Isis Va can taste the approach of violence in the river of time, and it is bitter. All she can do is her best to make sure the Darkhnit clans aren't caught totally unprepared for the first attack. But the elders of the clans are out of practice and set in their ways, and when it comes to the youngsters - well, it'll be a job of work to stop at least one of them from running afoul of Isis's hot-tempered daughter, Ezri.

They all have a lot to learn if they want to be able to rise to the occasion and help, rather than hurt, the state of the world.

Irene's Favorite Things

My favorite part of this book is Isis's journey. I love her personality and her strength. The book really started to come together when I decided to feature her as a main character.

I'm also happy about the depth of worldbuilding we put into this series, and how it really does feel like there might be a whole other world layered under this one, just out of sight.

rating: mature (non-explicit sex, violence and mature themes)

major relationships: f/f, f/m

graphic violence

child abuse, CSA, child death

attempted genocide

domestic abuse

BDSM (D/s dynamics, sadomasochism)

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These are the conditions of peace:

A dragon or half-dragon may not harm a human, with the exception of a confirmed member of the Silene Knights. A Darkhan may not harm a Movrekt, nor should a Movrekt harm a Darkhan.

Great magics are forbidden, and all dragons must hide their true natures from humanity at large. Any violation of these terms will result in the dissolution of the Treaty and the continuation of war.

Darkhan-Movrekt Treaty, 1366 AD

Prologue: Wounds


Where is Ezri? The thought was the only thing that existed in the universe. The only thing other than the growing awareness of pain.

It rose up like water, like the tide, overwhelming her, eclipsing almost everything as Isis woke. Everything except the most basic, most important questions. Where am I? Where is Ezri? What happened?

Her head swam as she tried to remember, to ground herself in time, in events. Meronteth… something had happened. He’d been so angry. There was yelling, and then… her chest burned like fire. And the echoing pain of it threatened to draw her under again.

Isis fought, clenched her fists, and her claws bit into her palm, finite points of pain that she could control, could focus on to crawl her way out of the well of pain she was lost in.

She needed to focus. She needed to protect her family.

“Ezri,” she said, her lips moving this time, if just barely, her breath buzzing in her throat.

Hearing her own voice opened up the world of sounds to her, the chanting of people around her, the pouring of tea in the kitchen. Azarius’s voice, telling her, “She’s right here, she’s fine.” But Isis couldn’t hear Ezri’s voice, the constant high, breathless voice that had chanted so long and so diligently, keeping her safe through the darkness. Isis opened her eyes, searching, scouring the wooden beams of the ceiling and Azarius’s face, earnest eyes and golden hair.

“Where?” she demanded.

The healer behind her took hold of her head and tilted it forcibly to one side, and there was Ezri, curled tight against her mother’s shoulder, sleeping deeply. The warmth of Ezri’s breath across Isis’s skin and of the small brown hand that rested against her shoulder became part of the world, and along with it came the softness of blankets and the familiar give of the pull-out sofa under them both. But the important thing was Ezri.

Her lips were gently parted, but the little forehead still held a crease of worry, even as she slept. No wonder, when the child had been so brave. Her precious Ezri had saved her.

No child should sleep that uneasily, Isis thought to herself — and then her mind shied away from the thoughts that came next, about what had happened, about how their family had been shattered from the inside. It couldn’t be real.

Everything was wrong.

Her body was stiff, hurting, her chest burning as if she were wearing a sash of fire. The walls, the dark beams of the ceiling, the sturdy structure she’d made into a home was unsettling now, all infused with fear. It put her on edge, everything, even having the Red Glade all gathered here, in this place where Meronteth had forbidden them to set foot. Everything she looked at was strange, twisted, as if she were looking at the world through warped glass.

Even Ezri, with her troubled frown. But at least, when she looked at Ezri, she knew that the most important things hadn’t changed. And she knew how to go forward from here.

She’d weather the pain. Gladly.

Isis settled in to watch her daughter sleep.

She was still caught up in it, some indefinite time later, when there was a noise from outside and the scent of the room went sharp and wary as the healer-warriors around her prepared to shift their focus if necessary. That was another constant, another reassuring thing, another safe presence beside her. Her Red Glade.

Trust was a shaky thing for her right at the moment, but now, with everything turned on its head, her Red Glade healers were as steadfast as ever.

Azarius turned towards the door as it opened, glaring at the woman who’d come in unannounced, without leave. “What’s your business here?” he asked, and if his voice was harsh, well, it always had been, when he had a vulnerable patient to protect. Isis simply wasn’t used to being that patient.

And there was another factor to his hostility. When Isis shifted to see the woman, dread weighed down her limbs like lead. A half-dragon, not Red Glade, and not one of the Darkhnit, who would rarely leave their compounds, let alone seek out other dragons. The woman was neatly dressed in subdued colors of human business attire, subservient in her body language, yet still clearly dangerous. She was Movrekt.

“I bear news from House Harkesh,” the woman said, raising her hands to show empty palms and retracted claws. “News only.”

The leaden feeling only increased. House Harkesh servants had few reasons to be here. Isis knew… but she didn’t want to think of it. She focused on the new arrival. Half-dragon, of course, like herself, and her human blood was Asian, perhaps Chinese. Unusual in a Movrekt, and in fact Isis was surprised to see that House Harkesh had sent her to represent them, knowing how Lord Nash felt about those humans who shared bloodlines with the Darkhnit’s earliest allies. But the woman was here, and she carried a strange blankness on her face, no expression or emotion Isis could decipher.

While Isis observed, Azarius spoke, telling the messenger, “You’ll stay away from Isis, away from our rituals. Step outside.”

“My news is for Lady Isis, and I am to bear it to her,” the servant insisted.

“Then you can wait until we’re done making sure she doesn’t die,” Azarius returned, starting towards her. “This is a Red Glade matter. Wait outside, or we will make you.”

The woman was unmoved by the threat, by the mention of whom she faced. Peculiar. Isis knew the reputation of the Red Glade amongst the Movrekt, and especially those of House Harkesh. She knew that she and her band of defiantly neutral half-dragons were whispered about, feared for the magic they could do, magic that was said to reach to the very heart of the dragon body, mind, and soul. As much as Lord Nash, the Reaper, was a terror, keeping his household in line by fear, it was a close balance, often easy to tip when a Red Glade caster was in front of them and their master Nash was not.

The messenger was caught between the two, right enough, facing a whole room full of the Red Glade demanding that she forget her orders, and yet this woman was unbowed, her deferential body language no more than rote.

She was interesting in herself, but Isis needed to know why she was here. No matter how much it would hurt.

“No,” she told the healers surrounding her. “Let her come.”

“But Ezri….” one of the others began.

Isis turned her head to look at her little one, then back to the Movrekt woman. The unfamiliar face hadn’t changed drastically in expression, but as her eyes fell on Ezri, the woman was suddenly unguarded, her stillness transformed to awe and caution.

Isis knew how she felt.

“This woman won’t harm a child,” Isis told Azarius and the others.

“No, I won’t,” the messenger affirmed, eyes on Ezri now. “Not even if the Reaper himself ordered me to do it on pain of death.”

“I can see the truth of that in your face,” Isis said, letting herself smile just a little. Then she steeled herself. “Come here, give me your news.”

The messenger took a few steps further into the room. “Lady Harkesh,” she began.

Suddenly Isis couldn’t stand that reminder of the life she’d been living, who her husband was… had been? She felt sick. “I think I can guess enough to know that I am not that anymore, if I ever was,” she interrupted. “I am Healer Isis Va, and you can call me as much or as little of that as you like.”

“Then,” the woman corrected herself, “Healer Va, know that Meronteth Harkesh has died by his brother’s hand. Lord Nash wishes you to know that nothing Meronteth could have done would have erased the wrath he held for the Red Glade’s betrayal.”

Isis couldn’t restrain the beginnings of a bitter laugh, though the motion hurt her chest terribly. “I could have told Meronteth that,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I know what kind of dragon Nash is.” She resented the tears that began in her eyes then, at the confirmation of her fears.

“So could I,” the tall woman answered, voice tinged with amusement too dark and resentful to shine.

“Harkeshes and their tempers,” Isis said, shaking her head. “I knew Meronteth too well to think his brother would have much tolerance for betrayal. I’m going to miss that vicious, brainless son-of-a-bitch more than I wish I would, though,” she said, the waver in her voice becoming more pronounced. “There’s good in him, though it doesn’t outweigh the bad, that’s clear enough now. He’s left me with quite the parting gift.” Her fingers fluttered over the bandages on her breast, ribs and stomach, the wound which gave a focal point to all this pain.

The woman’s eyes widened, and she stepped closer, looking unwillingly fascinated. “Forgive me, but… your husband did that?”

Isis sighed. “He did. He was angry. And I understand all too well why. He was caught between two cultures, the one he was raised in and the one I tried to create with the Red Glade. He never quite understood how to be one of us. The Harkeshes… they all try so hard to escape the less civilized parts of their natures, to cover that ferocity with manners and trappings. Then it all tumbles out when they’re at their worst. Denial doesn’t really help them to stop it.”

“Do you think it’s inescapable?” the woman asked with a strange hush to her words. “That temper, that ferocity, is it in their natures from the beginning?”

Isis’s eyes focused on her then as they hadn’t before, focused and stared and dissected. This was what she showed a care for, then? The potential in lost souls? Well, that was something worth feeding. It was also, Isis had cause to know, a very dangerous road to walk down.

Isis breathed out. “No, I don’t,” she said, reaching over and stroking Ezri’s dark hair, hair with the same red sheen as her father Meronteth and her uncle Nash had had in their scales, when they walked the earth in scales. “I think they could’ve been taught kindness. Taught to accept themselves and go forward from there. But it’s too late for most of them.”

Likely it had been too late for Meronteth, when Isis had begun the task centuries ago, and she had, perhaps, been arrogant even to try. But what else could she have done? She’d loved him.

She loved him still.

There was something dark and shifting in the messenger’s eyes that told her this woman was liable to make the same kind of mistake, and it prompted Isis to add, “Centuries too late for Nash.”

“I have no doubt of that,” the woman answered. “But his youngest child….”

Isis’s attention sharpened yet again on the woman. “You’re not asking idly. You’d return to House Harkesh, with that task in mind? Stay in that damned household, but not out of fear of Nash?” She twisted further towards the woman, stopping only when the stretch of her injured muscles burned. “Tell me who it is with such bravery.”

“Gabiya Natikan,” the woman answered.

“Gabiya, how long can you stay before you’re missed? A few hours?”


Isis thought about that. She had a strong feeling that Gabiya should be staying by her side, but she didn’t know quite where it was coming from. Some instinct, some intuition that the woman would prove a useful ally? Or her own shock and grief, not wanting to let anyone out of her sight?

And especially not to House Harkesh.

“I respect your endeavor,” Isis told her, “and I want to give you whatever tools I can while you’re here.”

Gabiya considered that. “Five days,” she answered.

“Brave indeed,” said Isis, and her smile hid a fear that Gabiya was too brave, that no lesson Isis could teach would make up for the risk of keeping Nash waiting. “Are you sure?”

“Sure enough,” said the woman, still with that curious blankness, still showing none of the fear that perhaps should have been there, when confronting the prospect of thwarting Nash’s will, from within his own house.

Either way, Isis would worry about her.

Isis wondered what she’d gotten herself into this time.

  1. Chapter 1: Apprehension

Twenty Years Later

The well-traveled little silver Airstream that Isis was leaned up against was the only thing she’d called home in a long time. And that was how she liked it. There was something immensely satisfying about being able to decide at a moment’s notice to move yourself and all your worldly possessions. All packed up neat in the shiny dome she’d put together herself.

It’d been hers since they first came on the market in the thirties — more than half a century ago now! The time had flown. The trailer was her little self-contained office, clinic, anything she needed it to be. Even when she’d settled into Meronteth’s house, she’d always kept one foot out the door, ready (but not ready at all) for something like what had happened to push her out, to drive her away from the place she’d always considered to be part of the Harkesh empire, no matter how much Meronteth protested that he was not his brother’s subordinate.

So the trailer was all the home she needed, and at the moment, it occupied a parking space at a truck stop in Maryland, along with the newly-refueled pickup hitched to it. Ezri was off getting them some supper, and through the thick, muggy twilight came the sound of footsteps… too fast and too silent to be human. Isis shifted forward onto her feet, awaiting whoever it was.

“They say the Red Glade is secretive,” said an almost-forgotten voice. “But this vehicle? It’s pretty distinctive.”

Isis was more interested in the voice than the words, drawn into memories by the way it was dry and matter-of-fact with that paper-thin veneer of tractability. And yes, it was Gabiya who stepped into view from around the trailer.

“Nash’s network found me, huh?” Isis asked dryly.

Gabiya’s flat look was the only answer she’d give to that. “You should protect yourself better,” she said. “Travel in force, if you insist on traveling openly so close to Nash’s city. You may have a reputation among the Movrekt, but I well know you’re not invulnerable.” She stepped closer, black-clad arms crossed. “I’ve been sent to warn you away. There are plans in motion that the Movrekt will not let you interfere with. Nash may not dare to attack the Darkhnit openly quite yet, but remember, there’s nothing in the Treaty that says he can’t send an assassin after you… or your daughter.” Gabiya waved a hand in the direction of the glow from the nearby building, where Ezri was.

That sent chills down Isis’s spine. But at this moment, she wasn’t as worried about Ezri as she was about others, others who had not been so thoroughly trained in survival as her daughter had been. “And you?” she asked Gabiya. “Have a care for yourself. I doubt Nash had so much to say to me. You’re giving away an awful lot about your master’s plans, things that I could tell the Darkhnit.”

Gabiya laughed bitterly. “They won’t believe you,” she told the healer. “They won’t believe a word of it. Nash has the Silver Horn elders well in hand. He’s been playing the long game for longer than anyone else still on the board. You’re walking into something you don’t understand, something you can’t win.”

Isis had heard that before… and really, she had no reason to disbelieve it. “What would you suggest I do?” she asked the Movrekt woman.

“Take the people you love,” Gabiya answered. “Run and hide. Wait until it all blows over.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Why not?” Gabiya asked her, eyes flat, demanding.

“I have a responsibility to do what I can to help.”

“And if you can’t help?”

So many questions. Well, it wasn’t as if Isis had never asked these questions of herself.

“Then what it comes down to is that I love all of dragonkind, and I won’t hide until I can bring all of them to safety as well.”

There was a glint of some emotion Isis couldn’t quite catch in Gabiya’s eyes. “That’s impossible,” she said.

A breath of dark laughter escaped Isis. “Maybe so.”

Gabiya’s eyes lingered on the healer, as if testing her resolution, her strength of will, before speaking. “There is… perhaps… one way. If you have the legendary prowess you’re known for. If you could kill Nash.”

Isis widened her eyes at Gabiya, but the woman was unapologetic. Lowering her voice, she responded, “That’s not what my power is for. I don’t kill unless I have to.”

“But you don’t deny that you’re capable of it.”

“I likely am.”

“Then I pray that you realize in time that it is necessary. That it’s the only way to protect your people, the people you love so much.”

Isis stared at her a moment, shocked down to her core, then shook herself aware again. “Bahamut’s sake, come inside, don’t say things like that out in the open when Nash knows where you are.” She opened the Airstream’s door. “There’s a ward for silence I can put up easily enough on the trailer.”

Gabiya stepped inside, all grace and self-possession, but once the door closed, she sank in on herself just a little. She watched Isis as the wards were hung and their activation spoken with a low hum.

“The world is about to tear itself apart, Isis,” she said. “No… Nash is about to tear the world apart.”

Isis sat, slowly and calmly, on her narrow bed, and patted the space beside her. “There is no being so powerful that they can destroy life on Earth all by themselves. Whatever happens, this world will recover.”

Gabiya sank down beside her. “Nash isn’t one person. He is the Movrekt. He is his businesses, his networks. This world grovels at his feet, even if they don’t know it yet.”

Isis’s hand hovered, and then dropped onto Gabiya’s thigh. “They’re afraid to say no to him,” she said. “Because he likes to pretend that no one says no to him and survives. But once the war begins, once more of us stand up and defy him, I think we’ll find his power over this world has been more than a little exaggerated.”

Gabiya stared down at the hand on her knee, focusing on it as she gathered herself to speak again. “You don’t understand. The real war is happening now, in secret, before anyone can catch on. While no one can afford to question whether Nash is as powerful as he seems.”

“If he’s so dangerous,” Isis asked her quietly, “then why are you still with him? Why haven’t you run?”

Gabiya took a long, low breath. “Mahkai isn’t ready to turn on his father.”

“The Reaper’s son.” Isis sighed in understanding. “That two-faced lizard is still kind to him, then?”

“He’s obedient,” Gabiya shrugged. “More or less. Of course Nash is kind. Lord Nash’s other children…. He has a fundamental disagreement with their life choices. Mahkai’s little rebellions are like a breath of fresh air to him.” Gabiya was silent for a moment, and then she said, more quietly, “And Mahkai… he’s so much like his mother.”


“The Lady Myara must have been remarkable,” Isis commented softly. “I left the Movrekt before Nash met her.”

“She saw the good in everything, everyone, even Nash.” Gabiya’s voice had more feeling in it than it ever had before. “It made her soft. It made her blind. But I did love her.”

“Seeing the good in people doesn’t make you soft,” Isis objected, but then she shook her head. “It’s not seeing the evil, the cruel, the dangerous. It’s not seeing the whole of someone that gets people into trouble.” She squeezed Gabiya’s knee. “Which happens all too often. So I know what you mean.”

“He knows his father is dangerous.” Gabiya turned her head, finally meeting Isis’s eyes. “I just don’t think he realizes that Nash will burn down the world with all of us in it, before he’ll leave it to others.”

Isis didn’t know how to reply to that, but she heard her daughter approaching anyway, and soon the trailer door opened with a muted thud and a rattle.

“Smelled like we might have company. Glad I got extra.” Ezri looked at Gabiya, blinking for a moment as if she’d expected someone else. “If, you know, you’re staying,” she added.

“You probably don’t remember Gabiya,” her mother said. “She’s a servant in House Harkesh.”

“No, I do,” Ezri corrected as she put down the food and looked at Gabiya with a curious half-smile. “You smelled like a Red Glade caster. Been practicing your magic?”

“I’m afraid I’m not here to eat or to socialize,” the Movrekt woman said, her face closing off at the reminders of the circumstances of their meeting. “The Movrekt know where you are and what you intend. You’re both in danger.”

“And what do they intend to do about our presence?” Isis asked her.

“Nothing,” Gabiya answered. “The Movrekt believe that the Darkhnit forces will topple at the touch of a feather, regardless of your help, and from what I’ve seen of the spy reports, that doesn’t seem so far wrong. The Silver Horn training is barely adequate for the old wars, and they face an entirely different Movrekt.”

Isis looked disturbed. “I knew they’d grown complacent, but… they’re dedicated to the cause. I’d hoped that would be enough to keep at least a little of their old edge.”

“So if they’re not getting ready to go to war,” Ezri asked, “then what the hell do a whole clan full of warriors do all day?”

Isis sat, reaching for the takeout containers. “That’s what we’re here to find out.”


There were some days when the entire Philadelphia area, as a whole, felt as if it were drowning in sweat.

Tempers frayed. People cursed the weather. All except a handful of extraordinary creatures, not quite human, but sailing along under the radar, perfectly neat outfits covering the signs of their differences, but also revealing their cool-blooded natures to those who knew what to look for. Here a man in a black wool suit and leather gloves, there a woman with hands perpetually in the pockets of her leather jacket.

Not all of them risked exposure by going out and about in the warmth, but all of them savored it, going about their business with glad energy. It was a good day to be a half-dragon.

Whether it was a good day to be Khislon Jantus in particular, well, that was another question entirely. But he was determined to make it better.

He always was.

Even lying, as he was now, winded on the sandy floor. As he so often found himself, fighting for breath in the heavy, moist air.

This was familiar. This was the way things were. The grit of the sand under his back, the creak of the wooden staff in his sweaty grip… his cousin Jacan’s mocking grin set across from him in the expanse of the practice arena.

Khislon wanted to wipe that face clean. Finally prove himself a match to that cocky, cool, infinitely frustrating… best friend in the entire world. Always standing over him, always reaching out a hand to pick him back up when that world-spinning impact finally left him. Always laughing as if he knew the secret Khis had spent his whole life looking for.

Jacan shook his head as Khis was finding his feet again. “Dude, what was that? This isn’t drills. You’re not gonna get anywhere using the same move every time you attack.”

Khis brushed grains of sand off himself, out of his fluff of white hair before answering. “I haven’t gotten it right yet.”

Jacan blew breath out explosively, sending dark hair away from his eyes. “Y’know, far be it from me to tell someone they’re joining the wrong clan, but… are you sure you don’t want to change your mind and go with Iron Scale? Make the same clay bowl over and over again to your heart’s content. But that’s not exactly how fighting works.”

“Oh, shut up.” Khis rolled his eyes.

“No, I’m serious, okay? You want to make it in a real fight, you’ve got to be able to think on your feet.”

“Like you’ve seen more combat than me, when we’ve both gotten exactly none. Come on, Jacan, just help me train.”

“That’s what I’m trying to do,” the dark-haired boy muttered, but he got into position for another round.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Listen, you know I just want you to do better. Because I’ve seen you do better. When you get all angry and frothed up and forget to think too much. That’s what you need.

“I don’t like myself when I’m like that,” Khislon said, tensing, feeling hyper-aware of every movement his body made.

“Yeah,” answered Jacan, “you’re scary. You’re not likable. You’re a fighter. Embrace it. Now come on, stop executing maneuvers and fight me!

“What do you think I’ve been doing?”

“I dunno, but it isn’t what I’d call fighting!”

Khis set his jaw and tried to kick his brain into gear. Look for advantages, weaknesses. What he saw was his uncle, in the deep blue and gold robes of his station, standing in the doorway. Khislon didn’t know anyone else in the compound who wore traditional Darkhan clothes just… around, all the time. It was one of those things about him. So was the way the priest narrowed his eyes at Jacan, as if suspecting him of something, even if he wasn’t doing anything wrong.

The look made Khis’s anger flare up. He didn’t like the feeling. It wasn’t right. He should respect his uncle, respect the Golden Scroll priests.

But the anger was here, and Khis needed an edge. He let it burn. Grudgingly, hesitantly, but he didn’t snuff it out when he focused on Jacan again.

He wanted to hit, to batter, to break down barriers. He wanted to kick his uncle in the teeth.

That sick feeling burned through the paralysis of consciousness until his body moved smoothly, remembering and executing his training until he was breathing hard and standing over a winded Jacan, his cousin’s staff thrown far to the side and the sand floor scattered and mounded and clinging to them both.

Jacan’s shocked and breathless face morphed into a grin. “So, you can work up a real head of steam.”

Khis shook his head. “I don’t know if this is the approach I should be taking… but thanks… for helping me out.”

“You bet your ass I get thanks.” Jacan smirked as he stood. “This was supposed to be my day off. Wasn’t planning on sparring today. This was a one-time favor.” He yawned as he bent down and retrieved his staff from where it had fallen. “Come on, gotta get back before Dad starts in about whatever shit it is today. Think I was supposed to help him with that rust-bucket of a car?”

“Yes, Jacan; in fact, you’re late.”

“Dad!” Jacan croaked, spinning around, wide-eyed.

The figure in the doorway had his arms crossed firmly over his chest. “Come here, both of you.”

“What is it, Dad?” Jacan asked between sharp teeth.

“Neither of you knew I was here, did you?” Ganit shook his head disapprovingly. “Your vigilance leaves something to be desired. I suggest you spend more time meditating on awareness, and less time seeking out the distractions that humans use to fill their time.”

“I saw you, uncle Ganit, but I was a little busy,” Khislon said with a pained smile.

Jacan’s face remained dark. “Yeah, me too,” he muttered.

“Jacan!” Ganit’s expression seemed to be looking straight through his son and not liking what he saw. “I have never heard you quite so free with your language in the War Hall, when you knew I was listening. It should not be my presence which holds your tongue. In the world, your shoes gather filth, so you leave them in the entrance when you enter this holy place. It is a shame you cannot leave your mouth there as well.”

Khislon tried to hide a snicker at these words, and failed.

“Something amusing, nephew?” Ganit said, turning on him now.

The way he said that word, as if being the uncle and thus the elder made him superior! Khislon masked his reaction and gave a low bow. “Nay. My apologies, Uncle.”

“Lay off him, Dad!” Jacan began. “It’s not like we’re at worship or anything. We’ve had a three hour session and we’re exhausted. You just have to get so damn high on yourself, don’t you?”

Ganit’s eyes narrowed. “You know I’m right, son. I’m only trying to teach — ” His jaw worked as Jacan continued to glare at him, finally turning and striding away.

“Jacan!” he called after his son, but Jacan didn’t pause.

Khislon sighed, following his cousin down the hall. It wasn’t his fight — or maybe he just didn’t know where or how to step in.

The armory was neat, and packed full of weapons waiting to be used. Staffs, whips and batons sat beside steel gauntlets and nunchaku. There were arrows resting in quivers alongside their bows, field points ready to use while the shining broadheads were locked away. And in the far corner of the room, in a glass case, a length of steel chain glinted, vicious blades sprouting from the ends, like razor-edged leaves on the end of a vine.

Jacan stood in front of the case, eyes on the chain, transfixed.

“Jacan?” Khislon asked, trying to draw his attention away.

Jacan shook awake from whatever trance he was in. “Sorry,” he said. His voice had a strange softness to it when he spoke then. A kind of awe Khislon found more than a little unsettling. “It’s… just the chain again. It’s the only weapon stored in here that I’ve never had a chance to use.”

“And for good reason,” said Ganit from the doorway.

Jacan spun around and faced his father, his expression a match for the priest’s. Khislon could feel the air in the room grow colder. He’d had enough of standing around the two.

But he could still hear them as he walked out, sharp half-dragon hearing catching things he’d really rather not have to hear. It made him angry, and embarrassed for his cousin.

“It seems to me,” Jacan said, “that there are plenty of reasons for me to learn how to use real weapons.”

Khis would have been out of range by now if Ganit hadn’t raised his voice. “You think because the staff does not break the skin that it makes it less of a weapon? If you don’t respect the weapons you do use, then you are certainly not ready to use anything more dangerous.”

“More dangerous?” Jacan laughed derisively, and it echoed in the small room. “The Movrekt use weapons more dangerous, humans use weapons more dangerous. A warrior should know how to pick the right tool for the job. And it’s obvious to me. Taking — taking sticks and bows against the kinds of things they use is moronic!”

“The Movrekt should not be our standard of behavior. They are heathens. The humans use the weapons they do because they are… misguided.”

“And yet somehow they’re divine?”

“Don’t let me hear you say anything to contradict that! It’s the core of our beliefs. We are the caretakers. It’s our place to watch over them, guide them to a better way of living. We need to do better.”

“Watch over them? Watch them kill each other, and poison the planet we all live on? While their Silene Knights hunt us in the dead of night? How are we supposed to guide them if we’re dead?

Khis shut the door to the outside, shoes in hand, relieved that he could now hear only muffled yelling. He knew their arguments well enough by now, how Uncle Ganit put down everything Jacan was, everything he thought or wondered about. He sat, with a sigh, on the bench outside, facing one of the walls. The haze of the day was turning to a drizzle, but Khis didn’t give a single thought to going inside. He bent to put on his shoes (regular sneakers — human shoes fit half-dragons well enough, with the climbing surfaces on their soles furled and claws sheathed, although they did tend to go through socks relatively quickly), but his eyes stayed on the building in front of him.

The master stone carvers and artisans of the Iron Scale Clan had worked here until images of great serpents, writhing through the clouds, covered the modest outer walls. The beautiful images reminded the clan of their ancient shape — the shape they had forsaken when circumstances forced them into hiding. The shimmering roof tiles and decorative pillars had the same care put into their craftsmanship. But Khislon, as he fished in his sneakers for his socks, felt his eyes come to rest, as they always did, on the dragons.

This wall had two rather prominent ones, stylized serpents that soared through white clouds, their mouths open in fierce, silent roars, their bodies intertwined as though in a dance, or a battle. They did not seem threatening, but the metal glint of their eyes was hard; it would be dangerous to disturb their calm. The sight of them always made Khislon shiver just a little.

Of all the wall scenes on the entrance, Khislon found himself drawn to this one most often. He didn’t know why, but these two dragons always stood out to him. They seemed to be quietly calling to him, whispering to something within that he didn’t understand.

Could my people really be descended from such magnificent, such bestial creatures? Impulsively, he reached a hand out to trace the raised carvings on the face of the Blue Serpent. Raindrops had made the surface slick, dangerous.

It’s raining, he’s soaked to the skin, wet hair plastered to his face. Ahead of him, a terrible shape writhes in the storm. The monstrous figure roars, its voice terrifying, a mix of man and beast, echoing through the storm. Lightning flashes, illuminating the figure of a man; his hair billows in the wind like the mane of a lion. A hill of large, rounded stones —

Khislon shook himself out of the vision, backed away from the wall and nearly fell over the bench at his rear. He sat down hard, his face in his hands as he tried to rub out the images. His shoes and socks still lay near the feet of the bench where he’d left them. The dragons on the wall remained motionless, faces frozen in mid-roar.

What in the hell, thought Khislon, was that!? He sat still for a long moment, not knowing how to react. Eventually he roused himself enough to put on his shoes mechanically, and head for the shower he very much needed after that workout.

Khislon sputtered and gasped as he rinsed his hair and face in the scalding water of the shower. His mind still buzzed from the day’s events. There had been enough to put him on edge, even without….

The roaring continues, answering the thunder call for call. The creature’s body is covered with war paint, and his hands are curled ferociously, claws extended, caked in blood, running down anddripping onto a hill of — skulls! Not stones! Skulls! Human skulls!

Its eyes are dressed somehow, covered, but strange blue smoke burns from the sockets through to the surface of the fabric. Blood runs down his face. His grin is terrifying, fang-lined mouth dripping with blood and saliva —

It lasted longer this time, and the images clung like a cloak, heavy and unpleasant. Whenever Khislon closed his eyes during his shower, he could still feel the rain on his shoulders, still see him. That figure. Arms covered in blood, standing atop the hill of skulls. He could hear the rumble of the storm echoing around him. When he opened his eyes, his tattoos looked like the beast’s blood-streaked war paint, with soap and water running over them. The feel of violence, of gore, of death stuck with him; he couldn’t shake it, like a smell that clung even after he was clean. It disturbed him, but it also felt familiar somehow. Perhaps that was what frightened him. That he could almost empathize. He was angry.

Why did Uncle Ganit have to be so set against his own kid? They’d both tried to explain that they did the best they could. But there was no give when Ganit had decided something, no back-and-forth. His uncle had made his judgment and he and Jacan had been found wanting.

Khis didn’t know what to think. His stomach churned with guilt. He was always meeting with someone’s disappointment, always falling short. He tried to live by the rules as best he could, followed the Chronicle’s teachings, used the proper honorific tone and dialect when addressing the elders. Yet it was never really enough. There was always some question that he couldn’t find the answer to, some subtlety he must not be seeing.

Jacan hadn’t deserved Ganit’s censure, as far as he could see, and certainly not for any lack of ability as a Silver Horn cadet. He was the better fighter, he always had been. Jacan was considered one of the best in the compound, but all it took for Ganit to shake his head and announce disapproval was a few missteps and one loss in a final bout.

Jacan and Khislon had sparred through the afternoon, and only at the last had Khislon really managed to turn the fight around. Jacan had everything going for him. And despite the flavor of rebelliousness in his habits, he didn’t actually break many hard-and-fast rules. The only thing that could possibly be held against him was that he gave voice to the questions that sometimes went through Khislon’s head as well.

Ganit was one of the elders, if just barely, past his six hundredth year for a decade now. He deserved respect, or so Khislon had been taught. But thinking about his cousin, Khis felt just as guilty about mentally revering the man as he would have about openly defying him.

So Khislon did neither. Simple enough.

But the choice left him with a ball of uncomfortable tension in the pit of his stomach, even as he finished his shower and went off in search of food.

“If you stare at that bologna long enough, it’ll start talking to ya.”

Khislon jerked around, startled out of his thoughts. Then he grinned and shook his head, chuckling at his father. “Dad, that joke was terrible.” He started setting sandwich materials on the table.

“It’s called a sense of humor, son; you should get one sometime.”

“Really, you want to go there?” Khislon asked, raising his eyebrows. “You taught me everything I know about being an unfunny dork.”

Tzadok laughed and snatched a slice of bologna from the packet. “I refuse to believe your vile slander. Your mother taught you just as much.”

“Insulting my mom now, huh? That’s low.”

“There is nothing wrong with being an unfunny dork! Some of my favorite people have the sense of humor of damp wood.”

“Oh-kayy. You’re crazy, you know that, right, Dad?” Khislon suppressed his smile, hauled his sandwich to the table and bit pointedly into it.

Tzadok sat and let the moment of levity drift away. “A bit far away before I called you back to Earth, huh? Sparring wear you out today?”

Khislon shrugged and chewed, careful not to bring up thoughts, or the topic, of his vision.

“It wasn’t bad. Could have gone better at the end though.”

“What happened?”

“Uncle Ganit.” Khislon said nothing more. He didn’t need to.

Tzadok nodded slowly. “Case in point,” he joked briefly, inclining his head. “But I’m not surprised. Things have been tense in the Council. More so than usual anyway, and Bahamut knows my brother has always been a very… focused individual. Jacan has always been the independent type, which to him means being the opposite of his father in every possible way, and he’s been asking questions that Ganit doesn’t feel he can answer.”

“About the Chronicle?”

Tzadok nodded again. “Humans, the Chronicle, clan mindsets and customs, adulthood, sexuality… all of it perfectly normal. But it’s understandable that they’d butt heads over it. Catch any of the backlash?”

I wanted to punch the jerk. Khislon took another bite of his sandwich, shrugged again, pushing his anger away.

“Not really; Jacan took the brunt of it, always does. But I forgot myself for a second and laughed when I should have been respectful. Shouldn’t have upset him.”

Tzadok gave a small scoff, and Khis tried not to hear it as disappointment.

“Khislon, you can’t always take so much responsibility for how other people feel. There’s often very little you can do to change it, so you just have to live with it. And Ganit… his mind is harder to change than most, you know that. And it’s hardly ever anything you do. Actually he was really thrown off tonight because of the meeting at the Temple. Major changes coming in a few days.”

Khislon raised his eyebrows over his sandwich. “Changes?”

Tzadok paused, and Khis knew this was big. His dad didn’t tend to skirt around things. “We have some new arrivals coming into the clan in a few days. From the Red Glade.”

The Red Glade. Khislon could see why the neighborhood, why the Council in particular, were abuzz about that. The Red Glade were shrouded in mystery. They had once been part of the Movrekt, which certainly wouldn’t endear them here. They were said to be neutrals now, a nomadic clan of healers who sided with, and trusted, no one.

They took care to stay out of the way of both Movrekt and Darkhnit. Their coming to the main Darkhan military compound… it could mean anything.

“They are a somewhat… unconventional addition, so the elders are a little on edge,” Tzadok was saying. “But we have agreed to take them on as journeymen, for lack of a better term for the part they’ll play, and add them to our medical staff here. They’ve also volunteered to train you and the other warriors in new techniques. I told an old friend that at least one household here would be open and welcoming to them. Which is why it’s important that you and Zevlun be part of the welcoming ceremony.”

“I shall certainly strive to bring honor to our family on that day, Father,” he said as clearly as he could past a mouthful of sandwich.

Tzadok snorted and nearly doubled over. He waved his hand dismissively. “Never mind that, my boy, never mind,” he chuckled. “I’ll just be happy to have you there.”

He stopped when he saw Khislon’s eyes glaring at him through angry slits, his real eyes, radiantly blue like the sky on a midsummer’s day.

“Why do you always have to do that?”

“Do what?”

“You always just sweep it aside, laugh at me when I’m being serious. I wasn’t trying to tell a joke, I was being serious!”

“Khislon, I didn’t mean — ”

“I can never figure out how people want me to act. I’m always trying to do the right thing, the proper thing. Is that never enough for anyone? Jacan breaks the rules and he gets told to follow them. I follow the rules and I get told not to! What kind of logic is that? I don’t get it. Is there some secret set of rules buried in the archives that I haven’t found yet? What do people expect from us?”

“Impossible to know, I’m afraid,” said Tzadok, his voice calm, but a little sad. “Son, I’m sorry. I never want to belittle something you care so much about, but… you just seem to place a little too much importance on doing exactly the right thing — ”

“How can you even…. Isn’t doing what’s right or good the most important thing? The only thing?” Khislon’s anger subsided, replaced by confusion.

Tzadok ruffled his son’s mane and leaned in towards him, as if he were sharing a secret. “Khislon… doing what’s good and right isn’t a bad thing. But you can’t take on every task anyone sets in front of you. You can’t please everyone. It’s an impossible task. So you have to pick and choose. That’s your only real responsibility — to yourself and your own ideals. The only middle ground you can achieve in life is what you claim for yourself, and first you have to look around, see what’s out there. That’s what Jacan has chosen to do. That’s what we all have to do, and I think the Chronicle agrees. Do you remember that passage, where Bahamut tells the blind farmer he heals, ‘open your eyes and see’?”

“Yes,” Khislon said.

“The farmer had the means to heal himself growing in his own fields. It had to be his own works, coupled with Bahamut’s knowhow, his wisdom, that allowed him to see. You’ll have find your own ingredients, make your own paste. No one can give you the seeds for your own crop, you have to look.”

Khis shrugged, still very much lost. “But right is right.”

“Well, just remember never to take that for granted. Don’t ignore your doubts or your questions, and don’t turn a blind eye to something just because it doesn’t line up with what you think you know. Never stop looking for better truth.”

Khislon stiffened. “I am not a blind follower. I just know what’s obvious when I look around me.”

Tzadok rose and kissed his son on the top of his head. “I never said you were, my boy, never said you were.” He smiled at his son. “And no matter where you end up, following the Darkhnit way or blazing your own trail, Helen and I will be proud of you. You are our son. You want to satisfy us? Be yourself. Follow what feels right for you.” He disappeared into the den and switched on the news.

“I am being myself,” Khislon mumbled. He finished his sandwich and went to his room, flopping down on his bed in an unseen and dramatic show of frustration.


Aches and bruises. Another routine.

Khis lay winded on the ground, grass under him and his older brother standing over him this time. The details changed, but otherwise he swore it was an endless loop. Always pursuing the skill that those around him seemed to have naturally, effortlessly.

He loved them, his family, father, brother, cousin, but he couldn’t stop the jealousy that crept in under his skin when they proved themselves better than him over, and over, and over again.

To be fair, he’d been blindfolded this time.

He pulled the sweat-soaked square of fabric the rest of the way off, tossing it down resentfully. “I don’t understand why you have to cripple me,” he told his brother. “Come on, Zev, why is this so important? I’m never exactly going to be facing an enemy who forces me to put on a blindfold before fighting.”

“You’ve got to be prepared to use what you have,” Zevlun told him, sitting heavily in the grass as well, long black hair glinting blue in the sunlight. “We’re half-dragons, Khis. Our eyes are not always our strongest senses. Smell, hearing — that’s where we excel. But not if we don’t learn how to use them.”

Khislon scrunched up his nose, glaring at his brother. “Well, I don’t see how this is supposed to teach me.” He sighed. “I don’t think this is really my thing. My eyes work for me.”

Zev shook his head. “That’s not really the point. Your eyes can mislead you, distract you as much as help you. Your other senses are sharp. But your focus was scattered. It happens. The trick is to learn how to tune those distractions out.”

“How do I do that?” Khislon raised an eyebrow.

“Hone your strongest senses. Find your strengths, and focus on them. How did you sense me first?”

“I smelled you. It was a very mild scent like a faint spice. I couldn’t quite track it, so I tried hearing you too and — ”

“Okay, so you smelled me first. Let’s go with that.” Zevlun dug around in the gym bag he had brought along and pulled out a pair of industrial grade ear plugs made of orange foam.

“Put these in your ears and put your blindfold back on.”

Khislon’s eyes widened in shock. “What? Oh come on now, you have got to be joking!”

“I am very serious. Just trust me. Put these on, and for the next exercise, I want to use only your nose to track me.”

“I don’t know if I can do this,” Khislon said, contemplating the tiny pieces of foam as if they were something poisonous.

Zevlun reached over and put a hand on his brother’s arm. “Just be open, Khislon.”

The two brothers stared at one another in silence for a long moment.

“All right, all right,” Khislon relented.

It was strange, with his ears and eyes covered. He could hear his breathing, his heartbeat echoing alone in his head. But he could smell. So many different smells, so much information from just one sense. He could smell the whole compound, and the human neighborhoods nearby. The odor of earth, the animals and insects in the trees, the lives of people, rich smells of cooking and water and chlorine. Pollutants, his own sweat. A faint smell like cloves or spices. Zevlun.

His heartbeat sped up, the sound rising like water filling a glass. He acknowledged it for a brief moment, let it wash over him. Let it go. Focused in on the scent of Zevlun, the scent of his brother. Zevlun was moving, the scent rapidly getting stronger, shifting here and there. He was coming in from the right, the ground shuddering with the approaching thump of footsteps, the scent of hardwood somewhere above it.

He hefted his staff, and lunged.

Movement, sensation, speed all came together, and he chased the scent, trusting it, trusting himself. There was a thud of impact, a crack, and the smell of hardwood burst up and into his senses, fresh and exultant. This was right.

Was it right?

Khis took the blindfold off. He could still feel his heart beating in his ears, a growl on his tongue. He forced it down, back into the shadows.

Zevlun lay on his back on the ground, and his own training staff lay broken two feet away. He had fresh bruises on his right shoulder and leg. He was also grinning in a satisfied fashion.

“Now that,” Zev panted, “was focused. Well done.”

Khis smiled back unsteadily, not sure how he had done that, and not sure he wanted to know.


It was done. Khislon was a Silver Horn warrior. He and the others came out to the crowd to be greeted by excited family.

His dad patted him on the back. “Congratulations, Son.” His mom hugged him, grinning fiercely.

“I hope I make you proud,” he told his father. “I hope I figure out how to be everything you want me to be.”

“You do make me proud,” Tzadok told him. “Every day. You’re the best son I could wish for.”

Beside them, Zev rolled his eyes, but he was smiling widely. He and Helen went over to congratulate Jacan, giving the two some space.

“But you keep pushing me,” Khislon replied.

“And I always will,” Tzadok said. “There’s always more to shoot for in life. This is a big step. I get that. And there’ll be more like it, I’m sure. I know this is important to you. I remember when everything seemed that important.”

“Dad, this is my life. This isn’t going to stop being important to me. The most important thing. I hope you know that.”

“You’re young.”

Khis hated a little bit the expression his father got when he said that. “I’m not that young! I’m twenty-two.”

“You’re young, and that’s a good thing. You have so much potential. You could be anything.”

Khis shook his head. “I know what I want to be. I’ve known for a long time. I want to be a Silver Horn warrior.”

“And what else?”

“Dad, I know I have a lot to do to become the warrior I’d like to be. What more do you want?”

His father winced. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t mean to dim your excitement. But we’re celebrating the beginning of something. The beginning of a big part of your life. And I want that life to be rich. I don’t want this to become everything you are. I’m proud to be a Silver Horn warrior myself, but we all have to go off duty sometimes and get away from that. We need things that are just our own, and I’m worried that you don’t have enough things like that.”

“I don’t understand,” Khis huffed. “My whole life you’ve told me ‘if you want something go after it with everything you have’ and that’s what I’m doing now. I want to be the best Silver Horn warrior in the world. I want to be able to stand on the battlefield and represent the best of the Darkhnit.”

“That’s not your responsibility,” his father told him. “It can’t be. You’re only responsible for being Khislon Jantus. You can only be the best possible Khis. Representing the best in all Darkhan half-dragons, or even all Silver Horn warriors, is not something any one person can do.”

“But I can try!”

“And you’ll fail.”

“You don’t know that.”

Tzadok raised his hands in deference. “It’s not a weakness, it’s not something in yourself you need to fix. Anyone would fail, even Bahamut himself would.”

“But Bahamut is everything, he’s the beginning, the source, for everything good in all dragons!”

“And that’s all he is. He’s a beginning. Just like this. It’s important, but it’s not everything you will be. Bahamut was important, but he wasn’t everything dragonkind has grown to be. He wasn’t part human, like us, for one thing. So yes, this is a great beginning. Being Silver Horn is something to be proud of. But it’s not everything. We have to do the rest ourselves, as individuals. We’re all who we are for good reasons. We’re different people for good reasons.” He shook his head. “You try to be anyone else than who you are, you’ll undermine yourself. And you’ll fail.”

“Maybe I wouldn’t,” Khislon muttered, but he waited until his father had vanished back into the crowd and probably wouldn’t hear.


“Now remember that despite anything I might say about these people, anything Gabiya might have said, that they are formidable fighters, and it’s a point of pride for them, and more than that, a way of life,” Isis told her daughter, gesturing across the top of the steering wheel as she drove. “So don’t insult their skill unless you’re willing to back up your words with actions.”

“I always am,” Ezri answered with a somewhat smug tone.

Isis should have known that that’s what her daughter’s answer would be. “Then let me be clearer. Don’t insult them. Don’t underestimate them. I know you can fight, but in the Silver Horn… they’ve kept to their traditional ways of fighting because those traditions are so important to them. Central to the way of life of the compound. There are other clans, yes, but Silver Horn is the biggest. Many children of other clans come to the Silver Horn when they’re old enough to become journeymen. They have whole dormitories full of young warriors and warriors-in-training because they left their families to come here. They’re devoted to the study of fighting.”

“I know all this,” Ezri said impatiently. “Why tell me all over again?”

“Because I need you to get what it means, all put together. You know how Gav is now. Since he joined the Red Glade. He’s relaxed, happy. But you can see the little signs of Silver Horn discipline and the marks it’s left on him. How aware he is of every weapon that’s around him or on him. They’re taught to be devoted to the art of violence. I’ve taught you to defend yourself, but the Silver Horn is a different beast, and their fighting abilities are their honor. So be careful around them.”

“Sounds stupid,” Ezri commented, her face twisting in distaste. “Sounds… manly. Hey, didn’t you tell me once that it’s uncommon for Darkhan women to become warriors? Seems like an inefficient use of resources. Where are all of them?”

“They tend to train in other clans,” Isis told her. “Then request to be posted at the Silver Horn compound if their families live there. You’re right about one thing. It’s inefficient. But it’s the way they’ve done things for thousands of years, and I’m afraid they’ll go down defending their way of life.”

“You know, it sounds like you’re exactly what they need,” Ezri commented. “An unconventional woman warrior who’s not afraid to kick ’em in the ass and get things moving again.”

“I’m sure they have their share of strong women,” Isis replied. “I fear there’s only so much one more can do.”

“Two more,” said Ezri with a smirk. “And Mom, the two of us? We can do anything.”

Isis very much hoped that was true. It’s not like she’d managed to get very far down this road on her own.


Today was the day. Khis’s belly was fluttering nervously, and he deeply resented his organs for doing that to him.

They’d be in full array for the ceremony. Khis’s uniform had never been worn, except at his confirmation. It was still like opening a gift, every time he brought it out. Still new, still unreal and unknown.

A full family uniform had been folded neatly into the chest. Reinforced, armored boots, and white denim pants with a strange sheen to the fibers that looked like body armor. A shirt of rough spun cotton, and a vest made of linked steel plates mounted on leather to fasten over it. Both were burgundy red. Then a long robe was brought out, of forest green canvas with the same sheen as the pants. Embroidered roses gleamed blood red in the sunlight from the master bedroom window.

Last of all was an armored headband covered in deep indigo cotton, embroidered with gold and bronze colored thread, sewn in a band of angular Draconic script and topped off by a single rose — the Jantus family crest — in the center.

It took him a little longer than he expected to get everything on. The clothing was, after all, almost brand new and unlike last time, no one was there to help him get into it. Everyone was busy with something today. It would take some wearing in before he would feel comfortable and natural in the uniform. But when he stood in front of the mirror, when everything was arranged properly, or at least as best he could replicate the way his mom had done it the first time, he really liked how he looked. Like a true member of this clan; like he belonged. Like he was supposed to look. Picture perfect. He stood in front of the full length mirror and almost preened; too bad he felt so stiff.

Ah well. He headed out, eager to see what their guests would be like.

More than an hour later, he had yet to find out.

The welcoming ceremony was not off to an auspicious start. The Red Glade people were late, and the sunset ceremony was quickly becoming a starlit one. Ganit, standing in front of the council hall with an old, heavy book in his hands, squinted down at words he could barely see. He beckoned to Jacan, and the two of them had a whispered conversation. It got louder and fiercer, then came to an abrupt halt. Jacan sprang away from his father, grabbed Khislon by the sleeve and dragged him down the path towards their houses.

“Come on,” he said. “If I’m going to fetch and carry for my father I’m not going to do it alone. Everyone there is anxious to catch the first glimpse of someone new and interesting, and I don’t want to be the only one to miss it.”

“Okay,” Khislon said, walking faster so his cousin would let go of his arm. “So what are we going to get?”

“There’s some tiki torches in our garage. Dad wants them, so of course he orders me around like he owns me. ‘Hurry up, they’ll be here any minute.’ Of course I know that. Everyone knows that. That’s what we’re all standing around waiting for.” Jacan opened the garage door with a powerful wrench that had it clattering on its rails, then began to rummage through the items on the shelves, all the while muttering angrily to himself. “All Dad’s talk about discipline, you’d think he’d keep this place better organized. Where the hell are they?”

“Over here,” called Khislon from the back corner, where, indeed, four bamboo tiki torches were lined up, leaning against the wall. He tossed two of them to Jacan, who caught them gracelessly before turning around and stalking back across the lawn. Khislon sighed, turned off the light, and pulled the garage door down gently. It still squeaked in complaint at the previous ill treatment. Khislon started off after his cousin, who had already disappeared back into the trees.

I get treated like a subordinate by my best friend, even. I guess he’s beaten me often enough to have earned it.

Sort of.

He was walking across his own lawn now, the porch light pouring color out across the otherwise black grass. He heard a car door close and noticed the slight shine from the silver dome of a trailer sticking out from behind his parents’ garage.

All she had to do was turn the corner of the garage and walk forward out into the light. Any thoughts still running around in Khislon’s head crashed down onto their faces and lay still when he saw her. This wild, dark-faced young woman with eyes like brilliant daggers and hair braided long in spectacular knots that caught the light like reptilian scales. She moved deliberately, every step a testament to the grace and ferocity of her origins.

But there was also something else about her, a gentle sadness, barred and locked within her movements. Untrusting, wary, deliberate, hiding a beautiful, loving soul beneath the —

“Dude. Dude. That is not cool.” The words sounded as if from far away, but the irritation in her tone drew him back to attention.

She was looking right at him, expectant, like she’d asked him a question and he’d missed it completely. His eyes had drifted to… well, damn. He didn’t even know how long his eyes had lingered on her chest. She started right for him, her face reddening with anger.

“What do you think you’re looking at? Are you even hearing me? Is there anyone home?” She didn’t pause long before she continued, “Your mouth’s hanging open like you’re drooling over a piece of meat.”

Khislon immediately shut his mouth so hard it jarred his teeth.

“What, no explanation? No excuse? Well then why don’t you scurry away like the vermin you are.”

Mortification and anger fought to get up out of the pit of his stomach first, and he couldn’t find words. He couldn’t tear her eyes off her. He knew it wasn’t polite, but there was something about her that overrode everything that had been drilled into him. He needed to know more.

“I — I’m sorry,” he stammered, “but you’re…. I’ve never seen anything like….” He could only gesture at her, couldn’t think of words for everything he saw in her already.

“Oh, you want to blame me for your wandering eyes and your lack of basic brain function?” she spat. “Now go away before I’m forced to damage your poor deficient head even more.”

Khis reeled with those accusations. “No, I…. Wait! I’m not blaming you, it’s not like that!”

She stepped closer to him, stance threatening. “I said. Get. Out. Of. My. Sight.”

Khis held his hands up in front of him in surrender. “Can we please just start over?”

“Don’t even know when to retreat, huh?” She reached out and yanked one of the torches from Khislon’s unresisting grasp. “Well, let’s hope you Silver Horns are good for something. Because you’re going to need to defend yourself.”

Something burned inside him, something hot and at once angry and mortified. But he had to focus, had to feel nothing but the new determination to show her what he was worth.


Isis made her way to the clearing and stopped, expecting her daughter to be right behind her, as Ezri had just popped back into the trailer to find her shoes. But when she stopped to listen, she heard no footsteps, no leaves rustling. And when she did, it heralded a young man with dark hair and shadowed eyes carrying two tiki torches.

Something about the way he carried himself reminded Isis of the war general her husband had been. How he was restless without a battle in front of him. He handed the torches off to a couple of people waiting with lighters, and he looked around behind him, troubled.

“Well, now we’ve got half the tiki torches. And no Khis.”

Isis raised her eyebrows. “And no Ezri. Oh dear me. That poor boy.” There was humor in her voice, but also a hint of genuine concern, so when she backtracked, the Silver Horn followed, worry and curiosity combining to mean much of the crowd trailed along after her.

But her worry was for the dark-haired boy. Ezri knew how to act.

Well… most of the time.

Isis hurried her steps.


Ezri wore a snarling grin as she stalked towards the young warrior she meant to teach a harsh lesson to. Her blows were unrelenting, coming in quick succession and hitting hard. Khis could only block about two-thirds of them, and he still hesitated to deal her that kind of genuine hit in return.

He tried to knock her feet out from under her, tried to disarm her, but this wasn’t an official match, no rules had been set, and just a moment ago he had been struggling hard to keep things polite! This had come out of nowhere, and he was nothing like ready. It was hard to switch gears, without the cue of an agreed-upon sparring match.

It was disorienting, but it also made his nerves sing with a strange kind of newfound awareness, that the regimented proper time and place for fighting could be breached so easily, even here at home. How should he treat this? It was a kind of choice he’d never had to make.

Was this a real fight? The kind he’d waited for all his life? The thought was exciting, but could he justify treating this as such when he was at home, in the compound, among allies, and facing weapons and moves no more vicious than what he faced in training every day?

One more blow to the gut, though, one more bruise on his bruised body and he finally had to listen to his instincts when they told him to defend himself. She was serious, and she would not stop until he stayed down. He tried to focus, tried to see her as an enemy, see where his real opportunities were for taking her down.

She was good, but she put more into offense than defense, and he watched for his opening, finally swinging his improvised staff hard against the side of her head.

That only seemed to enrage her. Blood dripped down from her temple, shining black against her brown skin, and her eyes burned with fury as she went after him with renewed ferociousness.

He was starting to worry that he would have to seriously injure her if he wanted to keep himself in one piece. He took a few more painful blows as he tried to think of another way out. They ached and stung, but he didn’t let them influence his choices. It didn’t matter how much pain she inflicted. The fight was entered. Backing down from a fight was not part of who he was. Only there were no rules for this.

Was that the answer here? Should he back down? Retreat? It was all she had asked for, and she was a lady.

On the other hand, she seemed to be enjoying the fight, fangs bared in something half snarl, half grin, and if this was how she wanted to treat him, he couldn’t begrudge her the bruises. They’d heal, after all, and were gifts of experience, as his brother always reminded him every time he complained about training.

But Ezri was a puzzle. Her words said one thing, and everything that he’d known all his life said another. He’d heard variations on it so many times.

When you meet her, you’ll just know.

“Ezri!” came a woman’s shout, resonant and strong, as a second woman very similar to the one in front of him stepped out onto the lawn.

Ezri didn’t stop, and so Khis kept defending himself, stalling for time. Stalling for some sign of what he should be doing.

Then he felt eyes on him. It seemed as if half the compound had followed the new woman, and they all watched as Ezri rained down blows on his head. And there was another to the solar plexus, for good measure.

The second black woman approached, looking thunderous, but her eyes were trained on Ezri. Khis saw his father out of the corner of his eye, approaching from his side. Strong arms wrapped around him, and he didn’t resist, glad to have his choice made clear. And thankfully for his own hide, Ezri was soon restrained as well, still struggling a bit while Khislon was just simply, frankly relieved.

“Are you all right, son?” Tzadok murmured.

Khislon winced. “I’ve been better,” he answered. “But I’ll live.”

“Mom! Let go of me!” Ezri was saying in a harsh whisper that carried.

“No. This is over,” said the woman who held her.

“I needed to teach him a lesson, but he wouldn’t stay down!”

“Hmm,” her mother said. “Good for him. Ez, you’re not the only one with pride that needs defending. Now please, let’s go and graciously accept the welcome that these people have prepared for us. If, that is, it’s still on offer.” She looked a question at Tzadok.

Tzadok looked to Khis, hand still on his shoulder but otherwise leaving him free to do as he saw fit. “What do you say? Will you welcome them with us?” he asked.

“Of course,” Khislon answered, straightening his rumpled clothes, wincing at a couple of grass stains. “I was in the wrong.”

Tzadok gave his son a small, somewhat rueful smile. “Let’s see to it, then.”

And they trudged back into the woods, the whole of the compound trailing after them again.

Ganit waited between the two surviving tiki torches, book in hand, and when everyone had settled back into their places, he began the ceremony without comment beyond eyeballing Khislon’s rumpled clothes. He spoke the phrases in Draconic that Khis remembered from the ceremony where he had gone from a child of the Silver Horn clan to a journeyman, a trainee. Then he went on in English, the part where the tribe heard and witnessed the background of the new additions. Khis listened, curious about the new arrivals, perhaps even more so now that he’d been attacked so unceremoniously by so graceful a creature as Ezri.

Ganit’s tone wasn’t quite warm, but it was respectful. “When a descendant of Bahamut wishes to join our tribe, we welcome them as a journeyman. Today’s additions are a little different, but we welcome them wholeheartedly, nonetheless.

“No one knows exactly what happened in that place and time which the Red Glade hold sacred. Except, of course, for those who were there. Those who were there, and conscious, when the miracle occurred.

“All that outsiders know is that very few of the many who fell wounded on the battlefield that day, died. Some survived who should not have. Movrekt, Darkhnit, and humans alike.

“After that day, the group who had witnessed that moment refused to make war on the side of either Movrekt or Darkhan. Their new purpose, they said, was to preserve life and strive toward peace. Since then they have wandered, seeking to broaden their knowledge of medicine, to treat those that need their service and to prevent injuries by discouraging those who would fight. Life is sacred to them.

“Today we welcome two of these worthy dragons and their followers to share our home, to exchange knowledge, and to talk of our common goals and how best to achieve them.”

The Red Glade had a frightening reputation, from what Khis had heard, but also an honorable one. They were supposed to respect life and health above all else. So the woman he’d come face-to-face with tonight was not just beautiful, but also fascinating. And oddly, the bruises she’d given him did something to still that impatient buzz under his skin.

If only she didn’t seem to utterly hate his guts, then everything would be perfect.

His father sent him in the direction of the healer’s house as soon as the ceremony ended. Healer Laleh was just finishing applying ointment to Khislon’s bruises when a familiar strutting dark-haired figure burst into the room. The healer shook her head a bit fondly, and left, with a “Take it easy for a bit, okay?” as her parting words.

Khis gave a hurried, “Thank you, Healer,” then turned and looked curiously, and a bit suspiciously, at his cousin. He wanted rest, and the arrival of Jacan hardly ever meant rest.

Actually what he wanted was to crawl into a deep hole and hide for the rest of his life, but rest was a close second. Khislon watched the possibilities evaporate before him as he saw that determined glint in his cousin’s eye.

“I’m dying to hit the clubs,” Jacan said, putting a hand on his shoulder and looking at him pleadingly. “You up to joining me?”

“Now?” Khis looked at him incredulously. “I’m achy, I’m exhausted. I just want to go to bed.” His whole body throbbed, actually, just thinking about moving any more than was absolutely necessary tonight.

“You don’t want to stiffen up, do you?” Jacan said with raised eyebrows. “Come on, walk it off, hit the clubs, move however it feels right.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s not exactly what I need right now,” Khislon said dubiously.

“Oh, come on. Trust an expert.” Jacan sighed, and put on a little bit more of a serious face. “You fight with someone who you care maybe a little too much what they think of you? Sometimes you just need to let loose, and trust me, right now, you need to let loose.”

Somewhere inside him something twinged in recognition, knew that he needed something more than crawling away to lick his wounds. It was the same part of him that longed to stand up and fight for something important, longed to see the battle he was meant for. He ached to stand up and act — and he ached with the need to gain the good regard of the dark goddess who’d laid him out so thoroughly. Even though he was pretty sure he’d already ruined his chances, within two seconds of meeting her.

Bad day to be Khislon Jantus. So what else was new?

He knew what he’d be inclined to do if left to his own devices. Hiding from the embarrassment of his inappropriate actions — that was something he’d tried before, and it wasn’t a good feeling.

Overreacting, letting go, indulging in the vices of life in the human cities — would that really be better?

That little defiant part of him spoke up to remind him that he wasn’t actually sure how it could make him feel worse.

Khis gave up, gave in, and followed his cousin.

It wasn’t that he hated clubbing; it was fascinating to watch the human crowd bump and sway and the lights were very pretty. But it was way too much at once.

A hunter with finely tuned eyes, ears and nose? Noses tuned to the subtleties of mammalian (prey) smells, fear, contentment, …sex, and there was all that, layered over with perfumes and alcohols and drugs. Khis didn’t know how to deal with that, let alone all the attention directed his way. He felt like he stood out like a sore thumb. His hair, his awkwardness…. The stares and looks never turned into conversations, thank goodness for that. Not something he could have handled on top of everything else.

He’d never seen the appeal of all this — putting yourself on display, your body and movements, for the whole crowd to gawk at and judge. But today he began to understand the difference in these eyes from the eyes that he’d come here to escape. Ganit’s eyes judged harshly, Ezri’s eyes judged terribly. The glances that slid over him here were impersonal, distant, easily moving on from his face and body to that of the next anonymous figure.

He’d never understood how Jacan could find this relaxing, but in this moment he did — it was another version of that deep hole he’d wished for, only something not quite so lonely. It was a roomful of strangers who all wanted to escape from the pressures of their normal lives and be who they were without the judgment of anyone who mattered. Anonymity was precious, for creatures who lived in each other’s pockets, who knew everyone in their tiny hidden neighborhood by name and whose superhuman senses sometimes told them more about each other than they’d ever wanted to know.

Khislon took a breath, and although the mass around him was still dizzying, he found for the first time that the jumble of unfamiliar smells, the sweat of a hundred unknown beings, made him feel safe and unseen instead of surrounded and gawked at. And he danced, because no one he cared to hide from was watching.

Isis was a patient teacher, and Khislon knew it. He knew that she wasn’t like anyone else here, that she wouldn’t hold it against him if he asked the wrong question or mentioned the wrong thing. But he still found it hard to break the habits of a lifetime.

After a long and seemingly pointless, monotonous lesson, Khis found himself struggling to hold back the question, “Why are we doing this?”

Isis just looked at him for a moment, unsurprised, exasperated. “Why didn’t you ask sooner?” she questioned, fighting to keep the whiny note out of her tone that was threatening to creep in.

“I trust you,” Khislon answered. “Your lessons don’t always make sense to me, but there’s always a point.”

“And if there isn’t?”

“There must be a reason, at least.” He shrugged, a little bit of his self-pitying look on his face. “You enjoy watching me make a fool of myself?”

“No, I really don’t.” Briefly, she wondered if the opposite were true, if he got something out of being seen as foolish or awkward. Well, either way, she was determined to teach him to reach for something else.

“So why?” he asked.

“To see how long it would take you to ask.”

He looked a little bewildered, a little hurt, but he didn’t protest.

“Why did you wait so long? Why do you hesitate so often?” Isis asked him. “Why isn’t it natural for you to ask questions of your teachers when you don’t understand the lesson?”

“I don’t want to be rude,” he said, citing the excuse that was becoming common between the two of them.

“It matters so much?” she asked. “It’s more important to you than learning the lesson, understanding the hows and whys of a warrior’s life?”

Khislon shrugged and stared at the floor. “I don’t know, I just want to get things right. I don’t like what happens when I say or do the wrong thing.”

Isis looked incredibly unhappy. “If you hesitate by nature, you’ll hesitate on the battlefield. If you hesitate on the battlefield, you’ll like the results even less.”

“I know.” Khislon sighed. “But I can’t help wanting to get things right. How can I move if I don’t know where I’m going yet? And I feel like if I can just do exactly what I’m supposed to, I’ll get by without a scratch.”

“This from a warrior!?” Isis nearly laughed aloud. “Tell me something, my boy, do you honestly believe you can win a battle without being wounded?”

“No. But I haven’t gotten there yet. I’d like to get good enough to win without getting hit. The best warriors never get hit, or so the trainers used to tell us.”

“Yes, well, I’m your trainer now and I’ve been alive a long time and fought a lot of battles and I’ve got some news for you, little hatchling,” Isis said, and with that she pulled off the top of her sparring uniform.

All of it.

Khislon knew he should look away; he knew it wasn’t proper to stare at a female with just underwear on if you weren’t married to her. But he couldn’t help himself, and it certainly wasn’t the fact that she was topless that had him staring.

Isis’s torso was covered in scars. Nicks and cuts and several puncture wounds stood in many shades of pinks and browns on her dark skin. She had a thick, mean looking purple-brown scar that ran from her armpit to somewhere below her waist line. And a bullet wound had puckered angrily on her left shoulder.

“Faster healing than humans means worse scarring,” she reminded him. “But if you can get the right herbs, quickly enough, it helps a lot. Suffice to say I’ve been in a lot of scrapes where getting help was not easy.”

She really didn’t care about polite. Nothing else had managed to drive that lesson home, but this did. Before he could stop himself, Khislon felt his mouth moving.

“Where did the big one come from?”

There was a long hesitation before she spoke, and when she did, her voice was blunt but distant.

“My husband gave it to me.” Another memory, even less pleasant than the last. This place, this boy, seemed determined to drag them out of her.

Well, as long as the sharing dragged the questions out of him, as well.

“Ms. Va… Isis.” Khislon stood dumbly for a minute. Then he asked another certainly inappropriate question. “Could you tell me what happened?”

He expected her to refuse. But she just moved to sit on the sandy floor. Her eyes engaged with his again, back in the room for the moment.

“Why do you want to know this?” she asked.

Khislon sat gingerly down beside her, letting his staff rest on his crossed knees, back against the wall. Not wanting to ask whether she was going to put her shirt back on. Feeling supremely awkward. But he had given up not feeling that way. Best to revel in it. Get something out of it.

“This will sound stupid, but… I feel like it will help me understand Ezri a little better. And you. You’re part of the clan now, why not try and understand… something about the people around me. Everyone else seems so confusing right now.”

She was silent for a moment, watching him. Then, “You understand that you have to give her space, Khislon? Give her time. And even then, she’s certainly not a sure thing. She’s her own person. And it’s good that you’re starting to question your assumptions, because I have a feeling there are a lot of them that Ezri wouldn’t like.”

Khis blinked at her. “I don’t… I try to be respectful. I know I’ve messed up.” Even his olive skin was showing a deep blush now, keeping his eyes firmly on her face. “I’m trying to do better.”

“Good,” said Isis, “but I’m not sure if you understand what exactly the problem was.”

“I looked….” He blushed even deeper. “I let my eyes wander.”

“Listen to me, Khis,” she said, “a breast is just a breast. They’re not meant to be secrets. They’re tools, like every part of the body. I used these to feed Ezri when she was a baby. That’s what they’re for. That’s what they mean to me. Now look at them, and tell me what you see.”

“But I….” He swallowed hard, and his face set in determination. “I won’t. It’s not right.”

“Why?” she asked. “Khislon, child, what do they mean to you?”

“I haven’t earned that. That’s… there are steps that come before something like that.”

“So they’re a reward, for completing some kind of courting obstacle course?” she asked.

Khis didn’t know how to answer that. It seemed to fit his idea pretty well, but when she said it like that, it sounded wrong.

“Well, they’re not, Khis. They’re just part of a body, part of a person. And when you set them up as a goal unto themselves, you’re either ignoring or devaluing the person who they’re part of. And that is the problem.”

Khis frowned, looking lost. “But I’ve always been taught that it’s respect to leave things private.”

Isis nodded. “That’s part of the culture you’ve been raised in. But respecting a person means respecting them first as a whole person, and respecting how they see themselves and how they want to be seen. The people you’ve known before might have all thought the way you do — you’ve been very sheltered, I think. It’s good to respect their privacy. But to me, my body is a tool, a very well-used one, and I don’t see anything wrong with taking it out to look at it, especially when I’m teaching. You can’t teach someone how to properly use a sword without ever unsheathing your blade.”

Khislon cleared his throat. “I don’t know if I can….” He trailed off, not knowing how to articulate this.

“You don’t know if you can examine every part of me and still respect me? Or you don’t know if you’ll learn anything when you’re distracted by my body? Because if it’s the former, get it over with, find out, and if you can’t? Then get out of the lives of me and my daughter right now. But if it’s the latter? Take a good look. Get used to it. Because it’s not only a weakness when training, it’s a weakness when fighting, being that distractable. And a weakness in every other aspect of life, as you’ve had reason to know.”

Khis felt as if there had to be some dark, heavy consequence for something that he’d been warned against so strongly, but he did it anyway, looking at the parts of Isis’s body that his eyes had skittered away from before, even as the multitude of scars had held his gaze.

It was at once frightening and fascinating, but it was almost disappointing how right she was. They were brown and scarred, like the rest of her skin, and it was partly her attitude towards them, her complete lack of either embarrassment or flirtation as he gazed at them, that allowed him to see them eventually as what they were, no more, and no less. A functional body part, one piece of a functional half-dragon body.

His eyes moved back to the broad, ugly scar across her torso.

“You don’t have to tell me. I don’t want to pry,” he said. “I thought… it didn’t seem like I should ask, but I’ve kind of lost all idea of what you’d consider private?” He grimaced a little bit.

“Asking is a good way to find out,” said Isis with a dry smile. “In some ways it’s one of my many war stories, depending on how you define war. But, in any case, I tend to think of war as a very personal thing.”

Khis shook his head. “That’s okay. I learned a lot already. Thank you.”

“I didn’t say I wouldn’t tell you. I just want you to know that it’s something more private than I generally share with my students,” she said. “And it didn’t happen in a vacuum, either. It had as much to do with what kind of relationship we already had as it had to do with what actually happened that day. Meronteth and I… well, as much as he thought he loved me, when we got married, we expected different things. I wanted to get away from all the customs of the Movrekt that I hated. He just wanted to get out from under his brother’s thumb. There were a lot of things that he took for granted that I wasn’t interested in. And in the end, what it came down to was that he wanted to control me more than he loved me for who I was. So, Ezri and I, we’re both… very careful about those things now.”

“Well, he was Movrekt,” Khislon began.

Isis shook her head. “I was Movrekt for a long time, too,” she insisted. “Every culture has its good and its bad. Every culture has a set of unnecessary assumptions it makes. Movrekt doesn’t mean evil, and neither Darkhan nor Red Glade always means good.” She laid her hand on one of his. “Khis, it is never too late to escape the boundaries your culture has placed around you.”

“You both see me like you see him, don’t you,” Khislon said, beginning to be agitated.

“In many ways, yes,” said Isis. “I always believed that Meronteth truly wanted to be good, but couldn’t quite figure out how. If I didn’t believe in that potential, even at the worst moments — especially at the worst moments — I wouldn’t have stayed with him. It takes a lot for me to give up on someone, because I’ve devoted myself to healing, no matter what the cost. Ezri, I encourage to protect herself, because she doesn’t yet have that kind of devotion, and I’d like her to get hurt as little as possible as she finds her way in the world.”

“I don’t want to be compared to….” He stopped himself. “I’m sorry. You loved him?”

“We both did. And he loved us. Only… not quite in the healthiest way.”

“What happened?” he asked, listening intently.

Isis gained a faraway quality to her gaze as she dredged up the memories in more depth. “Meronteth loved to hunt. He was a dragon, through and through, and he felt more comfortable in scales and wings than he ever did in the skin of a mammal. He’d brought home a deer that day, and so I was making venison stew.” She laughed a little, self-deprecating. “I don’t just know bodies from putting them back together. I’m a fair hand at taking them apart, as well.”

It didn’t please her to admit it, and the subject at hand clearly weighed on her. She sighed, then continued. “A hunt usually settled him, but not that day. I could hear tension in his steps, smell anger on him before he came into the kitchen.

“He’d seen my bags where I’d set them out in the hall, and he wasn’t happy. Things had been tense since I’d started working again. I joked around a bit, talked about how he could spend time with Ezri while I was gone, did what I could to remind him what we both had in our little family that we were proud of, that we both valued, but truth be told, that was little enough. He could never wrap his mind around the ideals I’d dedicated my life to.”

“He didn’t like you healing up humans,” Khislon said.

“He was Movrekt still, more than I’d realized; he’d spent so much time at Nash’s side. But he didn’t see the humans as sheep, not the way Nash does. He saw humans kill plenty of his kind over the centuries. He saw them for wolves. When a wolf takes enough of your cattle you hunt them down, as many as you can. And there I was healing the wolves.” The corner of her mouth twisted in a joyless smile. “Basically, a conservationist married to a well-armed rancher. It didn’t make sense to him. Especially since his biggest fear was that I could get killed by one of the wolves I was healing.”

“He did care about you, then.” Khislon seemed puzzled. “But if he thought that way about humans… about what you do….”

“A person doesn’t have to lack dysfunction to care for someone else, Khislon. Or love someone else. Meronteth, he had already walked away from a lot to be with me, lost other things before that. Some of his siblings, his and Nash’s siblings, were killed by humans too. Think about that. The war took a lot away from him. The life he had before was slipping away. The world was changing and he needed somewhere to belong. He tried to let go of a lot to be with me, to share a life with me. I… was not enough. I couldn’t have been. Because I wasn’t the problem. Anyway….”

She took a deep breath and went on.

“I told him there was a new spell I wanted to try out. That it might help break physical addiction. That wasn’t good, of course. For a long time, drug trade has been a major source of income for the Movrekt. For his brother, his people. He told me to leave off, to stop trying to fix things for the humans.

“Well, I wasn’t going to abandon the sick. There were people there dying, poisoned. I had a duty. But he couldn’t see that, had been on the Movrekt side too long to recognize that the way they manipulate humans is wrong. He brought up all the old arguments, of course. ‘You told me the Red Glade would be neutral. Only defending ourselves or stepping in if the Treaty was broken. What do you call this?’

“I was tired of pretending that his loyalty to Nash made sense to me. Fed up with holding my tongue. I wasn’t the only one who had something else in mind when we first married, when the Red Glade was created. I tried to put all my anger into the task in front of me, be satisfied with the snap of the carrots under my knife. But there was too much. And then I asked, ‘You don’t think they’re breaking the Treaty?’

“Before I knew it he’d slammed his hand down over mine. Trapping me. I can still feel the heat of his breath on the back of my neck. The force of the vibrations as he yelled. ‘This city belongs to my brother, do you understand? It is off limits!’

“He could get so angry. I’d seen it before on the sparring mats, and before that, of course, in the war. I’d forgotten. And never realized, until then, how little control he had over it. I couldn’t get my hand back, not without leaving him holding the knife. I tried to stay calm, I really did. But he kept yelling the most ridiculous things. Defending Nash, saying I insulted him by healing humans. Well, I couldn’t bear to be touching him after that. I yanked my hand back, even though it meant he kept the knife, but I socked him one on the jaw while I was at it.

“I couldn’t hold it in anymore. It was all too much. His stubbornness, his arrogance. I’d been angry at him before, but… that was the first time I realized that I could truly hate my husband.”

Isis shook, exhaling forcefully out through her nose.

“I don’t remember what I yelled. I do remember how his face changed when I said it. I hadn’t realized he could look any angrier than he already had.”

She fingered the thick ugly line across her belly, eyes wet. Khislon felt like he should do something, but he didn’t dare. She was the teacher; he was only a student.

“I remember red. I remember him with the knife in his hand, all of a sudden. I remember wondering when had all that red leaked out of his eyes and onto the knife, and then he was looking down at my chest, horrified instead of angry. I don’t remember falling.

“When I came to, Ezri was standing over me, all wide, teary eyes. I was so out of it that I asked her what was wrong. Of course she was upset. All she knew was that her mommy was bleeding, and her daddy wasn’t there.

“I woke up just enough to tell her we had to cast a spell. She was so brave. I can’t even imagine how difficult that must have been. Here is this tiny girl with two stubby little pigtails and a cartoon unicorn on her shirt — don’t ever let on I told you that by the way, she’d kill me — and she finds her mother bleeding to death on the floor. She was so brave, and when she did the chant, her voice didn’t wobble once. She knew how important it was. It’s almost funny now, she probably learned that steadiness from Meronteth’s sharpshooting lessons.

“We got through to the others of the Red Glade, and then all we could do was wait. Ezri went to get towels, and I had her lie on top of them to try and keep pressure. It hurt but it was more of a comfort than anything else would have been. The smell of her hair was so normal, so comfortable. I kissed the top of my baby’s head, told her everything would be fine, and I was down for the count.”

“Meronteth never returned, I take it?” Khislon asked.

Isis snorted; it was not as bitter as she expected.

“He ran straight to Nash. After that… no matter how things went, they could never have been the same.”

“Do you… hate him for doing that?”

Isis shook her head slowly.

“No. I hated him for other things. When I found out that he’d died I felt awful, realized there were good things about him, things I loved, things I was going to miss. Still do. But he was an idiot about people. He actually went into Nash’s office unarmed. Actually was that naive when it came to his brother. He thought the information he had on me and the Red Glade would be enough for Nash to take him back. Nash, as far as I know, embraced him, heard his words, smiled at him welcomingly of course, thanked him for the information, and shot him square in the face. Meronteth never understood how much it had hurt Nash that he left. That scar is one of the things that’s always twisted him up inside.”

Khislon felt like his head was spinning. Ezri’s cold demeanor, her strange empathy with the women around her, simultaneously present with her dark glares at just about any man — it was all making a sick, sad sense. “How old was Ezri when all this happened?” he asked.

Isis bit her lip, eyes misty.

“She was six years old. She worshiped her father. And he stabbed her mother in the gut, ran away, and betrayed her people. Can you imagine? I know I can’t.”

There was silence for a minute, Khislon shifted his legs in the sand of the floor to stretch them out. Isis wiped her eyes and began stashing the memory back wherever it was she’d pulled it out of. At the same time, she gathered up her shirt and clothed herself again. Then she turned and looked at the young warrior and gave him a surprisingly amused half smile.

“What?” Khislon asked. He looked suitably unsettled.

Isis snorted again, not unfriendly, though.

“Do you still want to date her?”

“… Yes.”

“Are you sure?”

Khis thought for longer this time. “Yes… if it’s what she wants. Having her not hate me would be a good start.”

“Then learn to be okay with the scars you receive. Because none of us can get through life without a few scars. It takes an understanding of failure and pain to understand people. If you don’t learn about them you’ll get yourself in trouble. The way Meronteth did.” She shook her head. “And never forget that Ezri is who she is, she does what she does for a reason, and if you truly value her, you’ll value those reasons, because if you don’t, you’ll find yourself facing one hell of a fight.” She examined him with a piercing half-glare. “Do you understand?”

Khis nodded slowly. “I think I have a lot to learn about how the two of you think,” he ventured.

“Take nothing for granted, Khis, not with this girl. Not a word, not a touch. Ask for everything, every step of the way. She loves deeply, but she will not take your shit.” Isis’s expression softened a little, that slightly amused dry smile showing up again. “But realizing how much you don’t know,” she affirmed, “is always a good place to start.”

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Full Book List

The Half-Dragon Series

The Red Glade Peacemakers

The Movrekt Warmongers

How to Train Your Mafia

Other Books



The Grafting Mark



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