From the author: Jakkit has an impossible dream of growing up to become a dragon-riding Flamerider Knight, though he’s just a kitchen boy who works in the castle gardens. And Flour, Jakkit’s runty, mutant dragon, is hardly Flamerider material either. But a draco who can’t roar, fly, or breathe fire has to be good for something… and Jakkit needs to figure out what, before the castle gets impatient with Flour’s growing size and appetite and kicks the both of them out.
"Welcome to your First Bonding," growled Mistress Takka. She jerked a calloused thumb behind her. "They're in the pen behind me. Don't bother straining to look. I'll call you up so you can pick your mount and you'll see them soon enough. Yedden!"
Jakkit watched from his hiding place in the riglebush. A page with red hair approached Mistress Takka and bowed. Then he approached the pen behind her, peered into it, and bent over and pulled out a draco pup.
"Mewp," said the pup.
The page grinned. "Take it down there," said Mistress Takka, gesturing to the other end of the stables. "Teshel will Bond it to you and Yel will brand it."
The page bowed again and hurried off, the pup squirming in his arms. "Mind the breath!" the Stable Mistress called. "They're young, but they can still scorch! Now. Who's next. Didion!"
Jakkit watched all the other pages select draco pups from the pen. He would give anything to be a Flamerider page. Soaring through the skies, his draco scorching the clouds with fire, everyone looking up and pointing at him in awe as he rode by—what could be better?
Certainly not weeding the castle garden for a living, thought Jakkit.
The last page took the last pup from the pen. Mistress Takka watched him go with folded arms and a frown. Then she turned to the riglebush that Jakkit was hiding in.
"Yes, you. Kitchen boy. Don't think I can't see you in there. Get out here."
Jakkit gulped. He stepped out of the riglebush and picked a twig from his hair.
"You're the one always skulking around my stables and looking at the draco, aren't you?"
Jakkit swallowed again and nodded. If Mistress Takka told the kitchen staff he'd been there, they'd make him clean all the chamber pots in the castle for a month.
"You like draco?"
Jakkit nodded again.
Mistress Takka grunted. "Tell you what. I got a draco pup left inside. It's worthless—it's a runt, it's an albino, it can't scorch, and it'll probably die in a couple days anyway. I was going to put it out of its misery, but you can have it, if you want."
Jakkit was so shocked that he blurted, "You mean I... I can... I can have a draco?"
"A worthless one," said the Stable Mistress. "I don't even think it can fly."
"But I can have it?"
Mistress Takka's stony expression almost softened. "Sure. As long as you take care of it."
"I will, I swear I will!"
The Stable Mistress went inside, then came out with a small white draco pup in her arms. Instead of squirming and mewping, it sat very still and looked at everything with bright pink eyes.
Jakkit took the pup from Mistress Takka, reverently.
It looked at him.
"Mlurp," it said, and a thin trickle of water bubbled out of its nose and onto Jakkit's sleeve.
"Can you imagine?" said Mistress Takka. "A draco that has water breath."
Jakkit grinned and held the pup close. "I love it anyway," he whispered. "Thank you, Mistress Takka."
Jakkit still watched the pages and squires train with their draco, but his pangs of jealousy eased. He had his own draco now, even if it wasn't quite like the others.
In fact, it wasn't anything like the others. Jakkit trained it that way. It simply wasn't practical to teach his draco to hunt and attack and breathe fire. Instead, Jakkit taught it to eat old vegetables and weeds from the garden, to dig stones from the soil, and to water the plants with its wet breath.
The kitchen staff were angry at first, but as long as Jakkit kept it in line and made it help in the garden, they didn't give him too much trouble. The Flameriders were the ones who really made Jakkit's life miserable. They told jokes about him to his face and laughed. And even though Jakkit insisted that his draco's name was Flour, the pages mockingly called it "Jakkit's Ferocious Mount" and teased him every chance they got:
"Hey Jakkit! Have you and your giant rabbit defeated any rocks lately?"
"It takes a real draco to be brave enough to attack a turnip."
"I'm glad we can count on Jakkit's Ferocious Mount to keep our lettuce safe from bandits."
And all the while, Jakkit would fume while Flour quietly watched everything with his bright pink eyes. When the pages left, Jakkit would turn to Flour and whisper, "So what if you're different. You're still a good draco."
"Mlurp," Flour would say, and water would splash on Jakkit's pants.
But as Flour got bigger, he began to cause problems. His size made it difficult for him to move carefully between the rows of vegetables, and his folded wings kept knocking the low branches in the orchard. Flour's appetite also grew, and he developed a taste for fresh vegetables and fruits instead of weeds and brambles. The kitchen staff had a particular problem with this last one.
"Jakkit," said the Head Gardener one day. "We have to talk."
"Yes sir?" said Jakkit. "About what?"
"About your draco."
Jakkit looked up from his inspection of the tomato plants. Across the garden, Flour was carefully digging up potatoes.
"What's wrong with him?"
"I want you to get rid of him."
Jakkit gawked. "What? I mean, what, sir?"
The Head Gardener gestured at Flour. "He's becoming problematic. We've both seen him gnawing on the broccoli, and everyone knows he likes to eat the flowers off the squash."
"But he's growing, sir. He can't help it."
"Well, that's just too bad. He's starting to hurt the garden as much as help it, and he has to leave."
"I'm sorry, Jakkit," said the Head Gardener firmly. "The draco has to go."
Jakkit barely said a word the rest of the day. He was too busy trying to think of a way to keep Flour. He thought of running away with him, but Flour couldn't fly or move very fast. And while Jakkit might be able to creep past the castle guards, a slow white half-grown draco certainly couldn't.
Before Jakkit went inside for bed that night, he went over to the corner of the garden where Flour slept. He sat against his draco and sighed. "What are we going to do with you?"
Flour woke up. He turned his long neck, laid his head on Jakkit's shoulder, and eyed Jakkit with his bright pink gaze. "Mlurp?" he said, as water spilled down Jakkit's chest.
Jakkit sniffed and rubbed Flour's scaly jaw. "I'm just worried, Flour. They want me to get rid of you. But Mistress Takka told me to take care of you, and..." Jakkit sniffed again. "And I really don't know if you can take care of yourself outside the castle. I mean, there aren't a lot of cucumbers or peppers to eat in the woods."
Flour stuck out his dry gray tongue and licked Jakkit's cheek.
Jakkit pulled Flour's face against his. "Don't worry. We'll think of something."
The next day, the Head Gardener kept a careful eye on Flour. Jakkit knew that he was just waiting for the perfect excuse to get rid of his draco.
"Be good," Jakkit kept whispering to Flour. "See? They're watching you. Please, please be good, Flour!"
Flour snuffled and dribbled water onto the cabbages.
Jakkit went to the patch of rosemary and began to cut sprigs. He glanced over his shoulder to make sure Flour didn't upset anything.
As he watched, Flour sat down right in the middle of the carrots and sniffed the air.
"Flour!" Jakkit dropped his knife and ran over. "Flour, down!"
But nobody had seen what Flour had done. They were all turning to the north. Jakkit got his draco under control and turned his head too.
A group of Flamerider squires were making low passes over the Treasure House on the east lawn. Their mounts spat fire dangerously close to each other, and several gardeners on the east lawn made a run for it.
"Those careless Flamerides, I swear—" the Head Gardener started.
One of the draco dipped his neck unexpectedly and shot a long spurt of fire onto the old wooden roof of the Treasure House, and it instantly burst into flame.
"The Treasure's on fire!" a kitchen boy shrieked, and the whole garden emptied in a rush around Jakkit as they all scrambled to see.
Jakkit was left standing alone with Flour, who nervously sniffed the air again.
Jakkit suddenly smiled. "Flour," he said. "How'd you like to watch the fire, too?"
Flour looked blankly at Jakkit.
Jakkit couldn't stop himself from grinning. "Come, Flour!" he said, as he led the way out of the garden.
Flour hesitantly followed. Jakkit coaxed him all the way to the burning Treasure House on the east lawn. The roof was completely covered in flames, and thick billows of black smoke drifted up into the sky. The crowd got bigger as more people came running. Someone tried to start a bucket brigade, but it was difficult to throw water all the way up to the roof. A few Flamerider Knights flew overhead, pouring buckets of water on the blaze as they passed, but this didn't help much either.
Jakkit looked at Flour and pointed at the roof. "Flour, water hard!"
Flour looked at the fire uncertainly with his bright pink eyes.
"Water hard, Flour!"
"Mlurp," said Flour, splashing the grass at his feet. He shoved through the crowd until he was right next to the Treasure House, then used the stone wall to pull himself up onto his hind legs.
Then Flour looked at the roof and roared.
A thick column of water gushed from Flour's throat and sprayed onto the roof of the Treasure House. Enormous clouds of steam and smoke rose into the air as the water hissed against the fire. Flour paused and looked down at Jakkit.
"Good, Flour! Water hard!"
Flour turned back to the roof and roared again. More smoke and steam rose into the sky as the flames vanished under the rush of water. Within minutes, the roof of the Treasure House was charred and dripping, and the air began to clear.
Flour slowly climbed down to his feet and looked at Jakkit. Jakkit ran forward and kissed Flour's forehead, and the crowd behind him suddenly began to applaud.
Jakkit blushed. He didn't know whether to look at the crowd or at his feet. Someone shouted, "A Flamerider's breath defeated by a pet garden draco!" and several people laughed.
"Now see here," someone said, and Jakkit looked up. A Flamerider Knight in full leather dracoback armor was addressing the crowd. "This incident in no way represents the true nature of a Flamerider. We are shocked and appalled that some squire who can't handle this responsibility has lost control of his draco and let this horrible thing come to pass."
Flour shuffled forward and began to sniff the back of the Flamerider's head.
"And... uh..." the Knight nervously glanced over his shoulder at Flour. "And on behalf of the Order of the Flameriders, we just want to, uh... we just want to say..."
Flour closed his eyes and sneezed. A thick spray of water hit the astonished Knight, all over his armor and into his eyes.
The crowd laughed. Jakkit blushed again and grabbed Flour's head. "Okay, that's great, we'd better be getting back to the garden now—come, Flour!"
Jakkit walked Flour back to the garden and tried not to laugh. For the first time in a long while, he was glad that he wasn't a Flamerider. Besides, he thought, I bet those squires are going to get in trouble, and some of them are going to get kicked out of the castle.
Jakkit grinned and patted Flour's neck.
But I bet we're both going to stay.
"Aren't we, Flour?" Jakkit whispered, rubbing his chin.
"Mlurp," said Flour, and Jakkit didn't even mind when his hand got wet.
This story originally appeared in Beyond Centauri.
From a mechanical forest that constructs itself to the streets of Kyoto 8,000 years hence, the sometimes whimsical, sometimes cutting short fiction of KJ Kabza has been dubbed “Delightful” (Locus Online) and “Very clever, indeed” (SFRevu). Collecting all of his work published before May 2011 (plus 5 new stories, notes on the stories, and an interview by Julia Rios), IN PIECES offers glimpses into other worlds—some not unlike your own.
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