I couldn’t get the Prince’s Quest out of my head—how was I ever going to be worthy of a dragon?
My head pounded as the sun bounced off the chalky castle, and soon the trees and town beyond blended together as the dizziness took over. It had started as nausea this morning, but our swords smashing together and the weight of my chain mail in this heat made me reach for my damp forehead. I keeled over and wretched. Bile made its way from my stomach onto the grassy field where I trained every day like magma.
“Xavier, are you all right?” Percy said, hovering above me. There were two of him.
I pulled my gaze from him and focused on the flag of Ivearth blowing from one of the many spires. The flag was divided horizontally with the top half royal blue and the bottom half, a rich gold. Solid gray symbols of a castle, a crown, and a dragon lined the center. The sun disappeared, moving behind the clouds and making the white of the castle less offensive.
“I’m fine.” I stood and wiped my lips, wincing at the sour taste in my mouth. I was glad we had chosen to train alone so the other knights didn’t see me like this.
The field itself was huge, leading into the forest that surrounded the hill our castle stood on.
“I’m done for today,” I said, pulling off my chain mail and folding it over my arms. It sat heavy, the steel heating my bare skin.
“Alright, what’s going on?” Percy said, leaning in with a raised brow. As usual, he saw right through me.
I shook my head. My vision was foggy, but his look of concern was clear. Percy was our most skilled swordsman, despite his age. Eighteen years old, confident, devilishly handsome, and even taller than my own six feet. Combined with blond hair and blue eyes, he had every girl from here to Harbor Town gushing over him. His muscles put most other young knights’ to shame, including mine.
I rolled my eyes. “You know me so well. What do you think?”
With pursed lips, he faced the sky, as if the truth lay among the clouds. “I think you’re terrified that your eighteenth birthday is one sleep away. You’re wondering if your parents are going to keep pressuring you to choose a queen.” He paused, putting a fist to the air as he tensed his muscled arms. “And, of course, you’re wondering if you will ever be as strong and as handsome as me.” He flashed a playful grin and winked.
I hated how accurate that response was, how he could read my mind like a scroll. “Yes, well done. Right again. I’ll call on Chair Goldsmith to give you a gold star.”
He gave me a knowing look. “I also know that sarcasm and pompousness are how you deflect, My Prince.”
Despite my frustrations, I chuckled. Most people thought Percy was arrogant, but really he had taught me to play up character flaws and find the humor in them.
“Yes well, the truth is, Mother and Father are putting more and more pressure on me. Most of the crown princes before me chose a bride before their eighteenth birthday. But the day after tomorrow brings the Prince’s Quest, and I’ll be on my way to Hom to find a dragon. Then the minute I’m home, I’ll be crowned king. I just . . .” I paused, “I’ve known this has been coming my whole life, but it still feels like it crept up on me. And with everything going on with Agui right now . . .” The nausea returned with that word: Agui, the kingdom we were at odds with. I rubbed my collarbone, trying to process it all for the umpteenth time.
“I wondered. You’ve not been the same since King Rueban’s visit last month,” he said.
I swept my feet along the grass, dragging myself toward the side entrance to the armory as Percy followed. “There’s no escaping it, Percy.”
We trudged ahead. Percy was quiet for longer than I usually found him capable of, which didn’t help my dour mood.
“You know you can tell me anything Xavier,” he said.
Those words took me back to that night with him two years ago that I wished I could forget. We hadn’t spoken about it since. I knew I could tell him about the feelings I buried deep down, but despite them keeping me imprisoned, hindering me from becoming not just the man, but the king my people needed, I wasn't ready to admit them to myself.
“I’m always on your side,” he continued. “I know these next few weeks are going to be challenging, but you’ve waited your whole life for this. You’re going to be crowned king of Ivearth.”
I paused, looking up at the castle towers, the endless mountain of stone. I followed the slope of trees down to Royal City, where my people wandered freely, enjoying the warm day. I stood above them, yet was somehow inferior. “I am and I’m grateful, really. Soon they’ll be looking at me to guide them. It’s just . . . a lot.”
Despite a grown body and a warrior’s suit, I was still a boy.
I stared at the scraps of meat on my plate, twiddling the fork with my fingers, attempting to listen. My father, King Harold, had been droning on for some time now, complaining about Agui and their irresponsible, pigheaded, good-for-nothing king, Rueban Barthus.
But I had bigger fish to fry.
My mother, Queen Margarete, was much more adept than me at blocking out Father’s long winded griping. She sipped on a cup of herbal tea, watching her favorite white lilies dance through the warm evening breeze.
I had decided to have our evening meal in the Royal Courtyard. I wanted to be out in the fresh air when I broke the news to my parents that I needed more time.
The closing of the day brought an auburn light that reflected off of sandy pink tiles. At their edges, large stone pillars and archways rose to surround the central courtyard, which was mammoth in size to accommodate our family's dragon companions. I looked over at Bernard, the giant green dragon on the far side. His great scaly neck was hunched over as he caught the whole pineapples that our chief servant, Garreth, tossed one by one into his gaping mouth.
“Xavier!” Father said.
I blinked, “Yes.”
“Are you even listening to me, boy?” His voice was already filled with disappointment.
“Oh for Goddess’s sake, Harold. Can’t you see he is nervous about his birthday and the Prince’s Quest? Just like you were before you traveled to the island. Let the boy be!” Mother said, admonishing him.
“Is that true? Are you nervous, Xavier?” Father glanced at me with pursed lips and a furrowed brow.
Avoiding eye contact, I nodded and tightened my grip on my fork.
Bernard worked his long jaw from side to side, splattering juice on the tiles. He let out a mighty belch, and Garreth’s toupee moved with the wind as chunks of undigested pineapple landed on his suit. Unperturbed, Garreth leaned down, picked up another pineapple, and launched it into Bernard’s mouth. I did not envy being so close to the dragon’s warm and fetid breath.
“Absolutely no manners whatsoever,” Garreth bemoaned.
“Garreth, my good man.” Father belly-roared, “Three times this evening. Our Bernard is rather gassy tonight.”
Garreth winced and lifted a small cloth from his jacket pocket, wiping the half-chewed pineapple and dragon saliva from his face.
“Oh poor Garreth,” Mother said, sniggering.
Normally this would have amused me to no end, but tonight it was just a welcome distraction.
“You don’t seem to be hungry,” Father said, looking down at my plate as he reached for his wine glass. I looked over at my parents’ finished plates of food. “You need all of your strength for Quest, Son.”
I cut up some beef and vegetables and put them into my mouth, numb to the taste and fighting against the rough texture. I forced a smile as they looked over at me, waiting for my big reveal.
“Well,” Mother began. I knew it was coming now. “Preparations are well underway for your birthday party tomorrow night. The noble families anxiously await the announcement of your queen.”
There it was. I sat back in my chair, upright, swallowing my mouthful of food. “And I suppose,” I said, licking vegetable remnants from the front of my teeth, “you both also anxiously await my announcement.”
Mother leaned forward, her eyes beaming. Father was unblinking.
“As you both know, I’ve met with many noble women over this past year. I’ve had some successful meetings. I’m very fond of Danielle. But of course, there is Lily Thornbank, too. I’m going to have to think about it a while longer and do some more courting when I return from Quest.”
I sighed deeply and released some of my pent-up anxiety, but my fingers still trembled in anticipation of their response.
“Well, I think we all know who you really like,” Mother said.
I swallowed, my throat dry.
Father seemed pensive as he glanced her way. “Do we?” he said.
I sighed, “Mother means Danielle.”
Father let out a big laugh and reached over to pat me roughly on the back with his large hand. He threw me a wink that caused my stomach to drop. “Perfect choice, my boy,” he said.
“Perhaps. But I still need more time to think.”
Father hid his frustration well and took another bite of his dinner. “Either way, your decision will please everyone, my son. Perhaps even Garreth will crack a smile when you decide,” he quipped, looking over at the man who was still wiping pineapple chunks off his jacket.
Garreth, ever pompous, straightened his back and walked away with the empty silver platter, ignoring the comment. Father laughed, holding his round stomach. Mother threw a grape at his face, and his laughing ceased.
“You have offended him, you silly man,” Mother said.
I gave a fake laugh as I reached for the wine, hoping it would kill my impending sense of doom.
“You are both forgetting I am king. I am far too soft on you two.”
“Not for long, old man,” I said smugly, enjoying the change in conversation.
“Hear, hear,” Mother replied, chuckling. “So perhaps, Harold, my dear, you should get used to me telling you off. Do apologize to Garreth at once. The poor man already has to put up with Bernard. He doesn’t need you griping at him too!”
Father shook his head. “Preposterous, that’s his job!”
Mother reached for her cup of tea, “Anyway, Xavier, no need for us to spoil this exciting moment for you. I trust you’ll find the right girl after your long search.” She arched back in her chair, concealing her smirk with the cup as she took a sip.
It was the way she emphasized that word; long. My father looked at me, winking.
I felt a surge of discomfort deep within me. They thought I was going to bed with these women. And they looked proud. My nausea surged back and my dinner threatened to make a surprise appearance.
I focused on the tiles and the open space draped in the warm hues of evening sunlight, getting lost inside myself.
A dragon’s roar startled me. Looking to the sky, I saw the massive beast. She was as yellow as the sun itself, a fact I knew without a shadow of a doubt since I played with this dragon as a child.
“Artzote!” I called, rising from my chair.
Her great wings cast a giant shadow over us, completely blocking out the sun. Artzote let out a bolt of lightning, using her special gift to say hello. I ditched my dinner and ran across the courtyard into the vestibule. The guards threw open the doors for me. After racing through the hallways, I emerged at the rear of the castle. Anything to get me out of there.
I arrived on the patio that led out to the field and kept running as I waved up at the sky, hoping my grandparents could see me. Artzote flapped her powerful wings, descending from the sky. Each flap generated huge gusts of wind and knocked me off balance. Bernard came up from behind, stomping his thick trunk legs. Each step ripped mud and grass with his huge claws; he flapped his gargantuan wings in energetic joy at seeing his dragon friend.
The two dragons squealed at one another in a deafening greeting as Artzote touched the ground. Bernard crashed his long, jagged head into Artzote’s as they nuzzled each other fifty feet above me.
An uproar came from the pink lacquered box strapped to the harness on Artzote’s back. I could already hear Granny screaming at Grandfather. The door on the side of the box, which was painted with daisies and strengthened with bronze iron, swung open, and a long rope ladder fell down. I grabbed the end of it, and held it taut.
“Bernard, behave yourself! Let Granny and Grandfather get down.”
The dragon raced off across the field before chasing himself in circles, causing the ground to move beneath me.
“Xavier, my boy!” Grandfather shouted, peering down from the open door, his twirling gray mustache as long as ever. I waved my arms in wide, swift motions.
It took only a few seconds for Harold Nobleturn Senior to settle Artzote enough for him and Granny to descend the ladder. He was the first down, hair wild and dressed in his finest as he hugged me tightly. He was a professional at this. My grandmother, Elizabeth Nobleturn, on the other hand, was only halfway down, her aging fingers gripped the rope for dear life and her flared skirt whipped in the wind.
“Are you all right, my dear?” Grandfather shouted up at his struggling wife.
“Do I look all right, you stupid old man? I told you we should have taken a horse and carriage. This is preposterous at my age! Get over here and help me, already!”
I kept the rope ladder as still as I could while she descended slowly. “I’ll hold it steady for you, Granny.”
She struggled down the last few wooden steps. “At least there’s one gentleman in this family!” she proclaimed, reaching the ground.
“My dear, we are not boring old grandparents. You behave as if we have one foot in the grave!” Grandfather looked at her knowingly.
“Just you wait!” she shouted back, giving him her signature resentful stare. She straightened her dress and blew a thick strand of auburn hair away from her face, looking exhausted.
Father came running up with Garreth and Mother in tow.
Grandfather waved his arms excitedly, growing evermore unrefined with age. “Harold, Margarete! And Garreth, old boy, what a delight to see you again!”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Garreth said, bowing.
“Fetch their luggage at once,” Father commanded.
Garreth nodded, ever the dutiful butler.
I watched as Garreth looked up at Artzote—at the wide, toothy jaw full of razor-sharp teeth and her bulging red eyes staring down at him—and gulped.
Grandfather laughed wickedly. “Oh fear not, Garreth. We travel light with Artzote. We have plenty of clothing and supplies in the castle.”
Garreth smiled and bowed as relief filled his stressed eyes.
“Honestly, Garreth, she’s no more frightening than Bernard,” I said. Garreth took one more glance up at the towering dragon, bowed lower, and made a swift retreat toward the castle.
“I’m terribly sorry for Garreth’s behavior,” Mother said, leaning in to embrace Granny.
“Oh, please,” Granny said, dusting off her dress with one arm and returning the hug with the other. “We’re more than used to it by now.”
Father walked toward the castle alongside Grandfather, and Mother and Granny, arms linked, followed just behind. I observed the dragons playing in the field, realizing that if the Prince’s Quest was successful, we would have three dragons.
“Xavier,” Granny called after me.
I left Bernard and Artzote to their frolicking and jogged to her side as the rest of my family entered the door to the castle.
“Oh, Xavier, my old bones are killing me. Cooped up in that box with that stupid rope ladder folded high at the side of me, listening to your grandfather yap my head off . . . Still, the views of Ivearth were just spectacular,” Granny said.
“Indeed they are. Hopefully soon I’ll have my own dragon to fly above our kingdom with,” I said.
Granny stopped, looking at me carefully. “What’s wrong?” she asked, eyes suddenly sharp.
“What do you mean, what’s wrong?”
Granny just studied me with a wise expression on her wrinkled face. “Something’s wrong with you.” She always knew.
“Nothing’s wrong. It’s just, well . . .”
“I knew something was wrong,” she said, nodding.
I bit my lip and sat on the short brick wall surrounding the flower garden. Granny sat beside me and reached an arm around my shoulders.
“Well, spit it out then,” she said.
“Agui is threatening to pull out of the treaty. It could mean war in the Protected Kingdoms. War during the beginning of my reign.”
She shook her head. “Oh, dear. We always thought it might come to this, Xavier, ever since that idiot Rueban took the throne over there. His father and his father before him were disgusting pieces of work, but Rueban is despicable. The stories we’ve heard.”
She stopped herself from going on a ramble and clasped her hands in front of her, then met my eyes.
“Now you listen here. You may become king soon, but your grandfather and father will still be here, as will your mother and I. Plus, we’ll have three dragons on our side. Agui only has one. Divinum has two, and they will not stand for it either. Agui might want war, but they won’t be that stupid.” Her words soothed me. Granny always knew best. She grabbed my hands with hers, “You are not alone, Xavier. Even when you feel like you are. Your family is with you; always.”
“Thank you, Granny,” I said and smiled as relief flooded me. She always knew what to say. I missed her council when she and Grandfather were in the south.
She squinted, looking further. “But there’s something else bothering you. I can always tell.”
Sometimes she was too on the nose. I played it off with a shrug and hoped she would back down.
“Okay, well, now I know there’s something else.”
“I’m nervous about the journey,” I said.
“And . . ." She raised a brow, encouraging me to continue.
“And . . . and I’m nervous about choosing a queen,” I admitted quietly, eyes to the ground.
“Go on.” Her eyes were unjudging as she gave me the space to explain.
“Well, it’s such a big decision! I’m deciding who is worthy of the honor of Queen and who I want to share the rest of my life with.” I focused on the weeds sprouting from the dirt by the toes of my boots.
“Indeed! Your grandfather and I have been placing bets. Please tell me you’re not considering that lush Lily Thornbank. Her mother and grandmother are awful whores as well.”
I shook my head, taken aback but never truly surprised by her bluntness. That was par for the course for Granny. “Well, perhaps. There’s also Danielle Craymore.”
“A fine choice, if that’s who you think is suitable.” I gave a restrained smile; Granny watched my reaction closely.
“But . . . is that really what you want, my dear?” She shushed me before I could think of a response. “Perhaps you don’t know it yet, or you aren’t ready to talk about it. You ought to know by now, but it’s not for me to say.”
Now I was really confused. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“You will soon. When you’re ready to talk about it, I’ll be here.”
A small bolt of fear tore through me—she couldn’t know what I feared. She couldn’t know about the feelings I’d been having and the internal struggles I faced. But perhaps she did. She was too intuitive not to.
“Xavier, you’re about to enter the island of Hom, the realm of dragons and magic, like every crown prince before you. The Prince’s Quest has been a tradition for hundreds of years. Never before in Ivearth has a prince been unsuccessful in finding a dragon companion to bond with.”
I turned instinctively to look at Bernard and Artzote, who were now biting each other’s faces and smashing their wings together in playful abandon.
“They may look fearsome, vicious, stupid even, but make no mistake—they are the wisest, most sensitive creatures in the whole world. A dragon will not accept you as a companion if you are not true to yourself—even if that truth is you’re a grotesque and loathsome creature like Rueban Barthus. Oh, what a frightful creep he is. He couldn’t even get his own dragon, and now he rides on his dead father’s—the shame!” Granny shook her head, coming back to the present, “But yes, you must reveal your full truth to them.”
Her words haunted me. “I’m not true?” I asked.
“You are good, My Grandson. And you will be a good king, of that, I have no doubt. But soon you’ll see. The island will change you. You won’t come back the same. Your grandfather didn’t, and neither did your father. They came back stronger, wiser, and more fully themselves.”
I looked up at her happy, contemplative face as she drifted through memories of the past. She put her hands on my cheeks and smiled. “From a young age, we train you to be proper, to be a good royal and a good man. But it’s up to you to find yourself.”
“Thanks, Granny,” I said, unsure what else I could say.
She leaned in and kissed me on the cheek. “Well, we better find someone who can fix my hair before anyone else sees me. I look like a drunken tramp!”
How was I to sleep with everything Granny had said bouncing around in my head? The Prince’s Quest loomed over me like a phantom in the night. Rain battered my window as I lay awake, pushing back memories of the past. I usually kept those memories tightly shut away in a dark corner of my mind, and I had thought I’d thrown away the key, but they were creeping back in.
If my truth was what I feared, then I was keeping it hidden and denying its existence. However, I knew the things we suppressed had a way of crawling back up, itching at us in the darkness, fighting to be set free. They haunted us like lost spirits. They met us in our dreams. Every secret, every lie, eventually found its way into the light, leaving us wounded and hopeless in the face of our truth.
I remembered the gaudy gold and diamond rings and tap tap tapping on the wood of the chair as Father spoke to Reuban. His pale, gaunt face and dark features were only a few years older than mine. He’d leered at me, as if I were nothing more than a worm in the dirt beneath his polished boots. His nose was pointed high, like the air beneath it was poison.
It had only been the three of us in that small meeting room as we sat around the crackling log fire. I held myself tightly, trying to remain calm as my mind raced with self-critical thoughts about my unworthiness in the presence of two kings. I had barely registered what Father had been saying. He’d been diplomatic as usual; firm in his conviction and careful not to offend.
“I see your point”—he said that a lot—“but as king of Ivearth, I have sworn an oath to uphold the treaty our kingdoms signed all those years ago. We in Ivearth still strongly believe in the words of that treaty. It is what has kept us in the age of peace.”
Rueban scoffed and his eyes widened. “Well, things are not as comfortable for us in Agui as they are for you here. My ancestors might not have been the fairest or most sensible of kings, and my father certainly had his flaws. But I have sworn to improve things for my people. I want to harvest only one resource from the island of Hom: the flower of the healing dragons. It can cure disease and sickness. The days of dragons and tradition are behind us. Our southern enemies, Asuras, are nothing of what they used to be. They stay on their side of The Divided World, and we stay on ours. It is time we start looking forward, not backward.”
When I was a child, Father had told me the story of the healing dragons of Hom, orange in color and sensitive to anyone taking their flower. Ceboflue, he’d called it. It was their lifeforce and they protected it fiercely. That was why he wriggled so uncomfortably in his chair.
“Machinery is advancing here in our kingdom. Steam can power boats; it will soon power carriages on land. All this knowledge, we share freely with any Aguian smart and resourceful enough to study at our University of Inventions. Machinery and the birth of this industrial revolution are just the start. Advances in medicine are improving at an exponential rate here in Ivearth. We do not hide this from you, King Rueban. We invite you to take part in the evolution of our kingdoms. The Guardians will never allow us to take any resources other than dragons. To ask them would be a great offense, and if we offend the Guardians they could pull out of the treaty. Then our kingdoms would have nothing: no dragons, no symbols of power and peace. Our people need those things more than anything.”
They debated the topic for some time. Rueban knew he needed us on his side. He calculated his words and made it clear he would not back down while being unprovoking. I ought to have been thinking more about how he had disrespected our Treaty of Protection. How what he was asking of us could breed civil war at best and a war with a powerful race of magicians. But instead, I wondered what Rueban had been thinking. What those glances at me meant.
After a few more cups of wine, Father had had enough of debating and asked me if I would escort Rueban to his chambers. We stood and made our respectful, pleasant farewells to Father and took our leave.
We walked through torchlit corridors in uncomfortable silence. Rueban was the first to speak. “I suppose soon it won’t matter what your father thinks. You will soon be king.”
“Yes, well. I have to say, I agree with my father. But I do hope we can maintain a pleasant alliance.” My voice shook as I spoke and I hoped he hadn’t noticed.
Rueban didn’t press the subject, showing surprising restraint. Being around him felt threatening, though, as if he were on the verge of attack. Still, even with the quickening of my heart and the awkward silence, there was something oddly alluring about his piercing blue eyes and the way he fitted his richly-embellished tunic.
We approached his wing, and I led the way to his guest chambers, stopping at the oak door with rounded handles. I reached across and opened the door for him. “I trust you’ll be comfortable,” I said.
He leaned into the archway and turned back to me. “Yes, yes, I will.”
I signaled my agreement and prepared to walk away, but he stretched an arm out to stop me. I turned back and faced him. His touch excited me in a way I wasn’t prepared for.
“Prince Xavier, it’s been a pleasure meeting you tonight.” He slid his hand from my back, and his fingers fell onto my forearm and caressed me. My throat closed. I didn’t know what to say. His gaze was intense, and I knew we verged on something inappropriate, something dangerous.
Rationality fled as I met that gaze with my own. He rubbed his hand up my biceps and held me firmly. I didn’t want to stop him, but even if I had, the fear in my stomach kept me speechless and immovable. He reached a hand to the back of my head and ran his fingers through my hair as he arched in toward my face.
I couldn’t look. It felt sinful, with the Great Goddess peering down at me. So, with eyes closed, I reached out my hand and rested it on his waist. He opened his mouth to speak, letting out a hushed breath that sent shivers down my body.
“Good night, Prince Xavier. Now I see what you truly are,” he whispered.
I swallowed my anxiety as he pulled away and disappeared through the door. My heart slowed and my breath shook. What was that? What kind of game was he playing? What did he think he knew about me?
I slammed my palm against the stone wall beside me. Gripping my sore hand, I stalked back through the corridors. He had put me in such an uncomfortable place. To throw himself at me like that. But it was fine. I hadn’t wanted it anyway. I’d been just going along with it. Or at least that’s what I had told my racing heart, that one day soon I would have a queen, and this night and other nights like it would just be distant memories. One day I would laugh about the confusing thoughts I’d been fighting against since I was young, and they would plague me no more.
But here I am, awake at the midnight hour, replaying that night over and over in my mind.