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Flames in the East

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The chains were pulled so tightly that they could not clink, only scrape and squeak against each other. She was held against massive metal plates, sitting upright. All up and down her torso were chains; her legs were much the same. Even her pelvis was bound by heavy chain, taking away any possible leverage.

A needle was in the artery in her neck, dumping something into her blood. She felt it slog through her, dragging its way through her heart even as it was slowed nearly to stillness. She could not do so much as flex her left arm to try to dislodge the needle there that drained any strength remaining in her. Breathing took all her focus for hours at a time, but everything blurred together no matter how she tried to think.

The fact that every part of her itched niggled at the edge of her consciousness. She felt the filth of her clothes, starting to molder with stillness and bloodstains. Grime was on her; her hair had grown past her jawline. Her lips were cracked without water. She did not know how long it had been since she had eaten last.

When she heard a lock turn back and a door open slowly, she opened her bleary eyes. A man came through the door wearing a soldier’s green and blue uniform and carrying several empty glass bottles and a lantern he set down out of reach. She saw chevrons on his coat sleeves as her eyes focused with the firelight. Tilting her head was easier than holding it upright as she thought.

“A general?” she asked.

“Colonel,” he muttered.

“I see.”

He did not reply, coming close enough to check her chains and the needle in her arm. He swapped out the empty bottles for full ones, the glass clinking faintly on the metal plate. She saw him bring one bottle into the light and examine its contents. The thickness and deep crimson color told her precisely what it was.

“You just never run out, do you,” he said, voice light and idle.

“So it seems.”

“Only four bottles this time, though.” He sighed as he rearranged what was attached to the needle in her neck. “Looks like they made your medicine too strong last month.”

She kept silent as he reached out. He set two fingers against her neck, cautious near the needle, and felt her heartbeat. She could see him counting in his head with how his eyes lost focus. She breathed slowly and concentrated. The dancing fire in the lantern cut through the fog in her skull.

“You said a colonel?” she asked.

“Barely five beats a minute,” he muttered. “Idiots.”

“You said a colonel?” she asked again.

Yes, you piece of—”

She turned her head fast enough to catch his hand in her teeth. Before he could raise his other hand, she bit down hard and wrenched her head to one side. She came away with a massive chunk of his flesh to strip him to the bone, laughing through her teeth and the blood. He shrieked with pain as he rushed back and away. Taking satisfaction from the horror in his eyes, she ate his flesh with great care.

“A pity that the only meal I get is from a lowly colonel,” she chuckled. “But you’ll do for now.”

“‘For now,’” he spat. “Six months and that’s all you’ve fucking managed! Not so high and mighty sitting there, are you?”

She hummed laughter and licked the blood from her chin. Strength flared in her, letting her sit up properly as her eyes opened. She saw him cower at the sight of her eyes and smiled with her lips together. The flame in the lantern swelled and licked the glass around it.

“That depends,” she murmured. “Have you actually found them after six months? Did you have another reason to visit today?” Because he said nothing, she chuckled again and smiled to show her two sets of razor sharp incisors. “Oh dear. You haven’t found them. Well…I did warn you.”

The man said nothing, instead spitting on her as he stood up. He grabbed the lantern and the bottles and left the room, slamming the heavy door behind him. She settled, closing her eyes to concentrate on the meat in her stomach.

It was not enough with the lantern gone. The needle in her neck still numbed her; the needle in her arm still drained her. It grew tiresome to open her mouth and hold up her head. As she fell out of consciousness, a thought began to repeat in her mind:

“Get to the north…please be safe.”

————

There was one specific doorframe in the castle at Utgard that the pack used to track the trio’s heights as they grew. Matvey and Ginko were tallest for years, perpetually tied a few inches over Adhara. When their seventh birthday arrived, she had almost caught up to them. When her seventh birthday came along, however, she was officially taller than both of them.

Ginko was indignant for months, demanding to be remeasured against Adhara and Matvey alike every few days. She only stopped grumbling when Mikasa turned her around after one measurement at the start of autumn to show her that she was taller than Matvey.

“Itty bitty Matvey,” she sang at him for the rest of the day. By the time dinner arrived, the rest of the pack had heard every variation of the song. Ginko sat giggling into her hands until Annie sighed and raised a brow.

“That’s enough for today, Ginko,” Annie said. “You don’t like it when we tease you.”

“You’re just saying that because you’re so prickly about being short,” Ymir said. She smirked as she dodged the roll thrown at her head. “See?”

“Mama, I don’t mind,” Matvey said with a smile. “I don’t need to be tall. You and Aunt Christa are awesome and you’re not tall.”

“Good thing you got all your mom’s cuteness and not her shortness, kiddo,” Ymir said, rubbing Adhara’s head. Adhara grinned, even as Christa shook her head and giggled.

Adhara’s cheer carried into the next day, and she gladly led all of the fetching games for the smallest pups in Utgard. Ginko went out on a hunt with Annie while Matvey helped Bertholdt and Armin on a survey of the mountain. Hanji’s library housed Christa, Ymir, Eren, and Reiner, the first two reviewing letters from Prime Minister Langnar while the latter read over information sent by Generals Erwin and Pyxis. Mikasa headed out early on a long run across the plains, and the rest of Utgard was busy on its own terms with the scent of the forge in the air and bakers and tanners out with their wares.

Shortly before the warmth of midday settled in, Matvey was allowed to head down the mountain on his own. He went to where Adhara and the pups were on the edge of the plains, managing to sneak up on her while the pups were jockeying for the ball. She yelped from surprise when he barked loudly behind her, and she blushed as red as her hair when he laughed. Changing to her bipedal form let her tackle him before he could stop laughing and run. Though he did his best to squirm away, she held fast. Giggling, she rose up on her toes before falling forward and dropping down on top of him. He let out a startled bark when they hit the ground, whining as he thumped his tail.

Okay, I give.

“And?”

I’m sorry for scaring you.

“Okay.” She rolled to one side and sat up, changing to her human form. He sat up as well, pouting when he changed to his human form in turn.

“That’s not fair when you’re bigger than me,” he said.

“You told Aunt Annie that you don’t need to be tall!” she protested. When she saw him smile before sticking his tongue out, she stuck her tongue out while giggling. Their giggling stopped abruptly when the pups ran to them, all whimpering and trying to hide behind them.

“What’s wrong?” Matvey asked, voice high with concern. He caught the scent of their fear, the hair on the back of his neck rising. He thought to howl, but stopped short at the sound of Adhara rumbling low and deep in her chest. Turning, he saw Adhara on her feet, fangs bared and fingers capped by claws. Turning further, he saw two people of eastern descent standing nearby.

One was a young woman, human and reeking of exhaustion and hunger. She looked barely able to stand, trembling and almost unconscious where she stood. Her long brown hair was loose and tangled; her clothing was peppered with tears and holes. Despite her exhaustion, her green eyes were sharp with clarity brought by desperation.

Beside her was a small boy, several inches shorter than Matvey. For just a moment, Matvey thought him a wolf for his gold eyes, black hair, and pointed ears. He caught the boy’s scent then, something that seemed familiar in the worst way. Fear took him, but he stood up and went to Adhara’s side. They both rumbled as the pups whimpered behind them.

“We need,” the woman coughed, “to talk to your queens.”

Adhara changed to her wolf form, snarling aloud as her fur stood on end. The boy’s eyes widened and he held the woman’s hand with both of his. The woman squared her shoulders and swallowed hard.

Please!” the woman said. “We need to talk to your queens! It’s—”

Leave! said Adhara’s voice.

The woman grit her teeth, but coughed again when she opened her mouth. “It’s important! Please, I’m begging you to let us see your queens!”

No! He doesn’t go near them!

“He can’t change yet!” the woman said, voice breaking. “We’re not here to hurt anyone!”

Matvey changed to his wolf form and barked with his fangs on display. No! Leave!

The woman opened her mouth to argue, but paled because Adhara and Matvey began to advance on her and the boy. Adhara barked as loud as she could, fangs bright and forward. The woman stumbled on the uneven ground, falling because her weary legs gave out. The boy did not fall, instead seeing the fear in the woman’s eyes. He let go of her hand and rushed to stand before her with his brows low and his eyes wide.

He opened his mouth on his inhale, revealing his two sets of razor sharp incisors. His exhale was full of fire and flames grew in his palms as he held them up. Adhara and Matvey froze as the pups started to cry and howl weakly. The woman panicked and scrambled to grab the boy from behind. Gasping, he closed his hands and his mouth to extinguish the flames. She pulled him back into her lap, eyes going wide and blood leaving her face.

“He can’t change yet!” she said, shaking even more. “Please—we’ve been trying to get here for months! We need to talk to your queens! I swear we’re not here to hurt anyone! We need help!”

Adhara and Matvey looked at each other. She lowered her tail first and sent her voice only to him.

She doesn’t smell like she’s lying. She glowered at the woman over the boy’s shoulder. I don’t like this.

Matvey shook his head slowly, tail beating the air. He doesn’t smell right.

Like the demon monster?

Not like him. But he’s not a human or a wolf.

She watched them for a while longer before snarling to make the woman flinch. Because the boy bared his fangs in retaliation, she lowered her hackles with a snort.

Howl for the pack, she said. My mama or Aunt Annie will know what he is.

He rumbled, but howled loud and clear. The first reply came from Bertholdt on the mountain, followed by Mikasa close by to the west. Armin passed the message along over the mountain to Annie and Ginko, and a few moments later Ymir howled from the castle for herself, Christa, Eren, and Reiner. Satisfied, Adhara and Matvey moved back to sit before the pups as a guard.

The pups continued to whimper, huddling close. Adhara licked their heads while Matvey spoke gently to them. The woman sat with her head bowed, shaking visibly. The boy sat still in her arms, but watched Adhara and Matvey closely. The sound of running paws coming from the west made the woman look up. Mikasa came in at an easy run, changing to her human form a few yards away.

Mom! Matvey said, standing up. Mom, come here! Hurry!

“I’m here, sweetheart, I’m here,” Mikasa said. She rubbed his head when she arrived and sank down on one knee. “What’s wrong? Why do you all smell so scared?”

That kid smells weird, he whispered to her. He nuzzled against her hands, tail low. And he did fire magic without saying anything.

She stared at him. She turned on her knee to look at the woman and the boy. The stench of fear was too thick in the air for her to smell either of them for a time. The boy stared at her, holding the woman’s hands tightly. Mikasa’s brows dropped as she leaned toward them and inhaled deeply.

All at once, she caught the boy’s scent. It was every scent of fire she knew, from stone that had shattered from wildfire heat to the ash that would remain. For an instant, she saw, smelled, and heard the streets of Utgard ablaze. Every instinct in her screamed to run, but she beat them all back to spin about, sit on the ground, and spread her arms out before Adhara and Matvey. A cold sweat rose on her neck.

“Who are you?” she demanded. “What is he?”

The woman did not answer. Her eyes were looking past Mikasa, past the pups, because she saw Ymir and Christa coming up the street. Ymir’s eyes went wide on seeing the boy, mouth falling open. Christa went straight to Adhara, kneeling down to hold her close.

“You two,” Ymir said, walking past Mikasa quickly and crouching down. “What’re your names? Where’re you from?”

“We need to talk to your queens,” the woman said.

“You’re talkin’ to one of them, so tell me your names and where you’re from.”

The woman hesitated, tried to swallow with a dry mouth and throat, and coughed. She said, “We’re from the east. My name—my name is Hova—Sirvat.”

“Nah, that ain’t the surname you’re used to,” Ymir said. “What’s your real surname?”

“‘Sirvat’ is my real surname, your majesty,” she said. Her voice dropped to little more than a whisper when she said, “My married surname is Arav. And he’s my son, Sohan.”

Ymir stopped blinking. She sat down. “Arav.”

“Yes,” Hova said quietly.

Ymir looked at Sohan. He looked back, brows low, and held Hova’s hands tighter. Ymir looked back to Hova and asked, “Where’s the other one?”

Though she met Ymir’s eyes steadily, Hova began to cry as she said, “We don’t know.” She bit her lip to breathe, shaking her head once. “We haven’t seen her for six months. She had gone to speak to parliament again, but then the soldiers working for her came back and told us to run. All I could think of was to come to the north to get help.”

She closed her eyes tightly, shoulders hitching. “Please. We can’t go back to the east to find her without help. He can’t change—they’ll take him!”

Mama? Adhara said cautiously.

Ymir glanced over her shoulder, holding up a hand. It kept Reiner and Eren, bristling and steaming because they had caught Sohan’s scent, from coming forward. Bertholdt and Armin held them steady, even as they stared at Sohan in confusion.

“Ymir?” said Christa. “What’s going on?”

Ymir sighed and looked at Mikasa. “You heard about the Arav house when you were a kid in the east, right?”

Mikasa went pale, knees and shoulders rising. She turned to Matvey and said, “For the love of our lady, please tell me you didn’t try to hurt them.”

His ears drooped. I promise we didn’t.

“Oh good,” Mikasa said, voice cracking. “Please don’t attack them.”

Why?

“Y’know those stories from the east she told you guys when you were little?” Ymir said. “About how the goddess of the east created something really powerful to protect her people for forever? Remember what she made?”

Adhara and Matvey looked at each other as they hesitated. Eventually, Adhara admitted, No.

“She made dragons,” Mikasa whispered.

Every wolf tensed up, save Ymir. She sighed again, scratching the back of her neck, and looked at Hova.

“I learned about the Arav house a long time ago,” she said, “but you don’t smell anything like him. Are you completely human?”

“I am, your majesty.”

“Did you carry him?” she asked, nodding at Sohan.

“I did.”

“But he’s totally a dragon?”

“Yes, but—he can’t change yet.” She swallowed hard and ran her fingers through Sohan’s hair. “I can’t teach him that. Kailas was going to…when she got home.”

“Mom?” Sohan said, turning to look at her. “Are you okay?”

“Not really, sweetie,” Hova whispered.

His eyes widened, brows rising. He turned to Ymir and began to speak quickly. “Mom hasn’t been sleeping or eating right because she’s trying to get us somewhere safe and also find help for my mom who’s missing and I really, really promise that I won’t be bad so please help my moms.” When Ymir said nothing, he added, “Pretty please?”

“Bertholdt?” Christa said. “How are our relations with the east?”

“Decent for what I know,” he replied. “We export some steel, mainly just horses raised on our plains. But…we haven’t heard much from the prime minister or the parliament in a few years. Annie may know more than me at the moment.”

Christa’s brows lowered, but she kept her voice gentle when she looked at Sohan and asked, “How old are you?”

“Five,” he said, holding up a hand with his fingers outstretched.

“Who’s going to take him away in the east?” Christa asked.

“One of the members of parliament,” Hova said. “She wants a dragon under military control—Kailas has been arguing with her for years. But she knows there’s no way she’d ever get Kailas, so—” She coughed, shook her her head, and held Sohan tighter. “Please.”

The scent of her distress grew overwhelming as she began to cry again. Even the nervous pups grew quiet, ears, noses, and tails drooping. Annie and Ginko arrived then, Annie grabbing the back of Ginko’s shirt to keep her from running on ahead. Annie looked closely at Hova and Sohan. Her eyes narrowed at Sohan’s scent; her ears twitched at the sound of Hova crying.

“When were you last in the east?” Annie asked.

Hova looked up. “A-about a month and a half ago. We started running five months ago.”

A low rumble rose in Annie’s chest. “One of my spies went into the east five months ago.”

She went pale. “No—we didn’t do anything to anyone!”

“I don’t think you did,” Annie replied. She looked at Ymir and said, “Whoever and whatever they are, bring them inside. I need their info.”

“That’s the plan,” Ymir said. She stood up and gestured to the other wolves. “All you little ones, head home to your parents. Tell ‘em the truth, but don’t tell anyone else who comes around who’s here, okay? We need to keep our guests safe.”

The pups yipped to agree before heading off. Christa kissed Adhara’s head before standing up and walking to Hova and Sohan. She offered a hand.

“Come inside,” she said gently. “We’ll have something made for lunch and find you two a room.”

Hova stared. Sohan stared as well, but he said, “Really?”

“Really,” Christa said with a smile. “It’s okay.”

Sohan gasped and hurried out of Hova’s lap. Taking Hova’s hands, he said, “Mom, you get to sleep in a bed again!”

She looked at him and his hands, but had no words. She blinked when Christa again offered a hand.

“It’s all right,” Christa said. “We’ll help you and your son. And your wife.”

For a few moments longer, Hova was silent. Then, she said, “I don’t think I can stand up right now.”

“You smell exhausted, that’s for sure,” Ymir said, coming closer. “All right, come on.” She changed to her bipedal form and helped Hova to her feet before picking her up. She carried Hova on her bent arm, letting her hold onto the loose fur of her scruff. Christa picked Sohan up and went to walk on Ymir’s other side, keeping Sohan in Hova’s sight. They all went inside and into the dining hall, Armin sending servants away with orders for a meal. Ymir set Hova on one of the benches at the largest table, and Christa set Sohan beside her.

“So,” Annie said, sitting down heavily on the other side of the table. She drummed her fingers as hard and as loudly as she could, staring at Hova with a raised brow. Hova met her gaze evenly despite her shivering. Sohan frowned at her stare, holding tight to Hova’s sleeve.

“My best spy,” said Annie, “came back from the east eight months ago saying there was a very strange bit of contention between a few members of parliament and one specific noble house. I sent another spy out five months ago to get into the army and try to find out more about what’s going on. Looks like I have a report ahead of schedule.”

“Annie, we have to let them eat first,” Christa said, frowning at her. “You can ask questions in a bit.”

Annie sighed through her nose. Ginko and Matvey hurried to sit next to her, peering at Sohan with suspicion. He frowned at them as well and tightened his hold on Hova’s sleeve. He yelped when Adhara sniffed his hair and darted under the table. She reappeared on the other side and squirmed between Ginko and Matvey to whisper to them.

“Adhara,” Ymir said, brow raised.

Adhara’s cheeks flushed when she said, “But he smells weird!”

“That’s ‘cause none of us are used to how dragons smell,” Ymir replied. “But no more of that, okay? Him and his mom are guests and we’re going to treat them that way.”

“I’m not gonna be bad,” Sohan said, frowning at the table.

Adhara frowned as well, but sat down between Ginko and Matvey without arguing further. Nothing more was said, even when a meal of venison stew and warm bread was delivered. Sohan waited the longest to start eating, watching Hova eat for a long time before relaxing at all. Though the food helped stop her shaking, it did not energize her. Once she was done, she played with Sohan’s hair to stay awake.

“Up to explaining now?” Annie asked.

“Up until the point where I pass out,” Hova said, eyes already half-closed.

“The main details are fine for now. You’re part of the noble house that’s fighting with parliament, right?”

“The house of Arav. I married into it.” She sighed hard enough to curl her spine. “But the woman in parliament who’s been fighting us is from my birth house. Her name is Neha—she’s my grand-niece.”

Annie opened her mouth, but went still. She closed her mouth and sniffed. She looked at Hova, and then looked at Christa and Mikasa. They looked back, and by all accounts they appeared older than Hova by a few years.

“What do you mean by ‘grand-niece’?” Mikasa asked.

“I’m one hundred and thirty-seven years old,” Hova said quietly. “I met Kailas one hundred and twenty years ago.”

“But—you’re human,” Armin said. “How can you be that old and still look so young?”

“Kailas doesn’t know of a way to turn me into a dragon,” she said. “But she knows how to share her life with me, so…we’ve been together for over a hundred years.” She smiled and toyed with Sohan’s hair, ruffling and scratching in a way that made him relax and smile slightly.

“And we decided to have him five years ago,” she said. “Up until we had him, there hadn’t been a new dragon in almost two hundred and eighty years…Kailas was the only dragon in the east for over a hundred years after her mother passed. Neha wants to take control of Sohan before he can change.”

Why?” Christa asked.

“Because even wolves fear dragons,” Annie said, glancing at Sohan. She looked down, tapping her chin as she thought. “And because the south has been relying heavily on the east to recover after the war. If they get a hold of a dragon…and use him to make a military incursion on the south…they’re expecting that we’d never move to help the south.”

Eren scowled. “Are they saying wolves are cowards?”

“They’re relying on us not knowing much about dragons outside of old stories from the east,” Bertholdt replied. “Besides that, we’ve never wanted to fight dragons. They’re as much blessed by their goddess as we are by Lady Mond—it’d be a slap in the face between our people.”

“None of the southern generals have sent any strange reports in the last few months,” Reiner said, eyes unfocused as he looked at the ceiling. “Dok is closest to the east relative to everyone else, but he’d be the first to say something about a dragon. He’d be the first to panic, since dragons are supposed to be massive.”

Hova shook her head. “She wouldn’t be in her dragon form. They know they can’t control her as a human, and if they let her change, she’d escape. I just…have no idea where they’re keeping her.”

“And you think they’re keeping her alive?” Bertholdt asked.

“She has to be,” she whispered. “It’s supposed to be incredibly hard to kill dragons. They can’t just—they can’t.”

“Mom’s alive,” Sohan said, quiet but without a tremor. “She is.”

“The east can’t give up their guardian as simply as that,” Mikasa said. “It’d be inviting a disaster.” She sighed. “This is already pushing it. The Lady of the Sky isn’t going to let this continue.”

“Not if she’s anything like our Lady Mond,” Ymir said. She smirked. “And we’re gonna help get the dragon back.”

Everyone turned to stare at her. Annie asked, “We will?”

“Yep,” said Ymir. “And we’ll get more info once the half-dead human gets some sleep.” Without looking twice at the baffled looks aimed at her, she stood, changed to her bipedal form, and picked Hova up again. Christa hurried to follow her after picking up Sohan, and Adhara ran after them.

“I don’t understand,” Hova said. “Why are you agreeing to help so quickly?”

“You’ve got something I want,” Ymir replied. She brought them all up to the third floor of the castle and to an empty furnished room. She set Hova down on the bed and changed to her human form. Christa put Sohan on his feet when he squirmed, and Adhara held her hand while Sohan climbed onto the bed.

“You said the dragon shared her life with you,” Ymir said. “So she would’ve had all those extra years to herself if she hadn’t passed ‘em to you?”

“Well,” Hova said, “yes.”

“But she doesn’t know how to turn you into a dragon?”

“No, but…what does that matter?”

“Because I know how to turn humans into wolves,” Ymir said, “but I don’t know how to give away all the extra time I have.” She crouched down to meet their eyes better, smiling because Sohan hurried to sit in Hova’s lap and crossed his arms.

“I want a trade,” Ymir said, “and that means helping you two find her alive and well.”

Hova stared at her before looking at Christa. “You were human once.”

“I was,” Christa said. “Half of our pack was.” She swallowed slowly and asked, “Does she really know how to give away time like that?”

“She does,” Hova said. “Is—do you think it’s possible to…turn me into a dragon?”

“I think we’d be able to figure it out,” Ymir said. “As long as we find her. So you two get some rest. We’ll start working out what to do once you stop looking like you’re gonna starve.”

Slowly, very slowly, Hova relaxed. She smiled and murmured, “Thank you,” as Sohan pulled her arms around himself. Ymir grinned, rubbing Adhara’s head when she came over to hug her around the waist. Christa smiled and led Ymir and Adhara out of the room to let Hova and Sohan rest.

Chapter Text

When not at war, the minimum courtesy for guests of the north who had reached Utgard through peril and hardship was to provide them with a room to stay in and new clothes to wear. Though no arguments had been made by either Hova or Sohan to the first, the castle seamstress found herself hesitating even measuring Hova the day after their arrival. She kept glancing over her shoulder, feeling Sohan frown at her even as he tried to hide it behind a loaned picture book.

“Sohan,” Hova said gently.

He jumped and held the book up in front of his face. The seamstress snorted with laughter at the way he reeked of mortification in that moment, and she took down both of their measurements easily after that. New clothes were delivered that evening, but by then it was clear to all of Utgard even without the seamstress indulging in gossip.

Sohan was even more protective toward Hova than she was toward him. He would not begin eating until she was a ways through her meal, always watching her with concern. Though no one ever truly looked askance at them in the halls or on the streets over the next few days, he always put himself between Hova and any wolves they passed. There was no aggression in his eyes or his demeanor, only great caution, and so tension slowly slipped out of the wolves.

The fifth day after Hova and Sohan’s arrival was quiet, starting early for the ruling pack. Adhara, Ginko, and Matvey sat groggy at the table while Ymir and Annie tore through the food before them. As sunlight started to creep into the hall properly, Ginko finished rubbing the sleep out of her eyes and took Annie’s sleeve to tug.

“Mama, why’re you leaving?” she asked. “You said Aunt Mina would be home soon to give you more reports.”

“Mina hasn’t been in the east as recently as I need,” Annie replied in between bites of venison. “I want a sense of the east along our border and I’ll get it faster on my own.”

Adhara looked at Ymir, who was focused on her own food, and asked, “You’re not going with Aunt Annie?”

Ymir swallowed hard to clear her throat of food. “I’m going along the western border, kiddo. I need to make sure the east isn’t trying to move against the west, and I wanna warn them just in case.”

“Can I come with?”

“No, you need to stay and help with our guests. It’s our job as the ruling pack to give them a welcome place to stay.”

“Which reminds me,” Annie said. “You three have to interact with the Aravs.”

“But he smells weird!” Adhara, Ginko, and Matvey said in unison.

“The pups in town look up to you,” Bertholdt said. “If you avoid them, the pups avoid them. If anyone comes to Utgard, it’s going to look like they’re being shunned.”

“They really are our guests,” Christa said. “We have to help them feel that way.”

The trio looked at each other across the table. They hesitated. Quietly, Matvey asked, “Can he play games like we can?”

Mikasa smiled and rubbed his head. “You’d have to ask him.”

“You don’t know?”

“Even I don’t know, fluff butt,” Ymir said. “You only hear about adult dragons, not kids. He could be strong enough to beat you at tug-of-war.”

“Nuh uh,” Adhara grumbled, frowning at the table.

Ymir smirked and said, “The only way to make sure is to ask.” She sniffed and turned where she sat. Adhara followed her gaze, seeing Hova walk into the hall carrying a drowsy Sohan. Annie swallowed down the last of her food.

“Good,” she said as Hova sat next to Armin. “I didn’t have to come wake you.”

“Kailas got me in the habit of waking up early,” Hova said. Patting Sohan’s back, she added, “Him not so much.” She looked between Annie and Ymir as Sohan snuggled against her. “I’m surprised you haven’t left already.”

“We wanted you to tell us what the dragon looks like,” Ymir said. “If someone mentions a woman fitting that description, it’ll give us a clue to where she is.”

“Mom’s tall,” Sohan mumbled against Hova’s chest.

“How tall?” Annie asked.

“Taller than Bertholdt,” Hova replied.

The trio stared with differing levels of offended disbelief in their eyes. Ginko spoke up first to say, “No one’s taller than him.”

Hova smiled at her. “Kailas is, but not too much taller. She’s got gold eyes like Sohan, black hair—it was short when she left.”

“Fluffy,” Sohan mumbled.

Annie raised a brow. “‘Fluffy’?”

Hova sighed laughter and turned Sohan around in her lap. “You have to wake up now if you’re going to participate in a conversation, sweetheart.” Looking at Annie, she said, “Kailas’s hair is thick. Sohan calls it fluffy. She’ll have pointed ears and two sets of fangs like him, too.”

“Any identifying marks or scars?” Armin asked.

“I really hope you don’t find her without a shirt,” Hova said, “but she has a large crimson birthmark down the center of her chest.”

“It looks like a burn,” Sohan added, rubbing his eyes. “‘Cept dragons can’t get burns.”

“How’s that work?” Adhara asked.

“Same reason we can change shape,” Ymir said. “It’s how the goddess of the east blessed dragons.” She leaned back to look at the ceiling. “Tall eastern woman with black hair and gold eyes, and she’ll smell like fire. It’s recognizable enough.”

“I wouldn’t bring it up near or in the east,” Hova said. “People know her—I don’t want Neha knowing we’ve come to you for help and sending soldiers after you.”

“I haven’t kept my job for not being cautious,” Annie replied. “I’ll be fine.”

“If you find my mom, what’re you going to do?” Sohan asked.

She looked at him. She glanced at Hova. Looking at Sohan again, she said, “It’ll depend. If I can, I’ll get her away from whoever’s holding her. If it’s going to be dangerous…I’ll have to come back to get help.”

Dejection made his eyes drift to the table. His shoulders rose and fell in a tiny sigh.

Annie sighed as well. “I know you want her home right away, but caution is better in cases like this.”

He shook his head and, eyes still on the table, said, “My moms told me wolves are the best hunters in the world because they’re smart enough to tell when to leave something alone. If it’s not safe…it’s not safe.”

Adhara, Ginko, and Matvey looked at each other while Annie glanced at Ymir. Reiner smiled and leaned forward on his elbows.

“You’re a tough little guy, being strong for your moms like this,” he said. “Don’t worry—we’ll find your other mom and get her back safe and sound.”

Sohan looked at him. He looked up at Hova. She smiled and ruffled his hair. Ymir smirked at them before stretching where she sat. She stood, gesturing to Annie.

“All right,” she said, “we’re gonna get going. The sooner we get to the borders, the better.” She snickered when Adhara stood on the bench to hug her, scratching behind her ears to make her smile. Matvey and Ginko hurried off their bench to hug Annie at the same time.

“Be careful,” Mikasa said as she stood up.

“Says the reckless one,” Annie replied, but she nuzzled her nose against Mikasa’s after kissing her. She rubbed Matvey and Ginko’s heads. “Be good, all right?”

“We will,” they said, and they let her go.

Christa stood up to round the table. As she rose up on her toes to meet Ymir halfway for a kiss, she saw Hova out of the corner of her eye. Bitterness was on her face, eyes turned away from them. She raised a brow at Ymir when they drew apart. Ymir rubbed the back of her neck.

“Give us a month,” she said. “If we hear anything specific, we’ll be back sooner.”

“If you find my mom, will you tell her that me and Mom want her to come home?” Sohan asked. He fidgeted, playing with his fingers. “I know she knows, but just to make sure?”

“We will,” said Ymir. “Be patient, okay?”

He nodded, and he watched her and Annie change to their wolf forms with interest. When they had gone off in blurs of black and gold, he looked at the table. The way he tried not to sigh was visible to everyone. Hova rubbed his hair gently. Christa watched them closely for a time, brows low with thought. After taking a deep breath, she took a tie from her pocket and tied her hair back in a ponytail.

“Reiner, Bertholdt,” she said, “how’re we doing along the borders?”

“We have more civilians along the eastern border,” Bertholdt replied. “Better farmlands and flats for horses.”

“Still a garrison of sixty wolves eighty miles inward from the border,” Reiner said. “Twenty wolves regularly patrol the foothills around the largest crossing point through the mountains, with a customs outpost on our side five miles on our side on the road. We have about four times more soldiers at the garrison furthest west to watch our steel traders.”

Christa nodded, looking toward the doors to the kitchen for a moment. To Armin, she said, “Could you go ask for more? Ymir and Annie had most everything and we’ll be busy.”

“With what?” Sohan asked as Armin left.

“Well,” said Christa as she sat down next to Adhara, “I’m going to discuss what we should do with our soldiers with Reiner, Mikasa, and your mother.”

“I don’t have details about the eastern military’s plans right now,” Hova said.

“I know,” Christa replied. “But you have more up-to-date information than we do. I want you to tell us everything so we have an idea of how to reposition our soldiers if need be.”

“I don’t know army stuff either,” Sohan said.

Christa smiled brightly and said, “You’re going to be playing with the pups today, so you won’t get bored.”

Sohan stared. He gripped Hova’s hand tight and said, “I have to make sure Mom’s safe.”

Hova looked at Christa over Sohan’s head. Because her smile did not falter, she smiled in turn. She set her free hand on Sohan’s brow, brushing his hair back as she tilted his head.

“The only way I’d be safer than I am now is if Kailas was here,” she said. “You haven’t gotten to play for months. It’s okay.”

He hesitated before looking at Adhara, Ginko, and Matvey. They looked back with as much anxiety in their gazes as there was in his. Matvey drummed his fingers on the table and swallowed.

“Our moms can howl to us in case your mom needs you,” he said. “And we can stay close to the castle.”

Sohan was quiet for a few moments more before asking, “Can we play tag?”

“Yeah, except Adhara can’t play,” Ginko replied.

“That’s a dumb rule,” Adhara grumbled.

“You’re too fast for your own good,” Eren laughed. He laughed harder when she stuck her tongue out at him.

“I’m fast,” Sohan said. “We can all play.” He smiled when Adhara looked at him, ears twitching.

“Are you challenging our princess?” Reiner asked with a grin.

“No, but it’s not fair if she doesn’t get to play,” he said.

“No crying if I catch you all the time!” Adhara said, starting to grin.

He nodded. “I promise.”

Her grin widened; Matvey and Ginko shared a nervous look. Still, when Armin returned with servants carrying fresh bread, pastries, and several types of meat, they all ate heartily. Sohan fidgeted when he saw everyone slowing down, but stopped when Hova combed his hair with her fingers.

“We’ll be in here today,” said Reiner, “so you don’t have to track us down if you need us.”

“Okay!” Matvey and Ginko said.

“All of you be nice, all right?” Christa said. When all of them, Sohan included, nodded dutifully, she smiled and said, “Thank you. Go on, now.”

They hesitated, staring at each other after getting off the benches. Sohan eventually held out a hand. Ginko nodded, took his hand, and gently pulled him along. Hova waved when he turned at the door, smiling when he waved back. Once he and the pups were gone, though, she sighed quietly.

“Sorry,” she said.

“For what?” asked Bertholdt.

“I know he makes all the pups nervous. I was—I had hoped he wouldn’t, but I didn’t know how he would smell to you.”

“They’ll get over it,” Eren said. “It’s just a different scent than they’re used to.”

“Besides, he’s a sweet kid,” Reiner said. “Give ‘em until sundown and they’ll be friends.”

Hova nodded and rubbed her forehead, brows coming together. She looked at them and asked, “What kind of information are you looking for?”

“My biggest concern is why the eastern army is so dead set on getting a dragon in their ranks,” Mikasa said. “If the stories my mother told me are true, a dragon could be an entire army on their own.”

Hova frowned, drumming her fingers on the table over and over. “Some members of parliament were offended by the south’s actions against the north back when the war started. They were concerned that the south would move against us if they had gone up against beings blessed by a goddess.”

Everyone but Hova turned to Armin. He shook his head.

“I never saw anything in the strategic corps archives about the east,” he said. “We had no military interest outside of some trade for necessary supplies.”

“There were more officers who believed that forty years ago,” Hova said. “But most of them retired twenty years ago, and Neha brought the argument back into parliament when she was elected seventeen years ago. She built her campaign on fear-mongering. She said if the wolves on our border were afraid of just one human, that human could easily attack us.”

Mikasa stared at her, brow raised. “She tried to scare people with Levi?”

“If that’s who the wolves called ‘the bastard,’ yes. She did her best to convince all of parliament that Kailas had to be in the army to keep the east safe.”

Reiner sighed. “No offense to your wife, but a dragon shouldn’t get involved with the wars of wolves. It’d be overkill when we can handle ourselves just fine.”

“That was Kailas’s reply every time it came up,” Hova replied. “A dragon would be overkill against almost any human army, and she didn’t want to insult the north by killing an opponent of theirs for no reason. The house of Arav has never moved to work with the military unless the east is already at war—making a preemptive strike like that is nothing short of sinful for dragons.”

She sighed, rubbing the knuckles of one hand with her thumb. “Dragons are the east’s protectors. Neha just wants to twist the definition of ‘protection’ until it lets her feel justified in ordering Kailas into war.”

Christa tapped her chin as she thought. “You said Sohan can’t change into a dragon yet.”

“Yes. Kailas has to teach him.”

“No human could teach him?”

“No. It’s not something humans can learn, even if they watch a dragon change a hundred times.” She tapped her chest, over her heart. “There’s a spell Kailas has to pass down to Sohan. Only dragons know it, and only dragons can use it.”

“Then the question becomes what they want with a little boy,” Christa said, “if he doesn’t know how to change and they can’t teach him.”

“They want him for whatever they’re doing with Kailas,” Hova said. She looked at the table. Her brows came together as she closed her hands into fists. Jaw tight, teeth close, she said, “But I don’t know what that is.”

Bertholdt looked to Mikasa. “Did you hear any stories about what you could do with a dragon in human form?”

“I didn’t know dragons have a human form,” Mikasa replied. “And all the stories I heard were about things like dragon’s fire and the strength of their scales. I don’t know what use you’d get from a human for the military.”

“None of the magic Ymir’s taught me has anything to do with dragons, either,” Christa sighed. She tapped her chin again, slower than before. “We need Annie or her spy to get close enough to find out.”

“What about Miss Leonhardt’s best spy?” Hova asked. “Maybe they were close enough to the capitol that Kailas ran into them once or twice.”

“She’d go by ‘Shu’ in the east,” Mikasa said. “A courier between an outpost further north and the eastern capitol. Very pale, gray hair, a blemish on her left cheek.”

Hova thought hard, hand rising to her hair. After a long time, she sighed. “She never mentioned couriers…it was only ever people who worked in the capitol. Soldiers and staff for members of parliament.”

“The spy there now went to enlist in the military,” Mikasa said. “If he figures out any part of what’s happening, he’ll go AWOL immediately to get to Annie.”

“I hope he’s already figured it out and meets her halfway,” Hova murmured.

For a time, no one moved or spoke. It was Armin who broke both. He set a hand gently on one of Hova’s and said, “This is the first time you’ve been worried while she’s away, isn’t it.”

“It’s the first time she’s never come home and the soldiers loyal to her told me to grab Sohan and escape with them.”

Reiner leaned forward. “How far did they get with you? You didn’t say anything about losing men on the way here.”

“They got us over the border in the mountains,” she replied. “We did a lot of backtracking in the foothills on both sides of the border. Once we were in the north and had a clear view of Utgard’s mountain, the soldiers went in half a dozen different directions back to the east.”

He nodded, smiling. “How long did that take?”

“One month to get from our home to the mountains on the border, two and a half months of backtracking, and the last month and a half was us trying to avoid large towns on our way here.” She smiled slightly. “Sohan did so well the entire time. Not one complaint.”

“He’s trying harder for you than he wants to let on,” Eren said.

“I know,” Hova said. She turned to Christa and said, “Thank you for getting the pups to play with him.”

“They all need to relax,” Christa replied. “Playing will help all of them.” She chuckled. “Even if they’re nervous.”

————

“Can you run with shoes on?” was the first question Ginko had when they all got down to the streets.

Sohan hesitated, looking at his scuffed, dirty black boots. He looked back up and nodded, cheeks stinging.

“But aren’t they heavy?” she asked.

The stinging grew into heat. Quietly, he said, “Not really. My feet aren’t tough like Mom’s yet, so I need to wear shoes still.”

Adhara crouched down to poke the toe of one boot. “They look like they’d be nice to chew on. They’re leather, right?”

“Yeah, but you can’t chew on my shoes,” Sohan protested.

She grinned as she straightened up. “I’ve got my adult fangs now, so I don’t need new chew toys.”

He stared at her, eyes wide. “Can you already turn into a wolf?”

The trio looked at each other, brows rising. Matvey toyed with the collar of his shirt before saying, “Wolves are born pups. We don’t change into our human forms for a while after we’re born.”

“Oh,” he said, shoulders slumping. He looked at his feet. The scent of his dejection made the trio look at each other again. Adhara squirmed, hands rising in a question Matvey and Ginko could only shrug to. Rubbing her own head hard, Adhara thought and thought until words came.

“Aunt Mikasa was already super fast when she was a human!” she said. “So—you—don’t have to be able to turn into a dragon to play tag!”

His mouth opened as he looked at the castle. Turning back, he asked, “Miss Mikasa was human, too?”

“Yeah,” said Ginko. “Her, Aunt Christa, and Uncles Eren and Armin were all human when they came to the north. Aunt Ymir turned them.”

He looked at her with wonder before faintly saying, “Wow. Miss Ymir is really good at magic.”

“Yep,” said Adhara. “And she’s really fast.”

Matvey and Ginko yelped at the sight of her smug grin. Turning on their heels, they said, “Run!”

Sohan watched them sprint away with confusion on his face.

“I’m really fast, too!” Adhara said.

He turned back to face her.

“And now you’re it!” she giggled, reaching for him.

Without any effort, Sohan swayed back to avoid her hand. He grinned, said, “Nuh uh!” and dashed right past her. Adhara spun on her heels to give chase, following his giggles as much as his scent. He ran through the streets as fast as she chased him, turning corners so quickly his boots slipped. When he turned another corner and nearly ran into Ginko, he yelped and jumped to one side. Adhara, though, caught Ginko in a massive hug that took her from her feet.

“You’re it!” Adhara said.

Ginko stuck her tongue out at her and waited to be set down.

“Ginko’s it now, Matvey!” Adhara said loudly.

“Okay!” he called back.

Adhara let go and skipped backward, grinning toothily.

“Three two one go!” Ginko said, and she lunged for Sohan while Adhara ran. Again, utterly without effort, he twisted out of reach and ran off.

“Can’t catch me!” he sang over his shoulder.

Ginko’s face flushed before she said, “Yeah I can!” and sprinted after him. Though she never lost his scent, he bolted around corners so quickly she only caught sight of one of his feet before he was gone.

She caught up to him abruptly toward the road in front of the castle stairs. He had stopped dead in front of another trio of pups playing tug-of-war as wolves. While the pups stared at him, tails starting to puff, he stood with his shoulders high and his head low.

“Sorry,” he said very quietly.

Ginko looked between him and the pups. After a few seconds of thought, she said, “We need more people to play tag because Adhara’s playing today. No tackling.”

“I won’t tackle,” Sohan said.

The larger wolf of the three, brown and white, set down the three-way rope in their mouth, padded over, and turned into a girl taller than Ginko. Sohan went still as the girl looked at him.

“Are you keeping up with Ginko?” the girl asked.

“Um,” he said. “I’m. Faster.”

Her brows rose. “But you’re wearing shoes.”

He blushed. “My feet aren’t tough yet!”

She grinned. “They’re not gonna get any tougher if you keep wearing shoes. Our roads are safe for little pups, so your baby feet’ll be fine.”

Sohan hesitated, but sat down and untied his boots. He took them off and stood, flexing his toes in the dirt. The girl took his boots and set them on a covered rain barrel.

“So they’re not lost,” she said. She turned to the two wolves she had been playing with and said, “Viktor, Ivan, c’mon. You keep saying you want to play tag.”

They changed to their human forms and came over. Sohan waved; he smiled when they waved back.

“Matvey, Adhara!” Ginko said, voice raised. “Noelle, Viktor, and Ivan are playing, too!”

“Okay!” they called back.

“And now you’re it!” Ginko said as she leapt at Sohan. He yelped, ducked, and scrambled away. Blushing to her ears, Ginko quickly tagged Noelle before running. Viktor and Ivan let out panicked giggles as they ran in different directions.

“I’m it now!” Noelle said, heading in the direction Sohan had gone. He had paused at a corner, but hurried away when he saw her. Because she saw which direction he went, she grinned and sprinted around the house. She almost caught him on the next street, but he managed to dodge her hand. Undeterred, Noelle sniffed hard and caught Matvey’s scent close by and coming closer. Keeping out of sight, she waited until he came around the corner before tagging him.

“Matvey’s it!” Noelle said as she ran away.

Matvey stuck his tongue out at her, but did not give chase. He stood still, nose in the air as he breathed deeply. There was little wind in the streets, forcing him to concentrate on each scent. Sohan was a veritable beacon as he moved, too tempting as prey to relent. Matvey crept along to avoid the others. Cautious as any hunt on the mountain, he moved closer and closer. He came to a corner and spotted Sohan standing with his back to him, clearly trying to listen. Matvey grinned, dug his toes in, and bolted.

“Got ya!” he said, reaching with both hands.

Sohan shouted with surprise and moved in a way Matvey did not expect: he jumped straight up. He rose far higher than any jump Matvey had seen from other pups, clearing the two story shop with shocking ease. Sohan grabbed the edge of the roof when he started to come back down, starting to pull himself up.

“We can’t play on roofs!” Matvey said, hurrying to stand below him. “We could break something!”

“Sorry!” Sohan said, voice high with panic. “Sorry, I’ll get down!”

“It’s okay!” Matvey said. “You’re not gonna get in trouble!”

“O-okay!” He took a deep breath and looked toward his feet. He looked at the wall. “Matvey?”

“What?”

“I don’t have anything to climb down on!”

“Let go and I’ll catch you! It’s okay—you won’t even have to be it!” He changed to his bipedal form when Sohan looked at him, holding up his arms. “On three, okay?”

“Okay!”

“One…two…three!” He watched Sohan let go, reaching up to catch him well before he hit the ground. He set Sohan on his feet and changed back to his human form. Looking up toward the shop’s roof, he said, “I’ve never seen a kid as little as you jump so high. Even my mom couldn’t jump that high as easy as you did.”

“Dragons can jump really high,” Sohan said. “My mom could probably jump to the top of the tower near the mountain.” He blushed at the way Matvey’s brow rose. “She said it’s ‘cause we’re blessed by the Lady of the Sky. We’re supposed to have command of the sky…except we can’t fly when we’re human.”

“Geez,” Matvey said, looking at the tower. “I believe it.” Looking back to Sohan, he asked, “How high can you jump?”

“Um.” He looked around. He eventually pointed toward the castle. “I can jump all the way up the stairs.”

Matvey stared. “As in ‘from the street to the top of the stairs in one jump’?”

“Yeah.”

“No way, only adults can make that kind of jump!”

Sohan puffed out his chest. “I can do it! Me and Mom jumped over stuff like that all the time at home!”

“Okay, I wanna see that,” Matvey said. He offered a hand, leading Sohan back to the road in front of the stairs. Adhara and Ginko were pacing there, looking bored. Though they moved to run on seeing Matvey, the sight of Sohan holding his hand made them stop.

“Are we done already?” Adhara asked, shoulders slumping.

“Sohan says he can jump all the way up the stairs,” Matvey replied. “He practically jumped over the tailor’s shop from a standing start.”

Adhara and Ginko boggled. They looked at each other. After a moment, Adhara said, “We could make that a game.”

“Yeah we could,” Ginko said with a grin. She cupped her hands around her mouth and called, “Noelle, Viktor, Ivan, come to the main street! We have a new game!”

Sohan kept hold of Matvey’s hand as they waited, but waved at Noelle, Viktor, and Ivan when they arrived on their own. He froze from surprise when Matvey lifted their hands.

“He says he can jump all the way to the top of the stairs,” Matvey said. “I say we all jump first, and then whoever’s closest to where he jumps wins.”

“I like this game better,” Viktor said, bouncing on his toes. “Can we jump as wolves?”

“Sure,” said Sohan.

Viktor giggled and nudged Noelle’s side. “Me and Ivan get to beat you in a game.”

She blushed and nudged back. “You’re probably not gonna beat Ginko so shh.”

“Can I go first?” Ivan asked.

“Yeah, but watch for people,” Sohan said.

“And scoot to the side once you’re on your stair,” Adhara added.

He nodded, changed to his wolf form, and headed for the stairs at a run. He leapt at the last second, landing halfway up the stairs. Changing back to his human form, he moved to one side to sit on the step his back feet had landed on. Noelle and Viktor followed, landing a step below and above him respectively.

Matvey made his run next, managing to get three-fourths of the way up. Adhara landed on the same step, moving to sit close to him. He smiled at her before cupping his hands around his mouth and calling down the stairs.

“Gotta beat me and Adhara!” he said.

Ginko smirked; Sohan marveled at how her face matched Annie’s perfectly in that moment. She changed to her wolf form, lowered her shoulders for a moment, and sprinted full speed at the stairs. Her jump was best of all, landing her five steps above Matvey and Adhara. When she had moved to one side, she changed back to her human form and grinned.

“Go for it, Sohan!” she said. “The street’s clear!”

“Okay!” he replied, and he took a few steps back. He broke into a run, as fast as Adhara had been before him. He jumped sooner than they had, but rose much higher. He reached the top of the stairs without needing to pull his legs up, but his bare feet slipped on a patch of smooth stones. He yelped as he fell back and started to tumble down the stairs.

Adhara and Ginko scrambled in unison. Ginko caught his trousers at the ankle as he went by, tugging enough to aim him into Adhara’s waiting arms. Noelle, Ivan, and Viktor hurried up the stairs as Ginko jumped down them. Sohan curled up in a tight, trembling ball with his hands pressed down on his brow. Matvey spotted blood leaking past his hands and gently took hold of his wrists.

“Let me see,” he said. “It’s okay, put your hands down.”

Biting his lip, Sohan lowered his hands. A sizable cut was on his his forehead, sending blood down his face. He sniffed hard, brows low as his eyes grew wet.

“Ow,” he whimpered.

“It looks like you hit a corner dead-on,” Matvey said. “It’ll be okay in a minute, don’t worry.”

Sohan looked down, sniffing again as the blood dripped off his chin.

“Uh,” Adhara said, looking at the wound. “Matvey? Why isn’t that healing?”

Matvey opened his mouth. When the cut did not start to steam or close, he shut his mouth and went pale.

Ginko, just as pale, asked, “Don’t dragons heal really fast?”

“No,” Sohan whimpered, and he put his hands on his brow. He made a strangled noise of surprise when Adhara bundled him up in her arms and shot to her feet.

“Going to Mom now,” she said faintly. “Mom’ll fix it.”

“I’ll get his shoes!” Noelle said, running back down the stairs. Adhara nodded and started up the stairs two at a time.

Sohan squirmed and said, “No! I don’t want Mom to see I got hurt! Put me down!”

“Nope,” Adhara said. “You’re little and you’re bleeding a lot. My mom’ll fix it.”

“Your mom won’t get mad!” Ginko said. “It was an accident!”

“Mom’ll be worried!” Sohan said. “I can’t make her worried about me!”

“Moms worry about kids,” Adhara said, and she started to jog because Sohan squirmed harder. “So too bad, we’re going to them!”

Sohan had no chance to escape with how Matvey and Ginko ran on ahead to push the doors to the dining hall open. He shrank in Adhara’s arms because all conversation died instantly when Hova and the pack saw them.

“Sohan hit his head on the stairs,” Adhara announced.

Wow, that’s a lot of blood,” Eren said, eyes wide.

Hova shot to her feet and hurried over as Adhara set Sohan down. He kept his hands on his head and stared at the floor. Hova knelt down and touched his hands.

“Let me see, sweetheart,” she murmured.

“You’re gonna be upset,” he mumbled.

She stared, baffled, for a few seconds. She smiled and asked, “Sohan, have I ever been upset about you bumping your head?”

He hesitated. He glanced at her. Looking at the floor again, he admitted, “No.”

“I won’t be upset. Come on, let me see.”

He slowly lowered his hands as he looked at her. Her brows rose at the size of the cut and the blood on his face. She thought for a moment before taking the end of one of her sleeves between her teeth. A sharp, hard tug snapped the stitching enough to let her tear the sleeve to the elbow and off. She started to wipe the blood from his face.

“You really hit your head this time,” she said. She looked at Adhara and asked, “How’d he hit his head on the stairs?”

Adhara flatly ignored the way Sohan frowned at her, instead saying, “We were playing a jumping game because he said he could jump to the top of the stairs. He made it, but he slipped and fell backward.”

Hova looked at Sohan’s bare feet. “Where’re your shoes?”

“Outside,” Sohan mumbled.

“You made that jump barefoot?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s as high as the cliff by our front door!” she laughed. “That’s really good without your shoes!”

He smiled tentatively as she wiped away the last of the blood. The smile faded for a small wince when she pressed down on the cut. She offered her other hand.

“Just a little fire,” she said. “It’s not too bad.”

Sohan nodded, waited until she had spoken under her breath, and breathed flames into her hand. She flexed her fingers, lifting the flames to their tips, and took the cloth from his brow. The flames moved from her hand to the cut when she brought her fingers close. All at once, the bleeding stopped. The cut remained, but the pain in Sohan’s eyes faded as the sparks did.

“There we go,” Hova said. She tore her other sleeve for a makeshift bandage, smiling as she tied the knot. “All better.”

“I would’ve thought that dragons would have accelerated healing like us,” Armin said, coming closer. “And I wouldn’t have thought that you’d use fire to heal.”

“Fire is everything for dragons,” Hova said. “Healing, strength, even food sometimes. Kailas stopped a wildfire on the mountains along our northern border and didn’t need to eat for months.”

“Did that happen ninety years ago?” Reiner asked.

“Just about, yes.”

He laughed. “I heard a story about that when I was a pup! The wolves near those mountains said the flames almost made it over the mountains, but then they disappeared like magic.”

Sohan smiled brightly. “‘Cause Mom’s a superhero. She’d never let people get hurt by a fire.”

“Can you eat fire, too?” Matvey asked.

“Of course I can,” Sohan replied, crossing his arms. He stared when Adhara, Ginko, and Matvey all went wide-eyed with amazement. Bertholdt spotted his confusion and chuckled.

“That’s a very difficult type of magic for wolves,” he said. “They’re impressed.”

Sohan blushed to his hairline; Hova struggled to keep from laughing. She ruffled his hair.

“Why don’t you go back out and play a little while longer?” she said. “It’s not lunchtime yet and you don’t look tired at all.”

“Um,” he said. He looked at the trio. “Can we play hide and seek?”

“Yeah, but no crying if we catch you first all the time,” Ginko said with a grin.

He grinned right back and said, “I won’t.”

————

“Chain her head back.”

Kailas did not bother opening her eyes until the back of her head was against the metal plate and a chain was on her brow. She kept them half-closed until they were used to the bright white light held in several lanterns. When she could see properly, the sight of seven soldiers and a woman with eyes the same color as Hova’s made her smirk.

“Finally learned your lesson about having fire in your lanterns?” she asked.

The woman raised a brow slowly. “Colonel Kiri is going to lose his hand after that bite of yours. I’ve never seen such an infection.”

Laughter rumbled through Kailas’s chest “I can’t be blamed for not cleaning my fangs properly. Why’re you here, Neha?”

Neha took a slow, deep breath before looking at one solider, a young man with bright blue eyes and dark blond hair. “Feed her.”

The soldier nodded and moved forward with a box in hand. When he knelt down beside her, Kailas snarled and spat at him. It left her mouth as embers, making him yelp with fright and scramble out of the way.

“Moldy bread and poisoned meat to keep me half-alive!” Kailas snapped. “Why’re you here, Neha?”

She smiled. “You know why, Aunt Arav.”

Kailas sneered to smile back. “I bother to remember one of the stupid things you say, Neha, and that’s how many times you’ve dared to call me ‘Aunt Arav.’ You’re up to twenty-six.” She snickered. “Keep it up and I’ll have to change my plans to rip out just your teeth to ripping out teeth and bones.”

“I see your time here hasn’t made you any more cultured.”

“We can debate my levels of sophistication when you stop holding me prisoner. What do you want?”

Neha took another deep breath. “You still won’t enter the army?”

“No,” said Kailas. “I’m amazed you’re still asking.”

“Then you know that I need your son.”

She smiled. “Sohan is a wonderful boy, but he’s five years old. He can do nothing for your army.”

“He can once you tell me how to teach him to change.”

Kailas laughed. She laughed softly, but her refusal to stop made Neha scowl.

“Why is this so amusing to you?” she asked.

“I recall telling your inquisitors that I am the only one who can teach Sohan how to change,” Kailas replied. “How in the world did they spin that to you?”

“That you would be more willing to give us the spell if I came down here myself,” Neha said through grit teeth.

Kailas’s smile broadened. All her chains creaked as she strained against them. The soldiers around Neha reached as one, reaching to their hips or over their shoulders. Neha held up a hand, frowning at the nearest man.

“There’s no reason to be afraid of her,” she said. “Not anymore.”

“Do you really believe that our goddess will let you succeed in this?” Kailas asked. “Driving my wife and son into hiding? Trying to kill me?”

The soldiers cringed. Many of them looked at each other with fear pooling in their eyes. Only the soldier next to Kailas watched Neha, his heavy brows low.

“I knew it wouldn’t kill you,” said Neha. “I need to keep you alive. And if you’re truly that concerned about their safety, you should tell me where they went.”

Kailas tried to move against the chains again, but could not muster more than a curling of her hands into fists. She sighed and said, “I’ll take that food now.”

“I am going to find your soldiers, Aunt Arav—”

“Twenty-seven.”

“And I will make them tell me where they took Hova and Sohan.”

Kailas looked at the soldier with the box of food. She raised a brow at how evenly he met her gaze. “I apologize for spitting. May I have that food?”

He was still for a moment before scooting close and taking a stale loaf of bread from the box. He stared at it, and then at Kailas. She regarded him mildly and did not move. Teeth clenched behind closed lips, he offered the bread and held it steady while she ate.

“The Zhu brothers can’t hide forever,” Neha said. “The younger one will try to storm the capitol, I’m sure.”

Kailas swallowed what was in her mouth and looked at her with such coldness that Neha could not suppress a shiver. The soldiers tensed up and clustered around her. At the sound of a mental snap being popped open, Kailas blinked slowly and raised a brow again.

“The Zhu family has never failed in their duty to the Arav house,” she said. “Jai and Tai-Yang have already written their success by leaving me in your care.”

“For all he knew, Jai left you here to die. You would trust him with your family after that?”

“I trust him and Tai-Yang implicitly. They know how to protect their charges and get them to safety.” She chuckled. “They’re men of the mountains, after all.”

“What does more mountain barbarism have to do with anything, Aunt Arav?”

“Twenty-eight. And you know exactly why. Or are you admitting that you’re too stupid to realize where Hova and Sohan went after all those obvious hints?”

Neha stared at her. Her eyes began to widen as blood drained from her face.

“The house of Arav has always recognized the holiness of Lady Mond,” said Kailas, “and the sovereignty of the ruling wolf packs.” She smirked. “All that remains to be seen is how much Hova and Sohan endear themselves to the wolves before I get free.”

“Double the number of soldiers patrolling the mountains bordering the north!” Neha said, whirling toward the door. “We have to keep as much information from the north as possible!” She paused at the door only to look at the soldier beside Kailas.

“Make sure she finishes her meal,” she spat, and she snapped her fingers. The other soldiers all but ran for the door, only leaving a single lantern behind when they slammed the door closed. Alone, Kailas and the soldier looked at each other. He held a finger to his lips and turned to watch the door.

“Sounds like they’re gone,” he whispered.

“And the smell?”

He went still. He looked at her slowly. “What?”

“You’re the only soldier who’s ever gotten out of the way when I spat at them,” she murmured. “As I recall, wolves dislike fire more than any other sentient creature. And you don’t exactly look like you were born in the east.”

His face grew pale. Sweat rose on his brow. She looked at him, eyes calm and expression neutral.

“I don’t suppose,” she said, “that you ran into my wife and son on your way here.”

His shoulders lost all of their tension as he took in the scent of her misery. He admitted, “No…no ma’am, I’m sorry. I came here on orders to gather information on parliament fighting a noble house. I didn’t realize this was the outcome.” He shook his head and held up the bread for her to eat. Once she had swallowed the last of it, he retrieved raw meat from the box.

“I’ll sneak better food down here next time, ma’am,” he said. “First things first—getting you strong enough to break out of here.”

“No,” said Kailas.

He boggled. “‘No’?”

“I’m fed like this once every few weeks,” she replied. “And it’s never the same person to make sure my food isn’t tampered with.” Kailas looked him in the eye and said, “Neha will make a mistake sooner than later. The only thing I don’t know is if it’ll happen here in the east or somewhere else. What I absolutely need you to do now is escape to the north and do two things on the way.”

He saluted her where he knelt. “You have my word, ma’am.”

Kailas smiled wearily. “I have the word of a nameless spy?”

Maintaining his salute, he said, “Will Leroux, ma’am. I answer directly to the ruling pack’s spymaster.”

“All the better. You have to find the Zhu brothers before Neha does. Only Jai saw exactly what happened to me.”

“No sooner said than done,” Will replied. “My mate and I will track them down and bring them to Utgard.”

“The other task is harder.” She looked significantly at his shoulder and what was visible over it. “Neha doesn’t suffer thieves of those, but the ruling pack has to know.”

Will frowned over his shoulder. “They’re not going to like these things.”

“That’s why you have to get at least one to them. They can’t be uninformed.” She sighed. “It’ll be the least I can do if they’re taking care of my family.”

“I’ll find your soldiers and get them and these—things to the north. I’ll make sure your family knows you’re alive.”

Kailas looked at him for a moment before chuckling. “You’re a reliable wolf, Mister Leroux. You have my gratitude.”

Will smiled gently and said nothing. He fed her the rest of the food, took the last lantern, and reluctantly left alone after unchaining her head. Kailas let her head fall forward and, smiling, closed her eyes to sleep.