by Amanda Cast
“Gods and a half with dragon’s breath, Hetia,” Pandora said grasping at her chest. “What is wrong with you?”
“There are filthy beasts on my counter top!” she bellowed frantically.
“They’re not filthy, Hetia. We made them wash up before breakfast. Calm down.” Pandora beckoned the dragon hatchlings over to her and they all moved closer to her side of the counter.
“Don’t talk back to me you insolent girl! This is my kitchen. How dare you bring them in here?” The wide woman’s face was red. Pandora could not remember a time where the woman’s face was not red. Maybe it was the heat of the kitchen that kept her that color.
“I’m not a guest here, Hetia,” Pandora said calmly. She was casually looking away from her as she situated the dragons so that she could carry them all. Ruby and Star were positioned on her shoulders, but they were too large and uncoordinated to balance on their own side so they were using her head as support. So long as she didn’t move too drastically they should be fine. Topaz and Emerald climbed into the crooks of her arms.
“That means nothing. This is my domain!”
“And I am a mistress of this household,” Pandora said, turning and even gaze to the angry cook. “You do not run this household. I am your master’s niece. You will remember that. Do you understand me?”
“You cheeky little…”
“Is there a problem?” Serene asked darkly from behind Hetia.
Hetia went from scarlet to pale white. “Mistress Serene, I didn’t see you.”
“Obviously,” she drawled stepping around the woman. Usually Serene was cowed by the woman, but Pandora’s show of bravado as well as Hetia’s disrespect of her beloved cousin gave her a back bone she didn’t know she had. Hetia knew that she was in trouble when Serene used her more adult tone with her. “Do I need to get Daddy here to straighten up matters, Hetia?”
“No, mistress, no,” Hetia assured her. “I just… Please keep the dragons out of the kitchen. They do not belong in here. They belong…else where.”
“And where do you expect us to put them?” she asked as she physically coaxed Star off of Pandora’s shoulder. Pandora stood there patiently as the little dragon shifted from one body to the other. “They can’t eat at the table until they are big enough to chose a form. They can’t eat on the tables and they can’t eat on the floors.”
“Why not, Mistress Serene? They’re just animals.”
“They’re not animals, Hetia. They’re sentient beings just like you and I.” She coaxed Ruby off of Pandora’s shoulders. “In fact, they’re probably going to be far smarter and far wiser than the both of us. They already have one of us far out stripped.”
“That’d be you,” Ruby said contemptuously to Hetia.
Hetia’s face turned bright red again but she did not dare say anything else that would make Serene angry at her.
“Also, Pandora is right. She is a member of this household. She is not a servant. You are. If she asks for something, you will give it to her. If she gives you an order, you will follow it. Do I make myself clear?”
“Y-yes, Mistress,” the woman sputtered more than stammered.
“Good. We’ll be leaving now. Since you were so ungracious you can clean up the mess.” Serene situated the two hatchlings in her arms and then left the kitchen in such a stately fashion Pandora couldn’t believe she pulled it off in a brown short tunic and green loose fitting pants. Astounding.
Pandora followed after, but paused long enough to give the head cook a meaningful look. Pandora decided that she was a mite bit irritable. She hoped that it would get better before it got too bad.
“Serene, the hatchlings are tired. It is proper for them to mostly eat and sleep?”
“For the first month, yes,” Serene said. “They do a lot of growing and a lot of itching. We’re going to have to get some kind of oil for them while they’re growing. The book says that dragon parents rub it over their hatchlings until they can take their form. After that the growth can be done in such a way that it doesn’t stress out the hide.”
“When will they start getting scales?”
“Oh, um, I think that will be when they’re fifteen, but they won’t fully mature into their powers until they’re almost one hundred. I think they have a lot of schooling and such to do before they’re allowed to mingle out in the open and be encountered by humans.”
“Seems we’re doing things incorrectly then,” Pandora said worriedly.
“Well, we’ll do the best that we can. I’m not much of a mage. I’m more of a trick with some cantrips added in to make it look more fun. I think that today is the easiest time I’ve ever had with that heating spell.”
“Oh, I see,” Pandora said.
“Anyway, you need to get dressed. Are you and Daddy going to be fighting in the garden again today?”
“That was the plan,” Pandora said. They were supposed to spar the day before, but life happened. Literally.
“Ruby wants to sleep in the garden. I told him he could while I was sparring.”
“Oh, that’s good,” Serene said with a smile. “What about the others?”
“They say they want to sleep in the heater room. I don’t want to leave them alone in case that mean mage comes back.”
“I don’t blame you,” Serene said with distaste. “He was a real piece of work.”
Pandora nodded even though Serene could not see her. Serene did not say anything so either she understood that Pandora agreed or she just did not care enough to comment.
“Mother? Are we going outside now?” Ruby asked, shaking its head around so that it could see Pandora.
“Not right this instant. We have to eat as well,” Pandora told it. “If we don’t have our nourishment then you might not be in good sorts.”
“Oh,” Ruby said and cuddled against Serene.
Serene led them to the Parlor. “I’ll wait in here while you dress.”
Pandora nodded and deposited her burdens next to Serene on the couch. “I’ll be right back.” She turned around sharply on her heel and her off white night gown twisted around her legs before settling back down. The recognition of the movement almost made her want to wear a dress.
When she got up to her room she changed her mind about the dress and pulled on grunge clothes just like her cousin was wearing. She would have to spar with her uncle, and she didn’t want to ruin anything that was pretty. The clothes were loose on her so that she had plenty of room to move, but were tight enough so that they would not snag on everything. She took off her favorite gold ring and deposited it into her jewelry box before heading out of her room.
Serene was dozing on the couch when she came back. Star was curled up in her lap and the little dragon’s nose was touching Ruby’s as it rested its head on Serene’s lap. Topaz was curled up against Serene’s tiny thigh. It was a comforting picture except for the fact that Emerald was sleeping against the arm of the couch as far away from the others as she could get.
Pandora felt a pang of sadness strike her heart and she approached the scene quietly. With as much care as she could manage the girl scooped the tiny dragon into her arms. Emerald’s eyes slowly opened and closed and its respectively tiny mouth opened wide with a yawn. Pandora cradled her against her chest and kissed her lightly over her right foreleg.
“Mother?” Emerald murmured.
“Yes, my dear,” Pandora said softly.
The hatchling’s head snaked up and nudged Pandora’s neck. “I’ve decided.”
“That I want to be a girl,” she said. Pandora could not see the change, but she could hear it. “I think… I think I want to be like you.”
“Oh, Emerald,” Pandora said softly. “You need only be yourself. Never fear. I love you.”
Comforted, Emerald fell back asleep, and Pandora held her until Lindal came down for breakfast.
“How are my two lovely ladies?” he asked and patted Pandora on the cheek before stooping down and giving her an affectionate kiss on the cheek. Pandora smiled at him but did not return the token of affection.
“There are three lovely ladies now, Uncle Lindal,” she said proudly and presented Emerald to him. The movement was small so as not to disturb Emerald, but he got the point.
“Well, that’s good, considering her name.”
“Oh, well, if they don’t like the names they can change them. It just seemed easier to name them this way. Star changed its name from sapphire star, after all.”
“Oh yes, how could I forget?” he said with a grin. “Emerald is a lovely name. I hope she’s pleased with it.” He gave Pandora a sly look. “I bet Star will be a girl, but the others will go with being boys.”
“Why do you say that?”
“It’s a wager.”
“Well, I wager they’ll all want to be girls like their mothers.”
He snorted. “They’re getting noticeably bigger already,” he said. “Oh, I could have forgotten…” He chuckled to himself. “Leeland found some aloe oil for you to use to help with their skin during their growth spurt.”
“Oh, wonderful,” Pandora said. “Do you like the sound of that, Emmy?”
Emerald crooned. “I am feeling a little itchy.”
“Well, after Serene and I eat breakfast we’ll oil the four of you up.”
“Wonderful,” Emerald said sleepily and fell back asleep.
“I feel so gross,” Serene whined. Her fingers were covered in the oil and it was smeared all over her arms and face. Some of it was even in her hair.
“Should be good for our skin, too,” Pandora said bemusedly and scrubbed her arms with some rather caustic soap. “However, I don’t have time for it to sink in.”
“Their skin just sucked it up.”
“Well, they’ve young hides,” Pandora said with a half smile. “Ruby is looking forward to its nap in the sun shine.”
Serene nodded and shuffled from side to side impatiently. She was eager to use the washbasin. “I think Emerald wants to go out with you too. I think that maybe we should take all four of them out. I need some sunshine myself.”
Pandora nodded agreeably and shook the loose droplets of water off of her hands and arms. She plucked the towel up that was laid out beside the basin and started drying off her hands and arms. She moved aside for Serene who practically threw herself at the basin.
“I’ll take Ruby and Emerald with me then,” she said. “I’ll see you down stairs in a few moments.”
Serene nodded distractedly.
Pandora hefted up the hatchlings. They seemed to have grown considerably in under the twenty four hours they had been out in the world. They went from the size of small cats to that of a larger sized small dog. The two wrapped their tails and necks around Pandora’s arms as she carried them down to the garden.
When Pandora deposited them on a bench Ruby curled up into a small ball on top of it. Its freshly oiled skin soaked up the sunshine and it glowed a happy red in only seconds.
Emerald looked less than pleased to be out in the open. She slid down off of the bench and landed on the ground with a soft thud. Pandora sighed, but Emerald just twitched her tail and slipped into the shade under a bush and slept there.
Pandora shrugged and gave Ruby an affection pat on the head. The hatchling was uncomfortably warm and she shook her hand with a mild grimace.
“Are you ready then, Pandora?” her uncle asked. Pandora had not heard him coming, but she was surprised at it anymore.
“Yes, Uncle Lindal,” she said and reached back to twist up her hair. “Serene will be watching us today, I think,” she said.
“Oh, excellent,” he said with a grin. “Did I see you bring Emerald out?”
“Oh, yes,” Pandora said with a nod. “She doesn’t care for sunshine. She is sleeping under a bush.”
“Well, she must like the cool,” Lindal said approvingly. He reached into a side pouch and pulled out a small vial. It was made out of silver lined gold. It was the optimum way to keep magical potions at their best. “We’ll be needing this today,” he said and set the vial under the bench where it would be safe from excess heat and kicking feet.”
“Tired of going easy on me, Uncle?”
“Oh, I think we’re done with drills. Today we’re going to enjoy ourselves.”
Pandora gave a pleased smile and they stepped into a large clear circle in the middle of the garden. It was where they said they kept party like items during a social gathering. It was also an excellent place for Lindal to teach his niece.
Before they started Lindal muttered a few words and for a brief moment a wall of light shot up. It was a resistance barrier. Someone could walk through it if they were patient, but if it was struck the barrier would stop it dead. The barrier was to protect their surroundings, not them. He then walked over to Pandora and said a few more mystical phrases and she felt her skin tingle.
“There… that should stop you from taking too much hurt,” he explained and then did the same thing to himself.
They faced off and bowed to one another. It was a comforting ritual for Pandora. They then stood and stared at one another for a moment. “Do you insist on depending on your hands?” he asked.
She nodded. “You won’t always be able to carry a weapon Uncle, even when your foe can.”
He nodded and pulled a wooden sword out of his dimensional bag. It was made out of heavy, hard ebony and lined with a thin wire of metal to make it hurt more, but it wouldn’t maim. “Well, I’ll be attacking you with this,” he told her.
She nodded, feeling the familiar rush of anxiety. She allowed herself a moment to close her eyes and enjoy its thrill. Her eyes opened again when she heard the dirt under her uncle’s feet crunch. She managed to just dodge his first cleaving blow, but she could feel it rub against the cloth of her shirt. The weapon was heavy and slow compared to what she was used to, but her uncle was strong and agile.
His second blow connected with her thigh and her eyes watered with the pain that throbbed from her leg. He didn’t relent as he usually did. She stumbled instead of stepping back and allowing her to regroup before attacking again he struck her again. This time he hit her on her collar just to the left of her neck. She let out a howl of pain. He stepped back and let her catch her breath.
“Is anything broken?” he asked.
She could not breathe to answer him. She tried to clutch her collar but it hurt and this time she could not cry out.
“Pandora?” her uncle asked with his own anxiousness.
She waved him away and finally managed to get some air into her lungs. “Fine,” she said and gingerly rolled her left shoulder. She then experimented with raising it over her head. She only managed it half way before the pain stopped her.
“Perhaps we should go back to drills?” he asked.
She shook her head. “No,” she murmured and reclaimed her spot on the circle. He moved to his. This time there was no anxiety. There was only the physical pain. He did not bow this time. He simply threw himself at her, his sword prepared for a thrust. She side stepped it and he kept going forward.
Instead of taking the opportunity to strike him she took the time to put some distance between them.
“Mistake,” he said, swinging his wooden weapon at her. She rolled onto the ground to dodge it. When she was coming back to feet she was behind him. He was turning as she was turning and punching. She struck him in the gut and he doubled over. She then thrust up the ball of her hand into his chin. She felt the pain of contact and his head snapped back. He stumbled away and she pushed herself off the ground. It was slower than expected and her leg cried out in protest.
He recovered and aimed a controlled blow to her head. She managed to get out of the worst of it, but as she collapsed much like a puppet her ear was clipped. It throbbed. Her leg gave out and she collapsed the rest of the way onto the stone. As she tried to roll to her feet she just missed the point of the practice sword as it struck the stone with enough force that it bucked back into her uncle’s hands and made him emit a startled sound.
She supported her body with her arms and her let out another spasm of pain as she donkey kicked her uncle in the face. He fell back but was on his feet before she managed to get her legs to obey her. He cracked her hard across the back and she hit the ground hard with her stomach. She was once again winded.
“Better this time, but you’re not quite on your game.”
Pandora snorted, but did not move.
“Let me get that potion for you,” he said. “I might have hurt you with that last one. I was getting into it.”
“Not… bludgeoning weapon,” she said as she pushed herself up and slowly into a sitting potion.
“I guess you’re right. I am using it more like a mace.” He was already at the bench and had the potion in hand. “I should probably use it more like a sword, huh?”
“Yes,” she agreed and waited patiently as he approached her and held the potion out to her. She took it with her right hand and fumbled with the stopper with her left. When she managed to take a sip of it she felt a warm tingle through her body and the pain was gone. She put the stopper back on and stood up to replace it herself.
She noticed serene sitting under a tree with Star and Topaz and gave a small smile. Halfway to the barrier she saw the butler step through the entrance to the garden. He was ringing his hands and his face shone as though he had been sweating in the water cooled home.
“Master Lindal!” he called out for his attention. “The arch mage is here.”