I’ll never forget the taste of Mother’s tears on the day the Chambersire came to bestow fortune upon my family. He stood in our doorway, layered in fine linens of the style I’d seen royalty wear when they passed through our small village. Gold chains adorned his jacket, more than I could count, draped like garland across his chest. The coin pendants hanging from them rattled with his every move and boasted the crests of all the families that had won the lottery.
I hid beneath the tail of my father’s cloak, grasping his waist tightly so the Chambersire wouldn’t see me, and if he did, wouldn’t be able to pry me away. Peeking out to one side, I saw my mother plead with our guest, certain there had been a mistake. He shook his head and unrolled a slip of leather before her, branded with the crest I knew so well: oxen and ivy, the Marapese clan hailing from the scrublands of Lathan.
And I was the youngest of us all.
I keep a brown rat as a pet now, mostly to remind myself that I am not the smallest living thing in these caves. His name is Tazoo, named after my cousin, a Marapese born only a week before me. Tazoo’s home is a box I made from scales and mud, the iridescent sides too slick for him to climb up and escape.
The dragons, they’re still sleeping. This winter has been especially long, but the sunlight that flitters into the cave strengthens with each day. I’m thankful for the extra warmth, though the comfort it gives will only hasten my fate. I rub my ankle where the iron shackle has bruised my skin, wishing my cousin had stayed in his mother’s belly just a while longer, so he’d be sitting here instead of me. I know he’s my blood, my best friend, but still it’s been my only wish these past eleven days and has hardened my heart like a fistful of stones.
I take Tazoo into my palms and rub his head, slicking back his fur. His nose twitches across the tips of my fingers, searching for traces of supper. Harder and harder I pet him. He squirms and tries to bite, but I force my thumb between his beady eyes and press until I feel his skull snap. Tazoo’s dying squeal fails to move me, though it might have once.
An eye, round and big and pale as the moon, slowly opens behind me. I hold my breath and try to recall the words to the Marapese hymnal, or even its melody, but my mind betrays me. There is only the memory of the Chambersire pulling a purple silk pouch from his jacket. Coins jingled inside as he’d placed it into my mother’s hand. She hadn’t smiled, but the melody had lifted her frown ever so slightly.
“Go with him, dear,” she said, peeling me from the safety of my father’s cloak. ”And behave yourself. Do what he says.“
I held back my sniffles as she brought her cheek down to me. I kissed it, still wet, though her eyes had stopped shedding tears. For eleven days, I’ve tried to lick the bitterness from my lips, but even now, it still remains.