Ava is on the run for a crime punishable by death: killing a dragon.
As a human-dragon hybrid, Ava has never doubted the godlike dragons’ dominance. Her life has been sheltered beneath their stained-glass wings in the city in the sky — until she murders one.
Hunted, she flees to the human desert below the floating city. Yet she’s not alone. Though he doesn’t know the crime she’s running from, Vito, the dragon Ava serves, refuses to abandon her to the harsh world of humans. Paired to be her master and she his caretaker, their friendship has always meant more than titles.
The desert holds no sanctuary for them. The long-suffering ground dwellers are tired of having their water supply monopolized by the dragons above and want all dragon-kind dead — including Ava and Vito. Surrendering to the dragons isn’t an option with Vito by her side, and the rebellion has offered a tempting deal. They will keep Ava alive and hide her crime, but only if she reveals the weaknesses of dragon-kind and the secrets of her city. Ava must choose between her life and everything she once called home—including Vito, the closest thing to family she has left.
Chapter One: The Fall
To disobey a dragon is to disobey a god.
— The Caretaker’s Oath
How long is the fall down to earth?
I lean against the fence that marks the drop from the floating city to the desert below, digging my fingernails into the wet wood. The city rests drowsy behind me, golden spires and cobblestone roads cloaked in morning mist. My legs shake underneath me. I fidget with my fingerless, scaled gloves.
It’s morning already.
And the smell of blood is still so strong.
I should have left hours ago, but I couldn’t leave my room, couldn’t stop scrubbing. Hot iron blooms in my nostrils as if the sticky red liquid is still smeared across my face, my clothes, my palms.
But it isn’t on my skin. I’ve washed myself raw. It can’t be there.
Gravel scrapes behind me. I curl my wings snug against my back, gripping the fence tighter and looking around. I don’t need to see through the fog to know the maze of the tall stone buildings and metal roofs beyond the cobblestone yard behind me — but what moves through them is another story
Once someone finds the corpses, once they know I’m gone, I’m dead. This has never happened before, no one’s dared to commit the atrocities I’ve left in my wake. The dragons’ soldiers, their hunters, will never stop chasing me. I’ve heard that the king himself judges those who break our laws. Maybe the last thing I see on this earth would be his teeth sinking into my neck. And yet, here I am, not ready to leave the people who would kill me. My fingers itch for the sabre I left behind.
They’re coming this way. They’re going to spot and capture me if I don’t move. Sweat beads on my forehead.
I lean forward, stretching my wings slowly so the soft, stained-glass plumage doesn’t make sound, the dim light shining through each of the iridescent feathers like glass and casting an oil slick of colors around me —
Something grabs the collar of my shirt. Hot, moist breath brushes across the nape of my neck and through my shorn hair as I’m yanked backward.
I scream and grab my dagger. But I know it’s useless. There’s only one thing this strong, this big.
I slice off the back of my shirt, bouncing forward in the air, lowering my horns and turning in a swirl of mist to see — “Vito?”
The warm brown dragon takes a tentative step forward, spiked brow ridges arched on his narrow face over tawny eyes. He may be twice my height, but even from my vantage his expression is clear: What are you doing?
My breath catches in my chest. No, no, no. Not him, not now. He can’t know, he can’t question, or he’ll end up like… I clench my scrubbed, stained hands tight against my sides.
“Go back to the dens, Vito,” I hiss, forcing back my stutter, adrenaline spiking through my veins like knives. How doesn’t he realize? How can he not smell the blood on me?
He lowers his snout, eyeing me.
“I said go back.” I glare at him, or try to. I shouldn’t tell a dragon what to do. No one should, other than another dragon. Not an illusionist — a half-dragon, half-human hybrid like me. Especially not his caretaker. Being so comfortable with him is against all of the laws — being close to anyone without the dragons’ approval is. Breaking that law is exactly why I’m here, and I have to do it if only to keep him safe. If only so that he can not hate me for what I’ve done, if just a bit longer.
He cocks his head and doesn’t take a single step back.
If it were anyone else walking around this early, they’d assume I was up to my usual nonsense; exploring the nooks and crannies of the city, testing one of my father’s inventions. But Vito knows me. Too well. He sees me and doesn’t see his servant, like the other dragons see their caretakers. He sees the girl who held him while he cried after his siblings beat him for being weak, for having what they call ugly, pale-brown scales. Even though he tried to push me away, even though he knew that no one could so much as hold hands without the dragons’ approval, I would never let go. Not when I’m the only one who treats him as if he matters.
And now… I almost wish I’d let him go.
There’s never been a dragon so kind to his caretaker. None of them ever keep their illusionists around for as long as I’ve been with Vito. They made him take me, both of us rejects for what we are. He never had the freedom to choose like the gem-colored dragons did, not with those pale brown scales. So they assigned me to him, the one to serve his every whim until I was no longer good enough. And I’m not, anymore.
Tears sting my eyes and I look away.
“Just go back, okay?” My voice cracks, and every muscle in me twitches, jitters. “Get away! I don’t want you here you… you dung-colored dragon!”
He raises both his eyebrows. Is that the best you can do?
I squeeze my eyes shut, wishing I could laugh and tease him like I would have before. I don’t deserve to smile. My chest constricts. He won’t leave. And part of me doesn’t want him to.
But they didn’t come after him like they’ll come after me. Without me, maybe he still has a chance.
Light shows through the fog like the colored, translucent wings of dragons and illusionists. Crawling in tendrils like a living thing, the vapor wraps around my feet, as if it knows I’m the one who’s guilty.
The warmth trickles from my face.
Someone’s found the bodies.
I look back toward Vito, his teasing features fading away as his soft scales crease, spiked crest raising. Ava, what did you do?
The guilt is written clear across my face, but he doesn’t know my crime.
“I-I have to go.” It’s barely a whisper. I keep glancing around, like hunters will jump from the mist at any moment. “I’m sorry.” I reach out a shaking hand, placing it against his snout. The heat of him seeps through the gloves, deep into my skin. My nerves calm a little.
I take a deep breath. I close my eyes, jump backward, and fall off the side of our city in the sky, Caelum.
The air drags me through an abyss of grey. I close my eyes, a tear ripped from my face by whipping wind.
I can never go home again.
Spreading my wings open with a snap, I let the wind catch me as I break free of the clouds. The dark, vast expanse of the desert below sprawls endlessly before me.
It takes only minutes before my feet touch the sand, wind chilling my toes through my sandals. It really wasn’t that long a fall at all.
It’s so open down here. I’ve seen it countless times from the sky, but I’ve never actually touched the ground before. I’ve never seen how big it is. Sand stretches endlessly into the horizon, never-ending. There’s nothing living in sight. No buildings arcing above me to make me feel small, just the vastness to swallow me whole.
I clench my teeth, and my heart pounds in my chest.
That’s not my heart.
A sick chill racks my body and I crouch, ready to leap and run from the hunters and worse.
But, no. Between two iridescent, rainbow-casting wings is a pale, dung-colored dragon.
I narrow my eyes and he plops down next to me, sending a whirlwind of sand into my face. He looks small here, the great beast seeming like nothing compared to the expanse of sand.
Spitting out the grit, I hiss, “You shouldn’t follow me, idiot! Go home. Get back to your normal life or they’ll start looking for you, too.” He doesn’t flinch. “What should you care, anyway? Every other dragon who’s hit fifteen has gotten rid of their caretaker. It’s been almost five years more than that. Move on.”
He stands there, wings half-spread, spiked tail leaving long rivets in the sand as it twitches back and forth. Ready to follow me despite the blood stuck between my fingers.
I need to tell him. It would make everything easier, he’d either leave or… kill me. The words build up in my throat, but I can’t choke them out.
He shakes like a fox getting the dust out of its fur. Like he’s saying, I don’t care.
Maybe… maybe him coming with me would be safer. He’s a part of this, more than I want to admit. The only difference between him and me is that I’m the one who bears the guilt and the crime. He doesn’t realize that the reason why he’s chasing me and the reason I had to run is one in the same. He doesn’t realize that anyone knew that we were more than servant and master, that anyone discovered what we meant to each other.
They might come after him for that, just like they came after me.
Being my best friend, being maybe even something different than that, shouldn’t be a punishment.
I clench my fists. “You’re such an idiot.”
He grins, all ivory, jagged teeth.
With a sigh, I rub my forehead. Why does he decide to rebel now, of all times? “You’re going to regret this, you giant dung dragon.”
The lights spread in the clouds above us, coloring the dull brown sand in a spray of rainbow.
He nudges my arm. We have to get going.
“I know.” But I can’t help but look back for any shape or shadow of Caelum, of the city of shining dragon’s wings and shimmering illusions, the rock that holds this world together, the place where I grew up. Home. Without it, the helpless ground dwellers would have no water in the unforgiving desert, they wouldn’t have food distributed so no one goes hungry, they would still be a savage race that enslaves and fights one another. The people I now have to live amongst, so different from the peaceful dragons of my home. “I know.” I spread my wings and spring forward in a whirlwind of dust, flying farther and farther from everything I’ve known.
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