Music swirled around the ballroom, wafting through the twirling gowns and tickling the drooping mustaches of noblemen. Emeri sighed, a shallow one because of her corset, and pulled up her scandalous bodice with her free hand. Her head ached from the pounds of curls that cascaded down the back of her head. At least her feet didn’t hurt, already numb from being squeezed into satin slippers. She endured the endless change of dance partners with a practiced smile, and longed for a large glass of Silverpointe brandy.
Two weeks had passed since the dragon riders returned from their ride to the Crystal Mountains, but to Emeri it seemed a season ago. Although First Mistress had frowned at news of Petal’s disappearance, her reaction to Emeri’s rescue at the lake almost resembled concern. Concern for her political card game.
“We’re relieved that our daughter finally got dragon riding out of her system,” her foster mother had said with a sniff, assessing her like she was a horse ready for auction. “Thank the Goddess you didn’t break any teeth in the crash. And all your bones are hale.”
When Twinkle and Emeri had arrived at the lake, a local fisherman and his wife took them in. Sparkle waded into the water and pulled out fish after fish, eating them like chips. Signal smoke poured out of his nostrils, leaving a trail up into the skies. As the sun lowered its heavy lids on the horizon, dark shapes loomed over the cottage. The dragon riders had found them! That night’s celebration had included liberal amounts of brandy that Avery had brought back with him from Silverpointe.
Now she longed for that homemade brandy, but must be content with hundred season vintage wine. Tonight’s ball was even more opulent than the three previous. Golden candelabras lit up the palace ballroom as bright as daylight over the crush of dancers and party goers who watched from the sides. At one end of the hall a large orchestra played the latest dance music and the open doors at the other end led into the dining room, where some guests still sat at table eating cake.
Finally, the conductor held his hands still, and the music stopped. The princess curtsied to her current partner, and dashed onto the outside garden. The selection of princes provided for tonight’s ball had been especially tedious. All she wanted was relief from the blaring music and endless prattle of meaningless conversation. One of Avery’s stories, even though she had probably heard it at least ten times, would be preferable at this point.
Emeri followed the flagstone path through the rose trellis, seeking her favorite place. The white gazebo loomed like a ghost in the waxing moon, hiding the two silhouettes who rustled on the bench inside.
Boldly she invaded their space, not caring how important these guests might be. The nobleman released the curl topped young woman, who shrieked at Emeri’s sudden appearance. It was Morrison, of course, one of the available suitors, with some baron’s daughter that she had met tonight but already forgot her name. The woman glared at Emeri while she readjusted the neckline of her gown. At least Morrison had enough conscience to look embarrassed. Emeri would be sure that he got crossed off her list. The couple fled back in the direction of the palace.
Finally, she was alone with the crickets and moonlight, the cool breeze rustling through her bouquet of curls.
Emeri stretched out on the bench, causing splinters to snag her top layers of silk. She didn’t care at the moment. It felt so good to lay down, even if it caused the volume of her dress to pile on top of her. She kicked off her slippers, and flexed her toes to get the feeling back. There was no way she would be able to get those shoes back on her swollen feet tonight.
From her hiding place, Emeri could hear the faint strains of music from the ball. She knew she should go back in. First Mistress would send a guard to find her eventually. It was so hard to hold up her part of the bargain she struck with her foster mother. How easy it had seemed, that night in the library, to promise that she would enter the courtship game when she returned from Silverpointe!
She had done her best. The princess had held her tongue while she was measured and fitted for new gowns worthy of the courtship dances. A wedding planner was called in, and Lacey was forced to step aside as a new stylist curled and pinned up her mistress’ long locks, powdered her face, and carefully outlined her eyes and lips. Emeri watched in the mirror as a stranger emerged before her eyes. A stranger that would be given in marriage to another stranger to strengthen the queendom.
Over and over she replayed Twinkle’s words in the forest. If Emeri hadn’t been so certain that she alone had to make a plan, she might have been able to keep her dragon in secret. It had never occurred to her that she should enlist the support of the dragon riding group. She had been certain that she could solve her problem by herself.
The ground shook beneath the bench, and the princess sat up quickly. A blast of familiar smoke made her cough, followed by a welcome face poking out of First Mistress’ prize rose bushes, crushing them under her massive feet.
It was Petal! The princess’ heart stopped, and she couldn’t catch her breath. What was her dragon doing here? Her former dragon, since she had broken their bond.
The dragon reached her long neck into Emeri’s lap, begging to be petted. She sat outside the gazebo and curled her long tail around her. Emeri could see that the barbed tip was restored.
At first, she sat there, stroking Petal’s jaw and gently patting her neck. The dragon’s actions were clear. Petal was choosing to bond with her again. Even after her mistress had caused her great pain. Emeri felt all the walls she had built up around her heart over the past weeks come crashing down. In rushed unconditional love and acceptance that she would never find at court. This was why she became a dragon rider.
Checking first to make sure she wouldn’t be interrupted like she had done to the couple, Emeri pulled down the underskirts from her gown and loosened her corset, no small feat without servants. Then she tossed her skirts and slippers into the bushes. She was left with her knee length upper gown, much easier to ride a dragon.
Climbing up Petal’s down-stretched neck, she seated herself as comfortably as possible without a saddle, clicked her tongue and kicked Petal’s rough sides with her bare feet. Petal drew them both up into the sky with a few sweeps of her wings. The bright lights of the palace became smaller and smaller until they were but stars upon the black ground.
Emeri held onto the spikes on Petal’s neck as the night wind tugged at her curls, pulling out the pins, and leaving her hair a long twisting ribbon behind her. The chill night air caused a shiver to run down her back. She felt so alive!
Where were they going? The princess attempted to direct their flight, but Petal seemed determined to take them somewhere. They left Thorington Castle behind and headed south. Emeri could see a pinpoint of light that grew larger as they approached, revealing itself as a campfire. Petal descended to the meadow near it.
As they were landing, Emeri could see shapes in the darkness. When she slipped down Petal’s neck to the ground, she fell into an immediate hug.
“Emeri! I knew Petal would bring you!” Worley said, twirling her around.
“Worley, what are the riders doing out here?” the princess asked, all thought of her problems forgotten. The circle of riders emerged from the trees where their dragons were still hidden, curls of smoke creating a haze in the broken down underbrush.
Twinkle stepped forward with a mug. She handed it to Emeri, who sipped it with delight when she realized it was brandy. “We were out on a moonlight ride when Petal appeared. She landed here so we followed her. After we all were settled, Petal wouldn’t let us near her. Instead she took off in the sky, and we decided to see what would happen.”
“Petal went to find you,” Avery said, as he led Emeri over to their fire. “Come, sit down. While we were waiting, we came up with a plan.”
“But I broke the bond,” Emeri said as she sat down on a log and warmed herself at the fire. She wished Petal would have brought her leather riding clothes and gloves. Worley saw her shiver and brought a blanket for her shoulders. “How could Petal come back to me?”
“Your dragon is unique,” Twinkle said with a smile. “She chose you twice. So we should make sure you two stay together.”
Emeri shook her head. “But I don’t even know who I will marry or where I will live,” she said, her face pale in the firelight.
“That’s why we need a flexible plan,” Avery said, taking another sip of his brandy.
“You’ll love it!” Worley said, his words muffled by the roasted corn he was inhaling.
“But I don’t deserve it,” Emeri said. “I didn’t seek your counsel, instead choosing to do the unthinkable. I don’t know why Petal came back, but I don’t deserve a second chance to be a dragon rider. I’ll go back to my dresses and curls and parties. And wedding.” She choked on her words and looked away.
Twinkle handed her a cloth. “Get yourself together, Dragon Rider. Now that you’ve done the most difficult thing a rider can do, anything else we can come up with will be easy.” Emeri wiped her eyes.
“That’s better,” Twinkle said, giving her a hug. “Now sit there and listen.”
Emeri pulled the blanket closer around her and spread her gown over her bare legs. She was afraid to hope, and yet here were her friends, gathered around her.
“Petal will stay with Sparkle, who’s still on the mend. I’ve got room. And I live by myself, except for Molly, so no one’s tongue will be wagging about me having another Crystal Dragon,” Twinkle said.
“Then you can send messages through Worley when you can get away to ride. You can meet Petal in Avery’s family’s field, near their cottage. We’ll keep your riding clothes and tack at their home. First Mistress or her servants would never think to look there,” Avery continued.
“If you move away, it will even be easier,” Worley insisted. “With dragons, we can be wherever you are.”
The princess looked at their eager faces reflected in the firelight. What they neglected to mention was that if First Mistress discovered their secret, they would all be thrown in the dungeon and their dragons sold. Emeri would escape because of her marriage plans. Why would her friends take this risk for her? For Petal?
Petal had been quietly resting behind her the whole time. Emeri turned and patted her nose. She dared not send away the only people, and dragon, that accepted her for herself, with no hidden motives. Even though she knew her future was at royal court, she now realized how much she needed to keep this part of her life. Even if it must remain secret, her dragon would help her keep her balanced.
“Thank you, everyone, for taking on this enormous task,” Emeri said to her friends. “Trying to go on without Petal for these past weeks has proved to me that it’s impossible. I can’t live without being a dragon rider. I will go along with your intrigue.”
“I told you she’d do it!” Worley shouted.
“We must swear an oath,” Twinkle said. She took out a small knife and made a cut on her finger. After that she squeezed a drop of blood into her empty mug. Then she passed the knife, and each rider did the same. When all had contributed, Twinkle poured more brandy into the mug and threw it into the fire. The flames burst higher for a moment, like the hope in Emeri’s heart.
“We are bound by friendship, blood, and fire,” their leader said, as they stood around the fire holding hands. “Emeri of Thorington, First Royal Dragon Rider, we are bound to your secret service and the service of your dragon, Petal, until the release of death.”
The determined faces of her friends convinced the princess that whatever title she might gain in the future; none would be greater than Dragon Rider.