Deep in the Glades, as the sun set on the evening of the winter solstice, two girls crept toward a sleeping dragon-gator. One held a pair of tweezers; the other kept her hands buried deep in the pockets of her blue cotton dress. Both took quiet, careful steps through the marsh, the brackish water nearly up to their knees, and their skirts tied to keep them from getting ruined.
“I don’t want to do this,” Larkin, the girl with the tweezers, whispered. Her blond hair hung in two stick-straight braids, each tied with a scrap of yellow ribbon. A few strands had slipped free, shoved hastily behind her ears.
“But you want the scale,” the other girl, Cordelia, whispered back. She was taller by a couple of inches, with hair the color of mahogany bark. It desperately needed brushing, but that suited her. Everything about Cordelia was a bit untamed. Even the sky-blue dress she wore--the best one she owned--was hopelessly wrinkled.
Larkin didn’t want the scale. She needed the scale. But there was no time to explain that when they were already running late, and even if there were, she wasn’t sure Cordelia would understand the difference between wanting and needing. Larkin didn’t think Cordelia knew what it was to need something, only to have everything.
She pushed the flare of jealousy from her mind and focused on the sleeping dragon-gator. “Can’t you do it?” she asked her friend, but Cordelia shook her head.
“It has to be you. And don’t be so dramatic--it’s just a dragon-gator,” Cordelia said, though she was careful to keep her voice low to avoid drawing its attention.
“A dragon-gator with sharp teeth and claws and a mouth big enough to swallow me whole,” Larkin muttered under her breath even as she took a step closer, then another, Cordelia at her side.
“A sleeping dragon-gator whose big mouth isn’t good for anything more than snoring,” Cordelia countered. “Besides, they’re docile. You know that.”
Larkin did know that. She knew it the same way she knew that the phoenix-flies that illuminated the banyan trees always flickered back to life eventually or that marsh-maids swimming in the Beguilement River were more illusion than flesh and bone--no matter how many times she told herself those things were true, it was difficult to remember when she came face to face with the creatures in question.
Especially when the face of said creature was so big and scaly and full of teeth.
“Don’t be such a baby,” Cordelia whispered, nudging Larkin forward.
Larkin shot Cordelia a glare before turning her gaze back to the creature sprawled out on the log, its talons hanging down on either side, skimming the water, its eyes closed. Avocado-green wings draped down over its back like a blanket. It was so still that it could have been carved from moss-covered stone, if not for the ever so slight flare of its nostrils and the steady rise and fall of its chest.
She glanced back at Cordelia, hoping her friend would stop her, but instead, Cordelia’s dark brown eyes met hers like a dare and Larkin heard her words echo through her mind. Don’t be such a baby.
Larkin wasn’t a baby. She was eleven--only a few months younger than Cordelia, who had just turned twelve, though sometimes that small distance felt like eons. They were the same age, more or less, but Cordelia always seemed so much older and wiser, and Larkin always felt like . . . well, like a baby in comparison. But she was determined to prove Cordelia and herself wrong. Squaring her shoulders, she took a step closer to the dragon-gator, then another, all the while watching the steady rise and fall of its chest. The sun was just dipping below the horizon, which meant she and Cordelia were officially late for the solstice party.
Part of her wanted to leave now, walk away from the dragon-gator and run to the party before they missed all the best treats, but they couldn’t go without that scale. Larkin would rather miss the party altogether--not to mention the fact that Cordelia would call her a coward in that scathing voice that could strip the leaves off a mangrove, and that might be even worse. In fact, Larkin decided, a dragon-gator bite might even be preferable.
When she was within arm’s reach of the creature, Larkin readied the tweezers she’d stolen from her mother’s vanity, holding them the way she’d seen her mother do when she plucked errant hairs from her eyebrows.
She slid her eyes over the dragon-gator’s broad back, looking for the perfect scale, big but not too big, bright but not too bright, and soft enough that it would come away with ease. She found just such a scale in the space between the dragon-gator’s wings--roughly the size of her thumbnail and the color of saw grass in sunlight.
With a shaking hand, Larkin reached toward the scale with the tweezers and pinched the edge of it firmly. Then, with all her might, she pulled.
The scale came loose; Cordelia gave a sharp inhale behind her, and Larkin went utterly still as the dragon-gator slowly blinked open its eyes, turning its golden gaze onto Larkin. Its long tail snapped, hitting the back of her legs with a sharp sting.
“Ow!” Larkin exclaimed, rubbing the spot with her free hand.
In response, the dragon-gator lifted its head and let out a low growl that raised goose bumps on Larkin’s arms.
It was a warning growl, telling Larkin to run. She knew she should run--but her feet wouldn’t move. She felt frozen in place, unable to do more than stare openmouthed at the dragon-gator until a blur of pink sailed over her shoulder.
With a jerk of its head, the dragon-gator caught the pink thing between its jaws and began to chew, gooey strands stretching between its razor-sharp teeth. Taffy, Larkin realized, when she caught a hint of the dragon-gator’s strawberry-scented breath. It watched them both as it chewed, its yellow eyes darting between Larkin and Cordelia, as if measuring them up and trying to decide if they were worth the effort of a chase. Then the dragon-gator laid its head on the log once more and went back to sleep.
“You owe me a piece of taffy,” Cordelia said, calm as a summer breeze across the water.
Larkin turned to look at her friend, her heart still hammering so loud in her chest she was surprised the sound of it didn’t wake the dragon-gator again. Cordelia’s arms were crossed over her chest and she wore a smug smile.
“And a thank-you,” Cordelia added.
Larkin let out a deep breath and shook her head, though the fear she’d felt staring the dragon-gator in the eyes hadn’t left her yet--probably wouldn’t leave her for some time. She tucked the tweezers and the scale into her dress pocket and walked toward Cordelia, trying to hide how her legs were shaking
“Thank you,” she said, matching Cordelia’s calm voice. “And there will be cake at the solstice party. I’ll get you a piece there--that should make for an even trade.”
“It is not an even trade. The cake is free,” Cordelia replied, but she linked her arm with Larkin’s as both girls started back the way they came.
“You stole that taffy from your brother,” Larkin countered.
“Exactly,” Cordelia said, nodding. “I worked very hard for it.”
“Would it have killed you to throw it before it hit me with its tail? That really hurt!”
“Less than its teeth would have,” Cordelia pointed out.
And Larkin couldn’t argue with that. Besides, she’d made it through with all her limbs, a lucky dragon-gator’s scale in her pocket, and her best friend at her side. A stung leg was not much to complain about at all.
“Come on,” Cordelia said, tugging Larkin along with her. “We’re going to be late.”
The party was well under way by the time Cordelia and Larkin made their way to the Labyrinth Tree. Music spilled through the air from the band set up in the corner, bright and loud and quick, underscored by the steady hum of conversation and laughter. There were people everywhere, dressed in their finest clothes--which, in the Glades, where most people worked outdoors, meant whatever they had with the fewest salt stains and patches.
There were many banyan trees in the Glades, but the Labyrinth Tree was the oldest of them all. It was hard to imagine that it had once been a sapling with a single slender trunk--its heart trunk--but that must have been the case ages ago, before the girls’ parents, or even their parents, had ever taken their first breaths. Unlike most kinds of trees, banyans didn’t only grow taller and thicker with time; they actually expanded, like the web of a spider.
True to its name, the Labyrinth Tree was a maze of trunks and branches, and it never seemed to look the same from one day to the next. It stretched out for acres in any direction and a person could very easily find themselves lost in it--Cordelia certainly had plenty of times. It was also the location of the Glades solstice parties. In the summer, that meant chargrilled mangoes topped with vanilla cream, sweet iced teas, and swimming in the nearby river. But the winter solstice party was their chance to break out hot cider spiced with cinnamon sticks, and bowls of warm stew, while everyone from the village came together to talk and dance and celebrate another season passing.
“You two are late,” Larkin’s mother, Minerva, said, sweeping toward them as they headed toward the cider table, her long violet dress fluttering behind her like a pair of dormant wings. Despite the accusation in her words, her mouth was curved into a wry smile.
“Sorry, Mom,” Larkin said, her hand going to her pocket, where Cordelia knew the dragon-gator scale was tucked away. “We had to stop for something on the way.”
Aunt Minerva raised a single eyebrow. “Will you tell me what it was?” she asked.
Larkin smiled slightly. “If it works, you’ll be the first to know,” she said. Cordelia understood why Larkin was being vague. She’d seen the disappointment and embarrassment on Larkin’s face every time she’d tried to use magic and failed.
Larkin was the daughter of the Witch of the Glades, and she was eleven years old now, but still she hadn’t managed to light a candle or change her hair color or even levitate a feather--all things the magic books in Aunt Minerva’s library said that witches Larkin’s age were supposed to be able to do. And ever since Larkin’s younger brother, Zephyr, had gotten his powers at only nine, Larkin had become even more desperate to discover her own.
“Where’s Zephyr?” Cordelia asked, looking around for him or for her own brother, Dash. Where one was, the other was never too far away.
“I saw him and Dash half an hour ago, but not since then,” Aunt Minerva said, a small frown creasing her forehead, her eyes on the small group of children about Zephyr and Dash’s age playing around a cluster of the Labyrinth Tree’s trunks. Cordelia recognized them from Zephyr and Dash’s class, kids they’d played with after school; a few of them had even come over for dinner and sleepovers. But there was no sign of either boy there now.
“We’ll find them,” Cordelia said.
Aunt Minerva lifted her shoulder in a casual shrug. “Hopefully, before they find a way to burn everything to the ground, hmm?” she said.
Cordelia thought she was only half joking. At the summer solstice party, Zephyr and Dash got into the fireworks that had been ordered all the way from the northern cities and had managed to blow a hole the size of a watermelon through a tree. No one was hurt and the fire had been contained quickly, but it had done quite a bit of damage. And that was before Zephyr had come into his magic. Who knew what trouble those two could make now?
Someone called Aunt Minerva’s name, and after giving both girls a quick squeeze on the shoulder, Aunt Minerva melted back into the crowd, leaving Cordelia and Larkin alone to mingle with the other partygoers. They passed by a table of drinks, and both girls picked up mugs of hot apple cider with cinnamon sticks floating on top.
“When are you going to try it?” Cordelia asked, blowing on her cider to cool it, sending ripples across the amber surface.
Cordelia didn’t specify what she meant, but she didn’t have to. Larkin’s free hand went back to rest on the pocket where she kept the dragon-gator scale.
“Later,” she said, shaking her head. “Mom always says to eat a good meal first.”
“I figured she said that to make you eat your veggies,” Cordelia said, giving Larkin a shrewd look. “You sure you’re not procrastinating?”
“Of course not,” Larkin said, but Cordelia knew she was lying. When she fixed Larkin with a knowing look, Larkin rolled her eyes. “I’ll do it tonight,” she said, before changing the subject.
Cordelia opened her mouth to speak, but before she could say another word, something small and hard hit her on the back of the neck.
“Ow!” Cordelia said with a scowl, clapping a hand over the spot and catching the offending projectile--a peanut. “What the bog?”
Cordelia swung her gaze around, searching the tree branches above until her eyes lit on two small, shadowy figures snickering in the branches high above the ground.
“Found Zephyr and Dash,” Cordelia said to Larkin, nodding toward them.
“Sorry!” Dash called down, failing to sound completely apologetic. “It was an accident!”
“We weren’t aiming for you,” Zephyr added, casting a meaningful glance a few feet away, where a tall, imposing woman wearing an elaborate updo stood, her mouth curved into a frown that looked to be carved in stone.
Cordelia and Larkin exchanged a glance before Cordelia grabbed a tree branch and pulled herself up, Larkin just a step behind her. It wasn’t easy to climb in dresses, though Larkin had more practice at it than Cordelia, who usually preferred leggings and shorts, but in a few minutes, both girls found themselves comfortable perches just beside their brothers.
“Isn’t that Tarquin’s mom?” Cordelia asked, looking down at the frowning woman, who she remembered from when she accompanied her mother to get her hair cut at the salon. Tarquin had been friends with Zephyr and Dash since they were toddlers; Cordelia recalled seeing him tonight, playing with the other kids around the Labyrinth Tree.
Zephyr shrugged, but his expression was clouded. He was never very good at hiding his feelings, and Cordelia could read the hurt in his expression clearly in his red cheeks and clenched jaw.