He made her yank out weeds. Coleen only did as much as he made her, hating the feeling. These gloves didn’t fit her hands well. If Emil wanted her to do more of this she would have to make better ones. Or come up with another way to not be roped into this. She should not have to weed the backyard. She could care less how the place looked.
Forgiveness still smiled up at him, unfazed by the dark abyss they must have seen there by looking directly into his eyes. Then there was that look in their own eye, one he had started to recognize. It came very rarely, but always preceded a certain word that Death was beginning to understand the meaning of. The more he came to understand it, the more he believed Forgiveness didn’t understand this simple mortal concept. It came to show more of Forgiveness’ oddities, despite being a mortal being…
“I’ll leave you to whatever it is you’re doing out here,” Death said irritably. “Though you should return to her soon, if you wish to keep your place. Time means different things to us than it does to you, you must remember.”
“Can I call you Dad with the time I have?”
Death ground his teeth. “Immortals are not what you think us to be, angel. Family is a mortal concept. I think you would do best to remember this, if you wish to spend what time you have left amongst the living remaining around us. Before you become mine.”
Forgiveness had something they wished to say, but Death did not linger in which to hear what that was. He left. For a moment, he thought he had left alone, but his jealousy subsided when Pup remained in pace with him, at his side. Death slowed down, stopping as the life around him fled. As living things were supposed to do.
“Some people believe if you give someone you love a handmade teddy bear named after yourself, then that person will always return your love.”
The boy looked at his teddy bear. Well worn, well loved. He looked back over at his aunt. “What if the person stops loving you anyway?”
His aunt looked at the teddy bear. No dust, not like anything else in the house. “Do you still love him?”
The boy nodded.
“Always return the love.”
That was no answer as the boy wanted it, but it hadn’t changed the truth. He still loved his mother, despite her no longer loving him.
The fall sky was full of clouds and migrating birds, but the flocks were so massive I couldn’t tell where one begun and the other ended.
“Ever watch the Birds?” my cousin asked me, always looking for an opportunity to lessen the gravity of a moment.
“Ever watch Birdemic?” I replied, always looking for an opportunity to one up her.
“Where do you think they’re going?”
“South.” My response was quick. Where else would they be going? That was always the answer.
My cousin’s stare at me caught my attention. “We are south now.”
And it was true. We had long since gotten south. But they they were, leaving the warmth of here and going further. I stared that way.
Then I looked north.
“Don’t let them see you cry.”
He held back his tears. His father didn’t look back at him, still staring out of the cavern. The desert was cold, far colder than it usually was at this time of night. It would get colder soon.
His father’s advice felt inconsistent. The older man had always claimed feelings were nothing to be ashamed of. Not even the ones that produced tears.
After blinking, clearing his throat, he finally asked the question. “Why?”
“That’s where they’ll attack,” his father said. “The water. Don’t show that you have any water. They’ll drain us both dry for it.”
He wished they could stay here, hidden until the daybreak. But they would freeze and die. They needed to move on. So when his father gave the signal, they both crept forward out into the clear night, leaving behind his sister’s body.
Her brother had a thing about knives.
It wasn’t until she was fifteen that she realized there was anything weird about that. Not because of her brother. Her brother, who had display cases and the knowledge how to fix old broken switchblades, who taught her about sharpening and gave her the most important knowledge of all – it would hurt more to be cut by a dull blade.
It all appeared to be practical knowledge. Some of his collection was beautiful, while others were rare types. It was more interesting than a stamp collection. Of which she knew zero people actually did.
Then she mentioned it in class. Everyone had a reaction that told her something. Those who were uncomfortable, those who were a little too interested. She stood there in her new class and looked back at all these people and knew suddenly that her brother was weird to them. Whether they thought weird was good or bad.
And now she was weird too.
“What is your name, small human?”
Sanni appeared as fazed as the horses were by a dragon. Emine tried to act the same. “Emine.”
Ramar stared at her. Emine had the idea she shouldn’t look into her eyes. At the same time, she didn’t want to look like she was cowering. What the middle ground was between those two positions, she had no idea. She looked back, deciding to fix her gaze on a particular point on the bridge of Ramar’s nose. From there, she could see the dragon’s eyes without looking at them.
It still made her feel a bit dizzy. She heard a sound that she had no idea how to interpret. Something distinctly draconian, not a hiss or a growl. Like a sigh with clicks.
“What’s so funny?” Sanni asked.
“Nothing.” Ramar’s head pulled back. “You’ve picked well, Sanni. Good for you.”
Emine didn’t know what that meant, but Sanni’s face flushed slightly despite saying nothing. Ramar didn’t await a response either. She took off into the sky, meeting another dragon somewhere halfway up the closest slope.
There really were dragons everywhere. Emine stared for a while before looking back at Sanni. “Am I okay?”
Sanni started out of her thoughts and looked down at her. “Yes. Yes you are. Ramar is a little pushy, but she already likes you. That’s good. Let’s go home, Emine.”
Home. The word meant nothing to Emine now. But it was time to redefine.
“I’m sorry,” Emine’s travelling companion said, after proffering water to help Emine swallow. “Did no one tell you what we do at the Heights?”
Emine shook her head, wordless.
“We run things for the humans that live there. Sometimes the dragons forget about some of our needs, so it’s good to have other humans around. Make sure nothing is forgotten.”
All Emine knew was that the country was very large. So large that she had never confronted the flying owners of it. It hadn’t occurred to her this would change. “We take care of people?”
“Yes. Humans tend to take one of three roles. You’ll be joining me down in the town, where most of the humans are. We run the place, really, no matter what anyone says. Then there are the Unbonded, who live up in the Alcoves. They are the ones we really have to watch over, because they have to do all of the things the dragons need.”
Emine nodded, digesting this new information. “What’s the third group?”
“Those are the Bonded. Those who have been chosen by a particular dragon. I believe a lot of people know them as dragon riders, because they are allowed travel on dragonback more often than the Unbonded.”
Swallowing, not food, but back the saliva produced by her nerves, Emine gripped what was left of the jerky in front of her. “I’m in the town then?”
“Yes, you’ll be in town. With me. My name is Sanni. Will you be all right with that?”
To be honest, Emine knew she didn’t have a choice. But Sanni still seemed really nice. Emine nodded and tried not to think about the Heights. They would be there in a month.
When she was ten years old, her family sent her to the Heights.
Emine might have protested more. Or cried aloud. However, at ten years she had long since become aware that she was the latest in a string of children her parents could not afford. While she wondered why they didn’t send away one of her less helpful siblings, she reminded herself that all of her remaining siblings had to be loved more than her. It was only sensible. (Even if she did not know why.)
She sniffled in the back of the cart, as quiet as she could manage. She had kept from crying as her parents bid her farewell. Now on the road, there seemed to be no point.
The woman sitting near her offered her some candy. Emine shook her head. “Sorry. I don’t like sweets.”
With a smile, the woman returned her candy to her pocket and pulled a stick of jerky out of her bag. As Emine chewed on that, the woman told her something she had never thought of. “You’ve come from a remote place. Ever seen a dragon before?”
That was right. The Heights were the centre of everything. The jerky stuck in Emine’s throat.
Zamir pushed his hair back, the gel once keeping the dark waves from his face long since having lost their hold. “What took you so long? You couldn’t call?”
Shachaf must have realized what that meant, because his urgency fell off the map immediately. He looked away, then back at Zamir. “Car broke down outside the towers’ range. I didn’t even get your message until…”
Zamir sighed. Shachaf cleared his throat.
“Did she ask for me?”
His brother was an idiot. Always hoping for the favour of a woman who had never liked him. Zamir wanted to lie for him too, but he couldn’t do so in the way Shachaf would want. “She didn’t say much, near the end.”
They both stood there. Zamir wished he was anywhere else. He wished he could have been out there, stranded like Shachaf. He would have even done so alone, swapped places with him.
“I’m glad you made it,” Zamir said.
And Zamir would be the only one.