Cal needed to kill something. He needed to eat.
He prowled the desert as if he were king of the
sand—a far cry from the truth. His sweaty palm tightened on
his hunting knife, his prized possession. Steps quiet, he
neared the Sahana River. No animals, no tracks, no life. The
dead bank glistened in the heat, taunting him. He glowered
Cal followed the curves north to where a jumble of rocks
crossed the river, making it more secluded than the open
banks. Water splashed ahead. He crouched behind a boulder,
stomach clenching in the hope that he’d found prey. His
tongue rasped over chapped lips.
Peeking through the slabs, Cal spied a girl digging for
fiddlers. He swallowed his spit and ground his teeth. She
would have scared any larger prey far away. Unhappy fingers
twitched on his knife.
The girl was young, maybe nine or ten. She knelt in the
languid water, twisting her hands into the riverbed. With a
grunt of pain, she yanked her arm free. A palm-sized
creature with a thorny shell and squiggly barbed legs clung
to the flesh of her thumb. Teeth-tight, she levered a knife
between the shells and pried them open, revealing one bite
Cal had zero skill at catching fiddlers. It took patience.
Lots of patience.
She tossed the prickly brown shell onto the sand and held
up a glossy muscle tinged pink with her blood. Instead of
putting the morsel in her mouth, as Cal would have done,
she set the meat in a basket on the far riverbank. The inside
of the wicker shone with the gleam of dozens of fiddlers.
Cal stared; saliva coated his tongue. There were enough
for a real dinner. Enough to satisfy the ache in his belly.
Enough to take some home to his ma.
He swallowed. He needed to get across the river and
within arm’s reach of that basket.
He jerked behind the rock, squelching the thought of
stealing. Cal wasn’t a thief. He focused on a black bug
burrowing in the sand—all crunch and goo, no meat. Images
of fiddlers sprang back to his mind. Stealing was wrong. And
yet, his hunger was wrong too.
He craned his neck, peeking over the boulder. The girl
yanked another fiddler from the earth. It dangled in her
fingers, taunting him. He should join her in the hunt, dig for
his own fiddlers. He’d managed to catch a few before, but
tonight, the thought of doing the tedious work repulsed him.
His whole body hummed with impatience. He rolled to the
balls of his feet as hunger took control.
He buried the tip of his hunting knife in the sand by his
feet. His long tunic and leather sandals landed next to it.
Wearing only his shorts, he stalked toward the water. Her
back was to him, her focus on her work. He should turn
around. Leave her alone. Stealing was severely punished by
the Elders. He’d promised Ma he wouldn’t get into more
trouble. He told himself to stop, but the meal beckoned.
Darkness rose in his breast, forcing him forward. As silent as
a breeze, he waded across the slow water. His calloused palm
shot forward and dug into the basket. Raw fiddlers squished
in his grip.
The girl turned, her eyes wide. He was sixteen, much
bigger and stronger than she. She shrank back as her focus
flicked from his full fist to his bare chest to his hard-set jaw.
He told himself to give back her fiddlers, that this was
wrong, but his body had come untethered from his mind. An
invisible force seemed to control him as he brought the
fiddlers to his mouth, but before the tenderness passed his
lips, a rough palm gripped his shoulder and yanked him
Cal whirled. Fiddlers flew and disappeared under the
brown surface of the water. “No!”
“What do you think you’re doing?” The deep voice was
Rage replaced Cal’s hunger as he stared at the ripples in
the water. A good meal, gone.
Hands on hips, a large man glared down at Cal. “I
recognize you, Callidon Mirrason. It’s not the first time
you’ve broken the pact. Wait until the Elders hear about you
stealing from my daughter.”
Dread curled in Cal’s belly. Not another tribunal. He
refused to stand before the Elders again and be told how he
was a disgrace. How he was cursed.
Apologize and promise restitution, that’s what he needed
to do, but the words wouldn’t come. The violent force
growing within him seemed to flex and crackle to life. Cal’s
fingers curled tight.
“I don’t think even your ma can convince them you aren’t
Cal swung for the man’s nose, but he ducked as if he’d
been expecting it. He threw out a punch, slamming his fist
into Cal’s stomach. Cal stumbled and fell, crashing into the
river. The girl’s scream pierced the water as her father’s foot
pinned Cal to the muddy bottom. Rocks sliced his back. Hot
panic swirled through his chest as he fought the urge to
inhale. He shifted left, and the foot shoved harder. His back
barked in pain. His lungs howled for breath, but his mind
sharpened and calmed.
Water distorted the man’s voice as he yelled down at Cal
under the surface. “Are you done fighting?”
Cal was just getting started. Gripping a small rock, he
rammed it into a hairy calf. The water slowed the thrust, but
he twisted it into the muscles. Red swirls inked the murk.
The foot recoiled, and Cal wrenched free. He plowed to the
surface. Panting and dripping, Cal spun to face his foe. He
adjusted his grip on the stone and raked wet hair out of his
eyes. Anger throbbed, commanding him to strike.
“Stop!” the girl cried.
Cal’s nerves hummed in anticipation. Initiating violence
as he had done was forbidden in Siccum. For sixteen years,
he’d tried to keep his head down, eating porridge and mining
the burning sand for precious little gold to live by. Cal had
been a servant of the greater good, weak and obedient. Not
anymore, said a voice in his mind. A menacing growl issued
from his belly.
The man swung, his fist aiming for Cal’s face. Cal ducked.
Following through with the rock, he smashed the man’s
elbow. The crack reverberated through Cal’s wrist. The man
staggered back. Blood dripped down his forearm, which
dangled awkwardly at his side.
The painful angle of the arm, or perhaps the girl’s
symphony of screams, jarred Cal out of his one-track rage.
The bloodthirsty filter fell from his eyes. He blinked, and the
scene refocused. He saw the cowering girl and the bleeding
man. A father protecting his daughter. One of the families
from his village who suered through the same searing
Siccum summers as he did.
The urge that had driven him to cruelty abandoned him,
leaving him hollow and ashamed. The rock slipped from his
fingers and buried itself in the slow current.
“I’m sorry.” Even his voice had lost its strength. What
had he done?
He clambered up the rocks and snatched his belongings
without pause. He ran north, away from his village. When
sand burned his feet and sun scorched the scratches on his
back, he put on his tunic and sandals. He trudged through
barren desert, failing to find any prey, his mind preoccupied
with the failures of the day. He knew stealing was wrong.
And attacking that man was worse. How could he face Ma
and Grandpapi now, especially after he’d lashed out at them
at dinner? Loneliness and shame twisted like a knife. Bile
rose in his throat, but his stomach had nothing to expel.
He returned to the river, abandoned of all but discarded
fiddler shells. He stripped and slid under the water. Regret
rolled over him. Scrubbing at his limbs, he tried to wash his
wrongs away. But as he plodded home, they clung to him, as
painfully as his shirt stuck to the cuts on his back.
Like a beacon far across the sand, the lights of Siccum
called. As the night settled in, the heat of the day lifted. A
breeze ran cool fingers through his wet hair. Come summer,
he wouldn’t have any relief. He seemed to struggle with the
festering heat more than others.
He slunk around the north wall and entered the city gate
near his two-bedroom home. Hunger gnawed. If only he’d
been a second faster and gotten the fiddlers into his mouth …
He entered his small yard and locked the gate behind him,
securing it against night predators. In front of the house, his
ma and her father, Grandpapi, sat on rocking chairs in the
sand. Unlit torches dotted the circular wall protecting their
home. The family hen clucked and pecked at Cal’s toes.
“Cal, you’re home.” Relief softened Ma’s voice.
Grandpapi scowled in disappointed silence. Cal knelt
before Ma’s chair, forcing his knees to bend and his head to
“I’m sorry about before. I’m sorry I said your dinner
wasn’t good enough. I’m sorry I spit on the table. I don’t
know what came over me.” That was the truth. And Cal knew
he’d better get control of his new impulses fast. People
already thought him cursed. The curse of Prince Nogard, the
Black Dragon, was a myth meant to scare people into
submission. Despite the stories, naughty children did not
grow into monsters. “I lost my temper. I’m grateful to have
food, any food. Please, forgive me.”
Night shaded Ma’s expression, but he felt tenderness in
her fingers when she lifted his chin. “I’m sorry we don’t
have more. I know how you go hungry.”
“No,” he lied. “You feed me well.” It wasn’t her fault
porridge no longer satisfied. It wasn’t her fault greed had
possessed him like a crazed beast.
“Shh. Just a minute.” Her thin robes, smelling of citrus
and sage, rustled against his face as she stood. She slipped
into the house and returned a moment later with a ceramic
bowl. “It’s cold now.”
He took it with thanks, hunger snapping within him.
“She wouldn’t let me eat it,” Grandpapi said. Starlight
reflected o white hair.
Cal wolfed down his meager porridge. “I’m sorry,
Grandpapi. I acted terribly at dinner.”
“You did.” Grandpapi’s tone cut like shards.
If only that were the only thing he had to confess. He
sucked in a long breath and forced the next words out.
“Something happened down at the river.”
Ma and Grandpapi tensed as if expecting a blow.
“A girl was digging for fiddlers.” Cal gulped. “And I sort
of tried to take them.” He stared at the flecks of gray sand to
avoid their disappointed faces. “I didn’t see her father at
Insects hissed and fluttered across the silence.
Head down, he whispered, “I attacked him when he
stopped me from eating the fiddlers I’d taken.” His voice
cracked. “I hurt him. Badly.” He roughly swiped at watery
eyes as he waited for a response that didn’t come. “I will be
summoned to tribunal. Again.” His previous oenses had
been petty things, nothing like this. What would his
punishment be? Working the giretorbie pits was the worst.
The smell unbearable.
Eyes glittering with fear, Ma reached up and wrapped thin
arms around his shoulders. “Everyone makes mistakes.” Her
voice lacked conviction.
He straightened his spine. “I’m going to apologize. Maybe
I can talk them out of telling the Elders.”
Grandpapi’s raspy voice was hard. “Tomorrow you can
see if that does any good. But it’s time to put this day to bed.
You must rise better. Your heart must be stronger than your
flesh. Do not give in to dark desires.” Grandpapi stretched
out a wrinkled hand, and Cal lifted him easily from his seat.
“Too strong for your own good,” Grandpapi mumbled as
the boy helped him into the house.
Cal brought the rocking chairs inside. They would need
them for breakfast.
“I’m sorry,” Cal said, wishing he could erase the hurt
he’d caused his family. Wishing he could start the day over
and end up the conqueror instead of the accused.
“Good night, my love.” Ma’s voice was kind, but her eyes
betrayed deep sadness. She looked so tired.
With regret wedging between his ribs, Cal slipped out the
door and sucked in the cooling air. The curious hen waddled
over to his feet.
“I don’t have food for you,” Cal said. “You’re supposed to
have food for me. You look plump enough for a good meal.”
He plucked the bird o the ground. Tying the rope around
the hen’s neck, while trying not to think about breaking it,
he tethered her to the far wall. His family depended on the
daily egg, and he had no right to kill his mother’s hen. Last
year he’d saved his spending money for months, foregoing
food and a new tunic to buy that bird for Ma. That was a long
time ago. A dierent Cal. A good one.
Cal flung out his thin rug and spread it on the flat sand.
As he lay on his back and looked at the bright stars, hungry
jaws snapped in his gut. Sleep. Tomorrow there would be
porridge. He wrapped his arms around his belly, trying to
squeeze out the sharp demands. It failed. Rolling to his feet,
he paced, debating the fate of the chicken.
Near the house he heard their whispers.
The window rug was pulled back to let in the night air.
The hush of Ma and Grandpapi’s voices drifted through. Cal
crouched below the window.
“Can’t prevent it,” Grandpapi said.
Ma’s sigh was heavy with despair. “It’s happening so
quickly. I’m scared.”
Cal’s ears strained as his mind scrambled over the words.
“It’s time to go north,” Grandpapi said quietly.
Go north? Cal had begged to leave Siccum for years. He
looked forward to the caravan’s rare appearances, not just
for the treats and trading, but to ask the travelers’ questions
about the wider world. Each time he built hope they could
travel north with the caravan; each time Ma flatly refused.
“We can’t do this on our own anymore,” Grandpapi said.
“It’s time to find the Lion.”
The hairs on Cal’s arms rose at the weight of the
whispered word, Lion. He risked a peek over the window sill.
His family huddled at the table.
“Oh, Papi, I’d hoped we could have escaped it. Fifteen
years in this forsaken sandpit and still …” her voice
She hated it here too? The realization rocked Cal. She’d
always been so cheerful. Annoyingly peppy. Fake.
Ma’s head drooped in her hands as she sobbed. Her loose
hair blanketed her arm, the golden hue so dierent from
Cal’s dark brown. A trait he assumed he inherited from his
father. He knew so little of the man.
Grandpapi’s withered fingers rubbed Ma’s back with
tenderness. “Don’t despair for things you can’t control. You
did your best, my dear. But the boy is changing. His father’s
poisonous blood is ripening.” Unfamiliar rancor hardened
Cal reeled, falling back on his heels. They were talking
about him. His fingernails dug into the clay wall, anchoring
him. The rare times Ma spoke of his father, she painted him
a hero. A hardworking fisherman who died in the silver
waters of the Scorpion Sea, aptly named for the sting in its
waves. She lied.
Outrage spread through his skeleton. “I’m poisoned?”
Cal’s sharp accusation blasted across the room.
Ma and Grandpapi jerked their heads. Ma scrubbed at the
salty streaks down her cheeks. “Cal. Honey. I thought you
Cal vaulted through the window. Ma recoiled. His temper
cooled at her fright. He perched on his chair and rested his
clasped hands gently on the table. Slow breath. “What are we
escaping? What’s happening too fast? What about my
father’s blood? You talk like the Elders—like I’m cursed.”
Ma cowered like the rats Cal trapped in his snares. He
counted in his head to keep from lashing out with
impatience. One. Two. Answer me. Three. Four.
Ma swallowed. “Your father did some terrible things.”
Grandpapi didn’t refute it. He speared Cal with distrustful
Cal’s jaw dropped. “You lied to me.”
“Yes.” Ma held his gaze, no longer quailing. “He’s dead.”
Her voice was cold. Remorseless.
“You’re glad.” His world shifted. He sucked in a dizzy
Ma ignored the comment. “And so, I painted a new
picture of him. I remade him into the honorable man I
wanted you to become.”
And he’d failed. He couldn’t hold Ma’s stare. Or answer
for the things he’d done. He’d caused her tears and pain.
And his father had been a bad man.
Apparently brown hair and broad shoulders weren’t the
only things he’d inherited from the stranger. And Ma and
Grandpapi hated him for it.
Cal stood. They didn’t move. “I’m sorry. I’ll do better.”
No reassuring replies. No words of encouragement.
He shued away. Forsaken silence followed him out the
door. He crawled onto his mat. Questions bombarded. Who
was his father really? What bad things had he done? Cal
wanted the truth.
For hours he lay sleepless, searching the starry sky. No
answers appeared there. When the moon slipped behind a
lonely wisp of cloud, he rose and crept into the quiet house.
As if he were a shadow, he stalked into Ma’s bedroom. She
kept her personal things in a tin box at the bottom of her
trunk. He hesitated. He’d never dared invade her privacy
before. It was wrong.
But, she’d disrespected him first. She lied to him. He
undid the latch. She rolled over in her sleep. He shifted some
cloth and lifted out a small box. Creeping from the room, he
also stole one of their precious candles before drifting
outside. Sitting on his mat, he opened the box. An amber ring
glinted in the low light. How much food could this have
bought them? Pushing that unhappy thought aside, he took
out a stack of papers. He skimmed dozens of letters from his
aunt Elssa. Nothing of interest he didn’t already know.
Cousins in Mitera. Gossip about strangers.
At the bottom was a stier piece of parchment. Block
letters blazed across the page. He held the candle flame
closer. The bottom of the note and the signature were gone,
but he gobbled up the remaining words.
I’LL BEG YOU FOR THE LAST TIME. PLEASE COME HOME. I MISS
YOU DESPERATELY. YOU’VE PROVED YOU WILL SACRIFICE
EVERYTHING TO PROTECT YOUR SON. BUT YOU CAN’T PREVENT
HIM FROM GROWING INTO A DRACO SANG. IT WILL HAPPEN—
EVEN IN SICCUM.
Cal rubbed his eyes. He squinted as he re-read the
shocking words. What in the great skies?
YOU CAN’T PRETEND AWAY OR OUTRUN THE DRAGON’S BLOOD,
MIRA—I KNOW THIS. PLEASE FACE THE FACTS. PLEASE LET ME
HELP YOU. I CAN HELP HIM.
I FAILED TO PROTECT YOU ONCE. I CAN NEVER FORGIVE MYSELF
FOR YOUR SUFFERING. I WILL NOT LET HARM COME TO YOU
AGAIN. NO ONE WILL HURT YOU. I SWEAR IT ON EIO. COME
HOME. WE WILL PROTECT YOU. I’VE DEVOTED—
The paper was torn at the end of the line. Cal wheezed out
the breath he’d been holding.
I am Draco Sang.
Ma had taught him a little about the Draco Sang. Warlike,
primitive, and vile, they constantly fought amongst
themselves, the weak becoming slaves to the powerful. Ma
had said their leader, Queen Mavras, had risen to power
fourteen years ago by killing the king, her brother.
Apparently, that was a common tradition in their land. The
Draco Sang lived in Skotar, the country just north of his
kingdom of Elysium. The raging Rugit River separated their
The Draco Sang were the enemy.