My head rose and fell with the rhythm of Dristan’s breathing as it rested atop his bare chest. Calm, quiet, comfortable silence surrounded us as we basked in the golden afterglow of our lovemaking. I smiled softly as I listened to the strong beating of his heart beneath my ear.
Every now and again, fleeting images of him being whipped would flash through my mind, disrupting the peace I was trying so desperately to enjoy. I was haunted by flashbacks of the horror I’d felt when I’d watched that silver filled arrow fly toward his back. Every time the memory overwhelmed me, I clung to him more tightly.
Every time I winced or pulled myself more tightly against him, he tightened his hold on me. I did not need to voice my emotions for him to know how I felt. He could feel it through the bond. He knew my fear, because he’d felt the same thing so many times before.
The only thing that helped chase the dreadful fear away was him. His presence. The sound of his breath. The pressure of his arms around me, the feel of his warm skin beneath my hands... The soothing sound of his voice as he whispered gentle words of reassurance into my ear.
By the time the sun came up, streaming through the window in buttery rays of golden light, I couldn’t tell where my body began and his ended. Every bit of me was tangled up with him. My legs, my arms, my fingers, my hair, my lips...
My heart, my life, my soul...
“Lets have breakfast in bed.” Dristan murmured sleepily against my forehead as his fingers lightly traced the dip of my spine.
“Hmm...” I smiled against his neck. “I thought we already did?”
His fingers stilled against the small of my back and then a low chuckle sounded from deep within his chest as he realized I wasn’t talking about food. The bass of his voice, so male, sent shivers across my skin.
I nuzzled further into him, giggling. “It was delicious... All three helpings... I don’t think I can take another bite.” My teeth grazed his earlobe with the last word.
I squealed as he suddenly flipped to the side, trapping me beneath him. Somehow, he’d managed to snatch both of my wrists and was now holding them hostage above my head. His hips pinned my lower half down, keeping me still as he grinned down at me.
“Are you teasing me?” He asked, his sapphire eyes dancing with humor.
I struggled to hide my answering grin as I stared up at him “I wouldn’t dare...”
“Oh, I think you would. And I think you do... Frequently.” He smiled, leaning down as he whispered into my ear. His breath was hot, sending goosebumps across my flesh. The stubble of his overgrown facial hair added to the ticklish sensation as his mouth trailed down the slope of my neck.
I giggled, trying to pull away from him, but I couldn’t move. “Dristan, stop!” I laughed, tilting my ear tightly toward my shoulder.
He swiftly moved to the other side of my neck, nuzzling the stubble of his jaw against my exposed flesh. “Stop what?” He mumbled innocently.
“No!” I gasped through the giggles, trying to push his face away with the side of my head. I could feel his smile growing against my skin.
“What’s wrong, baby?” He breathed against my ear.
“Stop! It tickles!” I laughed, struggling uselessly beneath him.
With unnerving speed, he shifted, and my wrists were suddenly imprisoned by one of his hands instead of both. I gasped as his free hand began to slowly move down my arm. His fingernails, feather light, grazed my skin, extracting louder, more desperate squeals of laughter from me. His fingers brushed past my arm pit, past my breast, and down towards my ribs.
“Dristan!” I screamed through my growing panic. “Don’t!”
He pulled his face away from my neck, cocking his head to the side as he gazed down at me with a crooked, knowing smile. “Don’t what?” His fingers stopped midway between my breast and my hip, just where my rib cage ended. My eyes widened as his smile grew wider, his intention obvious.
My smile disappeared, and I glared up at him with as much solemnity as I could muster. “Don’t... You... Dare.”
And then he was tickling me. Really tickling me. “No!” I screamed with laughter, thrashing beneath him as his fingers tortured me. His hand moved up and down my side as his fingers wiggled against my naked body. He looked so young and carefree above me as he laughed with mischievous glee.
My head whipped from side to side against the pillow as I gasped lungfuls of air in between my giggling. “Dristan! Stop!” I cried in protest. My eyes screwed shut, and I didn’t know how much longer I could stand this. ”Stop it!”
And then, the relentless torture stopped and my face was between his hands. I opened my eyes and found his face inches from mine. He was panting from laughing so hard, his eyes shining with such love and humor and joy.
“I love that sound.” He said softly before pressing his lips to mine.
I threw my arms around his neck, pulling him closer to me as I kissed him back. Gods, I loved this man. This man who drove me mad with his protective instincts, this man who could be so intimidating one moment and so silly the next, this man who would face the bite of an iron whip before betraying his people, this man who had changed my life in so many ways...
When he pulled away, his eyes were burning with passion. “Do you know how much you mean to me?” He whispered, tracing my lower lip with the pad of his thumb.
I nodded as I gazed up at him in wonder, my fingers knotting into the hair at the back of his head. He smiled and leaned closer, running the tip of his nose down the length of mine.
"You seem much more energetic today." I grinned. "Is your back feeling better?"
“Much better. What would you like for breakfast?” He asked gently.
“Hmm...” I hummed, brushing my lips against his. “How about some coffee, fresh strawberries and... waffles?”
“Anything for you, baby.” He murmured, rolling us to the side. Then, he lifted his hand and snapped his fingers.
A familiar popping sound echoed through the bedroom, startling me, and a breakfast tray suddenly appeared on the bed beside us. Upon it were two large plates of fluffy, steaming waffles, a jar of warm maple syrup, a dish of butter, a bowl of ripe strawberries, and two mugs of freshly brewed coffee.
I turned my face back toward Dristan and gave him my brightest smile. “I love magic.”
“So, you’ll go to the Black Forest once a month, and the Kadoma will protect the human villages in return?” Dristan asked before stuffing a forkful of syrup drenched waffle into his mouth.
I smiled triumphantly as I nibbled at my strawberry. “Yes.”
He swallowed and took a swig of his coffee. “So, let me get this straight...” He said, narrowing his eyes. “You fought an army of Kadoma, by yourself, in the dark...” He rubbed his chin. “You immobilized nearly all of them, used your influence over the earth element to rip their spirits from their hosts, and scared them into listening to you...” His hand fell into his lap. “Then, you got the rune and found a way for us to help the humans?”
My chin rose proudly as I popped a bite of waffle into my mouth. “That’s right.”
He shook his head slowly as a smile graced his lips. “Brenya... Will you ever stop surprising me?”
I shrugged as I lowered my eyes to my coffee cup, feeling a bit bashful. “Maybe... If you ever stop underestimating me.”
A small breath escaped his lips and I looked up to find him staring at me, his eyes swarming with battling emotions. A full minute passed as we gazed at each other. I watched the conflict in his eyes turn from denial, to realization, to regret, to something I’d never seen in them before.
It was something like... Veneration.
“You’re right.” He said, his eyes alternating between mine, studying each one in turn. “I continue to underestimate you. At every turn, you surpass my wildest expectations... It doesn’t matter what it is, or where... You surprise me with your bravery in the face of danger, with your sharp tongue, with your natural ability to be a leader. You surprise me with your ready wit, your maturity, your intelligence... You surprise me in the bedroom...” His eyes darkened as he admitted the last part and I felt my cheeks heat.
“Perhaps it’s because you are so young... If I didn’t know you better, I’d think you were as old as I am. But I do know you better, and because of that, I worry that your inexperience might put you in danger.” He sighed, taking another sip of his coffee. “Letting you walk into that forest by yourself was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”
I set my coffee onto the end table and scooted closer to him on the bed. I sat cross legged in front of him as he stared down at me warily.
“But you did let me. You are learning to trust that I’m strong enough to face these dangers, even if it scares you.”
He pursed his lips slightly. “I know that you are strong enough... Sometimes, I think you might be stronger than any magical being this world has yet to see... But...” He ran a hand through his unruly hair as he set his coffee down. “Even knowing you can handle yourself, Brenya... I just... I don’t think I’ll ever be able to let go of my instinct to protect you. You’re too precious to me.”
“I know... You are a dragon, and that makes your instinct to keep your mate safe impossible to ignore. I understand that. But you are getting better, Dristan. You just have to keep reminding yourself that I’m not a child.”
He leaned forward slightly, lifting his hand to brush my cheek with the back of his fingers. “No, you’re not a child... But like a child would be, you are precious to me. Like a child would be, you are something I must protect.”
My heart swelled at his words, my eyes burning with overwhelming adoration. I caught his hand in mine and pressed my lips against the back of it, closing my eyes. “When I saw what they’d done to you, Dristan...” My throat grew thick with emotion as I recalled his ruined back.
“Hey,” He cooed, cupping my face. “I’m fine, now.”
“I killed them.” I whispered against his hand, my voice flat.
“They were monsters. They don’t deserve an ounce of remorse from you.” He answered without hesitation.
I kissed his hand again before lowering it to the bed between us and lacing my fingers between his. When I lifted my eyes to his face, he was watching me with worry. “I know. I wanted to kill them. I enjoyed killing them. I keep waiting to feel guilty for what I did to them, but I don’t feel anything...”
He gave me a tight, empathetic smile. “That’s not a bad thing. Don’t dwell on it, Brenya. Let it go.”
I nodded. “Okay..." I steeled myself for my next topic of conversation. "We have to talk about what to do with Ferrin.”
His expression instantly hardened. I held my breath as I waited, knowing the look in his eyes all too well. It was a familiar look, one that exuded authority. One that still sent a thrill of fear through me, even after all this time.
The care-free, tickling, mischievous Dristan was gone. Before me sat the Dragon Lord.
“What we’re going to do with him?" He growled. "He’s a gods damned traitor. You know what we’re going to do with him. Traitors are executed. End of story.”
Dristan didn’t know the whole story. Not yet... He only knew that Ferrin had been with the group of soldiers that had imprisoned and tortured him. I had to make him understand that Ferrin was not a traitor. He was a victim.
“Dristan, they told him that they were holding his wife and children hostage and that if he did not lead them to us they were going to kill his family. He was blackmailed.” I explained quickly, tightening my hand in his.
His stern expression slipped as his eyes widened. His brows furrowed tightly together, creating a deep V between them as he opened his mouth and then closed it again, at a loss for words. I sighed, feeling such sorrow for Ferrin. What he’d been through was horrible...
“I ordered Warrick to whip the last soldier until he confessed where Ferrin’s family was. He finally confessed that they never had his family at all... They died in the fire with the others when the soldiers burned the Bakru village to the ground.” My voice broke as a tear slipped past my left eye.
“I gave Ferrin the honor of killing that soldier... When we got back to the Aviary, I gave him my old quarters and stationed two guards outside his door. I didn’t know what else to do. I've been waiting to do anything else with him until I could discuss it with you. We can't execute him, Dristan... I can't bear it."
Dristan studied me for a long while, un-moving aside from the occasional blink of his eyes. I watched him warily, waiting nervously for his answer.
Finally, he responded. “Brenya... What message do you think it will send to our people, to our enemies, if we let a traitor get away with such a monumental betrayal?” His voice was stern, but gentle.
I shook my head slowly, sighing with frustration. “I know... It makes us look weak. But... Dristan, what if you were given that choice? What if you had to choose between my life and your loyalty to your crown?”
His eyes widened and he blinked at me, leaning back slightly as if I had just punched him in the face. His brows furrowed again, and I knew that my question had hit home.
“I... That’s different...” He said, stuttering for the first time since I’d known him.
I rose my brows. “How is it different?”
“Well... One, you are my mate. And two, you are the future queen. If I were given that choice, then choosing to save you would still be considered being loyal to the crown.”
I pursed my lips. Damn... He was right. But technicalities didn’t matter, did they?
“But what if I wasn’t? What if we were just two, normal people in love. What would you do then?” I asked calmly.
He shook his head, gaping at me. I gave him a weak smile, knowing the answer already. “You would save me, without question. You know it just as well as I do.” I said gently.
He closed his mouth and lowered his eyes, staring at our intertwined hands. “Yes... I would.”
“So, you can see what my dilemma has been.”
Silence settled around us and I held my breath.
“You have a good heart.” He said, finally lifting his eyes to mine. “But you have much to learn about ruling, Brenya. Word travels fast around here. The people probably already know what he’s done. If the people knew that we spared a traitor, we would lose their respect.”
“Who says they have to know that we spared him?” I asked, raising my brows slightly.
His eyes narrowed. “What are you suggesting?”
“I don’t know... We could say that he’s been executed, but secretly send him away.” I shrugged.
He shook his head, smiling sadly. “And where would he go? He has no family left.”
My heart sank. “I... I don’t know.”
“He has nowhere else to go.”
“Well, there must be something we can do besides killing him.” I said, squeezing my eyes shut in frustration.
When I reopened my eyes, Dristan looked to be contemplating my words. He sighed heavily, raking his hands through his wild hair, looking lost. “I suppose... There is another option for punishment.”
My lips parted with anxiety as I stared at him. “What is it?”
“Pillory.” He said slowly, without emotion, his eyes wary as they studied me.
What the hell is Pillory?
I gave him a quizzical look.
He grimaced, looking away from me and rubbing his hand over the stubble on his jaw. “To be pilloried is a great dishonor. It isn’t used much anymore... When someone commits a treasonous crime, they are strung up with rope in a public location. Their crime is written nearby for all to see, and the citizens are allowed to do whatever they want to the criminal aside from killing them. It is a form of public humiliation.”
My brows furrowed as I listened to his explanation, my gut growing more and more twisted with disgust. “That’s horrible! He’s already in such despair...”
“Ferrin is a grown man, capable of taking responsibility for his actions.” Dristan snapped. I winced and his eyes softened. He continued in a more gentle tone. “Pillory is a lenient punishment, one he should be grateful for. I am sure hat he fully expects to be executed. This is merciful.”
I sighed, considering his logic. On one hand, the idea horrified me. I felt so sorry for Ferrin as it was. But on the other hand, he’d aimed a deadly weapon at my mate. A part of me, even if it was small, did still bear a grudge against him for that.
I was a leader, now. The future queen... I would have to learn to put my emotions aside and think logically. I had to start accepting that not all of the decisions we made were going to be easy. I didn’t want to kill Ferrin... But I also didn’t want to lose the people’s respect. Pillory was a compromise. Dristan was right...
“How long...?” I whispered in defeat.
“How long, what?”
“How long does he have to be put on display and endure this public punishment?”
His mouth hardened into a thin line. “Three days.”
My expression screwed up in pain, but I quickly smoothed my face out. “And then he’ll be forgiven? He can be integrated into the Aviary, live here as one of us?”
Dristan watched me carefully a moment before nodding slowly. “Yes.”
My body sagged. “Okay.”
I lifted my eyes to his, feeling like it was much too early in the day to feel this emotionally drained. He looked a bit relieved, but there was still worry swimming behind his eyes. I was sure he could feel my torn emotions through the bond.
“I know these decisions are not easy... But you’ve done very well so far.” Dristan said softly, reaching for me. I pushed the plate of cold waffles away and crawled into his lap. He folded his arms around me and buried his face into my hair. “You’re already an exemplary leader, and you’re not even queen yet. You are kind, and brave, and wise beyond your years...”
I snuggled against his chest, fighting the urge to cry.
“As usual, I am in awe of you, baby.” He murmured, pressing a soft kiss to my forehead.
A small sob escaped my lips as I began to shake my head against his shirt. I didn’t feel awe inspiring...
“Hey...” He whispered, sliding his index finger under my chin and lifting my face to meet his. “Enough of this... Please, I hate it when you cry.” He pleaded softly, kissing my tears away.
“I’m so tired of crying.” I admitted, regaining my composure as he dried my tears.
His eyes sparkled down at me, shimmering like a vast ocean on a summer day. “This is not a time for crying, baby. We are here, together, both alive and well. You got the rune, you created an alliance with one of the most feared creatures in the world, and you saved my life... Not to mention the other’s lives as well. There are far more things to celebrate today than there are to be sad about."
I gazed into his face, totally smitten, hypnotized by the way he could console me in a way that no one else ever could. “You’re right.” I smiled.
“I’m always right.” He grinned, planting a chaste kiss on my lips.
I pouted my lower lip outward. “Yes, you are. It’s really not fair...”
His grin grew wider, and it was infectious. The Dragon Lord was gone and my Dristan was back. Soon, we were both smiling at each other like lunatics as our forgotten breakfast grew colder. I wasn’t hungry anymore, anyway...
"I need to talk to Warrick." I said, remembering his overdue explanation. "He's the one who saved the day and I need to find out what happened, how he got away from the soldiers... And we should probably deal with the rune."
"We'll deal with all of that later, Brenya. No more talk of responsibilities. Today, I really just want to enjoy spending time with my mate." He said, waving a hand dismissively.
Hmm... Very Un-Dragon Lord Like...
“I think I’ll throw you a party tonight.” He said out of nowhere, cutting me off.
“What? Why?” I giggled, my sour mood dissolving.
“Because I love you... And because I can.” He answered matter-o-factly. Then he smiled wider. “I’m going to go make the arrangements. Everyone is going to be there. I want you to wear the most extravagant dress you can find... ” His eyes suddenly grew serious, his smile vanishing. “And I want you to prepare for a night you’ll never forget.”
There was a secret promise behind his words, and I blushed crimson.
Why is so uncharacteristically giddy today?
What is he up to?
The intensity in his eyes caught me off guard and called to something deep within me, something primal. Something that only he could wake. A familiar, deep pull in my belly made me gasp, sending delicious tingles straight to the apex of my thighs.
His nostrils flared as he caught the scent of my sudden arousal.“But first, I’m going to make love to you again.” He whispered.
I laughed with delight as he then rolled to the side with me in his arms, pulling the covers over our heads once more.
And along with breakfast, my worries were forgotten.