Chapter 1

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At first the call sounded like nothing more than distant thunder and we paid it no mind. But throughout the land the dragons stopped their work: the large browns plowing the barley fields, the blue fishers, the red moles deep in the iron-ore mines, the green-spotted lumber jacks and the silver air carriers. When the call reached their ears, each group in turn, without a glance at the humans they had worked with stopped what they were doing, shrugged out of their shoulder harnesses, spread their jeweled wings and flew. The human riders of the air carriers had it the worst: if they were brought down to the ground at all, they were left where they were and forced to make their way back home on foot tens or even hundreds of miles away.

Housed in the imperial palace, the gold dragon Meeka was the last to leave. Human-sized, he paced the length of his golden chamber, as if the repeating call irritated his ears. He was waiting for Empress Caralon. Finally, wearing her flowing golden robes, she entered his chamber. He came to her right away and allowed her to take his head in her hands to stroke his frill. His black eyes met her green. "Go, my friend," she whispered. For a minute he rested his head in her hands and then with a gentle puff he hopped to the open window, stood on the sill, primed his wings and was gone.

Everywhere dragons were on the wing. People squinted up at the sparkling cloud of dragons passing overhead heading west. For a day and a half the sky was filled with the beasts, their jeweled wings and bodies one moment catching sunlight and moonlight and the next casting shadows. The sound of their flying drowned out the call, and everything else. When the last of the stragglers were gone, they left behind a silence that echoed. People for a very long time afterwards would only speak in whispers.

Many never recovered from the dragons' departure. Certainly, the Empress never did. After the dragons left, the world became ordinary and the lives of the people harder. Without the help of the dragons, men had to invent new ways to get their work done. It became the age of the machines - big, ugly, black smoke-spewing, clanking, clunking metal machines.

Master and apprentice mechanic
Thirty years ago Ellis Hobbs had been a silver carrier rider. He now fixed train engines for the Imperial fleet. Piero, his apprentice, pestered him with questions from the start to the end of their twelve-hour shifts - every hour, every shift, every day.

"What was it like, Ellis, to ride the wind on the back of such a creature?"

"Windy."

"What did the dragon scales feel like?"

"Scalely."

"But what does that mean?"

"It means what it means."

"Where do you think they all went?"

"Dunno."

"What did your dragon say to you when he left?"

"Nothing."

"But, he must have said something?"

"She said nothing."

"A she! What was her name?"

"Pick up those tools, boy, before you trip over them."

"But, Ellis-"

"Number 4 engine needs an oil change. Go and start it."

"But, Ellis, you were there." Piero thought his twelve-year-old heart would burst into thousands of frustrated pieces. "I'm stuck here all day, shoveling coal and taking apart engines. I just want to know-"

"GO NOW!"

And so Piero picked up his tools and went. Ellis blew the air through his mouth slowly and wiped his greasy forehead with a greasy rag. He hated to yell at the boy, but sometimes he wondered if Piero had grown up under a rock. These were private matters and everyone knew it was rude to ask about someone's dragon history. Imagine, asking Ellis what his dragon's name was! Didn't he know that dragons had more than one name? I suppose, thought Ellis, the youngsters, the ones born after the dragons left, don't know - don't know what it was like to work beside such otherworldly creatures. "Not their fault," whispered Ellis to himself. "Not their fault at all."

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