Prolog

Dragon Riders. The highest of the high not even the Emperor may command them. A law unto themselves they care for nothing but their dragon. One has to pass the Dragon Exam to earn the chance to be at a hatching to gain the attention of one of the precious hatchlings. The Dragon Exam is closed to no one, any may enter but few pass the harsh questioning of the examiners, riders themselves, searching for the worthy.

Everything passes smoothly until one day there is a profound glitch. A mistake, the Riders claim, an accident but they can fix it. A boy who a dragon chose was not where he was supposed to be. He did not pass the Exam and had no right to the hatchling. A street child, a thief by his own admission and completely unsuitable for a dragon. But all efforts fail and the hatchling refuses all but his Chosen Rider.

Chapter One

"Get back here you little rat!"

Headless of the yells the small boy ran full tilt dodging all the hands that reached out to stop him. Darting to the side as the people in the hall closed against him, without pause or thought the small hands shoved open a window and launched their owner out. Landing neatly on his feet like a cat the child looked up at the stunned faces.

'It's not like it was the fourth floor only the second.' The child thought scornfully as he ran toward the Dragon Yard. Swarming up the middle of the gate before guard could stop him; the boy threw himself over the top and hit the ground running. Sticking his hands in his mouth he whistled shrilly. There was an answering whistle off to his left and he headed towards the sound dodging the dragons who looked at him in amusement.

The boy spotted the dragon he was looking for. Barely a month out of the egg the Fledgling had grown from the size of a small cat to the size of a draft horse in four weeks. Slowing lest he run into the brilliant crimson dragon the boy grinned as the beast put his head down to be petted. Stroking sure fingers over the sensitive eye ridges the boy and dragon sighed in contentment.

"Ditched lessons again, Livvy?" Another dragon asked clearly amused. The boy looked up at the massive blue dragon with a scowl.

"They keep tryin' to teach me figures even when I've proved I know 'em all." Livvy clearly sounded aggravated.

"Are we going to be in trouble again, Livvy?" The crimson dragon asked him.

"Prob'ly," he admitted unhappily.

"If you didn't run away you and Nahrin would not get into so much trouble." The blue dragon pointed out.

"I'd be in more trouble if I stayed, lost my temper, and knocked that pompous tutor on his ass."

"Language!" came the sharp reprimand from several of the full grown dragons.

"Most certainly." Came a new voice and Livvy cringed. "I should thrash you for your foul mouth as well as ducking your lessons."

Turning slowly Livvy looked up at the tall man some feet behind him. Arms folded across his chest the man stood easily frowning down at him topping six feet in height with sandy blond hair and piercing blue eyes. Livvy shifted uncomfortable under his gaze.

"Well?" the man prompted, "Have you nothing to say in your defense?"

"'M sorry I cursed." Livvy mumbled more to his feet then the man.

"What was that?" he queried. "Were you talking to me or the grass?"

Livvy glared up at him. "I'm sorry I cursed." He repeated louder.

"But not for ditching lessons?"

"No." there was a lengthy pause and Livvy hunched his shoulders. "No, Rider Jacut."

"You must have a reason for this insubordination." Jacut stated.

"I know all my figures and he won't teach me anything new." Livvy scowled, "And it's not insubordination. I didn't swear any Rider Oaths and no one here is my family. I don't have to listen to you."

"And how would you keep Nahrin fed and housed?" Jacut asked shifting slightly forward. "You cannot afford to feed yourself let alone your dragon. You will repay your training expenses after your training is completed. If you never finish we will kick you out regardless of Nahrins' affection to you."

Nahrin sat up sharply growling and turning a darker red. "No! Livvy is mine!"

The blue dragon reached out casually and pinned the smaller one to the ground. "You will be polite to my Rider, young one."

"Yes, Elder Fallac." Nahrin gasped out. Livvy had turned wide eyed to the dragons. Jacut used the opportunity to grab Livvy before he could bolt. Struggling wildly Livvy almost broke free before Jacut twisted his left arm up sharply behind his back.

"Keep struggling and I will break it." He said calmly turning the boy back toward the Rider housing.

"That hurts!" Livvy howled. Whimpering Nahrin followed them to the gate. The guards opened the gate straight faced, but Livvy could see the amusement in their eyes. Twisting his head back Livvy saw Nahrin starting to climb over the gate ignoring the guards. Jacut pulled him to a stop and turned them back around giving Livvy a pointed look. "I'm alright Nahrin! Stay in the yard. I'll be back this afternoon."

"He's hurting you! You said so." Nahrin wailed.

"He's not hurting me anymore. Jacut just doesn't want me to run away. Stay in the yard." Livvy commanded. Nahrin sank back onto his haunches clearly unhappy, but he stayed as Jacut led Livvy away. Once out of ear shot Livvy ventured a question. "Are you really gonna thrash me?"

Jacut was silent a moment before answering. "No I'm not." He watched as some of the tension drained from the child. Jacut was painfully reminded that the boy didn't know his own age. He guessed he was about ten and the Healers agreed even if he didn't look more then seven. The Healers had explained that early malnutrition had severely stunted his growth and he would never be very big. Jacut however wouldn't have been surprised if the boy had been thrashed before and frequently since he had been living on the streets. "We are going to my quarters-" He cut off with a startled exclamation as the boy suddenly started to fight him with a vengeance. He ended up twisting Livvy's arm hard enough that the boy cried out in pain. Instantly he eased the position, but the boy just fought harder. Grabbing Livvy's other wrist he forced the boy to face him. "What is your problem?" He demanded harshly.

"I'm not like that!" Livvy snarled at him. "I'd rather be thrashed!"

"What?" Jacut said incredulous. Then it clicked what Livvy meant. Jacut knelt down slowly so he could be at eye level. The child was panting with fury but not fighting. "Livvy, no one will ever force you here. Things like that are completely forbidden. No one will ever force you into their bed."

There was no trust in Livvy's eyes as he stared back, but he nodded slowly. "I still don't want to go to your room."

"My office?" he asked, "Would that be alright?" Livvy looked doubtful but nodded. Jacut released one of Livvy's wrists and stood. Now walking beside him Livvy quickened his steps to keep up with Jacuts long strides. "I'm going to test your arithmetic when we get settled. If you truly do not need the tutors' assistance I will deal with it."

Livvy was silent a moment before venturing. "I know my letters, too, and can read some, but he keeps making me read the same thing over and over."

"I'll test you." Jacut said calmly. "And your writing."

Livvy winced. "My writings horrible, but I do know all my letters. I'm not stupid."

"I know."

Livvy stopped walking and Jacut stopped before he pulled the boy down the hall. "How do you know? Every one else says it. Why don't you believe them? How come you're so different?"

"No one who is stupid could have gotten into the Hatchery repeatedly with out any detection." Jacut replied softly. "Nahrin remembers you talking to them long before they hatched."

Livvy considered that as Jacut led him down the hall again. He opened a door and ushered Livvy in. Signaling a servant as Livvy looked around. "We will need tea." Jacut told the man who bowed. The office was plain, a desk with a chair behind it and two padded chairs facing it. Not a thing adorned the walls. One bookcase sat in the corner with nothing personal on it only books.

"Your office is boring." Livvy commented as Jacut closed the door.

"Sit" Jacut told him, ignoring the remark. "and recite the four times tables."

Livvy sighed but obeyed. Climbing up in one of the chairs he sat up straight and recited them perfectly. Jacut didn't pause but started firing off questions at him addition to division. Livvy didn't miss a single one though he paused for some of the harder ones. Jacut changed tactics and asked longer problems in the form of short stories. Livvy had no problem and answered them all correctly as well. Jacut sat back satisfied as the servant came in and poured them tea. Once the man had left Jacut spoke. "Very good. I dare say there isn't much we could teach you about arithmetic. Where did you learn all that?"

"If you only have six Bits for food you need to know what will get you the most out if it." Livvy said with a shrug. "If you don't know every ones prices you could be wasting your money and going hungry."

Jacut nodded, it made sense even if it was a depressing explanation. Pulling out a slate and a bit of chalk he handed them to Livvy, "Write your letters and tell me the names of each and what sounds they make."

Livvy sighed again but took the slate and started. An hour passed by the time he had finished the last one. He looked up at Jacut expectedly. Jacut merely nodded and took the slate back, handing him a book instead. "Pick a page and read it."

There were many stops and starts in Livvy's reading to sound out words, but the longer he read the less pauses. "Enough." Jacut interrupted him, "It appears you only need practice in reading, as most children." Livvy tried to hand the book back clearly relieved to be done reading. Jacut shook his head. "Pick a page and copy it," He ordered holding out the slate again. Clearly unhappy Livvy did as he was told.

He was half way down the slate when the door slammed open making Livvy flinch and mess up a letter. Muttering to himself he rubbed it out and started it again. "So you do have the boy, Jacut." Livvy looked up into his scowling tutors face.

"Yes, Haren, Livvy is with me."

"Copying as punishment, eh?" Rider Haren asked.

"No, I'm merely testing his knowledge."

"What knowledge? The street rat couldn't have possibly learned anything. He never went to school." Haren protested.

"You do not need school to be intelligent. He already knows more arithmetic then you for example." Both Livvy and Haren stared at him at this announcement.

"You are joking of course." Haren stated sounding amused.

"I assure you I am not. I tested him myself, which judging by how frustrated he was in your classes, no one bothered to do to see what he may or may not have picked up on the streets."

"I'm done, Rider Jacut," Livvy spoke up holding out the slate.

"What is this rubbish?" Haren snarled grabbing it and smearing some of the painfully copied letters uncaringly. "Don't you know not to interrupt your betters?"

"You're not better then me!" Livvy snapped back, "That was for Rider Jacut not you!"

"Don't you dare talk back to me, you little rat!" Haren turned on him raising a hand to lash out at the child.

Jacut was out of his seat and around his desk in a flash, gripping Haren's wrist still in the air. "You will not touch him. He has been mishandled already and you will not make things worse." He removed the slate from Haren's hand and tossed it on his desk.

"Unhand me, Jacut." Haren said softly. Jacut released him stepping in between Livvy and Haren.

Haren glared at him. "It doesn't matter what you do, Jacut. The elders gave him over to me; you cannot take him."

"You would challenge me?" Jacut asked in a quiet deadly voice. It occurred to Livvy at that moment that having Jacut as his technical 'guardian' would be a good thing. He was the fighting master for the most advanced Riders. His place was held so long as no one challenged him and won, which according to one of the other Fledglings hadn't happened once in the ten years he'd been holding the position.

'Not for lack of trying either.' Livvy thought, 'He's been challenged six times since I've been here.'

Haren had gone very pale. "No, Jacut, of course not."

"Then get out." He commanded before Haren could say more. Haren beat a hasty retreat not protesting in the slightest. Once the door was firmly shut again Jacut sat down again picking up the slate. He read through it carefully ignoring the letters smudged by Haren. "Very good, again I think you merely need practice."

"Did you mean it?" Livvy burst out clearly not paying attention to what Jacut had just said.

"Did I mean what?"

"You won't let him hit me any more?"

Jacut scowled darkly, "He has struck you before?"

Livvy stared at the floor rubbing a hand over the padding of the chair. "He doesn't like me. " He finally muttered.

"That dose not answer my question."

Livvy remained silent, which was answer enough. "Did he leave any marks?" Livvy didn't answer again. Jacut rose and rounded his desk to crouch in front of Livvy, who would not look at him. "Show me." Livvy merely hunched in on himself. "Please Livvy, show me. I cannot help you with out just cause for concern."

Slowly Livvy pushed the sleeve of his shirt up to his shoulder. There were no marks from where Jacut had held him by his wrists earlier. Jacut was always careful with his strength, but on his upper arms bruises stood out a dark purple on his pale skin. The marks were in the shape of hands. Livvy had been grabbed hard enough to bruise. Gently Jacut pulled his sleeve down and took his hand urging him off the chair. "We will see the Elders now."

Still silent Livvy kept pace with him through the maze of halls. He pulled briefly on Jacuts hand before asking. "Is that tattling?"

"No," Jacut denied instantly. "When some one is hurt or has a chance of being hurt it is most defiantly not tattling." Livvy said nothing more on the way to the Elders receiving room.

The door was open when they got there and Harens voice came from inside. Jacut entered without pause. The Elders, a group of three of the oldest riders frowned collectively at him. Livvy ducked slightly behind him. The Elders made him uncomfortable.

"Jacut, why have you disobeyed our will?" One of them demanded.

"I did not, Elder Florm." Jacut said calmly.

"We gave Fledgling Livinal's care over to Rider Haren not you."

"I was under the impression he was turned over to Rider Haren to be trained, not belittled and abused."

"He is not abused." Haren protested. "Boy's need discipline."

Jacut pulled Livvy in front of him and pulled his sleeve up to show the Elders the marks. The silence and tension was so thick it could have been cut with a knife. "Discipline dose not require bruising." He said softly. Livvy ducked behind him again as soon as his sleeve was pulled down.

"Explain how he is belittled, Rider Jacut." Another Elder cut in before Haren could come up with an excuse.

"Of course, Elder Halven." Jacut replied. "Rider Haren continually refers to Fledgling Livinal as 'that little rat' in and out of his hearing. He also refers to Fledgling Livinal stupid even though he is not."

"He is uneducated." Elder Halven pointed out.

"He is self educated." Jacut corrected. The Elders looked skeptical. "Livvy, recite for me the eight times table." With out hesitation Livvy rattled them off. Jacut stopped him at twenty times eight with a quiet, "High enough Livvy."

The Elders were staring at him in shock. Elder Florm shook off the shock first and started asking him arithmetic questions much as Jacut had earlier. Livvy answered them all easily. Elder Florm was silent a moment before addressing Jacut. "I assume you tested him thoroughly, Rider Jacut?"

"Yes, Elder Florm. Fledgling Livinal needs no help in arithmetic and merely needs a bit of practice in reading and writing. I did not bother with History, Supply & Mapping, or Languages as the other Fledglings are not learning them yet."

"I see." Elder Florm murmured. He shared a look with the other elders before addressing Livvy. "Fledgling Livinal step forward where we can see you."

Livvy edged cautiously in front of Jacut. "Yes, sir?" Jacut had the feeling that title hadn't been used much in Livvy's life.

"If we give your training over to Rider Jacut, will you obey him?"

Livvy shifted uncomfortably considering. "What- what if I don't agree with something he wants? Sir." He added on hurriedly.

"Rider Jacut is not unreasonable. I would suggest you talk to him and reach a compromise." Elder Halven said dryly.

Livvy blinked and glanced back at Jacut who was struggling not to start laughing. Livvy thought quickly before speaking again. "Alright how about I promise to obey Ja- Rider Jacut if he promises to listen to me and give me reasons for stuff I have to do in training."

The Elders looked briefly impressed by this counter then irritated as Haren broke in furious. "You should be grateful the Elders are permitting you this chance, boy, be gracious and accept their offer!"

"Rider Haren!" The previously silent Elder barked. "You will speak when spoken to in this meeting. We are consulting Fledgling Livinal in this matter not you, be silent. We will deal with your 'training' of Fledgling Livinal after his new training master is appointed." He glared at Haren until he was sure the man would hold his tongue. "You bargain well, Fledgling Livinal. What you ask is not unreasonable, either. Well Rider Jacut?"

"I see nothing wrong with Fledgling Livinal request, Elder Gashon." Jacut said easily. "I believe most problems parents, teachers and trainers have with children stems from miscommunication. I think this will avoid that."

"Fledgling Livinal?" Elder Gashon prompted.

"I promise to obey Rider Jacut in my training, provided he listens to me and explains why I have to do things when I ask."

"Very good." Elder Halven murmured. "The boy is very intelligent."

"You are both dismissed." Elder Gashon said, shifting his gaze to Haren.

Livvy followed Jacut out of the room so closely it was a wonder neither of them tripped. "You did very well." Jacut congratulated him once they were a good distance down the hall. Livvy smiled up at him.

"Oh!" Livvy stopped. "Can we go see Nahrin? Please?"

"Certainly." Jacut responded changing direction to go outside.