- Pages: 496 Pages
- Series: THE AURELIAN CYCLE
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers
- ISBN: 9780525518273
An Excerpt From
It's the eve of the Long-Awaited Return, and I'm about to lose everything.
Everything. That is what he's become for me, this boy who kneels beside me as I stare down my family, my court, as if I were alien to them. Griff Gareson, the humble-rider, the peasant, whom I never was supposed to love. I look down at his damp curls, at the burns that glaze the muscles of his neck, and wish we were alone so that I could kiss them one last time. I marvel at how steadily he holds his head.
Does he not realize what is happening?
"Why did you give it to him?" Lady Electra asks.
My crime: I gave Griff Gareson the key to his muzzled, chained dragon, which he used to find Antigone, Firstrider of the Callipolan Fleet, and turn spy against us.
Tonight, Griff's crimes have been uncovered even as our plan proceeds unfoiled. Ixion still sets out to bring Callipolis to its knees with the help of a foreign princess and a promise of bread. I'm closer to returning to my home now than I've been in these ten long years of exile. I should be glorying in our triumph.
But all I can think is that the one I love is about to be dropped.
The dragonborn exiles in this room look at me, look at him, and make their assumptions. They assume I was a lovestruck fool, too smitten to ask what he did with that key.
I was smitten. I am smitten. But I was never a fool. I didn't ask what he did with that key, but I knew.
I let him.
Why? That is the question that turns over and over, like sea-smooth stones knocking in my hand. Why did I enable this treachery?
I have prepared for the Long-Awaited Return to Callipolis as eagerly as the rest of them. I long to go home. I feel the absence of the Skyfish Summer Palace like the ache of a missing limb, still waking up, ten years later, from dreams where I smell the Medean wafting through sunlit marble halls and hear the ghostly laugh of a mother the usurpers took from me.
"It's been a pleasure serving all of you," says Griff, bowing low, before he is dragged from the room.
Once he's gone, Father makes the one demand commensurate with my failure.
"You will be the one to drop him."
Hours later, in my chambers where I wait for dawn, a knock sounds on the door and my surroundings return to me. The tomes spread across my desk contain the old poems with their heroes; I've been staring at them, unseeing, since I lit the lamp and slumped in this chair hours ago. The childhood comforts have not worked tonight.
Outside the door, I find a young Norcian woman holding a note.
Mabalena, called Lena, was once a humble-rider, like Griff. Her limp, her strangely angled limbs, and her lopsided face are a reminder of the punishment she suffered six years ago. Found guilty of sedition and dropped, as Griff will be-though only an idiot would believe sweet, bumbling Mabalena capable of anything they accused her of. She's served in the citadel ever since. Her quarters are in the dungeons, in an unlocked cell; there's no point locking Lena in. She has nowhere left to go.
For her, the drop was a life sentence of pain. For Griff, it will be an execution.
"A message from Lord Rhode, my lord."
Rhode has written: Do not despair so soon, brother. There are plenty more peasants to warm your bed.
Moments like this, I strain to remember the childhood in which Rhode and I were friends.
I look over the letter at Mabalena, who waits with eyes downcast, her face placid, her usual matted hair limp as if a coarse brush had been recently forced through it. It's hard to believe, looking at this broken girl, that she ever rode on a dragon's back. The unasked questions shriveled on the vine years ago: Do they touch you? Do they hurt you? The same questions I learned not to ask Griff when Julia started summoning him and laughing about it afterward. What could I do with my knowledge? Nothing. And when nothing can be done, discretion is the last decency.
I used to wonder what was wrong with me, for caring. Whether it's me who is perverse, or my family, remains a matter of opinion. But with Griff about to drop, it's a little late for my cure. I take two steps to the fire and drop the note in it. Mabalena watches the parchment burn with flames reflected in her eyes.
"How is the Callipolan prisoner?"
Mabalena's eyes dart from the fire to my face. What tearstains she sees there, she doesn't linger on. "He struggles with sorrow spells still," she says. "Missing his skyfish. But he is kind. We speak a little Dragontongue. Daily he improves; his wounds heal."
All the prisoners are Mabalena's charges, but I noticed, when I surrendered Duck Sutter into her care two months ago after finding him improbably alive in the rubble of a blazesite, that she took particular interest in his rehabilitation. The Callipolan's sorrow at the loss of his dragon is something she understands, just as she knows what it is like to survive a fatal drop, and live with a shattered body, as Duck Sutter has had to do.
I hoped they would help each other. All the same, I'm not prepared for what Mabalena murmurs next. "The Callipolan has been . . . sunlight to my darkness, my lord."
She sounds as if she isn't sure it's a good thing. Her expression is, for a moment, so vulnerable it looks naked.
Sweet Mabalena, who fell so hard. Doesn't she know that happiness is something we're not allowed?
I gesture at the armchair between us, and Lena eases into it like a perching bird. I take the seat opposite. The expression on her scarred face grows all the more disconcerted as I pour wine into two goblets and offer her one. She drinks when I drink.
"Griff has been found guilty of treason."
Her fingers tighten on the goblet. Understanding, as only Mabalena could, what that word forebodes.
"Father has ordered me to do it."
"Then you should," she says.
Only when she says it, and I feel no surprise, do I realize this is what I needed her to say.
Because I've been thinking it, too.
Lena's eyes are ice gray. Like they've been drained of color. "You can assure that it is done well, for the sake of his family. You can assure that his family is-spared."
Last time, Rhode did it. He was the one who decided to drop Lena's family and then her.
I've closed my eyes. A soft pressure cools my face: Mabalena has placed her fingers on my cheek. "Before Rhode gave me his message to deliver," she murmurs, "I saw your Griff, in the cell where they've put him. He had a message, too."
I look at her, and now my heart is racing. "What did he say?"
"He said to take Gephyra out before the drop. Take a long flight. Summon your courage, make your vigil, and when you come home-do your duty."
They intend to drop Griff at dawn, but we're ready long before that.
The pillars of karst surrounding New Pythos are black fingers against a gray sky when Aela and I leave the lairs of the ha'Aurelian citadel. On the crown of Thornrose Karst, among winter-dead brambles overgrowing their shrine of standing stones, Griff's sister, Agga, hides with her two children. They were moved here for their safety in the night. The three of them emerge when Aela lands, and the little boy, Garet, beckons me to a place on the edge of the cliff where I can watch for sunrise.
Garet. The same name, and nearly the same age, as my brother when he died. Our languages, Callish and Norish, share roots like they share damp winters and long hungers. I can't help feeling that I've got more in common with this peasant family on the other side of the sea than I do with the Callipolan elites who've been my classmates for the last ten years. Agga's barely older than me.
Her daughter, Becca, watches from a pace apart, her eyes traveling slowly from me to the dragon and back. She blinks very little, as if we might vanish if she doesn't keep her eyes wide open.
"It's done," I tell Agga.
Her voice is pitched low. "The poison?"
The lairs were still dark when Aela and I left them. The smell of smoked fish and charred leather was identical to that of the nests in Callipolis, though the murmured Norish of the squires, Griff's friends, was too quiet for a semester's worth of study to understand. I did not know these dragons, but they did, and they were the ones I gave the amphora of drachthanasia to and told to divvy it up.
"The squires did it. Aela and I took care of the muzzles."
With a squire named Fionna leading the way, Aela and I wormed our way down the damp corridor of the lairs, Aela taking each iron muzzle into her mouth, one by one, and breathing fire on it until the metal glowed and snapped. When we freed Fionna's, a tawny aurelian with deep black eyes, the woman's shoulders slumped in relief and the dragon whimpered.
Agga's eyes are rimmed white in the gray light. "They can fly free? They can fire?"
I nod. "The squire on duty will release them on our signal."
I ask Agga to show me where the drop will take place on the silhouette of the main island. Her trembling finger identifies Conqueror's Mound, a sloping hill at the center of the Norcian villages opposite the ha'Aurelian citadel, overshadowed by the statue of an invading lord. The Norcians will be summoned to witness and learn the lesson.
Griff Gareson, dropped for treason.
Griff Gareson, dropped for conspiring with the Callipolan Firstrider.
Dropped for conspiring with me.
And we will turn this moment into the opportunity Griff needs to stage his revolution. Agga's grandfather Grady is rallying the four trusted clans now, waking village elders, and spreading word to prepare for war.
"I don't think you poisoned all of them," Agga says.
I'm about to ask her how she knows. There were empty stalls where some of the dragons should have been, leaving us all with a lingering unease. Ixion's stormscourge, Niter, was not among them, nor was the dragon that belongs to Freyda, the Bassilean princess he's courting. Her goliathan, a great breed from the continent, is rumored to be large enough to blot the sky. The squires filled the troughs of the missing dragons with poisoned feed anyway, assuring me that those absent must only be on patrol and would be back before dawn.
When I follow Agga's gaze now, I realize she means a specific dragon.
A skyfish has breached the clouds a few miles out, her slender silhouette a gray line against the wisps of fog hanging low in the morning, her narrow wings a crossbar as she glides. Her rider looks like a tiny toy soldier atop her back.
I stretch a hand toward Aela, stilling her. "Everyone get down."
We slide to our knees in the bracken as the skyfish streams overhead.
Garet's shrill voice hisses as his neck cranes for a glimpse of the dragon. "Isn't that Gephyra? It's Delo sur Gephyra. We don't have to fear Delo."
Agga forces Garet's head down and breathes her answer. "Today, we do."
I feel a small hand slip into mine, and find Becca crouched beside me. She looks up, not at the dragon, but at my face. Her tiny nails dig into my palm. Beside us, Aela's amber wings hug her sides and her neck twists so that one slitted pupil can take in the dragon passing overhead.
With a flick of her tail, Gephyra vanishes into the streaks of fog above us.
Becca's fingers untwine from mine. Garet shrugs off his mother's arm. We unfold from our crouches, and Agga's gaze lingers on the clouds into which Delo sur Gephyra vanished.
"Poor boy," she murmurs. "They'll make him do it."
I remember the way Griff's voice caught when I taught him how to write his family's names and he asked to add a single more. The way he carefully spelled Delo Skyfish in a practice notebook. I get to my feet, brushing twigs from my knees. "I thought the dragonborn were accustomed to taking peasants into their beds."
"Their beds, yes. Not their hearts."
So, less like the dragonlords of old and more like Lee and me. Or like we would have been if his father were still alive, and Lee's loyalty still to his people, when he learned to love me.
Come back to me, Lee said.
And I will, as soon as I get this job done.
"At least Griff will be the only one he'll have to drop."
The squires told me that the last time a Norcian rider was dropped in punishment, her family was dropped too. They whispered her name: Mabalena. The story, and their awed horror, was too familiar for comfort. Across miles, with a sea between us, with fire or without, the dragonlords punish families in the same way. I was my village's Mabalena.
So I was the one who insisted we move Agga and her children here, for their safety, until the plan is completed.
Because this has been my concern, I'm a little surprised at what Agga chooses to say next.
"I am grateful for your help today." Her children can't hear her low voice over the whistling wind. "But I want you to know, when I heard he had been meeting with you, I wept."
There is a fire in her eyes not unlike Griff's as she holds her son's shoulder and dares to look me in the eye. It has taken her courage to say this: I can see how her gaze darts to my dragon, then my face.
There must have been a moment, when my father imagined the cellar he could dig and decided to make the gamble that would bring dragonfire down on our heads.
Agga knows, and I know, that I was that gamble for Griff.
I am the recourse to violence. I am the last resort. At best, I am the lesser evil.
I'm a dragonrider, and I'm here to do my job.
"You were right to weep."