Most racing dragons came from species of the only slightly intelligent kind. Horned reds tended to be a little smarter than most.
Which, as Ashlynn opened the main gate and saw that at least one had figured out the newest lock and was happily sunning himself on the roof, was why she preferred the blue-tipped quetzal.
At least her dragon had figured out that if he opened his gate that meant a scolding. Her brother’s red however, did this at least weekly.
“Burner’s out!” she shouted it over her shoulder, knowing that if nothing else she could poke him off the roof with a broom.
The first order of business would be figuring out how he’d opened his stall gate and then correcting it before she could secure him.
Ash closed the heavier main gate behind her. She’d have reach through the hole in the bottom to undo the latch and open it, but it kept the dragons from getting out. They couldn’t maneuver their claws that well.
Not that Burner hadn’t tried.
His stall looked like any other dragon stall—bricked walls with a few rocks in the corner for him to chew on. A wooden post for him to claw at, though after a week it had been reduced to mostly splinters. An open back which would allow him out to the dust yard where he could have sunned and bathed himself.
The problem was, the roof was metal and he liked the metal.
The latch, she saw, had been sheared in two. Ash would need to find the second half before she could worry too much about how to deal with the dragon on the roof.
She nudged the rocks aside and frowned as she noted how they crumbled. They didn’t look particularly well-chewed, and even if they had been, Burner would have probably eaten them. Not only did they help with digestion, but they made it easier for him to create a spark when he needed to breathe fire.
Yet these crumbled at the slightest touch, leaving her with some sort of powder on her hand.
“What are you doing?”
Her brother’s voice made her look up. “Your dragon got out,” she retorted. “Jet, something is up with the rocks.”
“Nothing’s wrong with his rocks. I just checked them this morning.”
“Look.” She grabbed one and gave it a squeeze, letting it powder. “I’ve never seen rocks do that before. Not even when he’s spit them out.”
“They’re fine,” he insisted and snatched up the broken part of the latch.
“No they aren’t,” she said. “This sort of powdering isn’t normal. It’s almost like…” she paused. “Like charcoal.”
Charcoal, which when given to a dragon, would make them lighter over a period. They wouldn’t have the weight of rocks to keep them down, and the build-up of gases in their flame cavity would make them more buoyant.
It resulted in a dragon that could go higher and fly faster.
“I’ll deal with it in a minute,” Jet said. “Go get a broom or something.”
“Have you been feeding him charcoal?”
Jet half-froze before he glowered at her. “Which of us is the senior rider?” he demanded.
“That’s not what I asked. Have you been feeding him charcoal?”
In response, he crowded her space, forcing her to back up. “Listen. There’s only one qualifying race left for the Scale Cup and I’m not about to let anything get in my way. Dragons are dangerous. You know this. I know this. It would be terribly upsetting if something happened to your little Daydreamer over there before that race.”
Her heart dropped. “You wouldn’t.”
“Depends. You still think I’m feeding my dragon charcoal?”
Inwardly, Ash could draw out how that would work. She could tell her parents who would immediately go poking. Jet would be disowned.
It would also stain the family name. Everyone would look at her races harder too. Her parents would be questioned for how they’d let it go so far.
Her little sister, just now old enough to start learning how to race, might be shunned from the things she needed to make it a career.
“No,” Ash answered.
“Then go get a broom.”
She scowled after him as she headed towards the tack shed. There would be a broom in there, and a bridle to help steer Burner back into his stall.
The tack shed had an old broom specifically for chasing Burn back in. Ash reached up for the bridle first, distentangling it from the hook Jet kept the saddle and gear on.
Her gaze lingered for a moment on the straps used to keep a saddle on a dragon.
There was one other side effect to giving a dragon charcoal.
The day of the qualifying race, it was easy to see Burner wasn’t feeling his best. Jet coaxed and pleaded with his dragon quietly, but Burner kept turning his head away.
“Problem?” Ash’s father asked as he finished tightening down the straps to keep her in the saddle.
“I’m not sure. Maybe it’s just race jitters,” Jet said. “You’ll be okay. There’s no way we can lose. You got a nice scrub last night and afterwards I’ll get you a whole pig for a treat.”
Burner let off a low growl and Ash looked at him. “Maybe you shouldn’t race him,” she said.
“It’s the last qualifier. We have to or you’ll be the only one racing in the Scale cup,” Jet said.
“If he’s not—
“He’s fine,” Jet cut her off and she narrowed her gaze at him. “Pop, mind helping me strap in?”
“That’s what I’m here for,” he said.
It only took a few moments and inwardly, Ash went over the planned race route in her head. She knew the curves on some of them might be a little harder on Daydreamer and reached forward to gently scratch at the feathers on his crest.
Three gongs sounded, signaling racers to their marks.
“You ready?” Her father asked and Daydreamer cooed, shaking his feathered tail and starting forward. She grinned.
“Good boy,” she said.
They were number six, owing to the fact they’d placed higher in the last two pre-qualifying races. Her brother of course, moved ahead to head one line. He leaned over. “Just race your best. At least one of us will be in the Scale Cup,” he promised.
“One indeed,” she muttered and inhaled before she leaned down. “Ready, Daydreamer?”
He responded by clacking his tongue against his teeth and shaking his tail again.
Ash gripped the loops on the saddle, knowing that it would be connected to his bridle. He clicked his tongue again, telling her he was ready.
Daydreamer’s wings, feathered along the membranes lifted. For a moment she was closed in by the sight of sky blue and bright gold feathers. He would lose the gold soon, replacing them with red for signs of mating season.
A thought for later.
Daydreamer shot into the air, managing to twist and pull ahead of the fifth racer almost before they’d even gotten all the way off the ground. The powerful wingbeats shoved him even farther ahead, and she knew as they managed to get into line with the third racer that the first turn would be the true test.
Her gaze shifted to where Jet was competing to get to first place.
That first turn wasn’t the sharpest, but it was around a vertical plane. Racers only had two options. Get high enough to get over the seventy-foot wall, or turn right to go around it. With it being the first turn she knew it wouldn’t be easy to get enough height to get over it.
Jet, still competing for first, was forced to turn right.
As he did, his saddle slid sideways, rotating. Several people gasped and Burner, already uneasy, dove to prevent his rider from injuring himself.
Disqualification was immediate.
Daydreamer however, paid no mind to this, turning with the gentlest tug on his handles. Ash smiled to herself as he managed to pull ahead, taking the newly-opened second place.
There was nothing she could do to help her brother. Not with such an important race.
She only had to focus on staying in the top five competitors today.
Third place wasn’t a bad place to finish, not for a qualifier and once she’d finished untacking and oiling Daydreamer’s scales, she went to see how her brother was doing.
Furious, as it turned out. “What did you do to my saddle?” he demanded.
“If you don’t feed a dragon the right kind of rocks, it loses weight. It gets thinner.”
“And that means the straps from his previous fitting would have been too loose,” she said as she headed out.
“You cheated,” he said.
Ash looked over her shoulder at him, catching sight of another figure coming up towards Burner’s stall. “Actually, it’s not. Both his previous straps and the new ones were to regulation. I did nothing.”
“You disqualified me.”
“Actually, son. I think you did that all on your own. Thank you, Ash. I think your mom and sister are waiting to congratulate you and get Daydreamer back home for some special treats.”
Her father’s tone told her what would happen next and Jet’s face paled. “You told him.”
“All I did was ask him where your old straps were,” Ash replied and sauntered off. “Pop asked all the rest of the questions.”