It was the most extraordinary thing she had ever held.
And Petra had no idea what to do with it.
The whip coiled in her hands like a serpent's tail, sleek and shining. It was cool to the touch, and as she ran the length of the weapon through her fingers, it felt almost like she was holding water.
But she wasn’t. She was holding the skin of a dragon.
The girl had to admit it was beautiful, but even as she did so, a part of her cringed. Wasn’t it weird to be marveling over part of someone’s dead body?
“You’re gonna use it, right?” Oskar whispered reverently from over her shoulder
Petra elbowed him in the ribs mercilessly. Oskar choked dramatically, doubling over and stumbling away. Petra was a little surprised he didn’t attack her in retaliation.
“Wounded! Betrayed!” the young man lamented. “Is this truly the hello I get after so long?”
“It was two months,” Petra scoffed. “And you’re not here to say hello, you’re here for my stuff.”
Oskar stuck out his lower lip. “Do you really think so little of me?”
Petra grimaced at him. “Dramatics don’t look good on you,” she said. And as she wound up the whip and started towards the door she added: “stop acting weird.”
As the door started to swing shut behind her, Oskar called out after her. “If you're not gonna use it, can I have it?”
Petra walked faster.
Oskar wasn’t the only one on the ranch that wanted to marvel at Petra’s whip. She let most people touch it, but she let barely anyone hold it, in part because she knew some people would ask if they could try it out, and she didn’t know how to say no without explaining why. And part of her didn’t know why.
She also didn’t want people to think she was a jerk. Being the youngest worker at Phantom Ranch didn’t mean she was allowed to act like she was young, and rudeness was childish.
“Morning, chica,” Grandmother said, resting a hand on Petra’s shoulder briefly. “You’re moving slow today.”
The girl just crammed another mouthful of toast between her teeth. It was nearly ten o’clock, which meant Grandma Rose's morning had started hours ago. But Petra was allowed to sleep in, having just come back from, as Grandma would put it: one hell of a quest.
Rose was probably making note of the fact that Petra wasn’t inhaling her breakfast at record speeds.
“Are you tired?” Grandmother asked, anyway.
“No,” Petra said, even though it meant she would end up back on the chore list faster. The girl didn’t like having nothing to do.
“Want to talk?”
Petra slowly put the toast down. “Yes,” she admitted.
The old woman faced her. “Here?”
Petra waved her hand flippantly. “Sure, here’s fine,” she said, putting her plate of toast down on the coffee table.
Grandma sat down in another seat and said nothing, leaving the ball in Petra’s court. Silence stretched between them as Petra scrambled for something to say–– some question to ask. Maybe something about the priceless whip Petra had laying in her lap. Maybe Petra could ask something that would help her make sense of why she was both attracted to and repelled by it. In the end, she didn’t ask that at all.
“Why is Oskar acting weird?” she blurted out.
“You mean, why is he being nice?”
“Is that what he’s trying to do?” Petra asked, aghast.
Rose muffled a laugh, but Petra didn’t see what was funny. “Why?” she demanded.
The woman only shrugged. “I don’t know kiddo, maybe he’s happy you’re back in one piece,” she suggested.
Petra didn’t look convinced.
“You know, you two work well together when you’re not trying to kick each other’s shins in with your boots. It was strange for all of us not having you here, but I think that kid missed you more than he let on. He’s probably just glad you survived the quest.”
Petra’s hands began to fidget with the dragon whip.
“And speaking of questing,” Rose continued, voice immediately softening. “It sounds like a legendary success, for someone of your age. But you don’t seem to be very happy.”
“I’m happy to be back in the desert,” Petra said, honestly.
Grandmother nodded. “Yeah, I would be too. But you’re not happy about that whip, aren’t you?”
Rose only hummed. “It sounds like something you would have loved to receive.”
Petra thought about it. Maybe that would have been true, a year ago. Maybe she would have reacted like Oskar did. But Petra had talked to dragons within the past year. They talked an awful lot like people do.
“Well, you can’t give it back,” the woman told her. “The Unbreathing Nation is very serious about their Gifts. You could start a feud.”
“I don’t want to give it back to them.”
“Because… because this doesn’t feel like something anyone should own,” she said, tossing the whip away from her and onto the side of her chair.
“Oh,” Grandmother said softly. “Well then, what do you want to do about it?”
“I don’t know,” Petra said, frustration coloring her voice.
The girl wouldn’t look her grandmother in the face, only keeping her eyes focused somewhere on the woman’s legendary jacket. Grandma’s coat was made of real leather, and Petra adored that thing. The girl looked away again, and found herself staring at the gleaming whip flopped over on the furniture. It looked as lifeless as it felt.
If she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, return it to the people who had given it to her, and she didn’t want to keep it herself, then where should it go?
How do you return a body to the dead?
Petra chewed on the end of her tongue, knowing with uncomfortable certainty that she didn't have the answer.
Dragons can live anywhere there’s water. Most people thought that meant oceans, or lakes, or streams, but really, it meant anywhere. Including the desert.
Petra had gotten up long before dawn to be out here, leaving a note with Oskar because she knew he wouldn’t snitch unless she hadn’t returned by mid-afternoon. If she was home before noon she could slip back into the workings of the ranch and the rest of the crew could assume she had just slept in.
About three miles away from Phantom Ranch, Petra had stopped to eat a sandwich at roughly six in the morning. Now, it was nearing eight o’clock, and Petra could finally see distinct shapes on the dry landscape. Up ahead, there was a scrubby patch of jasper sage and sand oak partially enrobed by a small sandstone outcropping that blocked some of the day’s sun. If she listened carefully, the girl could hear the hush of falling water.
She wasn’t sure if Raúl would find her here, but the dragon did have an uncanny ability to know where she was whenever she came close to what she assumed was his territory. It was never very clear, though. Dragons were very secretive about where their real lairs were.
A dusty lizard scrambled away from her boots as she drew near to the faded greenery, but an uneasy feeling made her slow down. As her eyes scanned the branches of the short trees, she froze. There were a pair of black eyes glinting out from underneath the boughs of a jasper sage. It was barely light enough to see, but as the creature locked eyes with her, it began to creep out of the darkness.
The fluffy head of a keller cat began to stalk closer.
“Cat!” Petra said, loudly. “Cat! CAT CAT HELLO CAT!!” She screamed, hoping the sandstone bowl around her would make the sound echo.
The keller was almost completely undisturbed as it took another menacing step forward. The beast’s two mouths began to open, framing twin pits of cavernous darkness by rings of ivory fangs. Petra’s hand dropped to her waist, looking for a can of pepper spray even though she knew the cat was way too close for her to use it safely.
Her belt was empty, and her stomach dropped. Either she had left the weapon in her backpack or she left it in her room. Both were terrible options. The predator suddenly tensed, muscles coiling beneath desert colored fur. Was it going to jump?
It didn’t. The giant cat turned and bolted with all the grace of a panicked rat. Petra took a deep breath, but as the feeling of uneasiness didn’t leave her, she thought to turn around–– and panicked all over again when she found her nose inches away from Raúl’s teeth.
“You’re not very clever,” the dragon told her. “Out here with no weapon.”
Petra loudly exhaled the last of her adrenaline and doubled over to rest her hands on her knees. “It is,” she gasped. “Too early for you to sneak up on me.”
“It’s not hard,” Raúl told her simply, loping around her and into the oasis with all the silence of a cloud.
Petra scrambled after him with far less elegance. “So did you only just find me or have you been trailing me for miles?” she demanded.
Raúl didn’t answer, and Petra rolled her eyes in frustration. The girl finally caught up to him where part of a desert stream cut through the rock. From nose to tail, the dragon was easily the length of a school bus, but since his meandering scramble of a walk bent his spine with every move, he often appeared to be smaller than that.
Petra had grown up with picture books featuring giant fire breathing monsters with huge bat wings, but real dragons were nothing like that. Raúl did look a lot like a lizard, but he had antlers instead of horns, and a feathery mane along his back instead of wings. He couldn’t breathe fire, but he did have a very high internal body temperature that let him superheat water in his mouth and then spit out a boiling stream at his enemies.
He was also notoriously hard to find when he wanted to stay hidden.
“I do have a weapon, you know,” Petra told him defensively. “I brought pepper spray. It’s very effective.”
“Where is it?”
“...In my bag,” she claimed, even though she wasn’t actually sure.
“Then it’s no use to you,” Raúl pointed out. “You weren’t thinking.”
“Yes I was,” Petra argued. “I was just thinking about other things.”
“More important things?” Raúl asked, amused.
As Petra slipped her bag off her shoulders, her hand brushed against the dragonhide whip she had fastened to the left side of her belt. She could have used that against the keller cat, but her panicking mind hadn’t let her think of it.
“Raúl, I have a question,” she warned him, bringing the whip into her hands.
“You always do,” Raúl said, which was as much of an invitation as she was going to get.
“What do dragons do for funerals?”
He seemed puzzled. “Like…”
“Mourning the dead?”
He had to think for a while. “Sometimes we scream,” he offered helpfully. “Or brew storms. It depends on the dragon. And who loved them.”
“Have you ever been to a funeral?”
“No,” he huffed. “They’re not common. They’re not even a concept. Funeral is a human word.” He twisted over so one of his glassy eyes could fixate on Petra’s face. “Why?”
The whip suddenly felt ten pounds heavier. “I was given this,” she said, holding it up to the light. “They say it’s made of dragonhide.”
In what felt like the blink of an eye, Raúl face was right next to her hand, nose almost touching the side of the whip. Petra could hear his breath.
“So it is.”
Petra couldn’t make out his tone, or his reptilian expression, but after saying his piece, the dragon backed up quickly.
“...so…?” Petra asked hesitantly.
“So?” Raúl parroted.
“Can we,” Petra stopped, trying to find the right words. “Can we do something for it? Them?” she asked, waving the long whip.
Raúl seemed at a loss. “How would I know?”
Petra had no idea how to put her thoughts into words. She stumbled for something to say for a while, then ended up just staring at Raúl with a completely lost expression. Raúl looked around blankly for a while, then seemed to come up with an answer.
“Dragons have a common philosophy. We say: “we are water,” and that is our strength. Water is never destroyed, it only transforms. My uncle believed that in a very literal way. I think he would say that you have a whip that is no longer a dragon.”
“That’s crazy,” Petra hissed. “This used to be alive.”
“And one day you won’t be alive, and I won’t be alive, and then what will we be?” Raúl snapped back defensively.
“Not––” Petra stuttered for a while. “––this.”
“Well I never said I agreed with him,” the dragon said. “I’m just trying to answer you.”
“But what do I do with it?” she demanded.
Agitated steam poured out from Raúl’s snout. “I don’t know, Petra. It’s your whip–– you decide.”
With a rush of air, the dragon escaped on the desert wind, freeing himself from the problem entirely. Petra stood there for a while, even long after the wind had gone and the air stood stagnant.
It was a long way back to the ranch.
Petra had hiked as quickly as she could manage, but as she approached the collection of buildings–– practically a village–– that shaped Phantom Ranch, she had a sinking feeling that her absence had been noted.
It was Oskar who found her first.
Petra grit her teeth. “Hullo, Scar.”
“You missed lunch. But I bet you already noticed that. What you might not have noticed is that Rose is awfully displeased with the fact that you left your pepper spray in your room.”
Ah. So that’s where it was.
“I have a whip,” she said.
“That you don’t want to use,” Oskar argued. “Really, Petra, I’m not a complete moron,” he said, grabbing her shoulder and dragging her towards the main house.
“Of course I don’t want to use it,” she practically exploded. “It’s made out of someone's skin! I can’t do anything good with it.”
“Well that’s stupid, even for you” Oskar said derisively. “If you have it, you can at least take good care of it.”
Petra nearly wrenched her neck turning to stare at him.
“What?” Oskar demanded. “Would it have made you feel better about yourself if it were just left to collect dust in some underwater vault?”
Petra didn’t know, but she didn’t want to admit that. Her angry silence was enough of an answer either way. She had carried the whip in her hand the entire way back from the awkward meeting with Rau´l, as a response to the quick lesson she had learned from her encounter with the keller cat, but the weight in her hand felt more like a burden than a defense.
It still felt like a burden.
She was finally starting to realize it was one that she couldn’t get out of carrying.