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.”
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
Anzi had never been in the palace before, which meant she had no pass token to flash at whoever might stop and interrogate her. Would the guards at the front gates open them for her so she could leave? They weren’t supposed to, but with an important foreign chieftain at her side, maybe they would make an exception. Exiting the palace unauthorized had to be easier than getting in. But lesson learned: maybe she should have thought about that before rushing out of the throne room. “How long have you been a soldier?” She looked back at the man and resisted the urge to take a sidling step away from him as they walked down the hallway. She had pulled her hand out of his grasp long ago, but he was sticking too close for comfort. Surely he didn’t have to walk so close that their hands threatened to brush against each other with every step, and surely he didn’t have to stare at her that way, either. His unnatural golden gaze felt like it was boring straight through her and melting her down li
Anzi and Kaizat stood patiently by the enormous stone barrier that made up one of the six massive gates leading out the city. Just beyond the barrier would be a bridge made of the same heavy stone as well, solid and true. The gate guards were the same way. No ordinary beasts, these: while Anzi had her doubts about non-humans, control of the impossibly heavy gates had to fall into the capable hands of the enormous stone golems and no one else. Somewhat man-shaped, just vaguely, while bearing the rippling, coarse texture of rocky earth, the hunched-over creatures stood thrice as high as the tallest human and as many times wide. They had no eyes nor mouth nor ears, but they had a sizable, featureless lump where the head might be on a man along with two arms and two legs as wide around as tree trunks. Mottled gray, black, and white, if they stood stationary, someone who knew no better would mistake them for massive statues chiseled out of a mountainside. But of course, everyone in the Imp
She should have known these knuckle-draggers would be here. “Welcome back, Anzi, didn’t expect to see you so soon. Fell off, did you? Passing muster for the Premier Guard harder than you thought?” “If I fell off, then you should be worried about where you’ll end up,” she said flatly, but she didn’t bother putting on a frosty front otherwise. Blunt words were enough to get her point across when it came to this gaggle of malcontent soldiers who thought she was a wise target to heckle. Oscar had never been very smart though, so while his friends would know better than to do much more than sneer in her direction, he was the one who would be raising hell soon enough. Too bad all the other training grounds were already reserved for drills. She had come up the hill to check with the quartermaster before escorting Kaizat over, knowing there would be trouble-making loiterers about. Like Oscar and his friends.
“What do you think you’re doing.” Anzi had no choice but to remain in place since she didn’t dare step in front of the chieftain, but if she could, she would have been in Oscar’s face in an eye blink. Was he crazy or stupid or both? Didn’t he recognize what kind of guest she was escorting by the priceless regalia he wore? Her eyes narrowed to sharp slits as she glared at her fellow soldier, violently willing him to move back. “I’m just welcoming -” “It’s all right, Anzi. I’m sure he means no harm.” She couldn’t bring herself to look over at Kaizat, not even when she felt a soothing hand rest upon the leather guard over her shoulder. This was humiliating. No discipline, she seethed. And what was Oscar’s plan, exactly? What did he think was going to happen? Now that he had issued what was little more than a poorly disguised challenge, the honor of the Empire’s entire military rested on a pair of shoulders more suitable for posing for portraits than fighting. And yet even if he won, th
“So you get sent back here, and the first thing they make you do is give a tour to some barbarian nomad princeling?” Anzi said nothing in response to the haughty sneer that came from her left. She had no idea which one of Oscar’s friends was speaking, but it was all the same to her. He wasn’t worth responding to. “Stop that,” someone else said. A feminine voice this time, softer but no less lofty. “It must have felt awful coming back like this. It’s alright, Anzi…you’re five or ten years too early for the Premier Guard, anyway. It would have been ridiculous if you managed it, don’t you think? Now that you’re back, you can train some more and prepare better. Next time, if you work harder, you’ll definitely make it.” The snide, backhanded pretense at encouragement was even more annoying than the outright taunting. If she were allowed to speak of the Gauntlet or the Running at all, she would have shot back with a cold assurance that she had exceeded all expectations, but Colonel Bisset
“The market is still crowded. It’ll be better if you wait until closer to the evening to explore the wares.” “That’s fine.” It had been quiet between them ever since Anzi led Kaizat away from the training grounds half an hour ago. Since then, they had been walking along the wide, smooth stone path that followed the circular Annat River and bordered the inner edge of the upper districts. Now they approached a divide in the river, as well as in the path. One way would continue leading them around, and the other would take them deeper into the city districts. When they reached the fork, she came to a halt. “What would you like to see in the meantime, sir.” “What would you recommend?” “There are people who enjoy exploring the Quarter Art, but I don’t think you’ll be wanting souvenirs.” “How did you know? Do I not look like the sort to collect them?” She was glad they passed by another soldier just then so that she was obligated to exchange a quick salute. It gave her an excuse to not