Reina, matriarch of the clan by mutual if tacit consent, is the one most frequently seen in the marketplace, the grand gathering dragons where everyone comes together to talk, trade, to seek their fortunes. Some dragons negotiate their own contracts and go home with new clans as valued members. Some are fostered as hatchlings, or are the subject of arranged matches that strengthen both blood ties and tribal allegiances.
Some are merely unfortunate.
The skydancer drooping near her clan tent is already an adult, but is not bargaining for her own way: a rare thing, as most adults are usually well off enough to choose their own paths in life. This one must never have had a chance to do anything. Which usually means, Reina thinks, observing from a distance, that someone thought this regal creature was un-lovely.
Reina cannot imagine it. This female is sleek and dark, the furtive, rich colors of a forest’s brown shadows. She reminds the clan leader of some sort of peregrine falcon. How has no one ever made an offer for someone so arresting? If not as a hatchling, then surely as an adult, as a bride to some male?
It’s not right, she thinks, and makes her decision as she does them all, on instinct. That day, a hesitant skydancer trails her home, wings tightly folded to her back and head lowered, her every movement signaling her defeat, her submission to fate. The clan welcomes her with enthusiasm, something that only bewilders and upsets her, and she withdraws not long after to one of the furthest spots in the lair, sleeping alone, unable to believe in such an extreme reversal of fortunes. They find her a mate—the clan scholar, a refined male regarded by everyone as one of the most handsome of his breed, but that only confuses her further. How could anyone as dull and uninteresting as she merit such a creature for mate? And how could she hope to hold him? A reasonable fear, in a clan where most nests are not built for love, but to strengthen the clan.
…but her mate does care for her. So he brings his worries to Reina. “She does not believe,” he says. “I fear for her spirit.”
And all this is on Reina’s mind on her next trip to the marketplace, when she finds a tent where dragons are having gemstones bonded to their bodies and wings, an expensive magic involving the expression of blood and spirit out through the skin, formed into faceted stones or cabochons depending on the color, and reapplied. For a very long time, Reina watches this process. Then she asks after its price. Her crest feathers slick back and she leaves feeling phantom pains in the pouches slung across her shoulders.
But she puts it to the clan anyway. And the clan overwhelmingly agrees. Let the treasure be used.
A day later, the cringing skydancer follows her clan leader to the market, thinking she is about to be sold again. This breaks her heart. She has fallen in love with her gentle, regal mate; has made two children with him, was stunned to see them both taken away by clans that wanted them at first sight. She finds she does not want to leave, but is fully expecting to be asked to, anyway.
Reina brings her to the tent, and she stammers a shocked question. Why are they here? This is for dragons with true hoards. This is a process done to signify wealth and importance and a clan of substance. It should be reserved for dragons who serve as leaders… as role models.
“So it should,” Reina says. “And the clan has spoken.” She takes her pouch of golden coins and hands it to the stunned skydancer. “Go on. But only if you’re willing to walk out of there as one of us. Committed to us. No more hiding in corners. No more questioning our faith.”
She looks down at the pouch—it’s heavy—and slowly her crest feathers spread. She straightens her shoulders, tidies her folded wings and meets the matriarch’s eyes. And then she enters the tent.
Several hours later, Cheimon emerges, the first dragon of the clan to be covered in gemstones. Hers are faceted silver, scintillant, a harmony on her dappled flanks and against her striped plumage. And she carries herself with determination. Not confidence yet, Reina thinks. But that will come.
Cheimon swallows and says, head raised and chin level, “Now what, Clan Leader?”
“Now,” Reina says, “Let us walk through the market. Maybe we will see something… or someone… to bring home. You can give me advice.”
“I can do that,” Cheimon says. Repeats it, feeling the truth of it. “I can do that.” And she falls in alongside Reina, and nevermore questions her welcome in the lair by the sea.
It’s been a while since we visited the dragons. So here’s the story about how I bought one of the most expensive dragon genes (gembond) for a dragon that I bought for a bargain basement price on the auction house, long after she’d grown up. She had a story. My brain built her one. This was it.