“Are you sure this will work?” Fog poked the cool dirt surrounding the entrance to a spacious den.
Fendrel peeked inside. “I think so. There’s enough space for both of us and everything need. Herbs we find while mapping can be put there, I can sleep over there while you take the shelf…”
Fog stuck her head in beside him. “You’re okay with sleeping on the floor?”
“Yeah.” Fendrel glanced at her. “What do you mean? I’ve been sleeping on the floor since before Mist’s rescue mission.”
“If you say so.” Fog sighed and sat by the entrance.
“And there was a stream just a few minutes away.” Fendrel shrugged. “We’re supposed to be mapping this area anyway, and this den is right in the middle of where we were assigned…I think.”
Fog nodded and dragged herself to the other side of the den where a raised shelf must have been a dragon’s bed years ago. Her wings left tracks in the ground as she went as if holding them up was too burdensome.
“Is something wrong?” Fendrel entered the den. “You’re quiet.”
“I’m just thinking.” Fog’s answer was followed by a sigh.
Fog gave him a curious glance. “I’m trying to figure out if you’re forcing yourself to be cheerful for me or if you’re actually becoming more positive.”
Am I being more cheerful? I feel like myself…I do feel a bit, lighter? Is this an act I’ve fooled myself into?
“I thought I was acting normal.” Fendrel shrugged.
“Hm.” Fog climbed slowly on the bed, as if just stepping up that short way was a large effort. She laid on it and scratched the dirt.
Fendrel went to her side and sat on the ground, bringing his bag onto his lap. From it he pulled out the twin seashell once belonging to Fog’s mother. He lowered his voice, though he did not know why. “So, while we were at the stream, I tried washing the blood off. It’s still there, but you’d only notice if you were looking for it.”
Fog stared at the seashell.
“Do you want to wear it, or should I still keep it safe for you?” Fendrel held it up to her.
The vapor dragon reached a paw out, then settled it back where it had been resting. “I…I think you should wear it. The color would go well with your eyes, I think.”
Fendrel blinked in surprise. “Are you sure?”
Fog managed a smile. “I think she’d want you to wear it, as a thanks.”
“A thanks?” Fendrel rested his hand on his knee and stared at the earring. “For what?”
“For…” Fog tilted her head. “I guess for helping us find Mist, for not abandoning us to Sadon, for agreeing to come with me on this mission, for…for being my friend.”
Fendrel grinned. “Well, thank you for being so friendly.”
I don’t have piercings, but Frederick does. I don’t really trust him to give me any, but maybe someone at the Settlement will be able to help me.
Fog covered her mouth with her wing as she yawned. “Excuse me.”
“It’s getting dark.” Fendrel glanced at the den’s entrance. “We should get out rest for travel tomorrow.”
“What about the door? What if something comes in here?” Fog’s eyelids began to droop.
“We can sleep in shifts. I’ll take the first watch.” Fendrel slouched against the raised dirt bed.
Fog nodded. She curled up with her tail wrapping behind her ear. “Okay. You better not let me sleep the whole time while you stay up though.”
“Of course.” Fendrel nodded, but Fog was already asleep.
Cassius shut his eyes and took deep breaths, trying to recall his father’s lessons. He opened his eyes. “Introduce yourself, then greet them, and finally state your business.”
“If I remember right, I believe greeting the guest came before introducing yourself.” Sadie gave her brother a pitying smile, her hands clasped at her waist.
“You’re right.” Cassius hung his head with a sigh. He lifted his eyes enough to see the dragon king and queen several paces away.
“Are you ready to talk with them now?” Sadie kept her eyes ahead on the royal couple.
“Nope.” Cassius straightened his posture, wincing at the aching in his muscles from his recent training. “But I’ve already told myself I would do this.”
Cassius and Sadie began to approach the great gray dragons.
Every shred of miniscule confidence Cassius had ebbed away with each step. Too quickly for his liking, Cassius stood before the dragon king and smiled up at him nervously.
The two dragons noticed Sadie and Cassius. They stalled their conversation and looked down at the humans.
I forgot his name. I’ll just introduce myself and hope he responds the same.
Cassius found he could hardly breathe. “Good morning, er, afternoon. My name is Sassius, I mean Cadie…Sorry, let me start over. I don’t believe we were formally introduced. I am Cassius, and this is my sister, Sadie—” he gestured to himself, then to Sadie “—We are here to ask if we may accompany you in your duties today, if you’ll allow us.”
“Since the only humans who came with us do not associate with the kingdom or have more loyalty for their local leaders, we do not have any subjects to look after.” Sadie nodded her head with respect to them. “I would like this to be a learning opportunity for us, so we can better help our subjects once we have reclaimed our family’s title.”
As long as you don’t find us annoying…
The dragon king gave a generous smile. His rows of gleaming teeth made Cassius wince. “Good afternoon, human neighbors.” He touched his nose to the ground in a bow and raised his head again.
“Good afternoon to you.” The other dragon copied his actions.
Cassius bowed his head. Does she hate me for her time at Sharpdagger palace and what she went through?
“Mist and I are going to survey the shelter-building. You are welcome to join us, but I am not sure how much you will be able to help.” The king looked up at the clouds.
Cloud! That’s right, his name is Cloud.
“And there may be a great deal of flying. I know humans are generally not well-accustomed to that.” Cloud gave the human twins a small smile.
“It’s fine.” Cassius held back a sigh. “If humans and dragons are to keep up friendly relations, I suppose we will have to get used to flight.”
Cloud tilted his head, still smiling. “If you insist.”
Cassius climbed onto Cloud’s shoulders when the king crouched, then helped Sadie up behind him.
He found himself at near-eye-level with Mist.
“It is nice to meet you officially.” Sadie’s smile toward the queen was genuine.
Mist returned a shy grin. “Make sure you hold on tight.”
The royal dragons flew above the canyon, high enough to survey their subjects but close enough that the dragons below weren’t shapeless blobs of color.
“The building is coming along nicely.” Mist flicked her tail at the dragons below surrounding their huts made of logs, mud, and leaves.
“I haven’t seen the factions work together like this for a long time.” Cloud spun his head around to see another side of the canyon. “I see some of them are still avoiding certain factions, but at least there is some cooperation.”
A few dragons ventured into their newly constructed shelters.
“This would go a lot faster with everyone helping each other.” Sadie pointed down at them. “I see a lot of huts that aren’t even a fraction of the way done with no one helping.”
Cloud hummed in thought.
Mist nodded. “Sadie usually has good observations.”
“You are right. When I was small and my parents ruled, the factions never hesitated to offer their support to each other, even if their nobles had bad blood. Ever since the War Across the Sea divided our opinions on humans, we’ve been distant, except for the centuries-old bonds of friendship between certain factions.” Cloud looked back at Sadie and Cassius. “Let’s go remind them of what they’ve forgotten.”
Cassius and Sadie stood beside Mist while Cloud spoke with a few spark dragon families.
With a frown, Cassius noticed Sadie moving her hands to smooth out her dress but stopping short. Her dress was already muddied and torn from the previous’ days events that there was no point in trying to fix it.
His eyes brightened with an idea. “I can ask Fendrel to request a tailor from Beast-Hunt, if you want new clothes.”
Sadie looked at him in surprise, then nodded. “Thank you. Zoricus used to bring me to a tailor every holiday.”
“I would have gone with you too, but he wouldn’t have liked me being there.” Cassius looked down.
“Was he really that controlling?”
Cassius couldn’t help but give a joyless laugh. “He hated me being around. I’m sure if I left any sooner than I did he would have put wanted posters up claiming I was working with the Liberator, just to keep me fearful of going near him.”
Mist lowered her head, so she was at eye-level with them. “After I was restrained by hunters, he was the one to put the enchanted necklace on me.”
Sadie hugged herself. “After all the years he spent with us, I never heard a single bad rumor about him. He never sounded malicious to me. But now that I’m around those he wanted me to keep my distance from…” She put her face in her hands. “I’m starting to rethink all the nice things he said to me.”
Cassius shook his head. “I can tell when he’s lying or telling half-truths. He was always genuine with you.”
“I admit, he did seem to really care about you.” Mist swept her tail over her front paws.
“But he only cared for me.” Sadie’s face drew more and more despairing.
Great job, Cassius. You’re going to make her cry.
“That’s not true…he cared about Mother and Father.” Cassius couldn’t help but hear the hesitation in his claim.
Sadie cleared her throat and took a deep breath, somehow managing to push her brimming tears back down. “Well, despite that, thank you for your offer, Cassius. I’d love to go.”
There was a beat of silence.
“Oh! How rude of me.” Sadie turned to the dragon queen. “Mist, would you like to join us? I remember you saying something about enjoying our fabric patterns while you were at the palace. Do vapor dragons wear clothing?”
Mist gave the ex-princess an endearing smile. “We do adorn ourselves with certain cloths for the Festival of Siblinghood, Dew Day, and weddings.”
“Would it be too crowded if I brought Fog along? She has always loved studying human customs.” Mist tilted her head to the side.
“Fog is the dark gray dragon who went to scout with Fendrel.” Cassius leaned toward Sadie as he spoke. “Of course she can join.”
“So, we’ll have to wait for them to return before we schedule a date.” Sadie nodded, her face becoming jubilant again.
“What’s this about a date?” Cloud’s voice was teasing as he approached the group. “Without me, Mist?”
Mist gently swatted him with her tail. “A shopping date, not a romantic one.”
Cloud chuckled. He looked down at the humans. “You two did good work today. I doubt we would have spotted those holes in the walls without you being so low to the ground.”
“And now all the shelters have been built.” Mist stood.
Cassius sighed in relief.
I can finally sleep in a bed tonight, even if it is made of leaves.
He looked over the huts he and Sadie helped construct.
I’ll have to find something else to keep my hands busy after training tomorrow.
“So, we’re going to bring the plants we collected back to the Settlement and go back to scouting, right? I just want to make sure I have our schedule right. When do you think we’ll get there?” Fog turned her head to see Fendrel on her back. She returned her gaze ahead as she almost flew into a tree.
“I have no idea.” Fendrel made sure not to grip her feathers too tightly, afraid she’d lose them like their first travel mission.
Fog nodded. “I’m flying as fast as I can.”
“Don’t stress yourself too much, we don’t have to be there today.” Fendrel smiled. “It would be nice to be surrounded by familiar faces, though.”
“I thought you liked living alone?” Fog tilted her head so she could glance at him but still look ahead.
Fendrel shrugged. “I guess I’m used to having travel companions now.”
Now that I think about it, I don’t I want to travel alone ever again. I guess it’s a good thing Fog agreed to join me once everything goes back to normal.
“That makes sense.” Fog’s claws clenched in what Fendrel assumed was excitement. “I hate being alone. Hey, by the way, thank you for volunteering to scout with me.”
“Of course.” Fendrel watched the trees blur by below. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“I don’t know.” Fog tilted her head again. “Why did you?”
Fendrel paused. “Because you still need survivor’s training for when you join me as the first dragon Liberator.”
“Mhm, survival training from the human who doesn’t know which berries are edible or not.” Fog gave him a smug smile.
“Hey.” Fendrel narrowed his eyes at her. “I’m better at woods than jungles.”
The vapor dragon giggled and flew a corkscrew.
Fendrel yelped and grabbed on to her tighter.
“Sorry! Sorry, I got excited!” Fog held back more laughter.
“Oh stars…don’t do that again.” Fendrel did his best to catch his breath.
The duo flew on toward the Settlement as the sun began to set.