The most spoilery bits are after the cut. Also, it's not professionally edited yet. Consider it a rough work in progress.
The man standing beneath the Dragon Queen’s wing was not supposed to be there. Granddad Sanderson was the rock on my father’s side of the family. He’d always projected this aura of the unshakable truth, an unstoppable force looking for an immovable object. Practicality. But there’d been a division between Dad and Granddad that ran deeper than just Dad marrying Mom. There’d been something else. Something that Dad was supposed to do that he didn’t.
Silly me, I thought, crouching in my battered dragon body. And here’d I’d thought Granddad wanted Dad to be a doctor.
He stood in the middle of Queen Shoran’s camp. I think humans were supposed to start looking small to me by now, but he towered over the entire universe. His hair had grayed out ages ago; it had just enough black left to be regal. He was weathered and sun-lined. He wore black fighting leathers like they’d been poured on. Old, but don’t you dare mistake that for weak; he was whipcord and rawhide and lightning. His eyes were very cold. They studied me, and a lot of things suddenly fell into place.
Tommy’s legend about Dragon Queen Shoran’s loyal and valued sand-son, the man who had betrayed Salthessa’s Abomination to the world. Who had fathered a family of sand-sons, who had eventually gone to a secret place for safe keeping. Sand-sons. Sandersons. And what Salthessa had said all those ages ago rippled through my brain once more: “Joanna Sanderson. What does it mean, I wonder?”
“It’s just a name.”
My gut went cold, dragon-fire put out for the moment. I’d been singled out. I’d been chosen from the moment Salthessa heard my name. No. Before that. When Pentressa, disguised as Mrs. Petersen, my science teacher, called role for the very first time. The delay between then and our abduction was probably just verification. She’d want to be sure she had the right family. Because that’s what we were, weren’t we? We were Shoran’s blessed Family.
“You’re probably surprised,” Granddad said. He wouldn’t meet my eyes.
“Not really,” I said, dropping my own. I was still breathing hard from the flight. My wings ached. My back hurt. My feet throbbed from the landing. But it felt a little like my heart was breaking, and that was the worst of all.
Granddad had always been there for me. For the first time in my life, he had withdrawn. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t known about the family secret; sometimes you just can’t forgive betrayal.
Billy and Sam looked from me to Granddad, and back to me. You could almost see “Tilt” written across Bill’s pupils. He didn’t get it at all. But Sam put her hand on my flank, where feathers turned to scales. Where I could feel it, warm and weirdly comforting. “Hello, Mr. Sanderson,” she whispered, and Bill gasped.
“I don’t know you kids,” he said, dully. He was still looking at me.
“I’m Samantha Foster. This is William Bird. We met during school open house a couple years back.”
His eyes flickered. “Quarterback, right?” Bill nodded. So did Granddad. He had both kids safely pigeonholed now. “Well, I’m sure you two have been through a lot. One more meeting, and we can start talking about getting you home.” And then he looked at me, helplessly. “Come on,” he gestured, and then ducked into the blue pavilion. The sides moved and breathed like heavy silk. A pattern of gold dragons curved up and down its sides. Billy followed, and then Sam, and then it was my turn.
Into the realm of another dragon Queen. Into the claws of Shoran. But she was the good guy in Talarion’s story, right? She’d be nice.
It was cool inside. Basins of ice hung in midair, bleeding coolness. Each chunk was carved, like in Salthessa’s world. Flowers, deer, trees. The difference was, the real thing was here too. Sort of. Cut flowers. Bonsaied trees and the real deal in pots human me could have slept in. A gathering of human women sat in a corner. Not maids or dressers. Not when they were sprouting that level of armament. They nodded to me, warrior to warrior. Respect, maybe? I wasn’t sure. Still, it was easier to hold my head up. I met the dragon-queen’s eyes.
It’s better to be eaten by a tiger, I thought, and drowning in the gaze of Shoran, Queen of Talendia, I knew this to be true.
She was like her sister, in that she was snow white, and she wore a crown and sat with the regal presence of one born to rule. But her eyes were kind. This haunted me. It still haunts me. Cold as she looked upon me, but kind. Steel, and frost, and the implacable sense of avalanche…but kind. As if she knew everything about me, inside and out. Every bad grade. Every scrap. Every tear. It was the kind of sympathy that makes you ashamed for needing it. She was also bigger than her sister. Healthier, but also deeper scarred. Lines ran along her neck, one after another after another, a ring of scars like a necklace. She didn’t hide them or wear them with pride. They were part of her. She did not wear jewelry on her wings but rather an arm-guard that was strapped through the membrane. It was polished and gleamed wickedly, with points along the edge. Battle armor.
Once more I thought, her eyes are kind.
“Stand, child.” She said. I did. Panting heavily and inches away from dropping from exhaustion, but I could do that after this interview. She considered me for a long moment, then said, “Are you of my sister’s get?”
I dropped my head. “I guess I am.”
Whispers through the tent. Whispers silenced by a quick gesture of forelimb and wing. “And do you follow her ways?”
“No.” I said. It came out as a growl.
“Why not?” She said.
“Because she kidnapped me. And my friends and…and my brother…and…and she did this to me.” I pointed at my own chest. My claw made a scraping sound on the scales; it echoed through the tent.
“You are dragon. A fine and lovely creature, to my eyes. A daughter that any of us would be proud to name our own…were you not Abomination.”
There. That word. That damning word. It wanted to weigh me down with a thousand tons, squish me so I would not exist. I picked my head up. This wasn’t my fault. “I didn’t choose this.” I said.
“And can you prove it, child?” Her blue eyes, without her sister’s flecks of gold, glared at me until I dropped my head. “I thought not. The punishment for human bonded is life at Pentalminion, life in the mines of Kenthal, or death. And as returning you to my sister’s care would merely give her back what she seeks, it narrows your future quite a bit.”
Whispers threaded through the tent. A lot of humans and no few dragons had followed us in. Many of them looked at me with deep pity in their eyes. I hated that look almost as much as I hated Salthessa. Goddamn it, I wanted to scream. You are the ones who did this to me. All of you are. I don’t even understand why this is such a big deal.
Shoran shifted, looking from her audience to me, and back. Then her eyes softened, her voice turned silken. “But perhaps you have one to speak for you after all. Malangar, my love. You have returned to me.” Her beauty turned heart-wrenching.
He bowed, and when he came up his eyes were filled with unaccountable pain. “Faithless and a traitor, I’ve returned. Remade by Salthessa’s arts. And the fruit of my betrayal stands before you. She is Salthessa’s. And mine.”
The whisper ran through the tent, and I couldn’t stand it. “She drugged him.” I said.
“Even in rut, one knows loyalty.” Malangar said.
“You wouldn’t have done it if she hadn’t drugged you. Listen, you can’t blame--” I said. The faces in the room seemed to alternate between disgust and that hateful, dehumanizing pity. “You can’t—”
“Peace, child.” Her voice was cutting. Angry and hurt…and yet not at us. Not at either of us. Silence ruled, and it went on. And on. And on. “I knew, my love.” She said at last. “It was her delight to torment me. To let me know that you were her belonging. Just as it was her delight that her daughter lived…with this very soul inside her. She orchestrated my betrayal at every turn, and she has succeeded masterfully.” She paused. “Tell me of her, my love.” And she gestured at me.
“The mortal girl was blameless.” Malangar said. “If the word of a traitor may be believed, hear me well. She had no knowledge of the bonding. She and the other three thought they would become…partners of dragons. What they called riders. Apparently this…partnership is a great dream of theirs. And she resisted.” He shook his head. “She resisted the call of a Kal egg so desperate for life that it nearly drove her insensible. Salthessa had to bring her to the egg and drop her upon it to force the bonding to take. And when she and the others fled the castle, she saved the son of Talarion and brought it to you. She has earned mercy, at the very least.”
“And your name, child?” Shoran asked. As if everyone in the room didn’t already know.
“Joanna Sanderson,” I answered.
“Your dragon name,” She purred.
“Joanna. Sanderson,” I insisted. “I’m not a dragon.”
Silence in the tent. The noise of battle outside ebbed and flowed like a tide. The Dragon Queen nodded. “Innocence in evil-doing does not mitigate evil done. It only twists the knife in further. Remember this, Joanna, daughter of the Sandersons.” She paused. There was compassion in her gaze. Enough to make me hope this could end well. Then she sighed. “It would not be just to kill you, or condemn you to the mines. But I cannot simply let you go.”
There were nods of agreement around the tent from the dragons and humans alike. Billy shouted, Sam made a distressed sound, but it got no further than that. A human in an elaborate coat, probably Shoran’s seneschal, motioned for our silence.
“The Queen of Pentalminion holds hostage the daughter of our Temple.” Shoran continued. “Our god must be appeased. And the Priest and Priestess of Leviathan long for their daughter. The lives of innocent human children lie in her talons. Joanna Sanderson, your fate will be decided by theirs. If you work for their rescue, all your heart’s strength in it, and they are returned home alive, then you will be returned to your home as well.”
That last part brought my head up. The flame in me rose tightly too, as if I might set the whole world on fire. That’s how hope feels when it goes from a dull, half-drowned ember to a full born explosive rush.
“But I can’t go,” I said, almost sobbing. “You can’t send me home.” The fact that I was a dragon seemed pretty obvious. What could I do, other than recreate Godzilla in every city I visited?
“Then you cannot rescue your friends.” Shoran looked at me. “If you can, however…if the rescue of your friends did rest within your power, the chance to return you home would also rest within mine.”
I dropped my head. My pulse was insane. I didn’t know what home might mean…but now I understood I was desperate to go. That, however, did not solve the immediate problem. “And what will happen to us for now?” I asked.
“Malangar will be kept in honor. Your two young human friends will be kept with him. You, Ison and his sister will be kept as comfortably as prisoners may. And now, Joanna, I think it best we all retreat for thought.”
She gestured, and we were lead away, we slaves of Pentalminion. We prisoners. Malangar, Billy and Samantha stayed behind.