In Sesara, only the rich wear bright colours. My knight shines in the armour I buff for him nightly, glossy as a jewel. My clothes and skin are the colours of the earth. We stand together with two days of desert at our backs and a forest of black thorns before us. My heart is a bird in my chest.
I was twelve when the slave traders came from the ocean and stole me. To the Sesarans we Arn all look the same. I was always tall and strong. An unscrupulous trader shaved my head and sold me as a boy to fetch a better price, and I live as a boy still, because it is better than what waits for me as an Arn girl in this country.
My new master is a field knight and I am the best help he can afford. Sesaran boys have been in no hurry to volunteer as pages since the dragon came.
It only takes knights and lords. One week ago it came on silent wings at dawn and snatched a princess. She was betrothed to a foreign prince, the match planned to unite two kingdoms.
This is all I know of her: She is beautiful, as princesses are, and she has yellow hair, as princesses do, and on that day she wore a velvet dress as blue as the centre of the sky. Her prince went into the thorns to save her and never came out. Desperate, the King posted a reward. Eight more knights vanished into the black grove.
The princess lives. The pages who returned alone heard her crying from the ruined tower among the thorns.
“Stupid little chit.” My knight squints into the thorns, at the place where creepers have tangled a ladder of green up to the tower’s one window. “Why doesn’t she just climb out?”
Yes. I wonder that too.
The princess is worth a great deal of gold to my knight. I tie our horses. I pass my knight his helmet and sword, and follow him into the gloom, ducking around thorns longer than my arm.
I smell the dead.
A speared knight hangs twenty feet above, rotting in his shining steel shell. Three more dangle like baubles around us. There is the prince, upside-down. His blue cloak curtains his mottled face.
We reach the base of the tower before the thing that took the princess slips from the thorns behind us.
It’s easy to see how everyone saw a dragon: it moves like the wind itself, swift and shapeless in the dim light. Those reptilian feet end in curved talons, but what people took for black scales are vast oily feathers.
“My god,” says my knight.
The creature is a hundred times the size of the ones that flitted from the thorn bushes of my childhood. I remember crawling into their bowers and examining the stolen beads and shells and feathers arranged inside. Once I found a piece of lapis lazuli, blue as the centre of the sky.
I wrench my knight’s helmet from his head and fling it away. “Sir, take off your armour!”
“Are you mad?” He hefts his sword. The bowerbird shrieks like metal on granite.
I turn and claw up the tower, tearing my hands on thorns. My knight’s answering scream snaps off like a cut rope. I hear a sound that has no name: a thorn piercing metal and flesh. It goes: SCREE-ICK.
Halfway up the tower, frozen by the fresh silence, I stop and turn.
The bowerbird fixes me with one oily blue eye. Then it turns away, adjusts my twitching master on his thorn, preens, and settles down to roost.
I know how to save the princess. I climb all the way to the window before I wonder if I should.
For me, there will be no gold. An owned thing cannot own things. I could bring back twenty princesses, but there would never be any gold.
In the tower, rotted leaves and dirt push in drifts against the mossy walls. The princess sleeps curled up, golden tangles in a tattered blue dress, living lapis lazuli. Those who buy and sell my people wear bright colours. The bowerbird will come for them all. I only need walk away.d
The girl scrambles up and looks at me. Tears have cut twin white paths through the grime on her cheeks. She is no more than twelve.
I wonder how she felt when her kingdom sold her to a stranger.
Slowly, I crouch and offer her my hand. “Do you want me to take you away?”
Her eyes flick to the window. “How?”
“I can make you invisible.”
She looks at me, wondering, and slips her small hand into mine.
Together we take off her gaudy dress. I rub dirt on her skin and tangle leaves in her hair until she is the colour of the earth, and we walk past the bowerbird and out into the open sky.