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Chapter Eleven, Scene One
After searching half the morning, I find Tarith lounging on the long, flat rock that surrounds the mineral hot spring.
The area is usually abuzz with activity, but right now, the dragon is alone. He glances over as I climb the rock to join him.
My foot slides as I scramble up, and I nearly fall on my tail. It’s not an easy place to reach unless you have wings. The stone is slick, layered with years and years of smooth mineral deposits, and the air carries an odd smell that’s as familiar now as the dragons themselves.
“Hello, Genevieve,” Tarith says with a yawn, inadvertently showing off a set of teeth that would make most people run for their lives.
I settle onto the ground next to him, crossing my legs. Absently, I stroke his side.
“Are you well?” he asks, narrowing his brilliant green eyes at me.
“And the prisoner?”
I don’t bother to tell him that Riella finished the job.
“You have something on your mind,” the large dragon says, impatient to get back to his sunbathing. “What is it?”
“I need to hunt. We’ve nearly finished the meat I bought from the butcher—and before you argue, please remember there are two of us now, so my supplies dwindle twice as quickly.”
Tarith lets out a rumbling growl. “You say the prince is well?”
Fear prickles my skin. Is he going to send him away?
“Fine then. Tell him to hunt.” Tarith closes his eyes, ready to return to his napping. “It seems a fine chore for him.”
“You want me to give the prisoner a weapon?” I ask wryly.
“You want to eat, don’t you?”
I’m quiet for several moments. After a while, I steel myself. “But…what if he doesn’t return?”
Tarith opens a single eye, peering at me. “Would you miss his company?”
“What does this have to do with me?” I protest, staring at the bubbling spring. “He committed a crime—he should serve his time.”
“Then what do you suggest?”
“I’ll hunt, and he may accompany me. He can carry my bow and dress the game I find—he’ll make a proper lackey.”
The idea pleases my wicked heart, and I hold back a cackle when I think of the look of revulsion Lionel will wear when I tell him.
“All right,” Tarith agrees, surprising me.
I expected the argument to take far longer.
Then he adds, “But you must take one of my sisters to accompany you.”
“Are you serious?” I bristle, embarrassed. “You’re sending me with a chaperone?”
“I am sending you with protection. I do not trust the prince, not outside our meadow. What if he were to attempt an escape and hurt you?”
“If he wanted to escape, what’s stopping him now? And besides, Lionel wouldn’t hurt me.”
Strangely, I believe it.
“While I am pleased to hear your opinion on the matter, it changes nothing. Either Shalay or Cadalia—your choice.”
“I’ll end up with both, and you know it,” I argue. “Neither will be content to be left behind.”
If a dragon could smirk, Tarith would be doing so right now.
“Fine,” I relent with a dramatic sigh. “You win.”
“I always do.”
“At least you’re humble about it.”
The dragon lets out a rumbling laugh that makes me smile. “Tell me the rest of your plans, Genevieve.”
We talk for a while longer, and then I leave, letting the dragon return to his sunbathing.
I look for Lionel in the cavern, but he’s not in his room. He’s not in the back, where a natural aquafer bubbles into an underground creek where we bathe and do our laundry. He’s not in the meadow, nor on his favorite rock telling the little dragons stories.
Anxiety chips at my good mood. Maybe he left.
I walk the trail in the woods, muttering under my breath about worthless princes. Once I reach my cottage, I stop dead in my tracks.
Lionel looks up when he spots me, but he says nothing and goes back to chopping wood outside the front door.
Bemused, I watch him for several minutes before I say, “I’m going hunting in a few days.”
The prince lowers the axe and wipes sweat from his brow with his arm. “Your dragons will allow it?”
“I’ve just spoken with Tarith.”
Without answering, he gathers the split wood and walks around the back of the cottage. I follow him, feeling like a puppy.
“I can’t hunt around here,” I continue, “not anymore. The deer are too skittish, and most don’t venture this close to the dragon’s meadow.”
Lionel stacks the wood on top of a pile that wasn’t there this morning. “Women shouldn’t hunt.”
“Maybe the prissy noblewomen you know, but I’m excellent with a bow, thank you very much.”
The prince turns to me, his displeasure morphing to a full-on scowl. “You’re not the first woman I’ve known who can shoot. Believe me, Genevieve, I know your kind.”
I bark out a laugh. “My kind?”
“Independent. Willful.” He shakes his head, turning back to his chore. To himself, he mumbles, “Too beautiful for their own good.”
He didn’t intend for me to hear the last bit. In fact, it was voiced so quietly, there is an excellent chance I heard him wrong. And it even if he did say it, it didn’t sound like a compliment.
But, all that aside…Lionel thinks I’m beautiful?
I glance down at my clothing—fitted trousers smudged with dirt and a long tunic, scuffed boots, and a belt I braided from leftover leather scraps I bought for next to nothing from the tanner. I’m not exactly much to look at.
Immediately dismissing the notion, I say to him, “You’re supposed to come with me.”
Lionel straightens, and I can feel his gaze on me. “Tarith will let me leave?”
“As long as we take either Cadalia or Shalay.” I flash him a sunny smile. “I told him I could use a page boy, and he thought you would be perfect for the task.”
The prince snorts, not quite as offended as I hoped, and shakes his head as if he can’t figure out what to do with me.
“What is all this?” I ask suddenly, waving toward the pile he’s stacked.
He looks at me like I’m daft. “Wood.”
“Thank you, Your Highness.” I roll my eyes. “But why are you chopping it?”
“You needed more.” And with that, he tosses his axe over his shoulder and turns from the cottage, heading back toward the meadow.
I take him in, clucking my tongue at his tattered clothes. He can’t keep walking around like that.
“Where are you going?” I call to him. “We need to go to the village.”
Lionel turns back, looking suspicious. “Why?”
“You can’t wear those ratty things forever,” I say, gesturing to his ragged clothes.
“I have no money.”
“Tarith has given me some for supplies for the trip.”
“I don’t wish to be indebted to the dragons any more than I already am.”
Again, I roll my eyes. “Didn’t you tell me that if the dragons hold a person hostage, it is their responsibility to see to the prisoner’s basic needs?”
The prince stares at me, looking as if he’s trying very hard to think of a way around my argument. After a moment, he growls and leans his axe against a tree. He then changes course, heading toward the village with all the enthusiasm of captive ogre.
I laugh under my breath and follow.