It was hot. Blistering hot. The sun had set halfway and Anzi was still sweltering under her clothes. If the stiff wind rising from the direction of the horizon didn’t carry off the heat, the desert rabbits and foxes would hide in their burrows in dark underground shade, knowing it was better to go hungry and try again tomorrow. And that would mean nothing for Anzi to hunt.
Unacceptable. This was the final meal. Tomorrow, she would be on her way to the Imperial City, and there would be no more hunts. Tonight had to be perfect, for both Baba and for Oza who had been crying since morning and hadn’t stopped once. He was afraid. Not just because he had to leave with her, but because Mama had been inconsolable and raging for hours now.
“Why are you taking them from me?” a woman moaned from within the thatched-roof mud hut. “O muk-hua, they’re taking my children.”
“Enough. They’re mine, too. If you’re going to be like this, I’ll take you to the elders and have them put you back in the quiet house. You’ll never see Anzi or Oza again.”
After that, the woman fell silent, and Anzi prepared to dart away over the dirt and sand into the darkness, farther out into the desert fringes. She barely knew her mother. The woman was only allowed out of the quiet house on the other side of the village if her husband and the elders allowed it, and for the past ten years, Anzi had only been with her one day out of every month. She never knew what to say to the crazy-eyed woman who stared at things that weren’t there and babbled nonsense things.
“Elder Bahren. Welcome to our home. I’m sorry for the noise.” Before she could leave, Baba’s voice slithered out of the hut like a snake. He had always been good at talking. The elders loved him because of that, which was why they forgave him for his insanity-riddled abomination of a wife. “My daughter just left to hunt. We can sit down for a farewell meal together in an hour.”
“Your Anzi is even more a skilled hunter than I know if she can find anything in this heat. But she’s always been blessed. Only ten winters and so much promise. Her quick eyes and hands will be missed.”
“For the Empire, I can give over even my flesh and blood.”
“As we should. And your son?”
“They’ll be coming to take them both together.”
“A surprise, him being Selected for service. So young.” The elder clicked his tongue loud enough for Anzi to hear through the thin wall. “You shouldn’t have taken him to Anzi’s Selection trials. They only noticed him because he was in your arms when you came out to meet her afterward. I think it would have been better if they had waited until he was older.”
“They say he has a gift. Better to give him over while he’s still malleable. We live to serve.”
“Yes. But a shame you have no one else to carry on your name once they’re gone. Still, an honorable legacy.”
Honorable legacy. That was what awaited her in the Imperial City. She had known all her life she was different from the other children. Faster. Stronger. More vicious and driven. Most of the villagers thought she had an elder spirit in her. Some just thought she was frightening. She didn’t know what to believe. All she knew was that that was the reason she was leaving in the morning with Imperial Army escorts, because she ran faster, jumped higher, hit harder than all the others at the annual Selection a month ago. She was meant for something greater, the proctors had said. Take her home, say your goodbyes. She is ours now.
She wouldn’t have been so apprehensive if they had left Oza alone. How could they do that? He was so young, just three years old. What could they have seen in him to take him away before he had even learned his letters? He was small and scrawny and sickly, and he lost his breath whenever he walked too fast. He had already nearly died half a dozen times since birth because of the choking sickness there was no cure for, and he would carry it all his life. He was mute, too, something the other children used to bully him for. Used to. Before Anzi returned the favor in vicious kind and broke bones, drew blood, bit vulnerable flesh.
She had gone unpunished by the adults who never quite knew what to do with her. They still didn’t. Most were glad she was leaving even though offered only encouraging condolences to Baba. She didn’t care. After that incident a year ago, no one had bothered Oza again and that was all she cared about.
Like her, he was different, but in a different way. He needed to be protected. He needed to be safe - but surely the Empire would care for him better than she ever could. Her heart clenched, and she listened a little longer to his crying from within the hut. So little time…Only three. How special must he be that they wanted him already?
When Elder Bahren and Baba talked about boring things next, she slipped away. She had heard enough, and dinner would be late if she delayed any longer. Baba had already bragged that she could hunt even in this heat, and she couldn’t humiliate him. His dark desert eyes always bore into her when he was unhappy in the worst of ways. She ran silently over the mixed dirt and sand, heading for the nearest favorable hunting spot. If she was lucky, she would come back with enough to stay his disappointment.
Like it always did on the fringes of the Adaraat Desert, night fell unnaturally fast and draped the land in darkness. Within minutes, nearly all light is gone, and only by the moon’s glow did Anzi hope for prey. Her dark eyes flicked from side to side, waiting for signs of even the smallest scurrying life from where she perched in the fork of a desert acacia tree. Her feet were off the ground so the underground dwellers wouldn’t detect movement and flee from the surface, and she drew her hooded brown desert garb tight against her body to keep it from billowing.
There. A twitch in the darkness, the first tantalizing promise of prey. But when she leaped eight feet off the tree and darted over the sandy dirt to stab down on whatever had popped its head out of the scrubby growth, she froze with the short javelin poised over her head. She didn’t run or back away, but she held still as the shadowy thing pulled itself across the ground and moved closer to her with halting, jerking wiggles. There were little frills on the head folded back flat against the serpentine neck, and a slender, pointed tongue darted out twice before disappearing again.
Ye gods. She had never seen a wyrm from up close before. Even the tiny ones captured for sale back in the Imperial City market were stowed in cages with iron bars so thick one could only see the tip of a snout poking out between them. This one was different. Too different. It was enormous, and she wished it didn’t blend in so well with the nighttime with its pitch black hide. The only comfort was that wyrms had weak, nearly vestigial limbs or none at all, and they only moved as fast as a snake. Anzi was faster than any snake out here in the sands and dry grass. Nothing to worry about.
Except this thing had to be at least three meters long and as wide around as a grown man. Maybe more. How did it make it all the way out here? To be this size, it had to have come from deep desert where only the wyrmskin traders dared to go. She could scarcely believe it hadn’t run into anyone with sharp flaying knives on its way here.
It twitched again and sighed with a tired chuff. It was no more than half a meter away now, but it had stopped moving. Was it dying? No good for food since wyrmflesh was toxic, but if she harvested its hide, the money would be good. Maybe she could just…
It snorted, lifted its head - and opened its eyes. She sucked in a knife-sharp gasp, staring into the brilliant gold hue of the irises surrounding vertical slit pupils. Glowing. They were glowing so brightly. So beautiful. So - perfect.
It would be unforgivable to let such a perfect, beautiful thing die.
The thought was so foreign and jarring that she had to blink hard to wake herself from the reverie, but something wrapped tight around her heart and convinced her to stay, to linger. She didn’t know what it was exactly that made her kneel then, but in the next moment, her legs were folded up underneath her and she was holding up the creature’s head. Small, slender fingers stroked along pitch-black scales, smooth and cool.
There was such human intelligence in the unblinking eyes that the thought of doing them any harm cowed her. Nothing had ever cowed her before.
“I’ll feed you,” she said. “But you need to go back after. You have to hide.”
And she did. Feed the thing, that is. She hunted well, better than she ever had, and she caught not only two foxes but two rabbits in no time at all. But she still needed to take something home, and she explained that to the wyrm as if he could understand her.
He? It, she meant. Dragons shouldn’t be he and she. They were beasts, dangerous beasts she should never get attached to. When he was done eating - it, that is - she was stunned when it wriggled off the ground and stretched out short, spindly limbs. Small, but not vestigial. They could bear the body’s whole weight. Not a wyrm - a dragon? But that was impossible. Dragons couldn’t survive in the wild all alone. They needed a rider, a human companion to take care of them. Everyone knew this. Impossible.
But she said nothing as the creature struggled back onto its claws, and when it stared up at her, she jerked her chin in the direction of the darkened desert.
“You need to go. If someone catches you, they’ll skin you. You’re dead.”
It didn’t move. It continued to stare up at her and captured her with that spellbinding golden gaze, until at last she gathered her nerve to kick the dirt and scowl at it.
“Go!” she exclaimed. “What are you waiting for.”
But she didn’t want to let it go. There wassomething insane and confusing and unspeakable happening inside her, and she didn’t like it. Confusing was bad. Confusing was dangerous. And dragons in the wild - that was the most confusing thing she had ever heard of. And yet for some reason she wanted so badly to let it go and keep it a secret, even if that means it was doomed. Even if that meant she was committing a crime - because something told her that it had to happen this way.
It was a hypnotic urge that made her reach forward to stroke the creature’s dark frill again, fingers running along the webbing between the flexible spines. She thought she felt it purring, but that couldn’t be right. She ripped her hand away, suddenly frightened.
“I’ll - be in trouble if I don’t go home,” she stammered. It was the first time in her life she had felt so flustered, and she scrambled back onto her feet so she could back away. Those eyes must be magic. She could feel them burning inside her like molten metal. “Go - go away. Don’t come back.”
She fled and didn’t look back.
Before the jagged mouth of a deep canyon, twelve children in beige desert garb scurried to line up in two rows of six. Towering and narrow, the passage that snaked ahead was far darker than it should have been in the rising light of the dawn, but not a single child betrayed even the slightest shade of fear. Instead, they looked straight ahead with wide, alert eyes, some even eager. A bald man in hardened leather armor paced before them, staring hard at each small head he passed. “Let’s get this out of the way: yes, you might die. We’ll send notice to your family with your remains for a burial. You might have been hand-picked to come here, but you’re nothing special yet. Not until you pass through the Gauntlet. And no one feels sorry for you just because you’re still knee-high and knock-kneed. Is that understood!” Twelve childish voices chimed in uniform assent. The man grimaced. He swore these kids got smaller every year. “None of yo
This was unfortunate. Anzi had expected the wyrm because there had been one when she first ran the Gauntlet herself, but what she hadn’t expected was a nearly full-grown beast ready to devour whatever it managed to sink its teeth into. Was the quartermaster insane? These kids were too young, no way any of them could outpace a creature of this size. And the chances of surviving the attack? Laughably low. If she hadn’t sneaked down in the first place for other reasons entirely, she would never have been here to stop the beast in time. It had exploded out of the sand like a lightning strike and gone straight for the closest children hanging from the rock wall, and if she had been even a half-second slower in leaping on its head to throwing off its aim, at least one of the recruits would be maimed or dead. On her own First Run years ago, the wyrms in the canyon hadn’t been half so dangerous. Idiot quartermaster! She would report this to the colonel so he could g
Anzi remembered this place, every bend, every dip, every shadow. Or so she wanted to think, but that was impossible. This was part of the desert, which changed day by day. Nothing was ever the same, especially not after almost six years. She had come here when she was twelve just like those recruits. After two years of rigorous training and advancement through the ranks, she had been named one of the dozen most promising and put through her First Run. She had completed it on the first try. Was the only one who’d ever managed it. There it was, the memory of stumbling over and slapping her hands on the tower of circular stones that marked the finish point, bleeding and heaving with two broken ribs, a shattered nose, and both eyes so swollen she’d barely been able to see. How she had managed to fight off the senior soldiers chasing her and make it to the end, none of the officers knew, until the four Second Runners had come trotting out of the gorge with bruise
The instant Doufan tensed his legs, Anzi followed suit, but she was the first to leap. With spear in hand, she lunged with the tip pointed at his chest. He was too lithe and agile to be struck anywhere else. But he disappeared in a brown leather blur and she reeled back, imagining a blade slicing through her spine already. Disadvantage. Even magicked, a weakened spear wouldn’t hold long against his halberd, but she had no choice. He was forcing her hand, and Aimee was in the back still aiming rocks at her with alarmingly deadly aim. They were playing it safe, with her using her potshots to limit Anzi’s mobility while Doufan chipped away at her stamina with a rapid chain of strikes from his halberd. She leaped back to avoid a vicious downward stab that would have impaled her foot and trapped it to the ground, but in doing so, Aimee found yet another opening to send a rock flying toward her forehead. It thwacked her in the face and she staggered back, seeing d
“You look like shit.” Anzi Anzi Anzi raised her head to see Pierro standing in the hallway outside her open door. She hadn’t noticed his approach because of the irritating noise that this barracks building tolerated, the humming of constant conversation leaking through the cabin walls and even occasional shouting. In the Imperial City, noise beyond a whisper was never tolerated in sleeping quarters. If soldiers wanted to socialize and speak freely, they went to the recreational buildings. No discipline here at all. Desert garrisons really were disorganized. “You don’t look so good either,” she told the other soldier, making sure to look him up and down with a deliberate, pointed expression from where she sat on her low cot. “You could have left the trash talking behind when I knocked you out, by the way.” He sidled into the tiny room with his hands clasped behind his back, He sidled into the tiny room with hi
“Sir!” Anzi shoved herself off the cot and leaped to her feet to stand at attention, arms locked at her sides and back ramrod-straight in military fashion. She faced the doorway where the colonel stood in all his imposing, white-haired dignity. He was clothed in his formal, dark blue and white Service regalia as always - of course he would never strip himself of any of it, even in this sweltering heat. Colonel Alexandre Bisset, dragon rider, Premier Guard. His bristling white brow suggested advanced age, and yet his face was smooth and unlined. He looked not a day over forty, if that, and yet it was well known that the man had been a loyal member of the Service for over eighty years. This was the youth imbued by a deep bond with an immortal dragon, evidence of his unwavering devotion and prodigious skill. “Get dressed and prepare to leave,” he said, voice curt and raspy as he stared at her with his usual glow
The Imperial City, from whence every good thing flowed. This was the cradle of the nation that had unified every divided territory from the western edge of the Adaraat Desert all the way to the sea. This was the birthplace of all things just and fair, all things meant for greatness. And of course, the seat of the Emperor’s power could be nothing less than grand and breathtakingly beautiful. Far below, the colors of the sprawling city blended and rippled into each other like threads in a great tapestry, the red banners of the various districts twining all about with splendid, curated groves of exotic trees lining every roadway. Many generations before, this place once had another name, but the Emperor had decreed long ago that it would simply become the Imperial City. The Empire was therefore simply the Empire for that reason as well. Instead of attaching a name to it and making it only one of many, this reign was meant to be the one and only. Not an empire, but The Empire. And that wa
“Anzi, greet the Emperor’s guest.” Colonel Bisset’s voice grated in her ear as if he were speaking right into it, and the gravelly anger buried there managed to bring her out of her stunned reverie. Dark hells, what was she doing? Still disoriented, she nearly presented Kaizat with a military salute, only managing to catch herself in time because she saw Bisset’s twitch out of the corner of her eye. He was a foreign guest, a chieftain, not an officer. With a smooth flourish, she brought her hand down from where it had been raised halfway and stepped back so she could bend at the waist in a respectful bow. There was no doubt that the colonel had spotted her near-mistake. He was going to have something to say about that later. She grimaced before returning her face to a neutral expression and rising again. To her utter distaste, however, Kaizat bowed as well. Not at the waist, thankfully, but with his golden gaze fixed on her, he inclined his head as deeply as it could go without takin