“How dare you accuse me of being a paranoid coward! How dare you! I watched as my people - as my mother - sickened and died from an illness we couldn’t name or trace. We starved ourselves fearing contagion from the sea, we weakened while we were too scared to drink snowmelt in case it was something in the sky. We had every single dragon scouring for a cure - for a cause! - while their families died around them. While they felt themselves dying every passing day.”
“Your majesty,” Jerboa began.
Snowfall interrupted her with a rattling lash of her tail. “It is not your place to speak! You weren’t here to see families evacuate with healthy children only to be found dead in the desert days later. You weren’t here to see an entire nation die.
“And we would have,” she snarled, “but we survived because of the random generosity of two children half a continent away, because of a magic bowl. Because their gift was enchanted without needing to cast any extra spells. Every single IceWing on this continent is alive because two dragonets were lucky enough to be born with magic and be kind enough to use it - but only if there was a way to do it without costing the animus his soul.
“I want you to look at me and tell me that one animus dragon’s soul wouldn’t have been an equal exchange for the lives of every IceWing on the continent.” Snowfall stiffened in her pacing, eyes narrowing as she shared down the SandWing. Jerboa didn’t answer, and Snowfall waited for another painful moment before she turned her head aside, hissing out a breath in a way that didn’t quite hide the tightness of her voice. “And you accuse me of cowardice. How dare you.”
“Closing your borders won’t save you,” Jerboa protested, though she looked away when Snowfall’s head whipped towards her.
Snowfall snorted, her voice sarcastically light. “You’re right. Closing my borders won’t save me. At this point, very little will save the IceWings. Our hatcheries are all but barren. The number of orphaned dragonets, childless parents, widowed partners - closing our borders won’t help them bring back the dead. We’re decimated because of one dragon’s two thousand year old revenge, and I refuse to be the Queen who loses her crown because she let others take advantage of that weakness.
“Do you think the war is over? Gone for good?” Snowfall crooned. “Idealistic, and stupid. There’s enough infighting in any nation to restart a war. There are SandWings and SkyWings who would be happy to move in to the more temperate reaches of the tundra. There’s nothing I can do if the SeaWings decide anything the ocean touches is theirs. And this enchantment is our only defense short of the ice itself. And the ice is not enough.”
Jerboa said nothing, but still avoided Snowfall’s glances. With every deference, Snowfall bristled.
“Do you not understand? ” She roared, leaping forward to swipe her serrated claws across Jerboa’s face. Jerboa dropped and rolled back, her tail curling forward to show the barb but obviously hesitant to actually strike the Queen of another nation. Snowfall kept herself from attacking a second time, but she couldn’t force herself back into poise; her claws dug into the icy floor, and her wings flared hugely in the enclosed room.
“The sickness took our freedom ! Every single IceWing is shackled to a stupid gemstone for the rest of their lives, or they’ll die. We have to place them under our eggs or they die too.” Snowfall smiled, a thin and gruesome thing, as Jerboa finally reacted, a horrified groan of realization. “Didn’t know that, did you? That it doesn’t even wait until they’ve hatched? We don’t even know at what point it does happen. It could even be different for every single egg. And if they survive that long, the second they’re hatched, the first thing they know isn’t their parents’ tender grooming or the brisk breath of the polar wind in their throats, it’s the pain of having their ears pierced the moment their heads are free from their shells. My people are shackled by some teenager’s cheap accessory at the cost of death .
“And if I was an ordinary dragon, and you fought back just then, are you honorable enough to not aim for it? It’s a pretty target, gleaming, exposed, somewhere it can be ripped out - even unintentionally. Are you proud enough to not tear it free and leave that IceWing to sicken? Is any dragon proud enough, when it comes down to life or death?”
Snowfall turned her back on Jerboa, folding her wings to her sides so quickly the scales snapped against each other. “Unless you’re willing to use your magic to aid my people, get out of my sight. Get out of my castle. Get out of this territory. And don’t come back.”
“As you wish, your Majesty,” Jerboa answered softly, and Snowfall heard her talons scrape across the floor and the gentle hissing of the door being opened and closed; the faint, standard conversation with the guards posted there leaked briefly through the opening before it sealed shut.
Snowfall took a deep breath, and then another, and then tried to take another but found she was crying too hard for her throat to work properly. She let her wings drop to the ground and her claws scored chasms in the ice as she bit back the pain and rage that had been welling up inside of her since the first day the sickness was revealed to be an outbreak.
“Stupid!” She shouted to the empty room, the empty throne. “All of this is stupid! How am I supposed to - supposed to fix any of this! My people are dead! My mother is dead! And I’m here because of some stupid - some stupid earring! ”
She found herself reaching up to claw it out and forced her talons back to the ice, loathing herself for wearing it, loathing herself for even vaguely considering taking it out. She stood rigid, shivering, her rage impotent until it suddenly burned itself out and she sank to her belly on the cold floor.
“I am an IceWing,” she whispered to herself, staring at the whorls and patterns that layered into every surface of the ice castle. “I am the Queen. My people are weakened, and I must be strong. I must be their strength. I can be that strength. I was raised for this. I was trained for this. I am an IceWing. I am an IceWing.”
She took a steadying breath and stood, painfully aware of how small she was, of how large the throne was that she was meant to fill. She felt too young for this - for any of this - but she’d lived. She would grow older. She had to ensure the rest of her people had the same chance.
She pushed the door open and nodded to the two guards posted opposite as they bowed their heads in deference. “Relay my orders to the rest of the military,” she started, and hid her surprise that her voice still sounded calm and sharp, like a ghost of her mother. “We close our borders as soon as that SandWing has crossed them. No visitors come in without my direct permission. Place frequent patrols on all shared borders, and new outposts at crossing places. Any suspicious activity from any dragon is to be reported to me.”
The two IceWings nodded, and she granted leave to the guard who asked so he could pass on the message. The other remained, settling back into their vigil as Snowfall returned to the throne room. She walked past the throne’s podium, to the wide, translucent panels that allowed her to look over the main settlement of her queendom. She wondered if it had looked any different before the sickness; if the warped, thin ice had always made the city look abandoned. She couldn’t remember ever really thinking about it before.
“I’ll save our people, mother,” she said to herself, as the setting sun began casting the pale spires in purple and gold. “But I can only save ours .”