No worldly sight could match the beauty of those ribbons. They were brighter than the sun and just as gold. Nicer than anything I’d seen for a hundred miles on this trail. They had to be Adrienne Armois ribbons—I was sure of it—all the way from the highest houses in the capital. Yet here in the prairie, for some reason, they were on a hilldigger’s head. I couldn’t pull the thought of them out of my head, no matter how many times my pa tried to get my attention. I nibbled on the shaft of wheat between my lips.
“Will-Henry,” Pa said from his horse, “let me ask you again. You seen anything suspicious out in them plains?”
I shook my head with a hand on my hat and peered out at the grass. Flat grasslands stretched for miles beside us until it met the sky. My wheat was all chewed up.
“Tell me, boy.”
“No, sir.” I spat out the shaft.
Pa crossed his arms and looked back at the pair of imperial soldiers who’d been yapping at his back for the last half-hour about their concerns and complaints. He used to love the imperials. He went all around the empire with them for most of his life. But then he got old. Insufferable is what he was now, and every imperial he worked for thought it. He stared down his nose at the soldiers and their ponchos dyed redder than his hair. This very well might’ve been his last caravan. I figured he knew it. His poncho flapped at his sides like the flag of a sinking ship. “Well, there you have it,” he said. “He ain’t seen nothing.”
The soldiers scoffed. “Sir,” said one, whose black hair was tied up like that hilldigger girl’s, “you can’t take the words of a boy over imperial reports. Three soldiers and five battle mages all reported seeing something in the sky last night.”
“I know my boy, soldier. He’s a smart kid. Been on the trail as long as he could walk.”
“So have I.”
“If he said he ain’t seen a dragon, then he ain’t seen a dragon. Ain’t nothing out there, end of story.”
“But if there is, and we don’t set up protective forces with the battle mages, we could lose hundreds of our own people. And all of the stock, too. Destroyed.”
“And if we set up protections with your fancy mages every time we thought there was something out there, we’d make it to the city a month after the festivals. And if we miss those festivals, the thousands of our own people on this caravan will lose all their trade and a whole lot of money. Do you know what I’m saying, soldier? You understand business?”
The man bore his black eyes into my pa. I peered at him from my horse, careful not to look too long. Something about imperial men made me never want to look them in the eyes. They looked like snakes eyes.
“You’re playing a risky game, commander. You know what comes if you’re wrong.”
“It’s deals and business, chevalador,” Pa said, twisting the soldier’s imperial title like it were a disease. “That’s why they’ve got a Reneman leading this caravan, not no damn soldier. Renemen know business.”
The soldier shook his head, and he and his partner turned and rode away. Pa looked down at his horse. He squeezed his fingers, and I looked up trail. The prairie was just beginning to ripple into the White Mountains far ahead, like a sea of wheat meeting its shore. I painted this view once back when I was twelve, after I saw the mountains for the first time. Now that I’d been all around the empire and seen all the mountains I could see, they still gave me chicken skin. Next time, I’d paint the mountain tops gold, like the golden sun in the evening sky. Like those ribbons. I reached down and ran my fingers through the wheat. If they really were Armois ribbons, then they were worth more than everything I owned. The things I could do with that kind of money. Maybe this year I would finally catch the first caravan east from the capital. Leave my pa dumb and broke under the fireworks with strings of gold in my hands. Those ribbons would keep me alive for months. I ripped a shaft of wheat from its stalk and nibbled it between my lips.
“Ain’t long now, boy,” my pa said. I looked up at him. “Just two weeks left until the festivals. Two weeks on three months of riding, how’s that?”
“You remember when you used to ask us all about the imperial festivals? You were no bigger than a squirrel. Your ma bought all the woodcuts she could for you and look at you now. Now you can finally see them for yourself. You’re almost a young man now, son. Couple years and you’ll be leading your own caravan. You’ll make me proud.”
A tuft of hair quivered between my horse’s ears. I cleared my throat. “I saw some folks tag along the back this morning when we passed by that village. Strange ones. Could be thieves. I’m going to go sniff them out.”
“Oh,” he said. “Alright.” He smiled at me with a face greyer than his eyes. “Go do what you do, boy. I’ll man the front. Keep an eye out for anything out there.” He tried to wink.
I pulled my horse back and weaved between the wagons to the back of the caravan. I pulled my horse back and weaved my way to the back of the caravan. Wagons the size of horses, wagons the size of barns, men, women, donkeys; everything and everyone I could imagine rolled on their way to the capital. Some of them were rich, and most of them were poor. It must’ve been a good mile ride to the very end, but eventually I spotted her, just as the sun started to sink from the sky, in a covered cart with her old woman. I eased my horse to a trot and jumped to the ground beside them.
“Howdy, missum,” I said, tipping my hat when I stepped under the shadow of their cart. They were as dirty as hilldiggers ever were. The old woman glared at me through her slits for eyes.
“What you want, boy,” she said. I stumbled over my own foot. The prairie-folks round here are meaner than those back home, Pa said once, like barbarians. I opened my palms extra wide for their favor.
“Well, missum, I couldn’t help but notice how beautiful your daughter is. A right young woman!” Their heads bobbed around their shoulders, but their faces were stiff as dirt. Like they’d just eaten a lemon too sour for their liking. “I was wondering—if it’s all okay with you, missum—if I could beg for your blessing to court your girl.”
The wagon trundled over a rock. “You ain’t trying to lure my girl out for the dragon to eat her, is you, boy?”
I blinked in surprise. A wind was blowing today with more fury than there ever was before, and my poncho flapped around my chest.
“Ma,” the girl said, “why in the world would he do that? There ain’t no damn dragon.” Her voice was raspy. I didn’t expect that. “I’d have seen one if there was.”
“I swear I seen a dragon! Right before sunup,” the old woman said with her fist on her knee. “It’s been following us, girl, I swear it with my life.”
“If I may, missum,” I said, swooping my hat from my head and holding it to my chest, “I know right well what you’re talking about. I’ve been across the entire empire myself twice before. Trust me on the words of my expertise when I assure you I ain’t seen no ordinary signs of a dragon yet.”
“See, Ma,” the girl mumbled. “Ain’t no dragon.” She sounded like dry hands on a washing board. I played the sound of her voice over in my head. Dragon. Dragon.
The old woman grumbled. She looked into me like a crow on a fence post. “Strange boy. Alright, girl. Get on with it if you want to. He’s a handsome fellow. Maybe he’ll treat us better than your damned pa. Get us some real money.” The girl shoveled a shawl off from her lap and tossed it over her ma’s legs before she jumped down to heel me. Her ribbons shimmered as soon as she stepped into the sun, so out of place on her dirty, matted head. It was so stupid of her to show them off so clearly. I could already feel them between my fingers. “But I don’t want to hear none when you come back saying you’re scared because you seen a dragon!”
I put my hat back on and led the girl a bit up trail. She was bigger than I thought she’d be, her arms almost as thick as mine, although I guess that wasn’t saying much. They hung stiff at her sides and she trudged more than walked. I looked up for a good place to take her. The wagon line stretched on forever. Wagons the size of horses, wagons the size of barns, men, women, donkeys, and everything else I could imagine rolled on its way to the capital. Soldiers marched near the ends, keeping an eye out for all those lizards out there, but they never paid no attention towards the middle. All I had to do was find a barnwagon. Nobody would see anything under no barnwagon. A quick yank and a sprint to my horse and that fortune would be mine.
“So, you ever left home?” I asked the girl. She looked at the ground and didn’t say anything.
“Come on miss,” I said. “Be truthful. Please don’t hold none from me, if I’m to be your boyfriend. That’s a mighty fine dress for someone who never left her home.” Her eyes stuck to her feet. She didn’t say nothing.
I kicked my foot and pushed my thumbs under my armpits. My hands and feet felt like they were roasting by a fire. “You gone say anything, miss? I didn’t mean no harm.”
She adjusted her pink dress under her arm. Nothing. Dark stains circled her armpits.
I grumbled. “You ever been to the ocean?” Her hair and those ribbons rippled in the wind. I cleared my throat. “My pa took me and my ma down to the Sultry Sea once when I was a boy—on an old trade fleet to the South Isle, but I was really questing for old sirens. You ever heard of those? Creatures so beautiful they make you want to step right overboard just to see them closer. I wondered what I’d see if I saw one. I thought, if maybe I could survive it, I could go home, think real hard to remember what I saw, and paint a picture so beautiful it’d be worth all the gold in the empire.”
Her head didn’t move, but the wind twirled the ribbons over her face. She was smiling.
“I ain’t never saw one, though,” I made sure to laugh. “I wish I would. My pa says you shouldn’t go chasing after sirens, but he don’t know what he’s talking about. He said they don’t exist. He don’t know anything. What do you say?”
“I figure he don’t,” she said. My foot caught over my heel and I right near stumbled to my knees. “She speaks!” I said. Her head whipped away from me, blushing. “No he don’t, miss. No he don’t at all.”
We slipped under the shadow of a barnwagon up ahead. It was one of the biggest barnwagons I ever seen. Mage-powered, what with the mages pushing it forward with their minds. We neared it by a dozen yards or so. The sky was already getting dark. I could barely see the few people still walking around us.
“Say, miss,” I said, steering closer to the wagon, “those are some beautiful ribbons you’ve got. I ain’t never seen any so pretty. Did you make them?”
Her smile fell into a frown. She didn’t say anything. She pulled the ribbons loose with her right hand and clutched them tight. Her tangled hair fell down to her neck.
“Aw, miss, now don’t be shy again,” I said. “I just think they’s pretty is all. You’re a fine woman if you made ribbons so beautiful. The ribbons I make don’t ever look half as beautiful.” I dug my hands under my poncho and pulled out one of the bead bracelets I’d been working on the last few days. “See, miss? Looks shameful compared to yours. Where’d you get yours? You make them? Or did you find them anywhere? They’s mighty pretty. Almost look like gold.”
The wind shrieked high in the clouds and yanked at my poncho.
“Well,” she murmured. Her voice hid back behind her tongue. “You’re right they look like gold. They were my pa’s. He got them in the capital before he passed.”
“The capital.” They really were Adrienne Armois ribbons. My hands crackled like lightning. I reached my ribbon out to hers. “I’ll let you see mine if I can see yours.”
Her fingers trembled like mine did, clutching the gold close to her body. She pressed her hands to her belly.
I drew closer to her. She pulled back. I lunged at her hands and she cried out, jerking herself away from me.
But a gust of wind slammed into the caravan from the prairie. Her ribbons untwisted themselves from her fingers and curled through mine and out with the wind.
We shrieked. She darted off after them with flailing arms, but they slithered up to the clouds faster than she could chase them.
My mind stuttered for a moment before I realized what opportunity had opened before me. I sprinted after the ribbons. An old woman stumbled out in front of me, too busy looking up to move out from my way. I twisted around her and leapt over a heap of fallen boxes into the sea of untrampled wheat at the caravan’s side. The ribbons glimmered a few hundred feet above, but they were blowing further away by the second. The girl was slower than me, with her legs caught under that dress. She kept looking back and plowing into thickets of wheat. I ran as fast as I could, one hand on my hat, almost at her heels. When she was close enough, I jutted my leg between hers. Our limbs tangled together like a tumbleweed and we spun into the grass. I climbed back to my feet and sprinted away from her. The ribbons were almost in the grass, just ahead. I could almost reach them. They twisted over my arms and I jumped up to yank them out of the air. They slid into my fingers like wheat. I squeezed onto them and landed in the grass.
Ragged breaths cut my nose, and I bent over to prop my hand on my knee with the ribbons creased between my white knuckles. My heart hammered behind my ears. My horse. I had to find my horse and ride back to my wagon. I turned back to the girl, expecting to see her calling the guards. She took my ribbons, that’s what I’d tell them. And if it weren’t for a divine gust of wind, she’d have snatched them and been off with her mother halfway back to the hills. But when my eyes found her, she wasn’t shouting for anyone.
She lay on her side, propped on her arms, shoulders hunched like a cornered cat. Dirt stained her pink dress, and her brown hair wavered like the wheat. Her eyes hung open like her mouth, glued to me. Clear streaks painted down her cheeks.
“Will!” a voice shot through the wind. I spun around. A horse galloped down the length of the caravan, the sun blazing behind its silhouette. A man waved his arms at me. His poncho flailed at his sides. “Get back to the caravan, boy! Get back!”
“Pa?” I called. He hollered and kicked his horse. His hat ripped off his head, baring his hair to the wild. He was looking at me, but the burning sun overtook his figure and he was nothing, just blackness crowned with a ring of frizzy red hair.
My guts gathered into a lump of coal, and I realized then what he meant. Because a shadow rushed over me, ripping a sound like a screaming horse into the sky. I felt my face churn.
I turned back to the caravan.
Without thinking, I launched myself across the field. Air flooded into my nostrils. My arms pumped at my sides. The caravan stood frozen up ahead.
But my foot didn’t find the ground on its way down. It twisted over something, and I catapulted onto my side, my head jerking up to the sky. The earth smacked me hard. But I didn’t even blink.
“Will!” my pa’s rawhide voice cleared through the caravan of screams.
But I didn’t see him, or the soldiers, or any of it. I couldn’t take my eyes off the sky. It was so beautiful, the dragon swooping out from the clouds, the way the sunlight dripped off its black wings. The girl’s voice hollered for help to the soldiers, but I barely heard her. An arrow sliced into the dragon’s chest. Its claws opened and it reared its head to shriek. Its graceful swoop contorted into a fall and the air vacuumed out of my mouth when, before I realized it, its wings had collapsed around me. It sunk me under its weight. My eyes stung but I didn’t let them close. A crack in my ribs exploded pain into my lungs. Its beautiful chest blotted out everything from my sight and I crumpled into the wheat, smothered by darkness, like the ribbons crumpled in my hand.