Chapter 1

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"Where's your father, Wynne?"

I sighed, rubbing my temples. She'd asked the same question three times in the span of less than an hour. "Papa's gone, Mama."

My mother blinked twice, her gray eyes filling with confusion. "Will he be back soon?"

I resisted the urge to bang my head against the kitchen table. It's not her fault, I reminded myself. "No, Mama."

"Oh," she said in a small voice, wrapping her hands around her special tea. The tea's sage leaves were supposed to help her memory, but lately it hadn't been doing much of anything. "Where is he?"

I fought to keep the anger out of my voice, not wanting to upset her. Anger didn't solve anything, my mother used to say, back when she was still fully lucid. "I don't know. They took him. He's probably with the others."

For months, the king's Mortalis Guard had been showing up in our remote little village without warning and removed us from our homes, one by one. There was always a plausible reason—Arthur Drake murdered his neighbor over an unpaid debt. There were witnesses to that. Owen Wyvern had gone mad. Rowena Khothu was suicidal.

But with each arrest their reasons grew thinner and thinner. Rebekkah Vovin, the baker's wife, would never hurt a fly. Bjorn Dreki had barely hit puberty.

As for my father, well, he was a war hero. And despite everything they'd done to us, he still loved Blackthorne.

My mother's brow furrowed with worry lines. "Is he ever coming back, Wynne?"

My hands clenched into fists, and I hid the white knuckles in my lap, where she couldn't see them. "Yes, Mama. I'm going to bring him back."

Her mouth pinched. "You be careful, Wynne. I don't want to lose you both."

I stared at her in surprise. For a moment there, she sounded like a real mother, the way she used to before she got sick. "I'll be careful," I promised her.

She smiled beautifically, and then her gray eyes clouded over. "Where's your father, Wynne?"

I groaned aloud. My father was so much more patient with her than I was, but my father wasn't here. "He'll be back," I told her this time.

She nodded, trusting me, and I felt a twinge of guilt. "Okay."

The one hitch in my grand plans to rescue my father—well, there were several hitches, to be truthful, but the biggest one for now—was that rescuing him meant leaving my mother behind. I couldn't bring her with me; she was too much of a liability. I couldn't leave her on her own either. She was too sick for that.

My mother suffered from Volatilis Syndrome. Dragons developed the illness when they went long enough without shifting into their natural shape. The effects were mental—forgetfulness, drowsiness, depression, and over time, it began to erase their personalities. Physically, my mother was perfectly healthy.

Not every dragon developed Volatilis Syndrome, of course, or we'd have a village full of childlike zombies. For whatever reason, only a fraction of us were susceptible. I'd asked my father once if it had something to do with willpower. It was the only time he ever slapped me.

"Your Mama had the strongest mind of any dragon I've ever known," he'd told me fiercely. "Don't you dare blame her for what she can't help."

I wished I could better remember the woman before the king ordered her collared. I could tell her anything, back then. But all I could see was the empty husk of a woman in front of me, a painful reminder of everything we'd lost.

The doorbell rang, shaking the flimsy frame of our house. I kept waiting for the roof to cave in on my head, and suspected one day it would.

I opened the door and sighed a breath of relief. "You came," I said, and pulled the woman in front of me into a hug.

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