Kiss of the Dragonfly

36. The One

Petra saw that Otger had stopped to study a concave rock like a throne with its back to the wind. Twelve hours of trudging in fickle sunlight and creeping in darkness had passed since they’d dug their tents out of the snowdrift. They needed a rest, and godshade was due.

She swept snow from the ledge. Otger sat beside her and Bane lay next to him. It was cozy in the hollow.

Cort appeared out of the whipping snow and squinted at them.

“Go find your own rock,” shouted Otger.

Cort shrugged and passed by.

Canuut appeared next, leading what looked like a scrub-covered boulder. They’d draped Mistake with bundles of brushwood. The stuff hid his gleaming flanks and would serve as fuel in a pinch. Petra’s inspiration for his disguise had been Otger’s nest in Clash. Canuut stumped past without a glance.

“Still angry,” said Petra, sadly.

“But you were right,” said Otger.

“There’s no way to know.”

“Trust your logic … I mean, your instinct.”

Otger had shared her distrust of the switchbacked descent into the northern tip of Screams Valley. Canuut figured there was no way Lucan could have caught up with them. Petra and Otger thought he might have. The argument had needed all the diplomacy they could muster. In the end, they’d continued along the western verge of the ridge-top, hidden from guessed-at eyes below.

Petra pulled out the waymap and Otger leaned close to look. A couple of hours ahead, the ridge was interrupted by a sheer-sided column of rock that rose above the valleys to either side. Karlmen called it the Cloven Tower. Otger, to Canuut’s disgust, insisted it was the core of a dead volcano.

Symbols in fine ink clustered around the Tower’s spot on the map. The dates were old. No Drakhorn had attempted the trail for hundreds of years. Even Petra’s father had chosen the valley trail.

“What’s that one?” asked Otger, pointing to the letters ‘KsD’, penned with a flourish.

“That’s Kastra’s mark.”

Otger glanced at Petra in astonishment.

“It really is. Of course it isn’t original; it’s been copied into each new generation of the map. My father made this copy when he was young.”

“And what’s the little wavy line beside it?”

“Canuut said it means a way through or around, but a difficult one. And see this date? Someone else passed the same way thirty years after Kastra. So it’s possible.”

Otger was silent.

Petra heard skepticism in his silence. Two dates, both centuries in the past, did not inspire confidence that the obstacle of the Tower could be overcome. His doubt made her want to explain. “Elder Genna told me that during the war, juggers held the Cloven Tower and used the ridge trail to get around the blockades. Kastra sneaked to the Tower and destroyed the bridge. She returned in darkness by a stair that the juggers couldn’t use.”

“Did Genna often tell adventure stories?”

“Kastra had help from a demon. That’s why Genna told it—because of how Kastra could speak to demons.”

“Oh,” said Otger.

Sketched like that, it sounded like a downlander’s summary of a quaint folk tale. Of course he thinks it’s stupid to choose a trail for such a flimsy reason, thought Petra, glumly.

Otger turned to her. “Can you speak to demons?”

The question caught her off guard. “Not yet.  Genna says I’m too young.”

“But you will. Because of your clanmark.”

It took a second to hit, then Petra gaped in consternation. What she’d acknowledged without thinking, and what he’d said. Clanmark.

Otger suppressed the grin as fast at it started. “I figured. I mean, I heard things …”

Petra snorted and looked away. Sure, he’d heard. Otger Big-ears, always spying. At least the grin was better than that almost-smirk of his.

“You’re the right age to start hearing demons,” resumed Otger, in a serious tone. “I read it starts with whispers and sometimes funny dreams.”

Petra snorted again, but it was a small snort. She looked slantwise at him, curious. Genna had never said how it started.

Otger glanced slantwise at her. When he saw that she was looking at him, his eyes widened as if in surprise. He said quietly, “And you’ll be able to trade with demons—if you’ve anything to trade.”

Petra pulled her gaze back to the map on her knees. Godshade made it too dark to read. She brushed off the snow, then closed the book. ‘Cintabrax and promises’, that’s what Genna said.

“I think demons are probably varter relics,” said Otger, pensively.

“Demons are ‘tarlics? What d’you mean?”

“In the stories, some relics could talk, right? Especially the important ones found long ago.”

That was true. Kastra had once stolen a talking ‘tarlic.

“And they could speak inside peoples’ heads, right? Some people could hear them—the same who can hear demons. So there are tarlics that are just things we don’t know how to make, and clever tarlics that do things we don’t know how to do, and even smarter ones that can talk—like demons.”

“Birds and clouds fly, but they’re not the same,” said Petra. “‘Tarlics are old things we dig up; demons are in everything.”

“I still don’t see a difference between the smartest relics and demons, except some demons aren’t tied to one thing. Not that I know much about demons. ” He glanced at her. “But I’ve read a lot about ‘tarlics.”

Petra grinned. “Is there anything you haven’t read about?”

“Lots. We couldn’t afford many books. But I’m interested in the varters and what they left. More interested than in raiding nests, anyway. Father thought we shouldn’t be taking eggs at all, because the draks are dying out. He said raiding nests is a sign of the cultural impoverishment and moral degeneration of the karlmen.” The long words came out in a rush, like steam released. Otger looked unhappily at his knees.

Petra regarded him with round eyes. It was scandalous talk. “Not hunt eggs? What would we do—just herd sheep? We’d live like … like downlanders.”

“We’ve only raided nests since the Abolition, right?  Before the kings were abolished, it wasn’t respectable—it was poaching. Did Kastra raid nests?”

“She was a scout!” But it was true. Back then, karlmen hadn’t bothered the draks.

“Right, she tracked juggers for king’s gold.”

Petra frowned. Put that way, it sounded base.

Otger noticed the frown. “Of course she helped win the war,” he said hurriedly. “My point is, scrounging eggs was beneath us—”

Petra’s frown became a scowl.

“—I mean, it wasn’t the way we lived. Before the war, karlmen suppressed juggers and false-breeds. And they sold relics.”

“So mucking up ‘tarlics is better than mastery of the hunt?” Petra couldn’t help the haughty tone. Nest-raiding was her father’s craft and her heritage.

“Either way, it’s about getting stuff for downlanders. Only relics are more interesting and raiding nests is more dangerous.”

Petra sniffed. “Why’d your pa do it, then?”

“He’d no choice. He tried prospecting. He researched in rare books, met with dwarves, and travelled to Karlward. But he found nothing but trinkets. Not many good relics left, I guess.

“And so you want to follow …”

“I wanted to study history in a downland school, that’s what. Still do. But Father said we couldn’t afford it.”

Fine snow collected in Petra’s lap while she digested that. She’d heard of karlmen who’d travelled in the downlands, but never of one who’d studied there. “I guess your friends weren’t as interested,” she hazarded.

Otger grinned. “I didn’t have friends—I had fights. I didn’t like it, but I’d no choice.”

“Yeah, you got pretty good with your fists,” said Petra, grinning too.

Otger squinted at the gap where her tooth had been. “Uh … did I do that?”

“Cracked a rib, too.”

Otger grimaced and curled forward. “Oh! Damn.”

Petra laughed, and the laughing warmed her. “Don’t fret. Being good with your fists—that’s something a morally degenerate nest raider like me can respect.”

“Hmm,” said Otger.

Petra pressed her advantage, liking his honesty and wanting more. It was so different from the usual slyness of her people.

“So are we Drakhorns any better?”

“Yes—lots. Some of you care about learning. The boys have more to occupy them, and the girls are nicer too.”

“Oh? How are we nicer?” asked Petra.

Otger’s eyes widened with alarm. “Uh, I guess I asked for that.”

“I’ll make it easy. Which are prettier—Brok girls or Drakhorns?”

“Well, I didn’t mean … but definitely Drakhorns.”

“And who’s the prettiest of them?” It was a challenge, and Otger didn’t shy from challenges. Petra liked that too.

“Tegan,” he said, promptly. “I can’t think when I’m near her. In class I have to sit in front so I won’t be distracted. And she’s kind—even to me. That makes it almost unbearable.”

Petra’s grin widened. She couldn’t fault him for that bit of honesty. Another misconception fell. She’d thought he pushed forward in class because he knew all the answers.

Otger said, “You didn’t ask about the boys, but I think we Broks have the edge in looks—don’t you agree?”

Petra’s grin faded. She’d called the game, so she had to answer in kind. “Well, you have your uglies, like Borak and Bruno. But I guess Cort tips it. He’s … achingly handsome. He has nice manners and a way of moving that’s hard not to notice.” She shrugged, flustered in spite of herself.

“Gronnor’s been grooming Cort since he was a kid. He does that—groom people. I guess he means him to be Tash one day.”

“What’s he grooming you to be?”

“No idea,” said Otger. “A year ago, I’d have said ‘dog food’. But since the joining, he’s been pushing me to lead in Clash, though I said I wasn’t interested. He wanted me to beat you.”

“Me! Why?”

“I don’t know. He said I couldn’t do it.”

“Hmm. Did that work?”

“I guess it did, though he was right in the end.”

Petra nodded. Like her, Otger hadn’t been able to resist the challenge. “You did well for someone who wasn’t interested. I spent half my life thinking about Clash, but you almost won.”

“Don’t get me wrong—I sweated blood. I wanted to be good at something that interested … others. So I could talk to them.”

Petra grinned. “Beating me wouldn’t impress Tegan.”

“Tegan! No, she wasn’t the one … I mean, she’s nice, but I didn’t … she’s mostly interested in people stuff, and I’m …” He stumbled to a halt, trapped in his words.

Of course Petra wondered: who was ‘the one’?

The truth dawned with the light of the moon hanging over the shoulder of Attica. Otger’s intensity in Clash; how he’d become interested in Kastra and soon knew the legends better than she did; how he’d spied on her.

She was the one he wanted to impress, wanted to talk to. How had she not seen it before? To give herself time to think, she rummaged a cheese from her pack. It was Tegan’s, the last and best. She cut a slender moon and offered it to Otger. “Well, you impressed me,” she said lightly, “but a bearded draken hardly counts.”

“Huh? Who said …”

“What you said I am—according to Cort.”

“Cort! Demon’s piss, he’s a damn liar! He’s a troll’s ass! He’s a … well, I can’t say what he is, because you like him, but I never said anything like that.”

Petra suppressed a grin. She was right. “Who says I like him?”

Otger sat hunched over, silent.

In the silence, Petra nibbled cheese and let the new idea settle. A month before, the thought that Otger fancied her would have made her stomach turn. Now, it warmed her. She couldn’t deny it: she liked that he liked her. She had battled Otger with all her skill and strength, and won, and lost, and knew him to be different, yet her equal. They’d shared a furious passion. It had been a strangely enlivening thing to have such a formidable adversary as Otger Brok, and she wondered if it could be anywhere as good to have him as a friend.


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