Emily arrived at Aerradra four days after dragons joined the Union. Eighteen years old, innocent and naïve.
She’d been born and raised in Phixel, a large city. Not quite the capital of Oppida, but there was a variety of people and cultures.
Emily worked in a small café, meeting new and interesting people every day. Everyone accepted everyone. She’d met vampires, mages, golems, centaurs, dwarfs, even a unicorn once, and they all had their own stories. They all stuck with Emily.
But there had been one that stuck with her more than any other.
A woman with light green hair, split pupils and sharp claws, at first Emily thought she was a werewolf. But upon starting a conversation, the woman told her she was a dragon. A shapeshifter who could walk among humans or fly among the clouds. A creature who could walk through fire and breath in smoke.
The woman was just passing through, and clearly longed to get home. She explained that they lived among the mountains, in a city of stone and towers. Where the sky was never empty. Giant flying reptilians of many colours would full it like shooting stars.
The images Emily formed in her head were spectacular.
«You should come visit sometime.»
Four days ago, dragons stopped being tourists. They signed the Union, the twenty-fifth species to join. They now existed under the reign of the monarchy, a single kingdom with its laws and its systems.
And Emily had taken this as a sign this was where she was meant to be. And it was everything she had ever dreamed off. Like the dragon had told her, the sky was a blue canvas with different shapes and colours flying through it. The houses were all different heights and layered creating a landscape that almost faded into the mountains.
At the very end of the city, a castle stood tool. In the corners were towers. Emily made a very bold move and pre-purchased an old clocktower she planned to make her new home and business.
Today she was going to see it for the first time.
That would be of course, after she stopped being lost. The streets were very much illogical. Dead ends, big circles, so many dead ends.
She took a deep breath looking down at the map, finally folding it up and putting it away. «Hey! Excuse me!» she waved at a teenager who was walking.
The boy tilted his head, «yeah?»
«Sorry, could you give me directions to the Clocktower?»
«That old pile of stone?» the teenager laughed, «yeah, you just gotta…» he looked thoughtful, then a bit of bright light and a four-legged scaled creature jumped up into the air, flapping it’s wrings, «you just gotta go straight that way,» he pointed.
Emily smiled, «you wouldn’t know how to get there by foot?»
«Why would you—» his eyes widened, «oh, sorry, um… gimme a sec,» he flew up higher. After a little while of memorizing the streets he flew down. «Okay, um you gotta go back a little, take the second right, first right, second left, first left, first right, third left, then you keep going until it should come into view… you’re kind of going to have to walk past it thought and then take a right and you’re there.»
Emily nodded, «you wouldn’t happen to have a pen would you?»
The kid laughed, «sorry. Gimme a moment,» he went into one of the houses coming back with a pen, writing down the directions on the back of Emily’s map.
Emily sighed in relief, «thank you so much. I’ve been lost for hours.»
«Yeah, well, hate to break it to you, but you should probably get used to that.»
Emily smiled and nodded, «well, I owe you one. I’m reforming the clocktower into an inn and café, once it’s open come round and I’ll invite you and some friends to some cocoa or coffee.»
The boy smiled, «thanks mam. Welcome to the city.»
Charlotte sat atop one of the towers, her head held tall letting the wind brush up against her blue and silver scales. She opened her wrings to feel more of it. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath when bang.
Something hit her chest hard and she fell back onto the tower floor. She opened her eyes to see a confused looking little dragon on top of her.
«Sorry Charly!» an older dragon shouted perching atop the wall of the tower. «What have I told you about looking where you’re going?» he scolded the kid.
The little dragon jumped off of Charlotte, «sorry, it was so windy.»
Charlotte laughed standing up, «poor thing. Is this really the best weather for flying lessons?»
The older dragon shrugged, «how else will he learn to handle the wind?» he gestured for the kid to jump up onto the wall, «you okay Charly?»
«No harm here.»
The two went on their way and Charlotte took this as a sign she should be heading home. Jumping off the tower her wrings open wide she glided down towards her home, landing right at the door and pushing it open.
A familiar light enveloped her as she shrunk down to her human form.
«Where have you been young woman?» the scolding voice of her father.
Charlotte ignored it, walking straight past her father to kiss her mother.
«Hello Sweetie, how was your fly this morning?»
«Lovely, and guess what?»
«It’s another day we are a part of this kingdom!»
Her mother immediately glared, while her father couldn’t keep his mouth shut, «see how long it’ll last.»
«You’re just upset I was right.»
Her father stood tall and glared. «Your generation have no idea what’s best for our species. You’re children.»
«I’m one hundred and fifty-eight years old.»
«I don’t care if you’re five hundred years old, it’s how you behave.»
«That’s enough,» her mother stopped the argument before it became heated, «are you having lunch with us?»
«What else would she be doing?»
«I’m eating out with my friends,» she lied just to spite her father.
«Oh, how nice Sweetie, well, we’ll see you later?»
«Of course, Mom,» she kissed her mother, «see you later.»
Emily had been living in Aerradra for a whole month. Renovations were coming along but the rooms weren’t quite ready yet. Nor was the kitchen. Because of this only the café was open, offering a variety of tea, coffee, cocoas and baked goods she bought from a baker across town.
Today Emily had woken up to find her newly painted wall vandalised.
«Fuck off. No walkers welcome.»
This wasn’t the first time Emily had a bad experience for being an outsider. It would seem the political environment was still settling. Between taking orders and making coffees she had a bucket of water and soap and was trying her best to clean up the wall.
«So, one vanilla cappuccino and one tila?»
The two nodded and Emily wondered inside to prepare the drinks. When she came out with the tray she was surprised to see a woman using her sponge to clean up the wall. She gave the customers their drinks before popping over.
Tray beneath her arm, «um… excuse me?»
Charlotte turned around, «hey,» she greeted, before continuing her work on the wall.
«Um…» Emily looked back towards the tables, «you don’t have to do that…»
«I know,» Charlotte used her super strength to press the sponge hard, removing the ink with a lot more ease than Emily, «but if none of us take responsibility. How can we expect you to know we’re not all assholes?»
Emily smiled, «that’s very nice if you, but there are rude people everywhere. I don’t need you to prove to me their the exception and not the norm.»
«I’m happy to hear that,» Charlotte continued.
Realising she wasn’t putting the sponge down Emily went inside to drop of her tray and grab a new sponge. Joining in with the cleaning. «The name’s Emily.»
«Charlotte,» the woman smiled, «I am sorry.»
«It’s no biggy,» Emily smiled, «no town’s perfect.»
«Oh, you can say that again,» Charlotte smiled, «too many old people who think they know better than anybody.»
Emily laughed, «oh I know that kind of customer.» She looked back to make sure none of the customers could hear. «Back in my day, coffee’s cost half this price and actually tasted like coffee.»
Charlotte laughed at the mock tone, «yeah. Back when coffee was just water soaked over night in beans it would have been cheaper.»
«I hope I never end up like that,» she whispered.
«Same,» Charlotte dipped the sponge in water, «so um… what brings you around these parts? See you’ve set up shop but…»
Emily shrugged, «I’ve always wanted to set up my own business and wasn’t sure where to settle down. When dragons joined the Union it felt right, you know?»
Charlotte smiled, «yeah. I mean it was clearly the right move.»
«I mean right for me,» Emily laughed, «but yes. I agree that generally sticking together workds well.»
«Exactly! I wish everyone could see that, there not asking us to throw away our culture, just follow a series of simple laws in exchange for the removal of borders.»
«You’re into politics I see.»
«Yeah,» she smiled, «I partake as is the right of any adult dragon.»
«Can’t say I’d be able to handle it myself, the idea of constantly arguing over the most basic of things. I’m glad people do it, I know it makes the world better when done right and all that. But I’m happy with my place in this society,» she looked at the inn.
«You’re doing yourself a favour,» Charlotte admitted. «But I can’t stand down. I need to get involved and fight for what I believe in. Minor things like cutting down the sick trees in the park or major things like joining the Union. If I don’t fight for what I want, well… how can I complain about things staying the same?»
Emily nodded, «that’s one way of looking at it.»
«You humans aren’t as political as us dragons.»
«We don’t have time for it.»
«Except for the king.»
«Well, it’s his job.»
Charlotte nodded, «have you ever met him?»
Emily laughed, «not all humans know each other.»
Charlotte blushed, «of course not. Sorry. It’s just, most dragons know each other, I thought maybe…»
Emily smiled, «you all live in the same location and live very long lives. You have the option to.»
Charlotte nodded in understanding, «you know, you’re the first human I’ve met.»
Emily frowned, «what? How?»
«Oh, well, I’ve never actually left the city and you’re the first human to pop up here. I wanted to come meet you earlier but… I was a bit nervous.»
Emily smiled, «no human ever?»
«Well, I mean there are deliveries but I wasn’t about to stop someone doing their job to talk to them.»
Emily nodded, as they finished cleaning off the wall, «well, I’m happy to talk to you anytime you want. Answer all your human questions, but—» she smiled.
«In exchange you’re going to have to answer all my dragon questions. I have a lot to learn about your culture,» she looked over to the tables, «if I’m going to be serving your species I should at least know who I’m dealing with.»
«You got a deal.»
«So, you want to come in for a coffee? On the house, of course.»
Charlotte soon got into the habit of visiting Emily every afternoon for a coffee and chat about the different cultures. They talked about holidays, traditions. They talked about education. About hobbies. About literature.
Charlotte explained how dragons were very social. How they lived with their families until they had children of their own. How everyone knew each other. How children were raised both by the city and the family.
That explained all the unsupervised children running around at least.
Apparently, dragons usually studied on their own, seeking out guidance from their elders only when necessary. It was very different to human schooling which Charlotte simply couldn’t get her head around.
With a couple of key suggestions from Charlotte, mostly regarding the temperature of the hot beverages, Emily quickly got business booming. Soon Emily was as respected a member of dragon as society as the dragons themselves.
There were still people who thought she didn’t belong of course. One of them was Charlotte’s own father who complained to no end about Charlotte’s terrible choice in friends.
Charlotte’s mother scolded him every time.
Eventually things got complicated. Emily wasn’t sure what was going on, but Charlotte showed up at the inn in search of a bed more and more nights, not wanting to argue anymore with her father. There was something political going on that she refused to talk about.
This all blew up a year later, two years after Emily had arrived, when Charlotte announced she was leaving.
«To the palace?» Emily looked surprised.
Charlotte nodded, «someone has to represent dragon kind and nobody else will do it.»
Emily sipped at her tea trying to put words together, «Oppida is a big city. There’s a lot going on there and it’s nothing like here.»
«I know that, you always say I should travel.»
«Travel, sure. But not move away entirely…» Emily hesitated, «I’m not saying not to go. I just hope you know what you’re getting into. Work at the palace well… it’s a big deal.»
«But someone has to do it. If nobody steps up who knows what the king will do to us?»
«Do to us?»
Charlotte looked down at her hands, «I mean. We signed into the Union, that came with conditions, we need to follow them. I can’t force my people into everything, but we need a representative and I can do that. I can stand up and do my part here.»
Emily nodded, «well, I wish you luck. And I urge you to remember that I’m always here for you.»
Emily missed Charlotte dearly for many years after that. She didn’t feel lonely, she did after all speak to people for a living. But she was happiest when receiving and reading letters, or during the occasional visit.
Elizabeth stood in her quarters, walking slowly through the rooms, checking under and in all the furniture. She had three suitcases full of all her belongings. One of which she’d carried with her since childhood, another of clothes and the last was photos and gifts from her years working this job.
A soft knocking on the door had her move away from her memories, «come in.»
Charlotte, with her sparkling blonde hair and water like blue eyes stepped into the room. «Ready?»
Elizabeth nodded, grabbing the suitcases.
Charlotte didn’t move.
«I just… are you sure about this?» she looked past Elizabeth at the room, «I don’t want to… this is your life.»
Elizabeth shook her head, «it has been for a while but, life is everything I do. And right now, I’m ready to move on. For now.»
Charlotte nodded, her hand moved over her stomach, it was very early in her pregnancy, but she’d already decided to move back to her hometown. Elizabeth had been her best friend and bodyguard for the past year.
At first their relationship had been nothing but professional. But Charlotte had proven herself to the woman, proven at the very least to be honest and always trying to do what was right. When Charlotte had expressed her desire to leave, the fear of something happening to her had been so overwhelming to Elizabeth, she’d decided to leave too.
And here they were. Bags packed; tickets ready.
Aerradra had changed since Charlotte had left. No longer were there dead ends down every other street, only one out of every four nowadays. With a new system of stairs and more stairs, perfect for the none-whinged. Not so much for the disabled but one step at a time.
Elizabeth led her horse down the street to Charlotte’s old home where they began unpacking.
Charlotte’s father did not come out to say hello.
«Does he know you’re pregnant?» Elizabeth asked.
«I’ll tell him tonight,» she groaned, lifting three times the boxes as Elizabeth. «Where are you staying?»
«Whichever Inn has a room free; I’ll start searching for an apartment tomorrow.»
«Oh, I know a place.»
«Charlotte!» Emily tackled the woman, hugging her hard, «oh, you didn’t tell me you were visiting!»
«That’s because I’m not,» Charlotte laughed, «I’m moving back.»
«Oh?» Emily looked concerned.
«Of my own choice, I’ll explain later. I was wondering if you had a room free?»
«Of course, problem with your father?» she went behind the counter to find a key.
Charlotte frowned, «no, um, for Elizabeth here.»
Elizabeth uncrossed her arms to raise a hand in greeting, her expression indifferent.
«Oh, ‘course,» Emily handed over the key. «Top floor, the standard price is twenty, fifteen for you as Charlotte’s friend and includes breakfast in the morning.»
«Thank you. Could I pay extra for a late checkout?»
«Checkout is at five in the afternoon, need later?»
«No, that’s perfect,» she handed over the coins grabbed the keys and turned to Charlotte. «I’m going to sort my stuff out, do you need me for anything else today?»
«No, no. I need to catch up with Emily here, I’ll meet you tomorrow for house hunting?»
«If you want,» Elizabeth left.
Emily smiled at Charlotte, «I’m dying to hear what you’ve been up to.»
Charlotte smiled, «well, you’re going to get excited.» Her hand touched her stomach ever so lightly as she took her usual seat at the bar. Happy to be home.