Fireborne – Rosaria Munda

Later, he would be known as the First Protector, and under his vision the city would transform. Serfs would be freed, schools would be built, and dragons would, for the first time, be ridden by commoners. Before that, he was the leader of the bloodiest revolution his people had ever seen. He never doubted that he would create a just city. Nor did he doubt that the families of the old regime deserved to die. But he did, sometimes, regret the way it happened, the day the palace was finally overrun. He remembered in particular one of the ruling families, their tormentors still at work when he found them. The dragonlord had been kept alive, to watch; his youngest son was the only child left. A boy of about seven or eight, his expression blank beneath a mask of blood. The remains of their family lay around them. “Stop this foolishness at once,” the First Protector said, when he and his guard found them. The revolutionaries let go of the boy, whom they had been hurting, and began to protest: This man is Leon Stormscourge, don’t you know what he’s done—but they fell silent when the dragonlord spoke from his knees on the bloodstained carpet. “My son,” he said, in the language he and the First Protector shared. “Please, Atreus.” The First Protector took a half glance at the child.

He said, “Leo will be looked after.” He gave one of his guards a murmured order. The soldier started, hesitated, and then lifted the dragonlord’s son in his arms. When the boy had been carried, limp and silent, from the room, the leader of the revolution knelt before the dragonlord. “Those—animals—” the dragonlord rasped. The First Protector did not disagree. Instead, he put a hand to the knife on his belt. When he met the dragonlord’s gaze, it was in an unspoken question. The dragonlord closed his eyes and nodded. Then, to the First Protector’s surprise, he spoke.

“Your vision,” he said. “Do you think it will ever be worth this, Atreus?” The First Protector drew his knife. “Yes,” he said. The dragonlord’s question returned to him often in the years that followed. Even as many of the other details of the Revolution began to fade from his memory, he remembered Leon Stormscourge. Leon’s son, on the other hand, was a detail he forgot. 1 MESSAGES FROM THE MINISTRY Nine Years Later LEE Morning is our favorite time to fly. Today, even with the tournament looming and the empty arena below us a reminder that soon we’ll be watched, for the first time, by thousands, it’s still possible to savor the city sprawled beneath a dragon’s wings. When we pull tight on a turn, I glimpse one of Pallor’s black eyes, depthless, turned on me. The line between us, of shared emotions and thoughts that are usually latent in the saddle, goes taut.

Yes. Today it begins. Today we’ll rise. But in order to do that, I’ll need a clear head. I gently extricate myself from Pallor’s simmering anticipation and refocus on the arena. Two other dragonriders fly with us, each riding one of the other two breeds: Crissa and her skyfish are in the air above us, while Cor and his stormscourge glide below, bellowing ash over the arena stands. We’re on our last rehearsal, this time with just the squadron leaders. I lift my voice over the wind. “You’re taking her too low, Cor.” Cor grunts, frustrated, and urges his stormscourge higher.

We’ve rehearsed the choreography of the tournament’s opening ceremony over and over with ministry officials, and every time, the question of how to demonstrate the might of the stormscourge breed becomes tricky. Before the Revolution, the dragons of Stormscourge House—of my family —were known for terrorizing the countryside; but in even older days, they were our island’s greatest defense against aerial invasion. “They told us to fire low,” says Cor. “Not that low. It’s risky for the audience.” Our dragons are immature, barely horse-size, and can’t yet breathe fire. But the smoke they produce can still burn. Crissa and her skyfish, long, slender, and pale enough blue to blend with the morning sky, circle above us. “You want to impress the people,” she calls down to Cor. “Not roast them.

” Cor waves a hand. “All right, all right . ” The fleet is still in training, dragons and riders both. Known now as Guardians, the new regime’s dragonriders are lowborn, commoners, even former serfs. No longer the sons of dragonlords. Except for me, though I’m the only one who knows that. Because in the wake of the Revolution, to be dragonborn is to be wanted for dead. I was born Leo, son of Leon, dragonlord of Stormscourge House and Drakarch of the Far Highlands—but, since the orphanage, I’ve been Lee. Not even the First Protector, who saved my life and then welcomed me, without recognition, into his Guardian program two years after that, knows the truth. That a Stormscourge tested into the meritocratic dragon-riding program designed to replace everything his family stood for.

Even though I know I’m lucky to be here—lucky to be alive, lucky to have escaped the orphanage—memories of the old life have a way of intruding and twisting. Especially today, as Pallor and I circle above the Palace arena, open to the public for the first time since the Revolution. The old regime had tournaments here, too. Tournaments I watched my father compete in, dreaming of the day it would be my turn. I lean forward and rest a gloved hand on Pallor’s silver-scaled neck as his wings, translucent in the morning light, tighten in a dive. Pallor is an aurelian, a smaller breed known for being careful and maneuverable, and the aurelian formation for today’s ceremony is the only one complex enough to require coleaders. I can rehearse alone, but to do the thing properly, I need— Annie. There she is. Another aurelian, this one amber-toned, has emerged from the cave mouth at the base of the arena, and on her back rides my sparring partner, Annie. She and I have trained together for as long as we’ve been in the Guardian program, and we’ve known each other since the orphanage before that.

It’s a past life’s worth of memories that we’re both pretty good at not talking about. “Annie!” Crissa calls with a cheerful wave. “There you are.” “Lee’s been flying like an idiot out here without you,” Cor says. Pallor and I fire ash downward. Cor dodges the stream with a bark of laughter. Annie’s lips curve at Cor’s remark, but instead of answering, she rolls seamlessly into formation opposite me, her dragon, Aela, mirroring Pallor’s movements. Annie’s redbrown braid hangs low on her back, her pale freckled face set in concentration. I’ve thought of Annie as beautiful—strikingly beautiful—for almost as long as I can remember, but I’ve never told her that. “Take it from the top?” I suggest.

There are calls of assent from the other three. We right ourselves only when the bell rings the hour. The arena below, the Palace to one side and the karst pillar supporting Pytho’s Keep on the other, the jagged rooftops, the plains stretching out to the sea—for a moment I feel a protectiveness, almost a possessiveness, of the city and island spread below. The vows that we took when we became Guardians echo in my mind: All that I am belongs to Callipolis. By the wings of my dragon I will keep her . Today, eight of the Guardians will compete in the quarterfinal tournament for Firstrider, commander of the aerial fleet. I’m one of those eight, along with Annie, Cor, and Crissa. Qualifying rounds have been going on among the thirty-two dragonriders for weeks. It will be the first time since the Revolution that Callipolis names a Firstrider, one of the few titles it’s kept from the old regime. The dragons of the revolutionary fleet are finally old enough, and their riders well-enough trained, to vie for a position that’s been vacant since the Revolution.

For the other Guardians, the Firstrider Tournaments are a chance to prove themselves; for me, it will be that and something more. Because Firstrider is a title I’ve wanted since before the Revolution. It would be all the recognition, power, and respect that my family lost over the course of a single bloody month when I was eight years old, regained. Firstrider. Distantly, below, the bells of the Palace clocktower are tolling. I rouse myself. “We should get in for breakfast. Goran said he’d have the tournament bracket ready by then.” We land on the Eyrie, the jutting stone platform that rises from the center of the arena, where we dismount, unsaddle our dragons, and dismiss them to their nests in the caves below. Back in the Palace, we find the rest of the Guardian corps, thirty-odd students in all, trickling into the Cloister refectory from the dorms.

The walls of the refectory are bare stone, the windows high and narrow, breakfast the usual slightly burnt porridge. Though we are technically Palace residents, we live in what were, before the Revolution, servants’ quarters. “You’re up early.” Duck, Cor’s younger brother, has scooted on his bench to make room for us where he’s sitting with some friends. Though Duck and Cor share olive skin and wavy hair, in manner they’re opposites, Cor tending to scowl where Duck wears an open smile. Annie slides comfortably onto the bench beside Duck. They’re both sixteen, a year younger than most of us. While it was the first commonality that brought them together, they remained friends because Duck seemed to like the challenge. It’s hard to get Annie to smile, and Duck’s good at it. Duck lifts his spoon from his porridge and cocks it in Annie’s direction.

“Ready for your big day?” Annie snorts, but all the same, color enters her cheeks. A rare glimpse of ambition she usually keeps close to the vest. She is hunching again: Always, on the ground, Annie hunches, as if hoping to take up less space. It’s a jarring contrast to her confidence in the air. Crissa tells Duck, in the bracing voice she pulls out whenever she’s encouraging riders in her squadron: “Your big day, too.” Duck lifts his shoulders, grin flagging. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.” Like the four of us, Duck made it into today’s quarterfinals. He’ll do great—depending on how he handles his nerves, and who he’s up against. “Nervous, Dorian?” Speaking of which.

Power, one of the qualifying stormscourge riders, has passed us on his way from the serving counter. He drapes an arm around Duck’s shoulder, as if he were encouraging him, and flicks a spare palm over close-shaven black hair as he locks eyes with me. Power is around my height and weight, and this has always been the kind of calculation I make, and can tell he’s making, when we look at each other. Duck has gone rigid. “Get your hands off me,” he says through gritted teeth. Cor sets down his glass with a click on the hardwood table. I return my spoon to a resting position in the bowl of porridge. It’s almost disappointing when Power withdraws his arm. He’s become more careful in recent years. “Jumpy, are we?” He wanders back to the empty seat between Darius and Alexa, who have been watching our interchange apprehensively.

The tension slides out of Duck’s shoulders, and he makes a guttural noise of disgust. “Sometimes,” Cor muses, “I miss the days when patrician kids like Power got away with stuff, and it was up to us to keep them in line.” “I don’t,” Duck mutters.

.

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