One Good Dragon Deserves Another – Rachel Aaron

Svena, Terror of the Winter Sea, White Witch of the Three Sisters, and acting head of the world’s oldest and still most powerful dragon clan, was awake before noon, and she wasn’t happy about it. She was even less happy to be awake and alone, sulking in the middle of Ian’s giant bed while she watched her young lover dress through narrowed, resentful eyes. “I don’t see why you have to leave,” she said, brushing the sleep-tangled, ice blond hair out of her eyes. “Not even humans are awake at this beastly hour.” “On the contrary,” Ian replied, tying his silk tie in the bedroom mirror. “Lots of highly successful humans are up and busy at six in the morning, which is why I am up at five.” His reflection smiled teasingly at her. “That’s the downside of young, ambitious dragons, darling. We still have to work.” Svena’s scathing look let him know what she thought of that. As always, though, Ian just smirked, running a brush through his perfect black hair one last time before walking over to the bed. “Go back to sleep,” he said, leaning down to kiss her. “You need all the rest you can get. We have the party tonight.” He said this like he was delivering the gravest of news, and Svena laughed.

“But the invitation was so heartfelt. How could I dash your sweet baby brother’s hopes by refusing? I’m a dragon, not an ogre.” Ian scoffed. “If Julius actually wrote that, he’s even worse than I thought.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “You know my mother—” “Of course I know,” Svena cut him off, snuggling back down into the pillows. “But that’s the problem with old, ambitious dragons, darling. You are free to cut your own way to the top, but the Heartstriker isn’t someone we can ignore, and I have my family to think of.” “You think of them too often,” he said coldly. “Why must it all fall on you? Your sisters are perfectly capable of spinning their own plots.

Or they would be, if they weren’t so used to Estella telling them what to do, they’ve forgotten how to function without her.” “Perhaps,” Svena said sleepily. “But at least they never woke me up before noon.” Ian heaved a long sigh, and then the bed dipped slightly as he reached down to stroke her long hair. “I’ll come home early,” he promised. “I want to take you somewhere before we have to go.” Svena’s head shot up. “Where?” she asked, trying not to sound too excited. Ian didn’t answer, just winked at her as he stood and walked out of the bedroom. Only when the door shut behind him did Svena let her suspicious expression melt into a smile as she flopped back into the mountain of pillows.

Not that she would ever admit it, but things with Ian were going remarkably well. He managed the delicate balance of courtship with the adroitness of a dragon three times his age; showering her with just enough gifts and surprises to keep her interested, but never so many that it came across as trying too hard. He was also exceedingly easy on the eyes as both a human and a dragon. A shallow consideration to be sure, but one Svena found quite pleasing. Most astonishing of all, though, was how well they got along. It wasn’t affection; Svena barely felt that even for her sisters, but there was an ease of like minds between her and Ian that was surprisingly delightful. So much so that she often found herself granting him more access than she should, which would have to be curbed. A courtship this lovely deserved to be savored, not rushed, and after all the work she’d put into digging her clan out of the hole Estella had left it in when she’d vanished without a trace four weeks ago, Svena had earned some time to herself. With that delightful thought, Svena rolled over, snuggling back into bed to catch another few hours of sleep before she was due to meet Katya for brunch and a status report. She’d just begun to drift off when she felt a cold, sharp twinge at the edge of her consciousness.

Svena sat bolt upright, holding her breath, but there was no mistake. Magic was rising in the room. Very familiar magic, and it was coming fast. She sprang out of bed, trailing frost across the carpet behind her as she grabbed her dressing gown. She was still shoving her arms into the padded silk sleeves when the air in front of her closet began to warp and bulge before finally ripping apart entirely as a dragon tore its way into the world. Svena jumped back with a curse. Not because of the dragon—given the magic, she’d expected nothing less—but because it was black. What should have been glistening white scales and transparent, frost-traced wings was hidden under thick layers of tarry, black residue, almost as though the dragon had been rolling in ash. The stuff didn’t smell like any char Svena had ever encountered, but before she could get a better look, the dragon shifted and shrank until all that was left was its human shadow, naked and gasping on the ice-coated carpet. “Estella!” Svena ran to her sister’s side, her hands shooting out to help her up before stopping short.

Something was horribly wrong. Estella’s normally snow-white hair and skin were as dirty as her dragon had been, and her fingers were bloody, as though she’d been digging through sharp stones. Worst of all, though, was what she clutched between them. There were two objects. One, a beautiful golden ball the size of a large orange, was expected. Estella had never mastered the finer points of extraplanar travel, and she couldn’t have found her way back to this dimension without the Kosmolabe. But while Svena was most definitely not pleased to see the golden troublemaker again, it was nothing compared to what was waiting in Estella’s other hand. At first glance, they looked like coiled lengths of black rope. On the second, she saw they were chains. Pencil thin, ink black chains were wrapped around Estella’s hands and wrists, their tiny links glittering dully under the dimmed lights.

The closest one twitched as Svena watched, curling around Estella’s thumb like a thin, black tentacle. “What is that?” she demanded, recoiling back from her oldest, and once dearest, sister. “What have you done, Estella?” The seer didn’t answer. She just pushed herself to her knees, looking around the penthouse apartment like she didn’t know where she was. “How long was I gone?” Svena winced. Her sister’s voice was as rough as the rest of her. “Four weeks.” “Four weeks,” Estella whispered, lifting a shaking, chained hand to her face. “It felt like centuries.” For a dangerous moment, the old sympathy came welling back, and then Svena remembered herself.

“Maybe it should have been.” Estella’s head snapped up, but Svena only gave her a cold look, rising from the floor to stare down at the dragon who’d nearly doomed their clan. She’d hoped to have more time before it came to this, but it didn’t matter. Svena was prepared, and it was best to settle things now, quickly, before Estella had a chance to recover. “You should not have returned.” “And you should not speak to me that way,” Estella said, lifting her chin. “I will give you a chance to take it back.” “I don’t need your chances,” Svena growled. “I’m not your pawn any more.” Estella opened her mouth to argue, but Svena didn’t give her a chance.

“While you were gone, I convened our sisters. Eleven daughters of the Three Sisters, all together in one place for the first time since our mothers went to sleep, and for once in our lives, we were able to come to a consensus. You are no longer welcome among us.” She stopped there, waiting for the shock, but she should have known better. Estella was a seer. She didn’t even look surprised. “That’s not something you get to decide,” she said haughtily. “Our mothers—” “Our mothers have been asleep for over a thousand years,” Svena reminded her. “But if they woke today, they would be disgusted by how you’ve managed things in their absence. You are forever saying that we are the daughters of gods, but your endless, petty grudge against the Heartstriker and her seer has brought us closer to destruction than any other disaster in our history, including the loss of magic.

Your selfishness put us all at risk, endangered Katya, and diminished our standing as a clan. That is incompetence, Estella, and we are no longer willing to tolerate it.” She bared her teeth. “Your rule is over, Northern Star. It is our consensus that your mind has finally been eaten by the seer’s madness, leaving you incapable of guiding our clan any further. From here on, I lead the Daughters of the Three Sisters, and you will follow, or you will be banished.” By the time she finished, Estella was shaking with rage, her hands curling into fists on the frosted carpet as magic began to rise. Svena called hers as well, ready to finish this. She was no longer afraid of the future. Estella was not the wise, savvy leader she’d once been, the dragon Svena had always looked up to.

This filthy creature was nothing but a shadow, and Svena was younger, stronger. She would win. But as she summoned the ice to her hands, shaping the cold magic into a blast that would send Estella through the penthouse window, the seer suddenly slumped. “I knew you would do this,” she said sadly, lowering her hands as she sat back down on the floor. “Your future vanished from my sight a long time ago, but I didn’t need to see to know. You have always been ambitious, Svena. It was inevitable that you would turn on me.” “Congratulations, then,” Svena said mockingly. “You were right one last time.” “Not this time,” the seer said, shaking her head.

“I will not fight you, little sister.” Svena paused, confused. “Then you will bow?” “No,” Estella said with a crooked smile. “You will.” And then her arm shot out. Svena dodged automatically, throwing up a barrier of razor sharp ice, but it didn’t help. The moment Estella’s arm extended, one of the black lengths of chain leapt from it, curving impossibly in mid-flight to slide over the barrier and wrap around Svena’s throat. But while she saw the black chain hit, the metal had no weight against her skin, and when her frantic hands shot up to tear it away, there was nothing. Nothing at all. “What did you do?” she roared, grabbing frantically at her bare neck.

“I fixed you,” Estella said sweetly. “Don’t worry, love. I’m going to fix everything.” The words fell soft as snow, and when they were done, the invisible thing around Svena’s neck wrenched tight. She sank to the ground, choking as she clawed at whatever it was Estella had thrown, but like before, there was nothing to feel, not even magic. Her throat was simply closing, cutting her off, not from air, but from the world. It was like she was being squeezed out of her own body, and as she fought helplessly on the floor, Estella knelt beside her, reaching down to brush Svena’s hair out of her face as she had when they were young. “Go back to how it was,” she whispered. “Come back to me.” That was the last thing Svena heard before everything ended.

*** Two thousand miles away, in the heart of the mountain that rose like a thorn from the center of the vast expanse of New Mexico desert that now belonged exclusively to Bethesda the Heartstriker, in a cave stuffed to bursting with treasure and trash collected in equal measure, Brohomir, Great Seer of the Heartstrikers, fell out of his hammock. He landed on his feet only by habit, shaking his head in an attempt to clear the horrible dream. Sadly, this too was only habit. He already knew what he’d felt was no dream. It was a problem. Bob turned away from his hammock with a scowl, clambering over piles of antique chessboards, watering cans, crowns, ancient artifacts, and hubcaps in his rush to get to the corkboard propped up on top of the unpainted, sideways door that served as his desk. His actual desk was currently being used as a stand for the massive bird habitat he’d installed for his pigeon. His sudden fall must have woken her, because she came fluttering over to perch on the shoulder of his threadbare t-shirt, her talons picking tiny holes in the design that wouldn’t be suitably ironic for at least another decade. For once, though, Bob didn’t notice. He was too busy digging through the massive layers of pink and yellow sticky notes that covered the corkboard like overlapping scales, looking briefly at each one before tossing it on the ground.

“No,” he muttered. “No, no, no, no—AH!” He clutched the neon orange slip of paper like a winning lotto ticket and turned to the bird on his shoulder. “Darling,” he said sweetly. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to do some flying.” The pigeon tilted its head, blinking its beady eyes with a questioning coo. “Yes, far,” Bob said, showing her the paper. “As far as it gets, I’m afraid.” The pigeon cooed again, and Bob sighed, walking over to grab the tin of butter cookies lying on top of a dusty pile of VHS tapes. He cracked the lid and picked out a sugary square. The bird perked up immediately, hopping onto his open hand.

When she’d pecked the bribe to crumbs, Bob stroked her rainbow-feathered neck with a gentle finger. “Now, please? It’s kind of important.” The pigeon bobbed her head and took off, beating her wings hard as she worked her way up through the heavy air to the tiny window at the top of the artificial cavern. Bob watched her until she was out of sight, and then he slapped the lid back on the cookie tin, tossed it on his desk, and, since he clearly wasn’t going to get another chance to do so any time soon, went back to bed.

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