“This is a small property for avoiding that boy entirely, Isendiar.”
Isendiar froze with his fingers just touching the front door’s handle, willing his heart back down from his throat before he turned around. “Good morning, Miah. You’re up early.”
She raised an eyebrow at him, crossing her arms over her chest. “Where are you off to all alone? Where’s Azima?”
“I told her not to come.” He fidgeted under her dark gaze, feeling five years old again. His mother had wanted nothing to with him after his birth and Miah—fifteen years older—had helped to raise him until she’d been sent away to get married and strengthen their father’s position. One disapproving look from her had been enough to terrify him into behaving as a child and the effect was still strong all these years later. “What’s going to happen to me here? I just want to go for a ride by myself.”
The eyebrow rose higher. “Azima told me that Ciaran learned about your upcoming suicide the other night.”
“It’s not suicide, it’s sacrifice.”
“It’s ridiculous.” She took a deep, steadying breath. “If Father needs a sacrifice so badly, ask any foolish child. To conceive one solely to kill it is barbaric, and I hardly blame Ciaran for being horrified at us and angry with you for not even putting up a token resistance.”
“Because it’s important, an honour—”
“Because you’ve spent your entire life being groomed to die, since the day you drew your first breath. You don’t know any better, Isendiar, and nothing else truly matters to you.”
He looked away from the anger in the set of her mouth and the pain in her eyes. “He’s not angry with me. Ciaran. He’s like you, angry at everyone else, and just like you there is nothing he can do to change it. I am not a coward and I’m not as stupid as you all seem to believe. I’ll gladly die to keep the desert safe. Don’t you think someone else’s sister would say the same as you, if Father called for volunteers?”
“Perhaps, but other sisters are not me. And other 24-year-olds can at least choose freely and know what they’re giving up. You don’t, and you don’t care either.”
“It’s my purpose in life. Otherwise, who am I? I would just be the last of the Desert King’s children, with seven brothers and a sister before me who can actually benefit the kingdom.”
Her lips twisted into a humourless smile. “How sad a life we live, Isen, when our only worth is how we can be of use to our father. Go away. Go for your ride. I don’t even want to look at you.”
He bowed stiffly and stepped out into the warmth of the early morning sunshine, trying to breathe normally around the tightness in his chest. It wasn’t the first time he’d fought with his sister, the same argument over and over, but it somehow hurt more now that there were only months until his birthday. He rubbed at his eyes, took a deep breath, and walked down to the stable, choosing a big black gelding to take out. Currying the gelding to a shine helped him relax and he smiled when he swung into the saddle and felt the gelding’s powerful muscles tense beneath him in anticipation. Well-trained and well-behaved, the gelding only tossed his proud head a few times as Isendiar made him walk slowly out of the stableyard, then eagerly flowed into a gallop when Isendiar gave him the signal.
He let the horse run, relaxing into the rhythm of powerful movement and hoofbeats pounding against the packed earth beneath them. The wind blew his hair back from his face and kept him cool even against the growing heat of the day, catching almost playfully at his loose shirt. He licked salty sweat from his lips and urged the gelding faster, until it felt as though they were flying through the estate’s fields, past startled farmhands and away from accusations and pain.
By the time he let the gelding drop back to a walk they were both soaked in sweat, the gelding dripping lather from heaving sides. Isendiar slid off and walked to take his weight off, smiling when the gelding nuzzled damply at his arm. He spotted a nearby pond and led the gelding towards it, stripping off the horse’s tack to let him graze and his own clothing to wade into the cool water. He moved out towards the center until the water lapped at his hips, then ducked down to put his head under, breathing out a stream of bubbles.
He swam and floated for over an hour while the gelding grazed along the banks and occasionally gave him measuring looks. He reluctantly pulled himself out once his fingers and toes had gone completely wrinkled and lay on his back in a soft patch of grass to let the sun warm his bare skin. The gelding nosed at him briefly before wandering off again in search of new grass, flicking his tail at bugs. Content, treacherous thoughts and emotions locked safely away, Isendiar dozed in the sunlight, breathing steady and deep.
Fingers stroking his sides, passing over his chest and down to his hips, jerked him abruptly awake, but when he opened his eyes he was still alone on the banks of the pond. Goosebumps rose across his body, pebbling his bare skin, and he got up to wriggle back into his pants, looking around warily. He’d heard tales of water spirits, seductive and beguiling until they drowned their victim, in the greener lands around the desert; like the desert’s own sand devils, they were said to hunt lone, unwary travellers and especially enjoy virgins. Shivering, Isendiar shoved his feet into his boots and pulled his shirt over his head, coaxing the gelding into being caught and tacking him up quickly and efficiently.
He was halfway back to his sister’s estate, letting the gelding walk at an easy pace and surrounded on all sides by nothing but scrubland, when the dragon dropped out of the sky and landed with a bone-jarring thump in front of him.
The gelding reared, tottering back a few desperate steps on his hind legs before spinning and bolting. Caught completely off-guard, Isendiar was thrown from the saddle and landed hard in the dirt, knocking the breath out of his lungs. He fought to pull air in through his nose, his spell-injured hand and the shoulder he’d landed on throbbing with pain, and dug his heels into the dirt to shove himself backwards in a scrabbling crab-like motion as the dragon’s shadow fell over him. The huge craggy head blocked out the sunlight as it lowered its nose down towards him, and he saw the shiny scar across its broad cheek from the blast of magic he’d given it the night it had attacked the market festival. Hot damp breath plastered his shirt to his chest and blew his hair back, bringing him the scent of smoke and charred meat.
“Go away!” he yelled at it, drawing his legs up, and kicked it as hard as he could in the nose. It blinked with a sound like shutters drawing shut and snorted, a sudden rush of hot air like a miniature windstorm. Isendiar bared his teeth at it and kicked it again, scrambling to his feet when it suddenly lifted its head.
One great paw lifted lazily and knocked him down again, the very tip of its claw slashing through the front of Isendiar’s shirt and the flesh underneath as neatly as a surgeon’s knife. Isendiar sat with his legs splayed and his hands pressed to his belly, wide-eyed and convinced that if he took his hands away his guts would spill out; but though warm blood soaked into his pants and his tattered shirt, he didn’t feel like he was dying. The dragon eyed him with one slanted eye, something like human amusement gleaming in the golden depths.
“Eat me if you’re going to,” he told it. “Don’t play games with me.” He managed a grin. “Everyone knows dragons cheat.”
He wondered if he would be able to cast a spell before it killed him, and if his untrained magic would shatter his arm this time instead of just flaying his hand. He wished he’d bothered to learn how to channel it safely instead of dismissing it as too much work when he was only going to live twenty-five years. Blood trickled slowly down from the wound across his belly and he felt a stinging in his eyes that had nothing to do with the sweat on his face.
“I’m not dying here,” he snapped. “Not when it has no meaning and not when it puts my people in danger.” The dragon only continued to watch him, as still as a statue made of sand. “And you’re not getting Ciaran either.”
At the name the dragon suddenly stood on its hind legs, spreading its wings out to their full length and width. The sun shone through the membranes, glittering along the veins of gold, and washed Isendiar with muted golden light. He stared up at the beast towering over him, thinking how beautifully deadly it truly was, and pushed himself carefully to his feet, keeping one hand pressed to his belly. The dragon angled its head down to look at him and he hit it with a pulse of pure power, his scream as something snapped in his wrist swallowed up in the dragon’s bellow of startled pain.
He fell to his knees under the force of the wind generated by the dragon’s wings as it leaped into the air. Fresh blood spilled down his stomach but he held fiercely onto consciousness, closing his eyes only against the dusty whirlwind the dragon’s flight whipped up around him. When he opened his eyes again the dragon was gone and he was alone on the plain, soaked in his own blood from his ribcage to his knees.
He stripped his shirt off and bound it awkwardly across the wound, using the sleeves to tie it around his waist and cursing loudly in every language he knew when he had to use his injured wrist. By the time he was done he was dripping with sweat and trembling in exhaustion and pain, but he gritted his teeth and forced himself to take the first step towards the estate, then a second. He concentrated on taking only one step at a time, cursing steadily under his breath, his head hanging so that his sweat-damp hair fell across his face. The world narrowed down to only the ground beneath his feet and the occasional cool breeze against his overheated skin.
He didn’t hear the hoofbeats until they were almost on top of him and didn’t see Azima until his knees gave out and she caught him as he fell, cradling him in her arms. He mustered up a smile and managed to ask her what took her so long, sliding down into blessedly cool darkness on her exasperated glare.
He woke in his bed at his sister’s estate, his stomach and wrist clean and neatly bandaged. Experimentally moving his fingers shot a stab of pain straight up his arm and he hissed through his teeth, letting his hand go slack. The rest of him from his scalp to his toes hurt nearly as much, making him regret that he’d even returned to consciousness. He licked dry lips and carefully turned his head, a little disappointed to find he was alone, the chair by the bed empty. The thought of his sister’s expression if he got up made him smile and he forced himself to a slumped sitting position, awkwardly shoving his pillow behind his back with his good hand.
“Break those stitches,” Azima said from the doorway, “and I will break you myself.”
“That’s how I know you love me.” He saw the tray in her hands and smelled the scent of food, his stomach growling in appreciation. “Feed me, I’m starving. Is it actually real food?”
“Your guts are all still where they belong, so I suppose so.” She brought the tray over and settled it across his lap. “I’m going hunting for that dragon tomorrow. A meal is one thing but it’s obviously not just after a single meal, and I don’t plan to let it get its claws into you again, princeling.”
“I’m not going to complain if you chop off its head.” He shoved a piece of fresh-baked bread into his mouth to quiet the rumble of his stomach. “Did the horse make it back?”
“In much better shape than you.”
“Good,” he said, and concentrated on his plate for a while.
“Ciaran is upset,” Azima said after some minutes had ticked by in silence, watching him eat from the chair by the bed. “He turned a fairly unattractive shade of white when I brought you in.”
“Get Raksha to tell him I apologize for getting sliced open by his dragon,” Isendiar replied, pretending it took all of his concentration to scoop up the last of the casserole from his plate.
“Still not talking to him now that you’ve broken his heart?”
“Don’t start, Azima. I’m not breaking anybody’s heart. He just probably hasn’t had to deal with anything like this back where he comes from. Aren’t you supposed to be keeping me away from bad influences anyway, not encouraging them?”
“I’m your bodyguard, not your mother. You still plan to avoid him then, princeling? Maybe you should have just let him go north, where someone without your... limitations could have taken him in.”
He gave her a dirty look and got a bland one in return. “Fine. Let him come to see me if he still wants to. I guess I owe him that much.”
“A great reward for him,” Azima said dryly, heaving herself to her feet. “I’ll fetch him.”
“Azima?” He studied her when she turned in the doorway. “What do you think? About this whole sacrifice thing?”
“I think your father is a cold man, princeling. And I think that I serve you, not him.” She held his gaze for a moment then bowed and left the room.
He was left alone with his own thoughts for so long that he started to become certain that Ciaran had decided he wasn’t worth the time after all and he felt something inside him knot together painfully. He tugged at his hair, trying to turn his mind to other things—when he might be able to have a bath and how quickly Azima would hunt down the dragon—and told himself that he didn’t blame Ciaran for only doing what Isendiar himself had been doing the past few days. If nothing else Liasha and Deshko liked Ciaran and could persuade their mother to take him in, giving him a safe place to live if he couldn’t find a way home.
Caught up in his own deepening misery, he didn’t realize he was no longer alone until the mattress dipped and Ciaran reached out to tip his chin up, giving him an uncertain smile. Isendiar glanced at the door, expecting Raksha to be awkwardly standing there ready to translate, but the doorway was empty; only Ciaran had come. He looked back, trying to figure out how to apologize and explain with his still tenuous grasp on Ciaran’s language, and settled for lifting his good hand and forming the letters for Ciaran’s name.
Ciaran smiled and took his hand, pressing a kiss to his knuckles. Feeling his cheeks go hot, Isendiar managed a smile in return, sure that it looked as awkward as it felt. In the glow of the nearby lamp Ciaran’s eyes looked almost as golden as the dragon’s but the expression there was much warmer, uncertainty mixed with affection and a little hope.
“I am sorry,” Isendiar said haltingly, searching for the words in Ciaran’s language. “Is... It is special? No. Um...” He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment and caught the word. “It is important.”
Ciaran tilted his head slightly then reached out and poked Isendiar gently in the chest, spreading his hand out against the bare skin above the bandages. The warmth of his palm distracted Isendiar enough that he didn’t get the meaning of Ciaran’s gesture right away, but when he did he felt himself flush even hotter. He started to shake his head but Ciaran pressed harder on his chest, his mouth thinning into a stubborn line.
Isendiar reached up to push his hand away but instead only rested his fingertips against the back of Ciaran’s hand. He met Ciaran’s eyes again, frustrated and feeling off-balance, knowing that if there weren’t so many language barriers between them he could explain and make Ciaran understand. His heart gave a funny little skip as Ciaran leaned towards him, but Ciaran only kissed his forehead and sat back, putting both hands together and leaning his cheek on them in a mimic of sleep.
“You confuse me so much,” Isendiar said in his own language. “You don’t understand why I have to do this, and I don’t understand why you make me want to... not. Life was a hell of a lot easier before you came along.” He smiled in response to Ciaran’s puzzled look and signed ‘thank you’ instead, trying not to feel completely alone after Ciaran had helped him lie down again and left the room.