Dragontamer's Daughters

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					                                      Kenton Kilgore
                                    408 Victoria Way
                             Stevensville, MD 21666
                                       410-643-7833
                           kentonkilgore@yahoo.com

                            Dragontamer’s Daughters
                                Young Adult Fantasy
                                     146,000 words




Dragontamer’s Daughters 
           
     Kenton Kilgore 




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                                                             Contents 
Chapter 1: Departure .................................................................................................................. 4 
Chapter 2: Scorpion Tail ......................................................................................................... 12 
                  .
Chapter 3: Home ........................................................................................................................ 30 
                                          .
Chapter 4: Many Miles Away ................................................................................................ 50 
Chapter 5: Good Girls ............................................................................................................... 58 
Chapter 6: On the Way ............................................................................................................. 74 
Chapter 7: Arrival ...................................................................................................................... 89 
Chapter 8: Pearl ........................................................................................................................ 113 
Chapter 9: Dragons ................................................................................................................. 131 
Chapter 10: Discoveries ........................................................................................................ 143 
Chapter 11: Care and Feeding ............................................................................................ 155 
Chapter 12: Tending ............................................................................................................... 173 
Chapter 13: Danger Without, Danger Within............................................................... 196 
Chapter 14: Many Miles Away ............................................................................................ 213 
Chapter 15: Lessons ................................................................................................................ 219 
Chapter 16: How the Dragontamer Won a Wife ......................................................... 239 
Chapter 17: Death in the Desert ........................................................................................ 259 
Chapter 18: Medicine ............................................................................................................. 279 
Chapter 19: Revelations ........................................................................................................ 294 
Chapter 20: Visiting ................................................................................................................ 303 
Chapter 21: Offering ............................................................................................................... 314 
Chapter 22: Home Again ....................................................................................................... 322 
Chapter 23: Scorpion Tail ..................................................................................................... 334 
Chapter 24: Dragontaming .................................................................................................. 347 
Chapter 25: Another Visit ..................................................................................................... 359 
                                                                                            .
Chapter 26: How the Dragontamer Learned His Craft ............................................ 374 
Chapter 27: Dragontaming Again ..................................................................................... 395 
Chapter 28: The Cave ............................................................................................................. 408 
Chapter 29: Stormcaller ........................................................................................................ 418 
Chapter 30: How the Dragontamer Lost Their Lives ................................................ 433 
Chapter 31: Scorpion Tail, Esmargga, and Imbyrria ................................................. 446 
Chapter 32: A Good Lie .......................................................................................................... 462 
Chapter 33: In the Evening .................................................................................................. 474 
Chapter 34: Esmargga ............................................................................................................ 491 
Chapter 35: Governor Guzmarr ......................................................................................... 510 
Chapter 36: The Dragon Killer ........................................................................................... 533 
                             .
Chapter 37: Becoming ........................................................................................................... 558 
Chapter 38: The Rain .............................................................................................................. 566 


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                        Grandmother Spider made this, the fifth world

                             Spun it and shaped it with her hands

                           Spirits and animals climbed down into it

                                 The Holy People led us here



                            Monsters there were; we were afraid

                             We gathered together; a ceremony

                     Swore friendship with animals and all good spirits

                    Dragons from the four mountains and places beyond:



                            Tunneler, who built up the high places

                        One Beauty, who burns chindi and evil spirits

                  Stormcaller, who floods the world and gives the desert life

                       Many more there were; we befriended them all



    —from “Stories of the Diheneh, From One Who Lived Among Them” (published 1909)

                      by Mrs. Isabella Adelia Anerson-Nunez Stovardd




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                                 Chapter 1: Departure 

       It was a mollymawk that roused the dragon.

       The big grey and white seabird, each wing as long as a man’s arm, came flapping into the

great hall through one of the many narrow spaces where stained glass windows used to soar. The

bird landed on the floor. The hall was a huge room: the biggest in the ruined palace, the biggest

on this island, certainly, or perhaps even in all the world. So wide that a hundred men could

stand abreast, at arms’ length, across it. So long that a hundred times that number could stand in

long rows from the front of the hall to the back. A whole army could stand at attention in this

hall. And perhaps, once upon a long time ago, it had.

       The mollymawk looked around, careful not to drop any of the sea grass in its yellow bill.

The high, vaulted ceiling was white marble streaked with blue and red and black veins. It was

held up by hundreds of ancient, stone columns stained green by years upon years of lichens

sprouting, spreading, fading, sprouting again. Here and there, orange-yellow beams of sunlight

were finding the holes in the ceiling.



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       In the nearby shadows, the dragon scowled.

       The mollymawk waddled about: like the rest of its kind, it was clumsy on land. Its

orange, webbed feet flapped ptt, ptt, ptt on the tiny tiles—each no bigger than a man’s thumb—

that covered the floor. There were hundreds of thousands of tiles here, and they formed pictures

in mosaic. But much of the floor was covered in puddles of rainwater, and many of the pictures

were stained by white splotches from birds that had nested here before. And it had been a very

long time since any person had come to see those pictures.

       Certainly, no one had come while the dragon lived here.

       The mollymawk’s head twitched back and forth, its round, black eyes darted here and

there. Flapping furiously, stubby legs pumping, it heaved itself back into the air and lighted on

the carved curlicues near the top of a column. With its bill, it spread out the seagrass, then

tamped it flat with its feet. It leapt off the top of the column and, with two flaps of its great

wings, flew off through a nearby hole in the ceiling.

       The dragon crept out from under the crumbling stone dais at the end of the room. Her

scales were milky green and she was no bigger than a housecat. She had no wings, and her eyes

were tiny and round and all white, with no visible pupils.

       She stretched and yawned, revealing tiny, needle-like teeth. She slunk—nails going tkk

tkk ktk ktk on the tiles—to a nearby puddle and lapped up rainwater with her slim pink tongue.

Scratched her chin with a claw. Then crept—her thin tail, as long as the rest of her, swinging

back and forth—to the nearest window and clambered up into the space where the glass used to

be, many years ago.

       An orange sun was slowly climbing into the sky. Grey and white seabirds—hundreds of

them—swooped and soared and circled above the ruined palace. The dragon watched them for a




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moment. Then she scrambled down from the window, into the courtyard, weeds growing

between the square stones that had once been smooth and white, but were now—most of them,

anyway—furry green with moss. Another mollymawk, grown thin after its long voyage, flapped

down nearby, a bit of shell in its beak. The dragon hissed at it and the bird hurriedly hopped

away, wings spread wide.

       The dragon crept through the courtyard, staying close to the palace walls. She slunk into

the thorny thicket near the east end of the courtyard and squeezed through a narrow, twisting,

wet hole at the bottom of the wall.

       She came out at the top of the cliff. Below her, the waves tumbled against the rocks at

the edge of the shore before fading with a gentle psssh against the white sand higher up the

beach. Thousands more mollymawks were wheeling in the air or floating in the shallows or

squabbling for nesting space on the sand. They screeched and squawked and cawed, louder even

then the surf. The dragon leaned into the wind that—for now—was coming off the ocean.

       Hardy green shrubs, some of them with delicate white blooms, grew from the stony soil

of the cliff-face. Slowly, the dragon picked her way, head-first, her front and back claws

gripping rocks and roots as she followed a thin, worn path that she had used for years. More

birds were making their nests on the cliff, and she went around them, not wishing to spar with

them on such precarious footing.

       She reached the bottom and ambled slowly across the sand, several of the birds warily

watching. One awwwwwkked out a warning, but she paid it no mind as she plodded closer. The

sun—yellow, now—had finished floating out of the sea, and it was time for the dragon to feed.

       The bird stood up from its nest of stones and seagrass, spread its wings, squawked again.

The dragon kept coming. The mollymawk screeched this time, but the dragon snarled and




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snapped and the bird waddled away, hissing its anger. The dragon crawled onto the nest. Empty,

of course: it would be several more days before any of the birds started to lay. The dragon,

however, did not have time to wait.

         She waded into the chilly surf and wriggled through the water, long neck out, limbs at her

side, tail thrashing. At first, near the water’s edge, she could see nothing but shreds of seaweed

and bits of brown sand suspended in the waves. Then she went farther out, and the water

cleared. At the surface were the feathery bellies and the dangling webbed feet of the floating

mollymawks. Below them, schools of two or three dozen leering, silver wraithfish darted here

and there—but wraithfish were too fast for her. Brown, oval-shaped gobfish, each as big as the

dragon, slowly wafted along, alone or in pairs—but gobfish tasted horrible. White needlecrabs,

with their long, thin pincers, skittered amongst the smooth stones and pebbles on the sandy

bottom—but they were difficult to catch, and not very satisfying.

         The dragon wriggled up to the surface, dipped her snout into the air, plugged her nostrils

shut again, and dove. A tiny octopus, speckled brown and gray, froze against the bottom, almost

invisible. The dragon gently pawed the sand, feeling for the octopus. Her claw touched its

rubbery skin and it vanished, a cloud of blue-black ink left in its place as it jetted into a high

patch of waving seagrass. The dragon searched her empty paws. Surfaced. Snorted. Dove

again.

         The bottom began to drop away as she swam further out. A fat henchu fish sculled by on

its long fins, the edges of which, the dragon remembered from previous encounters, bore

venomous spines. She gobbled two dun-colored lash shrimps loitering near a sea fan, but they

did not fill her.




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       She swam left for a while, then further out, then left again, then turned back. And then

she found a cloud of fat white jellyfish floating just below the surface, their long tentacles

trailing beneath them. She surfaced, blew out her air, sucked in more, ducked under the water

again. Tail thrashing, she sped into a jellyfish, claws grabbing and twisting tentacles as if they

were ropes. She hauled the jellyfish to the surface, sunk her needle teeth into its bag-like body,

and noisily sucked out its innards. Floating in the swell, she chomped off the tentacles and let

them drift away, then greedily grabbed another jellyfish and devoured it in the same way. And

then a third. And then a fourth. And then a fifth.

       Her spine ached as the cold seeped deeper into her; her mouth and paws tingled from the

jellyfish venom. But she would need more than that to sustain her over the next few days. She

swam north, following the coast of the island, along the edge where the shallows suddenly

dropped into the eternal dark of the ocean’s abyss. Just as she was about to give up and go back

to shore, a small shark, long and lean and mottled gray and brown, glided up from the depths,

following the sun to find prey.

       The dragon dove, tail thrashing, and the shark, sensing her, rose to meet her. The shark

was no longer than a grown man’s arm, but it was more than large enough to make the dragon its

meal. But as it struck, there was a crackle, a spark of white light around the dragon—and the

fish went limp. The dragon grasped it in her claws, hauled it to the surface. Began to feed.

       When she was done, she let what was left of the shark fall back into the dark where it had

come from. She rested, floating, the waves pushing her back to shore. There, she clambered

onto a large, smooth stone near the water’s edge and she lay, limbs spread, soaking up the sun’s

warmth.




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       After a long while, she was warm again and her belly was not so tight. A few feet away,

two mollymawks gathered long strands of brown seagrass and shiny stones and bits of shells and

scraps of seaweed. They arranged them with their bills and wings and feet, and finally, the

female settled down in the middle of a nest. An old mollymawk, with ragged feathers and

missing an eye, waddled by, neck craned to perhaps snatch a pebble. The young male screeched

and snapped its bill and shook its wings until the intruder departed.

       Yesterday, the dragon had been alone. Overnight, the mollimawks had returned to

Imbyrria, as they did every year. Which meant that winter was gone. Normally, it meant little to

her, but now, this time….

       She sat back on her haunches and peered out over the water. Nothing but endless waves.

       A breeze began to swirl the sand around the rock where the dragon sat. She stretched out

her limbs, extending a thin film of pale white skin from her sides. The skin ran from the wrist of

her front claws to the ankle of her rear legs. The wind caught her like a kite and slowly, she

floated into the air, a few inches at first, then a foot, then three feet, then a dozen. The two

mollymawks nesting nearby paid no attention.

       Twenty feet, thirty, fifty, more than a hundred. Faster and faster, straight up. The beach

shrank beneath her and the cliff face raced by. She rose above the ruined palace, with its

crumbling walls and six broken towers. Higher and higher, and the ancient forest that covered

the rest of the island became a swaying, leafy sea. Higher, still higher, and the island itself

became a green blot on a painting of blue-gray.

       The dragon stopped. The air was cold, much colder than the sea had been, and her chest

heaved as she sucked in the thin air. No birds circled about—even the mollymawks could not fly




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this high. Above her, the blue was marred with thin scuffs of white. Before her, at the farthest

edge of her sight, was a dark haze at the end of the world. East, where the sun had come from.

        Something moved within her. It would not be denied.

        Slowly, the dragon drifted down to where the air was warmer and easier to breathe.

Down to where she could see the birds and the white spray of the waves. Down where she could

see the forest of green trees, and the grey, ruined palace that had been her only home.

        Down, down—and then, with an ocean wind howling about her, the dragon glided,

carried faster and faster by the wind, going east, where the sun had come from. Where the dark

haze lay at the end of the sea.



                                                      #



        Evening came to ancient Imbyrria, the sun disappearing behind the forest and the last of

its rays receding from the great hall the dragon had left hours earlier. Two moons rose, both full,

flooding the hall with their silver light.

        The mollymawk with the missing eye flapped into the hall and landed, stumbling, on the

tiled floor. In their nests atop the columns, a few of the hundreds of birds there stirred, then

settled again.

        The old mollymawk stumped about, peering here and there, trying to find a treasure

suitable for a mate. Bending over, it pecked at something dull red in the moonlight: a tile. The

tile did not move. The bird pecked again. The tile stayed put. The bird hopped, flapped, kept

pecking.




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       Directly above, another mollymawk awwwwwwkked its annoyance at the noise. The old

fellow looked up. Looked around. Moved on. Above, the miffed mollymawk watched the one-

eyed bird waddle off. It glanced down at what the other bird had been pecking, then looked

away, paying it no mind, of course.

       The tile was part of a mosaic picture, one of the red jewels in the crown of a heavy-lidded

man with a short white beard and a long, quilted robe. The man sat on a throne. In one hand, the

man held a jeweled scepter. In the other, a green, wingless dragon, no larger than a cat, with

round white eyes that had no pupils.

       Eyes like pearls.




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                              Chapter 2: Scorpion Tail 

       Something grey and furry was lying dead at the edge of town. Two big vultures with

black heads and black, clawed feet watched it from the sagging roof of the ramshackle mill

nearby. They must have just gotten here, Isabella thought, otherwise they’d be…bothering it.

       She covered her little sister’s eyes. “Don’t look,” Isabella said.

       “I want to see,” Alijandra insisted. She pulled Isabella’s hands away. “Ugh. What is

it?”

       Their big black dog was pulling a wooden travois with a yucca-string bag on it. He stuck

his nose in the air and sniffed. He looked at Mama, looked at the animal, but made no move

towards it. “Stay with us, Jack,” Mama said. “There’s a good boy.” Jack grinned, ham-pink

tongue dangling, and his tail made big circles behind him.

       Mama stopped and crouched beside the girls. “Now, if anyone asks your name,” she

whispered, “what do you say?”

       “Isabella Adelia Fhurdrickson Sanches,” the older girl rattled off, smiling. She had been

to town many times before.


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       “Alijandra Guadalupe...” the little girl began. She frowned. “Alijandra

Guadalupe…Aner—”

       “No,” Mama whispered, shaking her head. “Absolutely not. Anything but that. Try

again, and when you get to the last names, say what Bella said.”

       “Alijandra Guadalupe Fhur—what did you say again?” she asked her sister.

       “I just said it,” Isabella replied.

       “I forgot.”

       “If you can’t remember, then you’re too little to come to town,” Isabella hissed.

       “Keep your voices down,” Mama said, looking around. No one was about. “Try again,

Ali. It’s important.”

       “Alijandra Guadalupe…Fhur…Fhurdrickson Sanches,” she said. “But that’s not really

my name.”

       “No, it isn’t, not the last part, anyway,” Mama replied. “But that’s what you’ll tell

someone if they ask you. And who am I, then?”

       “You’re Mama,” Alijandra giggled.

       “Of course,” she said. “But what is my pretend name?”

       “Juanita Guadalupe,” Alijandra replied, pleased with herself.

       “Almost,” Mama whispered. “It’s the other way around: Guadalupe Juanita.” Alijandra

frowned. “It’ll be all right,” Mama told her. “If you don’t think you can say the right thing, just

let Bella answer for you. But I don’t think anyone will ask.”

       Mama stood up, took both of them by their hands. “Come along, girls. We have things

to do.” They started moving again.




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       “Mama, what is it?” Alijandra asked, pointing at the dead animal.

       “It’s probably a dog or a coyote.”

       “I hope it’s not another dog,” Alijandra said, looking over her shoulder as they went past.

“What if it’s one of Jack’s friends? Mama, can I just go see?”

       “No, you can’t,” Isabella replied. “There’s nothing to see.”

       One could have said the same about Scorpion Tail. It was a town in name only,

consisting of the old mill, a smithy, a trading post, and about thirty shacks, all surrounding a

town square with a stone well. Besides Mama and her two girls, the only other people about here

in the middle of the day were a tall, thin man and six children. The man wore no shirt, only a

pair of brown trousers and sandals. The man was hunched over, pulling weeds from a garden in

the shade of a squat, wooden shack that had never been painted. The children—two teenaged

girls and four younger boys—were helping him. The girls wore brown dresses sewn from

blankets. Like the man, the boys wore only ragged trousers.

       “Good day, Daon Raul,” Mama said, as they came near.

       The man straightened up and smiled, showing teeth stained orange from eating too many

kavo nuts. His skin was brown and wrinkled and the hair on his head and chest was gray.

Around his neck was a string with a bronze pendant in the shape of a sun, with a woman’s face

etched into it. “Good day, Mrs. Sanches,” he replied. “It has been a while.”

       “A few months,” Mama agreed.

       “Children, say hello to Mrs. Sanches and her daughters,” Daon Raul said.

       “Hello, Mrs. Sanches,” they said, smiling.




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        “Hello,” she replied, smiling back. “Thank you.” She turned back to Daon Raul.

“Dominga and Palmira are growing so tall and beautiful,” she said, indicating the priest’s

daughters. They giggled.

        “Thank you,” he said. “Your girls are already lovely.” He stroked his chin, which had

needed shaving for a few days now. “How old are you now, Isabella?”

        “Twelve, Daon.”

        “Twelve, yes. Growing up fast, aren’t you? And you,” he said, squatting down in front

of Isabella’s sister. “It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen you. You’re Antonia, aren’t

you?”

        “Alijandra Guadalupe,” the little girl said, beaming. “But everyone calls me Ali.”

        “Ali, then,” Daon Raul said. “And how old are you, Ali?”

        “Seven.”

        “Seven—no!”

        “Yes,” she replied.

        “‘Yes, Daon,’” Mama insisted.

        Daon Raul smiled. “That’s all right, Mrs. Sanches.” He held his hand up to Ali’s waist.

“The last time I saw you, you were only this tall,” he said, “and your big sister here was carrying

you around like a doll.”

        Alijandra giggled. “Now that I’m seven, Mama says I’m old enough to come to town

with her and Bella.”

        “Good,” Daon Raul replied. He stood up. “So, what can I do for you, Mrs. Sanches?”

        “We’ve come to ask you for a blessing for our family.”




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       “I see,” he replied. “Is someone ill? Are you traveling somewhere?” He leaned closer.

“Does the fact that your husband is not with you have something to do with it?”

       “Something, yes,” Mama told him. “My husband left several weeks ago, for work. We

have not heard from him.”

       “I see, I see,” he nodded. “The same work as before, I take it?”

       “Prospecting, yes.”

       “Prospecting. I imagine that that type of work can be quite challenging.”

       Mama looked around, leaned in closer, whispered. “He hasn’t had any luck this year, not

able to find any silver or turquoise. He’s been…upset about money lately, so he’s gone looking

farther…for other…valuable things.”

       “Like he used to?” Daon Raul whispering. Mama nodded. “Ah,” he said.

       “I’ve managed to save some money,” Mama said, pulling back and speaking a little

louder, “and we have some things to trade, but when that’s gone…”

       “So, Mrs. Sanches, it sounds like you need a blessing for the three of you,” he said,

smiling and putting a hand on Alijandra’s head, “to keep you and your girls safe while your

husband is away. And you need a prayer said for him so that he is safe until he returns. And,

perhaps, another prayer that his work—prospecting—may be successful.”

       “Yes, please,” she replied.

       “Your husband—he is still not a believer?”

       “No, Daon Raul,” she admitted.

       “That’s all right,” he replied. “Our Mother loves us all, even if we don’t return Her love.

Why don’t you wait in the shade—” he glanced back at the garden—“while I prepare? Children,




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please do some of your other chores while I take care of Mrs. Sanches and her daughters.

Shadi!”

       The door of the shack opened and a Diheneh woman—one of the native people—came

out. She, too, wore a simple dress made from two brown blankets sewn together. She had lines

on her forehead and the corners of her eyes, but her hair was just as black as Mama’s. Her left

hand was twisted and knotted into a club.

       Please don’t say anything, Ali, Isabella thought, recalling her own revulsion the first

time, several years ago, when she saw Daon Raul’s wife. But Alijandra said nothing, content to

watch a fat brown beetle creep across the toestrap of her sandal.

       As Daon Raul’s children wandered off, he spoke to Shadi in the Diheneh language

Isabella didn’t understand. Shadi scowled, glaring at Mama and the two girls, but nodded curtly.

Then the two of them went into the shack, with Shadi calling to someone else inside.

       A few moments later, the door opened and Daon Raul came out, followed by Shadi and

two more boys, both younger and smaller than Alijandra. Daon Raul’s head was wet—Isabella

guessed that he had splashed some water on himself to clean up—and he had put on a yellow

tunic with sleeves that went to the elbows. He held an empty glass bowl and a brass rod topped

with a medallion. One side of the medallion had a sun with a woman’s face; the other side had

two crescent moons, facing each other. The two boys wore nothing except ragged brown

trousers made from burlap.

       “Over here, please,” Daon Raul said. “By the well.”

       “Wait here,” Mama said, and Jack settled in the shade, careful not to flatten any of Daon

Raul’s vegetables.




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        The seven of them—Mama and her girls, Daon Raul, Shadi, and the two boys—crossed

the square, the boys kicking dust on each other and giggling. Shadi spoke softly to them—again,

Isabella could not understand what she said—and the boys stopped their game at once and

followed quietly.

        Like most other wells, this one was round and lined with stones mortared together, and

there was a wooden bucket tied with a long rope to the top of the well. A tin ladle hung by a

chain from the handle of the bucket. As they approached the well, Isabella noticed a bearded

man in ash-stained clothes watching them from the doorway of the smithy nearby. He shook his

head, threw away his cigarette, and went back inside.

        “How far down does it go?” Alijandra asked, looking over the side of the well.

        “Come away from there before you fall in, you silly,” Isabella said, taking her sister’s

hand.

        “I just want to—”

        “Quiet,” their mother whispered, as Daon Raul held up the bowl and the wand.

        “Life-giving Mother of Us All, we ask you today to shine down on us in favor. Be our

Light and our Guide. Send your Twin Sons to show us the way through night and darkness. We

ask this in Your name.”

        He handed the bowl to one boy and the wand to the other. The boys stood straight and

still, both watching Daon Raul as he dropped the bucket. A heartbeat later, the unseen water

below went splosh. Then he leaned back and swiftly started reeling in the rope tied to the

bucket’s handle.

        “What’s he doing?” Alijandra asked.

        “You’ll see,” Mama whispered.




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         “When he gets the water out of the well, can I have a drink?” Alijandra asked.

         “Hush,” Mama answered.

         Grunting, Daon Raul leaned over, pulled up the bucket, and set it on the lip of the well.

He scooped up a ladle of water and held out his other hand. The boy with the bowl brought it

over.

         “Thank you, Tomas,” he said, taking the bowl from the boy. He carefully poured the

ladleful of water into the bowl. He dipped the ladle again, poured it again, dipped the ladle

again, poured it again, dipped the ladle a fourth time and poured the water into the bowl a fourth

time. He put the ladle back in the bucket and held out his hand again. The other boy brought the

wand to him.

         “Thank you, Carlos,” Daon Raul said. Holding the bowl of water in one hand, he used

the wand to draw four circles in the air above the bowl. “Loving Mother,” he called, “your Light

makes all life possible. Because of You, plants grow from the soil and animals feed upon them,

and we feed ourselves with both. Because of You, our world is warm, though the endless night

Outside is cold. Because of You, the wind blows and the rains come and refresh the world and

ourselves.” He handed the wand back to Carlos and held the bowl of water over his head, letting

the sun shine through it. “Send down Your Radiance and bless this water. We ask this in Your

name.”

         Daon Raul brought the bowl back down and dipped the end of the wand in it. He stepped

in front of Mama and she bent her head. “Bless this woman, Your daughter,” he said, using the

wand to draw a circle with water on the top of her head. He dipped the wand again and went to

Isabella. “Bless this girl, Your granddaughter,” he said, drawing a circle of water on top of her

head. “Bless this girl, Your granddaughter,” he said, doing the same with her.




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         “Keep them safe while Your son, their husband and father, is away looking for work.

Keep him safe as well, and let him come home happy and healthy and successful. Let him find

what he needs to provide for Guadalupe and Isabella and Alijandra. Bless their family always,

now and ever and forever, and keep them always in Your Light. We beseech you, Gentle

Mother, to hear our prayers this Day, in Your name.”

         Daon Raul held the bowl of water to Mama. “This water has been blessed and may not

be spilled into the dust. Drink.” She took the bowl from him and drank some of it. He took it

back and went to Isabella. “This water has been blessed and may not be spilled into the dust.

Drink.” She took a small sip and gave it back to him. He went to Alijandra and said the same

thing.

         “I’m awfully thirsty,” she said. “Can I have the rest of it?”

         “Yes, you may. I insist,” Daon Raul replied, smiling. Alijandra took the bowl and

gulped down the rest.

         “Still thirsty?” he asked, taking the bowl from her.

         “No,” she said, wiping her mouth.

         “What do you say?” Isabella asked.

         “Thank you, Daon,” Alijandra said.

         “You’re welcome, dear,” he replied, patting her on the head. “The blessing ceremony is

over. I hope everything goes well for you and your family, Mrs. Sanches.”

         “Thank you, Daon Raul,” Mama said, holding out a few brass coins.

         “There’s no need,” he said.

         “I insist,” Mama replied.

         “No, no thank you.”




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       “You have children to take care of, too. More than I do.”

       “You are very kind,” he replied, giving the money to Shadi. “If you will excuse us, we

must get back to the garden.”

       “Hopefully, Our Mother will send us some rain,” Mama said.

       Daon Raul glanced up into the burning sky. “I don’t think that will be anytime soon.”

He handed the bowl and the wand to the boys. “Please put these back where they belong.

Carlos, be good enough to wipe the bowl with a clean cloth, please.”

       “Yes, Papa,” Carlos said.

       “Yes, Papa,” Tomas said.

       Mama smiled tentatively and said something to Shadi in her language. The Diheneh

woman merely nodded. “Come along, girls. We need to speak to the smith. Jack!”

       Their big black dog got up. Pulling the travois behind him and careful not to spill the bag

on it, he trotted past Daon Raul and his family as they walked back to their shack. Tomas

reached out, stroked one of his floppy ears, and giggled.

       The door to the smithy was open, but it was dark inside. Mama stopped and rapped three

times on the doorframe. “Hello?” she called.

       “Yeyeah,” a man answered. Isabella heard a chair leg scrape against a stone floor and

someone move towards them. The bearded man in the ash-stained clothes—a foreigner from the

East—came to the door. He was tall and thin, with grey eyes and thinning yellow-grey hair

combed straight back from his sunburned forehead. Up close, Isabella could see that his yellow

beard was flecked with white. Another cigarette dangled from his lips. “And so?” he asked, in

his clipped accent.




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         “I am Mrs. Sanches,” Mama replied. “We haven’t had occasion to speak before, but my

husband knows you. These are my children.”

         “And you want what?”

         “Mr. Kolb, I was wondering if you could repair a bracelet for me,” she said. She reached

into her apron pocket and come out with a slender silver chain with two small pearls dangling

from it. She handed it to him. “The clasp broke.”

         “Sorry, Mama,” Alijandra said.

         The man rolled the bracelet around in his hand. “I don’t fix,” Kolb said, handing it back

to her. “Go home.”

         “I would like you to fix my bracelet, please,” Mama said.

         “Trash,” the smith sneered. “Throw to birds,” he said. He blew out a big cloud of

smoke.

         “It has sentimental value to me,” Mama said. “I’ll pay you three centavos to fix it.”

         “Three? I don’t fix for three. Twenty,” he said. “Or go home, Sanches.”

         “Twenty centavos is outrageous, Mr. Kolb. Five is all I can spare. Take it, or nothing.”

         He considered. “Give me. I to fix day from now.”

         “I need it done today,” Mama said. “Five and you fix it in an hour.”

         The man pursed his lips for a moment, then nodded. “Yeyeah. I fix in hour.” Mama

handed him the bracelet and he shuffled back inside his dark shop.

         “I don’t like him,” Alijandra said. “He smells bad. And he doesn’t talk right.”

         “It’s your fault we had to talk to him at all,” Isabella snapped.

         “Enough,” Mama said. “Let’s go to the trading post.”




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       The trading post was the largest building in Scorpion Tail, two stories, made of adobe

painted yellow, with a flat roof and a wooden porch held up by posts. “Wait out here,” Mama

told Jack. Panting, he sat. Mama took the bag from the travois and carried it inside.

       Even with the door and windows open, it was hot. The first floor was all one room, most

of it empty and dim, the only light being the sun streaming through the windows. In the center

of the room were several barrels, some crates, a few standing shelves with bottles and boxes and

bric-a-brac on them. Several skins of deer and antelope were nailed to the wooden posts of the

building. Some sprigs of dried herbs and a few packages of meat, wrapped in brown paper to

keep off the flies, hung from the low ceiling. There was also a table and a chair, at which sat an

old, fat woman with only a thin scruff of white hair. Alijandra giggled.

       “What are you laughing about?” Isabella whispered.

       “She’s bald!” her sister cried. Mama glared, but if the old woman had heard, she didn’t

say anything as they approached.

       “Good day, Mrs. Cornejo,” Mama said.

       “The prospector’s wife,” the old woman rasped. “Where’s he?”

       “My husband is away attending to business,” Mama said, putting down the bag. “Have

any letters from him arrived?”

       “No,” Mrs. Cornejo said, shaking her head. She grinned unkindly, showing the seven

teeth she had left. “He’s run off again, hasn’t he?”

       Mama’s eyes narrowed. Then: “I have several items I would like to trade,” she said,

opening the bag.

       “What do you have, and what do you want for them?”




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       Kmp. Kmp. Kmp. A Diheneh man with long black hair came down the stairs from the

second floor. He wore a long-sleeved black shirt, tan antelope leggings, and hard, black boots

with pointed toes. He carried a round, black hat. He smiled at Mama. “Haala ahaneeh.

Ya’at’eeh, Juanita,” he said.

       “Guadalupe Juanita,” she corrected him, glancing at Mrs. Cornejo. “Ya’at’eeh, Ahiga. Ya

anisht’eeh.”

       The girls stood there for a few moments while Mama and Ahiga spoke with each other in

the Diheneh language. Mrs. Cornejo waited, saying nothing, her toad-like eyes shifting back and

forth between the grownups.

       “What are they saying?” Alijandra whispered.

       “I don’t know,” Isabella said.

       “I’m bored,” Alijandra announced. “Let’s look around.”

       So far as the girls could tell, the sacks held yellowish-white ground cornmeal. Some of

the crates were nailed shut, with no writing on them, but most had their lids pried off. One of

them held a long green dress trimmed in lace. One of the barrels held a few dozen dirt-crusted

potatoes; another was half-filled with dried beans, red or brown or black. The girls couldn’t tell

what some of the bottles on the shelves held: most of them were partially full with yellow or

brown liquids or oils. A few of them were empty and dusty. Why doesn’t Mrs. Cornejo just get

rid of those? Isabella wondered.

       “Look at this,” Alijandra said, taking a small tin box from one of the shelves. It had a

drawing of a horse on the lid, and under that, the words “Doctor De Marcado’s Dentifrice” in

elegant, cursive script. “It’s our tooth powder, isn’t it?” Alijandra asked.




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         “Yes,” Isabella said. “Mama wanted to get this.” She looked over. The Diheneh man

had left. Mama was unpacking her bag and offering Mrs. Cornejo some wool from their sheep.

         “Why does it have a horse on it?” Alijandra asked. She grinned. “Maybe you’re

supposed to use it for your horse’s teeth.”

         “I don’t know why it has a picture of a horse,” she said, taking it from her sister. “We’ll

show this to Mama later, when she’s done with Mrs. Cornejo.”

         The girls looked around some more. On one shelf was a stack of four books with frayed

covers. Isabella took them down one at a time, flipped through them. One was in a language she

didn’t know, but she thought it might be Erisian—their father had some books like that. The

other three were in Ysparrian, her language. One discussed the best way to plant various crops.

One was a history book. The last was a storybook—Kalma and the Kurindans, it was called—

with illustrations of blue and white sky spirits and bronze-armored warriors with long spears and

purple reptile men with long claws. Maybe Mama will let me have this, she thought.

         “Look what I found,” Alijandra said. It was an armless doll made from a corncob and a

bit of cloth wrapped around it. Someone had painted two black eyes at the top. “I’m going to

ask Mama if I can have this.”

         “You already have Caroleena,” Isabella said, “and she’s much prettier than that old corn

doll.”

         “She’s a good doll,” Alijandra protested. “And Caroleena needs a friend.”

         “She has Marianna.”

         “Marianna’s your doll. And sometimes Caroleena doesn’t like her.”

         Isabella folded her arms. “Mama won’t get it for you.”

         “What do you have, a book? Reading is boring.”




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         “You don’t know how to read,” Isabella replied.

         “Yes, I do, a little,” Alijandra said. “I’d rather have my doll. I’ll name her…Carmen.”

         “She’s not your doll yet, so I wouldn’t name her, if I were you,” Isabella replied.

         “Mama’s still talking to that mean old lady—”

         “Quiet! She’ll hear you!” Isabella scolded.

         “I don’t care if she does,” Alijandra said. “Let’s look upstairs. Maybe they have more

things up there.”

         “I’m sure that everything they’re selling is right here,” Isabella said. “Why would they

keep anything upstairs when they have plenty of room down here?”

         “I don’t know,” Alijandra said, as she mounted the wooden steps. “But I’m going to

look.”

         “Well then, I better come too,” Isabella replied, “to watch over you.”

         There were fewer windows upstairs, so it was darker and hotter. The upstairs was also

one large room, the same size and shape as the downstairs. Whatever treasures Alijandra had

hoped to find were not here: no boxes, no barrels, no bags or shelves. In one corner of the room,

someone had nailed a few dusty, brown blankets to the rafters to make a private area.

         “I wonder what’s over there?” Alijandra asked.

         “You’re not supposed to be up here,” a woman said, stepping out from behind the

blankets. As the blankets parted, Isabella thought she saw a grey mattress lying on the floor.

The woman was fat and her nose was crooked and she wore a short, thin brown dress. Her long,

black hair was tangled, and as she came closer, Isabella noticed that her feet were grimy.

         “Hello,” Isabella offered. “We were cur—”

         “What’s that over there?” Alijandra asked, pointing to the blankets.




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         “Never mind,” the woman said. “Get out of here and don’t come back, or you’ll get in

trouble.”

         “Yes, ma’am,” Isabella said, taking Alijandra’s hand. “Come on. Let’s go.”

         “We just wanted to see,” Alijandra protested.

         They slunk back downstairs, but neither Mama nor Mrs. Cornejo had noticed they were

gone. The two women were haggling over how large a sack of cornmeal Mama could have for

the wool.

         “Mama, can I have her?” Alijandra asked, holding up the corn doll. “Her name is

Carmen. She’s going to be Caroleena’s friend.”

         “Here’s this,” Isabella said, showing her mother the tooth powder. “May I have this

storybook, please?”

         “I’ll need more than that old wool for those things,” Mrs. Cornejo said, holding up her

hands.

         “That’s fresh wool,” Mama replied, “combed and clean. But because I’m fair, I’ll also

offer you a dress that my little one has outgrown. That’s more than enough for a bag of meal and

these other things.”

         “Not much use for that dress, I’d say,” Mrs. Cornejo said. “It’s too worn. Maybe it

could be a head scarf.”

         “I sewed that dress myself and it’s still perfectly good,” Mama countered.

         “Come on, Ali,” Isabella said. They left their things with Mama and sat on the bottom

step. They waited for a long while as the two women continued bickering.

         “It’s hot in here,” Alijandra announced.

         “I’m hot, too,” Isabella said, “but Mama isn’t done yet.”




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       “Let’s go outside,” Alijandra replied. “Maybe we can get a drink from the well.”

       The two girls went outside. Jack had moved around to the side of the building and lay in

the shade. He saw them, lifted his head, and whuffed once. Alijandra went to pat him. Isabella

stayed where she was.

       In front of them, standing by the well, were eight horsemen and their mounts. The

horsemen wore red jackets with silver trim and epaulets, and long black pants—also with silver

trim—pulled down over black boots. Their hats were tall and black, each with a red feather in

the front. The men carried rifles and pistols and sabers. Their horses were small but very broad

and muscular, with long, narrow heads. They were solid black, with no markings, except for

one, which had a strip of white, broken in three places, running down the middle of its face.

       The townspeople were gathering around them. Who are they? Isabella wondered. What

do they want?

       One of the horsemen, carrying a hammer and a rolled-up paper, came onto the porch. He

glanced at her and she stepped back, out of his way. He went to one of the wide, thick posts that

held up the porch, unrolled the paper, started nailing each corner. It didn’t take long; he walked

past Isabella, back to the other horsemen.

       Alijandra came over, Jack plodding after her; Mama and Mrs. Cornejo came outside.

They looked at what was there.

       “What does it say?” the little girl asked.

       “Don’t say anything,” Isabella whispered, taking Alijandra by the arm and leading her

away. “Nothing at all.”

       “But—” the younger girl began, before Isabella squeezed her arm tightly. “Ow! Let go!”




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       “Be quiet before you get you and me and Mama in trouble,” Isabella hissed. Something

that was not hunger was hurting her stomach. It’s all right, she told herself. It will be all right.

Just keep quiet, keep Ali quiet. Mama will know what to do.

       The paper read:



                WANTED FOR CRIMES AGAINST THE EMPIRE

              Reward of 10,000 Reales for the Capture, Dead or Alive, of

                           Thaddus Valdimar Anerson Kastar,

                      Formerly in Service to the Emperor of Ysparria

                 Age, 43. Height, 5 feet 10 inches. Weight, 170 pounds.

                          Erisian Ancestry. Light Hair, Blue Eyes.

                                 By Order of Her Excellency,

                          Edelmira Miguela Guzmarr Saavadra

                                Governor, Esmargga Province

                                         March 28, 1884



       Underneath was a drawing of the girls’ father.




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                                    Chapter 3: Home 

       “So he’s still out there,” Mrs. Cornejo said.

       Mama said nothing. It’s horrible that they’d put Papa on a wanted poster, Isabella

thought. “Dead or Alive”—that’s awful. Poor Mama.

       “Gather around, everyone!” the leader of the horsemen called. “Gather around!” Mama

nodded at Isabella, and the older girl took Alijandra’s hand as they stepped off the porch and

came closer. Jack padded after them. The Diheneh man Ahiga slowly made his way behind

Mama. The smith Kolb came to the doorway for a moment, then went back inside.

        “I am Captain Juan Martin Cortes Altamirano,” the leader of the horsemen said. “Who is

in charge here?”

       “Scorpion Tail is too small to have a mayor, but perhaps the people will let me speak for

them,” Daon Raul said. He was wearing his yellow tunic again and carrying his brass rod topped

with the sun and moons medallion. He made his way through the crowd; his family waited by

their tiny home. “I am Daon Raul Santias de Charas. Good day to you.”



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         “A pleasure to meet you,” Captain Altamirano replied, bowing to the daon. “Governor

Guzmarr has heard reports that the outlaw Thad Anerson was recently seen in this area. We’ve

been sent to apprehend him.” He took another wanted poster from one of the horsemen, showed

it to the crowd. “The Governor would be very grateful for anyone who can help us bring in this

murderer.”

         Don’t say anything, Isabella thought, squeezing Alijandra’s hand. Alijandra was

scowling. I know, I know: Papa’s not a killer. Isabella thought. Just keep quiet.

         Daon Raul echoed the girls’ sentiments. “‘Murderer?’” he asked. “Isn’t that a bit harsh,

Captain?”

         “Thousands died because of Anerson,” Captain Altamirano replied. “Everyone knows

that.”

         “I had heard differently,” Daon Raul said, “but I may be mistaken. That was a long time

ago, and Cuidad de Agustin is very far from here.”

         “Nevertheless, Anerson’s crimes are still very important to the Emperor,” Captain

Altamirano said.

         “I am sure,” Daon Raul replied. “Doubtless, therefore, our new governor is eager to

bring in Anerson, if he is indeed in these parts. I myself have never heard of anyone by that

name passing through Scorpion Tail. Has anyone ever met a ‘Thad Anerson?’” he asked,

spreading his hands.

         A few shook their heads. Some murmured that they had not. Most of them were silent.

         “What about in the areas around here?” Altamirano asked. “Are there any places he

could be hiding? Caves, or a shack somewhere?”




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         “There are many canyons and hills and mesas nearby,” Daon Raul replied. “But I’m sure

you know that everything to the west, north, and east of here belongs to the Diheneh. Ahiga,

here, is the son of Naalnish, one of their elders. Maybe they’ve seen Anerson.” Daon Raul took

the wanted poster from Captain Altamirano, showed it to Ahiga, spoke quietly to him in the

native tongue.

         Ahiga studied it for a few moments, then shook his head. He said something to Daon

Raul. “Ahiga says that the Diheneh do not permit outlaws on their land, so therefore, Anerson is

not there,” the priest said.

         “How can he be sure?” Captain Altamirano asked. Daon Raul translated his question.

Ahiga replied.

         “Ahiga is a warrior; he and his men roam the lands, making sure that no one trespasses,”

Daon Raul explained. “He has lived here all his life, and his people have held these lands

forever.” Ahiga added something. “No one comes on the Diheneh’s land without their

knowledge—and their permission.”

         Captain Altamirano frowned. “Please let him know that my men and I are under orders

from the governor. We would like the Diheneh’s permission to search for Anerson on their

land.”

         Ahiga pondered this, then nodded and replied. “He says that because the Diheneh and

the Ysparrians have lived in peace alongside each other for many years, you may spend five days

on their land. After that, you must leave.”

         “Five days is not nearly enough time to search all of the Diheneh lands,” Captain

Altamirano said.




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       Ahiga spoke. “That is all he can give,” Daon Raul replied. “As it is, he will have to

explain your presence to the elders and hope they agree with his decision. But he will take your

paper and show it to them and his neighbors. Perhaps they have heard something.”

       “Please extend my thanks to him,” Captain Altamirano said. He turned his attention to

the crowd again. “If you see anyone, hear of anyone fitting the description of this man Anerson,

go to Esmargga and ask for me or Captain Ernesto Morales. Thank you!”

       The crowd began discussing all this amongst themselves. Ahiga and Daon Raul drifted

away, speaking quietly to each other. One of the horsemen dropped the bucket into the well and

started hauling up water while the others gathered around with their canteens. Captain

Altamirano removed his hat and wiped his forehead with a handkerchief from his pocket.

       Alijandra wriggled out of Isabella’s grasp, squeezed her way between two people, ran to

Altamirano’s horse. Reached up and began patting its neck. The horse eyed her warily.

       “Ali!” Isabella yelled, grabbing her sister’s arm and pulling her back. Jack rose to his

feet, eyes shifting between the girls and the horseman. Daon Raul and Ahiga stopped and turned

to watch.

       Isabella bent beside her little sister. “What’s the matter with you?” she hissed in her ear.

       “I can’t help it,” Alijandra said. “I like their horses. What’s wrong with that?”

       Mama pushed her way through the milling townspeople as Captain Altamirano crouched

in front of the girls. He smiled. “So, you like horses, young lady?”

       “Yes, sir,” Alijandra said, eyes down. She frowned. “And I think your hat is funny.”

       “Well,” he replied, looking around, “if you can keep a secret, I think it’s funny, too, but

it’s part of my uniform. I am Captain Juan Martin Cortes Altamirano. And you are?”




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        “I’m Isabella Adelia,” the older girl interjected, “and this is my sister, Alijandra

Guadalupe.”

        “What are you two doing?” Mama demanded, pulling the girls back by their arms. “The

Captain is a very important man—much too important for you to bother.” She curtsied, eyes

lowered. “I apologize, Captain. My daughters are very poorly behaved.”

        “It’s quite all right, Mrs…?”

        “Sanches Ledesma,” Mama lied. “Guadalupe Juanita Sanches Ledesma.”

        “A pleasure, Madam. Your daughters are delightful.”

        “Aren’t their horses pretty?” Alijandra asked.

        “Very pretty,” Mama agreed, “but we will discuss this later. Captain, thank you for the

kind words, and be careful. Come along, girls, we’re done.”

        “Did you get Carmen?” Alijandra asked.

        “Later,” Mama replied. “Go.”

        “Captain,” Daon Raul called, “if you need any supplies, you might find them at the

trading post….”

        “I will inquire there, thank you,” Captain Altamirano replied. Mama and the girls

quickly made their way across the town square, to the smithy, Jack loping along behind them

with the travois.

        Kolb the smith was leaning in the doorway. “I do fix bracelet,” he said, holding it out to

Mama.

        She took it and looked closely at it for a few moments. “Very nice, Mr. Kolb. Thank

you.” She put it on her left wrist, where she always wore it, except when she was working in the




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garden. She reached into a pocket of her skirt, pulled out a small leather purse, and gave him a

brass coin.

       “Who they?” he asked, pointing to the horsemen.

       “Soldiers from Ysparria,” Isabella said.

       “Mmm,” Kolb grunted. He pointed to Daon Raul. “Do not hear to him. Stupid head.

Waste of time,” he smirked, pointing up. “No mother in sky. Only sun.”

       “I did not come here to discuss religion Mr. Kolb,” Mama said, “and our business is

finished. We’ll be leaving now.”

       Their curiosity satisfied, most of the townspeople began drifting back to their homes. On

their way out of Scorpion Tail, Mama and the girls passed by the abandoned mill, where the

vultures still attended the shaggy dead thing lying nearby.



                                                  #



       They walked along through the high desert, past shrubs and bushes and scrawny trees

with green bark and slender leaves. And cactuses, of course, but only the squat barrel cactuses

and flat prickly pears and other, lesser varieties—the towering, many-armed saguaros only grew

further south. The sun was hot and the green-barked trees gave little shade. Isabella found

herself licking her own salty sweat off her top lip before the thirsty dry air could suck it up.

       Mama went first, then Isabella, then Jack pulling the travois. Alijandra flittered amongst

them, swinging her arms and chasing the dusty brown grasshoppers that leapt out of her way.

Sometimes she bent to pick tiny white wildflowers and then ran to give them to her mother or her

sister. All the while, she chattered about the tiny brown birds perched in the trees, and about the




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faint wisps of clouds at the very top of the sky, and about the shapes of the rocks they passed,

and about many, many other things.

         After about two hours of walking, they came to a stand of trees by a slow, shallow stream

lined with smooth stones. They put down their things, took off their sandals, unhitched Jack, and

waded in, drinking from the stream and splashing their faces and hair and arms.

         “That feels much better,” Isabella said. “Are we stopping here for awhile, Mama?”

         “Just for a few minutes,” Mama said. “We have to get home before dark or To-Ho-Ne

will worry.”

         “Mama, can I have my doll?” Alijandra asked.

         “We’ll talk about that later, dear,” Mama replied.

         Mama sat on the bank, underneath the thin shade of the trees, her feet dangling in the

water. Isabella picked her way through the stream, careful not to hurt her feet on the rocks.

Alijandra stood next to Jack, scooping up handfuls of water and dumping them on his back as he

lapped from the stream.

         Isabella crouched and helped herself to another handful of water. It was warm, but clear

and refreshing. “I wish our house was here, by the stream. It’s so much nicer than where we

live.”

         “It’s not safe,” Mama said. “It’s too close to town.” She looked into the water. “Bella,

come here a moment,” she said. “Slowly and quietly, dear heart.”

         “What is it, Mama?”

         “You’ll see. Come sit next to me.”

         Isabella came and sat down. Alijandra and Jack wandered downstream.

         “What is it, Mama?” Isabella asked.




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       “Just sit still and quiet for a little while,” Mama said, smiling. “You’ll feel something

happen.”

       Isabella sat. “Nothing’s happening,” she said.

       “Keep still,” Mama told her. “Don’t make any noise.”

       The older girl didn’t move and didn’t say anything. After a few moments, she felt

something faintly tickle her ankle. The tickling grew and grew, spreading down her foot to her

toes, until Isabella couldn’t keep from giggling.

       Alijandra and Jack came splooshing back. “What is it?” her sister asked.

       “It tickles!” the older girl laughed.

       “Hold still,” Mama reminded her.

       “It tickles too much!”

       “What?” Alijandra asked.

       “Little fish,” Mama said.

       Isabella looked down. Dozens of tiny brown fish, each smaller and thinner than her little

finger, were nibbling, very gently, on her feet. It didn’t hurt. She laughed and wiggled and

shook her feet and the little fish scattered and came right back as soon as she held still again.

       “I want the fish to tickle me, too!” Alijandra exclaimed.

       “Come here and sit by me,” Mama said, “and maybe they’ll nibble you, too.”

       Alijandra splashed over to her mother—chasing off the fish—and sat by her.

       “Nothing’s happening,” Alijandra said.

       “Wait. Wait.”

       The little girl sat still and looked down, watching the clear water rush past her feet.

       “I see one! I see one!” she cried. The little brown fish darted away.




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        “You must stay quiet,” Mama told her.

        “Ali will never stay quiet,” Isabella said, getting up and wading over to Jack. She

scooped up some water and dribbled it onto his head.

        “I can be quiet,” Alijandra replied, waggling her fingers at her sister as if shaking

something loathsome off her hands.

        “Mama, did you see what Ali did?” the older girl asked.

        “Alijandra, we do not make rude hand gestures as if we were commoners,” her mother

said.

        “None of the fish are tickling me, Mama,” the little girl said.

        “You must hold still and be quiet, or you will scare them away.”

        “I am holding still. I am being quiet.”

        “Not still and quiet enough,” Mama said. She smiled. “Or maybe they just don’t like

how you taste.”

        They played in the stream for a while, longer than Mama meant to, splashing and chasing

each other. Then they put their sandals back on, gathered their things, hitched up Jack, and

crossed the stream, heading for home.



                                                  #



        They walked on for about three more hours, until they came over a low rise. The sun was

slipping down behind them, the sky before them darkening to indigo and purple, the land around

them shadowy. Not far away—perhaps a quarter of a mile—was a squat butte, and near the base

of it, the small house where they lived.




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        “We’re almost there,” Mama said.

        “Good,” Isabella replied. “My feet hurt.”

        “Mine, too,” Mama said. She glanced back at Alijandra, who was sitting on the travois,

next to the big yucca string bag, letting Jack pull her along. “We’re almost there,” Mama said.

“If you’re still tired, we can put you down to sleep when we get inside.”

        “No!” Alijandra said, slipping off the travois. “I’m not tired anymore.”

        They heard their five sheep bleating long before they found them in the rapidly-dimming

light. The sheep were milling about, with no one in sight. Alijandra ran to them. “Hello,

Melania!” she exclaimed, to the one with black patches around its eyes. “Hello, Francisca!

Hello, Ersilia and Melisa! Hello, Amata!”

        The sheep darted here and there, trying to avoid the little girl. “You’re scaring them,

Ali,” Isabella said.

        “No, I’m not!” she insisted. “They’re my friends.”

        Mama frowned. “They should be in by now. Bella, unhitch Jack.” She cupped her hands

to her mouth and called, “To-Ho-Ne! To-Ho-Ne!”

        “I’m here, Princess!” a faint voice replied, and a few moments later, To-Ho-Ne, the old

Diheneh woman, waddled out of the shadows, long, white braid swinging behind her. “The

sheep are being very bad,” she panted. “I can’t get them in the corral.”

        “Bella and Ali and Jack will take care of them,” Mama said. “Help me bring the travois

inside.”

        “Yes, Princess,” To-Ho-Ne said.




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       Isabella finished unhitching Jack. He bounded after the sheep, circling, barking

furiously. Alijandra and Isabella helped lead them back to the round wooden pen by the side of

the house.

       “Good boy,” Alijandra said, stroking Jack’s ears as he stood beside her. “Good boy.” He

thumped his tail in agreement. “Wait out here until Bella brings you dinner,” she said.

       “Help me carry in some wood for the stove,” Isabella said, pointing to the small pile

stacked against the side of the house.

       “I have to pass water,” Alijandra said, and ran to the wooden latrine opposite the front

door of the house.

       Isabella smirked. Typical, she thought. She took some wood and kindling off the pile

and went inside. The house itself was small—only one floor, of course—and made from adobe.

It had one door and two small windows in the front. Inside was a large room with a grey stone

floor and a table and five chairs, made of pine. A kerosene lamp hung by a hook from a rafter.

A trunk and some wooden crates, holding their clothes and personal things, sat against one wall.

Their sleeping mats were rolled up and leaning in one corner of the room. In another corner was

the black iron stove. Next to it was a door into a small space, lined with shelves, where the

family kept their food.

       Isabella laid the wood and the kindling on the floor, beside the stove. “Here is supper,”

Mama said, opening the sting bag and taking out a smoked ham not much bigger than both her

fists put together. She put the meat on the table. “For tonight and tomorrow night, and several

more after that, if we’re careful.”

       “What else were you able to get?” To-Ho-Ne asked.




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         “These,” Mama said. A small bag of cornmeal, a tin of salt, a small jar of kerosene, the

tooth powder. She put each on the table.

         “Did you get my storybook?” Isabella asked. “And Ali’s doll?”

         “No, I couldn’t,” Mama said. “Just to get these things, I had to give that…hag Cornejo

the wool and the clothes, and some money, too. We were lucky: I had just enough. But I

couldn’t get the book, or the doll. I’m sorry.”

         “And your bracelet, Princess?” To-Ho-Ne asked.

         “I managed to have that repaired, too.”

         “Couldn’t we have spent that money on my book?” Isabella asked.

         “Mrs. Cornejo wanted a lot more than five centavos for that book,” Mama replied.

         “What about the doll? Couldn’t you have gotten the doll for five centavos?” Isabella

asked.

         Mama put her hands on her hips. “Maybe I could have, but it took me a while to save

that money. Why do you ask?”

         “Ali will be really upset when she finds out that she doesn’t have that doll. She already

named her, and she said she was going to have her be Caroleena’s friend.”

         “Isabella, I have my own reasons for having that bracelet fixed instead of buying Ali a

doll—or you a storybook. First among them is my father gave it me, and though it isn’t worth

much, it’s almost all I have left of him.”

         Isabella lowered her head. “I shouldn’t have said anything. I’m sorry.”

         “Please help To-Ho-Ne make supper,” Mama said.

         There was a tin bucket hanging from a nail on the back of the door. Mama took the

bucket and went outside to get water from the well. To-Ho-Ne stirred up the embers in the stove,




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then added twigs and dried grass. While she did that, Isabella went to the table and cut a few

small slices from the ham. To-Ho-Ne hung up the rest of the ham in the larder, then brought out

a yellow squash and a few small, red potatoes.

       Alijandra came back in with Mama. Mama poured the water she had drawn into several

small, clay jars. Alijandra and Isabella washed the vegetables, making sure to only use a little

water and to hold each vegetable over the bucket so as not to spill or drop anything on the table

or floor. To-Ho-Ne fed the fire with larger pieces of wood.

       “To-Ho-Ne, we saw horses in town,” Alijandra said.

       “Were there?” To-Ho-Ne asked. “Tell me about them, Little Cub.”

       Alijandra told her about the horses, and their riders, and the captain, as Isabella carefully

cut the ham and vegetables into tiny pieces. As To-Ho-Ne heated up water for stew and added

the ingredients that Isabella had cut up, Alijandra told her about the smith, and the trading post,

and mean Mrs. Cornejo, and the fish that had nibbled her in the stream.

       “They weren’t nibbling you,” Isabella reminded her. “They were nibbling me. You

scared them away.”

       “They were nibbling Bella,” Alijandra corrected herself. “But before that, we went to the

priest, and he has lots of children, and none of the boys wore shirts. And his wife has this funny

hand. And he put on a yellow shirt and he had this magic wand….”

       It wasn’t long before the stew was ready; To-Ho-Ne served it to them in clay bowls. The

stew was thin, but hot. Isabella liked the soft, squishy pieces of squash, but the ham was too

salty for her; she left her pieces for Jack. She wanted more, but there was only enough for

everyone to have one small bowl.




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       “And at the trading post,” Alijandra continued, “we saw all sorts of things. Bella found a

picture book, and I found a doll. Mama, where is my doll?”

       Oh no, Isabella thought. Here it comes.

       “I couldn’t buy the doll, Ali,” Mama said. “We didn’t have enough money.”

       “Well, maybe we can get it next time,” Alijandra said.

       “Maybe,” Mama said.

       She’s not upset, Isabella thought. For once.

       “And there was this man there that Mama knows,” Alijandra said. “Papa’s friend, who

comes around here sometimes.”

       “Ahiga,” Mama added.

       “I’ll go feed Jack now,” Isabella said, getting up from the table. “Do we have anything

else for him?”

       “In the larder is an egg I took from the coop this morning,” To-Ho-Ne replied. “It has a

crack in it: it’s no good to us. And there’s an old tomato. Give him those and let him go look for

something outside.”

       Isabella went to the larder and got the egg and the shriveled tomato. She took these

things and her bowl and went outside. The first moon—full and bathing the land with pale

light—was coming up. The air was chilly already and the sheep were quiet. “Jack!” she called.

“Here, boy!”

       Something dark lying near the pen hauled itself to its feet and padded over to her, puffing

as it came. “Here you are, boy,” Isabella said, as she squatted down in front of the big black dog.

She put the bowl on the ground, dropped in the tomato, then cracked the egg and let it slop into

the bowl. “I’m sorry there isn’t more,” she said.




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       Jack sniffed his meal for a moment, then quickly lapped it up, tail wagging.

       “Was that good?” she asked, when he raised his head at last. His tail wagged faster as he

licked the last bit off his snout. “To-Ho-Ne says you should go out looking for some food. Go

on. Go! Just don’t be too long.”

       Jack loped off into the darkness, tail swishing.

       Isabella rubbed her arms and looked up into the clear night sky, where the stars were

scattered like salt grains across the endless blackness. It’s cold. Is Papa cold, too? No, I’m sure

he has a campfire. He’s probably having supper right now. I wonder if he’s having stew, too.

       After a few minutes, the door opened and Mama came out. “Why don’t you come in and

get ready to sleep?”

       “I was watching the sheep until Jack comes back.”

       “I can do that for you,” she said.

       “It’s cold, Mama.”

       “I’ll get my shawl. Come in.”

       “Yes, Mama.”

       She and Alijandra took turns using Mama’s brush on their hair. Then they got one of the

clay water jars and the tin bucket, sprinkled some of the yellow tooth powder onto small grey

rags, and rubbed them over their teeth. They rinsed and spat and rinsed and spat until the gritty

taste was out of their mouths. While Alijandra put away the powder and the tooth rags, Isabella

went back outside to rinse out the bucket and dump the water onto the small garden they had

beside the house. Mama was still outside, waiting, looking out into the dark.

       I wonder if she misses Papa, Isabella thought. She started to ask, decided against it.

Went back inside.




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       The girls changed out of their dresses and aprons and put on their nightgowns. To-Ho-Ne

unrolled their sleeping mats, laying them side by side in one corner of the house. Then she

braided the girls’ hair, and after that, the girls played together with their dark-haired ragdolls,

imagining that they were going to a ball held at the Emperor’s Palace, very far from here, where

many handsome young men, some of them very brave soldiers, some of them handsome princes,

asked them to dance. When To-Ho-Ne told them it was time to sleep, Alijandra tucked her doll,

Caroleena, under her arm. To-Ho-Ne pulled a large blanket, with thick stripes of red and black

and orange, over them.

       “I don’t think I can sleep,” Alijandra said. “Can Bella and I have talk time?”

       “I think—” began the old woman, but just then, the door opened and Mama came back

inside, clutching her shawl.

       “I thought that fool dog was never going to come back,” she said, rubbing her arms.

       “I have more coffee for you, Princess,” To-Ho-Ne said. “The girls would like some time

to talk before going to sleep.”

       “Of course,” Mama said. “But not too long.” Both girls nodded.

       “Mama, do you think Papa will be coming home soon?” Alijandra asked.

       “I don’t know,” Mama said. “I was hoping there would be a letter from him at the

trading post, but there wasn’t.”

       “Maybe there was, but Mrs. Cornejo didn’t give it to you, just to spite you,” Isabella

scowled.

       “I tried to see if she had one, but the only letters there were for other people. They were

opened, of course,” Mama frowned. “Ah, well. Good night.”

       “Good night,” the girls replied, together.




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       “I’ll see you in the morning,” Mama said.

       “I’ll see you in the morning,” they repeated.

       “I’ll see you in my dreams.”

       “I’ll see you in my dreams.”

       “I’ll see you when the sun comes up.”

       “I’ll see you when the sun comes up.”

       “I love you.”

       “I love you.”

       “What shall we dream about?” Mama asked.

       “All the things we did today,” the girls answered.

       “Especially what?”

       “The whole day,” Alijandra said.

       “I’m going to dream about Papa coming home with a lot of money,” Isabella said.

       “I’d like that, too,” Mama said. “Sleep well, girls.”

       “Your coffee, Princess,” To-Ho-Ne said, giving Mama a cup. The two women sat at the

table and began to speak quietly in the Diheneh language.

       “To-Ho-Ne calls Mama ‘Princess,’” Alijandra whispered. “If she’s a princess, doesn’t

that make us princesses, too?”

       “We aren’t princesses,” Isabella whispered. “Princesses live in palaces, not…not here.

To-Ho-Ne just calls her ‘Princess’ as a pet name, because she loves her. She calls you ‘Little

Cub,’ but you aren’t a real bear, are you?”

       Alijandra pondered that for a moment. Then, “Why couldn’t Mama get my doll?”




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        “She told you that.”

        “I forgot.”

        “That’s because you never listen. Mama didn’t have enough money. She used it all

fixing the bracelet that you broke.”

        “I didn’t mean to break it. I was just—”

        “‘—trying it on because it looked pretty,’” Isabella finished for her. “Yes, I know. You

keep saying that. But you broke it.”

        “And you keep reminding me that I broke it. You act like I broke your bracelet,”

Alijandra hissed.

        “Not so loud, or Mama will make us go to sleep.”

        Neither girl said anything for a while.

        “I wish you had that book,” Alijandra whispered. “If you did, you could read me a story

now.”

        “Yes,” Isabella whispered back, looking up at the ceiling. “I wish we had that book,

too.”

        “What was it about?”

        “I don’t know.”

        “Well, what do you think it was about?”

        Isabella thought for a moment. “There was one picture I keep thinking about. It was a

big jungle. The trees were tall—they went all the way from the bottom of the page to the top.

And the leaves on the trees were dark green, almost black, and the leaves went all the way from

one side of the page to the other. And under the trees were all kinds of bushes and things.

Jumping out of the bushes were these…creatures that looked like big lizards, except they walked




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on two legs and they had claws and swords and they were purple. Really bright purple. And

they were surrounding this princess.”

        “How did you know she was a princess?”

        “Because she had a long golden gown on, and she wore a gold crown. That’s what

princesses—real princesses—wear.”

        “Was she afraid of them? The lizard things?”

        “No,” Isabella replied, shaking her head. “She wasn’t afraid. At least, she didn’t look

like it in the picture.”

        “I guess real princesses aren’t ever afraid,” Alijandra said, softly.

        “I guess not.”

        Neither girl said anything for a while.

        “When Papa gets back, do you think we could go back to town and get the book?”

Alijandra asked, still whispering.

        “I suppose,” Isabella replied. “If he catches a dragon and tames it, and if someone will

buy it from him.”

        “That doesn’t sound so hard,” Alijandra said.

        “It is hard,” Isabella said. “Papa used to do that a long time ago, before you were born.”

        “When Papa left, I was sad he was going, but To-Ho-Ne told me not to cry, that he’d be

back soon, and we’d be rich,” Alijandra said.

        “I don’t think it will be that easy,” Isabella said. “If it were, Papa would have been

catching dragons all this time.”

        “If he doesn’t, then we won’t get the book? Or my doll?”

        “I suppose not.”




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       “I hope he finds a dragon,” Alijandra said.

       “Me, too.”

       “All right, girls, that’s been long enough,” their mother said. “Please go to sleep.”

       “Yes, Mama,” Isabella said.

       “Yes, Mama,” Alijandra said.

       The girls closed her eyes, and soon, Alijandra was asleep, cuddled up with her doll.

Isabella closed her eyes, but she couldn’t sleep. She kept thinking about the storybook.

       Her mother and To-Ho-Ne were still talking softly in the Diheneh language. After a

while, Isabella heard one chair scrape against the floor as someone got up. She opened her eyes

a crack and peered through her lashes. Mama went to the larder and came back with a small clay

pot. She sat down again and scooped out a handful of coins from the pot. She and To-Ho-Ne

spread out the money on the table and counted it. And then they started talking again.

       Isabella closed her eyes. If Papa finds a dragon, and catches it, and tames it, and sells it,

she thought, then we could get my storybook. And Ali’s doll. And maybe a prettier bracelet for

Mama. And nicer food. And more sheep. And maybe build bedrooms for each of us.

       Or maybe we could move to town and live in a proper house.

       Or maybe…maybe we could go back to Ysparria.

       Maybe we could be princesses again. Like we used to be.



                                                 #

       Outside, Jack lay in the dust, watching, as the sheep slept in the pen. Both moons were

up now, full and white and cold.

       Far away, the girls’ father had not found a dragon. But one found him.




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                               Chapter 4: Many Miles Away 

       Dinner—a stringy, bitter-tasting chuckwalla lizard caught earlier in the day and roasted

over a campfire—was done. The dragontamer stood, threw the leftover bones and gristle into the

dark, and wiped his hands on his grimy, dusty pants.

       That was awful, he admitted. Let’s not have that again until tomorrow night, shall we?

       All right, he agreed.

       The dragontamer was tall and thin and, despite years of living in the desert, he had

burned red instead of browning like his wife and daughters had. He squatted by his pack, opened

the front pocket, and took out a small wad of tissue-thin paper. In the same pocket, he found a

pencil much too small and thin for his sausage fingers. He sat down by the fire again. He took a

knife from inside one of his black, pointed boots. The knife had two blades, side-by-side, and

the wooden handle was engraved with a seven-pointed star. He started to sharpen the end of the

pencil, whittling towards himself.

       “You shouldn’t do that like that,” he heard his wife’s voice say in his head. “You might

cut yourself.”


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       Yes, you’re right, he replied, and kept whittling the same direction. He finished without

cutting himself and put the knife back in its boot-sheath. He crossed his legs under him, cupped

the paper in his hand, and began to print.



               April 12, 1884

               My dearest Juanita,



       The dragontamer picked up his pencil.

       Well, that was the easy part, he thought. What do you want to tell her, boss?

       He rubbed the scruff of his beard with the dull end of the pencil.



               I hope this letter reaches you and finds you well.



       That’s true enough, he thought. What next?



               Tomorrow, I will head south again and give this letter to a Diheneh

       family I met a few days ago, and ask them to bring it to the trading post at

       Scorpion Tail.



       His breath made little white clouds that quickly vanished into the dark. Go on, boss, keep

writing. I can’t wait to learn what it is you’re actually going to say to her.




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               I have not found a dragon yet, but I am hopeful that will change soon.



       “Found a dragon”—that’s good, idiot, the dragontamer told himself. And when nosy

Madam Cornejo at the trading post reads your letter—which you know she will—then she can

tell everyone who you really are. He crumpled up the sheet of paper and threw it into the fire.

Put the pencil to another sheet.



               April 12, 1884

               My dearest Juanita and my lovely girls,

               I hope you are all doing well without me. I am far away and I miss

       you all very much.



       He threw that in the fire, too. Better think about what you want to say before you try to

write any more, boss. That paper’s expensive. Juanita traded a hair brush for it, remember?

       I remember.



               April 12, 1884

               My dearest Juanita, my darling Isabella, and my delightful Alijandra,



               Hopefully, this letter finds you soon and all is well at home. I have




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       “I have” what? he wondered. What is it you actually have? Or did you mean, “I have”

as in, “I have been out here for weeks, so long that I have honestly forgotten how long it’s

been?” But don’t stop there, boss. How about, “I haven’t seen one dragon yet. No tracks, no

scat, nothing.”

       Good. Honest, at least. But let’s not forget: “I’ve left the Diheneh lands and am now in

Uupohna territory, and if any of them find me, they’ll probably use my innards to decorate their

chief’s pueblo before they bash my head in with a club. Because it hasn’t rained, I haven’t

bathed since I’ve left home. I have one meal a day and it’s usually lizard or grasshopper, and if

I’m really lucky, I get about four hours of sleep a night. How are you and the girls, dear heart?”

       He folded the paper and put it and the pencil in the pocket of his shirt.

       Not, mind you, that there’s a lot of point to being out here, he told himself. How long has

it been since you’ve done this? Years? I understand that you’re desperate, but you might be a

bit out of practice—and that can get you perished in this line of work, boss. And even if you do

manage to catch a dragon, what then? Who’s going to take it off your hands?

       He leaned closer to the fire, holding out his hands to warm them.

       You’d be better off prospecting, he told himself. You don’t have to sneak up on rocks,

and they don’t try to kill you when you get too close.

       A gust of wind ruffled the campfire flames with a wuff.

       Without thinking—hesitating to think would have gotten him killed—the dragontamer

rolled as something swooped out of the sky. The dragon was long, longer than a pine is tall, and

thin, no wider than the base of a tree trunk. Its hide was colored in fat bands of red and purple

broken by thin rings of black and white. It had no legs. Its white, feathered wings beat like

those of an enormous bird as it turned and came back.




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        Venomdrake, oh no oh no it’s a damned venomdrake, the dragontamer thought, his

shaking hand fumbled with the holster on his belt.

        The dragon hung in the air, a few feet over the ground, its tiny red eyes boring into the

dragontamer. Its pointed purple tongue flicked out, tasting his scent. The dragon itself smelled

like spoiled milk and rotten meat. The dragontamer’s eyes watered from the stench.

        Get the damned pistol, fool!

        The dragon shrieked, a sound like tin being torn in two. Hovering perhaps a dozen yards

away, it snapped and hissed, gathered itself for another strike.

        Shoot it shoot it shoot it!

        Finally freeing his pistol, the dragontamer fired, a gyro-jet whooshing from the barrel like

a firework flare and missing the dragon. It exploded like a miniature star being born in the

desert, the blast knocking the dragon out of the air, crashing it to the stony ground.

        Reload reload reload kill it kill it before it spits if it spits we’re dead we’re dead we’re

        Screeching, the dragon hauled itself into the air and frantically winged off, disappearing

into the night.

        Gone, gone, good, good, the dragontamer told himself. Coming back? No. Scared it.

Scared it off. Which way did it go? He looked around, noting the mountains in the distance, the

position of the two moons.

        West. West and north. West and north. Okay. All right.

        He paced, his breathing slowing. Okay. All right. He re-loaded his pistol. Holstered it.

Took it out. Paced. Checked to make sure the pistol was loaded. Put it away again. Paced.

Okay. All right.




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        The campfire was still going. He sat down by it. It’s a wonder you didn’t set the desert

on fire with that shot, boss, he told himself.

        Yes, he told himself. He looked over at his shoulder, west and north.

        That drake could have killed us easily, boss. Just spat on us once. But it didn’t. It was

just trying to take us alive.

        Right you are, he agreed. But why?

        Female, he told himself. Recently laid eggs. Looking for fresh meat to feed the little

ones when they hatch, if they haven’t already. It’s the only reason that makes sense.

        He looked around in his pack, found his pipe and pouch, but the pouch was still empty,

just as it had been the night before and the night before that. If there’s anytime I could use a

smoke, he thought, it’s now.

        He sat for a while and watched the fire. Every so often, he would look west and north.

        Could be roosting anywhere. Drakes keep a big territory. Likely to be miles from here.

Many miles, he reminded himself.

        True enough, he agreed. But they like high mountains best. Nearest ones are…

        Nearest ones are halfway to the Korakahu nation. That’s a long walk across hostile

ground. And even if you find her—which would be just about impossible—she’ll be in a mood if

she really does have eggs or young. Not that you’d be in your right mind trying to catch a drake,

anyway. Even if you managed to tame her, who’d you sell her to?

        I’ll worry about that later, he decided. What other choice do I have?

        He watched the fire for a while—how long, he didn’t know. After a while, he took the

paper and the pencil out of his pocket.




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               April 12, 1884

               My dearest Juanita, my darling Isabella, and my delightful Alijandra,

               Hopefully, this letter finds you soon and all is well at home. I have



       He looked west and north again.



               I have found something.



                                                  #



       Far, far away, the roaring ocean wind blew another dragon—the little milky-green

dragon, with eyes like pearls—through that same cold night.

       It had been four days since the little dragon had left the island of Imbyrria and its flocks

of nesting mollymawks. She had stopped only a few times, to pulling in the webbing along her

sides and diving into the restless waves, there to gobble down a fish, or a sea jelly, or even a bit

of kelp, if she was hungry enough. When she had finished eating, she would thrash at the

surface, long tail whipping back and forth, body wriggling like a snake, until she heaved her

front part out of the water and let out her webbing so that the wind could scoop her up, sending

her soaring again on her way.

       On and on, the wind had carried her, sometimes high above the great gray ocean,

sometimes so low that she had to close her eyes against the spray of the waves. She had slept—

dozed, really—only a few minutes at a time, eyes half-open, ears half-listening to the roar of the




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wind. Yesterday, three days from Imbyrria, the dark haze that she had seen from so high above

her home had appeared, growing larger and larger.

        Land.

        As the fourth night had risen out of the east and swallowed up the land awaiting her, she

had hurried on through the dark sky, over the churning sea. She had urged on the wind, and

finally, at last, it had carried her to the end of the ocean.

        Before her was a wide bay, and beyond that, great, towering trees. She glided down over

the water, splashed into the surf, waded ashore. There were many large rocks nearby, and she

crept into a pile, then curled up and laid her head down to sleep. There was still a long way to

go, and she would be on her way in the morning.




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                                  Chapter 5: Good Girls 

       “Help me find Mama,” Isabella said.

       “I can’t,” Alijandra replied, not looking up from her book. It was a big book, with a

black leather cover decorated with gold curlicue designs. The edges of each page were trimmed

in gold. Isabella glanced over her sister’s shoulder. One page was covered in small, cursive

script in a language Isabella couldn’t read; the other page had a picture of a golden city on a cliff

overlooking the sea.

       “That’s my book,” Isabella said. “Give me back my book and help me find Mama.”

       “I’m reading it now,” Alijandra replied. “You can read it later.”

       “You’re no use to me at all,” Isabella told her.

       The top floor of the trading post was packed to the ceiling with boxes and bags and

bundles in jumbled, messy piles, some of which leaned crazily, threatening to topple over at the

slightest touch. Isabella wound her way through the narrow, twisting trails between the piles,

looking for her mother.




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       She came across To-Ho-Ne and Mrs. Cornejo, sitting at a table, a tangle of wool between

them. “You’re insane! Completely insane!” Mrs. Cornejo shouted. “I wouldn’t trade one bean

for this filthy wool, you stupid old woman!”

       “To-Ho-Ne,” Isabella said, “help me find Mama.”

       The old Diheneh woman ignored her. “Ha’at’iisha biniiye t’ooadini?” she asked Mrs.

Cornejo. “T’aadoo anit’ini,” she warned her.

       “To-Ho-Ne,” Isabella said, tugging at the old Diheneh woman’s sleeve.

       “Take your wool and take that brat, and all of you get out of my store!” Mrs. Cornejo

bellowed. “You know she’s not allowed up here. She should be downstairs.”

       “To-Ho-Ne, I have to find Mama.”

       “Not now, child,” To-Ho-Ne replied, smiling. Then she turned back to Mrs. Cornejo and

spat out, “Adishni, hats’idigi, kwe’e doo, danidiyootheet…”

       Isabella continued on, squeezing her way past barrels filled with corn meal or dried

tobacco or gun shot or small, unmarked paper boxes. She picked up a box and shook it:

something fluttered inside, as if there were a winged insect or a tiny bird within. She put the box

back into the barrel and kept going.

       She turned a corner and Daon Raul—dressed as a horseman in red jacket and black pants

and boots—appeared, holding Alijandra. Jack leapt at Daon Raul’s feet, barking joyously.

“Bella, it’s Papa! Papa’s come back!” the little girl squealed.

       “That’s not Papa,” Isabella told her. “Help me find Mama.”

       “Bella?” her mother called.




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        Isabella turned at her mother’s voice, and when she looked back, Alijandra and Daon

Raul were gone. Only Jack was still there, looking at her, ham-pink tongue hanging, tail

wagging tentatively.

        “Coming, Mama,” Isabella said. “Come on, Jack,” she said, but when she looked back,

he, too, was gone.

        She maneuvered through more twisting trails that grew even narrower. “Mama?” she

called. “Mama?”

        “Over here,” Mama said, and finally, Isabella found her, at a cul-de-sac in the corner of

the room. Mama was rooting through a huge pine trunk full of lacy gowns of white or ivory or

red or green or yellow or black.

        “Help me look,” Mama said. Isabella knelt beside her and started rummaging through the

trunk. She found a black lace glove, then a silver ring with a small, blue stone.

        “Is this it?” Isabella asked, holding up the ring.

        “Don’t be stupid: of course it isn’t,” her mother said. “Are you going to help me, or

aren’t you?”

        “I’ll help, Mama,” Isabella said. She found a shimmering green shoe. A white fan.

Some burgundy ribbon. Are any of these it? she wondered. I don’t know I don’t know. She

slowly took each item out of the trunk and put them on the floor between her and Mama, hoping

that Mama would notice. What is it I don’t know why won’t Mama tell me why won’t she tell me

what it is what she wants what she’s looking for?

        “That’s not it,” Mama said, tossing aside more dresses, more gloves, more shoes, more

fans. Hats and letters and pillows. “That’s not it. It must be here somewhere. It must. It must.

It has to be.”




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           How big IS this trunk? Isabella wondered. What if we don’t find it? What if we don’t

find it?

           They reached the bottom. Just flat yellow wood. Mama scowled.

           “I’m sorry, Mama,” Isabella said. “I don’t know where it is.”

           Her mother said nothing as she got to her feet.

           “Mama?” Isabella asked. Her eyes itched. The barrels and bags and bundles were gone.

The top floor of the trading post was empty. Mama started walking for the stairs.

           “I’ll look again, Mama,” Isabella said, turning back to the pile of dresses and hats and

scarves and such from the trunk. “It has to be here. It has to. Mama?”

           Mama was gone.

           “Mama?”

           “Mama?”

           Isabella sat up.

           It was cold and dark in the little house, and Alijandra was snuggled against her on the

straw sleeping mat.

           “Mama?” she whispered. She reached over Alijandra and touched her mother’s shoulder.

Mama stirred but did not wake. Next to Mama, To-Ho-Ne snored softly.

           Isabella’s eyes were damp. She wiped them with the back of her hand and lay down.

           It’s okay, she thought. It’s okay. It’s just a dream. Just a dream.

           What was I looking for? What did Mama want?

           Doesn’t matter. Not real. Just a dream. Go back to sleep.

           She lay on her back, eyes open. No moonlight came through the window. A bit of wood

softly popped inside the stove. Something inside the little house went zeep.




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       What’s that? she wondered, wriggling a little closer to Alijandra.

       Zeep again.

       A grasshopper, she realized. It’s nothing. Go back to sleep.

       And after a while, she did.



                                                #



       “Little Cub? Little Cub?”

       Someone was gently shaking Alijandra’s shoulder.

       “Little Cub, it’s time to wake up.”

       “Mm,” Alijandra grunted.

       To-Ho-Ne was kneeling next to her. Alijandra sat up and wrapped her arms around the

old Diheneh woman.

       “Did you sleep well, Little Cub?”

       Alijandra nodded and looked around. Isabella was putting bowls on the table. “Good

morning, Ali.”

       “Bella, where’s Mama?”

       “Outside.”

       “Do you need to pass water?” To-Ho-Ne asked.

       Alijandra shook her head.

       “You should try, anyway.”

       Alijandra nodded and got to her feet. She slipped on her sandals and wrapped her blanket

around herself. She opened the door and went outside: it was cold and the orange sun was




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peeking over the land. Mama came out of the latrine, held the door open for Alijandra. “Good

morning, dear heart,” Mama smiled.

        “Good morning, Mama,” Alijandra said, hugging her mother’s waist. Mama kissed the

top of her head.

        “Don’t be long,” Mama said, letting Alijandra take the door.

        “I won’t,” the little girl said. Mama went back in the house.

        Alijandra held open the door of the latrine and warily looked inside. No tarantulas,

though she liked their hairy legs, with their orange knees. No scorpions or rattlers or—worst of

all—coral snakes. She stepped inside and held the door open with her hand as she peered into

the dark hole below the wooden seat. Nothing there that she could see, but when she sat down,

she kept one leg straightened to hold the door open as far as she could. For monsters.

        Jack found her on the way back to the house. Tail wagging, he leaned against her.

“Good morning, Jack,” she said, patting him on the head. His tail wagged faster.

        “Come wash up,” Mama called, from the window. She pointed to the bucket outside the

door.

        Jack followed her to the door. Alijandra squatted by the bucket, splashed icy water on

her face, then shook her hands for a few moments, flinging off some of the water.

        “Goodbye, boy,” she said, leaning over and patting Jack again. He licked her face once,

twice. She giggled.

        She went inside; the others were already at the table. Breakfast was a bowl of cold brown

rice. Alijandra gobbled it down, then got dressed.

        She and Isabella took turns using Mama’s brush on their hair. They cleaned their teeth

again with the tooth powder and the rags. Then the girls went to work.




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       “Come on, boy,” Isabella called Jack. The sheep were already on their feet, baahing and

pacing about. Isabella opened the gate of the pen led them out, Jack nipping the stragglers’

haunches. Alijandra patted each one as it went by.

       “Goodbye, Melisa,” she said. “Goodbye, Francisca. Goodbye, Ersilia. Goodbye,

Melania—be good for Bella today, not like last time. Goodbye, Amata—you’re always last,

aren’t you?”

       “Work hard for Mama and To-Ho-Ne,” Isabella said to her sister.

       “I will,” Alijandra replied. “I always do. You don’t need to tell me that every day.”

       Alijandra went back into the house. “I’m ready,” she said.

       “Take this, Little Cub,” To-Ho-Ne said, handing her a bowl with scraps of last night’s

squash and potatoes, and the shreds of a few burned or stale tortillas. Alijandra went outside,

behind the house.

       The chickens—four skinny brown hens and an old black rooster with a tattered, wilted

comb—came running. Alijandra held the bowl up high and shook it so that all the bits and

leavings plopped or fluttered to the ground at her feet. The chickens surrounded her, pecking at

the ground and at each other, but never at Alijandra. She squatted and petted each of them while

they were busy. After a few quick moments, the food was gone. The chickens glared at her, but

she held up her hands and said, “No more,” and when she reached out to pet them again, they

flinched and backstepped and waddled away, as birds do with people.

       Alijandra looked inside the coop, which was not much more than a tall, wooden box with

a hole in the front for the birds to squeeze through. She took out the empty clay feedbowl that

To-Ho-Ne had put in last night, then felt around in the dried grass and rags that lined the bottom

of the coop. No eggs today. She took the feedbowl and went around to the front of the house.




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        Mama was hunched over, pulling up weeds in the little garden they kept to grow some

food. “Go gather wood for the fire,” Mama said, “and when you’re done with that, come tell

me.”

        For the next hour or so, Alijandra walked around—always within sight of the house—

collecting twigs and branches that had fallen from the skinny trees that grew here and there.

When she had an armload, she would come back to the house, drop them by the door, and go off

again for more.

        After she finished, she went to see Mama, who had put a bucket under the well spout.

She pumped the handle six times, seven times, eight times, until the spout coughed and the water

began to run, a trickle at first, then a steady stream.

        “I’m done,” Alijandra said. “What are you doing, Mama?”

        “Watering the garden,” Mama said. “When you’re older and have your own garden, you

should always water it in the morning or the evening, never in the middle of the day. Otherwise,

the sun dries up the water before it soaks into the ground.”

        “What should I do now?” Alijandra asked.

        “Please go in the house and help To-Ho-Ne card wool,” Mama told her.

        “All right, Mama.”

        “Thank you, dear heart.”

        The old Diheneh woman was sitting on a blanket on the floor, a yucca twine bag of wool

beside her. “Ah, there is Little Cub,” she said.

        Alijandra sat beside her and To-Ho-Ne gave her two wooden paddles. One side of each

paddle, or carder, was lined with small wooden teeth. To-Ho-Ne spread a clump of wool across

the teeth of one carder, and then Alijandra began to comb the wool with the toothed side of the




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other carder. It was hard work, because the wool was thick and tough, but after a few minutes,

Alijandra had straightened all the wool on her carder. She took it off and gave it to To-Ho-Ne,

who added Alijandra’s little tuft of wool to the others that had already been carded. Then To-

Ho-Ne gave her more wool to card, and she began again.

       “Aghaa,” To-Ho-Ne said, pointing to the wool.

       “What?” Alijandra asked her.

       “That is how you say ‘wool’ in Diheneh. Aghaa. And where does aghaa come from?”

       “From sheep.”

       “Dibe,” To-Ho-Ne told her.

       “Dibe,” Alijandra replied. “Sheep are dibe and they make aghaa.”

       “Yes,” To-Ho-Ne said. “You are a good girl to help your mother and me with our work.”

       “I like to help,” Alijandra said.

       “That’s good. Because bad things happen to children who don’t help.”

       “What happens to them?”

       “Ghosts come in the middle of the night and give them bad dreams,” To-Ho-Ne said. “Or

skin walkers take them away and no one ever sees those children again.”

       “What do the skin walkers do with them?” Alijandra asked.

       “Your mother would not want me to tell you,” To-Ho-Ne said. “Once, when your sister

was about your age, I told her about the skin walkers, and she cried and ran to your mother and

told her what I had said. Then your mother scolded me. She said I shouldn’t frighten poor,

sweet Isabella with stories like that. She wanted me to tell Isabella that what I had told her

wasn’t true.”

       “Was it true?”




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       To-Ho-Ne nodded. “I would never lie about the skin walkers.”

       “So what do they do with the children they take away? The bad ones.”

       “I have said too much already,” To-Ho-Ne replied.

       “I won’t cry,” Alijandra said. “I’m brave. Not like Isabella.”

       To-Ho-Ne leaned close. “You won’t tell your mother? Or your sister?”

       “No,” Alijandra said.

       “All right. Then I’ll tell you,” To-Ho-Ne said. “The skin walkers are always looking for

bad children,” she whispered. “If they can, they will take good children, but bad ones are better,

because no one likes bad children, not even their parents. When bad children are missing,

everyone says, ‘Oh, those bad children have run off and are doing no good, but they will be back

soon enough to bother us. Let’s enjoy the quiet while they are gone.’ And so no one goes

looking for them until it’s too late.”

       “But the skin walkers have them,” Alijandra whispered.

       To-Ho-Ne nodded. “They sneak into their hogans in the middle of the night and take

them right from their sleeping mats. Or they wait for them in the bushes when they go to pass

water. Or they follow them when those bad children have run off to play or do bad things

instead of their chores.”

       “And then?”

       “Then the skin walkers take them to where they live.”

       “To where the skin walkers live?” To-Ho-Ne nodded. “Where do they live?”

       “Some skin walkers live in hogans, like proper Diheneh. But some like to live in caves

or in holes in the ground where animals used to live.”




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       “And then what?”

       “Then the skin walkers cut the children into pieces and cook them and eat them.”

       Alijandra didn’t say anything.

       “Always be good for your mother,” To-Ho-Ne said, wagging her finger at her.

       “I’ll be good,” the little girl said. “I’ll eat all my food, and I’ll do my chores, and I won’t

fight with Bella.”

        “Good,” To-Ho-Ne said. “And never go in caves.”

       “I won’t,” Alijandra said.

       “Now let’s get back to carding this wool,” the old Diheneh woman smiled. “And how

about if I teach you something more pleasant?” To-Ho-Ne held up her hand. “Ala,” she said.

       “Ala,” Alijandra replied. “That means ‘hand,’ doesn’t it?”

       “Yes, it does,” To-Ho-Ne said. “Good girl.”



                                                  #



After they finished carding the wool, Alijandra helped To-Ho-Ne twist it into thin fibers. Then

she went outside. The sun was straight overhead. Mama had filled up the big tub with water and

was scrubbing clothes with a ball of soap. She finished cleaning one of Isabella’s dresses, wrung

it out over the tub, and hung it up on a branch of one of the skinny green trees just a few steps

away. “Have you finished the wool?” Mama asked.

       Alijandra nodded.




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       “Bella forgot to take some water with her this morning, so bring that to her,” Mama said,

pointing to a small basket, shaped like a bottle, on the ground, next to the well spout. “While

you’re there, see if she needs help with the sheep.”

       Alijandra picked up the basket. Its outside was smeared with something brown and

crusty. “It looks like it has mud on it,” Alijandra said.

       “That’s pitch from a pinion tree,” Mama said. “It holds the water in. Now, go on, please.

Bella went off that way,” she said, pointing to the butte.

       Alijandra went inside, got her and Isabella’s dolls, set off with them in her apron pocket

and the basket in both hands. The day was hot, but she didn’t mind. She scampered along,

carrying the basket carefully. Sometimes she would shake it to listen to the water slosh and

splash around inside. Every so often, she would swing her leg and kick up a cloud of dust and

watch it dissipate. She liked the feel of the dirt in her sandals.

       She wandered on, the crumbling butte growing larger and larger before her. The butte

was mostly pale red, almost pink, though there were thin veins and streaks of gray running side

to side across it. She went left, around the butte, and on the other side, she found her sister.

       Isabella was sitting atop a squat brown boulder almost as tall as herself and three times as

wide. Jack was settled in the dust at the base of the boulder, ham tongue quivering as he panted.

The sheep grazed on shrubs and tough desert grasses a few yards away.

       “What are you doing here?” Isabella asked. Jack looked over and barked once, tail

wagging.

       “Mama told me to bring you this,” Alijandra replied, holding up the water basket. “How

did you get up there?”

       “I climbed.”




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       “Can I climb up there, too?”

       “Let’s give Jack some water, first,” Isabella said, hopping down. She unplugged the

basket, squatted beside Jack, and made a cup with her hands. “Pour some in here,” she said.

“And be careful not to spill any.”

       Alijandra held the basket a few inches over her sister’s hands and carefully tipped the lip

of it until a trickle of water came out. Jack lapped it up. “He wants more,” Isabella said, so the

girls poured him another drink. And another. And another. Finally, he was finished.

       “Now can I climb up there?” Alijandra asked.

       “Close that so we don’t spill any,” Isabella said. With a little difficulty, Alijandra put the

wooden stopper in the basket. Isabella took Alijandra around the waist and hoisted her on top of

the rock. Isabella clambered back up, unplugged the water basket again, and took a long drink.

       “Can I have some?” Alijandra asked. “I’m thirsty, too.”

       The water was warm, but she didn’t mind. The girls took swigs out of the basket until

Isabella said, “We need to save some for later.”

       Alijandra kicked her heel against the boulder. “I brought Caroleena and Marianna. Do

you want to play?”

       Isabella shook her head.

       “What do you want to do?”

       “There’s nothing to do,” Isabella said. “I have to watch the sheep to make sure they

don’t run off—or nothing tries to eat them.”

       “Like what?”

       “Cougars, or coyotes,” Isabella said.

       “I think cougars are pretty.”




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       “You’ve never seen a cougar,” Isabella told her. “Which is a good thing for you.”

       “To-Ho-Ne’s told me what they look like,” Alijandra replied. “And they sound like

they’re pretty.”

       “They’re not pretty,” Isabella said. “They’re an ugly brown, like they rolled in dirt. And

they’re mean. They like to eat sheep. And little children, too.”

       “They do not.”

       “Yes, they do.”

       “If they eat children, why are you out here?”

       “Because someone needs to watch the sheep. And because I’m not little, like you are.”

       Neither of them said anything for awhile.

       The sheep grazed. Jack dozed.

       “Bella?”

       “Yes?”

       “Tell me more about the princess.”

       “What princess?”

       “The one in the story book.”

       “No.”

       “Why not?”

       “Forget about the story book, Ali. We’re never going to get it.”

       “Papa will buy it for us.”

       Isabella said nothing.




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       Alijandra took the dolls out of her apron pocket and started playing lets-pretend with

them, but after a minute or so of having to say everything for Caroleena and Marianna, she tired

of it and put them back in her apron. “This is boring,” Alijandra said.

       “Work isn’t meant to be fun,” Isabella replied.

       “I’m going home,” the little girl said. She slid off the boulder, landed on her feet, and

toppled over, a cloud of dust billowing up around her. Jack woke up, raised his head. Isabella

hopped down next to her.

       “Are you all right?” the older girl asked.

       “I think so,” Alijandra said.

       “You should be more careful.”

       “You tell me that all the time.”

       “I’ll stop telling you when you start being more careful.” Alijandra headed off. After a

few minutes, she heard her sister shout, “Where are you going?”

       “Home!”

       “Home is that way!” Isabella pointed the way Alijandra had come.

       “I want to go that way!” Alijandra pointed to the other side of the butte. “We never go

that way!”

       “That’s because it’s the long way!”

       “I don’t care!”

       Isabella shook her head. Alijandra turned and set off again.

       Alijandra walked alongside the butte but paid it little mind: she was looking at the

ground. She found a rock with shiny metal flecks in it and put it in the pocket of her dress. She




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picked three delicate yellow flowers with long green stems. She stopped for awhile to watch

some tiny red ants swarm over and pick pieces off a dead, shriveled prickly pear cactus.

       She walked along, whistling. She rounded the butte and entered its shadow. She could

see her house, a little ways off. It looked very small from here.

       She glanced over and noticed a dark hole in the side of the butte. It was almost as wide

as she was tall. A cave.

       Alijandra looked back at her home. Mama and To-Ho-Ne were outside, working. From

here, they were no bigger than the nail of her smallest finger.

       Carefully, quietly, she went to the base of the butte and looked into the cave. It was dark

and silent. She took a few steps forward, to the mouth of the cave. Cool air seeped from it.

       She took another step. Something thudding inside her chest. She stopped. Listened.

Ahead of her was endless dark.

       Nothing.

       Nothing.

       And then, a faint skkkr.

       Skin walkers, she thought. Or ghosts.

       She ran the rest of the way home.




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                                 Chapter 6: On the Way 

        The small, milky-green dragon with the white eyes was used to dawn rising over the

ocean. When she first woke after her long flight, she was surprised to find the sun climbing over

the mountains in the distance.

        She was still tired, but she stretched and yawned and wriggled out of the cramped space

among the rocks she had found the night before. She slunk down to the water and slipped into

the surf.

        The bottom was rocky, not sandy, like she was used to, but within a few seconds, she

found a fat, pulpy pink starfish clinging to a small stone. She tugged on the starfish and it, of

course, refused to move, its six legs firmly anchoring it to the stone. No matter. She picked up

the rock with her front legs, swam back to shore, and returned to the spot just outside last night’s

impromptu den. She bit deep into the center of the starfish, where all its arms met, held on with

her needle-like teeth, and furiously shook her head. After a few times of her doing that, the

starfish let go off the stone, the ends of its arms slowly uncurling, its thousands upon thousands

of tube feet loosing their grip. Then the dragon ate it all.


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       Now that it was day, the dragon could see better. Here at the shore was a vast forest of

towering pines with reddish-brown trunks, and not far away, amongst the trees, were scores of

conical homes made from long branches leaned against each other and tied at the top. Hundreds

of the Korakahu people in deerskin clothes—leggings and shirts for the men and boys, fringed

dresses for the women and girls—were already at work. Men cut trees with axes and shaped the

stripped trunks with knives and tools, or haggled over pelts of seal and otter, or sat in canoes and

pulled fat silver fish from the water. Women wove sea grass into baskets, or made necklaces and

armbands with shells and beads and carved whales’ teeth, or cleaned fish or gathered berries

from the forest. Boys helped their fathers, girls helped their mothers, and the babies lay

contentedly strapped to their cradleboards, watching all that went on in the village.

       It was time to go before she was seen. The dragon clambered atop the rock pile where

she had slept and spread out the webbing from her sides. She waited until the wind came by, off

the ocean, and scooped her up again, taking her hundreds of feet into the air. The forest went

north and south to the end of her vision; it went east to high grey mountains capped with white.

East and south was the way that she had to go, and the wind blew her that way, east and south.



                                                 #



       Isn’t this something? the dragontamer thought. I’ll tell the world.

       Since his confrontation with the venomdrake, the dragontamer had spent two days

following it, rising before dawn and walking most of the morning; resting in the middle of the

day, when the heat was at its worst; starting up again and going on until well past sunset. He had




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moved quietly and quickly, always alert for the Uupohna and steering clear of the flat, open

spaces they preferred for their villages. He had abandoned all caution this morning, however,

when he had seen smoke coming over a nearby ridge.

       The village had been pulverized: every adobe pueblo—over 40 of them, by his

estimate—had been crushed. Scattered about the rubble were shreds of clothing, shattered

pottery, smashed furniture, and the broken bodies of the Uupohna men, women, children, and

infants, some of them staring sightlessly into the burning sky. Standing in the center of the

carnage, amidst the stench and the flies, the dragontamer held his kerchief to his face.

Something within him was squeezing last night’s dinner back up into his throat and making his

face hot and his hands cold and his feet feeling like they were pointed in the wrong direction. If

you have to spew out, boss, you go ahead, he told himself. No shame in that. No shame. It’s

been a long time since you’ve seen anything like this.

       He didn’t spew out, but he did have to squat and tuck his head and pant and close his eyes

and not look, not look. After a long time—how long, he didn’t know—he slowly stood up.

       I’ll tell the world.

       He picked his way through the rubble, gingerly stepping over bodies. They look…fresh,

he noticed. This must have just happened…when? Last night? Early this morning? Who would

have done this? Outlaws, I guess. Too far into Uupohna territory for Diheneh. Ahiga wouldn’t

le—

       A smell like spoiled milk and rotten meat. Sticky yellow goo spattering the ground in

front of him, drenching the two men—warriors, by the bows at their sides—that lay dead at his

feet. Goo that, had it been water, would have been sucked into the thirsty ground or dissipated

into the burning air by now. But it was not water. It was venom.




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        Oh, hells, he thought. The drake’s been here. Attacked the place, probably snatched

someone as food for her young, killed the rest just for fun. He drew his gyro-jet pistol, looked

up. She could be coming back any time now. They like to come back for survivors…and the

curious. I’d get out of here, boss, he told himself, if I were you.

        He shouldered his pack again, started trotting. He hadn’t gotten far—just a few paces,

before he heard it.

        Phud phud phud phud phud phud phud phud phud phud phud phud

        Horses, he realized. They were coming from the ridge he had gone over to get here.

Have they seen me? He crouched, scurried behind part of a wall that was still standing. Primed

the gyro-jet pistol. Peered out from behind the wall as best he could without giving himself

away.

        And if she came this morning, boss, he told himself, someone from another village, or

warriors out patrolling, might have seen her. And it looks like they’re here.

        Uupohna braves on ponies, not horses. The men wore ceramic masks painted blue and

green and orange, with designs of skulls and suns and serpents. War masks, he recognized.

They carried bows and clubs and Ysparrian rifles they had either captured or traded for. He

ducked back behind the wall. Six—maybe seven of them, he thought.

        Now what, boss?

        He didn’t have an answer. He held still while the Uupohna men rode cautiously into the

village, muttering to each other in their language, which the dragontamer didn’t speak. He

peered out from behind his hiding place. Two of them had gotten off their ponies and were

prodding the two dead men lying in the dragon’s venom; the others watched from their mounts.

They were only a few yards away: in a moment, they were sure to see him.




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       He swung the pistol out from behind cover and fired. The gyro-jet rocketed out,

slamming into the side of one of the ponymen, breaking his ribs and knocking him, screaming, to

the ground. The charge should have erupted into a fireball big enough to incinerate all of them—

but it did not. The gyro-jet angled up, into the sky, a ribbon of white flame following it—and

then its propellant burnt out and the flame vanished and the rocket fell harmlessly back to the

stony ground.

       A dud, he told himself. A dud. Ammo’s too old. Ah gods, why me why now why—

       He ran, the Uupohna bellowing rage and urging their ponies after him. Go go go go go

gogogogo aw hells aw hells, he told himself, trying to reload the pistol at the same time. The

ponies high-stepped or went around rubble and bodies, but they were fast enough. A rifle butt

smashed into the back of his head and for a heartbeat, the sun disappeared. It came back when

he crashed to the ground, cutting his face and hands on the gravel, smashing his nose, filling his

mouth with dust as he screamed.

       A sandaled foot tromped the small of his back. He writhed, shrieking helplessly now.

Another foot, this time to his belly, and he spewed out. Spitting, gasping, choking, he rose to his

hands and knees. A war club—its head an oval, smooth stone—hit him just in front of his ear.

       Everything went away again. When he could open his eyes again, he was on his back.

His hand drifted across his chin, touched something hot and wet on his face. His mouth felt as if

a tiny rat was gnawing, gnawing, gnawing into his jaw. He spat out blood and probed with his

tongue and found a hole where a molar had been a few moments ago.

       Hands grasped him, tugged him, dragged him, groped him. One reached inside his shirt

pocket. “No,” he gasped. His hand floated up; someone swatted it away.




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       He lay there, the pain building and fading, building and fading, building and fading, like

waves on a far-off shore. The men murmured amongst themselves and turned his things over in

their hands. One of their ponies stamped, impatient to be on its way.

       Someone said something; the dragontamer couldn’t understand, of course. Four arms

hauled him up, sat him on a piece of a shattered adobe wall. A hand grabbed his lolling head.

Now the fun really begins, he thought.

       One of the Uupohna stood behind him and wrapped both his wiry arms around the

dragontamer so that he couldn’t move his arms. Another ponyman straddled the dragontamer,

sitting on his legs so that the dragontamer couldn’t move those, either. The warrior clutched the

dragontamer’s double-bladed knife. The other braves stood around him, only their eyes visible

behind their masks. Two of the men held up the fellow whose ribs the dragontamer had broken

when he had shot the gyro-jet pistol.

       This is the part where they torture you, boss, the dragontamer told himself. When they

get bored with that, they’ll kill you. Just so you know.

       The dragontamer tried to wiggle and jerk away, but the ponyman with the knife grabbed a

fistful of the dragontamer’s hair. With a quick flick of the Uupohna’s wrist, the knife chopped

off the lock of hair, the two blades scraping the dragontamer’s scalp, drawing blood.

OwowowowowowowOH HONEST TO GOOD GODS THAT HURTS, the dragontamer thought.

Don’t make a sound don’t a sound, he told himself. Don’t let em know how much it hurt don’t

give them the pleasure owowowowowauuuugghh

       He couldn’t help but scream, though. The warrior continued this rough haircut, shaving

the dragontamer, cutting him each time he lopped off more hair. He said something to the man

holding the dragontamer’s arms, and all of them laughed. Don’t laugh at me you stupid




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goatfaces I’ll put my fist right up your noses I’ll kill you gods damn you gods damn you I’ll kill

you all

          The dragontamer thrashed weakly, but the ponyman on his lap grabbed the dragontamer

by the throat, squeezing hard with a hand that felt like it could crush pebbles. Roughly—very

roughly—the man hacked off the dragontamer’s beard, scraping and cutting him with each

swipe.

          When he was done shaving the dragontamer, the Uupohna on his lap stood up and the

one behind him let go, shoving him forward. The dragontamer flopped over into the dirt, blood

trickling from the many cuts on his face and chin and jaw. Then the man who had cut off his

hair stomped on his back, and the dragontamer screamed and writhed on the ground. You’re a

dead man a dead man a dead man iffn I get hold of you you wormy whor—

          And suddenly there was a mighty gust of wind and a horrible smell—like rotten meat and

spoiled milk—and a keening screech, like tin being ripped in two, filled the world. And then the

dragontamer’s knife fell to the dust in front of him and the man who had cut him was gone and

the other Uupohna were bellowing again—in terror this time, the dragontamer recognized. And

the venomdrake circled, the brave who had shaved the dragontamer screaming and thrashing in

its jaws. The ponies bolted and the other Uupohna fled. And the dragontamer could only watch,

bleeding, lying in the dust, chest heaving, as the venomdrake flew off—north and west, as

always—with its human prize.



                                                  #



          The little green dragon was very tired, and very hungry.




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        For two days, she had glided, carried by the wind, east and south over the pine forest.

Along the way, she had seen several Korakahu villages, but she had paid them no mind. Now

and then, she had slipped out of the sky and looked for something to eat: she could not have pine

needles or bark or nuts or underbrush or other plants, nor could she have squirrels or rabbits,

deer, or birds as food. She would have eagerly taken an egg or two from a nest, but she could

not find any. She had waded into several streams, but the frogs had been too bitter, and the fish

too bland, too different from the ocean fish she was used to. So the little dragon had had nothing

to eat since that starfish on the shore.

        Each evening, when the sun was fading behind her, she had descended and looked for a

place to sleep. The first night, she had found an empty burrow beneath a tree and had curled up

there, but she had not slept well. The forest was very noisy at night: owls hooted, bats fluttered,

toads croaked, insects chirped and buzzed and whined. It was very different from the ruined

palace that was her former home, with its whispering psssh of the waves against the shore and

the occasional pdt of a waterdrop falling from the ceiling. Once, during the first night,

something large had crashed through the underbrush, startling her from her doze. Later on,

something else had come shambling along, waking her again. It had stopped at the burrow.

Stuck its wide, furry snout inside. Sniffed, breathing in deeply the little dragon’s strange scent.

Snorted. Began to paw with long, curved claws at the entrance to the burrow. The dragon had

hissed, and the snout had withdrawn. And then the something had padded off, panting.

        The next night, she had not been able to find a similar burrow, so she had attempted to

sleep between the roots of a tree. But she had felt too exposed, too vulnerable. And something

inside her was urging her, not in any words of course, to hurry, hurry, hurry. So after an hour or




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so of trying to sleep, she had given up and clawed her way to the top of the tree, where she could

feel the wind and call to it and it had carried her off again, through the cold night.

       And on the morning of the third day, she had reached the mountains, the same mountains

that the dragontamer was headed for, though, of course, she did not know that. The forest

continued up the side of the mountains, a dark green tide, and then abruptly ended. Above the

trees was only grey stone for a long while, and then after that, snow.

       The little dragon did not recall ever seeing anything so large as these mountains—they

were much, much bigger than the ruined palace back on Imbyrria. Nor did she remember ever

seeing anything like the shining white snow, far above, that mocked the sun. So she stayed low,

skimming just over the treetops, until she found a shadowy pass between the peaks. The pines

did not follow her into the pass: beneath her was gray stone, sometimes rippled with brown or

black. The pass went up, up, and she followed it, the wind whistling as it propelled her along.

       Finally, in late afternoon, with the pass darkening as the sun slipped behind the

mountains, the little dragon came across something broken and wet lying on the floor of the pass.

The something had once been a person, an Uupohna woman, though she was miles from her

village. Curious, the dragon circled overhead. The woman was lying on her face, her arms and

legs splayed out at her sides, her woven-straw dress askew. She looked as though she had fallen

from a great height. The dragon looked up.

       A stony ledge, hundreds of feet above the floor of the pass. And where the ledge met the

mountain, the opening of a cave.

       The little dragon was tired, but perhaps she could rest at the cave. The wind slowly,

slowly lifted her up, up and across, ten yards, twenty yards, fifty, a hundred, a hundred and ten,




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until it could carry her no further. With her claws, she clung to the side of the mountain and

slowly, slowly hauled herself up to the stony ledge outside the cave.

        A rotting smell—so strong that it flooded her nose and mouth—came from the cave. The

dragon looked around. Only the orange bulge of the sun as it slid away. She crept inside.

        Four white ovals, each as big as her, lay in the cave. She slunk closer. Tapped one with

a paw. It was soft and wet, not hard and dry like the eggs the birds on her island laid. But an

egg it seemed to be.

        The dragon tapped the egg again. It made a gurgling noise, like water moving through a

pipe.

        She drew back her head and struck like a snake, puncturing the egg with her needle-like

teeth. A geyser of milky-white goo erupted from it, drenching her. The rotting smell was so

strong that her eyes burned, but she tore the egg with her teeth and claws. More goo, sloshing

onto the stony floor of the cave. Thrashing in the goo were hundreds of long, fat wormy things,

each of them colored in thick bands of purple and red. She snagged one with her teeth and

gulped it down. It was soft, meaty, boneless. She bolted down another. And another. And

another. She ate twenty-three of them. The rest flopped about on the cave floor for a few

minutes, then lay still.

        The little dragon was full, but still very tired. She would not sleep here, though: the smell

was horrible. She padded out of the cave and looked out. Night had fallen on the world. A trifle

refreshed, she called a stronger wind to carry her to a niche a few dozen yards below.

        The air was cold, but she curled up against the wall of the mountain and started to doze.



                                                 #




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       The dragon killer walked the dark desert alone. There were other, swifter ways he could

travel, but for now, he liked to feel the stony, uneven ground beneath his feet. With his ragged

sandals, baggy clothes, and his wide, straw hat, he looked like any ordinary Ysparrian peasant

farmer. But, of course, he was not. He had come out of the east, from the Beginning of the

World, and though he had had many names, he wore none now.

       On and on he walked. He did not stumble or lose his way: he had plenty of light, though

neither moon was up. He marveled at the world, which had changed for him since he had

Become. Now there was more for him than just looking and hearing: now he could feel the heat

dissipating from the rocks below him, could taste the dust in the air, could smell the night

flowers of the high desert as they opened for moths and beetles and bats. And there were new-

found things he was eager to try, abilities he wished to test, as Yellow Fox had promised.

       After a while—how long, he didn’t know—he spotted something bright flickering on the

horizon. He walked towards it, found what it was. A campfire, with men sitting around it and

horses tethered nearby.

       He recognized the uniforms, though he had been away from Ysparria for many years.

Cavalrymen, four of them. Their horses whinnied and stamped as he entered the circle of light

the campfire made. Suspicious, the soldiers stood, hands at their sidearms.

       “Good evening,” the dragon killer said, grinning. It pleased him how easily the foreign

words came from his mouth. The men seemed to understand. Wonderful, he thought. “I’d like

to sit with you,” he continued, “if I may.”

       “All right,” one of the soldiers said, as they sat down again on their saddles. The dragon

killer had none, so he contented himself with the ground. “Make yourself comfortable,” the

soldier added. He and his fellows had removed their hats, taken off their jackets, opened their




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shirts, rolled up their sleeves. The men had cooked something—beans and corn, if the dragon

killer recalled correctly—in a large pan. They were slopping it out onto tin plates and eating it

with spoons. “Do you want some?” the soldier asked, nodding towards the pan.

       The dragon killer scowled. “No.”

       The others looked at him, at each other. “Maybe some water, then,” another offered.

       “No,” the dragon killer replied. “I don’t need that.”

       “What are you doing out here, all by yourself?” the first soldier asked.

       “I’m walking,” the dragon killer said, smiling again.

       “Where are you going?” the third soldier asked.

       “I don’t know,” the dragon killer said. His smile widened to a grin. “Where are you

going?”

       “We came from Scorpion Tail,” the first soldier said. “Our captain, Altamirano, took half

our squad and is searching Dihenehtah for a few days. He told us to go to San Paugo, and we’re

stopping at every miserable village along the way to post these.” He took something from his

satchel bag nearby, held it out to the dragon killer.

       “What is that?” the dragon killer asked.

       “Take it,” the second soldier said. “Read it, if you can.” He leaned closer.

       “Don’t touch me!” the dragon killer growled, leaping to his feet. “I won’t be touched. I

won’t. I won’t.”

       Hands went back to their sidearms. The soldiers looked at each other. “Crazy,” the

fourth one mumbled. “Too much sun…”

       “It’s all right,” the first soldier said, still holding out the paper. “Just take a look.”




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        Gingerly, the dragon killer reached out and took the wanted paper. Slowly unrolled it,

like a child who had never done such a thing before. Grinned.

        “Yes, I can read it,” he said, nodding. “Anerson—alive after all these years! Capital!

Really so.”

        “You know that man?” the fourth soldier asked, his mouth full of food. He was sopping

up the bean juice on his plate with a tortilla.

        “Yes,” the dragon killer replied. “Very well.”

        “How do you know him?” the second soldier asked. He stood up, hand still on his pistol.

        The dragon killer dropped the poster. “You can’t tell, can you?” he asked, his grin wider

than ever.

        “Tell what?” the first soldier asked, standing up. The other two did the same.

        “About me,” the dragon killer said, waving his hand up and down in front of himself.

        “What about you?” the first soldier asked. Behind the dragon killer, the third soldier

drew his pistol, cocked it.

        The dragon killer noticed, tried to smirk but only frowned. “Stop that,” he said, and

suddenly there was an enormous white light that filled the desert for half a heartbeat. When it

was gone, the cavalrymen were lying dead at the dragon killer’s feet and their horses had broken

their reins and run off, screaming, into the dark.

        The dragon killer paid none of that any mind. He started on his way again, walking alone

as he had for days now, with no food or water or sleep.

        Anerson, he thought. Amazing!



                                                     #




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       One moon had risen above the peaks, the other was still climbing. The venomdrake

lighted upon the ledge and lowered the Uupohna brave to the rock. He tried to spring to his feet,

but the dragon pinned him with its tail. Shouting hoarsely, he flailed uselessly at her, kicking his

feet and buffeting her tail with his fists with no more effect than an infant swatting at a grown

man. Something like a chuckle escaped from the drake. This time, its prize would not throw

itself from the height and deny the drake’s unhatched children their food. Curious as to how the

eggs were, the drake craned its long neck inside the cave.

       A screech ripped through the night. The little green dragon jolted awake. She had not

been asleep more than an hour or two. She looked up. Something huge blotted out the stars.

       The venomdrake screeched again, a horrid noise like metal tearing. It lashed its purple

tongue, tasting the air, smelling the dried film of egg yolk on the little dragon. And then the

venomdrake spat.

       Sticky yellow goo engulfed the little dragon, searing her skin, her eyes, her ears, her

snout. Screaming, stumbling, she fell from the niche where she had been sleeping. Shaking her

head to clear her eyes, she spread her webbing and called the strongest, fastest wind she could. It

came roaring, howling through the pass, snatching her up, sweeping her somewhere, anywhere,

away from the horrible, horrible pain, like someone jabbing burning needles into her face and

skin, into her eyes and muscles and bones. She screamed and screamed again and the pain only

built, only wormed deeper into her, no matter how fast she urged to wind to carry her away.

       Another ear-splitting screech, this time from above and behind her. Blinking out some of

the burning goo, the little dragon glanced back. Silhouetted against the first silver moon, the

venomdrake was after her, its huge white wings beating up and down, up and down.




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       Another wind joined the one carrying the little dragon and pushed her along faster still.

Clouds formed from the clear night air, swelled, darkened, bunched, crashed together. Light

flashed deep within them. White tendrils leapt from cloud to cloud. Thunder answered the

angry screeching of the venomdrake as it swept on after the little dragon.

       On and on the dragons flew, zigging, zagging, criss-crossing the mountains, as the storm

gathered around them and the rain began to fall and the lightning flashed closer and the thunder

filled the world. The little dragon flew on, the venomdrake relentlessly closing. It spat again,

and the smaller dragon twirled, dodging the poison.

       And then the sky behind the little dragon went white and the thunder sent her tumbling

like a leaf, and the venomdrake screamed in agony as a bolt of lightning burned through its

serpentine body. The venomdrake fell—and then spread its wings and caught itself, its wrath

sending it soaring up after its enemy, the murderer and devourer of its children.

       Shaking in agony and terror and weariness, the little green dragon fled, the venomdrake

and the storm in pursuit.




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                                     Chapter 7: Arrival 

       thd

       Isabella rolled over in her sleep. Clutched her dark-haired ragdoll closer. Mumbled

something.

       thd

       She opened her eyes.

       thd

       It was dark inside the little house. Outside, the wind was whispering by. Mama and

Alijandra and To-Ho-Ne were asleep.

       thd

       That noise again. Familiar, but what was it? Isabella didn’t know. She let go of her doll,

sat up. Beside her, her sister stirred, her own doll tight against her chest.

       Something tapping lightly on the roof, here and there. Stopped. Started again. Stopped.

       “What is it?” Alijandra whispered.

       “Rain,” Isabella said. That’s good, she thought. It hasn’t rained for a long time.



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       thd

       That noise again. Isabella realized what it was. Oh, no. She got up, quickly but quietly,

and slipped on her sandals. Maybe it won’t be—

       “Where are you going?” Alijandra whispered.

       “Be quiet!” Isabella hissed. “You’ll wake up Mama!”

       Thd. Louder now.

       “I want to come, too,” Alijandra whispered, getting to her feet, keeping her doll.

       “You stay here!” Isabella insisted, but then Mama sighed in her sleep and neither girl

moved or said anything. The wind outside was the only sound. Mama breathed deeper. Isabella

nodded. “All right, then. You can help me.”

       “Help you do what?” Alijandra whispered, but Isabella only crept to the door. She

slowly lifted the latch so that it would not make that loud BKK! noise it always made when

opened quickly. The door creaked, as it always did, when she swung it open, but neither Mama

nor To-Ho-Ne stirred.

       Alijandra got up, put on her sandals, and—still holding her doll, Caroleena—followed

Isabella outside. Carefully, they shut the door. Isabella looked around. “Do you see Jack?” she

whispered.

       “No,” Alijandra said. Usually, he slept by the side of the house, under the eaves, but

now, he was gone.

       Thd. Thd. Isabella went behind the house, to the sheep corral. The wind pushed the gate

open again, and then the gate banged shut. Thd.

       The corral was empty.

       Oh, no, Isabella thought, her stomach tightening. No, no, no, no, no, please no….




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       “Where are our sheep?” Alijandra asked.

       “They’re gone,” Isabella said. “The wind blew the gate open and they slipped out and

ran off. Help me find them.”

       “Let’s get Mama and To-Ho-Ne,” Alijandra said. “They’ll know what to do.”

       “No,” Isabella said.

       “Why not?” Alijandra asked.

       “Just do what I say,” Isabella snapped.

       “Where’s Jack?” Alijandra asked.

       “I don’t know where that stupid dog is,” Isabella replied. “Probably out after rabbits.

Now, come on.”

       They went towards the butte, where Isabella usually took the sheep to graze. Both moons

were up and there was plenty of light, but the wind was growing stronger as black, squat clouds

were sweeping towards them from the west. Every so often, a pulse of light would flicker within

the clouds, and then a few moments later, a low murmur would echo among the hills and

pinnacles nearby. Sometimes a few drops would fall from the darkening sky, dabbing their arms

or their faces or the back of their necks or the tops of their heads.

       “Do you think it will really rain?” Alijandra asked. “Maybe it won’t.”

       “It’s going to do more than just rain,” Isabella said. “It’s going to storm—it looks like a

bad one, too. We need to find the sheep and get home before it does.”

       The girls walked in a wide circle, never losing sight of the butte. The sheep were not

where Isabella had taken them today, or in the place where she had taken them yesterday, or




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where she had taken them a few days earlier, when Alijandra had brought her water. Where are

they? Isabella demanded. But then, It’s a big desert, she told herself. They could be anywhere.

       “To-Ho-Ne says that ghosts come out at night,” Alijandra said. “Other bad things, too.

They catch little children and take them away and cook them and eat them.”

       “To-Ho-Ne just says things like that to get you to be good,” Isabella said. “There are no

ghosts. Papa said so. Papa would know.”

       “Papa’s not here,” Alijandra reminded her.

       “That doesn’t matter,” Isabella replied. “Now stop trying to scare me—and yourself.”

       The sky overhead roiled, stars swallowed by the storm clouds. Light flashed here, there,

again, from cloud to cloud. More raindrops, fatter now, and more often, the pauses among them

lessening.

       Something panting HUFFAHUFFAHUFFA in the dark. A whine. Something loping

towards them. Cougar? Isabella wondered, heart thumping, and she squatted for a stone, found

one.

       “Jack!” Alijandra called, throwing her arms around the big black dog. He sat, swaying,

still panting, tail thumping, ears lowered, eyes wide. “Where were you, boy? Why aren’t you

with our sheep? Why did you let them run off, boy?”

       “He probably went off somewhere before they got out,” Isabella said. “Jack—get the

sheep! Find them!”

       “Don’t yell at him,” Alijandra said. “Look: he’s scared.” She scratched his back with

both hands. “What’s wrong, boy? Why are you so scared?”




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        “It’s the storm,” Isabella said. “He doesn’t like it.” She slapped her thigh, beckoned to

        him. “C’mon, Jack, let’s find the sheep! Go get them! C’mon!”

        Jack didn’t move. “We should go home before it gets worse,” Alijandra said.

        “We have to find the sheep, Ali,” Isabella insisted. “We need them. If we don’t look for

them now, we might never find them again.”

        Jack whined and flattened himself against the ground, tucking his tail under him. His

legs trembled.

        “Jack?” Isabella asked. Something pounded again and again and again in her chest.

Something knotted and twisted in her belly as she looked up.

        Lightning, ripping across the clouds, jagging up, sideways, down, thunder rumbling as

the storm roiled towards them.

        “Ali, let’s go—” Isabella said, but then something heavy and wet hit the back of her head.

Something splashed on the front of her nightgown. A spot appeared in the dust next to her

feet—then another spot—then a dozen more—than hundreds more. Everywhere was a sound

like thousands of fingers tapping on tiny drums. Then—

        THOOM went the thunder. Ears flattened, Jack yelped and sprung into the air as if he

had stepped on a snake. Alijandra screamed and covered her ears. The girls ran. The rain fell in

sheets instead of drops, drenching them. “Don’t be afraid—it’s only rain!” Isabella yelled.

        The wind came, shrieking like a dying animal. A thorntree twisted and lashed, a branch

snarling Isabella’s hair and scratching her face. She pulled herself free, stabbing her fingers on

more thorns. Owowowowowow! she thought, sucking her fingers. She wiped the rain from her

eyes.

        “Jack!” Jack was bolting, tail between his legs, leaving them behind.




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       “Mama!” Alijandra screamed. “I want Mama!”

       “Ali, c’mon! Take my hand!”

       “I want to go home!”

       “Take my hand and we’ll run home together!”

       THOOM went the thunder again, louder now. Ali screamed again and started running

again. Isabella chased after her, the rain and her sopping wet nightgown slowing her down.

“Ali! Ali!” Isabella grabbed her shoulder, stopping her. She scooped up Alijandra. “We’re

going home!” Isabella said. “We’re going home! But you have to come with me. You’re

running the wrong way!”

       THOOM went the thunder, so loud that it pushed on Isabella’s chest like an enormous,

invisible hand. Suddenly, she was struck by the horrible smell of rotting meat. Her eyes itched

and started to water. Her skin burned like she had spent all day in the summer sun. Then

something huge and red and purple crashed to the ground just a few yards away from the girls.

       It was the venomdrake.

       Isabella screamed and crushed Alijandra against her and they fell. Writhing and

shrieking, the venomdrake glanced at the girls for a moment with its tiny red eyes. Then its

white, feathered wings pounded and the dragon lurched into the air. For an instant, Isabella saw

something small and green swoop down to meet it. And then the world turned white as lightning

exploded overhead, so close that the thunder went THOOOOOOOOM at the same time, much

louder than ever before, so strong that the pebbles around the girls bounced.




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       Alijandra was screaming, but for a moment or two, Isabella couldn’t hear her, or the rain,

or anything else. I’ve gone deaf I’ve gone deaf I’ve gone deaf oh no no nonono she thought.

Huge purple spots danced in front of her eyes from the last lightning burst.

       I can’t hear I can’t hear. But suddenly, she could again.

       “Mama! MAMA!” Alijandra sobbed.

       “Let’s go!” Isabella shouted, and stood up, pulling Alijandra to her feet. Holding her

little sister’s hand, Isabella began stumbling towards home. She couldn’t see the dragon or smell

its awful stench, but she could hear it shrieking somewhere high above, in the churning black

clouds. Lightning crackled from cloud to cloud, and every time it lashed, the dragon screeched

again. They ran, picking their way among the rocks and boulders and cactuses. The rain

pounded them. Alijandra, still crying, held her doll against her chest with one arm and held her

sister’s hand with the other.

       Something huge loomed out of the grey gloom and for a moment, Isabella thought, It’s

the dragon it’s the dragon it’s going to kill us. But it was only the butte near their home. Sheets

of water were pouring off the top, as if were a giant pitcher overflowing. She stopped Alijandra

and pointed. “We’re almost there!” she shouted. “Keep running!”

       “I can’t run anymore!” Alijandra cried.

       “Keep up with me!”

       They ran again. Suddenly, Isabella tripped and fell, skinning her knee, and she started

crying, too. The rain, Alijandra’s crying, the sheep, Jack running off, the dragon, falling down—

it was finally too much for her. Isabella sat up and wailed, holding her knee.




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         Alijandra, suddenly calmer, stood by her. She started picking gravel out of her big

sister’s hair. “Don’t worry,” she said. “It will be okay. We’ll go home. To-Ho-Ne will fix your

knee.”

         “Shut up!” Isabella screamed. “Leave me alone!”

         “It will be okay,” Alijandra said. “It—”

         HUFFAHUFFAHUFFA went something, and then there was a familiar whine. Panting,

Jack padded back to them, head down, tail drooping.

         “And you ran away!” Isabella yelled at the dog. “Stupid dog! I hate you!” She raised a

hand to smack him and he cringed.

         THOOOM went the thunder, but there was no screech from the sky—perhaps the dragon

was gone?

         “Bella! Ali!” their mother shouted, appearing out of the rain and the gloom.

         “Mama!” they yelled, and threw themselves into her arms. Like them, she was soaked,

and her sandaled feet were muddy. Tiny bits of gravel clung to the hem of her gown.

         “Come on, girls, let’s get you home!” she shouted, above the storm.

         “Mama, I saw a dragon!” Isabella sobbed. “And Jack ran away, and I fell, and I lost the

sheep, and—”

         THOOOOM again, very close again.

         “Come on!” Mama shouted. Taking each girl by the hand, Mama led them on a quick

march, the sisters having to hustle to keep up. Jack loped behind, head still down. Once

Alijandra started to stumble, and her mother pulled her up before she could fall.

         THOOOOOOOOM again, very loud, very close, almost overhead. Isabella tried to

glance up to see if she could see the dragon again, but the rain was pouring down so hard and so




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heavy that her eyes hurt when the raindrops hit them. It’s almost like the thunder’s following us,

she thought. How can that be?

       High above, something shrieked. Alijandra screamed and buried her face in her mother’s

leg.

       “Mama, that’s the dragon!” Isabella shouted. “The one I saw!”

       “Run! Run!” Mama said. She hoisted Alijandra onto her hip. Isabella ran behind her

mother. “Go, go, Bella!” her mother yelled. “Don’t wait! Just go!”

       Isabella ran as fast as she could. She didn’t dare look back for fear she might fall again.

The rain and the thunder were so loud that she couldn’t hear her mother behind her. She could

only run, her little house appearing out of the gloom, growing larger and larger with each second.

The door was open. To-Ho-Ne was standing there, yelling something to her. Isabella couldn’t

hear her.

       With a gasp, she threw herself into the old Diheneh woman’s arms. “Inside! Inside!”

To-Ho-Ne said, pushing her through the door. Isabella staggered in and slumped to the floor. A

moment later, her mother stumbled through the doorway and handed Alijandra—who was crying

again—to To-Ho-Ne. Finally, Jack slunk inside and stood just inside the doorway, trembling,

water running off him.

       “Come inside, fool dog!” To-Ho-Ne said, trying to shut the door. Jack glanced at her,

padded to a corner. Shook himself, splattering the walls.

       The kerosene lamp was burning on the table. Mama was leaning against a wall, eyes

closed, face red, chest heaving. Her hair left a wet smear on the wall. To-Ho-Ne sat down in a

chair and rocked Alijandra until her sobs quieted to whimpers and then sniffles.




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       No one said anything. The wind moaned under the eaves of the house, rattling the

windows and tugging on the door handle. Rain hammered on the roof. Jack slunk under the

table and flinched every time the thunder growled.

       After a while, Mama said, “All right. Out of those wet clothes, girls. Dry off and put on

something you can go back to sleep in.”

       “This is the only nightgown I have,” Alijandra said. “What should I wear?”

       “It will have to be another dress, until we can wash and dry your gown,” Mama said.

       “I can’t go back to sleep,” Isabella replied.

       “I don’t think I can, either,” Alijandra said.

       “Well, then, we won’t,” Mama said. “To-Ho-Ne, can you make us something to eat?

We’ll feel better after we’ve eaten.”

       “I cannot light the stove, Princess,” To-Ho-Ne told her. “The wind is too strong. And

look—” she said, pointing to the three pots she had placed on the floor. Water dribbled from the

roof; each pot was already half-full.

       “I will have to fix those tomorrow,” Mama said, “if the rain has stopped.” She stood up.

“What were you doing out there?” she demanded. “Were you trying to get yourselves killed?”

       “The wind woke me up, Mama,” Isabella explained. “I heard the gate to the corral

banging: the wind must have blown it open. The sheep were gone. We were looking for them.”

       “Why didn’t you wake me up and tell me?” Mama asked.

       “I thought I could find them. I thought I didn’t have to bother you,” Isabella replied.

       “Don’t you think I would want to know that my children were out in the desert in the

middle of the night, with a storm on the way?”

       “But the sheep—” Isabella began.




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       “Don’t you think that you and Ali are more important to me than some mange-covered

sheep?” Mama demanded. “Blessed Mother, Isabella, use your head!”

       “Yes, Mama,” the older girl said.

       “Mama, we saw a dragon,” Alijandra said. “It looked like a snake, with wings like a bird.

It was scary.”

       “Your eyes were playing tricks on you,” Mama replied. “The only dragons within a

hundred miles of here are the ones the Diheneh have tamed, and they wouldn’t come so close to

our house. Your father said so, and he should know.”

       “But we both saw it, Mama,” Isabella said.

       “Is the dragon going to get us?” Alijandra asked.

       “There was no dragon, and even if there were, it would not get us,” Mama said. “Now,

let’s get out of these wet clothes.”

       They took them off and dried themselves, wrung out their clothes over the big tin tub and

hung them from the rafters. Mama put on the other nightgown she had: the girls put on dresses,

but not aprons, as they usually did. As they changed, To-Ho-Ne opened the door and emptied

the pots, then put them back in their places to catch more rain leaking through the roof.

       The four of them sat at the table, Jack lying down under it. No one said anything. Sheets

of rain beat against the window.

       “How soon until the sun comes up?” Mama wondered.

       To-Ho-Ne shrugged.

       “Do you think it’s a hurricane?” Isabella asked.

       “No,” her mother replied. “Hurricanes don’t come here.”

       “It looks like it could be a hurricane,” Isabella said.




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       “How would you know what a hurricane looks like?” her mother asked, smiling wanly.

       “Papa told me about them,” the older girl said.

       “What’s a hurricane?” Alijandra asked.

       “A big storm,” Isabella said. “Like this one. Papa told me they get them in Ysparria.”

       “We’re a long way from the part of Ysparria that gets hurricanes,” Mama assured them.

       “I’ll bet Papa’s been in a hurricane,” Alijandra said. “I’ll bet he’s been in ten of them.”

       “Papa has been in a hurricane before,” Mama said. “Just once, a long time ago.”

       “Is Papa sleeping outside, where ever he is?” Alijandra asked.

       “I imagine so,” her mother replied, “but he has a tent.”

       “I wonder if he’s getting rained on right now,” Alijandra said.

       “I’m sure Papa is not getting rained on. He’s probably very far from here,” Mama told

her.

       “When is he coming back?” Alijandra asked.

       “Enough talk, children,” To-Ho-Ne said.

       Alijandra got up from the table and sat on the floor with her doll. Isabella went to her

sleeping mat, took her own doll, and sat beside her sister.

       “Caroleena’s soaking wet,” Alijandra said.

       “At least you held onto her while we were running,” Isabella said. “Think how bad it

would be if we lost her, too.”

       “Do you want to play?” Alijandra asked. Isabella shook her head. “Me, either,”

Alijandra said.




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       To-Ho-Ne sat on the floor with them and brushed and braided their hair. Mama stayed at

the table and watched the storm. When To-Ho-Ne was done with her, Isabella came and stood

by Mama.

       “I’m sorry the sheep are gone,” she said.

       “There’s nothing you could have done,” Mama said. “Even if you had found them, they

would have been too frightened to listen to you, or to mind Jack. They’ve probably found

somewhere safe, out of the rain. The storm won’t last long: we’ll find them tomorrow.”

       “What if we don’t find them tomorrow?” Isabella asked. “What if they didn’t find

somewhere safe? What if they just ran and ran, and now they’re a long ways off, too far to come

home? What if a cougar gets them? Or coyotes?”

       “They’ll be all right, Bella,” her mother said. “When the rain stops, Jack will find them.

He has a good nose, and he’s very clever.”

       “He’s just a dog,” Isabella said.

       “You say that as if being a dog isn’t any good.”

       “He ran off when the storm started. He left Ali and me.”

       “He was frightened. I was frightened, too. Weren’t you?”

       “Yes,” Isabella said. “But now…now, I’m just upset,” she added, wiping her eyes.

       “Why?” Mama asked, wrapping her in her arms. “What’s wrong, dear heart?”

       Isabella wept. “Because…because we need them. So we can sell their wool. So we can

have money. So we can buy things. And now they’re gone and we’re not going to be able to get

any more and we won’t have any wool and we won’t have any money and we won’t have any

food and what’s going to happen to us?” She buried her face in her mother’s shoulder.




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       Mama scooped Isabella into her lap and rocked her. “Hush, now, Bella. Don’t think like

that. Don’t. We’ll see what happens tomorrow. We’ll see.”

       “It’s my fault, Mama,” Isabella said.

       “Don’t say that, dear heart,” Mama said.

       “It is,” Isabella insisted. “The gate…I must not have shut it all the way when I brought

the sheep in tonight. That’s why the wind blew it open. And now they’re gone. They’re all

gone….”

       “Hush, Bella,” Mama said. “Hush. What’s done is done. There’s no point in blame. It

never fixes anything. Hush. Hush. Sit with me awhile.”

       Outside, the storm went on.



                                                  #



       “Mama, look at the lakes,” Alijandra said.

       The sun was peeking over the butte and Isabella and Alijandra and their mother stood in

their doorway. Outside, huge puddles of water, some three inches deep, lay in front of their little

house. The chickens had made it through the storm and were already about, pecking the ground

for something to eat, warily sipping water from the strange new puddles.

       “They’re not lakes,” Mama said. “They’re from—”

       Jack squeezed past them, nearly knocking over Alijandra. “Hey!” the little girl shouted,

but the big black dog was already splashing through the puddles. Sploosha sploosha sploosha

sploosha his feet went, as he bounded from one to another to another, tail flailing.




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        “Ha!” Alijandra squealed. She tried to yank her hand out of her mother’s grip and follow

Jack.

        “No!” her mother said, pulling her back. “You will not go running around, splashing and

getting filthy like that fool there.”

        “Bella wants to run in the puddles, too,” Alijandra said.

        “Can we, Mama?” Isabella asked.

        Jack splashed to a halt in front of them. He barked, tail wagging slowly. Then he barked

again and danced away, around the corner of the house and out of sight.

        “Are we wild mongrels, without brains in our heads and no sense of dignity, or are we

young ladies?” their mother asked, taking their hands and leading them outside, away from the

puddles. To-Ho-Ne followed them, carrying two thick wool blankets. “No, we are young

ladies,” their mother answered herself, “and we always behave as young ladies.”

        To-Ho-Ne bent down, kissed Alijandra’s cheek, and wrapped a small blanket around her.

She straightened, smiling, and held out the other blanket for Isabella.

        “No, thank you,” the older girl said. “I’m warm enough.”

        “It’s cold,” the Diheneh woman said.

        “I’m not cold.” To-Ho-Ne winked at her and offered the blanket to the girls’ mother,

who wrapped it around herself.

        “Thank you, dear heart,” their mother said, kissing the old woman on the cheek. To-Ho-

Ne hugged her tightly.

        “It’s always like this after a heavy storm,” To-Ho-Ne said. “The soil is shallow and

underneath is rock. It’s very hard for this much water to soak into the ground. The sun will dry

up most of this by tomorrow.




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        “It’s been a very long time since I saw a storm that strong,” she continued. “And it came

very early, too. If a heavy rain comes, it usually comes much later in the year.”

        They walked around the outside of the house, but found no damage. “A miracle,” Mama

said.

        “Your husband and Mr. Dempesson built this house well, Princess,” To-Ho-Ne told her.

        “Yes, they did,” Mama replied. “But my garden’s ruined.”

        Most of the squash and tomatoes and bean plants and peas had been torn out of the

ground or pulverized by rain or simply drowned. “Perhaps the potatoes have survived,” To-Ho-

Ne told them, “but it’s too early to tell.”

        Alijandra turned to Mama and raised her arms. Mama scooped her up and held her on

her hip.

        “What will we eat?” Isabella asked. “Are we going to starve?”

        “No, we will not starve,” her mother said. “We’ll save what we can, and we have some

food stored.” Alijandra hugged her neck. She stroked the little girl’s cheek for a moment, then

set her down. “Let’s walk around. Maybe we’ll find our sheep.”

        They wandered, the girls first, the grown-ups following, Jack sniffing along last. They

avoided the ponds of muddy water—the dog was content, it seemed, to dry out. Bushes lay on

their sides or upside down, roots curling up to the sky. Stones that were grey when dry glistened

with bands of coppery orange and dusky blue and greens that looked like moss, but of course

were not. Some of the scrawny trees near their house had snapped, but most had survived.

        “Princess,” To-Ho-Ne said, pointing to the ground. A few feet away, a soggy, muddy

feather as long as a cavalry saber lay at the bottom of a puddle.




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       Isabella remembered the red and purple dragon with its enormous white wings and for a

moment everything went grey and she felt like she was going to fall down and throw up at the

same time. She put her arm around To-Ho-Ne’s waist and felt the old Diheneh woman’s hand on

the back of her neck and she breathed deeply once, twice, and felt better. Neither grownup

noticed.

       They went over to look at, Jack sniffing intently. “I’ve never seen a feather that large, if

that’s what it really is,” the girls’ mother said. “Have you?” she asked To-Ho-Ne.

       “I’m not sure.”

       “What is it? Where did it come from?” Mama asked.

       “It’s from the dragon, Mama,” Alijandra said. “The one we saw yesterday. Can I pick it

up, Mama?”

       “Don’t touch it,” Mama said. “It’s wet and dirty and who knows what diseases it might

have. Let’s keep walking.”

       “Look, Mama,” Isabella said, pointing to the sky. Vultures were circling down to land

near the butte.

       “Jack, go!” Mama said. Jack pushed past them and sprinted off, barking furiously.

Mama and the girls chased after him; To-Ho-Ne plodded along behind.

       The sheep died, Isabella thought, as she ran. The storm killed them. They were hit by

lightning or a tree fell on them or a boulder rolled over on them or they just drowned in the rain

somehow and now they’re dead and we won’t have any wool to sell and we don’t have much

food and now what are we going to do?

       They caught up to Jack. The black-headed vultures circled and squawked and spat, and

Jack, well-pleased with himself, pranced beneath them, still barking. But it was not the sheep.




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       The venomdrake’s head and most of its serpentine body, including its crumpled,

feathered wings, lay on the rocky ground; its tail had flattened a clump of barrel cactuses. A

stream of black ichor oozed out from a hole in the side of the beast. Its swollen purple tongue—

as long as Isabella was tall—hung out of its gaping mouth, the pointed tip buried in the grey

gravel. Hundreds of beetles and bugs, centipedes and hoppers, orange venom-ants and shiny

brown deathroaches scuttled up the tongue and among the dragon’s needle-like teeth and along

its puffy white gums and down the tongue again. Midges and gnats, flies and coffin wasps,

gargoyle bugs and four-winged flatdevils flitted and hovered and buzzed on and above the

dragon. A yellow, crusty film was starting to cover the dead beast’s eyes, which were no bigger

than Alijandra’s.

       “Ugh,” their mother said, holding her hand over nose and mouth.

       “Bella was right,” Alijandra said.

        “Have you ever seen one like this before, To-Ho-Ne?” Mama asked.

       “No,” she said. “But I remember my father telling me about them. It’s a venomdrake, a

very dangerous dragon.”

       Jack crept up to the carcass. Sniffed it. Lifted a paw. Sniffed again, snout extended.

Backed away. Accustomed to waiting, the vultures circled higher.

       “So this is the one you saw yesterday?” Mama asked. Isabella nodded.

       “Hmm,” her mother said. They looked at the dead dragon. Alijandra found a stick and

threw it. Jack chased it, brought it back, but would not give it to her. She tugged on the stick

and giggled as he growled.

       “Leave his stick alone, Ali,” Isabella called.




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       “It’s all right. He’s only playing,” her mother said.

       To-Ho-Ne put her arm around Isabella. “You must have been very frightened,” she said.

       “Yes,” the girl replied. “Yes.”

       Alijandra let go of the stick and Jack ran off with it. The little girl pinched her nose shut,

picked up a rock, and threw it at the dragon, hitting it on the neck. A whirling cloud of insects

erupted, buzzed angrily, settled again on the carcass.

       “Why don’t you look around and find us some pretty stones to take home?” Mama asked.

       “Yes, Mama! Bella, come on!”

       “You go, Ali. I want to ask Mama something.”

       The little girl shrugged and started wandering away from the dragon. “I’ll help you,

Alijandra,” To-Ho-Ne said, following her. They walked a bit, squatted, picked up pebbles,

moved on, gathered pebbles again.

       “What should we do with it?” Isabella asked.

       “This?” her mother asked. Isabella nodded. “There’s nothing we can do with it, Bella.

It’s too big to bury. We’ll have to leave it here. The vultures and the insects will help get rid of

it.”

       “That’s disgusting.”

       “That’s the way of the world. I don’t want you or Ali coming down here to play until this

thing is gone. Rotten things are filthy and cause disease. Promise me you won’t go near it and

especially that you won’t let your sister near it, either. You know how she is.”

       “Yes, Mama. I promise.”

       Her mother stroked Isabella’s hair. “I was wrong to doubt you. It’s just that your father

hasn’t seen a wild dragon around here for many years.”




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       “It’s all right, Mama.” They held each other tightly.

       Her mother kissed the top of her head, then said, “Let’s find the sheep. To-Ho-Ne!” she

called. “Alijandra!”

       The little girl and the old Diheneh woman came back. “Look how many pretty rocks we

found, Mama!” Alijandra said, holding out her hand. In it were two gray-and-blue stones, one

red-and grey stone, and an orange-and-brown stone.

       “Very nice,” Mama said. “Now listen carefully to me, Ali: I don’t want you or Bella

going near that dead dragon, all right?” Alijandra nodded. “Good. We have to find the sheep.

To-Ho-Ne and I will go this way—” Mama said, pointing southeast, “—and you girls and Jack

will go that way,” pointing northwest. “Walk along and count to 500. When you get to 500, turn

around and come back the way you came. That way, you won’t get lost, too.”

       “Should we count fast or slow?” Alijandra asked. “I can count really fast—”

       “Don’t be a pest,” Isabella said, taking her hand. “We’ll be back soon, Mama. Don’t

worry.”

       Alijandra waved to her mother and To-Ho-Ne and they started walking, Isabella counting

in her head, Alijandra counting out loud. Jack trotted along, tail curled over his back, ears

cocked up, tongue hanging just over the edge of his black lip.

       When Isabella had gotten to 197, she heard the gushing and splashing of water. When

she got to 258, they came to an arroyo half-filled with rushing water.

       “Look at that!” Alijandra exclaimed, letting go of her sister and pointing at the water in

the gulch.

       “Don’t go near that!” Isabella said, grabbing Alijandra’s hand again. “You’ll fall in and

drown yourself. It must be a flood from the rain yesterday.”




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         “So now we have a river near our house!”

         “I don’t know about that—remember what To-Ho-Ne said about the water drying up?

Let’s look for the sheep. Maybe they came down here for a drink.”

         They walked along, Isabella counting steps and making sure to keep herself between

Alijandra and the lip of the arroyo. Jack scrambled down its side, about six or seven feet, to

where the water was. He lapped up some, then climbed back up and trotted after them.

         When Isabella got to 317, she saw something yellowy-white lying at the edge of the

water.

         “What’s that?” Alijandra asked.

         “Don’t look,” Isabella said. Her stomach suddenly felt very tight. “Stay up here. Find

some more pebbles for Mama and To-Ho-Ne.”

         Alijandra frowned. “I want to see.”

         “No, you don’t,” Isabella said. “Now do as I say.”

         Isabella started picking her way down the side of the arroyo. Jack started after her.

“No,” she said, pointing back at her sister. “Stay with Ali.” Jack paused. His tail flicked left,

right, left, stopped. “Stay with Ali.” He turned, climbed back up, sat down next to Alijandra.

         “Good boy,” Isabella said. “You two just wait for me.”

         Her sandals sank into the gritty gray-brown mud of the arroyo: she hated the cold, wet

feel of it on her feet. Leaning forward, steadying herself on larger rocks, she half-walked, half-

crawled closer to the water’s edge, where the yellow-white thing lay. Fighting the smell, she

leaned closer, ignoring the cloud of flies that erupted from it.




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         No. Nonononono, she thought. She sat down on a stone. Where are the others? And

what will we do if we don’t find them?

         I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.

         “Can I see?” Alijandra called.

         “No!” Isabella said. “I told you to go find some rocks for Mama.”

         “There aren’t any good ones here.”

         “Well, go look for some.”

         “Can I go that way?” Alijandra pointed along the arroyo, away from where the sheep lay.

         “Yes,” Isabella said. “But don’t go too far. Count to twenty slowly and then come

back.”

         “How about if I count to thirty?”

         “Ali, just go! And don’t get lost. Or fall in. I need to think for a minute. Take Jack with

you.”

         “Come on, boy.” Alijandra went off, counting slowly out loud and walking near the rim

of the arroyo. Jack trotted between her and the edge.

         By the time she got to eleven, the gulch had deepened, so that the water was about twenty

feet below her instead of the six or seven feet that Isabella had climbed down. The walls of the

arroyo had holes in them, some as small as her fist and just as shallow, others larger and deeper.

         She got to twenty but still hadn’t seen any pebbles that she had liked, so Alijandra kept

walking and started counting again from one.

         When she had counted to seventeen for the second time, Jack stopped and sniffed the air.

His tail quivered once, twice. He whined in his throat and trembled.




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           “Ja—” Alijandra started to say, but the big black dog bounded off away from the arroyo,

flinging mud and gravel into the air as something small and brown and grey raced off,

zigzagging between rocks and bushes and cactuses, Jack in pursuit.

           “Jack!” Alijandra called, but he did not heed. For a split second, Alijandra saw the long

ears and tail of the jackrabbit as it leapt over a spiky agave plant, and then it was gone, and Jack

with it.

           “Stupid dog,” Alijandra frowned. She looked around, but did not see her sister. She

cupped her hands and shouted, “Bella!”

           Nothing. She shouted again. Still no reply.

           “Jack!”

           Nothing.

           “I’ll just wait here, then,” she said, and sat down on a rock. She rested her elbows on her

knees and propped up her chin.

           There on the ground, between her sandals, was something silvery and wet. Alijandra put

her finger into it. It was warm and sticky. She sniffed it, but it had no smell. She wiped it off on

her apron.

           Something plopped onto her head.

           She looked up at the spindly algarroba bush behind her. A few drops of the silver goo

were on the branch right over her.

           “Ugh,” she said, wiping her hair with her hands and then smearing the stuff on her dress

again. She got up and walked toward the edge of the arroyo. At its lip was another silvery

splotch, almost as big as her hand.

           She crouched down to look at it. Whatever it was, the flies seemed to like it.




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       She glanced over the rim of the arroyo, saw that something had tumbled down the muddy

wall of it and come to rest about halfway down. It was the little green dragon. Its eyes were

closed. One of its legs was twisted and bent. The silver stuff dribbled from its belly, its nose, its

mouth, and slopped onto the mud. A long smear of it went up the wall of gulch, back towards

Alijandra.

       “Blood,” she realized.




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                                     Chapter 8: Pearl 

       “What are you doing?” Isabella asked. “Get back up here!”

       “She’s hurt,” Alijandra said. She was about halfway down the side of the arroyo,

squatting beside the little green dragon. Her feet had sunk almost to her ankles in the mud.

More mud spattered the hem of her dress. “We have to help her.”

       “Whatever that thing is, don’t touch it,” Isabella said. Carefully, she started down the

side of the gulch. Ugh, she thought, as her feet also sank into the mud. “It probably has all kinds

of diseases.”

       “No, she doesn’t,” her sister replied. “She’s just hurt. Look, she’s bleeding,” she said,

pointing to the trickle of silvery goo puddling under the dragon.

       “That’s not blood,” Isabella said, bending down closer. “That’s—I don’t know what that

is. But blood is red.”

       “Maybe her blood isn’t red,” Alijandra said.

       “Well, leave it alone and help me find the other sheep. That thing’s dead.”




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        “She is not dead,” Alijandra said, pointing to the dragon’s side, which slowly rose and

fell just a little. “See? She’s breathing.”

        “How do you know it’s a girl?” Isabella asked. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter. It’s just

some kind of weird lizard. It probably got hurt in the storm. Now, come on, before we both fall

down and land in the water and hurt ourselves.”

        “But we need to help her,” Alijandra said. “We can’t just leave her here. She’ll die.”

        Bella. Ali. Faintly, they heard their mother calling their names.

        “We have to go,” Isabella said. “Mama is looking for us. Maybe she found the rest of

the sheep. That other one, the one I found—it was dead. I think it fell in and drowned.”

        “Our poor sheep!” Alijandra said. “Which one was it?”

        “What do you mean, ‘Which one was it?’”

        “It wasn’t Melania, was it?”

        “I don’t know. You’re the one who named the stupid sheep, not me.”

        “Melania has black patches around her eyes. It wasn’t her, was it? She’s my favorite.”

        “No, it wasn’t.”

        Bella! Ali! Louder now.

        “Come on!” Isabella said. “Mama will think something happened to us.”

        “Something has happened to us: we found her!” Alijandra said, pointing at the dragon.

“And we have to save her.”

        Isabella chewed her lip for a moment. “All right, we’ll at least show her to Mama.

Maybe she knows what to do with this thing. You climb back up. I’ll pick up her up and carry

her.”

        “I want to carry her!”




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         “You can’t carry her and climb up at the same time. Now, just do as I say, will you?”

         Isabella squatted and gently slipped her hands under the dragon, mud squishing into the

space between her fingers. Its skin was hot and the dragon lifted its head and opened milky

white eyes with no pupils. Its lip curled to reveal dozens of short, pin-like teeth as it hissed

weakly. Don’t bite me don’t bite me if you bite me I’ll throw you in the water I’ll drown you you

little monster, Isabella thought. Then it closed its eyes and went limp. Slowly, she stood up,

mud slopping off her hands.

         “Isabella, come up here right now!” Mama said. Isabella looked up. Mama and To-Ho-

Ne and Jack and Alijandra were peering over the rim of the arroyo.

         “I’m coming, Mama,” Isabella said. “Ali found this…thing. And it’s hurt. We didn’t

know what to do with it.”

         “She’s not an ‘it,’” Alijandra said. “Is she going to die, Mama? I don’t want her to die.”

         “I don’t even know what it is,” Mama said, as she carefully sidestepped down the wall of

the arroyo. “Hold out your arms, Bella,” she said, and she gently but firmly took hold of

Isabella’s forearms. “There, I have you. Climb up, climb up. Careful. It’s very muddy. Don’t

slip.”

         They got back up to the top of the arroyo. Alijandra had taken off her apron and spread it

out on the ground. “Put her here!” she said.

         Jack intently sniffed the dragon as Isabella squatted and gently laid it on the apron. Then

she stood and shook her hands, flinging off mud and silver goo. “Ugh.” She wiped her hands on

her own apron. “What is it, Mama? Some kind of lizard?”

         “I don’t know,” Mama said. “I’ve never seen any animal like it. That silver stuff—is it

blood? Or something else?”




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        To-Ho-Ne crouched and slowly ran her hand over the dragon, feeling its head, its side, its

webbed spine, its legs and tail. “Blood, I think. Ali is right: it is hurt. One of its legs is broken

in several places. It has a deep cut in its belly. I don’t know if it will live.”

        “Do you know what it is?” Mama asked.

        “It is not a lizard: feel its skin. Lizards are cold. If it were not so small, I would say it

was some kind of dragon. But if it is a dragon, it’s not any kind that lives around here. There’s

no dragon like this in the high desert.”

        “Maybe it was the big dragon’s baby,” Alijandra said. “You know, the dead dragon.”

        To-Ho-Ne shook her head. “The big dragon was a venomdrake, and their young look

like red and purple snakes.”

        “It can’t be a dragon,” Isabella said. “Dragons have wings and can fly. Papa said so.”

        “Right now, it doesn’t matter what it is,” Mama said. “It’s hurt and it’s one of Our

Mother’s creatures and it needs our help. Let’s take it home and see what we can do for it.”

        “Let me, Princess,” To-Ho-Ne said. She bent and gingerly gathered up the apron. The

dragon whined mhrrr as its tail twitched.

        “Don’t hurt her!” Alijandra said.

        “I will try not hurt it, Little Cub.”

        “She’s not an ‘it.’ She’s a girl.”

        “It is not a ‘girl,’” their mother said. “It may be male or female but it is certainly not at

all like a ‘girl’ or a ‘boy,’ or anything at all like a person. So don’t think of it that way—and

don’t think of it the same way you think of Jack.”

        “Why not, Mama?” Isabella asked.




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       “Jack is tame: he lives with us and eats food that we give him and loves us and works for

us. This animal is wild: it lives outside and gets its own food and feels nothing for us. It is not a

pet. We will not be keeping it long. Do you understand?”

       “Yes, Mama,” Isabella replied.

       “Yes, Mama,” Alijandra echoed.

       “Good,” Mama said. The dragon stirred for a moment, its claws feebly clenching and

unclenching, then it lay still. “Are you all right carrying it?” Mama asked To-Ho-Ne.

       “It is very light,” the old Diheneh woman replied.

       They went back the way they came, past the carcass of the larger dragon, where the

vultures roosted, tearing at it and squabbling with each other. This time, Jack let them be.



                                                   #



       “Not on the table,” Mama said. “On the floor.”

       Gingerly, To-Ho-Ne set the apron with the dragon on the floor, next to the table. Jack

nudged his way past their legs and started sniffing the dragon again. The dragon opened its eyes

and gurgled. The dog jerked back and barked once.

       “Jack, go find something else to bother,” Isabella said. He skulked back a few steps,

behind their legs, but his nose kept twitching.

       Alijandra squatted near the little dragon as it turned its head this way and that. Mhrr, it

croaked, then closed its eyes again. The apron underneath it was wet with the silvery slime.

“What do we do now?” Alijandra asked.




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         “Heat some water on the stove, To-Ho-Ne,” Mama ordered. “Isabella, put your father’s

ape of a dog outside. Alijandra, get a washing cloth.”

         Mama sat on the floor next to the dragon, whispering to it, as the others did these things.

When To-Ho-Ne brought the tin bucket of warm water to her, their mother took the washing

cloth from Alijandra, soaked it in the water, and said, “To-Ho-Ne, I am afraid it might try to bite.

Hold it still for me as I clean its wounds.”

         “Let me, Mama,” Isabella said, squatting on the floor next to her mother. “I want to

help.”

         Her mother pondered her for a moment, then said, “All right.” She looked up at To-Ho-

Ne. “Get some towels for Isabella to wrap her hands in and to dry off the…little thing. I don’t

know if it really is a dragon, but for now, I suppose we can call it that.”

         A few moments later, the old Diheneh woman was back with two towels. After Isabella

had draped the smaller towel over her hands, she looked up at her mother. “I’m ready,” she said.

         “Good,” Mama replied. “Slowly, gently, reach down and put your hands on the top of

the dragon’s neck, near where it meets the head. When you do, it might jump or wiggle, or even

snap at you. Gently hold its neck down where I told you so it won’t bite you—or me.”

         Isabella nodded. “I’m scared,” she said.

         “I’m scared a little bit, too,” Mama said. “But we must do this.”

         “Why would she try to bite?” Alijandra asked.

         “Because it is not used to a person touching it,” To-Ho-Ne said. “It will think we are

trying to hurt it.”

         “Are you ready, Bella?” Mama asked.

         “Yes.”




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         “All right, let’s start now. Remember, slowly and gently.”

         Isabella reached down and put her hands on the dragon’s neck. It hissed and its tail

flicked once, twice, and then stopped. Its ribs rose and fell faster.

         “Well, that was easy, wasn’t it?” her mother asked. “Now, my turn.” She dipped the

washing cloth into the bucket, soaked it for a moment, pulled it up and wrung it out over the

bucket. Tenderly, she dabbed the dragon’s side. It opened its eyes and hissed again, but it lay

still.

         “Good dragon, good dragon,” the girls’ mother whispered, swabbing the little creature.

The dragon’s blank white eyes followed the woman’s hands as she wiped each wound, then

dunked the washing cloth in the bucket, rinsed it, wrung it out, and reached out to wipe another

wound.

         Behind them, Jack began to growl.

         “How did he get inside?” Mama asked.

         Isabella looked over her shoulder at Jack, her hand easing its grip on the dragon. “I put

him ou—OWWWW!”

         “Bella!” To-Ho-Ne shouted, but it was already too late. Snarling and writhing, tail

lashing, claws slashing, the dragon chomped down on the skin between Isabella’s thumb and

forefinger.

         “Ow, ow, ow, owowowowowOWW!” Isabella shouted, scrambling to her feet and

shaking her hand, but the dragon wrapped itself around her arm, gnawing her hand, scratching

her arm. Mama dropped the cloth and grabbed the dragon. Jack sprang forward, barking

furiously, To-Ho-Ne trying to restrain him.

         “Don’t hurt her! Don’t hurt her!” Alijandra shouted.




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       “Get Jack!” Mama called. “Get him out of here!”

       “I’m trying!” To-Ho-Ne said.

       Searing hot needles of pain shot all the way to Isabella’s shoulder. Let go of me, let go of

me, LET GO OF ME YOU LITTLE MONSTER, she thought, and with her free hand, she smacked

the dragon once, twice, and finally it fell to the floor, flailing. Her mother pulled her away as the

dragon went limp and lay still, whining mhrr, mhrr. Jack broke free from To-Ho-Ne and stood

over the dragon, growling.

       Isabella’s thumb was bleeding and her arm had seven long scratches running from her

elbow to her wrist. “Let me look at that,” her mother said, taking Isabella’s hand. “It’s a deep

bite. To-Ho-Ne, heat up some more water and let’s wash this.” She wrapped her arms around

her daughter.

       “It hurts, Mama. It hurts.” I will not cry, she swore, squeezing her eyes tight.

       “I know it hurts, dear heart. It will be all right. It will be all right.”

       Alijandra knelt beside the dragon and stroked its side. “Why did you do that?” she asked

it. “Bella was just trying to help.”

       “Ali, stay away from that thing,” Mama warned.

       “It’s okay, Mama,” Alijandra said. “She won’t bite me.” Alijandra hugged Jack around

his thick neck and he licked her face.

       By the time To-Ho-Ne had heated more water and brought a fresh cloth, the pain had

subsided. They sat down at the table and her mother cleaned Isabella’s wounds and wrapped her

thumb in a bandage. Jack circled over the dragon, growling when it moved. Every now and

then, the dragon whined, but mostly it lay silently on the floor, eyes shut.

       “Now what?” Isabella asked.




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        “I’ll make a paste to stop the dragon’s bleeding, and to keep disease out of its wounds,”

To-Ho-Ne said. She went into the larder.

        “We need to find something to keep it in,” Mama said. “We can’t just leave it here on

the floor, to get stepped on.”

        “Why don’t we just get rid of it?” Isabella asked. “Let’s take it outside and leave it

somewhere.”

        “You can’t do that!” Alijandra exclaimed. “It’s not her fault she’s mean. She’s hurt and

doesn’t feel good. Poor little thing.”

        “’Poor little thing?’” Isabella asked. “It’s a monster. I wish we had left it back at the

arroyo.”

        “When she gets better, she’ll be friendly. You’ll see,” Alijandra said. “She’ll be so

friendly that Mama will let us keep her.”

        “I don’t want to keep her—it. I wish we had never found it. It’s ugly and mean and I

hate it.”

        “We are not keeping it,” Mama said. “As soon as it’s better, we’ll let it go—unless it

really is a dragon. In which case, we’ll keep it until your father comes home. He might find it of

some value.”

        “You think Papa could sell this?” Isabella asked.

        “Perhaps,” Mama said. “But I don’t know what it could be taught to do. Or who would

buy it. It’s very small. Assuming, of course, that it lives.”

        “She’s not going to die, is she?” Alijandra said.

        “I would like to say, ‘no,’ Ali,” Mama replied. “But I’m not sure. We’ll see.”




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         To-Ho-Ne came back from the larder with a handful of dried grass and herbs. She was

chewing something. She sat down on the floor next to the dragon, took a mushy wad from her

mouth, and pressed it over one of the dragon’s cuts. Then she plucked some grass and herbs

from her hand and started chewing them.

         Ugh, Isabella thought. “Come on, Ali,” she said. “Let’s go find something for your little

monster to stay in.”

         They went outside. Jack followed them. “What are we going to keep her in?” Alijandra

asked.

         “I don’t know. I was thinking about a basket or a pot, but we use all the ones we have,

and it would take To-Ho-Ne a long time to make another one. We need something now.”

         “Maybe she could stay with our chickens in their house,” Alijandra suggested.

         “I don’t think the chickens would like that very much. And for all we know, that thing

eats chickens.” She kicked a stone. “Then we’d have no sheep and no eggs. I guess we’d just

starve.”

         “We’ll find the sheep,” Alijandra said.

         “No, we’re not. They’re gone. And without them, we don’t have any wool to trade, so

how are we going to buy food?”

         Alijandra just looked at her sister. “What does that have to do with my dragon?” she

asked.

         “Never mind,” Isabella said. “Just look around and see if you can find something.”

         They split up, Alijandra and Jack going one way, Isabella the other. She went behind the

house, to the chicken coop. The chickens came running to see if she would feed them. Maybe

we could use wood to make a little hutch for the dragon? Isabella wondered.




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       Behind the coop, between it and the house, was a metal box. Last night’s rain had

washed away whatever spider webs might have been there and had left a huge puddle beneath it.

There could be snakes, Isabella thought. She found a long stick and used it to push the box out

into the open.

       The box was old and dented and had rust along the edges and a seven-pointed star on its

side. She pried open the lid. Nothing inside but a thin layer of dust on the bottom. The rain

didn’t get in it, she realized. It must be in good shape.

       She straightened. “Ali!” she called.

       “What?” Alijandra yelled back. She seemed to just be on the other side of the house.

Isabella brought the box along with her. Alijandra was sitting on a dry spot of ground, the

chickens milling about her.

       “You’re supposed to be helping me find something to keep the dragon in,” Isabella said.

       “They looked hungry,” Alijandra replied, “so I gave them some of my tortilla from this

morning. I had it in my pocket.”

       “I found this,” Isabella said, holding up the metal box.

       “That will be great!” Alijandra beamed, springing to her feet. “I’ll get something to put

inside to make a little bed for her. Maybe she’ll want to sleep with something, too, to keep her

company, so I better find something for that, too, and—”

       “Come on, blabbermouth,” Isabella said. She headed for the door of the house.

       “I’m NOT a blabbermouth,” Alijandra objected. “It’s not my fault that I just get excited

sometimes and I can’t—”

       “Keep talking,” Isabella said. “You just prove me right.”

       Alijandra scowled.




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       They went inside. To-Ho-Ne was still sitting next to the dragon, gently stroking it and

singing softly. Mama was standing on a chair, trying to mend one of the holes in the ceiling

where water had poured in the night before. “Mama, I found this for the dragon,” Isabella said,

showing her the box.

       Mama came down from the chair and took the box. “Yes, I suppose it will do. Clean it

out, please, and find some rags or something to put in it.”

       “Yes, Mama,” Isabella replied. “I found it behind the chicken coop. What’s it for,

anyway?”

       “It’s one of your father’s old ammunition crates,” Mama said. “From when he was in the

cavalry.”

       “What’s the cavalry?” Alijandra asked.

       “That means he used to ride horses in the army,” Mama said. “Before he met me.”

       “Like those men in the red jackets?” Alijandra asked. “The ones in town?”

       “Like them, yes,” Mama said, “but for Erisia, the country he was born in. Now please

finish making someplace to keep this dragon. I have to see if I can fix this leak.”

       “She could just keep using my apron for something to sleep on,” Alijandra said.

       “No,” Mama said, climbing onto the chair. “You need your apron to carry things in.

Find something else.”

       “I have some rags in the larder,” To-Ho-Ne said. “Go find them.”

       The girls found a few dirty pieces from one of their father’s old shirts hanging from a peg

behind the larder door. They took them and the metal box outside. They used the rags to wipe

out the inside of the box, then pumped some water into a jar and scrubbed the rags as best they

could with the bit of soap they had. While they were working, To-Ho-Ne came outside with




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their father’s hammer and a nail and bashed holes in the lid of the box so that the dragon would

have air. Then the girls rinsed off the rags and draped them over the corral fence to dry in the

sun.

       By then, Mama had found some chores for them to do: gathering firewood, of course, and

going to pick juniper berries. When they had finished those, the rags were stiff and dry. The

girls brought them and the box inside. Mama was still working on the hole in the ceiling,

smearing pinion pitch on some dried grass she had stuffed there. To-Ho-Ne was mending a rip

in one of Alijandra’s dresses, using the spiny tip of an agave plant for a needle.

       The dragon’s eyes were closed and its sides feebly rose and fell. To-Ho-Ne had made a

tiny wooden splint for its broken leg and the herbal paste she had made had dried into greenish-

brown crusts over each wound.

       “Is she all right?” Alijandra asked.

       To-Ho-Ne shrugged.

       Quietly, the girls sat on the floor, set the box beside the dragon, and lined the bottom of

the box with the rags. “How are we going to get her in the box?” Alijandra whispered.

       “Just stay back and let me put her in,” Isabella replied, also whispering. “I don’t want her

biting you.”

       “I want to help. She won’t bite me—or you again,” Alijandra replied. “She didn’t mean

to before.”

       Isabella considered this for a moment. “All right.”

       Slowly, very slowly, the girls slid their hands under the dragon. Its skin was hot and

Isabella could feel something frantically tapping within in. Is that her heart? she wondered.

Does it always go that fast? Or just because she’s hurt?




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       Slowly, very slowly, the girls lifted up the dragon. A bit of Alijandra’s apron was stuck

to the base of its tail and started to come up, too. To-Ho-Ne leaned over and gently pulled off

the apron. “The blood made it stick,” she whispered.

       Slowly, very slowly, the girls lowered the dragon into the box. The dragon didn’t stir.

       “Nicely done,” Mama said, coming down from the chair. “I’m sure it will be very

comfortable there.”

       “When she wakes up, she might be hungry,” Alijandra said. “I’m always hungry when I

wake up.”

       “You are not,” Isabella said.

       “Nevertheless, that’s a good idea, Ali,” Mama said. “Why don’t you two see if you can

find something?”

       “What do dragons eat?” Isabella asked.

       “Most of the dragons in these lands live on sun and wind,” To-Ho-Ne said. “Some of

them eat stones. Venomdrakes like to eat little children, especially girls,” she added, grinning.

“But this dragon is not from here, I think, so I don’t know what it might eat.” She put down her

mending, stood up from where she was sitting, and got a round, shallow basket from a shelf on

the wall. “Take this,” she said, giving it to Alijandra. “Go find something you think the dragon

might like.”

       The girls went to the larder first. “We have to find out what it will eat,” Isabella said, “so

we should give it a little bit of a lot of different things. There’s no point giving it a whole potato

if it won’t eat more than a bite.”

       “All right,” Alijandra said. She plucked a small handful of pinto beans from a clay jar.

“How about this?”




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       “Too many,” Isabella replied. She plucked three from her sister’s hand and put them in

the basket. “Find some other stuff.”

       They put in a coffee bean, a pinch of cornmeal, a pea pod, a small wad of uncooked

yellow rice, two juniper berries that they had picked a few hours before, some pinion nuts.

Isabella cut a small sliver of smoked ham and nicked off a chunk of potato.

       “What about some of this?” Alijandra asked, holding up a yellow squash.

       “Maybe later,” Isabella said. “I think we have enough for now.”

       “Do we have any eggs?”

       “Have you found any lately?”

       “No,” Alijandra said.

       “Then we don’t have any,” Isabella told her.

       “This is food that people eat,” Alijandra said, “but what if she doesn’t like it?”

       “We’ll get some other things,” Isabella said. “Things she might like. Think like an

animal. If you were an animal, what might you eat?”

       They went outside and plucked tall, brown wild grass and tiny yellow wildflowers.

Isabella picked some leaves off the scrawny trees by the house. Alijandra gathered some

pebbles.

       “What are those for?” Isabella asked her.

       “Maybe she likes to eat little rocks,” Alijandra replied.

       “No one eats little rocks.”

       “Our chickens do.”

       “They swallow some sometimes to help their stomachs grind up their food.”

       “Yes, but they eat the little rocks.”




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       “But the rocks aren’t food for them. If they only ate rocks, they’d starve.”

       “But maybe rocks are food for her.”

       “Rocks aren’t food for anyone.”

       “To-Ho-Ne said that some dragons eat rocks.”

       “All right, you win,” Isabella said. “Put the rocks in.”

       The girls looked around some more. To-Ho-Ne makes prickly pear jelly, Isabella

thought. Could the dragon eat a prickly pear? Just then, Alijandra came running past, stopped,

lunged down to grab something on the ground, missed, ran again, stopped again, grabbed at

something again. Missed.

       “What are you doing?” Isabella said. She couldn’t see what her sister was after.

       “Trying to catch hoppers,” Alijandra said. She lunged again and several of the fat, brown

insects bounded away from her.

       Ugh, Isabella thought. “Let’s see if the dragon will eat what we have before we try to

catch bugs for it.”

       “All right,” Alijandra said. She spotted a twig on the ground, ran over, picked it up, and

brought it to Isabella. “Maybe she eats wood,” she said. “Maybe she’ll eat our house!” she

giggled.

       “That little dragon can’t eat a house,” Isabella said. “And the whole house isn’t wood,

anyway. Just the frame. Come on: let’s see if it’s awake and wants to eat anything.”

       The girls went back inside, but the dragon was still sleeping. “Let’s leave her food for

her,” Alijandra said.

       The basket was too big to fit inside the box, so Isabella carefully tipped the box over on

its side. The dragon’s eyes flicked open for a moment as it slid, then closed again. “There,”




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Isabella said, taking the basket from Alijandra and setting it on the floor just outside the open end

of the box. “If she’s hungry, she can crawl out and have some food.”

       “What if she’s too hurt to crawl?” Alijandra asked. “She broke her leg, remember?”

       “If she’s too hurt to come out, then we’ll have to feed her.”

       “I want to feed her!” Alijandra exclaimed.

       “We’ll see,” Isabella replied. “Let’s get her some water.”

       They got a small clay bowl from To-Ho-Ne and poured some water from a jar into it

They set the bowl on the floor by the basket.

       “Let’s see if she’ll eat,” Alijandra said.

       ‘If you’re done with the dragon,” Mama said, “I have some work for you to do.”

       “But we wanted to see what she’d eat,” Alijandra said.

       “If the dragon is like most animals,” Mama said, “it will want to sleep for a long time

before it feels well enough to eat. Now, to work, you two.”



                                                     #



       Mama was right, as she usually was. The dragon slept the rest of the day, and through

supper, as well. She slept while the girls played outside, chasing each other in the cool of the

evening. She slept while they changed into nightclothes and scrubbed their teeth and To-Ho-Ne

braided their hair. Food and water sat untouched beside the box where she lay.

       “We’d better put the box up so she can’t crawl out in the middle of the night,” Isabella

said. She tipped the box the other way, onto its bottom.

       “Leave the lid off so she’ll have enough air,” Alijandra said.




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        “Of course,” Isabella said. And the girls settled down on their mats to sleep.

        Late that night, Alijandra woke up. The light of the twin moons was spilling in through

the windows. Outside, the hoppers sang to each other.

        Slowly, quietly, Alijandra rolled off her sleeping mat. Slowly, quietly, she crawled

across the cool floor to the box. Dozens and dozens of ants milled over the food in the basket.

        She got on her knees beside the box and peered inside. The dragon was curled up in a

moonbeam, still asleep.

        “Hello,” Alijandra whispered.

        Nothing.

        “I thought you might be lonely,” she said.

        The dragon opened its tiny eyes and held Alijandra’s for a long time before closing them

again as it settled back to sleep.

        “You have such pretty little eyes,” Alijandra whispered, “like the pearls on Mama’s

bracelet. Can I call you that? Can I call you Pearl?”




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                                   Chapter 9: Dragons 

       To-Ho-Ne was right, Isabella thought. It’s all gone.

       She stood by the arroyo where they had found the little green dragon. Yesterday, a river

had surged through this place. Today, all that was left was mud, drying and cracking in the

afternoon heat. As To-Ho-Ne had suggested, the water from the rain had vanished quickly,

swallowed by the high desert.

       Jack nuzzled Isabella’s hand. “Come on,” she said. “I think it’s this way.”

       They walked, Isabella shading her eyes with her hand, Jack trotting beside her, tail curled

over his back, tongue flapping. They came to the spot. Below them, at the bottom of the arroyo,

squabbling black vultures tore at something they perched on.

       “Nasty birds,” Isabella growled. She picked up a rock as big as her hand and threw it,

hitting one vulture in the back. It screeched and all of them squawked and lurched clumsily into

the air, some of them crashing into each other in their panic. Jack barked at them, standing up on

his hind legs. Reluctant to leave a meal, the vultures circled overhead instead of flying off, as

other birds would do.



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       I wish I had Papa’s gun, Isabella thought, sparing a glance every now and then at the

vultures as she once again carefully made her way down the side of the arroyo. I’d shoot them.

After a moment’s hesitation, Jack followed her.

       Its eyes were gone and the sheep itself seemed oddly flat. The flies and other insects did

not seem to notice that, or the tangy stench in the air. Jack sniffed intently, his snout mere inches

over the sheep’s corpse. “Seek,” Isabella told him. “Seek, boy. Find the others.”

       Jack wandered off from the sheep, still sniffing intently, and Isabella thought, He’s going

to do it. He’s going to track down the rest of the sheep. And then Jack lifted his leg against the

side of the arroyo and marked some territory. Then he plopped down, wrenched his head

around, and began gnawing violently at an itch on his back.

       Stupid dog, Isabella thought. I’ll find them myself.

       She walked along the bottom of the arroyo and Jack loped after her. It was mostly dry

there, though a few puddles remained. Sometimes as she walked, the dried crust she was

stepping on would break under her and her sandal would sink into the still-wet mud below. She

found a long piece of a branch and started poking the ground ahead of her.

       After a while, she came to a place where the arroyo narrowed, so that if she had wanted

to, she could have stretched out her arms and touched both walls at the same time. This part of

the arroyo was very deep, more than three times as tall as she was, but the sun was right

overhead and there was no shade. Suddenly, Jack crouched and barked.

       “Wha—” she began, as something enormous stepped across the arroyo, blotting out the

sun.

       It was a dragon.




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                                                 #



       “Ali! Alijandra!”

       Alijandra looked up and waved. “Over here, Mama!”

       She and To-Ho-Ne had been looking for firewood. They waited while Mama came. “I

sent Bella and Jack to look for the sheep. I’m going to see if they found anything. Why don’t

you two come along and keep me company while I try to find her?”

       “Maybe we can find the sheep before Bella does,” Alijandra said, slipping her hand into

Mama’s. “Wouldn’t that be funny if we did? Do you think Bella would be happy? Or would

she be angry that she didn’t find them first? She’s been very upset about the sheep, you know.”

       “We’ll see, dear heart,” Mama said. And the three of them walked.

       “How is Pearl, Mama? Did you check on her before you left?”

       “You mean the little green dragon?” Alijandra nodded. “It was sleeping when I checked

on it, and it hadn’t eaten anything. Why do you call it ‘Pearl?’ Pearls are white, Ali.”

       “Because her eyes are like little pearls, all round and shiny and white. Like the ones on

your bracelet.”

       “I see,” Mama replied. “Well, you shouldn’t give the dragon a name. It’s not a pet, it’s a

wild animal. And wild animals don’t have names.”

       “We should go by the dead dragon,” Alijandra said.

       “Do you understand what I mean about the little dragon, Ali?” Mama asked.

       “Yes, Mama.”

       “Are you sure? The dragon doesn’t belong to us. We’re not keeping it. I don’t want you

growing attached to it.”




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        “I won’t, Mama.”

        “I just ask because when you hear something you don’t like, you change the subject.”

        “I’m not doing that!”

        “Then why did you say that we should go to the dead dragon?” Mama asked.

        “Because Bella found a dead sheep near there yesterday, and if I was Bella, that’s where

I’d start looking for the other sheep,” Alijandra said. “Because maybe the other sheep came back

to look for their friend.”

        “That is just what I would do if I were a sheep,” To-Ho-Ne smiled.

        “Well then, let’s go look that way,” Mama said. And so they went.



                                                   #



        The dragon was as tall as the girls’ house and just as wide and it had no wings. It slowly

trundled along on its four stumpy legs, belly inches above the ground, heedlessly pushing its way

through thorn bushes and over cactuses and agave plants and other spiny things. Its fat tail lazily

trailed behind it. Its black eyes were bigger than Isabella’s head and a yellow, forked tongue

flickered from its blunted jaws. Each of its scales was round and as big as Isabella’s fist and was

colored a pale blue, lighter than the sky, with tendrils of dark blue running through them.

        “She’s beautiful,” Isabella said, walking alongside the dragon. Atop the dragon was the

Diheneh man Ahiga, whom Mama had spoken to at the trading post in Scorpion Tail. Jack

pranced around the dragon, every now and then coming in close to sniff, jumping away if its feet

or tail got too near to him. Ahiga said nothing.




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        “It isn’t far,” Isabella said, and again, Ahiga made no sign that he had heard. He can’t

understand you, you know, she told herself. He doesn’t speak Ysparrian. It’s just silly to jabber

on like this.

        But not talking is rude, isn’t it? she wondered. What would Mama do in this situation?

She’d just talk to him, anyway. Who cares if it’s silly?

        Still circling, Jack scuttled in close again, near the front of the dragon this time. It swung

its ponderous head his way and Jack jumped back, barking. The dragon rumbled and shrank

away from the big black dog. The Diheneh man steadied himself atop the great beast, speaking

softly to it.

        “Stop it, Jack!” Isabella scolded. “Leave her alone.”

        They went around a hill and Isabella squinted. Her long-distance vision was fuzzy.

That’s it, isn’t it? she wondered. Yes, I think so. She pointed and nodded. “There it is!” she

said. Ahiga nodded and unlimbered a long, thin rifle from his back.

        “You won’t need that,” Isabella said. “It’s dead.”

        Jack ran ahead, barking at the vultures, chasing them from the dragon carcass again. “He

doesn’t like them,” Isabella said. But Ahiga paid her no mind.

        As soon as they reached the dead dragon, Ahiga slid off the great blue beast. Waving his

hand to chase away the flies and other insects, he crouched by the venomdrake, peering at its

mouth and teeth and tongue. He looked into where the eyes used to be. Down the neck, to the

snake-like body and the tattered remains of the feathered wings.

        “Doo la do,” he muttered. He pointed to several dark holes in the dragon’s hide.

        “Those look like burns,” Isabella said. “Like fire,” she said.

        “Fire,” he repeated, nodding his head. “Hot. Hot.”




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       So he knows a little Ysparrian, she thought. “What do you think happened?” Ahiga

shook his head. Either he doesn’t know or he doesn’t understand what I’m saying.

       Ahiga stuck his hand into one of the holes and pulled out something black that quickly

crumbled. Ugh. Must be skin…or flesh. Or both, Isabella thought. But those are definitely

burns. Bad ones, too. Covering her nose and mouth with her apron, she took a closer look.

Seven, eight, nine of those burns. And that one… She went around the dead dragon. That one

looks like it went right through it, in one side, right under its wing, and right out the other. And

there’s another hole like that, too.

       “Lightning?” she asked. She wiggled her fingers and tried to make sounds like thunder

and lightning. “Boom! Boom! Tzak! Tzak! Lightning.”

       “Atsiniltl’ish?” He frowned and waggled his palm up and down.

       Does he mean “maybe?” she wondered. Or does he mean that he doesn’t really

understand what I’m saying?

       Content that the vultures would not be returning any time soon, Jack lowered his ears and

crept towards to the blue dragon. It made a soft lowing sound, as if were a huge cow, and took

two steps back. “Jack, what did I tell you?” Isabella reminded him. He grinned at her. “You

know you’re being bad, don’t you?”

       Suddenly, Jack perked up his ears and stepped past Isabella. His tail wagged once, twice,

then paused, curled over his back. He barked once, happily.

       “Bella!” Alijandra ran towards them, waving. “Bella!” she exclaimed again, as she ran

full speed into her sister, then wrapped her arms around the older girl’s waist. Isabella staggered

a bit under the impact, then smiled sheepishly at Ahiga. He ignored them.




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       “Mama and To-Ho-Ne are coming, Bella,” Alijandra said. “They’re just back there,” she

said, pointing the way she had come. “You know how slow To-Ho-Ne—what is THAT?” she

exclaimed, looking past Isabella at the blue dragon. She ran and hurled herself against one of the

dragon’s tree-like legs. The great beast murmured and watched her with its unblinking black

eye.

       “She’s beautiful!” Alijandra told Ahiga. “Is she yours? She looks like that turquoise ring

that Mama used to have—the one that To-Ho-Ne gave her. Is her name Turquoise? Do you ride

on her? Can I ride on her?”

       “Ali, he doesn’t speak Ysparrian,” Isabella said.

       “I’m Alijandra,” the little girl said to Ahiga, “and this is my sister, Isabella.”

       “He knows who we are,” Isabella said. “We saw him at the trading post when were in

town. Remember? Mama stopped and talked to him.”

       Ahiga watched Mama and To-Ho-Ne approach. “Ya’at’eeh, Juanita Anerson.”

       “Ya’at’eeh,” she answered. She pointed at the dead dragon. “Bihoneedii ayoo, aoo?”

       “Aoo,” Ahiga replied, nodding. “Dadiiniid ats’iis doo hinaanii.”

       “Come on, Ali,” Isabella said, beckoning to her sister. They went to To-Ho-Ne and stood

by her as Mama and Ahiga continued speaking in Diheneh. Jack sat next to Mama, his brown

eyes shifting from her to him as they spoke.

       “What’s going on?” Isabella whispered. “Why is he here?”

       “Ahiga and your mother were just talking about the dragon,” To-Ho-Ne replied, also

whispering. She listened to them for a moment. “Now he is saying that he is glad that we are all

safe,” she muttered. “He has been out making sure his friends and neighbors made it through the

storm. Some families lost their hogans. Many lost their livestock. He says he and his wife have




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never seen a storm like that. And that someone told him that they had a seen a dragon—a bad

dragon—in the storm. So he had called Brother Tunneler and went looking.”

       “Who’s Brother Tunneler?” Alijandra asked. “Does he mean that big blue dragon?”

       “Not so loudly!” To-Ho-Ne admonished her. The dragon swung its rounded head their

way as if it had heard them. Alijandra put her hand over her mouth. “Yes, the dragon’s name is

Brother Tunneler. He lives in Shallow Canyon, and he is a friend to my people.”

       “But how does—” Isabella began.

       “Ahiga is a dragontamer, like your father,” To-Ho-Ne replied.

       “He catches dragons?” Alijandra asked.

       To-Ho-Ne nodded. “He and your father learned dragontaming from Ahiga’s father.”

       “So why—” the little girl began.

       “Hush for a moment!” To-Ho-Ne scolded. “I can’t hear what they say.” She listened.

“He says the dragon is a venomdrake—”

       “You were right,” Alijandra said.

       “How did you know?” Isabella asked.

       “—but he is not sure why it came or how it died,” To-Ho-Ne added.

       “I think it was hit by lightning,” Isabella said.

       To-Ho-Ne nodded, listening to Ahiga speak. “That’s what he says, too. It was hit by

lightning—but it was hit many times.”

       “I thought lightning doesn’t hit more than once in the same spot,” Isabella said.

       “Yes. That’s what he is saying. He thinks is very strange. He doesn’t know how that

happened.”




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         The three of them listened for a few moments. “What’s Mama saying to him?” Isabella

asked.

         “She says we are fine. We are all safe. We lost some crops, and the sheep, but we have

food to get by.”

         “Is she saying anything about Pearl?” Alijandra asked.

         “She has not mentioned the little dragon,” To-Ho-Ne replied.

         “Why not?” Alijandra asked. To-Ho-Ne shrugged. She listened some more.

         “He says venomdrakes are very bad. They hate people, and they kill sheep and goats.

But they live far away, in the Great Mountains, and usually do not come this far east.” She

paused. “He said this one was female.”

         “Poor girl,” Alijandra said.

         “Don’t feel sorry for it,” Isabella said. “It probably ate our sheep.”

         To-Ho-Ne held a finger to her lips. “He says the females are worse than the males. Very

mean. But at this time of year, it should have laid eggs and be hatching them. It should not be

here, out in here in the high desert, in a storm.”

         Mama said something. “She wants to know how she can get rid of it,” To-Ho-Ne

translated. “She thinks it’s filthy and will draw scavengers.”

         “What are scavengers?” Alijandra asked.

         “Animals that eat dead things,” Isabella said.

         “Like vultures?” Alijandra asked.

         “And coyotes,” Isabella said. “And worse things.”

         “Ahiga says he could try to burn it, but that might be dangerous,” To-Ho-Ne said. “A

venomdrake has poison in its blood and its spit. If we burn it, the poison might go up in the




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smoke and hurt or kill someone. Best to leave it as it is and let the desert take care of it. It is our

people’s way.”

       “Can’t we bury it?” Alijandra asked.

       “It’s too big and we only have one shovel,” Isabella said. “It would take all day. Maybe

all week.”

       “Hush,” To-Ho-Ne said, gently this time.

       “I wish I knew how to speak Diheneh,” Isabella said.

       “I’ve wanted to teach you, but your mother hasn’t let me.”

       “I speak Diheneh!” Alijandra exclaimed. “I know how to say ‘hand’ and ‘sheep’ and—”

       “You don’t know how to speak Diheneh,” Isabella snapped, “so be quiet.” She turned

back to To-Ho-Ne. “What’s Mama saying now?”

       “She says if Ahiga learns anything more about the dragon and why it was here, so close

to our home, she would like him to tell her. She says she hopes there are not more ‘drakes

around, because she doesn’t know when your father is coming back.”

       Ahiga smiled. “Adahayoiyi, t’aadoo t’oo nihil: adeeshwol, nika doo bitsii.”

       “What’d he say? What’d he say?” Isabella asked.

       “He told her not to worry. He will make sure we are safe. He will not let anything bad

happen to his friend’s family.”

       “Ahehee,” Mama said. “Hooghanoo nikeediikah niidzin.” Ahiga nodded and turned

away, slinging his rifle over his shoulder. Mama turned as well and walked back to the girls,

Jack trotting behind her.

       “To-Ho-Ne told us what you were talking about,” Isabella said.




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       “Didn’t your mother ever tell you it isn’t polite to eavesdrop?” Mama asked her daughter,

smiling. “I was tel—”

       “Look, Mama!” Alijandra said.

       Brother Tunneler ambled forward, stopping at the venomdrake’s carcass. His yellow

forked tongue flicked out, in, out, in. He turned his head to one side, then the other, his lidless

black eyes twitching as they studied the dead dragon.

       “What’s he doing?” Isabella asked.

       Ahiga seemed to be wondering that as well. “As? Dikwiiadaaht’i?”

       Oooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo went Brother Tunneler, a long low hum coming

from deep within him. Oooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo again, and Jack cocked his ears.

       The ground beneath the dragon began to quiver. Pebbles popped and skittered about.

Finger-thin cracks appeared in the soil as Brother Tunneler kept humming.

       “Akoo nilaahdi nanick’iidii!” Ahiga warned, waving and backing up. Mama and To-Ho-

Ne and the girls retreated, too. Jack stayed where he was, listening.

       OooooooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO


OOOOOOOOO

       Suddenly, the ground beneath the venomdrake gave way and the carcass fell into a fissure

that hadn’t been there a moment before. Jack sprang forward, barking as it disappeared. Then a

huge pother of dust and sand blasted into the air, blinding them for a moment.

       When the cloud had settled, the earth was whole once more and the dead dragon was

gone. Jack scampered about where the venomdrake had been, tail wagging, barking happily.

       Brother Tunneler grunted. Slowly, his long yellow tongue licked the dust from his eyes.

       “What was that?” Isabella asked. “How did he do that?”


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       “I don’t know how he did that,” To-Ho-Ne said. “But dragons are connected to the world

in ways we aren’t. Some of them can make the ground, the water, the air, do what they want.”

       “So he just made that big hole in the ground?” Alijandra asked. To-Ho-Ne nodded.

       “Ahehee!” Mama called to Ahiga. He smiled and shrugged and patted Brother

Tunneler’s leg. The big blue dragon settled to the ground and Ahiga climbed onto his back.

Then Brother Tunneler slowly stood up again, turned, and ambled off the way they had come.

       “Come on, girls,” Mama said. “Let’s go home and see how our own dragon is doing.”




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                               Chapter 10: Discoveries 

       The morning was cold, of course. It was always cold in the morning here in the

mountains. After he woke, grumbling, and stretched the aches out of his back and sides and legs,

the dragontamer scrounged up a few twigs and managed to revive his campfire. There was

nothing to eat, again, so he took the letter from his shirt pocket, sharpened his pencil with his

twin-bladed knife, and read what he had written so far.



               April, 1884

               My dearest Juanita, my darling Isabella, and my delightful Alijandra,

               Hopefully, this letter finds you soon and all is well at home. I have

       found something. It is a venomdrake, a female, and I believe it is lairing in

       the Great Mountains. It is a long journey to make on foot, and it will not be

       easy, but




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       The dragontamer dabbed the cuts and bruises—given to him by the Uupohna warriors—

on his face and his shorn head. It had been a few days, but so far as he could tell without a

mirror, none of the wounds were infected. Not yet, anyway.



               I am determined to bring back a dragon.



       But where exactly are you going to bring this dragon back to? he asked himself. The

Diheneh lands? No point in that. Ysparria? They have money, but you’re still wanted there.

Erisia? You know better.

       He rubbed what was left of his beard. I’ll worry about that when I get the dragon, he told

himself.



               I have been heading north and west. The days have been hot and I do

       most of my traveling at night. Water has been hard to find, but I am all

       right. Please don’t worry about me.



       He put the pencil to the paper. Hesitated for a moment. Well, old soup, now what?

       He wrote.



               I am now deep into the Uupohna lands, and I am very alone. I don’t

       know how or if I will ever manage to get this letter to you. Still, it comforts

       me to write. Sometimes I think it would be better if you and the girls had

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       stayed in Ysparria and forgotten about me. Then at least you would not be

       living out here, so far from



       He flung down the pencil, started to crumple up the paper, stopped himself before much

damage was done. What are you doin’, boss? he asked himself. Don’t tear that up. You don’t

have much more paper.

       I’m not going to send it anyway, he reminded himself. It’s just for me. Just to keep me

whole, keep me going.

       He looked around at the miles of mountains, some of them so high, their peaks were

white. There’s no way that I can find that drake in all this. And even if I do, what then?

       Boss, you can’t go back without money. I know that dragontaming has not exactly been

lucrative since we left Ysparria, but you can’t do anything else, can you? Not very well. How’d

that prospecting work out? And remember when you tried farming?

       I remember.

       Come on, boss, get up. Let’s get going. We gotta find that dragon and sweet-sing her

and bring her back to civilization and find someone who’ll want to buy her. Because right now,

we are accomplishing exactly nothing.

       The dragontamer retrieved his pencil, put away his paper. Doused his fire and packed up

his meager camp. Set off again, tramping along rocky trails, always north and west.

       It was near evening when he came across the Dhyuzmanii.



                                                #




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       Like others of his people, Kassimyen was tall and thin, bronze-skinned and dark-haired,

with ice-blue eyes. He wore simple travelers’ clothes—a yellowy-grey blouse belted at the

waist, dun-colored pants tucked into high brown boots—under a long brown coat. His beard was

long, tangled, ribboned here and there with white hairs. Several of his graying teeth were

missing. His breath was foul, his fingers and face grimy. “Here,” he said. “Have some, Mr.

Fhurdrickson.”

       The dragontamer smiled as he accepted the steaming mug from him. “Thank you,” the

dragontamer said. He sniffed. “It smells good.” Sipped. Grinned. Sipped some more. It was a

colorless wine whose spices pricked his tongue, and it was very strong. Already, the aches from

his cuts and bruises were fading. Careful there, boss, you haven’t eaten in a day or so, he

reminded himself. You’re apt to let this stuff get to you quick.

       Kassimyen cut a fat slice of yellow-white cheese from a wheel, handed it and the loaf of

near-black bread to the dragontamer. “Have some, too,” the Dhyuzmanii man told him.

       “Thank you again,” the dragontamer replied, tearing off a hunk of the thick bread and

giving the loaf back to Kassimyen. The bread was tough, chewy; the cheese greasy and tangy.

“Delicious,” the dragontamer mumbled, around his mouthful. He helped himself to more.

       Clouds were darkening overhead and the wind was beginning to gust. “Maybe another

storm, like the one the other day—very bad,” Kassimyen said.

       That was a bad storm,” the dragontamer said, “with lots of lightning. But it went by

quickly. I’ve never seen a storm move that fast, like something was chasing it across the sky.”

       Around them, the other Dhyuzmanii men—the dragontamer counted seventeen—were

setting up the yurts, preparing the food, and tending to the two dozen ponies they used as pack

animals. “Who are all these fellows?” the dragontamer asked.




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         “My slaves,” Kassimyen replied. He paused for a moment and switched to his native

tongue to shout admonishments to a pair of men crouched beside a pile of wood, attempting to

light a fire. They listened, nodded, gathered the wood and began moving it a few yards away.

“Most of them are very good, very skilled, but those two…” He shook his head. “Those two, I

always must watch.”

         “How did you learn to speak Erisian?” the dragontamer asked.

         “I studied at the Akadmie,” the Dhyuzmanii replied. “A long time ago. It’s all fine?” he

asked.

         “You speak it very well,” the dragontamer said. “Probably much better than I would

speak your language.”

         Kassimyen paused, had some more cheese and bread to eat. He looked around. “It’s

beautiful here. Very…stark. Is that the word?”

         “Stark,” the dragontamer said, nodding.

         “They have mountains like this in Dhyuzman, too, but not so high. My grandfather used

to have a big house there.”

         “Dhyuzman’s a long way off,” the dragontamer said.

         “I am an Official Expeditionary in the service of Her Highness Sofya III, Azarinak of

Dhyuzman,” Kassimyen replied, spreading his arms grandly. “I am to explore and map these

mountains and what’s beyond them.”

         “You’ve met the Azarinak?” the dragontamer asked.

         “Of course not,” Kassimyen laughed. “Did I make you think I was important? I’m not.

There are a hundred—no, two hundred—other Official Expeditionaries in this part of the world,

all exploring and mapping—like me—for the glory of Her Highness.”




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        “And for the reward you would be sure to receive if you discovered something valuable,

like gold or silver,” the dragontamer added.

        “Of course—why would you even ask that?” Kassimyen replied, smiling.

        “How long have you been gone from Dhyuzman?”

        “We left our port, Tsi Kamanuv, last May, after the ice had finally melted. We were on a

steamer with a bunch of men—not all of them criminals, I may add—bound for the camps.”

        “Camps? What camps?” the dragontamer asked.

        “Dhyuzman has little camps there and there and there,” he said, waving his arms back

and forth, “all on the coast, where the big trees are.” He pointed west, beyond the mountains. “I

took my men and my ponies off the ship then. At the camps, there are loggers, trappers, fishers.

We bought supplies from them, then went along the coast, in the big forest. We met some of the

aboriginals.”

        “The Korakahu, the natives in those parts,” the dragontamer said. “I’ve met them before.

They’re good people.”

        “Good people, very nice,” Kassimyen agreed. “I did trades with them: some baskets and

clothes and animal pelts, things to take back to Dhyuzman.” He reached under his blouse, took

something from around his neck. “Look at this,” he said, handing it to the dragontamer.

        It was a necklace of red and white beads and small, delicate sea shells. Here and there

along the necklace were tiny grinning faces carved from something the dragontamer couldn’t

identify.

        “Whales’ teeth,” Kassimyen told him. “The Korakahu hunt whales using canoes and

spears. And when I talked to the men who hunt the whales, did you know what they told me the

whales like best to eat?” The dragontamer shrugged. “Korakahu hunting men.” He laughed.




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        “So while they’re hunting the whales, the whales are hunting them,” the dragontamer

said.

        “Yes! Yes!” Kassimyen said, as he sipped his drink. He began slicing more cheese for

himself and the dragontamer.

        “They’re brave men,” the dragontamer said.

        “Very brave, yes,” Kassimyen agreed. “We made friends with the Korakahu and stayed

with them for a while. We learned some things from them, they learned some things from us.

Before winter came, we went back to the work camp—the one we had landed at—and stayed

there until spring.

        “Some of the other Official Expeditionaries and their men were there, too,” he continued.

“We talked, of course, and didn’t tell each other much—none of us wants to give another man

secrets that might lead to a fortune. But I learned that some of them were planning to cross the

mountains. The Korakahu had told them that the mountains were very high and had snow and

caves and cougars and dragons. Dragons! Can you imagine? There have been no dragons in

Dhyuzman since before my great-great grandfather was born.”

        “Yes, there are dragons here,” the dragontamer said. “Somewhere.”

        “So a few weeks ago, before the snows were done, we left and went into the forest.”

Kassimyen grinned and gave the dragontamer more cheese and bread. “We were lucky—no late

blizzards. If there had been, we might all have been killed.” He shrugged. “So here we are.

Maybe here, I’ll find some dragon gold,” he said, “or an egg to take back to Dhyuzman and

present to the Azarinak. She would be most appreciative.”

        “And if you don’t find anything valuable here?” the dragontamer asked.




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       “Then I draw my maps and take my samples—rocks and leaves from trees and maybe

some bird feathers—and we keep walking, that way,” he said, pointing to where the dragontamer

had come from.

       “That way is the desert,” the dragontamer said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder.

“There are dragons there, too, and if you’re not careful, they’ll find you. Most of them aren’t

very nice. And stay away from the Uupohna, the people who live there,” he said, pointing again,

“they’re not nearly as nice as the Korakahu.”

       Kassimyen nodded. “Do you live there?”

       “I live further east and to the south, in the lands of the Diheneh people, near a miserable

little town called Scorpion Tail.”

       “Scorpion Tail,” Kassimyen repeated. “Can one get supplies there?”

       “They have a trading post,” the dragontamer replied, nodding. “The town’s at the

northernmost tip of Ysparria, and Diheneh lands surround it on three sides.”

       “Like a peninsula of civilization,” Kassimyen said. “And is it a long way?”

       The dragontamer waggled his hand back and forth. “Not too far, if you were a bird and

could fly straight from here to there.”

       “But, of course, I’m not.”

       “No, you’re not. If you wanted to get there from here, you would want to go south when

you come out of the mountains, to avoid the worst of the desert—and the Uupohna. Most of

them live in the center and the north of their lands.”

       “And why are you out here, all alone, Mr. Fhurdrickson?”

       “I’m a prospector,” the dragontamer lied.

       “Where are your shovels and picks?” Kassimyen asked.




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       “I’m not a very good prospector,” the dragontamer admitted.

       Kassimyen laughed. “No, no you are not, Mr. Fhurdrickson.” He poured the

dragontamer some more hot wine.

       “I’m out here looking for my fortune,” the dragontamer said.

       “And what will you do if you find your fortune?” Kassimyen asked.

       “I’ll bring it back home.”

       “You have a house?”

       “A small one,” the dragontamer said. “It’s far from Scorpion Tail, and the roof leaks

when it rains, and it’s hot inside in the summer.”

       “But you have a house,” Kassimyen said. “And a nice wife?”

       The dragontamer nodded.

       “And she loves you?”

       “I suppose.”

       “You ‘suppose!’” Kassimyen laughed. “And babies? Boys?”

       “Two girls. Isabella and Alijandra.”

       The Dhyuzmanii man clapped his hands. “Girls! You have everything.”

       “I have nothing,” the dragontamer said. “We have no money.”

       “No,” Kassimyen insisted. “I have nothing. You have everything.”

       “It doesn’t feel like it.”

       “That’s because you haven’t lost it—the Flame forbid!” He smiled and drained his cup.

“Then you would know. Stay ignorant. Would you like to know why I became an Official

Expeditionary for Her Highness?”

       “Why?”




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       “I had a wife—her name is Ekaterine—and little boys—Timofei and Lyov—but

then…then gone. I lost them.”

       “They died?” the dragontamer asked.

       Kassimyen shook his shaggy head. “No. No money, no food, no coal for the house to

keep warm, so she went away and took my boys—they were six years and four years—away

went with her.” He wagged his finger. “It’s very easy thing to have a wife—any wife—to tell

you ‘I love you’ when you have money, but when you don’t—when you don’t, then you find out

what sort of wife you really have.”

       The dragontamer nodded and sipped his drink.

       “Wife gone, sons gone, so what should I do?” Kassimyen asked. “There was nothing

there for me in my little, empty house. So I left my village, went to a lot of others, eventually

found my way to prison. The jailer asked me very nicely if I would like to stay or would I like to

get on a ship and explore new lands for Her Highness. So I did.”

       The sky, now almost wholly black, began to rumble. Kassimyen looked up. “No use for

you in trying to travel more today,” he said. “You should stay with us for the night.”

       “That’s awfully kind of you, but how do you know I’m not a bandit or a killer?” the

dragontamer asked.

       Kassimyen laughed. “I saw all kinds of bad men in the prison and at the camps: thieves

and murderers and worse than murderers. You can tell who they are by looking in their faces.

Your face says you’re a good man.” He took out a small leather purse, jingled some coins into

his hand, gave them to the dragontamer.

       “What’s this for?” the dragontamer asked. Each coin was octagonal: silver, inlaid with

gold. He turned one over his hand. On one side was a double-headed eagle holding a curved




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sword, and above it, two full moons. On the other side was the face of a young woman with a

thin nose and the hint of a smile. Her hair was cut short, ending just below her ears. The

Azarinak of Dhyuzman.

        “For your time,” Kassimyen said. “Already, I have learned much I did not know about

these lands. If you will stay, then after we eat and drink tonight, I will get out my maps and you

can tell me more about these mountains—and that desert you come from—and I can give you

some more coins. And in the morning, you can go your way and we will go ours. Would that be

all fine?”

        “Yes, it would,” the dragontamer said, pocketing the money. “Thank you.”

        Dribbles from the sky. “Rain again,” Kassimyen growled. “I hate it.” He stood, held out

his hand, and helped the dragontamer to his feet.



                                                   #



        A woman, a man. Both of them Uupohna, judging by what was left of their clothes. Both

of them lying dead at the foot of the mountain.

        I’ll tell the world, the dragontamer thought. He looked around—some kind of trick? he

wondered. No one else in sight. He drew his pistol, crept closer, staying close to the rock wall

of the mountain.

        Four days since the dragontamer had parted company with the Dhyuzmanii man

Kassimyen. It was overcast today, and uncharacteristically cold here in the high passes. The

dragontamer had no coat, so he wore his blanket around himself. Head twitching, turning here

and there like a deer, he carefully picked his way around large stones and down a short slope of




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loose gravel. Dead for awhile, he determined, pulling the edge of the blanket over his mouth and

nose. Not much left of them…vultures and coyotes have been here.

        What are they doing out here, so far from a village, boss? the dragontamer asked himself.

It’s quite a long way to walk for some privacy, if that’s what they wanted.

        He looked around, looked up. Saw the opening to a cave high overhead, too high for

anything that didn’t fly to reach.

        They didn’t walk, he told himself. Drake carried them here, boss. He squatted by the

man. This might be our friend who gave us our haircut. He looked up again. The drake’s den—

that’s what that is, isn’t it? He looked down at the bodies again. And she dropped them? No,

they fell, either from the ledge or trying to climb down. Or they jumped, if they didn’t want to be

food for baby drakes.

        So where’s the drake now? he wondered. Getting replacement meat? Or brooding her

eggs?

        He retreated up the gravel slope, pressed his back against the side of the mountain, peered

up. That’s…a long way up, boss. And even if you can climb all the way up there, there might

very well be a very angry drake up there…and/or some very hungry baby drakes. If you don’t

fall and kill yourself first.

        Still keeping an eye on the cave above, he sat down, felt around his pack for rope he

knew was not there. Now what? he wondered.

        Now we wait, boss, he told himself, until either Little Mama comes home or pokes her

head out looking for something to feed her hatchers.

        He licked his lips, blew on his cold hands.

        Or if its mate shows up.




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                           Chapter 11: Care and Feeding 

       “Shoo,” Alijandra said, peering over the side of the box and waving her hand. “Go away,

flies. Get off my Pearl. Shoo.”

       Isabella squatted next to her sister and looked inside the box. The little green dragon

sprawled on the bottom, eyes shut, flies buzzing around the crusted-over wounds on its sides, its

neck, its tail. I hope it’s not— Isabella began to think, but then the dragon’s head twitched and it

went mrrr.

       It was early in the morning, and the girls had just awakened. Their mother and To-Ho-Ne

and Jack were outside. Yesterday, after meeting Ahiga and Brother Tunneler, they had come

home to find no change in the dragon’s condition. They had thrown out what the ants had not

stolen from the dragon’s food basket. Some of the water had evaporated—sucked into the thirsty

air—but the rest had not been disturbed. The girls had scrounged up some more scraps: a bit of

fat from the ham, pieces of tortilla, a spot of honey, even a few petals of a yellow blossom that

To-Ho-Ne had carefully plucked from a prickly pear cactus. They had put all these in the food

basket, making sure that no item of food touched another (that was Alijandra’s idea). They had


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tipped over the box and slid the basket to its edge, so that all the little dragon had to do to reach it

was stretch out her long neck.

        And still the dragon had not eaten.

        “Maybe she doesn’t like any of this food, either,” Alijandra said.

        “We don’t have anything else to give her,” Isabella replied.

        “Maybe she eats bugs,” Alijandra said. “A lot of lizards do, and she looks like a liz—”

        “I am not catching bugs,” Isabella announced.            “If you want to feed her bugs, you

catch them.”

        “I can’t feed her bugs,” Alijandra replied. “I’d feel bad for them.”

        “Then why were you trying to catch hoppers the other day?” Isabella asked.

        “Just in case we had to,” Alijandra explained. “Besides, I could have kept one as a pet. I

like hoppers.”

        “You’re a hopper,” Isabella said.

        “I’m a hopper! I’m a hopper!” Alijandra sprang to her feet and began hopping about, both

feet together. “Chee-reep! Chee-reep!” she called.

        “I take it back,” Isabella said. “You’re not a hopper: you’re an idiot. Now stop jumping

around like that and help me figure out how to get this dragon to eat.”

        “Chee-reep! Chee-reep! Chee-reep!” Alijandra sang, still hopping. Just then, the door

opened. Mama and To-Ho-Ne and Jack came in. “Mama, I’m a hopper!” Alijandra exclaimed.

        “Anyone can see that,” Mama said. “Why are you a hopper this morning?”

        “Never mind her, Mama,” Isabella said. “The dragon isn’t eating.”

        Mama and To-Ho-Ne came over and hunched over the box. The old Diheneh woman

grunted. “It is too sick to eat,” she said. “But if it doesn’t eat soon, or at least drink, it will die.”




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       “She can’t die,” Alijandra replied, no longer a grasshopper.

       To-Ho-Ne leaned over and pointed her round finger at the dragon’s side. “The paste I

made is keeping sickness out of the wounds. But it is not enough. Sickness is already inside her.

From poison, I think.”

       “Poison?” Alijandra asked. “How did she get poison in her?”

       “The other dragon?” Isabella wondered. “The venomdrake?”

       To-Ho-Ne nodded. “Perhaps it tried to kill this little dragon. Look here,” she said,

pointing again at the wounds. “These could be from teeth.”

       “How could this little dragon live through a fight with that big one?” Isabella asked.

“One bite, and she’d be dead.”

       “Maybe Pearl was too fast for her,” Alijandra replied. “Little things are faster than big

things.”

       “Not always,” Isabella said.

       “I’m faster than you,” Alijandra said.

       “You are not,” Isabella said. “I beat you every time we race.”

       “Well, Pearl must have been faster than that other dragon,” Alijandra said. “Or maybe

she could hide under bushes and cactuses and rocks and things, because she’s so small.”

       “Why would that other dragon—the venomdrake—fight this little dragon?” Isabella

asked. “She’s too little to hurt anything.”

       To-Ho-Ne shrugged. “Venomdrakes are very bad. They like to kill animals and people.

Maybe it just saw this little one and wanted to have some fun. Or maybe this little one did

something bad to it, somehow.”

       “Pearl would never do anything bad,” Alijandra said. “Pearl is nice.”




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        “’Pearl’ almost bit my thumb off,” Isabella reminded her. “And she scratched up my

arm.”

        “You’re still going on about that,” Alijandra said. “I told you that she didn’t mean it.”

        “What do mean?” Isabella demanded. “You don’t know any—”

        “Stop arguing,” Mama said. “I am not in the mood for it.” She turned to To-Ho-Ne.

“What can we do? Anything?”

        To-Ho-Ne shrugged again. “There are herbs that cure poison. But venomdrake poison is

very bad. It can kill a strong man like this,” she said, clapping her hands, startling Jack.

        “So Pearl must be very tough,” Alijandra said. “Because she’s still alive, and the bad

dragon put poison in her.”

        To-Ho-Ne nodded. “I need buckwheat and golden smoke, and altjj’jik’aashi, if you can

find it. Can you girls get them for me?”

        “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Alijandra exclaimed.

        “I suppose,” Isabella said. “Where do we find these plants? What do they look like?”

        “You can find them all around,” To-Ho-Ne said. “Buckwheat is a tall, skinny green

grass, with tiny white flowers. Golden smoke is also tall and green and skinny, but it has long

yellow flowers on top that look like horns.”

        “Like horns on a cow?” Alijandra asked.

        “No, like a horn you blow in,” To-Ho-Ne said. “You find altijj’jik’aashi by water—there

might be some by the arroyo, but if not, there may be some at the stream.”

        “The stream we have to cross to go to Scorpion Tail?” Isabella asked. To-Ho-Ne nodded.

        “That’s a long way off,” Mama said. “Hours there and back.”

        “What does this altij…what does it look like?” Alijandra asked.




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        “Tall and skinny and green—” To-Ho-Ne began.

        “Everything is ‘tall and skinny and green!’” Alijandra laughed.

        “—but the stems are not all one long shoot. They are made of little parts, each as long as

my finger,” To-Ho-Ne said, holding up her pinky, “one on top of each other.”

        “Stacked like blocks?” Isabella asked.

        “Something like that, yes,” To-Ho-Ne said. “And at the very top is a white part that

looks like the end of a rattlesnake’s tail.”

        “It sounds like some kind of horsetail plant,” Mama said.

        “Yes!” To-Ho-Ne said, clapping her hands together. “A ‘horsetail.’ I could not think of

the word.”

        “Do you have to have the horsetail?” Isabella asked.

        To-Ho-Ne shrugged. “It is very good for bites from snakes and spiders and tinilei

lizards,” she said. “Good for scorpion stings, too.”

        “If it will help, we have to get some,” Alijandra said. “I don’t mind going to the stream.”

        “I mind,” Mama said. “It’s too far: it would take you almost all day to go there and come

back. And that’s if there are any horsetails there. And only Our Mother knows what might

happen to you two out there.”

        “Mama, we have to help Pearl,” Alijandra insisted.

        “Stop calling the dragon that,” Mama replied. “No. You may not go. It’s too far, you

might get lost, you could fall down and get hurt, you could be found by bandits or a cougar or

something even worse. No. Absolutely not.”

        “I don’t want her to die,” Alijandra said. “I just want to help her.”




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       “You’re more help to her—it—by going with your sister and getting the other plants that

To-Ho-Ne said and not wandering off and having something bad happen to you,” Mama said.

       “Nothing bad is going to happen,” Alijandra protested.

       “But if something bad were to happen, what then?” Mama asked. “You’d be very far

from home, and it would be hours before To-Ho-Ne and I realized that you hadn’t come back—

and then it would be more hours before we found you—if we found you. What if we never did?

How would I live with myself, knowing I had let my two little girls go wandering around alone

in the desert, miles from home? And what about poor Papa? He loves you more than anything

else in the world. If I let something bad happen to you, he would never recover, and he’d never

forgive me. Do you want to take the chance of that happening? I don’t.”

       For a long moment, the house was quiet. Finally, Isabella asked, “What if the medicine

doesn’t work?”

       “Then we have to try something else,” To-Ho-Ne replied. “Perhaps a sand painting.

Ahiga’s father is a healer. He can do one.”

       “What’s a sand painting?” Alijandra asked.

       “Something like a prayer, like the kind that Daon Raul does for us,” Mama answered.

       “Except sand paintings work,” To-Ho-Ne added. Mama pursed her lips.

       “Why don’t we just ask him to do one now?” Alijandra said.

       “Making a sand painting is not easy,” To-Ho-Ne said. “Let’s try the buckwheat and the

golden smoke first. If that doesn’t help, perhaps I will go by myself and find some horsetail.”

       “What about our chores?” Isabella asked.




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       “You can do them when you come back,” Mama said. “Get dressed and wash your faces

and scrub your teeth and have something to eat. Then go with Jack. Stay together, and don’t

dawdle. Come back as soon as you have what To-Ho-Ne needs for the medicine.”

       “Yes, Mama,” Isabella said.

       “Yes, Mama,” Alijandra added.

       They quickly dressed and washed and ate some frybread. Then To-Ho-Ne gave them a

basket and the three of them set off, going towards the butte: the girls out front, Jack huffing and

puffing along behind. Every so often, he would wander off, sniffing around a bush or a clump of

cactuses or a tree, but he stayed in sight and always kept up with them.

       “How does To-Ho-Ne know so much about dragons?” Alijandra asked.

       “What do you mean?” Isabella answered.

       “She knows about the big dragon,” Alijandra said. “The bad one that’s dead. She knows

it’s mean and has poison. And what kind of babies it has—remember?”

       “Yes, you’re right,” Isabella said. “I was wondering that myself, but I’m not sure.

Maybe she really doesn’t know anything about dragons and is just making up things. Like those

stories she tells about ghosts and monsters.”

       “There really are ghosts and monsters,” Alijandra insisted, “and witch people, too. She

told me.”

       “She just tells you things like that to get you to be good. She used to try to me those

stories, too, but Mama wouldn’t let her. She said it was…” Isabella fumbled for the word. “She

said it was against our religion.”




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       “Well I think she does know about dragons,” Alijandra said. “But I don’t know how she

knows.” She considered something for a moment. “Do you think To-Ho-Ne used to train

dragons? Like Papa does?”

       “No,” Isabella said. “To-Ho-Ne was Mama’s nurse when she was little and lived in

Ysparria. She helped raised Mama. And when Papa married Mama and they came here, she

came, too, to take care of you and me. Except…”

       “Except what?” Alijandra asked.

       Isabella shook her head. “I don’t know. I think I remember one time, back when you

were a baby, right after we came here, when To-Ho-Ne didn’t live with us. I don’t know why

she didn’t. But she came back after a little while.” She shrugged. “Maybe she was staying with

her family. But then—I don’t remember To-Ho-Ne ever mentioning her family. No mother or

father—she’s old, so they must be dead—but no brothers or sisters, either.”

       She shook her head again. “Maybe I’m just remembering it wrong and she really did live

with us the whole time. I was just little then. It’s hard to remember things when you’re little.”

       “I remember everything,” Alijandra said. Isabella said nothing.

       They walked on for a while. The slap of their sandals, the buzz of the insects, and Jack’s

panting were the only sounds in the world.

       They wandered. They found a clump of golden smoke growing at the base of the butte,

and picked it. In the shadow of the butte, the ground was still soft from the rain, and it was easy

to pull out the plants. They kept on walking, going away from the arroyo and where they had

found the venomdrake’s carcass.

       After they had been walking for about an hour, Alijandra pointed to a dark, squat thing

about a half mile away. “What’s that?”




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       “It’s an old shack,” Isabella said. “Mama said to stay away from it.”

       “Does anyone live there?” Alijandra asked.

       “Not any more. Mama told me that some old man named Mr. Dempesson used to live

there, but he died a long time ago. He knew Papa.”

       “Can we go see?”

       “Didn’t you hear what I said?” Isabella demanded. “Mama said not to go there. There’s

nothing to see, anyway: it’s just an empty little house.”

       “How do you know it’s empty?” Alijandra asked. “Have you been there?”

       “No, and I don’t want to,” Isabella said. “And don’t you go telling Mama I’ve been

there, because I haven’t.” She took Alijandra’s hand. “Now, come on. We need to find some

buckwheat.”

       “And maybe some horsetails,” Alijandra added.

       “We are not going to find horsetails,” Isabella said.

       They walked along, heading more or less in a big loop back towards their house. The air

became very hot very quickly, and Jack kept by their side, trotting along with his ham-pink

tongue lolling. Near a pile of boulders twice as tall as Isabella, they found some buckwheat

growing. They picked all of it and put it in the baskets.

       “That was easy,” Isabella said, “and it didn’t take long at all. Let’s go ho—”

       “No, let’s not go home,” Alijandra said. “Not yet. Let’s go get some horsetails, by the

little stream where the fish were when we were coming back from Scorpion Tail.”

       Isabella shook her head. “No. Mama said not to.”

       “But Pearl needs them,” Alijandra said. “These plants aren’t as good as horsetails. To-

Ho-Ne said so.”




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       “She did not,” Isabella said. “You’re just making that up. You don’t know anything

about medicine for dragons. No one does. Not even To-Ho-Ne. She’s just guessing that this

will help.” Isabella shook her head again. “I’m not going to get in trouble for that dragon—and

neither are you. We’re going home right now.”

       “But—”

       “Remember what Mama said? What if we get lost? What if something bad happened to

us?” Isabella squatted down and put her hands on her sister’s shoulders. “I know you just want

to help Pearl. But this is the best way to help her. Right?”

       Alijandra didn’t look at her sister.

       “Right?” Isabella asked.

       “Right,” Alijandra said.

       “Come on, then.”

       “But what if this medicine doesn’t work?” Alijandra asked. “What if she just gets sicker?

Then what do we do?”

       “Then we’ll have to go to the stream and find some horsetails,” Isabella said.

       “What if Mama won’t let us?”

       “Well, To-Ho-Ne said she would go,” Isabella replied. “We could go with her.”

       “What if Mama won’t let us go with To-Ho-Ne?”

       “Then we’ll go by ourselves,” Isabella said. “Even if Mama doesn’t want us to.”

Alijandra wrapped her arms around Isabella and squeezed tight.

       Why did I say that? Isabella wondered. I didn’t mean that. We can’t just run off like that,

when Mama told us not to. She hugged her sister tight. Tail wagging, Jack came over, sniffing

and licking the girls’ faces. Alijandra giggled and rubbed her face on his thick, dusty neck.




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       “Come on, then,” Isabella said, standing up. “Let’s go home. It’s a long way back, and

we have a lot of other things to do today.”



                                                  #



       On the way home, they found more buckwheat, a big patch of it. After Alijandra picked

some, Isabella memorized how to find the spot again. Northeast, past the butte, she told herself.

To the right of the pine with the vulture’s nest. That’s where it is.

       It was almost noon when they came home, and the air was burning. Mama and To-Ho-

Ne were sitting in the shade of their ramada: four poles holding up a roof made from sticks tied

together. They were kneading cornmeal into balls; flattening them by rolling them on a smooth,

flat stone; then slapping and pulling and pinching each one into a perfectly round tortilla. Each

tortilla would go into a basket, and the women would start again.

       “Mama! To-Ho-Ne! We found them!” Alijandra exclaimed, hopping up and down. “We

found the plants so you can make medicine for Pearl!”

       “Yes, we did,” Isabella said, showing them the basket.

       “Help me up,” To-Ho-Ne said, holding out her hands. Isabella gave the basket to her

sister, took the old woman’s hands, and leaned back, straining. With a grunt, To-Ho-Ne got to

her feet, wincing.

       “Does your hip still hurt?” Alijandra asked, giving the old woman the basket.

       “Every day,” To-Ho-Ne said. She picked through the shoots the girls had brought.

“These are good,” she said, nodding. “This will do.”

       “What do we do now?” Alijandra asked, clapping her hands.




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         “Bella, collect firewood, please,” Mama said. “Ali, you come sit here and help me make

tortillas.”

         “Yes, Mama,” Isabella said.

         “But Mama,” Alijandra protested, “I want to help To-Ho-Ne take care of Pearl.”

         “For the hundredth thousandth time, stop calling the dragon by that name,” Mama

reminded her. “To-Ho-Ne doesn’t need any help, but I do. Now, sit,” she said, patting the

ground next to her. “And tell me all about your excursion this morning. Where did you go?”

         “I’m going to get some water before I get the firewood,” Isabella said. Mama nodded as

Alijandra launched into their story.

         Isabella went into the house. It was hot inside, of course, but not as hot as out in the sun.

To-Ho-Ne had sat herself on the floor beside the dragon’s box and was tearing a sprig of

buckwheat into small pieces. Isabella poured some water from a jug into her cup and gulped it

down. She poured another, drank it. Not so fast, her mother’s voice reminded her, or you’ll get

cramps. “Do you want some, To-Ho-Ne?” she asked. The old woman shook her head. Isabella

poured a third cup and sipped it.

         To-Ho-Ne was chewing a wad of buckwheat. She reached into the box and gently lifted

out the dragon. Its claws waved feebly at her. She laid the dragon on her lap, pried open its jaws

with one hand, and used the other to reach into her mouth, take out the wad of buckwheat, and

stuff it down the dragon’s throat.

         Ugh, Isabella thought. Disgusting. “How do you know how much to give her?” she

asked.

         To-Ho-Ne shrugged. “I don’t.” Head still held firmly in the old woman’s hand, the

dragon’s neck jerked, trying to cough up the wad. Its white eyes glared at To-Ho-Ne as the old




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woman leaned over, her elbow pinning the dragon to her lap. With her free hand, she carefully

picked up the bowl of water. Prying open the dragon’s jaws again, she slowly poured. The

dragon thrashed. Most of the water splashed over it or onto To-Ho-Ne, but some of it went down

the dragon’s throat.

       “Ahodiniitlooh,” To-Ho-Ne said to the dragon, putting it back in its box. It hissed like a

snake—it’s going to bite her, Isabella thought—and then went limp.

       “Is she all right?” Isabella asked.

       Frowning, To-Ho-Ne waggled her hand. “I told her to go to sleep,” the old woman said.

       “And she did? Just like that?” Isabella asked. “Is that magic? Can you do magic?”

       “You sound like your sister,” To-Ho-Ne chuckled. “No, that was not magic. She is very

weak, that’s all, and she wore herself out fighting me, because she thought I was trying to hurt

her.” She leaned over the box and said, “Baa ahashya, ak’is.”

       “Why are you speaking to her in Diheneh? She can’t understand you.”

       “All dragons know Diheneh,” To-Ho-Ne said. “Dragons first came from the underworld

to here, the high desert, through a hole in the ground not far away. My people were the first

people they met and befriended. And though the dragons flew and swam and walked to every

part of the world, they all remember this place, and they all remember my people.”

       “That’s just a story.”

       “Yes, it is just a story,” To-Ho-Ne agreed. “But that doesn’t mean it is not true.”

       Alijandra ran inside and plopped down beside To-Ho-Ne. “How is she? Is she all right?

Is the medicine helping?”

       “I thought you were helping Mama make tortillas,” Isabella said.

       “I told her I was thirsty and she said I could come inside and get a drink.”




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       “You lied,” Isabella said.

       “No, I didn’t,” Alijandra replied. “I am thirsty. I am going to have a drink. But I want to

see Pearl, first.” Isabella smirked. “Can I have a drink, Bella? Please?”

       “I suppose,” the older girl said, filling her cup again.

       “How is she?” Alijandra asked. “Is she getting better?”

       “I gave her the medicine,” To-Ho-Ne said. “But she did not want to take it. She tried to

fight me, but she is very weak, and has fallen back asleep.”

       Isabella gave her sister the cup of water and Alijandra downed it with several loud gulps.

When she was done, she asked, “Why isn’t she better yet? Didn’t it work?”

       “You’re welcome,” Isabella sneered, taking the cup from Alijandra’s hand.

       To-Ho-Ne smiled and patted the little girl’s head. “It will take time for the medicine to

work. Go back and help your mother. And then, after that, maybe you should try to find Pearl

something she would like to eat when she wakes up and feels better.”

       “I don’t know what else to give her,” Alijandra said. “She doesn’t seem to like

anything.”

       “Well, what do you like to eat?” To-Ho-Ne asked. “Maybe she would like some of the

same things.”

       The little girl thought for a minute. “Eggs,” she announced. “I like eggs. Maybe Pearl

would like to eat an egg.”

       “Maybe,” To-Ho-Ne said.

       “Mama won’t let you give the dragon an egg,” Isabella said. “Those eggs are for us. We

need those.”




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         “But she doesn’t eat anything else,” Alijandra said. “Can’t we just give her one? Just a

little one? I bet she doesn’t eat much.”

         “You’ll have to ask Mama,” Isabella said.

         “Ask me about what?” Mama came in, hands on her hips. “Because I have something to

ask, too. Such as, where is my little girl who is supposed to be helping me?”

         “Coming, Mama!” Alijandra said, bounding to her feet. “I was just having some water.”

         “While you perch by To-Ho-Ne and that dragon as if you were a vulture,” Mama said,

smiling only a little. “I know what you’re up to.”

         “Mama, Pearl still isn’t eating: can I give her an egg?” Alijandra asked.

         “You’re changing the subject,” Mama noted. “And my answer right now is no. We need

those eggs. Find something else the dragon might like, please.”

         “But Mama, I’ve tried,” Alijandra replied. “She doesn’t want to eat anything we give

her.”

         “Don’t say ‘she,’ Alijandra,” Mama reminded, “say ‘it:’ we don’t know if it’s male or

female. And it probably isn’t eating because it’s too hurt. Give To-Ho-Ne’s medicine some time

to work, and try again.”

         “But To-Ho-Ne said that sh—the dragon needs to eat soon or she’ll die,” Alijandra said.

         “I know what she said,” Mama replied.

         “Just one egg?” Alijandra asked. “Just one?”

         “I’m sorry, Ali, but we can’t spare even one egg,” Mama said. “Not until Papa comes

back.”

         “If she doesn’t eat it, I will,” Alijandra suggested.




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       “No,” Mama said. “I know you are just trying to take care of the little dragon, but no.

Now, come along and help me gather some berries. And you—” she said to Isabella, “I will

need that firewood, please.”

       “Yes, Mama,” Alijandra said.

       “Yes, Mama,” Isabella said.



                                                #



       skrkk

       Alijandra’s eyes popped open.

       skrrk

       The house was dark. Slowly, quietly, Alijandra sat up.

        skrrk

       Next to her, Isabella was sprawled on her back, eyes half-open, mouth agape, as she

usually slept. On Alijandra’s other side, Mama lay still, breathing slowly and deeply. Next to

Mama, To-Ho-Ne softly wheezed.

       skrrk

       This was a night sound Alijandra had never heard before, not the sound of hoppers

singing, or coyotes calling. And it was close. Inside the house.

       skrrk

       Slowly, quietly, Alijandra crept off the sleeping mat and padded toward the metal box

where the noise was coming from.




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         The little milky-green dragon was clawing, feebly, inch by inch, out of the box, toward

the clay bowl of water, which someone had absentmindedly set a few feet away, rather than right

next to the box.

         “Hello,” Alijandra whispered, squatting down beside the dragon. It shrank back from her

as best it could, tiny white eyes wide.

         “You want some water?” Alijandra asked, still whispering. “I’ll help you.” She showed

the dragon her empty hands.

         The dragon looked at her, then the bowl of water, then back at Alijandra.

         “I won’t hurt you.” Slowly, gently, she leaned closer. The dragon’s eyes followed her

hands.

         “It’s all right,” Alijandra whispered. She brought the water bowl beside the dragon. The

dragon craned its neck over the edge of the bowl and started lapping up water—plpp plpp plpp—

with its thin pink tongue.

         “Thirsty, aren’t you?” Alijandra asked. The dragon kept drinking. “Are you hungry,

too?”

         The dragon kept drinking.

         “Wait here,” Alijandra whispered. She stood and quietly went to the door. She slowly

lifted the latch so that it would not make that loud BKK! noise it always made when opened

quickly. The door creaked, as it always did, when she swung it open, but no one stirred.

         It was warm outside, and the hoppers were louder, but both moons were up and there

were no clouds. She went barefooted along the side of the little house until she came to the

chicken coop. She squatted and reached inside, feeling around under the sleeping hens, who,

like the people in the house, did not wake.




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        Something big padded up to her from behind, its breath—HUFFAHUFFAHUFFA—hot

and wet, and for a moment she thought it was a monster. But it was only Jack, of course, come

to see what she was doing.

        “Shh,” she told him, as she took a small brown egg from the coop. “Don’t wake anyone

up.” He sniffed at what she had in her hand. “No,” she said. “It’s for Pearl.”

        Jack followed her back to the door and sat down just outside. Alijandra slowly shut the

door—again, no one but her heard the creaking—and latched it. It was much darker inside. She

waited for a moment for her eyes to adjust, and then she carefully made her way back.

        The dragon was lying on the floor next to the bowl, just where Alijandra had left it. Its

eyes were closed.

        “Pearl,” she whispered. “I’m back.”

        The dragon opened its eyes and did not shrink away when Alijandra sat down on the floor

beside it. “This is for you,” the little girl told it. “It’s an egg.” She held it out in her palm for

the dragon to see.

        The dragon leaned forward.

        “Here,” Alijandra whispered. She inched closer. “Take it.”

        The dragon reached out and carefully gripped the egg with its claws. It leaned forward

and sank its needle-like teeth into the egg shell, crushing only a tiny piece. Then its tongue

flicked out again and again, lapping up the gooey insides.

        Alijandra waited, holding the egg, while the dragon ate. When it let go of the empty

shell, she gently picked up the dragon and laid it back in its box.

        “Good night, Pearl,” Alijandra said.

        Curled inside its box, its eyes closing, the dragon, of course, made no reply.




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                                 Chapter 12: Tending 

       Nights went by.

       hrrk hrrk. hrrRUKKKK.

       Isabella rolled over. Whahuh? she thought.

       hrrk hrrRUKKKK. HRRRUKKKKRRRRR.

       Not again, Isabella thought, sitting up. The room was very dark. Beside her on the

sleeping mat, Mama was stirring. To-Ho-Ne still snored. Isabella reached over—where’s Ali?

       nnnnnrrrrrrrrreeeEEEEEEEHRRRUKKK the little dragon went again.

       “Bella,” Mama said, struggling to sit up.

       “Yes, Mama,” Isabella said, getting to her feet and crossing the room. The dragon’s

metal box rattled thamathamathamatham against the floor. “She’s sick again, Mama,” Isabella

said. “I need some light.”

       “Coming,” Mama said, getting up. “The lamp went out,” she said, fumbling around the

table. Behind her, To-Ho-Ne snorted, jerked her head, sat up.

       “What is it, Princess?” the old Diheneh woman asked.


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        “The dragon’s having a spell again,” Isabella said. “And she’s spewing out, too. I can

smell it.” Ugh. Where’s Ali?

        “Wait, wait,” Mama said. “Just a moment—there.” She lit the kerosene lamp, brought it

over. Isabella pulled the top off the box they had found for the dragon. The dragon was lying on

its back, neck thrashing, body shaking, legs out stiff, claws trembling. Yellowy-white vomit

trickled from its mouth and joined the pool at the bottom of the box. Blackish-brown wet stool

spattered the sides of the box; in its seizure, the dragon had messed its home.

        “Ugh,” Isabella said. “Now we have clean up this little monster again.”

        “To-Ho-Ne—” Mama began.

        “More medicine, yes,” To-Ho-Ne said. “Bella, help me up.”

        The door opened and Alijandra—squinting—and Jack—panting—came inside. “What’s

going on?” Alijandra asked. She had one of her hands behind her back.

        “Your stupid dragon is sick again,” Isabella said, going back to the sleeping mat. She

held out her hands for the old woman. “Where were you?” Isabella demanded, leaning back and

pulling To-Ho-Ne off the floor. “What were you doing outside at this time of night? Are you

stupid or just crazy?”

        “I was passing water,” Alijandra replied. “Don’t call me ‘stupid.’ Don’t call Pearl

‘stupid,’ either.”

        “Stop it, you two!” Mama said. “Ali, bring me some rags. Bella, get some water. Now!”

        “Yes, Mama,” the girls murmured. Alijandra went into the larder and came back a few

moments later with a rag. Isabella brought her mother a clay jar of water. To-Ho-Ne ripped up

tufts of herbs and grasses and wadded them into a small bundle.




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       “Let me have those,” Mama told Alijandra, taking the rags. She wrapped them around

her hands, reached into the box, and gently took hold of the twitching, thrashing dragon. “ Easy,

easy,” she whispered. The dragon’s claws latched onto the rags; its neck lashed from side to

side, jaws snapping; its tail beat furiously against the metal box—thamathamathamatham. And

then suddenly, the dragon went limp and lay still.

       “She’s done,” Mama said. “She’s done. The seizure’s over.”

       Hrr hrr hrr gasped the dragon.

       “Quickly, while she’s calm,” Mama said. She unwrapped one rag and set it on the floor.

Then she lifted the dragon out of the box and set it on the rag. “I’ll need more rags,” she said.

       “I’ll get them, Mama,” Isabella said.

       “No! I will!” Alijandra blurted, dashing for the larder.

       “Bella, I need your help,” Mama said.

       “All right,” she said, kneeling on the floor beside Mama. “What do you need me to do?”

       “We need to clean up the dragon,” Mama said. “Thank you,” she told Alijandra, who

was back from the larder with more rags.

       “Is she all right?” Alijandra asked.

       “I think so,” Mama replied.

       “Here it is,” To-Ho-Ne said, squatting down next to them and holding out the wad of

medicine.

       “Let’s clean her first,” Mama said. She dipped a rag into the jar of water and gently

began to wipe away the vomit and feces. Ugh, Isabella thought. She glared at Alijandra for a

moment, then took up a rag and started to do the same.




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           They wiped, found a clean spot on the rag, dipped it in the jar, wiped again, found

another clean spot, and so on. After several minutes—and several very soiled rags—they were

finished. “It still smells,” Isabella grumbled.

           “You’ll need to clean out the box,” Mama said.

           “Can’t Ali do it?” Isabella asked. “It’s her stupid dragon. I didn’t want to bring the

stupid thing home in the first place.”

           “It is not Ali’s dragon,” Mama replied. “And when I ask you to do something, Isa—”

           “I hate this!” Isabella jumped to her feet. “Every night, that stupid thing wakes up

screaming and it messes itself and we have to clean it up and it’s always making that awful

whining sound and every time I try to feed it something, it snaps at me and I wish it would just

hurry up and die!” Isabella whirled and stabbed the air in front of her sister’s face. “And she

never has to do anything!”

           “Isabella,” Mama said quietly, still kneeling by the dragon.

           “No, I’m not going to—”

           “Isabella,” Mama said, even more quietly.

           The house was silent for a moment. Lying by the door, Jack looked at each of their faces

in turn.

           “Isabella, you’re tired,” Mama said. “We’re all tired. I don’t like this situation any more

than you do. But we can’t let this get the better of us. We have to be strong. And part of being

strong is not giving in to the part of us that wants to say and do things we’ll regret later. Do you

understand?”

           Isabella nodded.

           “I’ll clean the box, Princess,” To-Ho-Ne offered.




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         “No, I’ll do it,” Isabella said. “You need to give the dragon its medicine.”

         “I’ll help,” Alijandra said. “I’ll help you clean out the box. She’s my dragon.”

         “She’s not your dragon,” Isabella said. She handed the water jar to Alijandra, then gave

her the last clean rag. “Come on,” she said, picking up the box and heading for the door.

         It was cold outside, and very dark: neither moon was up. Isabella put the box down

under the spigot and started to pump the well’s handle. “What are you hiding in the larder?” she

asked.

         “Nothing,” Alijandra said. “I—nothing.”

         “You had something in your hand when you came inside,” Isabella said. “You hid it

behind your back, and then you went in the larder, and when you came back, the thing was gone.

So what did you put there?”

         “Nothing,” Alijandra insisted. “I had to pass water, so—”

         “You never have to pass water in the middle of the night,” Isabella told her. “Stop lying

to me. Or should I just tell Mama that you’re hiding something in the larder?”

         “I—an egg,” Alijandra confessed. “I was getting Pearl an egg from our hens.”

         “And when did you start doing that?”

         “I don’t know,” Alijandra said. “A few days ago.”

         “So that’s why we haven’t had any eggs for a week.” A trickle of water came out of the

spigot, then a splash, then a stream. Isabella let it fill up the bucket. When it was full, Isabella

said, “You’re going to clean this out by yourself.”

         “Mama told you to clean it,” Alijandra protested.

         “Mama told you that you couldn’t give the dragon any eggs,” Isabella reminded her. “Do

you want me to tell her what you’ve been doing?”




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         Alijandra shook her head.

         “All right, then,” Isabella said, crossing her arms and leaning against the side of the

house.

         Alijandra didn’t say anything as she plunged the rag into the icy well water and swished

it around the sides of the box, swabbing off the mess. After a minute or so, she asked, “Is this

good enough?”

         Isabella peered over. “I can’t tell: it’s too dark,” she said. “I suppose it is.” Isabella

tipped over the box, dumping out the water. Then she starting pumping the handle of the well

again. “Come here and rinse off that rag,” she told her sister. “And wash your hands, too.”

         Alijandra did as she was told. “Bella, Pearl’s not getting better.”

         “Yes, she is,” Isabella said. “A little. At least she’s eating now.”

         “Just the eggs I bring her.”

         “No,” Isabella said. “She ate some bits of ham yesterday. Little monster tried to bite me,

too,” she added.

         “She doesn’t like you yet, but she will,” Alijandra promised.

         “Well, I don’t like her, and won’t ever like her, so she shouldn’t bother trying to like

me,” Isabella said.

         “She’s really sweet right after she eats,” Alijandra said. “Sometimes, after she finishes

her egg, I stroke her head, right in between her eyes. She likes that.”

         “She’s not getting any more eggs,” Isabella said. “Those eggs are for us.”

         “But she likes them.”

         “Maybe I should tell Mama,” Isabella suggested. “Maybe she’d have something to say.”




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           “Why are you so mean, all of a sudden?” Alijandra’s voice was tight. Even in the dark,

Isabella could tell her sister was close to tears.

           “I’m sorry,” Isabella sighed. “Mama’s right: I’m—I’m just tired. I need to go back to

sleep.” She hugged Alijandra.

           Alijandra buried her face in her sister’s nightgown. Then she said, “She’s not getting

better.”

           “Not much, no,” Isabella admitted.

           “It scares me when she gets sick like this,” Alijandra said.

           “Me, too,” Isabella said. “I don’t know if the poison in her is getting worse, or if the

medicine we’re giving her is making her sick.”

           “We should give her different medicine,” Alijandra said. “What about the horsetails?

You said that if she didn’t get better, we’d go to the stream and get horsetails.”

           “Ali, Mama won’t let us do that.”

           “You said that if she wouldn’t let us go, we’d go anyway.”

           “Ali…”

           “You did!” Alijandra insisted. “That’s what you said.”

           Isabella sighed. How did I know she was going to remember that? she asked herself.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I said that.”

           “Did you mean it? Or were you just lying?” Alijandra demanded.

           “I meant it,” Isabella said. “But right now, we’re going back to sleep. Bring the rag and

the box. We have to put Pearl back in it.”



                                                     #




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       “That way, I think,” Isabella said.

       “Let’s go!” Alijandra cried, running ahead. Jack sprang after her. “Come on!”

       “Stop running, you fools,” Isabella said. “It’s a long way to go, and you’ll tire yourself

out, and I’m not carrying you back.”

       The girls had gotten up, dressed and eaten quickly, checked on the dragon, then gone

outside. Surprisingly, Mama hadn’t had any chores for them, so they had told her that they were

going to look for berries. Unbidden, Jack had fallen in step behind them.

       “We shouldn’t have lied to Mama,” Isabella said.

       “Lied about what?” Alijandra asked.

       “Looking for berries.”

       “We’ll look for berries on the way back,” Alijandra said, “so we’re not lying.”

       “You’re sneaky,” Isabella said.

       “No, I’m not,” Alijandra said.

       “Did you put the egg back in the coop, like I told you to?”

       “Yes,” Alijandra replied. She rolled her eyes.

       “Don’t do that. It doesn’t look nice.”

       “You do that all the time.”

       “Be quiet.”

       She and Alijandra walked quickly. Jack, grinning, tongue flapping, padded along beside

them, tail curved over his back. The sun was out, but the day wasn’t hot: a cool breeze blew

from the northwest. Isabella remembered that the stream lay west of their house, so they kept the




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sun behind them as they walked. Every once in a while, they took big swigs from the pitch-

covered water basket that Isabella had brought.

       When the sun was right overhead, they came to the stream and sat down under the trees.

They pulled off their sandals and put their feet in the cool water.

       “My feet are sore,” Alijandra said. Beside her, Jack waded into the stream and began

lapping water with greedy pooshpooshpooshpoosh noises.

       “I told you it’s a long way,” Isabella said.

       “Maybe we’ll see some of those fish,” Alijandra said, “like we did last time. The ones

that nibble and tickle you.”

       “We’re here to get horsetails,” Isabella reminded her. “To-Ho-Ne said they were tall and

skinny…”

       “And the stems are like little green blocks stacked on top of each other,” Alijandra added.

“And the tops are white and look like the end of a rattlesnake’s tail.”

       “I’m glad you remembered all that,” Isabella said. She pointed to the opposite side of the

stream. “Don’t you think those look like them?”

       Alijandra put her sandals back on and splashed across the stream—the water, even in the

middle, was no deeper than her knee—to the opposite side. She spent a few moments

considering the plants growing there. “I think so,” she said.

       “Well, then, let’s pick them.” The girls went to work, pulling up eight horsetail plants.

       “What about the rest?” Alijandra asked.

       “We’ll leave them here, in case we need more later,” Isabella told her.




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         They waded back. Jack—wet from the neck down—was lying, paws crossed, in the dust

beside the stream. The girls laid the plucked horsetails next to him and sat on large rocks by the

water’s edge and dangled their feet. Alijandra peered into the water.

         “What are you doing?” Isabella demanded.

         “I’m looking for the little fish.”

         “Ali, forget about the fish.”

         “Maybe Pearl likes fish. Maybe we can catch some for her.”

         “We need to head back soon,” Isabella told her. “I’m sure Mama is wondering where we

are.” She crossed her arms. “We’re going to get in trouble. I just know it. We shouldn’t have

come out here. Mama told us not to.”

         “But Pearl needed medicine,” Alijandra protested. “And besides, we could get her some

fish.”

         “We don’t have anything to cat—”

         “There’s one!” Alijandra exclaimed, pointing. “And another! And another! Help me

catch them!” Alijandra sprang into the stream, her little brown hands grabbing fistfuls of

nothing. Jack laid his head on his paws and watched her.

         “You can’t catch fish like that,” Isabella said. “They’re too fast.”

         “Nothing’s faster than me! I’ll catch some,” Alijandra said, lunging again—“and I’ll

bring them home for Pearl,”—she added, opening her hands to find them merely wet—“and

she’ll be so happy.”

         “Stop it,” Isabella said. “You look ridiculous. Besides, even if you caught a fish, we

don’t have any way to take it home. You’d have to carry it the whole way in your hand—”

         “I don’t care,” Alijandra said.




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         “—and it would be dead and it would dry up and it would start to stink.” Isabella slipped

on her sandals. Jack raised his head, looked at her, hauled himself to his feet. “Now, come on,”

she said. She bent and picked up the horsetails. As she straightened, she looked west and saw

someone coming towards them. Her long-distance vision was fuzzy, but it looked like a man in

a hat.

         “Ali, come out—” Isabella began, but her sister had seen the man, too.

         “Papa!” she exclaimed. She waded out of the stream and started running towards the

man. Jack perked his ears, then launched himself after Alijandra, barking furiously, water flying

as he bounded across the stream. In a heartbeat, he was between the little girl and the man.

         “That’s not Papa!” Isabella called, hustling after Alijandra. Snarling and snapping, Jack

held his ground. The man stopped.

         “Hey there, Jack. You remember me, don’t you?” the man asked. Jack smiled and

wagged his tail.

         It was Daon Raul, the priest from Scorpion Tail. “Well, hello there, girls. What are you

two doing out here?” he asked.

         “We’re gathering horsetails for—” Isabella began.

         “We have a dragon!” Alijandra exclaimed. “And her name is Pearl! And she’s green and

she lives in a box in our house. We found her after the big storm and she’s hurt and she’s sick so

we took her home and we’ve been trying to take care of her but she’s only gotten a little better so

we came out here to look for horsetails for her because To-Ho-Ne can—”

         Daon Raul held up his hands. “You know, I have eight children, and none of them talk

nearly as quickly as you do, Alijandra,” he laughed. “How about you tell me again, a little bit

more slowly this time?”




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        Alijandra told him how after the storm, they had gone out looking for their sheep and

found the little dragon in the arroyo. How they had brought it home (and it had bitten Isabella,

the older girl interjected) and cared for it. How they had tried to find things for the dragon to eat

and how they had gathered plants to use as medicine. How the dragon had gotten a little better,

but was still very weak and very ill, and so they had come to get horsetails so that To-Ho-Ne

could make better medicine. Daon Raul took his bag off his shoulder, kicked off his sandals, and

sat with his feet in the stream as the girls told their story.

        “Most peculiar,” he said, when they had finished. “Indeed.”

        “We have to go home now,” Isabella said. “Mama will be expecting us.”

        “I’m surprised that she would let you two come all the way out here, by yourselves,”

Daon Raul said.

        “We’re not by ourselves,” Alijandra protested. “We have Jack.” Lying next to Daon

Raul, the dog looked up at the mention of his name.

        “Actually, Mama doesn’t know we’re here,” Isabella admitted.

        “Well, then, let’s not let her worry,” Daon Raul said, scratching the spot between Jack’s

ears. He stood up, came out of the stream, and put his sandals back on. He slung his yucca-

string bag over his shoulder.

        “Can you help us catch some fish?” Alijandra asked.

        “Fish?” Daon Raul asked.

        “Ali—” Isabella said.

        “Pearl hasn’t been eating much—she likes eggs, but that’s about all,” Alijandra said, “—

and I thought maybe she might like some fish. Can you help us catch some, please?”




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        Daon Raul took off his straw hat, wiped his brow, and considered the idea. “Fish,” he

said. “You mean there are fish in this little stream?”

        Alijandra nodded. “They’re very small—about as big as my little finger,” she said,

holding up her left one. “Can you?”

        “Ali, we have to go home,” Isabella said. “Mama’s going to be angry, and—”

        “It seems a shame to come all the way out here and not come back with some fish for the

dragon,” Daon Raul said. “Let me see these fish.”

        They stood still and silently on the bank for a minute, until Alijandra slowly pointed at

some rocks. “There,” she whispered.

        Daon Raul leaned over, squinting. He nodded. “Oh, yes, I see them,” he said. “They are

very small.”

        “Do you think you can catch some?” Alijandra asked. “They’re fast.”

        “I think I can,” he said. He set down his bag, opened it, and took out a waterskin. He

uncorked it and poured the water into the stream.

        “What are you doing?” Isabella asked. “You’ll need that.”

        “I have another one in my bag,” Daon Raul explained. “I’ll be all right.” He took a

chunk of cornbread from his bag, crumbled it, and dropped the crumbs into the waterskin.

        “This is the hard part,” he said. He stepped into the stream, bent over, and held the open

waterskin under the surface. Bubbles spilled from the waterskin, slowed, stopped. Daon Raul

held still, hunched over.

        “Wha—” Alijandra began, but Daon Raul slowly raised a finger to his lips and shook his

head.




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         Jack and the girls watched. After a few minutes, some of the tiny fish were swimming

around Daon Raul’s calves as he stood, motionless, in the stream. One of the fish slipped inside

the waterskin and came back out, gobbling down a soggy glob of cornbread. Its fellows noticed,

and a few moments later, over a dozen of them had squirmed into the waterskin. Quickly, Daon

Raul stood up, pulling the waterskin out of the stream.

         “And that’s how you catch little fish,” he said.

         “That’s great!” Alijandra beamed. “Now we have lots of them, and they can just stay in

the waterskin until we get back home. They won’t die and they won’t get stinky and Pearl will

love them. Thank you!” she said, throwing her arms around Daon Raul’s waist. “Thank you!”

         “It was nothing,” he said. “A trick I learned as a boy, when I lived in a little fishing

village by the sea. Here,” he told her. “You carry them.” He stooped and picked up his bag

again.

         “Are you coming with us?” Isabella asked.

         “Yes, I am,” he replied. “Actually, I was on my way to your home, to check on you girls

and your mother. Your father’s friend Ahiga likes to visit the trading post, even when he has

nothing to trade. He said he had found a dead dragon—a big, dangerous one—near your house.”

         “I found it,” Isabella said.

         “We found it,” Alijandra corrected her. “You and me and Mama and To-Ho-Ne. And

Jack.” She rumpled the thick fur around the dog’s neck. “Actually, I think Jack saw the dragon

before any of us. Remember?”

         “I had been planning to go to Esmargga,” Daon Raul said. “When I heard about the

dragon, I thought I would come by and make sure your family was all right. It’s not far out of

my way. Come on. Let’s go.”




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       The four of them started walking back. “Why were you going to Esmargga—if you don’t

mind my asking?” Isabella said.

       “I heard that Dama Ismaella has been called to Our Mother,” Daon Raul said. “I was

going to pay my respects.”

       “‘Called to Our Mother?’” Alijandra asked. Isabella elbowed her.

       “She’s died,” Daon Raul explained. “Dama Ismaella ran the mission there. Now that

she’s gone, I don’t know who will take her place.”

       “That’s sad,” Alijandra said. She thought for a moment. “You should have seen the dead

dragon, Daon Raul. He was disgusting. He smelled really bad, and all these bugs were crawling

on him, and the vultures were—”

       “Ali!” Isabella hissed.

       “Sorry,” the little girl said.

       “It’s going to be late by the time we get back,” Isabella said.

       “I’ll speak to your mother,” Daon Raul said. “It will be all right.”

       The sun slowly slipped down behind them as they walked. Alijandra carried the

waterskin with its fish for Pearl; Isabella carried the horsetails. They only stopped to rest once,

and no one had said much of anything on the trip.

       By the time they got home, it was sunset. Mama was outside, taking laundry down from

the trees, where she hung them to dry. “Mama!” Alijandra exclaimed, running to her. The little

girl threw her arms around Mama’s waist.

       “Where were you?” Mama asked, stroking Alijandra’s hair. “You’ve been gone all day,

and you didn’t come home for anything to eat. Are you all right? Are you—”




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       “We’re fine, Mama,” Isabella said.

       “Look who we found! Look who we found!” Alijandra said, pointing.

       “Good evening, Mrs. Anerson,” Daon Raul said, tipping his hat.

       Alijandra gasped. “That’s not—”

       “It’s all right, Bella,” Mama told her. “Daon Raul knows who we really are.”

       “But, of course, I will never tell,” Daon Raul replied, smiling.

       “Good evening, Daon Raul,” Mama said. “What an unexpected pleasure.”

       “It’s my fault they are late coming home,” Daon Raul said. “I was on my way here and

came across your daughters. We stopped to talk and lost track of time. Please forgive me.”

       “Of course,” Mama said, embracing and kissing Isabella. “Of course. I’m just glad that

they’re safe. What brings you out here?”

       “I had heard that a dead dragon was found nearby,” Daon Raul replied. “I wanted to

make sure you were all right.”

       “Yes, we are,” Mama said. To-Ho-Ne came out of the house. “To-Ho-Ne, it’s Daon

Raul: set another place for supper.”

       “Yes, Princess,” the old Diheneh woman said, and went back inside.

       “I’d be grateful,” Daon Raul said. “May I come inside now?”

       “Yes, of course,” Mama said. “Please come in and sit down. Just give me a moment to

finish taking down the laundry,” she said. “Girls, go inside and help To-Ho-Ne with supper.

Isabella, please get the daon some water.”

       “You are very kind,” Daon Raul said. He and the girls went inside.

       “To-Ho-Ne, we found horsetails,” Isabella said. “For the dragon. Can you make them

into medicine for her?”




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       The old Diheneh woman took the plants from Isabella and considered them. “Yes,” she

said. “Yes, these will be fine. Where did you find them?”

       “I can’t tell you,” Isabella whispered. “I’d get in trouble if Mama knew.”

       “I see,” she said, and smiled. “I won’t say anything.”

       Meanwhile, Alijandra was kneeling by the dragon’s box, struggling to uncork the

waterskin. She finally pulled opened it, the cork going PUUP! as it came out. Carefully, she

poured out the water—and several tiny, wriggling fish—into the bowl beside the box. Then she

took the lid off the box and gently tipped it over. “I got you something!” she told the dragon.

“Come, look!”

       Pearl looked at her, looked at the bowl. Slowly slunk forward. Sniffed the water.

Lapped it with her tongue.

       “Do you see the fish?” Alijandra asked.

       The dragon looked past her, to where Daon Raul was sitting at the table. Pearl hissed.

       “It’s all right,” Alijandra said. “That’s a friend of ours. He won’t hurt you.”

       Pearl hissed again, but stayed by the bowl, her tiny white eyes shifting between Daon

Raul and the fish swimming just a few inches away.

       “So that’s the dragon,” Daon Raul said, quietly. “Interesting. I’ve never seen one that

small. Is it a baby?”

       “We don’t know,” Isabella said.

       “I think she’s a girl,” Alijandra said. “Her name is Pearl.”

       “I’ve never seen a green pearl before,” Daon Raul said, smiling.

       “Because of her eyes,” Alijandra insisted. “Her eyes are like little tiny pearls.”

       “Ah. Of course,” Daon Raul said.




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       Pearl stretched out her neck and leaned over the bowl. She held perfectly still. Suddenly,

she struck like a snake, neck and head lashing out to snatch a fish from the water. She held it for

a moment, the tiny fish’s tail thrashing between her open jaws. Then she swallowed it and the

fish was gone.

       “Was that good?” the little girl asked. “Have another. They’re for you.” Pearl leaned

over the bowl again, her eyes following the fish.

       Mama came in, and with To-Ho-Ne and Isabella, they finished making supper and setting

the table. Alijandra and Daon Raul watched Pearl eat.

       “Amazing,” Daon Raul said. “I’ve never seen any creature like this one. Are you sure

it’s a dragon?”

       “We think so,” Mama said. “We are keeping it until my husband comes home. He’ll

know what it is. And what to do with it.”

       “What will you do with it?” Daon Raul asked.

       “If it is worth anything to someone, I suppose my husband will sell it,” Mama replied.

“Perhaps a nobleman will want it for a pet.”

       “There are plenty of rich men who would want it just for a curiosity,” Daon Raul said.

       “We can’t sell Pearl,” Alijandra said.

       “Not now, no,” Mama said. “The dragon has been hurt, and it is sick. But if we can

make it healthy again….”

       “Pearl’s my friend, Mama,” Alijandra said. “We can’t give her away.”

       “We will discuss this another time, Alijandra,” Mama said. “Not now, with company

here,” she warned.

       “Yes, Mama,” the little girl replied.




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       One by one, the fish slid down the dragon’s throat, until they were gone.

Hhhaaaaaaaaaaaaa, the dragon gaped. Its tiny eyes turned to Alijandra and held hers.

       “I’m glad you liked that,” the little girl said. “Maybe I can get you more.”

       “What have you given the dragon?” Mama asked. “Is it eating?”

       “I had some fish that I caught in a stream,” Daon Raul said. “I thought I would have

them for a snack. Your girls convinced me to let the dragon try them.”

       “Hmm,” Mama said. She put the last of the bowls on the table.

       She doesn’t believe him, Isabella said. But she isn’t going to say anything. At least, not

yet.

       “Something…” Daon Raul began. “Something about that dragon. I can’t think what.”

       Watching Daon Raul, Pearl crept back into her box and curled up.

       “What do you mean?” Mama asked.

       “Have you ever seen a person’s face and you felt like you should know their name, even

though you’ve never seen them before? Or, at least, you think you’ve never seen them before?”

       “Yes,” Mama said.

       “Well,” Daon Raul continued, “I feel like there’s something about this dragon I should

know—but what that is, I can’t say.”

       “Supper is ready,” Mama said. “May we ask for a blessing, Daon?”

       “Of course,” the priest said.



                                                #




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          After the dinner of beans and corn—the ham was gone—Daon Raul stood and said, “I

should be on my way.”

          “Where are you going?” Mama asked.

          “Esmargga,” he replied. “For Dama Ismaella’s burial.”

          “You can’t leave now,” Mama said. “It’s already dark. You can spend the night here,

have breakfast with us, and be on your way in the morning.”

          “It wouldn’t be proper, with your husband not home,” Daon Raul protested. “And I’ve

imposed enough on your hospitality.”

          “Nonsense,” Mama replied. “You’re not going out there. You’ll be eaten by coyotes or

wild pigs, or something worse. No,” she insisted. “Esmargga is days from here: tonight is one

night less that you’ll have to sleep outdoors.”

          “Mrs. Anerson—”

          “My mind is made up, Daon,” she said.

          “Very well,” he smiled. “Thank you. I’ll make my bedroll in the larder, if that’s all

right.”

          “It is very cramped in there,” Mama said.

          “I don’t need much room,” the priest replied.

          As Mama and To-Ho-Ne cleaned up and Isabella went outside to feed Jack, Alijandra sat

on the floor by Pearl’s box. Daon Raul squatted beside her. “I know you told me before,” he

said, “but please remind me: how long have you had her?”

          “About two weeks, I guess,” Alijandra said. “Ever since the storm.”

          “I’ve lived in Scorpion Tail for a long time,” Daon Raul said, “but I’ve never seen a

storm like that before.” He thought for a moment. “Not around here, anyway. But once, when I




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was a little boy—littler than you—I lived in a fishing village. A storm like that came in from the

sea. We had to leave our home. It was nighttime when the storm came. I remember my father

picking me up and carrying me through the dark. My mother and my sister—she was older than

me, like Isabella is to you—carried as many of our clothes and our food as they could. We went

up into the mountains at the edge of our town. There were caves there, big ones. Almost

everyone from the village came and stayed there that night.”

       “Not everyone?” Alijandra asked.

       “My grandfather—he was old and blind—he didn’t come with us. Nothing my mother

said would make him get out his chair. Finally, we had to leave him.”

       “And then what happened?”

       “It rained a lot. Lightning and thunder, too, like the storm we just had. The wind—I’ve

never heard anything louder in my life. But in the morning, the storm was over. We went back

home. Except home wasn’t there any more. It was just—gone.”

       “Gone?” Alijandra asked.

       “Gone. The wind had knocked down our house and the waves—we lived right by the

sea—had taken the rest of it away. I never saw my grandfather again.”

       “That’s terrible,” Alijandra said.

       “Yes, it was,” Daon Raul said. “So, what are you doing?”

       “I like to watch Pearl while she sleeps,” Alijandra said.

       Daon Raul peered into the box. The dragon was curled up, its white eyes shut.

       “Does she sleep a lot?” he asked.

       “Yes,” Alijandra replied. “She only wakes up to eat or drink, or when she’s feeling bad.

Then we give her medicine.”




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       “What do you suppose is wrong with her?”

       “I don’t know,” Alijandra said. “Her leg is broken—see the little splint that To-Ho-Ne

made for her?—and she’s sick all the time. She spews out a lot, and she’s not able to do much.

To-Ho-Ne thinks that she was in a fight with the big dragon—the one Ahiga told you about—and

maybe she got poison in her.”

       “I see she ate all the fish.”

       Alijandra nodded. “I think she really liked them.”

       “Time for medicine,” To-Ho-Ne said, sitting herself with a huff on the floor. She was

chewing a wad of the horsetail plant.

       “May I help?” Daon Raul asked.

       “If you want,” To-Ho-Ne replied. “Take the dragon out of the box, and hold it tight.

Especially its head. It bites.”

       “Be careful with her,” Alijandra said. “She doesn’t mean to bite, she’s just scared of

people. I think sometimes she thinks we’re trying to hurt her, but—”

       “I’ll be careful,” Daon Raul said. He reached into the box, slipped his rough hands—

with their blunt, stubby fingers—under the dragon, and lifted. “She’s light,” he said. “Lighter

than I expected. I thought she’d weigh as much as a cat, but she’s even lighter than that. It’s like

holding a bird.”

       The dragon opened its eyes.

       “Oh, please be careful, please be careful,” Alijandra pleaded. “It’s okay, Pearl, he’s not

going to hurt you he’s a friend he’s a friend it’s all right it’s—”

       The dragon snarled and its neck and tail lashed from side to side, like a snake. Its claws

waved in the air, clenching and unclenching.




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          “It’s all right, Pearl, it’s all—”

          “Hold the head, I said,” To-Ho-Ne growled.

          Daon Raul frowned. “I’m try—AUUGH!” Something white flashed—zzrkk—and Daon

Raul dropped Pearl and flopped backwards onto the floor.

          “What is it?” Mama exclaimed. She rushed over and bent down. “Daon, are you all

right?”

          “Pearl!” Alijandra cried. The dragon had fallen into the bowl of water, spilling it.

Alijandra picked up Pearl. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “Are you hurt?”

          “Never mind your stupid dragon,” Isabella snarled, coming inside. “Are you all right,

Daon Raul?”

          “I—I think so,” he gasped. “My hands,” he said, “I—”

          “No, you’re not all right,” To-Ho-Ne said. She took Daon Raul’s wrists and showed

them his hands. His palms were burned black.

          Like the burn marks on the big dragon, Isabella thought. She looked over at Alijandra,

who was holding and stoking Pearl. The little dragon was trembling and gasping, as if it had

exhausted itself somehow.

          Lightning, Isabella realized. Pearl makes lightning.




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               Chapter 13: Danger Without, Danger Within 

       “You are lying to me, Daon Raul,” Mama said, “and I do not care for liars.”

       “I am fine,” the priest said, holding up his bandaged hands. “The pain is not so bad,

thanks to To-Ho-Ne’s medicine. Really. Besides, I must be on my way.”

       “You should go back home,” Mama said. “You shouldn’t go on to Esmargga. What if

something happens to you?”

       Daon Raul finished his breakfast of beans and potatoes, gingerly holding his spoon with

the tips of his fingers. “I appreciate your concern, Mrs. Anerson, but I must go on. Dama

Ismaella was my friend. I must pay my respects.”

       “Are you sure?” Isabella asked.

       “What if we went with you?” Alijandra added.

       “No, no thank you,” Daon Raul chuckled. “Your Mama and your dragon need you here.”

Using the fingertips of both hands, he drained his cup of coffee, then carefully put it back on the

table. He stood up. “Thank you again for your hospitality, Mrs. Anerson.”



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        “I’m sorry Pearl hurt you,” Alijandra said. “She didn’t mean to, you know. She was just

scared, and some—”

        “I know,” Daon Raul said, smiling. “It’s not her fault. I should have been more careful.

She is, after all, a dragon, no matter how small and sick she might be.”

        “Sit, please,” To-Ho-Ne said. “I will make you more medicine, to take with you.” She

got up from the table and went to the larder, where she kept her herbs.

        “Thank you,” Daon Raul said, sitting down again. “So nothing is left of the other

dragon?”

        “No,” Isabella said, shaking her head. “It all vanished down a big crack in the ground

that Ahiga’s dragon—”

        “—Brother Tunneler—” Alijandra said.

        “Right,” Isabella said. “That was the dragon’s name. Ahiga’s dragon, I mean. He made

this huge hole in the ground, and the dead dragon fell in it, and then the ground closed up around

it, and it’s gone.”

        “Hmmm,” Daon Raul replied.

        “Why do you ask?” Mama said.

        “If you had anything from the other dragon—teeth, or claws, or scales, or feathers—I

could take them to Esmargga and perhaps find a buyer for them. I could bring you your money

back on the way.”

        “We didn’t think to take anything from the dragon,” Mama said. “Although, you’re

right: we could have sold part of it. I should have thought of that.”

        “I didn’t want to touch it,” Isabella said. “It was disgusting.” She whirled to face her

sister. “Don’t start about the bugs again.”




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       “I wasn’t,” Alijandra protested. “Everyone picks on me when I’m not doing anything.”

       “Here,” To-Ho-Ne said, returning from the larder and handing Daon Raul a bundle of

what, to Isabella, looked like grass and twigs. “Chew on these—just a little bit—when the pain

gets too bad. Too much, and you’ll have bad dreams, even when you’re awake.”

       “Thank you,” he said.

       “And don’t forget to change the bandages when you get to Esmargga,” Mama added.

       “I won’t forget,” he said, standing up again. “Thank you for everything you’ve done,

Mrs. Anerson.” He put on his straw hat and crouched in front of Alijandra. “And thank you for

showing me Pearl,” he said.

       “I’m sorry she hurt you,” she said, again.

       “It’ll be all right,” he said. He stood and, gingerly, picked up his yucca-string bag and

eased it over his shoulder, wincing a little as he did. “I think I’ll need some of this soon,” he told

To-Ho-Ne, as he slipped the herbs into his shirt pocket.

       “If you come back on your way home, I can pick more for you,” the old Diheneh woman

replied.

       “I would be grateful,” he said. “Goodbye, Isabella.”

       “Goodbye, Daon Raul,” she replied. “Be careful.”

       “I will.” He smiled down at Jack. “Take care, old boy.”

       They walked him outside and watched him head off east, towards the butte near their

house. When he had gone a minute or two, he turned, waved his hat, and kept on his way.

       “Inside, girls,” Mama said. “Let’s have a little talk.”

       Oh, no, Isabella thought. “What about our chores, Mama?”

       “Later,” she replied. “Let’s go. You come too, To-Ho-Ne.”




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        “Yes, Princess.”

        They went inside. “Sit,” Mama told them, and they sat down around the table. Jack

curled up in a corner of the room. Mama stood at the head of the table, leaning on her hands.

        “Yesterday,” she said, “you went to the stream and gathered horsetails and caught little

fish for the dragon, even though I had told you not to,” Mama said.

        “No, Mama,” Alijandra said. “We were out walking around and we found Daon Raul

and—”

        “And you somehow convinced him to lie for you,” Mama said. “I didn’t believe him for

an instant, but because he is a good man and because he was our guest, I didn’t say anything.

But I want to know why you disobeyed me like that. What were you thinking? Had you lost

your minds?”

        Neither girl said anything for a moment. To-Ho-Ne looked at the floor.

        “Well?” Mama demanded. “Someone answer me.”

        “It was my fault, Mama,” Isabella said. “I—”

        “Of course it was your fault,” Mama snapped. “You’re in charge of your sister when I’m

not around. You told me you were going out to find berries, and instead, you walked halfway to

Scorpion Tail. You could have been killed by wild animals, or taken by bandits, and I’d never

see you again.”

        Neither of the girls said anything.

        “Say something, damn it!” Mama demanded, slamming her hand down on the table.

        “I…the dragon...she’s not getting much better,” Isabella said, “and so—”

        “And so you thought you’d disobey me and go running off for some horsetails, or

whatever they are? What—”




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        “You tell me to talk and then you won’t listen!” Isabella shouted, standing up. “Do you

want to hear what I have to say, or do you just want to yell at me some more?” She wiped her

eyes.

        Mama’s eyes twitched left right left right left right left right as she held Isabella’s stare.

For a long time, the only sound in the room was their breathing, quick and ragged, as if they had

been running. Then Mama pulled back a chair and sat down.

        “Tell me,” she said, quietly.

        Isabella sat down, too. “The first time that Ali and I went out to get some medicine for

the dragon, when you told us not to go to the stream…Ali told me that she was worried that the

medicine wouldn’t work and that the dragon wouldn’t get any better. So I told her then that if

the dragon didn’t get better, we’d go get some horsetails. I didn’t mean it. Not really. I was

just—she was worried. And then, the other night, when the dragon got sick again, and Ali and I

were outside cleaning its box…Ali was scared. Really scared, you know? So I said we’d go get

some horsetails, even…even though…” She started to sputter as more tears came down her face.

        “It’s all right,” Mama said. “I understand.”

        “I just wanted to…” Isabella cried. “I just…and you…”

        “It’s all right,” Mama said, taking her into her arms. “It’s all right.” With one hand, she

stroked Isabella’s back. “It’s all right.”

        “It is my fault,” To-Ho-Ne said, quietly. “I should not have put the idea into their heads.

I knew the only place to get horsetails was the stream. Don’t be angry with them, Princess.

They were only trying to help.”

        “I’m not angry anymore,” Mama said. “And I’m sorry I was.” She held Isabella tightly.

“I’m sorry. It’s all right.”




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         “Are we in trouble?” Alijandra asked.

         Mama pondered that for a bit. “What you did was very bad,” she said. “You lied to me

and you disobeyed me, and it could have been very serious if you had met someone bad out

there, miles from home.”

         “But nothing bad happened,” Alijandra protested. “Something good happened: we met

Daon Raul! And he caught fish for us. And Pearl likes them. She ate them all. We should get

more.”

         “If we get more fish for the dragon, we all go together,” Mama said. “You girls are never

to go there again without me. Never. If you do, I’ll take this dragon and sell it to that old witch

Mrs. Cornejo for a centavo and that will be the end of all this. Do you understand?”

         “Yes, Mama,” Alijandra said.

         “Yes, Mama,” Isabella said, her eyes drying. She went back to her chair.

         “As it is,” Mama said, “we have a very serious situation.”

         “What do you mean?” Alijandra asked.

         “What I mean is that the dragon is dangerous,” Mama said. “I didn’t want to discuss this

in front of Daon Raul—it’s not good to talk about family business with guests present. But the

dragon could burn any of us the way it burned him.”

         “Pearl wouldn’t do that to us, Mama,” Alijandra countered. “She loves us. We take care

of her. And—”

         “Don’t call that animal ‘Pearl,’ Alijandra,” Mama said. “And don’t refer to it as ‘she,’

either. I’ve told you that before.”

         “Yes, Mama,” Alijandra replied.

         “Mama, it might be worse than you think,” Isabella mumbled.




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       “In what way?”

       “When I brought Ahiga to the dead dragon, the venomdrake, he started looking at it and

poking at it to see what had happened to it. And the dragon had all these burns on it. One of the

burns looked like it went right through it. It looked like the dragon had been hit by lightning—

but not just once, like lightning does. And Pearl—”

       “The dragon, you mean,” Mama said.

       “The dragon—our dragon—that dragon there—it makes lightning, Mama,” Isabella said.

“We all saw it do that last night.”

       “So you think…what?” Mama asked.

       “I think she—it—can make really strong lightning,” Isabella said. “Strong enough to kill

something, even something as big as a dragon. Pearl killed that other dragon. I’m sure of it.”

       “Pearl wouldn’t kill anyone,” Alijandra said. “She’s nice!”

       “She is not,” Isabella replied. “Look what she did to Daon Raul. She burned his hands

black. And she bit me and clawed me and—”

       “She was scared, that’s all,” Alijandra said. “You’d be scared, too, if you were just little

and all these big people kept trying to pick you up and do things to you.”

       “Enough,” Mama said, holding up her hand.

       “But—”

       “Enough, Alijandra,” Mama said. “What do you think?” she asked To-Ho-Ne.

       To-Ho-Ne frowned. “We saw it with our own eyes, so it must be possible that a

dragon—at least, this dragon—can make lightning. It does not surprise me. We all saw what

Brother Tunneler can do with the ground.”

       “But Pearl can’t kill anyone,” Alijandra said. “She’s too little.”




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        “The most dangerous scorpions are the smallest ones,” To-Ho-Ne replied. “They have

the strongest venom. Maybe it is that way with this dragon, too. Because it is so small, it is so

strong.”

        “That doesn’t make sense,” Isabella said. “You would think that a little dragon wouldn’t

be able to hurt anything.”

        “You might think that,” To-Ho-Ne said. “But we saw it.” She nodded. “We saw it.”

        No one said anything for a minute.

        “We can’t get rid of her,” Alijandra said. “She’s still sick. She’s still hurt. It’s not her

fault that she can do what she does. Nobody asked her if she wanted to make lightning.”

        No reply.

        “She hasn’t hurt any of us,” Alijandra said.

        “She bit me and scratched me,” Isabella said again.

        “But she didn’t zap you or burn you,” Alijandra said.

        “Maybe she couldn’t back when we first found her,” Isabella replied. “Maybe she was

too weak, too hurt from that fight with the other dragon. But now she’s getting stronger, so now

she can make lightning again. And maybe if she gets even stronger, she’ll make stronger

lightning. Maybe strong enough to kill one of us instead of just burning someone’s hands.”

Isabella shook her head. “We should get rid of her, Mama. Pearl’s too dangerous.”

        “That’s not fair!” Alijandra exclaimed. “It’s not her fault! If we get rid of her, she’ll

die.”

        “Maybe we could find someplace for her to live outside,” Isabella said. “Like a cave, or

some trees. We could leave food and medicine for her where she could find them—”




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        “The dragon is an animal,” Mama reminded her, “and wouldn’t know how to take

medicine.” She thought for a moment. “So long as the dragon doesn’t hurt anyone else—and so

long as you girls behave yourself and do as you’re told—it can stay. But I can’t take the chance

of one or both of you getting hurt. Only I will feed it and take care of it.”

        “But Mama, Pearl likes me,” Alijandra said. “She needs me! Don’t ma—”

        “No,” Mama replied. “Absolutely not. You girls are not allowed to feed, or touch, or do

anything else with the dragon. And stop calling it ‘Pearl,’ Alijandra.”

        “But Ma—” the little girl began.

        “Princess,” To-Ho-Ne said, putting her hand on Mama’s arm. “Let me take care of the

dragon.”

        “No,” Mama said. “The dragon’s my responsibility. I said we should bring it home and

take care of it.”

        “And what if the dragon hurts you?” To-Ho-Ne asked. “The girls need their mother. Mr.

Anerson needs his wife. No one needs me.”

        “That’s not true,” Mama said. “I need you.”

        To-Ho-Ne shook her head. “You can get by without me. Besides, my father taught me

many things about dragons, some things that even Mr. Anerson does not know. I will take care

of the dragon. It has been a long time since I had a little one to care for.”

        “It’s no baby,” Mama said.

        “It’s a wild animal,” Isabella added.

        “You say ‘animal’ as if it being that is not something very good,” To-Ho-Ne said. “But

even if that were so, you—”

        “Look!” Alijandra exclaimed.




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       Isabella followed her sister’s finger to the dragon’s box, where tiny claws clutched the lip

of the box and two tiny white eyes watched them.

       “Doesn’t it seem like she’s listening to us?” Alijandra asked.

       Their eyes met Pearl’s tiny white ones.

       “What mere ‘animal’ does that?” To-Ho-Ne asked.



                                                  #



       “She knows what we’re saying,” Alijandra said. “She knows. She’s really smart.” The

little girl reached up and picked another handful of pale, blue berries from the juniper bush and

dropped them in the round, shallow straw basket on the ground between them. Lying in the dust

with his head on his paws, Jack watched them work.

       “No, she doesn’t,” Isabella said. “She’s just an animal. Maybe she’s a smart animal.

But she still doesn’t understand what we say. No animal does.”

       “Jack does,” Alijandra reminded her. The dog’s ears twitched.

       “He knows the sound of his name, and he knows some commands,” Isabella said,

reaching high over her head to pluck some berries. “He knows ‘come’ and ‘fetch’ and ‘sit’ and

‘lie down’ and some others, I guess. Not nearly enough, actually,” she said, frowning. “He was

no help when I was trying to find the sheep. But he doesn’t know what we’re saying right now.”

       “Yes, he does,” Alijandra said. She squatted down next to him and scratched him on top

of his head, between his ears. “Don’t you, boy? Yes, you do. Yes, you do.” humping his tail in

the dust, Jack rolled over and Alijandra started scratching his chest.




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        The sky was turning orange as the sun started to go down. This morning, after Daon

Raul had left and Mama had finished talking to them, the girls had started their chores: cleaning

the chicken coop, gathering firewood, pumping water for the garden, mending clothes with To-

Ho-Ne, and—the last one for the day, Isabella hoped—picking berries. All day, whenever they

were alone together, which was most of the time, they had been talking about Pearl.

        “Stop fooling around with him and hel—” Isabella began. Suddenly, she stood very still.

        Alijandra looked up at her. “What is i—”

        “Shh,” Isabella whispered, looking past her sister. “Don’t move.”

        Slowly, Alijandra stood up and turned. A mustard-yellow something loped down the side

of a hill toward them. The cougar had seen them, of course, and its ears were pricked up. The

end of its long, thick tail flicked left and right as it came.

        “Jack!” Isabella said. “Jack!”

        But Jack was scratching his ear with his hind leg and hadn’t noticed the big cat. As it

closed with them, its yellow eyes went from them to the dog, to them, to the dog. It stopped

beside a squat barrel cactus.

        “Jack!” Isabella hissed. He stopped scratching and looked up at her, brow wrinkled in

confusion.

        “Look!” she told him, slowly pointing in the cougar’s direction. “Look!”

        Jack watched Isabella’s hand. “He thinks you have something for him,” Alijandra said.

        “Look!” Isabella shouted, her voice echoing off the low hills and red-rock pinnacles

nearby and startling the cougar. It crouched behind the cactus.

        Jack looked around, but the cat—about 20 yards away—held still and blended with the

desert surface. Only its eyes moved: from the girls, to Jack, to the girls, to Jack.




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       “He doesn’t see her,” Alijandra whispered.

       “He doesn’t smell it, either, I guess,” Isabella replied. “The wind must be going the

wrong way.”

       Jack stood up and shook the dust—some of it, anyway—off himself. Still confused, he

watched Isabella. Without taking her eyes off the cougar, Isabella said, “All right, we’re going

to slowly back up. Slowly, you understand?”

       “She won’t hurt us,” Alijandra said. “She’s probably never seen any people before, and

she’s curious.”

       “You—you’re—” Isabella stammered, shaking her head. Is she stupid or just crazy?

Isabella wondered. “Take my hand. When I tell you to, we’re going to back up—”

       “What about the basket?”

       “Never mind the basket!”

       “Why are you so mad at me?”

       “I am not mad at you,” Isabella said, through clenched teeth.

       “Why don’t we just run?” Alijandra asked.

       “Because if we run, it will chase us and catch us,” Isabella said. She grabbed Alijandra’s

hand. “All right. Started walking backwards. Don’t take your eyes off it.”

       They took four steps back and the big cat lifted its head, nostrils twitching. Jack trotted

after the girls. Suddenly, he whirled, planted his feet, and held his tail over his back. He

growled, then barked WHUFF WHUFF WHUFF at the cougar.

       He sees it he sees it he no Jack no, Isabella thought. “Jack, come on,” Isabella told him.

Jack kept barking. The fur on his back stood straight up. “Jack, come on. Leave it alone.”




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        But Jack did not leave the cougar alone. Slowly, stiff-legged, he walked towards it, still

barking. Slobber flew from his mouth. Jack pulled back his lips to show his fangs. The cougar

stood up, ears flattened, growling softly in its throat.

        Jack no don’t it’ll kill you, Isabella thought. “Ali, run,” Isabella told her.

        “But you said—”

        “Just run!” Isabella yelled, and shoved Alijandra away. Jack was still advancing on the

cougar. The big cat snarled. Isabella picked up a rock and threw it as hard as she could.

        The rock hit the ground between Jack and the cougar, and both of them leapt back,

startled. Then Jack started barking again and the cat bounded off the way it had come, its back

and tail rippling like water. At the top of the hill, it looked over its shoulder, to see if Jack had

been foolish enough to follow. He had not. Ears still flattened, the big cat slunk away.

        “Come on!” Isabella yelled, and she sprinted after her sister, Jack pounding ahead of her.



                                                   #



        “You should let me do that, Princess,” To-Ho-Ne said.

        “Next time,” Mama said, slowly crouching beside the dragon’s box. “If you want to

help, you can give me the salve you made.”

        To-Ho-Ne grunted and went to the larder.

        The dragon stared at Mama with its pupil-less, white eyes. “How are you?” Mama

whispered. “Feeling all right, I hope? I’m just going to get some medicine for your cuts. They

look like they’re healing well.”

        The dragon hissed.




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         “Here you are, Princess,” To-Ho-Ne said, returning with a glob of greenish-white goo on

a scrap of burlap. “Sometimes, the dragon tries to bite when I put it on,” she warned. “Usually,

I let Alijandra do it. The dragon always lets her touch it.”

         “Well, the dragon will have to let one of us do it from now on,” Mama said. “At least

until it no longer needs any medicine.” She took the burlap swath from To-Ho-Ne, set it on the

floor, and dabbed her finger in it. Slowly, she leaned over the box, holding out her finger. “All

right, my friend, this—”

         The dragon snapped at her. Mama jerked herself to her feet.

         “Princess?”

         “I’m all right,” Mama replied. “Just a little startled, that’s all.” She smiled weakly. “I

see what Isabella means. It’s very vicious, isn’t it?”

         “You thought it was going to burn you, didn’t you?” To-Ho-Ne asked. “Like it did Daon

Raul.”

         “I’m…concerned about that, yes,” Mama admitted.

         “Perhaps even worse than it burned Daon Raul,” To-Ho-Ne suggested. “You should let

me do that, Princess. Your hands are too pretty.”

         Mama snorted. “My hands have not been pretty for many, many years,” she replied. She

crouched beside the box again. “All right,” she told the dragon, “I’m goi—”

         Hrrrrr, the dragon growled.

         Mama held its stare for a moment. “I’m going to put this on you,” she said. “And though

it might sting a bit, you’ll hold still for me, won’t you?”

         The dragon cocked its head back, like a rattlesnake.




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          “Yes, you will,” Mama said, slowly reaching inside the box. The dragon’s tiny white

eyes watched her finger, with the gob of ointment, inch closer to it.

          “There,” Mama said, slowly smearing some of the ointment across the big scab across the

dragon’s belly. “There. That’s not so bad, is it? Hmm?”

          The dragon watched Mama’s hand. Mama felt, more than heard, the dragon’s low growl.

Hrrrrrr.

          “You just behave yourself,” Mama said, taking her hand away and getting another dab of

ointment. She ran it across the dragon’s back and sides. “There you are. Yes. That’s not bad, is

it?” she asked. “Let’s take a look at that leg.” Gently, she took the dragon’s splinted leg

between two fingers and inspected it. “That still looks good, To-Ho-Ne,” she said, never taking

her eyes off the dragon. “It’s holding well. I think the leg is mending.”

          “It was hard to make for such a small—”

          “Mama!” Alijandra cried, throwing open the door. “Mama!” Mama leapt up just as the

little girl threw herself into her arms.

          “What? What’s wrong, dear heart?” Mama demanded, holding Alijandra tightly.

          Iiiiiiiirt, the dragon sang, craning its neck and peering out over the edge of the box.

Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiirt.

          “It was…” Alijandra gasped. “Was a…”

          Isabella came running inside and flopped down on the floor. Jack padded in after her.

“Mama…” the older girl panted. “Mama…a cougar…out there…”

          “A cougar?” Mama asked. “Are you sure?”

          The girls nodded. “We saw it…Mama…” Alijandra replied. “At first…Jack didn’t see

it…but Bella did…”




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         “It was trying…to sneak up on us…” Isabella continued. “And—”

         “To-Ho-Ne, get them some water,” Mama said. “Put your hands behind your heads and

don’t talk until you have your breath back,” Mama told them.

         After a minute or two, and several long swigs of water, the girls could tell Mama and To-

Ho-Ne what had happened. When they were done, Mama said, “You did the right thing, Bella.”

         “I thought it was going to kill Jack,” Isabella said.

         “It easily could have,” Mama replied. She shook her head. “There’ve been no cougars

around here in…years.”

         “It was probably a young one,” To-Ho-Ne said, “that just left its mother. If so, it was

probably looking for its own territory, and was easily frightened away.” She held out her hands

and Jack loped over to her. “You knew that, didn’t you, old friend?” she asked, stroking his ears.

He smiled, pink tongue dangling. “Yes, you did,” she added.

         “Hopefully, it won’t come back,” Mama said.

         “How’s P—how’s she doing?” Alijandra asked, sitting on the floor a few feet from the

box.

         Iiiiiiiirtt, the dragon sang, a high, shrill sound, not much different from a bird.

         “All right, I suppose,” Mama said. “Have you ever heard it make a noise like that?”

Mama asked. Alijandra shook her head. “Anyway, I just put some ointment on its wounds, and

we’ll see how the new medicine treats it.”

         “Do we give that to her now?” Alijandra asked.

         “Later would be better,” To-Ho-Ne said. “It will help her sleep, too.”

         “Can we get her some more fish tomorrow, Mama?” Alijandra asked. “She really likes

them.”




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       “It’s too far to go,” Mama said. “She’ll have to have beans and squash again, like us.”

       “She doesn’t like beans or squash,” Alijandra said. “Maybe she’d like an egg.”

       Behind Mama’s back, Isabella furrowed her brow. What is she doing?

       “We don’t have any eggs,” Mama reminded her.

       “I think I saw one this morning, in the coop,” Alijandra replied.

       “And why didn’t you bring it in?” Mama demanded.

       Ah ha! Isabella thought, smiling. She caught you. Not so smart, are you, Ali?

       “I—I was hoping we could save it for the dragon,” Alijandra admitted.

       “What about us?” Mama asked. “What if one of us wants an egg?”

       “She could have mine,” Alijandra said. “I’ll have her beans and squash, and she can have

my egg.”

       “That’s very generous, seeing as how you don’t even like eggs,” Mama said. “All right.

Bring in the egg and give it to To-Ho-Ne. She’ll feed it to the dragon.”

       “Hurray!” Alijandra shouted, throwing her arms around Mama. “Thank you!” She

dashed outside.

       “Come here, Bella,” Mama said. They went to the other side of the little house, where

Mama kept her clothes and things in several wooden boxes and crates, some stacked one atop the

other. She opened a long, rectangular box. “You were very brave today, with that cougar.”

       “Thank you, Mama.”

       “But if you ever see it again, you may need this,” she said, reaching into the box and

pulling out a long-barreled pistol.




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                              Chapter 14: Many Miles Away 

        Isn’t this something, the dragontamer thought, jingling Kassimyen’s silver-and-gold coins

in his hand. Enough money to keep us comfortable for a few months, and here I am starving to

death. I’ll tell the world.

        It was evening, and it was growing cold. He leaned closer to the campfire. Looked east

and saw the world he had come from growing dark. He had spent four days here, waiting at the

base of the mountain. Two days ago, he had eaten the last of the food that Kassimyen had given

him. Since then, he had found some berries—red, wrinkled things that were so bitter, he had

nearly retched at their taste. He had swallowed them like pills, washing them down with

generous swigs from his canteen. Other than that, he had had nothing. Any animal that he could

have remotely considered eating had stayed far away from here, directly beneath the lair of the

venomdrake.

        The thought occurred to him, for what seemed to be the four-dozenth time, that perhaps

he had made a mistake. Perhaps this was not the drake’s cave. Even if it was, perhaps the drake



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had abandoned her nest: unlikely, given what he knew about how fiercely protective female

venomdrakes were of their young, but possible. Perhaps the Uupohna warrior who lay dead a

few yards away had managed to kill the drake before his own death, and it was right now rotting

in its cave, hundreds of feet above. Perhaps the drake had continued attacking Uupohna villages,

and been brought down by arrows—or by one of the dragons, such as the toad-like Lichxii

Na’atseed—that the Uupohna had tamed. Perhaps…

       Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, boss, he told himself, counting—again—the coins in his

hand. Perhaps you ought to take what you have and go home. Sure, it’s foreign money, but it’s

gold and silver, and everyone takes that.

       And what happens when the money runs out? he asked himself. Then what?

       Hells, I don’t know, boss, but it has to be better than sitting here roasting in the sun and

freezing at night, listening to your stomach cramp, waiting for a drake to show up and kill you.

When you have money, you have opportunities. Maybe something will come along.

       He pondered that for a moment. Got the letter out of his shirt pocket.



               April, 1884

               My dearest Juanita, my darling Isabella, and my delightful Alijandra,

               Hopefully, this letter finds you soon and all is well at home. I have

       found something. It is a venomdrake, a female, and I believe it is lairing in

       the Great Mountains. It is a long journey to make on foot, and it will not be

       easy, but I am determined to bring back a dragon.




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               I have been heading north and west. The days have been hot and I do

       most of my traveling at night. Water has been hard to find, but I am all

       right. Please don’t worry about me.

               I am now deep into the Uupohna lands, and I am very alone. I don’t

       know how or if I will ever manage to get this letter to you. Still, it comforts

       me to write. Sometimes I think it would be better if you and the girls had

       stayed in Ysparria and forgotten about me. Then at least you would not be

       living out here, so far from



       He took out the pencil from his shirt pocket, saw that the tip had broken. Took the

double-bladed knife from his boot, began sharpening the pencil. Slipped and cut his thumb.

Swore loudly and wrapped the end of his thumb in his shirt. Rocked back and forth and

glowered. Sheathed his knife, put back the pencil, crumpled and stuffed the letter back into his

shirt pocket. Stood up. Drew his pistol.

       “HOI!” he bellowed, looking up at the cave. His shout echoed, echoed, faded, faded.

       “COME ON OUT, DAMN YOU!” he screamed.

       The echo was the only answer.

       He raised the pistol, flicked off the safety. Pointed it at the cave.

       Boss, you only have two rockets left, he advised himself. You better—

       He fired. But instead of the oooosh …and then THWAMM of the rocket leaving the

pistol and exploding, there was a shrieking hissing, and searing smoke enveloped him and It’s

jammed it’s jammed he realized and he flung the pistol away and it hit the rock wall behind him



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and fell to the stony ground and writhed and jumped and spat and hissed like a cat as smoke and

flame billowed from its barrel and its chamber. It twitched and snarled and died slowly, slowly,

the smoke and flame fading, fading, until it lay still and smoldering and irreparably ruined.

       Ah HELLS, he thought. His hand was as red as the sunset, the hairs on his fingers and

knuckles were gone, and he felt as if there were hundreds of angry ants burrowing, biting, right

under his skin. You’ll be all right, he told himself. You’ll be all right. He plopped down again,

and with his other hand—the one with the cut thumb—he took out his knife, sliced a strip of

cloth from the bottom of his shirt, wrapped it around his burned hand.

       I guess your thumb doesn’t hurt so much anymore, does it, boss?

       Shut up.

       He sat there, by the campfire, for a long time—how long, he didn’t know.

       After a while, he looked up at the cave. Over at the body. To the twisted ruin that had

been his sidearm for almost twenty years. Then back east, from where he had come from.

       No dragon. Now what the hells are we going to do, boss?

       I don’t know.

       He sat with his back against the wall of the mountain. Sometime during the night, he

dozed off. When he woke, it was cold and the fire had gone out.

       Kassimyen’s words: “Girls! You have everything.”

       His own: “I have nothing.”

       Kassimyen again: “No. You have everything.”

       He took the unfinished letter from his shirt pocket. Unfolded it. Read it again.

       He looked up at the cave, where still nothing moved or made noise.

       He ripped up the letter. Let the wind take the pieces where it would.




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        He stood up, retrieved his pack. Started walking, south and east, towards home.




                                                 #



        The door of the trading post opened and an Ysparrian farmer that Dolores Cornejo had

never seen before came in. “I’m closing,” she barked. She glanced over at the stairs, where the

fat woman with the crooked nose was sitting, flipping idly through the storybook that Isabella

had admired when last she was here. “Unless you’ve come to visit my daughter,” Mrs. Cornejo

added, jerking her head toward the stairs.

        “No,” the dragon killer said. He had taken down the wanted poster that had been nailed

up outside. “I’m looking for Anerson,” he said, showing her the poster.

        Mrs. Cornejo snorted. “Who isn’t?”

        “Does he live here?”

        “Here in town?” Mrs. Cornejo scoffed. “Of course not.”

        “Is there another town nearby?”

        “There’s nothing,” Mrs. Cornejo said. “Scorpion Tail’s the end of the Empire: past here,

it’s Diheneh land, and they don’t make towns.”

        “Maybe around here, then?” the dragon killer asked.

        “There’re a few houses outside town, but not many. Only the damned savages want to

live out there.”

        The dragon killer pondered. Then: “He had a wife—a pretty one, a princess, you know—

and a girl. No, two girls, actually: the last time I saw him, I overhead him telling someone that

he had just had another baby. Maybe you’ve seen them around?”



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       “No,” Mrs. Cornejo said. Something stirred behind her hazy, toad eyes. The dragon

killer noticed, said nothing.

       “I’ll keep looking, then,” he said, turning to go. “Maybe some of those houses you

mentioned.”

       “Diheneh don’t like people wandering around on their land,” Mrs. Cornejo called after

him. “Ahiga—he’s their best warrior—he’ll make trouble for you.”

       “The Diheneh and I have known each other a long time,” the dragon killer told her, as he

opened the door. “They won’t bother me.”




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                                 Chapter 15: Lessons 

       The pistol was shiny, plated in chrome, and its wooden handle was inlaid with pearl.

Tiny birds and twisting vines were engraved from the tip of the long barrel around and past the

revolving chamber where the bullets went. It’s beautiful, Isabella thought, but—

       “This was mine,” Mama said. “My father gave it to me when I was a few years older

than you are now. He told me that even a lady should know how to shoot, in case she needed to

protect herself or someone she loved.” She snapped open the pistol: there was a hinge in front of

the trigger, and the barrel and the revolving chamber swung down. Isabella saw that the chamber

had four empty cylinders.

       “Is that where the bullets go?” she asked, pointing at the cylinders.

       “Yes,” Mama said. She reached into the box, took out a brass-covered bullet, and put it

in Isabella’s hand. I thought it would weigh more, Isabella thought. Or be more…I don’t know.

It’s so…nothing. So plain. So ordinary.




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       “This is how you put the bullets in,” Mama said, taking another one from the box and

slipping it, blunt tip first, into one of the cylinders. She put in two more from the box, then took

back the one she had given Isabella, and loaded that one, too. She snapped shut the pistol with a

loud CLKK and cocked back the curved hammer at the top.

       “If you pointed this at anyone and pulled the trigger, you’d kill them,” Mama said. “Me,

To-Ho-Ne, Ali, Papa, anyone. A pistol is designed to do one thing only: to kill. And it doesn’t

care who it kills. So never, never, never point it at anyone or anything you don’t want dead. Do

you understand?”

       Isabella nodded.

       “Tomorrow, we’ll practice,” Mama said, releasing the hammer and snapping open the

pistol again. She held her other hand under the chamber, tipped over the pistol, and caught the

bullets as they slid out. “For tonight, keep this with you, but don’t let Ali touch it,” Mama said,

handing the pistol to Isabella.

       “But it’s not loaded.”

       “Always act like it is,” Mama said. “Even if you think you know that it isn’t. It’s not a

toy. There’s no reason for Ali to touch it. Don’t even let her look at it. You know how she can

be.”

       “She’ll want it just because she’s not supposed to have it,” Isabella said. “And then she

might wind up doing something stupid to get it.”

       “Don’t think of her that way,” Mama replied. “She’s a little girl, and she doesn’t

understand danger. You didn’t, either, when you were her age.”

       Isabella nodded, turning the pistol over in her hands and taking care to point it only at the

floor. “It’s very pretty.”




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       “My father—your grandfather—gave it to me for my fifteenth birthday.” She smiled

faintly. “He said the finest gunsmith in Ysparria had made it. The grip, the weight, everything

was designed just for me. There was no other pistol like it in the Empire.”

       “It’s probably worth a lot of money. Why didn’t you sell it, or trade it?”

       “You’ve seen Scorpion Tail—who around there could give me anything approaching

what this pistol is worth?” She shook her head. “If I had what this was worth in money, I could

buy half the things in that trading post.”

       “We could take it to Esmargga,” Isabella said, “or somewhere else, if we had to.

Somewhere bigger, where rich people live. We could sell them this, and then buy whatever we

needed.”

       “And while we’re at it, we could sell my pearl bracelet, too,” she said. “The one that Ali

broke.” She shook her head again. “No. I wanted you to have it, when you got old enough.

And besides, it’s one of the few things I have left from your grandfather.”

       Isabella put the pistol in the pocket of her apron. “You don’t talk much about him,” she

began, but then the door flung open and Alijandra dashed into the house, holding the egg from

the chicken coop.

       “Here it is, Mama!” she cried. “Can we give it to Pearl now?”

       “Stop calling the dragon by that name,” Mama reminded her. “Give it to To-Ho-Ne, like

I told you to. She’ll feed it to the dragon. Now, go wash your hands, and you can help me make

supper.”

       “Yes, Mama,” Alijandra said, and went back outside.




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       Mama turned back to her older daughter. “We’ll talk about your grandfather some other

time. Remember what I said about that,” she said, pointing at the lump in Isabella’s apron

pocket. “You should go wash up, too. Ali will need help with the pump handle.”

       “Yes, Mama.”

       “I’m going to need something here,” Mama said, tapping at her cheek, and Isabella kissed

her there.



                                                 #



       “Where are you going?” Alijandra asked, sitting up.

       “Ah, good morning, little bird,” Mama said. “Did you sleep well?”

       Alijandra nodded and got off the sleeping mat. Mama and Isabella were already up and

dressed and had opened the door. Mama cradled a long, thin rifle in the crook of her elbow and

carried a small wooden box under her other arm. Isabella held another wooden box. Lying in

the corner, Jack opened his eyes, watched them for a moment, got to his feet.

       “Where are you going?” Alijandra asked, again.

       “I’m teaching Isabella how to shoot,” Mama said.

       “Can I come?”

       “No,” Isabella said. “You’re too little. Guns aren’t for little girls.”

       “Besides, I have your breakfast ready,” To-Ho-Ne said, as she stirred a pot atop the wood

stove. “Hot rice with some prickly pear fruit, and some coffee. Your favorites.”

       “I want to come with you,” Alijandra said.




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        “Some other time,” Mama said, “when you’re older. Then I’ll teach you how to shoot,

too.”

        “All right,” Alijandra said. She followed them to the door.

        “You stay here with To-Ho-Ne,” Isabella said.

        “I have to pass water,” Alijandra said, pointing at the wooden latrine outside.

        Outside, the sun was still orange and its bottom strangely flattened as it rose. Slivers of

both moons hung at the top of the sky. The air was already warm. Alijandra watched Mama and

Isabella walk away, the two of them laughing at something. Jack padded after them, pausing for

a moment to glance over his shoulder at the little girl. She waved weakly to him, and he turned

away and kept following the others.

        The chickens gathered expectantly around Alijandra, as they always did, but when they

realized she had no food for them, they wandered off. Alijandra went to the latrine; looked for

scorpions and snakes and monsters; raised her nightgown; and sat in the shadows on the wooden

seat there. When she was done, she came out. To-Ho-Ne met her at the door of the house.

        “I left a jar of water by the pump for you,” the old Diheneh woman told her. “Wash your

face and hands, and come inside. Your breakfast is ready.”

        “How’s Pearl?” Alijandra asked.

        “She is still asleep,” To-Ho-Ne said, “but I think she is doing better. She did not wake up

at all last night. Or the night before that, now that I think of it.”

        “She’s not having any more spells?”

        To-Ho-Ne thought for a moment, then shook her head. “No, she is not.” She grinned. “I

think the medicine you found for her—the horsetails—is very good.”

        “We should get some more,” Alijandra said. “And we should get some more fish, too.”




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       “We shall see,” To-Ho-Ne said. “Give it a few days. I will try to convince your mother

to let you and me go back for more.”

       “What about Bella?”

       “Maybe she can come, too,” To-Ho-Ne added. “Now, wash up.”

       Alijandra washed herself. The water was very cold, almost icy, but she didn’t mind. She

shook her hands, then wiped them on her hair, straightening it and smoothing it back. She

scrubbed her teeth with the tooth rag and powder that To-Ho-Ne had left beside the jar. Then

she went inside and sat at the table, where her steaming breakfast waited.

       Halfway through her bowl, she heard iiiiiiiirt.

       “Pearl!” she cried, jumping out of her chair and settling down on the floor beside the

dragon’s box. The dragon raised its head and chirped again at her. Iiiiiiiiirt.

       “Are you feeling better, little bird?” she asked. She reached inside the box and gently

scooped out the dragon, holding it on her lap and stroking it. “How does your leg feel today?”

       “You ought not to touch her, you know,” To-Ho-Ne said. “Your mother would be very

angry with me if she saw what you’re doing.”

       “I can’t help it,” Alijandra said. “I love Pearl, and she loves me. We’re friends.”

       “Your rice and your coffee are getting cold.”

       “Let me just hold her a little while,” Alijandra said. “I haven’t gotten to hold her at all

since Daon Raul came. It’s not fair.”

       To-Ho-Ne smiled. “Just for a few minutes, then,” she said. “And then I must give Pearl

her medicine, and you must finish your breakfast.”

       “All right,” Alijandra said. She leaned towards the dragon. “Is the medicine helping

you? I think it is. You slept all night, last night. At least, that’s what To-Ho-Ne says. Do you




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dream? Last night, I had this dream that me and Bella bought a kite at the trading post, and we

were flying it on top of the big rock—the butte—outside, over that way,” she said, pointing. The

dragon’s tiny white eyes followed her finger.

        “We climbed up the sides of the butte on our hands and knees—Bella was carrying the

kite, and I had the string in my apron—and when we got to the top, we tied the string on it, and

we let it go, and it flew really high, and Bella let me hold the string for a little while. But I could

tell it was a dream, because the kite didn’t have a tail, and real kites can’t fly with tails. Did you

know that? That’s what Papa told me. So then….”

        As Alijandra continued her story, the dragon stared into her face. To-Ho-Ne sipped her

bowl of coffee and watched the dragon. It seemed content to lie, curled like a cat, in the little

girl’s lap and look up at her, content to let Alijandra stroke the back of its neck and gently pat the

top of its head.

        Finally, To-Ho-Ne said, “Enough, little girl. Let Pearl have some water and stretch

herself out. Why don’t you finish your food and then see if the chickens have left us an egg we

can give our friend, heh?”

        “All right,” Alijandra said. She ate the rest of her food quickly, then ran out to the

chicken coop. Inside were two eggs.

        “Look, To-Ho-Ne!” she cried, as she ran back into the house. The dragon sat up in its

box and watched her. “Two eggs! Two! We can give one to Pearl, and Mama can have the

other one when she comes back.”

        Iiiiirt! The dragon chirped. Its tail tapped pamapamapamapamapam on the bottom of its

box.




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       To-Ho-Ne took the eggs and turned them over in her wrinkled hands. “Yes, they are

good eggs,” she said. “But before we give the dragon an egg, she needs her medicine.” To-Ho-

Ne put the eggs in her apron’s pocket and took out a small bundle of herbs and grass. “Now

then—”

       Hrrrr, the dragon growled.

       “Can I give Pearl her medicine?” Alijandra asked. “Please?”

       To-Ho-Ne shook her head. “You have to chew it up a bit, first,” she said. “To soften it

and get the medicine inside to start coming out. It doesn’t taste good. You wouldn’t like it.”

       “No, I’ll do it, I’ll do it,” Alijandra insisted. “I don’t mind if it tastes bad.”

       “All right,” To-Ho-Ne said, giving her a few shoots from the bundle. “Chew these until

they feel soft in your mouth.”

       The plants had a dusty, bitter taste, and at first, the ends of the grass poked the inside of

her mouth. She frowned, but kept chewing. “This is nasty,” she agreed.

       “I told you,” To-Ho-Ne said, smiling.

       “How long do I have to do this?”

       “A little while longer. Is it getting any softer?”

       “I think so,” Alijandra said. “This tastes really bad.”

       “Keep going,” To-Ho-Ne said. “Do it for your Pearl.”

       Alijandra started chewing with her mouth open. “Look: I’m a sheep!” she said.

       “Yes, you are,” To-Ho-Ne said. “My little sheep. How is it now?”

       “It’s soft, I think. It’s not poking me anymore. Can I take it out?”




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       “Yes, I think so,” To-Ho-Ne replied.” Alijandra reached in her mouth and pulled out the

wet wad of medicine. “It turned your tongue black,” the old Diheneh woman told her, “for a

little while, anyway.”

       “Did it really?” Alijandra asked. “I want to see!”

       “In a minute, after we give the dragon her medicine.”

       “I want to give it to her!” Alijandra said, squatting beside the box. Pearl shrank to the

bottom, head down, eyes staring at Alijandra. “How do I do it?”

       “When I give her medicine, I sit down and pick her up and put her in my lap,” To-Ho-Ne

said. “Then I grab her behind her head, like I would a snake, and I pry open her jaws with my

thumb. Then I put the medicine in her mouth and push it down her throat with my finger. And

she always bites me.”

       Alijandra frowned. “That’s not very nice.”

       “It is the only way,” To-Ho-Ne replied.

       “I wouldn’t want my medicine like that. No wonder she bites you.”

       “You’re different,” To-Ho-Ne said. “You’re a person, and you understand why you must

take medicine. Pearl is not a person.”

       “Let me try another way,” Alijandra said. She sat down on the floor and held the wad of

medicine above the box. “Pearl, come take your medicine,” she said.

       Nothing.

       “Pearl, you know what I’m saying,” the little girl insisted. “And you know what this is.

And you know why you need to take it. So come take it.”

       Hrrr, the dragon whined. Its eyes shifted from the medicine to Alijandra’s eyes, back to

the medicine, back to the girl’s eyes.




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       Alijandra lowered her hand into the box. “Take your medicine, Pearl,” she said. “I don’t

want to have To-Ho-Ne give it to you her way.”

       Hrrrrrr.

       “Go on, Pearl.”

       The dragon’s head lashed forward, like a snake, and Alijandra screamed and To-Ho-Ne

grabbed her shoulders and yanked her away from the box. Alijandra’s foot hit the box as she

tumbled backward, and it tipped over, the dragon spilling out onto the floor.

       “I’m all right, I’m all right,” Alijandra said. “I was just startled. But I’m fine. See?” she

asked, holding up her hands. They were not burned. They were not bitten.

       “See?” Alijandra asked, pointing to Pearl, who was—like a snake—gulping down the

wad of medicine.



                                                    #



       “Put your foot like so,” Mama said, bending down and pulling Isabella’s left foot in front

of her. “Put your right foot back. Open up your hips—like so,” she said, going behind Isabella

and pivoting her hips. “Bend your knees a little—not too much. You don’t want your knees

straight. Yes, like that. How does that feel?”

       “All right,” Isabella said. “But I feel a little silly.”

       Mama put her hands on Isabella’s shoulders and slowly, gently swayed her left and right,

back and forth. “Do you feel how you’re balanced?”

       “Yes. But what does this have to do with shooting a gun?”




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       “Everything,” Mama said. Still behind Isabella, she said, “All right, take the pistol in

both hands and slowly raise your arms.” Mama gently nudged Isabella’s shoulders forward.

“When you shoot, you want to lean forward a little. It helps you be more accurate. You don’t

have many shots, and you don’t want to miss any. Move your right hand higher up on the grip.”

       “The what?” Isabella asked.

       “The grip—the handle. Higher. Move your hand up higher. All the way up to the top.

Yes. That’s it. The higher you grasp the handle, the easier it is to pull the trigger and the more

accurate you are. If you hold it too low, you’ll miss every time. Curl your thumb around your

finger—that’s right. Cup your left hand under your right hand. How does that feel?”

       “All right,” Isabella said, “It’s heavy.”

       “It’s hard to hold something at arm’s length for a while, isn’t it?” Mama asked. “The

more you practice, the more you’ll get used to the weight of the pistol. Your arms will get

stronger.” Mama leaned over her daughter’s shoulders and took Isabella’s hands in her own.

“Here, I’ll help you.

       “Now, some people—like your father—like to hold their pistols as if they had a little bird

in their hand: hard enough to keep the bird from flying away, but not so hard that they hurt it.

People who shoot like that miss a lot of the time, because the pistol jumps around in their hand.

This isn’t a bird: hold it as hard as you can. Try it.”

       “What do you mean?” Isabella asked.

       “Squeeze the handle as hard as you can. Hold onto your right hand with your left hand.

Squeeze hard. Harder.”

       “I’m squeezing so hard that my hands are shaking.”




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        “I can feel that. That’s all right, so long as your hands aren’t trembling too much. Pull

back the hammer with your thumb. That’s called ‘cocking’ the pistol. Wrap your first finger—

the one you point with—around the trigger. Put the trigger in that first little bend in your finger,

just past your fingertip.”

        “What?”

        “Here,” Mama said, using her fingers to guide Isabella’s. “Like that. Do you feel how

the trigger settles into that little crease in your finger?”

        “Yes,” Isabella said.

        “Good. Now, look right here,” Mama said, tapping the rear sight near Isabella’s hand.

“Put your eyes right there.”

        “All right.”

        “Don’t look at anything else.”

        “All right.”

        “Now let your eyes go down the barrel, as if they were walking,” Mama said. She took

her left hand and made two “legs” with her fingers. “Chu chu chu chu chu chu chu,” Mama

sang, as her fingers “walked” down the barrel of the pistol. Her silver bracelet, with its two tiny

pearls, twinkled in the sun. Isabella giggled.

        Mama’s fingers stopped at the front sight. “Let your eyes stop right here. Don’t look at

anything else. Look at it until you can see every little detail on it. Do you see it? Are you

looking?”

        “Yes,” Isabella said. “I see it.”

        “It’s not blurry?” Mama asked.




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        “No, no,” Isabella assured her. “It’s things far away that I have trouble seeing. This is

clear as well water. It has a little scratch right at the bottom. It almost looks like a letter ‘c’.”

        “Excellent,” Mama replied. “It sounds easy, but it takes most people a lot of time to learn

to focus on the front sight. If you look at that while you shoot, you’ll hit most anything.” Mama

put her arms down and stepped back. “Now, pull the trigger back in one, smooth motion.”

        Isabella giggled.

        “What’s so funny?” Mama asked.

        “‘One smooth motion,’” Isabella said, still giggling. “I don’t know why, but it just

sounds funny to me.”

        “Be serious,” Mama said. “Focus. If you pull the trigger back nice and smooth, and don’t

yank the trigger, you’ll hit what you’re aiming it.”

        “Yes, Mama,” Isabella said, trying to make her mouth stop smiling. Focus, she told

herself. Pull the trigger nice and easy. Nice and—

        TKK. Just the sound of metal hitting metal. No “bang” from the end of the barrel, no

jerk of the pistol. Isabella lowered her arms.

        “Do you think you have it?” Mama asked.

        Isabella nodded.

        “Try again,” Mama said. “Practice. Aim at the bushes, the tree trunks, the boulders.

Keep practicing until it all feels natural. Then we’ll give you some ammunition, and you can try

it for real. Right now, I just want you to develop a feel for the pistol.” Mama sat down on a

boulder and picked up the long, thin rifle next to her.

        “Isn’t that Papa’s?” Isabella asked.




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       “Yes,” Mama replied. “It’s an Erisian gyrojet rifle. It fires small rockets,” she said,

tipping her head at the small, wooden box next to the rock, “that explode when they hit their

target—or reach the end of their range.”

       “Ahiga has one of those, too,” Isabella said. “He had it with him I showed him where the

dead dragon was.”

       “Your Papa gave him one, as a present, a long time ago,” Mama said. “And those black

boots Ahiga wears, too. Your father is very generous. Perhaps too generous, sometimes.”

       “What do you mean?” Isabella asked.

       Mama shook her head. “It doesn’t matter.” She began disassembling the rifle. “I

brought this out to clean it, and to check the sights.”

       “You’re not going to shoot it?”

       “The rockets are too valuable to waste on target shooting. I only brought them along in

case we came across bandits, or the cougar again.”

       “I wish I had had this yesterday,” Isabella said, holding up the pistol. “I would have shot

that cougar dead.”

       “Hmm. ‘That cougar’ is one of Our Mother’s creatures, you know,” Mama reminded her,

“and was only doing the only thing it knows.”

       “But it looked like it wanted to eat Ali. And me,” Isabella said.

       “And you might be right. But there’s a difference between killing something to protect

yourself or your sister, and killing something just because you can. Do you understand?”

       “Yes, Mama,” Isabella said. She came a little closer to get a better look at the rifle.

“Where did Papa get that?”




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       “Certain officers in the Erisian cavalry are allowed to carry these. They’re rare, because

they’re difficult to make. When Papa left the cavalry, he took this.”

       “So Papa was an officer?”

       “Yes,” Mama said. “But anyway, it’s not really important, anymore. That was a long

time ago—almost twenty years, or so. Before you, even before he met me. And before he

became a dragontamer. Now, you need to practice.”

       “Yes, Mama.” Isabella resumed her shooting stance and practiced aiming at things

around her. Rocks and boulders. TKK, went the empty gun, as she pulled the trigger. Trees.

TKK. Cacti. TKK. Bushes. TKK.

       Far and high away, a vulture was circling slowly in the warm, spring sky. “Never point a

gun at anyone or anything you don’t want dead,” Mama had said. But I don’t like buzzards

anyway, Isabella thought. Nasty things. For a moment, she considered pointing the pistol at the

circling bird. Then she remembered what Mama had just said about killing something just

because you were able to. Isabella pointed at some rocks again. TKK.

       She kept practicing—taking up her firing stance, aiming, “shooting”—while Mama took

apart the Erisian rifle, cleaned it with a cloth, put it back together. Every so often, Mama would

glance over to see how Isabella was doing. Sometimes, Mama would correct her: “Shoulders

forward more,” or “Lean in.” But usually, she didn’t. I must be doing this right, then, Isabella

thought.

       After Mama had finished with the rifle, she stood and asked, “Are you ready to try some

real shooting?”

       “I think so,” Isabella said.




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        “Don’t ‘think so,’ when it comes to firearms,” Mama said. “Either know what you’re

doing or don’t do it at all. People who only ‘think so’ get themselves—or someone else—hurt.

Or killed.”

        Isabella nodded. “I’m ready,” she said.

        “Good,” Mama said, dipping her hand into her apron pocket. “Take these,” she said,

giving Isabella four bullets.

        Isabella snapped open the pistol, carefully slipped the four bullets into their cylinders,

then snapped the pistol shut again. “What do I shoot at?”

        “That cactus right there,” Mama said, pointing to a squat barrel cactus only a few yards

away.

        “It’s not very far,” Isabella said.

        “You’d be surprised at how difficult it is to hit something even fairly close,” Mama said.

“And anyway, if you ever need to use this, it will probably be at this range.”

        Isabella nodded. “But what about the cactus? It’s one of Our Mother’s creatures too,

isn’t it?”

        “Plants don’t feel pain,” Mama smiled. “And we’re not going to kill it. It will heal. And

anyway, better that a cactus should get some bullet holes in it than something bad should happen

to you or Ali.” Mama moved behind Isabella. “When you pull the trigger this time, the pistol

will kick a bit.”

        “What do you mean?” Isabella asked.

        “It will be almost like the pistol jumped, like you startled it. That’s the recoil from the

bullet leaving the pistol. It can be unnerving the first few times you shoot. Don’t let the thought

bother you. Nothing bad will happen. Go ahead when you’re ready.”




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          Isabella took her stance, left foot in front, right back, hips open, shoulders forward, arms

out. She made sure to hold the grip up high and to squeeze as hard as she could. She looked

down the sights. Focus, she told herself. Pull the trigger nice and easy.

          What about the kick? she wondered. How much will it kick? Will it hurt my hand? What

if I drop it?

          Focus, she reminded herself. Nice and easy. Nice and—

          PKKOW

          The pistol twitched in her hand, as if it were alive, the hammer slamming down, the

chamber turning, a little smoke puffing out the barrel. The shot echoed—OW OW OW OW ow

ow—off the hills. There, that wasn’t so bad, she thought. It hardly moved at all. She looked at

the cactus.

          Nothing.

          “I missed.”

          “Yes,” Mama said. “I told you it wasn’t easy. Shooting is simple, but it isn’t easy. Try

again.”

          Isabella raised the pistol, cocked back the hammer, aimed again. Just look down the

sight, she told herself. Don’t look at the cactus. Look at the sight.

          PKKOW

          “Squeeze the grip harder,” Mama said. “I saw where your shot missed. You weren’t far

off. But you have to hold the pistol tighter so that when it goes off, your hand doesn’t move.”

          I can’t hold the stupid thing any tighter, Isabella growled. She imagined she was holding

Alijandra’s hand to keep her from falling off the top of the butte near their home. Don’t let go

don’t let go don’t let go, she thought. Don’t let go shoot shoot look down the sight look down—




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        PKKOW

        The top of the cactus lost a chunk. Isabella could see green pulp inside.

        “Very good,” Mama said. “If that were the cougar, you would have hit it above the eyes

and between its ears. A kill. Do you have any idea how hard it is to do what you just did?’

        Isabella shook her head.

        “The first time I tried, I missed seven times before I hit the target. And I was older than

you.” She reached in her apron. “Here are some more bullets. Keep going.”

        “Yes, Mama,” Isabella said, smiling. Only three tries, she told herself. It only took me

three tries.



                                                  #



        Mama and Isabella didn’t stay out long. Isabella hit the cactus twice more, then hit

another one, farther away, three times. And then they headed home; they only had a few bullets

that they could spare.

        They spent the rest of the day washing laundry. Isabella helped her mother fill the tub

and soak the clothes and rub each one with bars of soap that To-Ho-Ne made from plants. And

then they rinsed the clothes, and wrung them out, and hung them on the trees and on the fence of

the empty corral. And then Isabella helped Mama carry the tub, full of water, to the garden. It

was heavy, very heavy—the heaviest thing Isabella had ever carried in her life, even heavier than

the lame sheep she had had to carry last year—but they did it. And then Mama and Isabella

tipped the tub over and poured out the water over the garden and watched the water vanish into




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the always-thirsty ground, because here, in the high desert, every drop was valuable, and none

could be wasted.

        After they had given Pearl her medicine and her egg, To-Ho-Ne and Alijandra had

worked on a new basket. But sitting and twisting bits of reeds and straw hadn’t been enough to

keep the little girl from fidgeting, so after awhile, they had started cooking. To-Ho-Ne had saved

the ham bone and they boiled it in a pot of water to get the last bits and scraps off it, making

soup. They made fry bread, and more beans, and coffee.

        The four of them ate dinner, and Alijandra told Mama about how well the dragon was

doing, how she took her medicine, and how she had sucked down the insides of another egg.

She did not mention that she had held the medicine, and To-Ho-Ne forgot to mention that as

well. And this night, Mama did not bother correcting Alijandra when she called the dragon by

name.

        After dinner, there were lessons from the battered schoolbook that Mama had bought a

few years ago at the trading post. Isabella knew everything that was in the book, but she

pretended to pay attention so as not to annoy Mama. When Mama gave the book to Alijandra

and told her to read from it, the little girl struggled with each line, going slowly, sometimes

mixing up letters in words, sometimes saying words in the wrong order. When it was time for

arithmetic, Isabella sat beside her and helped her do her figures with chalk on a piece of slate

they kept for that, and those lessons were better and easier for both of them.

        After that, the girls got out the tub again, the one Mama and Isabella had used to wash

clothes, and each of them took turns washing themselves and their hair. The girls played

together with their dolls for awhile, and To-Ho-Ne gave the dragon some soup, which it lapped

at dubiously, and hissed at Jack when he came sniffing around for some. And To-Ho-Ne gave




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the dragon more medicine, the way Alijandra had earlier, and though at first the dragon balked

and pouted, eventually, it relented.

       When the girls were lying on their mat and it was almost time for them to sleep, Alijandra

asked, “Mama, will you tell us a story?”

       “We’ve read all the stories we have a thousand times,” Mama said. “And besides, I’m

tired—”

       “Not a story from a book,” Alijandra said. “A real story. One that’s not made up.”

       “Tell us how you and Papa got married!” Isabella said, sitting up. “I love that one.”

       “There really isn’t much to tell. How about something different?” Mama suggested.

       “Please, Mama—please?” Alijandra asked. “It’s my favorite.”

       Mama put the kerosene lamp on the floor and sat on the edge of the mat. To-Ho-Ne

brought her a cup of coffee. Outside, the hoppers sang, each to other.

       “All right,” she said. “I’ll tell you.”




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              Chapter 16: How the Dragontamer Won a Wife 

       “How should I begin?” Mama asked. “It was a long time ago, the summer I turned

fifteen,” she said. “My father—your grandfather—was a nobleman. We had a small estate on

the coast. One day, he received a summons from the Emperor, to come to the Imperial Palace, at

Cuidad de Agustin, for an important announcement, and a grand celebration to follow. And my

mother—your grandmother—and my sister Guadalupe and I were allowed to come, too. But

Mama was ill, and did not make the trip.”

       “What was wrong with Grandmother?” Alijandra asked.

       “She had an illness in her stomach, which was very uncomfortable to her, and traveling

only made it worse,” Mama said. “So she stayed home. We rode in a carriage for several days,

stopping at inns along the way, until finally, we reached the palace.”

       “Was it beautiful?” Isabella asked.

       “Oh, yes,” Mama said. “It was like no place I had ever seen.”




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                                                 #



       The room was the biggest in the palace, the biggest in the Empire, certainly, though not

the biggest in all the world. The ruined, abandoned great hall on the island that was once ancient

Imbyrria was said to be bigger. No matter. This ceiling of this room was higher than the highest

pinion pine trees found at the northern end of the Empire, and its walls were plated with thin

sheets of gold mined from the mountains in the south. Its floors were made of marble sent from

conquered kings as tribute to the Emperor.

       “It’s beautiful,” Juanita gasped, looking around, not so much seeing as absorbing the

magnificence of the throne room. She stepped into the room, onto a balcony overlooking a

waterfall that plunged dozens of feet into a pool where fat, colorful fish—gold or silver or green

or red or orange or yellow—wafted among thick, floating plants and around the spindly, webbed

legs of birds—black or pink or turquoise or chocolate brown or white—who waded there.

Overhead, more birds—hundreds of green and yellow parrots and macaws and lorikeets and

dozens of other kinds—wheeled about or perched in potted trees or ate luscious fruits left for

them on golden plates encrusted with emeralds and rubies.

       “Stop gawking like a commoner,” Guadalupe said. “It’s embarrassing.”

       “Don’t be unkind,” their father said told Guadalupe. “You reacted the same way the first

time you came here.”

       “I was twelve,” Guadalupe replied.

       “And I’m only fifteen,” Juanita reminded her. “That’s not a whole lot older.”

       “Yes, it is,” Guadalupe, who was eighteen, told her. “Don’t be stupid. You’re a grown

woman at fifteen.”




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        I don’t feel like a grown woman, Juanita thought, her fingertip stroking the two pearls on

her silver bracelet. But, of course, she would never say that to Guadalupe, who was tall, and

elegant, and graceful, and whose curves drew the men’s eyes—and whose tongue put those men

firmly back into their places.

        “This way,” Papa said, leading them down the left-hand staircase into the throng of

princes and princesses, viscounts and viscountesses, marquises and marchionesses, daons and

damas, who talked and laughed and hobnobbed; who nibbled at pastries and smoked meats and

sumptuous fruits; who sipped wine and spirits from golden goblets and crystal flutes; and who

kept wary eyes on the birds overhead and the closed doors at the other end of the enormous

room.

        “No one announced us. We should have been announced,” Guadalupe hissed. “Why do

you let them insult us like this, Papa?”

        “Just smile and be pleasant, Lupe,” Papa whispered. “We’ll leave as soon as we can.”

        “I like the birds, Papa,” Juanita said. “May we get one? Mama would like one, I think.”

        Guadalupe pursed her lips, but said nothing.

        “Perhaps we shall,” Papa said, wading deeper into the crowd, his two daughters following

close behind. He was a small man, but very round, and the other nobles parted before him as he

smiled and nodded and muttered, “Pardon, pardon,” as he went by.

        I wish To-Ho-Ne were here, Juanita thought. Faces—all of them strange, none of them

friendly—stared as she followed her sister. She smiled wanly, and remembered what Mama had

said. “Head up, neck tall, shoulders back, spine straight. You are a princess, Juanita, and you

must carry yourself like one.”




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       I’m no princess, she told herself. For a moment, she considered asking Guadalupe to tell

her again exactly what their titles were, and how their family ranked among the nobility present,

but then she told herself that doing so would only annoy her sister and exacerbate her already-

foul mood, and so she just stayed quiet.

       And then Papa was introducing them to people he knew, and Guadalupe was immediately

charming, of course, curtseying, and offering her gloved hand to be kissed, and graciously

accepting the compliments of the none-so-subtly enamored gentlemen, and deftly batting aside—

or lobbing back—the veiled discourtesies of their wives. And meanwhile, Juanita meekly

accepted her title as, “Juanita, my younger daughter,” and merely smiled and curtseyed, and said

“How do you do, sir?” and “It is an honor to meet you, madam.” And Guadalupe allowed her

sister a brief moment before commandeering the conversation again. She always knows what to

say, Juanita thought. And when to say it, and when to say nothing, and how to make someone

say something she wants to hear.

       Juanita’s eyes wandered around the room. It was hard to see much, because everyone

stood close by the waterfall and the steps, away from the other end of the room, where the

platinum throne rested. Beyond the throne, opposite the waterfall, were two doors nearly as tall

as the ceiling. It’s so crowded. Why doesn’t anyone—she wondered, and then there was a

moment’s break in the great throng and she saw the Ysparrian soldiers in their red jackets and

high, black hats. They stood in a line, at attention, dividing the throne room in half. Oh, she

thought. That’s why.

       She stood behind Guadalupe and her father and watched the birds fly overhead for a

while. They don’t seem to mind all the people and the noise, she thought. I suppose they’re used




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to it. But who has to clean up their droppings? she wondered. I’m glad it’s not me. And then

she snapped open her fan to hide her giggles.

       “Pardon,” someone behind her said, as if they were speaking with something in their

mouth. The slave—one of the indigenous people—was almost a foot shorter than Juanita, and he

wore only a loincloth. His black hair was piled atop his head and secured by long wooden pins.

“Pardon,” he repeated, bowing, and holding a golden tray. On the tray were crystal goblets filled

with something reddish-orange. “Drink,” he said.

       “It looks good,” Juanita said. “What is it?”

       The man’s bulging eyes flicked up, then back down again. “Drink,” he repeated.

“Pardon. Drink. Pardon.”

       He doesn’t understand me, Juanita thought. He probably doesn’t speak much Ysparrian.

“Good?” she asked, pointing to a goblet. “Taste good?” She licked her lips, smiled, rubbed her

stomach.

       “Drink. Good. Drink. Good,” the slave said. He moved the tray a few inches closer.

“Take, yes. Take drink.”

       “Yes, I will,” Juanita said, taking a goblet. “Thank you.”

       But the slave had moved on. “Pardon,” he said, bowing and offering his tray to a couple

a few feet from Juanita.

       That IS good, Juanita thought, sipping from the goblet. The juice was thick and very

sweet and as she swallowed it, she felt her throat sting just enough to tell her that it was

fermented. I’d better not have much, though. Wouldn’t want to embarrass Papa.

       “And this is my younger daughter, Juanita,” she heard Papa say again, and then she

whirled quickly and curtseyed to the old man and his wife that Papa was introducing her to, and




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she murmured, “How do you do, sir?” and “It’s an honor to meet you, madam,” and they smiled

and as soon as they turned their attention back to Papa and Guadalupe, their names and their

titles—which Papa had said—immediately escaped her. And again, Juanita thought to herself, I

wish To-Ho-Ne were here.



                                                #



       “The palace was decorated in gold and marble and precious stones,” Mama said. “We

were sent into the throne room, which was fifty—no, a hundred—times bigger than this house.

There were many, many people there—perhaps a thousand or more—other noblemen and their

families, who had come from all over the Empire. I didn’t know anyone, of course, for I had

never been to the Imperial court before. The men were all handsomely dressed, and the ladies

wore elegant gowns. There were servants offering refreshments—foods and drink that were new

to me. It was very noisy, and very crowded, and no one knew why we were there.”



                                                #



       The huge doors at the other end of the room began to swing open, far more swiftly than

Juanita would have thought imaginable, given their size, and a brass band marched in, playing a

fanfare, and the crowd murmured, The Emperor the Emperor it’s him it’s him the Emperor he’s

come be quiet it’s him the Emperor

       For a moment, Juanita imagined the Emperor as another handsome young nobleman from

the fairy tales Mama had read to her as a child. She craned her neck, but couldn’t see over the




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crowd. She stood on tiptoes. Still nothing. “I can’t see him,” she told Guadalupe. “I can’t see

the Emperor.”

        Her sister leaned in close. “There’s nothing much to see. He’s just a fat old man.

Smelly, too, Papa says.”

        “I want to see,” Juanita said.

        “Well, then, we’ll go see,” Guadalupe said. Taking her sister’s hand, she eased through

the crowd, murmuring, “Pardon, pardon,” smiling as they went. In a few moments, they were

standing at the front of the crowd, only the line of soldiers between them and the Emperor’s

entourage as it followed the marching band into the room.

        Clad in a long, white robe, the Emperor entered in a golden-gilded carriage pulled by

eight massive white stallions. Perhaps he had been handsome when he was young, but he

certainly was not now. His face was a shriveled peach, a wrinkled, yellowy-orange color. He

was bald except for a few long wisps of grey, like cobwebs, still growing here and there through

the red rash that covered his scalp. The crowd applauded wildly, but the Emperor made no sign

he heard or saw them. Is he deaf? Juanita wondered. Or blind? Or both? Lupe’s right: he’s

ugly.

        The horses stopped before the platinum throne and it took six stout slaves several minutes

to slowly, slowly, help the Emperor from the carriage to his feet. Once he was out, a soldier led

the horses and carriage back the way they had come, and more slaves shut the great doors.

        With an audible sigh, the Emperor settled into his throne, his gnarled and spotted hands

resting on his swollen belly. “My friends, my people, my subjects,” he said, in a loud but

squeaky voice, “thank you for coming. I have summoned you here today so that you may see for

yourself the beginning of a grand, glorious, golden era of the Empire of Ysparria.”




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        The gathered nobles applauded.

        “For many, many years,” the Emperor said, “since our ancestors came over the sea from

lost Imbyrria, since those same ancestors founded this Empire, our people have been threatened

by other nations. Nations such as Erisia, and Thond, and Dhyuzman, and Qellizarr. Nations

with their own empires, who would like nothing more than to see ours fail. Who would destroy

our cities, steal our wealth, and enslave our people. In every generation, we have fought wars

against these other powers. In every generation, we have protected our lands and our way of life.

It has been at a terrible cost, to our people, to you, and even to me.”

        Poor Prince Reinaldo, Juanita thought. What a shame about him.

        “Our struggles against the hostile powers arrayed against us continue to this day,” the

Emperor said. “The Erisians are seizing the lands north and east of us, attacking our neighbors,

the indigenous tribes that live there, and threatening the trading posts and the religious missions

we have established. The Dhyuzmanii Azarinak refutes our lawful claim to the islands of e-

Shanizarr, and has vowed to defend its own, blatantly illegal claims with its navy and its vast

army.

        “Ysparria is content with what it has, and is willing to live in peace,” the Emperor

continued. “Ours is the oldest empire in the world, the most prosperous, the noblest of character.

But the Erisians would pit their heartless, brutal war machines and their unfeeling technology

against our glorious cavalry and unmatched armada, to wrest dominion of this continent from us

and satisfy their greedy to rule everywhere and everyone. The Dhyuzmanii would sail across the

Great Gray Ocean and would take not only our lands and our wealth, but also our souls, tearing

down our cathedrals to Our Mother and replacing them with vile temples to their false, inhuman

deities, whom they call ‘The Flames.’




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           “For many years, I, as your Emperor, have labored to keep you, your families, and our

people safe in a world that hates us. Every day, I have woken from sleep with the fear that today

will be the day that the enemies of Ysparria succeed in destroying us. But today, my fears are at

an end. For after today, there will be no more wars against Ysparria. After today, our enemies

will not dare to threaten us. Because after today, the world will know that the Ysparrian Empire

possesses the mightiest weapon nature has ever forged.”



                                                  #



           “After what seemed like a long time of waiting,” Mama continued, “the Emperor finally

came in. He was an old man, not at all what I expected. He made a speech about how our

country had many enemies, other countries that wanted to take away our lands and our homes

and our money.”

           “Why?” Alijandra asked. “Why would they want to do that?”

           “Because, I am sad to say, people are never happy with what they have,” Mama said.

“They always want more. And if they don’t have something, they will either try to take it away

from someone who does have it, or they will try to ruin that thing so that no one else can have it,

either.”

           “But that’s—” Alijandra began.

           “Hush!” Isabella said. “Let Mama go on with the story. So what happened next?”

           “Oh, you know what happened, then,” Mama said. “Then the Emperor showed us the

dragon.”




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                                                 #



        Slaves pulled open the great double doors again, and Guadalupe screamed and clutched

Juanita’s hand. Dimly, Juanita was aware of many in the crowd also screaming, and almost all

of them shrinking back as the dragon wafted into the room, floating a few feet over the floor, its

six legs tucked under it. Its hide was dark red, with black and brown diamond patterns running

down its back. Looking into its eyes was like staring into the sun, and from its mouth dripped

glowing blobs of something that shined just as bright but winked out when it hit the floor. It’s

like…like liquid light, Juanita thought. How can that be?

        “Yah’ajighaah! Wehee, wehee!” a voice cried. A pale blond man, dressed in dusty

clothes and wearing a battered hat, followed the dragon into the room. “Ajiiotsaa, joogaal

hizhdi’naah. Nit’ini, t’aadoo haada. Shininil’li’iiin! ” he shouted, and the dragon swung its

round, massive head his way.

        Shielding his face with his hand, the man shouted, “Sinida kwe’e!” As the light that

streamed from the dragon’s eyes faded, faded, faded, faded, the dragon eased itself onto the

floor. “T’aado nahi’nani, Sha hodoochjjl….”

        “Lupe, are you all right?” Juanita asked. Guadalupe was staring at the monster and

murmuring a rapid prayer. Juanita looked around. Where’s—

        Papa jostled his way to them. His face was red, and he was wheezing. “There you two

are,” he grumbled. “Are you all right?”

        “Yes, Papa,” Juanita said.

        “Yes, Papa,” Guadalupe replied, remembering herself. “Yes, I’m fine. I was just

startled, that’s all.”




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       Papa leaned closer. “I was so frightened I almost wet myself,” he admitted. Juanita

giggled and didn’t bother hiding it behind her fan.

       “Papa, what’s going on?” Guadalupe demanded. “What IS this?”

       “My friends, my people, my subjects,” the Emperor said, “I present to you the Kaibabi

Dragon, captured, tamed, and brought here from the northern deserts by Mr. Thad Anerson,

formerly of Erisia, now a friend of Ysparria.”

       “Ajiiotsaa! Ch’ihoghaah diego!” Anerson bellowed, raising his arms like a stage

magician. “Tsxiilgo!”

       The dragon floated back into the air, a nimbus of yellow light seeping out of its skin. The

crowd gasped and lurched backward again. “Beeninhiih!” the dragontamer shouted, then pointed

at the Emperor. The dragon’s glowing gaze followed his arm. “T’aalahagi boholniih,” the

dragontamer said. “Ts’ida biholniihgo ‘ate baa na’ahozhdilt!”

       It’s going to attack it’s going to oh Blessed Mother no, Juanita thought. It’s going to kill

the Emper—

       “Been’deezdiin!” the Emperor commanded. “Akodiiliil!”

       The dragon’s glow brightened, turning from yellow to white, shimmering out to engulf

the room, until even with her eyes shut and her hands over her face, all Juanita knew was white

light. Burning burning burning, she thought. No—not burning. No heat. No heat at all. Just

light. Can’t see. Lupe? Papa?

       Screaming. People screaming again. Juanita reached out, fingers splayed, until she

found her sister’s arm. It was shaking. “Lupe?” she shouted.

       “I want to go! I want to go!” her sister shrieked. “I want to go now! Papa!”




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        “Nihooghaah! Nizhdilna!” the Emperor shouted, and the light faded, faded, dimmed,

until it was only a faint glow around the dragon as it settled again to the floor of the great throne

room.

        “Wehee,” the dragontamer told the Kaibabi. “Ahehee, s’kis.”

        Unsure, murmuring, the crowd collected itself.

        Two slaves took the Emperor’s arms and hoisted him to his feet. “The dragon has the

power of the Sun. This man,” he said, pointing at the dragontamer, “has brought that power to

Ysparria. Who can fight the Sun? No one. She flies too high, Her light is too bright. But we

have Her power now. And no one will dare threaten us again.”

        Applause. Cheering. Stamping. Shouting. Chanting. “Live long, Ysparria! Live long,

our Emperor! Ysparria forever! Our Emperor, forever!”



                                                  #



        “The dragon was huge, so big that it took up almost a third of the throne room,” Mama

said. “At first, it was terrifying. Even your grandfather, who had fought in a war against Erisia

and was not afraid to tell anyone—even the Emperor—exactly what he thought, was afraid. But

your father was not afraid, of course. He had caught the dragon, and tamed it, and then he made

it do tricks, to show us—to show everyone—what it could do.”

        “What could it do?” Isabella asked.

        “It could float in the air—later, I found out that it could actually fly,” Mama replied.

“And it could make light, light as bright as the sun, shine from itself.”




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       “That doesn’t sound scary,” Alijandra said. “Who cares if it could make light? Pearl can

make lightning.”

       “Pearl can’t fly,” Isabella said.

       “How do you know?” Alijandra asked.

       “Because she doesn’t have wings,” Isabella said.

       “The dragon that Papa brought to the Emperor didn’t have wings, either,” Alijandra

replied.

       “How do you know?”

       “Because Mama didn’t say it had wings. Right, Mama?”

       “The dragon didn’t have wings,” Mama said, “but it could fly. Should I go on with the

story? Or have you heard it enough times and want to go to sleep?”

       “Go on, Mama!” Alijandra said.

       “Yes, Mama,” Isabella said, “please go on. I’m not tired, yet.”

       “I’m not, either,” Alijandra added.

       “Well,” Mama continued, “once they had seen the powers of the dragon, the nobles

cheered and clapped and shouted with joy. The Emperor was pleased. But your grandfather had

his doubts. And…well, Papa—my Papa—always said what was on his mind. Always.”



                                               #



       It’s all…so much, Juanita thought. She glanced over at Guadalupe, who was clapping

and jumping up and down and shouting, “Live long, Ysparria! Live long, our Emperor!” with




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the others. Guadalupe stopped and threw her arms around her father. “Papa!” she cried, “Mama

will be—”

        But Papa plucked Guadalupe’s arms from around his thick neck and began pushing his

way forward. He was not smiling. He was not cheering. “My Emperor!” he bellowed, trying to

be heard over the crowd. “My Emperor! Pardon, my Emperor!”

        “Papa, what—” Juanita began.

        “No!” Guadalupe said, grabbing Papa’s arm. “No, Papa, don’t! Not again! Whatever it

is, don’t!”

        “My Emperor!” Papa roared, shaking off Guadalupe and stepping before the crowd.

Soldiers came forward, blocked his way. The crowd suddenly went silent as every eye—his

daughters’, the Emperor’s, the dragontamer’s, the dragon’s—fell on Papa.

        “My Emperor,” Papa said. “I must speak now.”

        “Ricohombre Nunez,” the Emperor said. “It is good that you answered my summons, but

that is all I require of you tonight. There will be no speaking out, again. Not now.”

        “My Emperor, when I see something that is wrong, I cannot stay silent,” Papa said.

        “Nothing here is wrong, Nunez,” the Emperor replied.

        Guadalupe leaned in close to Juanita. “He’s going to make a fool of himself again,” she

hissed. “Do something!”

        “What can I do?” Juanita replied. You’re the one who always knows what to say. She

looked around. Faces—too many faces—looked back at her.

        “My Emperor,” Papa said, “I speak from devotion to you and the Empire—”

        Guadalupe stepped forward and took Papa’s arm. “Stop this!” she whispered. “You’re

disgracing us! You’re disgracing the Emperor!” She looked around, smiling. “Your Imperial




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Majesty,” she said, “and our noble friends, please excuse my father’s outburst. With our

mother’s illness, he hasn’t been—”

       Papa slapped Guadalupe’s face.

       The crowd recoiled. Guadalupe staggered back, mouth agape, cheek burning. Oh no oh

no oh no no Papa no, Juanita thought. Dimly, as if it were far away and happening to someone

else, she felt her glass slip from her hand and crash to the floor, juice splattering her shoes and

the hem of her gown.

       “You disgrace your mother,” Papa hissed.

       He turned. “We all know what happened to Imbyrria!” he growled. “We know what

destroyed our ancestors’ kingdom. Why should we do the same thing they did? Have we

learned nothing?”

       “Go home, Nunez,” the Emperor commanded. “Take your daughters and go home to

your wife, and I will overlook this spectacle you’re making.”

       “If you do this,” Papa roared, pointing at the dragon, “nothing good will—”

       “You go too far, Nunez,” the Emperor warned.

       “Your Majesty,” the dragontamer said, holding up his hands. “Ladies,” he said, nodding

at Guadalupe and Juanita. “Gentlemen,” he added, indicating Papa. “May I say something?”

       Silence. Papa scowled at the dragontamer.

       “From what I’ve been told,” the dragontamer continued, “your ancestors, the Imbyrrians,

made pacts with the dragons that lived on their island and in the sea nearby. But they never

actually had control over them. Not real control. But I assure you that I do.

       “So’ tsilghaah!” the dragontamer ordered. “Nizhoni lichxii, tallidgo dootlizh, yago

dootlizh, litso ligai!” Thousands of balls of red and green and blue and yellow and white light




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gushed from the dragon’s mouth, filling the air like butterflies. The crowd laughed in delight

and cheered as they tried to catch and play with the balls, their hands slipping through them,

unable to grasp them. For who can catch light in their hands?

       “Nihooghaah!” the Emperor said, and the balls of light winked out, all at once.

       “I’ve learned the secret of taming dragons from the Diheneh,” the dragontamer said, “the

natives to the north. They’ve tamed dragons for thousands of years, before there was Ysparria,

even before there was Imbyrria. I’ve brought you the Kaibabi, the Sun Dragon, the only one of

its kind. I’ve taught His Majesty the words to command it. And if His Majesty approves, I will

go back to the Diheneh lands and find—and tame—more dragons for Ysparria, for all the

reasons His Majesty said.”

       Applause. Cheering. Stamping. Chanting. “Live long, Ysparria! Live long, our

Emperor! Live long, the dragontamer!”

       Juanita stepped forward and put her hand on Papa’s shoulder. “We should go,” she said.

“It’s no use. They won’t—”

       “Why should this…this Erisian,” Papa spat, “bring dragons to Ysparria? If he can tame

dragons, why doesn’t he take them to his own country, where he’d be welcome? How can we

trust a man whose people are our enemies?”

       Shouting from the crowd. Are they agreeing with Papa? Juanita wondered. Or do they

want him to be quiet?

       “That’s a fair question, sir,” the dragontamer replied. “Yes, I am from Erisia, but Erisia

isn’t my home any more.”

       “Ysparria shall be your home now!” the Emperor announced.




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        Applause. Cheers. Shouting. Now Juanita could hear quite clearly. “Go home, old

man!”

        “Go home!”

        “Take your girls with you!”

        “Papa, we should go,” Juanita said.

        “You shall have gold and platinum,” the Emperor told the dragontamer. “And a grand

place to live, with servants.” Applause. Cheers.

        “Papa, let’s go,” Juanita insisted. She tugged on her father’s arm, but he did not move.

        “You shall have command of many men,” the Emperor continued. “And a title!” More

applause. More cheers. Stamping. Shouting.

        “Papa, how could you?” Guadalupe hissed. “How could you do this to me? To us?”

        “His title!” the Emperor proclaimed, pointing at Papa. Applause. Cheering. Laughter.

Whistling—mocking whistling. Juanita and Guadalupe looked at the Emperor, then at Papa. His

face showed nothing.

        “A title,” the Emperor continued, grinning in an unfriendly way, “and a wife!” More

cheering. More laughter. Juanita felt the throne room collapse on her.

        “Your Majesty is too kind, but I…I can’t—” the dragontamer said, taking a step towards

the Emperor. Hand on his pistol, a soldier slid between them.

        “One of Nunez’s daughters!” the Emperor decreed.

        “No,” Guadalupe whispered, shaking her head. “No, no. Not—”

        “The younger one!” the Emperor decided. The crowd was everywhere, all around

Juanita, laughing, cheering, pointing, jeering. The room, the air, everything went gray.




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       “Your Majesty,” the dragontamer protested, looking at Juanita with a mix of pity and

disgust. “This isn’t necessary….”

       “It is as I will it,” the Emperor said. His eyes bored into Papa’s, as if he were daring

Papa to say something else. The crowd laughed. And laughed. And laughed.

       The Emperor looked up, looked around. Wheezing, he leaned on the arms of his throne.

“I will retire now,” he announced. “Thank you for coming. Ysparria begins a new age—begin

the celebration!”

       Slaves helped him to his feet. As the great double doors opened and the brass band began

to blare out an anthem, he began to hobble from the room, his advisors and attendants and

bodyguards following.

       Juanita closed her eyes as the room whirled around her in a tornado of laughter and

shouting and applause, sickening applause. No, she thought. This can’t be. This can’t be.

       Tears spilled down her face. She opened her eyes. Papa stood motionless, seeing

nothing, hearing nothing. Guadalupe, bent over, shook with sobs.

       Juanita looked at the dragontamer. He did not meet her eyes.



                                                 #



       “Your grandfather thought it was dangerous to keep dragons, and he did not trust—or

like—Erisians, like your Papa,” Mama said. “He told the Emperor his concerns, but the Emperor

said that there was nothing to worry about.




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       “For taming the dragon and giving it to Ysparria, Papa—your Papa—received gold and a

fine house, and was made a nobleman. And my hand was given to him in marriage. I was very

young then, but in time, I grew to love him.”

       “What happened after that?” Alijandra said.

       “Tell us about the wedding,” Isabella said.

       “No, not tonight,” Mama said. “Now, my dears, it is time to sleep,” she announced.

       “But—” Alijandra began.

       “No, no more,” Mama said. “And nothing from you, either,” Mama warned, pointing at

Isabella. “Time for both of you to sleep.”

       “Can Bella and I have talk time?”

       “Just a few minutes,” Mama said. “But when I say ‘enough,’ then no more, understood?”

       “Yes, Mama,” Alijandra said.

       “Yes, Mama,” Isabella said.

       “Good night,” Mama said.

       “Good night,” the girls replied, together.

       “I’ll see you in the morning,” Mama said.

       “I’ll see you in the morning,” they repeated.

       “I’ll see you in my dreams.”

       “I’ll see you in my dreams.”

       “I’ll see you when the sun comes up.”

       “I’ll see you when the sun comes up.”

       “I love you.”

       “I love you.”




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“What shall we dream about?” Mama asked.

“All the things we did today,” the girls answered.

“Especially what?”

“The whole day,” Alijandra said.

“And you, Bella?” Mama asked.

“I’m going to dream about you and Papa meeting and getting married.”

Mama smiled just a little. “Sleep well, girls.”




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                           Chapter 17: Death in the Desert 

       Later that night.

       skrkk

       The little house was dark. Not even the twin moons showed through the windows, which

were open to let out the heat of the day.

       Skrkk

       On their sleeping mat, the girls lay: Alijandra curled around her ragdoll, Caroleena;

Isabella, on her back, arms out, mouth gaping. Mama lay on her side, next to Alijandra. To-Ho-

Ne on her stomach, next to Isabella. Other than their chests gently rising and falling, none of

them moved.

       skrkk

       Slowly, the milky-green dragon dragged herself from its metal box, which had been left

on its side in case she wanted water during the night.

       She did not. Not now.



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        She crept from the box and went tkk puk tkk puk tik puk across the stone floor, her

splinted leg making a sound she was not used to. She paused for a moment and looked back at

her injured leg. Took a few more steps. Tkk puk tkk puk. She lifted her leg and limped along on

three legs. Tkk tkk tkk tkk tkk

        “That one right there,” Isabella murmured, and the dragon stopped and crouched, white

eyes wide. Then the older girl—still asleep—sighed, “Because,” and rolled onto her side. She

mumbled if peh brggn and then nothing more.

        The dragon held still for a few moments, then crept along again, towards Alijandra.

Tentatively reached out a claw, rested it lightly on the sleeping girl. She shifted, did not wake.

Slowly, the dragon crawled atop her, using Alijandra’s nightgown for purchase.

        Outside, right beneath the open window, Jack, the big black dog, yawned loudly, stood

up. The dragon froze.

        Jack sniffed the air. The dragon looked at the door. Saw it was closed. Jack could not

come in.

        Jack circled. Settled again. Sighed.

        She sniffed Alijandra’s face. The little girl turned her head and murmured.

        Going slowly and quietly, the dragon slung down from the girl and crept toward the front

wall.

        She paused, panting, at the bottom of the wall. Looked at the sleeping family. Looked

up, to the open window, about four feet from the floor.

        After her breathing had slowed again, she started climbing, using her claws to grip the

adobe walls. Bolts of pain shot through her splinted leg and she hissed as she pushed herself up,




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up, up the wall, to the wooden window sill, where she sprawled, gasping again. She lay there for

a long time, eyes closed, sides heaving, back leg trembling.

       Something underneath her. HUFFAHUFFAHUFFAHUFFA. She opened her eyes. Jack

looked back at her.

       She hissed. He retreated a step. Then another.

       She slunk off the sill and started climbing down, headfirst, like she had when she had

come down the cliff on the far-away island of lost Imbyrria. She didn’t use her bad leg this time.

Halfway down, she lost her grip and fell the rest of the way, into the dust. Another bolt of pain

from the leg, so bad that she could see or hear nothing for a moment or two. When her senses

came back, the dog was leaning over her, sniffing. He jerked back as she snapped.

       The dragon spread her webbing and called to the wind to scoop her up and send her

soaring, as it had when it had brought her across the ocean. But this time, all it did was carry her

a few feet, then weaken and drop her to the dust again. She tried again and went only a few

more feet. Tried a third time, and the wind did not come at all.

       She pulled back her webs and slowly, she began to crawl. East again, as she had when

she had left her island. As she had when she had crossed the mountains.

       Jack padded after her—but not too close. She paid him no mind, but kept crawling,

through the dust and sand and gravel, around rocks and bushes and cacti. East. Always east.

       After a while, Jack stopped and watched the dragon creep out of sight. Then he turned

and loped back to the quiet, dark house. He settled by the door and went to sleep.



                                                 #




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       She was cold, and the gravel and stones hurt the bottom of her feet. Jack padded along

before her, not feeling the chill, nor minding the roughness of the desert floor. In nothing but her

nightgown, Alijandra wrapped her arms around herself and asked, “Are you sure?”

       Jack glanced over his shoulder at her, but kept on walking.

       The sun, an enormous orange mound, rose before them, making her squint and shade her

eyes. Behind her, where her house was and her family still slept, the world was purple and gray

and black. They had been walking for a long time—how long, she didn’t know—and something

that was not hunger was gnawing at her stomach.

       “What if we don’t find her?” she asked.

       Jack, of course, said nothing, but kept walking, nose bent to the ground.

       As she sometimes did, she had awakened in the night to use the latrine. She had quietly,

quietly opened the door, as she had many times before, most recently to take eggs from the

chicken coop and bring them to Pearl. She had crept past Jack, careful not to wake him. But he

had woken, and had waited for her, head down, ears turning here and there to catch the sounds of

the night. After she had finished passing water and come out of the latrine, he had thumped his

tail in the dust and she had patted his head and rubbed his offered chest and reminded him, in a

whisper, that he was, indeed, the best boy in the whole world.

       After that, she had gone inside, quietly slipping past her sister and her mother and the old

Diheneh woman, and saw, in the moonlight, that the dragon’s box was empty.

       When she had gone back outside, Jack had already risen to his feet.



                                                 #




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       The dragon opened her tiny white eyes. She lay on the desert floor, in the open, splayed

on her belly instead of sensibly curled with her tail around her. Sometime before the dawn, she

had lost consciousness, though she had no memory of that happening. No matter. The sun—an

orange mound rising before her—was up, showing her the way.

       Her splinted leg burned and trembled and she panted raggedly. Whining, she hoisted

herself onto three legs and trundled to a black, pockmarked stone nearby. She paused for a

moment, gasping, before climbing up, dragging her injured and near-useless leg behind her.

       The stone was only a few feet high, but it would do. After resting again, she peered back

into the dark of the west and called the wind, and after a minute or two, it came, sweeping her off

the rock, into the air—five feet, a dozen, a dozen more—and carrying her for nearly a hundred

yards before failing again. The dragon fell, smashing into the hollowed skeleton of a cholla

cactus, and tumbled to the stony ground.

       She did not move.

       After a while, a skinny, sandy-furred, long-eared fox scurried along, nose to the ground.

It stopped a little ways from her. Sniffed. Inched closer. Nudged the still dragon with its nose.

       Pearl’s eyes drifted open and she hissed slowly.

       The yellow fox drew back. Cocked its head. Pondered this for a moment. Loped off

into the orange sun, tongue flapping, as Pearl’s eyes closed.

       It was a long time before she opened her eyes again and an even longer time before she

began to slowly crawl east.



                                                 #




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       “What’s that?” Alijandra asked. Jack kept loping along.

       The sun was higher and had turned its usual yellow. The air was warming and the

hoppers were jumping out of her way as she went by. “Stop, Jack,” Alijandra said. “I see

something.”

       The big black dog settled onto his haunches and chewed at the skin of his belly.

       A few hundred yards away stood an old wooden shack, smaller than Alijandra’s house.

She looked back the way they had come. Looked at the shack. Looked around. “Bella told me

about this place,” she said. “We were out looking for medicine for Pearl, and Bella said it was

just an empty house.”

       The dog paid her no mind.

       “Do you think it really is empty?” she asked.

       Jack stopped nipping at his fleas and looked at Alijandra.

       “Let’s go see,” she said. “Maybe Pearl’s in there. If I were out here all alone, I might

stop here for a while to get some rest.”

       Jack padded after her as they approached what was left of the house. If, as Isabella had

said, a friend of Papa’s had lived there, it must have had been a long time ago. There was no

glass left in the two windows at the front of the house. The roof was missing many of its

wooden shingles, and the rest were split and dry-rotting. One corner of the shack sagged, as if

the little house was tired and slumping over. Alijandra tried the door, but it was stuck.

       She pushed harder, and the door ground open. Like her house, there was only one room

inside. There was no furniture, only trash strewn over the dirt floor: a few filthy rags; some

empty, rusted cans; shreds and scraps of papers; cracked or broken bottles of brown glass.




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        “I don’t think she’s here,” Alijandra said, squatting down and rummaging through some

of the trash. She peeled a stiff, dirty, shirt off the floor: its red had faded almost to pink, and it

looked like it once fitted a man substantially larger than her father. Mice or insects—or both—

had chewed holes in the shirt. She put it down and picked up an intact bottle: inside its neck was

a wad of grey silk where a spider had built its den. She peered inside the bottle, but didn’t see

the spider. Gently, in case the spider really was inside, she put the bottle down.

        Most of the writing on the papers had faded so much that she had to squint very hard and

hold the paper up to the light to see the letters. Even when she could see them, they did not

make the few Ysparrian words she could read. She sifted through the papers until she found a

square, blank one, about as big as her palm. She picked it up. The paper was covered in a white

powder that rubbed off on her fingers. She turned over the paper.

        On the other side was an image, in black and white, of an old Diheneh woman.

        To-Ho-Ne.



                                                   #



        The pistol in her hand was heavy, and though it was still early morning, the sweat

streamed down Isabella’s face and neck and back and legs. This is stupid, she thought, as she

walked along, a water basket slung over her shoulder, the pistol in her apron. Stupid, stupid,

stupid. She scowled. You and your stupid dragon.

        She cupped her hands to her mouth. “Ali!” she yelled. “Alijandra!”

        The only reply was her own voice, echoing off the distant pinnacles.




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       “Ali!”

       Echoes again.

       She started walking again. She knows better than this, Isabella told herself. Mama told

us not to run off again like we did when we went to the stream, for the horsetails. She knows it’s

dangerous out here. What was she thinking? How could she do this to Mama?

       “Ali, Mama’s really angry with you!” Isabella shouted, then thought, Maybe I shouldn’t

have said that. “She’s looking for you! To-Ho-Ne is, too! You’d better come home right now!”

That’s better.

       She kept walking, trying to ignore the heat, her eyes moving from the ground—where she

hoped to find some sign that Alijandra had been this way—to the horizon—where she hoped to

see her sister walking along—to the sky—where she hoped not to see vultures circling in the

distance. And as she walked, she thought about all the dangers Mama had told them—and some

that she had seen for herself—here in the high desert: tarantulas and snakes and scorpions and

cougars and coyotes and red wolves and wild pigs and venomous lizards and poisonous plants

and outlaws and slave-takers and bounty hunters and deep fissures and the searing heat that

would kill even a strong man in two or three days—and kill a little girl much faster.

       “Ali!” she shouted again, and her pace quickened.



                                                #



       The ground and the air were hot and she was burning. Still, Pearl kept crawling, moving

slowly, pausing in the few, thin shadows—here, from a rock; there, from an agave plant; here,

from a barrel cactus—that she could find. Ants and beetles and the occasional hopper crossed




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her path, but she paid them no mind and they, of course, paid her none, either. From time to

time, she would stop and try to summon the wind, but it did not hear her.

       Slowly, slowly, she kept moving.

       Not far above, a vulture waited, circling.



                                                    #



       “We’ll give this to To-Ho-Ne,” Alijandra said, showing the daguerreotype photograph to

Jack. “I’m sure she’ll want it. But first, we have to find Pearl.”

       They went outside, and Jack began sniffing around again. “Find her trail, boy,” she told

him. “Find Pearl.” He paused, then headed off, trotting along, nose to the ground.

       “Wait for me!” Alijandra yelled, as she followed him, east.



                                                    #



       “Ali!” Isabella called. Her throat was dry and beginning to hurt. She stopped for a

moment, sat down on a boulder, unplugged her water basket, and drank. The water was warm,

of course, but she didn’t mind. She wiped the sweat out of her eyes and looked around.

       Must be almost noon, she thought. Where can she be? To-Ho-Ne said she might be

going east, because dragons sometimes go east—but if she went this way, I should have seen her

by now. So where is she?




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        She pulled off her sandal and brushed out a stone. Why should she be going this way?

To-Ho-Ne’s wrong about most everything that doesn’t have anything to do with sewing or

cooking or cleaning. She’s just Mama’s servant. She doesn’t know anything about dragons.

        She put her sandal back on. Maybe she went a different way. Maybe she’s heading back

to the stream, for some reason. Maybe she’s gone south, or north, or…I don’t know. Ali, where

ARE you?

        Should I go back? she wondered. Maybe Mama already found her and they’re home. I

hope they ARE home. I hope they’re home and Mama’s using her hairbrush on her seat for

running off like this. She smiled wanly. But what if she ISN’T home already? What if she’s still

out here? What if I go back and we find out that she wasn’t far from here? But we find out too

late?

        Isabella plugged the water basket and stood up. “Ali!” she shouted.

        As always, only echoes.

        She shielded her eyes and looked around. Nothing to the north. Nothing south. Nothing

west.

        To the east, not far off, a kettle of vultures hung in the air.

        She grabbed the water basket. Ran.



                                                    #



        The first vulture flapped down—gracelessly, as they do—a few feet away from Pearl, its

bare, black head bobbing, its tiny red eyes darting back and forth, back to forth. The vulture

squawked to itself, took a step closer, then another.




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       Pearl raised her head and hissed. The vulture stepped back, wings outstretched, but did

not go far. Not when there were others—who would gladly steal this meal—still circling

overhead.

       The vulture stepped closer again. Closer. Pearl hissed again, weaker this time, head

down, and this time, the vulture did not retreat. It came closer, wings still outspread. It was

almost standing on top of Pearl.

       The bird’s beak lashed out, nipping Pearl’s bad leg, and the dragon shrieked and

suddenly, the air around her crackled and something sparked and the vulture stumbled back

again, shaking its head, a faint, burning smell in the air.

       Now another vulture was landing nearby, and another, and another. The first, still reeling

from the electrical shock Pearl had given it, hung back, but the others waddled in. Pearl’s

hissing only made them pause for a moment.

       One pecked at her, hitting her in the side, drawing silvery blood. Pearl snapped back, but

the bird was too fast. Another nipped at the end of her tail, and the electrical shock Pearl gave it

only made it twitch its head for a moment. Fluttering its wings, it quickly recovered.

       Then the big black dog was in the midst of them, barking, snapping, snarling, leaping

after them as they screeched and squawked and flapped and lurched clumsily into the air.

“Shoo!” Alijandra yelled, scooping up handfuls of dust and sand and pebbles and throwing them

at the vultures, getting more of the dirt and grit in her hair than she got on the birds. “Go away!”

she shouted. “Go away!”

       Screaming, the vultures climbed higher, circling again.




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          “There you are!” Alijandra beamed, squatting next to the dragon as Jack, grinning, stood

guard. “There you are.” Gently, she picked up Pearl, cradling her like a baby. “Why did you

go? What are you doing out here? Did you get lost?”

          The dragon’s head flopped back, eyes closing, limbs trembling, breathing fast and

ragged.

          Ali, came a voice, faintly. The little girl stood, shaded her eyes from the sun, looked

around. Someone was coming. Ali, the someone called. Her sister.

          “Bella!” Ali shouted, waving her hand, careful not to drop or jostle Pearl. “Over here! I

found her! I found her!”



                                                   #



          Isabella stopped running. She paused for a moment, bent over, leaning on her thighs,

chest heaving. “Stand up straight and put your hands behind your head,” she remembered

Mama telling her. “That will help, after you’ve been running in the heat. Keep walking. When

your breathing slows down, have just a little bit of water—just enough to get your mouth wet.

Walk some more. Have some more water. Not too much, or you’ll get cramps.”

          Isabella did as her mother had told her long ago, when she wasn’t more than Ali’s age.

She walked and sipped water and kept walking, and as she did, Alijandra, still carrying Pearl,

walked towards her, Jack panting and trotting alongside.

          “There you are!” Isabella said. “I’m going to beat you, Ali,” she announced, holding up

her right fist. “I’m going to beat you, and then I’m going to drag you back home by your hair,

and then Mama’s going to beat you with her hairbrush. She’s going to beat you so hard, you




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won’t be able to walk again, never mind run off in the middle of the night. Do you understand

me?”

         “Bella, I found Pearl!”

         “Don’t try to change the subject,” Isabella snapped. “Do you have any idea how much

trouble you’re in? Do you know how long I’ve been looking for you?” She didn’t let her sister

answer. “All morning, Ali. All morning.”

         “You sound like Mama,” Alijandra said.

         Isabella leaned over her sister. “Ali, when Mama woke up this morning and saw you

were gone, she screamed—screamed, Ali—like she had hurt herself really badly. Her screaming

woke up me and To-Ho-Ne. Mama was screaming and crying and she ran outside and called and

called and you weren’t there, and we all got on our sandals and ran outside, thinking you’d been

dragged off by a coyote or one of To-Ho-Ne’s ‘witch people,’ and To-Ho-Ne was crying too, and

then she saw that Pearl was gone, and then we thought maybe you’d run off with Pearl, and then

we thought maybe Pearl had gone off somewhere and you’d gone after her. Which I guess is

what happened. So then we split up and started looking for you. I’ve been walking and walking

and calling for you and I haven’t eaten and….” Isabella trailed off.

         “I’m sorry,” Alijandra said. “I had to find Pearl. You’re right: she did go off in the

middle of the night. I woke up because I had to pass water, and when I came back in, she was

gone.”

         “Why didn’t you wake us up?” Isabella demanded. “Why didn’t you say anything? Why

didn’t you tell us Pearl was gone?”

         “Because we’d just have a big argument again,” Alijandra replied. “Like we always do

when we talk about her. I’d say we’d have to go find her, and Mama would say it was too




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dangerous, and you’d say you didn’t like her, so you wouldn’t want to go find her, and….” She

shook her head. “So I took Jack—he followed her trail—and we went to look for her.”

       “Jack doesn’t know how to follow a trail,” Isabella sneered. “He never found our sheep.”

She squatted and put her hands on her sister’s shoulders. “Ali, you could have gotten lost and

died out here. Mama says it’s dangerous because it is. You know you’re not supposed to go far

from the house. You know you’re—”

       “Pearl’s my friend,” Alijandra said. “If I didn’t find her, she would die out here.”

       “Ali…” Isabella began. She looked at the dragon, unconscious in her sister’s arms.

Gingerly, she touched the dragon’s heaving sides. Pearl’s skin was hot—very hot. Isabella

noticed something else.

       “What’s that you have in your hand?” she asked.

       Alijandra showed her sister the daguerreotype. “I found this in the old shack. Look, it’s

To-Ho-Ne! I want to take it home to her. I’m sure she’d like to have a picture of herself.”

       “What were you doing poking around that old place? I told you there was nothing there.”

       “So you have been there!” Alijandra said. “I knew it! You lied when you said you

hadn’t.”

       “Don’t change the subject—”

       “I’m not changing the subject! You’ve been there, and you said you hadn’t!”

       Isabella fumed for a moment. “All right, I’ve been there. I was bored one day, out

watching the sheep, and I just wanted to see what was there. Don’t tell Mama. Here, let me

have that,” she said, taking the daguerreotype. She tucked it under her arm, then unplugged the

water basket. “Pearl’s burning up—it’s too hot out here for her. She must not be used to going

around the desert.”




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       “To-Ho-Ne said she’s not from around here,” Alijandra reminded her. “Where do you

think she’s from?”

       “I don’t know. Hold on tight to her. We have to cool her off.” Isabella poured most of

the water in the basket over Pearl, drenching the front of Alijandra’s nightgown. Pearl opened

her eyes, lifted her head for a moment, then went limp again. Her breathing slowed.

       “That must feel good to her,” Alijandra said.

       “It’s not very cold—it’s not cold at all—but it’s cooler than the air out here,” Isabella

replied. “Let’s get her home. We can give her more water there.”

       “Poor Pearl,” Alijandra said. “Don’t worry. We’ve got you. We’ll take care of you.”



                                                 #



       They walked back, the sun slowly climbing to the top of the sky. The sun and her heat

pounded down on them, and neither girl said much of anything. They stopped a few times to rest

and sip a bit of water, and when Alijandra stepped on the thorn of a groundvine, Isabella let her

have her sandals.

       Pearl hung in Alijandra’s arms. Sometimes she would open her eyes, and once she lifted

her head and looked around. Most of the time, though, she lay, unconscious, mouth agape,

breathing weakly.

       “Do you think she’ll be all right?” Alijandra asked.

       “I don’t know,” Isabella said. The ground hurt her feet and she had to walk slower than

usual—which, fortunately, helped her sister keep up.

       “She can’t die,” Alijandra said. “I don’t want her to die.”




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       “I don’t want her to ei—” She stopped.

       “What’s—” Alijandra began.

       “Shh,” Isabella said.

       For a moment, the desert was silent. And then, faintly, Ali.

       Jack cocked his head.

       Ali.

       “It’s Mama,” Isabella said.

       “Jack, go get her,” Alijandra said. “Go get Mama. Bring her here.”

       “He’s not going to—” Isabella began, but then Jack sprang off, dashing across the desert,

leaving a cloud of dust behind him.

       “Good boy!” Alijandra called. “Go get Mama!” She squinted. “I see them!” she said.

“I see Mama and To-Ho-Ne!” She raised a hand and waved. “Mama! Mama! Over here! We

have Pearl!”

       Isabella looked around, frowning. “I don’t see anyth—” she started.

       Alijandra pointed. “They’re right—”

       “Ali, RUN!” Isabella shrieked, turning and raising the pistol as the cougar—the same

cougar that had stalked them days ago—came sprinting towards them from behind the boulder

where it had been lurking.

       Foot forward arms out grip tight look down the sight look down the sight don’t point at

anything you don’t want to kill, Isabella thought, and then the pistol went PKKOW and the

cougar leapt through the air towards Isabella and she felt the pistol kicking again and again and

watched the cougar’s bottom jaw exploded in a hot red spray that spattered her dress and one




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huge, round paw—as big as her face—hit her in the chest and she fell, hitting the back of her

head.

        Then there was a horrible ripping, crackling sound—louder even than the thunder in the

monstrous storm when she had seen the venomdrake—and the air suddenly become even

hotter—so hot that she felt like she was bursting aflame—and Isabella felt something push down

on every part of her at the same time, as if the sky had suddenly grown a thousand times

heavier—and then the world went white.

        I’m dead, she thought. It got me. It got me.

        And then, no more.



                                                #



        Screaming. Someone screaming, far away. Something was tugging at her shoulders,

trying to pull her up. She opened her eyes but saw nothing but white for a moment, then huge

purple spots, then Mama, screaming, crying, her face inches from her own, her voice far away.

Then Isabella was falling again, her Mama’s face vanishing, the empty blue sky reeling

overhead, and there was dull pain—distant, as if happening to someone else—as the back of her

head hit the hard, dusty ground again. For a moment, her eyes flicked shut, and when she

opened them again, it felt as if hours had gone by, even though it had only been a few seconds.

        “Bella!” Mama screamed, tears streaming down her face. “Bella!”

        She grabbed Isabella’s dress again and yanked upwards, and Isabella’s head snapped

forward, eyes open but staring at nothing for a moment. And then Isabella put her hands on the




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ground and steadied herself, and she looked around, like one who was seeing this place for the

first time.

        Bad smell, Isabella thought. Stings—my eyes. Something burning.

        “Bella!” Mama cried, holding her tight against her. “Bella!”

        “I’m here,” Isabella croaked. Something hurt in her throat. “I’m here. I’m all right.”

Really? she wondered. She looked down. The front of her was covered in blood. She patted her

stomach, her chest, her neck. “I’m fine,” she said, her voice a bit stronger. “I’m fine.”

        “Bella!” Mama sobbed, stroking Isabella’s hair and kissing her head. “Oh, Sweet

Mother, Bella, I thought—I saw you and that—that cougar—and you weren’t—”

        “I’m fine, Mama,” Isabella whispered. “I’m fine.” Ali?

        Whining. Something soft and warm on her face. Jack’s nose. He licked her cheek.

        “You’re a good boy,” Isabella told him. “Yes, you are. You’re the best boy in the whole

world.” What’s that awful smell? she wondered. “Mama, where’s Ali?”

        “She’s there,” Mama said, pulling away so Isabella could see. “She’s with To-Ho-Ne.

She’ll be all right.”

        The old Diheneh woman was sitting on the ground, holding Alijandra, rocking her. The

little girl’s eyes were red, and the dust had been washed off her cheeks and mouth. She sat in

To-Ho-Ne’s arms, staring, not saying anything, her sobs faded to hiccups.

        Isabella looked around, saw the pistol lying where she had dropped it. The cougar? she

wondered, dimly. Where—?

        The horrible burning smell came from something huge and shaggy and mustard yellow

that lay a few feet from her. The cougar’s bottom jaw was gone and the dirt was sucking up the

red puddle that had gushed from the great cat’s head. Its teeth were black and broken and




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several of them had fallen out, and its tongue was black and shriveled. Its eyes were gone;

yellow and red fluid stained its snout. Can’t look at that, Isabella told herself. Can’t look at its

face.

         In the cougar’s chest, right below its throat, was a tiny black hole, no wider than

Isabella’s thumb. Wisps of smoke seeped from it.

         Isabella shook her head. “What’s—what happened?”

         “I don’t know,” Mama said, wiping her face. “We saw Jack coming towards us, and

then—then the air lit up—went all white. And we ran and ran, and found you two. You on the

ground, looking like you were dead. And Ali sobbing, hysterical. And the cougar—I don’t

know what happened.”

         Isabella tried to stand, couldn’t. Tried again, Mama holding her up. Slowly, she got to

her feet, holding her arms out to balance. For a moment, the world spun around her. She closed

her eyes until it stopped. She shuffled to Alijandra, still curled in To-Ho-Ne’s lap. “Ali,”

Isabella said. “Ali, what happened?”

         Alijandra shook her head. “No,” she whispered. “She’s dead. She’s dead.”

         “No, Ali, no one’s dead,” Isabella said. “Ali, what happened?”

         “Pearl’s dead,” Alijandra said, showing Isabella what she held in her apron. “She’s

dead.”

         Pearl’s eyes were closed and she lay still, very still, in Alijandra’s lap, and for a moment,

Isabella was sure that her sister was right. And then Pearl’s side rose, just a little, and fell. And

rose. And fell.

         “She’s not dead, Ali,” Isabella said. “She’s not dead. She’s not going to die.”




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       “But she’s so cold,” Alijandra said. “How can she be so cold when she was so hot

before?”

       “I don’t know,” Isabella replied. “Ali, tell me what happened. The cougar was chasing

us…”

       “I was starting to run,” Alijandra said, “but the cougar was coming after you and Pearl

wiggled in my hands and I dropped…I dropped her…and she hit the ground and she woke up

again—or maybe she was already awake—and then….”

       Alijandra looked down at the dragon. “Then she made lightning,” she continued. “Like

she did when she hurt Daon Raul. But this time, it was bright. Really bright. I couldn’t see for a

minute. And it was loud…and I don’t…I don’t know what it sounded like. And when I could

see again, the cougar…”

       “The cougar was dead?” Mama asked.

       Alijandra nodded.

       “She killed the cougar,” Alijandra said. “I saw her do it. I did.”

       To-Ho-Ne pointed to the hole in the cougar’s chest. “There,” she said. “That’s where the

lightning went into the cougar. And if you look on the cougar’s back, I think, you will find

another hole, where the lightning came out.”

       Like the venomdrake, Isabella remembered. The burnholes in the venomdrake.

       “Pearl saved them,” To-Ho-Ne said. “She killed the cougar to save the girls.”

       That’s ridiculous, Isabella thought, shaking her head. “She couldn’t have. She’s—it’s—

she’s just an ani—”

       “Yes,” Mama said, softly. “Yes, I think she did.”




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                                 Chapter 18: Medicine 

        The door went BKK! and Isabella jerked awake. “Ya’at’eeh,” Mama said, opening the

door and stepping aside for the three Diheneh men. “Yah oohkaah.”

        Isabella sat up. It was still dark outside, and someone had lit a kerosene lamp and set it

on the table, lighting the room. Alijandra lay next to her on the mat, asleep. To-Ho-Ne? Isabella

wondered—and then the old woman waddled into the house, following the men. Jack loped in

after her.

        Who? Isabella asked herself, before she recognized Ahiga, the native man they had met at

the Scorpion Tail trading post several weeks ago, and then again, when they had found the

venomdrake’s carcass. With him was a thin old man, no taller than Isabella, whose face looked

like a piece of paper that had been folded and unfolded and folded again a thousand times. Also

with them was a boy, older than Isabella, but not yet a grown man. The boy was carrying a big

yucca-string bag.




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          The three of them wore their hair long, in two braids: Ahiga’s and the boy’s were black;

the old man’s was gray. Except for Ahiga’s hard, black, pointy-toed boots, the three men wore

the usual Diheneh clothes: long-sleeved shirts, leggings made from antelope hide, moccasins of

the same. Ahiga and the boy wore round, black hats. The old man had a bright blue headband,

and he wore a silver bracelet studded with turquoise stones.

          Jewelry’s only for girls—doesn’t he know that? Isabella thought. Jack padded over to

her. He sat down and licked her face. She ruffled his fur. “Good boy,” she whispered. His tail

thumped in agreement.

          Moving to the other side of the little room, closer to the wood stove, Ahiga and the old

man murmured to Mama in the Diheneh language. She pointed to the floor, where the crate that

held Pearl rested, and then she and Ahiga and the old man squatted down beside it, still talking

quietly. The boy looked around the room, scowling.

          Yesterday, after the cougar had attacked them, they had walked back, Alijandra carrying

Pearl. Dark had come before they had arrived home. Then Mama had bathed both girls, paying

particular attention to Isabella’s cuts and scratches. As soon as they had arrived home, To-Ho-

Ne and Jack had gone off somewhere, back out into the night, but Isabella had been too tired to

notice. Within a minute or two after lying on the mat, next to her sister, Isabella had fallen

asleep.

          To-Ho-Ne opened the stove, tossed in another piece of firewood, shut it. Started brewing

more coffee. Jack lay down next to Alijandra. Isabella’s arms and legs and chest and back

ached as she slowly rose to her feet. “To-Ho-Ne,” she whispered. “Who are they?”




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       “Good morning,” To-Ho-Ne said, wrapping her arms around her. “You shouldn’t be up

yet. You should still be asleep. Yesterday was a very bad day for you.”

       “I’m all right,” Isabella said. She didn’t entirely believe it, but she said it anyway. “Who

are they?” she asked again, cocking her head towards the men. The boy glanced at her.

       “That is Naalnish, Ahiga’s father, the one who taught Ahiga and your Papa how to tame

dragons,” To-Ho-Ne whispered. “The other one is Shiye, Ahiga’s son. He is learning to tame

dragons, too.”

       “Why are they here?” Isabella asked.

       “I asked them to come,” To-Ho-Ne said, “because Naalnish is a healer. Perhaps he can

save Pearl.”

       “What do you mean?” Isabella glanced over at Alijandra, but the little girl was still

asleep. “Is Pearl dying?” To-Ho-Ne nodded. “How? What’s wrong with her? I thought she

was getting better. She must have been, to leave the house.”

       “I don’t know what’s wrong with her,” To-Ho-Ne admitted. “She was getting better.

Maybe she hadn’t fully recovered from the venomdrake’s poison. Maybe the sun and the heat

were too much for her. Maybe, somehow, she hurt herself when she made lightning and killed

the cougar. Maybe all of those things. Maybe none.” She shook her head.

       The three men—Ahiga and old Naalnish and young Shiye—sat down on the floor beside

the crate. Mama came over and hugged Isabella. “Good morning,” she whispered, kissing the

top of her head. “How are you?”

       “I’m all right,” Isabella said. “I hurt a little,” she said, “but not too bad.”




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           “I told them everything we know about Pearl,” Mama said. “Naalnish isn’t sure what’s

wrong with her, but he says he’ll try to help her. He says he’s never seen a dragon like Pearl

before. He’s not even sure she is a dragon.”

           Ahiga opened Pearl’s crate and pulled out Pearl by her neck. “Don’t pick her up like

that!” Isabella said. The three men looked up at her. “She’s hurt!”

           “Bella, it’s all right,” Mama said. “They won’t hurt her.”

           Pearl opened her tiny white eyes and snarled weakly at Ahiga. He grunted and handed

her to Naalnish. The old man took Pearl in both hands and whispered to her. Singing softly,

Naalnish gently lowered Pearl into his lap and began stroking her back. Pearl lay still, staring up

at him.

           “Mama?” Alijandra asked. She was sitting up. “What’s going on?”

           “My little bird is awake,” Mama said, picking up Alijandra. “You remember Ahiga,

Papa’s friend?” The little girl nodded. “He and his father and his son are going to help Pearl get

better.”

           “What are they going to do?” Alijandra asked.

           “I don’t know,” Mama said. “Watch, and see.”

           As he stroked the little dragon, Naalnish continued singing softly. He leaned over and

tapped Shiye on the leg, then pointed at the bag they had brought. The boy handed the bag to

Ahiga, who opened it for the old man. Still singing, still stroking the little dragon with one hand,

Naalnish reached into the bag with his other hand and felt around inside for a moment. Then he

pulled a small leather pouch from the bag and gave it to the Shiye. The boy untied it, and the old

man held out his wrinkled hand. Carefully, the Shiye poured out a small pile of yellowish-white

powder onto Naalnish’s palm.




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       “Corn pollen,” To-Ho-Ne whispered to the girls. “Naalnish is beginning the Hand-

Trembling ceremony.”

       “‘Hand Trembling?’” Alijandra asked. “What’s that?”

       “Watch,” the old Diheneh woman replied.

       Still singing, Naalnish stopped stroking Pearl and began swaying slightly—first left and

right, then forward and back, then left and right, then forward and back again, and so on. He

began gently sprinkling the powder from his hand over Pearl. He started at her head, careful not

to get any into her solid-white eyes, and moved along her neck, down the left front leg first, back

up the leg to her shoulders, down the other front leg and back up again. Then down her spine, to

her back legs—left first, then back up, then down the right, then back up. Then down her tail.

       “I don’t understand,” Isabella whispered.

       “To-Ho-Ne, is it magic?” Alijandra asked.

       “Not so loud, not so loud,” the old woman replied. “It is a kind of magic, yes.”

       Naalnish sang and swayed. Three more times he sprinkled corn pollen on Pearl just as he

had done before, from her head to her tail. His swaying slowed as he held his hands inches

above Pearl. No one said anything: the only sound was the old man’s singing.

       Naalnish’s hands began to shake. Slowly, he passed them over Pearl, still inches from

her skin. He held them over her head, then down her neck, then down her sides and legs to her

tail, then back again to her head. Four times he did this, and then suddenly, he stopped.

       With a sigh, Pearl closed her eyes.

       “Why did he stop?” Alijandra asked. “Is Pearl all right?”




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       “The ceremony is over,” To-Ho-Ne said. Slowly, gently, Naalnish lifted Pearl off his lap.

Ahiga held the crate out for him, and slowly, gently, the old man settled Pearl into it. Then he

closed the crate and set it back on the floor. “She’s sleeping—probably the best sleep she’s ever

had,” To-Ho-Ne added.

       “What did he do?” Isabella asked. “What was all that?”

       “The Hand Trembling ceremony is the first step in healing,” To-Ho-Ne said. “It tells

Naalnish what he must do next to heal Pearl.”

       “What does he do next?” Alijandra asked.

       “Another ceremony,” To-Ho-Ne answered. “When the sun comes up.”



                                                 #



       Naalnish, Ahiga, and Shiye sat, cross-legged, in front of the little house, facing east.

They said nothing. Pearl’s crate rested next to the boy. Mama and Isabella stood outside.

Clutching her ragdoll to her chest, Alijandra sat in To-Ho-Ne’s lap as the old Diheneh woman

leaned against the front of the house.

       To-Ho-Ne said, “For the ceremony, the four of us need to wait here, away from them, and

remain very still and very quiet.”

       “Do you girls think you can do that?” Mama asked, looking at Alijandra.

       “If we aren’t still and we aren’t quiet, will the magic not work?” Alijandra asked.

       “No, it won’t work,” To-Ho-Ne replied. “Unless we’re still and quiet.”

       “Can you do that? For Pearl?” Mama asked.

       “Yes, Mama,” Alijandra said.




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       “Yes, Mama,” Isabella said.

       “We need to think good thoughts,” To-Ho-Ne added. “Think about things that make you

happy. Games you like to play, or your favorite things to eat. Think about Caroleena,” she told

Alijandra, tapping the little girl’s doll. “Or think about your Mama telling you stories,” she told

Isabella. “If you think about Pearl, think about her being strong, not sick. Think about all the

things you like about her.”

       “I’m going to think about feeding her,” Alijandra said. “I like to watch her eat.”

       “Right now, all I can think about Pearl is how she tries to bite me sometimes,” Isabella

said. “But I shouldn’t, should I? Or else the magic won’t work?”

       To-Ho-Ne shook her head. “Bad thoughts will ruin the ceremony, and Pearl will not get

better. Think only good thoughts.” She closed her eyes and rested her chin on the top of

Alijandra’s head.

       “You should be inside, asleep,” Mama told her. “You walked all day yesterday looking

for Ali, and then you walked all night to Ahiga’s house.”

       “It was not far,” To-Ho-Ne said. “And I rested there while the men got ready.”

       “And then you walked back,” Mama said. “And you’re not young.”

       “I stayed awake all night with the girls—and with you—when you were babies,” To-Ho-

Ne said. “I was not young then, either. And we must have four people for the end of the

ceremony. It can’t be three.”

       Pointing straight ahead, Shiye leaned over and muttered something to his father.

Everyone’s eyes followed the boy’s hand to a distant red glow in darkness, the thin sliver of the

rising sun.

       “It’s time,” To-Ho-Ne said. “Quiet, now.”




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       Ahiga leaned forward, nose almost to the ground, and very gently blew away tiny pebbles

and bits of gravel. Ahiga and Shiye used their hands to smooth out a spot before the old man.

When they were done, Naalnish and Ahiga sat up again and began singing softly, swaying

slightly. Shiye watched them.

       Alijandra closed her eyes. “Good thoughts,” she whispered. “Good thoughts. Happy

things. Caroleena. Feeding eggs to Pearl. Playing with Jack. Beans for breakfast. And…”

       Can’t she ever shut up? Isabella wondered. Good thoughts. All right. Not having any

chores. Taking a bath. Buying that book from the trading post. Getting out of the cold, here. I

hate how it’s so cold in the morning, sometimes.

       She imagined them—herself, Mama, Papa, Ali, To-Ho-Ne, Jack—walking home from

Scorpion Tail. The sky was sunny, the air was warm but not hot. They came to the little stream

and took off their sandals and put their feet in the water. It was clear and cold—but not too

cold—and there were schools of tiny, darting, nibbling fish. Their travois was piled with the

bags and baskets and all sorts of other things, too: new Ysparrian dresses for her and Mama and

Ali. Stacks of books tied together with red ribbon. A basket with new dolls, and clothes, and

wooden balls, and games. A cedar chest full of Diheneh blankets—striped red and black and

yellow and brown and green—to keep them warm at night. A new pipe for Papa, with plenty of

smoke. Everyone smiling, everyone happy. No one fussing or having to do chores. And all

because Papa had sold another dragon, Pearl this time, and—

       If the healing magic works, will Papa sell Pearl when he comes home? she wondered.

       Yes, of course, she thought. She’s a dragon. Papa sells dragons, or, at least, he tries to.

He hasn’t sold one—well, I don’t remember if he ever has. Not since we left Ysparria, and that

was a long time ago.




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       He can’t sell Pearl. She’s Ali’s dragon. Ali loves her. Besides, no one else would want

her. She’s just little and mean.

       She frowned. Who would buy a dragon from Papa, anyway? The Diheneh? Ahiga has a

dragon. Brother Tunneler—that was his name. Did Papa sell Brother Tunneler to Ahiga?

       Couldn’t have, she decided. Ahiga’s a dragontamer, too—didn’t To-Ho-Ne say that? So

why should he have bought Brother Tunneler from Papa? He probably tamed him himself. So—

       Naalnish and Ahiga opened the yucca-string bag and took from it several small pouches

of antelope hide. They held up each pouch to the rising sun and sang, loudly now. Opening the

pouches, they set to work, taking pinches of sand—yellow, red, brown, black, white—or

powder—blue, green, copper—and dribbling them onto the flat ground. They hunched over,

inches from the ground, as they patiently applied each color.

       The sun slowly rose higher to see what the men were painting with sand. Isabella, not as

curious, sat down with her back against the house. Mama stayed standing, every now and then

running a fingertip over the two pearls on her silver bracelet. Slowly, a picture began to form: a

yellow disc, as long across as Isabella was tall. Around the inside edge of the disc swirled

strange but human-like figures with round heads; long, rectangular, black trunks; thin,

outstretched limbs without hands or feet.

       In the center of the yellow disc was a circle; an X shape cut it into quarters. Two of the

four parts were black; two were white. Spiraling from each quarter was a snake the same color

as the circle piece they came from. The white snakes’ eyes were turquoise blue; the black

snakes’ were coral red. One white snake faced north; the other white snake faced west. One

black snake faced south; the other, east.




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       By the time they had finished the dry painting, yellow sunlight bathed them. Shiye

handed the crate to Ahiga. He sang softly over the crate, then opened it and held it out to his

father. The old man reached inside and scooped out the little dragon.

       “Look, Ali,” Isabella whispered. No reply: Alijandra’s head was leaning against To-Ho-

Ne’s shoulder. Her mouth was open and her breathing was slow and deep. To-Ho-Ne was

asleep, too, snoring gently.

       “Mama,” Isabella whispered, pointing at her sleeping sister.

       “Shh,” her mother replied, and pointed back at the men.

       Singing, Naalnish held the little dragon above his head. Pearl’s neck and tail hung limp

like wet rope. She looks like she’s dead, Isabella told herself. No—no bad thoughts. Think good

thoughts. She’s not dead. Ahiga’s papa wouldn’t do the ceremony if he thought she’d just die

anyway. She’s alive, and she’ll be fine. Just fine.

       Naalnish laid Pearl on the circle, in the center of the sand painting. She didn’t move.

Shiye reached into the bag and gave Naalnish a little clay bottle. He opened it and leaned over.

Forcing open Pearl’s jaws, he tipped the bottle over her mouth.

       What’s that? Isabella thought. I bet it tastes nasty.

       Naalnish touched part of the painting, then touched Pearl with the same hand. He

touched another part of the painting, then touched another part of the little dragon. He started

with her head and worked down, his lips murmuring while Ahiga and Shiye chanted.

       When he got to the end of her tail, he started again with her head. After he had done this

ritual four times, he straightened and started swaying. The other two joined him. Swaying, the

three Diheneh men sang and sang and sang. Mama yawned behind her hand.




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         How long is this going to go on? Isabella wondered. Shouldn’t something—anything—be

happening?

         She imagined a soft white light beginning to glow from the center of the sand painting.

The glow would grow, filling the yellow disc, rising into the sky, becoming brighter than the sun,

so bright that Isabella would have to shut her eyes. The singing would grow louder as the wispy

white spirits of the Diheneh ancestors appeared in the air, circling, chanting, dancing. Slowly,

Pearl would rise into the air, borne aloft among twinkling motes like tiny, glittering stars. The

cuts and scratches in her hide would vanish, and as she rose, she would grow larger and larger,

bigger than Jack, bigger than Papa, bigger even than their house. She would open her milk-white

eyes, spread her white feathered wings—

         Pearl doesn’t have wings, she reminded herself.

         Her head jerked up and her eyes snapped open. There was no blinding white light, no

circling ancestor spirits. Pearl, no larger than a cat, lay, unmoving, in the center of the circle.

The three Diheneh men still sat and sang. To-Ho-Ne and Alijandra were still asleep. Mama

stood, shifting her weight from foot to foot, not leaning against the wall, lest it get her clothes

dirty.

         “Mama,” Isabella whispered. “Is it working?”

         She shrugged.

         “Does it always take this long?”

         “I don’t know,” she replied. “I’ve never seen one of these ceremonies before.”

         Naalnish picked up Pearl and held her above his head. He gently lowered her to the

center of the painting, then raised her up again. Their chanting became faster; sometimes only

Naalnish would sing, sometimes only Ahiga would sing. Shiye took a thin tube carved from




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animal bone and blew through it, his cheeks puffing out, but Isabella didn’t hear it make any

noise. He probably doesn’t know how to play that flute, she thought. And that’s going to make

the magic not work. Stupid boy.

       No, no—no bad thoughts. Only think good thoughts. It will work. It will work.

       Naalnish raised Pearl again, holding her to his left, then to his right. Then straight in

front of him, then behind his head. Then he lowered her to the center of the painting again.

       Why does she left him do that? Isabella wondered. She remembered when they had

brought Pearl home and she had bitten Isabella’s hand. It must be part of the magic.

       The men stopped singing. Shiye put down the bone.

       Now what? Is it over?

       “Juanita Anerson,” Naalnish called.

       “Yah oohkaah,” Ahiga added.

       “Come on, ladies,” Mama said, squatting next to To-Ho-Ne and gently shaking her

shoulder. “Wake up, dearest. They need us.”

       To-Ho-Ne’s head snapped up. She blinked a few times, then said, “I’m coming, Princess.

A moment, please.”

       Mama nodded and gently shook Alijandra. The little girl raised her head, opened her

eyes, regarded Mama for a long moment. Put her head down again on To-Ho-Ne’s shoulder.

Mama gently shook Alijandra again. “Oh sunshine,” Mama whispered. “Oh, moonbeam. Time

to wake up.”

       “Ali, wake up,” Isabella said. “Pearl needs us.”

       “Tired,” Alijandra murmured, rubbing her face. “Don’t want to.”

       Ahiga said something and motioned to Mama.




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         “We have to come now,” To-Ho-Ne said. “The magic won’t hold long.” She put

Alijandra on her feet. “We have to walk. All of us. It’s for the ceremony.” With some

difficulty, Mama and Isabella helped To-Ho-Ne to her feet. “Everyone take hands, now,” the old

Diheneh woman said.

         The four of them approached the dry painting on the ground. Pearl lay motionless. She’s

not breathing, Isabella thought, her hand tightening on her mother’s. She looked up at her and

she squeezed her hand.

         “Good thoughts,” Mama whispered.

         Naalnish reached out, picked up Pearl, and put her back in her crate. The three men stood

up. Ahiga pointed to the painting and said something.

         “Lahn,” Mama replied. “It’s time for us to do our part. They want us to walk all over the

painting. Shuffle your feet. Kick at it. Scatter it around. Get rid of it.”

         “It’s pretty,” Alijandra said. “Do we have to wreck it?”

         “Yes,” To-Ho-Ne said. “It’s the last part of the healing ceremony. If we don’t, it won’t

work.”

         Isabella kicked off her sandals. Holding hands, they walked across the dry painting,

Mama crossing it in two steps, Isabella and To-Ho-Ne in three, Alijandra in four. They turned

and started back, Isabella dragging her big toe through a round-headed black figure at the edge of

the disc. “Are these supposed to be people?” she asked.

         “The Holy People,” To-Ho-Ne answered. “Keep going. We have to walk together.”

         They walked and turned, walked and turned, faster now, kicking up a cloud of sand and

pollen. Shiye squatted, took out the animal bone, and began blowing through it again, helping to

scatter the sand grains at the edge of the disc.




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        Alijandra wriggled out of To-Ho-Ne’s hand and started to bend down to scatter the

painting with her free hand. Mama pulled her up before she could. “No. To-Ho-Ne said walk,

so we must walk.”

        “Yes,” To-Ho-Ne said, taking Alijandra’s hand again. “Keep walking. We can’t leave

any of it.”

        Mama and To-Ho-Ne and the girls kept at their task, walking, kicking, shuffling,

sweeping away the painting with their feet. When they were done, Naalnish held out the crate

and asked Mama something.

        “He wants to know who saw the dragon first,” Mama said.

        “Ali did,” Isabella replied.

        “He says then you have to take the crate,” Mama told her younger daughter. She stepped

forward and held out her arms. Gently, Naalnish put it in her hands and spoke. Mama looked

confused. She asked Naalnish something. He repeated himself. Mama frowned. “I’m not sure I

understood him,” she told To-Ho-Ne. “What did he say?”

        “He says they have done the Holy Way Chant and the Life Way Chant for her, to heal

her,” To-Ho-Ne said. “He says, Ali, that you have to take her and keep her somewhere dark and

quiet until tomorrow morning.”

        Naalnish held out the small clay bottle and continued speaking softly. “This is water and

sacred herbs from the Four Holy Mountains,” To-Ho-Ne said. “You must make her drink some

four times before sunset and four times after sunset.”

        “I can’t carry that, too,” Alijandra said. “My hands are full.”

        “I’ll take it,” Isabella said, reaching out to Naalnish. The old Diheneh man smiled and

repeated what he had said to Alijandra.




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        “I understand,” Isabella replied.

        “Naalnish says that only Ali can touch the dragon or speak to her until sunrise

tomorrow,” To-Ho-Ne said.

        “Ask him, if we do all that, will Pearl be all right?” Alijandra asked.

        Naalnish shrugged. “He says he doesn’t know,” To-Ho-Ne said. “But he says he did the

dry painting correctly and he and Ahiga sang the songs correctly. He hopes you remembered to

think only good thoughts during the ceremony. Even one bad thought might ruin the magic.”

        “I didn’t think any bad thoughts,” Alijandra beamed.

        “That’s because you slept through most it,” Mama replied.

        “I didn’t think any bad thoughts, either,” Isabella said. She pondered that for a moment.

At least, I tried not to.

        Naalnish spoke again, and To-Ho-Ne translated. “We’ll see.”




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                               Chapter 19: Revelations 

       The mission chapel was full—hundreds of townspeople, most of them Ysparrian, but a

few Diheneh, had come—and the air was hot, and beneath his yellow robes, Daon Raul sweated.

He stood on the round dais at the center of the chapel, his bandaged hands raised into the

sunlight that streamed through the large, round window directly overhead. Beside him, another

priest—he was scarcely in his twenties—stood in yellow robes, his hands also held up into the

light. In front of them were two white-robed acolytes standing by the litter that carried the

swathed body of Dama Ismaella.

       “Finally, Loving Mother,” Daon Raul said, “look down upon your daughter, Dama

Ismaella, and bless her. Hold her in Your warm embrace forever. Bless all of us, Your faithful

sons and daughters, present today here in Esmargga. Comfort us as we mourn the loss of Dama

Ismaella. Bless Daon Edgardo,” he added, turning towards the young priest beside him, “who

will serve You in Dama Ismaella’s place. We ask this in Your name.”

       “We ask this in Your name,” Daon Edgardo said.



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       The two priests lowered their arms. “Dama Ismaella led me to the priesthood,” Daon

Raul told the worshippers. “She was good to the native people she taught. And she was my

friend, as I am sure she was a friend to many of you. We will miss her, and we will mourn her. I

am sure that she would want you to welcome your new pastor, Daon Edgardo, and to love him as

you loved Dama Ismaella.”

       “Thank you, Daon Raul,” the younger priest said. “I come to you from Cuidad de

Agustin, where I studied and was recently ordained at the Grand Temple. Shortly before I left to

take this assignment, we learned that our beloved Emperor is very ill.” The congregation

murmured. “I ask, then, that we pray for him, and for our Empire.”

       Everyone bowed their heads for a few moments. Then Daon Edgardo turned, nodded,

and another acolyte—a young, recently-converted Diheneh man—began pulling the rope

hanging from the ceiling. From the tower, the mission’s bell began to toll.

       “The ceremony is ended,” Daon Raul said. “Thank you for coming.”

       The mourners began to file from the temple. Daons Raul and Edgardo watched them as

the acolytes waited.

       “I hadn’t heard about the Emperor,” Daon Raul said.

       “He has been ill for a while, but the palace kept it quiet until now. Too many people

know, too many of them talking.”

       “Do the doctors say he will recover?”

       Daon Edgardo shook his head.

       “Pardon me, daons,” someone said. She was tall and wide, for the nobility never knew

hunger. Her black hair was pulled back, held in place by long, obsidian pins. Her eyes were




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dark and searing. Despite the heat and her long, heavy dress, she showed no sign of discomfort.

Behind her stood two armed soldiers.

       “Governor Guzmarr,” Daon Edgardo recognized, bowing. Daon Raul hurriedly copied

him, albeit a bit roughly.

       “I wished to personally welcome you, Daon Edgardo,” the governor said. “I hope your

appointment here will be long and happy. I have only recently arrived here, myself.”

       “Thank you, Governor,” Daon Edgardo said, bowing again.

       “I also wanted to thank you for your kind words about Dama Ismaella,” the governor told

Daon Raul. “Though I did not know her for long, she seemed to be a good woman, and an

excellent servant of Our Mother.”

       “She was,” Daon Raul said. “Thank you, Governor.”

       “You are very eloquent, Daon Raul,” the governor said. “Where are you serving?”

       “Scorpion Tail, Your Excellency.”

       “Where is that?”

       “The northwesternmost end of the province, Governor,” Daon Raul said. “It’s a small

town, not really more than a trading post and some houses, and easily overlooked.”

       “Well, perhaps I can use my influence with the bishop to have her move you somewhere

closer to civilization,” Governor Guzmarr said, smiling.

       “You are too kind, Your Excellency,” Daon Raul replied, bowing as Daon Edgardo had

done. “May I ask something of the Governor?”

       “Of course,” she said.

       “Back in Scorpion Tail, and here in Esmargga, and many places along the way, there are

many wanted posters for the dragontamer Anerson,” Daon Raul said. “And I noticed that you’ve




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sent cavalrymen looking for him, too. I’ve wondered why, after so many years. Governor

Llorpa, your predecessor, did not seem as interested as you in apprehending him.”

       “There are many things Llorpa did—and did not do—that I am addressing under my

administration,” the governor replied, no longer smiling. “Bringing in Anerson is chief among

them. Thousands died because of him, including several members of my family. I have been

told that he has been in hiding in or—more likely—just outside the province. If he can be caught

and brought to justice, he will be.”

       “Of course, I meant no disrespect, Your Excellency,” Daon Raul said, bowing low.

       “None was taken, Daon. I understand that you spoke only out of curiosity,” Governor

Guzmarr replied. “I must go. Please excuse me.”

       “May Our Mother be with you,” Daon Edgardo said. The governor dipped her head and

left, the two guards following her.

       “What do you know about her?” Daon Raul asked.

       “She’s from Cuidad de Agustin, like me,” Daon Edgardo replied. “A good woman, I’m

told, from an old, well-respected family. I am surprised she was assigned to this province—I

would have thought she would been placed somewhere else, closer to the capital.”

       Daon Raul grunted. “I don’t envy her. Llorpa and his cronies left her quite a mess to

straighten out. She’ll have to dismiss half the civil service for corruption and the other half for

incompetence.”

       The last of the worshippers was leaving. Daon Edgardo nodded to the two acolytes; they

crouched and picked up the litter. They slowly began to process to the back of the room; the two

priests followed, robes sweeping the stone floor. They went down a short flight of stone steps,

where another acolyte waited beside a low, wooden door. He unlocked it with a long-barreled,




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iron key and swung the door open. Taking a lit lamp, he stooped and went through the door, the

four men ducking their heads and following him.

       Beyond the door were many stone steps, worn smooth over the centuries that the mission

had stood here. The stairs twisted tightly—not much wider than Daon Raul’s shoulders—as they

descended, and the two acolytes struggled to keep Dama Ismaella’s remains from falling off the

litter. The walls were bare brown rock, and as the men went down, the air grew cool.

       “Whose idea was it to make the catacomb so difficult to bring down a body?” Daon

Edgardo asked.

       “Dama Ismaella believed it was originally built for something else,” Daon Raul replied.

“Perhaps meditation and prayer.” He gingerly reached into his sleeve and found the pouch

hanging from his wrist. Carefully, he opened it, took out a sprig of the herbs To-Ho-Ne had

given him, and started chewing on it. It tasted like dust, but soon enough, it would—for a little

while, anyway—dampen the pain from his bandaged hands.

       “Have you ever been down here?” Daon Edgardo asked.

       “Only once, years ago,” Daon Raul replied. “Dama Ismaella showed it to me after she

ordained me. She said she used to sometimes come down here for some quiet.”

       “Is it…” Daon Edgardo struggled for the word. “Is it bad in there?”

       “No,” Daon Raul said. “The air dries out the bodies.”

       After a few minutes, they came to the bottom of the steps, and the acolyte with the lamp

used his key to open another door, shorter and narrower than the first. They went inside.

       It was a round room, the ceiling only a few inches above Daon Raul’s head, and larger

than his house back at Scorpion Tail, many miles away. The walls were covered in tiny colored

tiles that formed pictures: sailing ships and islands and forests and portraits of men and




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women—kings and queens, judging from their rich dress—from long ago. Swathed bundles—

previous friars and daons and damas who had served at the mission—lay against the walls.

Some of the bundles had crumbled, revealing bones and dust.

       “There, I think,” Daon Edgardo said, indicating a bare spot near the far wall. “Right

there, please.” The two men carried the litter over, set it on the floor, and gently, as if they were

moving a sleeping child, lifted and placed Dama Ismaella.

       “Let us pray once again for Dama Ismaella’s spirit,” Daon Edgardo said. “The Third

Prayer would be best, I think.”

       They bowed their heads and prayed silently, and when they were done, Daon Edgardo

said, “Thank you, Ignacio; thank you, Jafet,” to the two acolytes who had carried down Dama

Ismaella. “Thank you, Miguel,” he told the acolyte with the key and the lamp.

       “Miguel, come here,” Daon Raul said. “Let me have your light for a moment.”

       “Your hands,” Daon Edgardo reminded him.

       “Never mind my hands,” Daon Raul replied, wincing a little as he took the lamp from

Miguel and held it up by a mosaic portrait.

       The picture was of a heavy-lidded man with a short white beard, a jeweled crown, and a

long, quilted robe. The man sat on a throne. In one hand, he held a scepter. In the other, he held

a green, wingless dragon, no larger than a cat, with round white eyes that had no pupils. Daon

Raul gently ran a finger over the dragon.

       “It looks like it’s Rodrigo the Dragontamer,” Daon Edgardo said. “The last king of

Imbyrria.”

       “Imm-beer-ree-ah?” the acolyte Miguel asked, puzzling over the strange name.

“What..does that…mean?” he asked, in halting Ysparrian that he was still learning.




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         “Imbyrria is—was—an island,” Daon Edgardo explained. “My people came from there.

Ysparria was one of its colonies.”

         “It was destroyed hundreds of years ago,” Daon Raul added. “Swallowed by the ocean

for our people’s sins.”

         Daon Edgardo shook his head. “The kingdom of Imbyrria is gone,” he said, smiling

faintly, “but it didn’t sink beneath the sea. What actually happened was that the island was hit by

a very bad storm, and thousands of people were killed, including Rodrigo.”

         “Dama Ismaella told me differently,” Daon Raul replied. “She said it was Rodrigo who

was to blame, that he had made a pact with the Typhoon Dragon that lived on the island—that’s

why he’s holding a dragon in the picture. The Typhoon Dragon served him for many years, but

Rodrigo tried to force it to do evil, and in its anger, it destroyed Imbyrria.”

         “That’s just a story,” Daon Edgardo said. “I don’t even believe there ever was a Typhoon

Dragon.”

         “There is, though,” Daon Raul said, handing the lamp back to Miguel. “The dragon

that’s in those pictures,” he said, unwinding his bandages, “did this to me.” He showed them his

hands.

         The centers of his palms were charred black. The rest of the skin on his hands was red

and blistered.

         Daon Edgardo shook his head again.

         “On my way here,” Daon Raul said, “I stopped to visit a family I know—believers—who

live by themselves about a day’s walk from Scorpion Tail, where I live. The children had found

what I thought at first was some sort of lizard or salamander. They said it was a dragon. It was




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sick and injured, and the children were tending it. I was helping their servant—a native woman

who lives with them—give it medicine. I was holding it—”

         “And it burned you?”

         “Yes,” Daon Raul nodded. “The dragon was angry with me. There was a spark of white

light—like lightning—and I felt…well, it didn’t actually hurt much,” he said, beginning to

rewrap his bandages. “Not that instant, anyway. Later, yes.”

         Daon Edgardo took the lamp from Miguel and looked at the portrait of Rodrigo. Studied

the dragon.

         “But that was a very long time ago,” Daon Edgardo said. “Even if the dragon was real

and the story was true, surely the dragon would be dead by now, wouldn’t it? It must be a

different dragon.”

         “Why would it have to be?” Daon Raul replied. “Don’t dragons live forever?” he asked

the Diheneh men.

         They said nothing.

         “Why would the Typhoon Dragon be here, hundreds of miles from Imbyrria?” Daon

Edgardo asked. “Here, in the desert?”

         “I don’t know,” Daon Raul said. He tapped the dragon’s image. “But when I saw the

dragon a few days ago, it looked familiar. I had seen it before—here—in mosaic, years before,

when Dama Ismaella brought me to this room.”

         Daon Edgardo shook his head again. “Daon Raul, you must be mistaken. Those stories

about Imbyrria and the Typhoon Dragon—that’s all they are. Just stories, myths. They aren’t

real.”




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        “The dragon is real,” Daon Raul assured him, as he finished wrapping his bandages. “It’s

not far from here. And a little girl calls it ‘Pearl.’”




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                                 Chapter 20: Visiting 

       “How is she today?” Isabella asked, as Alijandra came outside into the grey gloom of

early dawn.

       “She’s still asleep,” the younger girl answered. She squatted next to Jack, where he lay

in the dust, and patted him.

       “She sleeps a lot,” Isabella said. “Even more than she used to.”

       It had been a week since the healing ceremony. Pearl had spent all of it inside the crate,

eating nothing, drinking only a little. Alijandra and To-Ho-Ne tended to her, giving her

medicine, putting salve on her wounds, which were healing.

       “She looks a little better than yesterday,” Alijandra said. She looked around. “Where’s

To-Ho-Ne?”

       “There,” Isabella said, pointing to the wooden latrine. A moment after she said that, the

door swung open and the old Diheneh woman waddled out.

       “All right, girls, I’m ready,” she said. “Did you say goodbye to your Mama?”



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       “Yes, To-Ho-Ne,” Isabella said.

       “Yes, To-Ho-Ne,” Alijandra added, standing up. Jack lifted his head and watched her.

       “And Pearl?” To-Ho-Ne asked.

       “She’s still asleep inside the larder,” Alijandra said. “We’ve done everything Ahiga’s

papa told us to,” Alijandra said to To-Ho-Ne, “and they did the sand painting. Shouldn’t she be

all better now?”

       “Sometimes it takes a while,” To-Ho-Ne said, “but the healing ceremony usually works.”

       “We all thought good thoughts, like they said to,” Alijandra said. “I did. Did you?” she

asked Isabella.

       “Yes, I did,” her sister replied. Most of the time.

       “We have to go,” To-Ho-Ne said. “The sun will be coming up soon, and soon after that,

it will be hot. I want to be on our way home before then.”

       To-Ho-Ne picked up her yucca-string bag and they started walking. Jack hauled himself

to his feet, but To-Ho-Ne turned and said, “No. You stay here with Mama.” Sighing, Jack

settled back into the dust.

       “It’ll be all right,” Isabella assured him. She reached into the pocket of her apron and felt

the pistol’s handle. Again, she felt it twitch, heard it roar, saw the cougar’s jaw vanish in a spray

of red. Stop it, she told herself. Just stop. “Do you want me to carry that?” she asked, pointing

to To-Ho-Ne’s bag.

       The old Diheneh woman shook her head. “Maybe later. It’s not heavy.”

       They walked for a little bit, To-Ho-Ne in front, Alijandra and Isabella behind her.

Morning came. In the distance, even with her fuzzy eyesight, Isabella could see the little shack

that Alijandra had when she had been looking for Pearl.




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       Isabella nudged her sister. The little girl took the daguerreotype of To-Ho-Ne out of her

apron pocket. “Should I give it to her now?” she whispered to her sister. Isabella nodded.

       “Here, To-Ho-Ne,” Alijandra said, coming alongside her and holding out the picture.

       To-Ho-Ne stopped. “What’s this?” she asked, taking it. She peered closely at it.

       “It’s you!” Alijandra said.

       To-Ho-Ne frowned. “Where did you find this?”

       “We found it in the shack up ahead,” Isabella said. “Please don’t tell Mama we went

there. Ali was looking for Pearl, and—”

       The old woman grunted and folded the picture in half. She put it in her apron pocket.

“Come along,” she said, starting to walk again.

       “We thought you might want to have it,” Alijandra said.

       “Thank you,” To-Ho-Ne said.

       “And we were wondering how it got there,” Isabella added. “Did you use to live in that

shack?”

       “Yes, I did,” To-Ho-Ne said. “A long time ago. When you were just a baby,” she said,

pointing at Alijandra. “And you were very small,” she said, pointing at Isabella.

       “I thought so,” Isabella said. “I remember, from when I was little, that there was a

while—I don’t know how long it was—when you didn’t live with us. I thought maybe you had

gone to live with your family—”

       “You girls and your mother are my family,” To-Ho-Ne said.

       “What about your Mama and your Papa?” Alijandra asked. “Do you have any sisters, or

brothers?”

       “They’re gone,” To-Ho-Ne said.




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         “Where did they go?” Alijandra asked. Isabella scowled at her.

         “I don’t know,” To-Ho-Ne said. “I was very young when I left them.”

         “Haven’t you ever tried to find them?” Isabella asked.

         “Yes, I have,” To-Ho-Ne said. “They’re gone.”

         Alijandra took the old woman’s hand, stopping her. “Can we go to the shack?” Alijandra

asked. “Can we visit where you used to live?”

         “Your mother would not approve,” To-Ho-Ne said. “But we’ll go if you want to. It

doesn’t mean anything to me.”

         “What do you mean?” Isabella asked.

         “It was only a place where I lived for a little while,” To-Ho-Ne replied. “It was never my

home.”

         They went to the little house, and To-Ho-Ne put down her bag and sat down on it. “Go

look inside, if you want,” she said. “There’s nothing there.”

         “We were just inside a few days ago,” Alijandra said.

         “And I’ve been in it before,” Isabella admitted. “I didn’t like it. It was dirty and it

looked…sad.”

         “Yes,” To-Ho-Ne said, nodding. “Sad.”

         “Why did you live here?” Isabella asked. “Why weren’t you with us?”

         “I lived here when I was married to Mr. Dempesson,” To-Ho-Ne said.

         “You were married?” Isabella asked.

         “Who’s Mr. Dempessy?” Alijandra asked.

         “Dempesson,” To-Ho-Ne corrected. “He was an old man—an Erisian prospector—who

lived here, in this house. Your father got to know him, when he came here. And when your




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father brought your mother and you girls here from Ysparria, he helped your father build your

house, because your father was not good at building things.”

       “And you fell in love with Mr. Dempesson and got married?” Alijandra asked.

       “I married Mr. Dempesson, yes,” To-Ho-Ne said. She took the daguerreotype out of her

apron pocket but didn’t unfold it. “One day, a little while after we did, we went to Scorpion Tail.

There was a man from Erisia, passing through, on his way to somewhere else—I don’t know

where. He had a thing that made pictures. Dempesson wanted this, so we got it.

       “We lived here,” she continued, “but it was only for a few months. Then he got sick and

died, and I came back to your house.”

       “I never knew that,” Isabella said. “Mama’s never said anything about that. Papa, either.

Or you.”

       “You girls think of us as just ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa’ and ‘To-Ho-Ne,’ but we are more than

who you think we are,” the old woman said. “You only know a little bit about us. In time, as

you get older, we might tell you more. But not everything. No one can ever know everything

about someone else.”

       They sat and let To-Ho-Ne rest for a few more minutes. Then the girls helped her up, and

they went on their way again.



                                                 #



       The sun had climbed higher into the sky. “There it is,” To-Ho-Ne said, as they came over

a low rise. Beside a small stream was a squat, round house—a hogan—made from adobe.

       “This is Ahiga’s home?” Isabella asked.




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       “No,” To-Ho-Ne said. “It belongs to Ooljee, his wife. Diheneh women own the hogans

and the sheep.”

       “Why is that?” Alijandra asked.

       To-Ho-Ne shrugged. “That’s the way it’s always been. A Diheneh husband owns only

his clothes and his moccasins.”

       “Who are those people?” Alijandra asked, pointing to four Diheneh men a little way from

the hogan.

       To-Ho-Ne shaded her eyes with her hand. “Naalnish, and Ahiga,” she said. “The other

two are Zehalanii and K’aihastiin. They’re tribal elders.”

       “What are ‘elders?’” Alijandra asked.

       “They help make sure that our people do the right thing,” To-Ho-Ne said. “They know a

lot of things, so they give advice.”

       “Why are they here?” Isabella asked. To-Ho-Ne shrugged.

       I hope that boy—Ahiga’s son—what was his name—Shiye?—I hope he’s not around,

Isabella thought. I didn’t like him. She looked around, didn’t see him. Maybe he’s out tending

the sheep.

       To-Ho-Ne and the girls wound their way down the hill, going around big rocks and cacti,

both girls holding the old woman’s arms and walking slowly to make sure she didn’t fall. “You

came all this way, by yourself?” Isabella asked. “In the dark? You shouldn’t have done that,

To-Ho-Ne. You might have gotten hurt. Or lost.”

       “I’ve come here many times,” To-Ho-Ne replied. “I know the way, and I was careful.

Besides, Ali’s little dragon was hurt and needed Naalnish’s help.”




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       The door of the hogan faced east, of course. Not far from it, a tall Diheneh woman sat

weaving on a wooden loom under a ramada, four wooden poles holding up a roof of sticks. Next

to her was a girl about Isabella’s age. Leaning up against the loom was a cradleboard with a

baby boy—Isabella guessed by his red headband—strapped into it. The girl tugged on her

mother’s sleeve and pointed as To-Ho-Ne and the girls approached.

       The woman stood and smiled. “Ya’at’eeh, To-Ho-Ne,” she said. “Yah oohkaah.”

       “Ya’at’eeh, Ooljee,” To-Ho-Ne replied. “Shikeedee yil Juanita at’eeke,” she added,

nodding towards the girls. Ooljee smiled at them. To-Ho-Ne held up the bag of wool. “Ndishi

iishlaa na iikaah Naalnish doo Ahiga doo Shiye. Ahehee.”

       “La’aa, kwa’asini,” the woman replied, taking the bag from To-Ho-Ne, opening it, and

admiring the carded wool. “Jili iliinii.” She handed the wool to the girl—Must be Ooljee’s

daughter, Isabella supposed. The girl turned it over in her hands, smiling. She squatted in front

of the baby, showing it to him.

       “He’s cute,” Alijandra said, bending over by the baby. “What’s his name?” she asked.

The girl smiled but said nothing.

       “She doesn’t speak Ysparrian,” Isabella said, also squatting down. She glanced over at

To-Ho-Ne and Ooljee, but they were talking together in their language. Isabella put her hand on

her chest. “I’m Isabella,” she said. “Isabella.” The girl nodded. Isabella put her hand on her

sister’s shoulder. “Alijandra.” Then she pointed at the girl. “And you? What’s your name?”

       “Sitsi,” the girl answered. She pointed to the baby. “Sike.”

       “‘Sitsi,’” Isabella said. The girl nodded. “And ‘Sike,’” she added, pointing to the baby.

“That’s his name? Sike?”

       “Aoo,” the girl said, nodding.




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        “Hei! Ya’at’eeh, To-Ho-Ne,” Naalnish said, coming over with the other men. Isabella

had thought that Naalnish was the oldest person she had ever seen, but the two strangers looked

even older than him. What few hairs they had were white, their hands were gnarled, and they

stood stooped. Even if they could straighten up, they wouldn’t be much taller than Isabella.

“Iileegho hooshchi t’aa koo ajiistsaa na’asho’iitsoh,” Naalnish said to To-Ho-Ne. “Hoodzaa

haa? Hina?”

        “Aoo,” To-Ho-Ne replied. “Alijandra adishni na’asho’iitsoh t’aa’ako.” Then she turned

to the girls. “Naalnish asked Zehalanii and K’aihastiin to talk to him about Pearl. He also asked

me if she is doing better. They have some questions for you.”

        “Why do they want to know about Pearl?” Isabella asked. To-Ho-Ne translated her

question and Naalnish’s reply.

        “Because Naalnish and Ahiga—though they have tamed dragons for many years—have

never seen a dragon like Pearl before,” To-Ho-Ne explained. “They asked Zehalanii and

K’aihastiin if they have ever heard of a dragon like her before. They’re not sure.”

        “We’ll tell them what we know,” Alijandra said.

        “Wehee,” To-Ho-Ne told Naalnish.

        K’aihastiin asked the first questions. “He would like to know who found the dragon

first,” To-Ho-Ne translated. “When and where did you first see it? Was it hurt then? How do

you think it got hurt? What did you do when you found it? What did the dragon do when you

tried to help it?”

        “Didn’t Naalnish already tell them that?” Isabella asked. To-Ho-Ne passed along her

question.

        “Yes,” To-Ho-Ne said, “but they want to hear it from you girls.”




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        “I found her,” Alijandra said.

        “‘Ah!’ Zehalanii says,” To-Ho-Ne interjected. “Then you are the most important person

to talk to.”

        “She’s just a little girl,” Isabella said. “I can tell them everyth—”

        To-Ho-Ne held up a hand while K’aihastiin interrupted. “You will have a turn,” To-Ho-

Ne said. “First, they want to hear from Ali.”

        Alijandra told them that after the storm, she had found the dragon, bleeding silver goo, in

the arroyo. How she and Isabella had carried it up out of the gulch, and how To-Ho-Ne had

taken it home. How To-Ho-Ne had splinted its broken leg, and made medicine for it out of

plants that she and Isabella had gathered. How the dragon had scratched and bitten them at first,

but gradually came to understand that they were trying to help her. How she had given the

dragon eggs and little fish, and had called her “Pearl,” because her eyes resembled the pearls on

Mama’s bracelet.

        The elders listened patiently to Alijandra. “Now,” To-Ho-Ne said to Isabella, “they want

to hear what you have to say.”

        Isabella told them about how she and Alijandra had been caught in the storm, and had

seen the venomdrake. How the next day, they had found the venomdrake dead, with holes

burned through it, and how, later, she had showed it to Ahiga. How the dragon had scratched her

with its claws and burned Daon Raul’s hands. How it had escaped from their home and

wandered off into the desert, and how they had found it. And how it had killed the cougar that

had attacked them.

        To-Ho-Ne translated Zehalnaii’s question. “Which way was it going when it left your

mother’s home?”




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         “I don’t know,” Isabella said. “No, wait…I do know. She was going east.”

         Zehalanii spoke. “‘East. Yes, that makes sense,’” To-Ho-Ne translated.

         K’aihastiin spoke, too. “‘The storm—I have never seen any storm like it. The storm is

key.’”

         “The storm brought Pearl?” Alijandra asked.

         Isabella shook her head. “No,” she said. “Pearl brought the storm.”

         To-Ho-Ne translated. Zehalanii and K’aihastiin nodded. Naalnish added something.

“He thinks you are right, Bella,” To-Ho-Ne said. “He thinks Pearl called down the storm to fight

the venomdrake.”

         Zehalanii shook his head. “‘That is not important now. I am not sure what this little

dragon is. I don’t know where the dragon came from. But I have an idea what it is doing, and

where it is trying to go. We need to talk to some of the others. Dzilihinani and Joogihakeyah

and—”

         “Who are they?” Alijandra asked.

         “Other elders,” To-Ho-Ne said. “Don’t interrupt.” Zehalanii kept speaking. “‘They may

know more than we. Tse-seigo is the oldest of all of us, and his grandfather was a dragontamer.

We’ll ask him what he knows.’”

         “‘The storm—the storm is key,’” she repeated for K’aihastiin. “‘It is an omen. It came

to our land, destroyed our homes and killed our sheep. Ysparrian horsemen are on our lands

when they shouldn’t be.’”

         “What horsemen?” Isabella asked. “The ones from Scorpion Tail? The ones looking for

Papa?”




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       To-Ho-Ne asked. “‘Yes,’” Naalnish said. “‘To pretend as if we were cooperating, my

son let them onto our lands for a few days, knowing that they wouldn’t find your father here.

They left—but they came back, without our permission—then left again, then came back

again.’”

       Ahiga scowled. “‘My men and I will catch them. They won’t be back after that.’”

       “‘You’ll make trouble between us and the Ysparrians,’” Naalnish warned.

       “‘Yes, trouble,’” K’aihastiin said, shaking his head. “‘And now this new, strange dragon

has appeared. Bad times have begun.’”

       “‘Maybe,’” To-Ho-Ne translated for Ahiga. “‘Maybe not.’”

       “What does he mean?” Isabella asked.

       To-Ho-Ne shrugged.




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                                Chapter 21: Offering 

       “It’s good to see you again, Daon Raul,” Mama said, inviting him inside. “Please have

some dinner with us.”

       “Thank you,” the priest said, coming to the table and sitting down. “I’m on my way

home, but I need to talk to you about something very important concerning Pearl.”

       To-Ho-Ne put tin spoons and clay bowls on the table, went to the larder, came back with

cups and a jug of water. “How are your hands?” she asked.

       “They’re…well, they hurt quite a bit,” he admitted, holding them up.

       “I have more herbs, if you want,” the old Diheneh woman offered. “I can give them to

you now.”

       “I can wait until after we eat,” Daon Raul replied. He glanced around. “The girls—I

didn’t see them.”

       “They’re not far, I’m sure,” Mama replied, sitting down. “They know to be home before

dark, so they should be here soon. We’ll eat without them.”



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       “And the dragon?” Daon Raul asked. To-Ho-Ne came to the table, set down a plate of

tortillas. Went back to the stove, got a pot of beans and potatoes, put it on the table.

       “Ali took her along,” Mama said, ladling food from the pot into Daon Raul’s bowl. To-

Ho-Ne sat down across the table from the priest. “She carries her around like a baby. I’ve given

up telling her not to.” She started serving herself.

       “Pearl saved her life—Isabella’s, too,” To-Ho-Ne said.

       “A cougar attacked the girls,” Mama explained. “Pearl was with them. She managed to

kill it, the same way she burned you, but doing so seemed to hurt her.”

       “Ahiga and his father did a healing ceremony for her, and she’s gotten much better,” To-

Ho-Ne added. She doled out her own food, began eating. “Soon, she will be strong again.”

       “Good,” Daon Raul replied, nodding. He folded a tortilla, scooped up beans and potatoes

with one end. He pondered something as he ate. “So, Pearl hasn’t burned anyone else?”

       Mama shook her head. “Since the healing ceremony, she’s been very docile.”

       “And Ali is still very devoted to her, obviously,” he said. “So you still plan to keep Pearl,

at least until your husband comes home?”

       “Yes,” Mama replied. “Why do you ask?”

       “I was wondering if you would want to sell her.”

       “Sell her?” Mama asked. “I don’t know. Sell her to whom?”

       “Me,” Daon Raul replied.

       “Why do you want to buy Pearl?” Mama asked. “Given what happened,” she said,

indicating his bandaged hands, “I would think…”

       “Yes, I’m sure it must seem strange,” Daon Raul said, “but actually, it’s Daon Edgardo,

the new pastor of our church in Esmargga, who wants her.”




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       “I didn’t think the priesthood allows pets,” Mama said.

       “No, it doesn’t,” Daon Raul replied. “But it’s not for him. Daon Edgardo comes from a

very large, very wealthy family. Minor nobility, though what exactly their title is, I don’t recall.”

He scooped up more potatoes and beans with the tortilla. “Daon Edgardo’s uncle has a

menagerie in San Matirre, where he has several cougars, an Erisian lion, even a Qellizarri

omemryth. He doesn’t have a dragon, of course, but—like any other animal collector—he’d

love to have one. Of course, he’d still like to keep his fortune, not spend it on feeding something

as large as a house. Pearl’s small enough—and interesting enough—for him.”

       “How does this uncle know about Pearl?” To-Ho-Ne asked.

       “He doesn’t,” Daon Raul replied. “Not yet. Daon Edgardo asked how I had burnt my

hands, so I told him about Pearl. At first, he was skeptical—he had never heard of a dragon that

small—but once I convinced him of what Pearl really is, then he told me about his uncle, who

will be 70 this year.”

       “So Daon Edgardo wants to give Pearl to him—as a birthday present, perhaps?” Mama

asked. Daon Raul nodded. “But Pearl makes lightning,” Mama said. “Why would this uncle

want something so dangerous?”

       “I wouldn’t call what she did ‘lightning,’” Daon Raul replied. “There are some kinds of

snakes that can do what she did. A few toads and lizards, too, I’m told. If it had really been

‘lightning,’ I’d be dead.”

       Mama shook her head. “I saw the air light up, like in a storm, when Pearl killed the

cougar. Pearl makes lightning. I know it.”




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       “Whether it’s lightning or something else that Pearl makes, she’s no more dangerous than

any of the other creatures Daon Edgardo’s uncle owns. The old man’s been collecting for

decades: he knows how to keep wild animals safely.”

       “In a cage, you mean,” Mama said.

       “Yes, her own cage, where she will be safe as well,” Daon Raul said. “And she will be

well taken care of.”

       Mama glanced at To-Ho-Ne. The old Diheneh woman kept her eyes on her bowl as she

slowly ate. Mama frowned. “Well, I wasn’t planni—”

       “Daon Edgardo gave me fifty reales to pay you right now, in exchange for Pearl,” Daon

Raul said, slipping some folded paper bills from a pocket, “and he will give me another two

hundred, to pay to you, when I bring her to him.”

       “That’s a fortune,” Mama said.

       “As I said, his family is wealthy,” Daon Raul replied, “and the old rules about priests

having to be poor were overturned a long time ago.” He finished his bowl. “May I have some

more, please?”

       “Yes, certainly,” Mama said, ladling out another bowlful. For a minute or so, no one said

anything as they ate. Then Mama said, “I need to think about this.”

       “If you gave me Pearl as soon as the girls come home, I could start back towards

Esmargga, and you could have the rest of the money sooner,” Daon Raul said.

       “I thought you were going home,” To-Ho-Ne said.

       “That’s true,” Daon Raul replied. “But if I had Pearl, what would be the point in going

back home, only to turn around and walk back to Esmargga? Better to just take her now and be

on my way.”




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         “I can’t just take Pearl out of Ali’s arms and hand her to you as they come through the

door,” Mama said. “Ali would be destroyed—and I don’t know what Pearl would do.”

         He put the money on the table. “I’d like to give this to you, Mrs. Anerson,” he said, “but I

can’t without the dragon.” He considered something. “We could leave together for Esmargga in

the morning. That way, Ali could spend another day or so with Pearl, and give her a proper

goodbye, and she could meet Daon Edgardo and talk to him, so that she knows Pearl is going to

a good place. Daon Edgardo could give you the rest of the money right there, and you could buy

whatever you needed at the market.”

         She shook her head. “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to give me more time,” Mama

said. “Maybe in a week or so, I can come to Scorpion Tail and give you my answer.”

         “Or I could come here,” Daon Raul replied.

         “I hate to take you away from your family,” Mama said.

         “Shadi is used to looking after the children while I am ministering somewhere else,”

Daon Raul said. “She’s a good mother and a good wife. Are you sure I can’t take Pearl with

me?”

         “I’ll have to think about it, Daon. I’m sorry.”

         He nodded. “Of course. I understand.”

         “Princess—the girls,” To-Ho-Ne said. Mama and Daon Raul stood up.

         Isabella ran in—sweaty and puffing—then Alijandra—also puffing—with Pearl clinging

to her shoulder like a monkey. “We’re…we’re home,” Isabella said. “We ran…because we

didn’t want you…to worry.”

         “Thank you, dear heart,” Mama said, kissing the tops of their heads. “Say hello to Daon

Raul.”




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       “Hello, Daon,” Isabella said.

       “Hello, Daon,” Alijandra said. Pearl’s tiny eyes narrowed.

       “Hello, girls,” Daon Raul said, eyeing the dragon. “It looks like Pearl is much

improved.”

       “Her leg is almost healed!” Alijandra exclaimed. “To-Ho-Ne says that maybe tomorrow,

we can take off the splint.”

       “About a week ago, Ahiga and his father came and saw Pearl,” Isabella explained. “We

went to Ahiga’s house yesterday, and when we came back, Pearl was fine.”

       “It was the magic that Ahiga’s father did!” Alijandra said. “It made her better!”

       “Maybe so,” Daon Raul replied, smiling faintly. Jack padded inside, panting, jowls

dripping water from the trough outside, where he had stopped first. “I’m sorry I can’t stay

longer, but I’m on my way home,” Daon Raul told them.

       “Are you sure you won’t stay?” Mama asked. “It’s almost dark, and you won’t be home

before midnight.”

       “I’ve spent plenty of nights outdoors, Mrs. Anerson,” Daon Raul replied. “One more

won’t hurt me. It’s very kind of you, but no, thank you.”

       “At least let To-Ho-Ne pack you some food,” Mama said.

       “I’m quite full, thank you,” he said. “And I have some food in my pack if I get hungry. I

might refill my waterskin, though, with your pump.”

       “I’ll have one of the girls fill your waterskin for you,” Mama said. “Bella…”

       “Yes, Mama,” the older girl said, taking the priest’s waterskin and going outside.

       “Ali, please put Pearl back in her crate and wash your hands and face,” Mama said. “Tell

Bella to do that, too. As soon as you two are done, you can have some food.”




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        “Yes, Mama,” Alijandra said, and followed her sister.

        “I’ll come back in a few days,” Daon Raul said. “Please take my offer. It would be good

for everyone.”

        “In a few days, then,” Mama replied. “Good night, Daon.”

        “Good night,” he said, and went outside to collect his water from Isabella.



                                                     #



        “Be careful, To-Ho-Ne,” Alijandra said. “Don’t hurt her!”

        “I will try, Little Cub,” To-Ho-Ne said. “Hold her—that’s better.”

        It was the morning after Daon Raul’s visit. Isabella and Mama and Jack were outside.

Alijandra and To-Ho-Ne sat cross-legged on the floor, Pearl on the old Diheneh woman’s lap.

The dragon growled as To-Ho-Ne’s thick and calloused fingers deftly and gently unwound the

strip of linen that held Pearl’s splint together.

        “Is her leg all right?” Alijandra asked.

        “It should be. The Healing Ceremony worked for everything else. She doesn’t get sick

at night anymore,” To-Ho-Ne pointed out. “She eats her food and, for the last two days, she

doesn’t sleep as much.” Pearl’s head inched closer to To-Ho-Ne’s hands. “Make sure she

doesn’t bite,” To-Ho-Ne said. “Or worse.”

        “Pearl, dear heart, To-Ho-Ne’s trying to help,” Alijandra said. The dragon swiveled her

head towards the girl. Watched her. “She’s going to take off the splint, and then we’ll see if you

can walk without it. All right? Please be good and let her do that.”




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          Pearl’s watched To-Ho-Ne for a moment as the old woman began to take off the splint.

Hissed.

          “She won’t hurt you,” Alijandra said, stroking Pearl’s head. “Please be good.”

          Pearl sighed, but did not move. To-Ho-Ne finished. “Put her on the floor,” the old

woman said, “and let’s see.”

          “She understands everything I tell her,” Alijandra said, sliding her hands under Pearl,

lifting her up, then setting her down, gently, on the stone floor. Pearl looked at her leg, which

was a paler shade of green than the rest of her. “Go on, dear heart,” Alijandra said. “Walk!”

          Pearl sat. Curled. Began licking her leg.

          Alijandra scooted backwards on her rear, held her arms out to the dragon. “Come here!

Come here, Pearl!”

          The dragon stopped licking. Raised her head. Looked at the little girl. Stood up, her leg

trembling a bit. Tottered forward.

          “She did it!” Alijandra said. “She’s all better!”

          A shadow. “Who’s better?” someone asked. Pearl crouched low, hissing.




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                              Chapter 22: Home Again 

       “PAPA!” Alijandra squealed, springing to her feet. He was coming through the doorway,

Mama following him. Alijandra ran to him and wrapped her arms around his waist.

       “Here’s my Little Cub!” he exclaimed, bending over, engulfing her in his arms. He

kissed her on top of the head. “Here’s my little treasure.” They spun together, Papa lifting her

into the air, Alijandra holding out her arms and giggling.

       Jack ran in, circled them, barking and prancing joyfully, tail wagging. “Quiet, you fool

dog,” Mama said, but she was smiling as she scolded him. A moment later, Isabella, panting

from running, followed Jack inside.

       “PAPA!” she cried. He turned, lowering Alijandra to the floor, and embraced his older

daughter. Alijandra clung fiercely to his waist.

       “And here’s my big girl,” he said, smiling.

       “I missed you,” Isabella whispered, squeezing her eyes tight. I will not cry, she thought.

I will not cry. But she did anyway.



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         “Hoi there, what’s this?” Papa asked, smiling. Isabella wiped her face.

         “I’m such a baby,” she said. “It’s just…I’m happy…”

         “I’m happy too, dear heart,” Papa said, holding her close again.

         “Papa, you smell bad,” Alijandra said, looking up at him. “And you cut off all your hair!

Why did you do that?”

         “Oh, this,” Papa said, pulling away and smiling as he rubbed his head. “Well, I’ll tell the

world. What hap—”

         “Hello, Mr. Anerson,” To-Ho-Ne said, as she slowly stood up from the floor. “Welcome

home.”

         “Hello, To-Ho-Ne,” he replied, nodding. “Have the girls been good for you?”

         “Mostly,” she replied. She turned to Mama. “I’ll make us something to eat. Mr.

Anerson must be hungry.”

         “That would be very nice,” Mama said. To-Ho-Ne went past her into the larder.

         “Papa, we found a dragon!” Alijandra exclaimed, finally letting go of him as she pointed.

Pearl still crouched, but she was no longer hissing. “Her name is Pearl, and she’s just little, and

she’s my friend, and—”

         “Yes, I see,” Papa said, squatting down to get a better look.

         Iiirt, Pearl chirped, as Alijandra squatted and gently lifted her. Jack came over, nose

twitching, but Pearl paid him no mind. The little girl held her out to Papa; Pearl glared at him

and hissed.

         “She’s shy,” Alijandra said, standing up and pulling Pearl back against her chest. “And

she gets scared easy.” She rubbed her nose on the back of Pearl’s head. “Isn’t she pretty, Papa?”




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        Papa stood, knitted his brows. Rubbed his chin. “That’s…well, that’s something I’ve

never seen before.” He leaned closer. Pearl snapped, and he jerked back.

        “No, Pearl!” Alijandra said. “That’s my Papa. You can’t bite him.”

        “That’s…she’s something, all right,” Papa said. “Though what she is, I’m not sure.”

        “She’s a dragon,” Alijandra insisted. “Everyone thinks she isn’t a dragon, but she’s just

little, that’s all. She can make lightning—she fought a big dragon, during the storm, and she

killed a cougar—and she can fly and—”

        “She can’t fly,” Isabella said. “She doesn’t have wings, and if you don’t have wings, you

can’t fly.”

        “What do you kno—” Alijandra began. Papa held up his rough hands.

        “Hoi, stop there,” he said. “On our way back to the house, Mama was starting to tell me

about how you found this…animal.”

        “She’s not an animal!”

        “Well, she’s not like any dragon I’ve ever seen or heard of before,” Papa said. “But why

don’t you let Mama finish telling me about her?”

        All of them except for To-Ho-Ne sat down at the table. “As I saying, first there was a

huge storm,” Mama began. And then—with some interjections from Alijandra—she went on to

tell the dragontamer everything they had seen and knew and theorized about Pearl.

        “Huh,” Papa grunted, when Mama had finished. “That must have been the same ‘drake

that I ran into—it swooped down on me one night, trying to frighten me off.” Nestled in

Alijandra’s arms, Pearl watched the dragontamer with her tiny white eyes. “It’s almost like she’s

listening to me,” he said. “Following every word.”




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         “That’s what To-Ho-Ne thinks,” Alijandra said. “Right?” she asked the old Diheneh

woman.

         “Mr. Anerson does not need my opinion on dragons,” To-Ho-Ne replied. “I have bowls

of beans and corn. Who wants some?”

         All of them did, except Alijandra, who was too excited to eat, she insisted. “Tell us what

happened to you, Papa,” the little girl said. “Where have you been? What happened to all your

hair?”

         “Well, when I left, a few months ago,” he said, in between spoonfuls, “I scouted around

for a long time, looking for signs of any wild dragons. I looked all over Dihenehtah. I went east,

into the h’Anjo lands, but I didn’t have any luck there, either. So I went into the Uupohna

territory.”

         “What?” Mama demanded. “You said you’d—”

         “I know, I know,” Papa said. “I said I wouldn’t go there, and I didn’t want to, but I was

desperate. I travelled at night and I mostly stayed far away from the villages. One night, the

venomdrake tried to scare me off, but I watched it fly away, and decided to track it.”

         “You were going to tame a venomdrake?” To-Ho-Ne snorted. “It would have killed

you.”

         “Maybe,” Papa admitted. “It was the only chance I had. I was going to follow it to its

nest, sneak up on it, sing to it before it even knew I was there,” he said. “I came to a village that

the drake had attacked, and there, I ran into some Uupohna braves. They, uh…they weren’t too

friendly,” Papa said, smiling and patting his shorn head.

         “They cut your hair off?” Isabella asked.

         “They do that to everyone they capture,” Papa said. “It’s to humiliate their prisoners.”




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        “Did it hurt?” Alijandra asked.

        “No, not really,” Papa replied.

        “Why did they capture you?” Isabella asked.

        “They don’t like outsiders on their land,” Papa said. “Anyway, I was able to get away

from them, and I made my way into the mountains. I met an explorer there, from the country of

Dhyuzman, across the ocean. He was a nice fellow. After we parted, I found what I thought was

the drake’s den, halfway up a mountain. I waited, but it never showed up—now I know why. So

I headed home. I didn’t know what else to do.”

        “Where did you get the horse?” Isabella asked.

        “What horse?” Alijandra demanded. “We have a horse now?”

        “The horse right outside,” Papa said, jerking his thumb towards the door. “Go look. I

call him Pretty Boy. I found him out wandering in the desert, about a day from here. I think he

was a cavalry horse: Ysparrian, that is. He’s the breed they use. Still had his bit and bridle when

I found him, but no saddle—I’d say he ran off, but that’s not like his type, unless something

really spooked him.”

        “Come on, Pearl!” Alijandra scooped the little dragon off the table, perched her on her

shoulder, and ran outside. There, tied to the tree where Mama usually hung her laundry, was a

black horse with a strip of white fur, broken in three places, running down the middle of its face.

        “Oh, you are pretty,” Alijandra said, slowly coming toward him. He stepped back as the

little girl came nearer.

        “It’s all right,” Alijandra said. “It’s all right. Who’s the pretty boy? Who’s the good

horse?” She took a few steps closer. The horse watched her, but didn’t move. “Who’s the

pretty horse?” she asked. “Hello. Hello, Pretty Boy.”




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        Alijandra squatted and plucked a handful of long, skinny spinegrass, then carefully

plucked the sharp tips off before offering it to the horse. “Who’s the good boy?” she asked, as

the horse’s great round nostrils went open and shut, open and shut, sucking in the scent of the

grass the little girl held. “Do you want some? Would the pretty horse like some grass?”

        The horse leaned forward a bit, then a bit more. Alijandra held still. “Nice grass for such

a pretty horse.” On her shoulder, Pearl whined. “Don’t be jealous,” Alijandra chided.

        The horse’s ears twitched as he considered. Then he craned his neck and opened his

mouth—impossibly small for an animal so large—and took the grass.

        “There’s a good boy,” Alijandra said. She held still as the horse ate from her hand.

Then, very slowly, she squatted down and picked another handful of grass. The horse didn’t

wait for her to pull off the sharp tips.

        “Easy, fellow,” Alijandra said, as the horse gobbled down the grass. “You’ll poke the

inside of your mouth.” But the horse paid her no mind.

        “I have to go,” Alijandra said, patting Pretty Boy. “I’ll play with you later!”

        Alijandra and Pearl went back inside. Isabella and To-Ho-Ne and Mama and Papa were

still eating. On the table were many silver-and-gold coins that Papa had dumped out of his

leather purse. “What’s that?” Alijandra asked.

        “Money,” Papa said, handing her a coin. “Dhyuzmanii drikuii. They’re foreign, but

they’ll spend, and there’s enough for a while. Your Papa’s a rich man.”

        “That’s great!” Alijandra said. “How did you get them?”

        “That explorer I met, I told him a bit about the land, drew him some maps, and he gave

them to me as payment.”




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          The old Diheneh woman finished her food, stood up. “May I take your bowl for you,

Princess?”

          “Yes, thank you,” Mama said.

          “Thank you,” Papa said, as the old Diheneh woman took his.

          “So now what?” Isabella said, around a mouthful of food.

          “Papa has been travelling for days to come home,” Mama said, “and he needs rest. Bella,

finish up, and then you two come with me. I’ll show you how to take care of our new horse.”

          “Great!” Alijandra said. She kissed Pearl on the top of her head. “I have to put you in

your box, now,” she told the dragon. Pearl whined a reply as Alijandra went to the metal crate

and carefully set her inside.

          “Why don’t you leave her with me?” Papa said to Alijandra. “I’d like to take a closer

look at Pearl, if she’ll let me.” He looked up at Mama. “We’ll talk some more—you and I—

later. All right?”

          She nodded. “Come on, girls. Let’s let your father sleep for awhile.”

          “I’ll gather firewood,” To-Ho-Ne said, moving towards the door.

          Isabella stood up and put away her bowl to clean later. She went back to Papa. “It’s so

good to have you home,” she said, hugging him again. “I missed you.”

          “I missed you, too,” Papa said. Alijandra came over. He wrapped one arm around

Isabella, the other around Alijandra. He kissed them both on their cheeks. “It’s good to be home

again.”

          “Make sure Pearl doesn’t run off,” Alijandra said, setting the crate on the table. “She

broke her leg—I think she did it when that big dragon tried to eat her—but it’s fixed now, so she




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might try to get away again.” Her eyes widened. “Do you want to watch me give her some

medicine? She takes it right out of my hand.”

        “Sure, I’d like to see that,” Papa said.

        “Later,” Mama said. “It’s not time for the dragon’s medicine yet. You can give it to her

when as soon as the sun goes down.”

        “Ohhh,” Alijandra groaned. “I just want to show Papa.”

        “I’ll see it when it’s time,” Papa said. Closing his eyes, he pinched the bridge of his nose.

“But Mama’s right: I’ve travelled a long way. You girls go help Mama. And while you’re doing

that, think about all the things you want me to buy you.”

        “What do you mean?” Isabella asked. “When are you going to buy us something?”

        “Tomorrow, we’re going to Scorpion Tail,” Papa said. “You girls and Mama and me.

We’re going to buy everything in that trading post.” He chuckled. “Hoi, we might even buy the

trading post itself and turn out that old vulture Cornejo.”

        “Hurray!” Alijandra said, jumping up and down. She took Isabella’s arms and they spun

around like dancers.

        “I’m going to get a new doll!” Alijandra said.

        “I’m going to get that book!” Isabella cried. “And we’ll get new dresses, and—”

        “First, you’re going to help me get that poor horse’s tack off,” Mama said. “Outside!

Now.”

        “Yes, Mama,” Alijandra said.

        “Yes, Mama,” Isabella said. But both girls were grinning.




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       They left the house. Underneath the table, Jack watched them go, then put his head down

again. The dragontamer leaned back in his chair, rubbed Jack’s side with his boot. The dog

rolled over to offer him his belly.

       “How’s my good dog, heh?” the dragontamer asked. “How’s my best boy?”

       Jack thumped his tail.

       Like a snake, Pearl’s head appeared over the lip of the crate. She looked around.

Chirped once. Locked her tiny white eyes on the dragontamer’s.

       “And you, my little friend,” he said. “I’ll tell the world…”

       The dragon, of course, made no reply.



                                                  #



       Evening came, and they ate dinner, and Alijandra showed Papa how she gave Pearl her

medicine. To-Ho-Ne said that she thought this was the last time they needed to give her any.

After a few more hours of sitting around and telling Papa all of the things that had happened in

the many weeks he had been gone, the girls unrolled their sleeping mats and lay down. To-Ho-

Ne joined them, leaving Mama and Papa alone at the table to count the money again and talk in

low tones.

       As she always did, Alijandra fell asleep quickly. It took longer for Isabella, but though

she eventually drifted off, she woke up a little while later.

       The house was dark, but she heard voices outside. Mama and Papa, she realized. What

are they—? And then she heard them, though they were trying to be quiet.




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       “I don’t want to talk about this any further,” Papa said. “It’s absolutely crazy. It would

never work.”

       “We have to do something!” Mama hissed. “We have to go somewhere. I’m sick of

living out here in this Motherforsaken wasteland. We’ve been hiding and scratching in the dirt

for years, and what do we have to show for it? Nothing!”

       “We’re alive,” Papa said.

       “We’ve been lucky,” Mama told him. “How long is that going to last? I can’t raise my

daughters here anymore: they were almost killed by a cougar! And now there are soldiers

looking for you again. How long before bounty hunters follow them? Can your native friends

keep them away, too? Our sheep are gone, you haven’t been able to find silver or anything else

worth trading—”

       “I have the money from Kassim—”

       “That won’t last forever!”

       “We’ll buy more sheep,” Papa said. “We’ll get by.”

       “I’m tired of you and your ‘getting by!’” Mama snapped. “My girls should be in a proper

school, with books and paper, not scratching their numbers in the dust between chores. Most of

the time, I’m too tired to even teach them anything—do you know how hard it is to keep this

house going when you’re not here?”

       “Of course I know,” Papa replied. “Do you think that digging graves or poking around

caves looking for nuggets is fun? Look at this—look at this! Look what they did to me. I’m

lucky they didn’t carve my face off. You think I liked that?”

       “Of course not! You don’t think I worry about you when you’re gone?”

       Papa didn’t say anything for a moment. Then: “We can’t just sneak back into Ysparria.”




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        “We could go south—all the way south, to the other end of the Empire, where Guzmarr

will never find us.”

        “It’s too far,” the dragontamer protested. “How would we get there—cut our hair and

change our names again?”

        “If we have to, yes,” Mama replied.

        “We’d be caught,” Papa said. “After all, we barely made it here. No. No, if we’re going

anywhere, it’s not south. Kassimyen said there are camps, Dhyuzmanii camps, on the coast. All

we’d have to do is get over the mountains and the forest on the other side.”

        “But first, we’d have to go through the Uupohna lands,” Mama said. “This is what they

did to you: what do you think they’ll do to me and girls if they catch us? And even if we make it

to these ‘camps,’ then what? Live among foreigners, learn a new language? That’s no way for

my children to live.”

        “They’ve done it before,” Papa reminded her.

        “We’re going back to Ysparria,” Mama said.

        “If we go to Ysparria, they’ll shoot me if they catch us!” Papa replied. “And they might

shoot you, too, for helping me escape.”

        “I did it because you made a mess of everything!” Mama snapped. “If it weren’t for

you—”

        “With you, it’s always my fault,” Papa growled. “You didn’t have to come with me.”

        “No, I could have stayed behind and been killed by the mobs, or thrown into prison

because they couldn’t catch you,” Mama said. “And what would have then happened to the

girls? I had to come with you to this Mother-shunned place. You said so yourself.”




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         “Well, maybe I should just go and never come back. That would work out fine for you,

wouldn’t it?” Papa demanded. “The money’s on the table: that’s all you ever wanted from me,

anyway. That’s all I’ve ever meant to you.”

         “You know that’s not true!” Mama snarled. “I bore your daughters! I kept your house

for you! I stayed with you all this time! I put up with all your failings and your laziness and

your wom—”

         “Stop!” Papa growled. “Just—stop!”

         “Let go of me!” Mama said. “Now!”

         For what seemed to be a long time—how long, Isabella couldn’t tell—neither of them

said anything.

         Finally, Papa said, softly, “Let’s…let’s not talk about this anymore. Not for a while.”

         “All right,” Mama replied. “That would be best.”

         “I’m…going for a walk,” Papa said. “To calm down and think, before I say anything

else.”

         “All right,” Mama said. “Don’t go far. It’s dangerous at night.”

         “I know,” Papa said. “You don’t have to remind me.” He sighed. “Come on, Jack.”

         Isabella heard the dog climb to his feet. Heard her father’s boots heading away from the

house. Shut her eyes tight and wiped her face and lay still, shaking as she stifled her sobs, so

that when Mama came in, she would not know.




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                              Chapter 23: Scorpion Tail 

       “It looks different, doesn’t it?” Papa asked.

       Isabella frowned. “No,” she said, looking around as they entered Scorpion Tail. She and

Alijandra were still riding on Pretty Boy. “It looks just the same to me.”

       “Here,” Papa said, holding out his hand. Isabella put out both of hers, and he put some

coins into her hand. “Look around again,” he said. “You can buy anyone and anything in this

godsforsaken town. Does it look different now?”

       She looked at the money in her hand. Looked at the dilapidated buildings, the scrawny

dogs and chickens wandering about, the ragged people staring at them from their porches and

windows. I don’t belong here, she thought. I’ve never belonged here. She looked again at the

money in her hands. Yes, she thought. Yes, it does look different now. Or am I the one that’s

suddenly different?

       They had woken before dawn, just as they usually did. Papa had been cheerful, kissing

the girls and calling them his “little cubs.” Mama had been quiet at first, but then, as they



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dressed and ate and packed Jack’s travois for the trip, she began to smile and talk. It was as if

the argument the night before had never happened.

       To-Ho-Ne had stayed home, as usual—she had insisted that she was too old to walk to

Scorpion Tail and back, though the trip to and from Ahiga’s home was not much shorter. After

extracting many promises from To-Ho-Ne that she would diligently watch over Pearl while she

was gone, Alijandra had finally agreed to join Isabella on Pretty Boy’s back.

       And then they had set off: Papa walking beside Pretty Boy, holding the reins; Alijandra

and Isabella riding side-saddle on his bare back; Mama walking on the horse’s right, up by his

head where he could see her; Jack and his travois behind them. What about bandits? Isabella

had wondered. We have all this money now. But Papa had found another pistol at the bottom of

the old trunk where he kept his clothes, and Isabella had brought hers—though she had not told

Papa about it—in her apron.

       The morning had swiftly grown hot, but they had rested for a few minutes in the cool

shade of the stream, the one they had crossed on their last trip home from Scorpion Tail, the one

where Isabella and Alijandra had met Daon Raul and caught tiny fish for Pearl. When Jack and

Pretty Boy had drunk their fill, they had set out again, and arrived in town before noon.

       “Everyone’s looking at us,” Alijandra said.

       “Pay them no mind,” Mama said, holding the little girl’s hand tighter. “They always do

that whenever anyone comes or goes here.”

       Isabella gave the money back to Papa. “What about the reward out for you, Papa?” she

whispered.




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         “Don’t worry so much,” he said, lowering his voice. “With this haircut the Uupohna

gave me, I’m sure I look a lot different than what they have on those wanted posters. Even so,

do you girls remember what our pretend names are?”

         “Yes, Papa,” Alijandra said. “I’m ‘Alijandra Guadalupe Fhurdrickson Sanchez.’”

         “And I’m ‘Isabella Adelia Fhurdrickson Sanchez,’” Isabella said.

         “And who are Mama and I?” he asked.

         “Papa, we know what to say,” Isabella replied. “We do this every time we come to

town.”

         The dragontamer grunted.

         As they crossed the dusty square in the center of town, someone shouted,

“Fhurdrickson!” Papa’s hand drifted to the grip of his pistol. It was Kolb, the smith, the one

who had repaired Mama’s bracelet. He was trudging towards them, eyes narrowed, not smiling.

         “What does he want?” Mama asked, stepping in front of the girls.

         “I never paid him for some work a few months ago,” Papa said. “Looks like he’s been

drinking again. I’ll deal with him. Why don’t you and the girls go to the trading post?” he

asked. He slipped a few coins into his pocket before handing the money pouch to Mama.

         “Are you sure?” Isabella asked. I don’t like that man, she thought. He better not try to

be mean to Papa. Something warm touched her palm and she realized that she had slid her hand

into her apron, onto her pistol. Then she remembered the cougar’s jaw exploding red and she

took her hand away.

         “It’ll be fine,” Papa assured her. “Go on.”

         “You heard your father,” Mama said, shooing Isabella and Alijandra. She tugged Pretty

Boy’s bridle. “Let’s go.” Jack plodded after them.




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       As she went, Isabella couldn’t help but watch Papa turn to face Kolb as the other man

began shouting at him in Erisian. Papa folded his arms, smirked, and let Kolb carry on. A

crowd gathered to watch.

       “Mama, is Papa going to be all right?” Alijandra asked. She was also looking back.

“That man is really angry.”

       “Your father knows what he’s doing,” Mama said. “Here we are. Down you go.”

       While Mama tied Pretty Boy’s reins to the hitching post, Isabella slid off the horse and

helped her little sister down. She glanced over and saw that the wanted poster that had been

tacked to the post was torn at the top, as if someone had taken it down and nailed it back up

again. Something tightened in her stomach. Stop it, she told herself. Everything will be fine.

Papa said so. “Wait here,” Isabella told Jack, but he was already settling onto the wooden

porch, panting and looking back to watch the argument.

       Mrs. Cornejo had apparently just hoisted herself out of her chair and was on her way to

the front door as they came in. Behind her was the fat woman with the crooked nose, the one

that Isabella and Alijandra had seen on the trading post’s second floor. “What’s going on out

there?” Mrs. Cornejo demanded.

       “Girls, I must purchase some things from Mrs. Cornejo,” Mama told them. “While I’m

arranging that, please look around. If there’s anything you want—anything—please bring it to

me.” Mrs. Cornejo frowned. Mama allowed herself a small, satisfied smile.

       “Yes, Mama!” Alijandra said.

       “Yes, Mama!” Isabella said. As Alijandra started to inspect the barrels and boxes and

bundles and crates and shelves there in the trading post, Isabella went to where she had come

across the picture book. It’s still here, she thought, taking from the shelf. She flipped through it




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until she found the illustration she had seen before, the one with the jungle and the purple

lizardmen and the princess in her golden gown. It’s still here, and now I can have it, she told

herself, starting to sit down on the floor with it. Now I can find out what happens. This is—

       “Are you going to take that?” someone asked. It was the fat woman with the crooked

nose, the woman from upstairs, who had scolded them the last time they were here.

       “What?” Isabella asked, crouching.

       “That book,” the woman said, pointing to it. “Are you going to take it?”

       “Yes,” Isabella said, closing the book and standing up straight. “Papa’s going to buy it

for me. He has a lot of money now. I’ve always wanted it, ever since I saw it.”

       The woman nodded. “You’ll like it. Sometimes, I take it down and look at the pictures.

They’re pretty. Mama tells me to be careful with it,” she added, nodding her head in the

direction of Mrs. Cornejo. The woman smiled. “Maybe the next time you come back, you can

tell me about the story. I don’t know what happens.”

       She can’t read, Isabella thought. And then Isabella realized that the woman—whom she

had thought was Mama’s age—was not much older than herself. She was plain-looking, yes, and

her teeth were dingy and her hair greasy, but there were no lines on her hands or around her

mouth or her eyes. And when she talked about the book, her eyes widened, and her voice didn’t

sound so coarse. She lights up, Isabella realized. Like Ali does when she’s talking about Pearl.

She loves this book. Like I do.

       “All right,” Isabella said, nodding. “I’ll do that. I’ll tell you what happens.”

       The woman bobbed her head for a moment, then turned and started up the stairs. Isabella

clutched the book to her chest and watched her go.




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       “Look what I found!” Alijandra said. It was a porcelain doll—a real one, not one made

from a corncob—with a painted face and real hair and a burgundy velvet dress. The doll had one

black slipper, and the heel of the bare foot had been smashed, probably when someone had

dropped it.

       “Isn’t she beautiful?” Alijandra asked. “I’m going to get her.”

       “Her foot’s broken,” Isabella said, turning over the doll and showing Alijandra. “Do you

want a doll with a broken foot?”

       “That’s all right,” Alijandra said. “I don’t mind. What do you think I should name her?

At first, I thought I’d call her Pia, but then—”

       “I thought you were going to get that other doll you saw last time we were here,” Isabella

said. “Carmen? Remember Carmen?”

       “Oh, she’s not here,” Alijandra said. “Someone must have bought here and taken her

home. What about ‘Telma’ for a name? Do you think she’d like that? Or maybe—”

       “Hoi there, girls!” Papa said, coming through the door. “What have you found?”

       “Papa, I found this doll!” Alijandra said, running to him. “And her name is Telma, and

she’s going to be—”

       “Hush for a second, Ali,” Isabella said. “What about that man, Papa?”

       “Kolb?” He smiled. “I let him shout and stamp for a little while, just to see him get

going. Then I gave him the money I owed him and thanked him for his good work—and his

patience,” he added, chuckling. “What have you got there, Bella?”

       “A picture book,” Isabella said. “May I have it? I’ve wanted it for a long time.”

       “Aren’t you too old for that?”

       Isabella shook her head. “Well, then, of course you can have it,” Papa beamed.




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       “Thank you, Papa,” Isabella said, throwing her arm around his neck.

       “What about Telma?” Alijandra asked. “Can I have her? She’s my friend.”

       Papa crouched down to look at the doll. “Why don’t you tell me all about her?” he asked,

winking at Isabella.

       Still holding the book, Isabella wandered around. She came to an open, wooden crate,

where she found a long, green dress trimmed in lace. She put down the book for a moment, took

up the dress, held it against her. A little big for me, she thought, but not too bad. Maybe Mama

could hem it.

       She held it out from herself. This looks like something a fine lady should own, she

thought. How did such…an elegant dress get here? She looked around, at the smudged

windows and the dusty floor of the trading post, and all the ordinary things—wagon wheels and

wooden barrels and antelope hides hanging from the rafters—here.

       Maybe this dress belonged to a rich lady travelling somewhere on a coach or a train, she

thought. A rich lady and her family and her servants. Maybe outlaws attacked them, and maybe

one of them took this dress as part of his share. And maybe he came here and traded it for

whiskey or guns or something else, she imagined. Maybe that lady wonders what happened to

her dress. I wonder if she misses it—if she’s even still alive. Don’t outlaws sometimes kill

people they steal from? I hope she’s all right.

       Don’t worry yourself like that, she told herself. Who cares where it came from or how it

got here? It’s pretty and I want it. It even has pockets on the side, and they’re hidden very

cleverly. I’ll ask Papa to get it for me. She draped the dress across her arm, retrieved the book,




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and made her way to the front of the store, where Mrs. Cornejo was seated behind her table,

attending to Mama.

       “I think that’s all the food,” Mama said. “My husband will load it onto our horse. Girls,

do you have what you want?” Alijandra broke off from Papa and came running.

       “Here, Mama!” Alijandra said, showing Mama her doll. “Papa says I can have Telma!”

       “And I’d like this book, please,” Isabella said. “And this dress.”

       Mama took the dress, held it out. “It’s very beautiful,” she said. “And very grown-up.

But where will you wear it?”

       Isabella shrugged. “You’re right, I don’t have anywhere to wear it. I’ll put it back….”

       “We’ll take it,” Mama said, smiling.

       “I’ll need that saddle, too,” Papa said, pointing at one that had been hanging on the wall

for years. “And those bags, with it.”

       The old Ysparrian woman counted up the bags of beans and corn and wheat and coffee;

the sides of smoked venison and antelope and wild pig; the flask of wine and the tin of tobacco;

the book and the dress and the doll, and the saddle and the bags, and a few other little things.

“Eighteen reales, 28 centavos,” she announced. “Unless you have something you want to trade.”

       Papa retrieved the purse from Mama, took out a coin and handed it to Mrs. Cornejo.

“How about if I give you this and we call it settled?” he asked.

       “What’s this?” Mrs. Cornejo asked, frowning as she peered at the strange face and

writing on the octagonal coin.

       “Something worth a lot more than eighteen reales,” Papa replied. “Here,” he said,

handing her another coin. “Have another one. I have plenty.”




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          Mama frowned, but Mrs. Cornejo slipped the coins into a little wooden box on her table.

“Good day to you,” the old woman said.

          “And to you,” Mama said. “Girls, let’s wait outside for Papa.”

          Jack hauled himself to his feet as they stepped out onto the porch of the trading post. He

padded over to them, tail wagging. “Who’s a good boy?” Alijandra asked, leaning over and

letting him lick her face. “Who’s the best boy in the whole world? That’s right: you are,” she

told him.

          While several townspeople watched, Papa made four trips back and forth from the store.

First he put the new saddle and its bags on Pretty Boy. Then he put the bag of beans on Jack’s

travois and slung the other, larger bags across the horse’s back. He tied the meat and the wine

flask to Pretty Boy’s saddle, using cords that hung there for just that purpose. Then he carefully

folded Isabella’s new dress and bundled it into a saddlebag. “Do you want me to put your book

in here, too?” he asked.

          “That might be best,” Isabella said, handing it to him. “I’d hate for something to happen

to it on our trip home.”

          Papa nodded. “How about your doll?” he asked.

          “I’m carrying her,” Alijandra said, holding Telma close.

          “Don’t drop her,” Mama warned, “or she’ll break.”

          “I won’t drop her,” Alijandra said.

          “Caroleena is going to be jealous,” Isabella said.

          “Telma and Caroleena are going to be best friends,” Alijandra said. “Just like me and

Pearl.”




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       “I think we’re ready, then,” Papa said, slipping the tin of tobacco into his pocket. “Let’s

go—c’mon!” he told Pretty Boy, tugging gently on his bridle.

       They set off, many of the townspeople watching them. Mama kept looking back.

       “What’s wrong, Mama?” Isabella asked.

       “Nothing,” she said. “I was looking for Daon Raul, but I suppose he’s busy, or off

somewhere else.”

       “Why are you looking for him?” Alijandra asked.

       “It doesn’t matter right now,” she said. “Let’s just go.”

       They passed the last house and kept on. For a long time, no one said anything. Then

Mama turned to Papa. “You shouldn’t have boasted about the money.”

       “What do you mean?” Papa asked.

       “Back there, with Mrs. Cornejo,” Mama replied, shaking her head. “You practically

snapped your fingers under her nose, as if we’re some kind of royalty now.”

       Papa smiled. “There’s nothing wrong with a little bragging every now and then,” he said.

“Especially when you have something to brag about. It’s been a long time since we have, don’t

you think? Besides, you seemed pretty pleased with yourself.”

       “It was stupid of me,” Mama admitted.

       “Old Dame Cornejo has never had anything good to say about us, all these years,” Papa

said. “What’s she going to say now?”

       “She’s probably already showing everyone in town that money,” Mama said. “Soon

everyone will know.”

       “Know what?” Papa asked. “Know that we’re rich again?” Still smiling, he spread his

arms. “There’s nothing wrong with that. I’ll tell the world!”




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         “You shouldn’t have said what you did,” Mama repeated. “Trouble will come of it.”

         “You sound like To-Ho-Ne,” Papa said. “You know what, girls?” he asked, looking over

his shoulder at Isabella and Alijandra. “The trading post was a good start, but it didn’t have

nearly enough things for you. You deserve more than what they had there. In a day or two,

we’ll head to Esmargga, to the market there. You’ll come home with so many dresses and dolls

and books that we’ll have to buy a wagon and another horse to haul them back.”

         “Hurray!” Alijandra said, jumping up and almost dropping Telma.

         “Really?” Isabella asked, smiling. “I’d like—”

         “There are better things to do with that money than waste it on dresses and toys,” Mama

snapped.

         What’s wrong? Isabella wondered. Why isn’t she happy? Then she remembered the

argument from last night. “Do you think we should do that, Papa?” she asked. “Maybe we

should save our money. I’m—”

         “Ignore your mother,” Papa said. “She’s not happy with me unless she has something to

complain about.”

         Mama scowled but said nothing.

         They walked on for a long time, Scorpion Tail dwindling behind them. A cloud drifted

across the sky, dimming the bright sunlight, cooling them a little. “Is it going to rain?” Alijandra

asked.

         “No,” Papa said. “It’s the wrong kind of cloud. It’ll pass soon. Enjoy it while you can.”

         “There’s something in my sandal,” Isabella said, sitting down on a rock. “I’ll just take

me a minute to get it out. You all go on.”




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       The others kept walking. Isabella let them go a few paces before she called. “Papa, can

you wait for me? In case there’s a cougar around?”

       He shrugged, handed the bridle to Mama, saying, “We’ll catch up.” He walked back, sat

down on the ground next to her as the others went on.

       Isabella unfastened her sandal. Took it off. Shook it out. Peered into it.

       “Nothing there, is there?” Papa whispered.

       “No,” she admitted, also whispering.

       “I thought not. What do want to talk about that Mama and Ali can’t hear? Be quick—

they’ll be expecting us.”

       “Last night, I heard you and Mama arguing,” she said, “about going away.”

       “We’re not going anywhere yet,” Papa said. “Pay it no mind. Sometimes grown-ups

argue and— ”

       “But you were talking about things that are going to happen, and things that happened a

long time ago, and—”

       Papa sighed. “And whenever we talk about those things, either what’s going to happen,

or what did happen, then we argue,” he said.

       “But why—”

       “Let’s discuss this later,” Papa said. “Right now is not a good time.”

       “But Papa, when you and Mama argue…it scares me, and it makes me sad, and…”

       “I know,” he said, taking her into his arms. “Me, too.”

       “Why don’t you stop?” she asked. I will not cry, she thought. I will not cry. “Why don’t

you just not argue?”




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       “I don’t know,” he admitted. He wiped her face. “Come on. Get your sandal back on.

We’ve got a long way to go.”



                                                 #



       They walked, a bit slower than they had on the trip to town, and rested often. They

stopped at the stream again, and Papa let Jack and Pretty Boy wade in and drink, as they had

earlier. Alijandra asked if they could bring some fish for Pearl. She showed Papa how Daon

Raul had done it, using a tiny bit of food in a water bottle, and after a few tries, Papa managed to

catch some. Then they went on again.

       It was late afternoon when they came, tired and dusty and sweaty, to the house. Pearl

cooed and chirped when Alijandra came in, and after Alijandra gave her the fish to eat, they

played together on the floor, rolling and tumbling, under the table, while Papa watched them,

stroking his chin. Mama and To-Ho-Ne and Isabella made dinner—roasted wild pig—and all of

them ate until they were full.

       Then Papa pumped water out of the well and To-Ho-Ne heated it on the stove, and

everyone took turns in the taking a bath in the big tin tub that they also used to wash clothes.

The girls cleaned their teeth and said their ritual good nights. Then, with To-Ho-Ne, they

stretched out on their sleeping mats. Mama and Papa took two chairs outside, and Jack flopped

down in the dust between them, and Papa smoked some of his new tobacco while they talked

quietly, holding hands, with no arguing this time.

       In the morning, Papa announced that he was going to tame Pearl.




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                             Chapter 24: Dragontaming 

       “So how do you train dragons, Papa?” Alijandra asked.

       “It’s a simple idea, but it’s hard to actually do,” the dragontamer said. He looked around.

The house was a rifle’s shot away, as was the butte near their home. “This looks like a good

spot,” he said. “Put Pearl down here.”

       It was hot. Isabella squatted and set the metal crate on the ground. Jack poked his nose

under her arm, sniffing, as she took off the lid. As Alijandra reached inside and took out Pearl,

the big black dog pulled his nose away, but watched the dragon.

       This morning, Pearl had woken them up by scampering about the house chasing flies and

ants, her claws going tkk tkk tkk tkk tkk across the stone floor. After everyone had dressed and

eaten, Papa had said that he wanted to try taming Pearl, so Alijandra had fed her an egg from the

chicken coop, put her back in the crate, and followed Papa out here.

       “Why do have to go so far from the house?” Alijandra asked, stroking Pearl’s head.




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       “We have more room out here,” Papa answered. “We won’t be in Mama or To-Ho-Ne’s

way while they work.”

       And so nothing happens to the house, I’ll bet, Isabella thought. Pearl could probably use

her lightning to set our house on fire.

       Pearl climbed onto Alijandra’s shoulder. “Why do we even have to tame her?” Alijandra

asked. “She’s been doing fine.”

       “I told you that already,” Papa said. “If she’s going to stay with us, she needs to do what

we tell her.”

       “Why?” Alijandra asked.

       “Because it’s our house, and we make the rules,” Papa said, wiping his forehead with the

back of his arm. “She can’t make a mess inside, or eat something she’s not supposed to, or bite

anyone, or—”

       Papa talks like she’s a dog, Isabella thought.

       “—or burn one of us,” he concluded. “What if she hurts one of us as badly as she did

Daon Raul? Eh?”

       “She wouldn’t do that,” Alijandra said. “She likes us. Well, she likes me and To-Ho-Ne,

and she likes Mama, I think. Maybe Jack, though I’m not sure.” She grinned. “She doesn’t like

Bella much, though.”

       “I don’t like her much, either,” Isabella sneered.

       “If she’s going to be around people, she needs to learn to like people more,” Papa

insisted. “What if she went to go live somewhere else where there were people? Like maybe in

a menagerie.”

       “What’s a menagerie?” Isabella asked.




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       “It’s a place where people keep wild animals and take care of them, so that they can look

at them whenever they want,” Papa explained.

       “So people keep these animals in a house?” Isabella asked. “A house for animals?”

       “Something like that,” Papa said. “And the people feed them and bathe them and make

sure the animals have everything they might want, so that they’ll be happy. Lots of rich people

in Ysparria have menageries.”

       “I like that idea!” Alijandra said. “Now that we’re rich, can we have a menagerie? Pearl

can be our first animal. And you can be in it, too, Jack,” she added, patting him on the head.

       “We’re not that rich—not yet, anyway,” Papa said.

       “I still don’t see why we need to tame Pearl,” Alijandra said. “She’s very good and very

nice and she doesn’t make a mess—”

       “—anymore,” Isabella added.

       “She doesn’t make a mess in the house anymore,” Alijandra continued, “and I want to

keep her forever, so she’s not going to live with anyone else, so—”

       “I don’t know if Pearl is going to stay with us forever,” Papa said. “Maybe now that

she’s all better, she’ll want to go. But in any case, it wouldn’t hurt her to be tamed, and I need

the practice, anyway. It’s been a very long time since I tamed a dragon.”

       Alijandra considered this. “All right,” she said. “I guess we can try—can’t we, dear

heart?” she asked Pearl. The little green dragon, still perched on Alijandra’s shoulder, made no

response.

       “All right, then,” Papa said, clapping his hands together and rubbing them. “I’ll tell you

some things about dragontaming as we go along. First off, the Diheneh have been dragontaming




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for as long as they’ve been here, and that’s a really long time. And how the Diheneh tame

dragons, and get them to do things for them, is to sing to them.”

         “They sing?” Alijandra asked.

         “Remember how Naalnish and Ahiga were singing to Pearl during the healing

ceremony?” Isabella asked.

         “Is that what they were doing?” Alijandra asked. “It just sounded like they were saying

‘huh’ and ‘hee’ and ‘hoy’ over and over again. I didn’t know they were saying real words.”

         “They were singing in Diheneh,” Papa explained. “One day, I’ll start teaching you girls

some Diheneh, when your mother lets me.”

         “To-Ho-Ne’s teaching me some,” Alijandra said. “But I wasn’t supposed to tell you.

It’s—”

         “Be quiet and let someone else talk,” Isabella snapped. “So, were the Diheneh the first

people to tame dragons?”

         “Maybe,” Papa said. “But they aren’t the only ones who tame dragons. The Uupohna

do, and some of the other native nations, too. And the Imbyrrians did.”

         “Who are the Imbeerree…?” Alijandra struggled with the strange name.

         “The Imbyrrians lived on an island very far from here,” the dragontamer said. “They

tamed the dragons that lived there. When they ran out of room on the island, the Imbyrrians sent

some of their people to other lands, to build new cities, start new places to live. One of those

places was Ysparria.”

         “Where we come from!” Alijandra said.




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        “Where you and Bella and Mama were born, yes,” Papa said. “I don’t know how the

Imbrryians trained their dragons, or what exactly happened, but supposedly, the dragons rebelled

against the Imbrryians and destroyed the island.”

        “What do you mean?” Alijandra asked.

        “The dragons made a storm and drowned the island,” Isabella said. “It sank into the sea.

That’s what Mama told me.”

        “That’s the story,” Papa said. “Ali, how about you put Pearl down and we’ll get going?”

        “All right,” Alijandra said. She gently plucked Pearl off her shoulder and held her close.

“Papa’s going to teach you some things,” the little girl whispered. “Be good for him. Can you

do that? Please?”

        “The first thing to do when you want to tame a dragon is to clear your head of any bad

thoughts,” Papa said. “You need to be calm, and you can’t mean the dragon any harm. If you

aren’t calm, if you’re thinking bad things, the dragon won’t listen to you.”

        “That’s like what Naalnish told us, before he did the healing ceremony on Pearl,” Isabella

said.

        Papa nodded. “And he’s right.”

        “To-Ho-Ne said that he taught you how to tame dragons,” Isabella said.

        “Yes, he did.”

        “Can he teach me?” Alijandra asked.

        “I don’t know, Little Cub,” Papa said. “The Diheneh don’t usually teach other people

how to tame dragons. It’s a secret.”

        “But he taught you,” Alijandra said.




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       “I’ll tell you about that some other time,” Papa said. “So, just for a moment, close your

eyes and don’t say anything. Don’t think about anything bad. Just think good thoughts, happy

thoughts.”

       Papa coming home with a lot of money, Isabella thought. He and Mama being happy.

My new book. Ali’s new doll. To-Ho-Ne and—

       “All right,” Papa said. “You can open your eyes, but keep thinking good thoughts. If a

bad thought comes into your head, push it away. Ali, put Pearl on the ground, and we’ll go on to

the next step.”

       Alijandra did as she was told. The dragon looked at her. Looked at the dragontamer.

Rose to her feet.

       “The next thing to do,” Papa said, “is to sing the ‘Friendship Song’ to the dragon. It’s a

Diheneh song that tells the dragon that I’m its friend, and reminds it that ever since the world

began, the Diheneh and the dragons have been friends.”

       “But you’re not Diheneh,” Isabella said. She wiped the sweat off her forehead.

       “It doesn’t matter,” Papa replied. “To dragons, all people are alike.”

       “Pearl knows I’m not like everyone else,” Alijandra protested.

       “Well, you might be right, dear heart,” Papa said. “But most dragons think most people

are all the same. Anyway, the important part is the song. If you know the song, and sing it

correctly, with good thoughts, the dragons will see you as a friend.”

       “All the dragons know the song?” Isabella asked. Papa nodded. “How do they know it?”

       “I don’t know,” Papa admitted. “But even dragons who have just hatched understand and

respond to it.”

       He squatted in front of Pearl and sang:




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               Ajiiotssaiin sik’is

               Ts’ida biholniihgo’ate!

               Naahaidaa shidine’e taa Diheneh doo

               Na’asho’iitsoh ndahodoolaal

               Doo k’ehdahidi’ni nihi gi’adaat’eego



       Pearl’s tiny white eyes held his. She didn’t move. It’s almost like he’s…hypnotizing her,

Isabella thought. But what if—no. No bad thoughts. Good thoughts. Papa coming home with a

lot of money. My book. My dress. A new house. Mama being happy all the time.

       The dragontamer continued:



               Ajiiotsa!

               Naahodeeszhiizh doo il hosh

               ‘Ii daa la’I niildli

               Nihi gi’adaat’eego



       Papa finished and stood up. “Now that I’ve sung the ‘Friendship Song’ to her,” he said,

“we can go on to the next part of the training.”

       “What were you singing to her?” Isabella asked. “What do those words mean?”

       Papa sang again:




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               Listen, please, friend

               It’s really important

               Many years ago, my people, the Diheneh, and

               Dragons made a ceremony together

               And they were friends because you are like us



               Listen!

               Much time has passed and

               During that time you have slept,

               But we are still united, still friends

               Because we are like you



       “That’s not that good a song,” Isabella said.

       “It doesn’t sound as good translated to Ysparrian,” Papa admitted.

       Alijandra asked, “Is it like a magic spell?”

       “No, not really,” the dragontamer said. “Besides, there’s no such thing as magic.”

       “To-Ho-Ne says there is,” Alijandra said.

       “To-Ho-Ne is wrong,” Papa replied.

       Isabella licked the sweat off her lip. “When you tame a dragon, do you make them do

things?” she asked. “Or is it more like asking a friend for a favor? They do something for you

because they like you, but if they didn’t want to do it, they wouldn’t?”




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       “It’s like asking a friend for a favor,” Papa said. “Because I’ve sung the song to her,

Pearl will like me and want to do things for me. So now,” he said, reaching for Pearl, “I’ll—”

       Zkk. The air between Pearl and the dragontamer went white for a moment as something

sparked. He jerked his hand back, shaking it. “Ow!” he snarled, leaping to his feet. He looked

at Alijandra, then Isabella. Then at Pearl.

       Pearl hissed at him. Jack slunk back behind the older girl.

       “I don’t think the song worked,” Alijandra said.

       “Sometimes it doesn’t,” Papa conceded, opening and closing his hand. It was red, as if

he had touched the hot stove. “Maybe we all weren’t thinking good thoughts. Or maybe I was

talking too much. I’ll try again in a minute, when everyone’s calmed down. Dragontaming’s not

easy, you know.”

       Pearl waddled over to Alijandra, sat on her haunches. Chirped iiirt. Alijandra picked her

up. “She didn’t mean to hurt you,” Alijandra said. “She just didn’t want you to touch her, that’s

all.” The little girl cuddled the dragon. “She’s shy, but when she gets to know you better, she’ll

like you, too.”

       Papa frowned. “Well, how about you put her down and I’ll sing the song to her again?”

       “All right,” Alijandra said, squatting. Pearl hooked a claw into her blouse. “Come on,

dear heart,” the little girl said, gently undoing the dragon’s hold. “Be good for Papa.” She put

Pearl on the ground. “He won’t hurt you. He wants to be your friend.”

       This time, Papa sat down, cross-legged, on the ground in front of Pearl. For a moment,

he said nothing, and then:




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               Ajiiotssaiin sik’is

               Ts’ida biholniihgo’ate!



       Papa taking us to Esmargga and buying us more dresses, Isabella thought, watching

Pearl and her father. Dinner last night—that was good! Mama getting a new bracelet. How

cool the breeze feels.



               Naahaidaa shidine’e taa Diheneh doo

               Na’asho’iitsoh ndahodoolaal

               Doo k’ehdahidi’ni nihi gi’adaat’eego



       The dust swirled around their feet.

       Going back to Ysparria and living in a proper house, Isabella thought, with lots of rooms,

and servants, and plenty to eat every day, and lots of books and stories to read.



               Ajiiotsa!

               Naahodeeszhiizh doo il hosh



       A cloud passed overhead, dimming the sun. Jack’s tail twitched.



               ‘Ii daa la’I niildli

               Nihi gi’adaat’eego




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       Dolls for Ali. A dozen of them—no, a hundred, Isabella wished. A new husband for To-

Ho-Ne. Being princesses, like Mama was, and going to parties at the Emperor’s palace.

       The wind tugged at the girls’ skirts. The dragontamer began his song again.



               Ajiiotssaiin sik’is

               Ts’ida biholniihgo’ate!



       The wind feels good, Isabella told herself. It’s been so hot today, and I’m thirsty. I hope

we can go back soon and—

       Limbs spread, webs extended, Pearl began to float off the ground, dust swirling around

her like a miniature tornado.

       “Papa!” Isabella shouted, hands cupping her eyes to keep out the dust.

       “Pearl!” Alijandra exclaimed, lunging for the dragon. Isabella grabbed her, held her

back. Still singing, his voice not quite as steady now, the dragontamer got to his feet.



               Naahaidaa shidine’e taa Diheneh doo

               Na’asho’iitsoh ndahodoolaal



       Pearl went straight up. Five feet, then twelve, then almost twenty. Jack barked again and

again and again.

       “Papa, she’s flying away!” Alijandra said.     “Don’t let her go! Pearl, come back!”




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       She can’t fly, Isabella told herself. She doesn’t have wings how can she fly the wind she

uses the wind she makes the wind pick her up and she can because she’s so light she hardly

weighs anything at all—

       The dragontamer stopped singing. Stared at Pearl, hovering overhead. “I’ll tell the

world,” he muttered.

       Something hit him, left a wet round spot on his dusty forehead. Another spot darkened

his shirt. Then another. Then a dozen more. Then hundreds.

       Raindrops the size of coins pounded down on the dragontamer, drenching him, sagging

his hat, spattering his boots with mud. Above him, Pearl floated in the air, watching, not

moving.

       “Papa!” Alijandra cried. He held his hand over his eyes and peered through the rain at

her.

       She and Isabella and Jack were dry. He stretched out his arms and his fingertips felt the

familiar dry heat of the desert. He looked down and saw that he was standing in a column of

falling water not much wider than himself.

       Pearl makes rain, Isabella realized. And she won’t be tamed.




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                             Chapter 25: Another Visit 

       The trembling wind holding her, Pearl savored the rain from the single cloud overhead.

The rain cooled her, and her skin drank in its wetness, but more satisfying was the knowledge

that it—like the wind—had come when she had called, and obeyed when she had commanded.

Which meant, at last, that she had healed from her battle with the venomdrake, and could

continue east.

       “Pearl! Come down!” Alijandra cried.

       The dragon’s eyes followed the voice. Two score feet below her, the dragontamer

stood—clothes drenched, hat a soggy lump in his hands—and stared up uselessly into the rain

that contemptuously pounded him. Beside him, Jack, barking at the dragon, leapt in and out of

the narrow column of rain. Isabella said nothing, but Alijandra put her hands into the air and

pleaded with Pearl.

       “Come back, Pearl! Come back!”




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       The wind pushed the dragon up, up, higher. The land below her faded to yellow: no

rocks, no cacti, no dogs or dragontamers or little girls. She passed through the raincloud,

dismissing it and paying no further mind as the rain slowed, slowed, then stopped, and the cloud

itself began to dissipate. Higher she went, up where the oven-like heat of the desert gave way to

the eternal cold where no birds ever flew, and she herself had seldom been.

       West were the great mountains she had crossed, and the forest. And beyond that, a thin

grey line at the edge of the world, was the sea over which she had flown.

       East was the place—much closer now—where she had to go.

       But now, slowly, slowly, Pearl drifted down. Down to where the air was hot and dry

again, the vanished rain almost forgotten already by the desert. Down to the rocks and cacti.

Down to where Alijandra waited for her.



                                                 #



       She unwrapped the cloth and held the round cheese she had bought yesterday up to her

nose. Breathed in. Smiled. Took it to To-Ho-Ne, who was cooking a pot of chili on the stove.

Held it by her face. “What does this remind you of?” Mama asked.

       The old Diheneh woman cautiously sniffed once. Again. Shrugged.

       “It reminds me of the parties my Papa used to throw,” the younger woman said. “Do you

remember? The cooks would slice this very thinly, and serve it to the guests before dinner.

Lupe and I would sneak some when Papa wasn’t looking.”

       “He knew,” To-Ho-Ne said, “but he pretended not to see. And there was only enough

wine in it to give it some flavor.”




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         “What about when Lupe took—”

         Kmp kmp. Hard black boots, with pointed toes, on the stone floor. The women turned.

Juanita smiled. “Hello, Ahiga,” she said, in the Diheneh language.

         “Hello, Juanita Anerson,” he replied, from the doorway. As they usually did in hot

weather, the women had left the door open. “Is your husband here?”

         “Please come in and sit down,” Mama said. “To-Ho-Ne will get you coffee. No, Thad’s

out somewhere, with the girls.”

         “—And the dragon,” the old woman added. She went to a shelf nearby.

         “How is it?” Ahiga asked. To-Ho-Ne took down a cup from the shelf.

         “Since the healing ceremony, she seems to be recovering,” Mama said. “Please thank

your father again for us.” To-Ho-Ne poured a cup of coffee from the pot on the stove, gave it to

Mama.

         “Why did he take the dragon with him?” Ahiga asked. “Is he trying to tame it?”

         “Yes,” Mama said, handing Ahiga the cup.

         He sipped from it. “Why would he bother doing that?”

         Mama shrugged. “I don’t ask him many questions.”

         Ahiga smiled. “That makes you a good wife,” he replied, sitting down at the table. “He

chose well when he picked you.” He leaned back in his chair, looked out the open window.

“Your horse?” he asked, pointing to Pretty Boy, grazing halfway between the house and the

butte.

         “Yes,” Mama said. “Thad found him running loose.”

         Ahiga grunted. “Do you know when Thad will be back?”

         “No,” she said.




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         “Did he bring back any tobacco from the trading post?”

         “Word travels quickly,” she said. “That was only yesterday.”

         “I was there about sunset,” Ahiga replied. “There were lots of people there. Old Lady

Cornejo was still talking about all the money your husband showed her.”

         “To-Ho-Ne, please get Ahiga some tobacco,” Mama said.

         Ahiga held up his hand. “It can wait,” he said. “I’ll smoke with Thad when he comes.

We have a lot to talk about.” He took another sip of coffee. “So where did the money come

from?”

         “I should let him tell you that,” Mama said. “It’s really not my place to say.”

         He smiled and nodded. “I wish Ooljee was like you. She talks too much. Always has to

say something, even when she shouldn’t.”

         To-Ho-Ne ladled some chili—beans, tomatoes, ham, bacon, and corn—into a bowl,

brought it and a spoon to Ahiga. “Thank you,” he said. Mama and the old Diheneh woman

joined him at the table and began eating. “It’s spicy,” he said, “and good. All that money has

made your food much better. I should come more often,” he joked.

         Mama smiled a little. “Thank you,” she said.

         Ahiga finished the bowl and began helping himself to a second. He was almost all the

way through it when Jack loped inside, nose raised and twitching, smelling the chili. A moment

later, Alijandra rushed in, carrying Pearl. Isabella was right behind her, with the metal crate.

         “Mama! Mama!!” the little girl exclaimed. “Pearl can make it rain! She really can!”

         “What’s she saying?” Ahiga asked.

         “I’ll translate,” To-Ho-Ne said. “She says Pearl can—”

         “What happened to you?” Mama asked, looking at her husband.




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        The dragontamer stood, sopping wet, in the doorway.

        Ahiga laughed, slapping his thighs. “What the hells did happen to you?” he asked. “Did

you fall in when you went to the latrine? A big sheep come by and pass water on you?”

        “You’re very amusing,” the dragontamer replied, in Diheneh.

        “I heard you’re suddenly rich,” Ahiga said.

        “To-Ho-Ne, take the girls—and Pearl—outside, please,” the dragontamer continued, in

Diheneh. “Ahiga and I need to talk.”

        “Go outside,” Mama told the girls. “Take Pearl, too. To-Ho-Ne will bring your food.”

        “Mama, Pearl can make rain!” Alijandra repeated.

        “Yes, I kno—”

        “We just came in, and it’s hot out there,” Isabella said. “Why do we have to go back

out?”

        “Ahiga hates children,” To-Ho-Ne replied.

        “That’s not true,” Mama snapped. “Isabella, don’t interrupt, and don’t argue with me.

Just go outside, please. It’s cool under the ramada. I’ll bring some water.”

        “Mama—” continued Alijandra.

        “I heard you the first time, dear heart,” Mama said. “Let’s go outside and you can tell me

everything.”

        The old Diheneh woman quickly ladled some bowls of chili for the girls. Mama took

some cups and the clay jug of water. Jack followed them outside. The dragontamer waited just

inside the doorway, dripping on the stone floor, until they left. Then he went to the cupboard

and got himself a bowl. Began spooning chili into it.




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         Ahiga leaned forward, held out his bowl. “How about some more? And is that wine-

cheese I see there? I haven’t had that in a long time. Cornejo wants too much for it.”

         The dragontamer brought the cheese over. Ahiga took out his knife and started slicing it.

Helped himself to some.

         “The dragon can make rain,” Papa said, sitting down at the table.

         “Erisians shouldn’t chew dream weed,” Ahiga said, smiling. “It makes you say stupid

things, like little dragons making rain in the desert.”

         The dragontamer held out his soggy arms. “This look like dream weed to you, idiot?”

         Ahiga shrugged. “My first wife used to call me that. Maybe she was right. Don’t you

want to change clothes?”

         The dragontamer shook his head. “It feels good, actually.” He started eating his chili.

“That ‘little dragon’ can fly,” the dragontamer said. “It can make lightning. It can make rain—”

         It was Ahiga’s turn to hold out his arms. “It didn’t rain on my way here.”

         “That’s the thing. It can make…very controlled rain. I got wet and neither of the girls

did.”

         “And why would the dragon make it rain on just you and not your daughters?”

         “Because it was annoyed with me,” the dragontamer said. “I was trying to sing the

Friendship Song, and it wouldn’t have any of it. So it did this to me,” he said, pulling at his shirt.

         “It pulled a little water out of the air,” Ahiga shrugged. “A good trick, but nothing

more.”

         “Is that what your father would think?”

         Ahiga spooned more chili into his mouth.




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         “Juanita told me that you and he did a healing ceremony for the dragon, and that the girls

went to your house and talked to him and some of the elders about it.”

         “My father’s become a stupid old woman,” Ahiga replied. “He and the elders, they sit

around my house and talk all the time about your little dragon. They think it brought the big

storm we had—did Juanita tell you about that?”

         “Yes, she did.”

         “The dragon’s nothing,” Ahiga said, finishing his bowl again. “I just came along and

helped with the ceremony because I knew you would want me to. Why are wasting your time

trying to tame the little thing, anyway? It can’t be much use. Maybe as a pet?”

         “Daon Raul knows someone who wants to buy it, for a menagerie.”

         “What’s a ‘menagerie?’” Ahiga asked.

         “A collection of animals.”

         “What do these people who collect animals do with them?”

         “Keep them in cages. Look at them,” the dragontamer said. “Show them to their

friends.”

         “Why would anyone want to keep an animal you can’t use?” Ahiga asked. “Who does

that?”

         “Rich people,” the dragontamer said.

         Ahiga snorted. “Daon Raul’s an idiot. There aren’t any rich people around here—except

you—so no one’s going to buy that dragon.” He helped himself to another slice of wine cheese.

“So where did you get your money, rich man?”

         “I met an explorer from another country—”




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       “Another damned foreigner,” Ahiga sneered. “You people are like mouse droppings, you

know that? You just get in everywhere and make a mess all over the place, don’t you? Can’t

stay wherever the hell it is you came from.”

       “He was mapping part of the Great Mountains,” Papa said. “I helped him. He paid me.

Very well.”

       Ahiga shook his head. “He probably felt sorry for you.” He leaned forward. “So now

that you’re rich, maybe you want to share some of that money with your old friend.”

       “Why?” the dragontamer asked. “So you can spend it on Cornejo’s ugly daughter?”

       Ahiga shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. At least I don’t waste my money on whiskey, the

way you used to.”

       “Shut up,” the dragontamer said.

       “You should be nicer to me,” Ahiga said.

       “That’s what Ooljee tells you, isn’t it?” the dragontamer asked.

       “You’re making a lot of problems for me ever since that new governor the Ysparrians

have started putting up pictures of your ugly face,” Ahiga said. “My men and I spend a lot of

time riding around, chasing off people looking for you. The fellow who’s in charge of the

soldiers—Altamiraz, or something like that—he asked me again a few days ago if they could

poke around on our lands some more.”

       “What did you tell him?”

       “I told him to mount a dog. I’m not going to let some short-haired milk-drinker in a

pretty uniform ride all over our lands any time he wants to.” He rapped his knuckles on the

table. “And you should have seen the idiot I came across just yesterday. Some Ysp farmer

walking alone, miles from anywhere, middle of the day, no water, no pack on his back, no gun,




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nothing. Said he was a friend of yours, knew you back in Cuidad de Agustin. Said you fought in

the wars together.”

       “Everybody I fought with either died in the wars or in the fire,” the dragontamer said.

“I’m sure of it.”

       “I asked him if he was looking for you because of the reward. He said no, just wanted to

‘play with you again.’”

       “‘Play with me again?’”

       “I asked him if he wanted some water and he said no,” Ahiga said, shaking his head.

“Just some crazy bastard who wandered away from his farm. I told him to go back to where he

came from and he just smiled kind of crooked at me, like he wasn’t quite good at it. You know,

like babies do when they’re learning how. Idiot. He’s probably dead of thirst by now, and the

buzzards are eating him. See all the problems you’re causing?”

       The dragontamer rose to his feet, went to his trunk, squatted, opened it. Came back with

the leather purse. Scooped out a handful of coins and pushed them across the table to Ahiga.

       Ahiga counted them. “Can’t you give me more than that, rich man?” he asked.

       “You came and coyoted some money off me. Now get out of here,” Papa said, putting

the purse away.

       “You talk like a woman,” Ahiga said, rising from his chair. “By the way, Hashtaa’s boy

died last week—fever took him. Hashtaa’s been waiting for you.”

       “I’ll take care of him tomorrow,” the dragontamer replied.

       “You’ll do it today,” Ahiga said. “You live on our lands, Erisian, you bury our dead.

That was the deal.” He moved towards the door.

       “I know,” the dragontamer. “You don’t have to remind me.”




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       “Well, let me remind you who your friends are,” Ahiga said, pausing at the doorway. “I

am and my father is and so is everyone else in the nation. We saved your useless life. We taught

you everything you’ve ever learned, except for how to screw up—you learned that on your own.

We took you and your family back when you were running from the Ysparrians: it wasn’t easy

for me to convince the elders to agree to that. We’ve hid you and kept you safe all these years,

and we’re still doing it. So you get your skinny, pale ass up and go bury Hashtaa’s son before

dark. You understand me, Erisian?”

       The dragontamer studied the wood grain of the table for a few moments. A fly buzzed

by. “All right,” the dragontamer said, softly.

       “Good!” Ahiga beamed. “I’m glad we’re friends again. Heh—did you buy any tobacco

yesterday?”

       The dragontamer got up, went to the trunk, found the tin of tobacco. Gave it to Ahiga.

Scowled. “You’re still an idiot,” the dragontamer said.

       “Yes,” Ahiga agreed, “but I’m an idiot with tobacco.” He grinned. “See you later,

friend.”



                                                  #



       Mama and To-Ho-Ne and the girls came back into the house. To-Ho-Ne began cleaning

up from lunch. Isabella and Alijandra sat on the stone floor, Pearl beside the little girl, ready to

use their new chalk for an arithmetic lesson that Mama was about to teach them. “What did

Ahiga want?” Mama asked.




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        “The usual,” Papa replied. “Whatever he could wheedle out of me.”

        “And what did you give him this time?”

        “Some tobacco,” Papa replied. “Some money.” Mama’s brow furrowed. “He’s my

friend,” Papa explained.

        “He doesn’t sound like much of a friend if all he does is take money from you,” Isabella

said.

        “I don’t have many friends,” the dragontamer admitted. “I can’t be too choosy.” He

squatted down by Alijandra. “Your friend here is very…well, she’s…”

        “She’s what?” Alijandra asked. Pearl shrank away from the dragontamer, deep into the

little girl’s arms.

        “She’s very strong willed, that’s for sure,” Papa said. “And she’s very surprising. I had

no idea she could fly, or make rain.”

        “Isn’t she amazing?” Alijandra asked. “I’m so lucky I found her. And she’s lucky I

found her, too. I’ve saved her life twice now. And she’s saved mine.”

        “We still need to tame your little dragon,” Papa said. “Everything I said this morning is

true. If she’s going to live around people, she’s going to have to learn to do what we say, and not

just whatever she wants to do. What if she made it rain inside the house?”

        “That would be funny!” Alijandra laughed. “Can you do that, Pearl? Can you make it

rain inside?”

        “Don’t put the idea in her head,” To-Ho-Ne said.

        “Tomorrow,” Papa continued, “I’d like to try again to teach Pearl to do some things. You

and she seem like very good friends. Is there anything you can do to help me with her?”




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        “You mean, talk to her?” Alijandra asked. He nodded. “Pearl,” the little girl said,

leaning close over the dragon, “tomorrow, when Papa tries to train you, I want you to be nice to

him and do what he says, all right? Will you do that for me?”

        “She doesn’t understand you,” Isabella reminded her. “Papa said that dragons only

understand Diheneh.”

        “No, he didn’t say that,” Alijandra replied. “Did you, Papa?”

        “That wasn’t exactly what I said—” Papa began.

        “Anyway, even if she could understand what you’re saying,” Isabella continued, “she

won’t remember it tomorrow, when Papa tries to train her again.”

        “Maybe she will,” Alijandra insisted. “To-Ho-Ne, how long do dragons remember

things?”

        “Enough,” Mama said, raising her hands. “It’s too hot in here for all this arguing. Let’s

start our lesson.”

        Papa stood up. “I need to see Haashta. I’ll take Pretty Boy.”

        “Why do—” Alijandra began.

        “Hush!” Mama scolded. “I’ll help you saddle him,” she said to Papa, “then we’ll start,”

she told the girls. She and Papa went out.

        “Where’s Papa going?” Alijandra asked. “Why didn’t Mama let me talk?”

        “Maybe because you talk all the time,” Isabella said.

        “Don’t say things like that to your sister,” To-Ho-Ne said. “Haashta—he lives a little

ways from here—had a son who died of a fever: Ooljee, Ahiga’s wife, told me when we visited

them. Your father is going to bury him.”

        “Why?” Alijandra asked.




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       “It’s his job,” To-Ho-Ne explained. “A long time ago, when your father first came to

these lands and asked to stay, our elders told him he could so long as he would bury our dead for

us.”

       “Haashta must be very sad,” Alijandra said.

       “How old was his son?” Isabella asked.

       “It is very sad,” To-Ho-Ne agreed. “He was not quite three.”

       “Why did the elders want Papa to bury the dead people?” Isabella asked.

       “Death—and the dead—are very frightening to my people,” To-Ho-Ne said. She dried

her hands on a rag.

       “Where will Papa bury him?” Isabella asked.

       “In a cave,” To-Ho-Ne said. “That is where we leave them. That’s why, before, I’ve told

you and Ali to stay out of caves.”

       “What was his name?” Isabella asked. “Haashta’s son?”

       “I won’t say,” To-Ho-Ne said. “I’ve said too many things. It’s bad to keep on talking

about him. I’m going to help your mother and father with the horse.”

       She went out of the house. She’s frightened, Isabella realized. Alijandra held Pearl tight

against her, and the dragon nuzzled her cheek.



                                                  #



       Papa and Pretty Boy came back after dark, a long time after the rest of them had eaten

dinner. Papa’s hands and shirt and pants were covered in red dust. Bella wanted to ask him

about the cave, but didn’t.




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       Papa washed up and changed his clothes, getting into an old robe he sometimes wore

before going to sleep. Mama offered him dinner, but he didn’t have any.

       When it came time for the girls to go to sleep, Alijandra asked, “Papa, can you sit with

us?”

       “Your father is very tired,” Mama began. She was sitting across the table from Papa,

leafing through Isabella’s storybook. To-Ho-Ne was outside, at the latrine. Jack was curled

under the table. After playing with Alijandra for quite a while, Pearl had settled into the rags in

her crate and gone to sleep.

       “I suppose,” Papa said, rising to his feet. He crossed the small room to the mats where

the girls were lying and sat down, cross-legged, on the floor. Jack got up, ambled over, lay down

next to him with a great sigh.

       “Good night,” Papa said.

       “Good night,” the girls replied.

       “I’ll see you in the morning.”

       “I’ll see you in the morning.”

       “I’ll see you in my dreams,” he told them.

       “I’ll see you in my dreams.”

       “I’ll see you when the sun comes up.”

       “I’ll see you when the sun comes up,” the girls said.

       “I love you.”

       “I love you.”

       “What shall we dream about?” he asked.




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        “All the things we did today,” they said.

        “Especially what?”

        “Pearl making it rain on you,” Isabella said, grinning.

        “I was trying to forget about that,” Papa replied. “How about you, Cub?”

        “Would you tell us a story?” Alijandra asked.

        “It’s time to sleep,” Mama protested.

        “It’s all right,” Papa said. “What sort of story do you want?”

        “A real one,” Alijandra said. “Today, To-Ho-Ne was talking about when you came here.

Tell us that story.”

        “I’ve told you that before, lots of times,” Papa protested.

        “I want to hear it again,” Alijandra replied.

        “There isn’t much to tell,” Papa said, “but all right.”

        And he began.




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         Chapter 26: How the Dragontamer Learned His Craft 

       “My father and my brothers—I was the youngest—were farmers in Erisia,” the

dragontamer said. “I wasn’t any good at farming, and I didn’t like it, anyway, so when I was

only a few years older than Bella, I ran off to join the cavalry.” Alijandra snuggled up closer to

her sister on the sleeping mat.

       “They sent me and the company I was with into the Weste, to claim new land for our

country,” Papa continued. “I started out as a camp boy—cooking meals, cleaning rifles, taking

care of the horses—and eventually became a regular cavalryman. I fought in a few battles—

sometimes against the Ysparrians, but usually against the natives—and I did all right, so after a

few years, they made me an officer.”

       “Why did you leave the cavalry?” Isabella asked.

       “Well, the last battle I was in didn’t go so well,” the dragontamer said.



                                                 #



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         Neither moon was up; the stars were the only light. “Do you hear that, sir?” Anerson

asked.

         Captain Vannerhof yanked his horse to a stop. Behind him, seven hundred horsemen also

halted. Vannerhof listened. Something murmuring on the night wind. “Drums,” he replied.

         Anerson nodded. “They know we’re coming.”

         “It doesn’t matter, Lieutenant,” Captain Vannerhof said. He clucked at his horse,

continued on. Behind him, the horsemen urged their mounts forward. Anerson followed.

         The company passed between two stands of trees and spread out in a line at the top of the

ridge. The drumming was louder now, clearly heard. Below, in the center of the native village,

shadowy shapes chanted and danced around a huge bonfire. Anerson narrowed his eyes, trying

to estimate, but his long-range vision was fuzzy. Thousands? Or only hundreds? he wondered.

He glanced over at Vannerhof, who was peering through a spyglass into the village.

         He’s not worried. You shouldn’t worry, either, Anerson told himself. He rested his hand

on the grip of his holstered gyro-jet pistol and eyed the trees behind them, only a few dozen

yards away. The scouts had found no one in the trees, but the h’Anjo were elusive and superb

ambushers. They could be there, he thought. And if they are, they’ll attack any moment now,

before we can move on the village.

         “Bring forward the mechanicals,” Vannerhof said, putting away the spyglass. On the

right flank, five metal carriages crawled along, spider-like, on slender steel legs. Each was as tall

as a horse and carried two men. At the rear of each, one man pulled levers and manipulated

gears to move and steer the construction; at the front, one man loaded and prepared the multi-

barreled guns.




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       The wind shifted. White smoke from the bonfire began to drift their way. Good,

Anerson thought. It’ll cover our advance. In the tress, there was nothing but insects singing.

       “Rifles at the ready,” Vannerhof ordered. Seven hundred horsemen unlimbered their

weapons.

       The drumming became louder, faster, frenzied. Anerson’s eyes flicked back and forth

from the village to the trees. Smoke gathered near the bottom of the ridge. His horse stamped,

ready for the charge. “Easy,” he murmured. “Easy….”

       Vannerhof drew his double-bladed saber, held it aloft. Anerson and the other lieutenants

did likewise.

       Nothing to worry about, he told himself. Done this dozens of times before. Just follow

the Captain. Keep close to him.

       Captain Vannerhof lowered his saber, and the horsemen thundered down the ridge, the

clanking mechanicals scuttling after them. Anerson looked back. No h’Anjo arrows flew from

the trees behind them. No h’Anjo ropes snared their horses as they hurtled towards the village.

His heart hammered in time with his horse’s hooves. Almost there almost there, he told himself.

But where are they they know we’re coming why haven’t—

       He swung his head back towards the village, their target, and saw that the white smoke

that had gathered at the bottom of the ridge had thickened, grown, and was flowing towards

them, uphill, as if to receive their charge. Anerson and the others rushed into it. Immediately,

the world went white, and he found it impossible to see any further than the nose of his horse.

       “Whoa, whoa, WHOA!” he ordered, pulling back on the reins, his horse protesting as it

slowed to a stop. The smoke was hot and stung his eyes. He pulled the kerchief around his neck

over his nose and mouth.




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       And then the world of white smoke around him was filled with men screaming and

horses whinnying in terror, and beneath that, horrid thmmps and the awful wet sound of meat

being ripped apart. A rifle fired. More screaming. More gunfire, aimless. Men shouting. Men

begging for help.

       A teenaged boy—the company’s bugle player—appeared next to Anerson. His hat and

his horse were gone, and blood ran down his face from a gash on his forehead. He looked

around, eyes wide but not comprehending what they were seeing.

       “Bugler,” Anerson said, “sound the—”

       And then something nearby within the smoke—not man or horse—shrieked, and pale,

rotting claws reached out and grabbed the boy and dragged him, screaming, into the smoke’s

depths. And then Anerson’s horse was whinnying and bolting, thrashing here and there in terror,

desperate to escape.

       “Retreat!” Anerson bellowed. “Retreat!” And suddenly he was clear of the smoke,

hurtling back the way he had come, back up the ridge, and scores of men and horses were

following him. Waiting for them were the mechanicals.

       Their drivers and gunners were dead, slumped in their seats, riddled with bullets. Yet the

metal contraptions kept marching, and Anerson watched helplessly as their guns swiveled away

from their crews and towards the horsemen.

       “Back! Back!” Anerson ordered, but the guns opened up, drowning his voice as hundreds

of bullets ripped the night air, tearing through flesh and cloth and leather. Anerson hit the

ground hard, shattering his right shoulder as his horse fell. More screaming, some of it his own.

No one’s there no one’s running them, he realized. The mechanicals are moving by themselves

but that’s impossible they’re just machines they can’t do that how are they—




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       And then something like a swarm of bats swept over him, cutting his face, his hands, his

uniform as he tried to stand. Leaves leaves what in all hell they’re leaves but they’re sharp

they’re like scissors leaves flying off the trees magic ghosts native magic they’ve conjured up

spirits or spells or something ow ow ow hurts get up got to get up move move the leaves from the

trees and the smoke and ghosts and even our own machines the natives they can make them do

whatever they want spirit magic go go all hells

       And then Anerson found himself running into the darkness beneath the trees, away from

the screams of the dying and the damned, running, running. And something grabbed his head

and yanked him off his feet as easily as a man might lift a kitten by the scruff of its neck and he

saw that what had him was huge and darker even than the shadowy places under the trees and it

smelled like blood—a foul, rotten stench—and it roared in glee and Anerson told himself Kill it

kill it shoot it demon ghost evil spirit shoot it and then the gyro-jet pistol went off and white light

exploded in the darkness, blinding him and deafening him, the force of it slamming him to the

ground and he felt—but did not hear—himself screaming in agony as his ankle snapped. And

then the trees nearby burst into flames and somehow he was on his feet, hobbling away as fast as

he could, crashing blindly through the underbrush until he fell, and everything went black.



                                                   #




       “The h’Anjo beat us pretty badly,” the dragontamer said. “And after that, I was tired of

fighting. So I left the cavalry.”

       “What was your horse’s name?” Alijandra asked.




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       “Sawdust,” Papa said.

       Alijandra giggled. “Why did you call him that?”

       “That was the name he had when they gave him to me.” Papa smiled. “He was a good

horse. Very fast. Very smart.”

       “So what happened to him?” Isabella asked.

       “I didn’t get the chance to take him with me when I left, but I’m sure he made out all

right,” Papa said.

       “So what happened then?” Alijandra asked.

       “Well, I sort of got lost and just wandered for a while. Turns out I was still going west.”



                                                #



       Sunlight. Grass. Endless plains of wild grass, as high as his waist. He reeled. Looked

behind. Many miles away, the forest that he had run from. Behind the forest, more smoke—

black, this time—billowing into the sky. Burning the bodies, he realized. They’re all dead.

Except me.

       Turned. Kept hobbling away. The pain in his ankle and in his shoulder belonged to

someone else; he knew it was there, but did not feel it. Kept going, following the sun. More

grass. Rolling hills. Night again. Still walking.

       Fell again. Blackness.

       Sun again, in his eyes. Birds circling high overhead. Vultures. Get up. Have to get up.

Boot gone, ankle purple and as big as both his fists. Mouth had turned to cloth. Waterskin still




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on his belt. Spilled it across his face, in his eyes, in his mouth. Better. Better. Walking again.

West? North? Doesn’t matter.

       Walking. Sun racing across the sky, land slowly changing. Something in his hands.

Pistol, he realized. Heavy. Too heavy. Can’t lose that, he told himself. He looked behind. No

one. Might need it, if they catch me. Held it up to his head. Just in case. Just in case.

       Night again. Kept walking. Stepped into a stream. Icy water made him shriek. Fell

beside it. Didn’t move for a long time.



                                                 #



       “And then what happened?” Alijandra asked.

       “Well, after walking a long time, I finally came here.”

       “To Dihenehtah,” Isabella said.

       “Yes.”



                                                 #



       Burning. Skin, burning. His mouth, swollen, burning. Hands flapping uselessly beside

him. Where’s the gun? he wondered. Grass gone. Red dirt and gray stones. Sun burning white

light burning into him burning.

       Falling.

       Night. Something snuffling his face. Dog—no, not dog, he realized, dimly. Yellow

eyes, grinning mouth. Smaller than a wolf. He kicked at it with his good leg. The coyote




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laughed at him, but kept its distance. Later, it was gone. Ever really there? he wondered.

Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter.

          A rat was inside his ankle, chewing, gnawing, eating him from the inside out. No, no rat,

he understood. Just hurts, that’s all. Ignore it. Get up. Get up.

          Couldn’t.

          The sun came, burned across the sky, slipped away again. He watched it go.

          The ants found him and his bleeding ankle. Their bites stung someone else.

          Vultures waited patiently on the rocks nearby. He found a stone, tried to throw it at them.

It fell a few inches from his hand.

          The sun came again. Something—dog? he wondered—spooked the vultures, and they

hauled themselves, screeching, into the sky. Something—yes, dog, he realized—licking his face.

          “Good boy,” he murmured. “Best boy in the whole world.” Black fur. Brown eyes.

Kept licking.

          Whathaveyougottheremaddie someone said, and the dog face vanished. Boots. Dusty

boots right in front of him. I’lltelltheworldlookwhatyoufoundgirl

          Someone hauling him to his feet. Sun spinning overhead. Hoisted like a sack onto

someone’s shoulder. Slung over something dusty and smelly. Mule? he wondered. Doesn’t

matter.

          Black.

          Lined, brown face with long, gray, braided hair. Headband of bright blue cloth. Leaning

over him. Whispering. Somewhere cool. Somewhere dark. No more burning. Native, he

realized. Got me after all. Where’s the pistol?




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       “You look like the hells, boy,” the lined face said. No, not the lined face. Another voice.

Anerson turned his head and the room tilted, started spinning. He shut his eyes. It stopped.

Opened them again.

       An Erisian man, old and fat. And with him, a big black dog.



                                                #



       “I had walked all the way from the h’Anjo lands into the Diheneh nation without

knowing where I was going,” Papa said. “Mr. Dempesson found me—well actually, his dog

Maddie found me—out in the desert. I was in bad shape, so Mr. Dempesson brought me to

Naalnish, Ahiga’s father, because Naalnish is a medicine man. He fixed me up. I owed them

both—well, all three of them, if you include Maddie—my life.”

       “So who exactly was Mr. Dempesson?” Alijandra asked.

       “I’ve told you before,” Papa said. “He was a prospector from Erisia. He had come out

here, looking for gold. He never found any, just a little bit of silver every now and then. Enough

that he could trade at Scorpion Tail for food and whiskey and supplies.”

       “And his dog’s name was a Maddie? She was a girl?” Alijandra asked.

       “Yes, she was,” Papa said, stroking Jack’s ears. “And a very good old girl, she was. She

was Jack’s Mama.”

       “So then what happened?” Isabella asked.

       “I stayed in Naalnish’s house—actually, it was Ahiga’s mother’s house—for a long time,

weeks, I suppose, recovering from my injuries, an—”

       “What injuries?” Alijandra asked. “How did you get hurt?”




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        “I had hurt my foot and my shoulder in the battle. After Naalnish healed me up—”

        “Did he do a healing ceremony for you, like he did with Pearl?” Alijandra asked. “I tried

to watch, but most of it was boring, so—”

        “Ali, be quiet,” Isabella snapped.

        “Do you want me to go on with the story?” Papa asked.

        “Yes, Papa,” Alijandra said.

        “Yes, Papa,” Isabella added.

        “All right then. After Naalnish got done taking care of me,” he continued, “I thought I

would go back to Erisia, rejoin the cavalry. Mr. Dempesson gave me supplies and taught me

how to survive in the desert, and I headed back. I got as far as the h’Anjo lands. In fact, I made

it all the way back to the village where I had that last battle.”

        “What happened?” Isabella asked. “Did the h’Anjo capture you?”

        The dragontamer shook his head. “It was like nothing had happened, like there had never

been a battle there. There was no sign of my company, no—”

        “No bodies?” Alijandra asked. “No dead people?”

        Papa smiled faintly. “I was trying not to mention that. No, Little Cub, no bodies. No

dead people.”

        “How about horses?” Alijandra asked. “I hope none of the horses got killed.”

        “There were no dead horses there when I went back,” Papa assured her. “The h’Anjo

found me, but they were surprisingly friendly. Maybe they didn’t know who I was, who I had

been with. Maybe they don’t hold any grudges—they had beaten us, and we hadn’t come back

to fight again, so there was no use considering me an enemy any more. Or maybe they just

thought that one Erisian was pretty harmless.”




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       “So what happened?” Isabella asked.

       “I stayed with them for a few days. I even traded with them for some of my old things

and some of the stuff my unit had lost in the battle. After the fight, the h’Anjo had buried the

dead and collected their things.”

       “What sort of things?” Alijandra asked.

       “Guns, boots, clothes, maps, knives, some rations, things like that,” Papa said. He

cocked his thumb at the trunk where he kept his clothes. “I brought everything with me back in

that. I made a travois—the one Jack uses whenever we go to town—to haul it.”

       “What did you have to trade?” Isabella asked.

       “Mr. Dempesson had given me some turquoise stones. They’re pretty, but they’re not

worth much to the Diheneh, because there’s lots of turquoise out here. But they didn’t have any

turquoise at the h’Anjo village there, so I was able to trade for a lot of things.”

       “So then what happened?” Isabella asked.

       “While I was there, in the village,” Papa explained, “it occurred to me that in all the

confusion after the battle, the cavalry probably thought I was dead. If I turned up alive again,

they might think I had run away—deserted—and I would have gotten into trouble.”

       “A lot of trouble?” Alijandra asked.

       “The kind of trouble they hang you for,” Papa replied. “I suppose I could have just gone

back to my father’s farm, but it was still a long way off, and there was nothing there for me,

anyway. So I thought it best to just stay away. Start a new life.”

       “What did you do?” Isabella asked.

       “I went back to Dihenehtah,” Papa said. “For the next few years, I stayed with Mr.

Dempesson. He was the only Erisian around, so he was the only one I could talk to. I helped




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him prospecting, but like I said, we never found much, just enough to get by. He was friends

with Naalnish and Ahiga, and he and I would visit them a lot. He started teaching me the

language, and I picked it up pretty quickly. It turns out I have a gift for learning languages, for

talking to people…and to dragons.”

         “Tell us about the dragons,” Alijandra said, eyes gleaming.

         “All right,” the dragontamer replied.



                                                  #



         The dragon—an ugly, squat, toad-like thing—giggled eeeheeheeheeeeeeee as it waddled

forward, scalding hot blood streaming from its three eyes, melting Diheneh warriors as they

charged. Anerson felt the crotch of his pants suddenly grow wet as his hands locked onto his

rifle.

         Ahiga looked over his shoulder. “Now are you glad you stayed?” he asked, smirking.

“You could have gone with the women and the old people. This is Diheneh business. No reason

for an Erisian to be here.”

         “Shut up,” Anerson murmured, distantly, paying attention only to the pounding in his

chest and the fwaap fwaap fwaap of the dragon’s feet as it stamped forward, swatting aside

enemy men. Masked Uupohna warriors followed the monster, shooting arrows, hacking down

the wounded enemy. Go on, Anerson told himself. Raise your weapon. Shoot at it. Simple. Go

on. Do it!

         His hands wouldn’t work. Crouched behind a boulder, he and Ahiga waited as the

Uupohna and their dragon smashed through the Diheneh. Anerson spared a glance back at the




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empty Diheneh village. They should be halfway to Fortress Canyon by now, he realized.

Naalnish. Dempesson. The others. They’ll be safe, no matter what happens to us. Unless the

Uupohna have horses, sent them on a flank, anticipated what we’d do? No, can’t think like that.

They’ll be safe. They’ll be safe.

       Not that I should care. Not my people anyway. What am I doing here?

       Stop it, he told himself. Don’t be such a damned coward. He wrenched his attention

back to the battle. “When are we going to do something?” he asked.

       “You’re in a hurry to get killed?” Ahiga asked, staring off into the distance.

       “No, it’s just—”

       “Now, I think,” Ahiga said.

       The ground not far behind the dragon buckled, heaved, and a huge cloud of dust and dirt

erupted upwards and billowed down upon the battle, hiding men and monster from sight.

Something inside the cloud roared, pebbles dancing on the ground where Ahiga and Anerson

squatted. “He’s come,” Ahiga said. “Let’s go. Pay attention.”

       An Ysparrian pistol in his hand, Ahiga rose to his feet and charged. Behind him, dozens

of Diheneh who had been hiding behind boulders and cacti rushed forward, firing their rifles and

pistols as the dust cloud settled and the Uupohna reappeared, disoriented. Anerson hustled after

Ahiga, hands still gripping his rifle, waiting, not firing, eyes locked on what was happening.

       Where there had been one dragon, now there were two. A hole had opened up in the

earth behind the Uupohna, and a huge, blue lizard-like monster had lumbered out of it. The

Uupohna’s dragon turned, fanged mouth no longer cackling with inhuman glee, and shrieked.

Streams of sizzling hot blood poured out of its eyes, struck Brother Tunneler, causing some of

his thick scales to smoke and warp. If Brother Tunneler felt any pain, he did not show it.




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Lowing like an ox, he smashed into the other dragon, knocking it off its feet, squashing dozens

of warriors—Uupohna and Diheneh—beneath it.

       Ahiga stopped; Anerson did the same. “There,” Ahiga said, pointing to a masked

Uupohna man who was half turned, shouting at the fallen dragon. “That’s their dragontamer.”

       Go on, Anerson told himself. Easy to do. Done it a hundred times before. Raise the

rifle. Follow your sights. Breathe out. Relax. Squeeze the trigger.

       The Uupohna dragontamer turned just as Anerson’s shot went off. His ceramic mask

exploded in a wet shower and he staggered for half a heartbeat—his last one—as he fell.

       “Good man,” Ahiga said. “We’ve won. You’ve saved our people.”

       I’ve saved them, he thought, glancing back at the empty village. I’ve saved them. He

smiled. Good. Good.

       And then Anerson drew his pistol and his double-bladed knife, and both of them ran

forward into the fray.



                                                #



       “It turns out that the Uupohna’s dragon—it was called the Lichxii Na’atseed, Ahiga told

me later—survived the fight,” the dragontamer said. “After I shot the bad guys’ dragontamer, it

ran away from Brother Tunneler and fled back to its home in the Great Mountains. All of the

Uupohna warriors who could, ran away, too. Those that couldn’t—well, I stayed in my shack for

the next few days while the Diheneh had their fun with them.”

       “What do you mean?” Alijandra asked.

       “The Diheneh killed them,” Isabella said. Slowly, she thought to herself.




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       “So, in the battle, Ahiga had made Brother Tunneler, that blue dragon, fight for the

Diheneh?” Alijandra asked.

       Papa nodded. “That’s what dragontamers do: they protect their people by getting dragons

to help them fight their enemies. It was years before the Uupohna tried another raid on the

Diheneh. After what I had seen, I wanted to learn how Ahiga and his father Naalnish, and their

fathers before them had tamed dragons. I asked, but they wouldn’t tell me. They said it was a

secret. I kept on asking. They kept telling me ‘no.’”

       “But eventually they told you,” Isabella said.

       “Yes,” Papa said. “Eventually, they taught me how to tame dragons.”



                                                #



       Even over the wind, they heard her before they saw her, in the twilight’s gloom. They

found the young Diheneh woman—Naalnish’s great-niece, Dempesson had told him—kneeling

outside her hogan, shrieking, her clothes ripped and bloody, hair wild, hands flapping

uncontrollably. Naalnish knelt beside her, held her, spoke softly to her. Maddie, whimpering,

crouched next to her, tail thumping anxiously, tongue cautiously flicking out every now and then

to kiss her face. Dempesson, with his shotgun, stayed outside to stand watch. Sheep bleated

helplessly in the corral. Anerson and Ahiga, pistols drawn, went inside.

       Sleeping mats and blankets and clothes torn. Clay bowls and cooking pots and water jugs

smashed. A young Diheneh man—the woman’s husband—broken and bleeding and slumped

against one wall of the little round house. Both cradleboards, where the babies had been

bundled—empty.




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        Ahiga, who had faced dragons and killed many men, moaned softly.

        “You all right?” Anerson asked. The words came out slowly. His mouth was suddenly

dry.

        Ahiga nodded. He tipped his head towards the door.

        Went back outside. Holstered their weapons. “Her husband’s dead,” Anerson whispered

to Dempesson, in Erisian. “The boys are gone. What in all hells happened here? Outlaws?

Uupohna?”

        Dempesson shook his head, discreetly pointed at the woman. “Skin walker, she says,” he

murmured. “Knocked on the door. Asked to come in. Looked like an old woman. They didn’t

know, until it turned, became something else.”

        “What’s a skin walker?” Anerson said.

        “A shape changer,” Dempesson replied. “Like the werewolf stories back home. Except

this isn’t a story.”

        “Werewolf? That can’t be. There’s no such thing.”

        “Out here in the Weste, some things you’d think are just fairy stories and superstition—

spirits and dragons and witch people—are more than that,” Dempesson replied. He leaned in,

listened to the girl’s words as they dropped from her among sobs. Looked back at Anerson.

“You getting that?”

        “No,” he replied. “She was talking too fast for me, and she’s too upset. What did she

say?”

        “She said the old woman became a coyote. A big one. Killed her husband, knocked her

down, took her babies into the dark. Both of them hanging from its mouth, it was so big.”




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          Anerson looked east, into the dark. Looked around. Ahiga was on his knees as well,

eyes closed, mumbling prayers. Maddie had her paw on the woman’s lap.

          “How good is your dog at tracking?” Anerson asked.



                                                   #



          “So what changed their minds?” Alijandra asked.

          “How did you convince them to teach you?” Isabella added.

          “I made a deal with them,” Papa said.



                                                   #



          It was just him and the dog and his rifle and a lantern. The wind had picked up, howling

past the towering pinnacles, down into the dark, stony valley. Maddie padded along, nose to the

ground, but even if she hadn’t been there, Anerson could have found the way. All he needed to

do was follow the trail of blood drops.

          They led to a rocky hill, up to a cave. Maddie stopped. Flattened her ears. Whined

softly.

          “Stay, girl,” he whispered. She sat. He put the lantern down. Checked the rifle.

Loaded, of course, just like every other time he had stopped to check it. He cocked it. Picked up

the lantern. “Good girl.”

          He crept up the hill, not worrying about being quiet—the wind covered any sound he

made—but being sure not to fall, or worse, drop the lantern. The blood drops went up a narrow




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trail, through some brush, up to the cave. He slipped through, ignoring the bite of thorns and

needles, until he was just outside the cave.

       You don’t have to do this, he reminded himself, chest tight, hands sweating despite the

night chill. This is Diheneh business. None of yours. Turn around. Go home.

       A sound, just a bit louder than the wind, from inside the cave. The feeble, gasping cry of

a baby that has been crying for hours.

       It’s just a damned coyote, he told himself. That’s all. That’s all. He stepped into the

cave. Held up the lantern.

       The old woman—naked, skin wrinkled and caked in dirt and filth, mouth smeared with

blood, hands like claws—came screeching out of the darkness for him. Her eyes her eyes, he

thought, as he raised the rifle, her eyes are yellow they’re like a dog no not a dog a coyote a

coyote shoot her shoot her

       She roared like a great animal, and he thought of the dark shape that had grabbed him

under the trees years before, as he had run away from the slaughter outside the h’Anjo village.

He dropped the lantern and its glass shattered and its light went out and he fired again and again

and again, the rifle as loud as thunder in the cave, and in the flashes from the muzzle he saw

something huge and fanged and covered with fur loom over him and then the rifle was out of

bullets and the cave was quiet and he was alone except with a dead old woman and two

screaming, but mostly unhurt, baby boys.



                                                 #



       “What sort of deal?” Alijandra asked.




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       “A bad person had taken two babies from their mother,” he said. “I got them back. The

mother was a relative of Naalnish. He promised he’d give me whatever I wanted.”

       “So you asked him, again, to teach you how to tame dragons,” Isabella said. Papa

nodded. “Why didn’t Ahiga go with you?”

       “He was scared,” Papa said.

       “But it was his family,” Isabella insisted.

       “He was scared,” Papa said.

       “Were you scared, too?” Alijandra asked.

       “Yes,” Papa admitted. “Anyway, Naalnish and Ahiga weren’t too happy about teaching

me to tame dragons, but a promise is a promise. It took a long while, and I made plenty of

mistakes—there were a few times when I thought the dragon I was trying to tame was going to

kill me—but eventually I learned how.

       “I started off small—little gully dragons that only come out during floods. I’d catch them

in nets and teach them tricks, and then let them go so they could get back underground before

they dried out.”

       “I want a gully dragon!” Alijandra said. “They sound cute.”

       “Hush,” Isabella told her. “You have Pearl.”

       “Gully dragons aren’t cute,” Papa said. “They’re about twice the size of Jack and they

have big, wide mouths, like catfish, with lots of pointy teeth.” He shrugged. “I caught a young

sand singer once—they kind of wriggle sideways, and they get their name from this lonely,

haunting sort of call they make. I let it go. No matter how long I tried to convince it that I was

its friend, it sounded miserable.”

       “Poor sand singer,” Alijandra said. “Then what happened?”




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        “Then I got lucky and came across the Kaibabi dragon,” Papa said. “Ahiga told me that it

was dangerous and sly and full of meanness, and wouldn’t take well to taming, but I didn’t seem

to have any trouble with it. It was a big dragon. It could fly. It could make light—very bright

light. I had some ideas on what to do with it, how I could train it to fight.”

        “That’s the dragon you took to Ysparria,” Isabella said. “The same one that the Emperor

showed off to the court. Mama told us that story.”

        Papa nodded. “Naalnish wasn’t happy that I planned to sell a dragon, especially to the

Ysparrians,” he said. “It hadn’t been that many years since the Ysparrians had given up their

plans to take these lands for themselves. Mr. Dempesson thought it was a bad idea, too. But I

was younger then, and I had been poor for a long time, and I was tired of scratching in the dirt

for little bits of silver. I thought that if I could sell a dragon or two to the Ysparrians, I could

make a lot of money. Be rich, for once in my life.”

        “And you did sell the dragon,” Isabella told us. “To the Emperor. And he made you rich.

And you married Mama. And you had me.”

        “Yes,” Papa said. “And we were very comfortable for quite a while.”

        “Then what happened?” Alijandra asked. “Why aren’t we rich anymore?”

        “We are rich,” Papa reminded her. “That fellow I met paid me a bunch of money. And

that’s just the beginning. There’ll be more. But now,” he added, “now is the time for two

girls—one little girl, one not so little anymore—to go to sleep.”

        “Papa, please tell us what happened next,” Alijandra said. “Please?”

        “Some other time,” he said. “Good night. Sleep well. Tomorrow, we’ll try again to

tame Pearl.”

        “We’re not going to sell Pearl, are we?” Alijandra asked.




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        “I’ve only ever sold big, mean dragons that fight,” Papa said. “Who would want a little

dragon?”

        “Good night, Papa,” Alijandra said, snuggling up closer to her sister.

        “Good night, Papa,” Isabella said.

        “Good night, girls,” Papa said.

        “Good night,” Mama said.

        “Good night,” To-Ho-Ne said. They hadn’t noticed that she had come back inside, from

the latrine.

        Papa got up, went to the table, where Mama was sitting. Jack woke up when his master

stood. Blinked. Crawled next to Isabella. Put his head on the floor. Went back to sleep.

        Mama turned down the kerosene lamp, dimming the little house. She and Papa

murmured softly, in the Diheneh tongue. To-Ho-Ne settled down on her sleeping mat, nearby.

Alijandra fell asleep almost instantly.

        Eyes closed, Jack and Alijandra huddled beside her, Isabella realized, Papa didn’t say he

wouldn’t sell Pearl, only that he’s never sold one as small as her.

        So, is he going to sell her?

        But a few moments later, she was asleep.




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                          Chapter 27: Dragontaming Again 

        “All right,” the dragontamer said. “Let’s try this.”

        Alijandra nodded and turned to Pearl, who was sitting on the ground. Then she turned

back to her father. “How do you say it again?” she asked.

        “Dah ‘adiisool,” the dragontamer replied.

        “Dah…aad…ee…zooool,” Alijandra said. The tiny dragon did not move.

        “It didn’t work,” the little girl said.

        “I have eyes, Ali,” Papa said. “Try again, a little louder, and a little firmer this time. Say

it like you really want her to do it.”

        It was not long after dawn. Alijandra had woken Pearl, scooping her into her arms and

cooing good mornings her. Then, just as they had the day before, Papa and Alijandra and

Isabella and Jack had brought Pearl here, to the flat, wide space between the house and the butte.

With the little girl holding Pearl, Papa had sang the Friendship Song again, and while he did,




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Pearl had yawned and stretched and chirped to Alijandra and licked the end of her nose and paid

the dragontamer no mind.

        “Pearl, dah ‘adiisool,” Alijandra said, a little louder and little more firm. “Please.” For a

moment, Pearl’s eyes held hers. Then the milky-green dragon reared back, sitting up on her

haunches, front legs dangling before her.

        “Good girl!” Alijandra beamed. Jack cocked his head. “Good girl!” She whirled.

“What do you want me to tell her to do now?”

        “Tell her ‘sinida,’” Papa said.

        “Sin…id…uh. Sinida,” Alijandra repeated, practicing. “What does it mean?”

        “You’ll find out once Pearl does it,” Papa said, smiling slightly.

        “Sinida,” Alijandra commanded, and Pearl slowly slipped down until her belly lay on the

cold, stony ground.

        Alijandra looked over at the dragontamer, and he nodded. “Good girl!” Alijandra

exclaimed, scooping Pearl into her arms. “You’re so good!”

        “You talk to her like she’s a dog,” Isabella said. Idly, she scratched the top of Jack’s

head.

        “You sort of have to, when you’re taming dragons,” Papa replied.

        “She’s not a dog,” Alijandra snapped, “and she knows she’s not a dog, and she knows I

know she’s not a dog.” She waggled her fingers at Isabella.

        “Papa, she’s not allowed to do that,” the older girl said. “Mama said it’s very rude.”

        “No more of that,” the dragontamer said, but Isabella wondered, Is he talking to Ali or to

me? And then he said, “All right, Ali, put her down and try this one: ‘Tse sha ni’ahh.’”

        “Ahzee…tzeesha… Why is Diheneh so hard?” Alijandra asked.




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       “Try again, slower this time,” Papa replied. “‘Tzee…sha…nee…ah.’ Just like that.”

       “Tzee…sha…nee…ah. Tzee sha ni’ahh. ” Pearl regarded her for a moment, then picked

up a small gray stone in her mouth, brought it to Alijandra, and dropped it at her feet.

       “Was this what I wanted?” Alijandra asked.

       Papa smiled. “That’s it,” he replied. “You said it right.”

       “Who’s a good girl?” Alijandra exclaimed, squatting by Pearl and throwing her arms over

her head. “Who’s the best girl in the whole world?”

       “Are you sure she likes you talking to her like that?” Isabella asked.

       “You always say she doesn’t know what I’m saying,” Alijandra replied.

       “Well, maybe she does know,” Isabella said. “And maybe she doesn’t like it.”

       “If she didn’t, she’d tell me,” Alijandra said, scooping up Pearl again. “Wouldn’t you,

dear heart?” she asked, nuzzling the little dragon. Pearl pressed her head against Alijandra’s

cheek and closed her eyes for a moment. Isabella rolled hers.

       “How would she tell you?” Isabella asked. “She can’t tal—”

       “Come on, put her down again,” Papa said. “We’ll never get any more training done if

you keep stopping to pet her every two minutes. Bella, stop interrupting.”

       “Yes, Papa,” Alijandra said, setting Pearl down again.

       “Yes, Papa,” Isabella said. Jack looked up at her and smiled, letting his ham-pink tongue

dangle out of his mouth.

       “Can I tell her to fly?” Alijandra asked. “I really like watching her fly—don’t you? Tell

me how to tell her to fly, Papa!”

       “What if she flies away?” Isabella asked.




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       “She’s not going to fly away!” Alijandra replied. “Stop interrupting, like Papa told you

to.”

       “If she wanted to fly away, she could do it any time she liked,” the dragontamer replied.

“I’ve had plenty of dragons fly away from me before.” He rubbed his chin for a moment. “All

right, Ali, we’ll tell her to fly, just for a minute or two, and then come back to us. I’d like to see

that again, too. But this will be a lot of words for you to say: are you up for it?”

       “Yes, yes!” Alijandra said. She turned to Pearl. “You’re going to get to fly! You’re

going to get to fly!”

       We’ll see about that, Isabella thought, but said nothing. Papa went into a crouch behind

Alijandra.

       “Ndoolk’jh wodah doo ni’nikeeildeeh kwe’e,” Papa said, slowly.

       “En…elen…” Alijandra began, then stopped. “I don’t think I can say it. You say it for

me.”

       “We’ll say it slowly,” Papa said. “‘Endool…’”

       “Endool…” Alijandra repeated.

       “‘…kuhjuh…’” Papa continued.

       “…kuhjuh…” Alijandra said.

       “‘…wohdah…’”

       “…wohdah…”

       “‘…doo…’ This next part is a little hard,” Papa told her.

       “…doo. All right,” Alijandra said. “I’m ready.”

       “‘…nih uh nih kee…’” Papa said.

       “…nih un nee kee…”




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       “Close, but not quite. Try it again,” Papa said.

       “…nih un nih kee…”

       “Much better,” Papa said. “‘….ill dee kwee uh.’”

       “…ill dee kwee uh,” Alijandra finished. “That was hard!”

       “Flying’s not easy,” Papa said, grinning. “Why should asking someone to fly be any

easier?” He pointed to Pearl. “Now let’s see if she’ll do it, or if we’ve wasted our breath.”

       Pearl climbed onto a large rock. Turned around. Sat on her haunches. Licked the back

of one her rear paws.

       “I don’t think she understood,” Alijandra said.

       Then the wind came, suddenly, rushing past them, billowing the girls’ hair, tugging at

Jack’s ears, stealing the dragontamer’s hat and filling the air with dust and tiny stones. The wind

plucked Pearl off the rock and sent the little green dragon circling a few dozen feet above them.

       “Good Pearl! Good Pearl!” Alijandra cheered, jumping up and down and clapping her

hands. The wind howled overhead.

       Isabella picked up her father’s hat and brought it to him. “Thanks,” he said, glancing at

her for a moment, then going back to the dragon.

       “She makes the wind carry her,” Isabella says. “That’s how she flies.” Papa nodded.

“But how does she do that?”

       “Mama told me about how Brother Tunneler buried the venomdrake,” Papa replied.

“How did he do that?”

       Isabella pondered it for a moment as she watched Pearl hover. “Magic?”

       “There’s no such thing as magic,” the dragontamer said. “The wind can carry her and

hold her up, even without wings, because she’s very light, no more than a few pounds. I’m




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willing to bet her bones are hollow, like a bird’s: that’s one of the reasons why birds can fly.

And she has that…skin between her front legs and her back legs, that she can pull out to catch

the wind, like a kite.”

        “And when she’s done flying, she pulls that skin back into her side,” Isabella said. “But

that still doesn’t explain it.”

        “That the wind can pick her up at all is because somehow, she can focus it, concentrate it

into a tight blast or gust, and direct it to blow just on her.”

        “But how does she make the wind move in the first place?” Isabella demanded.

        “I don’t know,” Papa replied.

        “Sounds like magic to me,” Isabella said.

        Pearl circled them once more, then floated gently into Alijandra’s arms. The wind

whistled past the butte as it went on its way.

        “That was great!” Alijandra said, kissing the dragon on her snout. “Wasn’t that great,

Papa? She’s so smart! She can do anything!”

        “Well, let’s see what else she can do,” Papa said.



                                                    #



        They stayed out for several hours, with Alijandra learning commands and Pearl carrying

them out. In addition to sitting, and lying down, fetching things (a stone at first, then a stick,

then Papa’s hat, then Alijandra’s shawl), and flying in circles, Pearl walked beside Alijandra,

leapt into her arms, passed water when she was told to, lay very still and pretended to be dead.

At Alijandra’s command, she dug holes, went in and out of her crate, rolled onto her back, held




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still while Alijandra looked in her ears and her eyes and her mouth, pretending to check if Pearl

was well.

       All the while, Isabella sat on a large rock and scratched in the dirt with a stick and wished

there was some shade. Sometimes she rubbed Jack’s side with her feet as he lay next to her.

Finally, the morning grew too hot for them, and Papa said that Pearl was probably tired and

ready to quit. With Alijandra carrying Pearl, they walked back to the house, where Mama and

To-Ho-Ne were making tortillas with salted pork left over from the other night. Isabella had

two, because she was hungry.

       After lunch, there were chores to do, of course. Mama gave Alijandra a basket and told

her to find berries. She sent Jack and Isabella—with her pistol—along with her because Mama

was still worried about cougars. She also told the older girl to collect firewood along the way.

Berries were easy to find—summer was coming near—but firewood was harder, as there are few

trees on the high desert, and even fewer with branches that had fallen.

       And when the girls came back, hot and sweaty, Mama took the berries from Alijandra

and told her to come help her dig in the garden, to plant new seed. Isabella stacked the firewood

by the side of the house, and then Papa asked her to help him mend the fence of the corral.

Isabella asked him why he was bothering, seeing as how they had lost their sheep, and as soon as

she said it, she regretted it, but Papa just laughed and said soon they’d have so many sheep that

they’d need to build another pen.

       Evening came, and then supper—tortillas again, with more pork and some carrots and

beans. Alijandra fed Pearl—eggs from the chicken coop—and played with her, crawling on

hands and knees under and around the table. There were more lessons from the battered

schoolbook; Papa said soon they would buy a new one so the girls could learn more things.




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Then Isabella and Alijandra got into night gowns and unrolled their sleeping mats and lay down,

and Alijandra brought Pearl and her box next to her side, and Jack settled next to Isabella and

To-Ho-Ne sat, sipping coffee, on the floor beside them. Mama and Papa, holding hands, went

outside, for a walk, they said. At first, Isabella read some more from her book, as Alijandra

played with Pearl again, but then the older girl sat up.

       “To-Ho-Ne, how do you know so many things about dragons?” Isabella asked. Alijandra

sat up as well.

       “My father was a dragontamer,” she said. “He was a friend of Naalnish, when he was

young. My father tried teaching my older brother how to tame dragons. I would eavesdrop on

them, whenever I could. I don’t think my brother was very good at it. My father used to lose his

temper with him and beat him.” She shrugged. “I remember most of what I overheard. But that

was a long time ago. I was only a little girl, as young as you, Ali.”

       “What happened?” Isabella asked. “It sounds like the last time you saw them was when

you were little.”

       “One night, the Ysparrians—your mother’s people—rode into the valley where my

family and several others had their hogans,” To-Ho-Ne said. “They were soldiers with guns and

horses; we had only a few warriors, and they only had bows and spears. The Ysparrians killed

the men and took the women and children.”

       “They killed your father?” Alijandra asked.

       To-Ho-Ne nodded. “My brother, too. He was a little older than Bella. My father told

him to run. Instead, he tried to fight.




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          “The soldiers took my sisters and my mother and me to Cuidad de Agustin, the capital of

Ysparria, where the Emperor lives. They brought us to the market. There, they sold us, one by

one, as slaves. Your grandfather bought me. I never saw my mother or my sisters again.”

          “That’s terrible,” Alijandra said.

          “It was a long time ago,” To-Ho-Ne said. “Why do you ask about dragons, Bella?”

          “I…it’s not important,” Isabella replied. “Not after what you just told us.”

          “It’s all right,” To-Ho-Ne said. “What do you want to know?”

          “Pearl flies because she makes the wind carry her,” Isabella said. “But how does she

make the wind do what she wants? Papa doesn’t know, and I don’t know, either. But I know

that there aren’t any animals that can do that.”

          “She’s not an animal!” Alijandra snapped. “Why do you al—”

          “No, she is not an animal,” To-Ho-Ne said. “But she is not a person, either, like you like

to think, Ali. She is both and neither of those things: she is a dragon. My father used to say that

dragons belong to the soil, or to the sky, or to the rivers, or to the light, or to the night, and they

have power over those things, and those things have power over them.”

          “Is that how she does the things she does?” Isabella asked. “Does Pearl belong to the

sky? That would make sense, wouldn’t it? How Pearl can fly and make lightning and bring

storms, right?”

          To-Ho-Ne shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know. I don’t know if my father

knew, either, or if that was just a story he told.” Pearl sat quietly on Alijandra’s lap, seemingly

listening to them. “But it would not surprise me if Pearl has other powers that we don’t know, or

that even she doesn’t know. Dragons are funny things. People try to understand them, but they

can’t.”




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       No one said anything for a minute.

       “You said, ‘they have power over those things’—the sky and the soil and the rivers and

all that,” Isabella said. “And then you said, ‘and those things have power over them.’ What did

you mean?”

       “If Pearl belongs to the sky, then one day, she will have to go back to it,” To-Ho-Ne said.

“It is her home. It will call to her. She will have to answer.”

       “So you mean, Pearl will have to go away?” Alijandra asked. “I don’t want her to go

away. I want her to stay with us, forever.”

       To-Ho-Ne shook her head. “There is no forever. Not in this world. Maybe in the spirit

world.”

       “What do you mean?” Alijandra asked.

       “In this world,” To-Ho-Ne said, “things are the way they are for only a while—

sometimes a long while, sometimes only a little while. And then they are gone. Look at us,”

said, spreading out her hands. “Here we all are, together tonight. But sometime soon—perhaps

in only a few years—I will die. You will grow up to be a woman, Bella, and a man will come

and marry you and take you away from this house. And not too long after that, Ali, the same

will happen to you. And you will have children of your own, and your parents will grow old,

and your children will become parents themselves, and there will come a day when neither of

you sees your parents or your children or each other ever again. They will be gone. And one

day, you will be, too.”

       “No, that won’t happen,” Alijandra said. She wrapped her arms around Pearl.

       “I don’t say I want it to happen,” To-Ho-Ne replied. “Only that it will.”




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       “But even if things change, they don’t have to be bad,” Isabella said. “Maybe you’ll live

a very long time, To-Ho-Ne. And when Ali and I are grown women, we could live near each

other—we could even live in the same house! And we’ll never forget each other, and Mama and

Papa, and you, To-Ho-Ne, and Jack and Pearl—no matter what. Even if there is no forever,

things don’t have to be gone, really gone, like they never were here at all. Not when we can

remember them.”

       “My family is gone,” To-Ho-Ne said. “And remembering will not bring them back.”

       “You said that we were your family,” Alijandra said.

       To-Ho-Ne sighed. “Yes. Yes, I did. Yes, you are. At least for little while longer.”

       “Forever,” Alijandra insisted.

       “It’s time to sleep,” To-Ho-Ne said. “Good night, girls.”

       “Good night,” Alijandra said, gently lowering Pearl into her box and closing the lid. She

put her head down.

       “Good night,” Isabella said. To-Ho-Ne unrolled her sleeping mat and stretched out.

Isabella wrapped her arm around Jack, who sighed contentedly and closed his eyes. Soon, his

paws were twitching, and the old Diheneh woman was breathing slowly and deeply. But it was a

long time before Isabella could fall asleep.

       Coiled inside her box, Pearl lay awake until the dragontamer and his wife returned.



                                                #



       The next day, the sun never appeared, staying hidden behind grey clouds as rain poured

down. The wind and the thunder and the lightning woke them, Alijandra bolting upright and




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covering her ears and crying until Jack came and she buried her face in his neck. After a while,

she calmed, her sobs turning to sniffles and then hiccups. All the while, Pearl watched her,

resting her head on the edge of the box.

          Papa said it was unusual to get rain at this time of year, and even more unusual that it

should be so heavy. The wood that Isabella had gathered the day before and left outside was

soaked, of course, and despite her efforts, To-Ho-Ne could not get the stove to light, so for

breakfast, they had cornbread and cold coffee from the day before.

          After that, there wasn’t much to do. The girls helped Mama with mending a frayed hem

on one of Alijandra’s dresses and a ripped pocket on one of Papa’s shirts. For a while, Papa sat

at the table and counted and recounted his money, then made some notes on a piece of paper and

wrote down figures by each note and added them up, then counted the money again. Isabella

asked him what he was doing, and he said he was trying to guess what he could buy with the

money, and how much it would cost, and what they’d have left over. Alijandra tried to play with

Pearl, but the little dragon would not come out of her box.

          “I think Pearl’s sick again,” Alijandra said.

          Mama and To-Ho-Ne looked her over and decided that she was not sick. “Maybe she

just doesn’t feel like doing anything,” Mama said. “Sometimes the rain does that to animals.

People, too.” Isabella was glad that Alijandra didn’t say anything about Pearl not being an

animal.

          Noon came, and they ate again—more cornbread, and some cold bean soup—and still the

rain came down. The coffee they had brewed was gone, and they couldn’t make more without a

fire. Papa napped for a while. Mama and Alijandra used scraps of rags to make clothes for her

dolls, Caroleena and Telma. Isabella joined them for a while with her own doll, but after a




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while, she put Marianna away and finished her book. To-Ho-Ne stood by the window, watching

the rain and saying nothing. Jack spent most of the day asleep under the table.

       Evening came, but the rain still poured down. Mama began to fret that she would lose

the seeds she had just planted in the garden. Jack went in and out, in and out, never staying long

outside, shaking off water and tracking in red mud whenever he came in. To-Ho-Ne fussed at

him for making a mess. Alijandra sat at the table and drummed her fingers on it until Papa

snapped at her to stop.

       No one felt like eating much of anything. When evening came, they lit their kerosene

lantern and Papa stood up and sang old Erisian songs: “The Way Back Home,” and “Father’s

Fields” and “Brass Pins.” Mama read to them from Isabella’s book, and though the older girl

had already finished it, she didn’t mind hearing the story out loud.

       Sometime in the night, after they had gone to sleep, the rain stopped and the clouds swept

away east, always east. Curled next to Alijandra on the sleeping mat, Pearl looked through the

window and watched them go.




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                                  Chapter 28: The Cave 

        “All right,” Alijandra said. “Let’s try it again.”

        Hffff, Pearl puffed. The dragon stood a few paces in front of the little girl. Isabella sat on

a large rock behind her sister. She had kicked off one sandal and was idly rubbing her foot on

the dusty fur of Jack’s thick neck as he lolled in the dirt, damp from yesterday’s rain.

        The sun was still climbing and the air was cool. They had come once again to the flat,

wide space between the house and the butte, the place where Papa and they had started taming

Pearl. Isabella nibbled on a piece of cornbread. “I don’t think she likes doing this,” she said.

        “Papa said we need to train her,” Alijandra reminded her. “And it’s fun, isn’t it? It’s

better than doing chores, anyway. All right, Pearl, pay attention, dear heart: dah ‘adiisool.”

        The tiny dragon did not move.

        “Please, Pearl, dah ‘adiisool,” Alijandra said, and then Pearl sat down and straightened

up, dangling her front paws. “Good girl!” Alijandra exclaimed, clapping her hands. “Thank

you!”



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       Hffff, the dragon sighed again, lowering her front feet. She looked around, scowling.

Four dust devils, each no larger than a few inches high, began to lazily spin around her.

       “I didn’t tell you to do that, Pearl,” Alijandra said, and the tiny tornadoes faded, fell

apart. “Tse sha ni’ahh!” Alijandra commanded, and, after looking around for a moment, Pearl

scooped up a pebble in her mouth and brought it to the little girl.

       “Great!” Alijandra squealed. She leaned over and patted Pearl on top of the head.

       Hrrrnn, the dragon murmured.

       “Niteeh!” Alijandra said. Pearl flopped over and lay still, eyes shut.

       “Doesn’t she play dead really well?” Alijandra asked. “She even holds her breath so you

can’t see her sides move.” She slapped the ground and Pearl got back to her feet. “What should

we make her do now?” Alijandra asked. “Do you want me to have you bring you some sticks?”

       “If I wanted sticks fetched, I’d just throw one for Jack,” Isabella replied.

       “He doesn’t always get them,” Alijandra said. “And even when he does, sometimes he

won’t let you have them. Do you want her to make it rain?”

       “No! It rained enough yesterday. I don’t ever want to see rain again.”

       “How about if she digs a hole? I can make her do that. Maybe she could find some gold

or something.”

       “How about if you teach her to do Mama’s laundry?” Isabella asked. “Or the cooking?”

       “Bella, that’s not funny.”

       “Ali, Pearl isn’t a doll you can play with. You shouldn’t make her do tricks just because

you can.”

       “But she likes it!” Alijandra said, sitting down beside Pearl, wrapping her arms around

her, and kissing her on the head. Pearl craned her neck and started licking Alijandra’s face.




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       “She does those things for you because she likes you,” Isabella said, “because it makes

you happy. But I don’t think she likes doing them. Remember how she wouldn’t do anything

for Papa?”

       “You talk like I’m being mean to her. I’m not,” Alijandra said. “I love her. She’s my

friend, and I’m her friend, and we’re always going to be friends.”

       “I know,” Isabella said. “But it would be better to leaving the dragontaming to Papa. He

knows what he’s doing.” She stood up, slipped her foot into her sandal. Jack opened his eyes,

looked up at her. “Come on,” she said. “To-Ho-Ne wanted me to look for some golden smoke

for her hip.”

       Iiirt, Pearl chirped, and began waddling after her. Jack sighed, rolled over, lumbered to

his feet. Alijandra ran after her sister, scooping up Pearl along the way and plopping the dragon

on her shoulder.

       “Maybe we can find some spiders, those big, hairy ones,” Alijandra said. “I like them.”

       “Why would you like something as ugly as a tarantula?” Isabella asked.

       “They’re not ugly! Well, they are, a little, but they can’t help it. They’re born that way.

But I like them.”

       “I think I’d rather look for rocks. Maybe we can find some pretty ones and make them

into bracelets.”

       “Do you think Mama’s still mad about her bracelet?” Alijandra asked. “The one I broke,

and we had to take to that mean man in town to fix?”

       “She was really mad when it happened,” Isabella said, “but I’m sure she isn’t any more.”

       “That’s good,” Alijandra said.




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          They walked on for a few minutes in silence. The butte loomed ahead of them. Isabella

stopped.

          “What?” Alijandra asked.

          “Let’s go that way,” Isabella said, pointing ahead and to the right.

          “That’s the long way around,” Alijandra said.

          “I know,” Isabella said.

          “I thought you didn’t like to go that way,” Alijandra said.

          “I don’t,” Isabella said. “It’s been a long time since I went that way, and maybe there’s

some golden smoke growing there.” She started walking again. Jack followed her. Alijandra

didn’t.

          “I went that way once,” Alijandra said. “It’s scary.”

          Isabella stopped, turned. Jack did likewise. “How is it scary?” the older girl asked.

          “There’s a cave there,” Alijandra said. “I went by it and I heard a noise inside, like

claws. I ran all the way home.”

          “When did you do that?” Isabella wondered.

          “When I came out to give you water when you were watching the sheep. Remember?”

          “No,” Isabella said. “I don’t. But I’m sure it’s all right to go that way.”

          Alijandra shook her head. Bit her thumbnail.

          “It will be fine,” Isabella said.

          “To-Ho-Ne says not to go in caves. There might be dead people in there. Or ghosts. Or

monsters.”

          “Those are just stories To-Ho-Ne tells you to get you to be good,” Isabella explained.

          “Not the dead people! To-Ho-Ne says Papa puts dead people in caves to bury them.”




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        “Papa buries dead people far away from anyone, and he wouldn’t bring them here. That

would be nasty, and Mama wouldn’t like it. And even if there were such things as ghosts and

monsters—and Papa says there aren’t—he wouldn’t let them near our house.”

        Alijandra shook her head.

        “Anyway, we’re not going inside the cave,” Isabella said. “We’ll just go by it.”

        Alijandra did not move.

        “It will be all right,” Isabella said. “I have my pistol and we have Jack and we have

Pearl. Pearl saved us from that cougar and she killed that big dragon. I bet she’s not afraid of

anything. Are you, Pearl?”

        The dragon made no reply. The older girl turned, took a few more steps, stopped and

turned again. “Well? Come on!”

        Pearl nuzzled Alijandra’s cheek. The little girl started to follow.

        “There,” Isabella said. “You’ll see. Everything will be all right.”

        “But when I went by there, I heard something scary.”

        “Maybe it was just your imagination,” Isabella said. “Or maybe it was just bats roosting

in there. Or maybe it was one of those big spiders you like.”

        “I don’t know,” Alijandra said, but she kept following her sister.

        After a little while, they rounded the butte and came to the mouth of the cave. It was as

wide as Alijandra was tall, but not as tall as Isabella.

        “I’m scared,” Alijandra said.

        “I’m not,” Isabella said. She crept to the mouth of the cave. “It’s cold in there,” she

whispered. “Damp, too. I can feel it.”

        “What are you doing?” Alijandra demanded. “I thought you said we’re not going in.”




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          “We’re not going in,” Isabella said. “I’m just taking a closer look.”

          “We shouldn’t be doing this,” Alijandra said. “Mama will be mad. Let’s go.”

          Isabella peered into the cave. Shook her head. “Maybe you’re right,” she said. “It’s too

dark to see anything, anyw—”

          A pinpoint of white light, no bigger than the end of Alijandra’s pinkie finger, and brighter

than the sun, crackled to life above Alijandra and Pearl. Jack crouched and began barking

furiously. The tiny ball dimmed, pulsing. It buzzed like a locust and swayed in a slight breeze

that had suddenly come.

          “What is that?” Alijandra asked.

          “It’s Pearl,” Isabella said, shaking her head. “She’s making it. Quiet, Jack! It’s all

right!”

          The dog slunk over and sidled up to Isabella. From her perch on Alijandra’s shoulder,

the dragon seemed to admire her work. The tiny ball wafted forward, toward Isabella, crackling

and humming as it went. Lightning? the older girl thought. It came closer, but it had no heat.

No, like lightning, but something else, she decided.

          The dot moved past Isabella, into the mouth of the cave, lighting it. A snake, or perhaps

a legless skink—it moved so fast that Isabella couldn’t tell—wriggled to safety beneath a loose

tumble of stones. The cave was small, not much larger than the pantry at the girls’ home. Inside

there were some rocks; a few dusty and cobwebbed birds’ nests along a slight ridge near the

ceiling; and smears of faded bird droppings along the walls.

          “Look!” Alijandra said, peering inside from behind her sister.




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        At the rear of the cave was a hole, not much taller or wider than Jack, about three feet

above the floor. Swaying back and forth, the dot slowly floated beside the hole. Inside, a natural

tunnel through the rock. It seemed to go a long way.

        “We should go back to the house and tell Mama and Papa about this,” Alijandra said.

        “Maybe we could take a look,” Isabella said.

        Alijandra shook her head.

        “It will be all right,” Isabella said. “Pearl’s here: she’s your friend. She’s not going to let

anything hurt you.”

        Alijandra considered this. “All right,” she said.

        “Jack, stay,” Isabella ordered, wagging her finger. “Stay here.” The dog sat down. The

tiny ball of light zipped past the older girl, into the tunnel. Isabella went into the cave, took the

lip of the hole, pulled herself inside. She reached back, took Pearl, set her down in front of her.

Took her sister’s arms and pulled her in.

        They went—the light first, then Pearl, then Isabella, with Alijandra last. The tunnel

didn’t go far, curving up—for a moment, Isabella worried that she might get stuck—to exit onto

the floor of another cave.

        Pearl’s tiny light danced, dipped, buzzed. The dragon climbed out. Isabella put her head

out of the hole, then both arms. Pulled herself out. Helped Alijandra. They looked at each

other: their hands and arms and dresses and faces and hair were already filthy.

        The cave was even smaller than the first, its sides and floor rough, dusty, pitted stone. Its

ceiling was so low that Isabella could not stand up straight. The light drifted, crackling,

sometimes spitting tiny bluish-white sparks that hissed for an instant as they fell and winked out

before they hit the floor.




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       “Look,” Isabella said, moving towards a wall of the cave. The light followed her.

Alijandra scooped up Pearl. Came beside her sister. Looked.

       Isabella ran her hands along the wall. Etched into the rock were figures—petroglyphs—

of stick people and birds and antelope and goats and sheep and great cats. Cougars, Isabella

recognized. Cacti and trees. Towering cliffs and tiny square houses carved into the face of the

cliff, and square windows—even smaller—cut into the houses. Pictures of masked figures

dancing around fires. Pictures of hunters with spears. Women carrying infants, children beside

them. Suns. Moons—full and crescent. Spiders. Scorpions. Armadillos. Snakes. A coyote—

or a desert fox? Isabella couldn’t tell.

       “I wonder if Papa’s ever been here,” Alijandra said.

       Isabella shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. He’s never said anything about it.

These drawings look really old—maybe the people who drew them have been dead for a long

time,” Isabella said, slowly stepping sideways along the wall, the light following her, revealing

more petroglyphs. “Maybe they weren’t even Diheneh. Maybe they were some oth—”

       “What’s that?” Alijandra asked, pointing.

       A few feet away, a large flat, circular, dark stone, about the size and shape of Isabella’s

head, rested in the center of the wall. There were petroglyphs etched into it. Twisting lines

depicted winds. Jagged lines for mountains. Lines scrawled back and forth to make rivers.

Stick people tending tight, curly lines: crops. And in the center of the stone, a small, wingless

dragon aloft in a sea of clouds. Jagged lines—lightning—sprang from it. Rain—long, straight

lines—fell from it.

       Alijandra leaned closer, peered at the etched figure of the dragon. Ran a finger along it.

“It’s Pearl,” she said. She looked at the dragon in her arms. Pearl looked back at her.




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         Isabella shook her head. “This rock’s probably been here a long time,” she said. “This

must be a picture of another dragon like Pearl.”

         “Maybe it was one of your family,” Alijandra told Pearl. She held the dragon over the

image. “See? See, Pearl?”

         The dragon paid it no mind. Looked around, sniffing.

         Alijandra pulled Pearl against her. “This rock—what is it? What’s it for?”

         “I don’t know,” Isabella said. “I don’t know what this place is, but it must have been

special to someone.”

         Alijandra lifted the dragon close to her face. “Did you know this was here, Pearl?” she

asked.

         Pearl licked the end of the little girl’s nose.

         “She can’t talk,” Isabella said.

         “But she knows what we say,” Alijandra said. “When you said it was too dark to see, she

made us the little light.”

         That’s stupid, Isabella wanted to say. But maybe—no—no, it isn’t. “Yes,” Isabella said.

“You might be right.” She frowned. “Papa said that dragons can understand Diheneh, but how

can she know what we’re saying in Ysparrian?” Isabella asked. “She’s not from around here.

She’s not from Ysparria, either, or Papa would know about her. Unless she learned—by

listening to you,” she told Alijandra, “and me and Mama and To-Ho-Ne, all this time she’s been

with us. But how could she do that?”

         “She’s smart,” Alijandra said. “She’s really smart.”

         “Yes, she is,” Isabella said. Pearl snuggled against Alijandra, licked her hands. “Even if

she mostly just acts like an animal.”




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       For a few moments, neither girl said anything. Alijandra stroked Pearl. Then, Isabella

said, “We should find that golden smoke for To-Ho-Ne.”

       “All right,” Alijandra said.

       The light went back into the tunnel, skipped ahead of them. Isabella went first, then

Alijandra holding Pearl. They wriggled through the tunnel and went back into the first cave.

Jack was waiting for them. The tiny light fluttered, sparked, collapsed in on itself. They stepped

outside.

       Isabella shielded her eyes, looked up. The flat top of the butte was high above them.

       Alijandra looked up, too. “Do you think To-Ho-Ne knows about that place?”

       “I don’t know,” Isabella said, “but I don’t think so. It didn’t look like anyone had gone in

there for a long time. Maybe no one knows about that place but us.”

       “And Pearl,” Alijandra corrected her.

       “And Pearl,” Isabella agreed.

       “Mama and Papa are going to be mad at us for going there,” Alijandra said.

       “Let me think about all this—the cave and those drawings and Pearl knowing what we

say—before we tell them,” Isabella said. “Because I don’t really know what to say. I don’t

know what to think. All right?”

       Alijandra nodded. She put Pearl on her shoulder and they walked along, looking for

golden smoke, Jack wagging his tail and letting his tongue flap, happy to see his girls again.



                                                 #



The next day, the Diheneh came for Pearl.




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                                Chapter 29: Stormcaller 

          The morning was hot, with only a weak breeze, but it traditions had to be kept, To-Ho-ne

insisted. She finished making the customary coffee, and she and the girls brought the five cups

they owned outside, where Mama and Papa, Ahiga, Shiye, and Naalnish and the five elders sat,

cross-legged, in a circle on blankets spread on the ground.

          In the center of the circle was the metal box—closed now—where they kept Pearl. The

dragon wriggled around inside the box, sniffing at the strangers’ scent in the air, trying to see

them through the tiny holes in the lid. Two young Diheneh men—warriors who served Ahiga—

with stolen Ysparrian rifles sat apart from the others, under the shade of the ramada where Mama

sometimes did her work.

          “We’ll have to share,” Papa said. “I don’t usually have so many visitors at once.” He

leaned back and idly rubbed the fur on Jack’s neck. The big dog looked up from the blanket and

smiled.




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       “That’s fine, Anerson,” Ahiga said, taking a cup and passing it to Naalnish, his father.

“Thank you.”

       “Take the girls and go do the work inside that I told you to,” Mama said to To-Ho-Ne, in

Diheneh.

       “Yes, Princess,” the old woman said, in her native tongue. She took Alijandra’s hand in

hers, Isabella’s hand in the other. “Come along, children,” she told them, in Ysparrian, “we have

chores to do.” She guided them inside, shutting the door.

       “What chores?” Isabella asked. “Mama didn’t mention anythi—”

       To-Ho-Ne held a finger to her lips as she slowly lowered herself to the floor. Then she

scooted over, beneath the open window, and beckoned to the two girls. Taking care not to be

seen, they sat beside her.

       “There is no work, and your mother knows that I know this,” To-Ho-Ne whispered. “She

and I were pretending, to fool the men. It’s very easy to do.” She was still for a moment.

“They’re starting. I’ll translate for you.”

       “Who are all those old people?” Alijandra whispered. “I mean, besides Papa’s friend and

his papa, the ones who made Pearl better?”

       And that Shiye boy, too, Isabella thought. Why is it that he gets to sit out there and talk

and I have to go inside like I’m some little girl?

       “Ahiga and Naalnish, yes,” To-Ho-Ne said. “And Zehalanii and K’aihastiin—”

       “The old men that were at Ahiga’s house after the healing ceremony, when we went to

give them some wool to say ‘thank you,’” Isabella said. “They asked us about Pearl.”

       “Don’t interrupt,” To-Ho-Ne whispered. “Yes, them and Dzilihinani and Joogihakeyah

and Tse-seigo. And Shiye, Ahiga’s son, but he’s just a boy learning to be a dragontamer.”




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        “What’s going on?” Alijandra asked. “Why are they here? Why does Papa have Pearl

out there with them? Why can’t we sit out there and listen? I won’t ma—”

        Iiiiirt, Pearl called. Hrrrrrn, she whined.

        “Hush, and let me listen,” To-Ho-Ne said. “Your father has taken Pearl out of the crate.

She’s not happy about it.”

        “Is she all right?” Alijandra said, rising to her feet. “Is she—”

        “Sit down and be quiet!” Isabella hissed, yanking her sister down before the little girl

could show herself in the window. “If they see you, they’ll make us go away and we won’t hear

anything! Honestly, Ali, do you ever think before you do anything?”

        “‘Revered Fathers, I’m confused about why you want to see this dragon,’” To-Ho-Ne

translated Papa’s words. “‘When Ahiga and I spoke the other day about her, he said she was

nothing, worthless. But she must be worth something if you’ve come all the way to my home.’”

        The elders must be pretty tough to walk all the way here, Isabella thought. They look too

old to do that. But then again, maybe it’s really important they come and talk to Mama and

Papa?

        “My son has not been interested, but I have,” Naalnish said. “And so have the rest of us,”

he said, indicating the other elders. “I haven’t seen a dragon like this before. I think most of us

have not. We wanted to know more about it.”

        “Give me the dragon,” one of them said. Isabella rose to her knees and peeked out the

window. It was one of the elders she hadn’t met at Ahiga’s house. Like the others, he was a

wizened little man, with only a few, long white hairs. His eyes were cloudy. Papa leaned across

the circle and held Pearl out to him, and he reached for her with trembling, spotted hands. Pearl

hissed. He whispered something and the dragon grew calm.




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       He held her in his lap, stroking her. He leaned over, so that his near-white eyes were

only a few inches from Pearl. He studied her closely.

       After a few minutes, he straightened up, gave the dragon back to Papa. “My daughters

call her ‘Pearl,’” Papa said.

       “It’s her,” he said, nodding. “Stormcaller.”

       “I told you that Tse-seigo would know,” Zehalanii said.

       “‘Stormcaller?’” Mama asked.

       “‘Stormcaller?’” Alijandra whispered. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

       “She’s the dragon who lives in the ocean,” the oldest man, Tse-seigo, explained. “Past

the mountains, past the forest, at the end of the world. The last time she came, my grandfather

was a little boy. When I was a little boy, he told me about Stormcaller. He told me that she

brought winds and rain and the rivers filled and the fields flowered. And then she left again, as

she always did. And now she’s returned, as she always will.”

       “Revered Father, what’s a dragon that lives in the ocean doing here in the middle of the

desert?” Mama asked.

       “She’s going east,” Tse-seigo said. “Just like she did the last time she came. And only

she knows why.”

       “You were right, K’aihastiin, the storm was key,” Zehalanii told one of the others. “And

the rain the other day,” he continued. “Too soon, too heavy. Unnatural for this time of year.”

       “Much too soon,” another elder agreed. He hadn’t been at Ahiga’s that day, so Isabella

didn’t know his name. She slid back down, out of sight.

       “You never told me about a Stormcaller Dragon,” Papa said to Naalnish.

       “The Stormcaller,” Tse-seigo corrected him. “There is, and only has been, one.”




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       “I didn’t know about Stormcaller,” Naalnish admitted. “None of us knew,” he said.

“Only Tse-seigo—whose grandfather was a dragontamer, too—remembered.”

       “Stormcaller is just an old story,” Ahiga said, “and not even a good one. Otherwise,

more of our people would have remembered it. This little dragon can make a little bit of water

fall from the sky, not even proper rain. Nothing more.”

       “It can make lightning,” Naalnish reminded him. “Anerson’s daughters said so.”

       “So now we—grown men, some of us tribal elders and some of us dragontamers—should

pay any mind to made-up stories from little girls who play with dolls?” Ahiga sneered. “Is that

what you are saying, Father?”

       “My girls don’t lie,” Papa said.

       “But they’re just girls,” Ahiga replied. Mama glowered.

       “Show more respect to your elders and to our hosts,” Naalnish told Ahiga. “Anerson,

have you begun training the dragon?”

       “Yes, sir,” Papa said, the still-pacified Pearl resting in his lap. “But I’ve only started with

her, just the Friendship Song and some basic commands.”

       “That will be fine,” Naalnish said, holding out his hands. “Let’s see what its powers are.”

       Papa handed Pearl to Naalnish, who held her close to his face, and began stroking her

sides and chanting softly to her.

       “What’s he doing?” Alijandra hissed.

       “Giving Pearl commands, I guess,” Isabella said, “but I don—”

       Naalnish put Pearl down on the blanket in front of him and stood up. Jack lifted his head,

perked up his ears. Naalnish raised his arms over his head. “‘I am Diheneh!’” To-Ho-Ne

translated. “‘Your people and mine have always been friends. Stormcaller, the day is hot.




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Please shade me with clouds, please bring down the rain to wet my throat. We are friends.

Please do this for me now.’”

       Pearl scowled. The breeze died. Long moments passed. The sun did not dim.

       “Stormcaller,” Naalnish began again, “remember the friendship our people swore with

yours. Send me rain—”

       “Pearl won’t do it,” Alijandra whispered. “Remember how she wouldn’t do anything for

Papa? They can’t tame her. She’ll only do something if I ask her to.”

       “Then why does she stop hissing and biting when they sing to her when they try to pick

her up?” Isabella asked.

       “That song is very powerful,” To-Ho-Ne replied. “It has to be, to keep a tamer alive

when dealing with a dragon for the first time.” She listened. “Naalnish is still trying to coax

Pearl into making rain.” She chuckled. “All he’s doing is making a fool of himself.”

       “I told you,” Ahiga said. “Even if there is Stormcaller, this one isn’t it: it’s not more than

a lizard. Forget it, and let’s go home, Father.”

       “My son has no sensible thoughts,” Naalnish insisted. Ahiga bristled. Ignoring him,

Naalnish continued. “Anerson, have you taught the dragon to make rain?”

       The dragontamer shook his head. “No, Revered Father. She’s very stubborn.”

       Naalnish flapped his hand dismissively. The dragontamer reached over, took Pearl, was

about to put her in the metal crate. “It’s too hot in there,” Mama said. He put the dragon down

in front of him. Shiye stood up, helped his grandfather lower himself to the blanket.

       “The dragon is Stormcaller,” Naalnish told the other elders. “In time, with stronger

songs, I can tame it.”

       “Why doesn’t Papa tell them that I can get Pearl to do things?” Alijandra whispered.




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       “Be quiet,” Isabella replied.

       Tse-seigo nodded. “Naalnish is the best dragontamer I have ever known, even better than

my grandfather. I believe he can tame Stormcaller.”

       “I’ll tame the dragon,” Ahiga said.

       “You think the dragon is worthless,” Naalnish said.

       “You’re old,” Ahiga said, “and your best days are behind you. But you may help me, if I

need it. Shiye, you may help me, too,” he told his son.

       “Grandfather isn’t too old,” Shiye insisted. “We shou—”

       Ahiga slapped his son across the face.

       Shiye lowered his eyes, said nothing.

       “Ignore him,” Ahiga said. “He has no sensible thoughts.”

       Papa would never hit me or Ali, Isabella thought. And he’d never make fun of us like

that, especially not in front of other people.

       Naalnish seemed not to have noticed what had just passed between his son and his

grandson. “Mrs. Anerson,” he said, “the council—our people—want the dragon.” The other

elders nodded. “Please give it to us, for the good of all.”

       “They can’t—” Alijandra started. Isabella clapped her hand over her sister’s mouth.

       “Be quiet!” she hissed. “Listen!”

       “But they want to take Pearl!” Alijandra insisted.

       “Mama won’t give them Pearl,” Isabella whispered. “She knows you love her. Wait.

Just wait. We’ll hear what Mama says.”

       “I’m curious, Revered Fathers,” Mama said, “why you want Pearl.”




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         Naalnish smiled. “We will convince her to help us, as other dragons, like Brother

Tunneler, do.”

         “She would make rain for us whenever we wanted,” Zehalanii said. “Our lands would be

fertile. Our sheep would be fat. No one would starve in the winter, or go thirsty in summer.”

         “Why are they asking Mama?” Alijandra whispered. “Shouldn’t they be asking Papa?

He’s the one who knows about dragons.”

         “With the Diheneh, the women own everything and are in charge of the house,” To-Ho-

Ne said. “Men are in charge of dealing with outsiders.”

         “And we’re outsiders, so that’s why all the men came,” Isabella realized. “And that’s

why they’re asking Mama: because they think Mama owns Pearl.”

         “Mama doesn’t own Pearl!” Alijandra said. “She’s—”

         “I can’t translate if you won’t be quiet,” To-Ho-Ne snapped. “I missed some of what was

said…”

         “I would think you’d want me—us—to free her,” Papa said. “She doesn’t live around

here, like Brother Tunneler and the other dragons do. She must have come all this way for a

reason. Is it really a good idea to keep her from where she’s going?”

         “The Holy People have sent her to us, to reward us for being faithful to their teachings,”

the elder K’aihastiin said. “They want her to help us.”

         “Let us have her, Mrs. Anerson,” Dzilihinani—who had not spoken before—said. “The

storm the dragon brought killed crops and sheep. Our people are doing poorly—some are going

hungry and getting sick. Do you want them to die, when the dragon could undo what it has

done?”




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       “Pearl made that storm to defend herself against a venomdrake,” Mama said. “I’m

certain of that. And she only barely survived the battle: she was badly hurt when my little girl

found her,” Mama said. “My family has spent a lot of time taking care of her. If you want her,

you’ll have to give us a lot.”

       “What would you want for the dragon?” Naalnish asked.

       “I don’t know,” Mama replied, one finger stroking the pearls on her bracelet. “Maybe

you should go home and talk amongst yourselves for a few days, and think about what you

would offer.”

       Isabella held her finger up to Alijandra’s lips.

       Naalnish shook his head. “It’s too far to walk empty-handed. For the dragon, we will

give you the land your house is on, all this that you can see,” he said, sweeping his hand around,

from horizon to horizon, “forever, for you and your family and their families. And we will not

ask your husband to bury our dead any more.” The other elders nodded.

       “I know how much you have relied on my husband,” Mama replied, “and I appreciate the

courage it requires to take up such an unhappy task again, after so many years—”

       “What’s she talking about?” Alijandra asked.

       “Burying the dead,” Isabella reminded her. “The Diheneh don’t like to have anything to

do with dead people, remember? It scares them.”

       “—but the offer of this land does no good to my family if they cannot sustain themselves

on it,” Mama continued. “We lost much of our food in the storm, and worse, all our sheep, and

now we have very little wool to trade.”

       “We can give you sheep,” Ahiga said.

       “How many?” Mama asked.




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        “Ten,” Ahiga replied.

        “Ten,” she scoffed. “This worthless land and ten sheep for a dragon that will make rain

and feed all your people? Do you think that because I’m a woman, I’m stupid?”

        Ahiga scowled. That’s probably exactly what he thinks, Isabella thought.

        “Twenty sheep,” Naalnish said.

        “That’s not nearly enough,” Mama replied.

        “Thirty sheep,” said one of the elders—Isabella didn’t know his name.

        “Thirty lice-bitten sheep,” Mama said. “Surely, the welfare of your people means more

to you that that.”

        “Fifty sheep,” Ahiga growled. “That’s half of what I own. That’s how much my people

mean to me.”

        “Half of what your wife owns,” Mama reminded him. “It’s very easy for you to give

away her wealth.”

        “The land, fifty sheep, and ten horses,” Naalnish offered. “You would be wealthiest

woman in Dihenehtah.”

        “In my homeland, I was a princess,” Mama said, “not a rancher’s wife. I want more than

the land and the livestock. I want silver jewelry and blankets, and other things I can trade in

Esmargga.”

        “You want too much,” Ahiga said.

        “This is our land and the dragon is on it,” Shiye said. “It’s ours.”

        “Didn’t your father tell you to be quiet, little boy?” Mama snapped. “It’s no wonder he’s

ashamed of you.”




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        “What’s she doing?” Alijandra hissed. “Why is she talking to them about trading Pearl?

We’re not going to give her away! I don’t want to! And why isn’t Papa saying anything?”

        “This is how my people haggle,” To-Ho-Ne whispered.

        “Why are they being so mean to each other?” Alijandra asked.

        “It’s part of haggling,” To-Ho-Ne replied. “You insult what the other person offers to

shame them into giving you something better. The other person tells you how unreasonable you

are to shame you into taking what you’re offering.”

        “I don’t think Mama’s really interested in giving them Pearl,” Isabella said. “I think

she’s just trying to frustrate them so they’ll give up and go home. And Papa knows that, so he’s

staying out of it.”

        “You have no sheep now,” K’aihastiin reminded Mama. “Take our offer and you will

have many. Surely, many is better than none?”

        “Isn’t that sensible?” Zehalanii asked. “Anerson, does your wife have any sense?”

        Papa smiled and said nothing.

        “You come to cheat me out of my property and ask me to be sensible about it,” Mama

sneered. “All I want is what is fair.”

        “My grandson is right,” Naalnish said. “The dragon is on our land. It came to us. It

belongs to us.”

        “We only let you and your husband settle on our land because Ahiga asked us to,”

Joogihakeyah said, wagging a gnarled finger at Mama. “We did not have to do that. For years,

we’ve kept the soldiers and the bounty hunters away from your husband. There’s been a reward

on him for a long time: we could have turned him in and split the money, but we didn’t. You

should be grateful. You should give us the dragon.”




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         “I never wanted him to be taught the secret of dragontaming in the first place,” Zehalanii

added.

         “The land, the sheep, the horses: that’s what we’ll give to you,” Naalnish said. “Nothing

more. Take our offer or don’t, but there’s no one else who will take the dragon.”

         “The Uupohna—” Papa started.

         “The Uupohna know who you are and what nation you’ve lived with,” Ahiga said.

“They’d kill you on sight—if we even let you leave these lands.”

         “Wait—what are yo—” Papa stammered.

         “We’d never take the dragon to the Uupohna,” Mama said, “but there’s another who

wants her.”

         “Who?” Ahiga demanded. The two young men picked up their rifles and rose to their

feet. “You don’t mean Daon Raul, who married a cripple and had too many mule children with

her?”

         “Don’t speak about him that way!” Mama snapped.

         Papa raised his hands. “We all nee—”

         “Daon Raul wants Pearl?” Alijandra whispered.

         “Maybe Mama’s making that up,” Isabella said.

         “Daon Raul is an idiot,” Ahiga growled, “and he’s not getting that dragon. What would

he do with it?”

         “I don’t know,” Papa said, “but—”

         “Hells with that,” Ahiga said, standing up. “I’m taking the dragon.”

         “Hold on,” Papa said, rising to his feet. Everyone else got up, too, the elders a bit more

slowly. “Calm down, Ahiga. There’s no reason to get angry.”




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        “I’m not angry,” Ahiga said. “But I am taking the dragon.”

        “Just the other day, you said it was worthless,” Papa said.

        “And a few minutes ago, you said she was nothing more than a lizard,” Mama reminded

him.

        “You want to keep your woman in line, Erisian,” Ahiga said.

        “You want to go home and think before you say anything else,” Papa said. “We’ve been

friends a long time—”

        “That’s changing, apparently,” Ahiga said.

        “When you came here this morning, you wouldn’t have given three centavos for Pearl,”

Papa said. “But then your father said what he did about you and now you’re ready to fight for

her.”

        “Who said anything about fighting?” Ahiga said, glancing over at the two braves with

rifles. They came closer, Jack backing up in front of them, growling.

        “Jack, stop it!” Mama commanded.

        “But is that what you want, Anerson?” Ahiga asked. “Do you want to fight?”

        “No, I don’t want to fight. I ju—”

        “Then give me the dragon and we won’t have any more problems. We’ll gi—” Ahiga

said.

        “What are they doing?” Alijandra asked, getting to her feet. “Why are they—”

        “Get down before someone sees you!” Isabella hissed, yanking her sister to the floor.

        “—a fair price,” Ahiga concluded. “Not the fortune your ‘princess’ wants,” he sneered,

“but enough to keep you happy for a while. Plenty enough to buy your whiskey with.”




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        Papa swung, but Ahiga was faster, weaving out of the way and kicking Papa’s foot out

from under him. Papa fell backward, arms flailing, his head bouncing off the ground. Jack

jumped forward, barking and snapping, and Ahiga kicked him, too, in the side, with the point of

his black boot. Jack leapt away, yelping. The two warriors stood in front of Ahiga and trained

their rifles on Papa.

        “PAPA!” Alijandra screamed, leaping up from her hiding place. Isabella grabbed her,

tried to pull her back.

        Ahiga looked up, pointed at Alijandra as he leaned forward for Pearl. “And keep your

damned brats quie—”

        The dust flew in a sudden burst and then Pearl, snarling, hung in the air a few feet off the

ground, between Papa and the men with guns. Thin fingers of lightning crawled across her skin.

The braves trained their rifles on her and Ahiga stepped back. Pearl hissed at him.

        Ahiga sang, low and soft; Isabella recognized it as the pacifying song the elder Tse-seigo

had sung earlier. Still floating in the air, Pearl narrowed her eyes but did not relent. The tendrils

of lightning around her grew larger, brighter, hotter, began expanding out into a ball.

        “Anerson,” Ahiga said, “calm your dragon.”

        “That dragon isn’t mine: she belongs to one of my ‘damned brats,’” Papa said, standing

up. He was rubbing the back of his head with one hand and dusting off his shirt with the other.

“And like I told you, I’ve just started training her. I don’t know that I’d be able to stop if she

decides to kill you, the way she killed the venomdrake.”

        “Stop it!” Alijandra screamed, struggling in Isabella’s grasp. “Stop it, Pearl! Don’t hurt

anyone!”

        “Bella, get Ali away from the window!” Mama yelled.




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       “Come on!” Isabella said, pulling her sister away from the window, back further into the

house. Slowly, painfully, To-Ho-Ne made her way up, hand on her hip for support. “What are

they saying?” Isabella asked her.

       “You put down your rifles and get out of here,” Papa said. “I need more time to train

Pearl. Then we can talk again. Maybe you’ll be more sensible.”

       The braves lowered their weapons. The elders stepped back. “Revered Fathers, I ho—”

Mama began.

       To-Ho-Ne translated what Ahiga snarled. “‘In four days, we’ll be back, with more men

and Brother Tunneler and some of the other dragons, if that’s what it takes. And then you’ll give

us Pearl, Erisian.”

       “Maybe I won’t,” Papa said.

       “Then we’ll kill you and still take Pearl. And we’ll take your family, too.”




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          Chapter 30: How the Dragontamer Lost Their Lives 

       “We’re leaving,” Papa said, bringing Pearl, in her crate, inside the little house. Mama

followed him, with the blankets that everyone had been sitting on. Ahiga and the elders had left

a few minutes before. “Pack up the house, Juanita. To-Ho-Ne and the girls will help you. Take

the food, the clothes—hells, everything but the table and chairs.”

       “Papa, what do you mean?” Isabella asked.

       “We’re not staying here anymore.” He put the crate with Pearl on the table, went to his

trunk, took out the purse of money that Kassimyen had paid him, poured out about half the coins

onto the table. “I’m taking Pretty Boy to Scorpion Tail to get us a wagon,” he said, closing the

purse and slinging its strap over his shoulder. “If I’m not back by noon tomorrow, take the rest

of the money and go without me.”

       “Papa, wh—” Isabella began.

       “Where would we go?” Mama interrupted.

       “I don’t know,” Papa admitted. “Somewhere. Esmargga, I guess.”



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       “Why would we go to Esmargga?” Mama asked.

       “I don’t want to go anywhere,” Isabella said. “Why do we have to go anywhere?”

       Quietly, Alijandra went to the table, took the lid off the crate.

       “In four days, Ahiga and his father will be back with gods-alone-know-what to try to take

Pearl,” Papa said. “You girls and your Mama need to be off Diheneh property when that

happens.”

       “Word spreads quickly among my people,” To-Ho-Ne said. Pearl clambered out of the

crate and into Alijandra’s arms. “They’ll soon know what’s happened here today,” the old

woman added.

       “Then why don’t we just gi—?” Isabella started.

       “No, we can’t stay here, Thad,” Mama agreed, “but we can’t just run off without a plan

or som—”

       “There’s no time to plan anything, Juanita,” he replied.

       “I’ll go with you to Scorpion Tail,” Mama said. “We’ll figure this out as we go.”

       “I nee—” Papa began.

       “To-Ho-Ne and the girls can pack up the house,” Mama insisted. “We don’t have much:

how hard can it be?”

       “I’m not—” Papa protested.

       “Papa, I—” Isabella tried to say.

       “I’m going with you,” Mama said. “This is happening so suddenly. You and I need to

talk this through. To-Ho-Ne,” she said, “I want you—”

       “I will take care of it, Princess,” To-Ho-Ne said. “Don’t worry. Go with Mr. Anerson.”




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         This is… Isabella thought. This is strange. She remembered the dream she had had—

how long ago was it?—about wandering through the top floor of the trading post, squeezing her

way through narrow, twisting paths among boxes and barrels and bags, and how nothing had

been as it should have been and no one had acted the way they should have. It feels like that

now, she thought, and for a moment, she felt a little dizzy, like her feet were pointed in the

wrong direction. She shut her eyes for a moment. I want to spew out, she thought, but I won’t. I

won’t.

         She didn’t. When she felt well enough to open her eyes, Mama and Papa were still

talking, in Diheneh now, so we won’t understand, Isabella told herself. To-Ho-Ne had the larder

door open, and was gathering the food and putting it into a large yucca string bag. Jack watched

her from underneath the table; Alijandra sat on the floor next to the big, black dog. Pearl was in

her lap, her eyes going from Alijandra, to their parents, to To-Ho-Ne, to Isabella, back to

Alijandra, back to their parents.

         Isabella came over, squatted down. “Are you all right?” she whispered.

         Alijandra nodded.

         “Pearl wouldn’t have hurt Ahiga,” Isabella said.

         “Yes, she would have,” Alijandra said.

         “Only to protect Papa,” Isabella said, catching Pearl’s tiny white eyes staring at her. “She

thought Ahiga was going to hurt him.”

         “Ahiga did hurt him,” Alijandra reminded her. “And I wish Pearl had hurt Ahiga.”

         “You shouldn’t say things like that,” Isabella said.

         “Why not?” Alijandra asked.




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       Isabella glanced over at her parents, who were paying them no mind. “Mama wouldn’t

approve,” she whispered. “It’s against what Our Mother teaches us.”

       “I don’t care,” Alijandra said. “I wish Pearl had burned him up, like she did the cougar.

He’s mean and he hurt Papa and now we have to go.”

       “I…” Isabella began, then stopped. Nodded. “I know,” she said.

       Papa went outside. “Girls,” Mama said, “Papa and I will be back tonight with a cart. To-

Ho-Ne knows what to do: help her any way she tells you. Be good for her, and be strong. I

know this situation is very scary. I don’t like it, either. But we have to be brave, and do what

needs to be done. Understand?”

       “Yes, Mama,” Isabella said.

       “Yes, Mama,” Alijandra said.

       “Good,” she said, squatting down and holding out her arms. The girls came to her,

Alijandra getting off the floor and leaving Pearl beside Jack. “No crying, Bella,” Mama said.

“There isn’t time for that now.”

       “I won’t cry, Mama,” Isabella said. No, I won’t.

       Mama stood to leave. “I’m going to help Papa get Pretty Boy ready. Bella, do you still

have your pistol?”

       “Yes, Mama,” the older girl replied.

       “Good. Keep it close, just in case. And Ali, you stay close to your sister. Understand?”

       Both girls nodded.

       “All right,” Mama said. “I love you both very much. I’ll see you tonight. In the

morning, we’ll leave.”

       “Where will we go?” Alijandra asked.




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       “I don’t know yet,” Mama said. “Papa and I will discuss it.”

       “Will we take Pearl with us?” the younger girl asked.

       “Yes, we will,” Mama said, looking at the dragon, who was watching them. “Come.”

       The girls went outside with Mama. “It’s hot,” Isabella said.

       “Yes, it is,” Mama said. “I wish we could until later to leave, but there’s no time.”

       Papa came over, leading Pretty Boy. “Juanita,” he said.

       “Goodbye, girls,” Mama said, kissing them quickly—a curt peck on each of their

foreheads. Then Papa helped her into the saddle—sideways, of course, like a proper lady—and

he nodded to his daughters.

       “Be good,” he told them.

       “We will, Papa,” Isabella said.

       “Yes, Papa,” Alijandra said.

       Papa sighed, a long, slow puff. “I’ll tell the world,” he muttered. Then he clucked Pretty

Boy and off they went, Papa walking alongside, holding the horse’s reins.

       The sisters watched them for a few minutes. Neither of their parents looked back. Then

To-Ho-Ne came to the doorway and called for them, and they came inside to get to work.



                                                #



       Zeep. Zeep.

       Evening was coming. The work was done, the things of the house—most of them—

bundled and packed and stacked outside the door. Isabella and To-Ho-Ne were inside, making

dinner. Jack was sleeping on his back—legs up, paws limp—in the dust nearby.




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        Zeep. Zeep.

        Alijandra and Pearl sat under the wooden ramada, the shade that her mother had put up

long ago for a cool place to work during the day. They watched the moths come out, fluttering

crazily as they do. They listened to the hoppers sing to each other.

        Zeep. Zeep. Zeep. Zeep. Zeep.

        One of the hens—Calixta, Alijandra had named her—ambled by. Stopped. Eyed the little

girl. Leaned in closer to see if she had anything to eat. Pearl hissed, and Calixta scampered

away.

        “Be nice,” Alijandra scolded. Pearl shrank.

        The little girl paused. “Well you should be sorry,” she said. “And why haven’t you

talked before?”

        Pearl looked at her.

        “Well, I’m glad you’ve learned how,” Alijandra said. “I’ve wanted you to be able to talk

to me. I’m sad because Mama and Papa have gone away.”

        Zeep. Zeep.

        “Well, I hope they’ll be all right, too, but I’m still sad. I don’t want to go.”

        Jack woke, turned his head. Rolled on his side and watched Alijandra.

        “I don’t want you to go, either,” the little girl told Pearl. “It wouldn’t be better if you go.

It’s not your fault.”

        Zeep. Zeep. Zeep.

        “Well, what’s east anyway, that you need to go there so badly?” Alijandra asked.

        The dragon looked off into the distance.

        “Why can’t you explain? I’ll understand.”




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       Jack closed his eyes again.

       “Yes, I will.”

       Zeep. Zeep.

       “Well, I don’t want you to ever go. Please don’t.”

       Isabella came to the doorway. Jack looked up at her. “Who are you talking to?” the

older girl asked.

       “Pearl,” Alijandra said. “She says she needs to go.”

       “It’s time to eat,” Isabella said. “Wash up and come inside.”

       Alijandra scooped up Pearl and did as she was told.



                                                  #



       Dinner was beans and rice. Pearl sat on Alijandra’s lap while the little girl ate. No one

said much of anything. Alijandra asked what they were going to do with the chickens, and To-

Ho-Ne said they might put the chickens in the coop and put that in the wagon and take it with

them with.

       After dinner, To-Ho-Ne cleaned up while the girls bathed—the last bath they’d take in

the house, Isabella realized. Night came, and they got ready to lie down. Pearl curled up with

Alijandra, and both of them were soon asleep. Isabella’s eyes wouldn’t stay closed.

       After a while—how long, she didn’t know—of rolling onto one side, and then the other,

Isabella got up. The little house was dim, lit only by a single kerosene lamp. To-Ho-Ne was

sitting at the table, looking out the window into the starry dark.




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       Isabella sat down at the table. “Why aren’t Mama and Papa back yet?” Isabella asked,

her voice low so as to not wake her sister.

       To-Ho-Ne shrugged. “It’s a long way to Scorpion Tail and back. Or maybe they had

problems finding a wagon.”

       “I don’t want to go. Do you?”

       “It doesn’t matter to me,” the old Diheneh woman said. “One place is the same as

another.”

       Isabella pondered that for a while. Then, “Why did we have to leave Ysparria?”

       “You know why, Bella,” To-Ho-Ne said. “I don’t need to tell you again.”

       “I know some of it,” Isabella replied. “A little bit here and there that Mama or Papa or

you have mentioned, but I don’t feel like I know all of it. I feel like there’s something no one’s

been telling me.”

       “There’s not much to tell,” To-Ho-Ne said, “and it was a long time ago, when you were

about Ali’s age. It doesn’t matter anymore.”

       “Yes, it does,” Isabella insisted. “If we hadn’t left Ysparria, we wouldn’t have come

here, and we wouldn’t have to leave here to go…wherever it is we’re going.”

       “It’s a long story. How about if you lie down and I tell it to you?”

       “I don’t want a bedtime story, To-Ho-Ne,” Isabella said. “I just want to know why. I

think I deserve to know why.”

       To-Ho-Ne nodded. “Yes, you do. Remember how your mother told you that your father

caught a dragon for the Emperor, and tamed it?”

       “Yes,” Isabella said. “The Emperor gave him Mama’s hand in marriage.”




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        “That was in Cuidad de Agustin,” To-Ho-Ne said. “Mr. Anerson caught more dragons—

about a dozen—over the next few years, and turned them over to the Emperor’s army, to fight in

Ysparria’s wars against the Dhyuzmanii and the Erisians. They obeyed your father and did very

well: Ysparria won every battle. The Emperor was very pleased with your father. He gave him a

lot of land, a lot of money, some more fancy titles.”

        “I remember that we used to live in a big house with servants, like we were princesses,”

Isabella said. “So what happened?”

        “Your father wasn’t a very good dragontamer,” To-Ho-Ne said. “The first dragon your

father had caught—the Kaibabi that made light—he thought he had control over it.”

        “But he didn’t?”

        To-Ho-Ne shook her head. “The dragon had just pretended all along to be under his

command. It was sly and mean, like Ahiga had warned him. It was playing a game with him,

and when, years later—because what are a few years when you live forever, like dragons do?—

when it finally got tired of playing its game, it broke loose.”

        “What happened?”

        “It was around four in the afternoon on the second of August that year. The dragons—

they used to keep them in vaults, huge stone rooms, under a mountain right above the city. The

Kaibabi made a bright, hot light, like it did in battles, but this time, it blasted its way out of the

vault, killed all its handlers and the other dragons there, too. Then it flew up into the air, and

it…did something to the sun, something no one had ever seen it do—had no idea it could do. It

made the sun’s light stronger, hotter. It lit the whole city on fire, all of it, at once.”

        “No,” Isabella whispered.




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         To-Ho-Ne nodded. “Almost everything—houses, stores, trees, the Imperial Palace, the

ships in the harbor—burst into flame. Your mama and I were home at the time. You were

taking a nap. Ali had just been born a few weeks before. I ran into your room—your curtains

were already on fire—and I grabbed you. Your mother took Ali. Your father appeared—he

must have come running. The coach and horses were ready—your parents had planned on going

to a ball that evening. We put you and Ali and into the coach and we rode out of there with the

city on fire around us, with not much more than the clothes we were wearing.”

         “I don’t remember that,” Isabella said. “None of it.”

         “Sometimes, when you’re very young, and something horrible happens, you forget about

it as soon as it’s over. There are a lot of things I can’t remember.”

         “From when you were made a slave?” Isabella asked, whispering now. To-Ho-Ne

nodded. “What happened to the dragon?”

         “It flew off north, back home, I suppose,” To-Ho-Ne said. “I could hear it over the

flames and the people screaming and the horses running. It sounded like it was laughing, like it

thought all of what was happening was funny. We found out later that thousands of people were

killed. Four of them were your mother’s father, her sister Guadalupe, and Guadalupe’s two little

boys.”

         “No…” Isabella said, shaking her head. “That’s horrible. Mama….She’s never

mentioned that.”

         “Your mother is a very strong woman,” To-Ho-Ne said. “To stay strong, she doesn’t

speak of some things.”

         “What happened then?”




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        “We left the city, and we never went back. Your father knew they would come looking

for him, to blame him and hurt him for what had happened.”

        “But if they wanted to have dragons, they couldn’t do anything to Papa?”

        “After that, the Emperor—who had been in another city at the time—made the army let

the rest of the dragons go free. He decided that dragontaming was too dangerous after all—like

your mama’s father had tried to tell him.”

        “So then what happened?”

        “So we kept going, until we came out here, where no one would find us. Mr.

Dempesson—the prospector who took him in when he left the cavalry and first came to

Dihenehtah—he was still out here. He and your father pleaded with Ahiga, and Ahiga convinced

the elders to let us stay, to hide us.”

        “And Mr. Dempesson helped Papa build our house.”

        “Yes,” To-Ho-Ne said. “And gave your father and mother money for clothes and food.”

        “That was nice of him to do all that.”

        To-Ho-Ne shook her head. “Your father sold me to Mr. Dempesson,” she said.

        “To-Ho-Ne…” Isabella said. “That’s…that can’t be. That’s horrible. What ki—”

        “Your Mama and Papa needed the money,” To-Ho-Ne said. “They had almost nothing:

they had traded away almost everything valuable that had managed to bring with them—coins,

jewels, the horses, the carriage—just to get here, to the Diheneh lands.”

        “But how could Mama le—”

        “I told her it was the only way,” To-Ho-Ne said. “Besides, I’d been a slave most of my

life—I was used to it. It wasn’t bad for me. Mr. Dempesson treated me well. When he died, I

came back to you.”




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        “But….” How could Papa do that? It can’t be. She must be making this up. Must be.

But why would she make up a story like that?

        “I told you before that your mother, your father, me—you only know us in certain ways,

at this certain time. There’s a lot you don’t know about who we really are. All of us, every

grown-up you know, have done things that we’re ashamed of.”

        “It’s not right,” Isabella insisted.

        “It’s not right,” To-Ho-Ne agreed, “but it happens, anyway, even if we don’t mean to do

bad things. And those are the things we have to live with, forever. And it’s not easy.”

        Isabella didn’t say anything. For a while, To-Ho-Ne didn’t either. Finally:

        “Your father’s not a monster. He was selfish and weak, but he’s always loved you and

Ali.”

        Isabella’s face was wet. She shook her head.

        “I’m sorry,” To-Ho-Ne said. “I shouldn’t have said anything. I’m a stupid old woman.”

        Isabella shook her head again. “I wish we could go back to yesterday,” she said.

“Nothing bad happened yesterday. We didn’t have to go anywhere. No one... I didn’t

know…didn’t….”

        “Didn’t know some ugly things,” To-Ho-Ne said. She put Isabella’s hand in hers. “I

wish we could go back to yesterday. I wish we could go back even further.”

        They sat and Isabella wept and To-Ho-Ne held her. They stayed like that for a long

time—how long, they didn’t know—until they heard the phud phud phud of horse hooves and

Jack, outside, rising to his feet. The big black dog started barking.




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       “Stop it, Jack!” Isabella hissed, running to the door. She unbolted it, swung it open,

dashed outside into the twin moonlight. To-Ho-Ne slowly rose to her feet, waddled after her.

Jack was prancing around the horse, still barking.

       It was Pretty Boy, but Mama was not on him, and Papa was not there holding his reins.

Instead, it was Daon Raul, sliding off the horse’s back.

       “Your mother and father have been arrested,” he explained.




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            Chapter 31: Scorpion Tail, Esmargga, and Imbyrria 

         The sun was starting to go down when they had arrived at Scorpion Tail. The town was

already swathed in shadows. A few people were out—the smith Kolb was sitting on his porch,

smoking—and they watched Mama and Papa. No one said anything to them.

         They went to the trading post. Mama came down off Pretty Boy. They tied his reins to

one of the porch posts, like they had a few days ago.

         “I won’t be long,” Papa said.

         “Horse shoes, nails, ammunition,” Mama reminded him. “Can you think of anything

else?”

         He shook his head. “I’ll ask Cornejo about a wagon.”

         “I’ve been thinking,” she said, pointing at a nearby shack with the yellow glow of candles

coming from the windows. “Daon Raul might know where we can get one. He travels a lot.”

         He nodded. “Don’t forget to ask him about Pearl,” he said. He stepped onto the porch

without glancing at the wanted poster, went into the store.



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       She smoothed down her hair. Patted Pretty Boy on the nose. Checked the knot on the

reins to make sure they were securely tied. “Good boy,” she whispered, smiling. “Be good.

Wait here for us.”

       Pretty Boy twitched an ear in reply. She gave him another pat. Crossed the square to

Daon Raul’s.

       Murmuring of voices inside. She knocked.

       The door opened right away. One of the priest’s smaller sons—Mama couldn’t

remember his name—was right here. Daon Raul was sitting on the floor with Shadi and their

children—two older girls and five other young boys—clustered on the floor in the center of the

single room that was their home. A small pot was in the middle of them.

       “Good evening, Mrs. Sanches,” he beamed, climbing to his feet. His hands were still

bandaged, and he was dressed no differently than any of the other working men in Scorpion Tail.

       “Good evening,” she said, tipping her chin. “I’m sorry I’ve interrupted,” Mama said.

“But—”

       “Think nothing of it,” the priest said. “I’ll be back in a moment. Keep eating!” he called

over his shoulder, as they stepped outside. Mama caught a glance of Shadi’s eyes narrowing as

the door swung shut.

       “Back in town so soon?” he asked.

       “Yes,” Mama said, lowering her voice. “I’m here with Thad. I was wondering if you

could help us.”

       “Certainly,” he said, “if I can.”

       “Thank you.” She looked around for a moment. “Would you happen to know anyone

who wants to sell a wagon?”




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       “Yes, I might,” Daon Raul replied. “Old Ramon, here in town.”

       “Mr. Ortega?” she asked. “Why would he do that?”

       “He lost his wife last week,” Daon Raul said, “and he’s just given up. He’s stopped

eating, and he’s spending every centavo he has on whiskey. He says there are worse ways to

go.”

       “That poor man,” Mama said. “We brought money, of course.”

       “It probably won’t take much,” Daon Raul replied. He pointed across the square, past the

trading post, to Ortega’s house. “I’ll walk you over. He doesn’t like many people, but if

introduce you, it’ll be all right. He’ll sell you the wagon. You and Thad can stay at my house

tonight—it’s crowded, but we’ll make room.” He smiled faintly. “There might be some dinner

left, too. You can head home in the morning.”

       “Thank you, but we have to go back tonight.”

       “You wanting a wagon,” Daon Raul said, lowering his voice. “Does that have anything

to do with the elders going to your house today?”

       “You heard about that?”

       Daon Raul nodded again. “You know how it is around here. Words get around…some

of it, anyway. The Diheneh won’t say what happened.”

       Mama leaned closer. “Ahiga, Naalnish, and some of the others came this morning,” she

whispered. “They wanted Pearl. They think she’s the Stormcaller, a dragon who comes every

hundred years or so and brings rain to the desert. They want to keep her, tame her, have her

make it rain whenever they want.”

       “Turn the desert into a garden,” Daon Raul said. “‘The Stormcaller:’ I haven’t heard of

that.” He crossed his arms. “You refused, of course.”




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         “Not directly,” Mama replied. “As I was pretending to haggle with them over a price,

Ahiga became angry—you know how he is—and said some things he shouldn’t. He pushed

Thad down, tried to take Pearl—”

         “—and what happened then?”

         “Pearl threatened him,” Mama said.

         “She made lightning?”

         She nodded.

         “Did she hurt him?”

         Mama shook her head. “But she showed him she could have killed him if she had wanted

to.”

         “He backed down, of course,” Daon Raul said. Mama nodded. “Which humiliated him

in front of his father and the elders,” the priest added.

         “And some of his men, and his son,” Mama continued. “Thad doesn’t think we can

stay.”

         “No, I imagine not,” Daon Raul said, rubbing his jaw. “Ahiga’s very proud. Unless you

apologized, in front of his people, gave him the dragon, asked nothing in return. Then maybe

he’d let you stay.”

         Mama shook her head. “Everything’s changed between Thad and Ahiga. There’s

nothing left for us here.”

         “I understand,” Daon Raul said.

         Mama looked around again. Dark was coming quickly. Pretty Boy was still in his place;

the dragontamer was apparently still inside the trading post. Kolb and all the other townspeople

that had been out had gone back inside.




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       “The wagon, then,” Daon Raul said. “Anything else, Mrs. Anerson?”

       “You told me that you had discussed Pearl with Daon Edgardo, and that he has an uncle

who is an animal collector.”

       “That’s right,” Daon Raul said. “Do you want to sell Pearl?”

       For a moment, she did not respond. Then she nodded, once.

       “What about Alijandra?” Daon Raul asked.

       “Ali will have to understand,” Mama said.

       “You’re desperate.”

       Mama nodded again.

       “Well, yes, I can take Pearl from you,” Daon Raul said. “Did you bring her?”

       “No,” she said. “But we’re going to Esmargga. I take it Daon Edgardo stays at the

mission?” He nodded. “We’ll take Pearl to him.”

       “Are you sure you want to go to Esmargga? That would be very dangerous.”

       “Where else can we go?” Mama asked. “We need the money he can give us for Pearl.

We’ll also need the money you showed me.”

       “The fifty reales,” Daon Raul said. “I can give you those now, but it’s too risky for you

to go to Esmargga. I know a secret place along the way where you can camp. I can meet you

there, take Pearl, come back with the rest of the money. Wha—”

       Poc. A pistol shot. From inside the trading post.

       Thad, she thought, and then she found herself running across the hard, dust-covered stone

of the town square; past wide-eyed Pretty Boy, who was yanking on his reins to get away; onto

the porch, ignoring Daon Raul as he yelled for her to stop no Juanita stop; throwing open the

door; going inside.




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       Barrels and boxes and Cornejo’s money table were knocked over, bolts of cloth and

pieces of broken glass jars and a few coins spilled onto the floor. Three cavalrymen—their hats

knocked off, their jackets rent and askew—were holding the dragontamer: one by his right arm,

the other by his shoulders, the third yanking him down by his hair. A fourth cavalryman lay on

the floor, thrashing, screaming, wet, red hands pressed against his belly, holding in his life, a

pistol forgotten beside him.

       “Thad!” she screamed, running forward. More cavalrymen pounding down the stairs—

they’ve been here they’ve been waiting here waiting for us she realized—pistols ready, drawing

their swords. Their captain—Altamirano, she remembered—behind them, bellowing alive

Motherdamn you I want him alive!

       “Get out of here!” the dragontamer yelled at her, his fist swinging wildly, uselessly. The

man who had him by the hair reached out, grabbed a bottle of vinegar from a nearby shelf, struck

the dragontamer in the head with it. Blood streamed down Papa’s face and he whimpered like

Jack did earlier today when Ahiga kicked him. The bottle didn’t break. The cavalryman hit him

with it again and again. The dragontamer, eyes no longer seeing, dangled in the soldiers’ arms.

       She reached into her apron pocket, remembered that she had given her pistol to Isabella,

stooped for the wounded man’s weapon. Something smashed her to the dusty floor. Tried to get

up. Something—a boot, she knew—smashed her again. A hand reaching down, taking the pistol

away. More hands grabbing her, pulling her from the floor. She snarled, bit down on the hand

holding her arm, felt everything explode for a brief moment as another hand thumped her ear.

Hung there, in the soldiers’ arms, reeling.

       “He got Munoz’s sidearm,” one of the cavalrymen explained. “He was too fa—”




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       “Get Munoz upstairs and make him comfortable,” Altamirano said. Soldiers bent to pick

up their comrade. “I don’t suppose there is a physician in town?”

       “No, Captain,” Mrs. Cornejo said, coming out, with her daughter, from behind the stairs,

where she’d been hiding. “The medicine men—”

       “The Diheneh holy men aren’t going to help us,” Altamirano said. Four men began to

carry the bleeding cavalryman—moaning softly now—upstairs. “And we’re not staying long

enough for them to arrive.”

       Mama shook off the pain, got to her feet. The dragontamer was lying motionless on the

floor. One of the soldiers kicked him.

       “Stop it!” she screamed. The men holding her tightened their grip, said nothing.

       “That’s enough, Garcia,” Altamirano scolded the man. “He’s down—and still alive,

despite his best efforts to the contrary,” the captain told the dragontamer’s wife. He looked

around. Daon Raul and many of the townspeople had come in, were watching.

       “Captain, I think there’s been a mistake,” the priest began. “That ma—”

       “That man is Thaddus Anerson, the dragontamer,” Captain Altamirano finished. “And

none of this is any business of yours—with no disrespect intended, Daon—or anyone else’s. So

I’ll have to ask everyone to leave.” He nodded to some of his men. They sheathed their swords,

holstered their pistols, stepped forward. The crowd began to pull back.

       “Captain, we need to talk about this,” Daon Raul said.

       “I’m afraid I don’t have much time for that,” Altamirano replied.

       “You have the wrong man,” Daon Raul insisted.

       “I don’t think so,” Altamirano said. The other townspeople were gone. “You’re going to

have to leave, Daon. Please don’t make me ask you again.”




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       “At least let me tend to hi—”

       “Daon,” Altamirano warned. Four cavalrymen approached the priest. “Daon, I am a

religious man, but I cannot have you interfere with my orders.”

       “At least let his wife go,” Daon Raul said. “She’s done nothing.”

       “She’s attacked soldiers of the gove—”

       “I’m all right, Daon Raul,” Mama said. “I’ll be all right. Go ahead. Go.”

       Daon Raul pondered it for a moment. Nodded. Backed out of the trading post.

       “How did you—” Mama began. Cornejo smirked. “No,” Mama realized, pulling against

the men holding her. “Who told you, you dirty hag?” she demanded. “How did you know?”

       “No one told Mrs. Cornejo,” Captain Altamirano answered. “She guessed correctly, the

other day, after your husband came here with you and the children.” He stepped forward.

“Where are your children, Mrs. Anerson?”

       “They’re somewhere very far away, and very safe,” she replied.

       Without taking his eyes off the dragontamer’s wife, Altamirano asked Mrs. Cornejo,

“Where do they live?”

       “A day’s walk from here, I think,” the old woman replied. “On Diheneh lands. I’ve

never been there.”

       “And if we ride out there, I’m sure your native friends—who obviously have been hiding

you for years—will make things difficult for us. Never mind,” Altamirano said. “Get him up

and get him out of here,” he told his men. Two of them bent to pull the dragontamer from the

floor. He nodded at the men holding Mama. “Take her, too.”




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       Mama did not resist as the men started moving her towards the door. “When do we get

the money?” Cornejo’s daughter asked. She tucked the end of her hair into her mouth and began

chewing it.

       “When we get back to Esmargga, I’ll inform the governor of your help,” Captain

Altamirano said. “A coach will bring your reward.”

       “When will that be?” Cornejo whined. “Look at my shop—look at what you’ve done. I

can’t sell anything with my place like this. Will your men help clean up?”

       “We’re leaving with our prisoners,” Altamirano replied. “It’s your shop: you clean up.”

He stopped his men, who were carrying the dragontamer, bleeding and still unconscious, limp

arms draped across their shoulders. Altamirano checked the dragontamer’s shirt pockets, found

nothing.

       “He had this,” one of his men said, holding up the leather pouch.

       Altamirano opened it, looked at the Dhyuzmanii coins inside.

       “Let me have that, at least,” Cornejo snapped.

       “The governor will want to know why our man had foreign currency with him,”

Altamirano said. “Maybe he’s a spy.”

       “He’s not a spy!” Mama spat.

       “He never was much of anything, was he?” Altamirano said, closing the pouch. He

nodded to the others. “Let’s go.”

       Outside, night had fallen. Other cavalrymen were bringing their horses around from

behind the trading post, where they had been hidden. They slumped Papa over a saddle and

made Mama climb onto another one, to ride sideways. Pretty Boy—and Daon Raul—were

nowhere to be seen.




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                                                 #



        The sun was coming up, and the air was cool—untypical for this time of year—as Daon

Raul led Pretty Boy along. Tied to the horse’s saddle was the Erisian gyrojet rifle that Mama

had taken apart and cleaned the day she had showed Isabella how to shoot. Alijandra sat on

Pretty Boy’s back, holding Pearl’s metal crate tight against her stomach. Inside the box, Pearl’s

tail tapped tmpp… tmpp…tmpp....

        Isabella walked on the other side of Pretty Boy. On her back, she carried a yucca-string

bag of clothes and food. She was not tired, though she had not slept since the night before. She

peered around the horse’s head. “I’m glad you’re coming with us, Daon Raul.”

        “I could hardly let the two of you go by yourselves.”

        Isabella reached into the pocket of her apron and felt the barrel of the pistol Mama had

given her. “We’d be all right,” she said.

        “Maybe,” Daon Raul said. “Everyone saw what happened, and word travels fast in

Dihenehtah. Ahiga and his men are probably already on their way to your house to take Pearl.”

        “What about To-Ho-Ne?” Alijandra asked. Those were the first words she had spoken

that morning.

        “She should be fine,” Daon Raul said.

        “They said that if we didn’t give them Pearl, they were going to kill Papa and take all of

us,” Isabella said.

        “I know what you told me,” Daon Raul replied, “but Ahiga’s an honorable man. He

won’t harm an old woman, especially one of his own kind.”




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        “Maybe,” Isabella said.

        “We should have brought her with us,” Alijandra said. She hadn’t cried when Isabella

had woken her and told her what had happened. She hadn’t protested when Isabella had insisted

that they go. She hadn’t complained as she had ridden for hours in the dark. She had only held

Pearl, inside her box.

        “It’s a long way,” Isabella said, kicking a stone. “It’s too far for her.”

        “And it’s dangerous,” Daon Raul said. “I’ll take you on a trail through some hills I

know. That’s the way I always go. It’s a little longer, but it’s safe. No one goes there.”

        “Why not?” Alijandra asked.

        “Those hills are burial grounds,” Daon Raul explained. “And the Diheneh think that evil

spirits and monsters live there.” He smiled. “But, of course, they don’t.”

        “When will we get there?” Isabella asked.

        “The hills? Not ‘til nightfall, I imagine,” Daon Raul said. “We’ll stay off the paths until

then. Not that I think anyone will be looking for you to go that way.”

        “To Esmargga,” Isabella said.

        “Right,” he said, smiling and shaking his head. “To Esmargga, so you can be caught and

arrested, too.”

        “We haven’t done anything wrong,” Alijandra said.

        “That doesn’t matter,” Daon Raul told her. “It’s not what you’ve done: it’s who you

are.”

        “What do you mean?” Alijandra asked.

        “We’re the dragontamer’s daughters,” Isabella said. “Papa’s an outlaw, so we’re

outlaws, too.”




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       “No,” Daon Raul said. “Not like that. But the governor will want you, anyway.”

       “Why?” Alijandra asked.

       “To punish your father, I imagine,” Daon Raul replied.

       “Is that why they took Mama, too?” Alijandra asked.

       Daon Raul shrugged.

       They walked on a little longer, with no one saying anything. Pearl tapped her tail:

tmpp… tmpp…tmpp....

       “Tell her to stop that,” Isabella snapped.

       “She’s upset,” Alijandra said.

       “Well, I’m upset, too,” Isabella replied. “So ma—”

       “Girls, let’s not fight,” Daon Raul said. He slipped a bandaged hand into his shirt pocket,

took out a wad of paper money, gave it to Isabella. “Here, this is yours. I’ve been meaning to

give this to you for hours now, but I’ve had trouble thinking of a good way to explain it.”

       “What’s this for?” Isabella asked, and for a moment she thought, He was in on it with

Mrs. Cornejo. He told her who Papa was, they split the reward money, and now—

       Stop it! she told herself. Daon Raul is a good man. Mama trusted him with our secret.

He’d never tell anyone. She found that her other hand, the one that wasn’t holding the money,

had slipped into her apron and taken hold of the pistol’s grip. She let go.

       “It’s fifty reales—well, forty-four reales now, because I spent some—that Daon Edgardo

had given me before I left Esmargga to thank me for coming to his installation as the new

pastor—and because he knows my family’s circumstances.”

       “Well, you keep it,” Alijandra said. “It’s your money.”




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       “No, I want it to be yours,” he said. “Yours and your sister’s. It will come in useful

when we get to Esmargga. I tried to give it to your mother, but she wouldn’t take it.”

       “But your family needs it,” Isabella said. “You’re poor, just like us.”

       “My children have parents,” he reminded the older girl, “but I’m not sure how much

longer you will.”

       “Don’t say that!” Alijandra said.

       “I hate to say it, but I have to,” Daon Raul said. “Keep the money.”

       Isabella put it in her apron pocket. There was no sound from the dragon’s metal box.

       “Why wouldn’t Mama take it?” Alijandra asked.

       He sighed. “When I came back from Esmargga, after Pearl burned my hands, I asked

your mother to sell Pearl to me. I offered her that money. I told her that Daon Edgardo’s uncle

collected rare animals, and that he would want to add Pearl to his menagerie.” He shook his

head. “Daon Edgardo did have an elderly uncle,” he admitted. “But he died twelve years ago,

and he never collected animals. He never even had a dog. I lied about all that. I made it all up.”

       “Why did—” Isabella began.

       “So that I could let Pearl go.”

       “Let Pearl go? Why?” Alijandra asked. She held the box tighter.

       “Because she’s very dangerous,” Daon Raul said. “Did your mother ever tell you about

the kingdom of Imbyrria?”

       “Yes,” Isabella said. “Papa’s told us, too. It was an island where our people come from.

They used to tame dragons there, but eventually, the dragons destroyed the island.”




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       “Not ‘dragons,’” Daon Raul corrected, “one dragon. I found out when I went to

Esmargga that Pearl is the same type of dragon, if not the very same dragon, that destroyed

Imbyrria all those years ago.”

       “Pearl wouldn’t do that,” Alijandra protested.

       “Pearl is the Typhoon Dragon,” Daon Raul insisted. “There was a picture of her, an old

one, down in the crypts of the chapel.”

       “No,” Alijandra said, shaking her head.

       “Imbyrria was destroyed in a storm, a huge storm that flooded the island,” Isabella said.

“That’s what Mama told us. Pearl doesn’t just make lightning, she makes rain, too.”

       “That’s what your mother told me yesterday evening,” Daon Raul said, “and that’s what

the Diheneh believe the ‘Stormcaller’ does. I’d say it’s possible—very likely, even—that Pearl,

the Imbyrrian Typhoon Dragon, and the Stormcaller are all the same.”

       “You didn’t tell Mama this?” Isabella asked. “About Pearl?”

       He smiled faintly. “No. She wouldn’t have believed me. Daon Edgardo didn’t believe

me, either. So instead of telling your mother the truth, which she wouldn’t want to have heard, I

told her something she would. Grown-ups are like that, you know. They don’t want to know

about things that scare them. It makes them feel like little children again, and they don’t like it.

They think they’ve outgrown feeling helpless, and confused, and frightened, but they haven’t.”

       Neither girl said anything. Inside her crate, Pearl did not stir. The plod of Pretty Boy’s

hooves was the only sound in the world. Then:

       “I shouldn’t have lied to your mother,” Daon Raul admitted. “It was wrong.”

       “I understand why you did,” Isabella said. “And I believe you about Pearl.”




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         “It doesn’t matter what Pearl is, or what she did a long time ago,” Alijandra said. “She’s

my friend and I love her, and I’m not letting her go.”

         “It’s the right thing to do,” Daon Raul told her.

         “If she wanted to go, she could go any time,” Isabella said. “So maybe she doesn’t want

to.”

         Daon Raul shrugged. He looked over his shoulder and found the dragon peering out over

the lip of the box, staring at him. Then Pearl blinked and looked up at Alijandra.

         “Pearl asked me to tell you that she doesn’t remember anyone ever being on her island,”

Alijandra said, “so she doesn’t know who she could have hurt.”

         “Pearl didn’t ‘ask’ anything, Ali,” Isabella said. “Dragons don’t talk.”

         “She talks to me.”

         “How come you’ve never mentioned that before?” the older girl asked.

         “She just started,” Alijandra replied. “She says it took her a while to remember how to

talk.”

         “So Pearl can understand us?” Daon Raul asked. Alijandra nodded. “And she talks to

you?”

         “Couldn’t you hear her?” the little girl asked.

         “No,” Daon Raul replied. “I didn’t. And she speaks Ysparrian?”

         “She learned by listening to us,” Alijandra said. “She’s really smart. She’s talking right

now.”

         Daon Raul stopped Pretty Boy, cocked his ear. Is he just playing along, or is he really

trying to hear? Isabella wondered. We don’t have time to pretend up a bunch of nonsense.

         “No,” Daon Raul admitted, “I don’t hear her.”




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       “She just said she’s going to help us get Mama and Papa back from the governor,”

Alijandra said.

       “Ali, sto—” Isabella began, but Daon Raul held up his hand.

       “How is she going to do that?” the priest asked.

       “She’s going to make her,” Alijandra said, “like how she made Ahiga leave Papa alone.”

       “I see,” Daon Raul said, nodding slowly. He tugged Pretty Boy’s reins. “Well, then,

we’d better keep going.”




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                                Chapter 32: A Good Lie 

       When the world came back to the dragontamer, he found himself draped across a saddle,

feet dangling off one side of a running horse, arms dangling off the other. He tried lifting his

head and found that his face was somehow stuck to the saddle, as if it had been glued there. He

tugged—gently, because tugging hurt his face and his neck—and whatever it was crackled as it

came free. He lifted his head and peered down at the saddle and realized that what had stuck his

face there had been his own dried blood.

       Honest to good gods, he thought.

       Though it was night, white glimmers of light appeared at the edge of his vision, and the

world decided to tilt crazily and begin spinning. The dragontamer put his head back down on the

saddle and closed his eyes again.

       After a long time—how long, he didn’t know—he opened his eyes again. It was sunny,

and the horse was still running through the desert. The rope around his wrists squeezed like a

python: it hurt, and the prickly ends of the rope fibers scraped and chafed his skin. The rope was



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so tight that he wasn’t able to move or even feel his hands: they were two pieces of meat

flapping at the ends of his arms. Though he was only able to feel them, not see them, his feet

seemed to be stuck together, too. If they were tied together—which he assumed they were—at

least his boots had kept the rope from cutting off the blood to his feet.

       All around him was the pounding of other horses galloping. Slowly, so as not to provoke

the world into spinning again, he turned his head to the right. An Ysparrian cavalryman, his rifle

at the ready, riding behind him. The dragontamer slowly turned his head to the left and saw

three more riders in front of his horse.

       Juanita? he asked, but then he felt himself slipping back into the dark.

       When he came back, he found that he had been imprisoned, untied, by himself in a small

stone room, with a high ceiling and a barred window too high for him to reach. The sun was

coming through the window, and it was hot in the cell, but there was a jug of water and a ceramic

bowl of squash and beans.

       Just the act of eating spent him, so he slept for a while. When he woke, it was night

outside, and it was not long until Captain Altamirano and two guards came for him, and bound

his hands behind him, and brought him to the grand dining hall.

       Governor Edelmira Miguela Saavadra Guzmarr sat alone at the head of a long table with

potatoes, rice, and roasted javelina—wild desert hog—spread before her. “Here he is, Your

Excellency,” Altamirano said, and the two guards made the dragontamer stop beside the table.

“And here are some of his things,” Altamirano added, putting down the double-bladed Erisian

knife and the small, leather purse of Dhyuzmanii coins.

       “Where’s my wife?” the dragontamer demanded.




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       “She’s somewhere nearby, Mr. Anerson,” the governor replied. “And she’s still alive.”

She raised her glass and one of the four servants, all young native men wearing Ysparrian

uniforms, came and filled it with more wine from the decanter on the table. “That’s all you need

to know.”

       The governor sipped her wine, dabbed her chin with the napkin from her lap. Helped

herself to another mouthful of boar. “So,” Governor Guzmarr finally said, “you are the infamous

Thad Anerson, the renegade Erisian.”

       The dragontamer shook his head. “You have the wrong man, Governor. My name’s

Yakob Fhurdrickson. I’m a loyal citizen of the Empire. I’m just a prospector.”

       “A prospector?” the governor asked. She put down her fork and knife, took the

dragontamer’s double-bladed weapon from its sheath. Held it up. “And what is our prospector

carrying?”

       “It’s a standard-issue Erisian cavalry officer’s shadowknife, Your Excellency,” Captain

Altamirano replied. “Two triangular blades, side-by-side, to make very ugly wounds that are

very hard to heal. It can be used for other things, but really, it’s meant to kill people.”

       “Interesting,” the governor said, slowly turning the handle to examine the knife.

       “These are very hard to come across,” Captain Altamirano continued. “In Erisia, the

penalty for a non-officer to possess one is death. The Erisian Defenderate don’t want their

special toys to fall into the wrong hands.”

       “I purchased that knife lawfully in a market here in Esmargga,” the dragontamer replied.

       “But surely, another knife, a shorter, less cumbersome knife, would be better for

prospecting, don’t you think?” the governor asked. “No, I think you kept it when you deserted

the Erisian cavalry.”




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       “I’m not a deserter,” the dragontamer growled.

       “Mm,” the governor grunted, setting down the knife. She picked up the leather purse,

dribbled some coins onto the table. Frowned. “What are these?”

       “A few weeks ago, when I was out prospecting in the Great Mountains, I met an explorer

from Dhyuzman,” the dragontamer said. “He asked me about the terrain, and about the natives,

and the wildlife, and I told him what I know. He paid me for it.”

       “An explorer—or a spy?” the governor asked. “Relations between Dhyuzman and

Ysparria have not been friendly for many years. Surely you, as a good citizen of the Empire,

should know that.”

       “I didn’t tell him anything about Ysparria,” the dragontamer said. “I’m not a traitor, and

I’m not this dragontamer you’re looking for. My name’s Fhurdrickson.”

       “No,” Governor Guzmarr quietly insisted, tossing the purse onto the table. She picked up

her knife and fork, cut herself another piece of boar. Ate it. Speared another hunk of potato with

her fork. Ate that. “No,” she finally said, “you are Anerson, the dragontamer.”

       The dragontamer said nothing.

       “It’s been about six years since you fled Cuidad de Agustin,” the governor reminded him.

“Have you been out here—in the wilderness—all this time?”

       The dragontamer made no reply.

       “Answer Her Excellency, Anerson,” Captain Altamirano said, pronouncing the

dragontamer’s name as if it were an insult.

       He did not.

       “Mr. Anerson probably wonders why he should,” Governor Guzmarr said. “He probably

believes we are just going to shoot him regardless, so what would be the point in talking?”




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       “Where’s my wife?” the dragontamer demanded. “What have you done with her?”

       “I told you that already,” the governor said.

       “I want to see her,” the dragontamer growled.

       “Watch your tone, Erisian,” Captain Altamirano warned.

       “What you want is not any concern of mine, Mr. Anerson,” Governor Guzmarr said.

       “I’m not Anerson,” the dragontamer insisted.

       “You’re an Erisian man of middle age and slim build,” the governor reminded him.

“You have blue eyes and what’s left of your hair is light in color, and you’re carrying the

weapon of an Erisian cavalry officer. You are Anerson, and we all know it. You’re a clumsy

liar and an incompetent dragontamer, and I imagine you’re an awful husband and father.

Speaking of which, where are your children, Mr. Anerson?”

       “I’m not Anerson. And my children aren’t anywhere where you can get them.”

       “The natives have been hiding him on their land, Your Excellency,” Altamirano said. “It

would be dangerous to send any men to take them.”

       Governor Guzmarr shook her head. “Unfortunate.” She finished her meal, motioned for

the servants to take her plate. Waited while her glass was refilled. Sipped it.

       “Captain, your sidearm, please,” she finally said.

       “As you wish, Governor,” Captain Altamirano replied, keeping his eyes on the

dragontamer as he unholstered his pistol, gave it handle-first to the governor.

       What’s she up to? the dragontamer wondered.

       Governor Guzmarr opened the pistol, made sure it was loaded. Pointed it at the

dragontamer.




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       Hoi there, she’s gonna jut me out of my boots right here where I’m standing, the

dragontamer realized. Wai—

       “How do you do it?” Governor Guzmarr asked.

       “Do what? Your Excellency,” the dragontamer replied.

       “How do you tame the dragons?”

       Is that what…what… “You wouldn’t believe me,” the dragontamer managed to reply.

       “Tell me.”

       It’s all right. It’s all right. Tell her what she wants, boss. “Once I find one—and that’s

not easy,” the dragontamer began, “then I get close to it and sing.”

       “‘Sing?’” The governor cocked Altamirano’s pistol, kept it pointed at the dragontamer.

“Do you think that’s amusing, Mr. Anerson?”

       “I told you that you wouldn’t believe me.”

       “‘Sing,’” Governor Guzmarr said. “Some sort of song?”

       “Something like that,” the dragontamer replied. “The Diheneh taught me.”

       “A more creative answer than I would expect from a murderer.”

       “I’ve never murdered anyone,” the dragontamer whispered.

       “But thousands died at Cuidad de Agustin because of you,” the governor said. “Surely,

you concede that?”

       The dragontamer said nothing.

       “Yes, I see that you do, Mr. Anerson,” Governor Guzmarr replied. She uncocked the

pistol, gave it back to Captain Altamirano. Took another sip of wine.

       “So you survived and escaped,” the governor said, “and came here, with your family. It

must have been a hard life for them. I’m told that your girls were very young when you left




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Ysparria, but your wife remembers what it was like, of course. It’s not easy to give up court life

and come…here,” she said, waving her hand, “to the provinces.”

       The dragontamer said nothing.

       “Do you know why I am here, Mr. Anerson?”

       The dragontamer shook his head.

       “I am here,” the governor said, “because my predecessor, Governor Llorpa, was a very

corrupt man—which was known and tolerated for some time at court. Until, that is, Governor

Llorpa became very flagrant and began withholding money from what was due each year to the

Empire. So Llorpa was removed and I was sent here in his place.”

       So what? the dragontamer wondered.

       “One might think it is an honor to receive this position,” Governor Guzmarr said, shaking

her head. “No: it is not. My family has lived in Cuidad de Agustin since it was first built, Mr.

Anerson, back when Imbyrria was still the seat of the Empire. Being put here, at the edge of

civilization, is an insult—a deliberate insult—to me and to them.”

       Don’t ask what she or her precious family did to make the Emperor mad and get sent

here, boss, he told himself. It must have been good, though.

       “You, of course, could not possibly care less about that, Mr. Anerson,” Governor

Guzmarr said, “but I wanted you to know why I made such efforts—efforts Llorpa never made—

to have you captured.”

       “Some of them—your family—died when the dragon broke free?” the dragontamer

guessed.

       “Yes,” the governor replied. “But that’s not why.”

       “No?” the dragontamer asked.




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       Governor Guzmarr shook her head again. “There’s nothing I can do to you that will

change that. I can’t look back: I can only look ahead. No, I wanted you captured because the

Emperor is very ill. He will die soon, and he has no male heirs. Not since Prince Reinaldo

drowned.”

       The dragontamer shrugged. “So?”

       “Don’t speak that way to the Governor,” Captain Altamirano growled.

       “So, no one knows what will happen when he’s gone,” Governor Guzmarr said. “No one

knows who will take over. But before the Emperor dies, Mr. Anerson, he is going to learn that I

have you, and in his gratitude, he is going to grant my request and recall me to Cuidad de

Agustin. I will be given a more worthy position, and my family’s honor will be restored.”

       “I see,” the dragontamer said.

       “Do you?” the governor asked. “Because you will be coming with me, as will your wife

and Captain Altamirano. You and your wife, of course, will be executed. For his efforts in

capturing you, Captain Altamirano will have the honor of commanding the firing squad.”

       Juanita too? You gotta be kidding me, boss, the dragontamer thought. This can’t be

hap—

       “Take him back to his cell,” the governor said, “and send word to the Emperor that I have

the dragontamer.”

       The guards came forward to take him by the arms. Do something, boss. Anything. Yet

he did not struggle as the guards turned him and started frog-marching him out.

       “I’ve taken the liberty of already dispatching a messenger, Your Excellency,” Captain

Altamirano said.

       Think of something! the dragontamer told himself.




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         “Good,” Governor Guzmarr told Captain Altamirano. “We’ll leave after worship on

Sunday.”

         “Wait!” the dragontamer cried, straining in the guards’ grip. “For Our Mother’s love,

wait!”

         “Stop,” the governor commanded. The guards obeyed. Turned him around.

         Governor Guzmarr crossed the room in four long steps and leaned her girth into an open-

handed smack across the dragontamer’s face, hitting him so hard that one of his wounds re-

opened. Blood began to seep down his cheek as she leaned in close.

         “Don’t you dare speak Our Mother’s name, murderer,” she told him.

         “My wife’s a believer, like you,” the dragontamer said. “She’s a good woman. She’s

done nothing wrong. Let her go, or you’re coming with me to the Emptiness.”

         The governor shook her head. “She helped you escape,” the governor said, “and she

concealed you all these years. She’s an accessory, which makes her just as responsible as you

for what happened.”

         He shook his head. “No,” he insisted. “She’s didn’t want to go, even after what

happened, but I made her come with me.”

         “And how did you do that?” Captain Altamirano asked.

         The dragontamer said nothing.

         “Answer me,” Altamirano demanded.

         “I said I’d kill her if she tried to leave me,” the dragontamer said.

         “You’re lying to save her life,” the governor decided. “She helped you get away.”

         “She was no damned help,” the dragontamer said. “She’s soft and weak and she slowed

me down. Her and the girls.”




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       “So why did you take her with you?” Captain Altamirano asked.

       “Because she’s mine!” the dragontamer snarled. “The Emperor gave her to me as a

reward. I lost everything when that dragon broke control—everything but her. She’s all I had

left of any value.”

       “What do you mean, ‘of value?’” Altamirano demanded.

       The dragontamer said nothing.

       “Tell me what you meant by that,” Altamirano insisted.

       “You know what I mean,” the dragontamer replied. “She made enough for me to live on,

anyway.”

       Captain Altamirano spat on him. The dragontamer flinched as if struck.

       “Captain!” the governor snapped.

       Altamirano relented. Backed away. Straightened his uniform. “I’m sorry, Your

Excellency.”

       Governor Guzmarr stepped between him and the dragontamer. “You and she spent years

out here, Anerson,” she said. “Why didn’t your wife just run away?”

       “She tried, a few times,” the dragontamer replied. “But where could she go? There’s

nothing in Scorpion Tail. Esmargga was too far. And it was only worse for her every time she

tried. For her, and the girls.”

       “Did you beat her?” the governor asked, frowning.

       “I didn’t say that,” the dragontamer answered.

       “Did you beat her—her and the children?” the governor demanded.

       The dragontamer hung his head. A tendril of Altamirano’s spittle dripped off his nose.

“I’m not proud of what I’ve done.”




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         Governor Guzmarr’s eyes narrowed. “So why do you care what happens to her?” she

asked.

         “I don’t,” the dragontamer said, looking back at her. “I never have. But those girls—

they’re my seed. I won’t have them raised by savages, or taken in by your church and

mindtwisted into being priestesses.”

         “Don’t blaspheme,” the governor warned.

         “Let my wife go. Let her go back home and raise them,” the dragontamer said. “I don’t

deserve what I’m getting, but I guess it’ll have to do. But let my girls be. It’s what Our Mother

would want.”

         “I studied Our Mother’s law for twelve years before your dragon burned down my home

and killed half my family,” the governor said. “Don’t presume to tell me what Our Mother

would have me do.”

         “Your Excellency, I request that custody of the dragontamer’s wife be turned over to

me,” Captain Altamirano said. “If what he has said is true, then prison is no place for her.”

         “I’m not wholly convinced he’s telling the truth,” Governor Guzmarr insisted. “In case

he is, we’ll stay her execution, for now, and we’ll question her more about her involvement. But

she may not go free. Not yet, anyway.” She turned to the dragontamer. “If you give us no

trouble between now and when we leave, she’ll be better off. If not, then not.”

         The dragontamer looked at the floor.

         “I have an idea on where to keep her, Your Excellency,” Captain Altamirano said.

“Somewhere safe.”

         “Let’s discuss it in a moment,” Governor Guzmarr said. “Get him out of here,” she

ordered. “Half rations and no sun until we leave.”




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       Captain Altamirano saluted, turned. Accompanied the guards as they led the

dragontamer out, into the hall. Shut the dining hall doors behind them.

       Altamirano grabbed the dragontamer by the jaw, yanked his face up to his. “You don’t

deserve your wife and children,” the captain growled, “and they don’t deserve you.”

       The dragontamer said nothing.

       Altamirano let him go. “Take him to the Cave,” the captain said. He went back inside

the grand dining room.

       One of the guards nudged the dragontamer. He didn’t give them any trouble as they took

him down the hall and deep under the palace.

       The dragontamer fought to keep his face blank. Well done, boss, the he told himself.

You finally told a good lie. I think you’ve saved her.

       I’ll tell the world, he replied. Now, who’s going to save me?

       No one, he realized.

       Doesn’t matter, he decided.

       He finally let himself smile, just a little.




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                               Chapter 33: In the Evening 

        Isabella hitched up her skirt and waded up to her knees into the lake. The water was cold,

colder than before, but she didn’t say anything. She waded to the raft and climbed on, careful

not to tip it over or to fall back into the water.

        “Very good,” Mama said. “Is that everything?”

        “I think so,” Isabella said, sitting down.

        They pushed off, Jack and his travois, loaded with bags, in the center of the raft. Isabella

sat next to him, Alijandra on her lap. The little girl’s arms were wrapped around the crate where

they kept Pearl. To-Ho-Ne sat near the front and Mama stood in the back, slowly pushing the

raft with the long pole.

        “Which way do we go?” Isabella asked.

        “Straight across,” her mother said. “When we reach the other shore, we’ll get off and

turn north.”

        “Which way is north?” Alijandra asked.



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       “That way,” To-Ho-Ne said, pointing left. “If we went that way,” she said, pointing

right, “we would float out of the lake on a river, and then, to a bigger river. And then to the

ocean.”

       “And then where?” Alijandra asked.

       “If we kept going south,” their mother said, “we might wash up on the shores of

Ysparria.”

       “Let’s go that way!” Alijandra said. “I’ve never seen the ocean!”

       Mama smiled. “Our raft is too little for such a long trip; it’s only made for crossing the

lake. But maybe one day, you will see the ocean and sail on a real ship.”

       They poled along. As the sun climbed higher, the surface of the water shimmered.

       “Mama?”

       “Yes, Bella?”

       “May I push the raft? You must be tired.”

       “I’m not tired. But yes, you may try.”

       “May Ali try, too?” Isabella asked.

       “I don’t want to,” her sister replied. “Besides, I’m probably too little.”

       “That’s all right,” Mama said. “You and I will sit together while Bella takes a turn.”

       Alijandra slipped off her sister’s lap. Isabella cautiously rose to a crouch, then shuffled

to the rear of the raft. “Take this,” Mama said, handing her the pole. “Stand here. Spread your

feet like this. Bend your knees just a little—good. Now you won’t fall off.”

       “What do I do now?”

       Mama stood next to her and took the pole as well, putting her hands just above Isabella’s.

“Push straight down—move your body with it—the water’s not very deep, is it?”




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         “No, it’s not deep at all.”

         “The lake is wide but very shallow. Now lean forward on the pole—use your weight

more than your arms and you won’t get tired soon. Now pull the pole back up. Now push it

straight down again. Now lean on it again. Yes, you have it. Now, one more time together, and

then you can do it on your own.”

         “This is easy,” Isabella said, smiling.

         “Just keep us going that way,” Mama pointed. “The water will try to push you to the

right. Every so often, lean a little bit to the left to compensate.”

         Keeping one hand on the bags slung across the travois, Mama took one long step and

deftly settled next to Jack. She scooped Alijandra into her lap. “And how is your dragon?” she

asked.

         “Asleep, still.”

         Isabella poled along, every once in a while pushing the raft left to keep it drifting off

course. The sunlight gleaming on the water was too bright for her to look at, so she kept her eyes

on the slowly-approaching shore. After awhile, her arms began to ache, and

         Isabella?

         Someone calling her from a long way off. She turned, looked across the water, back they

way they had come. A small bump of brown at the edge of the world. Home, she thought. Our

house.

         “Isabella.” Louder now, insistent.

         Inside the crate, something rustled. Struggled. Mama and Alijandra paid it no mind.

Why would they?

         “Isabella, it’s time,” Daon Raul said.




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       She was struck by the queer and frightening feeling that she was suddenly splintering into

thousands and thousands of tiny pieces, each so small that they were falling through the weave of

the sleeping mat she was lying on, falling, falling among and past the grains of the dry, packed

dirt beneath that. She jerked herself awake and sat up.

       “Isabella, are you all right?” the priest whispered.

       It was dark—except for the campfire nearby—and cold, of course: the desert was often

cold at night, even now, with summer near. Daon Raul crouched beside her. Next to her,

Alijandra rolled her head and wheezed once, but did not awaken.

       Isabella sat up. “I had a strange dream,” she whispered. “About a lake—one I’ve never

seen. I was crossing it on a raft. And then—something else.” She looked around. The sky was

clear, and one of the moons—Little Brother, To-Ho-Ne always called it—was still climbing

behind the hills, the other moon having already gone down. “I’m sorry if I woke you up,”

Isabella told Daon Raul.

       He smiled. “You didn’t. I woke you up. And you need to wake up your sister,” he

added, rising to his feet. “It’s time to get going. Do you want something to eat?”

       She shook her head; stood up, a bit stiffly. The ground had been hard and bumpy, and no

matter how she had lay, something had seemed to poke her in the back or the side. She

wandered off, behind a bush. Pulled up her skirt. Squatted. Passed water. Finished. Came

back. Bent down over Alijandra.

       “Ali, wake up,” she said, softly shaking her sister.

       hgrtn, Alijandra murmured, but didn’t move. Pearl—curled against the little girl’s belly

like a cat or a small dog—opened her eyes and lifted her head.

       Iiiirrt? the dragon chirped.




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        Daon Raul came back, leading Pretty Boy. They stopped beside the girls. “We have a

few hours before dawn,” he said, “and then a few hours after that until it gets too hot, and then—

well, what’s this?”

        He squatted down by Alijandra’s feet, plucked at something. Stood back up, held what

he had found by the tail. A sandy brown scorpion, fat—twice as wide as her big toe—and angry,

bending backwards, pincers scissoring, body wriggling as it tried to reach Daon Raul.

        “Ugly thing,” Isabella said.

        “It knows it’s ugly, but it’s not ashamed,” Daon Raul replied. “When I was a boy, we

used to catch them and play with them. A big one like this, it’s not that dangerous,” he said. “If

it stung me, my arm might swell up. The little ones, though—they’re the ones you need to be

mindful of. They’ll kill you.”

        “What is it?” Alijandra asked, sitting up and rubbing her face. “I want to see.”

        “Let’s let him go and stop scaring him,” Daon Raul said, walking over to an agave. He

stooped, dropped the scorpion a few inches above the ground, jumped back. It scuttled off under

the plant.

        Isabella was still tired. They had found some shade in a small grove of pine trees

yesterday afternoon and despite the heat, she had immediately fallen sleep. Daon Raul had

awakened her just before sunset, but having not slept at all the night before, when the priest had

come and told them about their parents, she had been exhausted. She had ridden on Pretty Boy’s

back, arms around her sister, her head bobbing every once in a while, until Daon Raul had called

another halt and set up camp here on a pass in the Burial Hills, where the Diheneh were sure not

to follow them.




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       Alijandra got up, went to some bushes not far from where Isabella had gone. Passed

water. Came back. By that time, Isabella had rolled up the sleeping mats and put them back in

the yucca string bag she carried. She took out some cornbread, offered it to Alijandra and Daon

Raul. The little girl shook her head.

       “Did we bring an egg for Pearl?” she asked, scooping up the dragon and perching her on

her shoulder.

       “No,” Isabella said, handing Alijandra Pearl’s metal crate. “I didn’t think to bring any

food for her.”

       “Maybe she’d like some cornbread,” Alijandra said. Waited a moment. “No, she says

she doesn’t. She says she’s not hungry.”

       “Does Pearl talk to you all the time?” Daon Raul asked, picking up the little girl and the

dragon and putting them on Pretty Boy’s saddle.

       “No, only sometimes,” Alijandra said. “She says she’s still learning our language, so she

doesn’t want to say anything that would make her look foolish. And it’s hard for her to talk to

me. She only learned how a little while ago.”

       I don’t think she talks at all, Isabella grumbled. I think you just make all that up. “Why

doesn’t Pearl talk to us?” she asked.

       “She’s says she’s trying to, but it’s not easy,” Alijandra replied.

       “What does that mean?” Daon Raul asked.

       “I don’t know,” Alijandra admitted. “That’s just what she told me right now. She says,

one day, she’ll be able to talk to Bella, and maybe to you, Daon.” She paused. “She’s sorry she

burned you, but you scared her.”

       “I forgive you, Pearl,” Daon Raul said, smiling a little.




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         Why does he play along with her? Isabella asked. All she’s trying to do is get attention.

She shouldered her bag. “We need to go.”

         “Yes, we do,” Daon Raul agreed. He lit a lantern from his bag and, holding it aloft, led

them along the pass. It was narrow and wound its way among stony crags and pinnacles that

were black now but would become deep orange and red in the day. The dusty, crumbling hills

echoed with the hoppers’ zeep zeep zeep. The pass went down and up and down again, wending

this way and that, the wind sometimes whispering quietly along beside them, sometimes not.

Alijandra took Pearl into her lap and stroked her as the horse plodded along. Little Brother,

swollen and white, slowly climbed higher, turning the pass from inky black to silvery gray.

         A single, yelping bark split the air, and then was no more. Alijandra clutched Pearl to her

as the dragon raised her head, eyes narrowed. “Monsters,” the little girl hissed.

         “No monsters,” Daon Raul assured her. “Only a fox. Very close, I think.”

         “Where?” Alijandra asked, looking around. “I don’t see it.”

         “Not that close,” Daon Raul chuckled. “But even if it were, it would be hard to find.

They’re good at hiding.”

         “To-Ho-Ne says they eat children,” Isabella said, smirking as her sister’s eyes widened

again.

         “Only big ones,” Daon Raul said, poking Isabella’s arm as if inspecting a choice cut of

meat. “The little ones are too bony.” Alijandra giggled.

         Pearl scowled, and though they kept on going and did not hear the fox bark any more, it

was a long time before the dragon rested her head again in Alijandra’s lap.



                                                  #




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       The day grew hot, and Daon Raul, the girls, and Pretty Boy were sweating. For a long

time, the peaks shaded them from the sun, but as she rose to the top of the sky, there was no

escape. They rounded a turn at the base of a large hill and there was a little stream flowing from

the rocks.

       They went to the stream and Daon Raul got Alijandra down from the horse’s back. “I

usually stop here,” he said, taking off his hat and wiping his head. Isabella stood by Pretty Boy,

holding his reins, as he drank and drank and drank. All of them drank, too, and filled their water

baskets.

       “Here you are, girl,” Alijandra said, lowering Pearl into the stream. It was very

shallow—just over the dragon’s belly—and warm from the sun, but Pearl settled herself into it,

her long neck holding her head a few inches above the surface.

       Daon Raul looked about. “There’s a cave over there,” he said, pointing to a hole a few

yards away in the side of the hill they had just gone around. “It will be a lot cooler inside.”

       “No,” Alijandra said, shaking her head. “To-Ho-Ne said never to go in caves.”

       “I’m sure it’s fine,” Isabella said. Maybe it will have pictures like the cave near our

house, she thought. And then she thought of To-Ho-Ne and Jack. I hope they’re all right. I hope

nothing’s happened to them.

       “I don’t want to go in there,” Alijandra said. “There might be things in there.”

       “I always camp in that cave when I come through here,” Daon Raul reassured her.

“There aren’t any snakes or bats.”

       Isabella was tying Pretty Boy’s reins to a short, scrawny, green-barked tree beside the

stream. She shook her head. “Ali’s worried about…you know.”




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          “Oh,” Daon Raul said. He squatted down in front of the little girl. “There aren’t any

dead people in there, either,” he said.

          “Are you sure?” Alijandra asked.

          He nodded. “I’m sure. It’s not a very big cave. It only goes a few feet back, just enough

to give you shade or keep you dry if it rains. That’s why the Diheneh never used it.”

          “What about monsters?” Alijandra asked.

          “There aren’t any such thing as monsters, Ali,” Isabella said.

          “Well maybe, maybe not,” Daon Raul said. “I don’t know if there aren’t any such thing

as monsters: I’ve never seen one. But I do know that there are no monsters in that cave.”

          Alijandra stared at the mouth of the cave.

          “We’ll go together,” Daon Raul said, holding out his hand. “Bella will come, too. And

bring Pearl. You’ll see. It’s safe.”

          Alijandra nodded and took Daon Raul’s rough hand. He smiled and stood up. Pearl

trotted out of the stream and padded after her, dripping water over the tiny smooth stones along

the pass, leaving vanishing pawprints behind her.

          The cave was cool and dry, and not quite tall enough for Daon Raul: he had to stoop to

come inside. It was wide, and only went back two, perhaps three yards. It had no holes where

snakes or bats or monsters could lurk. The girls spread out their sleeping mats and lay down,

Pearl cool and moist between them. Daon Raul sat and took his pipe and smoked for a bit, and

that made Isabella think of Papa. I wonder if he’s all right, she thought. I hope they aren’t mean

to him.

          It occurred to her that Papa was certainly not all right, that his jailers were undoubtedly

cruel to him—if he was still alive. She wondered about Mama, and what was happening to her.




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She wept quietly, holding herself as she shook, not wanting to wake her sister or let Daon Raul

know. And it was a long time before she could sleep.



                                                 #



       In the evening, they rose again and packed their things and set out. They walked for a

few hours, the sun slipping down behind them. They came down out of the hills along a path

that Daon Raul said the Diheneh used when they brought their dead to bury.

       They came to the end of the path as the dark was flowing like a tide over the land.

Waiting for them there, just outside the hills, was someone on a horse.

       “Back! Get back!” Daon Raul hissed at the girls, as he yanked at Pretty Boy’s reins.

       It was already too late: the horseman had seen them. He kicked the sides of his mount,

and the horse briskly trotted forward, up the path.

       “Haala ahaneeh. Ya’at’eeh, Raul,” the horseman said.

       “It’s Ahiga,” Daon Raul said, pulling Pretty Boy to a stop. Pearl, sitting in Alijandra’s

lap, scowled. Isabella slipped her hand into her apron pocket, took the grip of the pistol and held

the weapon there, still hidden.

       Ahiga spoke again. “He says he knew we would be here,” Daon Raul translated.

       “Tell him to go away,” Alijandra said, “or Pearl will hurt him.”

       His horse still trotting forward, Ahiga continued speaking before Daon Raul could say

anything. “‘You have Anerson’s girls with you,’” Daon Raul translated. “‘You’re going to

Esmargga to try to see their parents. That’s a bad idea.’”




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           “Why?” Isabella asked. “Why does he say that?” Only a few yards away, Ahiga halted

his horse, dismounted. A slim Ysparrian pistol and a long knife were tucked into his belt.

Across his back was the black gyro-jet rifle that their father had given him many years before.

Isabella glanced at their own rifle, hanging from Pretty Boy’s saddle, and kept her hold on the

pistol in her apron pocket.

           Daon Raul asked. Listened to Ahiga’s answer. “He says there’s no reason to go to

Esmargga. The Ysparrians don’t keep prisoners long—he’s lost a few men to them in squabbles

over the years. The governor has probably already ordered your father shot or hanged.”

           “Is that true?” Isabella asked.

           Daon Raul nodded. “It could be.”

           “Is it?” Alijandra asked.

           “I don’t know,” Daon Raul said. “He’s probably right.”

           “He isn’t,” Alijandra said, shaking her head. “Papa’s fine.”

           “What about Mama?” Isabella asked. “Ask him about her.”

           Daon Raul did. “He says if the governor was a man, he probably wouldn’t hurt her. But

the governor is a woman, and he doesn’t know what she might do.” Daon Raul paused, listened

as Ahiga continued. “He thinks your mother is probably dead, too.”

           “Is what he’s saying about Mama true?” Isabella asked.

           “It’s very unusual for an Ysparrian woman to be executed,” Daon Raul said. “But your

father’s situation is very unusual.”

           “Mama didn’t do anything,” Isabella said, “and Papa didn’t mean for anyone to be

killed.”




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       “What do you mean?” Alijandra asked. “What are you talking about? Papa’s never

killed anyone.”

       “I’ll tell you later,” Isabella said. “Daon, ask him why he isn’t trying to help Papa. They

have dragons—they could make the governor let Papa go. Or go where he is and get him. Ask

him that.”

       Daon Raul did. “He says that if he and the other dragontamers went to Esmargga, it

would be war between the Diheneh and Ysparria. The nations have been at peace for many

years. The elders will not agree to war for your father’s sake.”

       “I thought you were Papa’s friend!” Isabella replied.

       Daon Raul translated. “He says he’s still your father’s friend—that’s why he’s come to

find you and Ali. Come back with him and you two can live with him and his wife. You’ll be

like you were his own children. You’ll be safe, you’ll be fed, and he’ll teach you the Diheneh

ways. When you’re grown, you can decide to leave or stay.” Daon Raul paused, listening. “He

wonders, if you don’t come with him, where will you go? What will happen to you?”

       “I don’t want to live with him,” Alijandra said, shaking her head. “I want Mama and

Papa and To-Ho-Ne. I want them. I want them….” She bowed her head, weeping. Pearl craned

her neck, began licking her face.

       “He’s lying about everything,” Isabella said. “Papa’s not dead,” she insisted, not taking

her eyes off Ahiga. “Mama’s not dead, either: they wouldn’t kill her. You said so yourself. He

just wants Pearl.”

       Daon Raul told Ahiga what Isabella had said. Listened to his reply. “He says, yes, he

does want Pearl. If he had Pearl, he could make the desert green, and none of his people would

have to ever go hungry or thirsty. He asks if that is a bad thing?”




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       “No,” Isabella admitted.

       Ahiga spoke again. “He says he doesn’t think that’s a bad thing, either, and that he

would take good care of Pearl, like he does with Brother Tunneler and the other dragons he’s

tamed.”

       “Pearl doesn’t want to be tamed,” Alijandra insisted.

       Ahiga chuckled as he replied. “He says, looking at Pearl sitting on your lap, that you’ve

done a fine job of it already,” Daon Raul translated. “Better than your father: remember when

Pearl made it rain on him?”

       “Don’t laugh about Papa,” Isabella said.

       Daon Raul told Ahiga, listened to his reply. “He says he’s not trying to make fun of your

father. The two of them were friends for a long time, and he’s sorry he lost his temper the other

day. He wishes he could take back some of the things he said.”

       “You kicked Jack,” Alijandra grumbled.

       “Ahiga says that he wants to do one last thing for his old friend. He doesn’t want to see

anything bad happen to his friend’s children. He says that if you go to Esmargga and tell people

who you are—the dragontamer’s daughters—they’ll take you, too. And if they don’t kill you,

too, they’ll split you two up and send you far away. You’ll never see each other, or To-Ho-Ne,

or your home, ever again.”

       “Daon Raul, that’s not so, is it?” Alijandra asked, wiping her face.

       Daon Raul nodded. “In Ysparria, orphans are usually turned over to the church, to be

trained as priests and priestesses. Sometimes, the churches don’t have space for two. Sometimes

it’s just better that they be sent away from each other. It’s…hard to explain why. But it

happens.”




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        “I don’t want to go away from Bella!” Alijandra sobbed. “I don’t want to go! Bella, let’s

go home. Let’s just go home!”

        “We are not going home,” Isabella growled, blinking back her own tears, her hand—still

inside her apron pocket—steady on the pistol’s grip. I will not cry I will not cry I will not cry.

“We are going to Esmargga and we are going to get Mama and Papa back and Pearl’s going to

help us.”

        “Bella,” Daon Raul said, “Esmargga is a long ways off, still, and Ahiga…Ahiga’s

probably right about a lot of things.” He took off his hat, wiped the sweat from his head, put his

hat back on. “If you don’t want to live with Ahiga, you can stay with me and Shadi. We can

take you in, for a little while, at least.”

        “You have too many children as it is,” Isabella told him. Then said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t

mean it in a bad way.”

        “It’s all right,” the priest replied, smiling a little. “You didn’t hurt my feelings.”

        “Can’t we just go home and stay with To-Ho-Ne?” Alijandra asked.

        At the old woman’s name, Ahiga spoke again. Daon Raul answered, listened to the

warrior’s reply, re-told what he said. “If you go back to your parents’ home and stay with To-

Ho-Ne, Ahiga will make sure you’re safe and provided for. Your father gave him a little

money—you can have it back, and he’ll give you some sheep, too.”

        “We have money,” Isabella said. “Daon Raul gave us some. But we’re not going home.

And we’re not giving you Pearl. You can’t make us.”

        “I want to go ho—” Alijandra said.

        “I heard you the first time, Ali,” Isabella snapped. “Be quiet!”

        “Bella, no one wants to make you do anything,” Daon Raul said.




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        “You tell him what I said,” Isabella insisted. “And tell him to get out of our way.” She

took the pistol out of her pocket. “You tell him that right now.”

        “Bella,” Daon Raul began, watching the pistol, “calm dow—”

        “I’m not going to calm down,” she growled, stepping back a few paces and cocking the

pistol, the way Mama had taught her. Pretty Boy jerked his head, whinnied.

        “What are you doing?” Alijandra demanded. “Stop it!”

        Daon Raul jerked back, hands in the air. Ahiga didn’t move, but kept his hands at his

sides. Pearl watched both men.

        “Bella,” Daon Raul whispered. “Bella, please. There’s no need for this. Please.”

        Isabella panted, her feet feeling like they were pointed in the wrong direction. The pistol

trembled. She cupped her other hand around her grip, the pistol in front of her, still pointed

down. Never, never point it at anyone or anything you don’t want dead, she remembered Mama

telling her.

        I won’t, she thought, not yet. But if he won’t let us go…

        Slowly, Ahiga took his horse’s reins. Slowly, gently, guided him to the edge of the path,

making room for them to go by. Spoke again, quietly.

        “He says,” Daon Raul translated, “that if, after you go to Esmargga, you can come back

to Dihenehtah, if you want to.”

        Ahiga said something else.

        “And he hopes he is wrong about your parents.”

        Isabella uncocked the pistol. Put in back in her apron pocket. “Thank you,” she

murmured.

        Daon Raul put his hands down.




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        “After we get Mama and Papa, we’ll come back,” Isabella said. “Thank you for

understanding, Ahiga.”

        Daon Raul told him. Ahiga nodded.

        “Are you all right?” Daon Raul asked Alijandra.

        “I think so,” she said, wiping her face. “Yes.”

        “Shall we go?” Daon Raul asked, taking Pretty Boy’s reins again.

        “Let’s go,” Isabella replied.

        Daon Raul led Pretty Boy, with Alijandra and Pearl on the horse’s back, down the pass,

and into the dark.



                                                 #



        The door to the dragontamer’s house opened, and the dragon killer let himself in.

        It was late, and the kerosene lamp on the table burned low. Jack jumped to his feet

barking and snarling; To-Ho-Ne jerked awake from her sleeping mat. White light began to play

about the dragon killer’s fingers and Jack, whimpering, retreated under the table, tail between his

legs.

        “Take what you want!” To-Ho-Ne said, struggling to rise to her feet. “Don’t hurt me!

I’m only an old woman!”

        “I don’t want you,” the dragon killer said. “Why would I? I want Anerson.”

        “There’s no ‘Anerson’ who lives here,” To-Ho-Ne said. Her hip would not let her get up,

so she began inching backwards. “Just me, and my daughter, and her children.”




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        “Anerson—he lives here,” the dragon killer said, looking around. “This place has his

aura all over it. I see it everywhere, on everything he’s touched, like the table, and the chairs,

and that trunk,” he said, pointing here and there. “You don’t see it?”

        To-Ho-Ne shook her head. “I don’t know what you mean.”

        “Little puddles of light, from his soul,” the dragon killer said. “All over the place, like

raindrops. His wife’s, too, and his daughters’, and yours, and the dog’s, and…from something

else. Some other animal—I think.”

        To-Ho-Ne’s eyes widened and her breath shortened. “You’re not a bounty hunter.

You’re a witch person.”

        “No,” he said, shaking his head, “though I’ve killed some of them, and dragons, too.

Lots of dragons. So I wouldn’t mind at all killing an old woman and a dog, and maybe a

princess and some little girls, too—which I’ll do if you don’t tell me where I can find Anerson. I

wasn’t finished with him.”

        “He’s not here,” To-Ho-Ne said, reaching the wall, leaning against it. Her hip was

throbbing but she paid it no mind. Jack whined and flattened himself under the table. “Soldiers

took him to Esmargga. The governor is going to execute him.”

        “Well, I can’t have that,” the dragon killer said. “He’s the only friend I have, after all.”

        And then there was a burst of white light and Jack howled and To-Ho-Ne closed her eyes

and thought of her father and mother and sisters and brother, whom she was about to meet again.

And when she opened her eyes, the little house was dark, save for the kerosene lamp, and Jack

was still under the table, shaking with fear, and the dragon killer was gone, vanished into the

dark.




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                                 Chapter 34: Esmargga 

        “Kassimyen,” the foreign man in the dirty, tattered clothes said. “My name is

Kassimyen. These men work for me.” He checked again the scrap of faded, wrinkled onionskin

paper where he had drawn a crude map. “Is this not Scorpion Tail?”

        The gate guard looked at Kassimyen and his ragged porters—seven tall, gangly, bronze-

skinned Dhyuzmanii men—with the mixture of pity and revulsion that one might wear watching

an overturned roach straining to right itself.

        “Where are you from?” the guard asked.

        “We’re from Dhyuzman,” Kassimyen answered, “where I learned your language. I am

explorer. We’ve had a long journey across the mountains and the desert—we were attacked by

aboriginals—and we need supplies. A man I met told me about the town Scorpion Tail, but this

isn’t it, say you?”

        “No,” the guard said. “This is Esmargga. And the toll to come through the gate is a

centavo for each of you.”



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        “I don’t have any of your money,” Kassimyen said, fishing into a pocket with a grimy

finger, “but I have this.” He showed the guard a coin like the ones he had given the

dragontamer. “You’ll take that, won’t you? That will be all fine, won’t it?”

        The guard took the Dhyuzmanii coin, turned it over in his fingers. Frowned. Showed it

to his comrade.

        “Why are we waiting?” someone in the vast line behind them bellowed.

        “It is always hot like this?” Kassimyen asked, taking off his hat and fanning himself.

        “We can’t take this,” the guard said, giving Kassimyen the coin. “Only Ysparrian.”

        “This is worth a lot,” Kassimyen replied, showing it to the guard again. “Look: gold and

silver. Very valuable. One coin would more than pay for all of us,” he added, indicating his

men.

        The guard shook his head. “We can’t take that.”

        “I don’t have any of your money,” Kassimyen protested. “What am I supposed to do?”

        The guard shrugged.

        “Is there—what do you say?—a moneychanger near?” Kassimyen asked. “Where I can

turn in my money and get Ysparrian money?”

        “There’s a usurer through the gates,” the guard said, “but you can’t come in until you pay

the toll.”

        “How can I get to the money changed if I can’t pay to go through the gate?” Kassimyen

demanded.

        “Move!” someone shouted.




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       “Your problem isn’t mine,” the guard said, “and you’re going to have to get out of the

way.” Already, the other guard was herding people around Kassimyen and sending them to the

toll collectors behind the guards.

       “Will anyone trade money with me?” Kassimyen said, holding up his coin and turning to

the people in line behind him.

       One hundred and forty seven people back, out of sight, Daon Raul and the girls stood

with Pretty Boy in the hot late-morning sun. “Why are there all these people here?” Isabella

asked. “Why are they all lined up?”

       “They’re waiting to go through the gate into town,” Daon Raul replied. “Esmargga’s

very old—a few hundred years—and when it was built, they put that wall around it,” he said,

pointing to the squat, tan stone ring running right and left in front of them. “It was to keep the

Diheneh out—this used to be Diheneh land. At least, that’s what Shadi says.”

       “The Ysparrians took this land?” Alijandra asked. She was sitting atop Pretty Boy, Pearl

grumbling and circling on her shoulder, like a small angry dog looking for a place to settle.

       “That’s not right,” Isabella said.

       “I didn’t say it was,” Daon Raul told her.

       “What happened to her hand?” Alijandra asked. “Your wife, I mean.”

       “Ali, that’s not po—” Isabella began.

       “It’s all right,” Daon Raul said. “She was born that way, Ali. Sometimes, that just

happens to people. Only Our Mother knows why.”

       “It’s been a long time since Mama brought us here,” Isabella said. “Ali, you were just

little. But I don’t remember there being this many people.”




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          A fly hummed past Pearl and the dragon hissed, snapped, caught it in her jaws, crumpling

it. Spat it out. It fell to the ground beside Pretty Boy and spun circles in the dust, twitching,

buzzing, dying.

          “Stop it!” Isabella snarled at Pearl, wagging her finger. “Ali, I’m tired of your little

monster doing that!”

          “She’s not a monster!” Alijandra said. “She’s just upset.”

          “Girls…” Daon Raul said.

          “She’s been like that since last night,” Isabella continued. “Make her stop!”

          “Girls, please…”

          “How can I make her stop?” Alijandra demanded.

          “Well, doesn’t she talk to you?” Isabella mocked her, “so that only you can hear?

Because she does—”

          “Will you shut up?” the man standing in front of them in line asked, putting down his

sack and turning around. “It’s too damned hot to listen to yo—Oh,” he said, taking off his hat.

“My apologies, Daon,” he said, noticing the priest’s bronze sun-pendant.

          “That’s all right,” Daon Raul said. “But the man is quite right: it’s too hot to argue.”

          Both girls scowled but said nothing. Pearl whined rrrrrrrrrrrrrtttt.

          “What is that?” the man asked, putting his hat back on.

          “Her name’s Pearl,” Alijandra said, suddenly beaming again. “She’s my dragon.” She

tried to pluck Pearl off her shoulder, but the little dragon shrank away from her hands, growling

softly.

          “I’ve never seen a dragon before,” the stranger said. “I thought they were much bigger,

and had wings, and breathe fire.”




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       “Well, this one doesn’t,” Isabella snapped.

       “Don’t be rude, Bella,” Daon Raul said. “I’m Daon Raul Santias de Charas, and these

two are Isabella and Alijandra.”

       “I’m Jose Luis Ruiaz Neira,” the man said, taking off his hat again and bowing. “I’m a

farmer. I live an hour or so that way,” he said, pointing behind them and to the left. “I have

wrenberries to sell,” he mentioned, putting his hat back on and picking up his sack. “Would you

like to try some? They’re very good.”

       “Yes, please,” Daon Raul said, and the man opened his bag. Daon Raul helped himself to

three of the small, dark berries. Isabella took five, gave two to her sister.

       “They’re bitter,” Isabella said. “And chewy.”

       “Yes, they’re supposed to be,” the farmer said.

       “I like them,” Alijandra said. She was holding one of the berries between her fingers,

offering it to Pearl, but the little dragon turned her head away. She tried again. Pearl balked

again. Alijandra shrugged and popped the berry into her mouth.

       “Would you like to buy some?” the farmer asked.

       “Go on!” the man behind Daon Raul and the girls ordered, pointing. “Look! Move up!”

       The farmer picked up his bag and shuffled a yard or two forward, put down his bag again.

       “No, thank you,” Daon Raul told him. “They’re very good, but we have to save our

money.”

       “What are you here for?” the farmer asked. “If you don’t mind, Daon.”

       “The girls’ parents are here—a business visit that’s taken them away for a while,” Daon

Raul replied. “I took it upon myself to bring their daughters here to see them.”

       That’s not completely a lie, Isabella told herself.




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       “Where did you find that?” the farmer asked, pointing at Pearl.

       “I found her after a big storm,” Alijandra said. “She was hurt. She had been fighting

another dragon, a big one.”

       “Uh,” the farmer said, tipping his head back and peering at Pearl.

       He doesn’t believe her, Isabella thought. Anyway, Ali shouldn’t talk about Pearl: it just

draws attention to us.

       “Why have you come to Esmargga, Senor Ruiaz?” she asked, making herself smile.

       “To sell my berries, of course,” he said, grinning, “and also to see the dragontamer die.”

       Isabella glanced sharply at Alijandra, but the little girl said nothing. Pearl climbed down

from Alijandra’s shoulder and squirmed in her lap, muttering. “The dragontamer?” Daon Raul

asked. “The one on all the wanted posters?”

       “Yes,” the farmer replied. “He’s finally been caught.”

       “I hope they hang him in the town square, so all of us can see,” said the man behind Daon

Raul and girls. He was a big man, dressed like Senor Ruiaz; Isabella wondered if he, too, was a

farmer. “That’s why I came. I walked two days to get here.”

       “Two days, just to see an outlaw be executed?” Daon Raul asked.

       “The dragontamer’s not just any outlaw,” the man replied. “I haven’t forgotten what he

did. No one else has, either,” he said, indicating the long line of people. “I’ll wager that most of

them are here to see the governor execute him.”

       “But he di—” Alijandra began.

       “Quiet, Ali,” Isabella warned her. Don’t say anything, she thought, glowering at her

sister. Not a thing.




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        “I’ve heard that what happened was an accident,” Daon Raul said, glancing at the girls.

“After all, the dragontamer served the Emperor well for many years.”

        “It was his fault,” Senor Ruiaz insisted.

        “I heard it took years to rebuild the capital,” added the man in line behind Daon Raul and

the girls. Pearl peered around Alijandra’s hip and hissed at him.

        “What is that?” he demanded.

        “She’s a dragon,” Alijandra said. “And she doesn’t like you.”

        “Looks like a big lizard to me,” the man said. “Probably poisonous. You let your sister

keep pets like that?” he asked Isabella.

        Before the older girl could answer, someone further back shouted, “Move up! Move up!”

and the man turned and bellowed “Shut your smelly hole!” and then they all moved forward a

few more paces. After that, Daon Raul and the girls didn’t talk to anyone until, a while later,

they got to the gate.

        Just outside the gate, off the road, was a row of fresh graves, with wooden boards for

markers. Painted on each was a name—they were all men—and either “BANDIT” or “THIEF”

or “MURDERER” or something else. Isabella read each one. Her father’s name was not among

them.

        “The new governor has kept her soldiers very busy,” Daon Raul said, pointing to the

graves. And then they were at the head of the line. Officials had been summoned and, off to one

side, Kassimyen was arguing with them, his men standing around, tired and numb. Foreigners,

she thought. I wonder where they’re from. And then the gate guard was speaking to them.




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       “Three centavos for the horse, and three centavos for you,” the guard—the same one who

had spurned Kassimyen—said.

       “I thought there was no charge for a daon,” the priest told him, showing him his pendant.

“And the little one on the horse is only five—surely, you would not charge toll for her?”

       “New charges, governor’s orders,” the guard said. “Everyone must pay now, even daons

and little girls, but the toll has gone down. It used to be two centavos a man and five for horses.”

       “Under Llorpa, you mean,” Daon Raul said. The guard nodded. “The thing is,” Daon

Raul continued, “I’m a bit po—”

       “I can pay,” Isabella said, taking the paper money from her apron pocket. She peeled off

a one-reale note, walked past the guard. Gave it to the man sitting at the table behind the guard.

Collected her change and pocketed it. Daon Raul followed, leading Pretty Boy.

       “I’m not five,” Alijandra reminded him. “I’m seven, and in a few months, I’ll be eight.”

       “I was trying to save us some money,” Daon Raul said.

       “Mama says we shouldn’t lie,” Alijandra said. “It’s wrong.”

       “Is it wrong to keep a few centavos out of the hands of the woman who might kill your

parents?” Daon Raul asked. He turned to Isabella as he kept walking. “That’s a lot of money

you’re carrying: don’t be so free to show it. Lots of people were watching you when you took it

out of your pocket.”

       “Yes, Daon Raul,” Isabella said. She put her hand inside her pocket, wrapped it around

the bills. “Where do we go now?”

       “To the mission,” Daon Raul said. “Daon Edgardo should be there. We can have some

food, and maybe he will have some room for us. And we can stable Pretty Boy there,” he said,

patting the horse’s neck. “He’s had a long walk—we all have. We could use some rest.” He




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looked around for a moment. “Your mother and father are probably in the palace, which is in the

center of town.”

        “A castle, like in your picture book,” Alijandra told her sister.

        “Never mind about the book,” Isabella snapped. She turned to Daon Raul. “Are you sure

it will be all right to go to the mission first?”

        “We can’t stop!” Alijandra insisted. “We have to save Mama and Papa! We have Pearl:

let’s go get them out of there.”

        “I don’t know what you’ve read in stories, but in real life, things don’t work that way,”

Daon Raul said. “We’ll go to the mission, we’ll rest, I’ll have someone go to the palace and tell

the governor that you’re here to talk about your parents—and that you have a dragon. That will

get her attention.”

        “Will Mama and Papa be all right until then?” Isabella asked.

        “Apparently, a lot of people know that the governor is holding your father,” Daon Raul

said. “I guess the governor wants it that way, to make a big scene. So I think that if she was

going to execute your parents anytime soon, everyone in town would know when and where it

would happen. I’ll ask Daon Edgardo, just to be sure.”

        “And the governor won’t come get us?” Alijandra asked.

        “We’ll be inside the mission, on sacred ground,” Daon Raul told them. “The governor is

a religious woman: she’s not going to offend Our Mother by trying to drag two girls out of one

of Her churches.”

        They kept walking. Though it was about noon, the narrow, winding roads—some of

them made of brick—were dim, shaded by hundreds of tall houses and shops, the higher stories

of some extending out over the streets. It was even hotter here than out in the sun: there was no




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breeze, and the people crowded together like schools of fish. The air was thick with the stench

of human sweat, pack-animal filth, and ash from wood fires for metal working or cooking food.

It was noisy: wagons being hauled and orders barked; women bargaining in stores and children

shouting; men bellowing from shops and from blankets, laden with baskets and pots of goods, set

up on corners and between buildings, calling for someone, anyone, to look at what they were

selling. And under it all was the restless tramping of many feet and the constant murmur of

thousands.

       Pearl growled and flicked her tail back and forth.

       “It’s all right,” Alijandra said, stroking Pearl’s back. “It’s all right. Why are you so

upset lately?” The little girl cocked her head. Listened. “She won’t say,” she told the others.

Alijandra’s stroking seemed to mollify the dragon. “I still don’t see why we can’t just go to the

castle now.”

       “They won’t just let us in,” Isabella replied.

       “Pearl can make them let us in,” Alijandra said.

       “Someone could get hurt—or killed,” Isabella said.

       “I don’t care if the people there at the castle get hurt,” Alijandra told her.

       “It could be you or me or Daon Raul or even Pearl,” Isabella said. “Do you want that?”

       “No,” Alijandra said, shaking her head. “I just want Mama and Papa.”

       “I do, too,” Isabella said. “We all do. Right now, we just need to be patient and do what

Daon Raul says.”

       A little while later, they came to the mission. Like the town, it had a low stone wall

around it. It was bigger than Isabella remembered it: a low, square chapel with a tall bell tower

at each corner, and several smaller buildings nearby. Soldiers with rifles ready stood at each




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entrance to the mission. As Daon Raul and the girls approached, two of them stepped forward.

Pearl narrowed her eyes at them.

          “The mission is closed until further notice,” one of them said.

          “On whose authority?” Daon Raul asked.

          “Captain Juan Martin Cortes Altamirano, of the Governor’s Regiment,” the soldier

replied. “No one can go in or leave for the rest of the week.”

          “Why?” Daon Raul asked.

          “I’m not at liberty to say,” the soldier replied.

          “I’m Daon Raul,” the priest said, showing them his pendant. “These girls are with me,

and we’ve come a long way. We need a place to rest and eat and stable our horse.”

          “I’m sorry, Daon, but our or—”

          “You’re going to let us in, or I’ll have your names to Daon Edgardo, the pastor, for

Censure. Would you like that?”

          The soldiers looked at each other. “No, Daon,” the first said.

          “No, Daon,” the other agreed.

          “I’ll make sure you won’t have any trouble,” Daon Raul assured them. “I know Captain

Altamirano.”

          “We’d be grateful, Daon,” the first one said. The soldiers stepped aside.

          “Thank you,” Daon Raul said, leading Pretty Boy by the reins again. “Come along,

girls.”

          “Why are they keeping people out of here?” Isabella asked. “You said the governor was

faithful.”




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         “She is; at least, she seemed to be when I met her,” Daon Raul said. “I don’t know

what’s going on.”

         They went to the stable and turned over Pretty Boy to the young boys that tended the

mission’s horses. As the boys started to fill a trough with water and bring hay and remove Pretty

Boy’s bridle and bags, Daon Raul took the rifle off the horse and helped Alijandra down from its

back. Alijandra carried Pearl as they walked to the chapel, where the stained-glass windows and

the wide, rounded wooden doors were open to let out the heat of the day.

         When they first stepped inside, it was almost too dark to see, because their eyes had been

used to the bright sun outside. After a moment, they saw that another daon, in robes, was sitting

in the front pew, talking with a woman.

         “Mama!” Alijandra exclaimed, dropping Pearl. Snarling, the little dragon fell to the

floor, but Alijandra paid her no heed. She ran to Mama, who stood and engulfed her in her arms.

         “Mama!” Isabella called, sparing a glance at Daon Raul before she, too, ran to her

mother’s embrace.

         “You—you girls,” Mama said, holding them. “My girls—my girls! What are you doing

here?”

         “Daon Raul brought us!” Alijandra said. “He told us what happened! We came for you,

Mama! We came to save you!”

         “We’ve walked for days,” Isabella said, holding her mother. I will not cry. I will not cry.

“I’m so glad to see you. We thought you were in prison, or dead.”

         “I was in prison,” Mama said. “This morning, they brought me here.”

         “Mama, they hurt you,” Alijandra said, gingerly touching the bruises on the side of her

mother’s face.




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       “I tried to stop them when they were arresting your Papa,” Mama said. “I fell, and hurt

myself. But it’s not bad anymore.”

       Iiiiiiiirt? Pearl whimpered, her nails going tkk tkk tkk tkk over the stone floor as she crept

to Alijandra. Alijandra held out her arm and Pearl climbed up it. “We brought Pearl,” Alijandra

said. “She’ll make them give us Papa back.”

       Isabella glanced over at Daon Raul, saw he was talking quietly with the other priest.

“How is Papa?” she asked. “Have you seen him?”

       “No,” Mama said. “They took him and I haven’t seen him since. The captain who

arrested us—the one you girls were talking to when they put up the wanted posters in town—he

told me that Papa confessed to everything.”

       “‘Confessed?’” Alijandra asked. “What does that mean?”

       “He told the soldiers he did all the bad things they say he did,” Mama explained.

       “Papa didn’t do any bad things!” Alijandra said.

       “When you were a baby, one of Papa’s dragons hurt a lot of people,” Isabella said. “Papa

got blamed for that.”

       “It wasn’t his fault!” Alijandra insisted. “It was the dragon that did it, not Papa.”

       “It doesn’t matter,” Isabella said.

       “To-Ho-Ne told you?” Mama asked. Isabella nodded. “How is she?”

       “She’s all right, I suppose,” Isabella said. “We left her at home with Jack. Why are you

here and not in prison?”

       “The captain—Altamirano is his name—he knows that I used to be nobility. He said that

prison was no place for a lady, so they brought me here, on condition that I can’t leave.”

       “We saw the soldiers,” Isabella said. “Daon Raul made them let us in.”




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        “Thank you, Daon,” Mama said, as the two priests walked towards them. “Thank you for

bringing me my girls.”

        “You’re very welcome,” Daon Raul said. He gave the gyrojet rifle to Isabella. “Keep

this safe,” he told her.

        “I will,” she said.

        “Isabella, Alijandra,” Daon Raul said, “this is Daon Edgardo. He’s in charge here.”

        “Girls,” Daon Edgardo said.

        “Hello, Daon Edgardo,” Isabella said.

        “Hello,” Alijandra said. “This is Pearl,” she said, holding up the little dragon.

        “The one you told me about?” Daon Edgardo asked Daon Raul. The other priest nodded.

        “She’s my friend,” Alijandra said.

        “You two look like very good friends,” Daon Edgardo said.

        “We’ll tell the governor that we have a dragon,” Isabella told Mama. “We’ll tell her to

let Papa go. She’ll listen to us.”

        Mama shook her head. “Tomorrow, they’re taking us away, to Cuidad de Agustin.

Papa—they’re—they’re not going to let Papa go, ever. And I don’t think they’ll let me go,

either. So tomorrow, you need to be gone before they come here. You need to go home and stay

with To-Ho-Ne.”

        “Pearl says she won’t let them take you, Mama,” Alijandra said.

        “And Pearl talks to you now?” Mama asked, smiling a little. Alijandra nodded. “And

why would Pearl do anything for me?”

        “Because she’s my friend,” Alijandra said, “and because you were good to her when she

was hurt. I know you and Bella don’t believe me, but Pearl does talk. You just can’t hear her.”




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She cocked her head towards the dragon. “Not yet, she says. You can’t hear her yet, but she’s

trying to talk to you, too.”

        “You’ve been travelling a long way,” Daon Edgardo said, “and you must be tired. I’ll

show you to some rooms, and I’ll have some food and drink brought to you. You’ll probably

want some sleep and a bath—”

        “A bath first,” Isabella insisted, “and then some sleep.”

        “All right,” Daon Edgardo said, smiling. “I’ll have someone take word to the palace that

you wish to speak with Governor Guzmarr.”

        “Thank you,” Mama said. “We’d like a room together, the girls and I.” She kissed the

top of Alijandra’s head. Smiled. “You are filthy, my little bear. A bath first for you, too, and

then a nap for all of us. I haven’t slept much the last few days.”

        “I’m staying until…well, until what happens, happens,” Daon Raul said.

        “Thank you, Daon,” Mama said. “Again.”

        “Yes,” Isabella added. “Thank you.”

        “You’re welcome, both of you, again,” he said.

        “You’re going to get a bath, too,” Alijandra told Pearl. “Maybe you’ll feel better and

won’t be so grouchy.”

        Pearl paid the little girl no mind.



                                                 #



        “It’s this way,” Daon Raul said, holding a lantern and going first.




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        Carrying Pearl close against her, Alijandra crept carefully down the narrow stone steps.

Here in the crypt beneath the chapel, it was always dark; outside, it was late afternoon, and the

burning sun was sinking in the sky. Alijandra had wakened before Mama and Isabella.

Scooping up Pearl, who had been sleeping beside her, she had quietly come out into the nave,

where she had found Daon Raul dozing on a pew.

        She had woken him and asked him to show her something, something he had told her and

Isabella the other day. He had gotten the keys from Daon Edgardo and led her down here.

        “Through here,” Daon Raul said, coming to the door at the bottom of the stairs. He took

a key, fumbled with the lock. Tried another key. Another. Still another. Grimaced as he

strained, with his still-tender hand, to turn it. It did, finally, with a loud dapp!

        He pushed open the door. He had expected a smell, but there was none.

        “Are those…bodies?” Alijandra asked, looking along the edges of the round room as she

followed him in.

        “Yes, they are,” he said. “Don’t look at them.” He crossed the room, held up the lamp,

shined its light against the tiled wall. “Here.”

        The mosaic of the king, on his throne, holding the green dragon. Alijandra crept closer to

it. Put a hand on it. “It looks like you, dear heart,” she told Pearl.

        The dragon glanced at the image, looked away. Bent her head and started licking

something between the toes of a back paw.

        “Is it you?” Alijandra asked. “Or was that your mother? Or some other dragon?”

        The dragon kept cleaning herself.

        “Why aren’t you saying anything?” Alijandra asked.




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       “That man was Rodrigo the Dragontamer,” Daon Raul said. “At least, that’s what Daon

Edgardo tells me. He says that Rodrigo was the last king of Imbyrria, where our people come

from. And this,” he added, pointing to the image of the green dragon, “this was his dragon.

Only her name wasn’t Pearl then. They called her the Typhoon Dragon.”

       “What’s a typhoon?” Alijandra asked.

       “A storm from the sea,” Daon Raul said. “A very big one, like the one that killed my

grandfather when I was a little boy.” Daon Raul nodded at Pearl. “Like the one that destroyed

Imbyrria. The one,” he said, tapping the image of the green dragon, “that I think she made.”

       “Pearl wouldn’t hurt anyone,” Alijandra said, shaking her head.

       Daon Raul held out his palms. “Pearl wouldn’t hurt you,” he said.

       The dragon lifted her head, regarded the image. Looked at Alijandra.

       “She says now that we’re here, she remembers a little,” Alijandra told him. “She says the

king was bad. He tried to make her do bad things. He thought she belonged to him, but she says

she doesn’t belong to anyone.”

       Alijandra listened.

       “She says she’s not sorry.”

       “I see,” Daon Raul said, nodding. He crouched next to them. “Ali, when Pearl talks to

you, do you hear her in your ears, or inside your head?”

       “In my head,” the little girl replied.

       “And when she tells you things, does she talk, or do you talk for her?”

       “She talks.”

       “And what does she sound like? Like a girl? A grown woman? Someone else?”

       “You’re like Bella. You think I’m just pretending.”




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       “I don’t think that,” Daon Raul said. “I just want to know how you can hear Pearl.”

       Alijandra looked at the dragon. Looked back at the priest. “Pearl says that she thinks

you’re lying again, like you lied to Mama about the uncle, and at the gate, when you said how

old I am.”

       “Everyone has faults,” Daon Raul admitted, “but I’m not lying. I don’t think you’re

pretending.” Pearl looked at him. “Ali, what does Pearl sound like when she talks?”

       “She doesn’t sound like a person,” Alijandra said. “She sounds like….” Pondered it.

Shrugged. “I don’t know.”

       Pearl growled, deep in her throat. Shook herself.

       “Ali, will Pearl tell you why she’s upset lately?”

       Nothing for a moment. Then:

       “She says she has to go soon,” Alijandra said. “She says she’s remembering more and

more every day. She can’t stay much longer, or it will be too late, and he’ll stop waiting for her

and go away and not help her. But she doesn’t want to go until everything’s all right with Papa

and Mama and Bella and me, because we’re friends.” She started to weep.

       “Go where, Ali?” Daon Raul asked. “Remember what? Why will it be too late? Who’s

‘he’—who’s waiting for her?” He set the lantern down, reached out for the little girl’s shoulders.

       Pearl snapped at him, hissing, squirming in Alijandra’s arms. She dropped the little

dragon and Pearl landed on her feet as Daon Raul leapt to his, backing away.

       “It’s all right,” he told the dragon. “It’s all right. I’d never hurt Ali,” he said, holding up

his hands. “I’m her friend, too.”

       Alijandra crossed her arms, held herself. “I don’t want you to go, Pearl. Please, don’t.

Don’t leave.”




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        Pearl sat on her haunches, front legs dangling by her breast. Alijandra crouched, scooped

her up, held the little dragon tight.

        “I don’t want you to go,” Alijandra sobbed. “I don’t want you to go.”

        “Ali, where is Pearl going?”

        “East. She just says east of here. She doesn’t kno—”

        Alijandra stopped crying. Stared into Pearl’s pure white eyes.

        “Ali?” Daon Raul asked.

        “She says we have to go outside. There’s something she wants everyone to see.

Something she’s done.”

        Daon Raul went first, carrying the lantern; Alijandra followed, carrying Pearl. When

they got upstairs, back to the chapel, Mama and Isabella and Daon Edgardo were standing in one

of the open doorways, looking out.

        Thick, fat flakes of snow, so many that it was hard to see the wall around the mission,

were pouring from the hot desert sky.




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                          Chapter 35: Governor Guzmarr 

       It had snowed all night. Morning had come, and still the snow poured from the sky. It

was past Alijandra’s waist, and showed no signs of stopping. The chapel was filled with

hundreds of people, huddled in blankets and sleeping on pews and the floor, who had come

during the night, seeking shelter. The soldiers guarding the mission, who had retreated inside

against the snow, had offered no resistance. Daons Edgardo and Raul and the Diheneh acolytes

had set up braziers of coal around the chapel to help keep it warm.

       Mama and the girls and Pearl had slept together in a little room off the chapel, and though

their blankets had been thin and there was no brazier for them, they were warm. Alijandra had

said that it was Pearl’s doing.

       In the morning, as Mama and the girls had come out of their room and into the chapel,

two acolytes were fighting to hold the door open against the swirling wind as Captain

Altamirano trudged inside, snow spilling from his hat and shoulders. His face was red, his

moustache tipped in ice. As the acolytes pushed the door shut, he shook himself, stamped his



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boots, scattered more snow onto the wet stone floor. Some of the multitude looked up when he

came in; most ignored him.

       “Daon Edgardo,” Captain Altamirano said, bowing to the priest. “Daon Raul. Ladies,”

he added, nodding to Mama and Isabella. His breath made small, fleeting clouds in the cold air.

       “Captain,” Daon Edgardo said. Alijandra climbed onto the sill of one of the windows

and held Pearl on her lap. They looked out, into the snow.

       “I’ve come with a response to your message, from the governor,” Altamirano said. “She

wants to see the girls—and the dragon—now. I’m to take them to the palace.”

       “Now? Through the snow?” Daon Raul asked. He had bathed and Daon Edgardo had

loaned him a clean yellow robe.

       Captain Altamirano nodded. “Without delay. It’s not far from here to the palace. Wrap

them in blankets—they’ll be all right.”

       “No,” Mama said. “They’re staying here. They’re not going anywhere with you.”

       “It’s the governor’s order,” Altamirano told her.

       “The governor has no authority here,” Mama reminded him. “Only Our Mother and

Daon Edgardo.”

       “You have my word that they will not be harmed,” Captain Altamirano replied.

       “I don’t give a damn about your word,” Mama snapped. “Go back to the governor and

tell her to come here.”

       “She was very clear—” Captain Altamirano began.

       “I said, you tell her tha—”




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         “Mrs. Anerson—Juanita,” Daon Raul said, putting a hand on her arm. “This doesn’t help

you or Thad. It’ll be all right. I’ll come too, to ensure their safety. Nothing will happen to

them.”

         “The governor is a faithful believer,” Daon Edgardo told her.

         “It’ll be all right, Mama,” Isabella said. “We’ll have Pearl,” she added, glancing over.

Alijandra sat with Pearl in a window nearby, watching the snow come down. “You know she

won’t let anything bad happen to us.”

         She nodded, took Isabella’s hands. “All right, Bella, we’ll go.”

         “Only your daughters, Mrs. Anerson,” Captain Altamirano said. “You’re to remain

here.”

         “Why?” Mama demanded. “Why is that?”

         “I’m not at liberty to say,” Altamirano said.

         “‘Not at liberty to say,’” Mama sneered. “What is that supposed to mean?”

         “It means what I said,” he replied. “Only the girls and the dragon.”

         “And Daon Raul,” Isabella insisted.

         “And Daon Raul, of course,” Captain Altamirano added.

         “No,” Mama said. “I’m coming, too.”

         “No,” Captain Altamirano said, “you are not.”

         “Ali and I will go, Mama,” Isabella said. “We’ll speak to the governor.”

         “You’re children,” Mama said.

         “I’ll be thirteen soon,” Isabella reminded her. “That’s almost a grown woman.”

         “Bella, you’re—” Mama began. Then she stopped. Looked at her daughter, the priests,

the captain. At Alijandra.




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       “All right,” Mama decided. “All right.”

       “We’ll need a few minutes,” Isabella said to Captain Altamirano. She kissed Mama on

the cheek, went to Alijandra. Bent and whispered something to her. The little girl nodded, came

down from the window, holding Pearl. Went with Isabella into the room where they were

staying.

       Daon Edgardo called over the two acolytes. “Make the girls’ horse ready, and get one for

Daon Raul as well.” They nodded, opened the door with some difficulty, and went out into the

snow, shutting the door behind them.

       “Was that the dragon?” Captain Altamirano asked, pointing to where Alijandra had gone.

       “Yes,” Daon Raul said. “You were expecting it to be bigger, weren’t you?”

       “I didn’t know what to expect,” Captain Altamirano replied. “Is it something your

husband tamed, Mrs. Anerson?”

       “No,” Mama said. “Alijandra found her.”

       “‘Her?’” Captain Altamirano asked. “The dragon is female?”

       “Alijandra thinks so,” Mama said.

       Captain Altamirano went to the window where Alijandra and Pearl had been sitting.

“The message you sent to Governor Guzmarr said that the dragon was very powerful,” he said.

“And this?” he said, nodding at the swirling snow outside. “Your dragon’s work?”

       “Alijandra says so,” Mama replied.

       “The dragon speaks to the little girl,” Daon Raul added, “and this, what you see outside,

this is only part of what Pearl can do.”

       “‘Pearl,’” Captain Altamirano said. “Is that what you call it?”

       “That’s what Ali calls her,” Mama said.




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        They stood and watched the snow fall and listened the wind whistle and howl outside.

After a while, the girls came back into the chapel, Alijandra carrying Pearl inside her metal crate.

The girls had changed clothes. Isabella was wearing the green dress trimmed in lace that Papa

had bought for her at the trading post in Scorpion Tail. “I brought this,” Isabella said, “to see the

governor. It’s a little long, but it will have to do.”

        “It looks beautiful on you,” Mama said. “And you look grown in it.”

        “I don’t have anything fancy,” Alijandra said, putting down the crate and pulling on the

sides of her dress, “so I put on what you washed for me, Mama, before…before you and Papa

came here. I hope it will be good enough to see the governor.”

        “It will be grand,” Mama said, “but let’s give you something to go with it.” She tugged

at her wrist, took off the thin bracelet with the two tiny pearls. Put it on Alijandra.

        “Aren’t you afraid I’ll break it again?” the little girl asked.

        “No,” Mama said.

        “But your Papa gave you this.”

        “Yes, and now I’m giving it to you. Two little pearls, one for me, one for my sister,

Lupe. And now that it’s yours, the two little pearls stand for you and Bella.”

        “Bella’s not little, Mama,” Alijandra said.

        “And you’re not so little, either,” Mama replied. “Now go talk to the governor. I’ll wait

here for you.”

        Alijandra wrapped her arms around her mother’s waist. Mama kissed the top of her head.

Straightened. Nodded to Isabella.

        “Let’s go show her Pearl,” the older girl said.




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                                                     #



          They went outside and the acolytes helped them onto Pretty Boy’s back and wrapped

them with blankets to keep out the cold and then the snow suddenly stopped. One moment, it

was falling fast and hard, like the rain that had caught them the night their sheep has run off; the

next, it was no more. Inside her box, Pearl twitched her tail and turned circles and growled

softly.

          They rode, Captain Altamirano first, on his mount; then the girls on Pretty Boy; then

Daon Raul on one of the mission’s horses, then two cavalrymen—Isabella thought she

recognized them from that day in Scorpion Tail, when they had put up the wanted posters. The

snow was deep, up to the horses’ knees; they trudged along slowly, without complaint. The

wind had etched swirls atop the snow, blown it into looming drifts, spattered it against doors and

shuttered windows. The city was silent, save for the fupp of the horses’ hooves sinking into the

snow and the breath snorting from their dark, wet nostrils, each almost as big as Alijandra’s fist.

Every now and then, a haunted face would peer out from a window to watch them go by, then

slip back into the shadows within. Other than that, they saw no one else.

          “It’s a lot different from yesterday,” Isabella said.

          “Some of the people I spoke to back at the church thought it was the end of the world,”

Daon Raul said. “I told them it was no such thing, only a freak storm, something they could tell

their grandchildren about, years from now.”

          “You didn’t tell them it was Pearl?” Alijandra asked.

          “That wouldn’t have helped them,” Daon Raul said, smiling a little.




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       “I understand,” Isabella said. She let her hand slide into one of the pockets of the gown

and made sure that the pistol her mother had given her was still there.

       They went on, along narrow, winding streets. Roofs on several of the houses and shops

had fallen in under the weight of the snow. Wagons were little more than rounded mounds, with

the top of their wheel rims sticking out above the snow. Glistening, transparent daggers hung

from eaves.

       No snow fell, but the sky was still grey, and, indeed, was darkening, the clouds slowly

swirling together overhead.

       “What are you doing?” Alijandra whispered into the box. None of the grown-ups heard

her. Pearl paid her no mind.

       “How much snow do you think there is?” Isabella asked.

       “I don’t know,” Daon Raul replied.

       “How can there be so much of it?” she asked. “Where did it all come from?”

       “There’s snow on top of the Sacred Mountains all year round,” Daon Raul said. “Maybe

Pearl brought it from there, or maybe from somewhere else, farther away.” He considered it for

a moment, then, “Captain!” he called.

       Altamirano turned in his saddle. “What have your men told you about how much snow is

there outside Esmargga?” Daon Raul asked. “How far out does it go?”

       “I’m not at liberty to say,” Captain Altamirano said, turning around again.

       “A mile? Two miles? Ten? A hundred?” Daon Raul asked. “Surely, there’s no harm in

telling a priest about the weather. The governor can’t fault you for that.”




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           Captain Altamirano said nothing for a moment. Then, “About a hundred feet. A hundred

feet or so outside the city gates, and then it stops. No snow past that.”

           Like when Pearl drenched Papa with the rain, Isabella thought. Just that little circle, and

nothing outside it. Only now it’s a much bigger circle—and it’s snow, maybe from the Edge of

the Earth, where the Dread One lives and it’s always cold.

           “And do you think,” Daon Raul asked, “that there’s no snow past there because the

dragon can’t make more, or because she didn’t want to?” He smiled again. “I think it’s the

latter.”

           Altamirano looked back. “We’re not going to talk about it.”

           He’s scared, Isabella realized. She looked over her shoulder, at the two cavalrymen

riding behind them. They had the same expression as some of the people she had left behind at

the chapel. They’re scared, too. She looked at Daon Raul. He knows they are, and he thinks it’s

funny. She smiled a little, herself.

           None of them said anything for awhile. Overhead, the cinereous clouds churned with

low, growling moans. Every now and then, the sky rumbled, faintly. The cavalrymen kept

looking up, warily, as if waiting for something to come.

           After a while, they came to the center of town, and the palace.

           A black iron fence topped with spear points circled it. The building itself was squat and

made of dark grey stone: it was not a grand, majestic castle with soaring towers, like Isabella had

been expecting from the drawings in her new picture book. As they approached, a soldier,

hunched in a striped Diheneh blanket, came out of the gate house just inside, saluted the captain,

and opened the gate for them. Then they rode to the front door. It opened, and more soldiers

came out and helped them down and took their horses away, to a stable, Isabella supposed.




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        “I hope Pretty Boy will be warm,” Isabella said.

        Alijandra held the box with Pearl tight against her chest and said nothing.

        Inside, just past the door, was a large, empty foyer, with halls going further in and stairs

going up and down. The foyer was bare grey stone, not the marble of the Emperor’s Palace—

where her mother had met the dragontamer—and certainly not the gold-leaf decorated halls from

her storybook. It was not beautiful, it was not ugly: curiously, that saddened Isabella. It’s not

what I thought it would be, she told herself. It’s so ordinary. She looked down at her dress. I

wore my best dress—my grown-up dress—for this ordinary place. I’m a fool.

        The soldiers who had ridden with them took the blankets that Daon Raul and the girls had

worn and stayed in the foyer while Captain Altamirano led Isabella and Alijandra and the priest

upstairs, to the third, top floor. They went down a long hall with many doors, most of them

sensibly shut. It was cold, and the hall was dim. As they passed one open door, Isabella glanced

inside to see the pointed face of a small man with spectacles hunched over some papers on his

desk. And in that instant as she passed his cramped office, he looked up and she quickly looked

away, and then they had come to a door the end of the hall, where two soldiers with rifles stood

at attention.

        One of them opened the door and announced, “Captain Altamirano, Your Excellency,

and company.”

        “Send them in,” a woman said, and the captain led them into a large office whose walls

were lined with shelves of books and scrolls. There were two large couches and four high-

backed chairs around a low, narrow table at one end of the room; then a longer, taller table and

many chairs along one wall. At the end of the room, before a large window, was a massive desk,




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almost as long and wide as a wagon, with many messy stacks of papers on it, as well as a large

brass handbell. Sitting behind the desk was the governor.

       She reminds me of Mrs. Cornejo, Isabella thought. Not as old, but just as fat and…mean.

She looks mean. Isabella fought to keep from scowling. She better not have been mean to Papa.

       “Her Excellency, Governor Edelmira Miguela Guzmarr Saavadra,” Captain Altamirano

said. Daon Raul bowed. The girls curtsied the way Mama had taught them.

       “And so these are the dragontamer’s daughters,” the governor said, looking up from the

papers she had been writing. “And you—” she added, standing as she saw the priest, “Daon

Edgardo didn’t give me your whole name, but it’s Daon Raul, isn’t it? We met at Dama

Ismaella’s funeral.”

       “Daon Raul Santias de Charas,” he said, bowing. “And these are indeed Mr. Anerson’s

daughters.”

       “Isabella Adelia Anerson Nunez,” the older girl introduced herself, curtsying again.

Though she didn’t know why, it felt good to use her real, full name.

       “I’m Alijandra Guadalupe Anerson Nunez,” her sister said. She held out the battered

Erisian crate. “And in here is Pearl, our dragon. She’s small.”

       “My orders were that only the girls and the dragon be brought to me,” Governor Guzmarr

said to Captain Altamirano.

       “They’re under my ward,” Daon Raul said, “in Our Mother’s name.”

       “I see,” Governor Guzmarr replied, coming out from behind her desk. “There’s no need

for that, of course. The girls have asked for a meeting, and when we are finished, they are free to

go. If you like, you may wait—”




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       “I prefer to remain here, with the girls,” Daon Raul insisted.

       “Of course,” Governor Guzmarr said. “That is your right as a priest. Please, let’s sit

down and be comfortable,” she suggested, indicating the couches and chairs at the other end of

the room. Isabella settled into a chair. Alijandra took a place on the couch, Daon Raul next to

her.

       “No doubt, you want to see your father,” Governor Guzmarr said, sitting down in a chair

next to Isabella’s. Captain Altamirano stood behind the governor. “He’s already on his way up

here. You are, of course, aware of the charges against your father and the order that was issued

many years ago for his arrest. As the newly-appointed governor to this province, it is my duty to

enforce the Emperor’s laws. Please believe me when I tell you that it does not give me any

pleasure or comfort to take a father, a mother—or both—away from their children.”

       “Governor, we know what happened at Cuidad de Agustin,” Isabella said, “but that was a

long time ago, and I’m sure he’s very sorry for it. Please let him go.”

       “And Mama, too,” Alijandra reminded them.

       “It’s not as easy as being sorry,” Governor Guzmarr said.

       “We know that, Governor,” Isabella said, “so we—”

       “So you brought along the dragon,” Governor Guzmarr finished for her. “And why was

that, Miss Anerson?”

       “We were hoping that once you saw our dragon, you’d change your mind about letting

Papa go.”

       “And why would I do that?” the governor asked.

       “Pearl—our dragon—she’s…she’s very…” Isabella began. “She can do all sorts of

things. Like the snow. She did that. She made it snow.”




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         “I didn’t think it coincidence that it snowed here in Esmargga, for the first time ever, I’m

told,” Governor Guzmarr said, “on the same day that I received word that you’ve come, with a

dragon, to see me. Did you tell her to make it snow?”

         “No, ma’am,” Alijandra said. “She just did it.”

         “But why would your dragon do such a thing?” Governor Guzmarr asked. “To impress

me?”

         Alijandra nodded. “Yes, ma’am. That’s what she just told me.”

         “The dragon talks?” Governor Guzmarr asked.

         “Only to me,” Alijandra said.

         “No doubt,” the governor replied.

         “Your Excellency,” Daon Raul said, “I have very strong reasons to believe that what

Alijandra says about the dragon is true.”

         “Well, why don’t we open the box and let’s see your dragon?” Governor Guzmarr asked.

Captain Altamirano bent to whisper something to her, but she waved him away.

         Alijandra pried the lid off the box, gently reached inside. “Be good,” she whispered,

taking Pearl out and putting the dragon on her lap. Daon Raul took the box from her. “Be

good.”

         Pearl looked around, scowling. Governor Guzmarr leaned closer and the dragon hissed,

but the governor was not fazed. “It’s all right,” Alijandra told Pearl, stroking her back. “No one

will hurt you.”

         “A beautiful creature,” Governor Guzmarr said. “Her color: it’s not one shade, but a very

subtle gradient,” she said, admiring Pearl. “Have you ever noticed?”




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       Both girls shook their heads.

       “It goes from light to dark as her scales run from her belly to her back,” the governor

said, “and from her head to her tail. Where did you find her?”

       “She was hurt,” Alijandra said. “She’d been fighting another dragon. I took care of her.”

She held Pearl tight. “We’re friends.”

       “And what sort of dragon is she?” Governor Guzmarr asked.

       “She’s the Typhoon Dragon,” Daon Raul said. “The dragon that killed King Rodrigo and

destroyed Imbyrria.”

       Isabella expected Alijandra to protest, but the little girl said nothing. She merely held

Pearl tight against her.

       Governor Guzmarr’s face did not change. “Imbyrria’s Drowning is just an old story,”

Captain Altamirano said.

       “But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true,” Daon Raul replied.

       “Nevertheless,” the governor said, “it’s an extraordinary claim. How do you know this?”

       “It would take too much of your time to explain,” Daon Raul answered, “but I know I’m

right. Look outside, at the snow. If Pearl can do that, here, at this time of year, do you think

there’s any limit to what she can do?”

       Isabella glanced at the window. The sky was dark, as if it were going to rain.

       Governor Guzmarr leaned back in her chair. Considered. Turned back to Alijandra.

       “And she understands what you say?” Governor Guzmarr asked.

       Alijandra nodded.

       There was a rap at the door. “The prisoner is here, Your Excellency,” someone said.

Everyone stood up.




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       Captain Altamirano went to the door, opened it. Two soldiers came in, the

dragontamer—chained at the ankles and wrists—between them. “Papa!” the girls exclaimed,

bounding from their seats, Alijandra leaving Pearl on the couch. Governor Guzmarr nodded, and

the soldiers stepped aside as the dragontamer squatted and swept his daughters into his arms.

       “Papa! We’re so glad you’re all right!” Isabella said.

       “Papa! Papa!” Alijandra squealed, her arms around his neck.

       “Hoi there, it’s my girls!” he said, holding them tightly against him. “My girls. My

girls.” He rocked back and forth, then loosened his arms and stood, blinking and tipping his

head back as he fought with his tears. “What are you doing here?” he asked. He looked around.

“Where’s Mama?”

       Isabella pulled back for a moment, looked at his bruised and scabbed face. “They’ve hurt

you,” Isabella said. She glanced at the governor, who was coolly watching them. Ali should

make Pearl cook you right where you’re sitting, she thought. Burn you and this stupid ugly

place down.

       “It’s…” Papa began. “It’s not important. Do you know anything about Mama?”

       “Mama’s all right: she’s at the mission,” Isabella said. “She’s not allowed to leave, but

Daon Edgardo is looking after her.” Isabella glared at Governor Guzmarr; then, “Come on,

Papa, we’re going home,” she said. She turned to the guards. “Unchain him.”

       “Our discussion is not over, girls,” Governor Guzmarr said. “Please, sit again.”

       “No,” Isabella said. “We’re leaving.”

       “Bella,” Daon Raul said, “let the governor say what she has to say.”

       “I don’t want to hear what anyone has to say,” Isabella snapped.




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       “Just let Papa go!” Alijandra added.

       “Girls, it’s all right,” Papa said. “The governor’s brought me up from my cell for a

reason. Let’s hear why.”

       I don’t care why, I just want to get you out of here and go home, Isabella fumed. But she

said, “All right, Papa. Because you want to.” Isabella glanced over at Alijandra, then at Pearl,

who was regarding the governor warily.

       “Captain, you and your men are excused,” Governor Guzmarr said. “Please wait at the

end of the hall. Daon Raul, please go with them. I would like to speak to the dragontamer and

his daughters privately; surely, now that their father is here, you need not worry about them?”

       Daon Raul glanced at Isabella and Alijandra. The older girl nodded. “I’ll be at the end of

the hall if you need me.” He moved to follow Captain Altamirano and the soldiers.

       “Wait,” Isabella said. Everyone stopped. “They have to take Papa’s chains off, first.”

       “No,” Altamirano said.

       “Captain, please unshackle Mr. Anerson,” Governor Guzmarr said.

       “Your Excellency, he’s dangerous,” Captain Altamirano replied.

       “Little Alijandra is holding the creature that destroyed an empire and killed thousands,

Captain,” Governor Guzmarr said. “If the dragontamer and his daughters meant us harm, we

could hardly be in any more danger than we already are, wouldn’t you agree?”

       Altamirano considered. Motioned for his men to unchain the dragontamer. Once they

finished, the guards left the room, followed by the captain and the priest.




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       “Well, let’s sit again,” Governor Guzmarr said, and Papa and the girls did, on the couch,

Papa in the middle. “I must congratulate you, Mr. Anerson: your daughters are very brave and

very resourceful, to have come here and necessitated this meeting.”

       “They take after their mother,” he said.

       “They obviously love you a great deal,” the governor said. “You’re not nearly the ogre

you painted yourself as in our prior conversation, are you?”

       “No, Your Excellency,” he admitted.

       “Papa’s always been kind to us,” Isabella said. “He’s a good man, Governor. Please let

him go.”

       “Please,” Alijandra added.

       Governor Guzmarr shook her head. “It’s not that easy as saying ‘please.’ I’ve already

sent word to the Emperor that I am bringing your father to him, and the Emperor wishes to see

him executed.”

       Pearl hissed and writhed. Alijandra struggled to hold her. “She understands what you

say,” the little girl said, “and she says she’s not going to let you hurt Papa.”

       “I have no intention of hurting your Papa,” Governor Guzmarr replied, “not anymore.

Not since I’ve seen Pearl.”

       “So, what are you saying?” Papa asked.

       “What I’m saying is that your family should stay here,” the governor said. “Mr. Anerson,

I want you to become my dragontamer.”

       “Your men hunt me down, you jail me and my wife—and now you want me to work for

you?” the dragontamer asked.

       The governor nodded. “Pearl would be the dragon you tend. I don’t need any others.”




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       “You can’t have Pearl,” Alijandra said. “She’s mine!”

       “And she would remain yours,” Governor Guzmarr said. “I would only need her from

time to time. She’d help me, then come back to you.”

       “Why would you want a dragon?” Papa asked.

       “For the same reasons that the Emperor did, Mr. Anerson: power, prestige, protection.

Pearl could provide all that.”

       “No,” Isabella said. “We won’t do it.”

       “That’s your father’s decision to make,” Governor Guzmarr said.

       “The Emperor would be very unhappy to learn that one of his governors has a dragon,”

Papa said.

       “The Emperor is very ill,” Governor Guzmarr said. “He will die soon, and he has no

male heirs, since Reinaldo drowned in battle against the Dhyuzmanii so many years ago.

Already, some of the stronger noble families are positioning themselves to take the throne.”

       “And with Pearl being the only dragon in Ysparria,” Papa said, “it would be easy for you

to return to Cuidad de Agustin and persuade the other nobles—”

       “—to accept me as Empress,” Governor Guzmarr finished.

       From Governor to Empress, Isabella said. Did she plan this all along—getting a dragon?

Is that we she had Papa captured? Or is this just something she came up with when she heard

we were here with Pearl?

       “And what would we get out of this?” the dragontamer asked. “More than just keeping

our lives, I hope.”




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       “More than that, of course,” the governor replied. “What you would get is your old lives:

yours, your wife’s, your children’s. Specifically, a full pardon, your return to Cuidad de

Agustin, a title, property, wealth—just as soon as I am Empress.”

       “How could that work?” Isabella asked. “I mean—given what happened before with that

other dragon. Won’t people be afraid of what Pearl could do? Aren’t you afraid?”

       “Pearl wouldn’t hurt anyone,” Alijandra said. “Well, not anyone who didn’t deserve it,”

she added.

       “Isabella, you yourself said it: what happened, happened a long time ago,” the governor

replied. “Memories, even those of deaths and disasters, fade. The incident with the other dragon

will be explained as a terrible accident that cannot, will not happen again. I’ll tell the people that

we will have more guards, more controls in place. People will believe. People always want to

believe what their leaders tell them.”

       “Nothing bad will happen so long as it’s just us—the girls and me—who looks after

Pearl,” the dragontamer said. “She knows us and trusts us. The girls can be my apprentices: I’ll

teach them everything I know on how to keep dragons. Pearl can stay with us forever.”

       “In that case, your daughters will, like you, be responsible for this dragon,” Governor

Guzmarr said.

       What does that mean? Isabella wondered. Meaning that she’ll have us killed if Pearl

does something bad?

       “I thought you said that you had sent word to the Emperor,” Isabella said, “and that he

wants Papa executed. What are you going to do about that?”




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        “If your father agrees,” the governor said, “then I will arrange it so that we are delayed

and cannot arrive in Cuidad de Agustin until after I have learned that the Emperor is dead. I am

told that he could die at any moment—or, in fact, be already dead.”

        “And after that…” Papa began.

        “After that, no one will be able to take you from my protection,” the governor assured

him. “So, are we agreed, then?”

        “I need a few moments to think about your offer, Your Excellency,” the dragontamer

said.

        “I’m a direct woman, Mr. Anerson: either we are agreed, or we are not. What is there to

think about? Accept, and you’ll be rich and respected again. Your wife and children can wear

silk gowns, have a proper five meals a day, and live in a palace. Refuse, and none of that

happens.”

        Isabella remembered Mama’s story about visiting the Emperor’s palace. Walls covered

with gold, she told herself. Birds eating off jeweled plates. Servants carrying drinks in crystal

goblets. Gowns and fans and parties with nobles.

        Then she remembered how Mama and Papa had argued the night he had come home,

when they thought everyone else was asleep. Mama hates living out there—she always has, but

she did it for Papa, and for us, so that we could be safe, she thought. But if we say “yes,” then

there’s no more dirt, no more dust, no more rocks and cougars and being out in the hot sun. No

more sheep, no more carding wool, no more picking berries and gathering firewood. No going

to Scorpion Tail and having everyone stare at us.

        She thought about the storybook, and how she had wanted it for so long, and how good it

had felt to finally get it once Papa had a bit of money. Books whenever we want, and real




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dolls—good ones, not broken ones—for Ali and dresses for me and Mama and To-Ho-Ne, too,

and maybe she could have a real husband, one who really loves her. And the last thought made

her remember the daguerreotype of To-Ho-Ne, sad To-Ho-Ne, whom Papa had sold to Mr.

Dempesson. And Papa wouldn’t have to go away and get hurt and have bad people after him all

the time.

       And she remembered lying on the floor the night they had come home from Scorpion

Tail, the time when the sheep hadn’t wanted to go back into the corral for To-Ho-Ne, and she

and Alijandra and Jack had rounded them up. She remembered how Alijandra had asked her if

they were princesses, and how she had said no, and how she had wished they could come back to

Ysparria and be princesses again, like they should be, like they used to be. Here’s our chance,

she thought, to have a new life, a better one, just like in a storybook.

       “I have some…concerns,” Papa said.

       “I imagine that you consider my offer to be like making a deal with the Dread One,”

Governor Guzmarr said. “I am hard, but fair. I’ve lowered taxes, I’ve rooted out corruption,

pursued outlaws—you aren’t the only one I’ve caught, but you’d be the first not to wind up in a

grave outside the gates.”

       “Your offer is very appealing,” the dragontamer said. “I’d be a fool to turn it down.”

       “Worse than a fool, Mr. Anerson,” Governor Guzmarr said. “You would be an

abominable husband and a wretched father. I know, however, that despite the fabrication you

tried to weave before, you are not a man who would deny his family the life they once enjoyed—

and which they deserve,” she added.

       Do it, Papa, Isabella thought. Say “yes.”




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         “No,” Alijandra whispered.

         Isabella jerked around, glaring. What does she mean, “no?” How stupid can she be?

We’d be rich we’d be happy and Ali would get to keep Pearl what’s wrong with her how—

         Alijandra was weeping quietly. “No,” she moaned, looking down at Pearl. “Not like

that.”

         “What?” Isabella demanded, grabbing her sister’s arm. “What are you going on about?”

         “She has to go—I know it, and I didn’t want her to,” Alijandra said. Pearl was staring

into the little girl’s eyes. “But now…now she says she’ll stay with us and be