Sisi heard another rumble close by and she looked about her wildly. Instead of a wave of rock, another dragon flapped his wings and roared into the sky. A second one, this time with a rider, moved up into the spot the first one had vacated. Now Sisi and Drianah saw the person hidden in front of the dragon, a signaler of some kind. He was dressed in bright orange, and held two batons of the same color. The signaler did a little dance with the batons, and pointed to a far- off point in the sky. Both the dragon and rider nodded in answer. The signaler sketched them a little salute, then to Sisi's surprise, he dropped on one knee to the ground and covered his head.
The dragon took off at a running start, thundering past the signaler, and at the edge of the outcrop, extended its wings as it took off into the sky. It headed in the direction that the signaler had told it, and soon was gone from sight. Other signalers brought incoming dragons in safely, though some of them zipped perilously past the ones leaving. Their dances reminded Sisi of the elders' storytelling dances back home, telling people what happened and where they went.
"We call this place the runway, Ranger Sisi," Drianeh told her. "This is where we take off and land."
"Do all of you leave and return by this platform?"
"Do all of you leave and return by this platform?"
"No, we've got many of them scattered all over, with their own signalers. Did you watch them closely? What do they do?"
Sisi watched another signaler, this time a female, crouch down to avoid another dragon's wings. "They...tell the dragons where to take off and where to go, so no one runs into each other. And they have to duck or else they might get run over."
"Exactly. You have to be very brave to be a signaler, and have a good sense of where everything is," Drianeh said. "If you don't, there might be an accident. Not good."
"Do people and dragons...die?"
Drianeh nodded solemnly. "Sometimes. That's why a signaler is very important, and we should give them every measure of respect."
"Yes, and that respect is well-earned, too," a new voice broke into the conversation. "Have we gone back into teaching mode again, Drianeh? I hope you aren't too hard on our new Ranger candidate."
"Just explaining a few things to her, Link," Drianeh replied, with genuine fondness in her voice. She swiveled her head back to face Sisi. "Sisi, this is Link. You might say that he's our Guardian of Justice, the one who makes sure everyone's on equal footing."
Link chuckled, in a self-depreciating mode. "Well, I'd like to think I'm just doing my job, dear Drianeh."
"Considering you wrote about it on paper for your people and proclaimed it to them, even the ones who didn't want to hear it. That took bravery, my friend."
A shadow passed over Link's face, and Sisi wondered at it. The dark eyes were hooded, as if contemplating some old memory, and worry lines creased his features. The full bushy beard reminded Sisi of the Churro villagers, but unlike those villagers, Link was tall and lean. Very tall and lean, almost gaunt, as if he hadn't enough to eat, but Sisi saw the strength in that lanky frame.
Then just as quickly, the brooding man vanished and was replaced by a good-natured, smiling man again. "Well, what's past is past. Now we concentrate on the future. Drianeh said your name is Sisi? That's a beautiful name. I understand you went through your Passage successfully, or you wouldn't be here. How are you feeling?"
"Strange, sir...so much has happened, I'm a bit confused. There's so much to understand, so much to take in...so I'm supposed to be a Ranger? What do I do? How will I learn what I need to do?"
Link smiled and said, "So many questions. Curiosity is a good thing to have, little Sisi. Let's take it one step at a time. Drianeh, why don't you go ahead and rest and have something to eat, and I'll show Sisi around, maybe find her a friend who can help her get settled."
"Thank you, Link. Sisi, I'll be back for you, all right? Link is very good with children; he'll take good care of you."
"Okay, Drianeh." She watched as Drianeh lumbered off to wherever that food and rest was, and suddenly, she felt very alone in this strange place with dragons and a tall man named Link. He seemed to sense her awkwardness and offered her his hand. She took it and they walked off the runway, hand in hand.
"Tell me about yourself, Sisi. Where are you from?"
She told Link about the Sian Mountains, and Foster-Mother Tatara and Foster-Father Meng Pao, and her life in Churros and Akaras, and of the yukka and the sweet-smelling drinks in the vats, and the mountain streams and her favorite Lookout. He listened patiently as she described the rockslide that would have covered Churros, if it wasn't for the Earth and Fire Dragons, and how she watched them destroy the rocks and how Drianeh had come to her and swooped her up into the unknown, and how they flew into the Passage, and how she built up the nerve to let go of Drianeh's tuft of fur and trust Drianeh not to let her fall as she pulled off her cloak, and how they arrived here, to the present time, where they watched the signalers and where she met Link, and now they were probably going to meet more of these Rangers and Sisi was going to learn how to be one of them.
When she ran out of things to say, as well as some of her breath, she fell silent. Link said nothing as he ruminated over her strange story, and finally said, "The Dragons never show themselves to anyone who isn't worthy to see them, Sisi. They know when a person is ready and will come to them, and it always the right time. You saw them save your village; now you are charged with saving others." He gave her an odd sideways look, as if gauging how much of his own history to tell her. "Well, everyone calls me Link because my first name is difficult to pronounce here."
"What is your first name, sir?"
"Abraham. Others call me Abe. Like Drianeh implied, I wrote an important people in my people's history about justice and freedom and equality among all. I read it in a speech at a place where there was terrible fighting and many people died. I never knew it would have been so popular, because it certainly was not during my time."
"Was it then you saw your Dragon, sir?"
Again, that shadow came upon Link's face. "No, not then; it wasn't until later. When Thaddeus came, I was in dire trouble, indeed, and he carried me off through my own Passage to here. Thaddeus is my ever-faithful companion, and he is ever by my side."
Sisi frowned and looked around. "I don't see him, sir. Where is he?"
Link smiled and tapped the side of his head with one long graceful finger. "Thaddeus is here, and here—" he also tapped his chest over his heart, with his free hand. "I sense him wherever I go. Thaddeus is not a Fire Dragon, like Drianeh. He's of Earth, and he is currently visiting his own relatives on a well-deserved holiday."
"Dragons have families too? Well...I guess that's right. They have to come from somewhere." Sisi closed her eyes and tried to feel Drianeh, just like Link could feel his Thaddeus, and suddenly—
She Felt Drianeh's surprise and welcome and a wave of love. Tears escaped from Sisi's eyes as her shattered heart and soul became whole again. She hadn't realized just how much she missed her Foster-Mother and Foster-Parents and Churros and the Sian Mountains. But that love gave her new strength and eased the hurt a bit. When she opened her eyes, she found Link smiling at her. He gave her a sage nod and left it as that.
They walked deeper into the mountain, down a spiral staircase that curved in and about itself. Bright lights lit the way and made the walls glow. Sisi could see her reflection in the smooth, polished rock. Her face was different from the girl who left Churros; it was leaner, more sober, more serious. She missed the girl who put together ensembles of clothes and who looked over the valleys with a map...
The map...She put a hand on her cloak's pocket and felt the edge of the scroll box within it. So at least she hadn't lost it in her trip over the Sea. Perhaps later, she could show Link. Maybe he could find a way to get that cursed map to stop singing.
Soon, they reached a huge common room with trestle benches and tables padded with leather. All eyes turned to them as they walked through the threshold. Sisi felt her face flush with shyness and embarrassment and darted behind Link. He laughed and put a gentle hand on the top of her head.
"Youngsters, we have a new one. Her name is Sisi, and her Dragon is Drianeh. This is her first time here and she's very tired and confused. Can anyone help her get settled in?"
"I can," piped a voice near the back of the room. A short, squat girl with curly red hair bounced in front of them. She peered around Link to see Sisi. "Hi there. I'm Nonnie. Are you hungry? You can sit next to me; we're having a special treat tonight."
"All right," Sisi said. Nonnie offered her hand, and drew Sisi to her table. Sisi saw Link smile at her and mouth, "I'll be back.", then he ducked through the doorway.
"Link's really nice, but we don't get to see him very often," said Nonnie. "He kinda comes and goes. So, you're Sisi? Here, sit down next to me. That's a nice dress you have on, and those boots! Wow, we don't have boots like that where I come from. It's too hot for ‘em. Heyla, make room, make room for Sisi, people."
Nonnie immediately introduced her seatmates: Coren, Jay-Jay, Lupita. They gave her an enthusiastic welcome with hugs and kisses. Sisi accepted them, even when she felt bewildered by it. It was one thing that she was going to have to get used to, she guessed.
"Look, here comes the servers with the treat!" Lupita cried and she clapped her hands.
She smiled at Sisi. "You are going to love this. Straight from the Fire Kitchen itself!"
The servers were other Rangers, dressed in fire-retardant clothes and heavy gloves. They carried ceramic platters of large oval-shaped, silver objects, and used long metal tongs to move one to each plate. Sisi stared at hers; it was HUGE, and how was she supposed to eat this? It was too hot to hold; she could feel the steam radiating from it even here.
Coren gave her two metal implements. One had five points attached to a thin base, the other she recognized as a knife, but that was made completely of metal. "Here, let me show you how to do this. You put the fork in like this, so you can hold it still while you use the knife to cut here, through the metal foil. You don't eat the foil; it probably won't make you feel good. But it's what's inside that's yummy."
Sisi watched him slice his oval-shaped thing open, and she saw flaky yellow filling inside. Coren reached onto the table and took a scoop of white topping, then plopped it on top of the gash he just made. Then he used the knife to cut pieces off a yellow, rectangular object and put those pieces on top of the white topping. Finally, he sprinkled some green objects and some brown crunchy-looking shards on top of the whole confection.
As he did so, he describe what he was doing. "After you cut it open, you put some sour cream on it, too cool it down. Then you put some pats of butter like this—"
"Ah, butter! We used to have something like that in our village, but it was round, and made from yaks and goats!" Finally, a familiar concept in all this strangeness!
"Here, it's made from cows—"
"What's a cow?"
"They don't have cows where you come from? Hum..." Coren looked over at Jay-Jay, who was already tearing into his food. "Um, Jay-Jay, how would you describe a cow to someone who only knows yaks and goats?"
Jay-Jay pulled his fork out of his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. "Well," he drawled, "it's kinda like a yak, but with not so much fur, and it's white with black spots. It gives milk and cheese like a goat, except it's a different-tasting kinda milk and cheese. Cows eat grass, and not only do they give milk and cheese, but they give meat as well. So that's a cow. It's a hairless yak, I suppose."
Sisi nodded and smiled. "I understand."
"Anyway, as Jay-Jay said, these cows give us milk and butter, like this. And then you put chives—that's this green topping—and bacon bits, that's the brown, crunchy stuff. Bacon comes from pigs...those are fat pink animals that we also get meat from."
"No, unless you're a little piglet gettin' milk from its momma," Jay-Jay said. "Then you mix all the stuff up...like this...and scoop it up with your fork...like this, then put it in your mouth...careful, it still might be hot, and voila." Coren chewed the mixture contentedly.
Sisi still eyed her silver-wrapped oval thing with some trepidation, but she carefully dissected it just like Coren did, and put the butter and the cream and the toppings, and scooped some of it on her fork and blew on it a little—it was still hot—and cautiously put in her mouth, and chewed. It didn't taste too bad. Rather heavy, maybe, but no more than breakfast porridge. She took another bite, and another, and soon was halfway through her food.
"See, she likes it! Sisi likes it!" Lupita crowed.
"What is this?" Sisi asked.
Nonnie grinned and said, "Well, everyone, it's called—"
They leaped from the trestle tables and sang, "Hot Potato Hot Potato, Hot Potato Hot Potato, Hot Potato, Hot Potato, Potato, Potato, Potato!" Their song-and-dance brought laughter and applause from the other diners as they sat back into their seats.
Sisi stared at them. "Hot Potato? That's what it's called?"
"It is better that what the Water Rangers get," Lupita said, "They think cold sea spaghetti is a delicacy."
"And the Earth Rangers get mashed bananas," added Coren, with a disgusted face.
Sisi blinked. "Then what do the Air Rangers eat?"
"Something called Fruit Salad—"," answered Nonnie.
"Yummy Yummy!" they all chorused, but with a touch of sarcasm.
"They're all vegetarians over there. Helps clear the mind for their meditations. Bunch of Airheads, I think," Nonnie went on.
"Hey, they aren't that bad. You never know when you or your dragon might need a change in wind direction," Jay-Jay pointed out. "I've got friends over there."