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The Unbreaking

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Marlow is leaving. She had her orders, she is leaving, and as a dragon rider of the Queen's corps, her family can't stop her. But they try. And only when Marlow is alone, on an island at the end of the world, tasked with flying into the most dangerous storms out on the sea to look for survivors does she realise how long her family's arms will stretch to get her back under their control. And she isn't alone. The beautiful and mysterious Koa also lives on the island, and despite Marlow's best attempts to stay alone so nobody can tie her down or hurt her again, she is helpless against Koa.

Fantasy / Romance
L.A. Effinger
Age Rating:

Family Matters

Start writing here…“Come on, Marlow, just one last dinner. It’s only a few hours.”

“Yeah, a few hours of hell. I’m not going.”

It was dark, both inside and out.

“Please. For me?”

It was dark with storm and dark with night and dark with winter. The lamps in the roost stood little chance.

A sigh. “Can’t I just have dinner with you?”

“Your mother wants to see you.”

Curses spilled into the darkness, and it swallowed them like it had swallowed the light. It chewed them up in silence, waiting for the next bit. There came movement into the darkness, and a large animal filled it’s lungs, rearranged its wings.

“I can leave right now. Just fly out. It’s all packed, Eric, I can just go.”

A low rumbling purr as Eric stepped up to the animal, pet it’s snout.

“I know. But please. I— I kind of want to see their faces when you tell them.”

Laughter from the figure sitting on the animal.

“Fair. I just— I’m not sure it’s worth it.”

“Please, Marlow. One last favour, for me. Your mother asked me to make sure you come. She’s going to skin me alive if she finds out I just let you go.”

A moment of silence, darkness settled in the roost, waiting for Marlow’s decision. It ate her sigh.

“Alright. But you owe me.”

“I love you!”

Marlow snorted, the sound only marginally dampened by the rustle and creak of leather as she slid off her saddle and back onto solid ground.

“I know.” Footsteps shuffled over straw and stone, a body leaning against a wooden divider until it sank into the wheelchair by Eric’s side. “I got this,” Marlow said when she felt the hands on the back of the chair, holding on tightly to the wheels. One of the hands settled on her shoulder, the thumb caressing her neck.

“Please. I owe you.”

With a scoff Marlow let go, and Eric pushed the chair into the middle of the roost where the darkness had less hold on them. It could do little against the lantern burning wale fat to highlight the exit of the roost.

“You owe me way more for this.”

Eric laughed. “Come on, it’s not going to be that bad.”

Marlow swallowed, her hands clenching into her trousers. “You don’t know that.”

Eric placed his hand on her shoulder again, a comforting gesture that only reminded Marlow that she’d have to get changed for dinner. “I’ll be there with you.”

Eric pushed the chair out of the roost, and the cutting winter wind of a soon to be storm gripped them, greedily tearing at their hair and jackets. Marlow curled herself tighter into her riding coat, thankful for the thick leather that was meant to withstand storms much worse than anything Sevengold would ever get. Eric behind her curse and sped up his pace, but they were both thoroughly windtorn by the time they had crossed the long bridge that spanned the roaring waterfall separating the roost from the city, where the walls stood against some of the wind.

Of course the walls wouldn’t be much help when they headed higher into the city, climbing the steep incline Sevengold was built on towards the Citadel. The Nenshamire estate was one of the closest to the Citadel, and thus one of the highest on the incline, only the league of the Citadel separating the estate from the cliff that dropped down into the sea.

“Rough sea tonight,” Eric said into his scarf. “Maybe better if you leave once the storm has passed. Safer.”

Marlow laughed, a wild barking sound that the wind picked up and swept out and back to the roost. “Eric, this is exactly the kind of night to leave. Numa and I need all the practice we can get, and we’ll be flying in much worse conditions than this.” She loosened the knot her arms had formed around her body as Eric pushed her up the incline towards the Nenshamire estate. Spreading them out to the side like wings she let the wind tear into her jacket and her hair, letting the chill of it slip into her sleeve where it wasn’t properly tucked into her glove and steal her warmth from her in one breath. Eric only shook his head as Marlow grinned up towards the storm, holding out her tongue as the first raindrops began to fall. She laughed at him as he hurried inside, at his hiding from the rain and at his hair that now resembled a birds nest, nothing like the fine braids denouncing his position he had spent hours on this morning.

Eric smiled fondly at her laughter, stepping back to allow her to push herself through the cavernous reception hall of the estate. The Nenshamire home was as close to a palace as any of the houses could come without blaspheming against the Citadel. It had expansive gardens, three ballrooms that could each fit several thousand guests, a hundred servants that stayed at the estate at any one time, and so much gold they seemed so desperate to find use for it that they decorated their halls with it. Golden shields and swords lined the walls, golden suits of rider armour, golden pieces of dragon armour. Whole walls were covered in gold that was polished to a shine, serving as a mirror, doubling the rooms that were already too big. The candelabras were golden and the reliefs in the walls were golden, and of course, the railings on the main staircase were golden. Which was why Marlow wasn’t allowed to use them.

Instead, after waving goodbye to Eric at the junction to the guest wing where he had a permanent apartment at this point, Marlow headed for one of the servant stairs, hidden behind a wall panel lined with wood so bright it reminded her of bleached driftwood. The stairs here were unremarkable, which was in of itself remarkable. In this house of golden extravagance were nothing did not have some kind of delightful twist to it, this simple winding staircase stuck out like a splinter. It was the only servant staircase with a railing, and it hadn’t had one originally either. Only when the gold plating on the main staircase had begun to dull with Marlow’s use had her father called for a carpenter to add the railing here.

Bracing herself for the effort to come with a deep breath, Marlow fastened the two straps over her lap and began pulling herself up the stairs. She had always cursed this part of her day, hated that where her brother could simply flit up and down the floors of the estate whenever he needed something, Marlow had to consider each time she descended a floor, knowing that heading back upstairs was akin to a corps drill.

But it had proved useful in the end. The constant lifting of her own body and her chair up these chairs had made passing the tests required to enter the corps almost easy, her upper body strength making up for the chronic weakness and pain in her hips and legs. And Eric was right. The look on her mother’s face had been priceless.

The memory brought a grim smile to her face, and Marlow redoubled her efforts, making it up to the third floor of the estate in record time. Her arms stung with the effort and her breath came in short controlled pants by the time she allowed the tapestry hiding the staircase to slide back into place, but the effort had done nothing to her smile.

Just one more family dinner.

Marlow looked at outfit in the mirror with the same scrutinising gaze she knew her mother would bring to it. The uniform was spotless, steamed and ironed and starched, the jacket neatly pinned up and out of the way of the wheelchair, the uniform pants were folded into the high boots. It was perfect. Marlow also knew it wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t a dress after all.

Not that it mattered. It was only tonight, then it wouldn’t matter ever again. Then her mother could lick her boots clean for all Marlow cared. She would only have to remember that throughout the night.

With a deep breath, Marlow steeled herself and ran her hand over her braids one more time. The three thin braids signalling her rank as rider lay neatly against her temples, dropping down behind her ears. The complicated pattern of the Nenshamire braid encircled her head above that, taking the better part of an hour to lay correctly. There was only one braid that could go higher than a house braid; the simply twisting pattern of the Sevengold crown. There were variations on it of course, her father’s was far more extravagant than what Marlow had done tonight, than what she was allowed to do. But that suited her just fine. Like this the thin twist was almost lost next to the Nenshamire braid, hard to spot if one didn’t really look.

The rest of her hair Marlow combed back and twisted into a tight knot at the back of her head, out of her face and out of the way. It wasn’t the fashion at the moment, her mother would be wearing her hair in sweeping curls decorated with tiny seashells and fishbones tumbling down over her own braids, but it was the corps style that was taught to all new recruits. And much more importantly, her mother hated in on her.

Satisfied that she had done all she could, Marlow tugged on a pair of thin gloves made of sinfully soft lambs leather and pushed herself out of her room.

“Bye,” she whispered to the darkness sitting in it, to her bed and her mirror and her desk. After tonight she would never see it again.

The dining room the Nenshamire family used on a regular basis was big enough to house a battalion. The doors were as tall as the ceiling and the ceiling as tall as a tree, and Marlow didn’t get how nobody else felt ridiculous when walking through them. She couldn’t see how the additional two feet her parents and brother gained from walking made that much of a difference. She felt ridiculous as a servant opened the door for her, and she felt ridiculous as she pushed her chair into the room, the same way she had felt for the last twenty years.

Lord and Lady Nenshamire were already there, sitting at the head of a table for a hundred people. There were three more sets of plates and glasses and cutlery, which meant her brother was home tonight. Marlow took a deep breath and rolled up to the side of the table her parents were sitting at.

Lady Nenshamire smiled her bright glittering smile when she spotted Marlow. “Marlow dearest, how good of you to join us.”

As Marlow reached her parents, none of the servants had moved and the chair meant for her still stood in line with its hundred companions. Marlow glanced up at her mother, and her mother smiled back. Marlow didn’t sigh, didn’t say anything. Only turned around towards the wall, snapping the breaks of her chair onto the wheels, and pushing herself onto her feet.

“Thank you, mother.” She said it with a smile as the pain from her hips shot up her spine, threatening to crumple her legs right under her. But this too she had been able to train with the corps, walking small distances, even climbing stairs and trees if she had to. Her parents knew this. Her parents also knew that it didn’t come without a cost. That for all Marlow could tighten her core muscles, focus on her balance and use as much of her momentum as she could to make the walking easier, it would still leave her in spasms of pain come tomorrow.

Lord Nenshamire grinned proudly when Marlow reached her chair, one seat down from him at the head of the table, opposite the empty seat that was Eric’s. Marlow imagined what it might be like to throw the glass of water set out for her into his face. If that might sour his smile. Instead she pulled out the chair, the shift of more weight onto her legs chasing a spasm of pain through her, and sat down. She missed her wheelchair. She missed Numa. She wished she’d just left.

Lady Nenshamire was looking her, scrutinising her uniform and her hair. She narrowed her eyes at the knot of hair on Marlow’s head. Marlow wondered why she even tried.

“Although I do wish you had chosen a dress tonight that might highlight what few qualities of femininity you do possess.”

Marlow tried her sweetest smile, covering the way her mother’s gaze cut through her like a knife. She was startled out of her efforts by the warm glove of her father’s hand settling on her hand.

“My dear, you are being hard on her. There is nothing even she can do to ruin tonight, show her some lenience.”

Wanna fucking bet? Marlow bit her tongue, swallowing down her words and the bitter taste of anger.

Lady Nenshamire sighed, and let her gaze wander anywhere that wasn’t Marlow. “I will be so relieved to know that she is taken care of.”

Marlow considered reminding them that she was right here, that she could hear them. She didn’t, instead turning her attention to the conversation her parents were having without her. About her. Because putting together the conversation so far with Eric’s insistence that she come was painting an alarming picture.

“I can take care of myself.”

Lord Nenshamire glanced at the wheelchair standing by the wall and smiled at her like he smiled at his wife’s dog when it had caught a rat. “Of course, dove.”

Before Marlow could so much as draw breath to protest, laughter from the hall interrupted her, and the stupidly large doors were opened again for Eric and Marlow’s brother, Eric still laughing at whatever the joke had been.

Anton struck an imposing figure, even dressed as casually as he was now, having discarded his captain’s uniform for a suit. The suit was of course cut to perfectly highlight his broad shoulders, the deep crops blue a beautiful bed for his shining black braids and curls. Even Eric looked relatively shabby next to him in his suit. But that was just what Anton did to those around him. Only their father could compete, his weathered face and greying hair set in the intricate crown like braid of the Sevengold crew lending him an aged elegance that withstood all of Anton’s slick shine.

“Anton, love, how good of you to make time for us,” Lady Nenshamire crooned before turning her attention to Eric. Eric had changed out of his own work uniform into a suit that seemed to make Lady Nenshamire forget for a moment that she had married into one of the most influential families of the Oriana Dynasty. Eric acknowledged her attentions with a polite smile and bow of the head before taking is place next to her, ignoring her in favour of shooting Marlow a conspiratorial smile.

Anton took his time rounding Marlow before sitting down between her and Lord Nenshamire. Glancing around he spotted the wheelchair by the wall, looking Marlow over for any signs of strain or discomfort. The assessment was as familiar as it was uncomfortable, and Marlow refused to acknowledge that it was happening at all.

“And Eric, it is wonderful to have you with us again.” Lady Nenshamire’s voice was sweet and delighted and she and Eric shared a look that made Marlow’s alarm bells ring. Something was off about tonight. Her mother was being too nice to her. She was always proud of Anton, always happy to see Eric. But she was being too nice.

Marlow tried to figure out what is going on, only comforted by the thick waxed envelope in her inner jacket pocket. Her orders. Her orders from the Queen Oriana that would take her far far away from here, no matter what her mother was planning, no matter what her father thought was best for her.

The small talk was as boring as it was infuriating. Anton talked and talked about his crew and ate their parents’ praise and Eric’s poorly disguised admiration for a starter. Lord Nenshamire informed them all of the newest Citadel politics, whether they wanted to know or not, and Anton commended their father for his sly manoeuvring. Lord Nenshamire glowed under his son’s praise, and Marlow and her mother shared a glance in a moment of uneasy truce. Both of them knew that Lord Nenshamire was an bull in the Queen’s china collection compared to his wife.

Marlow watched with growing discomfort as her mother patiently waited her turn to talk. Whatever it was that had her excited and her father at ease was bad. Marlow didn’t know what it was, but she knew that it was now or never.

“May I speak? I have some exciting news I received that regards the family, and for Eric as well.”

Lady Nenshamire looked like she had missed a step on the stairs and was blaming the stairs. Eric looked like his parents had lost him in the market square, looking between Marlow and Lady Nenshamire. Anton regarded his younger sister with the face with which he had regarded most of Marlow’s life. Only Lord Nenshamire was steadily looking at Marlow, a warning in his face. Marlow smiled back at him, her smile all teeth and nothing nice as she reached into her jacket.

“Marlow, dove, might I first—”

“I received my orders today.” She dropped the envelope onto the empty plate before her. Lord and Lady Nenshamire share a look, Anton grimaces, and Eric still looks lost. This wasn’t supposed to happen. But then again, Marlow was also never supposed to pass the muster for the corps, was never supposed to have a dragon. Marlow had made it her life’s business to excel at the things she wasn’t supposed to do, and sometimes she thought her mother hated her for it.

“Dove, I’m sure there has been a mistake, please don’t worry,” Lady Nenshamire tried to comfort her, completely missing the look in Marlow’s eyes. Anton was glowering at her from her left and Marlow only grinned back. He was supposed to be the glorious son rising through the ranks of the Queen’s corps into honour and greatness. She was nothing but a joke.

“Well, it’s my name on the order. Mine and Numa’s. And my address. And the post that matches a storm rider’s training. So unless Anton got demoted, I don’t think it’s a mistake, mother,” Marlow explains, trying to keep the triumph out of her voice. Lady Nenshamire stared at her, disbelief and anger warring in her eyes. Marlow was curious to see which one it was, curious whether her mother would allow the blotches of colour that smattered her cheek whenever she got really angry.

And then she spotted the twisting braid, the only braid above that of their house. Lady Nenshamire turned to her husband. “Albert!”

Lord Nenshamire turned to his daughter, faced with a grin of teeth and hands holding on to the waxed envelope like a lifeline. “Dove, I forbid this! You are not allowed to leave the estate.” Lady Nenshamire had reached for Eric’s hand, patting it comfortingly in a way she had never done with Marlow. She had a sinking feeling as to why Eric was getting her mother’s comfort, but for now she refused to acknowledge it.

Instead she turned to her father, her smile falling, letting her eyes grow big and innocent. “You’d have me defy orders from the Queen’s General, father?”

Marlow watched as her trap sprung. Lord Nenshamire was a gunner on the crew of the Sevengold, Queen Oriana’s very own dragon. Her orders were his life, he would bow to her every whim, as would all of the corps. And the General’s orders were those of the Queen.

Marlow pushed herself up, managing to push back the chair, stand and tuck the envelope back into the inside of her jacket. It was an impressive manoeuvre to nobody but herself, since nobody but herself got to see the pain it caused, flaring in her hips and streaking lines of cramps down her legs. Walking to the wheelchair is almost worse, and through the relief of finally sinking down into it again she misses that Eric has stood up.

“At least tell me where you’re headed?” Marlow eyes him coldly. It’s a well worded plea, excluding her family, asking to only tell him. But Marlow hasn’t forgotten that he is the reason she is still here, he is the reason she’s had to walk, that her hips now ache and the pain in her knees makes her want to cry. She hasn’t forgotten the looks between him and her mother.

“I’m sure my father can find out for you,” she says and pushes her chair towards the door.

“I’m sure your betrothed has a right where his bride is eloping to.” Lady Nenshamire’s voice cuts through the giant room, and Marlow’s crushing grip on her wheels brings her to an abrupt halt. I knew it. It’s not hard to feign surprise as she turns to her mother.

“Sold me already? Well, the answer is no. Sorry, Eric.” She actually is. Not a lot. But Eric was a friend. Her only friend, really. It felt stupid to lose him to something a silly as her mother’s politics. It made her feel helpless. Marlow hated it.

“Marlow, you may not dishonour your family like this!” Lord Nenshamire’s voice didn’t so much cut through the room as it filled the entire thing, thundering and bouncing off the walls until Marlow’s skull shook with it. “Is nothing sacred to you, insolent child?”

Marlow smiled, because that was all she could do. After all these years, she hadn’t expected this to hurt so much. “My vows to the Queen, Father. My vows to Numa. Otherwise, nothing that you value.”

She headed towards the door. There were servants next to it, beginning to look rather nervous as she approached. Unclear on whether they would risk the Lord and Lady’s wrath should they open the doors for her. Unclear whether Marlow would be any kinder.

“If you leave this room, you leave the family, Marlow.” Marlow wondered whether she too would become like her mother. Whether she too would eventually be able to make someone bleed with words alone. The anger at it all helped. Anger at herself for hurting in the first place, at her parents for hurting her because it would get them what they wanted. At Anton for standing by and watching as he had her entire life. And a new anger, at Eric, for thinking so little of Marlow as a friend that he would trade her for a wife. She wanted to drop them all into the sea. Instead she threw a grin over her shoulder.

“Be sure to tell the General that, so she can revoke your access to my file.” And my life. The servants had decided that Marlow was the more immediate threat for now and opened one half of the giant double doors for her. They froze when someone got up behind her, and Marlow recognised Anton’s light steps. He was walking towards her, moving to hold on to her chair like he had a thousand times in Marlow’s life, forcing her to walk or be trapped.

Marlow whirled around, pointing the knife always hidden in the seat of the chair at the surprised look on her brother’s face, ready to cut it up and eat it.

Anton chuckled, trying to hide his nerves as he swallowed them. “Careful, sissi, that’s sharp,” he said with a nonchalant grin as he pushed the knife aside. He didn’t mind his fingers and neither did Marlow, whipping the blade back to where she had pointed it before. Anton yelped as she cut him, the tip of the knife smearing his blood over his cheek as she rested the knife just below his eye.

“Stop me again, brother, try me. I have no love for you, blood of my blood or not.”

Anton scoffed and pushed her away from him, trying to salvage what he could of his dignity. Marlow didn’t let him out of her sight or the knife out of her hand as she stopped the chair, the wheels grinding to a halt in her hands.

Lady Nenshamire looked on in shock as Anton sat back in his chair, her husband looking at Marlow like a dog he regretted not drowning. Only Eric had a small smile playing around his lips that was easily hidden when Anton looked up.

Marlow considered looking her mother in the eye one last time. Trying to decipher what her father may think of her right now. She didn’t. She turned around and left the dining room, the servants jumping to the side. She didn’t put the knife back. Didn’t stay to listen as discussion broke out in her wake. She only wanted to leave the room. Leave the house. Leave and never come back.

Marlow wiped the tears off her face in harsh angry motions, the leather of her riding gloves coarse against her skin. She didn’t care. And she wasn’t hurt. She wasn’t crying. It was just the rain.

The storm had finally arrived at Sevengold and blanketed the whole city with torrents of heavy rain, lightning licking across the sky with bright white tongues. Marlow was drenched to the bone by the time she reached the bridge across the falls to the roost, cursing her rider’s coat that was folded neatly into the bag at the back of her wheelchair, cursing her mother and the whole damn family and their stupid stupid dinner rules, and most of all cursing Eric for making her go. It was never a good idea. It never went well. It always hurt.

“Marlow!” Speak of the devil. “Marlow, wait!” Eric came to a skidding halt beside her, overshooting and panting in front of her, hands of his knees, his beautiful suit soaked through and ruined. Marlow could feel her pity wither and die inside her. He’d known. Lady Nenshamire had asked him to make her come. So that she could announce their engagement, announce the latest and heaviest in the series of shackles they’d been trying to lay around Marlow’s wrists and ankles and neck. And now hand.

“You knew.

Eric didn’t deny it. “I’m sorry. I thought it might be a nice surprise.” His hopeful smile died quickly when he met her cold gaze.

“It wasn’t.”

Eric cringed away from the steel edge of her voice, his hand running through his hair in an attempt to gain some time. Figure out what to say, the right combination of honeyed words that might make her stay.

“Are you sure you can do this?”

Not the right words. Marlow tried to restrain the anger in her voice. “Yes.” Eric heard it anyway. He was her best friend after all. Or had been. Marlow errs on the side of had been and glares at him.

“No, sorry. I mean— Are you sure you want to go?”


“Just like that? Throw away the life we could have had?”

Marlow bristled in anger, her hands in her riding gloves clenched around the wheels of her chair. “You mean the life you could have had. This is what I want, this is my life.”

Eric nodded, sighed. He took one step towards her before dropping down into a crouch, allowing Marlow to look down at him. Eric looked down at his hands. Something in her softened at the display. He was her best friend. She shouldn’t be hurting him like this. Leaving him behind like this.

“Are you sure I can’t convince you to stay?”

That’s why. He might have been a friend before, but he was in league with her mother now. Eric was nothing more than a honey trap, begging her to touch and get stuck. Marlow pushed herself back a foot, putting some more distance between them, enough that he couldn’t reach for her, couldn’t hold her.

“I’m sure. Eric, you’ve been my friend. If you want what’s best for me you wish me good luck for the flight.” Marlow ran her hand over the armrest, making sure the dagger is where it’s supposed to be. “And if you want what’s best for you, you get out of my way.”

Eric stood back up with a sigh. “I just don’t want to see you get hurt.”

Marlow almost laughed. “Well, good that I don’t need your permission then. Goodbye, Eric.” She pushed her chair into movement, around him and onto the bridge.


Everything else drowned in the rain and the roar of the waterfall. The cold or the dark or Marlow herself, something dissuaded Eric from following her, and by the time the guard slid one of the roost doors to the side for her, Eric was nowhere to be seen.

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