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The tea must work. Lionel’s expression soon eases, and he falls asleep before he finishes it. For the first time, he looks at peace. Denton said it would help with his fever as well, and when I brush my hand over his forehead, he does seem cooler.
Supporting his head with my hand, I scoot out from under him, carefully resting him on the stone floor. Tarith told me to make him a pallet—I suppose I should get to that.
“You’re going,” he murmurs.
“You should sleep,” I tell him. “I’m going to prepare a bed for you and see if I can find a blanket.”
He responds with a weak groan, making me think he’s still mostly asleep.
“I’ll leave the bread for you,” I tell him. “You might be hungry once you’ve had some decent rest. When I come back, we’ll see about treating your wounds.”
I reach down for the cup, and Lionel clasps a hand over my wrist, holding me in place.
“Yes…?” I ask, impatient to leave.
“Thank you,” he murmurs.
I stare down at the prince, frowning. After several moments, I pull away. “You’re welcome. I’ll be back.”
I’m uneasy when I leave the cavern, and I don’t care for it. I haven’t had close contact with anyone in so long. It brings back pictures from long ago, ones that are forever painted on my memory—a castle, a lake, my mother’s face—so lovely but cold, my step-father, his knights. A baby brother I haven’t seen for many, many years.
Cavin must be eleven or twelve now. He wouldn’t remember me, and to be honest, I’m not sure anyone would have mentioned me to him. To them, I am a ghost.
“You look very solemn,” Shalay says, swooping to the ground to join me.
She’s nearly identical to her sister, though her scales are gold instead of copper.
I sigh. “I’m remembering things best left forgotten.”
The dragon nudges me with her head, an affectionate move that nearly knocks me over. “You’re ours—remember that. Even if they wanted you back, they could not have you.”
I laugh. “They wouldn’t want me, and I don’t want them. I’m happy here.”
“Are you?” she asks, matching my slow human pace as I make the trek to my cottage once more. “Sometimes, I wonder if we’re enough. Do you think that is why Tarith gave you the prince?”
“Gave me?” I exclaim, incredulous. “That man is anything but a gift. He’s a criminal—breaker of the Dragon Treaty. Murderer.”
Shalay makes a thoughtful noise. “Yes, I’m surprised Tarith let him live. Perhaps he saw something in him we couldn’t?”
“No.” I quicken my pace, growing irritated with the conversation. “Your brother is simply too soft.”
“A soft dragon,” Shalay says with a rumbling laugh. “Imagine that.”
I leave the door open when I reach the cottage, and Shalay peers inside—too large to squeeze through the narrow opening.
“Cadalia said she took you to the village today,” the dragon says, settling on the ground outside and setting her head down on her front feet like a dog. “Did you see Denton?”
“Did your sister also tell you I almost fell to my death?”
“She did—though her wording was slightly different. If I remember correctly, her rendition included ‘clumsy human’ and ‘overexaggerated.’ And don’t avoid the question.”
I peer at her as I open a trunk. “Yes, I saw him.”
Long ago, I made the mistake of casually admitting to the dragon that I thought the herbalist was handsome. Ever since then, Shalay has played the part of dragon matchmaker, as pushy as any mother trying to marry off her daughter.
“Did you speak with him?” she asks.
I pull out an old quilt, one I pieced together long ago. It’s not particularly pretty, but it’s soft. “Of course we spoke. Tarith sent me for medical supplies, and Denton is the herbalist. Who else would I go to?”
“Did you tell him you wish to make him your mate?” she presses.
Dragons do not, and cannot, understand human relationships. Unfortunately, mine try, though I wholeheartedly wish they wouldn’t.
The very thought makes me cringe. “No, I did not—and I do not.”
“You said he is pleasing to the eyes? Strong and sturdy? You must think of your offspring—”
“Enough,” I say, stopping her before the conversation becomes any more uncomfortable. “I do not wish to marry Denton, and I certainly wouldn’t propose myself even if I did.”
She shrugs her very large shoulders, thankfully growing bored of the topic. When she’s brought it up in the past, she insisted on gracing me all kinds of helpful advice, such as “wrestle him to the ground and impress him with your strength” and “rid the village of all competing females.”
Done with my task, I leave the cottage, crawling over the dragon to get out the door.
“Where are we going now?” she asks, following me. “Shall we visit the hot springs?”
I hold up the quilt. “I have to take this to Lionel, and then I must tend his wounds—Tarith’s orders.”
She snorts with disappointment, and tiny flames flicker from her nostrils. “Very well. I will let you go about your task.”
We part ways, and I head back to the cavern, passing Tarith when I near Lionel’s quarters.
“I went to the village, as you requested,” I tell the large black dragon. “I’m not sure I can mend the man’s broken leg on my own. The herbalist gave me instructions, but it might require his assistance. Is it all right if I bring him to the cavern?”
“It is fine. Thank you for asking.”
Nodding, I continue on my way.
“Oh, Tarith,” I say, turning back. “I’ll need to hunt tomorrow. Someone else will have to tend your prisoner while I’m away.”
The dragon narrows his eyes, never liking it when I leave. He worries about me like I’m a true member of his flight—perhaps more so. “How long do you plan to be gone?”
“The last time I attempted to hunt nearby, you scared the game,” I point out. “If you don’t want me to leave, I suppose you could give me the gold needed to buy meat from the butcher…but it will be expensive.”
I press my lips together, trying not to smile. I know the position I put the dragon in, and I did it intentionally. What can he bear to part with—me or a fraction of his precious hoard?
“Buy the meat,” Tarith finally says, sounding pained. “Go in the morning.”
“All right,” I say, disappointed as I head down the hall.
I would have rather skipped out on the prince, but it saves me some trouble.
When I step into the room, I’m surprised to find the prince awake.
“The dragons hunt, do they not?” Lionel says, having overheard the conversation. “Shouldn’t they provide you with meat? If they choose to keep prisoners, it seems they should feed them.”
“I’m not a prisoner,” I say as I kneel by his side and place the quilt under his head. “How is this? Better?”
The prince turns to face me. “You’re not being held against your will?”
He seems flummoxed. “Then why are you here? If they will not hunt you down should you attempt to escape, why stay?”
The man has a way of finding all the sore subjects.
“The dragons saved me,” I say curtly. “They are my family.”
Groaning, Lionel sits up. “Saved you from what?”
I’m rethinking the wisdom in giving him the tea. I liked him better when he was delirious with fever.
I fix my eyes on his face, growing agitated. “You want my story?”
“Not particularly, but I have nothing better to do at the moment.”
Except, I think he does want to know. And for some reason, I find myself wanting to tell him—if only so he’ll think slightly better of my dragons.
I sit, crossing my legs in front of me. “My father died when I was young. He was a woodsman by trade, and he was found dead in the forest—an accident, the local guards told us.”
“You don’t believe it was an accident?”
I shake my head. “The man who owned our cottage coveted my mother. She was beautiful—everyone said so. A week after my father’s death, Lord Quinn married her, and he brought us to live in his estate. He hated me—didn’t like to be reminded of the man he murdered.”
Lionel waits for me to continue, and I swallow as I arrange my thoughts. I hadn’t planned to give him details, hadn’t meant to share so much. But now that I’ve started, I can’t stop. The words build in my chest, demanding I voice them.
“My mother gave birth to my brother a year later, and she all but ignored me after that. I was an inconvenient tie to the life she had once lived as a peasant. At that time, we were nearing the end of the Dragon Wars, and destruction came to our region of Lauramore. Lord Quinn had an idea to appease the dragons who attacked—something illegal, something not done for centuries.”
Lionel’s expression hardens, becoming scarier than it already is with the injuries. “Maiden sacrifice,” he bites out.
“Lucky for them, they had a maiden they didn’t want.” I let out a bitter laugh, but it’s laced with pain I don’t manage to hide.
“How old were you?”
“Eleven.” I blink, disgusted with myself for still feeling the anguish so acutely. “Tarith took pity on me, brought me here, and took me in. The dragons accepted me—wanted me.” I clear my throat, hardening my tone. “So, no, I am not a prisoner.”
The prince digests the story, thinking far too hard. After several long moments, he says, “But that doesn’t explain why they won’t bring you meat.”
Desperately thankful for the change of subject, I snort. “Have you ever seen a dragon hunt? Believe me, you don’t want to eat what they bring back.”