For the first time, I open a book and I find a mirror inside. I’ve heard that you can find mirrors in books, sometimes; most of my friends have had it happen at least twice, and Angelina from across the street has it happen so often she probably doesn’t know that books are actually made of paper.
But this is my first time, and it’s spectacular. I see a face I know inside the book: a round face, the freckles Mom always called constellations, my inquisitive eyes (which I have always thought are my best feature), and hair that looks like it belongs to a street dog.
I don’t look like a street dog in the reflection. Somehow, in this context, I look like an unruly adventurer. The impish smile that gets me into so much trouble belongs to someone exciting! Someone, perhaps, with a pirate’s hat and a sword—or maybe a wizard hat and staff, or—
My reflection moves even though I do not. From the mirror extends a hand that is just like mine. The fingernails are chewed down to the quick. Of course I take it; I’ve never had the chance before, and I won’t miss it now.
When I fall through the mirror, I find myself wearing a familiar costume: shining armor that matches the bright-silver fur of the horse beside me. I’ve always read about knights in shining armor. But never have I fallen straight into those clankity-boots to find my face reflected back in the polished shield mounted to my horse’s hip. I look good as a knight in shining armor. I wouldn’t have expected that.
The horse lets me mount, because I’m good with horses—who knew I could be good with horses?—and skillfully do I ride up the mountain, urging her onward.
“Let’s go, Streakfire!” I say. “Let’s go!”
We fly together, like I never knew I could fly, and the whole world of the story falls out below me. There are villages below filled with people who need to be saved, and I’m the only one who can do it—me! In the forests await adventures I’ve seen others survive. Hardship awaits in the darkest caverns and deepest tunnels, but it’s only the kind of hardship which proves I can handle anything.
My horse and I arrive at the mouth of a dragon’s cave, and this part, I dread. I know how others have done this. I know I should kill the dragon. But oh! He’s beautiful! He rears above me with multifaceted scales that catch the sunlight as surely as my armor.
The dragon asks, “What do you want?”
“I came to see if you need anything,” I say.
“You don’t want to hurt me?”
“Never.” And I’m shocked that I can say that, because the story shouldn’t progress that way. I never thought it should. I didn’t like it. I wanted the heroes to be nice—like I’m nice—but so often the books just don’t do that.
This is my mirror in my book, my life in my book, and I never draw my sword against the dragon.
The chapter ends with a long talk between the two of us. Streakfire eats grass at the mouth of the cave and I make my favorite pie for the dragon to eat. I love every minute, every word, every turn of the page. To think that someone like me would make friends with a dragon!
When it’s time to close the book, I slip out of the mirror, and I hug this beautiful thing to my heart. I disappeared for hours. At last, I found myself in a story. At last I could go into the mirror, like so many others do, and at last I can see myself as something else. It won’t be the last time, either. The dragon still waits in chapter two.
Thyra didn’t like how kneading dough hurt her hands, but Mother wouldn’t let her stop. “Dig in deeper and work through the ache,” said Mother. “That’s what it feels like when muscles grow strong.”
Thyra didn’t especially want to grow strong–at least not back then. “Strong” was the word everyone had used for the men when they left on a viking. “Strong” meant those tall men, with those wide shoulders, carrying straps of leather over their shoulders as they talked too loudly on the way to the docks, and “strong” meant the occasional lash-out of a foot when the thrall dropped a crate that was meant to reach the longship, and “strong” also meant the stench that followed those big burly men when they returned victorious and fewer after some months.
“We all need to be strong,” said Mother with the muscles around her eyes drawn tight as she kneaded her own dough harder. “We don’t get to decide we don’t want to be strong.”
Want, Thyra understood, was unimportant.
Ulfhild was one of the daughters at the farm down the hill. Her family was poor enough that Mother didn’t want Thyra to make friends with Ulfhild, mostly on account of The Risk, something that Mother said with an air of grownup mystery. The Risk was something that had happened to Byggsen Farm before Thyra was born. The Risk was the reason that Mother was especially kind to her thralls, even pitying, and would let them sleep on the floor in front of her fire when nights were cold.
“Ulfhild’s farm is a few dead goats away from this,” said Mother, bobbing her head toward her thralls.
Thyra’s impression of the people who worked the fields was negative. They weren’t strong, but they were smelly, and certainly worth pitying. (“Odin’s least favorite,” Mother once said in Thyra’s earshot, and Thyra had understood that as well as she had understood anything else.)
Ulfhild was subject to The Risk, and it had something to do with thralls, but Thyra couldn’t imagine Ulfhild having anything in common with thralls besides two arms and two legs and a head with a face on it. Ulfhild had thick hair the same color of red as the cinnabar on a shield. It grew in loops that Thyra could wrap around her fingers. Ulfhild hated it, for some reason, just as she hated the dresses she was expected to wear. She complained a lot about the same things Thyra found most delightful in life.
“Working in the garden!” Ulfhild would complain, punching at a haystack until her face got red. “Livestock husbandry!”
“Would you prefer to go on a viking, then?” asked Thyra with a wrinkled nose.
“Maybe I would,” said Ulfhild.
Oh, Ulfhild was wild, and entirely unladylike, unlike any of the other daughters of the karls. Even the blacksmith’s daughter had never been known to rip off her dress and go tearing naked across the village, screaming, just to escape her nagging mother. When someone finally caught Ulfhild under his arm, she was kicking the entire way back, and laughing, and screaming, and biting like a complete wild animal.
“Strong boy you have there,” said the man, tossing Ulfhild at her mother’s feet.
The mother had been embarrassed, Ulfhild had been abruptly quiet, and Thyra (watching from a textile shop nearby with her hands in her mouth to stop laughing) found herself desperately smitten with Ulfhild for being such a nuisance.
One night Ulfhild appeared in Thyra’s bedroom when the moon was big and the fjord was bright because nights never got very dark when it was so warm. Ulfhild’s tanned-and-freckled face glowed. She had chopped all that pretty cinnabar hair off. She was crouching over Thyra’s bed, and she said, “I wanted to tell you, I’ll come back, and we’ll get married.”
Thyra thought it must have been a dream. None of this made sense. Why would Ulfhild come back, when she was already there? She was no more than an hour’s giggling, arm-pumping, foot-flying run away from Thyra’s home at any given moment. And how in the world could they get married? They were both girls. They had a duty to their families to marry well, and marry men.
Thyra liked the idea of marrying Ulfhild, in her dream, and she said, “Come back soon.”
It wasn’t the first time that Ulfhild curled up in bed next to Thyra. They used to do that all the time when they were small, when their mothers were still friends, and Thyra remembered well the feeling of cheek against cheek and mingling breath as they faded into sleep. But Ulfhild’s breathing was choppy and wet like she was crying a little bit. Ulfhild never cried. It was definitely a dream.
Thyra awoke to a single coil of cinnabar hair in her bed. She put it into a jewelry box of yew and ash, locked it, and hung the key around her waist.
Ellingboe Farm was empty after that night. Mother told Thyra, “You’re old enough now, you should know. Ulfhild’s father couldn’t repay his debts and he was beaten to death in his paddock. The jarl came overnight. The rest of the family was taken into custody to pay off his debt.” And now the jarl had more thralls. That had always been The Risk.
Although Mother didn’t say Ulfhild escaped the arrest, some of the men had left on a viking just that morning, off to join another raiding party in islands to the south, and Thyra remembered her dream. She somehow knew Ulfhild had gone with the men, because Ulfhild was strong.
“You have to be strong too, Thyra. We all do,” said Mother.
Thyra mastered kitchen and garden at her mother’s side, but only when winter came again did Mother decide Thyra needed to manage the thralls. “Keeping the thralls to work our land is the difference between us and them,” said Mother.
“Us and who?” asked Thyra.
“Them,” said Mother. Byggsen Farm and Ellingboe Farm, probably, although Mother never said it. She hadn’t even told Thyra when Father laid claim to both lands and extended their own farm to take the entire hillside overlooking the fjord, contentedly filling spaces vacated by tragedy.
Managing the thralls really meant managing the one given the most responsibility, who they called Foot. Foot used to be a farmer and the other thralls respected them. Mother took Thyra every time she gave instructions to Foot, and Mother lent Foot keys to accomplish various tasks around the farm, and Thyra learned how to speak with disdainful authority and point fingers and to pretend the smells didn’t trouble her. It unsettled Thyra to look at the thralls, neither boys nor girls, but simply Odin’s least favorite people, defined only by how much they deserved their fate.
Also, Father started showing interest in Thyra at this time. “You have gotten very tall,” he said, “and your hair is very long. You look a great deal like your mother at this age.” This Age was a special concept, much like The Risk. “The jarl wants to see you. Put on your prettiest dress, would you?”
Of course Thyra had been to the jarl’s longhouse a few times; many holy tides brought them to Halfdan’s bonfire for celebration or mourning. But Thyra had always been a shadow of Mother. At Father’s side, under the scrutiny of Halfdan, Thyra had become something else.
Thyra was presented in her prettiest dress, wearing some of Mother’s jewelry, and Thyra’s hair was braided in two long lines down her front.
The jarl looked over Thyra. He said, “Thirteen summers already?”
Father said, “Mother has loved her dearly and would keep her forever, if she could. Thyra has been a pleasure for our family.”
But now it was Thyra’s duty to be a pleasure to the jarl’s family. A contract was drawn, arranging for Thyra to marry the jarl’s younger brother, Skarde. “Younger” only meant that he was a man of some fewer moons; he was still a very bearded and very scarred fellow with a large brewery and the need for a wife to run it.
“I’m to marry?” Thyra asked of her mother later. She hadn’t entirely understood the contract process. Father had never explained it, and he was too happy on the journey home to answer questions.
“You’ll make a good wife,” said Mother. “You know everything you need to run Skarde’s household. He is rich. He is kind.”
Thyra despaired. There was a lock of cinnabar hair in her jewelry box which promised Thyra would marry someone else–though Ulfhild had never returned from her viking.
Perhaps Ulfhild hadn’t gone on the viking. Perhaps she was with the jarl’s thralls after all.
Thyra watched some of them working in the fields, backs hunched, clothing spare, heads lowered. She couldn’t imagine Ulfhild among them. Ulfhild wasn’t like them at all. Although Ulfhild wasn’t a boy or a girl either, much like the thralls. Ulfhild was simply Ulfhild. Thralls were simply thralls.
If Ulfhild hadn’t come back for Thyra, it was because Ulfhild was dead.
The thought killed whatever part of Thyra felt tempted to be a nuisance and refuse the marriage.
Skalde and Thyra formally met and married shortly thereafter. Thyra received the dowry and mundr from her proud, drunken father. “Those are for you,” Father insisted. “Hide them from Skalde, if he seems the type to take them away. Tell me if he is terrible to you as soon as you can. You are pretty. We can find you a kinder husband if this one is terrible.”
Thyra did think Skalde was terrible, though he didn’t hit her, or scream, like she’d seen other men do sometimes. He was very quiet for the most part. He spent a lot of time after midday thinking and smoking and coughing then smoking and thinking some more. She asked once what he was thinking about, and he wouldn’t tell her.
That wasn’t terrible, nor was it terrible to manage his household. Thyra’s hands didn’t hurt when she kneaded dough anymore. She was strong from shoulders to finger joints. She had grown powerful hips getting down to collect milk for Mother, and she used that strength to climb the many stairs and terraces of Skalde’s brewery–Thyra’s brewery–where most of her work involved the thralls on the farm.
The thralls brought out the worst of Skalde. He went from pensive to terrible when they were around. Nothing the thralls did could please him, though the thralls were many, and worked hard as any. He beat them often. The inhuman yelping noises made it difficult for Thyra to rest.
Beating the thralls always made Skalde want to come to Thyra for comfort, and that was terrible too. He smelled strongly of sweat. His body was heavy over hers. It hurt when he pushed himself into her, and he left her bed filthy.
Mother spoke to Thyra differently once both of them had belts filled with keys to their respective households. She no longer said things like, “You’re old enough to know.” That was more than evident. Especially because Thyra was growing a shapelier figure, breasts and long legs and all, truly womanly.
With this dramatic coming of age, information was conferred among peers instead. Simply, plainly, Mother said, “Your husband hates the thralls because they used to be Vinlings. The Vinlings killed his parents. Then these thralls bred the disease that killed his last wife in childbirth.”
For these reasons and more, Mother explained, the thralls were meant to be treated the way Skalde treated them, no matter how it startled Thyra.
“They’re thralls, after all. It’s not a terrible thing to do,” Mother said.
Thus Skalde was not terrible, and Thyra’s parents saw no reason to divorce when things were going so marvelously, and Thyra was still married when Ulfhild finally returned.
Several raiding parties returned at once and it was a time of great celebration. It brought everyone in the village and surrounding hills to the harbor, where they received many strong warriors, many bags of crates of supplies raided from enemies, and a few new thralls. The leader of the expedition gifted these thralls to Jarl Halfdan. The jarl was so delighted, he announced a feast to take the entire night.
Among the cheery crowds, standing at her husband’s side, Thyra spotted a familiar face and recognition struck instantly.
Ulfhild was among the returned men. She looked like a short man with small hands, and that was the only distinction. Matted with dirt and pitch, her hair was the color of charcoal beside a few bright-orange hairs stuck under her chin by sweat. Her cheeks had gotten thin. Her eyes had gotten shadowed. But it was Ulfhild, and Ulfhild recognized Thyra too, and they looked at each other for a long time across the bonfire.
Thyra’s soul soared to see Ulfhild, beautiful Ulfhild, dirty and freed.
She wondered what Ulfhild saw differently in Thyra. Did she notice Thyra had become a woman? That she was married, and buxom, and wealthier than ever? Was Ulfhild angry? Was she proud?
Across the bonfire, Ulfhild raised her pint in acknowledgment of Thyra. Skalde believed the gesture for him. He returned it. Thyra’s heart fluttered like a captive bird.
Ulfhild had been fighting Vinlings and she didn’t want to talk about it. “The Vikings see me as one of them,” she said gruffly, indicating the other raiders. Skalde was hosting some of the raiders at their house. This necessitated that Thyra tend them with food and drink, but Thyra had stolen away from the kitchen thralls to speak with Ulfhild behind the barn. “I acted like one of them, and I became one of them, and I don’t want to talk about it.”
“They think you’re a man?” asked Thyra.
“They will,” said Ulfhild stubbornly.
There were other girls among the fighters, all like Ulfhild. Strong enough to survive a harsh journey by longship. Ferocious enough to put the torch to Vinling houses. Willing to swing an axe blade at Vinling throats. And when Ulfhild was doing these things, she was as good as a man.
“There’s no telling the difference between us when we fight,” said Ulfhild. “Nobody cares what I am if I can fight. And I can. I’m good at it, Thyra.” She said it like it haunted her, even when she promised she would always fight to keep this privilege.
Ulfhild didn’t belong back in a village of farms and shops and houses run by women–proper women, like Thyra, married shortly before the start of her catamenial phase to usher her into womanhood, wearing dresses, bearing keys, and feeding guests.
“There is talk of a trader who wants protection through Vinling lands, and I will go with him,” said Ulfhild. “He is hiring boys like me.”
Thyra cupped her old friend’s cheek in her hand and said, “You promised to marry me.”
Ulfhild said, “You didn’t wait.”
“My heart waited,” said Thyra, and they kissed.
The trader didn’t leave for a few weeks. Thyra stole time away from her duties to be with Ulfhild. Ulfhild slipped into her bedroom at night, like when they were children. Whenever Ulfhild appeared, she was dressed like a beardless young man, hiding her frustratingly delicate features under the furtive brim of a cap, more afraid to be seen as a woman of marrying age than as a man visiting a married lady too often.
Ulfhild’s body had changed from small but lanky into square with muscle, scarred from battle. She touched Thyra too harshly sometimes, but never as harshly as Skalde. Thyra loved that their kisses didn’t burn from a beard. She wished she could have remained curled in bed with Ulfhild forever.
One full moon after Ulfhild left again, Thyra realized she was pregnant with child. It had to be Skalde’s. He was the only one who could perform the “husband’s duty,” as Mother used to say, in just the way that made a woman capable of bearing an infant. But Thyra imagined that it was Ulfhild’s child.
Thyra gave birth to two of Ulfhild’s children before Ulfhild returned again.
The Vinlings were restless; Jarl Halfdan called up levies for battle. Skalde was going to command one of the longships and its company of warriors himself. “A Vinling raid struck the village to the north, and we’ll be next if we don’t send them back to their miserable pit,” said Skalde.
Thyra prepared him for travel in all the ways that her duty demanded. She had learned to leave most work to the thralls when she was pregnant; she had found a new Foot of her own to position as their leader. Thus Thyra only needed summon supplies to be stocked in the vessel that Skalde had built, and Thyra offered Skalde tender womanly comforts in his bed the nights before he departed.
Calling the levies had also brought in others looking for coin, and Ulfhild returned with a group of mercenaries. She had gone from working for one trader to working for another, and another, and another, until reputation sent her to work for an allied jarl, who rewarded Ulfhild handsomely for the bravery of her axe. Ulfhild was becoming wealthy in her own way. She had finer armor, weapons of her own, and arms strong enough to carry Thyra behind the barn to kiss her forcefully.
“I will be on Skalde’s ship,” said Ulfhild.
“Then you will be with him when metal strikes metal,” said Thyra.
They only called her Ulf now. Ulf, the wolf, a fearsome fighter despite her slightness of form, and she had become harder while Thyra became softer. Ulf worshiped Thyra’s hanging belly and drooping breasts. Ulf inhaled the oils Thyra put behind her ears, just so that Ulf could smell them.
Ulf got the last kiss from Thyra before the longship set out. Thyra waved to them from the harbor, and Skalde thought the gesture was for him, so he returned it.
Already, Thyra was pregnant with Ulf’s third child.
It was luck that they brought Skalde’s body back when he died. Most bodies couldn’t come home. Thyra looked over it with her children to one side, her mother to the other side, and she felt the certainty of Skalde’s death sink into her bones.
“The Vinlings are angry,” one warrior told the jarl. “They fight with the rage of ghosts.”
So when they buried Skalde at sea, Thyra offered a pair of the Vinling thralls to go with him as an apology. The same Vinling monsters who had taken Skalde’s parents took Skalde too. It was wrong by everything that Thyra had been taught. The thralls deserved it.
She poured drink down their throats until the two of them could no longer stand upright. Her mother dressed and anointed them. The thralls were seated to either side of Skalde, pushed out to sea, and set on fire from the shore with arrows. The thralls screamed when they burned. The screams were even worse than when Skalde used to beat them. One of Thyra’s children started crying, but she silenced him with a hand on his shoulder and a few whispered words. “Thralls are Odin’s least favorite. This is how it’s supposed to be.”
Thyra continued to manage the brewery, now her own. She still had the jarl’s support. She still had a child in her womb. She had the knowledge and power that she did not need to marry again, and when Halfdan suggested that Thyra wed another of his brothers, Thyra had the authority to refuse.
She was unmarried when Ulf returned from his viking regarded as a man. There was no doubt in those who followed him. He had proven himself a fierce warrior by killing a Vinling jarl. He was dripping with Vinling jewels, which he delivered to Thyra, holding them up in his hands, a glittering mountain.
“I came back,” said Ulf, his scarred features still delicate and rimmed by cinnabar curls. Somehow he had managed to grow a few hairs off his chin. He was old enough he should have had a full beard, but even those few hairs were a miracle of truth upon Ulf’s face, and Thyra fell upon him with delight to pet Ulf’s beard and kiss Ulf’s lips and know the comforting home of Ulf’s hands.
They married at last. Nobody talked about how Ulf had been born, or what had become of his family, or the name they used to call him. He was simply Ulf. A fearless conquering warrior with wealth made off the hides of his enemies. He had put three babies into Thyra’s belly. He was the man of their home.
Very seldom did they sleep in their separate rooms.
Thyra thought all of this was just right.
She had her man, her house, her wealth. She thought that she deserved it.
Ulf was unrestful. He was often quiet but unhappy in the daymark after midday, smoking his pipe and thinking hard, staring out at the fields. He didn’t get up to beat the thralls the way Skalde did. Instead, he stared in the direction of the jarl’s house. “We have been invited to spend Midsummer with them,” said Ulf gravely.
Thyra and Ulf alike had many duties to fulfill in this, divided among woman and man, and both were capable of doing their duties. Thyra found joy in the preparations of supplies to take to the jarl. Ulf seemed unhappy.
He remained unhappy as they paid homage to Halfdan, who greeted them warmly. “Shield-maiden become brother,” said Halfdan fondly in greeting to Ulf. Halfdan embraced Ulf as he would have embraced Skalde. They had battled together against Vinlings. They were family.
At the jarl’s home, Ulf stood outside, watching the thralls work and smoking his pipe and looking troubled.
“Come to bed with me,” said Thyra, embracing him from behind, her cheek pressed to his back.
“Did you know I felled Skalde?” asked Ulf, facing into the darkness. “He would have survived his battle-wound, but I finished him.”
Thyra hadn’t known that, but that was what she expected, and she was happy for it. “His death was meant to happen as such,” said Thyra with the peaceful, mysterious calm that Mother had always said such things.
Ulf said, “My brothers and mother died in these fields as nameless thralls alongside Vinlings because they were poor. How could those have been their preordained deaths? How is our victory intended, but theirs not?”
“That’s the way of life,” said Thyra. She squeezed her eyes shut. They pricked and burned with tears.
“Our deaths are destiny, but our fates belong to us. Our fates are dark. We aren’t meant for success.”
“You’re frightening me.”
Ulf apologized. He carried his pregnant wife to bed, as she had asked him. He made love to her the way only warriors could. He was gentle as his muscles were strong. It was an honor for Thyra to feast herself between his legs, servicing him with pleasure as she used to with her head under Ulf’s skirts in the fields.
It didn’t bring him peace. They clutched one another in love and slept drunk under the midnight sun.
The Vinling raiders came behind a wave of fog, when none of the look-outs knew they were coming. They brought allies and mercenaries. They brought vengeance with them. Generations of rage borne upon longships. Armed with gifts from the Dreggsen clan, who hated Halfdan.
Thyra awoke alone to screaming and smoke. She bolted outside. The eldest of her children was dead upon the stairs, a spear through his chest, and her screams joined others.
She raced in search of her other child, but could not find her.
Instead, Thyra found Ulf outside, handing small axes to thralls.
“What are you doing?” asked Thyra.
The thralls fled with their weapons, going for the hills, and Ulf said, “I had to free the ones the Vinlings would kill.”
“They killed our son!”
Oh, and how Ulf was filled with rage at this. He no longer looked so small and hard when he shifted into the mindset of battle. He became a wolf unlike the other wolves.
He took his axe and he said, “Our deaths are predetermined, Thyra.” He kissed her again. A last time. Then he gave Thyra a knife.
Vinlings fell swarmed the jarl’s lands. The village burned on the coast, blackening the sky, and it turned the invaders into faceless shadows as inhuman as any thrall.
The wolf devoured them.
Ulf howled and roared and swung, cutting through his enemies to create a path safe for Thyra. But he was only one man. He was destined to kill two Vinlings–four of them–six Vinlings and a Dreggsen–and it was much more than any other solitary warrior could have hoped–
But the jarl’s longhouse burned and too many warriors were still too drunk to pick up their blades before they died.
Like his son, Ulf took a spear through his heart.
He struck his knees with the spear wedged halfway through his chest, and he looked to the sky, and he howled one last time before he died.
Ulf died along with Halfden and his family. Most from the other visiting houses died too.
Thyra wasn’t killed.
Strong hands beat the terror out of her heart and the fight out of her limbs. She was dragged past Ulf’s body, blankly gazing at the sky from the mud, and Thyra felt herself become all-empty. She was reunited with her daughter in an enemy longship. Both of them were stripped of their jewels, keys, and cloaks. “They don’t need them,” said some strong man standing overhead. “And my wife will love these jewels.”
Piece by piece, womanhood was taken from Thyra and her daughter.
They sailed to the Vinlings on the ship with three others from the village and twenty happy warriors.
The village of their home stayed behind them.
Thyra tried to tell her daughter, “We will fight, sweet girl,” but she was kicked into silence. They weren’t allowed to speak as they willed, any more than they were allowed to wear the adornments of womanhood. Thralls were not permitted those sorts of things.
Jarl Ødger and his wife Yrsa held a great feast when the first of their army returned victorious. “A great day!” Ødger said joyously, holding his wife in his arms.
“Revenge against those cursed Haggenlings,” agreed Yrsa.
Ødger felt himself in a generous mood, surveying the great wealth delivered in his honor. They had brought pieces of Halfdan’s longhouse. They had brought thralls from among his people, who wept on the ground the way most thralls did, at first. And they had brought every scrap of jewelry that they could find.
“None survived to stop us,” said a warrior proudly.
Yrsa and her daughter Revna received the bulk of the jewelry as a gift. Revna received Thyra’s jewelry box, which was carved with an elaborate wolf on the lid, and contained an elaborate lock that must have been opened by one of many keys included with it.
Revna had only just found the key to open the jewelry box when Yrsa came to get her.
“You’re old enough now, you should learn to handle the thralls,” said Yrsa. “You should see how they are acclimated to service here.”
“I’m coming, Mother,” said Revna. She tried on one of Thyrsa’s necklaces and liked it. Underneath the large stone, she found a curl of cinnabar hair tucked away, hidden like a secret. Revna paid barely any attention to it. She slapped the box shut and followed Mother onward for their womanly duties.
My new house is a little strange, I’ll grant you. The rooms seem to rotate in and out of existence. Oftentimes I wake to find a staircase I’ve never seen before, just sitting there, and the floors can’t decide whether they’re carpet, marble, bare dirt, or mahogany. But it wasn’t too much trouble. I didn’t even realize I had a roommate until an eldritch creature slithered out of a brand-new closet to talk to me about the last three days.
“Oh, it’s been three days since I moved in?” I asked. “Time flies.”
Ilgilgrit’f’n said, “Most people are begging me for an exit door within eight hours.”
“That sounds distressing.”
“Well, it is,” zie said, “but I’ve rather come to expect it. How are you managing everything so normally?”
I shrugged. “Well, it’s sort of like life, isn’t it?”
“I don’t follow.”
“The house is like life,” I explained. “It’s just a series of rooms to which we can never return. If I leave something behind, I know I can’t go back for it, so I take only what I need and don’t worry about the rest. All of these rooms are really nice. You’ve done a great job decorating the place.”
Taken aback, but also flattered, Ilgilgrit’f’n asked, “Thank…you?”
The house was rumbling again. It was unsettled, shifting around me, and I picked up my knitting back from the couch. Beyond the doorway, the staircase swayed, twisted, and blurred, before turning into another hallway. The wall at my back started oozing shadow. It wouldn’t last long.
Knitting bag over my shoulder, I beckoned for Ilgilgrit’f’n to slither at my side. “Have you ever tried to go back to the same room twice in a dream? You can’t do it. Your brain doesn’t build a house for you to dream inside. You’re just imagining one room after another. So…it’s like that.”
“I thought the house was like life,” said Ilgilgrit’f’n.
“That too. Life, dreams, potato, potato.”
The hallway stretched ever-long, passing a kitchen dappled by afternoon sunlight and taking a left turn right after the den where a fireplace burned in the depths of winter evening. I decided to sit by the fire with my knitting bag.
“Most people go insane with this stuff,” said the eldritch beast.
“I don’t blame them,” I said. I went back to reading my book. “Living is pretty insane.”
I thought I was alone, after the end. Then I found the bunker. Then I realized there had always been people inside. And they were hiding from me.
The few who didn’t try to run away, screaming, donned full HazMat suits before approaching me. I was sobbing by the time they encircled my crouched body in a creaking mass of canvas suits and sheer plastic face protectors.
“I’ve looked for you so long,” I wept. “I have been so lonely! Why won’t anyone touch me? I haven’t been touched since I was a child!”
“You’re sick,” insisted a man in the suit.
I felt wonderful, and I had always felt wonderful, my body functional as any toad swimming downriver, or the birds flapping in the sky, or the other companions I had held dear in my excruciating solitude.
There was nothing but abyssal loneliness in the concrete box where they shoved me.
“What are we going to do with her?” asked a woman outside my door.
“We have to kill her,” said the man. “She came to find us. There’s no more time.”
“Kill me?” I asked, banging on the inside of the door. “Kill me?”
I sobbed that my weakness had sent me to this bunker, into the arms of humans; I sobbed that I had not simply been satisfied in my freedom of the outside world above. Instead of cherishing the grass under my bare feet, I had wondered what it would be like to hold hands with another girl. And now this was my reward for wanting people. This bleak room, these bleak words, my bleak heart.
The woman let me out of the cell. “Lisa,” she said. “I’m Lisa.” I didn’t have a name because I’d never needed one. I was simply me.
Lisa felt bad for me. Against everything that the other survivors recommended, she wanted to take me to her room, and feed me, and clothe me, and treat me like any neighbor in their little bunker.
“You’re so small,” she said. “There’s nothing about you that might threaten us, no matter what they say!”
She had never lived in a place with grass or sunlight or toads. She lived in a closet with a mattress, which she was eager to let me rest upon, and a few dirty scraps of cotton that formed her wardrobe. Lisa embraced me with her generosity. I was so pathetic that I loved her for it.
Until the others found my cell empty.
Until the others came running to Lisa’s room, so angry with her that they shoved her – threw her – and her head bounced off a shelf and the life went out of her eyes instantly.
“Kill the outsider!” shouted a man.
They chased me down the hall of their bunker with furious hands groping at my back, pipes swinging at my head. Finally one struck me. I fell to the ground and blood poured out of my face.
“Kill her!” said another. “She’s dangerous!”
The wolves had stolen my food while I was sleeping. The storms had drenched me when it was too cold to be wet. The bees had stung me when I got too near their hive. But they had only hurt me out of the nature of their existence, and there was no comparison to the rain of blows they smashed upon me.
In my anger, I did what the wolves did, and I bit someone’s hand. The copper taste of blood filled my mouth.
“Dammit!” The man jerked back and shook the blood off onto the floor in little drops.
“She got him! Kill him!”
“Get them both!”
“What?” asked the man, turning wide eyes upon his friends as they turned their pipes and fists upon him.
He didn’t let them kill him easily.
He was more of a fighter than I was. He drew more blood. And each time he drew blood, the vitriol spread, the violence spread, and the men turned upon each other to fight and bite and tear.
One of the doctors fell near me, dying with his face halfway crushed. He had enough consciousness to tell me, “You brought the virus from outside, inside. You brought the violence with you.”
“It was always with you,” I spat back as he died.
The killing spread and men fell. The injured ones went on to injure others. They ran into the other rooms to fight, and the infection spread further.
I didn’t wait to watch it. I just picked up what was left of my bloody, aching body and I ran outside, to the grass, to the trees, to the forest, to an unforgiving sky with a blazing sun that never meant to hurt me.
Military policy required two coachmen for Carriages in those days, and it’s a good thing they did; otherwise, Aja Skytoucher would never have survived the crash.
In a blink of plasma and dancing electricity, she lost AI navigation. Her control panel’s lights went dark.
The Carriage spun out.
“He got us! He got us!”
That was the second coachman, Emalkay. The numbskull didn’t try to recover. He just screamed and thrashed in his five point harness, face plastered against the viewport to see when the next plasma blast was coming.
Aja seized the reins in one hand and tossed repair film to Emalkay with the other. She kept the film under her console, right between her feet, so she could find it even when smoke flooded the compartment. “Get to the rear quarter, Em!”
He stared at her with baffled eyes. Drakor III pinwheeled orange and red behind him, its jagged-edged ice cap growing nearer at a terrifying rate. “The rear quarter? Why, Aja?”
She wanted to say, Because I told you, idiot, but even with her heart clawing at the inside of her ribcage the words came out cool. “The fireball must have hit on the left. We’ll be venting oxygen. Patch it.”
Clearly, all Emalkay heard was “venting oxygen.” His eyes got wider.
“We’re going to get sucked out!”
“Patch it.” Aja’s biceps strained as she hauled back on the reins.
Emalkay’s hands flew over the control panel. There was no response. He banged his fists into the buttons for the communication device—the mochila—which should have given them instantaneous contact with the rest of the fleet. “Why aren’t they connecting with us?”
Because the mochila had gone down with the navigation, of course.
Everything had gone down with the navigation.
Aja’s patience frayed. “Patch the rear quarter, Emalkay! That’s an order!”
She kicked the latch release for the harnesses. Both she and Emalkay floated free from their seats. They continued to rotate with the Carriage, drifting slowly.
Another plasma ball struck.
The Carriage shuddered, panels rattling, emergency lights flickering. Without the harness latched, Aja was shaken from her chair. Still, she clung to the reins, braced the rubber treads of her boots against the panel, and she pulled back.
Manual control on those Carriages were a fine art—a careful dance of tiny microwaves that could tweak their trajectory this way and that, assuming the coachman’s hand was fine enough. Most coachmen weren’t good at it. They relied on the automation that Aja had lost when the rear quarter when up in a ball of fire.
Aja had cut her teeth on older vehicles, though. She’d had a Chariot XIV, for the love of Thal, and those had been fashioned in the days when artificial intelligence hadn’t been able to assemble paper airplanes, much less steer space vehicles.
She hadn’t manually steered a Chariot since she was too small for the driver’s harness. But her muscles remembered the movements and she’d always had a cool head. She could do this now, even as they plummeted toward the surface of Drakor III. The enemy stronghold.
Aja needed to do this.
Leathery wings flashed past the viewport. Aja only glimpsed shimmering gold before it was gone again—a color that reminded her of the glittering hide dresses her trapper mother used to wear.
“He sees us!” Emalkay wailed. “He’s coming back again!”
Aja gritted her teeth, clutched the reins, and kept pulling. Harder. Harder.
The bucking Carriage whined. Drakor III spun. Her wrists trembled with effort.
“The patch,” she said.
He listened this time. Emalkay’s hand flashed through the air, seizing the film, and he kicked off his chair to drift into the rear of the Carriage.
Lords, but Drakor III was growing fast.
Fresh plasma splattered over the viewport. It pushed them into a faster spin. Shoved them out of orbit.
Gases whipped through the compartment, blasting Aja’s hair free of its ponytail. It obscured her vision but she didn’t need to see. She only needed the tension in the reins, the feel of the yoke on the other end. She could have steered it without any sense but touch.
She pulled. Microwaves pushed. The Carriage stabilized and then overcorrected.
Aja’s stomach lurched as her view of the planet below centered, and then began rotating again in the opposite direction. Her hair whipped over her eyes again.
Emalkay shouted over the hissing. “You’re right! It’s the rear quarter! Oxygen’s venting!”
Yes, Aja knew that. They’d lost the feed on the surface sensors in the heartbeat before they lost the rest of navigation, which meant that those sensors had been struck first, and they were situated inside the elbow line on the rear quarter.
Eyes shut, hair tickling her nose, she steered.
Aja didn’t see their enemy swoop past again, but she felt his passing wings clip the belly of the Carriage. She twisted the reins to the right to compensate.
She heard repair film torn by the dull belt knife Emalkay was carrying. She could tell that he hadn’t sharpened it recently just by how many cuts it took to get through. He probably hadn’t charged his plasma rifle, either. Lazy Emalkay, stupid Emalkay—yet she needed him. If he didn’t patch that hole, they would both be dead.
She couldn’t keep steering through the force of the venting oxygen. Not under the plasma barrage, not with the thin upper atmosphere they were entering, not without navigation.
“Got it!” Emalkay cried.
She already knew. The Carriage was calming under her hands.
Their spin stabilized.
Aja had control.
“Yes,” she breathed, eyes opening.
The Carriage’s spin had ended when it was oriented to face away from the surface. The Drakor system’s single red star glowed at the upper edge of the viewport, painting Aja in the foul light depicted on so many propaganda posters.
Other Carriages in higher orbits glimmered. At this distance, their slow dance through space was beautiful. She couldn’t see the fleet’s insignia. Couldn’t tell which Carriages belonged to members of her unit, which ones were strangers, which had been licensed from private companies. The only way to tell that any of them were still working was the occasional flare of thrusters. They were slow as seeds drifting on the surface of a pond, confined by orbital mechanics and basic, clumsy physics.
Unlike the enemy.
The enemy was agile. Tireless. Capable of moving outside of orbits. Propelled at unimaginable speeds.
And the residents of the Drakor system had responded to attack in full force.
The raid should have caught them by surprise. Their army should have been deployed elsewhere that day, distracted by defending outposts in other systems. But they were there at the home world, prepared to receive the Allied forces, so the Drakor must have known the fleet was coming.
There were thousands of them above Drakor III.
They looped around the Carriages, tailed by The Fog—a force that Allied scientists barely understood, though it seemed to be something similar to fire that their bodies generated. Nobody was certain if the fire’s origin was magical or biological. That Fog flashed behind the dragons in colors even brighter than Drakor’s sun, and the clouds of writhing plasma chewed through the fleet like it was nothing.
Many Carriages were succumbing to attacks similar to the one that had disabled Aja and Emalkay.
And now the attacker that had knocked out Aja’s systems was descending on her Carriage.
It moved faster than she did, even though gravity had caught the Carriage and dragged her toward the surface. She was pinned between a dragon and Drakor III. Death under the claws of a dragon, death on the surface of the planet—the odds of survival either way were poor, very poor.
Especially since she was watching the fleet getting pulverized far above them.
“I think I can fix the mochila.” Emalkay clattered in the rear of the compartment, banging off of the walls and ripping open panels. Hope tinged his panicked tone. “You’ve just got to maintain low orbit long enough for someone to save us.”
Nobody was going to be able to save them.
A crack slithered from the lower right quadrant of the viewport, inching its way toward the center of the glass. It wouldn’t take much pressure for that to shatter. The crack bisected the dragon’s cruel face as it undulated through space to close in on them. It was bare moments away from catching the Carriage now.
There was no time for a rescue.
Aja swallowed hard. “No, keep off the mochila. Redirect everything into the microwave engines.”
“The manual controls?”
“Yes,” she said.
“What about the AI?”
“Forget the AI, Em!”
Gravity tugged. They entered atmosphere. The exterior panels on the Carriage heated with the friction. Flames streaked on the edges of the viewport, blotting out Aja’s view of the fleet’s distant and serene demise.
The dragon plummeted with them, folding his wings to catch up.
“But how will the fleet find us if I don’t fix the mochila?” Emalkay asked.
Aja didn’t reply.
The Carriage’s manual controls became stiffer as the atmosphere’s density increased. Microwave propulsion took much more thrust to be effective in the atmosphere. But it was all they had—they couldn’t do a hard burn in atmo, not when they were already heating from the scrape of air, not when plasma was still crawling over their paneling.
They’d be incinerated.
Sweat rolled down Aja’s hairline, dripped into her collar. Her palms were slick.
But she twisted the reins, the Carriage obeyed her command, and she felt the moment that Emalkay put all of the power into the microwave engines. The entire vehicle bucked in protest.
“Come on, girl,” she whispered.
The engine roared. Acid clouds billowed around the Carriage.
The dragon blazed toward them like a hawk closing in on a rabbit.
Aja tangled the reins around one arm, steering with a single fist. She fumbled with her belt. Grabbed the plasma rifle, loosened the strap, propped it against her shoulder.
The plasma rifle was a new invention. They had gotten a living dragon specimen and somehow procured Fog from its organs—she didn’t know the specifics—and repurposed it into a weapon that could penetrate even the thickest, scaliest of dragon hides. The raid on Drakor was the first field test, so Aja wasn’t sure the gun would work. The men in the armory had said it would, but they’d also said the fleet’s arrival would be unexpected.
The crack on the viewport spread.
Aja manipulated the reins as Emalkay fed every terawatt of remaining power into the engine, slowing their descent, allowing the dragon to converge upon their location. The Carriage cried out. The exterior panels flamed. Mountains appeared at the edges of Aja’s vision—hostile alien terrain that made her heart beat with sheer panic.
“What are you doing?” the other coachman roared. “Why aren’t you evading him?”
Aja didn’t want to evade him. She wanted to land as soft as possible.
She wanted to get out of the Carriage alive, even if it meant being stranded on Drakor III.
It was getting so hot inside the Carriage. Sweat drenched her uniform. But her grip on the rifle was sure, and she was as steady aiming at the dragon’s heart as she was in steering the Carriage down to their death.
Dragon claws glimmered, huge and sharp.
Only meters away.
She fired directly into the viewport twice: once to finish shattering the glass, and once to deliver a shot of plasma directly into the heart of the dragon.
Her bolt drove into the chest of her enemy.
She didn’t see what happened after that—because that was when they finally crashed.
Aja Skytoucher had a headache and Emalkay was screaming.
Realistically speaking, both of these were good signs indicating survival.
Consciousness scrabbled through Aja’s skull. She was on hands and knees before her senses returned, shoving twisted metal off of her body, seeking the shape of the plasma rifle. Her fingers curved around a handle.
She felt a trigger. Good enough.
Angry red light bathed Aja as she stood, squinting across the harsh landscape.
There was wreckage at her feet. The air smelled sulfurous and her body felt strong despite the ache. Drakor III was low-gravity with a thin atmosphere, which made it feel like she was breathing on top of Mount McKinley, but it was habitable for humans and dragons alike.
With her eyes blurred, everything looked to be red and indistinct.
Everything but the wrecked Carriage.
That was never going to fly again.
Lords, the men weren’t going to be happy when they saw what she’d done to such a recent vehicle. Yet she hoped she would have an opportunity to be punished for it. Punishment, like her headache, would mean that she hadn’t been killed yet. It would mean that the fleet had enough Carriages surviving the dogfight in orbit to retrieve her.
It would mean Aja might see her family again.
Emalkay was still screaming, the shrieking made her headache pulse. She kicked wreckage around to search for him. If not to save him, then to put the whiny thing out of his misery.
Her eyes had relearned to focus by the time she found him crushed under the rear quarter, where he had still been working when they struck.
Though the blood was profuse, it seemed to originate from a single cut on his forehead. Other bruises had yet to develop. Aja had slowed their fall enough that both coachmen had survived—miraculously.
But what of their attacker?
“Shut up, Em,” she said, hauling him to his feet.
“I can’t see! I’m bleeding!” He clutched his face.
Aja yanked a rag out of the wreckage, pressed it to the wound, guided his hand to hold it in place. “You’ll survive if the dragons don’t get us.”
The reality of the situation settled over Emalkay. He paled under all the blood.
“We’re on Drakor,” he said. “We’re on Drakor!” He spun to look wildly around the harsh landscape, became dizzy, grabbed Aja to steady himself. “Where’s the beast that tried to eat us?”
“I was wondering that myself.” She found Emalkay’s plasma rifle among the wreckage, tucked it into his free arm. He remained standing when she released him. That was good: she needed to be able to use both hands when the dragon attack came.
And the dragon attack would surely come soon.
Now that Aja could see, it was possible to estimate the length of the crater the landing had carved into Drakor’s surface. It must have been at least a mile. The smoke was impressive. It would act as a beacon for rescuers as well as the enemy.
There was a second crater alongside theirs. A trail of Fog and blood led away from it, toward the mountains in the distance.
That was where the dragon would have landed.
How long had Aja been unconscious in the wreckage of the Carriage? Could the dragon have gotten far enough to notify reinforcements of their landing?
One thing was certain: she needed to find the dragon and terminate it before it could bring all kinds of chaos on her head.
It was her only chance of survival now.
“Move,” Aja said.
She leaped lightly across the surface. She had enough low-gravity experience to quickly adjust to the movement; it couldn’t have been significantly lower than the Station’s 0.5g. A single push of her legs vaulted her over the Carriage to the dragon’s trail.
“Wait for me!”
Emalkay was clumsy behind her. She decided to be generous and attribute that to his head trauma.
Though movement should have been effortless, Aja’s breathing quickly grew thready, her chest laboring to inhale. It was impossible to tell if her dizziness was from injury or because of the strange atmosphere. Her eyes burned in it.
She squinted to keep the blood in her sights, plasma rifle lifted, avoiding The Fog with her boots. She’d seen that melt through Carriages as though it were candle wax. If it contacted her body, she might as well resign herself to an amputation.
As the trail continued, the blood grew in quantity. It tinted the iron-rich dirt brown.
That, and the fact that the trail continued on the ground at all, suggested to Aja that the plasma rifle had done its job against the dragon.
They moved into the foothills without finding a body. She must have been unconscious longer than she realized for it to have traveled so far, even with the minimal gravity on Drakor III. Aja was not moving quickly now, either. Emalkay held her back, slow and cautious from fear.
She grew increasingly fatigued as she hunted.
Just when Aja felt like she might collapse, she saw it.
The dragon that had attacked them loomed out of the crimson darkness, sprawled between two jagged rocks overlooking a crater. It seemed even larger now that she didn’t have the Carriage as a protective shell. The arch of its spine was three times her height. The feet were each long enough that they could have gripped her with toes overlapping.
Her heart leaped into her throat. She gestured to stop Emalkay halfway down the slope and prepared to fire.
But the dragon didn’t move.
Aja held her position halfway behind a rock. She watched for any signs of breathing or the faintest glimmer of active Fog.
She proceeded forward slowly, muzzle trained on the center mass of the body.
Still, it didn’t move. Not even when the rubber treads of her soles ground against gravel and her uniform’s straps scraped against the metal of the rifle. Aja was too exhausted to be silent, yet the dragon didn’t react in the slightest.
She rounded the body.
Her enemy was dead.
The monster had collapsed in a puddle of its own fluids, its massive head resting on one arm, the other hand stretched toward the top of the crater. The eyes were shut. A black tongue lolled from its open beak.
Now that Aja got a good look at the wound she’d inflicted, she was impressed by how far the dragon had traveled on the surface. The hole was large enough that Aja could see all the way through from underneath its breastplate to the world framed by fragments of its spinal cord.
She never would have expected their modified version of Fog to be so deadly against dragons, but she thanked the lords that it was.
Aja had never seen a dragon so close, dead or alive. Now that her adrenaline was dropping off, she could admire the bulk of its form, huge yet graceful, almost more feline than serpentine. It was as elegant as the surroundings were harsh.
“It’s safe,” Aja called.
Only then did Emalkay proceed.
He startled at the sight of its head, mouth open to expose fangs. His forefinger twitched. The plasma rifle in his hands clicked without firing.
Yes, Emalkay had forgotten to charge his sidearm.
“What are you doing?” She ripped the rifle out of his hands. “These things make noise like thunder. Do you want to draw every dragon within a hundred miles on us?”
“It didn’t fire,” he said.
Only because you’re stupid. She still discarded his gun. Her superior officer would be angry that she’d lost such a valuable new weapon, but she was so angry at Emalkay that it didn’t seem to matter.
More than anger churned within Aja. She felt no satisfaction at the sight of one of those great beasts killed. They were frightening, yes, and if all the propaganda were to be believed, then they would happily have murdered the entire human race. But they were still majestic. And Aja’s mother had taught her to honor all lives; when they’d been hunting deer in New Dakota, they had prayed over the carcasses of their victims before cleaning them.
Was it possible she regretted killing the dragon?
It would have killed her if she hadn’t.
“The good news is that we might just win the fight in orbit,” Emalkay said. He was bolder now that he realized the dragon was dead. He walked up to the hole in its chest and stuck his whole fist in. “Every Carriage up there has one or two of these plasma rifles. If folks suit up, open the sash, and start firing, we’ll be able to rip them apart!”
Aja’s mouth tipped into a frown. “Don’t touch the body.”
“I won’t get any Fog on me.” He pulled a fragment of rib out. “I’m gonna show this to my girl. She’ll be so impressed, her panties will vanish.”
“If we ever get home,” Aja said.
His confident smile faded.
“I’m gonna get high,” he said. “See if I can spot any of the fleet. If they’ve started using the rifles instead of the cannons, it wouldn’t take them long to beat back the dragons.”
He ignored her.
Emalkay scrambled up the slope to peer over the edge of the crater.
Aja set her hand on the dragon’s beak. It was leathery, pebbled, and still warm.
“Oh my—Aja! You have to see this!” Emalkay shouted.
She followed him up.
At first, she thought that the volcanic crater was filled with some kind of strange mushrooms. It was peppered with clusters of swollen white spheres, too organic to be rock. Many of them were covered with dust the color of paprika. Those that were clean glistened.
But the longer she looked at it, the more she realized that there was deliberation to the placement. They were grouped in handfuls all throughout the crater. There were footprints leading from cluster to cluster as though dragons had been patrolling them.
It was a nest.
“Thal be blessed,” Aja hissed.
There was clicking inside the nearest eggs. It was easy to imagine the tiny beaks and claws that were bumping against the inner surface, attempting to tear away the membranes, devour the yolk, and break free of their warm home.
Hundreds of dragonets.
How many human lives could the inhabitant of a single egg terminate?
“Lords,” Em said. “Give me your rifle.”
She was so stunned that she handed it to him automatically. Only when he began clambering down the slope did she think to ask, “Why?”
“You saw the fleet,” he called back to her. “We’re losing the fight up there. We’ve got to keep them from making reinforcements.”
He was going to destroy the eggs.
Aja understood little about dragon biology. To be fair, nobody understood a thing about them aside from the fact that they wanted to kill all humans, probably to seize the Allied Colonial States for resources.
It was assumed that dragons would nest like many lizards did.
But nobody really knew.
Now Aja knew. And her mind spun at the sight of the nest, which Emalkay approached with at a rapid clip, leaving dust trailing in his wake.
They had expected the dragons to be attending to the outpost raids, but instead, caught them by surprise at the home world.
The dragon Aja killed had obviously been struggling to return to this nest.
“Oh no,” she said.
The fleet had caught the dragons when they returned home for the breeding season. All those enemies fiercely defending their world—they were also trying to defend their young. It must have hurt for them to abandon the nests.
Aja’s heart hurt at the sight of the dead dragon lower on the slope.
“Stop, Em,” she said.
He rapped his knuckles against one of the eggs, then stooped to listen for a response. “Stop what? Do you think they’re going to hatch and eat me?”
“They might. We don’t know. Be careful.”
“I’ll be careful all right,” he said, swinging the rifle to aim. “I’ll be so careful that they won’t even see me coming.”
Aja was only a few steps into the crater when he fired.
The modified Fog emerged in a plug the size of her arm. It consumed the entire cluster of eggs with shocking speed.
She had been unconscious instants after firing upon the first dragon. She hadn’t seen the damage wrought by the plasma rifle. Now she had the luxury of watching the eggshells melt, the fluids sizzling, small bodies within devoured as though dropped into acid.
It struck Aja that the dragonets were roughly the size of her childhood dog, Beetle.
“Stop it,” she said again.
Emalkay didn’t hear her because he was shooting another cluster of eggs.
They really did sound like thunder.
Aja stood over the first nest that he had destroyed. Only moments had passed since he fired, but there was already no more motion within the wreckage of eggshells and leathery bodies. They had been making such a lively clicking when she’d approached. They must have been near to hatching.
Emalkay sprinted to a third nest.
She reached it first, putting a hand on his shoulder. “What are you doing?”
“There are hundreds of these things here,” he said. He fired again. Aja flinched as more eggs melted away. “It only took ten dragons to wipe out all of York Prime! This many of them could kill us all!”
That was probably true, and Aja had been thinking something similar.
She hadn’t grown up anywhere near York Prime. Emalkay had. Perhaps she’d be the one firing on all the nests if she’d had to attend a school in the shadow of skyscrapers wrecked by dragons. If her family’s water supply had been poisoned by Fog, then her rage could have been equally fierce.
It was easy to think that he was doing the wrong thing when she had grown up out on a farm untouched by the war.
But watching Emalkay move to the next group of eggs sickened her.
Another gunshot, and she shut her eyes so she wouldn’t have to see.
Each discharge of the plasma rifle shook the crater. The untouched eggs shivered with inner motion, as though the dragonets within could hear what was happening and grew afraid. The walls of the crater looked like they were threatening to break as well, and rocks were sliding down the surface.
Surely dragons would hear them and come save their nest.
They couldn’t be that distracted by the fight in orbit.
Emalkay destroyed another, and another, and nobody came to defend against him.
“I think I missed one of the dragonets back there,” he said, jerking his thumb a cluster he’d already passed. His cheeks were flushed red with excitement. He must have been imagining how many panties he could drop once he told stories of his heroism against defenseless eggs. “Want to go stomp the survivor for me? Bet it’ll go down easy! You could take some claws home!”
Aja reached the broken eggs with a single leap. She felt strange descending upon them now, her motions slowed by the weak gravity, as though she were an angel of death.
He was right. There was movement within that cluster, writhing under shattered shells that dissolved slowly.
Emalkay had encouraged her to stomp it.
She kneeled, flicking aside a few pieces of eggshell. Despite their large size, they were very light, almost paper-thin.
The dragonet she exposed was not quite the size of her childhood foxhound—maybe half that. It was more immature than the others. The size had probably been what saved it, since there had been more amniotic fluid to provide cushioning, and the modified Fog had burned out before melting all the way to the hatchling within. Lucky dragonet. Unluckily, such a small thing seemed to have no chance of survival after such a premature birth.
Stomp it, Emalkay had said.
What little Fog remained stung Aja’s hands as she reached in to scoop the dragonet out.
It was heavy in her arms, though not as heavy as she would have expected. The scales had yet to take on the ridged edges of an adult dragon. Its soft body smelled almost sweet, as though coated in maple syrup.
Lords, the eyes weren’t even open yet.
It didn’t look like a potential mass murderer now that she was holding it.
Emalkay destroyed another cluster of eggs. He was on the far end of the crater, having destroyed more than half of its inhabitants, and there was still no sign of defense from the dragons.
“Aja! Look!” he shouted.
His finger thrust toward the sky.
She followed it up to see gold sparkling in high orbit. Those were the telltale glimmers of Carriages on the approach, accelerating toward their periapsis in order to drop toward the atmosphere.
If they were moving in, then they must have killed most of the enemy dragons.
The Allied fleet had realized what deadly weapons the plasma rifles were.
Humans were winning, at long last.
Aja caught herself stroking the dragonet’s pebbled flank. It was a glorious shade of dark blue, like the sky in paintings of the First Earth.
It stirred at the touch, and she couldn’t help but think that this touch should have come from the hand of the dragon she had killed. It would have murdered her, yes, but this dragonet was harmless, innocent. Its future wasn’t written yet. Maybe it would have been the creature who convinced its brethren to end the war. They would never know now. Emalkay was bent on killing them all.
One of those slitted eyes opened. The dragon’s long neck draped over her arm as it focused up on her face, stretching its beak toward her chin.
Instinctively, Aja ducked her head to greet it as Emalkay fired yet again a few hundred feet away.
“Hello,” she said. Her voice hitched on the second syllable of the word.
The dragonet brushed its forehead against hers.
Electricity jolted through Aja.
For an instant, she had no thoughts, no sense of her body, no sense of time. The crater vanished around her.
She could only feel the dragonet.
It was such a powerful sensation that she almost thought that she had made a mistake picking up this little newborn to cradle it as she had cradled calfs while bottle-feeding them. It certainly felt like her skull was folding inside-out. Like her brain was going to spill onto the ground.
Memories of her entire life flashed through her.
Aja’s childhood at the Skytoucher farm. Her rejection from the Academy. Enlistment with the Allied military when she’d been only fifteen years old. Boot camp, followed by cross training in driving Carriages, and then the war.
Then she regained all her senses, and she was still holding that dragonet, neither of them injured. Its faceted silver eyes gazed at her.
Help us, it said.
The words entered her mind directly.
Aja was certain that it was the dragonet speaking to her. She had never heard of dragons speaking before—there was no way to communicate with him. But she knew that the plea had come from the dragonet, and she somehow knew that it could understand her as well.
She set the dragonet on the dusty ground a safe distance from the Fog still devouring its nestmates. She turned to look for Emalkay, who roved at the far end of the crater.
“We’re enemies,” Aja whispered to the dragonet.
It only looked at her. There were no more words. Their moment of connection had passed.
Maybe such a little thing simply couldn’t speak more than once.
Emalkay was about to shoot the last cluster of eggs. Aja leaped smoothly through the air, heart pounding.
There was a lot of debris on that side of the crater. All of the resonating gunshots had shaken rocks loose from the nearby walls. Aja found one the size of her fist and picked it up.
“Want to shoot this last one?” Emalkay asked, turning to greet her.
Before he faced her, she struck.
The rock cracked against the back of his skull.
Emalkay was probably still hurting from the crash. It didn’t take much force to knock him out. His slow collapse was graceful, and there was plenty of time for Aja to scoop the plasma rifle out of the air before it struck, risking an accidental discharge.
He stirred when he landed, so she kicked him again, just to make sure he would stay down.
The plasma rifle was warm from being fired, taking so many dragonets’ lives.
“Thal forgive me,” Aja said.
The fleet was landing nearby, lighting up the sky with the blaze of their propulsion. She hastened to return to the surviving dragonet.
It was barely alive on the ground, struggling to breathe. Its skin was cold when she picked it up again.
This little killer, this larvae that could become a mass murderer, wouldn’t survive once the fleet landed. If premature hatching didn’t kill it, then other coachmen who shared Emalkay’s sentiments would take care of it once they reached the crater. Aja could already hear them approaching. Their distant voices echoed over the barren mountains.
Help us, it had said.
Now it said nothing. It was sleeping, curled against her for warmth.
There was nothing Aja could do about the other eggs. They were at the mercy of the Allies.
But she knew what she needed to do about this lone dragonet.
Nobody seemed to understand why Aja Skytoucher, highly decorated survivor of the Battle at Drakor III, would have resigned from service the instant she returned to the Station. The coachmen who had been at Drakor III were guaranteed promotions for each dragon they had killed. Since she and Emalkay had slaughtered an entire nest, they would probably get to pick their next deployment.
They never needed to see battle again. They would have more money than any coachman knew what to do with.
Yet resigned she did, and she returned to New Dakota a hero.
She watched the parting message Emalkay had sent to her on the mochila while riding the space elevator to the surface. It was a lengthy message. The man didn’t know when to shut up.
Emalkay told her she was nuts for leaving the service. He said that he never wanted to be deployed with another coachman. Aja had saved him twice, after all: once from crashing on Drakor III, and once when a rock had broken free of the crater and nearly killed him. He was still in the hospital recovering from his concussion.
But even though he claimed that he wouldn’t work with anyone else, he hadn’t resigned. He was staying in the service to enjoy the salary.
She turned off her mochila. She had no interest in what he had to say.
The elevator landed smoothly. Aja was greeted by the yellow plains of New Dakota, the colony covered in swaying grass and rimmed by jagged mountains not unlike those on Drakor III. She lifted her duffel bag carefully and went to the transport.
“Aja!” her mother greeted, wrapping her in a tight hug. “You look so thin! I’m glad I made bone broth for you. I expect you to drink a liter of it as soon as we get home.”
She gave a shaky laugh, drawing back so that her mother’s embrace wouldn’t crush the duffel bag. “I have been craving your broth.”
“Of course you have! I still make the best broth in all of the Colonies.” Her mother was convinced of this even though she’d never been off of New Dakota. Aja didn’t correct her.
It was nice to be home after so many years, watching the farms rush past their speeder. Little had changed since she left. Everything looked so small now.
The Skytoucher farm had been repainted recently, and its blue paneling gleamed in the sunlight. The corn stood as tall as Aja. The cattle grazing in the pasture were fat. The farm was clearly doing well, which her mother was eager to reinforce as she babbled on about how many new clients they’d gotten. They were going to be rich, she said. And richer still now that they would enjoy all of Aja’s retirement bonuses.
“Not that I’m unhappy to have you, but I am a little surprised you’d want to come back to this,” her mother said, watching from the doorway as Aja set the duffel bag on her bed. It was the same tiny mattress she had slept on as a girl. The sheets were patterned with pink flowers. “You must be used to so many more glamorous places after your deployments!”
Aja forced a smile. “Yeah, but there’s no place like home.”
Her mother planted a kiss on her forehead. “I’ll let you unpack.”
She left. Aja shut the door behind her.
In truth, no matter how beautiful it was, the farm did seem terribly small. But it was several hundred acres in reality. Their property extended beyond the land where they could plant crops into the inhospitable, cruel mountains. It was quite spacious, really.
And very much like Drakor III.
The planet was now inhabited by human forces, which had wiped out most of the population in the weeks since Aja’s battle there. They would spend years hunting the surviving dragons throughout their various outposts. It might be generations before humans managed to kill them all. The battles would be messy. Countless families would suffer for it—both human and dragon.
The violence might never end unless someone figured out how to communicate with the dragons.
Aja unzipped her duffel bag. A head the size of a terrier’s popped out from among her uniform, blinking sleepily at her.
The dragonet reached its beak up to touch Aja’s forehead.
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.
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.