The first scales grow on the backs of my hands, flesh-colored and brittle. They itch something awful as they push through my skin, and I pick at them like I would at fresh scabs, although you’re not supposed to.
Mother hobbles toward me over the sharp rocks. “Stop it. Don’t you know how lucky you are? Be grateful.”
She’s right, of course. Once the scales cover my whole body, including my smooth scalp, I will become a Seeker, only the third girl in our cave to receive this honor. If I get an infection, I’ll never get another chance. I’ll never hear a Dragon sing to me, never stand under the two suns, never see the true colors and know which is which, so I can find the rare purple rock for the Dragons and help repay our debt to them.
The Dragons saved us.
I don’t remember it. I was only a baby when it happened.
But I know we wouldn’t be here without them. They brought my people down planetside after our ship got trapped in orbit, our radiation shield useless against the double sun.
I wish I knew the details. I’ve asked Mother a thousand times, and so have Xian and Alma and Prati.
But Mother only grunts and shakes her head. She tells us the past doesn’t matter, everything is different now, and if we want to eat, we better do our chores, because the cave tubers won’t dig themselves up and jump into the pot, and that’s all we have to eat until our two Seekers find more purple rock and the Dragons bring us food after nightfall.
I’m excused from the chores while my scales come in, but Mother doesn’t tolerate idleness. She says idleness invites stupidity, like when Alma climbed to the top of the cave hoping to see the Dragons and got tangled in vines. It was after the first Seeker discovered the richest purple rock deposit yet, and we were all too excited to follow the rules. At least Mother managed to cut Alma down before the first sunrise, or Alma’s skin would burn right off.
Alma didn’t see a Dragon that night. None of us ever have—except maybe Mother. But she won’t tell us anything. She only glares and reminds us that if the Dragons don’t want to be seen, we better respect that.
It’s not like we can surprise them or sneak up on them, anyway. Dragons can read our minds. Not the exact thoughts, not the words or images, but our feelings and moods.
This is why Mother drills us in emotion-control exercises and gratitude practice every morning. No excuses. We can’t lose our temper while our hosts are listening in. It would be rude.
Seekers are special, and each Seeker can hear her Dragon after a while—after the scales reach her head and cover her scalp, establishing the connection. The Dragon sings to her when she works alone outside the cave and guides her back by nightfall.
I can’t wait for my scales to cover me so I can hear my Dragon.
No idleness allowed, so even though my arms and shoulders are sore from the scales prickling my skin, I have to do my lessons.
Not that I’m complaining. Because today I start a new subject that only Seekers learn—true colors.
Most of the cave is dimly lit, the sunlight filtering in through long cracks in the rock overhead. But Mother leads me up a short, steep tunnel to a patch of bright light.
I reflexively shrink back. Light means danger; it means pain.
“Don’t be scared. The light is reflected. See these? They are mirrors.” Mother points up above, then frowns. “Besides, it’ll be much brighter outside, so you better get used to it. Now here is your color wheel and your rock samples. The Dragon rock is marked. Study.”
She hands me a box and a thin disk. The disk has a concentric array of colors on it, and the colors are so vivid and gorgeous, my eyes sting and my breath catches.
I have a job to do, though. It’s nothing but rocks outside the cave, thousands of different types. But the Dragons only care about one, and I need to find it for them. Every subtle difference matters.
I study the rocks and the color wheel until my eyes burn and my head throbs. But it’s not just a headache. When I lift my hand to my temple, I feel the first scale that broke skin. Pleasure warms me before I catch myself. My scales are coming in fast.
The light is fading now, which means dinnertime, and I’m famished. It also means the Seekers should be back by now, and I want to be there to greet and congratulate them. I know they bring good news; I can feel it.
But I am wrong.
An agitated crowd surrounds the first Seeker, pushing in closer.
“…What do you mean, you couldn’t find it?” “It’s your job!” “We need food!”
Until the Seeker lashes out. “Leave me alone! You have no idea! The Dragons—”
“Enough!” Mother backhands her across the face.
The cave falls silent.
The first Seeker stares at Mother. “I can’t do this. I won’t. It’s not right. We don’t owe them. They’re using us. I hate—”
Mother’s voice is hoarse. “Get out.”
“What?” The Seeker starts to shake. “No. Please. Not at night.”
But the crowd is already parting, and Mother advances on her. “You can’t stay here. You made your choice. Now leave.”
The Seeker battles with herself, then straightens. “You’re worse than them, Mother.”
She turns and walks out of the cave and into the darkness.
Anger and resentment slash through me, but I stifle them, like I’ve been taught.
How could she be so ungrateful? She didn’t deserve the Dragons’ scales.
I’ll be a better Seeker than she ever was.