When four princes fought over who could please you more with their dragons, you knew you were the luckiest girl alive.
It was pleasant weather that day in Constanria. The skies were blue, with not a rain cloud in sight. Aereala had decided to bless us with her goodwill, and everything was supposed to be peaceful.
Supposed was the keyword here.
Finding peace amongst the four dragon men was close to impossible, not with their sibling rivalry and constant contests that got more ridiculous each time Kael suggested something.
“Let’s see who can make Sera blush more, or laugh more, or fart more.”
I couldn’t remember how the last one came up, but that was not a good day for me.
Today, I’d decided to take the day off. The princes forced me to take one every month, because they said I needed to loosen up from work and spend time with them. I agreed with them. Work with the council never ended, and I always promised too much, letting responsibility after responsibility pile up. I was also trying to garner better impressions from others, so others stopped viewing me for my curse alone.
We stood over Gaean’s pit, a mountain range next to Raynea, the capital of Constanria. Kael had chosen the location because he said he knew it well. Its jagged rocks and steep valleys did not look safe. The cliff we stood on had a sharp fall and ended with a smattering of spiked rocks. If I accidentally slipped and hit the unwelcoming bottom, I had no doubt I would die. Great idea, Kael. Perfect place to go flying on the backs of dragons.
There ought to be no chance at all for me to slip and fall to my doom, not with their scaly, slippery backs. Yep, no chance at all. I could trust them completely for my safety… except for that one time Kael slipped the wrong mushrooms into my soup to make me fart, or when Kael forced me to spar with a draeox to sharpen my skills with the blade. Or that other time when Kael suggested I put rocko candy into the fizzy drink and it exploded in my face, nearly blinding me. He was rolling on the floor for a good five minutes after that, grabbing his stomach and wiping tears from his eyes.
Note to self: avoid riding Kael’s dragon if I want to survive.
I was still planning my next big comeback. Kael was going to get his just desserts from me, and I had to make sure it was especially sweet.
I looked at my four princes, who never failed to be gorgeous. Rylan, the crown prince, had the side of his hair in a braid as usual; Gaius, his twin, wore his constant grumpy frown that hid the fact that he had a soft side; Micah, their half-brother, beneath his red fringe, looked collected but encouraging; and Kael, the third oldest, was rubbing his hands together with a devious smirk inching up his lips.
And me? I probably had the words I’m about to shit my pants written on my face.
But I couldn’t touch anyone else, since dragon-kind seemed to be allergic to my skin. It made them hurt. A lot. So I was stuck with the princes, whether I liked it or not.
But I liked it.
An eagle cawed in the distance, punctuating the ominous atmosphere of Gaean’s pit. “Uh… guys… isn’t there someplace safer to fly?”
“Nonsense,” Kael said, pushing out his chest and waving away my comment. “This is the best place. It allows for sharp turns and large drops because of how narrow yet deep its valleys are. It’s great for being adventurous and showing off our skills.”
“How about not showing off your skills? Why not fly across a nice, serene landscape, where we can enjoy the view?”
“The view here isn’t bad,” Rylan said, completely missing my point. “Different… but not bad.”
“Somewhere grassier? With soft, bouncy hills that won’t completely skewer me should some accident happen?”
Micah reached out to hold my hand. My gloves lay on the ground next to us. I didn’t see a need to have them on next to the princes, and a light tingle, the one I always got whenever I touched the princes, tickled my skin. Micah brought my hand to his lips to kiss it. I should have gotten used to their little grazes here and there after being with them for two months, but I hadn’t, because a blush crept up my neck. “Don’t worry, Sera-kit, I won’t let any harm come to you.” His eyelids were hooded, and his lips soft and inviting. Often when he looked at me like that, I was reminded that he wanted me. They all did. And yet they hadn’t acted on that desire, which frustrated me to no end.
My heartbeat sped up. “It’s not you I’m worried about.” One day I’d get used to how blue his eyes were, but so far, that day hadn’t come.
“Right,” Gaius said, patting Micah on his shoulder. “So there’s nothing to worry about.”
No, wait. Yes there was. There was everything to worry about.
“Let’s shift, then,” Gaius continued. “And the one who Sera deems the winner will get to cuddle with her tonight.”
“Just cuddling,” Rylan added.
“Which is annoying,” Kael said, almost with a groan.
Micah’s expression didn’t change.
I rested my hands on my hips. “I didn’t agree to that. Although I wouldn’t mind, but you guys have been so difficult about this sleeping thing for the last few… What are you doing with your pants—”
Gaius fumbled with the hem of his pants before stripping them off, leaving his glory-thing on display.
Out of reflex, my eyes darted away. But then curiosity returned… and why should I be the one to look away? They were mine now, weren’t they? They said so. I should have every right to look and ogle, because we were a thing, and people in relationships got to see each other naked.
Thus, shamelessly, I looked.
They all had their pants off but were walking away, besides Kael, who stood winking at me. I didn’t get to see their ahems—except for Kael’s, which was no doubt impressive—but butts were a nice consolation prize, and theirs were firm and completely pinch-able.
I am not bothered by their nudity was what I tried to convince myself, but of course I was. Still, I stared onward as if it was my life’s mission, because I might as well get used to it.
Rylan reached back and smacked Kael over on the head. Kael scowled, but turned around to follow the others.
With his back to me, Rylan said to them, loud enough so I could hear, “There won’t be any way to talk to Sera once we shift, so let’s be civil about it. She’ll take turns riding us. Once you’re done, come back here and set her down, and she’ll get on the next in line.”
“I’m first,” Kael said, raising his hand.
“We’re going by age. Oldest to youngest.”
Amongst the brothers, Kael had the firmest butt.
Kael let his hand fall. “Hey, that means you’re first.”
“Exactly.” I heard the smile in Rylan’s tone.
Or maybe it was Micah with the firm butt. Or Gaius… or Rylan. Actually, all of them had firm butts, and this was impossible to decide. I had to give each of them a good grope later, just to test out the effectiveness of their firmness.
For scientific purposes, of course.
I was a scholar first, horny post-adolescent girl second.
“How about the other way around?” Micah asked. “Youngest to oldest?”
Rylan fastened his hands on his hips. “Because it makes more sense that way. I was born first into this world, so I get to go first in everything.”
“Okay, now that is just horseshit—”
“I pick oldest!” I shouted. Only because that put Kael lower on the list.
Micah turned around to flash me a dejected expression.
My heart fluttered, and I regretted what I’d said. I quickly corrected my mistake by saying, “I rode on your dragon’s back once already—better to let the others have a chance.”
His expression lightened, and I felt relieved that my excuse appeased him. They squabbled for a bit more, until Rylan got too impatient and went ahead, shifting first. The others took that as a cue to summon their dragon forms too. I’d never seen the transition between human and dragon form before. Bones clicked and morphed into multiple times their size. I’d expected it to look grotesque, but much of the shifting was obscured by magic that shimmered with an iridescent bright yellow. Through the light I could see faint hints of human limbs growing into claws, and heard the cracking of their skeletons. The ground shook as they morphed, and I had to bend my knees and reach my arms out to balance myself. The glow continued to grow in size and brightness, until it hurt to stare at it directly and I had to glance away.
When the magic dissipated and I looked back, four dragons were in the princes’ places. Two black ones and two white. Gaius’s dragon was black like Rylan’s, and was exceptionally large. He had the friendliest face, however, which was strange, because his human face wasn’t friendly at all, although undoubtedly handsome. The dragon forms of the other brothers had ridges protruding from their faces in different patterns, which added to how menacing their dragons looked.
Their wings spanned buildings. Their forms were sinewy, every inch muscled yet graceful. Smoke rose from their nostrils. Rylan puffed out some fire, probably to show off. Kael stepped up and released a roar, which startled birds and made them flutter to the skies. I assumed that was him trying to impress me. But instead of impressing me, the force made me stumble backward. Luckily, I stood far enough from the edge of the cliff, or I would have plummeted to my doom.
Rylan was up first, so he stepped forward, his form rippling as he moved. He neared me. Up close, his eyes were a gorgeous, shocking yellow.
“You know,” I said, “the four of you are scarier in dragon form, but also quieter. You guys losing the ability to talk makes life a lot more peaceful.”
He snorted at my remark and shrugged. He swung his tail in front of him and allowed me to hop on. I hoisted myself over his frame and steadied myself on his back, gripping one of his protruding scales to use as a handle. His hide emanated heat, which was a comforting lukewarm temperature. It seeped through my pants—yes, pants, because robes were too impractical to go dragon-riding in—and sent a comforting sensation through my body. I leaned over and rested my torso over his frame, because it gave me better balance, and also because it felt nice.
Rylan growled, which I assumed was his way of asking if I was ready.
“Fly away, big guy,” I said.
He lifted his wings from the ground and beat them against the cool winds of Gaean’s pit. As he lifted, my heart dropped. My breathing quickened, and I couldn’t decide if this sensation was exhilarating or terrifying. I’d been on Micah’s back before, but that had been a while ago, and I had to adjust to the experience again.
Then I remembered I actually enjoyed riding on Micah’s dragon, and that helped to calm me down. Still, Micah did take me to a much nicer place, with pretty vines, trees, and soft grass.
I tried to ignore how this landscape looked like a death trap.
Think pretty things. Que sera sera—as they like to say in ancient dragon tongue.
Rylan’s back did feel safe enough, as long as he didn’t do anything too abrup—
He dived toward the sharp rocks, dropping at least a castle’s length. I lost my breath and a scream ripped from my throat. I liked it when Micah did the same maneuver, but this was way faster, and I believed Rylan had dived too close to the rocks on purpose, because I heard the crunch of them as they crashed into Rylan’s feet. I pulled my face from his scales and opened one eye. Still alive.
But… I had to admit—that was pretty fun. “Not fun at all,” I said to Rylan. I gave away my lie through a giggle.
And, because he and the boys were so gratingly adventurous, he took my laughter as permission to do whatever in Constanria he wanted.
In the next few minutes, we swept past all sorts of cliffs. Steep cliffs, rounded cliffs, cliffs with caves in them. I thought it was inadvisable to try and squeeze through all of them, but Rylan did anyway, nearly beheading me at one point. There wasn’t much to see in Gaean’s pit but rocks, and maybe some fanciful, colorful birds, but I had no time to take a closer look because Rylan went by so quickly that they blurred.
I was nauseated by the time we were done. We reached the plateau we’d started on, where three other dragons perched and lumbered, waiting for us. “I think… I think you could have slowed down,” I said.
Rylan’s wings glided against the air. When he halted, his feet made a loud thud and the ground shook. I slipped off his back. When my boots touched the ground, my legs wobbled beneath me. I rested on his frame for support. Pressing my hand to my forehead, I sighed. “Now that’s done and over with.” I was ready to go home.
But three other sets of dragon eyes fell on me. They shone with eagerness, and I knew they weren’t going to let me go until I rode on their backs. The day was only beginning.
I shook my head. “Why does everything have to be a competition?”
Gaius lunged forward and pushed Rylan aside. He swayed his back side to side, and a low rumble vibrated from his throat to travel through my bones.
I palmed my face. This had to be a competition. There was always one when it came to these four.
* * *
“Micah wins,” I said, pointing with my thumb.
Micah held me in his arms as we flew back to Raynea. A splendid rainbow arched through the blue sky, framing the wonderful, picturesque landscape of Constanria. Many of the leaves had begun browning—oranges and yellows replaced the greens, giving the setting warm autumn tones. It looked like a painter’s dream.
Bright light shone through the clouds. It split into fanning rays that shimmered over the city. This was a view. Not like the terrible rocky edges of Gaean’s pit. I would have preferred it if they showed me this view on their dragons’ backs—slowly, and not with the up-and-down whirlwinds they put me through. Rylan, Gaius, and Kael seemed to think the faster they went and the more risks they took, the more impressed I’d be. Rylan’s ride was choppy, but Gaius was almost twice as bad.
It was surprising how I could still stand on two feet.
“I knew I should have went last,” Kael muttered.
Weren’t they complaining about who got to go first?
I sniffed. “That’s not it. Micah’s the only one who actually let me enjoy the ride, and I didn’t feel like hurling after he finished.”
“He didn’t even look like he was trying,” Gaius said.
“I think the rest of you tried too hard. It doesn’t have to be a game.”
Kael shrugged. “It’s in my nature.”
I shook my head but didn’t retort. Arguing with Kael was like arguing with a child—he always pulled arguments out of nowhere, and how ridiculous they sounded didn’t bother him at all.
“Did anyone else feel what I did in our dragon forms?” Rylan asked. A deep frown creased his brow.
“Yeah,” Gaius said.
“Feel what?” I asked.
“Like we needed to… needed to mate with you,” Rylan explained.
My stomach tightened and my breathing quickened. I’d been trying to be more suggestive, but they never took the bait. “How so?” I asked. I thought the reason being suggestive never worked was because of how terrible I was at it. I knew how to charm my subordinates for political gains. But men? I didn’t know the first thing about seducing men.
Rylan replied, “I can’t spell it out. It was a strange feeling. Not overbearing, but my awakened dragon seemed to really like the thought of you being solely ours… That I should… claim you? Is that the word? These terms are coming out of nowhere, but they feel right.”
“They’re the words the dragons of the old used,” Gaius said.
Rylan nodded. “I can’t describe the feeling any other way.”
“Could we be Sera’s mates?” Micah asked.
Rylan narrowed his eyes. “How can she have four? Even if mates existed?”
“She’s special,” Kael said, smiling smugly to himself as he continued to glide through the air with his shimmering white wings. He seemed pleased with himself, as if his hypothesis explained everything away.
I sighed. “And none of the spell books have a hint about what’s happening between us.” I hadn’t been too motivated to find clues. I was content with what we had, except for their apparent lack of interest in going any farther than kissing.
Something about our relationship had them worried.
“We’re running tests to try and figure it out,” Rylan said.
My mood soured. “Yeah…” I was going to have to participate in another one of those experiments once I got back. The thought of it made my skin crawl and my stomach sick. I had to go through with it. In exchange for peace with the princes, I’d promised King Gisiroth I’d partake in experiments, to figure out why my curse worked as it did, and why the princes could touch me while everybody else couldn’t. “I’m tired today. Can we skip this week’s meeting?”
“Father wouldn’t be happy about it,” Rylan said, looking somber. He gazed into the distance, then continued, “But we don’t have to listen to everything he says. He’ll be grumpy and give me another reprimand, but one day shouldn’t make a difference. If you’re tired, rest.”
A scolding from Gisiroth didn’t sound fun. “It’s all right. I’m not that sick.”
“Are you certain?” He turned to me. His cool, gentle gaze brushed my skin.
“I’ll be all right. Once we reach home and I get a cup of water, I’ll be fit and fine again.”
“I’m serious—don’t let what Father thinks get to you.”
“I am certain! You’re making a fuss.”
Rylan frowned, but I knew I had convinced him, because he nodded and said, “All right. If you insist.”
We’d reached Raynea in half an hour. It would have been much faster on a dragon’s back, but I wanted no more of that, and the princes obliged. Micah’s strong arms and their half-dragon forms made me feel safer than their slippery scales, especially after what I’d just gone through. We flew over the wonders of the palace, with its towering waterfalls and flowing rivers, and reached the outhouse where King Gisiroth assigned the experiments to be held.
The small, rickety building paled in comparison to the grandeur of the palace.
I hated this building. Gisiroth picked the outhouse that I had been banished to when I was separated from the princes. He wanted this to be a reminder of my not belonging here. He wanted me to know my place.
I didn’t let it faze me. I knew where my place was. It was next to my princes. This weak attempt to convince me otherwise did nothing.
We opened the wooden door, and the princes slipped through it, into the dilapidated building. The interior had changed from the bedroom I used to live in. These days, it held only one chair, which stood alone in the center of the wooden floors.
Micah, Rylan, and Gaius entered first. I trailed after them, but Kael pulled me aside before my foot went through the door.
He rested his hands on my shoulders and leaned in so closely that I thought he might kiss me. He had a loose strand of hair dangling in front of his strong-jawed face, so I brushed it back and helped him tuck it behind his ear. As I did so, he grabbed my wrist and pressed it to his cheek. I licked my lower lip, and his eyes darted there.
I sucked in a deep breath. “What is it?”
“Do you hate me, Sera?”
“What?” My lips curved downward. “No, of course not. Why would I?”
“Because of all my mistakes. I was careless when trying to play, and I did stupid things that put you in danger. Sometimes I get too comfortable, because you fit in with us so well, like a missing piece of a puzzle we’d spent years searching for and now we’ve finally found. Sometimes I forget you’re not entirely like us.”
“Oh? If I’m not like you, then how am I like?”
“Fragile. In need of protection.” He kissed my palm. The electricity between us sent a thrill through me. “You’re human. More vulnerable. You’re not like my brothers, who can take everything I throw at them. I shouldn’t forget that.”
I quivered at his touch, but his words struck the wrong chord. I didn’t want to be seen like that by the princes. I wanted to be more than a burden they had to guard.
It was why I put myself through with these experiments, and was still working hard at the council. If I stopped looking like a damsel in distress to everyone, then the princes would gain favor with the court, and Vancel would stop using me as a weapon against them.
“I’m alive, aren’t I?” I told him.
“You fell so sick.”
Kael had worn guilt on his face for days after the mushroom incident. I kept telling him it was all in the name of fun—not good fun, however. It was fun of a more disastrous nature.
I peered into his blue eyes. “We still laugh over the incident sometimes. You were playing around.”
“The others do,” he said. “Not me.”
“You’re amazing, Kael,” I said, reaching up so I could run my fingers through his silky white hair. He stood too tall, so when I tiptoed to kiss him, I couldn’t reach. He figured out what I was doing, so he bent down and captured my mouth with his, feeding me his ocean-like taste. I reached my hands up and placed them on his hard stomach, tracing over where I thought the tattoos might be. A small sound escaped the back of his throat.
That was when Micah interrupted us. “We’re right here, you know?”
Kael parted from me, brushing the tip of his nose across mine right before he stepped away. Micah’s eyes flickered to dragon yellow for a second. He walked up toward us, grabbed my hand, and dragged me through the door to kiss me more fiercely and passionately than Kael had.
Micah was possessive. More so than the others. That was saying a lot, because as alpha hidraes, they all bore some level of possessiveness.
Every time Rylan, Gaius, or Kael kissed or touched me too long, Micah would step in to claim the same. He made me weak at the knees doing so, because I felt how much he truly wanted me. But sometimes how passionate he could be also scared me, because his behavior could be overwhelming.
His sweet scent never left him, and I let it surround and envelop me as I hummed into his lips. His hand slipped into the curve of my back and he pressed me deeper into his frame. My heart raced. I wrapped my hands around him.
“That’s enough,” Rylan said, dragging Micah away. A hint of sourness took his expression, and he dropped his gaze to my flushed face. My lips were likely swollen from how hard Micah had kissed me. My breathing was unsteady from the intensity of it. “The officials should be here soon. We shouldn’t be in the throes of lust before they arrive. Micah, control your dragon.”
Micah growled. His eyes had shifted into a full yellow. He moved away from me, his boots smacking on the wooden ground, and sat in the chair that was supposed to belong to the test subject. Propping his elbows on his knees, he bowed his head. “Why can’t we have her?” A husky quality had taken over his voice.
“You know why,” Rylan said.
“I don’t care for propriety. The court cares little for me.”
Rylan sighed. He folded his arms and leaned against one of the barren concrete walls. “You are part of the Everbornes, dear brother. And you will be judged like us.”
“A lesser version of an Everborne.”
I scooted over to Micah and bent down, tipping his chin so his blue eyes met mine. I forced a smile. “You are just as wonderful as your brothers. Never think for once that you are lesser. The councils are stupid and shallow and can kiss their own uptight asses, because I and your brothers will always be here for you.”
His expression remained serious for a moment, and I wondered if my words had gotten through to him. When the sides of his lips curved up, that made my smile genuine. “You’re right.” He cupped my face and brushed his lips over my temple, which made me quiver all over again.
I cleared my throat. Feeling curiosity rise, I turned to Rylan and asked, “But why?”
“Why what?” He raised an eyebrow.
I bit my inner cheek. “Why can’t you have me? Is it because you don’t want me?” I’d whined about it and acted out in frustration a couple times, but I’d never asked directly why, and they’d never bothered to explain.
Rylan’s brows crept further up his forehead. “I thought you knew.”
I shook my head.
“There is the matter of contraception.”
“There were spells for them ages ago.”
Gaius nodded. “Yes, but those belonged to the witches of the old, and the spell was lost in the first queen’s ban.”
Rylan continued, “Should a child be born without us having said the vows, the name of the Everbornes will be sullied, and Vancel will use that to spout more untruths and bring more harm. We can’t do anything until you are wed to one of us.”
“Wed?” My mouth gaped.
A force tugged at my shoulder, and I found myself pressed against Gaius’s hard body. He took my chin between his fingers and searched my eyes. “Are you growing impatient, Sera-kit?”
Was it obvious that I was salivating? “Wait… then…” I looked at Kael. “Have you… have you fathered—”
Kael raised his hands. “We used acecia berries with the other women, but I don’t think you want that experience.”
I’d heard of it. The woman had to take it before intercourse, but it made her sick the next week. It worked by wounding the subject’s womb, making her momentarily unable to bear children. After that, it took time for the womb to recover. The scholars still hadn’t figured out how it might affect women’s future ability to bear children. It was a common form of contraceptive because people didn’t have many other options.
“No.” I pursed my lips. “That doesn’t sound pleasant.”
Gaius smirked. “So, Sera, who would you prefer to wed?”
I couldn’t look at him, or any of them, for that matter. How could I decide? They were all equal states of charming. I could feel Gaius’s breath on my skin as he ran his lips over my neck—he used touch as a way to persuade me, and I had to admit, he was being incredibly persuasive.
“Can I have all of you?” I asked.
Rylan laughed, a low, mesmerizing sound. “That is not how our marriage system works. You can only have one partner.”
Kael said, deepening his voice, “Then it is time for the final competition—”
“Sera,” Rylan said, a hardness in his tone. “If you marry me, you will be crown princess. The future queen.”
Numbness traveled through me, and my mind fuzzed into blankness. I’d wanted to climb up the ladder… at least I had before. Surely being queen would trump whatever position the council could give me, especially since I stood no chance at being the head of the council anymore. What would my parents think? Could I prove them wrong with this? But wasn’t I supposed to get up through my own abilities?
Gaius continued to trail kisses up my neck and to my jaw. I wondered if he knew what his getting carried away was doing to my insides.
“I… I don’t know,” I said breathily. I gripped Gaius’s forearms, which were thicker and more muscular than the others’. “I’ll need to think about this.”
I spotted Micah over Gaius’s shoulder. A darkness took over his features. A growl ripped from him and he stood up.
“Micah?” I asked.
He stormed out the door. I pushed Gaius away. Had I hurt Micah’s feelings somehow? I gave chase, wanting to circle my arms around him and ask what was wrong, but the officials stood in the doorway with the test subject. Micah shoved past them, and they blocked my way, not letting me run after him.
“Sera Cadriel,” the official in front said. He was an armored male. Dark-skinned with a thick mouth. A subject from the Council of Fortitude. Tindyll, current head of the Council of Intelligence, stood next to him, wielding a clipboard for her notes.
“Apologies for being late.” The male official bowed to the princes. “Your Highnesses.”
Rylan gestured for them to enter, and so they did.
I looked at my latest victim, and my stomach dropped.