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PodCastle 638: Slipping the Leash

Show Notes

Rated PG-13.


Slipping the Leash

Dan Micklethwaite

It is 1958, and Aloysius Proctor has survived a war, and survived the clap, and he is married to Delilah, with whom he has fathered two beautiful children, both of them sons, and he is the second-ranked salesman in the premier automobile showroom in town, and he should be happy with life, shouldn’t he, or at the very least content. He should have put this behind him; buried it deep with his friends from the Corps.

You’re thirty-five, for Chrissake! — what his daddy had told him. You’ve got to grow the hell up! You’ve got to be a good family man, just like I’ve done.

The belt-buckle scar tissue burns Louie’s torso, scorches his forearms, singes his back. The shrapnel scars too, on his upper right thigh. He tries not to laugh. He tries not to cry. Tries not to think that he should have stayed home, and spent time with his kids just to prove that he loves them. Shouldn’t be toting this battered black case, with the scratch-marks tattooed on the stainless steel clasps.

Shouldn’t.

Should not. (Continue Reading…)

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PodCastle 637: Ink, and Breath, and Spring

Show Notes

Rated PG-13.


Ink, and Breath, and Spring

by Frances Rowat

The wheelbarrow thumped a jolt into Palwick’s arms with every third step as he led Mattish back to where he’d found the corpse, out in the northern reaches of the garden. The trees waved dimly at them under the grey sky, and the thin morning light crept across the rolling ground with its whispering carpet of dead grass. Out in the north of the garden, the wind never really stopped.

Mattish had sent for a page when Palwick told her about the corpse, and had scarcely said anything since. She certainly hadn’t offered to take the wheelbarrow for a little while.

The flat silver sun had cleared the trees and eastern wall by the time they reached the corpse. Palwick had found it on the ground, gloveless and naked. He’d wrapped it in his overcoat and set it upright against the bayberry bushes before going to find Mattish; he’d never dealt with a corpse before, but couldn’t stomach the indecency of letting it lie there.

Three birds squabbled in the air above it; two crows and something paler. As Palwick and Mattish approached, the smaller of the crows darted off, shedding a feather. The pale bird shrieked after it, a flat sound in the wet morning.

The corpse was a man who might have been a little taller than Palwick himself, but waxen and crisp as a rose petal. Its left hand was missing, and it had an oddly unremarkable smell, like laundry and a rasher of raw bacon. The skin left on it — Palwick’s coat hid the raw wound covering its back — had withered a little from the cold. He guessed it had been there a week or more, even if nothing had been at it yet.

Mattish glared at the corpse for a minute. When it failed to apologize and leave, she reached for its remaining hand. The joints were stiff, but she wrenched it palm up and examined it.

“Well,” she said after a moment, dropping the hand. “He’s soft-handed; unless he’s from inside, or new staff from somewhere else in the gardens, he must have come over the wall. The page’ll know.”

She started working the corpse free of the bayberries, glancing up as the birds wheeling overhead screamed again. Palwick stepped up to help. The bayberries smelled bitter and bright, and the thorns bit at his gloves. Their branches were pliant and strong, snagging the sleeves of his overcoat. “Might be easier to pull him out,” he offered after a moment. “You really think he came over the wall? With one hand?”

Mattish shrugged, pulling the bayberries free and keeping them away from the corpse with her elbow as she worked. She had thinner gloves than Palwick’s, but tough ones; the fingers were pieced and tanned leather, and she ignored the pricking thorns. “He might have been wearing more when he got in,” she said. “It’s still winter. If he snuck in and tried to hide in the garden, the cold might have taken him.”

Palwick nodded. Cold wet wind wouldn’t kill as fast as a winter storm, but it would cluster blood around your gut and heart and leave you stunned and sweating. Then you’d do something stupid, like strip from the heat, and then there was nothing left but to pray you were found sooner rather than later.

He’d found the corpse later, that was all.

Still. “I didn’t find his clothes.” (Continue Reading…)

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PodCastle 636: While Dragons Claim the Sky — Part 2

Show Notes

Rated PG.


While Dragons Claim the Sky

By Jen Brown

[Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part novelette. Please visit last week’s post to read Part 1.]

When marble cracks, it isn’t loud — or at least, not in the way I thought it’d be. Thera the Thrasher demonstrated this by cleaving her warhammer into the space where Myra’d lain moments ago. Instead of shattering, the veiny rock split with a squelch that came from sliding against itself; too dense to crumble, yet still capable of being broken.

That rockface would’ve been Myra, had she not pitched away at the last second. Clambering up, she swayed gracelessly, swiping away the blood marring her chin.

She could’ve been killed.

That thought haunted me while I watched her match from a cramped stadium seat, wedged in between two bettors who could only complain about how boring the ‘underlands scruff’ were.

“How long?” I choked out to man one on my left. “How long have they been fighting?” I’d arrived minutes ago.

“Half an hour,” he grumbled. “Abyss and shit, let’s end it already. We’re all really here to see Giralt the Grand, am I right?”

He elbowed my side just as Myra rolled from another of Thera’s crushing blows — but this time her shield split, leaving her gasping for breath and clutching her side. I shot up, fighting nausea.

Myra was losing. She might actually die here, among uncaring skyfolk, before I’d gotten a chance to —

“Finally!” screamed the woman on my right.

With a deft foot sweep, Thera pinned Myra’s weakened form with ease. Abandoning my seat, I practically vaulted the stadium stairs while the crowd roared anew. I had to get to her.

Then, everything shifted in the span of a blink. Thrusting sharply, Myra rammed her knee into Thera’s spine. Off guard from the unexpected blow, Thera wobbled right into her grip, allowing Myra to slash up against the arm pinning her throat; then low as Thera staggered backward, welling her shin red.

It was a game of quickness after that, one that ended with Myra smashing her mailed boot into Thera’s chest plate. Despite tepid applause, Myra shouted when the Empress called it, laugh-jogging to the preparatory tent as if her life hadn’t been in danger.

Though when she saw me enter, her excitement dimmed.

“There’s the non-believer,” Myra called loudly. “Convinced yet?”

My lungs were still convulsing, breaths coming hurried. “Convinced? You could’ve died!”

“It’s called a feint.” Myra rolled her eyes, though the left one had already grown puffy. “Anyway, shouldn’t you be heading toward the cloud ferries by now?”

I deserved her ire, even if it stung. “Not without apologizing.” Though washrags littered the competitor’s tent, I tore cloth from my good trousers; pressed in close to hold it against the cuts peppering her chin. “I’m so sorry, Myra. For judging you unfairly. For doubting you.”

Myra’s jaw quivered, but she didn’t back away. “Fine. Apology done. You going now?”

“No,” I shot back. “Because I’m stronger than you think, and I’m not leaving until I find my way into the coif program.”

Something gentle flitted over Myra’s features. She let me worry over her scrapes a while more before catching my wrists. “Look Omani, I was born with a shit back, but it never stopped me from skinning wolf-wraiths, tail to snout. Know why?” Her lips curled back. “Because of the herb-gatherers they stole from us beneath swollen moons; or the sick ones they maimed, just ‘cause they couldn’t lock their doors tight enough after dark. I fight because I believe in what I’m fighting for, just like Murinien taught me.” Sun-warm and kiss-soft, her fingers burned against my wrists. “So, don’t count me out again.” A small smile lit her bruised face. “And I won’t underestimate you again, either.”

It was a plea and a compact and hope bound up in one; I latched onto it with both hands.

That night, I made dragon scales of my emotions; thrust everything I had into a belief in our ability to conjure dreams. After stuffing ourselves with cured meats and rich breads in the victor’s tent, we retired to our lavishly decorated dorm room. By the time I’d fashioned her twists into a pompadour and flung her next wish into the world (this time, blessedly about easing her back pain), I practically fainted onto our only featherbed — but not before telling her about my meeting with Professor Ames.

“Well, well.” Myra sounded genuinely impressed, legs dangling off her side of the mattress. “Good on you. Make her see what they’d be missing out on.”

I yawned. “Oh, I intend to.”

We lay silent, lulled by the sound of tempermages netting Sight threads to redirect strong winds every few minutes, until Myra cleared her throat. “You know, I’ll have real money if I win this. Which I’ll send back home,” she added quickly. “But . . . if this college thing doesn’t work out, it’s money I can use for other stuff.”

Her eyes fixed mine in the darkness.

“Yeah?”

“Mm,” she returned. “You could come along while I guard Qu’hell. A real retainership, salaried and everything.”

Shivers prickled my skin as Myra’s fingers grazed mine beneath the coverlet; as we hovered atop the precipice of a sudden, surprising want; one that stretched wide, strong enough to tremble us both. Then, it morphed.

I’d come here to scrub my family’s debts away, the way papa’d always planned. Yet here I was, lying next to a fierce, unshakable girl, chasing wants my parents never could.

“We should rest,” I whispered. Painfully, I withdrew from Myra; pressed my welling eyes into the pillow, so that she wouldn’t catch me crumbling over the way dreams claimed the space in my head where family should’ve been.


Professor Ames enjoyed her Gyrixëan coffee black and scalding, dolloped with a bit of cream so that our cups matched my complexion.

“Is this a staple in your house?” she asked over-shoulder, descending Kent’s wooden stairs as if floating.

My saucer clattered melodically, punctuating our steps. “Sometimes. Mama likes to sell what’s left to the merchers, but we keep a little for special occasions.”

“And your mother taught you wish coiffery?”

Fat coffee droplets splattered my thumbs. Resisting the urge to lick them, I took the last three stairs with her, avoiding the portrait gazes of great mages lining the wall. “Yes, and no. I discovered it on accident.”

I didn’t want to mention papa; didn’t want to see pity lining her eyes. Instead, I focused on how Professor Ames liked to be on the move. We flitted between classrooms to check on student mages while walking towards her salon, then sunk onto a divan just outside once we reached its polished doors.

“One doesn’t luck into acceptances here. Tell me the truth of how you devised your wish magery.”

Guess I had no choice. You’re strong as dragonscale, I reminded myself.  She’ll be the making of you. “I tried to wish my father alive.”

“Ah.” She regarded me for a long while, wrinkled mouth puckering. “You lost him young?”

“I was twelve.” Shifting, I set my saucer aside. “It didn’t work, of course. Which made me realize that coif wishing, and all magicks really, are bound to what the universe can actually deliver.”

“Did you try other wishes?” She downed the rest of her coffee; smiled at another professor sweeping by. “Ones that might change the course of something large?”

My brow crumpled. “Well, most wishes are about the client. Things like wishing for a good harvest, or — ”

“What of wealth? Power?”

I was at a loss, unsure of myself. Had clients come to me wishing for riches and notoriety? Of course. Braylon’s boys fancied themselves Gyrixë’s best tailors; they once asked me to shear spirals into their flat-tops, wishing that one of the merchants would take their wares upland. Maybe a noble might don one of their tailored coats, exclaiming: “Who are these designers? Name them — I must have more of their work.”

They were still hustling, slogging to Han’enfol’s markets and peddling their clothing to anyone who’d listen.

“Yeah, I’ve gotten such requests, but there are no guarantees. A lot of wish magery depends on what follows, with how you dance alongside the universe as it tries to rearrange.” I could tell my answer disappointed her, so I quickly added: “Though, I’m excited to test its limits in your department. Maybe we can discuss patrons who’d find wish magery compelling?”

Professor Ames rose swiftly, so I stood too. “Patrons want to see what your gifts will buy them.” She eyed me closely. “Come. Let me show you magicks they value most.”

Entering her salon was like traipsing into a fortress, brimming with students preparing for battle. Foregoing styling chairs and capes, they huddled around large oak tables and wide bookshelves that seemed to house all the world’s knowledge. Together, we approached a group studying in the rear.

“Vincent!”

A boy with smooth, gaunt cheeks looked up. “Professor?”

“We have a prospective student all the way from Gyrixë.” He looked perplexed. “One of the underlands,” she added. “Please show her our coif specialty.”

Vincent waved over another mage, a girl with wavy hair and narrow eyes. She knelt before him as Vincent blinked, his pupils dilating enough to swallow the amber in his eyes. Summoning the Sight, Vincent raised his hands, whispered the word rise, and levitated her hair with magicks alone.

“Hold,” Professor Ames commanded, both with words and Ecrouxvérian sign language, so that her meaning reached him even without sound. Like gargoyles, they froze — Vincent stone-faced, awaiting instruction; the girl’s wide mouth slightly ajar.

“Fascinating.” Pitching forward, I tried to predict his next move. Would he completely style her hair without touching it? Make the magicks slick it into some dramatic updo?

“Raise Amelia.”

Minutely, Vincent’s fingers pinched together. Up, he commanded. Her hair went rigid, stretching around an unseen tether to lift her torso-first.

“Professor?” I sounded small.

“Hold out her arm,” Ames went on.

Grunting, Vincent pivoted his left shoulder, gritting out the word pull. Her right arm stabbed the air, sleeve felling away to reveal goose-pricked flesh where the hairs strained against her skin, as if they were being tugged. Sight scabs peppered her follicles like tics.

“Excellent,” Professor Ames cooed. Then, reverently: “Now break it.”

I turned sharply. “Professor.”

It wasn’t a question, but Carolyn knew that, preferring to keep her eyes on the way Vincent’s fingers bent. Claw-like, he squeezed the air, slithering break between his sweat-stained lips. It pulled a muffled shout from Amelia, as red colored them both — him, bloody from the Sight carving crescents atop his clavicles; her pale arm bruising where Vincent clefted muscle and tendons and bone beneath —

“Stop.” My command was cotton-soft, muted beneath the roaring in my ears.

“Well done.” Professor Ames applauded like I hadn’t spoken, then signaled two students forward. “Would you escort her to the infirmary?”

But Amelia wouldn’t go. Not without blinking rapidly into her Sight, round eyes impossibly wide. “Eat shit, Vince!”

With her good arm, she punched the air; Vincent’s chin hairs wobbled before a sickening crack sounded. Wailing, he clutched his jaw.

“Oh my.” Professor Ames laughed. “Any other volunteers? Seems they’ll both need a healer’s hand.”

I watched them stagger from the room, cold and hot all over; like my body couldn’t decide what to be.

“You see,” Professor Ames faced me, “patrons don’t fund stylists. They like charismatic diplomats. Keen politicians. Unstoppable assassins.” She pinned me with a wilting stare, crossing the distance between us. “Understand, that here? A patron funds your potential. Which means it — you — must be ruthless. That you must mold yourself into something they want to fund in the first place.”

Around us, students returned to their wrinkled scrolls and bitter coffees and weighty desks, but Professor Ames raised her Sight, hovering her fingers around a single braid along my cheek. Softly, she commanded: unravel. Magicks uncrossed the plait, expelling the added braiding hair until only my coils zig-zagged before us.

I knew what was coming. Knew it, even as my stomach bubbled wetly, last night’s dinner threatening to come up.

Align.

Her command stretched those coils until their spiral disappeared; until the hairs swung limply before my eyes. I caught it stiffly between my fingers, swallowing around a lump as it refused to spring back into place; as it blotched the picturesque view of student mages returning to a normalcy that didn’t include me.

“Now, return to the melée grounds.” Professor Ames made for the door. “And tomorrow, I — and a possible patron or two — shall be watching to see if your potential proves ruthless.”


That evening, Myra faced fiercer competition: an uplands bastard called Harric, who had plenty to prove. But this time I watched them fight with my Sight up, straining to reveal crystalline magicks sketched across the amphitheater. Blood slicked down my arms as I traced the webbing from treetops dangling overhead, to the crowded seats, to the Empress’s dais, and then down to my feet inside a quiet corner of the competitor’s tent — the most I’d ever revealed at once.

It didn’t matter that my arm was on fire, or that, if spotted, ushers could disqualify Myra for my unsanctioned use of magicks during the melée. I had to risk it, in order to understand what I’d missed after years of self-study; to discover whatever ruthless magicks Gyrixëan coif mages hadn’t known to teach me.

Edging forward, I traced the magicks Harric touched; saw them warble and twist others nearby, until I found one that seemed to run between my foot and his mailed legs. Examining it, I wondered how much force I’d need to tug the hairs lining his calves, canting his balance.

Or to break his legs, bone-by-bone —

My chest seized. I’d stopped breathing. Convulsing, I blinked and rubbed the Sight away until the sweaty heat and hard stone beneath me returned. Which meant I’d missed minute sixty-three, where Myra ended the match with a knife to his neck.

I should’ve whooped and hollered when they announced her victory, but my stomach roiled instead; Myra was a finalist now — and tomorrow, Ames would eye us both while cupping my fate between her weathered palms.

“You’ve made a believer outta me,” Myra said, swaggering into the preparatory tent. I hid my bloody arm. “Gods, my back felt great. And I haven’t been anxious about the pain coming back, like I usually am. Does wish magery quell that, too?”

I shrugged as attendants poured us celebratory wine; tipped the glass back hard enough to knock my teeth.

“Guess we’ve both cause for celebration?” Myra smirked. “Did Professor Fancybritches get you a patron on the spot?”

My chalice felt molten enough to melt flesh. Fighting an urge to dash it against the stone, I threw Myra a tight smile.

“Let’s do your hair!” I said, discarding my glass. My breathing harshened, tightening around a panic attack. One mama would’ve helped me slow, if I hadn’t left, believing the Imperial College would save us all. “Give me another wish to work with.”

The word tasted acrid and wrong; I needed to twist it. Mold it anew, so that it fit me again. As I raced back to our dorm, scraping my shins on the brambles outside, Myra was right on my heels.

“You didn’t answer my question! Was she impressed with you?”

No. “She was,” I lied. “In fact, she’ll be there to see you fight tomorrow.”

Fight. The imperial way, like Myra with her blades or Ames with her strings. Wishes did not fight; they hoped.

I pounded up our dorm’s stairwell; this time, glancing at more paintings of great mages lining the wall, and met the challenge in their stare.

“Would you gimme your wish already?” I yelled back.

Bounding up alongside me, Myra laughed, successfully deceived. “Fine. It’s a simple one this time: I wish that we get everything we want!”

After racing through our dorm’s humming hallways, we fell through our door breathlessly.

“We’re this close, ‘Mani.” Myra said, approaching the room’s lone vanity mirror. “Mm, I’m thinking . . .” She squinted, letting her twists down. “Don’t hate me for this, but take ’em all out. I want it wild and loose, so the bastards all see me coming.”

Her wish was too broad for working with, but that didn’t matter anymore. I unraveled each twist, wrapped her flowing coils in a silk square, and flung her last wish into the world even as the Sight reopened old scars along my neck — wounds that hadn’t bled since I’d tried summoning papa. Every gash felt like a betrayal, unstitching my resolve until old aches sprung free.

So, I made instruments of my agony. After Myra fell asleep, I kept my Sight up; planted myself before the vanity, and held my ashen arm before the mirror. I manipulated its long hairs without a wish to speak of; whispered commands well into the night, until it was too dark to make out my reflection. Until it was impossible to distinguish where pain ended and I began.


Our final melée came under a bruised sky as we met Empress Troxrin on the College’s wide athletic field; wavering grassland stretched on for miles, accented by the rise and fall of sloping hillsides marked with sigils denoting different magickal sports. There would be no amphitheater this evening; no roaring crowd watching from the hovering mage-stands. Just six finalists waiting, while their retinue watched from the sidelines.

Though she lacked an elevated dais, the Empress commanded authority in polished chainmail while addressing a powerful cadre: College Chancellor Vihrane, flanked by distinguished faculty like Professor Ames; magistrates from Ecrouxvér’s six provinces; sign language interpreters, in case College faculty were using their Sight — a slew of important somebodies who might as well have been nobodies to me.

“Trusted colleagues,” Troxrin intoned. “Again and again, you’ve put our Empire above yourselves, sacrificing everything to see it whole. Now, it is time I show you the gift your patience bore.”

Nerves should’ve made slush of my veins, as Troxrin began addressing Myra and her competitors. Instead, I blinked my Sight on and off like flint striking stone. Like playing my fingers over fire, ignoring the singe of it. Ready to strike, I sized up Myra’s more foolish competitors; the ones who’d clearly thought all coif mages simple healers. I took in the exposed neck hairs of one burly finalist, and the armpits of another who stretched to get limber. Somehow, I’d interject; make a key move look  like Myra’s actions, but really be mine.

“Fighters, you must be wondering what stands between you and greatness.” Myra fidgeted, hands poised on her daggers, eager to start as the Empress continued. “You will be called upon to best one another soon enough. But first, you must face the empire’s greatest danger together.”

Professor Ames clasped her hands tightly, grim mouth twitching. When she caught me staring, she inclined her head, giving me her full attention.

“This year, my champion’s bounty goes beyond banknotes and knightships.” Troxrin approached, royal guards following. “What you fight for now is the very survival of our empire, and all who walk it.”

An acrid smell drifted over us just as Troxrin raised her gauntlet, signaling something above. Distant Sight threads wavered as dark sky galleons crested the field’s western edge. Blinking out of my Sight, I squinted through the haze. Chains dangled between the airships, hauling something massive, muzzled —

“The hell?” Myra yelled.

A captured realm dragon flailed within the chains. The iridescent creature’s scales reflected sunlight in frost-blues and fuchsia-periwinkles; like a soap bubble bound against the skyline. Its muffled wailing increased as tethers gouged the fur tufting its belly, back, and snout. More rope dug into the membrane of its bat-like wings. Troxrin’s cadre rose, gape-mouthed as her warships settled it onto the field with a resounding thud.

“Comrades, competitors!” The Empress called. “I gift you one of the dragonkind that deserted us.”

Cacophony erupted: Troxrin’s senators cheered; Chancellor Vihrane hustled forward, jowls trembling. “What have you done? Empress, the old oaths. The dragonkind will come for us all!”

Professor Ames’s perfect brows arched toward the heavens; horses reared up against their handlers in fear —

“Wait, your majesty!” Myra screamed around the dragon’s muffled roars. “That — that’s Murinien.”

Murinien. The dragon who saved Qu’hellain babes from soul sucking wolf-wraiths; who taught Myra’s Da to hunt, and then Myra herself; who’d watched over Qu’hell’s plains folk for three thousand years.

“Myra.” Her name left me like a plea. I tried to make for her, but Troxrin’s guards blocked my path.

“She’s Qu’hellain’s realm dragon,” Myra pleaded. “She — ”

“Deserted her realm months ago, breaking the old oaths like all the rest of her kind,” Troxrin cut in. I stumbled backward as the Empress suddenly unsheathed a wraith-blade, made from the very creatures Myra’d kept at bay. Its icy surface matched her pallor. “Competitors, how long have you lived in fear of the dragonkind?”

I flinched against the cry of upland warriors who’d never known dragons, or the lakes they liked to drink from.

“Defeat this beast here and now,” Troxrin commanded. “And you’ll have your knightship. You’ll have my armies, too. And you’ll march on dragons littering the Eastern crag wilds before they know what’s coming!”

Finalists charged with a collective battle cry. Troxrin signaled her mages — they trained levitating arrows on Murinien’s writhing form. Myra wept openly as noble conquerors readied to annihilate her protector.

I thought of mama and papa. Of Gyrixëan summer nights, when we watched dragons circle overhead, clutching dying gryphons and ogres between their teeth, while trying to guess which realms they protected. Of the way papa kissed my frizzy curls when, at seven, I told him I wanted to be a dragon when I grew up.

You can be anything you want, he’d responded, dark cheeks puffed with a smile. You just got to believe.

Slack-jawed, I glared as Professor Ames’s tight expression broke open; felt rage boil through me as she smiled the way papa used to, whenever he saw dragons; as mage-arrows lashed through Murinen’s wings from above, and competitors slashed at her belly below.

Reaching into myself, I discovered a smoking pit dense enough to swallow the sky. I recalled my Sight in one blink, revealing milky threads that stretched from Troxrin’s feet to the galleons above, running right through her guards before me.

And then, ruthlessly, I spat a single word while my hands hovered over magicks kissing their mailed legs: move.

In one motion, they buckled unnaturally, falling away. I strode over them like dust mites, keeping my left hand firmly on the magicks pinning them. No one noticed me yet — not the competitors hacking at Murinien; not Troxrin. Not even Myra, who still wept into her hands.

So, next came the galleons. I searched their hull quickly, hungrily for — aha! A shorthaired avimage stood at the bow, forehead bleeding as she manipulated threads about her craft like a cradle. I didn’t need to bring the whole ship down; I just needed to get its captain.

Raising blood-slicked fingers, I reached for the magicks stretching from her hair to my hands, yelling: throw.

This time, the threads pulled at me, almost upending my legs. But I stood my ground as they lifted the avimage jaggedly, then flung her overboard. The leftmost galleon tottered in midair, tossing its soldiers in every direction.

Troxrin spun, mouthing something I couldn’t catch, wraith-blade aloft.  I hunted for the right galleon’s captain, but the pinned guards quickly named me her adversary. Sighting me, Troxrin advanced, auxiliary guards falling into line as I scrambled backward, searching for an advantage against the incoming mob.

But someone’s blade struck out, cutting the air between Troxrin and me. My heart lurched as Myra wedged herself between us, knives spinning for the Empress’s head. Troxrin snarled, quickly shifting between smoky silhouette and solid form to avoid Myra’s blow. Her wraith blade pulsed with the effort, lending her its power. Troxrin thrust its full might toward Myra’s torso.

We wouldn’t last like this, with the world bearing down on us.

Casting around, I searched for another move — but the magicks in my left hand suddenly severed, shearing painfully from my flesh as my fingers bent. I came out of my Sight with a scream.

Professor Ames bore down on me, hands curled like talons, tight-lipped snarl frozen in place.

“So, you would turn your ruthlessness against the empire?”

Though chaos raged everywhere, I smiled. Finally, I understood my place. “No. I’m shaping it into something my parents would be proud of.”

Summoning strength that mama and papa and nanu helped me tend, I called back my Sight even as Professor Ames fought for control of my body; as Myra failed to hit Troxrin, whose wraith-blade made landing blows impossible.

I peered past all of it, out to the magicks surrounding Murinien’s chains and muzzle; counted every thread touching her fur in my mind’s eye.

Break.

I thought it, spoke it, flung it into the sky — until the threads around Murinien’s chains shattered, taking the iron with them, pushing air and matter and debris around so that her muzzle and shackles disintegrated. Aghast, Professor Ames staggered as the world behind her seared, bubbled, erupted. I squeezed my eyes shut as Myra launched into me, hurtling us aside. Murinien’s flames licked past, igniting everyone but us.

And when the light flaring behind my eyelids faded, I opened my eyes; blinked my Sight away, taking in the destruction.

Only Myra and I remained, sweaty and ash-soaked, amid the now-charred ruins.

“How  —  how?” Myra stumbled ahead. We faced Murinien, whose pale eyes raked over us. “Your coif magery did all this?”

I shuddered. “No. That was the College’s coiffery, at its finest.” My heart stopped, as realization dawned on me. “Troxrin?”

“Not dead,” Myra muttered, dusting off her armor. “Stupid wraith blade saved her ass, yet again.”

But those without such abilities were gone. Professor Ames. Magistrates and senators. Even the competitors, who’d been too busy hacking at Murinien to notice us. I swallowed.

“You okay?” Myra asked.

Murinien approached while I struggled to answer, claws crunching over the smoking field. Myra practically leapt into her belly, nuzzling tightly against her fur. Murinien brought her head low; the best hug a dragon could manage.

Thank you for saving me. Murinien’s voice rang in my head, loud and clear as bell chime.

I staggered back a little. “Y-you’re welcome.”

Myra laughed. “You’re always so formal, Muri.” Which meant Myra’d heard her, too.

Murinien exhaled a bit of smoke. And you are always so teasing.

“But you love me anyway.” Myra put out her hand, beckoning me. And even though we stood amidst a field of ash, I took it, letting her warmth soothe my aching fingers. “Muri, my friend here doesn’t just do fancy, life-saving magicks. She grants wishes.” Myra pushed my hands into Muri’s soft belly fur. “She might grant yours, if you ask it of her.”

I felt a part of me stir; the part that loved papa and mama, and the underland magicks I grew up with. “You have a wish?” I asked.

Murinien paused. I have many. She rose up then, turning from us a little. But I abandoned Qu’hell against the empire’s orders. Left to join my kin who yearned for quiet, for freedom after eons of service. I knew the cost of this. Knew the humans I’d leave behind. So, kind as your offer is, I cannot accept.

Myra scoffed, voice shaking. “Don’t you dare start that, Muri. Look, you made us strong. You made me strong. And now, we have to carry on those lessons you and the other dragonkind taught. I’d rather see you free, old oaths be damned.”

Muri rumbled, sounding like a purring cat stretching beneath the sun, but she said no more.

“I . . . didn’t grow up with a realm dragon,” I began, stroking her fur gently. “But I watched them fly overhead. Heard of the wars we took you into, the problems we made you solve.” I smiled, remembering papa. “But you gave my family something to dream about. And you knocked our crops free just by flying over, even though you weren’t meaning to.”

Muri laughed in my mind, the sound coming like waves breaking against a moonlit cliff. Who said we weren’t trying to do just that?

“Then you were always thinking of us,” I grinned. “Now, it’s time to think of yourselves. So, I’ll ask again — you have a wish, yes?”

Far off, Ecrouvér’s emergency sirens wailed. Soon, Troxrin would bring her armies; would scour uplands and underlands alike for those who stole her victory.

Myra squeezed my hand, as if sensing my thoughts. Well, mama had always told me: pick your battles one at a time, and I wouldn’t shirk her teachings now. Until Myra and I somehow made our way back to family, I’d wrap myself in her sayings until I forgot them, like nanu.

Murinien rumbled. Very well. But may I wish for more than one thing?

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll send out whatever I can.”

I wish to remain free alongside my kin, until the sun calls me home. And I wish for your safety — that this empire never finds you or your families again.

There were no guarantees, but if there could be such things as dragons and underland girls who found their power above the clouds, I thought anything might be possible.

“Once more, Muri?” I asked.

I called back my Sight. Murinien roared, and the magicks crossing her fur illuminated brilliantly, shimmering up and over her horns to set the sky ablaze.

See it done.

Closing my eyes, I wove her wish into the world’s fabric.

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PodCastle 635: While Dragons Claim the Sky — Part 1

Show Notes

Rated PG.


While Dragons Claim the Sky

By Jen Brown

When a breeze shook the reed curtains in mama’s salon, I thought it might be another dragon gliding low, stopping to drink from Lake Mritil. ‘Course, mama and I weren’t afraid; we loved watching them soar overhead, wings gusting hard enough to free cotton fibers and coffee cherries across Gyrixëan farms, so that croppers only had to scoop them up.

So, you can imagine my disappointment when it wasn’t a dragon aloft, but a lanky huntress pushing into mama’s parlor. She burst through our straw door, letting in the noon sound of Gyrixëans haggling over pouches in the nearby spice house; testing winter tunics in the adjacent tailor’s gallery — but this wasn’t any old villager, like the rest of them.

Her wolf-pelt cloak, engraved walking staff, and curved daggers marked her as a traveler. And instead of looking journey-weary, her umber skin practically glowed beneath the gauzy afternoon light.

“Dragon’s ass!” she exclaimed, lilting accent stretching the vowels. “And I thought I wouldn’t find another black coif mage before I hit the goblin ferries.”

Mama couldn’t hear anything while her Sight was up. She was busy slicking greased fingers through Ama’ktu’s ‘locs, plying the hidden gossamer magicks that only us mages could materialize, to try and loosen the old woman’s phlegm. A few quick blinks sealed away her powers, returning sound and touch and every other sense the Sight dampened.

“What’d you say?” Mama asked.

“I’m looking to get Han’enfol twists. The long, chunky kind.” Pressing inside, the girl flung cold and snow and mud across our best mats. “Signpost says you specialize in healing coiffery, yeah? I’ve got a bad back that needs tending before I leave tonight. D’you take walk-ins?”

“Omani and I take payment for services offered.” Mama flicked her head in my direction. “Black opal, benitoite, copper stones. Even upland banknotes if you have ‘em.” Her lips flattened into an unimpressed line. “But I’ll bet you haven’t so much as a pebble on you, little girl.”

“Little?” The huntress snorted. “My eighteenth name day just passed, ma’am — ”

“Then you’ve adult currency, girl?”

She frowned, chin stabbing upward. “I will soon enough — ”

“Pah! I knew it.” Mama motioned her away. “Out.”

I hardly cared about the argument brewing. Instead, I was nestled on one of the salon’s colorful divans, neglecting all of my responsibilities — cleaning the wash basins, beating our yarn dyed throws so that waiting clients would go “Oh, how soft!” — to re-read a letter delivered via messenger raven last week:

 

From:

Mistress Carolyn Ames

Department Chair, Coif Magery

Imperial College of Allied Mages

 

To:

Omani Sudyha of the Gyrixëan underland,

Upon reviewing your application, I found your provincial use of “wish” magery an interesting method for the study of hair magicks. Therefore, I am pleased to offer you admission —

 

“Now, hold it ma’am!” The huntress backpedaled. “I can pay you easily in three days’ time!”

While mama and Ama’ktu fell out with laughter, I shimmied deeper into the divan, swathing myself in daydreams of meeting Ames; seeing the College’s campus. My imagination fissured around the letter’s last line:

At your earliest convenience, have your sponsor contact the bursar’s office to arrange payment for Fall term. 

Only a fool would apply to the empire’s oldest Department of Coif Magery, under a Professor who’d pioneered hair magicks for thirty-odd years, without having any idea how to pay for it — yet, that’s exactly what I’d done.

“I’m serious,” the huntress barked, loud enough to draw my gaze. “As a finalist in the Dragonscale Melées, I’m this close to becoming an imperial knightess. My winnings’d be large enough to pay back your kindness twice over!”

My next breath stuttered. “Wait,” I cut in, sitting up. “The melée in Ecrouxvér?”

Visiting merchers often spun tales of a biennial, three-day brawl in the floating uplands; one that covered the Imperial College’s outdoor amphitheater in white tents, while competitors sparred in gleaming armaments — competitors who often traveled with groups of tailors and smithies and pageboys. Could this melée be one and the same?

“Yeah,” the girl replied. “I’ve got a summons to prove it.”

Bolting upright, I practically toppled a stool near my legs. “I’ll do your hair!” I blurted, choking mama and Ama’ktu’s side chatter off. “If you’ll take me on retainer as your personal coif mage during the melée.”

Everything went eerily quiet as mama’s bone comb cracked to the floor. I abandoned the divan, rounding styling shelves and low tables to plead my case before the would-be knightess. After all, I’d wished for this; I’d cast my want into the hidden magicks netting our world, hoping a tuition-sized miracle might appear. And bumping into a huntress on her way to the empire’s largest tourney — who, if victorious, would receive an audience with the Empress and her favor, all at once?

That’s how mages won Imperial College scholarships.

“Omani, what foolishness are you on about?” Mama demanded. “You would make for Ecrouxvér now, while your nanu lies sick upstairs?” Her gold lip stud trembled; cowrie braids clanked, as she shook her head. “You would leave us behind?”

Heat flared my neck. Nanu was dying, and from a malady nobody understood. It couldn’t have been age, because that simply thinned her coiled tresses and creased her complexion, making prunes of her dimpled cheeks. No, this death stole her from us memory by memory; made her gurgle wetly as she forgot our faces.

Gods. I didn’t want to leave either of them.

“I know the timing’s bad, but …” Loosing a long, slow breath, I handed mama my acceptance letter. “I got in.” Her thick brows only crumpled as she read the parchment.   “I got into the Imperial College! And if I’m to accept, I need a patron who’ll cover my yearly tuition. You know who awards at least three incoming mages with Imperial College scholarships? The Empress herself.”

This time, mama’s laughter pitched high. It made her stagger and clutch Ama’ktu for support, before shifting into fury. “You think I took on Zareb’s cropping so that you could abandon us?” Mama barreled toward me then. “‘Mani, I do it so you don’t have to. So that you can keep our magery alive here.”

“Well maybe I wanna make it so you don’t have to crop!” I yelled.

Mama stopped, reeling like I’d struck her, and my whole body trembled as the truth rushed free. As if I needed reminding that papa was gone; the evidence was all around us. After he passed, ma took up his cropping rotations to cover our debts: coffee, cotton — all Gyrixë’s best-known exports. I hated that she picked year ‘round, only to send half her haul to the cloud ferries for upland distribution.

“Attending the College would mean graduating alongside nobility,” I reasoned, slicing the silence with calmer tones. “And I’d make good money doing upland heads with my wish magery. Every stone could help buy back our lands.”

“Mama threw up her hands. “Worrying about finances is my job, ‘Mani. Yours? Is not to lie like you have!” She slumped, tiredness etching itself into her slackening expression. “How could you keep all of this from me?”

Movement prickled the edge of my vision; I caught the huntress glaring between us, backing away as if she regretted stumbling in at all.

“Stay!” I barked at her. “Ma, please — ”

“No.” Her gaze turned glassy. “You wanna go? Fine. Gon ‘head. Join your new friend. Honor your ridiculous contract.”

“I haven’t agreed to anything!” The huntress bellowed.

“But don’t you dare come back here after it all blows up in your face.”

Backpedaling, I fought the angry comebacks scrabbling at my throat. I could tell she meant every word from the way she clutched her arms, like she was already getting used to holding herself up without me.

Guess I’d have to learn to do the same.

“Knightess-hopeful — ” Don’t cry, I commanded myself. Don’t.

“It’s Myra,” the girl replied. She’d been halfway out the door before mama’s ultimatum, but lingered now, fingers playing at the mosaic tapestry on her left.

“Myra, then.” I gripped my hands ‘til the nail beds whitened. “Look, I’m the best coif mage you’ll find in Gyrixë. I’ve mastered healing coiffery, and I even made up a new kind of magery when scalp divination and strand summoning didn’t suit me.”

Myra edged back inside, trailing her guarded gaze along the length of me. “Then your coif magery …?”

“Molds your wildest wishes into the fabric of our world, so they might come to life.”

A smirk plumped her dark cheeks; sharpened her now-expectant gaze. Behind us, Ama’ktu began coughing anew. Mama went to comfort her, but the din of it all sounded far away.

“Take me on retainer, but keep your winnings,” I continued. “In return, I’ll twist wishes into your hair every day of the melée. Just give me a chance to make my wish a reality.”


That night, I feigned strength as we rode out beneath a gloomy half-moon; as Gyrixë’s farmhouses, quiet windmills, and wending streams faded behind us. Once we hit Han’enfol, and our neighboring realm’s tarped night markets came into view, Myra slowed us to a trot to clear the bazaar’s throng. That’s when I spied the fire lamp glow of Madame Ellerie’s Coif Menagerie haloing the darkness, where papa had gifted me an “unbreakable” bone comb. At nine, all stubby legged and squat, I could barely reach heads for styling. Mama had gazed on excitedly anyway, proud to have a real Ellerie piece in our salon’s collection.

Now it jangled inside my rucksack, bumping grease tins and iron clips to the tune of my façade fraying at the seams. A miserable sob shuddered free of my throat at the memory.

“Nope, none of that.” Myra loosened her hold on the reins to squeeze my arm. “Look, I get it — leaving after a fight’d chafe anyone’s ass. But you better ready yourself with whatever strength you’ve left.” Clicking her tongue, she spurred her mare into a gallop so that we’d make the last departing cloud ferry. “We’ve a melée to win, and dreams to earn. Your ma’ll come around.”

I didn’t exactly feel better, but she was right. Sucking tears from my lips, I focused on everything but memories of home: my cramped thighs clinging to our horse, Myra’s smooth staff resting against my lap, the tang of anti-inflammatory salve wafting through her furs. We rounded Han’enfol’s bordering slaughterhouses. Hours later, the breathlessness of Vanar’s hulking cloud ferries rose into view as we entered the last southern realm I’d see before taking flight.

My sense of splendor quickly disappeared after it took every stone I’d saved to board. Which came after Myra negotiated the avimage captain’s asking price down, and threw in her horse for good measure.

“Come on now, friend. Who’s trying to fly with all these dragons about?” She winked, further wrinkling his bearded glower. “Might as well cut your losses and get what you can, ‘cause these docks seem pretty damn empty tonight.”

Mama said only birds were meant to fly, so I held my breath when we pushed off, until Vanar and Han’enfol and Gyrixë and every other little underland realm disappeared below dense clouds. It was win, or beg our way back home. Abyss below, I should’ve asked Myra to do a backflip or a blade toss or something to prove she could fight. Still, she had enough bravado for us both.

“Now,” Myra said, swaggering into our modest cabin below deck. “Let’s hope you’re half as good as you claim. I still wish I’d begged Kellarin to do my hair before leaving.”

I couldn’t decide whether I admired her caution, or found it annoying.

“Kellarin?” I began unpacking my styling tools atop a rickety writing desk.

“My sister.” Myra unfurled herself across our straw bed, long limbs dangling over the side. “She does healing coiffery like your ma, which means I know my way around coif mages. I’ll know if you’re playing me false.”

Annoying, then. Definitely annoying.

“Will you now?” I tried to clear the acid from my voice. “Why didn’t you beg Kellarin, then?”

“Because…” Myra canted her head defiantly. “She took up fighting Qu’hellain’s wolf-wraiths in my stead.”

“Oh.” Iron hairclips fell through my fingers, pelting the writing desk awkwardly.

I don’t remember how old I was during Gyrixë’s last wraith massacre; I just know I’d never been more frightened than when mama clutched me close, her breath lancing hotly against my ear while villagers called for aid outside: don’t let them in, no matter what skin they’re wearing, she’d begged before going into the darkness with papa. They left me trembling in nana’s room with a torch bigger than my torso, so that I could burn wraiths out in case everyone else failed.

Now Myra’s sister would exchange bone combs for obsidian blades and magicked arrows, to help keep them at bay.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered.

“Why?” Myra challenged, rearing up onto her elbows. “Da taught ‘Rin to wield the knife too, same as any Qu’hell huntress.” Something jagged caught Myra’s tone, deflating her bravado to a paltry simmer. “And she’s in good company. She’ll travel with the last hunters Murinien trained, before she — ” Myra hesitated, eyes widening. “Nothing. Before nothing.”

Oh. Oh Gods. “Wait, don’t tell me Qu’hell’s realm dragon left, too?”

Would this kick off a second wave of the so-called dragon exodus? The first had come like a torrent, with droves of them taking flight after failed negotiations at the Empress’s imperial summit. Upland pamphleteers reported that the dragons were heading east, claiming faraway crag wilds to build army hordes; that they’d come back and burn every city if we didn’t stop them.

‘Course, that was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard. Upland realms knew nothing of dragons, or their thousand-year-long relationships with underland village families.

“Uuugh,” Myra mumbled into the bedsheets. “Me and the other hunters promised we’d keep it secret, for long as we could.” She flipped over onto her back, eyes faraway. “Muri traveled by ground during the day, so Her Arsehole Majesty’s airships wouldn’t catch her flying.”

Gyrixë wasn’t big enough to boast its own realm dragon, so with Qu’hellhain being so close … Murinen felt like my family, too. I’d often race to watch her soar overhead in the spring, scaly form carving the clouds.

“Is that why you want to become a knightess?” I asked, but Myra’s expression stiffened around a stony glare. I guess letting me in wasn’t part of the deal. “Okay, then. Let’s get to your hair.” I steered the conversation back into comfortable territory. “Now, you might know regular coif magery, but wish styling is about binding what we most desire into the tapestry of magick itself. You know about the Sight?”

Myra rose, flinging off her furs. “Sis says it’s like looking at cobwebs or something.”

“Exactly! Mage-sight exposes the raw webbings of magick that overlay our world.” Setting a chair beneath the cabin’s only window, I gathered blankets to create a makeshift styling cape. “Now, you just need to focus on your wish — think it, speak it, doesn’t matter.” I made Myra sit, and began dampening her loose coils. “The rest is my job: binding it so that magick’ll rearrange the universe to make it true.”

“Can’t possibly be that simple,” Myra sputtered. “What if I wished for the world to end? Or to raise the dead?”

I winced. Dark memories from moons prior roiled to the fore: my chubby knees pressed into the salon’s floor, as I raked magicks through my hair. I wished for papa to come back, so he could pepper us with scratchy kisses; demanded that the universe reverse time, pump blood through his heart again. I cursed Ama’ktu for delivering the news, for telling us he dropped mid-cropping.

“There are things magick just can’t do.” Breathing through the rawness aching my chest, I changed the subject. “Anyway, you got nefarious plans I don’t know about?”

“Maybe.” Myra wiggled her eyebrows. “Kidding, kidding.” Her tone shifted, turning husky. “Well, I don’t fight good when I’m worried. So … I wish for ‘Rin’s safety.”

Surprise clotted in me, stilling my hands. Myra could’ve wished for anything. Strength. Speed. Agility during the melée’s battles. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one aching for home, and I suddenly didn’t feel weak for doing so. “All right.”

Loosing a breath, I squinted ‘til the world turned fuzzy, then paused; waited until the ferry’s creaking hull faded, until I couldn’t feel the softness of Myra’s curls in my hands. Until all sense, except Sight, fled me.

My next breath rippled a gleaming sliver of webbing nearby, which brought another thread into view, and another — until the whole cabin was sketched over with fibers of magickal essence just waiting to be molded. I tapped Myra’s shoulder, signaling her to focus on her wish. When she spoke, the threads crossing her hair undulated.

I worked quickly to form medium-sized Han’enfol twists, though we stopped twice so Myra could stand and stretch, making the threads cascade down her back like strung stars. Eventually I wove the magicks through each twist, creating a corded lattice that made her hair shimmer. By the time I reached the front section, even her lashes were aglow like some woodland fae from the stories, angular cheeks and wide nose bathed in light.

But like always, my Sight exacted its toll.

Nearby magicks began writhing while I worked, tendrils undulating wildly before stabbing into my skin. As thin rivulets of blood welled up from the cylindrical wounds, I snipped the base of each by pinching them between my nails (mama taught me to never cut them low). The leftover bits eventually settle beneath your scabs, but I learned early on to work fast, which also meant hitting my favorite part sooner: gathering the magicks.

Once Myra’s twists were finished, I mouthed: to me. Churning, the threads unlatched themselves from her twists, coiling into a yarn-like ball that hovered atop my left hand.

Make it so.

They scattered, crawling across the room’s magicks with renewed purpose.

Work done, I softened my gaze; watched the webbing trickle away until feeling crept back into my hands. Sound and taste and smell flooded into me once more.

“I’m guessing this isn’t an instantaneous kinda thing?” Myra teased, stretching as she stood.

“Not exactly,” I laughed woozily; Sight work always left me drained. “Give it time.”

With the horizon still blue-black, we had hours to go before reaching Ecrouxvér. But as I cleaned up, Myra’s calloused hand caught mine.

“Thanks, Omani.”

Heat bloomed where she touched me — the same spot Mekiah, the tailor’s son, pressed a kiss to last summer. A similar feeling torched my core.

“Uh, none’s needed. I’m your retainer, right?”

Holding my gaze, Myra surprised me by tearing some of her tunic to wrap my Sight wounds. Some stung worse, having reopened previously healed scars.

“Da thinks knights are pompous and stupid.” Myra’s jaw twitched as she wound cloth about me. “He doesn’t get what it’d mean for Qu’hell to have a real knightess, even though Muri’s gone. He said if I left, it’d be as good as killing ‘Rin myself.” Her hands lingered, even though my bandages were secure. “I want to become a knightess so that I can help our people.”

We stood there with our hands clasped. Nothing to return to. Everything to lose.

“And I can do that a little easier, even with my back, knowing she might survive the week.” Myra grinned, a real smile this time, unguarded and brilliant. “Thank you for that. And for, y’know, tagging along. I haven’t, uhm … traveled like this with anyone since Muri left.”

I returned her grin, but mine was a flimsy, strained thing. Why didn’t I feel brilliant and brave and unguarded, too?

I wondered about this long after Myra climbed into bed, tired eyes watching the inky horizon out our keyhole window. Thoughts of mama came to me then; of her roasted yams and belly-splitting jokes; of the way her summer sundresses caught the light, or how she stretched onto her tippy toes to plait braids into my crown, even when her back ached from picking.

Of how I hadn’t looked back, when she watched us ride away beneath the murk.

Of how she was probably watching nanu right now, in case she woke confused or tried to wander off. Shame boiled hot in me, since we used to take turns protecting her. Who’d change places with mama now? Who’d make sure she slept and ate while nanu wasted away?

My worries bled into something with claws, rooting deep until the marrow of me felt raked through. Those worries only worsened with the sunrise. Soon, daylight flooded the horizon, revealing landmasses.

Dozens of them.

Ahead, upland realms jutted against the skyline. They loomed like gilt behemoths, cast in grandiose shades of bronze and azure, tops aglow with sprawling cities. Spiral towers needled into thin, pristine points, while bulbous temple domes reflected a patchwork of mosaic artistry. I traced granite roads bisecting the land like arteries to waterfalls spilling over the world’s edge, where their stalactite bottoms knifed into the clouds below, blotting out the underlands beneath.


The next morning, Myra woke in agony, back aflame as we skirted Ecrouxvér’s crowded port with nothing but walking sticks for balance. Jitters knotted my insides as we avoided throngs of bird-fishermen, grumbly merchers, and eager tourists — all of which only heightened the coiled tension of watching her struggle.

“At least let me help.” I rounded her other side, but Myra shooed me off.

“Stop fretting and keep up. We gotta book it! Ferry docked later than I’d hoped.”

We trudged the city’s cobblestoned streets, rounding obsidian spires where tempermages shifted winter’s chill into manufactured humidity. It might’ve been nice — if we weren’t sweating and stinking through our furs near gilt parliamentary temples, or needing to cool our damp cheeks against the Imperial History Museum’s marble colonnades.

To make matters worse, Myra’s staff kept slipping on the stones, skidding her into stagecoaches cluttering the street. She refused my help yet again, as we passed towering emporiums where Gyrixëan salt mix went for twice the banknotes they did back home, and veered from the spray of merchers beating sky-dew out of their fabric wares. We spent fifty minutes wandering, lost and sore-footed, along avenues where ruddy kids played around aqueducts plunging off the city’s edge, before finally discovering the Imperial College’s campus.

“Melée’ll be up there.” Ditching her staff, Myra pointed out a distant amphitheater that loomed between brick-topped departmental buildings and a massive belfry. “You ready?”

I could hardly see Myra past my worries, let alone respond. So, I followed as she hobbled along manicured gravel walkways, smothering an impulse to retrieve her stick while battling darker thoughts: could Myra win while in such pain? Yesterday, she was all flair and cockiness, believing our destinies within reach. Now I wasn’t so sure.

Doubt dogged the minutes we spent walking toward the theater’s entryway, and I’d barely caught my breath before an attendant spotted us.

“Competitors, both of you?” the robed usher asked. “This way.”

Sweeping inside, my stomach knotted upon seeing so many sky-folk filling the stands: wig-clad men puffing on thick cigars, little girls garbed in chainmail, peering through binoculars to spy the fighters below.

Myra elbowed me, just as we rounded the theater’s circular stage. “Look, the asshole of the hour.”

I followed Myra’s gaze. Downstage, a grave-faced woman surveyed the grounds from a painted dais, flanked by royal guard. That could only mean one thing — Empress Troxrin would preside over the melée herself.

“Does she usually call these matches?” I asked.

“Not this early,” Myra whispered. The attendant led us into a rear preparatory tent, handed Myra a placard identifying her opponent, and warned that the melée would begin in minutes. She flung herself behind a screen to change. “She’s only supposed to show up on the final day, to knight the winner.”

Gods. Which meant now, the Empress might see Myra lose early. Might narrow those beady eyes, easily forgetting the underland girls who’d given up everything to be here. Clammy and cold, I coughed around the stench of competitors dressing and smoking nearby.

“Maybe we should style your twists again, real fast.” Drawing closer to the screen, I whispered: “You could wish away your pain.”

A kind of thick, strained silence met my words, leaving me space to really hear what I’d just said. Gods! I wanted to snatch the words back with my bare hands, but my fingers felt like claws — monstrous, gnashing things that’d shorn away mama and nanu, and now Myra.

“Look, I only meant — ”

“Oh, I know exactly what you meant.” Myra came out from behind her screen, clad in dazzling armor: richly dyed leather, accented with a plackart and greaves made of interwoven iron that mimicked dragon scales. My ribcage thudded as I took her in — a real dragoness, towering and lithe, poised for flight.

“Abyss below, this was one helluva mistake,” Myra muttered. Her forehead smoothed, shifting what’d been a taut grimace into something serene. “Go home, Omani.”

Her tone was soft, yet cutting — a broadsword piercing silk. Like a final sundering of something that was once whole.

“W-what?” I stammered.

“Your services are no longer needed,” Myra replied. After fastening her knives, she turned to join the other melée competitors who’d begun lining up. “Shoulda known you weren’t strong enough to see this through.”

A million little things occurred, all at once: competitors took the marble stage to the sound of opening trumpets; I called out to Myra, but ear-splitting crowd roar swallowed the words whole. Pitching backward, I knocked into platters of wine and cheese while ushers and tailors and press pamphleteers and sky peoples frowned at the sight of tears carving my cheeks.

I’d ruined everything.

So I ran from the theater, plunging downhill as the melée’s host, Duke something-or-other, announced Myra’s opponent: “Thera the Thrasher,” a pale, tree-trunk of a woman from the underlands below Ecrouxvér who probably believed victory her birthright. The crowd’s applause faded as I scraped past manicured quadrangles and ivy-coated libraries. By the time I stopped, rucksack clanking, chest heaving, I was all sweat and snot; ashamed of myself for doubting the one person who believed in me; afraid of slinking home to mama and watching her crop until she collapsed like papa. If she’d even take me back in.

I was so absorbed, I didn’t catch the alchemist who’d stopped before me. He had a kind, round face, and carefully balanced a chemical tray full of beakers and vials against his crisp student robes.

“Got your midterms back, eh? I know that feeling,” he said, sounding upland proper. Lifting a knee, he rebalanced his samples. “Don’t worry, it gets easier after your first term.”

It felt worse being mistaken for an actual student. “I’m not — ”

“You know, why don’t you chat up your advisor?” He leaned in close enough for me to count the freckles splashing his cheeks. “They want you to think you can’t argue a grade, but you always can. What’s your department?”

Department. Like gears whirring into motion, that word planted the seeds of a plan into my addled mind. “Coif magery.”

“Well, strike that,” he laughed. “Professor Ames is known for being a hardass.”

Reeling, I remembered my offer letter; recalled the way Professor Carolyn Ames signed her name to it. “Where can I find her?”

The boy frowned. “Hasn’t Physical Magicks always been in Kent Hall, behind the clocktower?”

I left him there looking utterly perplexed, but was firmly set on my plan: find Professor Ames; impress her, regale her, do whatever I needed to win her interest. Then, plumb her for ideas about possible sponsors! Wealthy skyfolk she might know. Gods, she had to know some, right? College faculty were practically nobles, themselves.

And if I was brave enough to keep fighting in my own way, then I was strong enough to find Myra later; to apologize for everything, and pull my own weight. To rally her and trust myself — trust us both — like I should’ve all along.

I raced toward Kent Hall; pushed through the department’s heavy oak doors, wincing beneath the over-bright feel of hallways humming with electric light; poked into empty lecture halls and scanned wall signs until I found her office placard, written in the same flourished hand from my acceptance letter: Department Chair, Carolyn Ames.

Unfortunately, her door was slightly ajar, which meant my creeping steps swayed it with a nasty creak.

“Who’s there?” She called.

Her boots echoed as she whipped the door back, revealing crimson professorial robes and a stern face pockmarked with recent Sight scabs. Uniform, layered scars hid beneath them, resembling sharpened scythes.

“Professor Ames,” I croaked, throat dry. “Hi.”

Her lips pinched, as she took in my sweating, disheveled form. “Are you here for office hours?”

“Not exactly.”

Chewing my tongue, I dug through my rucksack before retrieving and extending her my offer letter. After skimming it briefly, she arched one perfectly shaped brow.

“Ah. Yes, the underlands talent. I remember your application.” She swept greying bangs from her eyes, as if to see me better. “Prospectives usually come begging to get in, but you’ve already done that.”

So why are you here? Her tone implied.

Gods, I had to choose my words carefully .  Twisting the edge of my traveling cloak between tingling fingers, I stuttered, “I came here to win patronage from the Empress.” Her narrowing eyes only worsened my stumbling speech. “I am — was working as a personal coif mage for one of her melée competitors.”

Professor Ames chuckled sharply, mouth agape. “And when that unlikely plan fails? As it already seems to have, since your coif work is a past-tense activity.”

Heat crawled my ears, dulling sound so that I had to flatten my tongue to feel the press of every syllable thudding out. “Then I’d like to discuss other options, Mistress. To prove that I’m worth investing in, to whoever’ll have me.”

Perfect brow lowering, she returned my letter; swept keen emerald eyes over me. “Meet me here tomorrow ‘round nine, before morning lecture. I promise nothing but coffee and a chat. Let’s see what you take from it, shall we?”

The door creaked shut before I could respond.


This concludes Part 1 of “While Dragons Claim the Sky.” Click here to continue reading the story.