[A/N: LoD is my mental playground, and this is a what-if that got way, way out of hand somewhere along the line. You can't really ask me to believe that the Dragoons were going to come out of that and lead normal, healthy, happy lives afterward! Comments are appreciated, hardly demanded.]



Chapter One: Heart Nailed to a Compass


Only tell me that you still want me here
When I wander off out there
To those hills of dust and heartbreak I go
In that dry white ocean alone

But to stand with you in a ring of fire
I'll forget the days gone by
I'll protect your body and guard your soul
From mirages in your sight

You are lost out in the desert

[Anggun: Snow on the Sahara]


Outside the carriage, they can't hear us arguing. The loggers and sheep herders and merchants, the artisans and winebrewers and cheesemakers, all the beggars, lords, and thieves of Deningrad—they all have on their company smiles, their patriot cheers. They have enough to worry about, between the migrating bears and what looks to be a poor harvest.

I keep my voice low and my smile fixed. The Queen doesn't approve of this steel-shine grin of mine, but she isn't here. It's just her age that plagues her, the healers tell me, and there isn't a cure in the world for that. Small comfort when I hear her struggling for every breath, and teacups rattle in her hands. Today she is resting.

She rests, and we parade through the streets of Deningrad in her place. It's a test for the Sacred Sisters, especially for Wink, the Queen's chosen heir: one we all know she will pass. My third Sister was born to charm.

I'm less sure about the rest of us. Large crowds unsettle Luanna, who feels their inflamed emotions like fingers on her skin. Setie is whining. For my part, I can't get the image of the mountains out of my head, crowned with snow, calling me as strongly as they've ever called. The beasts there don't scare me as much as the thought of life without the Queen does.

Once, I climbed those mountains all the way to the top to meet a monster as old as Endiness itself, which had left its calling card in the rubble of my city. For some reason, I've had it in mind all day. I can almost hear it roaring in the back of my brain.

Today I have half a mind to leave my own marks on Deningrad's rebuilt walls. The pressure of restlessness and frustration within me threatens to split my skin open.

Setie kicks me. "Miranda, you're scaring them."

She's sulky because I took away her novel. I want her charming and attentive for this excursion, and Soa knows I'll box her ears if she lets the Queen down in front of everyone. Resentment seems better than her old crying fits—the one advantage, thus far, of the onset of puberty—until that pointy little toe gouges my shin. I hiss and duck out of the crowd's sight to grab the injury. I could leave a mark on her, too, and she knows it.

"Kick me again, pumpkinhead, and then they'll have a reason to be scared."

"Setie, Miranda, please."

That's Wink, perched tight-lipped and white-faced on the highest seat at the back of the carriage. In this balmy spring breeze, we're all suffering in our fur-lined formal capes, but she looks ready to faint. "At least sit still," she says, barely moving her painted lips. She holds her head stiff to balance the Queen's heavy crown—the first time she has worn it in public.

I obey. I lock my knees together, fold my hands, and grin like a madwoman. I don't need Wink to make me feel like an unruly child.

I despise the immense sham of these public events. At home in the Palace, playing marbles in the library, or boating on the deep glacier-green lakes, I can be content. Trapped in the carriage, like a bug under a microscope, I have to see myself the way the world does: the Queen's cuckoo-bird, the misfit, unlovely and ungraceful and untamed.

Wink clears her throat. I stop the wolfish smile and rub my eyes. They hurt more than usual. I long for the mountains.

"Miranda, if you spent more time in the court, perhaps you wouldn't feel so out of place." Luanna, of course, can sense my mood. Nothing escapes her blind eyes: a blessing and a curse. She turns from the crowd to me, her expression perfectly modulated, which not even Wink can manage through years of practice before a looking-glass. The crowd never knows how much they frighten her. "Many people still find it strange for Wink to ascend to the throne, when she is younger than you."

"Then those people have been in hibernation too long," I snap back. "There was never any chance I'd be Queen."

"Not necessarily. What if Wink had died on Kashua Glacier?"

In the corner of my eye, Wink shivers. She hates for anyone to mention the accident. Only Setie still thinks it's out of fear. I never told Wink what became of the silver-haired man. I think I never will. She doesn't need more turmoil in her thoughts where Lloyd is concerned.

I have distractions enough of my own. Mountains. Battles. The Divine Dragon. The old battle-tremor ripples over my skin, under the sweat, though there's nothing here to fight except the deluded people who call me Sacred. Why does it come now?

Belatedly, I remember to answer Luanna. "Then we would all have crossed our fingers and our little toes and prayed Soa granted Setie a backbone."

To prove its existence, Setie kicks me again. Wink grabs my shoulder before I can retaliate. Her little lacquered nails look like drops of blood on the white foxfur cape. I jerk away. A whole screaming multitude of thoughts for which I have no words boils up inside: envy for her pretty face and dainty hands, for how easily grace comes to her; anger at seeing her sitting where Queen Theresa should sit; pity for the little flickers of fear behind her big blue eyes; shame at my own bad temper. I haven't behaved this badly in years.

"People are staring," Setie whines.

They will always stare.

Frustration adds the last straw. I stand up in the middle of the carriage, spooking the driver. The high-strung brutes drawing the carriage immediately veer to investigate a hanging bouquet, and the driver wrestles for control. I look Wink square in the face and tell her what I told the Queen years ago, when she first caught me, her wild bird, stealing bread from the kitchens to fuel the first of my many absences from the Crystal Palace.

"I love you, I'll fight for you, and do my damnedest to never hurt you. But if you expect more from me than being what I am, you'll always be disappointed."

It's for times like this that I insist on wearing a prince's dress tunic instead of the horrible billowing skirts like my other Sisters. I swing the long legs Soa gave me over the edge of the carriage, one after the other. A leap from the running board, and I thump down in the middle of some very startled Deningraders.

At the least, I don't trip. It is one of my better departures.

Throwing my cape back in a no-nonsense manner, I nod to the people around me and set off at full stride before I am accosted. From the carriage, Wink calls out to reassure them. "The First Sacred Sister has important matters of state requiring her urgent attention. Please do not be dismayed…"

Over her, though, comes Luanna's cry, like a knife between my ribs. "Miranda!"

Avoiding eyes, I walk for a while before asking myself where in Soa's blessed name I think I'm going. I have the answer by the next footfall: to the mountains.

You have neither traveling clothes, nor supplies, nor weapons (my wiser side objects), and you've just made the scandal of the year in the center of Mille Square.

There will be supplies in the wayshelters up the pass, I contend. I keep them stocked for this reason, although the highway patrols, woodcutters, and huntsmen express their mistaken gratitude.

You are a complete disgrace as a Sacred Sister.

Yeah, well, I'm one hell of a Dragoon.

I don't swear often anymore, and that shuts me up. Since the dawn of human history, there have only been eighteen humans to unite their souls with a monster's. I'm prouder of that fact than I am of being a Sacred Sister, the same way some cancer survivors are proud.

Still, I can't call any Dragoon a survivor yet, except for those already dead. There's no cure for this addiction. Just because we chased a long-dead tyrant across the globe, threw down the Moon itself from the sky, changed tidal patterns worldwide, done a roaring trade in secondhand weaponry from here to Serdio, and faced down the sum of all nightmares of eleven thousand years of dreams, doesn't mean I don't still feel the White-Silver Dragon's spirit stirring within me every now and then. I feel it waking today.

I rub my eyes again, savoring the old bitter pain. I need to leave Deningrad. That much is plain. I just don't know why I lost control so badly.

Wink isn't ready to replace Queen Theresa yet. She needs me. And I do love her—I do. I consider going back, while my feet keep me pointed steadily toward the stables on the edge of town. My name there is enough to acquire the fastest hooves in Mille Seseau. I might not even need them. Only monsters and Dragoons can fly.

Now that I have set out, the pressure inside won't let me turn around. As if my heart were nailed to a compass, I am compelled onward. Houses, streets, and faces blur past as I break into a run. My heart pounds, but it's racing no faster than my thoughts. For a dizzying moment I'm lost in time, and the echoes of the Divine Dragon's howl ring through my bones.

When I reach the city limits, all the jumbled pieces fall into place. The Dragoon in me stills. It hadn't been the mountains that called me.

In the courtyard of the great gatehouse, just before the stables, there he stands, like a ghost in crimson armor. He faces up the street, as if he felt me on my way. His hair is longer now, the sandy grizzle of a beard coming in at his jaw, and those gray-blue eyes glitter in a way I know and never liked. He's road-stained, carrying only a bundle like a child in his arms.

"Miranda," he says.

"Dart," I say right back, stupidly. I'd thought a year under a moonless sky would have been time enough to find better words.

He holds out the bundle like an offering. It unfolds strangely. I still don't understand until he explains, an unfamiliar crackle of rust in his voice, "Shana's dying."