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 glower. “We’re returning to the Imperial City.”

She answered with an automatic salute, snapping a hand up to her forehead without hesitation. “Yes, sir!”

And that was it, nothing else. No explanation as to why the rest of her training was being canceled or why they were returning to the Imperial City after just two weeks away. There should be more stages, more trials, but those were questions she was conditioned to not ask. When given an order, she obeyed, nothing more. No wondering whether she was being summoned alone or if the others were coming along, no worrying whether this was a bad turn or a good one. She turned and began to pack, throwing off the last eerie vestiges of the dream earlier. The memory of it had run raw and sharp in her veins, making her skin prickle with inexplicable anxiety and adrenaline every time her thoughts drifted back to it on accident, but no more. Focus.

And yet she touched her forehead again despite her better judgment and probed the bruise once more. No. She was overreacting. She had always had an inhuman constitution, something Pierro had hinted at earlier. She didn’t like it when it was mentioned, but the truth was out: she was of mixed blood. That wasn’t atypical; she knew several other mixed-bloods from her first recruit group who were experiencing something similar. Ironic that she clung to some of the old prejudices even when many others didn’t - against herself. It cheapened her accomplishments, and she hated when others used it as an excuse for their failures against her.

“Good luck at the Imperium.”

With her bag slung over her shoulder, Anzi turned in the dark hallway to see a familiar hulking shape step out of the next room. Pierro. Had the noise woken him up? It was the middle of the night, and every sound was amplified in this barracks cabin. He must have heard everything. But seeing him like that made one thing clear: he wasn’t leaving with her, so she must be the only one heading back to the Imperial City. A cool thrill rushed through her chest. She hadn’t dared to hope until now because it was better to expect little than to be disappointed, but now that she knew she was going alone, didn’t this mean good news? Clearly it wasn’t a military emergency of any kind. Had she really exempted all remaining training? That could mean she was being inducted already. She had to swallow past the sudden lump in her throat and take in a deep breath to steady her excitement.

“Thanks,” she said after a moment. “I’ll see you when you get back.”

“Sure. I’ll tell Aimee and Doufan you said so.”

She paused. It hadn’t occurred to her that she should say goodbye to them too, via Pierrot at least if not face to face. But it was still hard to think of them as comrades when they weren’t on the field.

“Okay,” she said, well aware how awkward and stiff she sounded, and left without another word.

* * *

Colonel Bisset didn’t give her an opportunity to ask what was going on. He hadn’t even nodded to acknowledge her presence when she appeared in the darkness, simply turning to climb onto his dragon’s back using the multi-rung stirrup that trailed down its scaled side in front of its wing joint. She knew the drill. After he was settled in, she would do the same. But every time, the sensation of the gigantic beast’s heaving side under her hands made her shiver so much she could barely hold onto the braided leather ropes. An adult dragoness, grown large and strong over the past century at the very least. Blue scales rimmed in white, like dangerous flower petals gleaming in the moonlight. It took her breath away every time.

This was the only dragon she had ever had the privilege of approaching, much less touching. She and the others had been dumbstruck when they first saw the enormous creature alight upon the ground three months ago. It had been right in the middle of the elite training grounds after their graduation, and at first, Anzi had been terrified they might be under attack. What else was she supposed to have thought? What else was she supposed to have felt except fear and awe at the immense shadow that blotted out the sun above their heads, at least twenty meters long from the head to the tip of its barbed tail? The only times she had ever seen dragons before was from a distance when the Premier went on their aerial patrols, always rising in the air from the closed-off palace courtyard far in the distance. If she hadn’t already been determined to be one already, that moment alone would have been enough to make her dedicate herself to becoming a dragon rider. She couldn’t have named a reason if anyone asked her, other than the expected response of for the Empire. She had simply - felt it. A connection, strong as a storm and just as chaotic, a calling inside her that made her realize she was on the right path.

She wouldn’t give this up for anything. Underneath her as they flew through the night sky, buffeted by winds strong enough to topple over anyone else, Anzi reveled in the delight of taking flight. Dragon flight.

She only wished she knew the dragon’s name. Colonel Bisset had never said it aloud, never introduced them to her so they could admire her scales and enormous size or her glittering, dark blue eyes that matched the colonel’s Service uniform perfectly. Why not? Why hadn’t he? She both resented and admired the colonel for it. Such a creature deserved more than silence. If it were her, she would proudly announce every arrival, every departure of her dragon companion, but perhaps that was the point. Maybe that was the wrong thing to do. A dragon was far too dignified to be toted around like a trophy.

Whatever her name, Colonel Bisset’s dragon suited her human partner perfectly. Both austere, silent, as solid as three layers of brick and as severe as a a brewing thunderstorm. What would her dragon be like, she wondered. Which dragon would choose her? What part of her would they be drawn to, and she to them?

She was so entranced by the wild, colorful turns of her imagination that she didn’t notice until hours later that she felt queasy. Her stomach churned with something like - fear? No, not fear, a vibrating, anxious apprehension. She frowned. She wasn’t airsick, was she? She had flown on this dragon’s back dozens of times with the others and never experienced any discomfort. But now she felt a niggling urge to put her feet back on the ground soon.

Her eyes widened. Absolutely not. She was not going to develop some inexplicable phobia of flying when she was literally on the brink of being inducted into the Premier Guard. That was absolutely not going to happen. If it did, she would spend her entire life in the air just so she could force herself to become numb to it. Whatever it took. She clenched her teeth and fought back the uneasiness until it was left squashed at the back of her mind, and after a moment, took a deep breath to clear her thoughts.

It had taken two weeks to travel east to the desert fringes from the Imperial City on foot, since crossing rough terrain had been part of the required training. But now they were flying and taking a straight path back. Two nights and half a day, accounting for rest, and then she would be home.

She smiled. Was this her time? Finally, she was answering her calling. This was what she had been meant for all her life. Why else would she feel this way, as if she were teetering on the verge of fulfillment, on the brink of victory?

Two nights and half a day, and then…

She closed her eyes.

* * *

“He says he’s a chieftain, Your Excellency. I believe him.”

“Because of his wealth?” the emperor asked lightly as he leaned back in his chair. He looked around the study as if searching for something, but the only other person in the roomwas his advisor, who looked at him with a meaningful frown and furrowed eyebrows.

“You know it isn’t just that. The jewelry he wore. Dragon claws, Sire. Whether those are old relics passed down from his predecessors or he has access to wild dragons somehow, an ordinary man would be in no position to benefit from either.”

“And yet we’ve never heard of his tribe before.”

“That’s not surprising. Nomad politics aren’t our forte. If they were, we would have been able to take all the lands east of the Adaraat Desert by now. But nomad tribes are enough of a mystery that I can confidently say it would be stranger if we had heard of these people.”

“Alright. Let him stay in the city. I’ll meet with him in two days.”

“Two days, Sire?” The advisor’s frown deepened. “They’ve been here a week already.”

“Better to let them simmer a bit more in anticipation, don’t you think? We don’t want to seem too curious, even if we…Never mind. Just do as I say.” He waved the advisor away, who stood up from his seat and delivered a deep bow.

“Yes, Your Excellency.” 

Comments (9)
goodnovel comment avatar
Bella Jersey
I’m so excited for this journey
goodnovel comment avatar
The emperor is giving me the jerk vibe....
goodnovel comment avatar
Mana Sol
wink wonk

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