Chapter 6, Part 1
They call her broken doll,
soulless monster …
…all she wants is to be a real girl.
Chapter 6, Part 1
~ Riley ~
The music pours out from someplace deep inside me as my fingers move across the keys. My magic stirs, twining with the music, filling me up and flowing out, helping me think through the files Rook gave me. I’m home alone after a long night waiting tables at Brogg’s bar. Since I don’t need much sleep, I thought it would be best to review the upcoming mission again, and music helps me think.
Twelve dragons, their stats, their quirks, their histories. Somehow, I have to kill Dare — one small Doppelganger against a mighty dragon general who wields a badass greatsword, who can scent a lie with his telepathy — and then pretend to be him well enough to fool his team.
The team that lives, breathes, and fights at his side.
I’ve gone in against worst odds. The master who created me loved trying to get me killed. A sorcerer, he fed on my fear and my pain, and if I came back cut to ribbons, he salivated over my wounds. Rook, however, has never tested me like this. In the years since my escape, I haven’t done any deep undercover jobs. I never had to fool someone that I was someone they knew much longer than half an hour.
I never had to fool a dragon’s telepathy either. Not even with my creator. Doppelgangers have no actual brains or detectable brain waves. That, right there, will be enough to give me away. Unless I have some plausible excuse for a mundane human to have strong mental shields.
Right. Like that’ll work. Dare is notorious for his lack of trust. He’ll suspect me the moment I get anywhere near him.
That’s the real problem. I have no angle to catch his attention or get close to him. The files indicate he’s turned down so many prospective lovers that he left a trail of disappointed women all over Drakon. What am I supposed to do? Dance naked and throw myself at him? Act the damsel in distress and then stroke his ego with admiration of his heroism?
The only thing he seems to care about is his career and his missions. Except maybe his team. He handpicked each one of them. So what? Do I pose as one of his Flight? But replacing one of them would be as difficult as it would be to supplant him.
My thoughts churn, rehashing the same problems and not finding any solutions. I shove the upcoming mission, the files, the data, and Dare out of mind and, closing my eyes, focus on the music.
The melody I’m playing haunts me, so familiar and yet the memories on the edge of mind keep slipping away. I remember a woman’s laughter but can’t see the face. A child’s voice, the smell of lavender flowers, fresh cut grass. It feels like home, but I’m a construct. I was born in a lab; I never had a home.
A weight plops down on the piano keys and walks across toward me. I open my eyes to find one of Brogg’s strays, a gray tabby, rubbing her face in mine. Animals flock to him.
“Your food dish is not empty just because you can glimpse the bottom.” I put my hand out and she rubs her whiskers on my outstretched fingers, marking me. When I look around the library where the piano sits, I find that all the cats in the house have come out. A calico sits on top of the piano, watching me as if I were a tasty morsel, and another has curled up at my feet, its foot on mine as if trying to hold me down. “Oh, that’s not creepy, not at all.”
“Meow,” the one in front of me insists.
“Come on, all of you. I’ll give you some food.” With a sigh, I close the piano and head toward the kitchen. Brogg collects strays — human, cat, dog, Doppelganger — whoever needs food and shelter, and when Brogg is away, the animals miss him. The cats, in particular, want to know someone will still love them and feed them.
Sunshine fills the kitchen, pouring in through the south-facing windows, open to Brogg’s gardens. Alaska is gorgeous in the spring with brilliant greens and a whole rainbow of vibrant colors. In the wildflower patch, the Alaskan Monkshood started blooming, and the breeze carries the sweet aroma.
With the cat food scooped into the last dish, I wash my hands and grab the mission file again. It wouldn’t hurt to go over the details again. Something about Dare’s face seems so familiar. There’s something so honest and almost kind, so intense, in his brown eyes. The longer I stare, the more I can almost catch a glimpse of a memory, hear a voice, but then the ghost of a memory slips away before I can grasp it.
The door to the garage swings open and bangs shut. Grumbling swear words under his breath, Brogg stomps his way across the room, leaving mud from his boots on the kitchen floor, and plops his dirty tool bag on the dining room table.
“What are you doing?” I throw my hands up in the air.
His dark eyes look at me, unblinking, confusion written on his green face, skin like bark. The scar over one side of his face makes him look like he’s snarling. Here on the outskirts of Anchorage where the next neighbor is a mile away, he doesn’t bother with his glamour.
“Mess!” I point on the mud tracks and the dirt on the table.
“Oh, sorry.” He ducks his head in embarrassment.
“Clean it.” I hand him the broom. “You’re like the brother I never had.”
“How do you know you never had a brother? You said yourself you don’t remember anything before he made you.”
I scoff. “That’s ridiculous. I wasn’t anything but a lump of clay.”
I’m not sure how old he is, but dryads have a long lifespan. He probably has a couple hundred years on me, which likely makes him more of a great-grandfather than a brother.
He sweeps the dirt, but instead of making a nice pile, he spreads it around. To him, dirt is still clean, and he doesn’t really understand how to do household chores. “Don’t get prickly on me, Riley, but if I can’t change your mind about this mission, at least, I should go with you.”
“There’s no way you can infiltrate a dragon base.”
“I hate this. Sitting on the sidelines.” He huffs and keeps sweeping. A long moment later, he says, “You packed your knives, right? Guns? I’ve got a great ax you can borrow.”
“Brogg, I’m going in as a sweet, innocent human girl. The worst thing she’ll have in her bag is maybe some pepper spray.”
Frowning, he presses his mossy eyebrows together. “What if you get in trouble? I won’t be there to protect you.”
“Meh, I’ll just take someone else’s knives.”
He glowers at me.
“You know,” I say, “your call sign should be Mother Hen rather than Acorn. Now would you please let me get back to work?”
His massive hands on my shoulder, he looks down at me. “Can’t lose you too, Riley. You’re the only family I have.”
“I’ll be fine. Promise.”
“Let’s at least go over the files together. I want to know you have a good plan.”
Although Brogg isn’t always good at reading people, playing them, manipulating them, he’s the best at surveillance and extraction. He might see some angle I missed.
Opening the file, I lay out the documents for each member of Dare’s flight team. I pause on Dare’s picture, studying his eyes again, before setting it on the table in front of Brogg, who leans forward to study each paper.
He taps Greatfang’s picture showing the tusk-like teeth of the half-dragon in his orc form. “He really has a half-orc on his team? Isn’t his team the elite dragon flight of the Usurper’s army? Is this intel correct?”
Unshed tears roughen his voice. To Brogg, who was sent away by the dryad mother who couldn’t handle his teenage rages and was rejected and almost murdered by his father’s ogre tribe, this open acceptance of a dragon-orc hybrid must have hit close to home. Orcs and ogres are cousin species with orcs smarter and ogres stronger.
“I don’t get it either. Look at this guy.” I hand him Jinx’s picture. “Not a drop of dragon in his blood. A hundred percent elven wizard. And he’s also an integral part of Dare’s team.”
Brogg keeps reading, continuously shaking his head as if he can’t believe one word. Watching him, I smile because this was my reaction too.
“How are you going to get close to him?”
“Gah.” I expel a breath and lean back in my chair, covering my face with my hands. “I don’t know. Based on the information in that file, I’d wonder if he was gay, but he’s turned down as many male lovers as female. Maybe he’s asexual.”
“No, that’s not it at all.” Brogg hands me the profiles on Dare’s parents. “His parents were exclusive. His mother, a full dragon, mated with the same half-blood twice and rather than leaving her eggs at the nursery, she hatched and raised them herself.”
“Full dragons never bother with raising their own young if they’re not full dragons too.”
“I’m not seeing your point.”
“Dare’s parents were actually devoted to each other, and they loved him and his brother. That changes anyone’s perspective. He likely wants something real. Not some power-hungry lover.”
I stare at Brogg. How come I didn’t see it? Now that he explained it to me, it’s obvious.
I have to be real. The girl-next-door willing to share her heart.
Me? Real? I’ll never to be able to pull it off.
“I see you’re hard at work,” a voice speaks behind me, and Brogg and I jump, him over the table and me whirling to face our visitor. My knives are in my hand, and Brogg clutches one of his hand axes.
Rook skirts us and sits down in Brogg’s seat, picking up the picture of one of the female’s in the group. Tundra, I believe. “This girl always intrigued me,” Rook says. “How did a girl so interested in Earthen culture rise through the ranks?”
“Are you here to go over the files?” I put my knives away.
“No,” she says, setting the photo down, “actually, I need you to come with me to headquarters. Someone wants to talk to you about your mission.”