by Amanda Cast
What Friends are For
“What’s wrong, Pandora?” Oola asked. Her brow was furrowed and her lips were puckered and wrinkled into a frown.
Pandora shrugged and stared at her food with no appetite. She managed to force a few bites down her throat, but it was dry and tasteless. Her mouth was not cooperating. The saliva would not appear.
“Well, Instructor Hargoth beat the crap out of her,” Greg said darkly. He poked at his vegetables and wrinkled his nose in distaste. He liked meat and bread, but always seemed to skimp on the vegetables no matter how much effort he made in eating them.
“You do look bad,” Diajeer said to Pandora with a worried expression that spoke loudly in his dark eyes.
“The fighting wasn’t the problem,” Pandora said and finally decided to give up. She set the fork down and pushed the plate away.
“What is wrong?” Oola said again, this time with more demand.
Mack eyed her with an off suspicion. “Did you and Serene have a fight? Did the hatchlings do something?”
“Was it Topaz?” Oola asked. “Is he all right?”
Pandora frowned in surprise. “No, it has nothing to do with the hatchlings and Topaz is the same active little shit in one perfect little piece.”
“You shouldn’t talk about him like that,” Oola said with a pout.
“So it was a fight with Serene,” Mack said with satisfaction. He was too observant for a boy.
“It wasn’t a fight,” Pandora said with a sullen look.
“Then what was it?” Oola asked, picking up on Mack’s assessment as if it were her own. “Did she hurt your feelings?” Oola asked protectively. “Was she mean to you?”
Pandora sighed. “She told me something about Greg.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Greg said with a sudden defensiveness.
“This isn’t about what you did,” Oola snapped, “Is it, Pandora?”
“Please don’t snap at him,” Pandora said softly. “He is in danger. Serene heard some of the master mages talk about killing him when his usefulness has come to an end.”
Pandora nodded. “You are providing new ways to look at things. They are learning from you… for now. When you no longer are of use to them they may kill you. So far the Arch Mage is protecting you, but he may be fickle.”
“Mages aren’t murders, are they?” Oola asked, shocked.
“I was supposed to warn you,” Pandora said. “She wants to get you out of here now, but we lack the skill, and the hatchlings aren’t ready yet. We can’t leave them.”
“You’re risking your life, too, by staying,” Oola pointed out soothingly.
“That is not all,” Mack said eyeing Pandora again. “What else is wrong, Pandora?”
“Yeah, Amazon, you can’t just be worried about little ol’ me,” he said with a strained smile.
Pandora shrugged helplessly. “She is just mad at me,” Pandora said. “We’ll get over it.”
“Have you two ever fought like this before?” Oola rushed to ask before Mack could open his mouth.
“Serene and I don’t fight. She rants and I listen. That is how we work,” Pandora said. Irritation was crawling under her skin and enhancing the pain in her bruises in an uncomfortable fashion.
“That isn’t how it should be,” Oola said with a deep frown. “You both should be able to talk.”
“Honestly, I spent two or three weeks with her. Amazon rarely talks,” Greg said and shifted uncomfortably when Oola glared at him.
“She was sick. That doesn’t mean you know her.”
“On a normal meal she rarely speaks more than two words without you asking her a question. I mean, it isn’t like I just learned that when she was sick,” Greg said. His face was turning a violent shade of pink.
“Greg’s right,” Diajeer said with a nod. “She does rarely speak unless spoken to.”
“Fine,” Oola said and eyed Pandora. “What did she say to you?”
“She said a lot. I can’t remember,” Pandora said.
“It’s bothering you; you should remember it,” Oola said and crossed her arms over her chest.
She felt trapped and cornered. It took all of her discipline not to just leave the table and hide away from every person and dragon in the Academy.
“What did she say?” Oola said demandingly. Her eyes were wide and sparked with power.
Pandora shrank away from her and stared at her plate full of food. “She was mad,” Pandora said with a shrug. “Serene is passionate. It’s not serious.”
“It’s not serious? You’re never upset and you’re saying it’s not serious?” Oola said with exasperation.
“I don’t think you should push her so hard,” Mack said and placed a restraining hand on Oola’s arm.
“Yeah,” Greg agreed and then shoveled some food into his mouth so that he would not have to respond to any of Oola’s scathing remarks. She was only this horrible when it came to dragons and Pandora. Why she was so defensive about those two things were beyond anyone at the table.
“Do you think I’m a freak?” Pandora asked quietly.
“What was that?” Mack asked.
“No, I heard it,” Oola said. “She asked if we thought she was a freak.” She speared Pandora with an accusing look. “Why would you ask something like that? Did Serene call you a freak?”
“That’s bullshit,” Greg said, “She’s a fuckin’ half-elf. She’s not even human. Who is she to say?”
Pandora gave him a look that she hoped dared him to say another ill word about her cousin. She rose slightly in her seat. He shrunk back.
“He’s right, Pandora,” Oola said and moved as if she would defend Greg from an onslaught. “But Serene shouldn’t have called you a freak.”
“But am I not a freak?” Pandora asked. “I’m stronger than all of you, faster, wilder. I’m not exactly normal.”
“We’re not by imperial standards either,” Mack pointed out. “Oola uses magic in a way that the mages here can’t replicate. She was all but kidnapped too, bet you didn’t know that?”
Pandora frowned thoughtfully at Mack and after a moment’s thought asked, “What makes you different?”
“Well, you know…”
“He’s part dragon,” Oola blurted out.
“But that’s forbidden,” Pandora said just as suddenly. The words simply poured out of her mouth before she could think.
“It’s forbidden for a dragon to mate with a human, yes,” Mack said blushing hotly. “But I’m only a quarter dragon, and the dragons don’t punish the children for the union, only the parents. If the child is actually born they are allowed to be grow up. I was actually a mistake.”
“Well, my father took my mother as his lover for a short time. He had no idea she was pregnant before he left and she didn’t want either of their lives to end so she kept it secret for as long as she could. I was taken in by the Academy after she died. I actually worked in the kitchens for a long time.”
Pandora stared at him, speechless.
“We’re not immortal, but I could live up to two thousand years, if I’m lucky.”
“Plus he’s super powerful,” Oola said with a pleased—if not smug—look on her face.
“There is actually a reason the Academy took me in,” Mack said. “And it isn’t because they’re benevolent.”
If he was expecting a word of encouragement he was disappointed. Instead he simply received a quizzical expression.
“My grandfather was a shadow dragon. I have great control over it, but most of the instructors don’t know. Only the Arch Mage does and my friends.”
“Isn’t that awesome?” Oola asked, excited that someone else was let in on the little secret.
Pandora nodded. “Serene has been training with it since she would speak.”
“Really?” Mack asked. “That’s a pretty serious offense against the law there. Why was she learning it?”
Pandora shrugged. “That’s for her to say. She is good at it though. Have you ever used it before?”
“What is it like. Do you… see differently?”
Mack shook his head. “No, I don’t.”
“Colors don’t get sharper?”
Mack thought about this for a moment and then shook his head. “No, I guess I not. I see pretty normally. It’s essential so that you know where the shadows are.”
“Can you Speak?” Pandora asked.
Mack shook his head. “No, there is only a slim chance that a quarter blood will be able to Speak. Do you think you’re part dragon, Pandora?”
Pandora shook her head. “I was told that my line is the last pure human line. My father was an only child and my mother was a twin. It was a dieing line. Everyone split off over the course of time and the two remaining lines merged into one…which is me.”
“Yeah, most humans have elf or dragon in them some how, but strangely dragons and elves can’t have viable children. Strange, huh?”
“Yeah, that’s pretty far fetched,” Greg said. “There has to be a reason that is not genetic. You would think that a dragon would have such a…” He sighed heavily. “Never mind, you have no idea what I’m talking about.”
“Maybe not, but what are you talking about?” Mack asked.
Greg shifted uncomfortably. “Well, I’m no geneticist but I did take high school biology. What I do know about genes and reproduction is that there should be no way in hell that a dragon and a human could reproduce. I mean, a dragon is a magical reptile… God that sounded strange. A human is just a normal adaptive mammal that is maybe a bit more intelligent than a normal mammal, but that’s beyond the point. Nothing viable should come of that.”
“Well, something did,” Oola pointed out.
“Obviously,” he said. “And even if something did come of it that could function in the world it shouldn’t be able to reproduce either. So, that just really begs the question of how and why?”
“Why what?” Mack asked.
“Why the elves and dragons can’t reproduce. If humans can breed with them and have viable offspring then they should be able to breed together.”
“Uh huh,” Oola said.
Greg sighed. “I’m just saying it shouldn’t be possible for one of not the other.” He sighed again. “I guess humans are just the cockroaches of the universe.”
“Cockroaches?” was the dubious response from everyone.
“Little bugs that can survive a nuclear explosion? You’re all hopeless.”
“Well, excuse us for not knowing everything about where you come from,” Oola snapped.
“Will you please just stop talking like that to him all the time, Oola?” Mack asked. “Do you have a crush on him or something?”
Both Greg and Oola blushed hotly and Pandora was thankful to be out of the center of attention. “It’s not like that,” Oola said. “He’s just frustratingly ignorant.”
“And so are you about his world,” Mack said reproachfully. “I wish you two would just get along and stop being such asses to one another. It’s annoying and it creates too much tension for me to have to deal with.”
“No one asked you to—“
“He’s my roommate, Oola. I’m his friend. Do you want me to stop talking to you?”
“No,” Oola said and sat quietly and settled back down in a guilty sulk.
“This dinner is too dramatic,” Diajeer said. “I think I’m going to return to my quarters and study.”
“I think I’ll leave, too,” Pandora said and started to get away from the bench.
“What else did she say to you?” Oola said quickly.
It made both Pandora and Diajeer pause and turn around. “I do not know myself,” Pandora answered and then turned and walked away. Oola said nothing to stop her.