Uroborus has no moon. So, its brightest nights are star lit. Emlis blinks at the twinkling things too far away for his imagination to grasp. He rubs his arms, wincing as his callused palms scrape like sandpaper.
Farts and the foul breath of a dozen and more naked men crowd around him. The dim light hints at their mix of hardy humanoid races.
He has broken dirt with this crew for weeks, working on the Endless Road and the multitude of paths branching off to the north and south. The dwarves and the single elf have the gift of nighteyes, but this does not save them from the cold blowing up from the Southwild’s winter.
Emlis clears his throat. “It’s like a white dragon is breathing on us tonight. Anyone willing to risk a fire?”
A gruff voice says, “Fire would bring the monster horde, dumbass.”
Emlis clenches his fists. On his homeworld, such insults are an invitation to a death-duel. He sucks in a breath. The voice is Bladebreaker, a dwarf that has cause to be rude. Hours before Emlis made an off-hand comment comparing the stout warrior to slaves on his family’s estate.
He relaxes his hands. “I was—I was just joking.”
A scaly bulk smacks into Emlis, spinning him about. He hisses, reaching to his hip for an absent hilt. In his former life, such an action without apology would require a blood debt if not an actual death. He counts his fingers and then counts them again, a trick his mother taught him before he learned to settle his mood with arrows and blades.
This instigator is a dragonkin, and Emlis’s weapons are hours distant. He breathes deep and lowers his arm. Even if he had something better than his bare knuckles to pierce the creature’s hide, it is a head taller and twice his weight.
Dragonkin do most of the heavy lifting and would be the whole road crew, except they often refuse tasks that do not require their strength. Any one of them could break him in half quicker than the dwarf he insulted could.
Emlis chews his lip. In his old life, he excelled at duels, never at making friends. Many tried to get close because of his father’s wealth, but they wore wide smiles and the muscles around their eyes were frozen. They were greedy or afraid and always false, and Emlis shot an arrow into the hip of more than one.
This crew of fighters laboring together are different, and their opinion of him matters more than his father’s did or anyone from his life before Uroborus. An itch tickles his throat, and he coughs. If he says something clever, he could win them over. He wipes his sweaty palms on his forearms. The words should be funny but have a deeper meaning.
“Good thing it’s just us guys, huh?” says Emlis.
The dragonkin growls and says, “I am a woman.”
Emlis’s mouth drops open, cutting off his joke’s kicker. In near a month with the crew, dragonkin have been called “it,” ‘him,” and “they,” but never “her.”
He gulps. “I apologize, Miss. I couldn’t… you do look lovely in the dark.”
The dragonkin snorts flame, illuminating its coal-black scales. “Just joking, dumbass.”
“Why, you lizard-fucker!”
Emlis punches the scaly brute in the gut, right where a human’s diaphragm would be. His knuckles crack and his wrist bends. The dragonkin grunts but does not hunch or stumble.
Starlight shines on a long line of sharp teeth. Emlis wiggles his throbbing hand and steps back from the beast’s open maw.
The dragonkin slaps his hide and howls.
Bladebreaker says, “Well done, Emlis. I’ve never heard Sawyer laugh this hard before, and I once bought him an elvish lap dance.”
Emlis flexes his fingers and frowns. “Is he disrespecting my—”
“You pu-punched me with your pu-puny monkey fist.” Sawyer howls again.
The dragonkin has a monstrous size, natural armor, and claws long enough to rend. Emlis must attack his eyes, throat, knees, ankles, and maybe his groin.
“Listen you tail-less lizard, my strike was a challenge, and I demand you honor it.”
Voices grumble. The other dragonkin growl, and Sawyer grows still.
“Do you know the history of my race, boy? Do you know the price all dragonkin must pay to walk the Endless Road?”
Emlis crosses his arms. “Does it involve fucking a dwarf.”
“Dumbass.” Bladebreaker grips his shoulder. “When a dragonkin speaks slow and clear, you should know they boil on the inside.”
Uroborus has a fraction of Emlis’s homeworld population, but this world’s culture is much more complex. Dueling is rare here, as rare as murder. Insults are praised as banter instead of used as sparks for war. This time though, he crossed some kind of line with the dragonkin, and there is no path to surviving a fight against them all.
“I spoke without thinking.” Emlis licks his lips. “Please Sawyer, accept my apology and explain why you are so sensitive about the last thing I said to you.”
The dragonkin leans forward until his snout hovers a finger’s width from Emlis’s face. “I could fry you. The blood of Fafnir flows through me.”
“Oh, is he a red dragon?”
“The greatest of Northwild.” Sawyer clicks his teeth. “I would set you alight, but the bright pillar you’d be and the squeals you’d make, it would summon a horde.”
Circumcision. The word presses at the forefront of Emlis’s mind. What if dragonkin have their tails circumcised. He clenches his teeth. Curiosity weighs against cruel intent. He could ask with discretion, but then he would be surrendering to Sawyer’s insults.
Emlis says, “Imagine I was born or hatched or whatever happens with dragonkin. Would you grab me by the ankles for the butt slap, or would there be… another option to secure your grip?”
Sawyer snorts flame. “All right, dumbass. Enough with storytelling. Dragonkin are sometimes born with tails. It’s usually malformed and always sliced off before the baby is settled with its mother.”
“So, what you’re saying is, you had a nasty tail and have a woman’s sensitivity about losing it.”
The massive dragonkin stretches his talons towards Emlis, and he ducks under the brute’s thick black arms. The reptilian race may have advantages in sheer strength and toughness, but they lack the speed and will to pursue. Emlis weaves through the crowd to the opposite side.
Maybe no new friends tonight, but he will avoid “dumbass” becoming his nickname.