Peggy braided her hair back tightly, and nodded to herself in the mirror. She felt a bit scandalous in her new uniform: a dark brown top and pants with the kingdom’s crest sewn over her heart. She’d never worn pants in public before, but even the biggest sticklers for propriety would choose pants for dragon riding for pure practicality.
She glanced once more around her quarters: she was the only woman training for the Dragon Corps, so she’d been given a tiny room the size of a closet. Then she squared her shoulders and stepped outside.
In theory, anyone could join up with the Dragon Corps: man or woman, commoner or noble. In practice, the Dragon Corps was the foremost defense of the kingdom, and the dragon riders had to be in peak physical shape, well versed in military tactics, and, most importantly, able to deal with the dragons without losing their heads or angering the creatures.
The trainees were lined up in rows outside, waiting for Commander Flynn, who was in charge of the Dragon Corps trainees. Peggy took her place at the end of a row, next to a tow-headed young man.
He shot her a condescending look. “Are you looking for someone?”
“No.” Peggy kept her gaze forward.
The commander arrived, and began speaking. Most of it was twaddle Peggy had heard before, about the great responsibility of becoming a member of the Dragon Corps and the hard road ahead. She only half-listened as he droned on, instead looking over her fellow trainees. Her competition.
There were close to a hundred trainees here, and only a dozen riderless dragons that were full-grown and trained. Each dragon would two riders, but that there would still be a great many trainees who would not be good enough. There was no shame in washing out of training– for a man. They could all join the army, where the restrictions were less strict. But if Peggy failed, she could only go back home and train for the next time.
If she was to join the Dragon Corps, she would have to be the best.
The commander finished his speech, and gave the trainees different assignments. Peggy’s group was the first to the dragon pens, where a dragon trainer waited for them.
The trainer was a slender, dark-haired man, who stood using a crutch. Peggy wondered if the injury to his leg had been inflicted by one of his dragons. Such a thing was hardly unheard of, but for a trainer to continue working with the animals afterward was quite extraordinary.
But her attention was quickly snatched away by the dragons. She’d seen them from afar, of course, but to see them so close! Their scales– deep indigo, brilliant red, burnished gold– all shone brightly in the morning sunlight. They were roaming in an open-aired pen, and Peggy could see the tell-tale shimmer of magic that had been worked to keep the dragons from flying over the fences and away.
Peggy’s thoughts were quickly brought back down to earth when the trainer whistled loudly. When he was satisfied he had everyone’s attention, the man spoke.
“My name is Daniel Sousa.” Peggy noted that he didn’t use a proper military title, lke other members and ex-members of the Corps.
Sousa continued, “If you listen to me, you might have a chance of becoming a dragon rider. If you don’t, I can’t guarantee your safety.”
“Is that what happened to you?” someone called, a smirk in his voice.
“Very funny,” Sousa said dryly, re-adjusting his stance slightly. He gestured, and a pair of assistants led a dragon with aquamarine scales out of the pen. Now that it was out of the magic-enhanced pen, the assistants had to lead it by a chain around its neck, rather like one would lead a dog on a leash.
“This is Opal,” Sousa said. “She’s one of our oldest dragons, and our most docile, so she’s the one we’ll begin working with.”
Peggy listened intently as Sousa walked around Opal, pointing out the parts of a dragon and demonstrating how to properly saddle her for riding. She watched his every movement carefully, and forced herself to commit every word to memory.
In the afternoon, they began practicing with weapons. The Dragon Corps was a fighting force, after all, and they needed to be ready to defend the kingdom.
If Peggy’s male counterparts had been expecting her to fall short here, they would be sorely disappointed. She’d always been rather tomboyish, and she’d spent long hours watching her older brother train. She would have some catching up to do, but she’d always been a hard worker.
It was during this training, when the lecturer was taking rather longer than Peggy thought was necessary to explain how to hold a sword, that she began to properly size up the other trainees. A few would clearly fall short. Most didn’t stand out at all, though perhaps they would show some exceptional qualities later on. The only one who she did notice was the one who had spoken to her earlier. He seemed to be rather good with a sword, at least. Time would tell if he was as good with dragons.
A month into her training, Peggy had discovered that she rather loved dragons. They were mercurial creatures; sometimes, they would be content to spend all their time napping in the sunshine, other times, they would be hot-tempered and prone to snap at anything that came within a few feet of them. But even so, she found them fascinating– so much so that she spent all of her little bit of free time at the dragon pens.
At first, she’d tried to be stealthy. She’d only wanted another glance at the dragons, and when Peggy heard someone approach, she snuck away. And then she came back again, and again.
One evening at twilight, Peggy was leaning against the fence, watching an ill-tempered golden dragon with the name Sunshine roll in the grass. If she were a proper sort of young lady, she’d be able to draw this scene, and keep it forever. But if she were a proper sort of young lady, she’d never be so near to a dragon. After all, they were twice the size of horses, with giant wings that were strong enough to bear themselves and two full-grown, armored people aloft. There was no such thing as a tame dragon, and even these well-trained beasts were awe-inspiring.
She was so absorbed in her thoughts, she didn’t hear Sousa approach. “They’re fantastic, aren’t they?” he asked, with a small smile.
“I’ve never seen anything so magnificent,” Peggy said truthfully.
“They must like you,” Sousa said. “They’re usually more agitated around strangers.”
Peggy cocked her head and looked at him. “Well, it’s like you said. They don’t like loud noises or sudden moves. Like most animals, really.”
Sousa raised his eyebrows slightly. “You’d be surprised at how few people listen to me.” He raised his crutch with a self-deprecating grimace.
“Well, those people are idiots.” Peggy smiled at him.
Sousa tilted his head, questioningly.
“You are the expert for a reason, after all.” Peggy turned her attention back to Sunshine and the other dragons. She and Sousa stood there for some time, enjoying the tranquil evening.
But there was very little free time to be had. Peggy rose before dawn, and washed and dressed in her tiny closet of a room. She would join the male trainees for physical exercises, then take breakfast. After that, they studied tactics, strategy, and how dragons were used in military campaigns. Then a small lunch, and they would go outside and work with the dragons– Peggy’s favorite part of the day. Sousa drilled them relentlessly on caring for dragons, before teaching them the commands the dragons had been trained to respond to. Finally, there was more physical training, usually this time with weapons. Then came dinner, and Peggy would collapse into bed before doing it all again the next day.
Unfortunately, Peggy did not love the rest of the training as much as she adored the dragons. Most of the other trainees seemed content to ignore her, although some scorned her for being a woman attempting to join the Dragon Corps– no matter that it was technically open to everyone, it was simply Not Done. The worst of them was Jack Thompson, the tow-haired man from the first day, who seemed to take each of Peggy’s successes as a personal affront.
It would be more tolerable if Thompson himself weren’t so good at everything he did. As it was, Peggy wanted more than anything to punch Thompson in the face.
This all meant she was looking forward to physical training. Until now, they’d been practicing with weapons handling and stances. There’d been a few contests with ranged weapons– archery, throwing knives, and javelins. Peggy had found she had a special knack for archery and knives, and always just managed to beat Thompson. The look on his face would have been worth all the hard work, even if it hadn’t been her future on the line.
But now they were going to be physically sparring.
The trainees stood silently and listened. Sergeant Yauch, the instructor, stood in the middle of a large sparring circle.
“No weapons today. If you step out of the circle, you lose. If you’re down for a three-count, you lose. Try not to actually kill each other.”
With those reassuring words, he stepped back. For a moment, it seemed no one would step forward. But then, Jack Thompson stepped into the ring.
“So?” Thompson spread his hands. “Who thinks they can take me?”
The other men looked at each other nervously. Thompson was in peak physical shape, and had been a soldier before joining the Dragon Corps. He cut an intimidating figure.
“I will.” Peggy stepped into the circle, with rather more confidence than she felt.
Thompson stepped back, hands up. “I’m not going to hit a woman.”
Peggy took a swing at Thompson’s jaw. He ducked out of the way and she didn’t connect, but at least his fists were up now. She swung at him again. This time, Thompson tried to grab her wrist, but she twisted out of the way.
“Are you going to stand there all day?” Peggy taunted him.
Thompson made a half-hearted attempt to punch her in the gut, apparently still not willing to go for a woman’s face. Peggy grabbed his wrist and twisted his arm behind his back. She leaned on him, trying to use the combination of surprise and her weight to force Thompson to the ground.
“So that’s how you want to play it,” Thompson growled. He leaned backwards against Peggy and stepped back, trying to force her out of the circle. She let go of him and put her hands back up. They circled each other, each making a few feints but not landing any hits.
Wanting to finish this fast, Peggy darted forward and punched Thompson solidly in the jaw. He staggered backward, and Peggy took the opportunity to land another hit on him. But as she pulled back, he grabbed at her arm and flipped her over his shoulder. Peggy landed on her back, her breath knocked out of her.
Thompson knelt on top of her, all his previous notions of propriety forgotten as he fought to keep her down.
He was pinning her wrists to the ground, and their faces were strangely close.
At least she’d landed a few hits. With luck, they’d bruise.
“Three.” Thompson got up. He held out a hand to Peggy. She ignored him, her pride still stinging from the loss.
“Not bad,” he called after her.
“For a woman?” Peggy crossed her arms and stared him down challengingly.
But Thompson didn’t rise to the bait. “You’re, Marge.” He clapped her on the shoulder. “Just don’t let it go to your head.”
Peggy felt like she had passed some sort of a test, and wasn’t sure if she liked it. Without thinking about it, she set off in the direction of the dragon pens.
She leaned against the fence, the magic that kept the dragons inside tickling against her face. Inside this enclosure, a pair of juveniles chased each other playfully. Their scales hadn’t yet darkened to their adult color, and their near-translucent wings dragged behind them on the ground.
“You look like you’ve been rolling around in the dirt,” Sousa said from behind her. “And I mean that quite literally.”
Peggy looked at him questioningly. Sousa gestured to her hair.
Peggy brushed it, and wrinkled her nose. Her neat plait was coated with dirt.
“My mother have a fit if she could see me now,” Peggy said ruefully. “She always wanted me to be a proper young lady.”
“So you enlisted in the army,” Sousa said, with a single, sardonic eyebrow raised.
“The army doesn’t take women. I enlisted in the Dragon Corps.” Peggy sniffed, in a terrible imitation of the snobbish ladies she’d known back home.
“It’s still part of the army,” Sousa said.
“Don’t say that too loudly; you’ll give them ideas.” Peggy was only half-joking. Women were technically allowed in the Dragon Corps, but few attempted it.
Sousa looked like he was about to say something, but was interrupted by the sound of footsteps. He and Peggy both whirled around– Sousa a bit less gracefully than Peggy, as he leaned on his crutch– and saw Thompson, looking just as startled as they were. A dark bruise was blooming on his jaw, from the bout earlier.
“Er– I didn’t mean–” Thompson said. He looked unsure of himself for the first time since Peggy had met him.
“Were you looking for something?” Peggy asked.
Thompson waved vaguely toward the dragon pens. “Just the dragons.”
For the first time, Peggy felt she had common ground with Thompson. It was odd. “They’re wonderful, aren’t they?”
“Those little ones just look like pests,” Thompson said, the corners of his mouth quirking up.
“I’d be careful,” Sousa said, lounging against the fence. “They’re already as big as you are. And they bite.”
“I don’t know how the hell you get them to listen to you.” Thompson shook his head slightly.
“You ever train a dog?” Sousa asked.
Thompson nodded; Peggy shook her head, but listened intently.
“It’s like that,” Sousa continued. “You give ‘em commands, and reward ‘em when they listen. Eventually, they learn.”
Thompson nodded in acknowledgment. Peggy turned back to watch the juvenile dragons, who were now clumsily flapping their wings, in imitation of the adult dragons. Neither she, nor Thompson, nor Sousa said anything else for the rest of the evening.