Dristan stared down at me with furrowed brows, his mouth a grim line, as the knock as the door sounded again. He seemed to be made of stone as we held each other in a panicked gaze.
“Go to the balcony. Stay out of sight.” He murmured hurriedly.
Before he let me up, he snapped his fingers. I felt a strange, quick breeze of cold air run over every surface of my skin, even through my clothing. It only lasted a split second and then the phantom wind was gone.
“What was that?” I whispered as he stood to his feet and adjusted the stiff bulge, still quite noticeable through his pants. I tried not to lick my lips as I watched.
“I masked your scent and removed it from my body. Now, go!” He hissed, motioning toward the open balcony doors.
I hastily stood to my feet and scurried toward the balcony, throwing a few glances at him over my shoulder as he walked toward the front door. Not watching where I was going, I stumbled into the small table near the balcony entryway, knocking a vase to the floor. It shattered noisily and I cringed as I turned my head toward Dristan.
He glared at me, clearly losing his patience.
“Sorry...” I mouthed at him, shrinking as his face darkened further.
“GO.” He mouthed back slowly, making me feel like a child.
I slid through the doors and snuck toward the far left corner of the patio, pressing my back tightly against the stone wall. I slid down the cold surface and came to a sitting position, hugging my knees against my heaving chest.
My heart was still racing, my body still singing from what he’d done to it only moments ago.
I heard Dristan fidgeting with the several locks on his door before hesitantly opening it. I held my hands over my mouth and nose to keep the sound of my accelerated breathing under control.
“Dristan, what the hell took you so long? And what in gods name happened to your rooms? Are you alright?” Warrick’s familiar voice almost made me sigh in relief. Better it be him than Ronan or Andromeda.
“Damnit, Rick, can I not have one day to myself? I told you my dragon has been agitated lately. I’m perfectly fine.” Dristan growled.
“I know, I’m sorry friend, but this is important. Ronan has called for an emergency council meeting regarding Princess Brenya. The meeting will adjourn in one hour. I went to the Princess’s rooms to inform her, but she is not there. Andromeda said she might be in the Library, but I already looked. She’s missing.”
There was a long beat of silence before Dristan let out a long sigh. “I see. She can be quite taxing for a little thing, can she not?” Warrick chuckled before Dristan continued. “Let me get cleaned up and I will come help you find her. I’ll meet you near the library in twenty minutes.”
“Of course.” Warrick murmured.
I heard the front door begin to close, but before Dristan could shut it, Warrick spoke again.
There was a moment of hesitation. “What?”
“Are you sure you’re okay? I’m worried about you.”
“I told you, I’m fine. I just need time to adjust to being back at the Aviary, that’s all.” Dristan sighed.
“You know you can talk to me, right?”
“Don’t be such a female. ” Dristan grumbled. “Now, go away. I’ll see you in a while.”
Warrick laughed. “Fine, fine... See you soon.”
The door shut, but I did not move, too afraid that he might come back. After a few moments, Dristan emerged onto the balcony. He peered down at me, his eyes anxious, but soft.
“You can get up, now.” He said softly.
I hesitated, my eyes switching from him, to the door, and back again.
“It’s okay...” He said, extending a hand toward me.
I took his hand and he pulled me to my feet before tugging me forward, against his bare chest. He wrapped his arms around me and I breathed in his comforting scent, nuzzling my cheek against his warmth. He buried his face in my hair and inhaled deeply, his arms tightening around me.
“I wish we could just stay here, in this moment, forever.” I whispered. “I wish it didn’t have to end.”
His arms uncurled from me and he lifted his hands, cupping my face gently. He tilted my face upward and met my gaze with his deep, ocean eyes. They were filled with the strangest mixture of sadness and happiness, two parallels, somehow forged into one, as he studied my face.
“I know... ” He breathed as his eyes shifted back and fourth between my own. “I want you to know that I would rather spend one moment with you... One fleeting, perfect, moment...Then go on on living the rest of my existence without it.”
A tender brush of his thumb wiped away the tear that had escaped my eye as I smiled at him.
“I know... Me, too.” My words were hardly a whisper. “But I’m too selfish for that. I can’t let it be just one moment, Dristan. Even if I’m forced to marry Ronan, I will never stop wanting you.”
“I’m not going to let that happen. You won’t marry him. We’ll find another way.” He kissed my lips softly before pulling away again. “And I told you before, I won’t apologizing for being with you this way. I will only apologize that I can’t give you more. As long as you want me, Brenya, I will give you everything that I can.”
Another tear rolled down my cheek, which he caught with nimble fingers. “Even if it’s only stolen moments that end in tears?”
He gave me a sad smile. “Even then.” He promised, pulling me closer to him.
I don’t know how long we stood there, lost in each other’s essence, both not wanting to let go of the other. But as reality slowly came trickling back into my consciousness, I knew our fleeting moment together was coming to its inevitable end.
“Come, now... We must get you to your rooms.” He said, releasing my face and stepping away from me. I tried not to frown at the disappearance of his warmth.
“What if someone see’s us?” I asked, anxiety welling up inside of my gut.
He took another step away from me, toward the stone railing, as his body began to subtly glow with soft, golden light. I watched, in awe, as his wings sprouted from his back and stretched out to his sides, flexing and flaring, before they pulled back in tightly against his body. Black horns rose from his skull, twisting backward into long spikes, before the glowing subsided.
As the light disappeared, he stepped closer to me again, his now slitted eyes staring into mine. He turned away from me, showing me his back, and glanced at me over his shoulder.
“Get on.” He ordered, gesturing at me with his hand.
I grimaced. “Not this again...”
He smirked. “You’re not afraid, are you?”
My grimace faded, a scowl taking its place. “No...”
His smirk remained in place as he watched me slowly approach him. I reached up, wrapping my arms around his shoulders, and placed my torso between his massive, membranous wings. I wrapped my legs around his waist in a vice like grip, trying to get my thundering heart under control as I readied myself for the flight.
After Dristan had flown me to the balcony of my own room, he’d instructed me to say that I’d gone to explore the Aviary, which was why Warrick couldn’t find me before. He also told me to take a shower and make sure I changed clothes in order to rid myself of any remaining trace of his scent. I’d quickly obeyed after he left, and I’d just pulled on a fresh, black dress when I heard a knock at my front door.
I checked myself in the mirror, adjusting the messy bun I’d thrown my damp hair into, and applied a bit of mascara to my still puffy eyes, before making my way to the door.
Dristan and Warrick were waiting for me on the other side, both looking quite stern and soldierly. Dristan had showered, his tousled hair still damp. He’d changed into his fighting leathers, which matched Warrick’s aside from the different assortments of weapons each of them carried at their backs and hips.
“Oh, hello.” I said, plastering a fake, surprised smile on my face. “What’s going on?”
Warrick cleared his throat, leaning to the side, his serious eyes sweeping over every inch of the room behind me.
“We’ve been looking for you, Princess Brenya. You were not in your rooms.” He said, his eyes sliding back to mine. Dristan was silent behind him, his piercing eyes glued to me. His hands were folded behind his back, his stance every bit of what a High Lord’s should be.
“O-oh, I’m so sorry... I got bored... I was out exploring the Aviary. I went to the library for awhile and then started wandering around and I sort of... Got lost...” I stuttered the staged explanation, trying my best to summon my acting skills.
I realized that Dristan’s acting skills were much better than mine as he suddenly growled. “You are not to wander the grounds without an escort again. It is dangerous. The next time you get bored, you are to call upon one of us to go with you.” His tone was laced with stern disapproval.
I lowered my eyes in fake submission. “Yes... I am sorry.”
“High Lady... Ronan Regulus has called for a council meeting. It will begin in half an hour. We have come to collect you.” Warrick explained.
“Of course...” I said, straightening my spine. “Lead the way.”
The council room was made of stone and the dark rock of the volcano’s walls. A long, decorative rug covered the floor. The only light in the dim room was cast from a single, candle lit chandelier, which hung from the center of the room’s ceiling, directly over a long, wooden table. There were several, ornately designed chairs surrounding the table, each occupied by familiar faces.
A fireplace crackled and popped in front of the table, the only sound among the group as they all sat quietly, waiting.
Dristan crossed the room and sat himself at the head of the table. Warrick followed and sat down to his right. Torryn sat to Dristan’s left, next to Ronan, and Andromeda sat beside Warrick. There was only one chair left for me, at the other end of the table, directly opposite of Dristan.
I stood awkwardly for a moment, as they all turned their heads toward me, before I finally crossed the room, my heels clicking against the marble floor, and sat down. I folded my hands on the table in front of me.
My nerves were shot, my stomach a tangled mess of anxiety, but I pulled on an expertly crafted mask of indifference as I met each of the council members eyes in turn.
Andromeda gave me her usual tight lipped smile, which I returned briefly while simultaneously envisioning what she’d look like if I knocked all of her teeth out.
Warrick gave me his usual, playful smile, the corners of his eyes crinkling slightly as he did. I smiled warmly back at him before shifting my eyes toward Torryn. He nodded at me once, his face as hard and unreadable as stone.
I glanced at Dristan next, who was gazing at me with a calm, unreadable expression. He was casually leaned back in his chair, his head tilted to the side, the perfect picture of relaxed.
How does he do that...
When my eyes fell upon Ronan, he flashed me a brilliant, white smile. I gave him a brief, embarrassed smile before immediately lowering my gaze, trying desperately to suppress the sudden wave of guilt I felt. When I peeked back up at him, I found him frowning slightly.
I stared at the intricate swirls of the wooden table, focused on thoughts of my father, hoping that the thought of his well being would keep my emotions stable and unreadable.
“Welcome to the High Council, Princess Brenya. What’s left of it, at least.” Ronan said, pulling my attention back to him. “There used to be a great deal more of us, but unfortunately, we are all that remains.” He cleared his throat before continuing. “Council meetings used to be led by your father, where we come from, as well as many other High Lord and Ladies of our kind.”
“Is this a council meeting, or a history lesson?” Dristan growled, eyeing Ronan with distaste.
“They also used to be much more dignified, led by a much more.... professional... sort of group.” He replied, still smiling at me and not bothering to look at Dristan. “I find it unfortunate that your first Council meeting must be under such... nontraditional... circumstances.”
Tension filled the room as Warrick and Torryn let out soft growls of warning. Dristan remained perfectly calm, the corner of his lip pulling up into a lopsided grin. My eyes flicked between the two of them.
“I don’t find it unfortunate at all.” I said, my brows raising. Ronan’s smile fell a fraction. “In fact, I see it as the beginning of a brand new era... A better era.”
My eyes slid to Dristan’s and his eyes flashed with surprised delight beneath the dim lighting as he grinned at me.
“A unified era.” I finished, reciting the words he’d once used.
“Well said, Princess Brenya.” Warrick said, flashing me his easy smile. I beamed back at him as the others, aside from Ronan, murmured in agreement.
“So... What is the purpose of this meeting, Ronan?” Warrick asked, leaning forward.
Ronan hesitantly tore his displeased eyes away from me, turning toward Dristan’s first in command. “As you may already know, a word rune has been discovered on Brenya’s leg.”
Everyone’s eyes turned toward me, some looking confused, others seeming to already know this information.
“What is it?” Warricked asked warily.
“It’s a rare rune, one I’ve never personally seen before. It spells the word ‘human’. Her parent’s must have branded her with it as a baby in order to keep her hidden among the humans.”
“Are you able to remove it?” Dristan asked, his fingers drumming slowly on the table top as he stared at the side of Ronan’s face.
“I have been working all evening to find the ritual needed to relieve her of it, but I must warn all of you now... Removing runes from someone’s body is an extremely painful process, and something that has only been done a handful of times in the past. The fact that Brenya has mixed bloodlines, both of very powerful origins, makes it impossible to know how she will respond to the process of removal. I do not know how her body, or her powers, will react once they are released from their suppression.”
Andromeda turned to look at me, sympathy shining behind her amber eyes. Torryn did not react, his stony gazed fixed on Dristan. Warrick leaned back in his chair, his thick brows furrowed together.
“What does this ritual entail?” Dristan asked, his serious eyes still fixed on Ronan.
Ronan pursed his lips. “The ritual, in itself, is not all that complicated. The issue is getting the ingredients needed to preform it.”
“What ingredients?” I chimed in, my eyes narrowing in wary interest.
Ronan’s eyes slid to mine, his face grim. “I will need a sample of each of your parent’s DNA. The ritual requires the essence of those who created the rune to begin with... I will also need to take some of your blood and combine it with a sample of my own. A merging of the subject’s life force, along with the spell castor’s, is needed to complete the process.”
I gaped at him, at a loss for words.
“How are we supposed to get DNA samples from my dead parents?” I asked, my eyes sweeping over the group of council members. They all gazed at me with pity, their eyes shifting between each other in uncertainty.
No one spoke for a long moment. They weren’t telling me something...
“What?” I said, my voice rising a bit.
“Princess...” Ronan said softly. My eyes snapped to his. “Your parents are buried in the royal tomb, back in our home lands. We can get the samples, but it will require us to defile their tomb... This is highly frowned upon, and the only reason I have even considered it as an option is because I know that they knew this might happen one day. I’m sure they wished for it to be under different circumstances, in a reality where they were still alive. However, I do believe that if they knew that they would be gone, and our only option was to disturb their grave, they would not object to it.”
My throat bobbed as I held his gaze. This was not what I was expecting. I hadn’t even been aware that they had been buried. I assumed that their bodies had been lost after the battle where they’d lost their lives..
The thought of disturbing them made me physically ill for a moment, and I had to cover my mouth with my hand. I closed my eyes as the shock passed over me, my eyes burning with un-shed tears.
No one spoke as I digested this information.
I regained my composure after a few minutes, and placed my elbows on the table, rubbing at my temples with my fingers. “You’re sure this is the only way?”
Ronan’s lips pressed together as he gave me a nod.
I sighed, smoothing my hair with my hands. I straighten in my chair. “Then that is what we will do.”
“You’re sure you are okay with this?” Dristan asked, his voice soft. I slid my eyes to his, my resolve solidifying as i gazed at him.
“I’m sure. But I have a condition.” I said. I slid my eyes back to Ronan’s. “I don’t want to be the one to do it... I don’t think I could handle that... I don’t want this to be the reason for the first time that I visit them...” I trailed off, my voice breaking and betraying me.
“I will go.” Andromeda suddenly said. I looked at her in shock and confusion. “I will get the samples, Brenya.”
I blinked at her, my eyes blurry with moisture. “You’d do this for me?”
She smiled and reached across the table, placing her hand on top of my own. I held my breath as she stared into my eyes. “That’s what friends do, right?”
I tore my eyes away from her, blinking at the table top in front of me as tears sprung to my eyes. The salty drops of water fell onto the wood as different emotions battled inside of my skull.
I hated this woman. I fucking hated her... Why did she have to be so kind to me? It confused my emotions and I hated that even more than I did her...
The guilt that spread throughout my body nearly knocked the wind out of me as I looked up at her again. I felt like the worst person on the planet.
“Right.” I whispered, trying to force a smile. “Thank you...”
She squeezed my hand gently. “Of course.”
She let go and I sighed deeply, wiping the tears form beneath my eyes as I tried to compose myself. I glanced at Dristan briefly and found him watching me with a subtle sadness in his eyes. What was he thinking right now? Did he see how guilty I was feeling in this moment? Did he feel it, too?
He gave me a brief smile, though it didn’t touch his eyes, and I knew that the answer was yes. It made me feel a little bit better, knowing that I wasn’t alone in my guilt.
“How soon are you willing to leave, Andromeda?” Ronan asked with furrowed brows.
“Immediately.” She responded without hesitation.
“I will join you. You should not travel alone in times like these. You’ll need back up.” Torryn said suddenly, surprising me. It was the most I’d ever heard him say at one time.
“That would be wise.” Ronan said, nodding his head. “I’ll give you both a camouflage rune so you won’t be spotted in the skies. We must be subtle about this.”
Everyone muttered in agreement.
“I have another condition.” I chimed in, silencing their soft chattering. Their heads turned towards me as I straightened in my chair.
“I want the ritual to be done in front of the entire Aviary.” I said, lifting my chin.
No one said a word as they all stared at me. I didn’t back down. I met each of their bewildered stares with my own, unwavering gaze.
“Brenya, that is not a good idea. You will be in extreme pain.” Dristan said, leaning forward, his brows furrowed tightly.
“I know that.” I said, not backing down. “Which is exactly why I want to do it. I want the people to see what I am willing to do to become who they need me to be. I want them to see what I am willing to do in order to take the next step in becoming their leader.”
“Princess, that is very noble of you, but we do not know how your body will react to the surge of power that is going to come over you.” Ronan said in concern.
I turned my gaze to him, my chin lifting higher. “I will be able to sustain it. I know I will... I want them to see it. I want them to feel the hope and the promise for a better future when I become who I was meant to be. I want them to experience it with me.”
Everyone stared at me, gaping.
“I do not think it’s wise.” Ronan said, shaking his head.
“I think it’s a great idea.” Warrick disagreed, smiling at me.
“I’m with Ronan.” Dristan growled, his eyes a stormy sea as he glared at me.
I glared right back at him. “Then we will vote.”
I studied each of them in turn.
“Those in favor of a public ritual, raise your hands.” I said, raising my own hand.
Warrick, Torryn and Andromeda all rose their hands with me.
I slowly lowered my own hand as I continued to stare defiantly at Dristan. His gaze darkened.
“It’s decided. Four to two.” I said sweetly.
Dristan growled softly as he stared into my eyes.
“Fine, but I warn you... This pain will be unlike anything you have ever felt.” Ronan said with an edge in his tone.
“I understand.” I said, tearing my eyes from the furious Dragon Lord, my eyes settling on Ronan. “Thank you, Ronan, for all of your help.”
“It’s my pleasure, Princess.” He said, bowing his head.
I turned to Andromeda. “How soon can you return?” I asked.
“It will take a full day to get there, and a full day to return.” She said, nodding.
“Alright then, it’s settled. In two days time, we will hold a public rune removal ritual.” I said
“We will prepare to depart.” Torryn said, standing to his feet, his eyes glued to Andromeda.
She nodded and stood to her feet as well. “I’ll meet you at the landing pad in twenty minutes. Ronan, meet us there with the camouflage runes.”
“Wonderful. Meeting adjourned.” Ronan said, clapping his hands once and rubbing them together.
I stood, stepping into Andi and Torryn’s path before they could leave the room.
“Thank you for doing this. I can’t tell you how much it means to me...” I said, my eyes alternating between the two of them.
Torryn gave me a tight smile and bowed his head. “My duty lies with you, Princess.” He said. I smiled at him as he lifted his head.
I turned my eyes to Andromeda.
She surprised me by pulling me into a tight hug. “You are welcome, my friend.” She whispered, planting a swift kiss on my cheek before pulling away.
My cheeks heated and I moved out of their way, letting them pass.
Warrick approached me, his deep, purple wings towering above his horned head.
“I was very impressed by you.” He said, smiling down at me. “You will make a fine Queen, one day.”
I returned his infectious smile, unable to resist. “Thank you, Warrick. That means a great deal, coming from you.”
He nodded before taking my hand and kissing the back of it as he’d done when we first met. I blushed as he released my hand and bowed. “Good day, Princess. If you wish to wander the grounds again, I will gladly escort you. You will usually find me here, or in the training rooms.”
“Training rooms?” I repeated, my brows furrowing.
“Yes. I can show them to you, if you like.” He offered.
“I’d like that. Can we go, tomorrow?”
He smiled and gave me a curt nod. “Of course. I will come to your rooms first thing in the morning.”
“Perfect. Thank you.” I said, giving him a small smile.
I side stepped so that he could pass as he left the room.
Dristan approached me next, his face still stormy and serious.
“What are you doing?” He demanded.
I squared my shoulders. “I’m doing what I believe is right.”
He huffed a breath of impatience. “You’re going to be in unimaginable pain in front of all of those people, Brenya. I know you think it’s right for them, but... Do you really think it’s right for you?”
“Yes. I do.” I answered without missing beat.
His face softened as he gazed down at me. “Fine. If this is truly what you want to do, I cannot stop you.”
“You’re damn right.” I grumbled.
He smirked, his eyes softening. “You did very well today. I’m proud of you.”
I felt a smile creeping across my lips as I stared up into his cobalt depths. “Thank you, Lord Dristan.”
His smile grew. “I will see you later?”
“Perhaps.” I grinned.
He stepped around me, his hand lightly and stealthily brushing against mine, as he left the room.
The smile was still plastered across my face as I turned and found Ronan walking toward me. My smile instantly felt forced as he came to a stop in front of me.
“That was impressive, Princess. I think I may have underestimated you.” He said, tilting his head.
“I think you’re right.” I said, studying his ice blue orbs.
I turned to leave the room and he followed. I rolled my eyes, knowing he couldn’t see my face. He closed the door to the Council room as I began walking down the hallway, toward my rooms.
“Wait...” He breathed, suddenly stepping around me, blocking my path.
I flicked my eyes over his shoulder and noticed Dristan lingering near the end of the hall, his eyes glued to Ronan’s back.
“I wanted to give you something...” He said, pulling something from his back pocket.
I eyed him speculatively. “What?”
“Here...” He said, taking my hand and placing something small and round in my palm.
I lifted my hand and studied the object, confused as to what it was.
It was a necklace of some sort. The chain was of thin, braided leather. A round, simple black stone hung from it. I flicked my eyes back to his, my brows raised slightly.
“Oh. Thank you...” I said hesitantly.
He grinned. “Turn it over.”
I flipped the stone in my hand and realized there was a rune carved into the surface. I ran my thumb over the indention, perplexed.
“A rune?” I whispered, my eyes lifting back to his.
He nodded. “It means ‘emotionless’.... When you wear this necklace, no one will be able to scent your emotions. I thought it might be helpful, since you have such unusually loud emotional responses.”
I stared at him, my lips parting slightly. I clutched the necklace tighter in my hand, a feeling of surprise and gratitude washing over me in an unexpected wave.
He studied my expression, holding his breath. He let out a puff of disappointment. “You hate it...” He said, his eyes lowering, embarrassment flashing across his features.
“No!” I gasped, raising the necklace and holding it to my chest. “No, it’s perfect!”
He raised his eyes back to mine, relief and pleasure shining in his pale blue depths.
I smiled. “Can’t you smell my gratitude?”
He smirked. “Now that you mention it, yes, I can.”
I slipped the necklace over my head and held my hands out to my sides theatrically. “And now?”
His grin widened. “Nothing.”
I laughed, throwing my head back, elated at the relief I felt. Now I wouldn’t have to constantly struggle to hide my every emotion. He didn’t realize what a weight this lifted off of my chest.
He laughed along with me, his face younger somehow, as he did.
“I am glad you approve.” He said, bowing deeply in front of me.
I watched him in amusement, before my eyes flicked over his shoulder once more and landed on Dristan.
He stood with his right side facing me, his lips a thin line, and his eyes, two flaming pits of furious night. My smile faltered as I gazed at him.
Ronan rose, his smile still wide across his face, and I met his eyes once more, trying to pull the smile back to my own lips.
I watched out of my peripheral vision as Dristan disappeared around the corner. My heart sank.
“May I take you to dinner tomorrow night?” Ronan asked suddenly. I froze.
My throat bobbed. “Uhm...”
“Brenya... Please. Give me a chance...” He said, his silvery eyes alternating between my own.
I bit my lower lip in contemplation.
“... Alright. I needed to talk to you about something, anyway.” I breathed.
His face lit up. “Great. I’ll come to your rooms tomorrow night, then.”
I nodded, a small smile gracing my lips. “Tomorrow, then.”
He gave me one last smile before he turned and disappeared down the hallway.
When he was out of sight, I let out a small groan and buried my face in my hands. The image of the anger and pain on Dristan’s face as he’d been watching us felt like a direct blow to my gut.
But I had to stay in Ronan’s good graces. If I wanted any hope at all of getting him to make the locator rune, I had to play the part, no matter how much it killed me to do so.
Dristan told me we’d find another way to expose Andromeda, but I knew better. This was the only way... And I knew that he knew it, too. He was just to selfless to admit it.
I wouldn’t let Dristan end up with her.
Even if it meant promising myself to someone I knew I could never love...