I see the city growing in the distance long before we reach it. I see it from high above, first, a growing, irregular shape in the distance, solidifying as the haze caused by daylight slowly peels back as we move toward it. At first, I do not know it for what it is. I think to ask Garth, but I restrain myself. As the days pass, and Garth becomes more and more open about his frustrations with what I do not know, I grow more and more embarrassed about my lack of knowledge about the world.
I eventually realize that what I’m seeing is a cluster of buildings. It’s just far larger than anything I’ve seen before. It’s like someone too a hundred copies of my village and smashed them together, and not just next to each other, but on top, too.
I’ve read about cities in some of the books in Kana’s house. So many of those books were written with the idea that the reader would have some idea what a city was like. I had always pictured them just as big villages. The reality is much more dramatic. It’s something for which simply reading about cities in books could never have prepared me.
I think, when I realize what it is that I’m seeing, that this is the city to which Garth promised to take me. This is the city full of dragon kindred. This is where I will finally see someone who looks like I look, who knows what it feels like to grow up alone and being told that everyone hates you for the circumstances of your birth.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when the illusion shatters. It is not one great blow that breaks it apart. Instead, I come by many small realizations, each one revealing to me that all is not as it seems. This is not the city of dragon kindred. It is another city entirely.
It starts when I realize that the people on the road are still normal people. We still duck off the road to hide from them while we can, until we can’t anymore. Then Garth takes us off of the road, and we stay there.
“Why are we not returning to the main road?,” I ask, as Garth leads the horse, with me astride it, through a dense thicket.
“There is a smaller road in this direction that will be less heavily travelled,” Garth explains.
“If we are going to a city full of those like me, don’t we have less to fear?” I ask.
“We will once we arrive,” Garth says. “Until that time, there is no choice but to remain careful.”
His words are unsatisfying, but I accept them. They are all that I have, right now. I’ve never had much, truthfully. In some ways I have more now that I’ve had in the whole span of the rest of my life, especially with the new clothes Kana gave me for travelling. New clothes, Garth’s words, Kana’s pack of goods, and the meager meals Garth provides. These are my world, right now.
Near the edge of the thicket, we stop to rest.
“Keep watch,” Garth instructs me. “We’re staying here until night falls.”
“Until night?” I say. This raises my anxiety to a new level. We have only travelled during the day for most of the journey. We left my home in the night, but after that, Garth has always made camp for the evening. He told me that night travellers are far more suspicious than those making their way in daylight.
“It’s not long,” Garth says. “We aren’t losing much time.”
I stare at him. He sounds like he’s trying to assuage my fears, but he’s missed the point. I’m not worried at all about the time we’ll lose. I know even better than he can that night is approaching, for with my eye high above me, I can see the haze of day fading in the distance as the light in the air begins to dim. I can see night’s approach, for without the haze, I can see even further into the distance, where darkness has begun to to spread across the land.
I don’t want us to look suspicious. I don’t want us to be caught. The run-in with the King’s soldiers made me even more conscious of this. With Garth’s adept lies, we were able to escape from them once, but I doubt anything he says will be able to deflect them a second time, if they catch us sneaking about in the night.
My birthday is tomorrow. If we are caught tonight by someone who wishes me harm, they need only wait one day in order to do with me as they wish. I do not like this thought, not at all.
Still, I do as Garth tells me to do. I watch the surrounding area for any who might be approaching. I sit and eat with him when he draws some dried food from the horse’s saddlebags. There is nothing else I can do. I can’t run from him, because I have nowhere to go, and if I’m caught I will not have Garth with me to make excuses for my presence.
The light dims. Day becomes evening, and evening becomes full night. There are farmhouses between us and the city. Garth tells me to let him know when the last lights go out in the one closest to us. Only then do we leave the thicket.
I whisper to him as we ride the horse down a small road, which is really little more than a path that delineates two fields. I cannot wait any longer to ask the question which has occured to me. “That’s a human city, isn’t it? It’s not the dragon kindred city you promised.”
Garth glances back at me, though his expression is unreadable. “It is a human city, yes.”
“Why are you taking me there?” I demand. “That’s not where you told Kana and Telal you would take me.”
“I’m not taking you to that city,” Garth says.
I look at him in confusion. Knowing him to be an excellent liar, I am confused by his his words. I am young, but I am no fool. I can clearly see where he is leading us.
When I don’t answer him, he continues. “We have to pass through this city to reach the dragon city. So I guess, yes, in that sense the city is our goal right now, but it’s not the end of our journey.”
“I don’t understand,” I say. “Why do we have to pass through the city? Why can’t we just go around?
“Well, for one thing, going around the city would add a week or more to our journey, if our goal was on the other side of it,” Garth explains. “That would just be inconvenient. For another, it would look odd to the guards that patrol the city’s surroundings. My forgery stating I intend to deliver you to King Veranos would do no good if it doesn’t look like we’re headed toward the King, right?”
“Okay,” I say. “I guess that kinda makes sense.” I think further on his words. The horse’s footsteps on the hard earth are the loudest sound in the night air. “Wait, what did you mean when you said, ‘if our goal was on the other side of it?’”
“Ah,” Garth says. “Well, you see, our goal isn’t Aqa, but we do have to pass through it. However, our goal also doesn’t lie on the other side of Aqa. The settlement of dragon kindred is inside the city.”
“What?” I ask, for his explanation has only left me more confused.
“I suppose it would be more accurate to say that the dragon kindred live underneath Aqa,” Garth says.
“I don’t understand,” I say, for I feel this is not clear to him.
“There is a group of dragon kindred that have carved out their home, in secret, beneath Aqa itself,” Garth explains. “They hide from the full humans, and carry on their lives furtively, but in relative safety.”
“People don’t know they’re there?” I ask. “Wouldn’t it be safer to live somewhere else?”
“You would think so,” Garth says. “But they seem to think it’s better to live right under the noses of the full humans. No matter where they built a home, it would eventually be discovered. There are always people looking to root out dragon kindred, whether it be the Hunters from Tyneros or the King’s own soldiers. The folk that live under Aqa think it’s safest to live where nobody would think to look.”
I realize that Garth isn’t leading us directly toward the city. Instead, though we are growing closer to its border, we are doing so at an angle. In fact, he’s leading us more toward a nearby river than toward the city itself.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“We can’t just walk in through the city gates,” Garth says. “If the guards there ask me what I’m doing with you, and I say I’m taking you to the King, they’ll just take you to him themselves. Then we’d be in a really bad situation.”
This makes sense to me, but it doesn’t directly answer my question. I try again. “So, where are we going?”
“You’ll see,” he says, somewhat grimly.
As it turns out, our destination is a large tube made of some kind of white-grey stone. From above, it looks simply like a hilly feature next to the riverbank. From ground level, however, I can see that it has been made by human hands. It is larger around than I am tall, but barely. Something drips from its end and flows down the short incline to join with the river. It smells foul.
Garth dismounts next to the pipe. He bids me to do so as well. He secures his horse to a small sapling that grows nearby. I suspect that it would not hold the animal, if it really wished to escape, but from what I’ve seen of it so far, the horse is well-trained. It doesn’t seem like it would try to flee.
“We’re going in that pipe, aren’t we?” I ask.
“We are,” Garth says. “It’s part of the city’s sewer system.”
“It doesn’t smell good,” I say, with a wrinkled nose for added effect.
“No, and the smell won’t get any better once we’re inside,” Garth says. “It’s the only way in that I’m sure won’t get us caught.”
Garth walks toward the entrance, leaving most of his supplies with his horse.
“Aren’t you worried about your horse?” I ask. “What if he runs away, or someone steals him?”
“She’ll be fine,” Garth says, emphasizing the horse’s gender. “I won’t be gone long. I’ll be back before daylight, for sure. We’ll meet dragon kindred patrolling in the sewers, I’m sure. I’ll leave you with them and be on my way.”
“That’s it?” I asked. “You’ll just leave me in the care of whichever dragon kindred we meet?”
“Yes,” Garth says. “You’ll be with your own kind. They won’t want to show me the full way to their hidden city, anyway. It’s bad enough that I know it exists.”
I swallow my words, too afraid to voice them. I’m not even sure what they would have been. Kana and Telal have sent me out into the world in the hands of a stranger, when they had been all I’d known for my entire life. Now this stranger, who has become less strange in the week we’ve spent together, plans to abandon me to even more strangers. Worse, they’re dragon kindred.
The majority of my fear comes not from them being strangers, oddly, but from the idea of meeting other kindred. I don’t know what they’ll be like. I don’t know if they’ll be normal, like me, or terrifying, like they are in some of the stories in Kana’s books. What if they are cruel servants to the Dragons that sired them? What if they grow hungry, and they eat me?
Garth covers his face with a cloth and enters the pipe, hunching over awkwardly so that he fits. My heart flutters with fear and doubt, but in the end, I have no choice but to follow him.