No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished – Rachel Aaron

Chelsie, youngest daughter of Bethesda the Heartstriker, knelt prostrate on the black marble floor. Beside her, her mother, adorned in Aztec gold from head to toe, knelt even lower, pressing her crowned forehead against the cold stone as she wept tragic, beautiful tears that somehow left the dark paint around her eyes perfectly intact. It was a stellar performance, and it should have held all of Chelsie’s attention. Bethesda never put that much effort into tears unless she really wanted something. Now, though, Chelsie barely spared her a glance, because for once her mother was not the most dangerous thing in the room. “Whore of the Heartstrikers.” The angry voice was dry as old paper, and Chelsie lifted her red-rimmed eyes to the massive golden throne shaped like a coiled dragon that dominated the marble hall’s northern end. In the middle of the coils, where the dragon’s head should have been, was a second throne of pure white jade with a god-like man sitting on top of it. His entire body from head to feet, including his face, was veiled in golden silk, not that it changed anything. Even with the heavy cloth, Chelsie could feel his angry eyes on her like teeth. But despite his obvious fury, the god-like man’s was not the voice that had spoken. That belonged to the ancient dragoness sitting beside him on the slightly smaller, but still incredibly ornate, black jade throne that had been built into the coils of the golden dragon’s tail, glaring down at the bowing Heartstrikers in absolute disgust. “You must have a death wish, harlot,” the old dragoness spat, her face—which already looked like wrinkled rice paper—crumpling even tighter in her rage. “Coming here yourself after what your wretched, shameless daughter has done. But then, you always were as deranged as your father, the Quetzalcoatl.

Perhaps you are proud to have produced a dragoness whose morals are even more degraded than your own?” “That is why I have come to you, Empress Mother,” Bethesda said tearfully, raising her head so that the gold-shrouded man on the white-jade throne could see the full effect of her beautiful weeping. “My youngest daughter is as stupid as she is ambitious. I sent her to your empire to form a simple alliance, but she had plans of her own, and now her bungled power grab has caused great pain for both of our clans. I have no excuse for her failures. I can only throw myself on your legendary mercy and beg the boon of your forgiveness.” “Mercy is the privilege of the powerful,” the Empress Mother agreed, resting her long, lacquered nails on the gold-swathed arm of the man beside her. “But my son is no mere dragon. He is the Qilin, the Golden Emperor, Dragon of the Middle Kingdom, Living Embodiment of All Good Fortune, and Head of All Clans. He can easily afford to be merciful, even to ones such as you, but what have you done to deserve it?” Her cold, reptilian-red eyes flicked to Chelsie. “This is no mere insult.

Your daughter has dirtied our family name, leaving us open to rank gossip and ridicule. These injuries are not so easily mended, even for ones as great as ourselves.” “And I am prepared to make amends,” Bethesda said immediately. “I have wealth, gold—” “We have plenty of that,” the Empress Mother scoffed, rapping her knuckles on the golden dragon that surrounded her and her son. “We are the dragons of China! All the fabled cities of gold in your pathetic jungle put together wouldn’t merit a blink of my son’s eye. But this is not an injury that can be mended with gold.” She pointed at Chelsie, who shuddered. “We welcomed your daughter as our guest, showed her great hospitality, and she repaid us with deceit and treachery. She sought to make us look as foolish as you in the eyes of our subjects. It is our good standing, our pride she struck, not our coffers, and if you wish to make amends for that, Heartstriker, then you must pay in kind.

” Bethesda’s green eyes grew wary. “What do you mean?” A cruel smile crept across the Empress Mother’s wrinkled face. “Even among dragons, you are infamous for your arrogance. The stories of you that reach our court are so wild I dismissed them at first, but one look at your gaudy display today shows that was a mistake. You are clearly every bit as prideful, feckless, and self-absorbed as the rumors say, and so that shall be your price.” She pointed at her feet. “Beg,” she commanded. “Get down on the floor and plead for your daughter’s life. Show us that even the Heartstriker can be humble before her betters, and perhaps we shall show mercy.” By the time she finished, Bethesda had gone still as the stone beneath them, and Chelsie’s tiny flicker of hope began to die.

She’d never do it. There was no way Bethesda the Heartstriker would beg for— Chelsie’s racing thoughts slammed to a halt as her mother dropped her head to the floor, pressing her golden crown flat against the stone with her jeweled hands outstretched on either side in a show of full submission. “Please,” she said, the word shaking with the effort it had clearly taken her to force it out. “Please, Golden Emperor, spare my stupid daughter.” The Empress Mother laughed in delight. “Excellent!” She cackled, settling back on her throne to enjoy the show. “Now, say you’re a whore.” Bethesda’s fingers dug gouges into the marble floor, and Chelsie held her breath, bracing for the explosion…that never came. Somehow, impossibly, Bethesda held herself together, glaring hatefully up at the old dragoness as she growled through clenched teeth. “I am a whore.

” “Louder,” the Empress Mother commanded, waving her hand toward the unseen dragons Chelsie could smell waiting outside in the courtyard. “I want the whole court to hear you confirm what everyone already knows.” Smoke began to curl from Bethesda’s lips, but again, somehow, she forced the words out. “I. Am. A. Whore.” “And a desperate one at that,” the Empress Mother agreed, turning to her son, who had yet to say a word. “You see now, my Emperor? It’s just as I told you. Bethesda the Broodmare is the worst kind of trash.

Even before she killed her father, she was famous for shamelessly seducing bigger, better dragons to add more soldiers to her infant army. She’s barely five hundred years old, and already she’s laid five clutches. Five! The last of which hatched just last year.” Her beady red eyes snapped back to Chelsie. “With such a mother, how can we expect the child to be different? Bethesda claims it was her daughter’s idea, but it is obvious to me that this whole mess was yet another of the Broodmare’s plots. I wouldn’t let her breed her filth into one of our clans, so she sent her daughter to worm her way in by deceit instead. And why not? The Broodmare and her children are cut from the same cloth. The lot of them are nothing but hungry, grasping scavengers who’ll take power any way they can snatch it. They are incapable of speaking the truth and unworthy of your presence. I advise you to kill them both now before they poison our ears with more treachery.

” Bethesda shot to her feet. “You lying—” The Empress Mother waved her hand, and dragon magic stronger and older than anything Chelsie had ever felt crashed down on top of them, forcing the Heartstriker back to her knees. “Worms do not stand in the presence of dragons,” she snarled, baring her yellowed teeth. “A creature such as you does not deserve the gift of the Golden Emperor’s condescension, much less his mercy! The best you can hope for is a swift—” The dragon beside her lifted his hand, and the Empress Mother’s rant cut off mid-breath. “Is it true?” His voice was as lovely as the golden throne he sat on. So rich and inviting, it drained the anger from the air. Even Bethesda relaxed when he spoke, but Chelsie could only lower her head. It was impossible to see through the golden shroud he wore to hide the glory of his face from the undeserving, but now as before, Chelsie could feel his eyes through the heavy fabric, boring into her like knives as he repeated the question. “Is it true, Chelsie?” The sound of that voice saying her name was almost too much to take. Everyone in the room was looking at her now, including Bethesda, who seemed to be holding her breath.

She was wondering if there was any way she could sink straight into the stone when the Golden Emperor snapped, “Look at me.” Slowly, painfully, Chelsie forced her head up to see that the Golden Emperor had taken off his veil, making everything a thousand times worse. She would much rather face the distant god with his unreadable mask of silk than be forced to look at that heartbreakingly familiar face, his beautiful eyes —not red like his mother’s, but golden. The rich, pure, buttery, glittering gold that dragons cherished above all other treasures—beseeching her as he rose from his throne. “Tell me it’s a lie,” he said, his lovely voice growing desperate. “Tell me she’s wrong, Chelsie, and I’ll believe you.” She dropped her eyes, hands curling into fists on the stone floor as she fought the temptation to yell that both of their mothers were wrong. That it was all a lie and she’d never meant to betray him. Never meant for any of this to happen. It would have been so easy, too, because it was the truth.

And yet… “Don’t you dare,” Bethesda hissed in their own language. “If he finds out the real reason you tried to run, an ocean won’t be far enough to save us. His anger will destroy everything.” Including him. Chelsie doubted her mother had considered that last part, but for her, it was the final twist of the knife. She’d tried so hard to fix her mistake, to make things right, but she’d only made everything worse. Even the last-ditch call for her mother’s help hadn’t changed a thing. If she told the truth now, all it would do was destroy everything even faster. With that, Chelsie knew her fate was sealed. Her only hope was to keep her greatest mistake a secret forever, but she couldn’t do that while the Emperor was looking at her.

She needed to get away. Far, far away, where he could never find her. Never know. Keeping him in the dark was the only chance she had left of righting the massive wrong she’d done them both, and so Chelsie committed to her path, raising her head to look the Emperor straight in his beautiful, golden eyes as she prepared to tell the biggest lie of her life. “Everything your mother says is true,” she said solemnly. “I was doing nothing at the bottom of my own clan, so Bethesda sent me to China to make myself useful by manipulating my way into your household. The original plan was only to gain a foothold for our family on this continent, but once I arrived at your court, I saw my own road to power. So, like any properly ambitious dragon, I abandoned my mother’s more modest plans and grabbed as high as I could reach. Too high, it turned out, but I have no regrets. Even though I got caught in the end, I still got farther than anyone expected.

” Her look turned cruel. “All the way to you.” By the time she finished, the Golden Emperor was staring at her like she’d stabbed him. “And this is the truth?” he said at last. “Are you certain this is what you mean to say, Chelsie?” “What else could I be?” she asked callously, giving him her own version of her mother’s famous smile. “I am Bethesda’s daughter, and Heartstrikers always go for the heart.” The false words hung like foul smoke in the air, and then the throne room began to shake. Cracks appeared in the black marble beneath Chelsie, and porcelain vases tumbled from their stands along the wall, each one hitting the ground at the exact worst angle that would smash them completely beyond repair. Even the jade thrones were beginning to crack, and the Empress Mother lurched sideways, grabbing her son’s sleeve so hard, her claw-like lacquered nails tore straight through the golden silk. “Remember yourself!” she hissed, her reptilian eyes gleaming with something very close to fear.

“You are the Golden Emperor, the Qilin! You are good fortune made flesh! She is nothing but a scavenger. A lying, conniving, power-grasping harlot by her own admission.” She turned on the two Heartstrikers. “I will kill them myself! Once they are crushed, you will see how little the schemes of worms mean to powers like us!” “No,” the Emperor said, clenching his fists. The earthquake died down moments later, though it had yet to stop completely when he turned back to Chelsie one last time, staring down at her with a hateful glare that was so out of place on his handsome face, he looked like another dragon entirely. “You,” he said coldly. “Leave my lands and never return. If I ever hear that you or any of your wretched family have set foot in my kingdom again, I will take my mother’s advice and crush you myself.” “Of course,” Bethesda said immediately. “Thank you, Golden Emperor.

Your mercy is truly—” “Don’t thank me,” he said sharply. “Just leave.” The command was still echoing through the wrecked throne room when the Emperor turned on his heel and walked out, vanishing through one of the hidden doors behind his enormous throne. His mother followed a second later, pausing just long enough to give Bethesda a final, disgusted look before she hobbled after her illustrious son, leaving the Heartstrikers alone in the still-trembling throne room. The moment the Empress Mother was out of sight, Bethesda shot to her feet. “This is all your fault!” she roared at her daughter. “I did everything Brohomir told me. I crossed the ocean. I begged. I humiliated myself for you, and for what? Your foolishness just lost us this entire continent forever!” “I know,” Chelsie whispered, lowering her head.

“I’m sorry. I—” Bethesda grabbed a handful of her daughter’s waist-length black hair, yanking Chelsie up until her feet were dangling off the ground. “I don’t care about sorry!” she snarled. “You cost me more than China today. You cost me my pride. You cost me what I swore I would never give, and you’re going to pay for it.” Her green eyes narrowed as she bared her sharpening teeth. “Every day, for the rest of your life, you will pay.” Point made, Bethesda dropped her youngest daughter on the ground like so much trash and walked away, her golden sandals clicking musically across the cracked floor. Chelsie was still lying where she’d landed in shock when a hand landed on her shoulder.

“Get up,” Brohomir said softly. “We have to go.” Chelsie blinked in surprise. She hadn’t even realized her brother was here until he spoke. For a desperate moment, she almost interpreted that as a good sign before she remembered even a seer couldn’t save her now. “Why should I?” she whispered, pressing her face into the mercifully cold stone. “You heard her. I’m going to pay for this forever.” And forever was a very long time for a dragon. “I think I’d rather die.

” “If that was actually true, you wouldn’t have put us through all this,” her brother said gently. “But like it or not, you lived, and now we have to move on.” Easy for him to say. “You saw this would happen,” she growled, tilting her head to give the seer a hateful look. “Why did you let me come here in the first place if you knew it would end like this?” “Because, believe it or not, this was the happy ending,” Brohomir said with a sad smile, reaching down to brush her long, tangled black hair out of her face. “You still could have warned me.” He shrugged. “Would it have made a difference? You already knew exactly how bad things could get when you embarked on this foolishness. If that couldn’t stop you, what hope did I have?” The rightness of his words hit Chelsie like a punch, and she slumped back down on the stone, defeated. “I know,” she whispered, wrapping her arms around herself.

“I know I was stupid. So, so stupid.” “You were,” Brohomir agreed. “But there’s no point in dwelling on it. What’s lost is lost forever. All we can do now is move forward, and you should be glad you have that much. There were a thousand ways you died today. I bent over backwards to steer us down the one path where you didn’t. You might not thank me for that in a few minutes when you see what Mother has planned for you, but trust me when I say this was the best of bad options. Now.

” He reached down to help her up. “Let’s go home, before any more of the ceiling falls on our heads.” His hand hovered just above her own, but Chelsie couldn’t bring herself to take it. She knew he was right, that the only choice left was to accept what had happened and find a way to live with it, and with herself. But when she tried to imagine her future, all Chelsie could see was her mother’s boot coming down on her throat over and over again forever, and…and she just couldn’t. She couldn’t move forward. Not if that was all she had left to look forward to. “You see all our futures, right?” she whispered, looking up at him. “Tell me it gets better.” The seer didn’t answer.

He just sighed in that way of his, as though he’d already gone through this a thousand times before. To be fair, maybe he had, but Chelsie refused to give up. “Please,” she begged, reaching out to grab his hand with both of hers. “You always tell us never to ask about the future, but I need to know it won’t be this way forever. I don’t care if it’s a one-in-amillion chance that won’t come for a century, just tell me a way out exists. Give me hope that I won’t actually be paying for this stupid, foolish mistake for the rest of my life. Please, Brohomir!” She was crying by the end. Big, ugly, hopeless tears running down her cheeks as she clung to her brother’s hand. Again, though, the seer said nothing. He just leaned down and picked her up off the ground, carrying her out of the throne room to the palanquin waiting outside, where Bethesda was already writing out the details of the blood oath Chelsie now knew for certain she would never, ever escape.

.

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