I was in my own world again, with the sun on my face and the wind in my hair. We trekked down the mountain, with Gaermon castle frequently visible in the distance at first. As we descended, trees blocked the view. Soon, I would see my home again.
But I also had to admit, it didn’t feel like my home in the same way it used to. My brother had taken residence at Capamere Palace, appointing a lord to rule over Gaermon in his stead. I was adapting to my life underground. The crystalline caverns of the dragon kingdom had their own beauty.
It was bittersweet to be here without two of my mates. Oszin, my head guard and oldest friend, and King Seron, my sweet strong Seron, were both in the hands of the enemy.
I felt like I was missing a piece of my own self, but I refused to succumb to sadness. We had a fight ahead. Besides that, Aurekdel and Ezeru would only have one “first time” to see my world of the sky.
And I had a wonderful secret to tell them.
“Thank goodness this is all downhill,” I said. We didn’t have any horses to make the journey easier. I had Aurek’s arm. He was probably having the hardest time with the path. His blindness wasn’t too much of a problem back home. He was so familiar with all the places where we lived our daily lives, and often didn’t even need a cane. I knew he didn’t have too much experience navigating unfamiliar, rocky, uneven terrain.
Aurek wasn’t one to complain, though. “This is probably good for me,” he said. “I’ve been soft and this might be the battle of our lives.”
“Still, you and I aren’t actually going to be in the thick of battle,” I said.
“You’re not planning on it, are you?”
“All I know is, I’m getting Seron back.”
Ezeru was quiet, taking it all in. He had a couple of his favorite rock dragons with him, while the rest were in a herd behind us. Aknu kept verging off the path to sniff things. Nuru scurried off the path and came back with a huge rabbit in her mouth.
“We cook now?” she asked.
“No, no, we have to wait until we make camp,” Ezeru said. “Don’t kill any more of those, all right?”
“Long eared tunnel weasel,” Aknu said, poking the rabbit corpse.
I was laughing. “It’s a rabbit.” I called my cat Kajira to my side, as she was flying around overhead. “Don’t you get any ideas, okay?”
A stream ran down from the rocks and met the road. Everyone stopped to rest, eat rations—no time to grill rabbits—and fill their water skins with cool, clear water from the mountains. The rock dragon children were splashing around in it. They were the only children on the journey, because all the rock dragons followed Ezeru everywhere. I found a clean patch of grass to sit with Aurek and Ezeru in the shade.
Aknu found some nuts in the grass. “Can we eat?”
“Yes,” I said. “I don’t know if they taste good raw, but—well, okay, you’re already eating them.”
Aknu handed one to Aurek. “Can blind king see nuts?”
Aurek flushed a little. The rock dragons had been mocking him for his entire life. The Traitor King called Aurek a weak, blind king and when they were under his rule all the rock dragons spread the message, so whenever they saw high dragons, they started jeering about Aurek.
“I’ve been trying to, um, change the message,” Ezeru said. “Seems to be working.”
“They idolize you,” Aurekdel said.
“I can’t help it.”
“Don’t help it. Embrace it. What about these two? They’re really getting attached to you,” Aurek said, sniffing the nut. Then he popped it in his mouth. “Not bad.”
“Ack! You would say that. You and your terrible food. Isn’t it too crunchy?”
“My teeth must be stronger than yours, my gem. It has a nice buttery flavor.”
“We soak them to make milk,” I said. “And then grind them to add to pastry. But I’d never eat one straight.”
“Aknu is special,” Ezeru said. “He also has the blood of King Orvenu.”
“So, do you think those two are becoming mates?” Aurek asked. Aknu and Nuru were foraging for more nuts together, making a pile.
“Maybe so,” Ezeru said, watching them more carefully. Nuru walked past Aknu, giving her tail a little swish. Ezeru’s eyes widened and he turned back to his ration. “Yes, maybe so.”
I nudged him. “Is that a sexy move?”
He coughed. “Well, it’s—my tastes run more to human form.”
“Yeah, okay.” I smirked. “It must be strange to have two forms and be attracted to dragon women who also have different forms. Do you ever see a dragon girl in human form and think she’s cute and then you see her dragon form and it’s like, ugh? Or vice versa?”
“I know that happened to Seron once,” Aurek said. “Of course, he always pretended he had no interest in women, but I could always tell just by the way he told the story. He met this woman on the battlefield…an ice dragon from Ikra, and they were fighting together and she was a gorgeous dragon. As a woman, she didn’t look anything like her dragon side. He kept telling me how strange it was.”
“It is strange,” Ezeru said. “Usually everyone looks exactly like you would expect.”
“How can you tell?”
“Well…hmm. I guess it’s personality. If you put Dvaro’s personality in Aurekdel’s body, he wouldn’t look like Aurek anymore.”
“That’s nice to know,” Aurek said. “I’ve been under the impression that sighted people are easier to trick. Voices don’t lie. I knew it…about those damn mist dragons.”
“Mist dragons can do terrible things,” Ezeru said. “It doesn’t matter if you can see or not. I think Izeria is…pretty exceptional, at finding mist and blending them. A sorceress. No one really talks about just how talented she is.”
“How reassuring. Our poor enemy doesn’t get the credit she deserves.” Aurek glowered.
“Well…I just think you shouldn’t blame yourself for what happened,” Ezeru said. “I’ve seen what she can do. She can make people forget everything, or make them feel rage, and even hate the people they love most. I once saw Dvaro capture a husband and wife and instead of executing them, Izeria made them kill each other over an argument they’d had. She can do all that stuff because she’s better at using different mists than anyone else.”
“Enough,” Aurek said. His mood had turned, and he stood up and picked up his water skin and his cane.
“Do you need help?”
I frowned. Poor Aurek…he misses Seron as much as I do.
And he hadn’t really known, about the mist dragons. He was more suspicious than anyone else, but he hadn’t been sure if it was justified. Now he blamed himself for losing Seron, and I knew he wouldn’t quite be himself until we got Seron back. I felt the same way about Oszin. Had I driven him away? He said he had to prove himself. How could I have stopped him?
Ezeru was looking at me with those intense eyes of his. Generally, even after we had been together and I had acknowledged him as my fourth mate, he held back. But I had sensed things were changing. Maybe being alone with me emboldened him, because now he put a hand on my hair and sort of petted me. His touch was reassuring and strong. He filled a little of the void Seron left behind. I knew Ezeru could protect me against anything, just as Seron could.
“This is a strange and beautiful place,” he said.
“I feel the same way about the dragon world,” I said.
He pressed his lips to mine, and claimed a deep, delicious kiss that seemed to wipe away all my fears.
“My tastes do run to human form,” he said. The breeze stirred his dark hair.
“Good,” I said. “Mine too.”