King of the Fire Dancers
S.T. Sterlings © 2017
All Rights Reserved
There were two things that Coy Conlin was exceptionally skilled at. The first was dancing. The second, and more unconventional, was turning into a dragon. Both were in his blood and took years of trial and error to perfect, but the former wasn’t a danger to those around him. It wasn’t easy maneuvering a dragon body, especially not one as big as his. Dragons had claws, scales, and fangs. He even had the misfortune of retaining his proneness to seasonal allergies, which sure as hell took explosive sneezing to a whole new level. Still, thanks to his grandmother—a dragon shifter like him—he’d mastered shifting and everything that it entailed from a young age.
His prey was a slender boy with white skin and blue eyes. The boy raced past, auburn hair catching the wind and blowing about his head. He scurried through the dried grass, his pale, gangly legs kicking up dirt as he rushed to hide behind a large tree. Laughter disguised as a growl escaped Coy’s mouth. As if a mere tree would provide the boy sanctuary.
Coy hated flying. Dragon or not, he preferred to keep his feet—and claws—securely grounded. But, humans were often smarter than they looked, and he knew that if he continued to creep along the ground, the boy would feel the vibrations caused by his heavy footsteps. And so, he pushed off, sharp talons grazing earth as he hovered above the coarse ground. His wings, as wide as sails on a cutter, pierced the air and sent forward a powerful gust of windblown, dusty dirt. He flapped them again, creating a mini dirt storm between himself and the tree and, most importantly, his prey.
A shower of prickly leaves and thin, brittle branches fell to the ground. Seconds later, the boy emerged from behind the tree, arms up and over his head, shielding himself from the downpour. Amidst the cascading debris, Coy caught the look of determination on the boy’s face. Wedged tightly in the boy’s grip was a rock, jagged and angled, the tip pointing toward the sky. A rock? Really? A puny, misshapen hunk of slate? What good would that do against a ninety-foot-long dragon with scales as black as onyx and five times as hard?
The little idiot.
The boy let out a wail of a battle cry and charged forward, gripping the rock in his hand like a warrior wielding a sword. There were hundreds of ways Coy could have reacted, and most would have ended with the boy dead on his feet. Instead, he stood there, a beacon of massive power and pride, and allowed the boy to attack. He didn’t feel the impact of the rock smashing against his leg, though he did see the resulting blood. It wasn’t his. It would have taken much more than a rock to puncture his scales.
It was the boy’s.
The force behind the thrust of his hand had caused the rock to ricochet off a section of scales and created a shallow cut in the center of his reddened palm.
Coy had been specific with the rules—no blacking out, no crying, and no bloodletting. If any of those happened, the game ended immediately. And, although the human tried to hide it, he was definitely bleeding.
“No, wait. I’m okay. I swear it. I’m fine. Look. It barely—”
The protest fell on deaf ears—literally. Coy couldn’t hear—or see—anything during the transformation. It was as if he were alone in a black, soundproof room, nothing but darkness and depth and the feeling of endless falling. His heart rate quickened, slamming against his chest like a musician’s calloused hands pounding against a hand drum. He inhaled through his nose, focusing on the rhythm and physically and mentally controlling the pace of his heartbeat. He calmed his mind, grasping at emotions pulsing like lightning, smoothing them out until his vision began to return. First, blurs of colors: reds and browns and a single blob of white standing directly in front of him.
Then, all at once, everything returned.
“It’s barely a scratch,” the boy muttered, folding his pale arms over his chest.
“Too bad,” Coy replied, rubbing at his jaw. It felt good to use his vocal cords again. He was incapable of speech as a dragon, just limited to snarls and hisses…and fire breathing. That last one came in handy. “Rules are rules, Ari.”
Ari—Coy’s adopted brother—frowned. “You didn’t even give me a chance.”
“A chance to what?” Coy rolled his shoulders in an attempt to relax some of the tension in his muscles that came from shifting. “Find another rock? What was that supposed to do?”
He trudged away from his younger brother, crushing dead grass beneath his bare soles. He spotted his discarded sarong lying by a fragment of slate, the latter’s golden-brown surface highlighted with speckles of fiery red. The color was reminiscent of his own skin, warm brown with red undertones—the exact opposite of Ari’s. Even if Ari had somehow managed to slightly injure him with his dumb rock, the bruise would have been difficult to see. One of the many perks of having brown skin was that it didn’t display bruises well. Growing up, that played to his advantage with the number of fights he got into.
Ari pouted. “It was the only thing I could think of.”
“Yeah, well.” Nude, Coy bent down to retrieve his sarong. “That type of thinking is going to get you killed. Or worse, you’ll get your ass kicked.”
Ari rubbed his bloody hand against his sweat-soaked tunic. “How can getting beat up be worse than dying?”
Coy watched as the blood stained the faded fabric. Ari had already outgrown most of his clothes. What he had left was either tainted or torn. Coy would have to take up private performances at this rate just to make sure he could afford to buy Ari clothes.
“If you’re dead, you won’t have me around to rub it in.” He grinned at Ari and then motioned toward the open wound on his hand. “Better not let Dinina see that. You know how she gets.”
He wrapped the thin, cobalt-colored sarong around his waist, securing the two ends into a knot. They’d spent half the morning outside, which meant he’d spent just as long in his dragon form. He’d be exhausted later, but it was worth it. He always had fun hanging out with his little brother. Still, he felt like he was forgetting something.
And then he remembered.
“Shit!” he shouted, the sound so loud and sudden that it startled an unkindness of ravens perched in a nearby tree.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” Ari asked, blue eyes wide with concern.
There were several things wrong, and all of them could be summed up with two words.
The officers were late.
Luck wasn’t a guest that visited him often, but today it had, as Coy had nearly been late himself.
The letter he and his grandmother had received lay on the chipped coffee table, its stark pallor contrasting with the wooden surface. The Registry’s insignia—AR—stood out on the header, the text below it added as though in afterthought. He hated Registry visits. The tension and anxiety he felt before each one made his stomach ache. He thought he would have grown used to them by now. Then again, how could anyone get used to feeling like a prisoner in their own skin?
Sitting on the couch with his legs tucked beneath him, Ari glanced at the front door and bit at his fingernails.
“Hands out of your mouth. Feet off my couch,” Dinina called from her spot in the kitchen, leaning against the countertop.
“How does she always know?” he whispered.
Coy propped his feet up on the scuffed table they’d found tossed away on a dusty sidewalk just a few weeks back. “Old dragons see everything.” Dinina sent him an unimpressed look, but he suspected it may have been more to do with his disregard for their furniture, shabby as it was.
Ari continued to stare at the door. “Maybe something happened to them.”
“One can only hope,” Coy said.
He may not have liked their visits—nor the frustration he felt after each one—but at the very least, they could have cared enough to show up on time, even if he hadn’t been.
Maybe something really had happened to them.
It was wishful thinking, of course. Only a moment later, the quiet of their living room was interrupted by a series of knocks on the front door.
“You do know you don’t have to be here for these things, right? There are, like, a hundred other things you could be doing right now,” Coy told Ari.
The knocking continued.
Ari shrugged. “I want to make sure they don’t try anything.”
“Two dragons protected by a scrawny, twelve-year-old human with noodle arms and skin like a cloud. That’s a relief.”
“Shut up. I don’t have noodle arms. You have—”
“It’s unlocked,” Coy called, both interrupting and ignoring his brother.
The door creaked open, and in walked two male Registry officers. They moved like wooden boards, rigid and stiff, dressed from head to toe in black uniforms. They may as well have been on their way to a funeral.
Fate, the senior officer, was the first to speak, his voice like broken glass.
“Coy and Dinina Conlin, the Asuda Registry is here on this day of—”
“Yeah, yeah,” Coy interjected. “Can’t we just skip all this scripted bullshit? We’ve heard these same tired lines for years now. Just spare us, do the exam, and get lost.”
“Fine,” Fate said, interlacing his gloved fingers. “I’ll take the female.” He turned toward his partner. “Do you think you can handle the male?”
“We have names,” Coy muttered, cleaning his teeth with his fingernail.
“Not as far as I’m concerned.” Fate’s monotone voice was nearly drowned out by the sound of his boots clicking against the linoleum floors. He stopped in front of Coy’s grandmother, looked her up and down, and motioned for her to follow him farther into the kitchen. “Come, dragon.”
The other officer stood in the middle of the living room, poised and polished. He looked more like a prince than an officer. Still, Coy could tell that he was a rookie. In the many Registry visits he’d been forced to endure over the years, he’d had his fair share of interacting with rookies. They all had a nervous look about them, as if they were trying—and failing—to be intimidating. Those types never lasted long—at least, not when they were assigned to him.
“I do not recall asking for an audience,” the officer said, gloved hands on his hips.
Glancing over at his brother, Coy said, “Ari, go to your room.”
Shrugging, he turned his attention back to the officer. “You heard the kid.” He met the officer’s gaze, the intensity of his own mismatched irises working to unnerve the man standing a few feet away from him. To the officer’s credit, he didn’t look away, though Coy could smell his fear like a subtle perfume.
“So, I’m guessing you’re new, huh? Not surprised. Fate can never hold on to partners. Scares them away on the account of him being a piece of shit. Ain’t that right, Fate?” He spoke loud enough for Fate to hear him.
“Seaton,” Fate called from the kitchen. “If you’d please begin your examination.”
“R-Right,” Officer Seaton replied. “Coy Conlin, when was the last time you shifted?”
“About half an hour ago.”
“But I’m sure you knew that already.”
All shifters were monitored on how often they shifted. The chips embedded beneath their skin relayed this information. Unless they were in mortal danger or had the written consent of the Registry, shifters were limited to when and where they could transform. Registry law stated that Coy was only allowed to shift in Hamet, and only on his own land or a vacant lot. If a talon so much as touched property that wasn’t his even with the landowner’s permission, the Registry could—and would—fine him.
Coy observed Seaton, only half listening as he rambled off a bunch of annoying questions. He was a pretty, little thing. Lithe with perfect posture and eyes the color of maple syrup. His lips were rose petals, plump and pink, but wilted into a frown. His uniform did not blend well with his golden-brown skin, which gleamed like sand beneath sunlight. It muted it and made him look pale, especially when compared to Coy’s darker complexion—which was a shame. Brown was his favorite color.
Even as a Registry officer, Seaton was too sleek, too elegant. Unlike his partner, his skin—at least that of his face since everything else was covered—was unmarred by scars or imperfections. Seaton was too beautiful to be an officer and too refined to be Hametian. He must have been from one of the northern provinces.
Other than his initial nervous stutter, he enunciated his words, spoke them slowly so that each one had a sense of finality to them.
“And your age is—”
“Twenty-five,” Coy answered, growing aggravated with the endless round of questions. “Look, all of this is in my file, isn’t it? You don’t have to do everything by the Registry book, you know.”
“I will,” Seaton snapped, “follow protocol. Is that clear?”
Now they were getting to the fun part.
He’d seen officers just like Seaton come and go over the years. Whether they were rookies or veterans, high-strung or laid-back, they had one thing in common: fear. Coy knew the smell of fear. It lingered in the air around them, pungent and thick as smoke. He enjoyed it, especially when he was the cause of it—and he’d smelled Seaton’s fear from the start. Still, there was something else about Seaton. Another smell that seemed familiar, but one he couldn’t place. Whatever it was, it wasn’t manufactured.
“Your file did not mention you were hard of hearing, so I can only assume that you heard my question. And yet, I am still waiting to receive an answer. Was the question too difficult? Shall I—” Seaton bent slightly at the hip, face the picture of false sincerity. “—dumb it down for you?”
“Oh, it’s clear. Crystal clear, Officer,” he answered, offering both a grin and a wink.
“Good.” Seaton stood upright again. “A bit of advice. It would serve your best interest to not make things difficult.”
A soft chuckle fell from Coy’s lips. “My best interest? I’m supposed to believe that you have my best interest in mind?”
Seaton didn’t reply.
“So, are we done here?” He already knew the answer, but he was quickly finding that he enjoyed getting under Seaton’s skin. Maybe he’d make a hobby out of it—see if he could tease him without scaring him off like the others.
“Unfortunately, no,” Seaton replied. “Your file states that you are a fire dancer at a circus. Is this correct?”
“More or less.”
Seaton had further questions. Coy could tell just by looking at the curious expression on his face. He knew he wasn’t going to ask them though. Too much pride.
“Right… If you would be so kind as to stand for the next part of this interview.” His polite request sailed in on a sea of detectable resentment.
Coy stood—all six foot four inches of him—tall and broad in the small living room. He towered over Seaton, who was at least six or seven inches shorter, and held back a smirk at the widening of his eyes.
“Something wrong, Officer? Don’t tell me a cat snatched that sharp tongue of yours.”
Seaton would have to look up at him if he wanted to maintain eye contact as he answered, something that pleased Coy immensely. He couldn’t stop his smirk when Seaton tilted his head so that he could stare right back.
“My tongue is exactly where it should be.”
Coy’s gaze dropped, lingering on his mouth. “I don’t know about that. Could probably find a few places where it’d fit in just fine.”
Seaton rolled his eyes and then slid a thin flashlight out of his pocket. He raised his hand, positioning the flashlight in front of Coy’s lips. “Open your mouth.”
“Never had someone say that to me without properly introducing themselves first.” Coy spoke into the flashlight as if it were a microphone, the light beaming on his mouth.
“My name is Officer Augustus Seaton. You may refer to me as Officer Seaton.”
“No problem, Auggie.”
Seaton glared at him. Coy liked it. He found it endearing.
He stood still as Seaton moved closer, ordering him to bend down so that he could peer into his mouth without having to stand on his toes. To anyone else observing them—which was Ari, in this case—Seaton probably looked like a picture of confidence. He didn’t fool Coy. He smelled Seaton’s anxiety, saw the nervous tremble in his delicate-looking hand.
He waited until Seaton’s hand was just an inch or so away from his mouth before exhaling, slow and deep. A small flame burst from his parted lips, red and orange swirling together and flickering.
Startled, Seaton snatched his hand away. The flame had missed him. Naturally. Coy knew better than to injure a Registry officer, but he was sure Seaton had felt the heat against his skin. He bet his fingers still tingled from it.
Coy licked his lips. “Oops. Sorry about that. Reflex.” He grinned. “Please continue.”
The scowl was back on Seaton’s face. Eyes trained on Coy, he pointed the flashlight into his mouth again, briefly regarding his teeth.
“I am surprised.”
“Oh, yeah? What about?”
“One would think that cavepeople would not bother with such trivial chores as proper dental care.”
Fate must have completed his exam, because he and Dinina stepped into the living room. Fate’s birdlike face was set in its permanent scowl, while his grandmother’s expression was blank—her typical state whenever the Registry was around.
Fate kept his eyes on Seaton, like a father scrutinizing his son. There was pride behind that cracked, porcelain mask of a face. He must have caught some of the exchange between the two of them and was pleased by the way Seaton had handled himself.
Coy almost felt like laughing. Registry officers were elitist pricks with too much time on their hands, hell-bent on authority and ordering shifters about without so much as an inkling of human decency. Seaton’s virulent tongue could spit out as many cutting words as he wanted, but it would not change the facts. Humans were afraid of shifters. They feared and—Coy knew—envied them. Shifters may have looked human, but they weren’t. They were better than humans, superior in every aspect, and belonged at the top of the food chain. Intelligent, prideful, and fierce.
Unfortunately, in the Kingdom of Asuda, humans outnumbered shifters.
The humans’ advantage in numbers had allowed the creation of the Registry in the first place. No living creature capable of intelligent thought wanted to be tagged and monitored, studied like some form of recently discovered species—especially given the legends. Shifters kept it to themselves, but there were stories, whispers of shifters being around long before humans populated the land. Sometimes, Coy wondered where humans must have come from, given their similarities.
Somewhere down the line, their shifter ancestors had let it get out of hand, had ensured their collective fate.
Chipped, logged, questioned, and observed. Locked in a system wherein they had to comply with rules set for them by people who despised them.
Of course, it hadn’t always been this dire. The Registry’s initial purpose had started out as protection for both shifters and humans. Throughout the years, the line between protect and punish became blurred. Shifters were no longer treated as equals, and they certainly weren’t treated as the gods and goddesses his grandmother had told him about as a kid.
Not that they resembled gods, Coy thought with amusement. No one could identify a shifter in a room full of humans. They looked like everyone else, but most people refused to regard them as even mostly human. Some wouldn’t even consider them animals. Humans valued their animals. Pets were treated like family members. Humans cared for them, loved them. Shifters were treated as wild, unwanted creatures, unworthy of love and respect. Yet, humans demanded the same from shifters. Expected them to be grateful for the scrutiny and humiliation. For the hands on the back of their necks.
And Seaton, with his full lips pressed into a thin line and his slender fingers tapping impatiently at his own arm, was no different. Coy never respected any of the officers he’d been forced to interact with, and Seaton’s cold words and his bored eyes only guaranteed that.
“Where is the location of your chip?” Seaton asked.
Coy dropped his gaze from Seaton and focused on his fingernails, finding them more interesting than the man standing in front of him.
“You can do better than that. Ask nicely.”
“Coy, that’s enough. Just do what he says,” his grandmother interjected from her spot where the living room bled into the kitchen.
He shot a glare at her, silently asking whose side she was really on. Yet, he knew that as fierce as she could be, she did not like unnecessary trouble. This went double when it had anything to do with the Registry. He loved his grandmother, and although he didn’t agree with how easily she gave in to the Registry’s foolish demands, she had taken care of him for most of his life. Listening to her every once in a while was the least he could do.
“It would be wise to listen to your grandmother,” Seaton echoed. “She seems to be an intelligent woman.”
Coy hated to concede in their battle of wills, especially after a comment like that. Unfortunately, one glance at Dinina told him that he’d suffer the consequences if he continued with this never-ending banter between himself and Seaton.
He huffed, smoke fanning out through his nostrils. His fingers, strong and calloused, gripped the hem of his sarong, raising the fabric to expose even more of his muscular thighs. He watched for Seaton’s reaction, saw the way Seaton’s lips parted just slightly before he retrieved a device from his belt. It was long and shaped like a pencil, except double the width. Its surface, smooth and black, was interrupted by a thin, rectangular screen.
Seaton was all business when he placed the device against Coy’s thigh, just above the knee. Smirking down at him, Coy shrugged. He would have to venture farther north to find what he was looking for.
The perplexed expression on Seaton’s face was almost worth the annoyance of having to interact with him. Coy felt the others’ eyes on them as Seaton ran the device along his thigh, hand creeping toward dangerous territory. He saw the way Seaton gritted his teeth as he moved the device higher, followed by the slight exhale of his breath, shoulders sagging in relief, when the device emitted a series of beeps once it reached midthigh. The screen held a parade of letters and numbers, various codes that meant something to the Registry and nothing at all to Coy. Seemingly satisfied with the information from the device, Seaton attached it back to his belt.
“I have everything I need.” He was looking at Coy but speaking to Fate, dark, elegant eyebrows shaped into perfect arches that sat evenly on his face.
“Same here,” Fate said.
“Well, then. If there’s nothing else we can do for you, let me be the first to invite you both to get the fuck out.”
“Coy.” Dinina dragged out his name in the same slow drawl all Hametians spoke in.
“Sorry, sorry. Kindly get the fuck out.” He grinned at her.
Neither Seaton nor Fate bothered with a response. The two officers walked through the living room, past the shifters—and Ari, who had been seated on the couch, listening to the entire exchange—to the front door. Coy was right behind them, relieved that they were leaving and annoyed that they had shown up in the first place. He and Dinina had never broken a single Registry rule. All the monitoring and random checkups were pointless.
Seaton opened the door and was the first to step out. Fate followed him but paused, hand lingering on the doorframe. He turned around, ending up almost face-to-face with Coy. The shifter stood in the doorway, arms folded, waiting for the two of them to leave with all the patience of a cobra preparing to strike.
“Watch yourself, Conlin,” Fate said. “Your mouth will land you in rough waters one day. Maybe much sooner than you think.”
“Why should I worry about water when I can fly?” With a snort, he shoved the door with his elbow, receiving instant gratification the second it slammed in Fate’s face.
“What do you think he meant?” Ari asked.
Thankfully, he’d been quiet throughout the entire interview. It was best if he didn’t say much whenever the Registry came to visit. A human child living with dragon shifters wasn’t something that was exactly celebrated in the Registry.
“Nothing,” Coy said. “It’s just a scare tactic. As long as we don’t break the rules, there’s nothing they can do to us.”
His answer didn’t seem to provide much comfort for Ari. “Are you sure?”
“Of course.” He flicked away a strand of hair that had fallen into his face. “When am I ever wrong?”
Leaning back against the couch, Ari snorted. “More often than you think.”
Coy needed to protect her. He could no longer stand there, hidden behind a sycamore tree, watching as she was beaten by her own husband. He glared at his grandfather’s broad back. The man hovered over her, his calloused hand raised in preparation for yet another slap.
If only Coy were bigger, stronger. He could stop him from hurting her.
The scars on her face blended into one another, layers of new tissue veiling the old. They were flat, like wood knots that had been rubbed down until smooth. The fresher slashes on her cheeks were vivid and pink, a constant reminder of what his grandfather had done to her, of what he was still doing to her.
She’d protected Coy from her husband’s wrath, from his frightening drunken rages. Now more than ever, he wanted to do the same.
His body seemed to move on its own, luring him away from his spot behind the tree and into plain view. The air was crisp around him and smelled sweet, like fresh peppermint. The skies were bright and clear, but rain was coming. He could smell it. And yet…that wasn’t all. He could smell the cherry pie cooling on the kitchen table indoors, the scent of honeydew carrying on a spring breeze, and even the blood that seeped from the corner of her mouth.
He could smell everything.
His anger spiked, growing into a rage, and settled in the pit of his stomach, bubbling—black and thick—like tar. It poured into his bloodstream, first as a trickle and then in a gush. He hated his grandfather. Hated how big he was. How robust and scary he could be. Violent and vicious to his own family, the people he was supposed to love.
The man slapped her again. His fingers curled in on themselves into a rock of a fist. Coy watched as the fingers unfurled, giving way to fur, to violence—shifting. A tiger, giant and merciless. He struck her hard across her face with razor-sharp claws, tearing apart the skin of her cheek and neck.
Coy was running before he even realized it. The weight of his own body surprised him. Sturdy, yet light, as if an anchor had been lifted from his very core. The backyard closed in around him and became a cage—one that was almost too small to contain him.
His grandfather’s tight shirt strained against the muscles in his back. Coy could see the stretch of the fabric, pulling taut. It should have taken him longer to reach them. He was there within a second.
He screamed for his grandfather to leave her alone, to leave them both alone. To let them live in peace, to stop hurting them. But, the words did not come out that way. They weren’t words at all. They were a melody of hisses and growls, deep and guttural, pulled from the center of his chest. Smoke seeped from his nostrils, gray and thick as ash, with licks of fire bleeding from his mouth.
There were claws where his fingers should have been, long and sharp. They dug into his grandfather’s back, tearing into cotton, skin, and then muscle. His grandfather screamed, the sound piercing the air. It was a sound he’d heard before—one of pain, shock, and despair.
He wanted to hear it again.
Bits of orange fur fell around him like autumn leaves. Black scales with flecks of purple glimmered beneath the heavy sun. He could hear his grandmother’s voice, calling him, pleading for him to stop. He wanted to listen to her, to give in to her cries, but he couldn’t.
He didn’t know how.
Fire poured from his mouth when he breathed. The air smelled of singed grass and burned flesh. He could not taste the blood, but he felt it on his tongue, saw it dripping from his teeth—his fangs—and onto the ground below him. His grandfather stopped screaming. The tiger was gone. In its place lay a man, curled against the ground. His skin was charred. Smoke rose from his body like steam from freshly doused steel.
He was dead.
Coy had killed him.
He stared down at his grandfather’s body where it lay motionless on top of the scorched earth. He could taste the blood now. He moved to cover his mouth, to wipe the metallic taste off his tongue. There were claws where his hand should have been.
“Coy,” his grandmother said. There was horror in her voice, as well as sadness and shame. Her face was streaked in crimson. “What have you done?”
He answered her in flames. He’d done what needed to be done. He’d slain the beast. He’d protected her, protected them both. He’d caused death, had tasted it on his tongue and swallowed it.
Like the gods she’d told him about, he had awakened his powers. He’d accepted his fate to be a god among men.
He had shifted.
Raindrops rolled down his grandmother’s cheeks like tears.