A Dragon of a Different Color

By Rachel Aaron

Chapter 1

 

Brohomir, Great Seer of the Heartstrikers, (now) eldest child of Bethesda the Heartstriker, consort to a Nameless End, and Tetris World Champion for thirty-three years running sat at the end of a sunny box canyon deep in the New Mexico Badlands, playing with his baby dragon.

“Good, gooooood,” he said as he grabbed another terrified rat out of the burlap sack beside him. “Watch closely. This one’s going to go high.”

The little feathered dragon snapped her needle-sharp teeth at him, her golden eyes locked on the rat as Bob reeled back like he was going to toss the animal high into the clear blue sky. Then, right before he let fly, he turned and dropped the rat on the ground beside him instead.

The little dragon wasn’t fooled for a second. The rodent barely hit the sand before she was on it, devouring it in a single, violent bite.

Very good,” Bob said proudly, patting her head.

The hatchling licked her chops and darted back into position. Bob was reaching for the next rat when a long black shadow fell over him.

“Dramatic as ever, I see,” he said, tucking the wiggling rodent back into the bag as he turned to squint up at the tall figure silhouetted against the bright desert sun.

“You’re one to talk about drama,” the Black Reach replied as he stepped into the canyon.

Bob smiled politely and opened his arms to the little dragoness, but she just snorted and turned away, skittering down the canyon to hunt the lizards that sheltered in its dirt walls instead.

“So,” Bob said, turning back to the elder seer. “How did you get here so quickly? Express boat from China? Or have you finally gotten over your irrational fear of letting humans fly you?”

“Neither,” the Black Reach said, watching the hatchling hunt. “I didn’t have to rush because I never left in the first place. I knew I’d have to come right back after the incident in your mother’s throne room, so I decided to stay and see a bit of the country. I haven’t been to these lands since before the Europeans invaded.”

“I hope you didn’t cut your vacation short on my account,” Bob said. “We need the tourism income. This coup of Julius’s is costing our clan a fortune.”

The Black Reach nodded, but he wasn’t looking at Bob. His eyes were still locked on the young dragoness crouching at the end of the canyon, her tail twitching back and forth like a cat’s as she waited for the lizard she was stalking to make its move. “You know I can’t leave her with you.”

“I know no such thing,” Bob said. “She’s a Heartstriker.”

“She’s a seer,” the Black Reach said angrily. “And so are you. I cannot permit one clan to control both of the forces that shape our race’s future.” He turned back to Bob with a stern scowl. “Give her to me.”

Bob smiled sweetly. “No.”

The Black Reach’s old eyes narrowed in his too-young human face, but Bob just turned and whistled. The little dragon’s head shot up at the sound, and she whirled around, leaping into Bob’s arms with enough force to make him stumble backward. “Good girl,” he said proudly, hugging her close as he grinned at the Black Reach. “You see? She loves me. How could I possibly give her away?”

The oldest seer looked disgusted. “She’s not a pet.”

“She’s not,” Bob agreed. “But she’s so clever. Watch this.” He grinned down at the dragon in his arms. “Go on, darling. Show him what I taught you.”

The little dragon growled deep in her throat, and then she was gone, her dark feathered body vanishing like smoke. When the haze cleared, Bob was holding a human child. A tiny, delicately boned toddler with fine, perfectly straight black hair and predatory golden eyes that absolutely did not belong on a mortal face.

“You see?” Bob said, delighted. “She’s gifted. Even Amelia couldn’t hold a human shape straight out of the egg, but she picked it up on the first try.”

“All the more reason not to leave her with you,” the Black Reach said angrily. “Be reasonable, Brohomir. She has her whole life in front of her. If you truly cared for her future, you would not risk it by dragging her into your doomed plans.”

“But that’s exactly why I need her,” Bob argued, clutching the girl closer. “She’s my ace. My winning move.”

“Then she is useless,” the seer said. “We both know how this game ends. The only thing I can’t see is why you’re still playing it.”

“I’d think that’d be obvious,” Bob said with a shrug. “We’ve both seen the future, but unlike you, I don’t like mine. Hence: plots.”

“The last thing you need is more plots,” the Black Reach said angrily. “This isn’t my fault. I’m not forcing you to act. You can always choose to turn back, abandon your plans, and be spared.”

“Oh,” Bob said, grinning wide. “I get it now. This is my official warning, isn’t it?” He laughed in delight. “I’m flattered you came in person! Estella only got a phone call.”

“Estella wasn’t being half so reckless.”

“Yes, well, she always did lack vision,” Bob agreed. “But tell me honestly, Mr. Death of Seers. In the ten centuries you’ve been working this gig, has that line ever worked? Did any seer ever hear your warning, say ‘you know, he’s right,’ and abandon their plans?”

“No,” the Black Reach said bitterly. “But that doesn’t mean I get to stop. This is not my ‘gig.’ It’s my reason for being. I am Dragon Sees Eternity. Like my brother, Dragon Sees the Beginning, I was created by your ancestors for a single purpose: to ensure that the mistakes of the past that destroyed our home and doomed all dragons to be refugees on this plane are never repeated. That is my sacred duty, the task for which I exist. But though I can never be lenient in my responsibilities, I can be merciful. I reach out to every seer the moment I see them starting down a forbidden path and offer them my knowledge. I gave each of them the opportunity the dragons who created me never had: a chance to turn back, to choose another way and avoid destruction. That is the gift I give to every seer, and now, I’m giving it to you.”

“Again, I’m flattered,” Bob said. “But—”

“No,” he snapped. “No buts. Stop trying to be clever for a moment, Brohomir, and listen. You are embarking down a future that has only one outcome, and it is the one I cannot allow. We’ve had many good conversations over your short life. I would even go so far as to call you my friend. So as your friend, I’m begging you, don’t do this. Don’t make me kill you.”

Bob sighed, looking down at the rocky, reddish dirt between them. “It’s not every day one receives a heartfelt plea from one of the two great dragon constructs,” he said at last. “I’m touched, I really am, but I’m afraid my plans remain unchanged.”

“Why?” the Black Reach growled, his deep voice shaking with frustration. “You know you are doomed. We’ve both seen it, so why do you persist?”

“Because seeing the future isn’t the same as understanding it,” Bob said, raising his head to smile at the pigeon who fluttered down from the clear blue sky to perch on his fingers. “You’re the one who taught me that a seer’s greatest weakness is his own expectations. We grow so used to seeing everything before it happens, we forget that we can still be surprised. That events which appear unquestionable from one angle can look entirely different from another.”

“Is that your strategy?” The Black Reach sneered. “Hide in my blind spot? Even though I’ve known every possible turn of your life since before you were born?”

Bob shrugged. “What other hope do I have? As you just said, you’ve been plotting all of this since before I was born. I can’t compete with that level of knowledge and planning. But the fact that we’re having this conversation proves there’s at least one angle you haven’t seen yet, and so long as that’s true, I have hope.”

He leaned down to press a kiss to his pigeon’s feathered head, and the Black Reach turned away in disgust. “Sometimes I wonder if you really have gone mad,” he muttered. “But I’ve said my piece. You can see the death that’s coming as well as I. If that’s not enough to scare you into changing course, there’s nothing more I can do.”

“But you’ll still try.”

“Of course I’ll try,” the construct said. “Until it becomes past, the future is never set.” He gave Bob a sad smile. “You’re not the only one who can hope.”

Bob smiled back. “Does this mean you’ve given up on taking my darling away?” he asked, hugging the little dragon-turned-human in the crook of his arm. “Since time is so short and all?”

“I shouldn’t,” the Black Reach said. “It’s not good practice, but…” He trailed off, studying the little dragon, who watched him curiously in return. “I don’t foresee any lasting harm to her under your care,” he said with a shrug. “You may keep her until the end. We both know it won’t be very long.”

“Your kindness is appreciated,” Bob said warmly. “Thank you.”

“If you want to thank me, then listen,” the Black Reach said angrily, glaring at Bob one last time before he turned and walked away. “I will see you two more times before the end. Let us hope you make better use of those chances than you did this one.”

“I always strive to improve!” Bob called after him, but the cheerfulness rang hollow even in his own ears.

The ancient construct was already gone in any case, his tall body vanishing into the glaring light of the desert beyond the mouth of the sheltered canyon. Bob was still squinting at the place where he’d been when something shot through the blue sky above him. Something very large, moving very fast.

Bob dove for cover, clutching the golden-eyed child to his chest as he rolled them into the shelter of the canyon seconds before the shadow of the hunting dragoness passed over them.

“That’s our cue,” he whispered when the danger had passed, staring warily through the canyon at the sliver of blue sky above. “Come along, love. This desert’s about to get very crowded, which means it’s time for us to go.”

The little girl snapped her teeth and pointed angrily at the bag of rats lying abandoned on the ground.

“Later,” he promised, climbing out of the canyon’s lee. “Or Bob’s not your uncle.”

He’d been waiting ages to make that joke. Unfortunately, it went right over the little dragon’s head, leaving her staring in confusion as he carried her down the hidden path out the back of the canyon and up the slope into the copse of dry sagebrush behind it.

“Here, right?” he asked his pigeon, who’d flown ahead.

The bird cooed, fluttering up to perch in the thorny, twisted branches where another bird was already waiting. A huge black one with sharp, intelligent eyes that watched the pigeon as though she were the end of the world.

“I can’t believe I let you talk me into this,” Raven croaked, taking a large step down the branch away from the pigeon. “I know playing with fire is a dragon’s first instinct, but this is pushing it. Even for you.”

“Ah,” Bob said, setting the little girl back down on her feet. “But if you didn’t also think it was worth the risk, you wouldn’t be here, would you?”

I didn’t have a choice,” Raven snapped. “Algonquin’s got us all by the tail feathers. Next to that, even your madness seems sane.”

He paused, looking at Bob like he expected the dragon to argue, but the seer just smiled. “Is everything ready, then?”

“Ready as can be, given the circumstances.” The bird tilted his head at Bob. “You?”

The seer pulled out his ancient brick of a phone with a flourish, angling the green-tinted screen down so Raven could see the flashing message icon through the sun’s glare. He had over a hundred texts pending, mostly from Chelsie, but the newest was the one that mattered.

Unfortunately—and probably spitefully, given the source—the text was in Mandarin Chinese. Not Bob’s strongest language considering he hadn’t used it in over six centuries. He studied the pixelated characters for several seconds before giving up and turning the phone to Raven.

The bird gave him a horrified look. “Really?”

“You’re famous for speaking every language,” Bob said with a shrug. “Make yourself useful.”

He thrust the phone at the spirit again, and Raven shook his head wearily, hopping down from the branch to perch on the dragon’s shoulder where he had a better view.

“‘We’re coming.’”

Bob blinked. “Is that all?”

“There’s another bit promising death to you and all your clan, but that’s the general gist,” Raven reported.

“Marvelous,” Bob said, slipping the phone back into his pocket. “Then yes. I’m ready. ”

Raven looked more worried than ever. “You’re playing with a lot of lives, Heartstriker. Are you certain this is going to work?”

“The future is never certain,” Brohomir said honestly. “But I’ve been setting up this domino chain for nearly my entire life, so I’m pretty sure. On the upside, though, if I’m not right, we’ll all be dead, and I won’t have to listen to you say ‘I told you so.’”

The bird tilted his head, and for a brief moment, Bob felt what it was like to have every raven in the world staring at you at once. “This is no time for jokes, seer,” the Spirit of Ravens rumbled. “I’m taking a big gamble trusting you.”

“We’re all gambling,” Bob assured him. “But that’s all we can do. The future is a moving target. You can make all the careful plans you want, but nothing is ever certain until the moment actually comes. Even then, the whole world can turn on a heartbeat. That said, if you follow my instructions to the letter—to the letter, mind—we stand a very decent chance of achieving the age-old dream of having our cake and eating it, too.”

Raven blinked his beady black eyes. “You are a very strange sort of dragon.”

“Nonsense,” Bob said. “I’m just a dragon, as greedy and ruthless and results oriented as any other. But that’s why you can trust me. All of this is to my benefit even more than it is to yours, which is as close to scout’s honor as my kind gets. And speaking of results, you’ve got your marching orders, which means it’s time to fly away home. I know you true immortals have a flexible relationship with time, but the rest of us are on a schedule.”

Raven shot another dark look at Bob’s pigeon. “None of us has much time if you mess this up.”

“Then let’s make sure I don’t by keeping our timetable,” the seer said, tapping the bare spot on his wrist where his watch would be if he’d been wearing one. “Hop hop, blackbird.”

With a final roll of his black eyes, Raven spread his wings and flew away, vanishing between one flap and the next. When he was gone, Bob looked back down at the little dragon, who’d spent the entire conversation rolling in the dirt at his feet. “Shall we be off, too?”

As usual, the girl didn’t even seem to hear the question, but her head shot right up a second later when the sound of a car engine broke the desert quiet. She scrambled up into the tree as the noise got louder, changing back into a dragon so she could snake through the tangled branches to get a better look at the SUV full of mortal tourists that had just pulled over at the trailhead down the hill.

“Right on time,” Bob said cheerfully, holding out his hand to his pigeon. When he had her comfortably nestled on his shoulder again, Bob started down the hill. “Come, love,” he called. “It’s time for you to learn the joys of grand theft auto.”

The dragoness scurried down the tree, kicking her feet in the loose dirt as she ran after him down the desert hill toward the unsuspecting humans and the car that would soon be theirs.

 

***

 

At that same moment, Julius Heartstriker, youngest son of Bethesda the Heartstriker and founder of the newly formed Heartstriker Council, was still trapped in the most frustrating meeting of his life.

“For the last time,” he growled, glaring at his mother across their new three-sided Council table. “We will not vote to unseal your dragon until you vow—vow, in blood—that you will never try to undermine this Council again.”

“And for the last time, I’ll vow to do no such thing,” Bethesda said with a toss of her glossy black hair. “Future rebellion is my right as a dragon. What sort of deposed clan head doesn’t try to take back her power?”

“None,” Ian said quietly, his newly brown eyes gleaming with barely restrained violence. “Which is why deposed clan heads are usually rendered headless. But Julius showed you mercy, and you took it. Don’t cry now because it’s time to pay.” He stabbed his finger down on the pledge sitting on the table in front of her. “Sign it. Or you’ll never fly again.”

That was harsher than Julius would have gone, but he didn’t say a word. It’d been two hours since they’d freed Chelsie and the Fs and moved on to the unsealing of Bethesda, and his willingness to tolerate his mother’s antics was long gone. He’d never expected her to meekly accept her fate—he wasn’t sure Bethesda the Heartstriker knew what ‘meek’ meant—but he hadn’t thought it would take fifteen drafts to find a version of “promise you won’t try to undermine the new system again and you can have your dragon back” that she would sign.

“We’ve been more than fair,” he reminded her. “But it’s over. The Heartstriker Council is here to stay, and if you want to stay on it as anything more than this”—he pointed at her sealed human body—“you’ll stop being stubborn.”

The Heartstriker gave him an ugly look. “This is extortion.”

“Then you should be used to it,” Ian said, growling deep in his throat. “Sign it, Mother.”

Bethesda’s face grew sullen, and then she reached out to grab the paper off the table. “Fine,” she snarled, stabbing her razor-sharp nail into the pad of her thumb. “You want to cement the doom of this clan? On your heads be it.”

She stabbed the bleeding wound down on the paper, sealing the deal with her blood. When it was done, magic bit down sharp as her teeth, making them all gasp. Still, it was over, and Julius couldn’t help letting out a sigh of relief as he took the signed vow back from her. “Thank you.”

“Enjoy it while it lasts,” she snarled, licking the blood off her finger. “It doesn’t matter what you make me sign—this enterprise is doomed. Dragon clans are ruled by fear and fire, not councils. If I can’t rebel, someone else will, and when the inevitable finally comes, the last thing you’ll hear is me saying ‘I told you so.’ Right before I bite off your heads.”

Technically, that was exactly the sort of threat she was no longer supposed to be making, but Julius was too sick of arguing to care. He just signed his name at the bottom of the bloody contract with a normal ink pen as fast as he could before passing it to Ian, who did the same. When all three of their names were signed, magic bit down again. The Council’s this time, not Bethesda’s. As powerful as clan magic was, it couldn’t force a dragon to act against her own self-interest. Only blood oaths could enforce behavior, which was why they’d had to go through all of this. Now that her blood and their names were on the same contract, though, they were bound together. Bethesda was now forbidden from undermining the Council’s authority by her own fire, which meant they could finally move on.

“Now that’s finished,” Ian said, waving the bloody contract to dry it before placing it in his leather dossier, “I motion to unseal Bethesda the Heartstriker. All in favor?”

They all raised their hands.

“Motion passes,” Ian said, glaring at their mother as she shot out of her chair. “I trust future Council decisions won’t be this obnoxious.”

“That depends on you,” Bethesda said flippantly. “All of this voting and talking was your idea, not mine. Now, if we’re quite finished, get this cursed thing off me. You wouldn’t believe the ache this seal is putting on my poor wings.”

Seeing how she’d happily left him like that for a month and a half, Julius had little sympathy. But as fitting as it would have been to let her suffer, a promise was a promise. “Let’s go get Amelia.”

Bethesda cringed at the mention of her eldest daughter’s name. “Isn’t there someone else?”

Julius shrugged. “Not unless you want to owe Svena another favor. The seal Amelia put on you is too complicated for anyone else.”

“Assuming Amelia’s sober enough to manage it,” Ian added, glancing at his watch. “It is nearly five o’clock.”

“It’s always five o’clock for the Planeswalker,” Bethesda said bitterly. “But if there’s one thing Amelia’s always been good at, it’s magic under the influence. So long as she’s not passed out, we should be fine.”

The truth of that made Julius wince. It was on his list to stage an intervention for his oldest sister soon. Right now, though, Amelia’s high-functioning alcoholism was the least of his worries. “I just hope she’s feeling well enough to manage it. Last time I saw her, she didn’t look so good.”

Not since Marci had died and taken half of Amelia’s fire with her.

“That’s nothing,” Bethesda said flippantly. “I cut Amelia in half when she was just a little older than you. It was supposed to serve as an example to the rest of her clutch, but she ruined it by surviving. Anyway, if she could live through that, she can live through anything. I’m more worried about her ‘accidentally’ sealing something else, the spiteful little snake.”

At this point, Julius wouldn’t mind if Amelia “accidentally” turned their mother into a toad. Again, though, done was done, so he stood up and grudgingly motioned for Bethesda to lead the way.

“I can’t believe we have to go and find her ourselves,” she complained as they walked out of the throne room. “How dare Frieda and the others abandon their positions! Now nothing works.”

“I’m sure we’ll survive without the Fs,” Julius said. “We need to learn to run things for ourselves, and they deserve to fly free. All of them.”

He glanced pointedly at Chelsie’s Fang, which was still lying untouched on the balcony where she’d dropped it when she’d gone for their mother’s throat, but Bethesda was too busy rolling her eyes to notice.

“You say that now,” she growled as she yanked open the plain wooden doors that had been quickly installed to temporarily replace the ornate ones Bob had broken when he’d smashed his way into the throne room. “But when there’s no breakfast tomorrow, you’ll be singing a different—”

She stopped short. The throne room doors opened into the Hall of Heads, the long tunnel that served as both a display gallery for the taxidermy heads of Bethesda’s enemies and a lobby for the golden elevator that connected the Heartstriker’s peak to the rest of the mountain, including Amelia’s rooms one floor down. But though they were still a good fifty feet away, the elevator doors at the hallway’s opposite end were already rolling open to reveal an extremely nervouslooking Katya.

They must have spotted each other at the same moment, because the moment the white dragoness’s eyes met his, her expression changed to one of relief. “There you are!” she cried, running toward them. “I’ve been looking everywhere! I tried asking, but there was no one working the concierge desk. No one working anywhere, actually.”

Bethesda shot her youngest son an “I told you so” look, which he pointedly ignored. “I’m sorry you had trouble,” he said, stepping forward to greet his friend. “What can we do for—”

“Is it Svena?” Ian interrupted, pushing his way forward. “Is she ready to clutch?”

Katya’s nervous look returned. “Actually, she finished clutching just a few minutes ago.”

Which meant Ian was now a father. “Congratulat—”

“So why am I finding out now?” Ian said angrily. “She promised she wouldn’t lay without me there.”

“She did,” Katya admitted, dropping her eyes. “But that was before.”

“Before what?”

The youngest daughter of the Three Sisters sighed. Then, like a soldier facing a firing line, she drew herself to her full height. “Council of the Heartstrikers,” she said formally, her blue eyes looking at them each in turn. “Svena the White Witch, Queen of the Frozen Sea, has commanded me to inform you that all treaties, agreements, and other friendly relations between our two clans are hereby dissolved. Furthermore, effective immediately, Ian Heartstriker is removed from his position as consort and banished from our clan. He is also banned from contact with Svena’s offspring, all of whom shall now be raised as members of our clan regardless of gender.”

The room was silent when she finished. Finally, in the scariest voice Julius had ever heard, Ian said, “What?”

“She doesn’t want to see you anymore,” Katya explained.

“I understood that much,” Ian snarled. “But that’s not her decision to make. Those are my children. She can’t keep them from me!”

“Forget the whelps!” Bethesda cried, shoving past him. “What about the defense of my mountain? Svena’s supposed to be protecting us from Algonquin. That’s the only reason I let you ice snakes in here in the first place!”

“Then maybe you should have considered that before you let your seer betray her,” Katya snapped.

That statement left Bethesda looking absolutely bewildered, and for once, Julius was right there with her. “What are you talking about?” he asked, squeezing between Ian and his mother so he could speak to Katya directly rather than through the taller dragons. “How did Bob betray Svena?”

“You mean you don’t know?”

“Obviously not,” Ian growled. “We’ve been trapped in a meeting all afternoon.” He grabbed her shoulders. “What happened, Katya?”

Julius fully expected Katya to bite his hands off for grabbing her like that, but whatever had happened between Bob and Svena must have been a special kind of bad, because Katya just looked sad. “I was hoping you could tell me,” she said. “Two hours ago, Brohomir killed Amelia the Planeswalker.”

Her words hit Julius like a punch. “Bob…killed Amelia?” When she nodded, his fists clenched. “Impossible.

“That’s what I thought, too,” Katya said. “But Svena saw it with her own eyes. She teleported into Amelia’s room just as Brohomir finished turning her to ash.”

“But that can’t be true,” Julius argued. “Bob would never hurt Amelia. She’s his favorite sister. There’s no way he’d—”

“Well, he did,” Katya said angrily. “And now my sister is furious. Svena’s always considered the Planeswalker her only true rival. By murdering her, Brohomir has stolen her victory. That’s more than an insult between clans. It’s personal, and Svena’s taking it very badly.”

Obviously. “Can’t you talk her down?”

“You think I didn’t try?” Katya said with an angry puff of smoke. “Our clan’s barely recovered from losing Estella and our mothers. The last thing we need is to break faith and make enemies with the biggest clan in the world. Svena knows this, but she won’t listen. I’ve never seen her this angry.” She shook her head. “You’re lucky she didn’t bring your mountain down on top of you the moment she saw Brohomir do it.”

Did she actually see him do it?”

Katya shot him a furious look, and Julius hurried to explain. “I’m not saying Svena’s lying, but Bob’s a seer. He often does things that look terrible on the surface but turn out to be fine once you realize what’s actually going on. Maybe he was just—”

“This isn’t the sort of thing you can mistake,” Katya snapped. “If you want proof, go to Amelia’s room and see for yourself.”

She said that like a challenge, and Julius was upset enough to take it, marching around Katya and into the elevator behind her. The rest of the dragons followed right on his heels, cramming into the gold-plated box as Julius repeatedly mashed the button for the floor Amelia shared with Bob.

 

***

 

“I take no joy in saying this,” Katya whispered. “But I told you so.”

Julius didn’t say a word. He was too busy staring at the pile of gray-white ash that had once been Amelia the Planeswalker.

“Must’ve been some fight,” Bethesda said, poking at the puddles of water that covered the stone floor with the toe of her stiletto. “Svena launched enough ice to sink a battleship.” She eyed Katya suspiciously. “Are you certain your sister didn’t kill Amelia herself?”

“If she had, she wouldn’t blame a seer,” Katya replied angrily. “She’d come and tell you herself.”

“And she’d probably be throwing a party instead of a fit,” Julius added.

“I don’t think Svena would ever take Amelia’s death well,” Ian said. “Not even if she was the one who caused it. That stated…” He knelt beside the divan where Amelia’s pile of ash was sinking into the cushions. “Svena didn’t do this.”

“How can you be sure?” Julius asked.

Ian shot him a scathing look. “Use your nose. Amelia’s magic is everywhere in this room, but it’s all old. The newest I can smell is twelve hours stale at least, certainly nothing from this afternoon. Whoever killed her, Amelia didn’t fight back, and Svena has invested far too much in this rivalry to accept such a cheap victory.”

Julius didn’t need Katya’s nod to know his brother was right. Svena was a cruel, ruthless dragon, and proud of it, but she had her own kind of honor. She would never stoop to killing her rival while Amelia was lying helpless. Even her wintry scent was concentrated in the middle of the room, a dozen feet away from the divan that had been the Planeswalker’s deathbed. Bob’s scent, on the other hand, was everywhere. Including all over Amelia’s ashes.

That was the most damning evidence of all. Even Julius couldn’t deny that the only way Bob’s scent could have gotten on those ashes was if he’d had his hands in them. Even if he’d discovered Amelia’s remains after the fact, Bob had undeniably been here, and since nothing surprised a seer, that meant he’d known. He might not have done it, but he’d known Amelia was going to die today, and he’d let Svena see him. Whatever the truth actually was, he’d deliberately let the Daughters of the Three Sisters assume he was guilty, and now they were all in deep trouble.

“Why?” Julius asked the ashes. “Why would he do this?”

“Who knows?” Katya said bitterly. “But for what it’s worth, I’m sorry this happened. For both our clans.” She put a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. “I know what it’s like to have your seer turn on you.”

Julius appreciated the sentiment, but he didn’t think that was it. Estella had been psychotic, but Bob was…well, Bob. He was flighty and ridiculous and impossible to understand, but no matter how bad things looked, he always came through in the end.

Except when he was telling Julius not to free Chelsie.

“There has to be something else going on here,” Julius said, scrubbing his hands through his hair. “Something we’re not seeing. Some plot or scheme or—”

“Of course it’s a plot,” Bethesda said. “That’s all Brohomir does. But whatever he’s working on this time, we’ve got a real problem. I signed your little extortion note, but Amelia and Svena are the only dragon mages in the world good enough to remove my seal. Now one’s dead and the other’s on the warpath, how am I getting my dragon back?”

That’s what you’re worried about?” Julius yelled at her. “The seal? Your daughter is…”

He couldn’t even say it. He’d thought he’d hit rock bottom after Marci’s death, but in a horrible way, that had been comforting. Terrible as he’d felt, at least he’d known things couldn’t get worse, but he was wrong. Not only had he lost Marci, he’d lost Amelia, too, the only dragon he could have remembered her with. He’d lost his sister. He’d lost his friend, and unless he was willing to call his own nose a liar, Bob was the cause. Whether he’d killed her himself or just let it happen, his brother had clearly had a hand in this, which meant Julius had lost him, too.

“Why?” he whispered again. “Why would Bob betray us?”

Bethesda snorted. “Welcome to my life.”

Julius couldn’t remember ever hating his mother as much as he did right now. But when he turned to tell her that her commentary was not appreciated, he found Bethesda standing right beside him.

“As delighted as I am to see you getting a taste of your own medicine, there’s more at stake here than your hurt feelings,” she said. “I don’t know what spurred Bob to throw us under the bus today, but he did a very good job. With Amelia dead and Svena hating us because of it, we’ve lost both of our defenses against Algonquin’s magic. If she attacks the mountain now, we’re sitting ducks.”

Julius hadn’t even considered that angle. “Do you think she will?”

His mother shrugged. “I’m surprised she hasn’t already. We might have dropped a bit on her priority list since your ill-timed coup has left us too weak to pose a real threat to whatever she’s doing in the DFZ, but we’re still the world’s biggest dragon clan, and the one on her doorstep. Trust me, that hammer is going to fall, and it’s not the only one. Heartstriker has many enemies. No one’s made a serious try for us in centuries thanks to our size and the fact that we’re relatively isolated here in the Americas, but recent events have changed that calculus. Mark my words, when news spreads that Chelsie’s quit, Amelia’s dead, Bob’s gone rogue, and I’m sealed, there will be no safety anywhere. We’ll be up to our necks in dragons hungry to take a bite out of our territory. Algonquin won’t need to lift a watery finger. All she has to do is bide her time, and the other clans will do us in for her.”

“It can’t be that bad,” Julius argued. “We’re down, sure, but we still have Conrad, Justin, and a hundred other Heartstrikers. If we call everyone back to the mountain—”

“We’d just be giving Algonquin a bigger target,” Ian cut in. “And that’s assuming our family would answer the call.”

“They did before.”

“Yes, when Bethesda called,” Ian said, glancing pointedly at their mother, who looked sickeningly smug. “I’m confident the Council is the right path for Heartstriker’s long-term stability, but we’re not there yet. Anyway, even Mother would have a hard time getting Heartstrikers to return to the mountain again under these conditions. In case you haven’t noticed, everyone’s run home to secure their own territories.”

Julius had noticed. It was hard not to notice when a mountain built for hundreds of dragons was suddenly empty. “So we’ll explain the situation and ask them to come back.”

“No dragon with an ounce of self-interest is going to leave their home territory undefended while things are this uncertain,” Ian argued. “And since you freed Chelsie, we have no way to make them.”

“That’s a good thing,” Julius said. “We shouldn’t rely on fear to get our way.”

“A lovely sentiment that doesn’t help us now.”

“Why is this even a thing?” Julius demanded, frustrated. “Algonquin declared war on all the clans. We should be banding together against her, not fighting amongst ourselves.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Bethesda snapped. “This is the best time to fight. Algonquin’s a force to be reckoned with, but we’re the dragons of the Americas! The only clan that comes close to Heartstriker in numbers or territory is the Golden Empire, and no one’s crazy enough to go after China. Two weeks ago, I’d have said the same about us, but between your backstabbing and Algonquin’s wave hanging over our heads, we’re bleeding inside and out. We’ve always been a tasty target, but now we’re a badly wounded one as well, and no dragon anywhere can pass up wounded prey.”

The way she said that made Julius wince. He’d never heard his mother sound so grim before. But tempting as it was to dismiss all the doom and gloom as typical Bethesda hyperbole, he didn’t think she was exaggerating this time. “What should we do?”

“What can we do?” she said, sinking down on the end of the velvet divan beside her eldest daughter’s ashes. “It’s over. I’d already accepted that Brohomir had betrayed me, but with this blow, he’s cut the rest of the clan off at the knees as well. We can’t rally, can’t fight, can’t defend ourselves. At this point, the only option we have left is to cut our losses and go somewhere safe to rebuild.”

He stared at her in horror. “You mean leave Heartstriker Mountain?”

“We can’t stay,” she said, waving her hand around at the empty room. “Amelia’s magic was our primary defense, but every ward she set vanished with her death. I’m in her room, for fire’s sake. That alone is proof that security has been utterly compromised.”

Julius couldn’t argue there, but… “This is our home!” he cried. “We can’t abandon it.”

Bethesda shot him her dirtiest look yet. “Yes, well, maybe you should have thought of that before you ruined everything.”

He’d thought he was immune to his mother’s insults by this point, but that one hit too close. He might not have personally sealed his mother’s dragon or killed Amelia, but Heartstriker’s weakness was undeniably Julius’s fault. Even if it hadn’t been, he was one of the clan heads now. It was his responsibility to keep them all safe, and he was racking his brain for how to do that when Ian suddenly spoke up.

“We are not abandoning anything,” the tall dragon growled. “I don’t care how many enemies are against us, I did not claw my way to the top of two clans to lose both in one day.” He glared at Julius and Bethesda. “You two do whatever it takes to protect us in the short term. I’m going to bring back Svena.” He turned his glare on Katya. “Take me to your sister.”

The white dragoness bared her teeth at him. “First of all, you’re not at the top of our clan anymore, so you don’t get to give me orders. Second, you do not want to be around Svena right now. She’s fresh off the loss of Amelia and the trauma of laying eggs. She’ll eat you alive.”

Ian bared his teeth as well. “Take me to her, Last Born.”

For a terrifying moment, Julius was certain there was going to be blood, but then Katya sighed. “Your funeral.”

Ian turned on his heel, marching down the empty hallway that had once been packed with Amelia’s magical traps. With a shake of her head, Katya followed, reaching out to Julius as she walked past. “I’m sorry things turned out this way.”

“Me, too,” he said. “More than I can say.”

That last part was painfully true. There were no words to describe the pointless tragedy playing out around him. Looking down at the pile of ash that had once been his laughing, audacious, brilliant sister, Julius felt like there was nothing left. Death had taken it all—Marci, Amelia, Ian and Svena, even Bob—leaving him with nothing but his selfish mother, a broken clan, and a mountain he couldn’t defend.

His only comfort was the knowledge that there had to be something he wasn’t seeing. Some greater end Bob was working toward that would make everything turn out okay. There was just no other reason why his brother would throw away everything he’d been working toward. So long as he believed Bob wasn’t actually insane, there had to be a method to this madness, and Julius was going to make the seer tell him what that was if it was the last thing he did.

First, though, he had to take care of his sister.

Since they tended to die in spectacular violence, dragons didn’t usually have funerals. Most blew away in the winds of their defeat, but if their ashes could be collected, the task was traditionally entrusted to someone close to the deceased: a mate, an heir, even a favored mortal. But other than Marci, who was also dead, Amelia didn’t have a favored mortal, and the only mate she’d ever mentioned was the Concept of Mountains, whom Julius had no idea how to contact. Any other time, he would have saved the honor for Bob, but that was out of the question now for obvious reasons, and since he’d never trust Bethesda with his sister dead or alive, Julius had no choice but to do the job himself.

At least there was no shortage of appropriate vessels. In true Amelia fashion, there were liquor bottles scattered all over her room, including a very expensive-looking whiskey cask lying on the floor right next to the divan where she’d died. There were even a few drops left at the bottom, but Julius didn’t dare pour them out. He actually felt spirits were quite appropriate, and the scent of alcohol was a welcome break from the constant smell of death as he carefully tapped Amelia’s ashes into the bottle.

When he’d collected her as best he could, he replaced the stopper and straightened up, cradling the bottle in his arms like a sacred object while his mother watched in disgust.

“What was the point of that?” she asked, brushing the last of the ash off the couch with her hand so she could sit. “Her soul’s already burned out. All you’ve got there is her physical dust.”

“It was still her,” Julius said stubbornly. “Amelia deserves better than to be left here.”

Bethesda clearly thought that logic was beyond stupid. For once, though, she held her tongue. Good thing, too, because Julius was done with this conversation. He’d had enough of his mother to last five lifetimes, so he left her to her disgust, clutching Amelia’s ashes to his chest as he walked out of Amelia’s lair and down the hall toward the cavern that took up the other half of this floor of the hollowed-out mountain.

Bob’s room.

 


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