Chapter 3: Flatbread
By: Ian Sime
|This story is part of a series|
|Preceded by:||Chapter 2: Knitting Needles|
After careful consideration, Sabrina came to the conclusion that she was, in fact, one gigantic ache.
It certainly didn't seem to be coming from anywhere in particular. The ache was so pervasive that she couldn't make sense of her limbs. She tried to stretch out a leg, but her only reward was a twinge in what she assumed to be her knee.
Sabrina groaned and finally opened her eyes. She was greeted by the sight of a talon, inches away from her face. She gasped and jolted back, slamming her horns on the wall behind her.
The burning tingle of a sleeping limb flashed through her wing as the jolt took pressure off of it. The sensation sent a wash of panicked confusion through her. It faded quickly, however, as her mind spun to life—or at least, some semblance of it.
She sighed and buried her face in her sleeping mat. She was still exhausted, and still sore. Her ribs and head didn't hurt where they had been kicked the previous day, which was a small mercy, but her joints were stiff, and her muscles weary.
She had curled into a tight ball in her sleep, which she set about undoing. She stretched out one limb at a time, grunting as they snapped and popped back into place, then rolled onto her belly and let her back settle. When that was done she took a deep breath, and stretched a wing experimentally.
It felt—she wasn't quite sure how it felt. She was aware of the limbs, certainly, in the way she had been aware of her ears, or her toes. She could move it, but only in broad and clumsy motions. She could feel the ache from them as well, but it felt vague, as though it were coming from everywhere at once. Each twinge was a feeling of wrongness, a twist in her stomach. She forced herself to fold and unfold her wings anyways, reasoning that, if she didn't do it now, it was just going to be worse later.
After several minutes of grumbling and whimpering, she finally managed to work the worst of the ache out of her shoulders and looked around. It was then that she became aware that a small crowd of dragons had formed around her.
She yelped—or tried, as she still couldn't make any sound beyond a grunt—and scrabbled back. Once again she thumped her horns against the wall, but she hardly noticed.
Many of the dragons were scowling down at her. A few looked curious. Most just looked down on her with disdain. One of the scowling dragons stepped forward, a bright crimson boy about Sabrina's age, and spoke. For a moment Sabrina thought he was simply babbling at her, until she realized that he was speaking Draconic. He spoke astonishingly fast, and used not just words, but entire sounds Sabrina had never heard before. At times he seemed to be saying two words at once. Combined with his raspy voice, Sabrina barely understood him.
"You're so ark arukchu chjuragk all morning. Akgae gngul gulk ago! Well? Arkara gngu my responsibility, ark starve for all I thurulk uldu, I'd get in trouble for it!"
Sabrina stared up at the crowd from her corner, looking between the speaker and the other dragons. They clearly expected her to say something. "Uh," she said slowly, "I'm... sorry?"
After years of being forced to study it, Sabrina had thought herself fluent in draconic. Faced with a native speaker, however, her words seemed as clumsy as her wings. She managed to speak maybe half as fast, and she was almost certain the words she knew were different from the ones he had used. "I'm upright. Purple—I mean, what's, uh..."
The dragon snorted, cutting her off. "Arkara from Kenochsden too? That explains a lot." He reached back into the crowd and was handed a bundle of cloth, which he threw at Sabrina and said, loudly and slowly, "Get dressed and get breakfast. Ko-Kalah will tell you what you're doing today." Then he left, grumbling under his breath and taking most of the other dragons with him. A few lingered to peer at Sabrina or shoot her dirty glances, but even they moved on quickly.
Sabrina, meanwhile, did as she was told. The bundle that had been tossed at her was livery, but it was not the plain robes that the human servants wore. It took Sabrina a few moments just to unbunch it and figure out what it was.
The livery was a single length of deep blue cloth hemmed in scarlet: the colours of Vikaasthan. There was a large hole in the centre and halfway between in and the edge were two straps that stuck out at the sides. On the opposite side of the hole were two buttons, and a split up the centre.
It took Sabrina a few tries to get the livery past her horns, but she found it surprisingly comfortable. The open sides and slit back allowed her to move her wings and tail easily, and with the buttons fastened the cut of the cloth, which had previously seemed random, fit her perfectly. For a brief moment she found herself wishing for a mirror so she could better see how it looked.
The thought was dashed as she caught a glimpse of her arm. Seeing that scraggly creature—seeing herself—was the last thing she wanted. She fought down a shudder and pushed the thought away with a sigh. Besides, the colours would be hideous against her scales.
More importantly, she was still doing as she had been told. As soon as she had settled into the livery her legs had lurched to life, carrying her out of the den and following after the rest of the tribe.
The tribe moved together, in a vague sense of the word. Some bound ahead while others, even more groggy or sore than Sabrina, lagged behind. In spite of the different paces, however, the tribe was careful to stay in sight of one another.
They passed several rooms that were still only half-built, with only tarps between them and the outdoors. Judging from the thin light that filtered through, it was still very early morning. Or perhaps the wet season was brewing up a few final storms on its way out.
Whatever the case, the tribe made it's way back into the finished wings of the palace, remaining in the servant's wing. Sabrina was surprised to realize that they were going down—and even more surprised to realize that she didn't recognize these halls at all. It wasn't a matter of changed perspective, either. Hallway after narrow hallway that she had never once walked down or looked upon.
Their path lead them into a wide open room walled by a series of leaf-shaped arches. A similar row of columns ran down the center, all made from dark-stained wood. Along the eastern side the walls at the tops of the arches had been cut away and replaced with windows, allowing the weak light of morning to filter in and fill the room.
The entrance was on the north wall, beneath a broad banner bearing the crest of Vikaasthan. An identical banner and door were on the south wall as well. The space between was filled with a series of long, low tables and sitting mats. Stacks of bowls were placed at each end of every table, and spaced evenly along the tables were platter upon platter of steaming, freshly cooked breakfast.
Sabrina became suddenly, very acutely aware that she had not eaten since the previous afternoon. She quickly set aside any reservations she had been harbouring and took a seat with the rest of the tribe. Though, just to be safe, she sat on the very end of the tribe.
Even those dragons who had been drowsy were now mostly awake, and a bright mood had spread through the tribe. Twenty pairs of talons worked together, lading bowlfuls of thick fish curry out of the pot in the centre of the table and passing it down in a neat train. The row at which Sabrina sat filled quickly, until the last bowl made it's way down to her. Sabrina reached out eagerly for the bowl.
But it was snatched out of her claws. The dragon beside her glowered at her, and handed the bowl across the table. The train continued in this way, down to the end, then across, until both sides of the table were served. Then, finally, one more bowl came down.
It was filled to the brim, and there was hardly room for the sauce amid all the chunks of fish and vegetables. Sabrina breathed deep, letting the sweet, tangy scent fill her nose. Her mouth watered, and she searched for a plate of bread so she could dig in. She was still searching when the dragon beside her reached in front of her and shoved the bowl to the other side of her.
Sabrina made as much of a noise of indignation as she was able, and reached for the bowl. It was only then that she realized Ko-Kalah had taken a seat beside her.
"Hello, little one," Ko-Kalah said. She spoke Draconic as well, though she at least spoke more slowly than the crimson dragon had. Sabrina was able to make out most of what she was saying. "I believe that was meant for me."
This time Sabrina was able to yelp, and did so with gusto. "How did you do that!?" She demanded.
Ko-Kalah peered down at Sabrina and cocked and eyebrow.
Sabrina blinked, and realized she had spoken in Vikaasthani. She corrected herself back to Draconic and said, "You... surprised me."
"I noticed," Ko-Kalah said. "Quite a bit, it seems. Did you sleep poorly?"
"Uh," Sabrina said. Her sleep had been the sleep of exhaustion, dreamless and timeless. She had simply laid down, and then woken up. At the same time, she was still tired, and still ached, if less so than she had right after she had woken. "Thank you for the nest." She paused for a moment, then corrected herself, "Bed."
Ko-Kalah nodded slowly. She seemed content to leave the conversation at that, and turned to focus on her breakfast.
Sabrina was as well. A bowl had finally been passed down to her, with some reluctance on the part of the tribe. There was less in it than the others, and it was mostly sauce, with only a few scraps of fish. Still, Sabrina was hungry enough not to care. She grabbed a few pieces of flatbread before anyone could take those away from her and pressed her hands together.
She paused. She didn't dare reach out to Vikaasi. Even the most gentle push brought back a ghost of the pain, and even a ghost was enough to make her breath shallow.
Eventually, she prayed without reaching out to the power. The motions felt strange, somehow hollow, but she forced the feeling down. She reminded herself that many people prayed without the power, or even without knowing the gestures, every day. She thanked Vikaasi for her vegetables and herbs, and Salaee for his fish. When she was finished, she added another prayer: she prayed for the strength and wisdom to escape Ko-Kraham's trap.
She didn't know if Vikaasi could hear her or not, but it did make her feel better. She offered one final thanks for the meal, then descended upon it with a starving fervour.
The curry was not fresh as she had initially thought, but rather the previous evening's that had been left to simmer overnight. Even so, whatever the meal lacked, hunger added. The bread was definitely fresh, and a few minutes into the meal a cart was brought out with rolls of steamed rice pressed together with coconut. After Sabrina had spooned up the few chunks of fish with the bread, she used the riced to soak up the sauce. She finished every scrap of the meal, even mopping the sides of the bowl clean with the rice rolls and licking her claws clean after that.
She leaned back and sighed contentedly. The warmth of the meal spread through her, easing away the last of the aches and pains. It was a small pleasure. But it was a pleasure, something Sabrina was desperately in need of.
It was short-lived, however. Not long after Sabrina finished her breakfast the tribe began to shuffle their way up and away from the table. Ko-Kalah stood and said, "Go to the gnaeluhk meeting hall," she said. "The foreman will give out your tasks today."
Sabrina moved to stand as well, but Ko-Kalah stopped her with a claw on the shoulder.
"How is tshakuk?" she asked.
"Uuuuh..." Sabrina said. She frowned, struggling to remember the word Ko-Kalah had used. She knew she had heard it before, or something like it.
Ko-Kalah hummed beneath her breath. "Art," she said. "Craft. Do you cut? Shape?"
"Oh," Sabrina said. "I can, uhhh..." She struggled to find the word. Eventually she gave up, and instead pantomimed knitting.
This earned a raised eyebrow from Ko-Kalah. "Do you do stone work?" she said.
Sabrina could only shake her head. She could see the confusion in Ko-Kalah's gaze. A dragon that didn't work stone might as well have been a dragon without hands. To her surprise though, there was no judgement. Ko-Kalah simply sighed and shook her head.
Somehow, that incensed Sabrina more. She drew herself up and set her shoulders. "I can... clothes," she said. "Make... stitch. And..." She didn't know the word for it in Draconic. As far she knew, there wasn't one. She switched back to Vikaasthani and said, "I can embroider."
"Enough," Ko-Kalah said. Sabrina's jaw clamped shut as Ko-Kalah continued, "If you cannot work with stone, we will have to find somewhere else. Come with me."
Ko-Kalah lead Sabrina back to the wing under construction, and into an enormous room that Sabrina guessed to be the meeting hall. People and dragons swarmed across it in pockets of activity, and piles of lumber and stone were stacked along every wall.
In the centre of the chaos a squat, leathery-faced man moved constantly, shouting orders to anyone who passed him. Ko-Kalah lead Sabrina to him and bowed. "Honoured Foreman," she said in Vikaasthani.
The foreman stopped berating a trio of workers for a moment to bow to Ko-Kalah as well. "Honoured Speaker," he replied. "Good morning. Your tribe already has their assignments. Can't beat them for work ethic." He cuffed a man who was scuttling passed and hollered, "I'd spend another five years with the priests for half my workers to work half that hard!"
He turned back to Ko-Kalah and folded his arms. As he did, Sabrina realized that his hands and forearms were covered in a lattice of small, thin cane scars. "What can I do for you?"
Ko-Kalah stepped aside and gestured to Sabrina.
The foreman blinked and leaned down. "You new?" he asked. "Don't think I've seen you around."
"Um, yes," Sabrina replied. She tapped her sternum and said, "Salaee carry you."
The foreman threw back his head and laughed. "I had enough of that when I was in the church," he said. "Never managed to make a pious man of me." Still, he tapped his sternum and replied, "And also you. What's your name?"
"Bek-Braya," Sabrina replied without thinking. A pang of sadness struck her when she realized, but she pushed it down.
"Bek-Braya joined our tribe last night," Ko-Kalah said.
The foreman nodded. "Won't say no to another worker," he said. He gestured to a reedy woman beside a pile of bricks on the far wall and said, "Saanvi can get let you know what we're working on so you can start carving."
"She doesn't carve," Ko-Kalah said.
"Doesn't—what?" The foreman asked. He frowned and scratched his head. "I didn't know... sorry, I thought you all did."
"Most," Ko-Kalah said. "Not all. Do you have work for her?"
The foreman rubbed his jaw and growled. "Well," he said, "another pair of hands is another pair of hands. We need people moving stone and wood to where it needs to be. That's Farhad." He turned and pointed to an enormous, surly man by an opening in the wall. "Farhad!"
Farhad looked up with death in his eyes. He didn't need to shout back. His every movement was a shout as he stormed over to them.
The foreman pointed to Sabrina. "This one needs work," he said.
"So?" Farhad demanded. "Give it to Saanvi. She's the one with the big picture."
"She doesn't carve," the foreman replied. "Figured you could use an extra pair of hands to move the stone."
"And you give me this?" Farhad demanded, jabbing a finger at Sabrina. "Look at it. It's a rice noodle on legs. I need someone who isn't going to collapse after two stones. Look at it!" He nudged Sabrina with a foot.
Sabrina bristled at the man. She had been silenced again, but she satisfied herself with spreading her wings and frowning with all her might at the Farhad.
For a moment it looked as Farhad would continue prodding at her, but Ko-Kalah stuck her head in between them and snorted loudly. "She is capable," she said. "If she is not, I will take her duties for the rest of the day. You have my word."
Farhad took a step away from Ko-Kalah, but quickly regained his composure and growled. "Fine," he said. "Your word." he pointed to Sabrina said, "Come on, then."
He turned on his heel and stalked away from the foreman and Ko-Kalah, with Sabrina following in his wake. Sabrina spared a glance over her shoulder at Ko-Kalah, just in time to see her turn away.
When the reached the pile of stone Farhad said, "Need more stone for the west court chamber. Nothing fancy, just granite bricks. Know how to get there?"
"No," Sabrina said coolly. "Got a map?"
"Watch it," Farhad growled. He jabbed a thumb in Ko-Kalah's direction. "That one might stick her teeth in when she's around, but don't expect you can go running to her every time you get in trouble for giving lip."
Sabrina snorted. "If she didn't bite you inside of five minutes of meeting you I don't think there's anything I could do to make it happen." She knew it was a bad idea before she said it, but the man rankled her. At the very least, she was ready to duck under Farhad's backhand.
Farhad growled at her and pointed to the stone. "Fifty bricks," he said. "Left out the door, take the first right, end of that hall. I don't care how long it takes, just do it, and keep that beak shut while you do."
Sabrina scowled at the man, but she had no choice but to do as she was told. She took the first brick off the pile and set off for the court chamber.
She passed any number of humans, and even a few dragons, as she worked. All of the dragons were from her tribe, and very deliberately looked away from her as they passed. Even if they hadn't, it was clear they were busy with their own work. They scuttled through the halls with armfuls of carved bricks, all part of a greater image, then quickly hurried back to return to their carving. Sabrina's comparatively slow pace made it easy to see them come and go.
The human were similarly ignorant of her, though less maliciously so. They didn't outright ignore her as the dragons did. Rather, they simply didn't recognize she was there. A supervisor overseeing the court chamber nodded curtly to her when she arrived with bricks, and Farhad growled at her whenever he was nearby when she returned, but beyond that the only people who even acknowledged her existence did so by moving out of her way in the halls.
At first, Sabrina was happy with it. She occupied herself by observing the halls until she had every detail traced in her mind, and was able to use the turnoffs she didn't take to make a general map of the new wing in her mind. By the time the teams were sent back to the meal hall at midday, she was convinced that she would be able to navigate it well.
If she had been able to move freely, at least. She was allowed to rest for barely a moment after delivering a brick before her body marched itself back for the next one. The only break she took was to eat. Even then she was only able to rest for as long as it took to eat her meagre helping of fried fish—for her tribe had, once again, served her last and served her scraps—before she was back to work.
In the afternoon she distracted herself from the frustration by listening to the other workers, in the hopes she might overhear something that would help her. For the most part, they just complained.
They complained about everything! From the weather (It was too hot, or too cold, and definitely too wet), to the materials they were working with (The wood had been soaked by the trip downriver and needed to dry, or it was too old, or too young), to the location of the wing(The island was too small, the palace was large enough already, they could just build this extension as a separate building in the city). More than anything, they complained about each other.
Sabrina was vindicated to hear more than a few complaints about Farhad. She had a few things to say about the man she would have happily added in, if she had been able to. For all that the workers complained about everything to everyone who would listen, none of them ever complained to her. They simply continued to ignore her, leaving her to work in silence.
She finished her load shortly before the sun dipped over the horizon. She didn't realize she had, at first. It wasn't until the supervisor approached her that she realized she had been standing still for several minutes—or rather, leaning against the stack of bricks. Unfortunately, while her body moved of it's own volition, it was still very much her body, and after a day's hard labour it ached so fiercely she could barely hold herself upright.
"Hey," the supervisor said. "What are you doing just standing around? Don't you have anything to do?"
Sabrina looked up at the man dumbly. "What?" she asked. "Oh! Farhad told me to bring fifty bricks—I, uh, guess this was the last one." She stretched her back, and immediately regretted it.
The supervisor nodded. "Don't bother going looking for more work," he said. "That old goat would find something for you, but we're losing light and there's no point killing people to get a bit more done. Just call it an evening." He shrugged and peered at the oil clock on the side of the room. "A... quarter-mark early evening."
Sabrina's mood shifted so quickly she almost hurt her neck. She nearly asked if he was serious, but stopped herself just in time. She was not about to question an opportunity, and she certainly wasn't about to jeopardize it by staring it in the mouth. She darted out of the room before the supervisor had a chance to change his mind, as quick as her shaking legs would carry her.
She aimed for the meal hall. What she wanted now was to get her dinner out of the way and process everything she had learned that day. She was certain that there was something in there that could help her.
Well, that wasn't quite true. What she wanted, more than anything, was to beat the rest of the tribe to the meal hall so she could serve herself for once. She was famished. She trotted down the path to the meal hall, dodging the workers who were still finishing and cleaning up. Just as she approached the meal hall, however, she lost control of her legs. They turned her away from the sweet scents of cooking, and took her in the opposite direction.
Sabrina wasn't certain whether to swear, or panic. There was nobody around to have given her an order. What could be controlling her now? She strained against the control, trying desperately to turn around, but only succeeded in wrenching her back further.
Ko-Kraham's words from the previous night flashed through her mind: "Come to my room tomorrow night. I want to see how you're doing."
At least it made up Sabrina's mind for her. She swore viciously as she walked. With some creativity, and mixing a few languages, she was able to keep up a string all the way to her room without ever repeating a curse. She ran out just as she reached the door, so she settled for throwing it open with as much indignation as she could manage.
She was quite surprised to see Kamalakshi on the other side, almost as much as Kamalakshi was to nearly be struck by the swinging door.
Kamalakshi jumped back, crying out in shock. She dropped the bundle of cloth she had been carrying, and If Astha and Ko-Kraham had not been at her elbows to catch her she would have toppled over backwards.
Kamalakshi's eyes snapped down to Sabrina, and she glared with such intensity that for a moment Sabrina was confused—until she realized what Kamalakshi must be seeing.
"Who are you?" Kamalakshi demanded as Asthan struggled to right her. "And what do you think you're doing, barging into the Yuvrani's chambers?"
Ko-Kraham put a hand on Kamalakshi's shoulder. "Kamalakshi, it's fine," she said. "I invited her here."
Astha finally managed to push Kamalakshi back onto her feet and leaned on her shoulder, huffing. "Since when do you invite dragons to your room?" she asked.
"Since today," Ko-Kraham said. "Of course, I didn't expect her to arrive quite so... quickly." She shot Sabrina a venomous glance, but quickly covered it up with a saccharine smile. "But actually, I'm glad you girls got to meet her!" She stepped over to Sabrina and placed a hand on her head. "This is Bek-Braya."
"Bek?" Astha asked. "I've never heard of a Bek. I thought dragons were always Ko, Tor or Sal?'"
"Well, you haven't exactly gone looking," Ko-Kraham pointed out. Sabrina detected a tinge of dryness to her voice, no doubt bitterness that Astha had managed to successfully worm her way out of any lessons with Harinma. Sabrina smiled at that.
"They're not common," Ko-Kraham continued. "The poor thing had no tribe, so I arranged for the one working on the new wing of the palace to take her in. I asked her to come see me when she was finished for the day, so I could see how she was doing." She patted Sabrina's head sympathetically. "Can you give me a minute with her?"
"It's almost time for dinner," Kamalakshi pointed out. "Esteemed Maharaja will be upset if you're late again." She spared a glance down at Sabrina and said, "Which would be a... poor first lesson in propriety."
Ko-Kalah simple laughed. "I won't be," she said. "I'm just checking up."
She picked the cloth up off the ground and unfolded it. It was a long, silk scarf, the colour of lilacs and embroidered with flowers of gold thread. Sabrina recognized it as one of her own. Ko-Kraham wrapped it around Kamalakshi and Astha's shoulders, playfully tethering them together and pushing them out the door. "Go!" she said. "I'll only be a few minutes."
"Okay, okay," Astha laughed. "Bully." She patted Sabrina's head as she passed and said, "Nice meeting you!"
"Y-yeah," Sabrina stumbled out as soon as she could speak again. She looked at Kamalakshi and added, "And you!"
Kamalakshi didn't respond. She simply strode past Sabrina without so much as looking at her.
"Don't be mean," Astha chided as the pair left. Ko-Kraham closed the door before Sabrina heard Kamalakshi's reply, but she could still hear the dryness in Kamalakshi's tone.
Sabrina sagged. They hadn't recognized her at all—they had barely even looked at her.
Well, of course they hadn't. She looked nothing like herself, and the person they thought was Sabrina had been standing right beside them the entire time. They had no reason to believe she was anything other than what Ko-Kraham said, just as Ko-Kraham had predicted.
Sabrina drew herself back up and lifted her chin at Ko-Kraham. "Why did you do that?" she demanded.
"Well, I can't have them eavesdropping," Ko-Kraham said. She returned to the sofa and flopped into it, splaying herself across the arms. "Also, they're insufferable. Honestly, I think you're getting the good end of the deal." She yawned. "Though Kamalakshi has a point, you should really Knock before entering."
Sabrina winced as the command burned itself into her. "Excuse me?" she said. "You know what I meant! Why did you trot me out in front of them like... like..."
"Like a servant?" Ko-Kraham asked. "Like a charity case? I'm just playing the part, dear. It's your own fault for showing up early."
"I didn't exactly have a choice in the matter," Sabrina muttered.
Ko-Kraham laughed. "I guess not!" she said. "Oh, well. How was your day, hmm?"
"Long," Sabrina said. "Exhausting. Boring. A bit like one of your lectures, actually. Except your lectures never made my arms feel like they were going to fall out."
Ko-Kraham tossed a cushion at Sabrina. "I could fix that for you, whelp," she said. "I expected you to be in a better mood!"
"How?" Sabrina asked, throwing up her arms. "I woke up surrounded by angry dragons who bullied any semblance of a meal out of me for—Vikaasi only knows what they think I did—and have been stuck lugging around rocks all day! How could I possibly be in a good mood right now?"
Ko-Kraham put a hand on her chest in mock-surprise. "What, you didn't like seeing your little friends?" she asked.
"That hardly counts as seeing them," Sabrina said. A pang shot through her anger, and all at once it seemed to drain away from her. "They didn't know it was me. I was just... some dragon to them." Just like everyone else. Sabrina rubbed her eyes and growled under her breath. "I may as well have not seen them at all!" she said.
Ko-Kraham considered this. "You have a point," she said. "It's not like they're really your friends anymore, after all... Alright! The least I can do is make things a bit more comfortable for you."
She hauled herself off the sofa and ran a finger along Sabrina's horn. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to be getting to dinner. So, you march right back to your den, and keep being a good little girl. Do as you're told, speak only when spoken to, and remember that you're Bek-Braya now. And come see me again tomorrow night." She opened the door for Sabrina and gestured her through.
"Oh!" Ko-Kraham said as Sabrina passed. "One more thing? Call me Yuvrani. She flashed a toothy grin and added, "Only when other people are around, of course. I'm not a monster." She threw her head back in a laugh, and waved Sabrina away.
Sabrina walked slowly back to the den. She knew she needed the time to think, but she couldn't manage anything faster. She was completely spent, so much so that, when she finally arrived in the den, she didn't notice Ko-Kalah's tail come down in front of her until she walked into it.
Ko-Kalah peered down at Sabrina, her dull expression tinged with annoyance and interest. "Where were you?" she asked. "You weren't at dinner."
"Sorry," Sabrina said quietly. "The—Yuvrani wanted to see me."
"Why?" Ko-Kalah asked.
"To talk?" Sabrina said. "I... don't know." Which was true, mostly. She would have wagered Ko-Kraham just wanted to taunt her more, but she didn't know for certain.
"You should have warned us," Ko-Kalah said. "The tribe eats together. Tonight werghul chaul food. It giol kiun thulte for not warning."
Sabrina wasn't certain if she was unfamiliar with the words, or if she was simply too tired to bother translating. "What?" she asked.
"Punishment," Ko-Kalah said sharply. Sharply enough to jolt Sabrina. "You are being punished." She switched to Vikaasthani and enunciated, "Bed without supper."
"What?" Sabrina shouted. "But—I don't—it wasn't my-"
"Enough!" Ko-Kalah said. "If you join our tribe, you eat with the tribe. No exceptions."
Sabrina opened and closed her mouth several times, but gave up. She didn't have the energy to fight. "She wants to see me tomorrow night, too."
Ko-Kalah snorted and turned away.
Sabrina lingered for a moment, until she decided that she wasn't going to get a formal dismissal. She sighed and returned to her bed mat, which had been shoved so far into the corner that it had bunched up.
She collapsed into her bed, and exhaustion hit her like a stone to the gut. In spite of the hunger that gnawed at her insides, she could already feel sleep creeping in at the corner of her mind.
She welcomed it. She needed time to think, time to plan, but tonight wasn't that time. As tired as she was, there was no way she could come up with a plan coherent enough to be useful. She would rest tonight, and have a plan tomorrow.
That was what she told herself every night that week.
Not a day went by that Sabrina wasn't worked to the bone. Every day she awoke, exhausted and aching, to the same dragon—whose name she eventually learned was Ko-Kaddic—barking at her to get a move on. Although he never did anything worse to Sabrina that throwing clothes at her, it was very clear that, if it had not been for Ko-Kalah watching over his shoulder, he would reprimand her much more harshly.
Each day the tribe dragged her to the meal hall and sat her at the end of the tribe, beside Ko-Kalah, and passed her the food last. The food was always delicious, in a simple, homely way. Most days breakfast consisted of stout curries, or flatbreads with sauce for dipping, but one day breakfast was sliced fruit coated with a powder of roasted flour, coconut and spices. The tribe had demolished that so quickly Sabrina was afraid she might lose a hand if she leaned in too far.
Yes, the food was delicious, but there was never enough of it. After she had taken the flatbread her first morning, when Sabrina reached for them the next day she was greeted by a chorus of hisses and scrabbling claws as the plate was snatched away from her. From then on she was doled out bread and rice the same as the rest: As little and as meagre as they could manage.
Between the exhaustion, the ache, and the steadily-growing hunger, Sabrina would scarcely have been able to think of a plan even if she had been given the time to, which she most certainly had not been. As punishment for the crime of not knowing how to carve stone, Sabrina had been handed off to Farhad as a personal whipping girl. Her days were spent running to and fro through the wing under his orders, carting bricks here, or lumber there, or, on a single occasion, fetching him a waterskin. A single time because, as Sabrina learned, the 'water' skin had in fact been filled with wine.
Sabrina had quite a pleasant break, watching from the sidelines as the foreman berated Farhad for all to hear. It had been short lived, unfortunately. Whether because he knew someone, or was good at his job, or he was—though Sabrina doubted it—simply that well liked, the lecture was not enough to be rid of Farhad. It was, however, enough to make him purple in the face with anger, which he took out on Sabrina. She spent the rest of that day carrying granite as far as Farhad could justify.
If there was anything to be said for it, at least the work was getting easier. Her muscles slowly became accustomed to the labour, at least enough so that she didn't take all day to move a few bricks.
Sabrina stretched as far as she was able, rubbing some soreness out of her arms. The air was thick with humidity, but it had cooled off from earlier in the week. Not much, but enough to be pleasant rather than baking.
She had just delivered the final load of bricks to where the tribe was carving when Ko-Kalah announced the day was over. It had taken Sabrina some effort to discern most of the dialect the tribe used—with the exception of a few phrases that, based on how they were used, she decided she was happier not understanding—but she had learned the end of the day very quickly.
It almost seemed foolish to take so much pleasure in something as simple as the end of the day, but Sabrina was willing to take what she could get. She leaned against the wall. She didn't sit, lest her muscles seize up.
Ko-Kalah approached her. "Bek-Braya," she said. Her expression was impenetrable, but Sabrina thought she heard an edge in her voice. "Will you be attending dinner with the tribe tonight?"
Sabrina rubbed her shoulders. Ko-Kalah had asked as much every night, when she could. "Yuvrani wants to see me tonight," she said. "Again." Although she knew what the answer would be, she asked, "Will you save something for me? Please?"
Ko-Kalah hummed and rolled her knuckles on the floor. "I will speak to the Yuvrani," she said. "If she insists on taking you away from the tribe for dinner, she should feed you herself."
Sabrina sighed. She wondered if bed mats were nutritious.
Ko-Kalah waved a claw. "Go, see the Yuvrani," she said. "Tell her I will speak with her tomorrow."
Sabrina nodded and did as she was told, without waiting for the curse to compel her. It was easier to take if she at least pretended that she had some say in the matter.
Beside that, she wanted to. It was difficult to put her finger on why, exactly. Perhaps it was simply that she enjoyed the relative peace on the journey to her room. It was the only time she was unlikely to be ordered around, and left without supervision. Or perhaps, it was Ko-Kraham.
She loathed Ko-Kraham in a way that she had never imagined possible. She had plenty of reason to, of course, but even so. Ko-Kraham seemed to have no purpose in their meetings beyond the chance to taunt her further, and Sabrina missed no opportunity to show what she thought of it.
Oh, she suffered for it in some small way every time, but it was worth it. In a strange way, she almost looked forward to the release that their sniping matches brought. If nothing else it was a chance to finally speak, and vent the frustrations of her day.
By the time she reached Ko-Kraham's door, an ember of irritation was already smouldering inside her. She straightened up and, with some effort, managed to make her knock sound sardonic. She heard Ko-Kraham's voice come from within.
"Oh, perfect," Ko-Kraham said. "That must be her. Come in!"
Sabrina felt her irritation flare at Ko-Kraham's cheery tone. She pushed the door aside and entered.
Ko-Kraham was not lounging, as Sabrina had expected. Though her posture was relaxed she was seated upright, with her hands folded gently on her lap. This was because, sitting beside her on the sofa, was Sabrina's father.
The doors to the balcony opposite them had been thrown open, allowing the cool air and the soft evening light in. Surrounded by that light, the brilliant pink and purple hues, he looked like the sun. He smiled, his face filled to bursting with pride. Sabrina's heart ached to see it. But for a moment, just a moment, all of the pain of her week was lost in that light.
Her mouth opened and closed, but she made no sound. It was not the curse. Her words had simply left her.
Marthanda let out a low, warm chuckled. "Well, hello!" he said. He turned to Ko-Kraham and asked, "This is the dragon you were telling me about?"
"The very same," Ko-Kraham said. She beckoned for Sabrina to come closer. "Please, dear: introduce yourself!"
"B-Bek-Braya," she said. A pang shot through Sabrina's heart at how easily it came. She saw Ko-Kraham smirk, sending another pang, and hunched her shoulders against the ache.
Marthanda stood up and held his arms open. "Please," he laughed, smiling at Sabrina. Gods, his smile was more beautiful than gold. "There's no reason to be nervous." He approached her and offered his hand. "I am Maharaja Marthanda, Sabrina's father. She's been telling me about you. It's a pleasure to finally meet you."
Sabrina took his hand like a starving woman offered bread. The warmth of his hands felt different than it had against skin, but it was still familiar. Her own hands must have felt so strange—the roughness of her scales, the prick of her claws—but she wondered if he could feel that familiarity as well. She gripped his hand in both of hers and shook, until Ko-Kraham cleared her throat.
"I think that might be enough," Ko-Kraham said. "You can let go now."
Sabrina immediately broke her grip. Marthanda took his hand back and rubbed it, laughing. "You have quite a grip, little one," he said. "So! Sabrina tells me you're a friend of Harinma's? She asked Sabrina to introduce you to the tribe, yes?"
"U-uh," Sabrina said. "I... don't know about friend. She..."
Her eyes met Ko-Kraham's. Although Ko-Kraham had returned to her usual lazy posture, her gaze was razor sharp, cold as ice, and fixed on Sabrina. One of her index fingers twitched idly.
Sabrina looked between her Ko-Kraham and her father. Her heart screamed to tell him it was a lie, to run to him, to beg for his help. Ko-Kraham's curse might bind her lips, but she was his daughter. Surely, we would be able to see. Surely, there was something Sabrina could do.
But Ko-Kraham was there, waiting for Sabrina to set one talon out of line.
"But," Sabrina said eventually, turning away from Ko-Kraham's piercing stare, "s-she did introduce me to the tribe, and ask them to take me in..." She clutched at her arms as Marthanda straightened up and turned away from her. If she had not, she would have reached after him.
"Sabrina," Marthanda said, "That's wonderful!" His voice was overflowing with warmth. He placed his hands on Ko-Kraham's shoulders and pulled her off the sofa, and into a hug.
Ko-Kraham hugged him back. He peered over his shoulder at Sabrina, smirking wickedly. "It's nothing so special," she said.
"Nothing so special?" Marthanda asked. "Sabrina, my dear girl, even when you are responsible, you are obstinate." He took a step back from her and cupped her face in both his hands. "You have stepped forward to help one of our citizens, and one less fortunate at that. And without your studies, you may not have been able to do it. You have taken your responsibilities seriously, and because of it a life has improved. Who could ask for more from a Maharani?"
Ko-Kraham simply chuckled and took Marthanda's hands. "One simple dragon just doesn't seem like that much. But thank you, father."
"Like seeds, one becomes many," Marthanda said. "Never forget that. Yes, it is small, but the small things we do become large later. I am still proud of you." He sighed happily. "We should discuss this more over dinner. You mother will be just as proud as I am."
Sabrina started. He was leaving already? She took a shuddering step forward without realizing it.
"We should," Ko-Kraham agreed. "It's been a long day, and I'm famished." She peered down at Sabrina and smirked again. "But, is it alright if I join you shortly? I just need to discuss a few things with Bek-Braya first."
"Of course," Marthanda said. "Take all the time you need. Dinner will still be waiting."
"Don't worry," Ko-Kraham said. "It won't take long." She leaned over his shoulder and said, "Say goodbye, Bek-Braya."
Sabrina gripped her arms tighter, until she could feel her claws biting into them. She fought to keep her voice steady. "Goodbye, father," she murmured.
There was a moment of profound silence, as though the world itself were holding its breath. Slowly, Sabrina realized what she had said. She looked to Ko-Kraham, and saw an expression of horror overcome her. They stood, transfixed, in the stillness.
"I beg your pardon?" Marthanda asked.
Sabrina's heart leaped into her throat with enough force to send her reeling. Before Ko-Kraham had a chance to react she spurted out, "Father!"
She lunged forward and grabbed Marthanda's hand. "Father!" she said. "It's me, I-!" She stumbled over her tongue in her rush. "P-please, Daddy, please believe me! I need-"
"That's enough!" Ko-Kraham said sharply.
Sabrina's throat seized shut, and she froze.
"I'm sorry, father," Ko-Kraham said. She circled around him and placed a hand on Sabrina's head. "I think her Vikaasthani is still a bit spotty, and she's... excitable. Harinma tells me that can happen to whelps without tribes..."
"I... see," Marthanda said. He still looked quite disturbed, but after a moment to curl his moustache his smile slowly returned. "Well, my draconic is far from perfect. I understand entirely." He reached down and, with some hesitation, patted Sabrina's shoulder. "To you, I am Esteemed Maharaja."
No, he wasn't. But as hard as Sabrina tried, she couldn't fight the curse. She stared up at him, trembling in silence and begging, pleading in her mind. She pleaded for him to hear her. Pleaded for him to see her. Pleaded for him to understand. As he said his goodbyes to Ko-Kraham and left, Sabrina pleaded for him to return.
But he didn't.
"Please," Sabrina murmured. She clutched her arms until she felt her claws bite into them. "Please." She felt empty, and raw, as though he had pulled a chunk out of her when he left.
"Well!" Ko-Kraham said cheerfully, "That was pleasant, don't you think?" She stroked Sabrina's horn with the tips of her fingers.
"Don't touch me!" Sabrina cried, slapping Ko-Kraham's hand away. She didn't want to play Ko-Kraham's games. Not tonight. She wanted to collapse. She wanted to curl up so tight that she disappeared. She wanted her father. "Just... shut up," she muttered.
Ko-Kraham rolled her eyes. "No, please, don't be too excited. And here I thought you would enjoy seeing your father again," she said.
"No you didn't," Sabrina said. "After everything else you've done, at least don't lie to my face. Who could possibly enjoy having their father look... through them, like that?"
Ko-Kraham sighed. "I don't understand you humans," she said. "And I don't understand why you so insist on making me out to be some cackling villain. Believe or not, girl, I don't want you completely miserable. I just want you to get on with your life with a minimum of fighting. And I thought, perhaps a treat!" She threw up a hand and made a noise of disdain.
"I hate you," Sabrina said.
"You don't know the meaning of the word," she replied. "Fine. But whether you like it or not, You are Bek-Braya. Tell no one what happened here, or about your old life. Do as you are told, and speak only when you are spoken to." She waved a hand dismissively. "Now go."
Sabrina turned on her heel and stormed away. She stopped at the door and looked over her shoulder. "Ko-Kalah wants to talk to you tomorrow," she said. "She wants you to stop keeping me from having dinner. Or at least feed me yourself."
Ko-Kraham waved again, but didn't reply. That suited Sabrina just fine.
She was numb as she walked back to the den. At the very least, she felt too sick to be hungry. She just wanted her bed.
She wanted her bed. She wanted her clothes, and her room, and her family. But she would settle for a bed mat.
The tribe had already returned from dinner by the time Sabrina reached the den. They were quieter than usual, save for a commotion near the center of the room. There was a small crowd of dragons, most of them friends—or lackeys—of Ko-Kaddic. The crowd parted as Sabrina passed and Ko-Kaddic himself burst out, almost bowling Sabrina over.
For once, Ko-Kaddic missed an opportunity to sneer at her. He was preoccupied, grappling with another dragon. They flipped across the floor as the dragon tried to struggle his way out of Ko-Kaddic's hold, but Ko-Kaddic countered him at every turn.
Dimly, Sabrina recognized the other dragon as Sal-Sobin. Although she had never spoken to him, she had spotted his jade-coloured scales darting amongst the tribe before. He was one of the younger members of the tribe, still too young for his wings to have started growing in. Even his second set of horns were still nubs on his forehead.
His first set of horns sloped gently inward, forming a diamond shape and giving him a sleek look. Or rather, they would have, if it were not for his blunt snout and the extra weight in his cheeks and middle.
Even for a young dragon he was small, certainly too small to be wrestling Ko-Kaddic. He stood no chance against the older dragon. Even through her numbness Sabrina felt bad for him—but she was too exhausted to step in. Even if she'd had the energy, what could she do? She certainly couldn't speak up, and trying to intervene could easily set the entire tribe on her. She didn't even know if Sal-Sobin would want her help.
No, it was none of her business. She just thanked Vikaasi that Ko-Kaddic was distracted with someone else and collapsed onto her bed mat. She retrieved the scrap of cloth from where it had been hidden beneath the mat and held it tight against her chest.
The clamour in the center of the room had gotten louder, but she had grown used to noise. Slowly, bit by bit, she felt her muscles unkink. It was not long before she was able to reach something resembling relaxation, though she still felt a powerful tightness between her wings.
She was used to that too, though. She sank into the mat. The sounds of the tribe grew distant even as they grew more intense, and Sabrina felt sleep creep into the edge of her mind.
Something heavy collapsed on top of her.
Sabrina jolting awake, gasping in shock. Whatever landed on top of her writhed for a moment, then rolled off. "Sorry!" it said. "Sorry!"
Sabrina looked over her shoulder and saw what had landed on her: Sal-Sobin. His fight with Ko-Kaddic had travelled, it seemed. Ko-Kaddic himself stood nearby, wearing a smug grin. No doubt he had aimed Sal-Sobin onto Sabrina deliberately.
Sabrina sighed and rolled onto her side. "It's okay," she grunted. She glowered at Ko-Kaddic and added, "It's not your fault that Ko-Kaddic has to pick on a whelp to feel tough."
Ko-Kaddic's grin vanished. "What did you say to me!?" he demanded.
Sabrina put her arm over her face, hoping to block out his whinging. If she didn't have the energy to fight with Ko-Kraham, she certainly didn't have any to waste on Ko-Kaddic. "I was talking to Sal-Sobin, Ko-Kaddic," she muttered. "I didn't say anything to you."
Ko-Kaddic planted his foot against Sabrina's stomach and shoved. "Sure sounded like you were talking to me!" he barked.
Sabrina fought down her revulsion in her wings enough to cover her head with them, trying her best to drown him out. But a thought struck her, standing out in her mind like a candle in the dark: "It did sound that way, didn't it?" she murmured.
But she couldn't have. She couldn't speak to him before he had spoken to her. She was sure of that. More than any other command, that was the one she had tested the most. Speak only when you are spoken to. If there were any way to speak without it, surely she would have realized it.
Ko-Kaddic might not have spoken to her, but Sal-Sobin had.
Sabrina uncovered her head and sat up. "But trust me," she said viciously, "I'd rather speak to anyone but you. Even him!" She pointed to one of Ko-Kaddic's followers. Before he had a chance to reply she added, "I bet you have lots of interesting things to say. How about you tell me why you hang around Ko-Kaddic?"
The dragon spluttered a vaguely complimentary, and entirely obvious, lie. Sabrina didn't hear it. She had learned everything she wanted to when she had been able to speak to him. She had been able to speak to him, because Sal-Sobin and Ko-Kaddic had spoken to her.
Ko-Kraham might have ordered her to speak when spoken to, but she hadn't left any stipulation on who Sabrina had to speak to.
"I've got a theory," Sabrina said. She turned to another dragon, one who she was positive hadn't spoken in all the time Sabrina had known her, much less that evening. "I'll bet it's because when you're at Ko-Kaddic's back, you know you he won't decide you're in his way."
The dragon hunched her shoulders and backed away. Fortunately for her, Ko-Kaddic stepped between her and Sabrina. "What are you talking about!?" he snarled.
Sabrina almost laughed. Her exhaustion was forgotten. She felt near to bursting with excitement. Ko-Kraham's curse had a flaw—a small flaw, but one she could use. It was almost enough to make her forget the pain of the week—almost.
With her energy returned, so had her anger. Sabrina drew herself up to Ko-Kaddic and jabbed a claw at his chest. "What I'm talking about," she said. "is that since I've met you, you've done nothing but throw your weight around just to prove you could! Who are you trying to impress? Because you certainly haven't impressed me."
Ko-Kaddic spluttered for a moment, then clenched his teeth. "Why should I care about impressing you, Bek!?" he spat. "Last time I checked, nobody cared about your opinion!"
"Oh, you've made that abundantly clear," Sabrina said. "Since I've gotten here you've starved me, abused me, and insulted me—thanks for the warm welcome!"
Ko-Kaddic sneered at her, but the sneer became a smirk. "Warm welcome?" he asked. "What makes you think you're welcome here? Your precious little human might have asked Ko-Kalah to let you sleep here, but that doesn't make you a part of us. You'll never be anything more than a Bek, and you'll never be a part of our tribe."
Sabrina gaped. She clenched her fists until her shoulders shook, and regained her composure. "You're wrong," she snarled. "Maybe I'm... just a Bek, but at least I don't have to pick on kids to convince myself I'm big. So what does that make you?"
Ko-Kaddic crossed his arms and smirked wider. "A Ko," he said. "The first, the oldest, and the wisest. I don't need to prove anything to you, or me, or anyone else, because what I say goes." He leaned in and hissed, "So get out of my way."
Sabrina's legs marched her out of the way, exposing Sal-Sobin. He had not slunk away in the commotion as Sabrina might have. He had actually been watching with a look of awe—but as Sabrina stepped away, his expression turned back to one of fear.
Sabrina grimaced. But just because she had to step out of Ko-Kaddic's way, she realized, didn't mean she was finished.
"By all means!" She said, loud enough for the entire tribe to hear, and gave a theatrical flourish of her arms. "Go ahead, Ko-Kaddic, and pick on a child!"
"W-wait!" Sal-Sobin said, bolting behind Sabrina again.
Sabrina placed a hand on his head to soothe him and continued. You're in charge, right? You can do what you want?" She looked up and called out to the tribe again. "He can do what he wants, right? Even beating up a whelp who's too small to stand a chance against him?"
There was a muttering among the tribe. The dragons slowly began to look up, until only those most dedicated to ignoring the situation were still looking away.
Sabrina gestured to Sal-Sobin. "Look at him!" she said. "He's barely half Ko-Kaddic's size! Is that the 'wisdom' of a Ko? Picking a fight with somebody who can't defend themselves?" She jabbed an accusing finger at Ko-Kaddic as she addressed the tribe. "This is your Ko?" she asked. "This is the kind of dragon you want to speak for you? To care for the whelps who come after you?"
Everyone was looking, now. The murmuring was growing louder, and accusatory. Sabrina could see expressions begin to darken in the crowd. For a moment she worried that they were turning against her, but when Ko-Kaddic's friends began to slink away she knew that she had struck her mark.
She hid a smirk behind her hand. When she turned back to Ko-Kaddic, she put on an expression of mock surprise. "Gee, they don't seem that happy. I guess it's a good thing you don't have to convince anyone, because it looks like they all think you're nothing but a thug."
It was interesting, seeing a dragon redden beneath their scales. Ko-Kaddic's face darkened like a storm cloud. "I'm a Ko!" he bellowed.
"You think that gives you the right?" Sabrina snarled back. "Nothing gives you the right to do whatever you want! If someone like you is in charge, then I'd be glad I'm not a part of this tribe. But you're not.
"You're no leader," Sabrina hissed. She jabbed a claw against his chest, hard enough to drive him back a step. "You're not in charge. The only reason anyone here is at your back is because they're afraid to be in your sights. Don't believe me? How come nobody has stepped up to defend you?"
Ko-Kaddic opened and closed his mouth. He looked around, and realized that his erstwhile friends had retreated to a safe distance. The anger began to drain from his expression.
"I know you, Ko-Kaddic. I've known people like you my entire life. People who get one little taste of power, and think that the world revolves around them. You think you can hurt who you want, take what you want, and nobody can ever touch you for it. You don't know the first thing about being a leader. A leader is there for their people. You? You're nothing but a bully. And a bad one, at that."
She continued to jab his chest, driving him back, step by step. "You're pathetic. You don't even have the decency to pick on someone your own size! I'll bet you're afraid that they might fight back, and then what would you do? Tell them you're a Ko? You can spit on me all you want, but at least I never tried to tried to hide behind a name. At the end of the day, Kaddic, if you take away one little word, you're nothing. And you know it."
Both Sabrina and Ko-Kaddic froze. Ko-Kalah stepped away from the wall and unfurled her wings.
Dragons scrambled out of the way of her feet as she lumbered forward. She cleared the room in a mere handful of earth-shuddering steps, and gazed down on the pair with an expression like the edge of a knife. She snorted, hard, and Sabrina felt a rush of hot air flow over her.
"Is this how you treat a tribe that has taken you in?" Ko-Kalah demanded. "Insult and disrespect them? I had hoped for better from you."
Sabrina had no response. She hunkered down, hunching her shoulders.
Ko-Kaddic quickly regained his composure, wiping the tears from his eyes and grinning at Sabrina. "Yeah," he said. "you should-"
"Enough!" Ko-Kalah barked. She placed a claw against Ko-Kaddic's chest and pushed him back. "Go to your bed, Ko-Kaddic. I will discuss this with you later."
As Ko-Kaddic slunk away, Ko-Kalah turned back to Sabrina. "You, I'll deal with now," She plucked Sabrina off the ground, curling her into a ball that fit in Ko-Kalah's palm. Sabrina yelped in shock, but was helpless as Ko-Kalah carried her off.
Ko-Kalah returned them to her corner. She set Sabrina back down and stood over her, folding her wings into a tent that closed them in and blocked them off from the rest of the tribe. A pillar of light shone down on Sabrina through a gap in Ko-Kalah's wings, the only light inside the tent. Ko-Kalah's face faded into the darkness, leaving only the faint shine of her eyes visible.
Whatever anger Sabrina had left was gone. She pressed her back against the wall and rubbed her arms, staring up at Ko-Kalah. Ko-Kalah, for her part, simply watched Sabrina. It was difficult to make out her expression in the darkness, but Sabrina didn't think she saw anger. It was familiar, but she couldn't quite place it.
As time went on Sabrina slowly relaxed, until she was able to unclench her shoulders and rub out the ache. Slowly, the tension drained away.
"Well?" Ko-Kalah said finally. "Do you have anything to say for yourself?"
"I..." Sabrina said, rubbing her shoulders, "...No, I guess not. I'm sorry, I just... saw how he was treating Sal-Sobin, and..." She sighed and looked away. How could she possibly describe it to Ko-Kalah?
"The week has been unkind to you," Ko-Kalah said. "And seeing how Sal-Sobin was treated reminded you of it all and brought it to the surface again."
"Y...yeah," Sabrina said. It was close enough to being true, at least. It was hard not to see her own situation in how Ko-Kaddic had bullied Sal-Sobin. She peered back up at Ko-Kalah. "I guess so."
Ko-Kalah nodded sadly. "I understand," she said. "It is difficult for the tribe to trust you." Her expression hardened, and she continued, "But that does not give you a right to speak to Ko-Kaddic that way. He was cruel, but he was right: the Yuvrani asking us to take you in does not make you a part of this tribe."
Sabrina winced. If Ko-Kalah noticed, she made not mention of it as she continued, "If you truly wish to join us, then you must accept our customs."
"I know," Sabrina said. "You're right. I just... got so angry, and I..." She shook her head. "It doesn't matter." She slumped back against the wall and looked away. "I'm sorry."
Ko-Kalah tucked a claw beneath Sabrina chin and pulled her head up, back to look into Ko-Kalah's eyes. Her expression had softened again, more so even than before. "But just because you had no right to say it, does not mean you were wrong to," she said. "Thank you, Bek-Braya."
Sabrina didn't hear for a moment, lost as she was in the warmth of Ko-Kalah's eyes. She blinked. "W-what?" she asked.
"You were right," Ko-Kalah continued. "Ko-Kaddic is brash, and ill-tempered, and does not consider how others feel when he acts. He is too proud of being a Ko to act how a Ko should." She shook her head. "In the desert, he would likely have left the tribe and found another in a few years, or formed one of his own. But here... I would worry for him. I don't know that he would be able to find another tribe. He would be alone in this place." She looked down at Sabrina. "You understand," she said.
Sabrina nodded. "Yeah," she said softly.
"And you defended Sal-Sobin," Ko-Kalah continued. "Again, you were right. He should not have been wrestling Ko-Kaddic. Sal-Sobin joined our tribe not long before we came to Vikaasthan. He is young, and too trusting and eager to please. He hasn't made real friends yet, and Ko-Kaddic took advantage of that. He needs someone like you to support him—and Ko-Kaddic needed to hear what you said. But you are a guest here, and you must remember that."
She sounded like Sabrina's father. Although the thought renewed the ache in Sabrina's neck, as she rubbed her shoulders she couldn't help but smile, "So you're saying I did the right thing, but I shouldn't have?"
For the first time since Sabrina met her, Ko-Kalah laughed. It was a low, gentle sound, almost a cooing, and Sabrina found herself laughing as well. "Obstinate girl," she said. "I am saying that you did the right thing, but you—"
"Need to be gentle," Sabrina finished. "I know. I'm sorry."
Ko-Kalah smiled. "You are clever enough for that," she said. She hesitated for a moment, then reached out to stroke Sabrina's horns.
Without thinking, Sabrina flinched away from the touch. Ko-Kalah drew back her hand as though she had been shocked. Her expression was indecipherable for a moment, and she was silent. Slowly, her smile faded. When she spoke again, her tone was as impassive as ever. "There can be a place for you here, if you want it," she said. "But you must try." She drew a wing away from the wall, providing a door for Sabrina. "You may go," she said.
Sabrina nodded and shuffled away. On a whim, she paused at Ko-Kalah's wing and looked back. The older dragon had turned away. Sabrina watched her for a moment before stepping out.
The tribe had returned to their business, though a distinct air of awkwardness hung over them, in the way the scent of rain lingers after a storm. A few glanced at Sabrina as she passed. If she had cared to notice, she might have noticed that some of the looks, if they were not approving, were at least not as harsh as they had been.
Sabrina's attention was taken by her bed mat. Or rather, it was taken by the bed mat that had been shoved beside hers while she had been talking to Ko-Kalah.
Sal-Sobin was seated on the second mat, with his knees against his chest and his tail around his feet. He bounced in his seat when he saw her coming and beamed at her with a lopsided smile.
Sabrina slowed down as she approached the bed mats. Sal-Sobin continued to smile at her, but made no other movement. After lingering for a long, awkward moment, Sabrina eventually took a seat on her bed mat.
Sal-Sobin sat as close to Sabrina as he possibly could while still technically remaining on his own mat, but said nothing.
Sabrina wrapped her own tail around her feet as she peered at him. She thought about what Ko-Kalah had said, that Sal-Sobin had no real friends, and nobody to watch out for him. She guessed that she was the first person—or dragon—to have stuck up for him, and he wanted to stay close to her where he was safe.
He had stopped looking at her—most of the time. Every few moments his eyes would dart back to her, then dart away again when he caught her gaze. He fidgeted with his claws nervously, although his smile never faded.
Sabrina felt a smile play at the corners of her mouth. He clearly wanted to talk to her, but didn't want to speak first. He was going to be waiting for a while.
Or maybe not. If Sabrina could get him to say anything—even something small—she could greet him. She looked him up and down, and realized that he had inched just barely onto her mat. Not enough for her to actually care, but enough to be noticeable.
She stared at his seat for a moment, then looked up at him and cleared her throat gently.
Sal-Sobin blinked. He looked down, then gasped and scuttled backwards. "Sorry!" he said. "Sorry."
"It's okay," Sabrina said, holding a hand up to appease him. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be rude." she looked down again and added, "you can sit close if you want."
Sal-Sobin's face lit up. "O-okay!" he said. He scurried back to the edge of the mats and reached out, grabbing Sabrina's hand. "I'm Sal-Sobin!" he exclaimed.
"Uh," Sabrina said. She almost pulled her hand away, but stopped herself. Even if she hadn't, she wasn't sure she could have broken Sal-Sobin's grip. "Yeah... I know, Sal-Sobin. Hi."
Somehow, Sal-Sobin managed to grin wider. "You're Bek-Braya, right?"
"Yeah," Sabrina said. She rubbed her shoulder. "Umm... Can... I help you?"
Still grinning, Sal-Sobin shook Sabrina's hand so vigorously he almost pulled her over. "No," he said. "I just... wanted to say thanks! I don't really like wrestling with Ko-Kaddic, but sometimes he makes me anyways, and, well... y-you asked him to stop, even though you didn't have to!"
That was a fairly generous way of describing it. In spite of her misgivings, Sabrina couldn't help but smile as well. She rubbed her muzzle, hiding the smile behind her hand. "Well... you're welcome," she said. "Someone had to."
Sal-Sobin's smile faded. "Nobody else ever really does," he said. His face brightened again and he added, "But after what you said, everybody told him what a jerk he'd been! And Tor-Tomic made him listen to them all. You even got Ko-Kalah to get mad at him!" He looked up at her and gave her a bashful grin. "It was really cool."
Sabrina felt herself smiling wider. She looked away and rubbed her shoulders. "Can't you just ask Ko-Kalah to make him stop?"
Sal-Sobin shook his head. "No," she said. "Ko-Kaddic doesn't like listening to her. And anyways, she gets tired, and doesn't talk to the tribe much unless we're doing something really bad. Ko-Kaddic making me wrestle isn't enough."
"Oh," Sabrina said. She peered at the mass of dragon in the shadows. Ko-Kalah hadn't seemed particularly unsociable to her. She turned back to Sal-Sobin and said, "Well, you shouldn't have to wrestle if you don't want to."
Sal-Sobin didn't respond, but looked down and wiggled happily. Sabrina sat with him for a moment, wondering if she should try to extract her hand from his grip. Eventually she settled for a gentle cough.
"Sal-Sobin?" she asked. "Can I, uh, have my hand back?"
"Oh!" Sal-Sobin said as he released his grip. "Oh yeah!" He said, and spun around.
Sabrina rubbed her hand gently, and watched Sal-Sobin. He was rummaging in a small sack beside his bed mat. He gave a cry of joy as Sabrina settled back into a comfortable seat, and produced a small, lumpy bundle of wax cloth.
"Here!" he said, presenting it to her. "You can have this!"
"Thanks?" Sabrina said as the bundle was thrust upon her. It was soft, and smelled vaguely of butter. She unfolded the cloth, and almost dropped it.
The bundle contained three pieces of flatbread. They were squashed, and cold, and barely holding together, but they were definitely edible.
Sal-Sobin plunked himself down next to Sabrina, as close as he could while still remaining on his mat. "I took a few from dinner in case I got hungry. But you said you were really hungry, and some of the older dragons said you weren't getting served as much, so you can have them instead!"
Sabrina opened and closed her mouth, but couldn't find anything to say. Eventually she muttered "Thank you," and began devouring the bread. They may not have looked appealing, but they were delicious.
The bread was gone too fast, but for the first time in a week Sabrina leaned back with a full stomach. Or at least, one that was not completely empty. She sighed happily and patted her belly. "Thank you," she said again. She looked over at him, and at his bed mat. "Are you... gonna sleep there tonight?" she asked.
Sal-Sobin almost jumped up again. "Can I!?" he asked,
Sabrina covered her mouth to hide a laugh. "I guess?" she said. "It's a free floor. And anyways... thank you for the food, but I'm really exhausted." It was true. After everything that had happened here tiredness had come back with a vengeance, and she was threatening to topple over at any moment. She gently eased herself down and said, "I don't think I'd be able to stay awake long enough to stop you."
"Okay!" Sal-Sobin said. He spared a glance over his shoulder and laid down as well. "Bek-Braya?" he asked.
Sabrina stifled a yawn as she settled into the mat. "Yeah?" she asked.
"Can I... keep on sleeping here?" he asked. "Tomorrow, I mean. And after that."
"Sure," Sabrina said. "As long as you don't snore."
Sal-Sobin frowned slightly. "I don't think I do," he said. "Do I?"
Sabrina stared at him for a moment, and laughed wearily. "I guess we'll find out," she said.
Sal-Sobin laughed as well. "Good night," he said.
In spite of her tiredness, Sabrina found herself watching Sal-Sobin for a while. He curled up on the edge of his mat, with his head at her feet and his tail tucked around himself. For however tired Sabrina was, it seemed that Sal-Sobin was also feeling the exhaustion. It was not long before his breathed slowed and steadied, and he began to gently snore.
Sabrina watched him for a while longer. Then she turned around, until her head was facing his. "Good night," she whispered, and settled down to sleep.