The Jewel soared high in the sky, and Jade watched Dragon become smaller and smaller. His aquamarine eyes shone bright with tears he didn’t bother to hide. Standing on the glass ceiling of the spaceport, his blond mane whipped by the wind, he locked his gaze with hers as if to pull her back down to him. Her hand remained plastered against the cold window, watching her lover disappearing. Their connection seemed only to grow stronger as the number of aerial miles dividing them increased. When a thick blanket of purple clouds hid the large dome of the spaceport, a heaviness settled in Jade’s chest.
Leaving Dragon ripped her heart into so many little pieces, Jade wondered if she could survive the pain. She felt him inside her, her love for him expanding in her ribcage until it consumed her.
Plans change. Assassins adapt, she reminded herself.
Life would go on. A life without Dragon. The alternative was to share him with Lauren and Gilda, his two brides-to-be, and that would kill her for sure. It would be a slow death made of stolen moments of ecstasy followed by the corrosive poison of jealousy tainting her thoughts, darkening her heart until she eventually resented him. In less than two weeks, Dragon would consummate his marriages on his wedding night. Soon after, he would announce his heir, and Jade couldn’t be anywhere near Solaria when the happy news became public knowledge.
“We’ll be leaving Solarian atmosphere soon. Enjoy the view,” the captain’s voice croaked from the gramophone sitting on the low table by the sofa.
Jade slid down the glass wall of the bay window, her sight blurred by the tears she couldn’t hold back any longer. She hugged herself tightly, her arms a poor substitute for Dragon’s strong embrace. The ghost of his last kiss lingered on her lips, sweet and bitter at the same time.
With his legs bent and his body at an angle, Dragon glided down the surface of the smooth glass dome, his thoughts in disarray as he let the strong breeze whip his face. His eyes stung with tears.
The love of his life had just left him, and he wished his heart were a clockwork mechanism, so he could turn a key and stop the pain. Instead, the ache radiated from his chest to the rest of him, until he doubled over at the edge of the dome and almost fell.
His distraught state made Dragon careless, and he didn’t pay any attention to his surroundings.
He heard the subtle whooshing of wings when the shadow of the vengeful assassin was almost over him. The one-seater gondola Dragon had used to fly to the top was on the other side of the dome where he had left it before venturing away. Jumping wasn’t an option. The long fall from the edge of the dome to the ground wouldn’t kill him, but the injuries would slow him down.
Arrows flew past Dragon, closer and closer but never hitting him. His assailant wanted him to run along the edge of the glass structure. Anger replaced his former melancholy. As a defenseless target, he would be dead if the assassin had aimed to kill. Instead, the mercenary was playing with him, forcing Dragon to play at the rhythm of his sick tune.
From beneath his feet, a deep rumble shook the dome. Inside the spaceport, one of the smaller airships, an airkayak, left the dock and soared. At the same time, the central part of the spherical ceiling opened, each ring section retracting until the hole was large enough for the small vessel to fit through the opening.
“High Lord!” the chief engineer called from the cockpit. “Jump in.”
Dragon heard the whistle of an arrow and leaned away a moment before the shaft would pierce his eye. The next aimed at his heart, but Dragon had anticipated the assassin’s move and feinted to the side before skipping on the disappearing rings. He sped toward the hole as arrows flew one after the other around him.
Piercing pain tore at his shoulder, but he didn’t slow. A second arrow embedded itself in his calf, further spreading amaranthine through his system. The effects of the drug made him sluggish. Running felt like swimming against a strong current. His legs weighed him down to his knees.
“High Lord!” the chief engineer shouted.
Another arrow. And another yet. Dragon didn’t know where they hit him. The torpor grew stronger with each breath. Wings as large as the ones of his draglet Carellian shadowed him. The malevolent presence of the assassin felt closer as if the man were breathing on Dragon’s shoulder.
Dragon dragged his body forward, his arms pulling him the rest of the way.
A hand grabbed Dragon’s wrist and yanked the rest of his body over the edge. Gravity helped matters, and his large body fell into the airkayak.
The chief engineer’s words reached Dragon’s ears alongside shouts and bellows that feebly resonated all around him.
The last thing he saw was Valerian’s draglet, Contessa, rampaging across the dome, her wings displacing the air as she bellowed.
“Did you catch the assassin?” Dragon asked as soon as he woke in his bedroom. Even before opening his eyes, he had sensed Valerian and Lars.
The nervous energy emanating from his friends permeated the air.
“No, I didn’t. I was more worried about saving you, and by the time the rest of the guards arrived, he was already gone. We’ve combed Sol Palace and all the Rocky Domes within five kilometers. He’s nowhere,” Valerian answered from the corner, surrounded by darkness. The shadow cast by the wall couldn’t hide his haggard appearance. “In case you are wondering, you were out for two days.” His voice, too, was tired.
“The poison in the arrowheads—”
“Was twenty times the amount we found in the one used against Carellian,” Lars said, sitting in the large armchair by the cold fireplace. He had changed from the last time Dragon saw him, but the dark circles under his eyes spoke volumes.
“The bastard came prepared.” Dragon pushed himself against the headboard. His head spun, and his eyes lost focus for a moment.
“The medicus said one more arrow and you’d be dead.” Valerian moved from the shadow. He passed a hand through his unbound hair before lowering it to a jaw which hadn’t been shaved in days.
“The chief engineer?” Dragon asked, remembering the man yelling in pain.
“He’s recovering. I was able to remove the arrow from his shoulder before it was too late, and the medicus purged his system of the remaining poison,” Valerian answered.
“If it weren’t for you, we’d both be dead.” Dragon rarely had reasons to contemplate his demise, but lately, it seemed that the specter of death was never far away from him or the ones he cared for. “Thank you.” He brought his fisted hand to his heart.
“The chief engineer is the one you should thank, not me. He sent the alarm and came to your assistance when nobody else could’ve done anything.”
Dragon nodded. “He’ll be properly thanked,” he said before slipping into a morose silence. Many thoughts circled his mind, swimming too fast for him to focus.
Knocks reverberated in the stillness of the room.
“Let us in!” Lauren demanded.
Valerian tilted his chin toward the door. “They haven’t left the antechamber the entire time. We didn’t think it was a good idea for them to see you in dragon form while you healed.” He pressed the heel of his hand against his temple. “You barely breathed, and we didn’t know if you would’ve allowed them inside even if you were awake.”
“You did right.” Dragon felt a pang of guilt searing his chest. He hadn’t spared a thought for his betrotheds since Jade left, and most certainly, he didn’t want to share his dragon with them. It would be too intimate; something only mated couples experienced. “Let them in.”
Lars went to open the door and mutely nodded at the guard standing sentinel in front of the entrance.
Gilda remained outside, rooted to the spot, but Lauren burst inside.
“How long has he been out of the coma?” Lauren demanded, looking at Valerian.
“I can answer your questions myself,” Dragon said before turning to Valerian. “Could you give us a moment?” He then motioned for Gilda to enter. “Come in, please.”
“Of course.” His lieutenant joined Lars at the door, where he gave a slight nod at Gilda. “Princess,” he said, opening his arm to the side to let her inside the bedroom.
Gliding on light slippers, Gilda joined Lauren at the foot of the bed.
“Stay close,” Dragon said to his friends.
“We’ll be outside.” Lars waited for Valerian to step into the antechamber before pulling the wooden panel closed behind them.
“I’m glad you’ve healed, my Lord,” Gilda said, her eyes focusing on the ornate footboard.
“So am I.” Dragon’s dizziness hadn’t improved, but he straightened his back against the headboard. “We should talk.”
“About our impending nuptials and all the details that need to be addressed,” Lauren said.
“Yes, I agree.” Dragon would have rather had the conversation when he was whole and properly dressed, but words needed to be spoken and better sooner than later. “Please, sit.” He directed his gaze to the twin armchairs flanking the fireplace.
The two women crossed the room, one barely touching the floor, ethereal and gentle, the other striding like a general going into war.
Dragon waited for them to sit. “There won’t be a wedding,” he said, looking first at Gilda, then at Lauren.
Although nobody spoke, the room was far from silent.
Gilda’s erratic heartbeat and hitched breath painted a relief she tried to keep hidden, and she lowered her eyes when Dragon looked at her. At the same time, anger sparked sudden and fiery in Lauren’s face, contorting her expression into one of hate.
“You wouldn’t,” Lauren started. Usually in control, the woman hesitated before speaking again. Her chest rose and fell as color warmed the porcelain tone of her face. “You can’t. Without us, you won’t have an heir.”
“I’ve decided already.” Dragon stared at the beautiful woman he had once looked forward to knowing intimately, and the sight filled him with sadness. “You deserve to be loved and cherished. Not because of what you can bring to the union, but because you, by yourself, are worthy.”
“I am to be a mother of dragons,” Lauren said, her voice not as strong as before. Under Dragon’s gaze, she wilted, her shoulders drooping and her hands worrying the fabric of her elegant gown.
By contrast, Gilda uncurled from her submissive pose, her gaze searching his without hesitation. “You don’t want to marry us.” A statement, not a question.
“No, I don’t.” Dragon wouldn’t disrespect them with a half-truth.
“Because you don’t love us.” Without fidgeting, Gilda kept her hands on her lap, looking straight at him.
“Yes, that’s correct.” With every word he said, Dragon felt lighter. He wished he’d had this conversation before Jade left. She too deserved better.
“Love means nothing to people like us,” Lauren said. “We were created for you, to give you the children you can’t have otherwise.” Her knuckles whitened as she clutched the fabric of her gown like a shield. “It’s because of that woman, isn’t it?”
“Lauren—” Gilda angled her body to give Lauren a warning glance.
“I won’t let you.” Lauren stood. “My family won’t allow this travesty to go any further.”
“Why would you want to spend a life without passion?” Dragon asked.
“I never cared for passion,” Lauren scoffed. “I want my statue in the Remembrance Hall. One thousand years from now, people will know my name.”
“But why?” Dragon wanted to understand.
“Since I was little, everybody told me I was special because of what I am, and that I would always be remembered. Everything I was, everything I wanted to be, it didn’t matter because one day, once I married you, my life would be complete.” Lauren’s hands compulsively fisted her gown. “In a few weeks, you will collar me before the people of Solaria. Once your heir is conceived, you can disappear for all I care.” Without waiting for his reply, she exited the room.
“I’ll try to talk to her,” Gilda said, following Lauren.
Dragon stopped her before she could reach the door. “Wait. I’d like to hear your thoughts on the matter.”
“I don’t want to marry you either,” Gilda said. “I’ve always believed in passion.” Tilting her head to the side, she curtsied slightly before leaving him alone…