Several years ago, Patrick and I organized a month-long event called The December Lights Project, where a different writer every day contributed a free online short story to light up a month that can feel awfully dark and cold. There was always one guarantee, regardless of genre: readers would always get a happy ending in each story, because this project was a holiday gift.
Every year since then, I’ve wished I had the spare time and energy to organize a second December Lights project that year – but since I haven’t had those luxuries lately, I’ve made a new habit of sharing a free short story of my own here on my blog as a holiday gift for my readers on the first day of December every year. (And any other writer who reads this is warmly invited to share the habit any time this month if you feel like it and have the time! :) )
This year’s story is a prequel that I wrote to The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, and I wrote it for the winner of a charity auction, who asked for a story from the perspective of Citrine (Aventurine’s maddeningly perfect older sister)…because even the most disapproving older sisters have their own stories to tell! ;) Since it’s set several years before the full novel begins, it should work just fine for readers who haven’t read Aventurine’s own story yet.
I hope that you’ll enjoy it!
The Dragon with an Unbearable Family
By Stephanie Burgis
Dedicated to Nicky Anderson, with thanks
The worst thing about Mother’s awful new hatchlings wasn’t even their smell, horrifying though it was.
It wasn’t even the infernal racket they both made, roaring and brawling up and down the long tunnels of their home until the whole mountain seemed to rattle with their din, and Citrine’s long, sharp teeth rattled in her head, too.
No, the real problem with her younger siblings, when it came right down to it, was…
“They are barbarians!” Citrine threw down her elegant bone-pen directly in front of her sleeping mother’s snout, sending showers of gold flying up in its wake. “Just look at what they’ve done now!”
Mother’s great golden eyes slitted half-open as coins cascaded against her scales. A weary sigh escaped her mouth, but she left her chin propped on a comfortable pile of rubies and emeralds. “Are you complaining about your brother and sister again?”
“They are not my brother and sister,” Citrine said. “They can’t be! They are horrors. I’ll wager someone slipped replacement eggs into your nest when you weren’t looking, and that’s how they got there!”
“Look.” Citrine hated leaking smoke without meaning to; it was improper, and unworthy of any mature dragon. But she couldn’t help the puffs of anguish that escaped her nostrils as she emptied the pile of ash from her left foreclaw.
Mother drew in a long breath, her head shifting. “What – ?”
“My poem,” Citrine told her.
“Oh, no. Not – ”
“My epic poem!” Smoke poured out in waves from Citrine’s snout as if she were a useless, out-of-control little hatchling herself. She kneaded her claws restlessly through the piled gold beneath her. “I’ve been working on it for the last two years.”
“Oh, I know.” Mother heaved herself up, shaking coins and jewelry off her massive back. “Can you rewrite it now, quickly, while – ”
“Rewrite it?!” A smokeball exploded out through Citrine’s throat, rocketing toward the far wall of the cavern, and she clamped her claws over her mouth in humiliation. “Mother, if you had any idea – !”
“Never mind.” Mother sighed. “Perhaps it was only an accident, or – ”
“It was not.” Citrine clamped her teeth together, vibrating with fury.
Just because she’d called Aventurine an ignorant little menace who didn’t deserve to share her cavern or her family…
She’d heard them both laughing as they’d galloped away from the hidey-hole where she’d carefully stored her poem last night. Laughing!
“I’ll give them a stern talking-to,” Mother promised.
“Don’t bother,” Citrine snarled.
She’d witnessed those lectures before. They never worked. Jasper was too distractible to be quelled for long, and as for Aventurine, who never listened to anyone…
“I will deal with them myself,” she said.
“Citrine,” Mother began.
But Citrine was already striding out through the cavern entrance, making her own plans.
She might not choose to waste her fire and strength on indiscriminate nonsense, the way some barbaric hatchlings did, but when she was ready…
Her vision was turned so far inward, she almost crashed into the massive, bulky figure that filled the entire tunnel before her.
“Grandfather!” She pulled up just in time. “Forgive me, I – ”
“I heard.” Her grandfather towered over her, looking down with enigmatic golden eyes. “A word of advice for you, youngling.”
“I – !” Citrine swallowed down the instinctive words of protest just in time.
Compared to Grandfather, they were all younglings, even Mother – and Grandfather never tolerated disrespect. So she lowered her eyes, breathing in deeply.
Grandfather’s puff of laughter splashed heat across her scales. “Well done,” he murmured. “Now, then. You’re charging off to devour your young siblings, I take it?”
The idea was so delightful, she let out a wistful sigh. “I can’t,” she said regretfully. “Mother would never forgive me.”
“Good girl.” Grandfather nodded. “In that case…?”
“I’m going to burn every single thing they’ve ever collected,” she said fiercely. “I’m going to crush every jewel, burn every little human book—”
“And what exactly do you think that will accomplish?” He cocked his giant head, waiting patiently.
“It’ll show them!” she said passionately. “It’ll show them that they can’t disrespect me or else – or else…” She stumbled to a halt, panting. “Oh, stones and bones!”
“Exactly.” Grandfather gave a low growl of approval. “What do you think your younger sister wanted in the first place but to force you down to her own level?”
“Grrrrrr!” Smoke spat out from Citrine’s nostrils as she imagined Aventurine’s impudent smirk later that day. I guess you’re not so civilized after all, are you, Citrine? “I will never be like her!”
She would never grant Aventurine that victory.
But if not…
“Ohhhh,” she breathed. “Oh!”
“I knew you would think of something.” Grandfather turned, squeezing his way around in the tight tunnel. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, some of us were trying to nap.”
But Citrine had no time for any rest that day. She had far too much to plan.
When her younger siblings finally slunk back into the family cavern, hours later, she was ready for them.
A circle had been cleared in amongst the piled gold.
Two brand-new bone pens had been fashioned.
Blank cow-skin hides lay stretched out, waiting.
Every adult in the family crouched beyond them, waiting, too.
“Ah…” Jasper skidded to a halt first, eyes widening. “What – ?”
Aventurine swaggered in after him, smoke snorting cheekily from her nostrils. “Anything interesting happen while we were gone?” She shot a fearless wink straight at Citrine.
Citrine looked back at her and smiled, baring all of her teeth.
“You were right, Aventurine,” she said. “You are ready to join in with all of the rest of us, after all.”
“I – am?” Wings mantling in shock, Aventurine reared back, glancing from one watching adult dragon to another. “But…really? Do you actually think so?”
“Of course,” Citrine said sweetly. “We all agree on that…which is why you and Jasper are going to be the ones to write down my new epic poem for me. Every single day until it’s finished. For hours! Taking down my dictation word-for-word, with Grandfather and our aunts all checking to make sure that you catch every last detail without any mistakes.”
“What?!” Aventurine stumbled backward, eyes flaring wide with real panic for the first time since she had originally tumbled out of her egg and shattered Citrine’s perfect world into chaos. “But – but – don’t you want to just have a fight instead, and get it all over with?”
“Why would I fight with my own sister?” Smoke gathered in Citrine’s nostrils, and for once, she gleefully let it out – aimed exactly at where she wanted it to land: the tell-tale pile of ash that sat between her and the two hatchlings, a silent reminder of what they’d done. “Isn’t this what you wanted, Aventurine?”
The look of horror in her obnoxious younger sister’s eyes was everything she had ever dreamed of.
“Excellent,” Mother said briskly, striding forward. “You’ll begin tomorrow, all of you. And now, as for the dirt on your scales, hatchlings…”
As Citrine sat back, smirking, her grandfather breathed his words softly into her ear. “Family,” he said, “is every dragon’s greatest treasure.”
“Mmm…” Citrine said doubtfully.
His eyes glittered with amusement as he gazed down at her. “I am proud of you for your achievement, youngling. You just took down the most unmanageable young dragon I’ve ever met…except for one.”
“One?” Citrine cocked her head curiously, her tail twitching. “Which one do you mean?” Who could ever be as unmanageable as Aventurine?
The look he gave her was unmistakable.
“What? Wait, no!” Citrine reared back in horror. “I was never – !”
But he was already moving toward the door, his chuckles leaving perfectly formed balls of smoke all the way between her and her unbearable, impossible younger sister, who was absolutely nothing like her and never would be.
“Family!” Citrine growled after him, like a curse…
Just as she saw Aventurine mouth exactly the same epithet.
They stopped short, staring at each other in horrified disbelief.
It was the first time they had ever been in perfect agreement.
Citrine swore to herself that she would never let it happen again.