She was always the favored one.
“Ember,” Mr. Gordon sighed for the second time that hour. “Please pay attention. This is important. Are you listening?”
“Yes,” my twin muttered, not looking up from her desk, where she was doodling cartoon figures into her textbook.
Mr. Gordon frowned. “All right, then. Can you tell me what the fleshy part of a human’s ear is called?”
I raised my hand. As expected, Mr. Gordon ignored me.
“Ember?” he prompted when she didn’t answer. “Do you know the answer to the question?”
Ember sighed and put down her pencil. “The earlobe,” she said in a voice that clearly stated, I’m bored and I want to be somewhere else.
“Yes.” Mr. Gordon nodded. “The fleshy part of a human’s ear is the earlobe. Very good, Ember. Write that down—it will be on the test tomorrow.
“All right,” he continued as Ember scribbled something in her notebook. I doubted it was the answer, or anything to do with the test, so I jotted the definition down, just in case she forgot. “Next question. Human hair and fingernails are made of the same substance a dragon’s claws and horns are made of. What is this substance called? Ember?”
“Um.” Ember blinked. Clearly, she had no idea. “I dunno.”
I started to raise my hand but stopped. There was no point.
“We discussed this yesterday,” Mr. Gordon continued sternly. “All through class, we talked about the human anatomy. You should know this. A human’s hair and fingernails, and a dragon’s claws and horns, are all made of…?”
Come on, Ember, I thought at her. You know this. It’s in your brain, even if you were staring out the window most of class yesterday.
Ember shrugged, slumping in her chair in a pose that said, I don’t want to be here. Our teacher sighed and turned to me. “Dante?”
“Keratin,” I answered.
He gave a brisk nod but turned back to Ember. “Yes, keratin. Your brother was paying attention,” he told her, narrowing his eyes. “Why can’t you do the same?”
Ember glowered. Comparing her to me was always a surefire way to make her mad. “I don’t see why I have to know the difference between scales and human toenails,” she muttered, crossing her arms. “Who cares what it’s called? I bet the humans don’t know that hair is made of kraken, either.”
“Keratin,” Mr. Gordon corrected, frowning back at her.
“And it is highly important that you know what it is you are Shifting into, inside and out. If you want to mimic humans perfectly, you must know them perfectly. Even if they do not.”
“I still think it’s dumb,” Ember mumbled, looking longingly out the window at the desert and open sky beyond the chain-link fence that surrounded the compound. Our teacher’s expression darkened.
“Well, then, let’s give you some motivation. If you and Dante don’t make at least ninty-five percent on your tests tomorrow, you both will be banned from the game room for a month.” Ember jerked in her seat, eyes going wide with outrage, and Mr. Gordon gave her a cold smile. “That is how important you knowing the human anatomy is to Talon. So I would study, both of you.” He waved a hand at the door. “You’re dismissed.”
“It’s totally unfair,” Ember raged as we walked across the dusty yard to our dorms. Overhead, the Nevada sun beat down on me, chasing away the chill of the air-conditioned classroom and warming my skin. Or, should I say, my epidermis?
I smirked at my own joke, knowing Ember wouldn’t get it. And, in her current mood, she wouldn’t appreciate it even if she did.
“Gordon is a bully,” Ember growled, kicking a pebble with her shoe, sending it bouncing over the dusty ground.
“He can’t ban us from the game room for a whole month— that’s completely insane. I’d go crazy—there’s nothing else to do around here.”
“Well, you could try paying attention,” I suggested as we neared the long cement building at the edge of the fence. As expected, the suggestion did not go over well.
“How am I supposed to pay attention when everything is so boring?” Ember snapped, wrenching open the door.
Inside, the living room was cool to the point of chilly. A pair of leather sofas sat in an L around a coffee table, and a large television hung on the opposite wall, its huge screen shiny and dark. It had over a hundred channels, everything from sci-fi to news stations to movies and sports—an attempt to keep us pacified, I suspected, though it never really worked on Ember. She would rather be outside than sitting in a room watching TV all day. The room was also spotlessly clean, despite the mess a certain sibling made of it nearly every day.
Ember stalked to one of the couches and tossed her books onto the cushions. “They never give me a break,” she continued, ignoring the texts as one of them slid off the leather and fell to the floor. “They just keep pushing me—do better, go faster, pay more attention. Nothing I do is ever good enough.” She gave me a half joking, half sour glare. “They never do that with you, Tweedledum.”
“That’s because I actually pay attention.” I set my bag on the table and headed into the kitchen for something to drink. Our live-in caretaker, Mr. Stiles, was not in sight, so I figured he was either out or in his room. “They never have reason to come after me.”
“Yeah, well, you don’t know how lucky you are,” Ember grumbled, heading down the hall to her quarters. “If you need me, I’ll be in my room cramming for this stupid test tomorrow. If you hear a crash, don’t panic. I’ve probably just smashed my head through the wall.”
Right, I thought as the door to her room opened and closed with a bang. Lucky.
Alone in the kitchen, I poured myself a glass of orange juice and perched on the breakfast stool, brooding into the cup.
Lucky, Ember had said. Of course it would seem lucky to her. She was the favorite, the one they all paid attention to. It had always been that way. In our eleven years together, our instructors always seemed to ask her questions first, show her things first, make sure she knew what she was doing.
They pushed her hard and insisted she do things right, not noticing—or seeming to care—that I already knew the answers.
And when I did get them to notice, it was always to set an example for my sister. See, Dante knows the answers. Dante already has this down. I would kill for half the favor they showed her.
Draining the glass, I put it into the dishwasher before heading down the hall to my room. I just had to do better,
I thought, resolve stealing over me. I had to work for the attention that came so easily to my sister. Ember was hotheaded and always getting into trouble; it was up to me to watch out for us both. But at the same time, if I kept working hard and excelling, eventually they would realize that
I always did better than my twin. They would realize that I was the smart one; I was the one who did everything right.If Talon didn’t notice what I could do, I would just make them see.
“Mr. Hill? The Elder Wyrm is ready for you. Please, go in.”
Sitting on the couch in the cold, brightly lit lobby, I raised my head as the present caught up with me, shaking away dark thoughts and the memories of the past. I’d been thinking of Ember a lot recently, her presence weighing heavily on my mind. Guilt, perhaps, that I had failed her? That I wasn’t able to keep my twin safe from her worst enemy— herself?
Standing, I nodded to the human assistant and walked toward the huge doors of Elder Wyrm’s office. I couldn’t think like that anymore. I wasn’t eleven years old, desperate to prove I was worth something. I wasn’t the pathetic, overlooked twin of the Elder Wyrm’s daughter. No, I had proved myself, to all of Talon, that I was worthy of my heritage. I was the Elder Wyrm’s right-hand man, the one she trusted with Talon’s most important campaign.
And someday, if everything worked out, I would lead all of Talon. Someday, this would all be mine. I was close, so very close, to achieving what I’d set out to do all those years ago. I couldn’t falter now.
The enormous wooden doors to the CEO’s office loomed above me, brass handles glimmering in the light. I didn’t knock or wait for the Elder Wyrm to call me in. I simply opened the doors and entered.
The Elder Wyrm was sitting at her desk, manicured nails clicking over the keyboard as her eyes scanned the computer screen. Her presence still filled the office, massive and terrifying, even though she wasn’t looking at me. I walked quietly across the room and stood at the front of the desk with my hands clasped behind my back. Having an open invitation into the Elder Wyrm’s office was one thing. Interrupting the Elder Wyrm, without waiting for her to acknowledge your presence, was another. I was heir to one of the largest empires in the corporate world, but she was still the CEO of Talon and the most powerful dragon in existence. Not even the son of the Elder Wyrm was exempt from protocol.
The Elder Wyrm didn’t say anything or look up from her task, and I waited silently for her to finish. Finally, she clicked the mouse button, pushed the keyboard tray beneath the desktop and looked up at me. Her green-eyed gaze, identical to Ember’s and my own, pierced the space between us.
“Dante.” She smiled and, unlike that of many other dragons who could only imitate a smile, hers seemed genuine.
Of course, that was what made her so dangerous; you never knew if what she was showing you was real or not. “Good to see you again. How was your trip back?”
“It was fine, ma’am. Thank you.”
She nodded and rose, gesturing to the duo of chairs in front of the desk. I sank into one obediently and crossed my legs as the Elder Wyrm came around the desk to pin me with her stare. The weight of her gaze was suffocating, but I settled back with a calm yet expectant expression, careful not to show any fear.
“Plans are in motion,” the Elder Wyrm said, and her low voice sent a shiver down my spine. “Everything is nearly in place. There is just one thing missing now. One last thing we must take care of.”
My heart beat faster. I could guess what that final piece was. Of course it would be her. Even now, she didn’t realize her importance.
“Ember Hill must be retrieved,” the Elder Wyrm went on, her tone becoming frighteningly intense. The hairs on my arms rose, and something inside me shrank down in terror as the Elder Wyrm speared me with that terrible gaze. “It is imperative that she return to Talon. No more mistakes. This is what we are going to do…”
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