Babalwa pushed her fingers into the pile of clothing that lay on her bed. She grabbed fabric, scrunched tight and then threw the unsuspecting garment into a large canvas bag. Her hand reached out again and repeated the process. Back and forth she went, grabbing at a shirt, or a skirt, or a pair of pants, balling the clothes up and then smashing them into the bag. The clothing didn’t deserve this kind of treatment. Babalwa liked her clothes, but she had been holding her rage back for what felt like an eternity and now that she was finally able to let go, to feel everything she was feeling without risk of hurting anyone, Babalwa could not make herself stop. The bag was half full already, a wrinkled sea of colours no more organised than the jumbled pile beside it. This was no way to pack a bag. She was going to run out of space. She knew this. She was going to have to start over.
But it made no difference. Her hand flew out again. She found fabric and clenched tight, but instead of the familiar feel of soft compliance, Babalwa felt little dots of resistance digging into her fingers and all along the fleshy cushioning of her palm. She paused. She swallowed hard and then, ever so slowly, Babalwa opened her fist. Bright orange fabric cascaded from her open hand. It was adorned with thousands of tiny beads. Black and yellow, they danced in thick lines and bold circles along the length and breadth of the skirt. Babalwa fought back tears. Most of her wardrobe was of a more modern style, but she had chosen traditional dress for her graduation. She had been so happy wearing the Umbhaco. She had felt so proud.
But that was before the final results had come through. Before she saw the class rankings. She had not ranked first. She had not even ranked second. Babalwa had come third. And third was not good enough. Third would not take her to Mushengo.
Babalwa laid the skirt down and began flattening it out. Her body shuddered as the first tears trickled silently down her cheeks.
How had it gone so wrong?
It had been her and Trish trading places for first and second. Always the two of them egging each other on to be better, go further. Always them planning and dreaming and stretching toward Mushengo. They were the best. They had always been the best. None of the other students had ever come close.
But now, when it had mattered most, Richard (Richard of all people!) had taken first place and the Royal internship that came with it. Second got an internship too, but not third. There was no prize for coming in third.
Babalwa rubbed her eyes and looked across to Trish’s bed. A pastel bedspread dotted with soft pink roses, and curving wreaths of lavender lay smooth and quiet against the mattress. Posters and photos still lined the walls and trinkets full of memories waited on the bedside table. Trish had not started packing yet. She was probably waiting for Babalwa to leave and Babalwa couldn’t blame her for it. If their places had been traded, if Babalwa had been the one going and Trish the one to stay behind, would she have been able to face her roommate?
A sob heaved through Babalwa and shattered against her lips.
It was supposed to be the both of them! Today was supposed to be happy!
And Babalwa should be happy. She had a Masters in Draconic Sciences! She should be proud. Her parents were proud. But Babalwa hadn’t spent the last six years of study pushing herself so that she could return to her home village. She wasn’t meant to tend to pocket dragons, to mere house pets. Her future was in the Royal Stables. Her future was Battle Dragons and working beasts!
Her future had collapsed under the smirk of an entitled boy.
Babalwa closed her eyes. Her final practical played vividly in her mind. She had been given a young Giwe dragon. The golden scales, interspersed with deep, black rosetta’s, had shuddered at her touch. Her task was to give the dragon a check-up and to remove a large thorn that had embedded itself in the youngling’s soft underbelly. Babalwa had been so intent on securing the swishing tail and removing the danger of the lethal, barbed tip, that she had forgotten to consider the Dragon’s front end. Young Giwe dragons had a strong, playful streak and it took months of training to rid them of their propensity to nip. When Babalwa had realised her mistake, she had acted swiftly to muzzle the beast, but not before teeth had sunk into flesh. It was a minor wound, but still deep enough to cause lingering pain whenever Babalwa moved her arm, a sharp reminder of a mistake that had cost her fifteen points. It wasn’t enough to unseat Richard, his final thesis had been near perfect, but it was enough to put Trish ahead.
Babalwa cursed herself for even having the thought. It had been Richard who had stolen her spot. Not Trish. She couldn’t let herself think badly of Trish.
As if summoned, Trish burst into the room. Her body swung around the door frame. Leather soles squeaked against well polished floor boards. She swung her arms wide and grabbed Babalwa into a fierce, gorilla armed hug.
Babalwa hadn’t had a chance to ready herself for the attack. Her arms were squished tight and straight against her sides, he face pressed awkwardly into Trish’s shoulder. And Trish was bouncing and wriggling and laughing.
“Trish, what…” Babalwa tried to choke out the question, but Trish’s voice thundered over hers.
“We did it Bubbles! We did it!”
Babalwa shook her head. “No Trish. Not me. Just you.” Babalwa tried to extract herself from the death grip, but Trish was strong. How did she have any right to be this strong? Trish laughed. She grabbed Babalwa by the shoulders and pushed her so that a small pocket of space opened between them. Trish’s eyes were sparkling. She looked deeply at Babalwa.
“We’re going. The both of us. Richard’s been expelled!”
Then Trish was pulling Babalwa into another embrace. Babalwa’s cheek smashed into Trish’s chest and she felt herself being rocked violently from side to side. Babalwa pushed herself away from Trish and this time, Trish let her go. Straightening herself up, she tried to sort through the jumbled mess in her brain.
“Yes! The moron cheated! He used his daddy’s money and paid someone else to write it! And as much as he’s had good marks, they were never quite that good. It was suspicious enough that the university decided to investigate it. And investigate it they did!”
Trish gesticulated wildly as she talked, but now she put her arms by her side. She grinned at her friend. “This is it, Bubbles. We’re living the dream. Are you ready to become a Royal. Friggen. Dragon keeper?!”
Babalwa couldn’t help the shriek that spilled from her lips. She couldn’t help the bounce that formed in her legs. She threw herself toward Trish and the girls embraced again. This time they both hugged and they both squealed. Because this time they were both going. Mushengo was waiting.
The caravan arrived in Mushengo early in the afternoon, plenty of time, Babawla had thought, to get cleaned up and start at the Royal stables. But their escort had insisted that they rest up. The trek to the capital was four days of flat grasslands, dirt roads and not much else. They were most certainly tired and in dire need of a long bath and a warm meal. Work, their escort had said, could wait another day. Babalwa disagreed. She felt like she had spent the last six years waiting. She couldn’t wait any longer. It was the same for Trish. They tried to relax, to soak their dust coated bodies in the expansive bathhouse, but soon, both women were scrubbing vigorously just to have an excuse to move. And what Babawla was sure must have been one of the best meals she had ever tasted was simply sustenance, Her mind too full to concern itself with something as mundane as flavour. When night came and Babalwa let her travel-weary muscles rest atop the sheets, her eyes refused to close. She and Trish willed the night away putting words to the dreams that floated just out of reach.
“I want to see a Dlovu in full battle armour!”
“I can’t wait to meet the Elder Keeper Nonhle!”
Eventually the room quieted and sleep came. In the morning, they rose with the sun.
“This is the tack room for all the basic housekeeping tools. If you need something for a job, you will most likely find it in here.”
Babalwa let her eyes roam the massive room. It was filled with everything, from the most basic items, like feed buckets and shovels, right down to the most expansive claw-clipper collection she had ever seen. It was going to take a while to learn where everything in this store room belonged. It was going to take her a while to learn where anything in the entire stables belonged. Babalwa had known it would be big, but the sheer size of the grounds overwhelmed her. There were over one hundred individual stalls, thirty massive arenas for training and as if that weren’t enough, a massive, man-built cliff face towered far above them. It served as a rookery for breeding pairs and a refuge for retired dragons.
A dragon keeper by the name of Akhona had been showing them around for the past three hours. Her mannerisms were short and clipped and she left very little room for casual conversation. As much as the tour had been fascinating, Babalwa was eager to part ways with Akhona. She was ready to begin the real work.
She turned from her inspection of the clippers and heard Trish ask, “Will we be meeting the Elder Keeper soon?”
“Elder Nonhle does not concern herself with apprentices. For the duration your internship you will be reporting to and working under me. Now…”
Akhona grabbed two shovels from a nearby wall. “Stalls thirteen through twenty need to be mucked out. Find me at Arena Three when you’re done.”
Hours later and ankle deep in muck, Trish started laughing.
“What’s so funny about being drenched in dragon poop?” Babalwa wrinkled her nose. Trish grinned.
“It’s the dream, Bubs! Six years of gruelling study, finally being put to good use!”
Trish made a face at the state of her hair and then she started laughing once more. Babalwa couldn’t help but join in.