The pale dawn’s light drew a sigh from Emeri as she watched Lacey jerk open the curtains in her bedchamber. Her bleach white room was bathed in pink, like the shimmering scales of her dragon. Lately, everything around her reminded her that her time with Petal was coming to an end.
“Good dawn, my Lady,” her maid greeted her mistress with red eyes. Both of them had sat up and talked away the night. They knew that after Silverpointe, nothing would be the same. Emeri’s carefree days spent riding the wind would be replaced by fittings, meetings, and party arrangements. Although her maid lacked the courage to ride with Emeri on Petal, nonetheless she enjoyed the contagious excitement of the dragon riders, and felt her mistress’ approaching loss.
“Everything is packed?” Emeri said as she struggled out of her bedcovers.
“The saddlebags are down at the stables, along with your riding costume,” Lacey confirmed, as she opened the heavy armoire and pulled out a black tunic and trousers, Emeri’s favorite outfit. Definitely not something First Mistress would choose for her. But delicate silk had no place on top of a rough dragon’s back.
After she was dressed and devoured her tea and toast, Emeri rushed down to the stables. Anzel and Worley, as well as the rest of the dragon riders would meet her there. The open field near the stables provided a good place to stage the dragons. Outside the main castle gate, the vendors for the Flower Festival were setting up their stalls. Farmers came from distant lands to compete in contests for the finest roses, creating an overwhelming perfume that blanketed the estate for days.
As she drew near, Emeri smelled her favorite fragrance—the sulfurous smoke of dragons. The soft meadow grass was beaten down by trampling dragon feet, and a grey cloud clung to the morning mist. Row after row of bobbing heads and flapping wings waiting with nervous excitement for the ride to begin. Stable hands ran back and forth between them with buckets of water and freshly killed rabbits.
“Well, now that you’ve finally gotten out of your big, puffy princess bed, I guess we can leave,” a voice said behind her. She whirled around and gave a huge hug to a large woman with two long silver braids.
“Good dawn, Twinkle,” Emeri said. “I’m glad you’re leading the ride.” Her eyes seemed a little blurry, so she dabbed them with her hankie, for what she knew would not be the last time.
“Well, of course I wouldn’t miss Silverpointe,” Twinkle replied, her wrinkled face arranged into a big smile. “No yellow fever can keep me down!” The ride captain had recently recovered from a long bout with the dread disease that had ravaged the queendom last winter.
“I don’t think death would keep you from a ride,” the princess agreed. It was fitting that her first dragon riding instructor would lead her last ride. Many hours of flying lessons had convinced her that the older woman was the tougher than an old goat, as well as the finest dragon rider in the land.
“Gather round, everyone!” Anzel shouted from the main stable door. Riders popped out from the rows of dragons and spilled out from the stable, crowding close. Twinkle stood up on a box on the front steps, and addressed the group.
“On our first day, we’re going as far as Ferrytown,” Twinkle said, and a rumbling started through the crowd. “I know some of you think that’s too far to push our dragons, but the court druids predict a storm by the end of our second day, and I’d like to get as far into the mountains as we can, in case we have to wait it out at the lodge.”
Emeri nodded her approval and caught a wink from her instructor. Some of the riders were more interested in the food and drink than the actual riding. She had complete confidence in Petal’s endurance. Also she knew Twinkle would allow the dragons rest stops.
“After we make the lodge,” the ride captain continued, “we’ll cross over the mountains at Crystal Bowl, and drop down into Silverpointe. The innkeeper is expecting us, so he has hired out the rest of the village to provide enough beds. You’ll be ready for the hot springs and mountain brandy by that time.”
“Are we heading back on weeksend?” Worley asked with a flushed face. This was his first overnight ride, and he had been insufferable for weeks.
“Of course, weather permitting,” Twinkle replied. “But we’re not gathered here to talk. Dragon riders, let’s ride!” At her cry, the group dispersed to their mounts, donning helmets and jackets as they went.
“Emeri, we’re with you,” Anzel said as he passed her by, loaded down with bulging saddlebags. She closed her leather jacket with its silver fasteners and grabbed her helmet and gloves. Her saddlebags were already loaded onto Petal, thanks to Lacey. As she walked through the downy grass, her eyes savored the commotion surrounding her. These were people who loved adventure, not politics. Her kind of people.
Petal waited expectantly for her, standing still in the sea of multicolored dragons. She was the only pink one there, as her breed was rare to be tamed. Emeri remembered the first time she had seen her dragon, when the royal family had taken a holiday at the lodge in the Crystal Mountains. She was only a child of eight seasons, full of curiosity and devoid of fear. While her nurse was settling the other royal children down after the evening meal, Emeri had snuck out to see the famous sunset over the shimmering mountains. When she heard honking, she had to investigate, expecting a wayward goose. But instead, a cat-sized pink lizard belched tiny puffs of smoke and scurried over to jump in her arms.
So her dragon had found her, and they were inseparable ever since. Since it was rare that a dragon chose to be gentled, First Mistress could not forbid Emeri to keep Petal. When the First Mistress showed only a cold disapproval to any of Emeri’s accomplishments, her dragon always showered her with affection. If being wrapped with prickly scales and hot breath could be called affection.
“It’s going to be alright,” Emeri said, as she climbed up the ladder to her saddle. “You’ll love the Crystal Mountains. We’ll find more of your kind so you won’t be alone.” She tried to keep her voice strong and confident.
She waited silently as the rows of dragons formed into pairs. Since she rode sweep, she had to wait for everyone else to take off. It was her job to make sure no rider was left behind on their journey. Worley turned back and waved, and then followed his brother up into the sky. Emeri clicked her tongue and powerful wings lifted them both up to join the other riders. The roaring wind, the woolly blanket of clouds and the morning sun’s sudden brilliance were captured in her heart where she would treasure them, even when her future kept her caged on the cold ground.