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“We’ll fly,” Cadalia says, though it’s more of a command than a suggestion.
I pull my satchel’s strap over my head, securing the pack at my side. Then I do the same with my bow and quiver so they’re lying flat against my back. “Of course you’ll fly—you’re a dragon. Do you think I expected you to waddle through the woods like a dairy cow?”
“A cow?” the dragon exclaims indignantly.
Most people would be roasted alive if they dared to utter such a thing to a dragon, but I only laugh at her disgust.
“We’re all flying,” Shalay says, joining the conversation. “You’re too slow.”
As I suspected, I couldn’t take one without the other, so the gemini dragons are both accompanying Lionel and me on our hunting trip.
At least, I think they’re accompanying the two of us. This morning, just after dawn, Lionel left me a hastily scratched note saying he was going to pick up his clothes from the tailor. But he hasn’t returned yet.
After yesterday’s argument, he might have changed his mind about sticking around. We didn’t talk again for the rest of the day. We’ve been eating the evening meal together, but last night, he chose to hermit in his room instead.
If I don’t meet him on the path to Dragon Ridge, I’ll simply leave without him.
“I’ll walk at least as far as the village,” I inform the dragons, heading for the trail into the forest. “Meet me there.”
Perhaps sensing my mood, the dragons relent.
I’m agitated, and the movement feels good. But instead of working out the irritation, it only grows. The closer I get to the village—with no sign of Lionel—the faster I walk, and the more my mood turns sour.
By the time I reach Dragon Ridge, I’m practically seething. He can’t just run away, not after all I’ve done for him. If he thinks he can take off without a proper goodbye, like a transient in the night, he has another think coming.
I’m going to find him, I swear I will, and he will get an earful.
First, I head to the tailor’s shop—just on the off-chance he stopped there first. Muttering under my breath, I swing the door open.
Trixie looks up, startled. “Good morning, Gen—”
“Have you seen Lionel?” I demand before I can stop myself.
The young seamstress’s eyebrows shoot up. “Not today…”
I knew it—he didn’t come to the village at all. How dare he?
“Thank you,” I tell her, stepping out the open door. “Sorry to barge in.”
I’ll have a bird’s eye view from atop Cadalia. Let’s just see him try to run away.
I’m almost out of the village, stalking like an angry cat, when I find the prince. I come to an abrupt stop in the middle of the street, squinting as if I can’t trust my eyes.
Lionel places a piece of wood on the block behind the boarding house and swings his axe, chopping it in two with a deft movement. He then leans down and tosses the split pieces into the huge pile beside him.
He’s right here, by the street. I must have walked right past him on my way into the village, and I didn’t even notice.
Lionel, however, doesn’t seem all that surprised to see me. He probably spotted me when I passed the first time. He looks up, briefly meeting my eyes, and then he goes back to his chore without saying so much as a word.
“What are you doing?” I ask, unable to quell my curiosity.
“You asked the same thing yesterday,” he says before he swings the axe, splitting the log. “You would think you’ve never seen a man chop wood before.”
“Money,” he says curtly.
“I’ll earn my keep while serving my time,” he finally answers. “I spoke with the man who runs the tavern to inquire about work, and this is where he sent me. By the time I’m finished, I’ll have enough to pay the tailor myself.”
“Just how long have you been at it?” I ask, eyeing the massive pile of wood.
He doesn’t answer, but from the look of it, he must have risen long before dawn. Deciding I’ll wait for him to finish, I cross my arms and watch.
Lionel makes quick work of the chore, moving through the logs swiftly. He’ll likely be finished in less than an hour.
After several minutes, he looks up. “Don’t you have something better to do?”
“Not really,” I say nonchalantly, realizing my anger has ebbed.
He grunts and sets another log on the block.
A while later, growing bored, I say, “It almost looks as though you’re enjoying yourself.”
“I’m going to let the dragons know we’ll be a bit longer, and then I’ll wait for you at the tea house,” I tell him. “It’s across from the tailor’s shop. Come find me when you’re finished.”
I expect another grunt, but I get a nod instead.
Leaving Lionel to his self-appointed task, I find Cadalia and Shalay in the nearby clearing and tell them we’ll be a bit longer. Both are stretched out in the morning sunshine, looking as content as housecats.
“Yes, fine,” Shalay says, not bothering to open her eyes.
I then walk back into the village, coming in the south entrance, which is closest to the clearing where the dragons wait—and that’s a mistake.
“Good morning, Genevieve,” Eron says, flitting to meet me as I walk through the main square.
“Hello, Eron,” I answer, repressing a sigh.
“Prince Lionel of Vernow appears to be chopping wood behind the boarding house. Did you know?”
I roll my eyes. Apparently, I should have come this way when I first arrived and saved myself a bit of time. “I know now, yes.”
“Where are you off to?”
“I’m going to see Midge.”
“You can have tea with us,” he says too eagerly.
Before he can use his magic on me and whisk me into his tree, I shake my head. “I’m afraid I don’t have time today. I’m just waiting for Lionel to finish so we can leave.”
“Where are you going?”
“Just the two of you?” the fairy asks, latching on to what might be a piece of juicy gossip. “Alone?”
“Along with Cadalia and Shalay,” I correct, acknowledging that he knows the dragons by name.
Even if no one else dares to set foot on dragon property, fairies are brazen—and difficult to chase away. One particularly cold winter several years ago, they temporarily moved their residence to a towering pine near the warmth of our hot spring. Thankfully, they left as soon as their Eldentimber tree began to bud.
The dragons are already loud enough—the last thing I needed was the constant hum of the fairies as they moved their wings to keep from freezing. To make it worse, the noise was diffused in the cavern, so you could just hear it. I thought I was going to go mad.
Eron flies with me until I reach the tea shop, chattering about the villagers. Apparently, Trixie is sweet on Warren, but Warren has taken a liking to Trixie’s older sister, Nadine. And Nadine is taken with Alton, our current resident scholar…who Eron believes likes Trixie.
“That sounds like a mess,” I say.
“Doesn’t it?” the fairy exclaims, delighted. “Do you think I should assist? I could take them into the woods, mix them up a bit. By the time I’m finished, I could have the whole thing ironed out.”
“You know better than to use your magic on humans without their permission,” I scold him. “And you shouldn’t tamper with people’s affections—it’s dangerous.”
“So you’re saying you don’t want me to make the outcast prince fall in love with you?”
I turn my head so quickly; I tweak several muscles. Rubbing my neck, I say, “You will do nothing of the sort.”
Floating next to me, Eron shrugs his tiny shoulders and clucks his tongue. “So testy this morning, Genevieve. It was simply an idea.”
“It was a foolish idea—and what in the kingdoms would make you think I’d want that?”
“Let’s just call it a hunch.” And with that, he flits away. “Have a good hunting trip, Genevieve.”
“Fairies,” I say, clenching my fist. I stomp into the tea shop. “Honestly.”
Midge looks up, taking it in stride that I’m muttering to myself. “Sounds like you’ve had a good morning,” she says with a laugh.
“Eron,” I say. Just his name is explanation enough.
“Ah.” She points to one of the small silver pots lined up on the counter. “Tea?”
“What brings you to the village?”
“I’m waiting for a prince,” I grouch, plopping into a seat.
Midge smirks. “Aren’t we all?”
“He’s chopping wood,” I tell her, waiting for her reaction. She doesn’t disappoint me.
“Something about earning his keep.”
The gypsy is refilling our cups for the third time when the door opens and Lionel steps inside. Midge looks up and blinks at the prince, spilling tea onto the table.
Lionel has exchanged his rags for an unadorned tan tunic and dark brown breeches. A leather belt cinches the fabric, accentuating his trim waist and massive shoulders.
Forced to live off my simple cooking, the prince has lost weight in the last few months. It’s sharpened his angles, taken away a youthful softness that was in his cheeks and face when he first arrived. He looks older now, harder.
But still scruffy.
The prince’s hair is barely contained in a tail at the nape of his neck, and his short beard, several shades darker than his blond hair, is in desperate need of grooming.
He scans the room. When his eyes fall on me, I find myself gulping. His eyebrow twitches, and a strange uncertainty passes over his face.
“Hello,” Midge says brightly, quickly wiping up the mess she just made. “Welcome to my tea shop.”
The prince pulls his gaze from mine. As if it pains him, he politely returns the greeting.
“Lionel, this is my good friend Midge,” I say slowly. “Midge, this is…”
How do I introduce him?
“Lionel.” His answer is curt, but he forces a smile. It looks slightly feral, and frankly a little terrifying, but it’s a smile nevertheless.
Midge’s expression brightens. “Would you care for tea?”
Lionel looks at me again, almost as though he’s waiting for me to answer for him—and hoping I’ll decline the offer.
“Not today.” I stand, taking pity on him. “We’re leaving for a hunting trip, and we best be on our way. I’ll be back in a few weeks.”
“Take care,” she says.
Lionel heads into the street, but Midge holds me back before I can step out the door.
“You didn’t tell me he’s good-looking,” she whispers, widening her eyes. “Not once.”
“Is he?” I glance at Lionel as he stands in the street, unsure. “I hadn’t noticed.”
“Liar,” she says with a quiet laugh.
But it’s not a lie. When Lionel first arrived, he was battered and bruised, and his hair was a long, curling rat’s nest of tangles. But now…
“I suppose he is a bit,” I relent, forced to acknowledge my startled reaction to him standing in the doorway in his new clothes. Unable to help myself, I add, “In a rough sort of way.”
The gypsy nods thoughtfully. “He’s not handsome like Denton, nor beautiful like Jasper. It’s something else.”
Impatient, Lionel turns back, oblivious to the subject of our conversation. He calls, “Are we going?”
I give him my own impatient look, silently telling him to wait a moment. I look back at Midge and whisper, “But he’s still a troll.”
She laughs, pushing me out the door. “Have fun on your trip.”