Sixteen-year-old Ileth is now an Apprentice Dragoneer, with all of the benefits and pitfalls that her elevation in rank entails. But her advancement becomes less certain after she's attacked by an unknown enemy, and Ileth begins to suspect that someone deadly may be hiding within the walls of the academy.
Outside of the walls there is a different challenge. The Rari Pirates are strangling the Vale Republic. What they lack in dragon firepower, they make up for in the brutality of their ever-expanding raids, making hostages or slaves of the Republic’s citizens. Surrounded by enemies, Ileth will need to learn what kind of dragoneer she wants to be. And as she makes decisions about her future, Ileth will have the chance to uncover the secrets of her past. Both will irrevocably change the course of her life.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The ten-year-old girl stood in the roaring surf. Windborne sand pelted her and she had to squint to keep it out of her eyes. She felt small and frail against the two teenage boys hunched to either side of her, the boys all gangly limbs and wet, shaggy hair. The three held on to a flat-bottomed rowboat, which tried to escape at the pull of every receding wave.
"You wanted this! You begged, Ileth," the Captain said, his voice booming over the gale blowing off Pine Bay as he drank in her discomfort.
Ileth, the second-oldest girl in the Lodge now, had in fact begged to join the boys in their seamanship training. Girls never went off to sea, as the few orphaned boys in the Captain's Lodge on the Freesand Coast were always trained to do, but she'd asked and asked, carefully and only when the Captain was in his better moods, until he finally relented. "Maybe these scuts'll try harder with you around," he'd said, looking at the Chakl twins, three years older than Ileth. They'd been at the Lodge since they'd lost their father to the Rari pirates at seven and their mother disappeared from the Freesand shortly thereafter.
Ileth had pleaded for secret reasons. While she didn't mind learning about rigging and lines, how to claw close-hauled against the wind, or how to measure depth with a pole or a weighted line, her true intent was to learn proper map reading and navigation. She had a dream, a dream so secret she never let a word that might hint at it escape her lips. To fulfill it she had to know how to use a compass and how to measure distance traveling by sea or land, so that in four years she might leave the Lodge in pursuit of it.
She'd always been an active, athletic sort of girl given to climbing and exploring, and the Captain shrugged off her odd request as Ileth's restlessness, wanting to be out and about rather than cooped up with the other girls. The other girls didn't much like her. The Captain, in their view, played favorites and Ileth was a favorite. Then there were her stutters and halts that dampened their spirited chats over the work.
Today was a real challenge, one he'd evidently been saving for a suitably stormy fall day. Ileth and the boys were to take a small boat out in the surf to Dragonback Reef, running a line to imaginary sailors shipwrecked on the reef. The danger of the Dragonback was anything but imaginary; an old fishing boat mast still pointed skyward from a wreck just the previous winter, and there were older fragments of boats, line, and canvas still caught in the jagged above-tide protrusions of the reef.
The would-be sailors stood barefoot in the cold surf. The Captain said you might as well tie bricks to your feet as wear boots if you go overboard or capsize, possibilities that seemed terrifyingly likely to Ileth as she watched the little rowboat lift and fall.
"This is just foul weather. Barely a storm," the Captain said, from the warmth of a boat cloak, thick woolen scarf, and sealskin boots. His charges were already soaked through, the boys in thin shirts and woolen vests that left their arms free to row and Ileth in an oversized boy's shirt that hung so low it could almost be called a dress over her holed woolen hose.
The surf didn't agree and roared back at him. To Ileth, the waves looked like hands reaching for her, and she held extra tight to the side of the boat when one attacked the beach through them.
Ileth looked at the little rowboat dubiously. She knew enough about small craft now to know that the flat-bottomed little thing, ideal for poking around in the shallows checking the cages for crabs and lobsters, would slew all about in this water.
"The Dragonback's only bad on the other side. She's sheltering you in her arms, like," the Captain said, as his three trainees looked out at the surf blasting against it.
Nothing to do but get to it. The boys held the boat steady while Ileth got in and fitted the tiller and readied the rope to be paid out. Then they ran it out as deep as they could find purchase and jumped in on the upsurge of one of the breaking waves.
The twins, Avar and Trad, rowed like mad, leaning in and pulling in unison, bracing themselves on the rower's bench. The flat-bottomed boat was pushed this way and that by the surf and wind; the Captain had probably chosen it because it would be difficult to handle properly unless they worked as a team. Ileth did her best to keep the boat pointed at the reef, bow into each wave.
They were in the worst of the surf now, and a wave pulled the boat sideways and swamped them. It was all they could do to stay onboard. Avar took the oars while his brother bailed. Ileth helped as best as she could, using Avar's storm hat, bottom cold in the flooded boat with the tiller clamped under her armpit. They just got her bow into the next wave, a credit to Avar's rowing.
Two more waves and they were into the more sheltered waters close behind the reef. The currents around the reef were confusing. Ileth and the twins shot orders back and forth.
"Boathook. We forgot the boathook!" Trad, the meaner of the two, shouted. "You should have said something, Ileth!"
She ignored him. The stern spun round as the boat was pulled away by some current and Ileth spotted a sandy patch among the rocks of the reef. It was just a short distance-
Ileth's body decided for her. She had the rest of the line in her arms anyway, ready to hurl it on to the reef. She launched herself at the sandy spot.
It was a dangerous thing to do but she didn't have to swim, and her free hand felt the wet sand as soon as she went into the bay. Her fingers were numb from the cold, but not so numb that they weren't able to find purchase on a rock as she scrambled up onto the Dragonback. Ileth had always been a good climber. She ignored the surf pounding the other side of the rocks and made it to the broken mast, quickly tying the rope about it with a solid mooring knot.
The boys didn't have time to cheer her; they were pulling for the rope stretching back to the Captain on the beach. Most of it was submerged, of course, but in a real rescue now would be the time to set up a winch on shore so that sailors could be pulled safely through the surf.
The Dragonback! And she was atop it!
Ileth pressed against the sheltering rock, staying out of the wind and surf. It was one of those talismans, a sign that one day she'd make it to the Serpentine. She touched objects that made her think of dragons-a turtle's back whose rugose patterns reminded her of scale, a bit of polished whalebone like a dragon-tooth, assuring herself with each contact that the dream would come true.
Avar joined her on the rocks. Between waves he whooped defiance at the heavy surf striking the other side, like a warrior safe from enemy arrows behind a stout wall.
Ileth, always interested in stories behind things, cast her eye about the bits of flotsam and wreckage the reef had collected. Her eye was drawn to an odd mass of canvas and wrecked barrel, when she realized, to her horror, that a stark white arm was sticking out of it.
"There!" she shouted. "A dead body."
The boys handled the worst of it while Ileth held the boat against the reef. Somehow they got the body out of where it and the wreckage were stuck and lashed the "rescue" line about its torso. Avar worked the line in a figure eight around the shoulders and chest of the man-it was a man, Ileth could see now-and from there it was a fairly simple matter to return the boat to shore and pull the corpse through the surf.
The Captain took over from there, hauling it well up onto the beach. It was a horrible, bloated thing. The face was a ruin where scavengers had been feasting on the most tender and accessible flesh. Even now, Ileth could see hopeful crabs looking at the meal from the surf. Trad threw a rock at one.
"Fisherman?" Ileth asked. She found herself looking out of the corner of her eye at the bloated body. It helped, for some reason.
"He's escaped from the Rari," the Captain said. "Look, he's missing all his toes from his left foot. They made a neat job of it. See that, lads. Makes it hard to run. Guess he could still swim for it, though, on those kegs. Wonder if there were others with him?"
"How did he make it all the way to the Freesand? The Rari coast is on the other side of the Headlands," Avar said, gesturing vaguely at the high hills on the coast east of them, invisible at the moment in the rain.
"Could have died at sea and been carried by current. Could have slipped off a Rari ship. They're bold these days, they sail all over the bay, and aren't above going after a fishing boat that ventures too far out."
Ileth scowled out at the bay. Despicable. Even countries at war didn't molest each other's fishermen. But the Rari were mad for slaves.
"Well, now you've seen death, lads, raw and gone cold. And Ileth. Not fit for paintings, but it's just as much a part of life as a mother suckling her babe. Help me get him into canvas so the crabs don't have him before we can see him turned in and properly buried."
Ileth wondered what desperate fate drove this man to risk Pine Bay at this time of year, with more ways to die on a couple of kegs than he had fingers and toes. This man hadn't been following some secret dream. He'd run away from something. Something bad enough to make him brave crossing Pine Bay on a raft, in fall.
There were worse places than the Captain's Lodge.
A Length of White Cloth
"In coup, as in life, preparation is sovereign."
-Iow Heem Jeet, A Monograph on the Game of Coup
Ileth, a sixteen-year-old with a list of possessions as short as her not-at-all-famous name, arose quickly her first full morning as an Apprentice to the Dragoneers of the Serpentine. Having a bucket of cold lake water dumped on her head gave her no choice. It left her sputtering in her rope bed.
"Tail-er! Tail-er! Tail-er!" chanted an assortment of her fellow dragon-dancers, apprentices, and wingmen with nothing better to do that predawn than make some noise. They rattled old cowbells, banged tin trays against each other, shook coins in bottles, anything to increase the racket in the tight confines of the Dancers' Quarter.
A blanket enveloped her head and strong arms lifted her. She squeaked in alarm as they carried her out of the Quarter and into the passages of the Beehive, the cavern-laced mountainous rock that housed the Serpentine dragons and the throng of humans attending their needs.
She'd been warned the previous night that there was some sort of ceremony to endure for being the "tailer"-the last of a year's novices to cross the threshold into apprenticeship at the Dragoneer Academy. She'd even turned in wearing her day clothes and kept her boots handy, but her boots were presumably still waiting, forlorn.
One of the party amused themselves by tickling her feet. She'd never liked being tickled, even as a child, and lashed out and felt her heel connect with something bony with a satisfying thump.
"That'll teach you," a male voice laughed.
"Galba's Anchor, she's strong!" one of the wingmen said as Ileth struggled. "What do they build these dancers out of, ship's cable?"
The racket quieted. She picked up the oily, metallic scent. They were passing through one of the dragon levels-and then she felt the breeze of outside air on her legs.
The blanket came off and a trio of muscular wingmen-she knew they were wingmen by their sword-belts buckled over their sashes-righted her and set her on her feet. The noisemaker racket and jeers broke out anew from the crowd surrounding her. She was at the landward end of the Long Bridge, a wide two-span thoroughfare that itself would be a wonder worth a trip and a painting to remember it by, were it not sandwiched between the towering hump of the Beehive with its famous lighthouse and the Pillar Rocks. The Pillar Rocks loomed overhead, standing like gigantic mushrooms at the end of the peninsula that was crowned by the Serpentine fortress. It was still early enough that the lighthouse's beacon caused the clouds overhead to glow and the bridge lamps formed little halos in the moist air of the predawn.
A drizzle washed over the party, but no spirits were dampened.
The assembly, such as it was, surrounded her. All the faces watched her, with the anticipation of a crowd expecting entertainment.
Ileth didn't care to be at the center of attention, particularly a crowd. It brought back memories of the children in the Freesand village circling around her to taunt the stuttering lodge-girl in the thrice-handed-down dress and homemade clogs.
When she'd tried to find out what sort of ceremony she, as the tailer of the draft of '66, would undergo, she'd just heard a few hints about a "crossing" or a "bridging." Well, if all they wanted was for her to cross the Long Bridge, she'd comply. She'd done it hundreds of times in worse weather than this.
She looked down the alley of youths. She saw a glint of scale in the mouth of the gaping entrance to the Beehive. At least one dragon was either restless or bored enough to come see what all the noise was about.
Were they going to whistle as she walked back to the Beehive? Turn around and bare their bottoms? Ileth saw the snowcap hair and porcelain complexion of Santeel Dun Troot standing with her sister dragon-dancers in the crowd. It was hard for her to imagine a rich Name like Santeel lewdly waggling her backside like a seven-year-old at a window overlooking a busy street.
Vareen Dun Klaff, the bluffest and apparently the senior of the wingmen, addressed her: "You're lucky, girl. Privilege of sex, you get chaired across the bridge." Dun Klaff was an officer in the Guard. She'd sometimes run into him in the Beehive, when he was going about on watch, checking the bored sentries at the entrances to see that they were awake. The two others with him were very much alike in size, manner, and hair, each with a carefully tended forelock curled above the eyebrows.