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Chapter 5

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Yenni's stomach dropped. She could withstand no more than a few seconds of the ground falling away beneath her before she had to shut her eyes, turning her head against the leathery warmth of the dragon's chest. His arms wrapped firmly around her waist as his wings beat the air. She did not struggle, but held tighter.

They flew for what seemed like eternity to Yenni, until the dragon finally arced into a mossy hollow carved into a cliff face and touched down with a few quick beats of his wings. He let her go and changed into a man once more, so fast it was as if there had never been a huge dark beast before her, but a man the whole time.

"Lovely, listen," he said and stepped toward her, arms outstretched. She had no weapon, and she'd burned through all her offensive runes, using them up as magic was prohibited during the test, but she was not defenseless. She shuffled back toward the mouth of the cave, letting him get closer.

Father Gu, sacred warrior, lend me your aid.

As the dragon reached for her she yelled, grabbed his arm, and spun up perpendicular to him. She bent over and, using his own forward momentum, rolled him over her hip, clean out of the cave toward the loud river below.

Yenni peeked over the lip of the cave, her heart beating in her chest like a nectar bird. The beast screamed and rose up before her. She scrambled back, cursing herself.

Mothers and Fathers, I forgot he could fly!

He swooped into the cave and once again became a man who stared at her, bewildered.

"I warned you, Dragon," she said, ready to grab and break his arm should he accost her again. "Stay away!"

He blinked at her. "One, how in the name of Byen did you do that? I'm twice your size. Two, did you just try to kill me?"

"Yes, and next time I will succeed."

She watched his face twist with outrage and then soften into something pained. He sniffed. "Are . . . are you afraid of me?"

"Of course not!"

"You can't lie to a dragon, lovely, I can smell it," he said softly. "I apologize. I can get carried away when I'm in dragon." He grimaced. "In hindsight, whisking you away unannounced wasn't the best course of action."

"Let me pass," Yenni snarled. "The battle aptitude test is about to begin."

"Byen above, that's today! I'd forgotten admissions were still happening. First-year classes start later than ours," he mused. "Come, I'll take you back."

"Absolutely not," said Yenni. "I will get back on my own."

"En? How?"

She mustered up all her courage and marched past him to survey the cave entrance. The mouth opened to a sheer drop halted only by the rushing river. Yenni's breathing turned to short, panicked gasps. Curse this ridiculous dragon! If she didn't get back soon, she'd miss the test and her chance to enter the academy. The next registration period was in six moonturns, and she didn't have time to waste. Her father's condition was getting worse, and the Sha were watching, judging. She must gain entrance now.

Yenni glanced left and right. The cliff face had some good footholds, but even if she made the treacherous climb down, what then? It would take ages to walk back to the academy.

"Let me fly you back, sweet lovely," said the dragon. "It will take less than a minute."

She whirled and faced him. "My name is not 'sweet lovely.' It is Yenni Aja-Nifemi ka Yirba!"

He raised his hands. "All right, lo—I mean, Yenni-Ayi . . . hmm. That doesn't change the fact that we need to get you back."

No, it didn't. She could let the dragon fly her or she could miss the test.

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