The dragon’s love is fierce. It consumes everything.
My opponent’s sword clashes against mine. The impact reverberates up my arm, causing my already aching bicep to ache even more. A bead of sweat rolls away from my temple and down my cheek.
Spinning around, I sweep out with my left leg to catch Orion’s ankles. He leaps, dodging the blow, so I reach up and grab his forearm.
He wasn’t expecting that move, and it causes him to lose his balance. More fool me, because when he falls, I’m beneath him.
We tumble to the dusty courtyard tiles. Orion’s elbow jams into my gut. The blunt blow steals my breath. I can’t bring in air, I can’t even gasp. He rolls off of me, looking horrified.
“Inez?” He holds out a hand to help me up, but I can’t take it.
Soon, I will draw breath. I know it. This isn’t the first time I’ve had the wind knocked out of me, and it likely won’t be the last.
Markus and Ben, who were sparring nearby, drop their sword arms to come check on me.
I wave them away. Orion, too.
After a few moments, my stomach and chest loosen, and I can finally bring in air.
“I’m fine,” I croak at Orion.
His hand is still out; he’s waiting for me to accept his help.
My gaze flicks to Master Kenneth, whose eyes are hidden by the only substantial shade in the courtyard—thrown by an ancient, towering palm just outside the city walls.
Master Kenneth would tell me that a warrior knows how to be gracious and accept help.
Master Kenneth is not aware of the current of heat that flows from Orion to me every time I touch his skin.
I dread that heat as much as I crave it.
Bracing myself, I take Orion’s hand and allow him to help me up. His palm is hotter than the sun-scorched dunes. As much as I have come to loathe the heat, for the dwindling water supply and the hundreds of parched throats, I want to keep Orion’s hand in mine and feel his heat.
The water shortage has addled my mind.
Dropping Orion’s hand, I bend to pick up my sword to resume our sparring.
“Rest.” Master Kenneth doesn’t raise his voice. He has never needed to, not once, not even for the younger students.
I pluck my sword from the dust, wipe it on my leggings, then slide it into its scabbard. I look for shade to rest in, but the narrow band of it along the wall, perhaps the width of a hand, has already been claimed by the children.
Next to me, Orion chuckles. I turn to look at him, at his shaggy, light brown hair, his strong jaw, the dimple that appears in his cheek when he smiles.
“Your longing expression at the shade,” he explains.
I quickly look away, toward the far end of the courtyard. At the edge is the path that leads to the center of the city.
At the center of every desert city is a well.
Our well is failing.
The City of Sand is slowly dying. Traders have brought word that the City of Stars faces the same fate. Not long ago, our two cities were separate kingdoms. We have united into the Kingdom of Sand and Stars, only to what? Dry out into husks of bone and leathery flesh? What good is Nima’s redemption of our kingdom if all we’re meant to do is waste away?
Maybe we should have allowed the windhaunts to take us, after all. At least our misery would be shorter-lived.
Orion’s fingers grip mine, pulling me from my thoughts.
“Someone has come,” he says.
“At midday?” No one travels the dunes while the sun is high.
“I hear their sled,” he adds.
Cocking my head, I hear the hush, hush sound of sled tracks on sand. “Then their wolves are silent.”
None of the children have noticed the approaching travelers, distracted as they are by their chatter, but Master Kenneth meets my gaze when Orion and I look to him.
“Go,” he mouths.
We leave the courtyard, Ben and Markus on our heels. We pass the well, where a lone chicken scratches the dirt beside it, and make our way around white, sun-bleached buildings. We pass the open circle and its raised platform where my best friend, Nima Storyteller, used to spin her tales, and then we face the great round stone that blocks the western entrance.
Markus marches forward to start rolling the stone aside, but I say, “Wait. We need to be sure they’re friends, not foes.”
Markus’s mouth twists—he doesn’t like being corrected—but he waves an arm, inviting me to climb the ladder.
There are words between the two of us that ought to be spoken. Apologies. Explanations. The two of us, with Nima, had been the closest of friends. That seems so long ago, now.
I scale the ladder leading to the top of the wide city wall, then peer beyond the bells hanging from strings. A sled is making excruciatingly slow progress over the sand. Their wolves are fatigued, their paws likely aching from the sun-burned sand. The sled holds perhaps four people, no more than six.
After climbing down the ladder, I find Elda, our city’s leader, waiting for me.
Her green eyes are thoughtful as I report what I saw.
“If they are foes,” I say, “they aren’t in a position to harm us.”
She nods. “We’ll allow them in.”
Markus doesn’t look at me even though we work side-by-side to roll the stone away.
It doesn’t take long before their wolves enter our city, the sled sliding along behind them. The travelers bear sunburns on sun darkened skin. Their lips are chapped, their skin dry.
Our wolf handlers tend to their wolves, unharnessing them from the sled and bringing them to our stables.
There are four travelers—two men and two women. Four more throats to drink our water, plus their nine wolves. Elda’s lips thin as she surveys them.
One of the men steps forward. His face is creased with age. Like those of his companions, his tunic and trousers look travel-worn and dusty. This is no rich trader, coming to exchange goods for mutual benefit.
“Thank you.” His voice sounds like it might usually be a deep baritone, low like our largest kettle drum, but now it is raspy like scales over sand.
“Who are you?” Elda asks.
“I am called Caleb,” he says. “With me are Melina, Fran, and Petre.” He gestures to the people with him in turn. Melina is around my age and has long, blond hair bleached nearly white by the sun. Strange tattoos cover her hands. Fran is close to Elda’s age, with a wrinkled face like Caleb’s. Petre looks to be a year or two older than I am, and his clothing is the best of theirs—a brilliant green tunic paired with faded black trousers. His outfit is sandy and unkempt, but the fabric is of strong quality. His hair is nearly as blond as Melina’s.
“Forgive my rudeness,” Elda says, “but these are thirsty times. Why have you come? We don’t have much to share.”
Desert hospitality is a strange thing. If you judge someone to be your enemy, you do not have to invite them into your tent or into your kingdom. But once they are there, you must care for them, treat them as lost siblings.
Elda’s suspicious and less than welcoming reception tells me one of two things—either she does not trust these travelers, or the level of our city’s water supply is more dire than I had thought.
Perhaps both things are true.
Harsh sunlight bakes the braids against my skull as we await the travelers’ response.
“We seek water,” the older of the women, Fran, says. “We are passing through and ask for shelter to rest today and tomorrow, and water to fill our skins and the wolves’ barrel.”
Elda rubs her chin and turns her assessing green eyes to the woman. She doesn’t want to help the travelers, I can tell. The drought has robbed our kingdom of its generosity.
“With no goods to exchange, we don’t expect much,” Caleb says.
I can see the travelers’ tension, their hope in their hunched shoulders and cracked lips.
“Of course you may stay,” Elda says.
She isn’t cruel, but I wonder if her pause was manipulative, a subtle reminder that these travelers owe us a debt. In this dry, hot desert with nothing but dunes, scorpion dragons, and windhaunts surrounding us, these travelers owe us more than a debt; we’ve saved their lives.
Once darkness falls, the city breathes a collective sigh. Cynthia Welltender distributes our water rations. I clutch my water skin gratefully, wondering how I can make it last all night and through the next day. I overhear Silas Wolfhandler tell Elda that we might need to release some of our wolves, as their thirst had made them more aggressive.
“Increase their water rations,” Elda says. “I shall inform Cynthia.”
I see one of the travelers, the man they call Petre, eyeing the stone platform in the center of the square.
He sees me watching him and his eyes meet mine. His irises are a sandy shade of brown, a shade we don’t often see in the kingdom.
“Do you have a storyteller?” he asks.
“Yes. She lives in the City of Stars,” I say.
“Not at this time, no.”
Nima Storyteller is training a young boy in her art. She promised to send him to us soon, but he won’t be ready for another eight months, at least.
Petre straightens in his green tunic, but his brown eyes are shy. He runs the toe of his boot along the base of the platform. “Would you like to hear a story?”
I feel my face stretch in a smile. “The entire city would, I’m sure. If you’re offering one.”
He nods. “I am. At nightfall, I’ll spin a tale.”
The handful of people around us have naturally overheard, and conversation ripples outward through the square. It won’t be long before everyone in the city knows a story will be told.
At dusk, the square begins to fill. I make my way through people getting comfortable on the ground. Orion is nearby—it seems he is always nearby. He seems to read my mind and we each plop down on the ground in front of the stone platform. If we wait too long to sit, all of the good spaces will be taken.
Nudging my shoulder with his, Orion asks, “How’s your stomach?”
“It’s marvelous,” I lie. “Never better.”
In truth, I ache all over—not only from the blow to my gut, but from the fall.
Orion seems to know this, and he nods. “Tomorrow will be better.”
“For me, you mean.” I grin. “Because it will be your turn on the ground.”
He opens his mouth to retort, but Petre has taken a place in the center of the platform and he’s waiting for the square to quiet. I hadn’t noticed, while Orion and I bickered, that the square was filling with people. Markus is here, leaning against one of the buildings. He’s a part of the kingdom and the tale without really taking part in any of it. Typical.
“What happened there?” Orion asks, following my gaze to Markus.
“Exactly nothing,” I say. Then I hesitate. Orion hasn’t pried once, not after Nima and I were whipped in this very square, not after he’s seen Markus avoiding me ever since. “It’s to do with—”
“I have a story for the City of Sand, of the Kingdom of Sand and stars,” Petre begins.
I hold my tongue. Now wouldn’t have been the best moment to dredge up past ills, anyway.
A hush falls over the square. Above us, the stars are growing brighter in the east as the sun falls farther down in the west. A few hours without its relentless heat will be welcome. I tighten my grip on my water skin and refuse the temptation to drink deeply from it. I’ll allow myself a few sips before going to sleep.
“This is a story,” Petre continues, “of jungles, of dragons. It is a story of water.”
At that, the drowsy half-attention of the audience transforms. We sit up straighter. Orion and I even lean forward slightly, and looking around, I see we aren’t the only ones.
“Far past The Salt, in the jungles to the west,” Petre says, “all manner of creatures have been created by the jungle goddess, Beline. Tiny, furry, pig-like creatures. Giant lizards that lurk in the river. Cats that are larger than men. Long-limbed creatures dwell in trees and fight with the people for fruit and insects to eat.”
He pauses dramatically. By now, I am ready to let my thoughts wander to stories of their own, because this is nothing like the tales told by Nima. Her stories have characters, intrigue. Petre is just spouting a bit of boring lore.
I’m not the only person in the square who is losing interest. Several others sit back once more. Even Elda looks disappointed.
Likely sensing that he’s losing his audience, Petre speaks more loudly and energetically. “But the largest, rarest, and most puzzling creature is the water dragon. It is said that these water dragons are formed only with the blessing of the goddess, and even then, only in times of great need.”
Next to me, Orion is still staring attentively at the storyteller. Surprised, I glance around once more. Few seem to be paying him any real heed. Markus is whittling a piece of wood with his good battle knife, a small child is fretting behind me. Elda is listening to Petre, but she is frowning. Only Master Kenneth looks as attentive as Orion.
Puzzled by Master Kenneth’s interest, I try to pay attention to the storyteller.
“The dragon is a foul monster, a heartless beast, a natural enemy to humankind. Its lungs belch fire and its claws shred anything that breathes. Yet despite its despicable qualities, the water dragon contains within it a map to all the water in the land—in the North, South, West, and East.
“We will find one of the water dragons and we will skin it to get the map and return water to the entire continent of Celinia.”
I kick Orion with the toe of my boot and whisper, “Well, that took a grotesque turn.”
Orion nods and sends me a brief smile, but he doesn’t comment. Did he take the spiritual legend seriously? He can’t have; it was too grotesque. Then again, Master Kenneth seemed enraptured, as well.
Petre changes the story into something mellow, something about a sandstorm revealing a hidden city.
But my thoughts remain with the idea of water dragons. I wouldn’t want to skin any creature—but would thirst drive me to it?
❤ ❤ ❤
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