“Can I please go play with them?”
There are other children playing across the way. I can see them through the window. Kana likes to keep the blinds closed but I can see through them.
“No,” Kana says. She does not look at me.
“Please?” I beg. “I will be good.”
“No,” Kana says, more firmly. She is still working at the counter. She says no to a lot of things.
“They look like they’re having fun,” I say. “Can’t I have fun for once?”
“They don’t want to play with you,” Kana says. Again. She has told me this many times.
I don’t believe her. “All the kids play,” I say. “I watch them. They let anyone play with them.”
“Not you,” Kana says. “Trust me.”
I know better than to keep asking. Kana never says yes. I push forward anyway.
“You never let me play. It’s not fair.”
“You can play inside if you really need to,” Kana says. She still hasn’t turned to look at me.
I open my eye and send it close to her. I want to be able to see her face while we talk. She is several feet away from where I stand on a chair so that I can see out of the window. That’s fine. I have sent my eye much further than that.
“You never let me go outside,” I say. I swing my eye around her head to look down at what she is doing. Herbs. She is always working with herbs, when she’s not out collecting them or helping people.
Her eyes don’t leave her work. She doesn’t notice my eye. It’s hard to see. “We have been over this.” I can hear her getting mad. That’s not good. If she gets too mad she’ll make me sit in the corner and be quiet.
“I know,” I say. I pout. “But you always say the same things.”
“Yes, because they’re always going to be true.” She turns to look at me. I see her from two angles. My regular eyes see her from the chair, and my special eye sees her up close enough to see the wrinkles on her face. “Nobody wants to play with you. Nobody wants to see you. You’re safer if you stay inside.”
“You said people can’t hurt me,” I protest. “What is there to stay safe from, if people can’t hurt me?”
“Oh, people can hurt you,” she said. “There are many ways to hurt someone that don’t involve punching them or using a knife on them. You will see plenty of that, and more, when you turn ten.”
Kana teaches me a lot of things. Some of them, I don’t understand, even though I remember them. She taught me about the Dragon Laws. Most of those are about protecting people from the dragons, like how they can’t enter someone’s house without being invited. She said they’ll also protect me until I’m ten years old. People aren’t allowed to hurt kindred like me until we turn ten. She said that’s the only reason she lets me live with her. The Dragon Laws mean she has to keep me alive.
I don’t understand why they need to keep me alive. Kana has only been nice to me. She is like my mom. When I learned the word “mom,” I asked her what it meant. Then I asked her if she is my mom. She said, “No. Your mom is gone.” She didn’t say any more.
Telal is nice to me, too. Even though he seems sad all the time. I wonder sometimes if he’s always sad or if he’s just sad when he visits here. He talks to me. He even looks at me while he talks. Most people that visit don’t talk to me at all. I have to go hide in the bedroom. Kana says they don’t want to see me. They would rather forget that I am here.
Telal taught me how to read and write. He brings me books sometimes. Kana told him he was stupid for teaching me. She says it’s pointless, because I’m never going to get a chance to use it. I don’t understand why she thinks that. I read all the time. I’ve read a lot of the books in Kana’s house. Most of them I’ve read more than once. Not the boring ones, about herbs and stuff. I’ve looked at them and read parts, but they don’t keep my attention. I like the ones with stories the best.
Sometimes I read over other people’s shoulders. It’s hard to find people who are reading. I think that most people in this town don’t do it. I don’t know if they don’t know how or they just don’t want to. I like to send my eye out around the town to watch what people are doing.
The best place to find people reading is at the school. Every day the teacher makes the children sit down and read for a while. There are more books in the school than anywhere else in town. I wish I could go there and look through them. Better, I wish I could talk to the kids. I’ve never talked with someone my own age. I can only watch them. I wish I could at least hear them, at the school or when they’re playing, by my eye can only see.
I watch Kana carefully. It’s no big problem if she sees my eye open in the house, but she gets mad if she notices I’m sending it out into the town. If I’m careful and I pretend like I’m doing something else, she won’t notice. I go get a book from the shelf and sit back on the couch so that it will look like I’m reading.
I close my eye, shutting off me view of Kana from that angle. I reopen it close to me, but outside of the house, just on the other side of the wall. I only just figured out that I can open it outside even if there’s something like the wall in the way. It just has to start near me. Then I can send it really far away. I like to practice sending it further and further, just to see how far it can go.
I send my eye out toward the kids that are playing. I can move it pretty fast, I think. Faster than the other kids can run. Probably faster than I can run. I never get to run, though. There’s no room in the house.
The kids are playing with a ball in an open space between some houses. The weave has been cleared from the space they’re playing in. Someone, probably one of their parents, has painted white lines on the hard dirt to make a five-sided shape divided into five sections. There are seven kids, so two of them stand on the side, waiting until another does the wrong thing with the ball. When a person hits the ball into the wrong spot, they are out, and one of the kids who are waiting takes one of the spaces.
It looks fun. The kids are laughing. I think of laughing as something you do at someone. There isn’t a lot of laughter in Kana’s house. But the kids look happy. They don’t look light they’re laughing to be mean. If I listen very hard, I can hear their laughter through the window.
I move my eye around the outside of them. In the daylight, it’s harder to see than it is at night. It doesn’t look like the eyes on my face. It looks like a little wisp in the air, a bit purplish, with a blank spot in the middle. I look at their faces. I know them all. Sort of. I recognize them. I know who they like to play with, and where they live. Who their parents are, and if they have kids. The stuff I can learn by watching. I don’t know their names.
It’s actually okay that I don’t know their names. It makes me feel less weird. I know that they have them, because most people have names. Kana and Telal, for example, but also Fia, who helps Kana a lot. And I hear Kana call people by their names when they come to her for help with things. But I don’t know my name. Kana ignores me when I ask and she and Telal never call me anything. They just look at me or say things and expect that I know they’re talking to me.
I used to ask Kana about my name. I gave up. She never answered. She would just ignore me, or change the subject, or if I asked too many times, send me into the bedroom and leave me there for a few hours. I think maybe she doesn’t know my name, like maybe my parents left before they could tell her.
I used to ask Kana a lot of things, like where my parents went, or why people don’t like dragon kindred, or whether there are others like me in the town. A lot of things. I gave up on most of them.
I bring my eye close to one of the boy’s faces, because I like the way he looks. He has dark hair that flows from his head in ripples, smooth skin like a soft fruit, and light brown eyes. He is beautiful.
I am not beautiful, I think. Kana agrees. I use my eye to look at myself sometimes. I am covered in black scales that look like the armor in a book. They are hard and dark and not at all pretty. Some of them are sharp. Sometimes they tear the clothes Kana gives me. I have claws at the end of my fingers, which Kana makes me trim and sand. Otherwise I might ruin things in the house.
My face is pushed out, not flat and lovely like that boy, or like the other girls in the town. My mouth is full of sharp teeth. I don’t have pretty hair, or pretty skin. The only thing I like are my eyes, the ones in my face. They are blue and clear as glass. I think they are the only part of my body that are nice to look at.
The boy I am watching pinches his face up. Oh. He sees my eye. My heart flutters in my chest. A sudden fear that Kana will know what I have done rises up. But I can see immediately that he doesn’t know what it is. He waves his hand toward it as though shooing a fly. My eye breaks apart at the disruption.
I sigh. I realize too late that I’ve done it out loud. Too loud.
“Were you watching again?” Kana asks. She always knows. She pays closer attention to me than I think.
“No,” I say.
“Don’t lie,” Kana says. “You’re not good at it. You were looking at them out of the window, then you went and got a book and just opened it to a random page in the middle.”
Oh. “I don’t like the beginning of this book.”
“That’s one of my books about herbs,” Kana says. “You don’t like any of it.”
“I want to learn about them,” I say. It’s not quite a lie. I like to learn things. Kana has taught me a lot of things, like what the Dragon Laws are and why they’re important, and what to do when people come in the house, and how nobody will ever like me because I’m a dragon kindred and nobody likes dragon kindred, and how to clean and take care of the house because I need to earn my keep. And Telal has taught me some things, like how to read and write and a bit about numbers. But I want to learn more.
“Learn about the herbs, or the children outside?” Kana puts a hand on her hip.
“Why?” Kana asks. She is still working with her herbs. She is putting concoctions she has prepared into jars so that they will keep for later. “What good is it going to do you?”
“Knowing things never hurts,” I say. “I think it’s always good to know things.”
Kana pauses to turn and look at me. “Where did you learn that?”
“I don’t know,” I say.
“You don’t know?”
“No, it just felt like the right thing,” I say, confused. I don’t understand why this matters to her.
Kana goes back to what she was doing. She stays silent for a while. “I can teach you some things about herbs,” she says slowly. “You’re right, in a way. It is good to learn, and it’s always good to have more people in a village who know about medicine. Maybe it will help you convince people you’re worth something, when you come of age.”
She turns to me, gesturing with a wooden spoon. “But you can’t help me prepare anything. You can only watch and listen, understand? If the villagers know you’ve handled their salves and medicines, they won’t use them. They’ll think they’re dirty.”
“I’m not dirty,” I say. “You taught me how to keep myself clean.”
“You don’t have dirt on you, no,” Kana says. “That’s not what I mean. People just don’t want anything to do with dragon kindred. That includes the things you’ve touched. They think you’re diseased, like you might infect them, even though we’re all taught that’s not how it works.”
“Oh,” I say. I try to think of something else to say, because though I already knew what Kana said, it still hurt. “You have Fia practice making things all the time. You told her that’s an important part of learning.”
“I did,” Kana said. “But the villagers don’t mind using what Fia has touched. They don’t think of her as dirty. Even if she does learn slowly.” I think I wasn’t supposed to hear that last part.
“Won’t it be hard to learn just by watching?”
Kana placed her hands on the counter and stared at me, like she does when I ask questions she doesn’t want to answer. I prepare to give up. “Yes. Perhaps I will let you make some things just for you to use.” Kana frowns. She looks sad. She turns away, back to her work.
“What’s wrong?” I ask. I open my eye and move it over near her, so that I can see her better.
“I shouldn’t teach you this,” she says. She punches the counter. “It’s not strong magic, but there is magic to it.” She glances at me out of the side of her eye. I get the idea that she’s not really talking to me. “What am I doing, agreeing to teach a dragon kindred magic?”
“Magic?” I say, my voice full of wonder. Magic is something I only read about in stories. I thought nobody in the village knew anything about it. But Kana does?
“No,” she says. She holds up a finger. “Not like you’re thinking. I can’t cast spells or anything, and you won’t be able to, either. It’s just the way that you put certain things together in a mixture attracts magic. It makes the mixture have an effect you wouldn’t expect, otherwise.”
“Oh,” I say. “That’s still really neat.”
“It’s useful,” she says. She heaves a heavy sigh. “I wish it hadn’t occurred to me to teach you. Now I can’t resist teaching you, because I’m thinking about it could help your survival. Damn the Laws.” She shakes her head. “I’ll need to talk to Telal about this. I never thought they would compel me to do something that would help you more after you come of age.”
“Why does coming of age matter so much?” I ask. I wouldn’t have brought it up, not normally, but earlier she said this might make me “worth something” after that time. Plus, she seems more open than usual.
“That’s when the Laws stop protecting you,” she says. “I’ve told you that.”
“But what does that mean?” I ask. “You’ve said that, but you never really explain.”
Kana folds her arms across her chest, her work forgotten for now. “It means a lot of things, young one. In three years’ time, you will know more.”
“I want to know now,” I protest.
Kana’s lips become a thin line before she speaks. “I suppose you have to know sometime. Perhaps it will make it easier for you, then. When you reach ten years of age, the Laws will no longer force me to keep you alive.”
“I know that part,” I say.
“Right,” Kana says. “So if you want to know more, don’t interrupt me. That means I’ll no longer have to feed you. I won’t have to keep you in my house. I won’t have to give you clothes or shelter or knowledge that could keep you from hurting yourself.”
“Okay,” I say, because though I don’t want to interrupt, she has paused. I feel empty inside, hearing her finally speak of this.
“The villagers will be free to do with you as they please,” she says. “They may wish to harm you. I will not be forced to stop them.”
“Why…” I ask, but I stop. She has told me, many times, that they don’t like me. I don’t understand wanting to hurt someone, but I do know that you have to dislike someone in order to want to hurt them.
“I will not be forced to stop them, and I probably won’t stop them if they try,” she says. “I’m not going to put myself at risk for you. It’s not worth it. If we were in Tyneros, Hunters would be sent to deal with you. Here I suspect that Vane and the village council will take matters into their own hands, as they did with your parents.”
I have many questions. Too many. I can’t sort out which one to ask, because my brain feels numb. “Who is Vane?” I ask, though this is the least important.
“Vane is Telal’s son,” Kana explains. “He is the Village Head.”
“Why… why do they want to hurt me?” I ask. I just don’t understand.
“They don’t want to hurt you, specifically,” she says. “They don’t think of you as a person. They don’t know you, the person. They only see your scales and your black face, and they know you are dragon kindred.” I think she is trying to comfort me. I don’t feel better. “You can hope they have forgotten you. I keep you here and hide you away so that they barely have a chance to be reminded that you are here. With any luck, they will forget your tenth birthday has arrived. Perhaps we can sneak you out of the town safely.”
“You just said you wouldn’t protect me,” I say. I am lost among her words, and inside my own thoughts. It’s too much.
“I expect that Telal will make me help,” she says. She actually comes closer to me. She sits in a chair facing mine. “But truly, I might help regardless. If it’s safe. I don’t hate you, you know.” She meets my eyes. “You represent a lot. You are fear, and disgust, and you are the dragon’s desire to destroy us. But you are also a person. I have taken care of you your entire life. I delivered you. I fed you as a child, and I feed you now.” She smiles. It is not a happy smile. “I say I’ll be cold, but I doubt I’ll be able to just let you go without helping somehow.”
“I don’t want to go anywhere,” I say. I start to cry. I want to touch her, to hug her like I’ve watched people in the village do. She will refuse it. She always has.
“You will have to,” she says. “It won’t be safe here.”
“If it won’t be safe here, will it be safe anywhere?” I ask. “Why can’t I just stay with you?”
Kana doesn’t answer. She stands, leaves me, and goes back to her work. I understand that I have spent all my allotted questions for the day. I turn in my chair to look back out the window. I watch the other children play as I try to stop crying. This makes it harder. Still, I cannot stop. I send my eye out to them. If it’s there, it feels almost like I’m with them.