Gold Dragon – Lindsay Buroker

Lieutenant Rysha Ravenwood flung herself to the ground, ducked her head low, and wriggled under the latticework of ropes. Mud spattered her face, sticking to her spectacles and her tongue, but she barely noticed. She dragged herself by her elbows and shoved with her knees, and finally burst out on the far side of the mud pit. The last obstacle came into view. Nerves and fear tangled in her belly like drunken vipers in a barrel, but she sprinted toward the burly sergeant as if her life depended on it. Her dreams did. She ran down the sawdust-coated path toward him, raising her fists as she approached. This time, she would make it, and without chicanery or any words spoken. She would get past him as the instructors demanded, by physically knocking him aside. The grizzled sergeant lifted his fists. Rysha expected a contemptuous sneer, a bored yawn, or simply professional readiness. Instead, he kept glancing over her shoulder, toward the wall she had climbed at the beginning of the course. Toward— Do you wish me to assist you at this crucial juncture, Storyteller? Shulina Arya, the gold dragon who had decided Rysha would become her rider, and who was perched atop the obstacle-course wall, asked telepathically. The interruption startled Rysha, and she almost tripped. No, thank you.

As much as she appreciated having a dragon cheerleader, she was struggling to convey to Shulina Arya that she had to do this without help. In addition to the sergeant she had to fight, a timekeeper watched the course, and nearby Major Kaika and Colonel Therrik oversaw everything. Therrik, his brows drawn into a V and his muscled arms crossed over his chest, appeared to be watching intently for dragon shenanigans. The sergeant shifted his attention back to Rysha and lowered into a crouch as she approached. She exhaled a quick puff of air. This was it. Her partner was still struggling to get over the wall—perhaps due to the dragon distraction atop it—so she didn’t have anyone to help her pass this final obstacle. Unlike the last time she’d attempted the course, the sergeant didn’t wait for her to attack first. He lunged forward, jabbing with his left fist, then throwing a punch with his right. It came straight toward her face—toward the spectacles perched on her nose.

Rysha dodged the jab and swung her arm up to block the punch, deflecting it despite the strength behind the blow. The sergeant recovered instantly and threw a backhand punch. She danced away, and it swished harmlessly past her face. Rysha was pleased to evade the attacks, but she had to enact her strategy if she wanted to get past him. She planned to use her six feet of height and long legs to keep him out of punching range by throwing a barrage of kicks. As he sprang after her, she lifted her knee and drove the ball of her foot toward his groin. He seemed surprised by the speed of her attack and couldn’t quite get out of the way in time. He twisted and took the brunt of the kick on his meaty outer thigh. At least she’d made contact. That didn’t faze him.

He came in, assailing her faster this time, launching a chain of jabs, straight punches, and uppercuts. Rysha stuck to her plan, blocking the first couple but then springing back, light on her feet as she did her best to stay out of his range. She also shifted to the left as she skittered away from him, subtly navigating around him and toward the path on the opposite side. She launched her boot at him again, this time feinting toward his face to startle him into throwing his defenses up high. As soon as he did, she twisted and slammed a side kick toward his chest. He drew his arm down to block, but the power of her blow sent him back a step. Once again, he recovered quickly and raised his fists for another attack, but Rysha, knowing the timekeeper’s clock was ticking, turned and sprinted away. She didn’t have to defeat him; she only had to get by him, and she’d made sure her maneuvers were shifting her in that direction. He spat and gave chase, but only until he reached a white line painted in the mud and sawdust, marking the end of that segment. She made it across it, and he pulled up.

Grinning, Rysha sprinted the rest of the way down the path toward the timekeeper, who stood blandly watching, his clipboard and watch in hand. She couldn’t be positive she had made it, not until he yelled out her time, but she had climbed over the wall far more quickly today than in the past, and she didn’t think that fight had gone on overly long. She lunged across the finish line and spun toward the timekeeper, tempted to tear the watch out of his hands so she could check for herself. A sublime performance, Shulina Arya spoke into her mind. But you did leave your enemy standing. Shall I fly down and smite him? No, he’s in my unit. He’s only pretending to be an enemy right now. Rysha leaned over the timekeeper’s shoulder. “Well, Sergeant? Did I make it?” Are you certain? the dragon asked. He is having predatory thoughts about your hindquarters.

What? Startled, Rysha stared back at the sergeant she’d faced. His smile did not seem predatory to Rysha, though his gaze was toward her butt. He caught her looking and lifted his eyes, then gave her an approving salute. She saluted back, hoping that meant he was pleased she’d fought well enough to pass him. She was. She had worried about this test for the last three weeks, especially since she had missed so many of her practice runs of the obstacle course, along with the daily combat drills and gymnasium exercises, when she’d been off on her mission with Trip and Kaika. Those aren’t predatory thoughts, Rysha explained to the dragon. I believe they’re lecherous ones. You may have noticed Captain Trip having similar ones about my, uh, hindquarters. Are they welcome or unwelcome? From the sergeant? So long as he doesn’t try to act on them, they’re fine.

For a moment, Rysha forgot all about the course and the training, and flashed back to that freighter in Lagresh, where a bronze dragon in human form had tried to sexually force himself on her. Fortunately, it hadn’t gone further than kissing and groping, but the memory still angered and shamed her. She felt the fool for not having sussed out what the dragon was sooner. She still hadn’t told Trip about the incident, and she hoped she could get away with never doing so. He wouldn’t blame her, she was certain, but he might think… Oh, she didn’t even know. It was more her own shame that she didn’t want to face or share with him. “Four minutes and eight seconds,” the timekeeper announced, lifting a pencil to his clipboard. “You made it with twenty-two seconds to spare. Impressive.” He looked toward Colonel Therrik and Major Kaika, who were walking up.

“I believe that’s a little faster than Major Kaika ran the course when she first passed twenty years ago.” “Sixteen years ago, Sarge,” Kaika drawled. “Don’t make me sound older than I am.” “My apologies, ma’am.” He saluted both officers. Rysha did the same, doing her best to look professional and not at all giddy as she did so. That wasn’t that hard since Colonel Therrik’s dour face did not inspire giddiness. And the dark frown he directed at Shulina Arya made Rysha uneasy. “How do we know the dragon didn’t help her?” Therrik growled. A shot of fear went through Rysha.

He outranked Kaika and everyone on the field, so if he decided she had cheated somehow, he had the power to nullify her test results. King Angulus had said Rysha could become Shulina Arya’s rider, making it an official military position, but only if she passed the elite troops training. Specifically, this test. “She didn’t help me, sir. She only came to lend moral support.” “A morally supportive dragon?” Kaika asked. “I didn’t know there was such a thing.” “You got over the wall easily for a woman,” Therrik said, his eyes still narrow. “Are you being sexist, Colonel?” Kaika arched an eyebrow, looking as calm and relaxed as ever, but there was a dangerous glint in her eye. Since Therrik outranked her, Rysha couldn’t imagine Kaika challenging the colonel in any serious way, but she was glad to have Kaika standing up for her.

“Just stating facts,” Therrik growled. “Women can’t pull themselves up as easily as men.” “I have no problem gripping things and pulling myself up. I can climb anything or anyone.” Therrik grunted. “So the barracks rumors say. You know I don’t have a problem with you being here, Major, but this young… officer—” he waved at Rysha, specifically her spectacles, and she was certain that wasn’t the first word that had come to his mind, “— isn’t you.” “No,” Kaika agreed. “We’re clearly different people. I don’t have a morally supportive dragon.

” Her gaze lifted to the sky, warning Rysha that Shulina Arya had left her perch. As the soldier Rysha had been partnered with trotted up, his lip bloody from his own encounter with the sergeant, the dragon flew down and landed behind them. The soldier squealed in alarm and sprinted toward the barracks. “Fail that kid,” Therrik growled to the timekeeper, as he eyed the dragon warily. He looked like he was trying not to step back and appear intimidated. Rysha tamped down a smug smile. Even though she hadn’t asked Shulina Arya to claim her as her rider, nor had she truly dreamed of that as a possible career path, Rysha had to admit it was delightful having a dragon standing at her back. “I’ve already noted that he didn’t finish the course in sufficient time,” the timekeeper said. “Also note that he wet himself when he saw a dragon,” Therrik said. The sergeant hesitated.

“There’s not a place for that on the form.” “Make one.” “Er, yes, sir.” Kaika clucked and shook her head. “What?” Therrik asked. “We were all hoping Lilah would mellow you, but you’re still hard and crusty.” “Don’t tell me you want that kid defending our country when dragons show up.” Therrik pointed to the retreating back of the fleeing soldier. “Perhaps not, but I do want Lieutenant Ravenwood defending our country.” Therrik squinted at Rysha and at the dragon.

He looked like he was going to voice a protest again, but Shulina Arya lowered her massive head so that it hung over Rysha’s shoulder. She felt like a doll in comparison. The dragon’s violet eyes gazed into Therrik’s. Is there a problem here? Has the Storyteller not sufficiently proven her skill and ability in your warrior course? Seconds passed as Therrik stared back at Shulina Arya, his body not moving, his eyes transfixed on hers. Even though Rysha wasn’t the recipient of the dragon’s stare and had no aptitude for sensing magic, she could feel the power radiating from Shulina Arya. Kaika, too, gazed at the dragon with that slightly blank and transfixed look. Can you ratchet your aura down a few notches? Rysha asked silently, trusting the dragon would be monitoring her thoughts. These are my superior officers, not our enemies. We’re not supposed to manipulate them. The male suspects you of cheating, Storyteller.

His mind is most surly. It’ll be surlier if he later realizes he was manipulated. And he might be even more suspicious of me then. “Who the hells is the Storyteller?” Therrik shook his head, as if to shake away the dragon’s influence. “That’s her name for me, sir. Whenever there’s time, I share my knowledge of history with her. About Iskandia’s past, the advancement of human science and technology over the centuries, and the political climates in the various countries around the world, past and present.” “And she likes that?” “I try to make it entertaining. The other night, I made sock puppets and acted out our troops repelling the Second Cofah Invasion on the beach at Durogonia.” Therrik’s expression screwed up into one of disbelief.

Maybe she shouldn’t have admitted that. Kaika thumped him on the arm. “When is Lilah plopping your little one out? You may want to ask her for tips. Babies probably like socks.” He stared at her. “You’re a weird woman.” “No arguments here, Colonel.” Kaika took the clipboard from the timekeeper who’d been watching the exchange neutrally, other than throwing a few concerned glances at Shulina Arya. “Sign off, will you, sir? I have a date tonight. I want time to wash off the mud spatters.

And Rysha will want to celebrate with her strapping young gentleman after she lets him know she’s passed the exam.” “Strapping…” Therrik’s brow furrowed. Rysha couldn’t tell if he was confused or repulsed. Either way, her cheeks warmed. “Technically, Captain Trip isn’t all that strapping,” Kaika said, “but I understand he can do amazing things with his magic. It’s like a tongue, but better.” Rysha’s cheeks went from warm to molten lava. “Ma’am. I didn’t say that.” “No, but Jaxi is a little gossip.

Of course, I could have guessed from the way you’ve stuck to his side since we left the dragon’s lair. His personality isn’t that engaging unless he’s got his dragon scy-thing—aura turned on.” “Scylori,” Rysha murmured. “I assumed right away that interesting things were happening under the blankets.” Rysha had no idea what to say. Therrik, his mouth drooping open, appeared to share the feeling. “You’re lucky,” Kaika went on. “My own experience sheet wrestling with a dragon left something to be desired. The magic was all for him. If a half-human dragonling is a more assiduous and thoughtful lover, then he’s a keeper.

” “Seven gods, Kaika. This is a workplace.” Therrik snatched the clipboard from her, scribbled his name on the bottom, and stalked away. Kaika tucked the clipboard against her hip, nudged Rysha, and said, “You’re welcome.” “For embarrassing me?” “For distracting him. I know you didn’t cheat, but some men have a hard time accepting that women can pass the same tests they can. And it actually did look a little suspicious with your dragon watching you from atop the wall.” “She’s not my dragon, ma’am,” Rysha said, aware of Shulina Arya still standing behind her. “She’s her own being. She’s simply being kind and watching out for my welfare.

” “So long as you two are ready to go into the sky and battle enemies at a moment’s notice.” Kaika looked toward the gray cloudy sky over the sea, making Rysha wonder if she’d heard intel that enemy dragons were on the way. It had been quiet in the capital during the three weeks since Rysha, Kaika, and Trip had returned from Rakgorath, but reports kept coming in from other cities and small villages throughout Iskandia. Dozens of dragons were about, consuming livestock, burning buildings, and killing people who were caught out—or who risked running out to shoot at the invaders. Wolf Squadron had been sent off several times in pursuit, and Rysha had barely seen Trip since they’d returned. With so much chaos in the country, she couldn’t be upset that they still hadn’t found time for a romantic walk along the harbor beach, but she did lament it. They also hadn’t had a chance to try having sex in an actual bed.


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