I sat in front of the mirror as Nell prepared me for the feast, my mind in another place.
It was in the forest, last night, to be exact.
One moment I was alone, and the next there was a Dragon staring at me. Excitement and fear had coursed through my veins. I watched him approach me, his elegant form dripping beauty and power.
Then, in a swirl of mist, it turned into the most beautiful man I had ever seen.
Swooping black hair, a devilish smile, and blue-green eyes that sparkled like stars in the night.
And he was naked.
I felt myself blush as I remembered his perfectly chiseled body, the sculpt of his abs as my eyes wandered down below his waist…
He knew my name, and he told me his.
I was brought back to the present as Nell worked the comb through a particularly stubborn knot in my hair. She had been my main attendant since we were girls, and knew my long locks better than anybody. In many ways, she knew me better than anybody.
“You really need to keep better care of yourself.” Nell frowned at me in the mirror. “You’re a princess, after all.”
“Mhm,” I mumbled noncommittally. I didn’t like the splendor of balls. The nobles, the aristocrats, all cloying and clamoring for attention. I’d take the solitude of nature over any feast. Especially the Full Moon Feast.
Especially because Mom and Dad were gone...
“So?” Nell asked me. Her tone changed, and I saw the conspiratorial smile on her face. She wiggled her eyebrows at me. “How far have you gotten with King Culling?”
“Nell!” I admonished her, feeling myself flush.
Jordan Culling was a visiting king from the nearby Kingdom of Marbledon. He was one of the many suitors that looked for my hand in marriage.
But unlike the others, he was…
“What?” she asked innocently. “He’s handsome, smart, and oh so charming. Not to mention the fact that he’s a king.” She sighed. “I wouldn’t blame you if you’ve been… ~naughty.~”
I laughed, shaking my head at her. “Even if you wouldn’t blame me, everyone else would. I’m expected to hold my virtue until I’m married, being a princess and all.”
“Ah, the trappings of royalty. If only you were a peasant girl like me, then you’d be free to fool around to your heart’s desire.”
“Oh, cut it out, will you?” I mock-glared at her. Still, I couldn’t say I’d never thought about it. Jordan Culling was very handsome, and the way he looked at me with those piercing eyes of his…
Dane’s face flashed into my mind, bathed in moonlight.
I blinked, shaking my head to clear my mind.
Why can’t I get him out of my head?
Nell finished with my hair, motioning for me to stand so she could smooth out the ruffles in my dress. I felt trapped in this thing, the waist hugging my skin way too tight for comfort.
“Ridiculous?” I finished.
“Beautiful,” Nell corrected, smiling. “King Culling won’t be able to take his eyes off of you.”
I rolled my eyes at her, but her words sent a thrill of excitement through me. I wondered what he’d think.
“Well, what are you waiting for, princess?” Nell asked, ushering me toward the door. “The Full Moon Feast awaits.”
I descended the grand castle staircase to find Culling waiting for me at the bottom. I stopped before him, his gaze leaving a trail of goosebumps along my skin.
“You look stunning.” He smiled at me as he offered his arm.
I took it, offering a smile of my own.
He was dressed in formal military attire, a stylish cape of midnight blue pinned by a laurel fashioned from gold to his shoulder. The Warrior King, Jordan Culling, who rides a Dragon into battle. His dark hair was slicked back, and there was a confident tilt to his broad shoulders.
“You look nice, too,” I said.
Understatement of the year.
He laughed, flashing me a row of perfect teeth.
“We’ll make quite the pair then, won’t we?” He led me toward the main courtyard where the feast would take place, underneath the light of the full moon.
Softly glowing lanterns bathed the space in a gentle light, the scent of rich food and pastries mingling in the air with the sounds of music and laughter.
It felt like all of Patter Kingdom was within these walls.
People from all walks of life mingled and laughed, from the simple, honest folk that worked in the fields to the highborn aristocracy of neighboring kingdoms. The Full Moon Feast was a celebration of life, of another cycle lived off the land stripped of things like rank or standing.
It had been Mom and Dad’s favorite festival.
My parents had been kind and gentle in their rule. The beloved king and queen of Patter. The ling who would toil alongside the farmers in the fields, the queen who was midwife to so many of the peasant folk.
Their boundless compassion was not limited to our borders, either. They often sent supplies and aid to neighboring cities. They never turned away desperate refugees from lands ravaged by war and famine.
The Full Moon Feast was the perfect representation of them.
But they had died in their sleep just last year.
The entire realm mourned for them. The populace cried of regicide, but we could find no evidence of foul play. Just a cruel twist of fate, bright souls lost far too soon.
And they were still so young…
This feast would be the first without its king and queen, and the people of Patter were determined to enjoy themselves in their honor.
I wasn’t as enthusiastic.
I looked down to find Maddie staring up at me, a smile on her face. She looked adorable in her white dress, a wreath of wildflowers in her hair.
“This party is so boring,” she said with a pout. “Will you take me to see the Dragons again?”
“Shh!” I panicked, looking around at the guards. None of them seemed to have heard. Culling, however, looked at me with an eyebrow raised. I leaned down so I was face to face with my little cousin.
“That was supposed to be a secret, remember?”
“I know, but I really want to see them again. We barely stayed last time!”
Culling leaned down next to me so he was face to face with Maddie as well. He was so close, and the smell of his cologne just made me want to lean in closer…
“How about if you behave, I’ll take you to see my Dragon later?” Culling asked her.
“You have a Dragon?” Maddie’s eyes shone.
“I do.” Culling nodded. “And if you’re extra good, I’ll even let you pet her.”
Maddie gasped, her hands covering her mouth.
“Oh, please, please, please!” She bounced up and down from excitement.
Culling laughed, placing a hand on her head. He shot her a wink.
“Well, run along now. I’ll come find you later.”
Maddie nodded enthusiastically, shooting me a final smile before making her way toward the dessert table.
I snuck a peek at Culling from the corner of my eye. He watched Maddie go, a small smile on his lips.
So, he’s good with kids too…
He turned his gaze toward me suddenly, and my heart skipped a beat. I looked away, but it was too late.
He definitely caught me.
He rose, offering me his hand and a brilliant smile.
I sighed, taking his hand.
Maybe festivals weren’t so bad after all.
So, she’d been sneaking into the Dragon pens. Another Dragon sympathizer.
I’d fix that.
Princess Summer was beautiful. Her long brown hair fell in waves over her shoulders, her bright, intelligent eyes shining with the glow of the lanterns. She was also fiercely independent with a sharp tongue accompanied by a quick wit.
I’d learned she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind, no matter the company or consequences.
But I could fix that too.
She’d be the bearer of my children soon, and she would need to be more docile.
I watched her as she frowned disapprovingly at her brother. King Ross sat at his table, a girl perched on each leg and a goblet clutched in each hand. He laughed boisterously, the women feeding him cheese and meats. He was still young, barely a man. Barely sixteen.
He could prove to be a useful ally.
Impressionable. Easy to manipulate.
“Mind yourself, Ross,” Summer hissed. “You’re our king. Act like it.”
“And as king...” Ross slurred, spilling some of his wine on one of the girls on his lap. She continued smiling, pretending not to notice. Poor thing. “I can do whatever I want.”
“If Mom and Dad could see you now…” Summer started.
“Let him enjoy himself a little,” I interrupted. “Being king is stressful, after all. What use is a feast if it can’t be enjoyed?”
Ross smiled at me, raising one of his goblets, spilling some wine yet again.
I smiled back.
“There’s no reason he can’t be a little more civil about it,” Summer murmured.
I watched George Wilkins approach us, suppressing a sigh. I leaned in to whisper into Summer’s ear, so only she could hear.
“Careful, princess. Another suitor approaches. Shall I fetch my Dragon so we can be whisked away?”
She laughed, and I felt her hand squeeze my arm.
“I’ll get back to you on that,” she whispered, her eyes twinkling with mischief.
She had a knack for trouble as well, clearly.
I’d fix that, too.
I plastered a smile on my face as my brother’s Master of Dragons approached me. George Wilkins was a horrid man. His brutish ways of breaking Dragons consisted of violence and starvation.
I remembered the black blood poolingon the floor in the Dragon pens, and bile rose in my throat.
Worse yet, the man seemed to fancy me.
“Princess Summer,” he bowed.
“How are you finding this year’s Full Moon Feast?” he asked.
He nodded, unperturbed by my curtness. We stood in silence for a while, the awkwardness sinking into my bones.
Take the hint.
I looked to Culling, and he seemed to be holding in a smile.
Help me,I implored with my eyes..
He shot me back a wink.
“So, tell me, George,” Culling began, “how goes the harnesses you’ve been developing?”
“Harnesses?” I frowned.
“Ah, yes, the harnesses.” George’s face lit up. I hated how this man could get so excited over the cruelty to other creatures. It made me sick. “I’ve made a breakthrough. They’re complete.”
“Oh? Tell me more,” Culling said. I looked at him, and he had an air of self-satisfaction to him.
What was he up to?
“Through my research, I’ve discovered that the Dragons have a certain spot in their wings that is incrediblyreceptive to pain. By attaching the spike of the harnesses to that spot, a rider can control it effortlessly. Just a slight tug can bring even the mightiest of Dragons to heel.”
“Research?” I spluttered. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “You mean torture. How could you do that to the Dragons?”
“They’re animals, princess.” George looked at me like I was the crazy one. “Think of them as beasts of burden. Like an ox. Or a horse.”
“You wouldn’t be this cruel to a horse,” I thundered.
“That’s because horses are docile,” Wilkins said. “That’s because horses aren’t capable of cutting an armored man in half or melting castle walls. We can only afford to be… kind... to them once they are tamed.”
“Dragon’s don’t need to be tamed.” I stepped away from Culling so I was face to face with Wilkins. I felt my hands ball up into fists. “Dragons need to be respected. They need to be befriended, not locked up and abused for our convenience.”
“Oh, princess.” Wilkins chuckled. “I don’t expect you to understand. You’re only a woman, after all. Leave these things to the—”
He never got to finish his sentence.
My hand flew across his face, the sound of the slap echoing in the night air.
Everyone nearby stopped to look. Wilkins stared at me, too shocked to be angry. At least for now.
I fumed silently, my hand stinging from the slap.
How dare he?
From the corner of my eyes, I saw guards begin to hover closer, ready to put down a ruckus. Ross guffawed, nearly choking on a block of cheese, which he washed down with a goblet of wine.
Culling’s face was impassive, unreadable.
And I saw another man that stood out from the rest of the crowd.
He was dressed in simple, but elegant silks, black as pitch. He was tall and handsome with swooping black hair, a devilish smile, and blue-green eyes that sparkled like the stars in the night.
And he was staring right at me.
I froze, my heart trying to claw its way out from my throat.
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