Senara jumped back and Eryl snatched at her arm, pulling her behind him. “What is this?” He continued looking around the room, trying to find the source of the voice.
The egg rocked again and the voice said, Hello.
It occurred to Senara that she wasn’t hearing the voice with her ears, but in her mind. She stared at the egg. “Dragon?”
Yes, the voice replied.
“But that’s–” Eryl glanced at Senara then back at the egg, lowering his sword. “How?”
“Hello,” Senara breathed, stepping around Eryl and kneeling in front of the egg again. She reached out to touch it, then pulled her hand back. “I’m sorry! Is this, is this all right?”
Yes. I like when you touch my shell, the dragon responded. It feels nice, and it strengthens our bond.
This is what lets me talk to you even though I am still shellbound. It is how young of my kind usually communicate with our mothers. They lay us on their own and stay with us until hatching so that the bond may form. But my mother is gone, and you two have cared for me, so my bond is with you both.
“Did you know about this?” Eryl asked, moving to kneel beside her. He also reached out to touch the egg.
Senara shook her head. “Nothing I’ve read suggested anything like this.”
I’m not surprised, the egg put in. Dragons don’t like to share things about ourselves with humans, usually. It gives your kind better chances at hunting us. The dragon sounded sad at this. Senara shared the feeling.
“Wait, how can you know that, though?” Eryl asked.
We hatch knowing everything our mothers knew, and their mothers before them, and so on.
Eryl blinked. “That’s a lot for a, uh, newborn to deal with.”
“It would be for humans,” Senara agreed, “although I suppose it explains why dragons are able to fly so young.”
That’s part of it, yes.
“Dragon, wait, no.” Senara frowned. “What should we call you?”
Dragon is fine. I have not chosen a name for myself yet. I want to wait until I hatch.
“And when do you think that’s gonna happen?” Eryl asked, leaning forward. “The hatching, I mean.”
I can wait a little longer, the dragon replied, but not as long as you need, I’m afraid. A week and a half, I think you would say. Two weeks at the most.
“I was afraid of that.” Senara glanced at Eryl. “You’ve got to take Dragon away from the palace as soon as you can.”
“Wait, no, your Highness.” He turned to the egg. “Dragon, you said you had an idea about that?”
I do. The dragon sounded pleased.
Senara had a quick vision of them preening inside their shell. She exchanged a glance with Eryl. He shrugged. “Will you please tell us, Dragon?” Senara prodded.
I confess I don’t understand much of your situation, aside from fear of my discovery if I hatch before the strangers leave, but Highness, it sounds like you have to leave here but don’t want to go where you’ve been sent?
“That’s…yes, that’s correct more or less, and please, call me Senara.”
Senara? Not Highness?
Eryl made a sound that Senara found suspiciously close to laughter. She pursed her lips but otherwise ignored him. “Your Highness is a form of address for me, like a title. Senara is my name.”
A title is something different from a name?
“It is a… description, based on our families or our occupations.”
Oh, I see. How delightfully complicated.
Eryl snorted, trying to smother another laugh. Senara couldn’t judge him this time. Even she found herself smiling a little.
After a moment the dragon asked, So, Eryl is a title too? Shall I call you that or something else?
“Eryl is my name. My title is Guard, but I would prefer you call me Eryl.”
Guard? Like a protector?
“Yes, exactly that.”
But why does Senara call you Eryl and not Guard? Or why do you call her Highness?
Eryl shot Senara a bemused look. She tilted her head, curious to hear how he would explain it to a creature that had no apparent concept of rank or station. He cleared his throat and tried, “As a guard, it is my job to protect her Highness. It is required of me to treat her with a certain level of respect, like addressing her as her Highness.”
But you are companions, are you not?
“Only very recently,” Senara answered, stepping in when Eryl looked too lost to answer, “because of you, in fact, Dragon.”
I see, the dragon answered, though Senara thought their voice still sounded confused. With a little hesitation, they pressed, But you were willing to travel together? With me? If there was a way?
“Of course,” Senara answered, surprised by how little she had to think about it.
Eryl looked at her in surprise, then nodded, then added for the dragon’s benefit, “Yes.”
Oh, good. The dragon sounded relieved. I would like both of you to come with me.
“Go with you where?” Senara wondered. “Surely the other dragons you find will not welcome us. Or do you only mean for us to take you close enough to them so you can fly there in safety?”
I cannot go to my mother’s flight, not bonded to humans, the dragon said, or at least, I would not want to, if you’re willing to come with me. But there is a place we could go where dragons and humans live together. It is an island, south of here, I believe, if I have my bearings correct–
“Wait, that’s real?” Senara stared at the egg. “I thought it was just a myth!”
“What’s a myth?” Eryl asked, looking between Senara and the egg.
I assure you, Senara, it is no myth. My memories hold clear references to the island. My kind call it Isola.
“I came across an account of it after we found the egg,” she explained to Eryl. “It was secondhand though, and dismissed it as a legend among the Duskers, given the history of dragons and most of the other islands.”
My southern kin are very territorial, the dragon said, sounding a little defensive, and many of them had their homes stolen by humans or their prey poached.
“You don’t owe me any explanations,” Senara told the dragon. “If we started trying to justify or apologize for all of the horrible things our kinds have done to one another, we’d be here until well after you hatch.”
A fair point. This is why I feel Isola is the best place for us, if the two of you are willing to remain with me.
“You really want us to stick with you?” Eryl seemed at once touched and baffled.
You saved my mother from being denied peace in her death. You have cared for me and kept me safe at great risk to yourselves. We are bonded. You are my family. Yes, if you will join me, I wish to remain with you.
“All right,” Eryl agreed. He laughed, a soft delighted sound that warmed Senara. “It’s not the future I imagined for myself, but it certainly sounds like an adventure worth having.” His face sobered and he glanced at Senara. “If her Highness agrees.”
“It sounds perfect,” Senara breathed, closing her eyes. “But you both forget, I cannot leave. If I go when you do, my father will look for me. His pride is too great to let me disappear, and,” she met Eryl’s eyes, “I suspect this treaty is more important than I’ve been told, for him to go to such lengths to secure it. He won’t risk losing it.” She drew in a deep breath. “And I won’t risk him getting his hands on the two of you. If we’re caught–“
We won’t leave at the same time, the dragon interrupted.
Eryl and Senara turned to the egg. “What do you mean?” Eryl asked, leaning forward.
Eryl, you should take me out of the palace, as Senara said. We will go south and wait for Senara to join us. Senara, you must wait and slip away later, so that no one connects your disappearance to Eryl leaving.
Senara swallowed. It sounded like she would have the hardest part of this plan by far. Eryl reached a hand to her shoulder. She suspected he was thinking the same thing. He sighed and looked at the egg. “I’m not sure I like leaving her on her own.”
“Dragon’s right,” Senara said, shaking her head, “I think it’s the safest option. With time, I can find a way to convince Hakon he doesn’t want the marriage, and maybe find a viable alternative to the marriage treaty. If it comes down to it, I may at least devise a clever enough escape plan that Father can’t follow me when I go. But Dragon doesn’t have that kind of time, and you’re the only one who can take the egg.”
“Are you sure about this?” He gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze.
“I am.” Privately, she considered that the actual worst case was that Eryl and the egg got away while she was forced to go through with the marriage knowing that they were safe. But knowing they were out there waiting for her would be excellent motivation to find a way out of this mess her parents had gotten her into. She could start at breakfast tomorrow by getting as much information from Mother as possible.
“Then we’re agreed,” Eryl said, laying one hand on the egg and holding the other out to Senara. She took it and and he gave it a firm shake, sealing the bargain. “Dragon, can you give me a day or two to make arrangements?”
I see no reason why not.
“Come along then, Eryl,” Senara gathered up her gown and rose to her feet. “I’ll get you the coin. No, no protests. You’ll need whatever you can get.”
“You might need some yourself, your Highness.”
“Well, I won’t give you all of it, then.” She huffed. Hand still on the dragon’s shell, she turned. “Dragon, I will try to see you before you go, but I may not be able to. In that case…”
In that case, Senara, farewell for now. I will see you again in the south.
“In the south,” Senara echoed with a sad smile. She hoped the dragon was right about that.
Two days later, Eryl and the dragon were gone. Eryl risked slipping into Senara’s rooms the night before he left to give her a map and arrange a place to meet. Senara traced a finger across the route she would take to get to the meeting spot, an old forester cabin near where Eryl grew up. It was a little farther west than their destination, but it was south, and that was a good start. “This might not work,” she reminded him. “If I can’t figure out a way to get the marriage called off–“
“You will,” Eryl insisted. “I know you want to come with us.” He shot her a shy smile. “You’re pretty good at getting what you want.”
“I think you must have been guarding a different princess,” Senara laughed. Turning serious again, she pressed, “I will do everything I can. But if I fail, you must take Dragon south without me.”
He didn’t look happy, but he nodded his agreement. “We’ll wait as long as we can.”
“The wedding is set for the full moon,” she glanced out the window, where she could see the smallest sliver of new moon. “If I’m not with you by then, I won’t be coming.”
“The full moon.” Eryl looked out the window and considered it, then nodded again. “All right. We’ll wait for two days after, just in case.”
“Good luck, Eryl,” Senara said, choking on the words. She cleared her throat and took a deep breath, then managed a smile for him. “Be safe, please?”
“Yes, your Highness.” He bowed and left.
Senara felt adrift without Eryl and the dragon in the palace, as if her whole routine had been overturned. It had, but not because of them. Even if she’d wanted to return to the solarium on her own, she wouldn’t have had the time. Once her mother explained the details of her match with Prince Hakon, Senara’s calendar was filled with new obligations. She was expected to entertain the members of Gram’s court that had traveled with him, both as hostess of guests in her home and to allow them time to become familiar with their future Princess Consort. Her mother planned countless activities for Senara to undertake with the visitors. There were tours of the palace grounds and of Sunpeak itself during the days. Nights were filled with concerts, recitals, and plays. Then there was Hakon himself. Gram only required him to attend about half of the negotiation meetings with her father. When Hakon wasn’t engaged in those, he wanted to be with Senara.
It might not have been so bad if he seemed interested in actually getting to know her. It soon became clear, however, that while he wanted her to know everything about him–his wants, his expectations, his preferences, and so on–he didn’t feel similarly obligated to find out the same about Senara. What Hakon seemed to want most of all was a wife he found attractive, who could entertain him and agree with everything he said. It was counterintuitive to everything Senara had ever been taught about her place in the world. The only benefit to this unbearable situation was that it further incentivized her to find a way out of the marriage. There would be no giving in to her fate. She’d never be able to live with herself.
Resolve or no, she still had to find time to figure out the solution. That meant going to the archives, which held absolutely no interest for Hakon at all. At least it meant that when she did find a few moments to sneak away, she didn’t have to worry about him bothering her research. A week after Eryl took the egg, she at last managed to eke a few hours to herself out of her packed schedule and headed to the archives without delay. Hakon might not know or care about the terms of the treaty, but Enyon did, and Senara had peppered him with questions over dinner while her intended was occupied speaking to their fathers. As she’d suspected, the marriage had been wholly her father’s idea, meant to ensure Sunpeak’s continued goodwill toward their northern neighbors. Astra was very much the party more in need between the two. A blight had struck the hearty crops that they grew, leading to a further reduction in game. They were in need of as much food as Sunpeak could spare. Senara hoped this meant Gram would still be willing to deal once the marriage was off. She just needed to find a way to do it without offending Hakon’s pride.
“Wes!” She stormed into the archives, ready to get to work. “I need copies of every treaty Sunpeak and Astra have ever made, and I want to review the Astrian customs again.” She caught her breath, realized he was staring in shock and softened her voice, adding, “Please.”
“Of course, your Highness.” Recovering himself, he stood and left his desk, moving to a shelf nearby. He must have moved everything to do with Astra so that it would be close at hand during the delegation’s visit. “Is there anything in particular I might help you find?” he called over his shoulder.
Senara started to tell him no, but her time was limited, and she wasn’t sure she’d get many other chances to come down here before the wedding. She gave Wes a hard look, considering. It made him pause in the act of setting down the texts. If she trusted anyone in this palace, it was Wes. Holding his gaze, she asked, “Are we alone?”
“Yes, your Highness.” He blinked, tilted his head, and then moved to shut the door. “There’s no one else here. How may I help?”
“I need to find a way to get out of this damned marriage.” She kept her voice low, mindful of the guard on the other side of the door, but her words were no less fervent. “There has to be something else we can offer them that Father’s willing to part with. Something that won’t make anyone lose face by changing the plan.”
“Gladly, your Highness,” Wes looked relieved as he finished setting the down the pile of codices. “But we have our work cut out for us. It is my understanding that your father is dead set on the match. Not to mention that imbe–” he cleared his throat and continued, “that Prince Hakon seems quite taken with you.”
“He thinks I’ll make pretty babies and he’ll enjoy listening to my flute,” Senara told him. “He doesn’t give a damn about me.”
“More the fool him. But still, I’m afraid that just offering new terms won’t solve anything, especially now that you’ve been taken out of the actual negotiations.”
“You’re probably right,” Senara agreed, clenching her fists in her skirt. She drew in a deep breath, checked that the door really was shut, and let it out. Stepping closer to Wes, she dropped her voice into a whisper. “Which is why I also need you to help me come up with a way to make everyone think I’m dead. Without me in the picture, they’ll have to reorient. I’ll make sure Enyon gets the new idea somehow, and he can save the whole deal.”
“That’s a drastic course of action, your Highness,” Wes said after a few long moments. “May I hope that you already know where you will go? You won’t be able to remain in Sunpeak.”
“I know,” she agreed. “I have somewhere in mind.” Wes looked like he wanted to ask where but thought better of it and nodded. “Will you help me, Wes?”
“Of course I will, your Highness. In any way I can.”
Relief flooded through her and she sank down on the sofa. “Good. Thank you. Now. Let’s begin.”