7:30 rings like a grumpy weyr. It probably is.
I key in the code. The dragons, seven I count, soar out. They’re reaching for the clouds, colossal puffs shaped just like them, before recoiling in mid-air. Good, even if a part of me feels sad. They know the forcefield keeps them in. While they pick at the seven cows and seven sheep we’ve left for them, I shovel their excrement.
After scrubbing a pungent scent that won’t ever go away, I hurry to catch the bus into Delta. My bag is already filled with my sketchbook, a guide to Dragon Ethics and my Interspecies Law Study Guide. After my lecture, I’ll need to print some worksheets and call Aidan about the Dragon Love Rally.
A Government kid sits at the bus stop. He glances at me with that puzzled look new kids give me, as if they can’t believe a dark-skinned Izuban can own a dragon farm and go to university at the same time.
On the bus, I sketch an umuriro in my notebook, the dragon native to Izuba. Its long, sleek body is perfect for flying, light and strong. “May the warmth of an umuriro buoy you up,” I write underneath. It means good luck.
The bus jolts over the river bridge. The Watcher Monument sits on frayed waters, a stone pile of wide eyes on the lookout for who enters and exits the city. Delta’s walls rise behind it. They remind me of the forcefield over my dad’s farm. The Watchers can’t control dragons, so they enforce regulations to contain them. If it weren’t for farmers like my dad, the Watchers would more often kill dragons. I finger the red beads on my ears, the symbol for solidarity among Izubans.
Getting off at city centre, I take my usual shortcut to New Logic campus. It’s a narrow alley between two high rises, clean except for the one dumpster bin hiding in a carved-out section of the wall. Something heavy clatters near the dumpster.
“Who’s there?” I back towards the other wall, clutching my phone.
There’s a strange warbling sound. Little footsteps patter on the pavement until a creature emerges from the shadows.
“Riro,” the creature trills.
I stare, then call Aidan. As a member of the Dragon Love Society, and my best friend, he’s the only one I can trust right now.
“Don’t remember asking you for a morning call,” Aidan’s voice slurs on the other end of the line.
“I need you here stat.” My voice shakes. Not that I’m frightened of a dragon. I just fear for it.
Aidan patiently listens to my rushed explanation of the situation. When a dragon is found wandering Delta, it’s taken to the Dragon Pound, where it’s sold and killed for its bulletproof skin regardless of whether it belongs to a dragon farm. An umuriro has four times the tough skin of ordinary dragons, so this baby has no chance. We have to get this one out of Delta and on a ship to Dance Island, the only dragon sanctuary left.
“I know you need a ride to the harbour, but my scooter’s at my brother’s place.” Aidan sighs. “It’ll take me two hours to get it back.”
I groan. Two hours is too long. What if the umuriro’s found before then?
Even if it’s just a baby, the umuriro already has the trademark orange streak on its forehead. The rest of its body is dark brown like a scaly version of my skin. It waddles back into the shadow of the dumpster bin and emerges with a half-empty wrapper. Glancing from me to the wrapper, it does the closest thing to a meow.
Shushing it, I rummage through my bag for the lunch I packed. It yelps in excitement, taking in the moist smell of spiced chicken and rice. I put my container on the ground and watch it eat. Poor baby, what happened to its mother?
Accessing the Watchernet on my phone, I sift through my previously opened tabs on umuriro life cycles, glad that it wouldn’t look suspicious to the Watchers going through my search history. This umuriro looks like the pictures of male younglings on the verge of their doubling phase. Any moment now, it’ll keep growing until it can’t hide behind dumpster bins anymore.
“I’ll call you Riro.” I smile.
“Riro,” he gurgles.
Riro flaps his wings. They flash amber. Doesn’t that mean he’s ready for flying practice? I scroll through the information page. I’m almost right. There needs to be two white dots on the underside somewhere. Reaching for his back, I rub the soft spot that weyrs and shriekers have. Riro purrs. Smiling, I find the white dots with my other hand.
Snatching away a stray piece of chicken, I dangle it in front of Riro until I get his attention. Then I hold the chicken high enough that he has to jump to try to get it. Riro slides his tail back and forth, tongue lashing out. With a loud shriek, he springs up, opening his wings. Falling short of the goal, he flaps them, propelling himself on a gust of wind that messes up my curls. He snatches the chicken out of my fingers and backflips before crash-landing, reminding me of the time my dad fell off the back of a weyr.
“Good job,” I praise, reaching for the apple in my bag. Baby dragons have a sweet tooth. Riro coos.
Two curt sirens alert me to a parking Watcher patrol. Cursing under my breath, I kick the container of chicken back behind the dumpster bin. Riro gives a low growl and disappears into its shadow.
Outside the alley, I circle the block and come back to see it empty. Sidling up to the dumpster bin, I whistle the call I use for little weyrs and wait for Riro to come out: one short trill, one long to mimic their calls. Riro’s is a tad bit different, so I lower the second trill. He pokes his head out, warbling softly. Reaching for his sweet spot, I rub until I can scoop Riro up in my arms, dumping the leftover chicken in my bag before placing him inside. His head pokes out.
“I want you to be very quiet around the other humans okay?”
Riro’s head ducks back inside my bag. Good. He’s learned to fear humans enough, roaming the streets as he no doubt has. No tags or markings means he hasn’t been caught before, but that doesn’t explain how he wandered into town.
Poor baby. Dragons shouldn’t have to hide from us.
Two hours is too long to wait for Aidan and his scooter, so I take the bus to Delta Harbour. If I can get Riro to the ocean, he can fly to Dance Island himself. Visiting Dance Island is one of my biggest dreams, aside from going to Izuba. Rich Deltans bought it as an alternative to the dragon trafficking in Delta’s harbour. Rumours say the islands’ keepers hire pirates to raid merchant ships chock-full of dragons just to save them from certain death.
Riro’s soft breaths vibrate against my leg. They make me think of my mother’s stories about ancient Izuba, where humans and dragons lived in harmony. We depended on them for transport, hunting. We sang their songs and danced with them in our flurry of sunny robes and clinking beads, our soles connected to the rich, red soil.
That was before the Deltans came. They were afraid of dragons, would slay them on their native soil and develop technology independent of them: cars, airships, guns. Guns were a failed experiment against a dragon’s shock-resistant scales, but Deltans figured they could point their new weapons at other humans and skin dragons to protect their own hides. With that military might, why not expand? Don’t ask me the logic behind that. The powerful always want something else to control.
After the Deltans opened “trade” with Izuba, after we, too, modernised to compete with their guns, after we forgot who the enemy was and pointed those guns at each other, after revolution and revolution after that, after refugees like my parents moved to Delta, no one has the heart to befriend dragons anymore. If anything, Izuba’s becoming more like Delta, building stark grey walls and sombre grey people striking dragons down for their bulletproof leather. A peaceful society has happy dragons. Why can’t anyone understand that?
A giant belch snaps me from my reverie. Several heads turn my way. I smile. Riro warbles and coos. The heads turn back, frowning deeper. I laugh, rubbing the side of my bag. The coo turns into a trill.
“My ringtone,” I mutter, opening the straps. Riro’s snout jerks out, squealing. I hear gasps. Smashing the straps closed, I press the stop button and leap out of the bus, wrestling with the dragon. It’s not long before the harsh shouts and heavy footsteps of street Watchermen follow. On the bus, we were free of them, so long as Riro didn’t show his face to the cameras. Now we’re exposed.
I open the straps. With an irritated cry, Riro springs off. I follow suit, dodging through the large crowd in the main business district. The towering buildings here are claustrophobic. Glass eye sculptures protrude from their corners, becoming obstacles for Riro to dodge. He flies higher, causing a stir in the morning rush. With the Watchermen behind me, some onlookers probably think I’m another Izuban delinquent getting chased by the authorities: call it failure to integrate. Others are more focussed on the dragon.
A wide plaza opens on my left. Riro turns into it, probably comforted by the fewer humans there. The plaza only looks empty because traffic keeps to its sides, skirting around a giant eye mosaic in the centre. I run straight through it. Watchermen yell behind me. Spotting a side street between storefronts, I whistle for Riro to follow. He squawks, looping towards me.
A claw-like blur topples him down, swallowing him into a tight, diamond-patterned bundle. Several officials in grey fire-resistant suits run up to check the net. I follow them.
“That’s my dragon!”
The Watchermen from earlier catch up to me. I face them straight on, stuffing my fear behind a half-truth. “That’s my dragon they’re taking to the dragon pound. It escaped from the dragon farm this morning and I was taking it back.”
They probably already assume I’m affiliated with a dragon farm. It annoys me but at least I can use it.
“Dragons aren’t allowed in the city proper,” the Watchermen reply, voices hard.
“And I’m telling you it belongs to a dragon farm! At least let me take it home. You can even escort me.”
“It’s all pound business, now.” They nod towards the heart-breaking scene.
“An umuriro,” I hear one of the officials say. “Can’t let that one go to waste.”
Poor Riro, he kicks and breathes fire but the net keeps it contained. A black van sporting the Watcher insignia backs into the square. The two dragon pound officials wrestle him into it. He gives one final whimper before the doors slam closed.
Riding in the backseat of a Watcher vehicle feels like they’re arresting me, like they arrested Riro. And for what? The crime of wanting to be free?
We’re heading to the Dragon Pound to “sort this out” even if I know they have no intention of releasing Riro. Dragon Pound is messy business. They sell dragons off faster than they kill them. Registered dragons don’t stay in cages for the full two weeks their owners are given to claim them. Hell, my uncle came to take back his dragon two days after they called him. They claimed it was never there, but he heard its call from a truck of containers driving off. So close to the harbour, the pound attracts merchants who market their bulletproof wares to warring nations outside of Delta. I’m ashamed that Izuba is included.
At the pound, my arguments fall on deaf ears. Izuban deaf ears. Izubans are supposed to be working to save dragons, not sell them off.
“I’m sorry,” the bleak-eyed Izuban says. “Without papers, I can’t release the dragon to you.”
His skin may be Delta-passing, but there’s no mistaking the red beads peeking out of his grey collar, identical to the ones on my ears: the Izuban symbol for solidarity. Has he no shame?
“Look here,” I hiss. “That dragon you just caught is an umuriro. You and I both know how precious they are for their leather. I know for a fact that the minute I leave, you’ll sell him to the highest bidder.”
“I don’t handle the sales, ma’am.”
“But you know they’re not legal?”
He averts his eyes. “Take a seat. I’m sure you can call your farm for papers. Unless that umuriro is actually unregistered?”
My throat grows hot. “If this was Izuba, you would free him.”
He snorts. “The Izuba I know is bleaker than your fairy tales. Or haven’t you been?”
I open my mouth, but no words come out. Instead, I kick a chair to let him know I’m still boiling. What does he know about where I’ve been or not? Just because I haven’t been to Izuba, doesn’t mean I don’t know what it means to be Izuban. The current government is more Deltan than Izuban, anyway. Deltans and their evil influence. That’s why I’m fighting against their system: so that one day, Delta City can become as free as Izuba once was.
I sink into a chair. What a load of dragon dung, but what else can I do? Sometimes the only way to feel like you belong somewhere is to tie yourself to a cause. Tie it double tight and it becomes your identity.
The pound smells like bleach with a metallic undertone, as if they can hide the slaughter that happens behind the front desk. The walls are faded white: an abattoir pretending to be a hospital.
A bell rings above the entrance, revealing my favourite person in the world right now.
“Took you long enough.”
Aidan smiles despite the barb in my words. I realise we’re twinning today. Like me, he’s wearing black jeans and boots, with a dragon print t-shirt peeking out of his grey hoodie. The only major difference would be his Deltan face, fair as a model in a toothpaste commercial.
“If you’d waited, maybe we wouldn’t be meeting here of all places.” He plops down next to me. “Plan?”
“Working on it,” I say through gritted teeth.
“I’ll take that as a no.”
Aidan’s voice is still a tired grumble. He pulls down his sleeves a little, hiding the dragon tattoos peeking out. A love of dragons that rivals mine is his reason for putting his parents’ reputation on the line. That or a need to rebel against them. Either way he hasn’t betrayed me yet. Normally I’d suggest he use his Deltan good looks to get us in, but the person on the counter is Izuban so…
“Do you have any ideas?”
Aidan leans close to my ear. “Is that guy one of us?”
“Nah, he’s a jaded jerk,” I say loud enough for the Izuban to hear. “Can’t blame him though. The jobs they hire Izubans in these days. As if Delta hasn’t made us stoop low enough–”
“Us?” Aidan raises an eyebrow. “Since when are you Izuban?”
“Since I chose to be!” I round on Aidan, eyes hot. “Freeing dragons is my heritage and it’s my spirit. If I ever doubt that, it’s because of ignorant assholes who try to tell me I’m overcompensating for my lack of Izuban-ness. They’re missing the point. Dragons are living breathing beings for Sun’s sake!”
“I’m sorry to interrupt your riveting conversation,” the Izuban clerk cuts in. “But you won’t get in to see the dragon like that.”
I jump from my seat. “You think that just because we’re dragon-loving hippies that we don’t have papers? Just wait ‘til my dad gets here–”
“I’m sure you can wait ‘til your dad or whoever gets here.” He leans over his desk, lowering his voice as his eyes dart to the door behind him. “Or you can come in as a buyer.”
“Buyers can get in without papers.”
Aidan catches on. “Of course we’re here to buy. I’ll bring the scooter round the back.”
I follow the Izuban clerk through the staff doors. It opens into a hallway where the clamour of rattling cages and wailing dragons becomes all too audible. The Izuban clerk’s hand shakes as he puts a key through one door, revealing wall-to-wall cages full of baby dragons. He checks behind him, muttering curses under his breath.
I shake my head “I don’t get it. Why are you helping me?”
He glares at me. “I don’t wanna get shown up by a second-gen Izuban.”
I smirk. Izuban ‘til the end.
“Not like I ever get to see the extra money the pound makes, anyway.”
Well, close enough.
Riro shrieks at my approach. Shushing him, I fish through my bag for remnants of the chicken he was eating only to find the container mostly clean and bitten through. The clerk opens the cage. Riro shrinks back.
“It’s okay. It’s me,” I tell him, holding my palms out as a sign of trust. Riro slinks forward until I can reach his sweet spot. He purrs. I smile, proud that I didn’t need food this time.
Taking Riro in my arms, I thank the clerk and head towards the back door. Just as I reach for the handle, several Watchermen walk in.
“Ma’am, that dragon is not for sale.”
The Izuban clerk panics. “S-stop her! She’s stealing that dragon.”
I suck my teeth. Can’t trust a spineless coward then.
Sprinting into an alley of parked vans, I’m relieved to see Aidan rumbling on his scooter. Placing Riro in my bag again, I jam on a helmet. The door slams open behind us. We rip into the traffic.
Watcher sirens wail behind us. I shout in Aidan’s ears.
Taking several side streets, we emerge onto the wide harbour boulevard, where we get a brief look at the open ocean before a fence and the shipment boxes it protects block our view. We speed past the empty security stand and plunge into a maze of multicoloured storage boxes reeking of brine and smoke.
Honks announce the departures of several cargo ships. We zip around rumbling trucks and neon-suited dock officers heading back after the morning shipments. The sirens sing hot behind us. I spot a narrow opening between boxes.
“Through there and park!”
Aidan revs through, making the cars behind us screech to a halt. He parks to the side of the box.
I hold my hand out to Aidan. “Give me your hoodie.”
We switch jackets and transfer Riro into his backpack. Watcher cars come our way. Aidan runs on foot, clutching my bag. I rev off in the other direction. The cars follow him. I weave through the boxes to get as close to the edge of the harbour as possible. The briny air gets stronger. I can’t help thinking it smells like freedom.
Parking the scooter, I hear more sirens. The Watchers are still on my tail. Looking up at the nearest storage box tower, I notice there are ladder rungs and footholds. Hiding through a narrow passageway, I start climbing from the other side. At the top, Riro lets out a happy yelp as I take him out of the backpack. I hold him in my arms. He blinks at me. I point behind him.
The ocean stretches beyond the mega ships spewing smoke in the air. It’s a bright morning, the sun throwing sunset-like ripples on the surface. A new day for a new life.
“That way is Dance Island, the only sanctuary left,” I tell him. Its lush forests and happy roars fills my imagination, a rainbow of dragons painting the sky into an early sunset.
Riro tilts his head. My smile falters. Maybe bonding with a dragon after such a short time is impossible after all.
“Riro?” I try again.
This time, he burrows his head in my hair, purring. I laugh.
A high-pitched whine cuts it short.
The shadow of a Watchership hovers over us. Several zip closer, broadcasting the same order. “Put the dragon down.”
Riro shrieks. The wind stings my eyes, or is it tears? I came so close.
A deep bellow drowns out the next warning. Flames crash into the nearest Watchership’s side. It spins away, hitting another ship on its way down. I stumble, eyes wide. Roaring above us is a massive umuriro, full-grown, just like the one I sketched on the bus.
Another ship shoots at the umuriro. The dragon gives a shrill cry, unphased by the bullets. Diving towards the ship, it chomps on one of its guns and swings the ship away. With another fiery blast, it incinerates another round of gunfire from all corners. I flatten myself on the storage container, hugging Riro tight. Flapping its powerful wings is enough to push the other ships away from our storage container and make me dig in my toes for dear life. The ships retreat. The umuriro bellows again before plopping onto my storage container.
Riro shrieks, struggling out of my arms. The two exchange purrs: Riro’s cat-like growl versus his mother’s earth-quaking rumble. The mother turns around, lowering her wings. When I don’t move, she squawks back at me. I shake my head.
The umuriro brays, harmonising with the last ship leaving port, then takes off with a mighty flap, nearly throwing me off the storage container. I watch Riro ride his mother’s shoulders before taking two flaps himself, struggling to stay afloat.
“May the warmth of an umuriro buoy you up,” I shout.
A gust of wind sends him spinning. Riro steadies and beats his wings, keeping them open to catch a current. He rises next to his mom, higher and higher. Their wings glow a bright amber in the sunlight, a bright flare shooting for the sun.
“May it buoy you up,” I whisper.
Watcher sirens wail above and below me, but I don’t care. This is what I live for.
This is who I am.
Aline-Mwezi Niyonsenga is a writer of Rwandan background. She has short stories published in Djed Press, Underground Writers, StylusLit, and the 2018 Digital Writers Festival. Her work has been shortlisted for the 2018 Monash Undergraduate Prize for Creative Writing and the 2018 Deborah Cass Prize for Writing.
Featured Image: Scott Umstattd