up the way that her Alliance uniform had.
Aja made sure her bedroom door was closed firmly behind her before joining her mother for breakfast.
“I’ve made your favorite,” Haliene said cheerfully, setting a plate on the table in front of her.
It was an omelet. Aja hated eggs. She had always hated eggs.
Her heart shattered at the sight of them, though.
Pa used to eat omelets every single morning before going out to work the farm.
Aja’s mouth was incredibly dry as she sat down, scooting her chair in so that her belly was pressed to the hard edge of the table.
“Thanks, Ma,” she said.
Her mother wasn’t eating, as she never seemed to do these days. She stood beside the sink. The basin was filled with soap and dishes—far more dishes than a single omelet should have required to make.
“You’re welcome,” Haliene said, a strange light in her eyes. “Is it good?”
Aja forced herself to take a bite. The eggy texture almost made her gag, but she suppressed an external reaction.
“Much better than anything I ate in the military,” Aja said. That much was true: the Alliance hadn’t fed its drivers particularly well, and even the worst meals made fresh from farm supplies were far superior to whatever they’d dished up at the Station.
She made herself eat another bite, and another, while her mother watched.
Haliene probably didn’t even realize that she had made Aja a meal that only Pa used to eat.
“You’ve gotten mail,” Haliene said. “Got notification about it this morning.” She gestured to Aja’s handheld mochila, where it was charging on the counter. The alert light was flashing.
Aja choked down yet another bite. “Who from?”
“Didn’t look. You’re a grown girl now. Wouldn’t be right, getting into your mail.”
Something thumped against the other side of the wall to Aja’s bedroom.
The wall separating closet from kitchen.
Aja stood so quickly that her chair fell backwards.
“I forgot something,” Aja said.
Haliene looked alarmed. “What’s wrong?”
Aja cast her mind about for an excuse. “The cows. The fence. I saw a hole in the fence last night. I need to fix it before I do anything else.”
“Oh.” Haliene’s disappointed eyes fell to Aja’s plate, where half an omelet remained.
That sad look was too much for Aja.
“I’ll be working most of the day,” Aja said. She kissed her mother on the cheek and took the mochila from the counter. “Don’t wait for me to have dinner.”
The dragonet simply could not sleep in Aja’s closet anymore. It was far too big for a space so small.
And Aja couldn’t bear the thought of Haliene sleeping only two doors away from the offspring of a murderous race.
She took the dragonet out on the Gelding to inspect the fence. The Gelding was a small vehicle, designed for flight within thick atmospheres at low altitudes; it was little more than a speeder which Aja straddled, leaning her chest forward on the pommel so that she could reach the reins up front, near the nose.
The dragonet settled on the posterior of the Gelding, large enough now that its tail drooped nearly to the ground as Aja skirted across the fields toward the fence.
She hadn’t been lying about the fence. It truly needed repairing in a couple places, representing hours of work to come. Days, perhaps.
Aja despaired after her initial inspection, zooming around the perimeter on the Gelding.
Okay. The fence needed repairs in more than a “couple” places.
The Skytoucher farm hadn’t been doing well in recent years. Things had gone downhill since they’d lost Pa, but Aja had kept up as much as she’d been capable in the days that followed. Ever since her failed application to the Academy, though, it seemed like nobody had maintained a single thing around the farm. Not the fence, not the weedy edges of the property, not even the Gelding that bucked between her legs even though she flew it far lower that peak speeds.
Aja went to a remote stretch of fence separating their property from the Volkman farm to the north. It was so far into the mountains that neither farming family had use for it; the ground was both uneven and rock-hard, not to mention barren of the kind of plants that livestock liked to eat. It was too difficult to reach in order to haul feed out, too. So mostly it was remote. Empty. Private.
Perfect place to take a dragonet who was the size of a small cow.
“Here we are.” Aja dismounted from the Gelding, dropping to the hard dirt. The engine of the Gelding made her steel-toed boots hum.
She reached up to pull the dragonet down, but it flared its wings and leapt. It drifted to the earth.
Aja felt a little bit sick, watching that thing trundle about on feet tipped with diamond-sharp claws. It stuck its nose between the roots of trees. It snuffled loose patches of dirt. It trilled questions at piles of boulders that had no response.
It was so big.
“I was thinking you might be more comfortable out here somewhere,” Aja said. “We’ll be out of mice soon, and there’s other stuff for you to snack on this way. Rabbits and the like.”
The dragonet snuffled around in the grass, leaving claw imprints where it walked. It was too interested in inspecting its new territory to listen to her.
She sat on a fence post and activated the mochila.
The message was from Emalkay. The idiot was as clueless as he was persistent. Aja wouldn’t have minded going the rest of her days without hearing from her fellow driver, especially since his enthusiastic news today was about a lucrative assignment he’d been given in the Expanse. Something low-risk that would have him out of the core planets for a solid three years, and only returning with fat purses.
“Bully for you,” she muttered, keeping the dragonet in the corner of her eye. It was now nosing through the saddlebags on the Gelding.
Emalkay’s message went on, oblivious to Aja’s negativity. “Since I’ll be out of the system for a few years, I want to see you before my assignment begins. Thank you properly for everything that happened during the raid on Drakor III. Buy you dinner, maybe? I’ll be on New Dakota on the seventh, so I’ll swing by that farm you always talked about.”
Aja’s thought process came to a screaming halt.
She was momentarily caught on the repulsive idea of Emalkay buying her dinner. But her mind jittered past that to the truly alarming news he’d delivered.
He was going to be on New Dakota soon.
The man who had slaughtered the dragonet’s nestmates.
If he saw the dragonet, he’d surely report it.
“No,” she said.
A crunching noise made her gaze snap up to the dragonet. It had pulled a large screwdriver out of the saddlebags and was gnawing on it.
“No!” Aja said, louder than before. She set the mochila aside and leaped to the ground. “What are you doing, dragonet?”
The dragonet trundled away with the screwdriver, trying to keep her from prying the tool out of its mouth. Aja leaped onto it, pinned the dragonet’s head under her arm, and wrenched the tool free.
Too late. The metal bar already had deep tooth marks, deep enough to render the tool useless.
The dragonet was teething.
“Good Lords,” Aja groaned.
It gave her big, innocent eyes, tongue sliding out of the corner of its beak to loop around the screwdriver and tug it back into its beak. She released her grip. The dragonet happily hunkered down with the screwdriver and continued to chew.
“That can’t taste any good.”
The dragonet chewed hard enough to snap the metal. It certainly looked happy about it.
Aja sighed, dropping to sit beside the dragonet’s flank. When her side brushed up against its scaly ribs, she could feel a humming inside, very much like a purring cat. The dragonet rolled onto its back at the contact, head falling onto her lap. It gazed at her adoringly as it continued to chew one of her tools.
“Yes, I get it, you’re cute.” She scratched its throat. The purring intensified. “Don’t think I’ll let you eat more screwdrivers, though. I’m not flush with cash. Stick to chewing on farm pests, please.”
Its tail flicked her chin gently. Aja couldn’t help but chuckle.
There was no way that she could let Emalkay visit the farm. He couldn’t know what she was doing.
And she couldn’t let him report the dragonet to the Alliance.
Aja worked on the fence through the day, keeping an eye on the dragonet to ensure it wouldn’t chow down on anything else she needed. It didn’t. It did, however, spend a lot of time dragging large rocks around in its mouth—much larger than Aja would have ever expected a dragonet of its size to shift—and piling them up around the base of a tree.
By the time she’d repaired that section of fence and the sun was touching the horizon, the dragonet had constructed something that resembled an igloo made of stone.
“Impressive,” Aja said, wiping her forehead dry with the back of her arm.
The dragonet shoved the shards of metal remaining from the screwdriver into the rocks, then wiggled in after them. It had made a den.
Aja crouched in front of the opening, peering inside to watch as the dragonet walked in a tight circle, then hunkered down in comfortable shade.
“I have to go back to the farm,” she said. “I’m expecting visitors.”
The dragonet moved forward, as if to follow. Aja put her hand in front of the entrance to stop it.
“I can’t let you get discovered. You’ve got to stay out here. Don’t fly anywhere. Don’t come out if you see anyone—not that anyone should come out this way, I don’t think. Stay hidden until I come back for you, okay?”
It trilled and looked questioning.
“Soon,” Aja said. “I’ll be back soon, little dragonet.”
She hesitated to leave, though.
“I need a name for you. I can’t keep calling you ‘dragonet.’ Do you have a preference?”
Of course, the dragonet couldn’t respond. It likely wouldn’t have bothered even if it had been capable; it was merrily chewing on the screwdriver again.
Aja rested her chin on her fist, watching the happy dragonet in her new lair.
She used to read adventure books when she was a little girl. None about dragons—by the time she’d learned to read, they were already the enemy, and so they hadn’t been popular as heroes in fiction—but she’d read many myths and fables. She recalled one about a great serpent who had driven among the stars with hot rods. His name had been Chromearrow.
That was what she suggested. “Chromearrow?”
The dragonet lifted its head. Its tail flicked with pleasure, eyes warming. It liked the name.
“Chromearrow,” she said. “It’s from a story. I’ll read it to you another time.” She surprised herself by saying it. The idea of reading books to the offspring of a murderous race was ridiculous. But even more surprising, Aja truly wanted to do it. “I’ll bring the book with me when I come back.”
The dragonet continued to chew on the screwdriver.
“Stay here,” Aja said again, more pointedly than before.
It ignored her.
Worried about leaving it alone—but far more worried about Emalkay’s impending arrival—Aja picked up her mochila, boarded the Gelding, and buzzed back to the farmhouse.
Riding the Gelding was unlike driving a Carriage, or even the Chariots of her youth. It was a thing that she straddled like a horse and left her exposed to the elements. It couldn’t climb higher than a few feet above the surface of New Dakota. The speed was nice, but it made her miss breaking out of atmo desperately. She missed the days of calculating apsis and periapsis and doing hard burns to leave orbit.
It had been easy to push such longing from her mind in recent days. Care and feeding of the little dragonet—Chromearrow—had been distracting enough.
Now that Emalkay was returning, she could think of little else.
She didn’t miss life being deployed with the man. She just missed deployment. She missed thinking that deployment was the right thing to do.
Haliene was waiting outside the barn when Aja skidded to a stop on the Gelding. She dismounted, heart speeding. Haliene had seldom been outside the farmhouse since Aja’s arrival. She had expected to find her mother in the kitchen, where she spent most of her day, supervising hired farmhands from a distance. Aja felt like she’d been caught doing something she shouldn’t.
“You’re due a visitor,” Haliene said.
“I know, Ma. Emalkay let me know on the mochila. Said he’d be here the seventh.”
“It’s the seventh today. Got word from Intercolonial Transport that he’ll be in next hour.”
Aja had been halfway to the farmhouse. Her mother’s words stopped her cold.
Today is the seventh?
She checked the date on the mochila.
“Lords,” she said. Time had really run away with her.
Emalkay was going to be there that day.
“What you doing with a young gentleman paying visits, hmm?” Haliene asked. “Now, I know it’s no business of mine, but—”
“We were deployed together,” Aja interrupted, preventing her mother from taking that train of thought somewhere gross. “He’s about to be deployed again. He wants to see me first. And he didn’t ask my opinion. I’m not keen on it.”
Haliene twisted her apron strings together. A little of the life had faded out of her face, as though Aja had just kicked dirt over a dream. “Ah.”
“I’m not seeing him,” Aja said decisively. “I’ll go to town and send him back.”
“You can’t do that. It’s not how we treat guests.”
“Uninvited ones, we do.” She remounted the Gelding. An hour before he arrived—Thal be blessed, if she’d been a little slower coming home, she might have gotten to the farmhouse after him.
He might have gone looking for her in the fields.
Emalkay could have seen the survivor of the nest he’d destroyed.
“Aja, please,” Haliene said.
She kicked the spurs. The engine groaned, spewing dust from under the thrusters. “I’ll be back to put the farm to bed.”
It looked like Haliene had more to say, but she simply closed her mouth and nodded.
Aja was alone in the darkness, gearing up as fast as the Gelding could go. She tore down the lonesome dirt roads between farms. Even at maximum speed, the lights marking town were slow to grow before her, and the Skytoucher farm was one of the less remote settlements on New Dakota.
Though she was the only one on the ground crazy enough to plow through the absolute blackness of New Dakota night, there were others in the sky, burning hard as they entered atmo. A mighty transport, probably a Bus, was streaking red against the navy-and-diamond sky.
Emalkay would like as not be on that Bus.
“Moron,” she muttered to herself, bending lower to the pommel of the Gelding. “Stupid idiot moron.” Aja generally had reserved such words for Emalkay in the past, but she wasn’t certain that she didn’t refer to herself this particular time.
What had she done to make the man think she had anything but disdain for him? She’d clubbed him on Drakor III to prevent him from murdering Chromearrow, Lords above. Sure, Em thought he’d been struck by falling debris, but that had only been her cover story.
He thinks you saved him, she thought to herself.
I beat the half-wits out of him! I don’t even like him!
He doesn’t know that.
The argument with herself was going nowhere.
She arrived at the Bus station among the sleepy town of North Fargo. There were a few stores around, a couple of restaurants, nothing that was open so late. The towns on such agrarian colonies were only intended to smooth delivery of supplies and export of goods. They were not destinations for locals or travelers.
Still, there was definitely a Bus landing, its thrusters firing and legs deploying. It was a steady touchdown on the concrete pad. In North Fargo, there was no gangway for helping people off of the door high in the passenger compartment, so an employee of the Bus station was hurrying to push wheeled stairs to the side among the smoke.
Aja momentarily entertained the idea of clubbing that employee so that he wouldn’t be able to let the passengers out.
The moment passed. Emalkay appeared at the top of the stairs. He descended.
“Aja,” he said, opening his arms as if for an embrace.
She swatted him. “What are you doing here?”
His smile faded. It made his young but sagging face look even more pathetic. Aja had always thought Emalkay bore more than a passing resemblance to those dogs with the long ears and stubby legs. “You must have gotten my letter on the mochila.”
“I didn’t invite you.” Aja pointed to the Bus, from which people continued to disembark. There weren’t many. Few people ever got off New Dakota and even fewer ever returned. “Go back.”
“I don’t have enough leave to go anywhere else.”
“Shame,” she said.
“Your mother invited me to stay on the farm.” He hitched his bag higher on his shoulder. “I’ve nowhere else to go.”
“She did what?”
“Is that your Gelding? Lords, I haven’t seen anything so old except in museums!” Emalkay ran over, nimbly shedding Aja’s rejection.
All Aja could do was stare.
Haliene had invited him. Emalkay. To her farm.
Where Chromearrow was hiding.
Waking up to find Haliene serving Emalkay in the kitchen was as close to a nightmare as Aja had experienced since departing Drakor III. The only way that it could have been worse was if Aja had been naked in the kitchen that morning, but seeing Emalkay at all was only incrementally better, especially since he was eating one of those nasty rubbery omelets that Pa used to devour with great enthusiasm.
“This is great, Mrs. Skytoucher!” he said, shoveling it into his mouth. “They never serve anything so good to us in the Alliance!”
Haliene was glowing. “So I’ve been told.” Her glow faded when she saw Aja glowering in the hallway. “I’ve made breakfast for you too.”
Emalkay looked over his shoulder. “Aja! Good morning!”
Her co-driver’s greeting made Aja’s spine stiffen.
How dare he be so happy when there were so few survivors of the war who felt as he did? It was perverse. He had no respect for all the lives that he had ended.
There was no way that Aja would join him for breakfast, even for Haliene’s sake.
“I’ve work to do.” Aja stuffed her feet into her muddy work boots. “Nothing good about that. It’s just life.”
“Look at you, dressed like a farmer,” Emalkay said. “Funny seeing you like this. I’m used to all the, you know, body armor. Helmets. Plasma cannon. Pew, pew.”
“I can hardly imagine,” Haliene said with the faintest hint of a smile.
That smile made Aja shoot an acid glare at her mother—the person who had added this entirely unnecessary complication to her life.
Haliene was hardly oblivious to her daughter’s mood. She shrunk into herself, shoulders lifting to her shoulders and chest sucking in.
“I’ve work to do,” Aja said again, steeling herself.
“Don’t forget about dinner,” Emalkay said helpfully.
There would be no dinner. Aja just needed to think of a nice way to reject him.
With the clunky boots on her feet, she tromped out to the barn. She felt as though Haliene and Emalkay had their eyes on her back as she mounted the Gelding. It was as though they were standing just behind her, watching her with heavy judgment as she initiated the engine. Aja dismissed those thoughts as irrational and throttled forward.
The Skytoucher farm blurred past her as she swooped toward the westernmost fence, following it into the outer reaches of the property.
It was insane that Emalkay thought he could descend upon the Skytoucher farm and make himself at home in such a way. Aja barely knew the man. They’d been deployed on a single raid together, and gone through weeks of training as a team, but they hadn’t been in any kind of place to visit one another’s childhood homes.
Lords. Aja didn’t even know what kind of home Emalkay had come from before.
She reached the outermost reaches of the Skytoucher farm and dismounted the Gelding.
“Dragonet?” Aja called. It took her a moment to recall her last conversation with the alien. “Chromearrow?”
There was no response. She didn’t see the cairn of stones marking the little dragonet’s home, either. She thought she’d returned to its new den—but perhaps her sense of direction wasn’t as good as she expected. The Skytoucher farm was large. It extended far into the mountains. It was entirely possible that she’d gotten lost.
Slinging her leg over the Gelding, she dropped to the dusty soil. No crops grew that far out.
Aja chewed the inside of her mouth, anxiety clawing at the inside of her throat.
What had she been thinking, unleashing the spawn of a genocidal race upon her planet? Yes, it had been only one little dragonet—one survivor of a destroyed nest—but dragons had managed to kill many humans before, even without support.
She hadn’t brought weapons with her on the Gelding. Not traditional weapons, anyway. Nothing equivalent to the plasma rifles adapted from the Fog.
Aja settled for drawing a pocket knife, which was primarily intended for cutting weeds, harnesses, small things like that.
When she spoke again, her voice was softer.
There was no response from among the trees.
Aja shut her eyes and imagined what would happen if Chromearrow flew to North Fargo. That small village had little defense against disasters, especially ones like Fog.
Would she be able to live with herself if Chromearrow attacked?
A chirping made her gaze snap toward the trees.
There it was. The stone cairn that Chromearrow had built just within the fence.
Aja felt stupid sheathing her pocketknife and jogging over.
“Chromearrow,” she called, and the dragonet slithered out of its pile of rocks, wide eyes eager to see her.
It straightened on all four legs, tail flicking with unspoken eagerness at the sight of Aja.
Lords. Aja had been gone for barely twelve hours, and the little thing looked as though she’d nearly abandoned it.
“Little” was hardly an appropriate descriptor for the creature, though. It had grown again, in much the same way that it had grown after eating those first mice. No longer was it as small as a calf among the herd of the Skytoucher farm. Now it was bigger than a horse. Taller at its shoulder than Aja.
She’d have been lying if she claimed not to feel some modicum of relief at the sight of Chromearrow’s sapphire scales, though.
“How was your first night alone?” she asked.
The dragonet nudged Aja’s hip. Aja stepped backward, attempting to get out of the dragonet’s range, even though she knew she wouldn’t be able to evade the creature if it wanted to attack her.
Chromearrow was incapable of responding. It didn’t look displeased, though. It tugged Aja toward the cairn.
There was only a single shard remaining from the screwdriver.
“Was it good?” Aja asked.
Chromearrow trilled with delight.
Yes, eating the metal had been good.
Another trill followed the first, more questioning than the last. Aja wasn’t capable of understanding Chromearrow’s intentions directly. They hadn’t spoken since that fleeting moment on Drakor III. However, even without words, Aja suspected that she understood what the beast was asking.
“Emalkay’s here, and I’ll do what I can to keep him away. I attempted to reject him, though, and he doesn’t seem interested.”
The dragonet’s next cluck could only be interpreted as a giggle.
Aja rolled her eyes.
“You’re the most frustrating of all the boys I’ve ever met,” Aja said. “More frustrating than even Emalkay in some ways.”
Chromearrow huffed, offended.
“What? It’s true.”
The dragonet turned and lifted its tail at her.
Aja’s eyes widened.
When she’d performed her medical inspection of the dragonet, she’d searched for a heart, taken its temperature, and attempted to search for wounds. She hadn’t thought to check genitalia.
That was definitely female genitalia.
“Oh my,” Aja said. “I’m sorry. Lords. I gave you a boy’s name. We’ll need to pick something new.”
Chromearrow lifted her head and turned it away, as if dismissing the idea. She liked her name. She just didn’t want to be called a frustrating boy.
“Very well, then you can be the most frustrating girl and Emalkay can remain the unchallenged king of frustrating boyness.” Aja flopped to the ground beside Chromearrow. “What am I going to do? I can’t make him go away. I can’t go to dinner with him. I can’t let him stay at the farmhouse.”
The dragonet preened Aja’s hair. Aja was acutely aware of that razor sharp beak so close to her skull, but it felt like being combed very gently, and she enjoyed the touch.
Still, she tensed after a moment, drawing away from Chromearrow.
“I have to do something,” Aja said. “We can’t go on like this for long.”
Chromearrow sang out. The volume and pitch made the branches shiver, the clouds drift away, and dust lift from the earth.
Yet still, it made no sense to Aja.
For all she knew, the dragonet could have been declaring war on all of New Dakota.
Chromearrow dropped onto her forelegs, bowing her head. She extended her left foreleg. She didn’t move from that position.
“What?” Aja asked.
The dragonet inched forward, shooting adoring eyes to Aja.
“What?” Aja repeated.
Chromearrow nudged her ankles, pushing her leg between Aja’s ankles.
She gripped Chromearrow’s horns in either hand, and that seemed to please the dragonet.
If Aja wasn’t mistaken, she would have thought that Chromearrow was inviting Aja to climb onto her back.
“Why?” Aja asked.
Chromearrow didn’t speak. She only smiled in her dragony way, mouth curving underneath those big eyes of hers. The same big eyes that had gazed adoringly at Aja when she’d been attempting to feed broth to the dragonet through a bottle.
Aja didn’t want to climb atop the dragonet. The thing had been small enough to tuck within her jacket only days earlier. True, she was now larger than an adult cow, after eating several mice. But she was still a baby. And worse…a baby resulting from a nest of pure evil.
“No, thank you.” Aja tried to step back, but the dragonet only nudged her harder. Again, she said, “No.”
And the dragonet kept nudging.
No. No matter how cute she was, Aja wouldn’t succumb.
Chromearrow’s head snapped up, focusing over Aja’s shoulder.
“What’s wrong?” Aja asked. She turned.
She saw nothing behind her except a distant shape moving on the horizon.
Perhaps it was paranoia. Or perhaps her eyesight was simply sharper than she gave herself credit for.
That person moving from the direction of the farmhouse looked like Emalkay, though.
Would he really ignore her signals and seek her out when she obviously wanted to be left alone?
“Yes,” Aja said to herself. “Yes, he would.”
Chromearrow’s eyes had gone sharp. She was staring at the movement, too. But she didn’t look curious, nor did she look fascinated.
Aja’s stomach lurched. “Little dragonet?” Chromearrow didn’t respond except to tense, muscles rippling underneath her soft scales. They were beginning to glisten more than they used to. They were sharpening before Aja’s eyes.
For the first time, the baby dragon looked…mean.
“Is something wrong?”
Chromearrow launched from the dry grass, flying into the sky with a few solid pumps of her broad wings. The wind gusted Aja’s hair away from her face. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move—all she could do was stare in horror as the dragonet flew toward Emalkay.
Because that was certainly Emalkay. Aja could see him now, with his slouchy figure and miserable expression.
He was following Aja into the fields.
It would have been irritating on the best of days, but this was not the best.
Far from it.
Aja was visiting the dragonet—the enemy combatant—that she had kidnapped from the nest that Emalkay had destroyed.
He would soon see. He would know.
“Dragonet!” Aja cried.
But Chromearrow was already gone, flying swiftly through New Dakota’s icy blue sky, fading into the atmosphere until Aja couldn’t see her.
Aja bolted toward Emalkay.
She met him halfway across the field. His eyes brightened with recognition.
“Aja!” he greeted.
“Go back!” She shoved him, trying to urge him back toward the farmhouse.
Emalkay dug his heels in. “No, Aja. We need to talk!”
“No we don’t!”
“But we do.” He turned on her, gripping her shoulders. “We’ve needed to talk since you retired from the Alliance. I think you have some kind of trauma from the last conflict.”
She blinked in confusion. “I don’t understand.”
“Your mother says you’ve been weird since you got back. She wanted me to come here and talk with you—take you out for some fun.”
Understanding dawned slowly over Aja. “You think that I’m struggling with the ramifications of war?”
Emalkay shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Aja’s brain thrummed. It was as though she were a bell with a mallet struck against the tip, forcing vibrations through all of the folds. The feeling wasn’t common, but she immediately recognized it.
That was how she felt when Chromearrow was nudging against her mind.
For the first time, she got the sense of emotion along with it. She felt anger. Fear. Chromearrow recognized Emalkay as readily as Aja did, but where Aja was angry at having her life intruded upon, Chromearrow was…furious.
She knew what Emalkay had done.
Emotion had seized her.
“No!” Aja raced toward Chromearrow, waving her hands over her head. “Don’t! Stop!”
She wasn’t sure what she was asking Chromearrow to do, exactly.
If the dragonet wanted to kill the man who had killed her siblings, wouldn’t that be fair?
No. Not Emalkay. Not a man whose absence would be noticed—someone whose disappearance would draw the Alliance upon them.
Aja reached out toward Chromearrow mentally and she pushed.
Come back down here right now! she thought.
There didn’t seem to be a remote chance that the dragonet would hear her. Chromearrow was spiraling, swooping, corkscrewing through the clouds. She was seeking Emalkay.
The other driver drew close to Aja.
“Hey,” he said, stopping before her. He was out of breath. Tired. Not as used to running as he was to driving Carriages. “You left in such a hurry—I wanted to ask if I could help.”
“No,” Aja said. “Get back to the house!” Then she realized that Emalkay getting back to the farmhouse might mean sending Chromearrow to Haliene, and she revised that statement. “Get back to Fargo!”
“We have to talk first,” he said.
Not if you want to survive.
Aja shoved him toward the farmhouse. “I’m fine on my own. I didn’t invite you here, I don’t want to talk, and—”
“Are you okay?”
The question stopped her in her tracks.
He clearly wasn’t asking if she was okay right at that moment. It was a more general question, about more abstract concepts. Like, for instance, Aja’s life in general.
She stopped pushing. “Why?”
“I’d hoped we could talk about this over drinks, but—well, you seem like you’re not okay,” Emalkay said. “To be blunt, you abandoned a promising career to go back to farming, which your mom says you never wanted to do. Seems like the stress of the war didn’t do you any favors, is all. Your mama hoped you’d talk to me about it since you wouldn’t talk to me.”
Aja gaped at him. Haliene had risked bringing Emalkay to the farmhouse because she thought that Aja needed therapy? Therapy in the form of her former co-driver?
It was better than Emalkay showing up to take her on a date, as she’d feared.
Not much better, though.
Chromearrow was swooping down.
“Get out of here, for the love of Thal!” Aja shoved Emalkay onto the Gelding. He gripped the reins, confusion etching every line of his face.
“Back to Fargo! Now!”
She kicked the spurs, putting the Gelding into gear. It leaped underneath Emalkay.
As it roared away, sending dust kicking in his wake, Chromearrow dived toward Aja.
She faced Chromearrow, heart pounding.
Having the dragonet plow toward her wasn’t all that different from the moment that the dragon had attacked her above Drakor III. It was diving, bejeweled claws reaching for her, claws outstretched.
This time, Aja didn’t have a plasma rifle ready to shoot Fog. She was just standing there, waiting to face a dragon attacking Emalkay, defenseless.
A dragonet who she had attempted to nurse.
Cuddled in her closet.
Rescued from her egg.
That baby was about to kill her.
She shouldn’t have been surprised. Wasn’t this what they had been building toward this entire time? I should have known.
Aja shut her eyes and braced herself for the impact.
Claws struck her.
But they didn’t dig in.
Aja’s feet left the ground. She was yanked into the sky. When her eyes opened, the trees were falling away, Gelding so far below that it was the size of one of the mice that Chromearrow had eaten. She opened her mouth to cry out, but couldn’t breathe well enough to scream.
The dragonet had dragged her into the upper atmosphere.
She was terrified—but she forgot that she couldn’t breathe.
The world was bending underneath them.
For the first time since returning to New Dakota, Aja was leaving atmo.
She couldn’t breathe. But she wasn’t sure she’d have been able to breathe even if they had been within an area with oxygen. New Dakota was beautiful when it was stretched under her. She could see so much more than her farm alone. She could see the Volkmann farm, and the others bordering theirs, and even North Fargo with its Bus station.
Aja could also see Emalkay on the Gelding as he turned back toward the Farmhouse.
That was where Chromearrow was going.
The dragonet flipped Aja into the air. For a heart-stopping instant, she was utterly weightless. And then her hand hooked onto Chromearrow’s ridged neck, and the dragonet was diving, dipping underneath Aja.
When the dragonet surged upward again, Aja was riding her, thighs pressed to either side of her muscular neck.
She wouldn’t have thought that Chromearrow—the fragile, premature dragonet born of a shattered egg barely weeks earlier—would have been capable of supporting a human’s weight. Aja especially wouldn’t have thought that she’d be able to breathe while within a few inches of the dragonet. But she could. There was some kind of protective enclosure around Chromearrow, as mysterious as the Fog, which cradled Aja in comfort as they ascended.
It wasn’t that the dragons didn’t need to breathe, Aja realized. It was that they had some biological mechanism that allowed them to continue breathing while there was no oxygen.
There was so much to learn about dragons. So much that nobody knew, because nobody had gotten to know them before.
Though now that Chromearrow was plummeting toward Emalkay, Aja thought she might have already known everything that she needed to.
Chromearrow was ready to wreak revenge upon Emalkay.
“You can’t,” Aja said, wrapping her hands around the firm ridge on Chromearrow’s neck. Just as she could breathe when in contact with the dragonet, she could speak too, though her voice was so soft that she was unsure the words were truly audible. “He’ll see you. He’ll know. And the Alliance will notice if he doesn’t come back!”
She wasn’t certain if the sentiment got through to Chromearrow at first. She wasn’t sure if sentiments mattered at all.
Aja was riding the child of murderers. Wasn’t she?
She pulled on Chromearrow’s neck—harder, harder, just as she had pulled on the reins of the Carriage in an attempt to avoid crashing into Drakor III.
The shadow of the dragon passed over Emalkay, zooming toward the Skytoucher farmhouse.
His head lifted. He was looking up.
“Please, Chromearrow!” Aja shouted into the wind.
The dragonet’s wing tipped underneath her, tilting to the right. They banked. Dropped toward the trees.
When Emalkay looked up, he saw nothing.
Aja barely could see him.
She and Chromearrow plunged into the mountains. They struck the ground. The dragonet’s impact was light—but Aja’s was not. She flung herself from the dragonet’s wings, rolling across the soil.
Aja came up on all fours, staring at the dragonet.
Chromearrow trilled at her curiously.
“How could you risk everything like that?” Aja asked, eyes burning. “He could have seen us. You were trying to kill him!”
The dragonet only rolled its serpentine tongue, making a sweet, high-pitched sound.
“Don’t even try,” Aja said. Fury made her shake.
There was still a chance that everything was shattered. Ruined.
She needed to get back to the farmhouse.
Emalkay and Haliene waited for Aja at the back door of the farmhouse. They were deep in conversation when Aja approached on foot, shadow stretched long by the dimming sunlight.
She was as breathless as she had been within Chromearrow’s claws at the edge of the atmosphere.
“What?” Aja asked, hanging back, afraid to move forward.
How much did they know? Was it all over?
“Can we talk now?” Emalkay asked.
Her breath gusted from her lungs.
If he sounded so calm, he couldn’t have noticed the dragonet’s flight over him. Aja had stopped Chromearrow in time.
“Fine,” Aja said, too weak with relief to argue. “What is it?”
“The reasons I came here are twofold. One, because your Ma asked me.” Emalkay jerked his thumb toward Haliene, who hung back, refusing to meet her daughter’s eyes. “And second, because I thought you’d want to hear it from me first.”
Relief turned to wariness. “Hear what?”
“The war’s over, Aja,” Emalkay said. “Really over now. We’ve wiped out the last of the dragons. We’re building a colony on Drakor III, and you’re invited to move there, since you were in the raid that won us the planet.”
Her knees wobbled.
Aja sat hard on the farmhouse’s stoop.
“They’re all gone?”
The beginning of a smile faded from Emalkay’s lips. “Yeah. Took us less time than we expected, but… Well, I just thought you’d want to know.”
She wetted her lips. Nodded.
Emalkay truly hadn’t come to take her on a date.
He’d wanted to update her on the war. The war that Aja had still hoped to win in a different way—in the way that might have meant saving the dragon species.
But now they were gone.
It didn’t matter if Aja learned to speak with Chromearrow after all. The dragonet was the last of her species, finally and truly.
Haliene still wasn’t looking at Aja.
“That’s all,” Emalkay said. “I was doing you a favor.” He backed away from Haliene, hands uplifted. “I know where I’m not wanted. I’m gone.”
He took the Gelding away. By the time that the sound of the engine faded, Aja and her mother still hadn’t moved and sunlight was gone.
The war is over.
And all Aja had accomplished was getting Emalkay close to murdered.
“Aja…” Haliene began.
“What were you thinking?” Aja asked, rounding on her mom. Her fingertips dug into Haliene’s shoulders. She was aware that it must have been painful, but she couldn’t make herself exercise a gentler grip.
For the love of Thal, this was all Haliene’s fault.
And Aja’s mother seemed to know it. Tears gleamed in her eyes. Aja wasn’t sure that she had ever seen such pathos from her mother before.
“You won’t speak to me,” Haliene said. Her voice came out harsh, ragged, as though she’d been sobbing for days. “You won’t tell me what you’re thinking. All I know’s that you’ve come back from Drakor III, a hero of the war, and—and you’re not even the woman you used to be.”
Aja released her mother and stepped back. It felt as though she had been struck.
It was true. She hadn’t been speaking to her mother.
How was she supposed to? Neither of them had attempted to speak to the other since…
Well. It had been years.
It hadn’t even occurred to Aja that she might be capable of sharing her memories of the war with her mother. They simply didn’t have that kind of relationship. They never had.
“It burns me, the way you invited Emalkay,” Aja said.
Haliene flinched. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry isn’t good enough, Ma.”
“Isn’t it? I thought that he’d help you. You wouldn’t speak to me, and your pain was just…so immense. I needed someone here for you.” She hung her head. Haliene’s graying hair hung over her eyes, veiling her emotions. “I can’t imagine what you’ve been through, daughter—so I thought I’d bring in someone who could.”
Aja smoldered with humiliation. Had her pain been so obvious? And did her mother know so little about her that summoning Emalkay seemed to be the best solution to her issues?
“I won’t forgive you for this,” Aja said. “You’ve no clue how much pain you could have caused. None. And the insult is far graver than you could realize.”
She stormed away, fists clenched at her sides.
Aja spent the night in the barn. It was comfortable curled up among the cattle, head rested on the flanks of the herd. Not as comfortable as snuggling up with a dragonet—but distinctly less dangerous.
She only knew that they weren’t alone when the cows shifted under her. Aja got to her feet, stepped to the door of the barn.
Chromearrow was outside. She had grown again. Her massive body was rimmed in the predawn light—the only way that Aja realized that she had gotten any sleep at all.
The dragonet looked sad.
“What?” Aja asked, frustrated. “Why are you looking at me like that?” Her hand inched toward a rope—a makeshift weapon, in case Chromearrow attacked.
But the dragonet didn’t. She just blinked at her slowly with those big eyes, wings drooping.
Chromearrow shouldn’t have even been close to the farmhouse. It was getting close enough to dawn that Haliene might rouse.
Where else would she have gone, though? There was literally nowhere left for the dragonet to be. Too dangerous to be on New Dakota, but her home emptied of any life that resembled her.
She was alone. The last dragon.
“Get out of here,” Aja said, waving her away. Her voice was thick with tears. “Go away!”
Chromearrow bowed her forelegs to the ground, gazing up at her.
Even though the dragonet was much larger, she still looked no different than the creature that Aja had attempted to bottle feed so recently.
Still a baby.
The anger drained from Aja slowly.
Had Chromearrow really been trying to kill Emalkay? It seemed unlikely. The dragonet was big now, big enough that she could have flattened an unsuspecting North Fargo whether or not Aja fought against her.
There was no hatred in her eyes. Only contrition.
“Emalkay came here to deliver news,” Aja said. “He told me…” She swallowed around the lump in her throat. “There are no dragons left on Drakor III, Chromearrow. I’m sorry.”
The dragonet’s eyes widened. It sank to its belly against the grass. There was no sound except the lowing of cows, the wind whispering through the trees.
Aja braced herself for the attack that never came.
A crystalline tear slid down her scaly cheek.
Chromearrow hadn’t spoken to Aja—not once—since their brief connection on Drakor III.
But they communicated.
They communicated perfectly.
It didn’t always take words to tell a loved one what was happening, after all.
Every fiber of Chromearrow’s being was radiating grief. She was a baby as far as dragon development was concerned, though perhaps more toddler-like when compared to a human. There was no guile in her. No evil. Only sadness at having lost her species.
And no matter the prejudiced eyes that Aja turned to her, Chromearrow loved Aja for having saved her from the destroyed nest.
The dragonet bowed her head to Aja’s shoulder, and Aja wrapped her arms around Chromearrow’s neck.
For once, Aja didn’t try to use words. Not verbally, not mentally.
She simply embraced Chromearrow.
It was the only way she knew to show her love.
The dragon was grumbling deep within her chest, not unlike the purr of a massive cat. It also wasn’t unlike the sound that Aja had heard many times before an enemy combatant spewed Fog upon the Alliance, burning her allies to the bone.
The thought didn’t fill her with fear this time. There was no room for anything but love within her.
“I’m sorry,” Aja whispered. “I’m sorry.”
She stroked her hand down the bridge of Chromearrow’s nose, stroking between the dragon’s eyes to the ridge of her beak, and then gently scratching her under the chin like one of the cows.
Chromearrow’s eyes fell closed.
Someday they might be able to speak. Chromearrow would likely grow into the skill later, if she ever did. She was but a baby, after all, no matter how big a baby she might have been.
Until then, Aja would wait. She would wait for Chromearrow to learn to talk in her own time.
And until then, the love would flow between them.
Haliene was doing the dishes when Aja returned home. She stood in the doorway for a long time to watch her mother cleaning, and with a clear mind, she observed many small details that she hadn’t noticed before.
The way that her mother trembled when she scrubbed the dishes.
The hunch of her back, as though she carried more weight than a single woman could be expected to bear.
The pain in her eyes, which she quickly concealed when she realized that Aja was in the room.
“Hello, sweetling,” Haliene said with none of the heartache that Aja had surely seen moments before.
She must have thought that Aja hated her.
And still, she was there.
Much like Chromearrow, Haliene was communicating with Aja in the only way she knew how. In a way that transcended words, because words were inadequate for expressing the enormity of the emotions she felt.
There might eventually come a time that Haliene would be able to speak about her thoughts. Her life alone on the farm. How she felt about losing Pa. What it meant having Aja return.
Now was not that time, not yet. Haliene simply did not have the words for any of it. But she was telling Aja everything that she needed to know through action, motion, gesture.
Feeding Aja the way that Haliene used to feed Pa.
Bringing in someone Haliene had believed to be a friend so that Emalkay could support her.
Waiting out Aja’s moods, and never once turning away.
These were gestures of love as much as the way that Chromearrow purred. Haliene had been telling her daughter stories of love this entire time, and Aja had simply refused to see them because she’d been so absorbed in her personal issues. The dragonet was far from the only thing on the Skytoucher farm that needed saving.
Aja approached, wrapping her arms around Haliene’s shoulders from behind. She hugged Haliene tightly, but silently.
Haliene continued washing dishes for a moment, as though she hadn’t been touched at all.
Then she let the dish she’d been holding drop into the sink.
Her soapy hands clutched Aja’s wrist. A tremor rolled through her—a buzz of wordless emotion.
And Aja held her, showing her mother love in the only way that they could still speak.
It wasn’t ideal. Not really.
But it was enough.
It had to be.
“Okay,” Aja said. “Open your eyes.”
Haliene’s hands slid from her face. She looked up.
And then she gasped.
“Blessed be Thal! Is that—?”
“A dragon. Yes. Don’t be afraid.”
Chromearrow circled through the sky overhead, her massive wings catching the wind. She was weightless and graceful. This was the first time that Aja had allowed her to fly over the farmhouse during daylight, and Chromearrow was enjoying the opportunity to explore, swooping and diving along the breezes to get the best view of the roof, the trees, the barn.
It wasn’t fear in Haliene’s eyes. It was wonder.
“You brought one home,” she said.
“That’s why I was so angry about Emalkay, Ma,” Aja said. “I understand why you brought him here. And I appreciate it. But…I was trying to protect something bigger than both of us.” She gave a tiny chuckle. “Literally.”
Tears glistened in Haliene’s eyes. “Is it safe?”
“Perfectly.” Aja waved to Chromearrow, and the dragon landed nearby with infantile clumsiness, gamboling over with eagerness in her gemlike eyes. She slammed her head against Aja’s ribs, wriggling until her neck was underneath Aja’s arm. Aja laughed and petted Chromearrow.
“Were they lying about the war, then?” Haliene asked. “About the dragons attempting to destroy us?”
“No, but…I mean, to be fair, we were trying to destroy the dragons too. And we’ve done a better job of it than they did toward us. I think we can have peace, Ma. I think we can get along. Chromearrow isn’t dangerous.”
“Chromearrow. Beautiful name. Can I…?”
“Go ahead,” Aja said.
Haliene’s frail, aged hand stretched out. Chromearrow closed the distance. She nudged her beak into Haliene’s palm.
“Oh my,” Haliene said, stroking Chromearrow gently. “It’s glorious.”
“She’s glorious,” Aja corrected.
Chromearrow radiated with obvious pleasure at the praise.
“Where did you find her?” Haliene asked.
“The raid on Drakor III. That nest that Emalkay and I destroyed… Well. I didn’t do any destroying myself. I stood by as he did it, and I intervened to rescue this one. I couldn’t let her die. I’d hoped that I’d learn to talk with her so we could save the survivors of the war too, but…” Aja’s throat grew thick. She swallowed hard.
“Oh, baby.” Haliene pulled Aja against her. The three of them embraced, inhaling the warm, syrupy scent of the purring dragon.
“I hope you’re not mad. I should have warned you.”
“I’m only glad you trusted me enough to tell me at all,” Haliene said. “Of course I’m not mad. How could I be anything but proud of you?”
“Because I brought the last survivor of an enemy species to your farm without asking?”
“It’s our farm,” Haliene said. “Baby girl, your Pa would be so, so proud that you chose to save this dragon. I know he would.”
Aja hadn’t known she needed to hear that until the words came out.
Warm tears slid down her cheeks.
“Thanks, Ma,” she whispered.
Chromearrow’s tongue darted out, lapping up the salt of her tears.
Thank you both, the dragon said into her mind.
Haliene jerked back, surprised.
She had heard it, too.
“You talked to us!” Aja said, delighted. She cupped the dragon’s face in both her hands. “I knew you could talk!”
Chromearrow’s face was distinctly bashful. I’m learning.
Haliene laughed with delight.
Ride with me, Chromearrow said.
A smile bloomed across Aja’s lips. “Both of us?”
Chromearrow responded by dropping onto her haunches, dipping her wings down, and extending a leg.
Aja climbed up, then offered a hand to her mother.
“Do you want to fly, Ma?”
Haliene’s expression was drenched in eagerness, but she hung back. “Fly? As in…in the sky?”
“In space,” Aja said.
Haliene began to quiver. “You know…I always wanted to join the Alliance military. I wanted to so badly. But you were too little for me to leave, at first, and then once we lost Pa…I gave up on a lot of things. Everything outside the farm.” It was the most she’d ever said about losing her husband, and what his loss had meant to her. “I thought my chance to see anything beyond atmo years ago.”
Now Chromearrow was giving Aja the opportunity to share the joy of space with Haliene.
“Come on,” Aja said.
Her invitation was echoed by the dragonet. Now, now, now!
Haliene laughed as she climbed up.
They settled together in front of Chromearrow’s wings, holding securely to the ridges running down her neck.
Chromearrow took off with a powerful thrust of muscle. They were in the air, and in seconds, climbed higher than the Tractors could fly. Then higher than the Chariots. And then they were battered by wind as wisps of clouds drifted by, and New Dakota curved underneath them, tiny and indistinct.
Haliene’s laugh of joy was whipped away, lost in the energy that shrouded them, allowing them to breathe even as they rode on the back of a dragonet.
And Aja could only think she had never known such happiness, and never may again.