Sun Dragon's Song Sample

by Joyce Chng

The sun-dragon curved down like a bright smile as it descended from the skies. Its scales shimmered liquid gold. Touched by the sun, the trinkets that decorated its spines glinted and gleamed. It let loose a cry that shook the trees and alerted the sentries at the gate. Ho Yi could see the rider on the sun-dragon's neck, waving his salute. The supplies were coming in.

"Finish your sweeping, boy," Task-Mistress Song Ling barked behind him. "Or else you earn a Mark on your roster."

Ho Yi cringed and picked up the bristly brush. He had enough Marks on his roster to warrant a Detention.

Yet the sun-dragon's call had resonated through him like a finger plucking guzheng strings. It was that powerful, that deep. He could feel it in his bones.

Next summer, he promised to himself, he would start his petition to become a sun-dragon rider. He had to. His father was one. His mother was one. He had to be one. Had to be, had to be.

With a sigh he went back to his sweeping. He glanced back at the sun-dragon who had now landed on the Perch. Under the sun, it burned.

CHAPTER ONE

1. Grounded

Ho Yi woke up to the smell of fresh noodles and seafood broth. The House was stirring. Somewhere he heard water being poured into the large wooden thumbs.

He swung his feet out of the bed, noting the bruises mottling his legs. He was so unbalanced that he fell practically every day. Perhaps his weakness got him out of Sun Dragon Rider selection.

Today his legs were obeying him and he was glad. He cleaned his teeth, washed his face and donned his uniform, the grey nondescript tunic and pants of a Novice. The rest of his bunk were either still sleeping or waking up with loud yawns. He grabbed his crutch and headed for the main Hall where breakfast was being served. He heard the harrro-harrro calls of the sun-dragons who had come in last night, riders from the North who brought in the usual supplies of medicine and goods, and news. Sun-dragons ate crystals. Some of the boys might be feeding them by now.

Suddenly, someone kicked him and Ho Yi went flying. He saw flashes of a smirk, Yu Tian's pudgy face, and clenched fists, before hitting the hard ground.

Yu Tian hated him for some strange reason. Maybe he was the son of sun-dragon riders. Maybe he just irritated the older boy.

"You were in my way," Yu Tian's voice was hoarse and he was proud of it, because he was a man now.

Ho Yi picked himself up, rubbing his chin. There would be a nice bruise on it soon, and more purpling on his legs. He was that sensitive.

"I didn't see you," Ho Yi muttered and lifted his crutch at Yu Tian. "Do that again and I will tell the Task-Mistresses right up to Headmistress Fang Ting."

Yu Tian burst out laughing. The sound mocked Ho Yi. He hated the sound ever since he grew up as a fosterling in this House. His parents were away being sun-dragon riders and leading the Flights.

"Try that and you will lose more than a tooth," Yu Tian's words were a warning. He swaggered off, collecting his gang of boys. They stared at him, their eyes judging and mean, before disappearing into the Hall.

Ho Yi shuddered, breathing deeply. It would be a long day.

2. Crystals

Ho Yi loved being assigned to feed the sun-dragons. There were four of these beautiful creatures stationed at the House; they were to serve as fighters in case of any Bai Shi invasion. The Bai Shi had been bold of late. His parents often told him stories of how terrible the Bai Shi were.

At the moment it was peace-time and the sun-dragons were fed, watered and pampered by the House staff.

The House also had a crystal farm set up to provide food. A sun-dragon could eat up to two large bushels of amethystine and would snack at the small citrine nodules at different times of the day. The crystals were grown by regularly misting them with water and maintaining a constant warm temperature.

Ho Yi loved feeding the sun-dragons. He just did not like going into the farm, because it could be dim and suffocating. The times he was sent there were not pleasant memories. Yu Tian had chosen these times to bully him.

Task-Mistress Song Ling seemed to know his dislike of the crystal farm and purposely assigned him duties in there. He had shown her the bruises on his legs to prove that Yu Tian had kicked him. She just did not believe him.

He stood before the mouth of the cave, leaning against his crutch. He had to do it - mist the crystals and harvest the mature ones for the sun-dragons.

Ducking into the cave took considerable amounts of courage and sheer fright. It was humid, the heat pressing on his face like a wet cloth. He started to perspire. Before him the crystals glowed and gleamed even under the dim light. He lifted the nozzle of the spray and started misting. He felt the water cool on his skin.

His ears were alert for any sound, any rustle on the gritty sand. Yu Tian had a certain way of moving. It was ominously quiet.

He continued misting while humming a folk tune taught by his mother. It was a childhood rhyme of his people, the coastal clans.

Wind, wave, wind, wave,
Please be brave, be brave.
Sailors, be strong, be strong,
Right the wrong, right the wrong.

Was that a soft rattle he heard? Ho Yi paused, trembling. He could not take another kicking from Yu Tian. He also could not pretend this did not happen.

It was just a soot-bat winging its way out of the cave. Ho Yi heaved a sigh of relief, did the rest of the misting, and harvested amethystine clusters quickly. His cloth bag soon grew heavy. At least the sun-dragons could be fed today.

Yu Tian was waiting for him outside the cave.

"Hello, idiot," the bigger boy mouthed and the foot shot out, tripping Ho Yi. His cloth bag dropped, scattering the amethystine crystals. In the sun they glistened, broken.

Ho Yi glared at Yu Tian. He had enough. He stood up on swaying legs, holding his crutch like a sword. His father was a good swordsman.

"Ha," Yu Tian mocked him. "What can you do?"

It was the tone that infuriated Ho Yi. Something hot, angry and screaming tore out from his throat. There was a loud smack on skin and bone, and a pained cry. When he opened his eyes - when did he close them? - Yu Tian was on the ground, a vicious red mark whipped across his left cheek. It had started to bleed.

"You HURT me!" Yu Tian half-sobbed, half-shouted.

"You hurt me first," Ho Yi said.

The older boy sobbed harder and scrambled for the Hall.

Ho Yi did not care if he received another Mark on his roster. He gathered the shattered crystal clusters and filled the bag once more. He dragged it back to the feeding station, humming the folk song again.

3. Marks

As Ho Yi had expected, the Mark appeared on his roster. He was sent to Detention where he had to write an apology and recite the Litany of Kindness to a bored junior Task Mistress whose name he did not catch.

When he finally emerged from the Detention Hall, it was already two days later and the annual Rains had arrived. Floods were occurring in the lower hills. Sun-dragons were dispatched to send emergency medicine to a village trapped by rising water levels.

Yu Tian kept his distance, but he glared at Ho Yi from his table at the Hall, backed by his gang of boys. Ho Yi just ate his meals and went on his Tasks. Some of the boys were not even mean. He had spoken to them individually, when they were not in their pack. With Yu Tian as leader, they had to act mean and cruel. In the Hall, they called him "cane beater" and "walking wounded".

Oh Heaven! His legs hurt. More mottled bruises spread across his calves right down to the shins. He wished his mother was around. He remembered her arms around him when he had the fevers, her cool hands on his forehead, and the savory-bitter herbal soups she made to clear his often congested nostrils.

He even missed his father.

Ho Yi remembered the times when he saw his parents in riding leathers, their battle uniforms. They looked so handsome together, his father tall and regal, his mother with the sparkle in her eyes. Their dragons were Cloud and Corona.

He could imagine the letters being sent to them now, telling them how ineffectual and disobedient he was.

Ho Yi clenched his fist. It was not a nice thought.

Sailors, be strong, be strong,

Right the wrong, right the wrong.

He hummed the tune to himself, partly to comfort his aching heart, partly to sound brave. It was lonely at the House. He was being sent to the crystal farm again. There were bits and pieces of amethystine and quartzine embedded in the gritty sand. Hundreds of feet had moved across this path. Brown nodules of citrine reminded him of brown sugar granules. He giggled. It was a cute analogy.

There were legends of the Crystal Singers who had the talent to drain the energy from the crystals and used them to communicate with the sun-dragons who could also sing when the time was right. Some of them claimed that they could "taste" the crystals.

Ho Yi had heard these legends when he was a little boy. They were bed-time stories, stories from a long time ago, when the land was still being tamed and the sun-dragons shone in the sky like wild fire.

Sailors, be strong, be strong,

Right the wrong, right the wrong.

Unknown to him, something strange was happening. As he hummed, his crutch crunching into the sand, the amethystine and quartzine bits began to glow softly.

4. The Visit

The news that his parents were visiting jolted Ho Yi into a frenzy of cleaning. He made sure he had done his duties for that day (Moon day!) He also made sure that his hair was neat, his clothes washed. Mama was particular when it came to hygiene.

When he finally sighted the shimmering curves of Cloud and Corona, his heart leapt for joy. He had not seen his parents for months. He wondered if they could still recognize him. He was sure he had grown taller. Not sure about the mottled bruises along his legs - they were always there.

The moment they came striding up to him, arms wide to embrace him, he knew they had missed him too. Then he was wrapped up in a group hug, his back being thumped, his hair being ruffled. His father's voice choked with emotion. Mama fussed over him and noted unhappily about the bruises - more seemed to have appeared just overnight.

Cloud and Corona surrounded them, forming a gentle semi-circle as to cup them gently in tails and scales. The sun-dragons shone, their trinkets tinkling in the breeze. Well-wishers often liked to hang pendants or necklaces around the dragons' necks. Cloud leaned over, sniffing at Ho Yi curiously. The sun-dragon finally leaned back and snorted. The exhaling of air always thrilled Ho Yi. It was often warm and filled with the fragrance of frankincense-spice.

They saw the sun-dragons off to their perches. Cloud started wolfing down the amethystine crystals in its feeding bowl.

"Have you been eating?" Mama asked him. "Have they been working you too hard?"

"I am fine, Mama," Ho Yi said.

"I heard about you beating up Yu Tian," Pa was laughing, a belly-laugh deep and contagious. "High time that boy got his medicine..."

Mama glared at him. "Your son was in Detention for that!"

Pa grinned, a flash of white teeth against deeply-tanned flesh. "I will get you out of this House as soon as possible. Once your petition gets the approval from Command, you will be a sun-dragonrider like me!"

"Dear!" Mama snorted. "Please. You know that he..." She trailed off, shaking her head.

"I will never become a sun-dragon rider," Ho Yi said matter-of-factly. "I am not strong enough."

"My son!" Mama hugged him tightly. She smelled of love, worn leather and sweat. She had cut her hair short for her riding helmet. "Believe in yourself!"

"I am not strong enough," Ho Yi repeated and shrugged. He noticed how sad his parents looked and tried to enliven the atmosphere up by laughing. "See, I am still alright." The sun-dragons called from their perches, sensing something in the air.

Mama and Pa glanced at each other. Something passed between both of them. Ho Yi knew it and did not say anything.