Authors: Joely Sue Burkhart
Someone scratched at the tent flap.
Jalan crawled over to the flap and peeked out. His heart plummeted. “Yes, Shaddad?”
Completely dressed in black with the
pulled up to veil his face, Shaddad’Yama offered a tray containing a large bowl of stew, a tea pot, and a flask of wine. “It must be done at dawn as her dragon comes.”
Grief wracked his heart. “Is there any other way?”
Sympathy flashed in the priest’s eyes. “No, my son. Yama has spoken. This is the only way to save the Kraits. That you love her so well makes her a worthy sacrifice. If you can’t do it, let me wield the blade for you.”
Jalan closed his eyes, struggling to breathe.
“No.” Chanda said in a flat, hard voice. Wrapping her arms around him, she pulled him back toward the cushions. “I want it done in love.”
She took the tray from his trembling hands. “Sit,
and let me serve you one time as your mate.”
It was the least he could do, he decided, watching as she moved about his tent. She found the low table hanging from a rope in the center of the tent, and the cups and bowls in a small chest beneath. The Krait weren’t a wealthy people as far as the Keldari were concerned, but he felt pride that his cups were fine china brought over the wild seas from a land far away; to a Green Land port across those rich, fertile fields to Far Illione, the borderland on the desert fringe; and finally across endless miles of sand and dune, of marauding tribes and dragons, to grace her hand.
Smiling, she gestured him over to lounge on the low cushion beside the table.
She poured water into a small bowl and took a cloth from the chest along with clean linen trousers, a flowing tunic, and slippers worn inside the tents, plain but soft and comfortable. Kneeling beside him, she carefully wiped his face, hands, and feet, and then she helped him dress. He did so silently, enjoying her touch, her scent, as his heart clawed his throat to ribbons. He gazed at her sleek curves, the fall of her dark hair, the glimmer of love in her eyes, and tried to imprint her image on his mind and heart for all time.
Once he was dressed and comfortable on the cushion, she washed herself, rubbing some oil into the dragon scratches to speed healing. She didn’t bother dressing. He had no feminine clothing in his tent anyway.
Kneeling beside him once more, she poured tea. She lifted the cup to her mouth, sipping, closing her eyes even while her lips twisted slightly. “I forgot how strong and bitter our tea is. Surprisingly, I missed it.”
Opening her eyes, she offered the cup, carefully turning it so he could place his mouth where hers had been. He took a sip, welcoming the blaze of smoky spices mixed with bitters. The taste was perfect for this one night they had left.
“Fire Tea feeds the fire within—”
“—If it doesn’t kill you.” She finished the ancient Keldari saying. “Let’s hope the stew is tastier.”
Their last meal. She didn’t say it, but the thought hovered between them, silent doom echoing in the tent. She picked up the heavy silver spoon and sampled the stew.
“If your taste in oil is any indication, the stew doesn’t have enough sage.”
Winking at him, she spooned more and raised it to his mouth. He couldn’t taste anything but ashes. It was enough to stare into her eyes, and put his mouth on the spoon after she took a bite.
No, he lied to himself. It would never be enough. Rage stoked inside his heart; flames flared on his skin. She shivered, glowing as though she swallowed the moon above. Her eyes smoldered, and her lips curved in a teasing smile. Lifting the tray, she stood, deliberately swaying her hips as she turned, giving him a view of fiery dark hair curtaining her slender back.
Clever woman. She turned his useless rage to another kind of fire he could more easily quench. She came back empty handed, standing before him confident and proud. She shook her head and curved her neck like an enticing female dragon.
Still, he forced his hands to remain in his lap. If he touched her with this Fire blazing in him, he would take her like a rutting beast again.
“I’m afraid I’ll lose control. And this time—”
Their last time.
“I can be tender, Jalan.” Solemnly, she sat in his lap and pulled his warrior braid over his shoulder. She began unbraiding it, her fingers gentle and sure. “I don’t always bite.”
It felt so odd to touch him, to feel the Fire blazing in him, the desperate hunger, yet keep my movements so light and careful. Odd, but wonderful. I slowly unbraided his hair, gently combing my fingers through his hair until it fell about his shoulders.
Shaking beneath me, he fought to restrain his beast. I felt his hunger, his need to take me, to claim me as his own for all time. Yet he wanted to simply lie together, to hold me endlessly and look into my eyes, too.
It broke my heart.
Silently, I swore to give him exactly what he wanted, even if—when—it killed me.
I took him by the hand and stood, leading him to the rear sleeping alcove. I opened the roof flap so we could see the stars, the accursed moon, the velvet night sky. We lay together staring up at the sky, touching, but not moving more than feather-light fingers. I circled up and down his chest, his arms, his neck, his beloved face, while he stared up at the sky and quivered at my touch.
“Chanda—” His voice broke and a shudder wracked his body.
“Shhh.” I rolled over on my side, drawing his head around so we could stare into each other’s eyes. “I love you.”
I drew my thigh up over his hips and wriggling closer. “You’ll do what must be done, my stone warrior.”
“I’m not made of stone,” he said flatly. “I’m flesh and blood, my heart Given to you.”
“Then love me.”
His palm drew me closer, shifting me so he could slide inside. Breast to breast, hip to hip, we lay silently, locked together. He breathed in, and I did as well. His heart beat, and mine accompanied. Tilting my head back enough to stare into his eyes made my neck ache, so I buried my face in his neck and wrapped my arms around him.
We didn’t move. We simply lay together, connected, one flesh, one heart, and watched the moon glide across the sky.
My fingers, slowly trailing up and down Jalan’s spine, stilled at the priest’s words. He gripped me tighter and I clung to him, trying to crawl inside him and hide forever.
That irritated me, though. I don’t hide. I’ve never hidden from anything in my life. I eased my grip on him and pulled away gently. Silently, we stood. I helped him into his clothing, but he refused the
The only weapon he wore was the scimitar. The wickedly sharp blade gleamed in the darkness before dawn, holding my gaze. My heart raced.
“I’ll be fast,” he whispered, his voice cracking with strain.
“I trust you.” I did, but my stomach clenched and my head pounded until I feared I might be ill. I tried to make my voice light for him. “I’m tired of being a dragon any way.”
“When your heart ceases beating, then mine will too. I swear it. You won’t go to the Gods alone.”
I gripped his hand, shaking, and ashamed that I was scared. I didn’t want to face Somma, not when I still carried Her curse. Evidently, I hadn’t learned a thing in my long imprisonment. Jalan accomplished much, yes, and healed my Riven heart. But I refused to give up my hatred and rage. I deserved to die a painful, wretched death long ago. That he would give me death quickly and painlessly was a blessing.
I still couldn’t stop shaking.
He wrapped an arm around me, drawing me into his side as we walked out of his tent. Shaddad’Yama held a white
up for me. Grateful for the warmth in the chilly desert night, I gripped the swath of linen about me. Silent and grim, the Krait lined the path down to the
I did fine until we reached the crumbling tainted sands. I couldn’t bear to walk on that spoiled land on bare feet. Dread filled me. I didn’t want to die in taint, in acid, in darkness. It would be much better to die free, blazing in Fire and glory, roaring my fury to the heavens. I couldn’t go peacefully like this without a fight.
Immediately, Jalan scooped me up into his arms. With my face buried against his neck, I breathed his scent and tried to ease the tension straining my body. He carried me down to the very edge of the
A black rock slab jutted out over the boiling acid. Thick chains waited for me, heavy enough to hold my dragon. Frantic, I scanned the sky. The sun crept up from the horizon, and the full silvered moon faded. Fire blazed in me even as the sun climbed higher. My dragon would fight to the death rather than be chained. Truth be told, I’d rather fight to the death too, but for Jalan...
Stiff and jerky, I let the black-swathed priests guide me to the rock. With steady but caring pressure, they guided me to kneel and placed my arms and legs in cuffs large enough to accommodate my dragon when she came. Jalan, my stone warrior, trembled and nearly cracked. And so I didn’t pull my hands free. I didn’t even toss my head about and struggle when they put the heavy collar about my neck.
Silent and dark, Shaddad’Yama held the chain attached to my collar and stared up at the
against Somma. Our land is cursed with Despair and agony and we die to right our wrongs.
“Please accept this sacrifice, Chanda the White, the last of Somma’s blood in all of Keldar. Spare the Krait’s last Well, we beg. Spare our tribe, our children, our crops, our livestock. We are Your blood more than any Keldari. We will be the first to die in judgment. May this sacrifice atone for a portion of our
Dawn blazed. My dragon stretched inside me, anxious and furious and more than ready to tear into these fools who thought to cage me. I tried to keep my eyes on Jalan, but magic convulsed my body, pain wracking me as the transformation began. I tried to cry out to my stone warrior, but all that came out of my throat was a dragon’s roar.
Fire blazed and white wings beat the air.
The White Dragon reared back, fighting the heavy chains about her limbs and neck. Jalan silently prayed she would free herself, even as a dozen warriors raced forward to help hold her down. Shaddad’Yama directed them, heaving on her collar until her proud neck was stretched out with her head on the ground. They positioned her perfectly for sacrifice; her blood would drain down the black rock altar and drip into the
If Jalan could actually bring himself to do it.
Claws scrambling, screaming in fury, Chanda strained against the chains.
Through their bond, he felt her overwhelming fury and aching betrayal. The dragon didn’t care about his people. She didn’t care about the last Well, the taint, the dying crops, as long as there were people, their livestock, or other dragons for her to eat.
Her powerful wings beat the air, struggling to lift her free of the chains. One magnificent wing tangled in the chain, feathers shredding in her frantic efforts.
Refusing to surrender, she beat and fought until her wing broke. Just as his heart broke watching her.
Rushing to her, he dropped to his knees beside her and grabbed her thrashing head. “Shhh, Chanda, shhh. You’re hurting yourself.”
She calmed at his voice, but images slammed into him.
Fly, fight, engulfing Fire, rage. Kill them all!
He stroked her neck, crooning softly, until her struggles calmed. Mighty chest heaving, she lay on the rock slab and mewled pitifully. His proud, fierce dragon mate, caged, helpless. He hated it. It made him want to tear into the watching crowd with teeth and claws himself. She saved him, brought him back from eternal Fire, and yet here she lay, ready to die.
Shaddad’Yama urged. “End her misery.”
Jalan leaned down, staring into her liquid gold eyes. “I love you. My heart beats for you.”
Her eyes closed. She tried to turn her head away, but the chains held her still.
In his mind, the image of a death spiral blazed to life. A Black—him—and the White, mating in the air, circling hard and fast to the earth. Only instead of releasing each other and soaring to safety, they splashed into the boiling Sea, still clinging to each other with teeth and claws.