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The copter set down in the front yard of the dragon nursery under a burning sun. The whirling blades raised such a dust storm, Jakkin had to squint to see through the windows, and still the world outside seemed filled with sand and grit.
"Home . . ." Akki sent Jakkin the single word as they landed, her mind decorating the sending with a picture of the nursery: gray stone surrounded by red sky, which lay beyond the sand and grit. She pushed a strand of dark hair back from her forehead and pressed her face against the window.
"Home," Jakkin answered, his sending the blue of the five rivers twisting through tan sands. A cooler reaction, almost as if he were afraid. Only he wasn’t afraid, just being cautious. It was an old habit, but a good one.
As Golden’s slim hands danced across the console of lights, the blades slowed, then stilled. "Good landing," Golden said. Then he turned and grinned at them. "Even if you two don’t know the difference."
Soon the dust settled. A minute more and Jakkin could see through the grit that the landscape was neither as red and gray—or as tan and blue—as their sendings.
Akki laughed—a soft, delightful sound—and Jakkin was reminded of other times she ’d sounded like that. Not many recently; hardly any when they were on the run in the mountains, and none at all in the caves of the trogs. But he remembered them all.
Overhead, Heart’s Blood’s five—Sssargon, Sssasha, Trisss, Trisssha, and Trissskkette—wheeled away, disappearing behind a cluster of trees. In his mind, Jakkin heard them bidding a good-bye, their sendings as bright and fluffy as clouds.
"Sssargon goesss. Sssargon fliesss high," sent the largest, and only male. As ever, his sendings were full of himself. And full of what he was doing now. Dragon time was always now. They could remember a trainer, their hatchlings, their nest. They could be taught enough movements to fight warily in a pit. They could recall where a particularly fine patch of wort existed. But otherwise they lived in the now. Still, they’d been able to hold on to enough to bring Golden to the rescue, to guide him to where Jakkin and Akki had been on the run from the trogs who slaughtered dragons in their caves.
"Thanks, my friends." Jakkin’s sending to the dragons was open-ended, brightly colored. Those dragons were the one constant in Jakkin’s life besides Akki. He hoped they weren’t going far. They linked his past and present, sky and earth, nursery and the wilds. "Good flying, my friends." They were behind the trees, so he couldn’t see them any-more. Couldn’t hear them, either. But just in case, he called out again with his mind, "Fair wind."
A sunny image flittered back to him, actually more like a brain tickle. So at least one of them heard. Probably Sssasha, always the sunny one.
"Here we are," Golden said, flicking the last switches on the console. Turning his head, he nodded at Jakkin and Akki, his river-colored eyes glinting at them. "Home. The nursery. Back where your life begins."
It was unclear if he was making a joke or a simple statement. Jakkin had never been able to read Golden easily, and unlike the dragons’ minds, Golden’s was closed. Of course Jakkin knew that humans had closed minds, but it was something he would have to get used to, now that they were back.
Unbuckling his seat belt, Golden stood and stretched. Walking to the copter door, he pushed it open, then flicked a switch that unfolded a set of stairs. Descending the steps backward, he signaled Jakkin and Akki to follow the same way.
As Jakkin climbed down from the copter, he looked over his shoulder. The shock of it all—gates, wood-and stone walls, dusty yard, and the blue water in the weir— seemed overwhelmingly like a dream. So self-contained, so comfortable, so . . . familiar.
He and Akki had been living for a year as outlaws, exiles. Running, hiding, afraid all the time. Well, maybe not all of the time, but a lot of the time. Living in caves, without real beds. Worrying about where their next meal would come from. How often he ’d dreamed about coming home to the nursery, but he ’d never really believed it could ever happen. Too many people with too many grievances were still looking for them. Like the Austar wardens who wanted to put them in jail; the rebels who wanted to kill them outright.
Yet according to Golden, all that was no longer true. At least the rebels were satisfied, the wardens, too. Jakkin set his lips together. Not that he mistrusted Golden, but it seemed too good to be . . .
Now, of course, they had another problem—the trogs in the caves probably wanted Jakkin and Akki dead, because they didn’t want the secret of their caves to come out. And they probably wanted their two dragons back as well.
I regret none of that, Jakkin thought. None.
And none of the past year, either. Oh, it had been a hard year. But, though hard, life in the mountains had given both Jakkin and Akki a taste for freedom. He mulled that over. A taste for freedom.
He hadn’t realized he’d sent it till Akki answered him. "And a hunger for home."
Jakkin nodded. Many times he’d been sure they would die up in the mountains, with only Heart’s Blood’s hatchlings to mourn them.
"And Sssargon to comment on it all." This time there was a bubbling laugh in Akki’s sending.
But home? He’d never really believed they could return.
Reaching solid ground, Jakkin turned, then stared at the dragon nursery. Without realizing what he was doing, he rubbed the thin bracelet of scar tissue on his wrist. The whole of that year in the mountains, he’d tried to keep his deepest longings for the nursery shielded so that Akki couldn’t read his heartache and add it to her own. Now that they were actually back, he felt he should be elated. What he actually felt was . . .
"Scared?" Akki’s sending was tentative, wavery, like the water at the bottom of the falls.
"Stay out of my mind!" he answered, with black and gold arrow points. Sharper than he meant. To soften it, he turned back and reached a hand up to help her down, for she was facing forward as she came down the steps, carefully cradling the young dragon hatchling. Its back and belly were still patch worked with the last of its gray eggskin, and it looped its tail securely around her wrist.
"Thanks," she whispered to Jakkin, and smiled—a tremulous, tentative smile. It said even more than her sending.
This time the sending was not Akki’s. Anxiously, Jakkin looked around. Finally he spotted the sender—Auricle, the pale red adult dragon they’d brought out of the caves before she could be sacrificed by the trogs. She was crouched on the far side of the nursery yard, tail twitching. Not one of Heart’s Blood’s brood, she was possibly a cousin, for her color and sendings were reminiscent of the red dragon’s. He and Akki had gotten her out of the caves just in time. Into the air. Showed her that she could fly, that she could be free.
Auricle’s neck arched downward and her neck scales fluttered, which meant that any moment she might bolt. It’s astonishing that she’s landed here and not actually flown off with the others, Jakkin thought. In her mind, men were not safe. Not even her rescuers. Not Akki. Not me.
"Here?" Jakkin hadn’t meant to send the question, blue, stuttering, but Auricle caught a glimpse of it anyway.
"Here," she answered in the same color, but even more faded. The membranes on her eyes closed, effectively shuttering them.
Jakkin’s thoughts followed one another in quick succession: Auricle was probably here because she wasn’t used to flying, having been kept in that underground prison the whole of her life except for the one time when she was bred. Or perhaps she was here because Akki had the dragonling. Or because she was exhausted. Or because she was . . .
"Gentle Auricle." This time Jakkin’s blue sending was edged about with soft beige billows. "Do not be afraid. We are with thee. Soon thee will be altogether safe." Dragon masters in the nursery always spoke that way to their charges, "thee" and "thou." Jakkin didn’t know why. It was just how things were done. And it certainly calmed them down.
Auricle lifted her head slightly. Her eyes were dark but without the fire of a fighting dragon. Even if she hadn’t sent her fear to him, he would have known it by her posture: the crouch, the lashing tail, the shuttered eyes. She was afraid of the copter, of the nursery, of the memory of the trogs. Well, she had a right to be afraid of the trogs. I’m afraid of them, too.
"Jakkin!" Akki’s voice gave a warning.
He thought she meant he was broadcasting his own fear to the terrified Auricle, but Akki was pointing in a different direction. He turned, caught something out of the corner of his eye, and startled, before realizing that the door of the bondhouse had flown open.
Out ran the fat cook, Kkarina, though it was more like a fast waddle. Her haste was understandable. Any copter was a rare sight at the nursery. Usually the appearance of one meant bad news. Wiping her hands nervously on her long apron, Kkarina stared at Golden, who was standing several steps away from the copter’s blades. Her hands left dark red stains on the white cloth of her apron, stains that could have been either takk or blood.
Jakkin licked his lips, just thinking about a cup of takk, the taste a sudden vivid recollection in his mouth. After a year of drinking boil—that thin soup made from greasy skagg grass—he was more than ready for takk. A whole pot of it. Two whole pots of it! And then he remembered what it was made of—dragon’s blood. "It’s back to boil," he sent Akki, at the same time including a picture of him bathing in a pot of the gray-green stuff. Akki broke into sudden, nervous laughter.
Hearing Akki’s laugh, Kkarina gasped, her face an alarming crimson. She turned and finally registered who Golden’s passengers were. Without warning, she burst into tears and threw her apron up over her head.
"Kkarina," Akki said with a sweetness Jakkin hadn’t heard from her in a while, "Kay—it’s me." That set the old woman to crying even harder.
Still sobbing, the cook lowered her apron, waddled up to them, and gathered up Akki and Jakkin in her massive arms, which threatened to break bones and bring bruises. Kkarina smelled of fresh bread and sharp takk, and something burnt.
She smells of home. His knees suddenly buckled. Home.
"Oh, oh, oh . . ." Kkarina said over and over. "Oh, oh, oh," without letting go of either of them.
At last Akki cried out, "Kkarina, you’re crushing me—and the dragonling." It was true. The old cook had enfolded all three of them in her hard embrace.
Jakkin was incapable of speech.
"Oh, oh, oh," Kkarina said one more time, then let them go.
Again, out of the corner of his eye, Jakkin saw movement, this time on his right. He stepped in front of Akki, to shield her, before realizing it was only old Balakk, the plowman, coming in from the fields. Next to him was Trikko and someone else, a moonfaced boy with stringy blond hair whom Jakkin didn’t recognize.
Balakk had spotted the copter, then Jakkin and Akki, and began complaining even before he was close. They had to strain to hear him. "All those days of mourning," he started. "And me hardly able to work, thinking about you two dead out there in the mountains in the cold. Little Jakkin, little Akki." Though of course neither of them had been little—then or now. Indeed, they hadn’t been little for quite some time. And of course neither of them had been dead, though how was poor Balakk to have known?
Jakkin stared at Balakk’s moonfaced companion, wondering who he was, how he ’d gotten to the nursery. Of course, a year was a long time to be away. People could die, move to the city, be sent offworld. People could grow old, forgetful, take on new apprentices. People could change.
"We apologize for being both alive and well," Akki said, but with a smile to take away the sting of it.
The dragonling resettled itself, curling up so tightly in Akki’s arms, it was almost a dragon ball. At this point, it seemed to regard Akki as its mother.
That would be funny, Jakkin thought, if it weren’t so . . . so inconvenient. The hatchling had imprinted on Akki early and refused to be parted from her.
Trikko winked at Jakkin as if to say the year away had simply been a ploy to be alone with Akki, but then Trikko’s mind always worked that way, from the slightly off-color to the positively filthy. He couldn’t, Jakkin thought, understand real love.
But looking confused, Balakk turned to Golden, spread his hands, palms to the sky. His new helper touched his arm, as if in comfort. At the same time, a roar from the stud barn made them all turn around. A male dragon, sensing roiling emotion nearby, was simply trying to bring the attention to himself. It was an old dragon trick, and as usual, it worked.
"Typical male," Akki said with an exaggerated eye roll, which broke the tension, and they all laughed—even Jakkin.
Only Auricle still seemed perturbed; her sending to Jakkin was laced with red spots that looked a great deal like blood.
"No danger," he answered soothingly.
"How?" asked Kkarina, meaning how were they still alive?
"When . . . where?" Balakk added, waving a hand.
Trikko’s knowing smile spread slowly across his face.
The answers to any of those questions had to be given carefully. Guardedly. Because there was danger, great danger, even if he ’d just assured Auricle there was none. He and Akki had to be certain that they said the same things, that their versions of the past year’s adventures matched exactly. If not, the future of all the dragons on Austar IV could be a bloody one indeed.
"If the secret gets out—our secret . . ." he thought, adding, "Akki, take care."
"I’m not stupid," she shot back, the red lightning bolt accompanying it lancing through his mind with such force, he almost winced. "But there’s no way it can get out unless you tell. Me—I’m silent as the grave." Facing him directly, so that no one else could see, she lifted her hand to her mouth, then surreptitiously drew her finger across her throat. "See—dead, grave, got it?" Afterward, she smiled broadly at Kkarina, at Balakk and his helper, at Golden, even at Trikko. "First, showers, food, rest. Then we’ll tell you all."
"All?" The picture Jakkin sent was a frantic, dark red, roiling cloud.
"We’ll only tell them what we want to, silly," she soothed, her sending shot through with a golden light. "But we’ll tell them that it’s all."
And he was soothed. They would find their way through this difficult place together. Keeping secret how they’d sheltered in Heart’s Blood’s birth cavity as she lay dying. Keeping secret that they’d emerged with dragon ears and eyes, and a dragon’s brave heart as well. Keeping secret their astonishing ability to speak mind-to-mind. They’d keep all the secrets safe, and that way keep all the dragons safe, too. Because if the people of Austar find all this out, they won’t stop to think that it’s only hens who’d recently given birth who can give them the dragon gifts. Most Austarians don’t know a female dragon from a male. They’d probably slaughter all the dragons just in case. Jakkin shivered. He couldn’t let that happen.
"What’s this? What’s this babble?" An old man pushed through the knot of nursery folk. His sharp, ravaged face fell when he saw Jakkin, his one good eye staring, though whether it was shock or disappointment, Jakkin couldn’t tell because the man’s eyes immediately seemed to shutter, like a dragon’s.
"Hallo," Golden said, "look what I’ve found!" His voice bright, as if he were enjoying a vast joke.
"It’s little Akki, little Jakkin," Balakk explained.
"Of course it’s them," the old man retorted. "Any piece of worm spit can see that."
At that, any good memories of Likkarn helping them escape a year ago into the mountains left Jakkin, and he felt a returning rush of dislike for the man.
Kkarina collapsed in sobs again.
"Well, here’s a welcome home," Likkarn said, "though you’ll find us all changed. You can tell us why you’re alive later. We’ve still got a day’s work to finish."
It was more a slap in the face than a welcome home, and Jakkin almost said something, but Akki sent him a picture of his head going under a cold tap. "Just stay cool."
She’s right, of course. No need to fight with old Lik-and-Spittle now. After all, he did owe the old man something for helping them escape from the wardens. So, instead, he said, in what he hoped was a cozening voice, "We found a new dragon, Likkarn. Maybe related to our dragons. Her color is interesting, at any rate. Could she have been sired by one of our escaped males?"
Likkarn said nothing.
"We thought we could—" Jakkin stopped, thinking that he’d be damned if he would beg.
"We?" Likkarn was not going to help one bit.
"Akki and me. You remember Akki, Master Sarkkhan’s only child?" Jakkin was losing his temper again, and even a sending from Akki showering him with a waterfall of cold water didn’t slow him down. "She probably owns the nursery now that her father’s dead."
Balakk said, "No, no, no."
And Kkarina added, "We all own it."
Likkarn smiled slowly. "I was the only one mentioned in Sarkkhan’s will, boy. He knew Akki didn’t want the place, and I was the only one to run it. And I now own half. The rest I’ve given to the nursery folk. Time served. You know."
But he didn’t know, and Jakkin’s face showed it. He touched the dimple on his cheek, a sure sign that he was upset. If I’d been a young dragon in the pit, I’d have been down on my knees in front of the older, slyer dragon by now, the two ritual slashes across my throat.
"So, will you let us board her here?" It was Akki, the little dragon carried in the crook of her arm. "And this little one as well?"
Likkarn laughed, and though it didn’t have a particularly happy sound, it was clear he’d given in. "You’ve always been able to get around me, young lady. Welcome home."
Noticing no welcome home for him, Jakkin thought about getting another mental dunking from Akki if he said anything. He didn’t want that so he let his anger go.
"Akki can shower first," Jakkin told Likkarn, Kkarina, Balakk, the boy. He ignored Trikko. "I need to get Auricle settled in." It was only then that the others even seemed to notice the pale dragon crouched by the side of the wall.
"Back stall. Keep her away from the rest of the nursery dragons for now," Likkarn said.
As if I didn’t know that.
"Take the hatchling, too." Akki handed the ball of dragon over to him. The minute he touched it, the hatchling uncurled in his hand, its tail now anchored firmly around his wrist, and looked longingly back at Akki.
"Or," Jakkin thought, "as longingly as a dragon can look."
Akki sent a bright orange warning. "No more sendings, not when we’re close enough to speak. We might make people suspicious." The color was flame-shaped. "You look different when you’re sending to me. Your eyes get all squinty and you stare at me with great concentration. I bet I do the same."
Jakkin nodded. He tried not to stare, hoping that it looked as if he were simply agreeing to take the hatchling, which he was. But he was also nodding to Akki about the sendings. Not that Golden, Kkarina, Likkarn, and the rest of them could know that. After all, they couldn’t hear the sendings or see the colors. "Yes," Jakkin said aloud. "No more sendings," he added in a sending, looking away so he didn’t stare at Akki. "Not this close."
Golden took Jakkin and Akki by the arms and pulled them aside, giving them a hug. "Better to say too little than too much until I’ve figured out the ramifications of your rescue."
"Ramifications?" Jakkin asked.
"To us or to you?" Akki added.
"To Austar, of course," Golden said. Then he stepped back from them and waved his hands vaguely, as if he were campaigning for something.
Kkarina turned to Golden. "You’ll be staying to dinner, of course?" She twinkled at him.
He smiled regretfully. "You’re my favorite cook, Kay, but I’ve too much work back in the city. There’s a senate race going on in The Rokk. I’ve got competition this time." He turned and ran back up the steps to the copter.
"Flatterer," Kkarina called back, and then Golden was gone, through the copter door, and moments later, the rotors started up. Kkarina turned to Akki and enveloped her again, as if determined to shelter Akki from the sand and grit the copter was throwing around, as if she could shelter her from the world.
Over Akki’s head, Kkarina said to Jakkin, "Tell us what you want. What you need. You must be exhausted. A year! A year! And now you’re home, where you belong. Who would believe it?" She began to sniffle loudly, as she led Akki away into the bondhouse.
The door snicked shut behind them.