Grabbing one more branch, Lakita hoisted herself to the very top of the tree, sitting on the highest branch and looking eastward. The air was still and the land quiet, as most were still sleeping, waiting for the day to dawn. She waited, too, for that was precisely why she was there. At this height, she had the best vantage point to watch the sun rise.
Her breath caught in her throat and her eyes sparkled as the first tip of the sun peeked over the horizon. She would never get tired of watching the beauty of the sunrise. Thank you, Biden, for your beauty, and for the constant reminder of your love and provision. Excitement flooded her soul as she watched the sun continue to rise, bringing light and life to the world below her. All the while she watched, she continued to offer silent praises to Biden, the Creator of all. Without Him, she was nothing.
When the sun had finally risen fully above the horizon, Lakita closed her eyes, taking a breath, letting the peace of the moment wash over her. She loved watching the sun rise. It always reminded her of newness. Every day the sun rose was a new day to leave her troubles behind and begin again. That had especially been true for her five years ago when she’d lost her way. When she’d found her way back to her faith again, the first thing she’d seen after was the sun rising in the East. That image had stuck with her ever since, as had the peace that had come from her eyes being reopened by seeing the sun again, as if for the first time.
Letting out a contented sigh, Lakita smiled, turning to climb back down the tree. As she did, a loud screech rent the air. It sounded shrill, almost like a hawk, but stronger, and deeper; almost angry. Curious, she turned about to look. Glancing in all directions, she saw nothing.
With a shrug, not knowing where the sound had come from, she turned to climb down the tree again. Whatever creature the call had come from was probably down below where she couldn’t see it. As she reached for a nearby branch to use as support, the screech from earlier sounded again, only this time it was almost right next to her. Unable to contain the gasp on her lips, she spun toward the screech, only to lose her balance on the branch she sat on. At the same time, a dark and frightening creature flew at her, reaching out to her with sharp talons, ready to dig them into her skin.
The creature missed as she fell away from it and the tree, but it was little comfort as she reached back for the branch she’d been sitting on, unable to grab it. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion, yet also at a horrifying speed. The ground seemed to be getting ever closer. All she could do was let out a yell of panic, her earlier peace stolen from her.
Uncontrollable fear filled her and she was sure she was doomed. If the fall didn’t kill her, the dark creature surely would. Even now it dove at her again, its claws ready to strike. She waited for it to screech again, letting her know it was upon her, but instead her ears heard a new sound. It was the bellow of a dragon.
Relief filled her and she couldn’t stop the happy tears that sprang to her eyes as she looked to the distance.
“Maya!” She shouted barely above a whisper. Her faithful dragon was here to save her.
Chancing a glance upward, she saw the dark creature hesitate, then stop its dive toward her, flying off into the distance. It clearly didn’t want to mess with the dragon.
Maya continued toward her, then dove below her. Lakita soon felt her body hit Maya’s, and she began sliding down the smooth scales. Spinning about, she reached up, grabbing one of the spines that ran the length of Maya’s back. She held on tightly, her body dangling off the side of the great dragon’s back.
Large, leathery wings flapped in front of her as Maya continued her flight away from the tree, lowering in the sky as she went until the tips of her wings were skimming the ground. Lakita released her hold on Maya’s spine and landed lightly on the ground. Maya circled and landed on the ground nearby. A wide smile lit up Lakita’s face as she ran toward the dragon and wrapped her arms around her lowered neck.
“Oh, Maya, I’ve never been so relieved to see you!” She came out of the hug and rubbed Maya’s chin in thanks.
Though she was clearly enjoying it, Maya quickly shook her, pulling away. She moved her head level with Lakita’s, and her dark eyes pierced her, stern and serious. Lakita knew she was in trouble. As well as being a loyal friend, Maya was also like a mother to her.
“Lakita, what happened?” She asked. To anyone else it would have sounded like unintelligible chirping, but five years ago, Lakita had been blessed by Biden with the gift of being able to understand not only the dragon language, but also the language of any living creature.
Lakita shrugged, unsure herself what had happened. “I’m not really sure. Some odd creature flew at me, knocking me from the tree.”
She glanced back to the tree and had to hold back a shiver. The creature was unlike anything she’d ever seen. It was dark, the color of the night sky. If not for that, it could have easily been an eagle. But then, it had a long tail like a dragon’s, and was almost twice as large as an eagle, and when it opened its mouth… The urge to shiver came back to her as she pictured the teeth there, sharp and destructive, but she restrained it, shaking her head. “I’m not sure what it was.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t the wind?” Maya asked, pushing herself into Lakita and knocking her forward.
Angry, Lakita spun around to face her. “Of course not! I know what I…” She cut herself off as she noticed the playful grin on Maya’s face. She almost laughed. “Hey! Who taught you a sense of humor?”
Maya nudged her again, smiling a dragon smile, then rested her head on her shoulder. Lakita wrapped an arm around the side of Maya’s head and rested her own against it, once again grateful for her.
“Why were you in a tree, anyway?” Maya asked as she pulled out of the affectionate embrace.
“I do it at least once a week.” She glanced back to the tree and Maya joined her. “It’s the highest place I can get to, to watch the sunrise with Biden.” She turned back to Maya, the joy of the sunrise returning to her. “They’re marvelous.”
Maya nodded. “Marvelous they may be, but you really shouldn’t go off on your own like that.”
“And why not? I don’t need a chaperone.”
“No, but it is dangerous.”
Lakita smiled, unafraid, turning quickly to face Maya. She laughed, “Dangerous?! I’m in Dentaria! There hasn’t been any danger here in years. Besides, if there were, you’d be there in an instant to save me! You can sense whenever I’m in danger.” Still smiling, she stepped back, feigning to trip.
Maya caught her with one of her wings, pushing her up to her feet again, but there was no joy in her eyes at Lakita’s attempt at humor. “I didn’t today.”
Lakita’s own joy left her, replaced by worry, as Maya’s sad seriousness weighed down on her. “Why not? I wasn’t more than a few miles from you!”
Maya shook her head. “It wasn’t the distance. Something else blocked the signal between us.”
Lakita frowned, crossing her arms over her chest. “But what?” She didn’t like not knowing. As she thought it over, trying to come up with an answer, a new question presented itself. She turned quickly to Maya. “And how did you rescue me if you didn’t know I was in danger?”
To Lakita’s surprise, Maya grinned. “Luck?”
Lakita eyed her, skeptically, knowing her friend was hiding something. Maya finally chuckled, gently. “I just happened to be looking for you, and noticed you falling just in time.”
“You were looking for me?”
“All of Dentaria was looking for you!”
Shock filled Lakita. Why would the entire country be looking for her? She wasn’t anything special, and wouldn’t have guessed anyone would have noticed her missing from her room.
“When your bed turned up empty this morning, we all got worried. Then, when I couldn’t sense where you were, well, the worry doubled.” Maya explained. Still, Lakita couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.
She shook her head. “You really shouldn’t worry over me.”
“And what about Ovatus? He vowed to get his revenge on you.” Maya’s seriousness was back.
Lakita let out a breath, wishing everyone would let the whole thing go. “And it’s been five years.” She shook her head. “We can’t continue to live in fear. I don’t.”
Her words were true. She wasn’t afraid of Ovatus. Perhaps it was because she knew him better than the others that she wasn’t afraid, though most would claim that would give her more reason to be. She’d met the man five years ago, and in grief over losing her mother, had bonded with him, seeking solace with him as she joined him on a quest to rid the world of dark magic, the source of both of their sufferings. It was only when she learned his true intentions that she realized her mistake in trusting him. He had been the cause of her mother’s death, and had used her to make his own dark magic stronger so that he could finish the war he’d already started on Dentaria. When she’d put an end to that war by destroying most of his dark magic, he’d vowed his revenge. She’d seen his powers up close, and knew how skilled he was, but she also knew she’d dealt a devastating blow to him, and that Biden was stronger and would always protect her. She hadn’t seen nor heard from him in five years, and so figured the weakened worm had crawled into a hole to hide and plan. He was a man who didn’t seem to mind waiting to act. Whether he ever would or not, she didn’t know, but she refused to stop enjoying life by allowing fear to fill her heart, causing her to always be looking over her shoulder.
“But you should still use caution,” Maya replied to her earlier statement.
Lakita sighed, giving in. “Agreed.”
Maya had lowered her head next to hers as she’d spoken, and now Lakita reached up to stroke her chin.
Maya smiled. “Perhaps you’d like to know why we were looking for you before our worry set in.”
“Oh, just a message for you from a… King Teasel?” Maya couldn’t hide her grin as she finished.
Lakita’s eyes lit up as excitement filled her. “Teasel? Really?!”
Maya nodded, seeming just as excited as Lakita felt.
“What did he want? I haven’t heard from him in awhile.” Teasel was her best friend, and since she’d been staying in Dentaria more often to be with Maya, she missed his company.
“Only to see you in Arenaria this morning.”
“This morning? We’re running late! Better go!”
Maya chuckled. “My thoughts exactly.” She lowered her body closer to the ground and Lakita climbed on, sitting comfortably behind Maya’s neck, eager to head to Arenaria and see her friend, who just so happened to be the king of that country.
Teasel sat at the desk in his royal study, looking over the papers before him. As king of Arenaria, it was his responsibility to deal with many things. It seemed his work was never done. But he didn’t mind. Though he’d not wanted to be king when first forced onto the throne almost eight years ago, he had grown to enjoy it. He had a great responsibility to his people, and that sometimes weighed on him, but with that responsibility came the ability to help people and make them happy, and that was what he’d grown to enjoy so much about being king.
The bellow of a dragon pulled Teasel away from his work. Glancing to one of the tall windows lining the wall to his right, he saw the great dragon fly by, and knew at once that it was Maya, his friend, Lakita’s, dragon. This was a welcome distraction. Smiling, he got to his feet and hurried from the room to meet the new arrival.
The castle of Arenaria wasn’t as large as the one in Dentaria, and wasn’t as attractive as the one in Durior, but it would always be Lakita’s favorite. It had been the first castle she’d ever seen since venturing from her home in Altissima nearly eight years ago. Since then she’d been to many places, but Altissima would always be home. Arenaria was a close second, not only because it was quite close, but also because it was home to one of her most dear friends. Now, he had summoned her here, and she would find out why.
Maya landed gently before the welcoming castle, and Lakita looked to it. Two of Teasel’s guardsmen were stationed on either side of the castle door, and stood waiting to welcome her within.
“Hello Lakita! Where’ve you been?” One of them asked, pleasantly.
She turned to him with a smile. “I’m spending the week in Dentaria with Maya.” She reached up reflexively to stroke the top of Maya’s head. “She misses me when I’m not around.”
Maya groaned, pulling away from Lakita’s hand. Lakita grinned at the dragon’s outrage, hearing the question in her moan. “Of course I miss you, too, Maya.” She said, causing the two guardsmen to laugh.
“Still amazes me how you can understand those amazing creatures,” one of the men said.
Lakita turned to him, ready to say she agreed, when the door between the two men suddenly burst open, king Teasel marching from within, a stern expression on his face.
“Well, look what the dragon dragged in,” he said as he marched with purpose toward her, stopping before Maya and looking up. “You know, I’m not sure, but I could have sworn my message said to meet me here, this morning…”
He glared at her, clearly upset, and for a split second, Lakita almost grew worried. But then Teasel couldn’t hold back his joy any longer, letting a wide grin spread across his face.
Lakita smiled, sliding off Maya’s back, her own joy at seeing Teasel again coming back to her. “I was a bit delayed, that’s all. Quite a busy morning in Dentaria. Maya had a lot to do.”
She moved away from Maya quickly, knowing the dragon would protest her words. She wasn’t wrong. The incensed dragon soon stomped her back foot on the ground, causing it to shake. Lakita crouched to steady herself, grinning, as the two guardsmen at the door laughed.
As the slight vibrations stopped, Lakita stood, turning to Maya, still grinning. “What? You did have a lot to do this morning. What with finding me… And rescuing me…” She held up her fingers to count as she went along. Now she frowned at Maya, growing a bit annoyed. “And lecturing me! Could have done without that one, Maya.”
She was ready to go on, when Teasel interrupted. “She rescued you?”
Lakita turned to him and she could see the concern written in his eyes. She smiled. “Doesn’t she always?”
She laughed, and Teasel joined in before speaking again. “If you didn’t go off on your own so often, maybe she wouldn’t have to.”
“You two are worse than my mother!” She said, shaking her head and moving away from the two of them, slightly annoyed over their behavior. “Honestly, you don’t let me do anything!”
Behind her, Teasel addressed Maya. “So, where was she?”
Lakita was shocked, spinning around to face him in mild rage. “Teasel!”
He turned away from Maya to face her with a smile. “What? I’ve a right to know. You are one of my subjects.”
Lakita shook her head, firmly, her anger leaving her. But she wouldn’t let Teasel know that. “Not quite. I’m from Altissima, not Arenaria. For which, I’m very thankful. I don’t think I could stand being under your iron rule.”
Turning to head toward the castle again, she stopped feigning her anger and allowed the grin playing at the edges of her lips to surface completely.
“Well, then, I guess you wouldn’t be interested in learning that I’ve a new position open on my council and had hoped that you would fill it.”
Lakita stopped dead in her tracks, shocked. Had she just heard him right? She spun around to face him, unable to control her excitement. “Your council?! An open position?”
Teasel nodded, a smile on his face. Lakita ran to him, ecstatic, letting out a joyful laugh. “And you really want me to fill it?”
Teasel shrugged. “Why not? You’ve a good head on your shoulders.” He smiled again. “And I value your input.”
“Oh, goodness! Thank you, Teasel!” She spun about, as it seemed the only way to keep from lifting off the ground in her excitement. Never had she known such joy. “I can’t believe it,” she said quietly to herself, taking it all in. “A councilor to the king.”
Coming out of her spin, she turned to Teasel, still overflowing with joy. “When do I start?”
“I had a feeling you might ask me that.” He glanced over his shoulder at Maya. The great dragon smiled, nodding.
Lakita frowned, looking to Maya. “Wait a minute… you knew?”
Maya shrugged. “Oh, you know, Teasel and I are always conspiring against you.” She laughed. “Especially when it comes to protecting you.”
Still laughing, she spread her wings and took to the sky, flying away to the North. “See you later today. Have fun at your meeting!” She called as she glanced back over her shoulder.
Lakita waved, unable to keep from smiling. “Bye Maya!”
Teasel was soon beside her. “We wanted to surprise you.”
Lakita turned to him. “I’m glad you did.”
“Your first meeting is at noon,” Teasel continued, motioning toward the castle.
Lakita smiled, her great joy at what was to come returning to her. She’d always wanted to do something great with her life, and she never knew what that would be. She’d grown up in Altissima where women merely had kids and stayed at home to raise them. She’d wanted to do so much more than that. After venturing from home and learning of Arenaria, hope at finding another calling presented itself, but she still hadn’t found it. She knew she was the daughter of Biden, and would help change the world for the better just by standing for that, but still she wanted more. Now, it seemed, Biden had brought it to her. Through Teasel. Her smile widening, she hurried toward the castle.
Teasel sat at the head of the long table in his council chamber. Windows lined the wall to his left, the noonday sun spilling through them and onto the gathered council. Twelve members made up his council, and Lakita was the newest member. She sat in the first chair to his left, and he was very glad to have her there with him. He knew she’d be a great addition to his council. She was very wise and wasn’t afraid to push back if she didn’t agree with something.
Looking around the room at the men gathered, from the stern and outspoken Calamus, to the quiet, kind Androwsii, Lakita seemed quite at ease among them. From Arvense, the oldest member on the council, in his seventies, to Abutilon, the youngest, four years older than himself at twenty-nine, she didn’t seem nervous at all. Though this had been a lighter meeting, with no serious decisions to be made, Teasel knew she’d be just as comfortable and confident if it had been. He didn’t regret for one minute his decision to bring her on, even if there had never been a woman on the council before. He also knew that none of the other councilors would regret it, either. In fact, they hadn’t even put up a fight. All knew Lakita, and knew she was perhaps exactly what they needed, but more than that, all of them trusted his decision.
“And that brings us to our preparations for the Winter Celebration.” Arvense’s voice drew Teasel from his thoughts.
He nodded, turning to the others. “Yes, it will be upon us before we know it. Any suggestions to make this year special?”
“What about Cake? Cake goes good with any celebration,” Lakita said, her eyes twinkling with mischief.
Teasel couldn’t stop a grin from spreading on his face as he met her eye. “Yes, everyone likes cake,” he repeated their words from five years ago, remembering their time together as they discussed another celebration.
Lakita turned away, and Teasel pulled himself from his thoughts, turning back to his councilors. “Cake shall be our chosen dessert for the evening, but what about entertainment?”
“That would be the Singing Sanguine Sisters,” Calamus said, waving his hand as if to dismiss the idea, growing bored. “And we do that every year…”
One of the other men nodded in agreement. “It does grow old.”
“What about someone new, then?” Lakita asked.
Abutilon turned to her to explain. “There is no one new. Not much talent here in Arenaria other than farming and fighting.”
“Then why not get talent from somewhere else?”
Androwsii nodded. “Not a bad idea.”
“Where do you suggest?” Arvense asked.
Lakita shrugged. “What about Dentaria?”
Teasel turned to her, nodding. “Very well, then, since you’re a weekend regular in Dentaria, I charge you with finding out what talent they harbor.” He turned back to address everyone. “As for the rest of you, continue to think of all that needs to be done for the celebration. We’ll continue to discuss this at our next meeting.” Finally, he turned to Gronovii, a man in his early forties, with light brown hair pulled back at his neck. “And, Gronovii, post notices for volunteers. Have them report to Arvense and he’ll keep a running tally.”
He looked around the table, into the eyes of everyone gathered, then nodded, sure that no one had anything left unspoken, and that nothing more needed to be discussed. “Dismissed Gentlemen.”
Beside him, Lakita cleared her throat. He looked to her, unsure. She raised her brows. “Oh,” he said in realization, feeling a bit embarrassed by her correction.
He turned back to the men, clearing his throat. “Dismissed, everyone.”
Lakita nodded with a pleased smile as she stood to file out of the room through the door to Teasel’s right along with everyone else. Teasel shook his head. She was certainly one to get what she wanted, even if it seemed a silly thing.
Teasel remained seated, allowing everyone else to leave before him, organizing his notes as they left. Arvense was the last to leave, looking to him, curiously. “Cake, my Lord?”
Teasel smiled as the memory stirred again. “An inside joke, Arvense.”
Getting to his feet, he motioned toward the door. Arvense took the cue and started through it, Teasel following.
Stepping into the hall, he watched his councilors leave together. His eyes caught on Lakita and he smiled. Seeing his friend always made him smile. She was talking with Abutilon, and as he watched them interact, he grew suddenly jealous, a frown replacing his smile.
As Lakita walked down the hall with the rest of Teasel’s councilors, Abutilon was soon by her shoulder, smiling brightly. “So, a councilor to the king… How do you like it?”
“It’s great! I love being in a position of such power,” she answered honestly, then stopped to think, trying to come up with the words to explain even to herself why she enjoyed it so much. “It feels so… useful.”
She smiled as she thought on that. It really did feel great to be doing something worthwhile.
Abutilon returned her smile. “Yes, we do help out a lot. Like with this Winter Celebration. It should be fun, huh?”
Lakita nodded, her joy mounting. “Indeed. But I have to admit, I never knew the king’s councilors helped him with matters like this. I mean, does he really need help planning special events?”
“Of course! We have to make sure we’re going to have a good time!” Abutilon’s serious ruse fell away as he couldn’t keep the grin from his face.
Lakita couldn’t keep herself from laughing. “Oh, of course!”
As they continued down the hall, she laughed again, shaking her head as Abutilon chuckled lightly.
Soon, Teasel was approaching them, and Abutilon quickly bowed to his king as they all stopped walking. “My Lord.” Coming out of the bow, he turned to her, still smiling. “See you later, Lakita. Tell Acanthus we’re still on for Monday night.”
She nodded, watching him go, then turned to Teasel.
“So, how did you like your first meeting?” He asked.
She yawned. “Oh, I don’t know. It was a little boring. Only…” She paused, unable to pretend to be uninterested any longer as a wide grin spread across her face. “The greatest thing that’s ever happened to me! Thanks again, Teasel.”
He laughed at her excited outburst, nodding. “Don’t mention it.” He motioned down the hall. She started forward again and he took stride beside her. “You proved useful.” He glanced to her, grinning. “The cake?”
Lakita laughed, enjoying the memory. “Did you ever find out if Biden likes it or not?”
“Oh, yes, he does,” Teasel replied, nodding.
Their laughter followed them down the hall as they continued on toward the entrance hall.
Soon Lakita was stepping out of the castle, watching as the other council members mounted their horses, which the stable hands had ready and waiting. Arvense bid the men good-bye as they left, and they returned the farewell. He was the only one among them who wouldn’t be leaving the castle, as Teasel had given him almost half the castle to call his own. As she watched them go, Lakita still couldn’t believe she was among them, one of Teasel’s councilors. She was sure she’d wake up from the dream any minute.
She stopped with Teasel, who still walked with her, as Maya landed gracefully nearby. She wouldn’t be leaving on a horse. Teasel glanced to the dragon. “Will you head back to Dentaria?”
Lakita shook her head. “No, now that I’m here, I’ll head home.” She paused, glancing to Teasel. “Unless, you wanted to do something?”
“Ha! I’ve got plenty to do.” He made a face. “Just nothing fun.”
She shrugged. “Well, maybe some other time.”
She moved to Maya and climbed up her side. As she positioned herself comfortably on Maya’s back, Teasel waved, calling up to her. “Sorry!”
She glanced down to him. “Hey, you’re a king! It comes with the job, right?!”
He laughed. “See you later!”
“See you later!”
Maya spread her wings and used them to lift herself into the air. Lakita returned Teasel’s wave as the dragon turned west and started for Altissima.