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I draw my bow, moving silently, waiting until the deer steps into my range. She pauses, lifts her head, and waits. Her body is perfectly still, but her ears twitch back and forth as she takes in the summer sounds of the forest. Just when my arm begins to ache, she continues forward.
A loud roar rings through the woods, scaring birds from the trees and sending a season’s worth of suppers leaping for cover.
I snarl to myself, carefully releasing the arrow, and glance north, toward home. It was a greeting roar, a welcome. I suppose I should see what the fuss is about.
Returning the arrow to its quiver and strapping the bow to my back, I walk a game trail, changing course to follow the creek when I reach it. Eventually, I come to a meadow that’s backed by a sheer granite cliff, which runs from east to west as far as the eye can see.
A great cavern opens in the rock face like the entrance to a cathedral. It’s easily four stories tall, narrowing inside as it travels back.
I pause at the trees’ edge, my eyes on the scarlet dragon in the clearing. He’s a newcomer, large and powerful. His scales glisten like rubies in the sun, and I squint as the sun glints off him. But he’s not what has me wary. No, it’s the thing that lies in front of him, just out of view, blocked by the dragon himself. The great beast flaps his wings, agitated, and that’s when he fully reveals his prey—a man.
An unconscious one at that, possibly dead. Though why the dragon would bring a dead man here, I don’t know.
I glance at Torith, who has met the scarlet. I know better than to interrupt, but I strain to hear their conversation. Dragons are not known for their soft tones, so they’re intentionally keeping the conversation quiet.
Nearly identical, Cadalia and Shalay, copper and gold respectively, wander to Torith’s side, their eyes on the man. A few more dragons, less brave—or perhaps wiser—linger near the cavern’s mouth, hanging back, watching the meeting between the two male dragons.
After several long minutes, Torith and the newcomer let out a duet of roars, scaring the poor birds that just thought it was safe to return to their roosts. I lean against the tree, less concerned. After living with the dragons for the last ten years, I know their customs.
It’s obvious an agreement was made, but what?
Impatient, I wait for the dragon to leave, hoping he doesn’t linger for the night. I’m comfortable with my beasts, but I can’t help but worry one of their guests will someday grow peckish during the night and decide I’d make a tasty snack. I’ve seen their table manners—I don’t particularly want to die in that manner.
Finally, the scarlet dragon stretches his wings and leaps into the sky, circling as he grows higher and higher. I wait for him to disappear into the clouds before I walk into the meadow to investigate.
Tarith eyes me as I step up to the unconscious man and nudge his leg with the toe of my boot. “You scared away my supper.”
“My apologies,” the black dragon says wryly, obviously caring little.
“Is he dead?” I cross my arms and frown. “If so, I hope you’re not planning to ask me to dig his grave.”
The man is huge. Long, curling blond hair, knotted and tangled, covers half his face. His lip is bloodied, and one eye is black and swollen. He’s not a handsome man, not alluring in any way, though his clothes were fine before they were tattered and torn from his time in the scarlet dragon’s talons.
Who is he?
The man shifts a little, groaning as if he just regained consciousness. He clutches his head and looks like he’s going to attempt to rise.
Tarith and I stand, shoulder to massive, scaled shoulder, watching him with impartial interest.
“His wounds are festering,” Tarith says in his deep, gravelly voice. “He’s likely suffering a fever.”
The man attempts to push himself up to a seated position and croaks, “Where am I, and what do you want with me?”
“Why is he here?” I ask, ignoring the newcomer.
“He’s a prince of Vernow,” Tarith answers. “He killed one of our own, and he was delivered so we can dole out his punishment as we see fit.”
I inhale sharply, and the great black dragon turns my way, curious.
“You didn’t know her,” he says. “She left us ages ago.”
“Does it matter?” I demand. My hand drifts to my dagger. “I’ll finish him if you like.”
I mean it, too. How dare the scarlet beast bring a dragon slayer into our midst? This is my family, and if this man were to so much as—
“I’d like to see you try to ‘finish’ me,” the stranger manages.
As one, Tarith and I turn toward the man—this battered, bruised, nearly dead man who doesn’t even have a weapon—and laugh.
Apparently, the stranger has never had the pleasure of hearing a dragon’s cackle because his non-swollen eye goes wide, and he crawls back, perhaps mistaking the chortle for a roar.
Taking advantage of the man’s surprise, I yank my dagger from its sheath and crouch in front of him, pressing the tip of the blade to his throat. He slowly gulps as he focuses on my face, his eyes full of anger and shame.
A prince, was he?
How the mighty has fallen.
“How badly would you like to see it?” I demand. “Because I would be happy to indulge you.”
The prince gulps, causing the blade to prick his skin. A fortnight-worth of facial hair shadows his jaw. His face is soft and rounded, making it obvious he’s lived a life of indulgence.
Memories of long ago flit before my eyes, the man reminding me of the plump, pampered lord who ordered my death, and I grit my teeth. This prince is younger, close to my age, but I know his kind all too well.
“Don’t kill him, Genevieve,” Tarith says, his tone calm, bored even.
“Because I asked you not to.”
I glance at the dragon, giving him a mirthless smile. “Was it a request?”
Amused, the dragon’s dark eyes meet mine. “No.”
“Fine.” Standing abruptly, I sheath the blade and stalk back to the dragon’s side. “What are you going to do with him?”
“He’ll work off his transgressions.”
That means Tarith intends for him to live with us. I recoil slightly, horrified at the thought. “Are you sure we can’t kill him now and save ourselves the trouble later?”
“I suppose you’re going to heal him then.”
How dangerous will the man be when he’s well? I’m confident I could take him in this state, but once he’s healthy?
Again, I eye the battered stranger, taking in his height and size, deciding I don’t like the odds one bit.
I’m about to protest, but the dragon turns toward me, grinning in a way that’s downright terrifying no matter how long you’ve lived with his kind. “The gift of healing fire would be a kindness he doesn’t deserve.”
The prince watches us, breathing hard. Sweat rolls down his face, and it’s obvious he’s in terrible pain. If we’re lucky, he’ll die on his own.
“I want you to tend his wounds, Genevieve,” Tarith continues. “Find him a room in the cavern, make him a pallet. Then you can walk into the village and buy human supplies—salves, balms, tinctures. Whatever basic things your kind are partial to. Take care of him until he’s well, let him heal naturally.”
A laugh passes my lips before I realize the dragon is serious. I’m not going to play mother hen to this man.
“Genevieve,” Tarith says, the warning gentle but firm.
Yes, the dragons are my family, but I know better than to push it too far. Tarith is the leader of our flight. His word is law, whether you are a dragon or an adopted human.
“Fine,” I say with a huff. “I’ll take care of it.”
Satisfied, the dragon turns, his tail slashing through the meadow grass like a massive whip.
“Come,” he says to Cadalia and Shalay when the gemini pair look as though they’d rather linger. Unable to refuse, they follow.
Before she leaves, Cadalia catches my eye, silently informing me that we will talk later.
“Oh, and Genevieve,” Tarith says, turning back. “Don’t kill him.”
I wave him away, muttering, “Yes, yes.”
Taking their cue, the rest of the dragons go about their business, wandering back into the cave, some taking to the air to hunt, and others making their way on the well-worn path that leads to the mineral-rich hot spring that bubbles just past a copse of trees to the west.
Once I’m alone with the prince, I cross my arms. “I hope you can walk because there is no way I can carry you.”
The man grits his teeth, glowering at me, and manages to push himself up, balancing all his weight on one foot. The strange angle of his other leg reveals that it’s broken.
Rolling my eyes, I walk to his side to offer assistance, bracing myself for the smell of sweat and fear.
“Don’t,” he says before I reach him, jerking away from me, nearly falling on his hind-end in the process.
“Are you going hop into the cavern?” I snap. “Good luck with that.”
“I’m not going into the cavern,” he mutters, indeed hopping toward the south. I follow, mildly amused, stopping when he stumbles toward a boulder and lowers himself for a rest. He’s already breathing hard and looks about ready to pass out.
“You made it twenty feet,” I say, mocking him. “That’s an impressive distance. Don’t give up now—if you keep at it, you’ll be out of the meadow by tomorrow evening.”
He glares at me, and I sit on the grass, stretching my legs out in front of me, pulling my bow from my back and placing it beside me. This is not how I planned to spend the afternoon.
After several long minutes, the man pushes himself up to an awkward standing position and begins again. This time, however, his movements are a bit sloppier than before. He manages to find a gopher hole before he even makes it three feet. He tumbles forward, using curse words I’ve never even heard before.
He cries out as he hits the ground, grasping his broken leg. For a moment, I reach out for him, wincing at the pure agony in his tone, and then I pull back, remembering his crime.
Why has Tarith saddled me with him? Why bother with the man at all? Drop him in a deep, dark pit and consider his crime atoned.
The pain must be too much for the prince. He passes out, and I wait, hoping he did the kingdom a service and died. After several long minutes, I gingerly check his pulse, frowning when I feel his weak heartbeat, and then pace until he wakes up.
Once conscious, the prince all but ignores me as he drags himself up and begins toward the trees again. I follow, saying little, wondering how long he can possibly keep this up. His skin was ablaze when I felt his wrist, hot and clammy. Doesn’t he realize that if he’s to survive, he needs rest? Medicine? Both of those things Tarith is offering, though only the dragon knows why.
“How long are we going to do this?” I ask several hours later, bored to death and starving.
“As long as it takes,” the prince grits out.
Rolling my eyes, I follow him once more.
The moon rises over the meadow, just a sliver in the dark night. Most of the dragons are in the cavern now, enjoying their evening meal with gusto. The roars and chortles merge into a cringe-worthy noise that can be heard all the way out here. Dragons—no matter their temperament—do not make good dining partners.
The prince lies on his back, staring at the stars, still stubbornly breathing. He’s been at his escape for at least eight hours now, and we’ve made it halfway across the meadow.
I crouch next to him. “Are you finished yet?”
He glares at me. “Who are you?”
Bored, I pluck a wildflower and run my finger along its double row of fluffy white petals. “Genevieve.”
I don’t know what he wanted, but it wasn’t my name. He growls, turning away. “Go away. Leave me to die in peace.”
“While I would like nothing more than to do just that, if I abandon you, Tarith will be displeased.”
The prince lets out a weak, dark laugh and looks back at me. His eyes land on the flower in my hand, and he stares at it for several moments.
“Bride’s bonnet,” he says tonelessly. Several seconds pass, and then he turns back to the sky. “The dragon brought me back to Lauramore.”
“We’re in the north-western corner, secluded from the rest of the kingdom.” I look down at the flower. “Bride’s bonnet? Is that its name?”
The prince grunts.
I toss the flower aside. “I just call them daisies.”
“That is because you are ignorant.”
For unknown reasons, that comment coming from a man on the verge of death strikes me as terribly funny. I bark out a laugh and stare up at the crescent moon. “That may be, but at least I’ll live to see the morning.”
I wait for the prince to reply—look forward to it even—but when I look over, his eyes are closed. Strangely disappointed that I never even thought to ask his name, I feel for a pulse, fully expecting to find he’s passed.
But, no, he lives. Barely. The man is just tenacious enough to cling to life.