Happy Monday! Today you get an old snippet from 2017. This was a non-starter at the time from the business point of view, but now you get to read it for fun. We’ve posted it once before, but it had been taken down, and someone asked me over the weekend to please repost it.
The sun rolled toward the horizon, painting the sky red and gold. The layers of mountains faded into dying light, each more faint than the last, until the furthest of the peaks seemed little more than ghosts. If Raina was home, she would’ve watched it for a while from the remnants of the castle wall, but now time was short. They were losing the light.
“Round, Puffles. Let’s scare them one more time.”
The aging dragon banked. Wind buffeted her face, pulling her wide-brimmed hat. She shifted her weight to stay in the saddle. Puffles turned and streaked above the green pasture. His shadow fell on the three sacrificial sheep in a small corral, and the ewes bleated in alarm.
Where were they? Here she had three delicious sheep crying their hearts out, and the pack was nowhere in sight.
The eerie howl soared to the sky, a vicious gleeful song of a predator catching the scent of its prey. Raina turned in the saddle. The howl had come from the east. She had expected the pack from the west.
Puffles raised his massive head. A puff of dark smoke broke free of his fangs.
“Yes, I heard that too. Easy. They’re not here yet.”
Another howl cut the silence, shorter and sharper than the first. The small hairs on the back of her neck rose. They’d found their victim and were closing in, and that victim was nowhere near her sheep. Damn it.
Raina leaned in the saddle. “Forward.”
The dragon beat his wings, surging through the air. The pasture jerked back, out of sight. Woods rolled under them.
“Faster, Puffles. Faster.”
The narrow strip of woods ended. A light ribbon of the road snaked its way north with a hundred yards of clear ground followed by woods on each side. A lone traveler in a grey cloak stood on the road, brandishing a long stick.
The dragon’s wings snapped up, and he rode the updraft, hanging in midair.
Five dark shapes broke free of the copse of trees across the road and charged toward the traveler. The master shepherd was right. Wargs. The big shaggy hounds of Alsace had no trouble holding off the regular wolves and mountain lions, but wargs topped two hundred pounds each. They could shear through a sheep’s spine in one bite and carry off a three-hundred-pound ram like he weighed nothing. A regular wolf pack took one sheep and ate it for a week. When wargs came, they took one every night and they killed any hound or human who tried to stop them.
The man swung his cane, warming up.
The wargs sprinted to him. Nice tight group. They’d rip him apart.
Puffles was still hanging. His eyesight wasn’t what it once was. He couldn’t see them in twilight. She would have to be his eyes.
Raina released the reins and leaned forward, tucking herself flat against the dragon’s back. “Dive!”
The drake dipped his head, beat his wings once, and pressed them against his sides. The ground rushed at her with heart-stopping speed. The wind turned into a solid force trying to rip her free. A cold flash of fear and exhilaration burst in her, and she drank it in until the ground yawned, too close. Raina tugged the reins.
The drake’s wings snapped open. They leveled and zoomed over the man on the road at a breakneck speed, so close, the dragon’s claws could’ve locked on his shoulders. The pack was right in front of them. Puffles still didn’t see them.
“Warg!” she screamed into the wind. “Warg, Puffles, warg!”
A loud rumble began deep in the dragon’s belly. The terrifying jaws unhinged, and a gout of flame tore out. The three leading wargs vanished in a ball of white fire. The other two veered left, but it was too late. Puffles had seen them. He banked sharply to the left, following. They sprinted across the grass, but no animal on four legs could outrun a flying dragon. Another burst of fire caught the closest warg. The last beast dashed right in a desperate attempt to escape, but the drake claws caught him. The warg yelped. The great scythe talons squeezed, cutting off the sound in mid-cry.
Puffles beat his wings, gaining height, and settled into a wide circle.
“Best dragon ever.” She leaned forward and petted his muscular, scaly neck. “They didn’t stand a chance.”
Puffles coughed, little streaks of smoke escaping his mouth. It sounded like chuckling. He was quite pleased with himself and he wanted her to know it.
“So mighty. And fast. And brave.”
Puffles hurled the warg’s body into the air and dropped twenty feet down. Raina’s stomach made a valiant effort to jump out of her body. The warg plummeted in front of them and Puffles snatched it in mid-air. Raina swallowed, trying to catch her breath.
“That’s a fine warg. The biggest warg I’ve ever seen. You’re such a good hunter.”
“You know what’s bothering me?” She looked down where the man in the grey cloak watched her from below. “Why didn’t he run for the woods? Who sees five wargs coming at him and thinks, ‘I’ll just stay here and wave my stick!’ instead of climbing the nearest tree?”
Small puffs of smoke escaped between Puffle’s fangs.
“Yes, I know you wouldn’t run, but you’re a mighty dragon. He’s a puny human, and I haven’t seen him before. Why don’t we go down there and ask him who he is and what he’s doing three miles from our keep? Land, please.”
Puffles glided down in a slow arc. The great paws touched the ground. He ran for four steps, spread his wings, and trotted over to the man. Raina stayed in the saddle.
Most people confronted with a dragon rider on a Gallian Drake the size of Puffles reacted as if they were backed into a corner by a rabid dog. They watched him like a hawk and kept their movements small and slow. The man showed no tension. He leaned on his stick, which turned out to be a cane, his pose relaxed, the line of his shoulders easy. Either he had no sense at all, or he had a good reason to not be afraid.
Raina scrutinized him as Puffles trotted closer. The traveler was tall and lean, most of him hidden by a well-worn grey cloak. Nobody had even tried to patch the tattered hem or the burn on the left thigh. Tall leather boots, but no hat. He’d tied his grey hair at the back of his neck, and the wind was doing its best to throw the long white strands at his face.
It was a weathered face of a man in his sixties, creased by wrinkles, with a short beard and moustache. An old scar climbed up his left cheek up and disappeared into his hairline. He was smiling, but his eyes under the thick eyebrows watched her with the calm focus of a predator. Sharp and dark, they missed nothing. She was wrong. There were six wargs on this road, not five, one of them human.
She smiled back and tried to look not too bright. “Hello there.”
“That was some fancy flying,” the traveler said. “Much obliged.”
A light, crisp accent, the same one she’d heard from her mother every day. A man from the capital. Alsace was as far away from Bellesere as you could get and still remain in Gallia. She petted Puffles’s scaly neck. Mother always said that nothing good ever came out of the capital.
“Are you hurt?” she asked.
He raised his arms to the sides. “Completely unharmed. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. We do what we can to keep the roads safe. We don’t get many visitors this way.” Unless they were wool merchants.
He smiled again, his eyes narrowing to mere slits. “Is that your subtle way of asking me where I’m headed?”
“Goodness, no. But if you’re lost, I can point the way.”
“I’m looking for a man,” the traveler said. “Maybe you know him. His name is Felin Belfort. He’s supposed to live somewhere around here. You remind me of him.”
He knew her father. “Do we look alike?”
“No. You fly alike.”
He knew her father during the war, and he came to find him. The question was, should she take this old warg in human skin home? He didn’t seem like a soldier. The bearing was wrong. She’d met veterans before. They looked you straight in the eye and they held themselves like they had nothing to prove. He felt more like her mother. A killer.
He probably knew exactly where Belfort Keep was, and if he kept going down this road, he would find it. If he somehow got lost along the way, any passerby would point out the way. She could take him home now, when father and Mother would be both there, getting ready to eat dinner, or she could fly ahead and announce that she met him. The second way meant risking him showing up at a time of his choosing.
No, better to bring him now. Three, three and a half, if she counted her brother, against one were good odds.
“What a coincidence. Felin Belfort is my father.”
Something moved in the deep shadows under the tree on the other side of the cleared ground.
“The Keep is just past that hill.”
She felt the weight of someone’s gaze. Too early in the season for Seaxonian bandits and they would think twice about taking on the drake. An urge to take to the air gripped her. She crushed it and kept talking.
“I’ll show you the way.”
“Much obliged,” the man said again.
“Do you have a mount?”
The traveler gave a short, sharp whistle. A mare trotted out from under the trees, from the spot where the darkness watched her and clopped her way to them.
Whatever hid in the shadows was still there. Watching. Waiting.
The man swung into the saddle. Raina touched Puffles’ neck and shifted her weight, urging him forward. They rode side by side, she on the dragon and the traveler on his horse. The spot between her shoulder blades itched. She pictured an arrow slicing out of the shadows and piercing her back.
“You never told me your name,” she said.
Just Jehan. No last name, no title. The name told her nothing.
“That’s an old fellow you have there,” Jehan said. “Is he going to be alright walking?”
“It’s good for him to stretch the joints a little.”
Puffles shifted the warg in his mouth. When he was younger, he was a fine example of a brown Gallian Drake. He was vicious and fast, the pride of the royal dragon stables. He fought against the Anglian shrikes, the Seaxonian adlers, and the colossal monster dragons of the Jutes and survived. Through it all, he carried her father on his back. He was no longer that fast, but he was still vicious.
“What’s his name?” Jehan asked.
“Garan the Proud.”
“He’s in his sixties, I take it?”
“Not many people would keep a dragon of this age. The upkeep must cost a fortune.”
He was probing for information. She would have to be careful. Raina patted the dragon’s neck again, feeling the rough edges of the scales under her fingertips.
“No matter how old he gets, he’ll always have a roost and a good meal at our house, because he brought my father home.”
Jehan nodded. “Felin always pays his debts.”
And what did her father owe him? A feeling of dread came over her, as she was watching an incoming storm brewing on the horizon and could do nothing to stop it.
“Must be a quiet life here in the Provinces,” Jehan said.
“Well, the wargs come at the end of winter, the Seaxonian bandits raid in the early summer, and the wild drakes fly down from the mountains in the fall, during the mating season, and during winter when the food is scarce. Other than that it’s pretty quiet.”
“Everything but the Jutes.”
“That’s right.” Alsace lay too far from the coast, away from the Jute raiding routes. The last time the northerners invaded the province happened over three decades ago and only because Gallian army had driven them inland.
“I’d imagine not much to do for a woman of your age.”
“I keep busy.” Odd topic of conversation.
“There are two types of young people in places like these. Those who are affianced and ready to start a family by eighteen summers and those who can’t wait to get out.”
Three days ago, when she’d come home from chasing off a young wild drake who’d been taking too much interest in the herd in the northern pasture, Father had asked her if she wanted to marry Dizier Sirrel, because his father had proposed a match. It took her a full minute and two gulps of wine to overcome the coughing. She told them that Dizier was mean to dogs and very proud that his parents were first cousins who married for the purity of his bloodline. Mother laughed about it for half of the evening.
“I’m not affianced.” She smiled at him. “But I’m happy here.”
“That makes things easier,” Jehan said.
She didn’t see how.
They cleared the hill. Beyond it, the ground gently sloped only to rise again, with the keep perched on the apex of next hill. The sunset had burned down to dim coals, and in its weak reddish light, Belfort’s white walls almost glowed against the greenery. The old castle sat atop a hill like a broken crown, part of its once tall wall missing. Thirty-six years passed since the Jute attack, but the black scorching marks of dragon fire still stained the walls, permanently embedded in the stone.
Raina fought a shiver. When she was a little girl, the survivors would tell her stories of that night, dark scary fairy tales of fire, monsters, and northern barbarians. It took only one blast from the giant Jute dragon to rip through the solid stone and set everything inside ablaze. The fire had been so intense that the wall had glowed red for hours.
Their family had since rebuilt the inner keep, with dragon and horse stables, but the ruined wall had been a much lower priority. At its lowest, it stood tall enough to stop a man and a warg, and that was good enough for now.
“Lovely place,” Jehan said. “Do you think your mother will be home?”
She was counting on it. “We’ll just have to see. I’ll go ahead by air and open the gate for you.”
“Can’t wait,” he said and smiled.
Puffles landed in the courtyard on the landing pad in front of the stables. Raina dismounted and opened the heavy steel gates of the dragon roost. Jehan would be here any minute. She had to secure the dragons. If things got ugly, dragon fire everywhere was the last thing they’d need. And things would get ugly. She was sure of it.
Puffles pranced past her inside, stopped by Korvan’s roost and waved the warg in the younger dragon’s direction. Like Puffles, Korvan was a Gallian drake, but where the older dragon was dark brown, almost black, Korvan’s hide was the color of whiskey, and when the light shone through his great leathery wings, they looked almost amber.
Puffles shook the warg, showing off. Korvan got up and shifted back and forth on his massive feet, whining.
“Stop teasing him.”
Puffles gave the warg one last shake, walked into his roost on the bed of soft white sand, dropped his prize onto the stone platform in the corner, and began to feed. Raina closed the metal gate, took a deep breath, and went to the front gate.
Jehan was waiting when she opened the gates.
“The stable is to your left.”
The mare clopped by her.
The sunset had burned down to coals, and long purple shadows claimed the countryside, stretching from the woods to lick at the white walls of Belfort. Raina peered at the darkness.
No odd sounds, no stray shapes sliding soundlessly in the twilight, no eerie feeling of being watched. So why was she still uneasy?
She shut the door and barred it. Jehan had put up his horse and was waiting for her by the stable gates.
“This way.” She led him to the main building of the keep, grasped the handle of the heavy metal door, and opened it. “Please. First doorway on the left.”
He smiled. “After you.”
Go first and give him the opportunity to stab her in the back? “No, I insist.”
Cold brushed her cheek, like the soft brush of a feather someone had chilled in the ice cellar. The tiny hairs on the back of her neck rose. The darkness had followed them home, and now it slipped inside the keep.
“If you insist.” Jehan strode into the building.
She pulled her hunting knife out and hid in her hand. Ahead Jehan turned through the
“I’m home, and I brought a visitor!” she called out. “From the capital!”
Jehan walked into the great hall. She was only a step behind.
An old wooden table, a scarred veteran of many culinary battles, occupied the center of the room. Massive and solid, it could sit twenty-four comfortably, but most days only four seats were occupied. Father sat on the far left, Mother across from him, Raul next to Father, and she would normally sit down next to Mother.
Her parents looked up. Father, tall, broad-shouldered, still athletic in his early fifties, dark hair worn short, left over from his days as a Guard. Her mother was his exact opposite. Short, curvy, with a waterfall of blonde hair, and big blue eyes, she was beautiful and charming, and she wielded beauty and charm like two daggers.
“Surprise!” Jehan said.
Father froze with a fork in his hand.
Smile died on Mother’s lips. Something vicious flared in her eyes. She flipped the knife in her hand.
And that went exactly as expected.
“You!” Mother hissed.
“Hello, Estelle,” Jehan said. “I’ve come to collect.”
Mother lunged forward, the knife in her hand. Jehan raised his stick.
A shadow stretched from the wall, as if liquid, heading for her mother. Raina lunged forward, knife out. The blade met solid flesh. A thin drop of crimson wet the polished steel.
The shadow fell apart, torn from the inside. A man glared at her. He wore black and her knife had caught him across his throat.
It was suddenly very quiet. Mother halted in mid-step.
“Well,” Jehan said. “She’s your daughter, Estelle.”
The man stared at her. She looked into his eyes. Like two chips of ice from a glacier. He would kill her, she realized. He would murder everyone in the room, including her twelve-year old brother, then he would help himself to their dinner and wine. He would eat well, he would sleep untroubled, and he would go on with his life, never worrying about what he’d done. Her life and her family’s lives meant nothing. He would snuff them out as if they never existed.
“Raina.” Father’s voice cracked with command. “Lower your knife and step away from our guest.”
She had to kill him now, because he would never forget that she held a knife to his throat.
“Raina,” Father said.
His ice eyes were calm. He was confident he would survive. If she sliced his neck, chances are she wouldn’t kill him. If she moved, he could disappear into the shadows and then there would be no stopping the violence that would come next.
She couldn’t cut his throat anyway, she realized. In the moment when he moved toward her mother, maybe, but not now, with him standing there glaring at her as if she’d stepped on his foot.
Raina lowered the knife and took a step back.
“Why don’t we all sit down and discuss this like civilized people,” Father said. It didn’t sound like a question. It sounded like command. He walked over to her mother and offered her his hand. Mother rested her fingers in his. Father led her to her chair and held it out for her.
Raina pulled out the nearest chair and sat, two seats down from her mother.
Jehan smiled and sat two chairs two her right. The shadow man rested his hand on the table, leapt over it, and sat into a chair directly across from her. The narrow gash on his neck dripped crimson. He picked up a linen napkin from the basket and drew it across his throat. It came away crimson, but the gash was already sealing. She’d barely nicked him.
“Raul,” Father said. “Bring two extra settings.”
Her brother took off for the kitchen.
“Raina, pass the platter to our guests,” Mother said, loading it with so much venom, Raina almost winced.
She rose, picked up the platter of chicken, and another with steamed vegetables. Normally the dinner would make her mouth water. Roasted chicken instead of the usual slice of smoked ham, a bottle of wine, freshly baked bread, a platter of cheese, steamed artichokes, and blackened asparagus. Raul returned with extra plates, forks, knives, and two wine glasses. She made sure to pass the platters to her left. Jehan filled his plate, and passed them to the shadow man, who picked out a drumstick and a slice of bread, and passed the rest to Raul.
She realized she hadn’t even put anything on her plate, so she rose, got some food, and sat back down.
For a few moments, nobody spoke. Jehan sampled the wine and raised his eyebrows. “Not bad, Felin. Yours?”
“Of course,” Father said, his voice calm. “We’re in Alsace. We raise sheep and make wine.”
Cold pinched her spine with sharp claws. She looked up. The shadow man studied her with his ice eyes. She raised her chin and studied him back. Broad-shouldered, tall, short blond hair, clean-shaven. The black clothes hid everything except his neck and face. She was reasonably sure he was older than her, but it was impossible to tell by how much. He had one of those faces that would likely look the same at twenty-five or forty. He could’ve been Gallian, Anglican, or Seaxonian.
“You took on an apprentice,” Mother said. “I thought you swore it off.”
“I did.” Jehan helped himself to the chicken.
Raina put her fork down. It hurt her to watch him eat their food.
“I couldn’t help it,” he continued.
Mother raised her eyebrows.
“The little bastard stole from me,” Jehan said.
The “little bastard” ignored the conversation, tore a chunk of bread, and put it in his mouth.
Choke on it, Raina willed.
“You mean, you let him steal from you,” Mother said.
“No, I meant I walked through the Twins Row, and when I came home, the amber crest wasn’t in my pocket.”
Mother stopped eating.
“I realized that he must be new, young, or dumb.”
“Why?” Raul asked.
“Because all of the regular pickpockets know not to steal from me.”
“Because you’ll kill them?” Raul guessed.
“No. Because I’ll cut out their eyes.” Jehan took another pull of his wine. “A corpse is forgettable. A man with two black holes where his eyes used to be begging on the street corner is a living reminder of lines one doesn’t cross.”
Father put down his fork. “Why are you here?”
Jehan reached into his cloak, withdrew a leather tube, and tossed it across the table. Father snapped it out of the air, gripped the tube, and twisted, snapping the red wax seal. It fell and dangled off the tube on a silken cord. A stylized Gallian drake holding an iris in its claws. The royal seal. Alarm squirmed through Raina.
Father pulled the top off, exposing a piece of paper rolled into a tube. He plucked the paper out, unrolled it, and read it. Mother leaned in to read with him.
Father put the paper down. “No.”
“It’s not a request,” Jehan said.
“Over my dead body,” Mother said.
“If necessary.” Jehan leaned back. “The Crown is in danger. He needs someone now. We’re all adults here. You knew the bargain you made.”
“I’ll go,” Father said. “The Guard always needs instructors.”
“No.” Jehan’s eyes turned hard. “He needs someone from the outside, without any ties or past loyalties to muddy up the waters. I saw her fly today. She executed a precision dive on a half-blind dragon. She’ll do.”
It was about her.
“No,” Father said.
“May I see the scroll?” she asked.
“No,” Father said.
“I’ve reached majority,” Raina said. “If the scroll concerns me, I have the right to see it.”
Mother took the scroll off the table and passed it to her.
Charles, by the grace of God, King of Gallia… titles, titles, more titles …in accordance with an oath sworn by His Father, Lothair the Stalwart, and as a reward for the meritorious service of Felin Belfort in Our Time of Need… …calls upon Raina Belfort to join the ranks of the Royal Dragon Guard for the good of God, King, and Country…
…calls upon Raina Belfort to join the ranks of the Royal Dragon Guard for the good of God, King, and Country…
She read it again. It still said what it said.
“Can women even join the Guard?” she asked.
“They can,” Father said, staring at Jehan. “The Guard was started by a woman. They’re discouraged from it, however.”
“Why?” Raul asked.
“Because any time there is a dragon threat, the Guard is the first to defend and the first to die,” Mother said. “You’re not taking our daughter.”
The Royal Dragon Guard served as His Majesty’s personal guards, and when he flew his dragon, they rode beside him into battle.
Raina looked at the scroll again. For the period of fifteen years… Fifteen years. It seemed like an eternity. She would be thirty five if she survived. Almost middle-aged.
“Why don’t we ask her?” Jehan asked.
“It’s not up to her,” Father snapped. “She’s my daughter. She isn’t some pickpocket you plucked from the street and turned into a killer.”
The shadow man rolled his eyes. It only lasted half a second, but she was sure she saw it.
Jehan had said he came to collect. She pivoted toward her mother. “Why is this happening?”
“It’s ancient history,” Mother said.
Raina turned to Jehan.
“Your mother killed a man to save your father’s life,” Jehan said. “A man who was important to my employer. A bargain was struck. They kept their lives, but when he called them to service, they couldn’t refuse.”
“That bargain was never meant to apply to our children,” Mother ground out. “If I knew…”
“What? What would you have done, Estelle?” Jehan leaned forward. “You would’ve done exactly the same thing. You would’ve sold him your firstborn to keep Felin breathing.”
Mother leaned back and smiled her charming easy smile. “You’re such a treasure, Jehan. We should get together more often.”
Father reached out and put his hand on her wrist.
“What happens if I don’t go?” Raina asked.
“Tell her, Estelle,” Jehan said.
“You’re the man with all the answers,” she told him.
“We’ll report back to my employer,” Jehan said. “Then we’ll return, kill you, your father and mother, and your brother. We’ll poison your dragons and burn your keep. There will be nothing left of the name Belfort except a smoking ruin.”
“Can they do that?” Raul asked.
He looked from face to face and turned to the shadow man.
“Yes,” the man said.
On one side, the lives of her family. On the other side fifteen years of her life. There wasn’t any choice, she realized. It’s already been decided for her. She wanted to stomp and scream that it wasn’t fair.
“Can we kill them now?” Raul asked.
“No,” Mother said. “If we do, the night king will just send more.”
“Think about what you’re doing,” Jehan said. “You’ve had twenty years in the countryside, raising your sheep, making wine, rutting like two rabbits. I bet when you look at your hands, Estelle, you can’t even see blood anymore. But it’s still there. Did you really think your old sins would be forgotten?”
“Raul,” Father snapped. “You’re excused from the table.”
Her brother took off.
A change came over Mother. The kind, charming, easy-going woman had vanished. In her place sat a grim ghost, and she was contemplating murder.
She had no choice, Raina realized. Her heart hammered against her ribs. “I’ll go,” Raina said.
“You will not,” Father said.
She had to wrestle it back from him. If he went to the capital, he would condemn all of them. She picked up the scroll and turned it to him. “It says Raina Belfort. See, right here. It doesn’t say Felin Belfort.”
Jehan chuckled. “The curse came true, Estelle. You had children who are mouthy bastards just like you.”
“Raina,” Mother said. “Don’t disrespect your father.”
She had thrown one stick onto the fire. Might as well toss in the whole bundle. “This is a royal decree. What are you planning to do, Father? Are you going to defy our king? Will you pretend to be me? You can’t pass for a twenty-year-old woman even if you shave.”
She looked at her father’s eyes and ran face first into an impenetrable wall of no.
“This matter is settled.” Father rose. “Come. I’ll show you to your rooms.”
He stared at Jehan. The old man tossed the rest of his wine down his throat and got up. The shadow man got up with him, and Father led them from the room.
Mother leaned her elbow on the table and rested her forehead against her hands.
“Who did you kill?” Raina asked quietly.
“There are two kings in Bellesere,” Mother said. “King Charles in the Terrade Castle rules the capital by day. Alasdair Rock rules it by night. He is the man nightmares are made of. I killed his nephew.”
“Did you do it to save Father?”
Mother nodded. They fell silent.
“Things that you do are never forgotten.” Mother’s voice was quiet as if she was talking to herself. “They follow you and eventually you have to pay for them. There is a price for everything.”
She seemed so old right all the sudden. Old, and weak, and defeated. Fear squirmed through Raina. She swallowed. She could do something about it. And she would.
“Stay away from Jehan,” Mother said. “And from his pet killer. That creature is an abomination. One way or the other, they’ll be gone by morning.”
“Is Father going to leave with them?”
Mother didn’t answer. She grabbed the wine bottle and hurled it at the stone wall. The thick glass bounced off the stones without shattering. The bottle rolled across the floor. Mother took a deep breath and walked out of the hall.
Raina climbed the stairs to her room, entered, shut the door, and leaned against it. Her home for the last twenty years. He whole life was in the this room. She knew every nook and cranny. She could move around it in complete darkness half-asleep, never bumping into anything.
The moonlight streaming through the window barely lit the bedroom, but her memory painted it as if she saw it sunlight at noon. The big, solid wooden bed with cream-colored linens and her favorite pillow. The ornate table carved out of a solid chunk of wood for her, supporting a lantern and the last book she was reading. The shelves where her memories lived: her stuffed toy cat Snowball, once white and now mostly grey; her books; a small chest filled with childhood treasures of colorful chunks of glass, weird rocks, and coins from faraway places… She shut her eyes. For twenty years, this was the safest place in the world. Her happy little corner. Her haven.
Just don’t think about it. You know what needs to be done. Just do it.
Raina crossed the room and pulled a travel bag from the chest. She tossed the leather holder with her certificate of birth into it. She pulled a small purse of money out of her dresser and dropped it into the bag. Her savings. Her family had money from the wool trade but asking for it now would be out of the question. She had to do this fast and quiet, before her parents realized what was happening. She threw clothes into the bag, socks, underwear, boar bristle toothbrush, a tin of powder, other necessities… She picked up Snowball and stuffed her into the bag. Then she stripped and put on the wool pants, blouse, the tall boots, and the riding leathers. She strapped her narrow saber to her waist, took the hat with a black feather off its hook, and put it on.
This was it. There couldn’t be any goodbyes.
Raina eased the door open. The way was clear. She padded down the hall and quietly knocked on Raul’s room. The door swung open, revealing her brother.
“I need help,” she whispered. “Go to the stables and saddle both dragons.”
He nodded and took off down the stairs.
The royal decree lay where she’d dropped it. Raina rolled it back into a tube, stuffed it in its protective case, and hid it in her bag.
Father would’ve put them in the west side, in one of the three guest rooms. They were the farthest from the front door and the farthest from her and Raul’s bedrooms. Only one door showed the faint yellow glow under it. She knocked.
“Come in,” Jehan called.
She tried the handle of the door. Unlocked. It swung open under the pressure from her fingertips. Father didn’t lock them in. It wouldn’t have done much good.
She walked in. Her heart was beating too fast. She took a deep quiet breath to steady herself. Never let your enemies know what you’re thinking, Mother’s voice said from the depth of her memories. When you’re in your darkest moment and they scare you so you can’t even think, laugh in their faces. Fake it if you must.
The room stood empty, the door in the far wall ajar. Two figures sat on the balcony, barely visible against the darkness of the country night. She shut the door, crossed the room, and came out on the balcony.
Jehan leaned against the stone rail. The shadow man sat on it, legs crossed. Neither had taken off their clothes.
“Mother used to say Bellesere was a nest of vipers,” she said, keeping her voice light.
“You’re the vipers.”
“You asked me if I had a fiancé. Why?”
“Because betrothal is a legally binding arrangement,” Jehan said. “There are only three ways to break it: money, intimidation, or murder. It’s harder to press someone into service after you murder their fiancé.”
Charming. “I’ll need a map,” she said.
Jehan reached into his travel bag and pulled out two folded maps. “The top is the dragon route to Bellesere. The second is the map of the city. When you get to the capital, go directly to the Rock estate. Do not land anywhere else. Do not speak to anyone. Try not to die on the way. Do you understand?”
“I’m mouthy, not slow.”
“Don’t mouth off to Alasdair Rock. It’s not wise.”
She took the maps and stuffed them into her bag. “You’ve got what you wanted. Leave. I want to see you gone.”
“We weren’t planning on staying.” Jehan said. He swiped his bag off the stone floor and walked out the door.
The shadow man pondered her.
She crossed her arms on her chest. “Which part of ‘leave’ wasn’t clear?”
He leapt off the stone rail, vanishing into deep shadows below. That had to be a twenty-foot jump. If there was any justice in the world, he’d break his legs.
Raina leaned from the balcony and watched as Jehan got his horse out of the stables, opened the gates, mounted, and rode out. She exhaled and hugged herself.
Bellesere was one of the biggest cities on the continent. She’d never been outside of the province. She’d never even seen a Jute, except for an old man in Gallian clothes, who’d made his living protecting wool merchants’ wagons.
If she thought any more about it, she wouldn’t leave. Now wasn’t the time for self-pity.
She shouldered her bag, slipped out of the room, and snuck across the keep and out of the front door. The moon was bright, lighting the courtyard like a lantern. She crossed the open space at a run and dashed into the stables, where huge wooden gates stood wide open.
Raul waited by the dragons. He’d saddled both and led them out of their enclosures to the gates, ready to take off, Korvan in front and Puffles behind him.
She hugged her brother. “Take Korvan and fly him.”
“Anywhere. As long as you keep him away from Father for a few hours. I need a head start.”
“Don’t go,” he said.
“I have to. Go on.”
He climbed into the saddle and picked up the reigns. “Out, Korvan. Out!”
The younger drake rushed the doors, banging them open, tore into the courtyard and flew to the sky.
Raina swung into the saddle. “Out, Puffles! Go!”
The dragon ran out the doors.
“Raina!” Mother screamed.
She turned. Both of her parents stood on the steps by the inner keep’s door. Father’s face was terrible.
“I’ll send him back,” she yelled, as Puffles beat his wings. “He’ll come home to roost. I love you!”
The aging drake took to the sky. Cold wind buffeted her. She took one last look at Belfort far below and turned east, toward the capital.