My mother, Queen Lucy, grasps my hand and hurries with me up the stairway leading into Prince Kalvar’s wing of the palace.
“I need you to see this. Tell me I’m not overacting for being so angry,” she splutters before pounding a fist on Kalvar’s solid oak door.
The door opens about halfway, and a pretty brunette with hazel eyes blinks sleepily at Mother. “Yes?”
“I don’t care if he’s only wearing his underwear. He’ll come out right now and make things right!” Mother exclaims.
Ava, the unfortunate wife of Kalvar to answer the door, rolls her eyes at Mother and shouts behind the half-closed door. “It’s your mother. What did you do this time, Kal?”
Kalvar pops his handsome and disheveled head out from behind the door, his expression brimming with annoyance. “Mother, what are you doing here? I’m entitled to my privacy!”
“I heard you blew off the gobli Crown Princess Leena because, and I quote from your manservant, Malcolm, ‘His majesty is hungover,’” Mother fumes. “How could you? Do you know how much it took your father and me to establish that treaty between our peoples?”
“Mother, the gobli crown princess will forgive us,” Kalvar objects, “I rescheduled for this afternoon with her.”
“We didn’t raise you to be like this, did we?” Mother asks hopelessly, rubbing her temples and closing her eyes as if asking the heavens for help, “How can you go this afternoon when you’re supposed to meet with your father-in-law, Lord Calbir, then?”
“You’re meeting with my father?” I hear Elle, Kalvar’s other wife, and my good friend, call from inside their apartments.
“Why would you sound surprised? Your parents are always in our business, Elle,” Ava complains in Elle’s direction.
Mother turns and glares at me, whispering, “You see, Kyla? Marry a man who wants one wife as I did.”
I don’t bother reminding her that no man would ever want me for a second wife, let alone first.
“What am I going to do? Tell her to reschedule again or let your father-in-law know his son-in-law drinks recklessly before important meetings?” Mother continues, “I’m tired of saving your ass. You have to deal with the consequences of your own actions!”
“Send Kyla,” Kalvar states suddenly, making me jump. He beams at me as if bestowing a favor upon me. “She’ll talk to the gobli princess, and I’ll meet with Lord Calbir.”
It’s my turn to roll my eyes with annoyance. “Are you serious?” I snort and cross my arms over my chest. “Nuh-uh, I’m not getting involved in this. You get drunk before an important meeting, that’s your choice, you pay for it… Besides, gobli hate me, remember?”
“Arlite, you’re right, sis,” Kalvar says and smacks his forehead, “sorry. I guess I’m royally screwed then, aren’t I?” He grins at Mother sheepishly.
“Yes, you are, and it’s not funny, Kal,” Mother says through clenched teeth, “This is the last time I’m going to save you. I’ll visit with Princess Leena myself, only because there will be great repercussions if no one meets with her. I swear, it’s like you don’t respect how much your poor father did to keep the peace here!”
Mother turns on her heel, and I follow after her.
“I owe you, Mom!” Kalvar calls from behind us. “Don’t tell Dad!”
“I wouldn’t dream of it with his health being the way it is!” Mother shouts back at him as she stomps away.
“Kyla, I wish you were going to be the next heir,” Mother whispers loudly, “Between you and me, Kalvar is much too distracted by all that the pomp and hero-worship being the next king can bring.”
“Mother, you know I wouldn’t want to be queen anyway,” I quickly say, not sure if I mean it or not. It’s never been in question. Since the day of my birth, I’ve been the Cursed princess. I bear the entirety of the kingdom’s shame on my shoulders. I love my fortunate brother, but even I can admit his party-animal lifestyle has been taking it too far lately. “I’m know Kalvar is cavalier about everything lately, but he’s dealing with a lot just like the rest of us.”
“I wish your father weren’t ill,” Mother says, her voice cracking. I can tell she’s about to cry. “Telling him about this would stress him greatly, but he’d know what to do. I can’t handle these adult children’s issues as he could. Did you know that Kalvar is thinking of getting married again?”
I blink. This is news to me. “No, I didn’t.”
“To an Erlund princess, to secure an alliance,” Mother sighs. “You know how I feel about that. I’m still not quite used to the polygamy thing being normal here in Underland, but it’s not just that, it’s the whole arranged marriage thing.”
“Mom, your marriage was arranged,” I say with a laugh, “And you and Father have been very happy together.”
“That wasn’t supposed to happen!” Mother laughs with me, though, her mood-lightening at my teasing. “Your father and I did it for a good reason, you know, and even then, it’s a miracle we fell in love and actually stayed together after everything was over.” Mother’s laughter ends in a sigh. “I’m not trying to be a hypocrite, Kyla, but I’ve never said our story was the example to follow.”
“I see your point,” I say.
I enjoy Mother and Father’s love story and never tire of hearing it. I guess it’s cause I’m a hopeless romantic myself—emphasis on hopeless.
“Kalvar already has two wives! One a daughter of a nobleman from Underland, our dear Elle, whom he romanced properly, and the other a princess from Westerly to secure an alliance. Now he’s marrying a woman from Erlund. What next? Marriage isn’t the only way to create an alliance, Kyla! Where I come from, there was no need. Love should be the reason. Here it is so… medieval sometimes.”
There Mother was using an Earth word I have no idea the origin of again. My mom has been through a lot. I don’t blame her for being frustrated.
By Elias, if I was from an entirely different universe, I’m sure I’d act the same way.
“I’m sorry, Mother, I don’t know what to say.” I put an arm around her. “When Father is well, things will get better.”
“Kyla, I’m unsure if he will get well,” Mother starts to sniffle. “When I think of what the Curse may do to him and even you eventually… please, dear, don’t allow that to ruin the now. Have a life now. Your father has enjoyed his life with me while he could. He’s lived many years, though, and it wears on him. Both of us wish you a better life than our own. I think most parents feel that way… You do keep yourself from the young men at court, Kyla, but there is a party next Savat’s night being held to celebrate the anniversary of Saul’s defeat. You should come. You are beautiful, smart, and compassionate… if any of them could see what I see in you, they’d realize what a treasure you are.”
I believe that unlike my mother from a different world who grew up without prejudice, every good man in Underland and Axus wouldn’t dare court me, and so far, this belief has proved true.
Face more rejection and fear?
No, thank you.
“I think I need a breather,” I say with a sigh, “if you’ll excuse me, Mother.”
“Of course, Kyla,” Mother says. “Be safe.”
“I think you forget that I can’t be killed, Mother,” I say with a wink.
“Oh, that’s something I caught onto when at the age of two you jumped out a window four stories up much to my horror,” Mother says dryly, crossing her arms at me in teasing. “No one prepared me to have a magical baby that could fly.”
“And here I am still jumping out of windows,” I say with a giggle.
I walk up to a window, hop on the ledge, and remove my coat to stretch out my extra pair of limbs.
I normally keep my wings hidden away even though it isn’t abnormal to see a winged person in Axus. However, I’m human and not sylph, and even sylphs have beautiful feathery wings of a dozen bright color variations. My wings are flesh-colored, smooth, and with talons on the joint like a bat’s.
My father does not have outward appearance issues like I, despite him holding the Curse.
Once I’d painfully tried to remove my wings, but my Curse had taken over, transformed me into my beast form, and healed any damage I’d done.
Unlike my father in my appearance, I’m completely cut off from the human race at all times.
Our chief historian and High Priest of the Temple of Light, Father Ryland, once told me there are no records of another female Cursed having ever existed, so she supposes the Curse manifests itself differently in me than it did my father.
I launch myself out the window and spread my wings, catching air beneath them. Despite deterring potential suitors, I am grateful for the ability to fly. It clears my anxiety.
A few guards look up at me as I fly, taking note of my presence but paying me no real attention. They are used to my flights.
I gaze down upon the keep of our palace and the walls, which conceal all of our secrets. Walls that have stood the tests of time and kept every king of Underland, the good and the bad, secure, and I see my father, King Alvar, standing on his bedroom balcony gazing up at me. He waves me down to meet him.
I land on the balcony next to my father, King Alvar.
My father is dressed casually, he hasn’t left his room in days, but he’s looking better today than the last time we visited one another.
“You waved me down?” I ask with a grin as I fold my wings against my back.
“Let’s go for a hunt,” Father says.
“Are you sure you’re up for it? Mother says your mind is clearer when you rest,” I say to him, quirking a scolding eyebrow, but I already know since my father is a stubborn man, he’s unlikely to heed my concerns. “You know… the doctor says it would be better if you talked about what’s on your mind.”
“Getting out with my daughter will do my mind better than talking about anything,” Father dismisses my concern with a wave. “I’ll find you in our old spot.”
I know where he’s referring, a certain cliff five miles south of Underland City.
“I’ll meet you there,” I say, raising my wings for take-off.
Half an hour later, Father and I meet on the cliff in our beast forms and survey the jungles below for prey.
“Kalvar messed up his meetings earlier today,” I say before I can stop myself. Mother told me she didn’t want to stress Father with these things.
Father nods his beast head sullenly. “Your brother does not have a bad heart, but he is only after what feels good in the moment and his ego, right now. It makes him foolish. However, royal duty is his work. I have faith he will learn it on his own time.”
“Kalvar doesn’t know how good he’s got it,” I say, “He’s got the heart of the kingdom, charming, and attractive… more specifically, he’s not Cursed. He has no understanding of how blessed he is.”
“We often don’t until our blessings are stripped from us, but Kyla, being cut off from the rest of humanity, is a great burden. A burden only I understand. I suggested this hunt because I understand you are not taking your beast form enough, which is dangerous. The Curse will begin to control you and turn you towards its darker instincts,” Father says. “You need to learn to master your beast. I won’t always—” he stops.
“You won’t always what?” I ask him, cocking my head.
His red beast eyes narrow on something, and he nods toward a clearing in the jungle. “Look, a herd of gazelle.”
We hunt and do not talk more on the subject. After we are finished hunting, we bring our quarry back to the palace for the palace kitchen. “I must speak with Kalvar,” Father says to me. “See that Lara gets this.” He refers to the head chef. “I love you, Kyla. Don’t ever forget that.”
One month later – The Day of Savat
“Kyla!” Elle calls from across our courtyard, interrupting my reminiscing of the last memory I had with my father.
He’d been gone in the morning.
My mother’s cries had awakened me.
His hunt with me had been one last rally of his human mind before flying off into the night towards the mountains as an animal-like beast. Search parties had gone out looking for him, but all returned without a sighting.
Will that be me someday? Nothing more than a dumb beast?
“Elle, come and sit with me,” I say. I perch at the fountain gazing down at the colorful fish as I move to spare Elle a seat.
Elle is dressed in a silver and white gown made of silk. Her wavy brown hair is styled up with tiny jewels, so she sparkles in the last rays of sunlight coming over the courtyard walls.
“Elle, you look lovely,” I compliment.
“I was going to ask you why you’re not dressed for the party,” Elle says, touching my hand. “You look like you’re going to a funeral.”
“I like black.” I shift my gaze back to the fish. “How is Kalvar doing? Is Mother still avoiding him?”
Elle smiles and gives me a little shove. “She’ll be happy when she learns he’s bringing in new trade with his marriage to Sylvia.”
“Are you okay about that? I know you and Ava have your matters of difference.”
“Kal’s the one who is marrying Sylvia. Not me.” Elle skims her fingers over the water causing the fish to chase them.
“Elle, do you ever wish it could be like it was when we were kids?” I ask quietly.
Elle smiles thoughtfully. “Those days were so… uncomplicated. Weren’t they, Kyla?”
There is a silence between us, and I put an arm around her shoulder. “Elle, no matter what, you’ll always be my favorite wife.”
Elle laughs. “I didn’t know we were married.”
“Not yet, anyway.” I laugh with her, and then we stop, both sigh, and it is quiet again. We both know what the other is thinking—I about my father, and Elle about her husband’s upcoming wedding.
“You’re a good friend, Elle,” I say. “Thanks for never giving up on me.”
“Till the end, Kyla,” Elle assures and hugs me.
“What are you two gossiping about?” Kalvar interrupts and strides into the courtyard to join us. He’s wearing a silver and white tunic that matches Elle’s dress. I wonder if Ava caught the memo too.
“We weren’t talking about you,” I tease him.
“Which means you definitely were.” Kalvar laughs, sits himself down between us, and puts his arms over both our shoulders. “Just like old times.”
“We were actually talking about that,” Elle says, nuzzling against Kalvar’s shoulder.
“Kyla, what in the name of Elias are you wearing?” Kalvar asks, suddenly taking notice of my drab robes.
“She says she likes black,” Elle quips. “But I really think she’s covering for the cult ceremony she’s going to attend after the party. I hear they’ll be drinking the blood of goats.”
I shoot her a mock exhausted look from across Kalvar’s broad chest. “Fine. I’ll put on something more festive!”
“Kyla, before the party, shouldn’t you—uh—take on your Cursed form?” Kalvar asks carefully.
I pull myself out of his arm. “Why would you say that, Kal?” I snap.
“Because your eyes are glowing red right now,” Kalvar states, his expression sympathetic.
“Arlite, Kalvar.” I close the mentioned eyes and get up, stretching my cramped wings out as I do. “You have no idea what it is to be Cursed, so stop pretending that you do.”
“I just remember Father telling you often how you have to let the beast out; otherwise, it will control you,” Kalvar scolds.
“Kal, let her be,” Elle says, “Let’s go dance, darling.”
Elle rises from the fountain and takes Kalvar’s hand in her own, bringing him up from the fountain too. “Kyla, forget about going to that stiff attendant of yours, Maybelle, you should have Leeza find you something incredible to wear and join us.”
Leeza never disappoints. The sylph woman, my mother’s personal expert in attire for any occasion, has me in a flowing black gown with azure accents that accentuates the blue in my eyes yet adheres to my dark tastes in clothing.
When I arrive in the great hall, the party is in full swing. Music played by a local band of our Mother’s choosing serenades dancers, and the pleasant smell of appetizers fills the immense room. There are sylphs, gobli, and stogs among the humans at the party.
Mother must be pleased with the turnout, especially since she’s been running things on her own since Father disappeared.
From the day of my birth, it was clear I’m not a kingdom favorite, so I’ve learned to search the room for Elle, my Mother, Father, Fletch, or Kalvar. Elle is the first one I spot. She’s in conversation with Ava.
Better steer clear of that.
Mother is talking with the sylph priestess, Sola Brightfeather, near the buffet tables. That’s my best bet for an enjoyable evening.
I excuse myself through the dancers to join her. Upon realizing who I am, most of the dancers step back even further than needed with wrinkled noses and frowns.
“Princess Kyla.” A male voice says, and I feel a tap on my shoulder.
I practically jump out of my skin.
“Princess Kyla, would you do me the honor of dancing?” the voice is behind me, and I turn to come face to face with a handsome human individual dressed in a smart brown tunic, with dark auburn-brown hair, a strong jaw, lean muscled physique, and gold-brown eyes.
“And you are?” I ask him, realizing I’ve left my manners at the door because I neither curtsy nor smile at the friendly stranger.
“I apologize for not saying,” he says, giving me a debonair grin. He straightens his strong shoulders and bows. “The name is Rift, and I would be honored if the princess were to join me in a waltz.”
I blink at him stupidly.
This guy—this handsome guy—wants to dance with me?
Before I can reply, my bones go rigid, and there is sudden pain in my back. My beast wants out bad.
Of all times for this to happen!
“Uh, I’m so sorry, Rift,” I stutter. “I have to go—uh—I have to talk to my mother.”
Rift smiles. It’s the kind of smile one gives when they know a secret. “I’ll be waiting for that dance.”
I barely make it out of my dress before the transformation overtakes me in the courtyard. My monster was biting and scratching to be released, and I ignored it; now, I’m paying in full.
Stupid. I should have listened to Kalvar.
My bones break as I transform, and the pain sears through my back and into my legs. Tears spring from my eyes, and I grit my teeth. I imagine my cries of misery sound like a woman going through labor pains to anyone within hearing distance. Hopefully, the music is loud enough in the great hall, and I’m far enough away that no one can hear.
If I had given in earlier, this transformation wouldn’t be painful. It would be quick and sweet, like slipping into clothes. I hate my Curse. It separates me from everyone else.
Finally, the transformation is complete. I shake my new body, rattling my wings and stretching my limbs. I take up most of the courtyard now, and I cautiously step over the fountain I’m so fond of as I slither over the wall and up onto the rooftops to get away from the party. I’m not as immense as my father is in Cursed form, but I’m told I’m still pretty darn scary.
While in beast form, my needs and desires are instinctual.
A transformation is exhausting to go through.
I evacuate the palace premises in flight before any of the guests see me.
I’ll catch a deer and eat it, then I’ll get back to the party.
I imagine I’m not going to be returning in time to dance with that handsome stranger, Rift. In all likelihood, he doesn’t know about my special condition I’d hidden away from the view of others and that’s why he’d asked me to dance.
Still… there is something about him I can’t shake.
Perhaps it is that I’m attracted to him and wistfully thinking, but the way he gazed upon me was like I was the only woman in the room.
The deer is an easy catch and quick meal, I devour it down to its bones. Father had taught me not to think too much about this animalistic way of eating. Raw meat and bones don’t hurt me like it would a regular human.
I lick my lips clean of blood and a deep purr settles in my throat. The beast is satisfied.
I’ve settled down on a hill overlooking the palace. The view is breathtaking, and a filmy mist has settled on the valley the palace in Underland City rests in.
I could paint a pretty picture from here, I muse, but first, I need to go back to the party and see if I can’t have my first dance with a partner who isn’t doing it out of obligation my title.
I spread my wings and return to the party, swooping back into the courtyard and shrinking into my human form as I do so. I pull up my underwear, and then pick up my dress, taking some time to smooth out the wrinkles from the hasty way I’d thrown it aside. I’d better hurry to get it on. It had been not very smart to have taken it off in such a public place.
“I was wondering where you’d wandered off to,” a familiar voice says from behind me.
With a scream, I whirl around crossing my arms over my chest to cover my breasts. I know my eyes are glowing red from the scare, and likely my face is the same shade from embarrassment.
Here I am, naked, save the underwear I’d managed to pull on, and the handsome Rift is in the courtyard with me.
Great, one chance I get to dance with a guy, and fate deals me this hand.
“I like your wings,” Rift says, “you shouldn’t hide them under your clothes.”
“You—you do?” my voice squeaks, and something inside me dances at those words
Rift turns around, “Go ahead and put your dress back on, I’m sorry for walking in on you.”
“Thanks,” I murmur, and hurriedly pull my dress up over my head and tuck my wings tight against my back so they don’t show in the dress. “Okay, I’m decent now.”
Rift turns around and smiles, he approaches me and squints at something on my face. “You’ve got blood on your chin.”
I gasp. I’ve never been more mortified.
Could this night get any more embarrassing?
My fingers go to my chin and rapidly swipe.
“Did I get it?” I ask, hopefully.
“I’ve got it,” Rift says, his eyes flickering with playfulness. He licks his thumb and presses it over my chin, swiping over it a couple of times. The action feels more intimate than it should, and our eyes lock for a moment. His touch is gentle and I kick myself for being a little turned on by it.
“Do you always eat your meat raw?” Rift asks, having finished clearing my face of blood.
“Is that gross?” I ask, furrowing my brow in confused concern. I’m not sure if he’s teasing me or disgusted.
“I still want to dance with you, does that answer your question?” Rift says with a nonchalant shrug, and extends a hand to me.
“We can’t hear the music out here,” I say.
“Do you want to go back into the great hall?” he asks.
“Who are you?” I ask, unable to help a giggle. Okay, this guy is handsome, charming, and non-judgmental. Is he even real?
“I told you already. My name is Rift,” he says, cocking an eyebrow and grinning in mischievous challenge.
I resist the urge to give him a shove at his stubbornness. “I mean, where are you from, and why haven’t I met you before?”
“I’m from Erlund, the son of a lord,” Rift explains, “this is my first time in the southern lands. We were invited because your brother is marrying our princess.”
“Ah,” I say, “well, Lord Rift, shall we dance then?”
“Of course,” Rift says, “It would be my pleasure.”
I flush and take Rift’s hand in my own, letting him lead me back inside the great hall. Once inside, we sneak in amidst the dancers. Rift settles a hand on my waist, and I rest my hand on his shoulder.
Good thing I’ve taken dancing lessons since forever, because I’m finally doing something right in front of this man! Rift appears to have had some schooling in the art of dance as well, because we swing and sway perfectly in rhythm to the lovely traditional Underland melody the musicians are playing.
As we dance I’m almost afraid to look up at my handsome dancing partner. It’s unfortunate this is a one time thing. Rift will most likely need to return to the north after tonight, and all I’ll have is this memory. A moment I had something romantic, albeit an embarrassing romantic something, with a handsome man.
“What are you thinking, Princess?” Rift asks me, his voice soft and thoughtful.
“I was thinking how much I wish you hadn’t caught me half-naked in the courtyard. I’m embarrassed,” I admit.
“Really? Because I was thinking how glad I am that I caught you half-naked in the courtyard,” Rift whispers into my ear.
I laugh and gape a moment at him. “Sir, you make me question your morals!”
“Good,” Rift says with a self-satisfied smile.
A shiver runs through me, this stranger intrigues me, and the act of flirting is a new things for me. I look up to study his features trying to decipher if he’s serious or not.
Rift laughs, “Don’t worry, Princess. I’m a gentleman. I shall take your secret to the grave.”
“Well, that’s good!” I say with a nervous laugh, “The last thing I need is rumors circulating of me naked in the courtyard while alone with a man.”
The music ends and Rift takes me to the table with drinks and has a server pour us some wine. “Why aren’t the men lining up to dance with you?” Rift asks. “They’re a bunch of idiots.”
“A bunch of cowards,” I mutter, taking a sip of wine. “In case you didn’t know, Rift, I’m a Cursed.”
“Really? No!” Sarcasm oozes from his voice. “I’d have never guessed. I thought a pair of delightful dragon wings decorated all human women.”
I give him a shove while also blushing. “You’re messed up.”
“You have no idea.” Rift smiles another secret kind of smile and takes a sip of his wine. He gazes out at the partygoers, and his light-hearted face dissipates when something catches his eye. He turns to me and kisses my hand. “I’m sorry to leave you, Princess, but I’m sure we shall see one another again.”
“Well, if that is the case, next time you can call me Kyla,” I say, “All this ‘princess’ stuff is making me uncomfortable.”
“I’ll be sure to, Princess,” Rift says, kissing my hand and giving me an impish grin. He bows to me and walks into the group.
I sigh as I watch him stride out of sight into the crowd, and my stomach is full of butterflies. I do hope I see him again.
I really do.
“Handsome devil, isn’t he?” Elle interrupts my fanciful thoughts. “Who is he anyway?”
My sister-in-law stands next to me.
“Rift of Erlund. He’s the son of a lord visiting because of Kal’s marriage to Sylvia,” I explain.
“That’s weird,” Elle says.
“What do you mean?”
“No one from Erlund is supposed to arrive until next week.”
The bastard! Rift played me. But why? Maybe Elle has her information wrong.
Ava stomps over to Elle before we can discuss Rift further.
“Is it true, Elle?” she asks in her thick Westerly accent.
“What do you mean, dear?” Elle asks.
“That you are having a baby?” Ava rolls her eyes at Elle’s gentle answer as if it were an offense. “What else do you think?”
“Yes,” Elle says, and this news snaps me from my annoyance at my flirtatious interaction with a lying stranger.
Screw him. I hope I never see him again.
“Elle! Congratulations!” I exclaim, “Why didn’t you tell me earlier in the courtyard?”
“Of course, you’d go and have a baby before me!” Ava scoffs, ignoring me like she always does, “I’m the first wife, and yet you decide to get pregnant!”
“That doesn’t really matter here in Underland, Ava,” Elle informs her without any malice.
“It does in Westerly! When my father hears of this, he may declare my marriage to Kal null and have my younger sister marry him instead,” Ava says, throwing up her hands.
“Oh, honey, that’s not going to happen!” Elle assures her, reaching out towards her.
“Do not ‘oh, honey’ me,” Ava snorts, flinching away from Elle and turning on her heel into the direction of Kalvar.
“I’m so happy for you,” I cheer for Elle, trying to dismiss Ava’s jealousy from my friend’s mind. “How far along are you?”
“Eight weeks. I wasn’t going to tell anyone until I was past ten, but I think Kalvar must have told Ava because she’s our family,” Elle informs me, and I can tell by the way she twists a strand of her hair how agitated she is. “What am I going to do about Ava, Kyla? I try to make her feel welcome in the family, but she never accepts any of my kindness! I’m about ready to give up. And I have no idea how this Sylvia will be.” Elle is tearing up now. “Oh, Kyla, why must Kalvar marry again? I don’t need another Ava.”
“Do you feel like it wasn’t worth it?” I ask her quietly so no one can hear, “Being with him now even though he has Ava and soon, Sylvia?”
“Oh, of course, it’s worth it! I couldn’t picture myself with anyone else,” Elle says. “I love Kalvar.”
“Then I think you made the right choice,” I smile at her sympathetically, “And maybe Sylvia will be great. Has Kalvar met her yet?”
“Yes,” Elle says, “Kalvar said she is a sweet woman and that we’ll all get along. There will be time before the wedding to get to know her.”
The music stops playing, and Elle and I notice Kalvar stepping up on the stand, he raises his hands, and everyone quiets.
“Good evening, friends, family, and my esteemed guests,” Kalvar begins.
Everyone claps thunderously, and a some shout out, “Long live, Prince Kalvar!”
I note a couple of the women screaming during the applause, “We love you, Prince Kalvar!”
Kalvar motions his hands humbly for them to quiet, but his infectious smile is huge with glee at the attention.
I notice Elle clapping along with everyone else, but she giggles and rolls her eyes at the star-crazed women. Yes, Kalvar is ridiculously good-looking, and it has always been this way with women and Kalvar, for he is charismatic and charming. Kalvar has dark hair from our father, the same lightly tanned skin of our mother, is tall, beautifully muscled, and wherever he goes, the women can’t get enough.
“As you know, this is the night that holds great triumph for all of us, and it wouldn’t have been possible without your queen, my mother. I want to invite her up here now to say a few words.”
Mother walks up the steps to the stand and hugs Kalvar with a smile plastered on her face.
Yep, she’s still annoyed with him.
“Thank you, Prince Kalvar,” Mother says, “And thank you, my people, who are like family to me. When I first came to Axus, I had no idea how dear all of you would become to me. Those of you who still remember the tyrant king’s days all lost something during that time, a family member or your own freedom. We celebrate today because Underland has not needed to fear for almost thirty years. Today, our lands are united in harmony and—”
A loud bell sounds, cutting off my Mother, and disconcerting screams and shouts from outside echo into the hall.
“A great flying beast was spotted from the north tower!” Mom’s head guard, a Stog male, named Lark, shouts. “Hurry, my queen, we must flee to the sanctuary beneath the palace.”
“Please, remain calm!” Mother shouts to the people from her place as panic begins to ensue.
Kalvar rushes toward Elle and me. He grasps Elle’s hand. “Come, my love! Come, Kyla! Let’s get into the sanctuary.”
“Kalvar, if it’s a Cursed, it could be Father! I’m going to meet it!”
“No!” Kalvar grabs my hand, and although I could find strength beyond him, I don’t and let him drag me toward the sanctuary with the crowds.
“Kyla!” Fletch, my father’s oldest friend, a gobli, grasps my hand in his claws. “Never mind, Kalvar. It would be best if you investigated this. You’re the only one who can do it! It could be the king.”
The beast within me is impatient and curious about the situation, a dragon in her territory!
I look around the room and see Mother’s gaze on me.
“Get my mother and the others safe, Fletch,” I say while meeting Mother’s gaze, knowing she hopes that her beloved, my father, has returned.
Mother nods her head solemnly at me.
My wings struggle out of my dress and spread wide, catching air as I run in the opposite direction of the crowds, away from Kalvar and the rest of them.
I carefully wait until my feet leave the ground and are clear of the people to take my beast form. My beast eyesight is keen in the dark, and I easily navigate toward the north tower.
In the distance, the form of something that could either be a Cursed or a dragon swoops closer to the palace. If it’s not my father returning, I hope it’s a dragon.
The dragon can be killed by normal weapons, unlike a Cursed, but a dragon’s body is covered in heavy scaling difficult to penetrate. Dragons are no easy kill unless you’re like me and can’t be killed by anything save magical weaponry long forgotten.
My jaws stretch, and I roar a warning in the direction of the flying creature. I curl around the north tower’s spindle and raise my wings, making myself appear bigger and more threatening.
A roar answers me back.
It’s not the friendly kind.
I decide it is best not to wait for the creature to get closer to the palace and the precious lives therein. I lunge off the spindle of the tower and fly at the thing, my jaws open, displaying my vicious pointed teeth.
This dragon—for I’m sure that’s what it is—had better turn on its tail. I’m indestructible and know how to make short work of it. My father taught me well how to take down a dragon.
Go for the wings first, Kyla.
I give one more warning roar, hoping it will see common sense, but the feral dragon answers me aggressively.
So strange for a feral dragon to attack the palace like this. Mountain goats, boar, gazelles are their main diet, not humans.
Heat builds in my throat. The wings of a dragon are thin and burn easily. Unlike Cursed and my mother, a Fireblood (a human infused with Cursed blood before birth), they are not fireproof.
Flames spew from my jaws, hot speckles resembling lava hit the creature’s wings burning holes into the thin membranes.
It’s an outrageously unfair fight. I feel sorry for the beast as it hisses and screeches in pain, its wings disintegrating.
As it falls, I follow it to the ground. My jaws grip its throat, and I’m surprised when my teeth click against the harshness of metal.
We hit the jungle floor with an ugly thud. I know its back most likely has broken on impact.
I put the beast out of its misery swiftly on the ground before studying the curious metal band around its neck. Strange, domesticated dragons are not a thing; however, this dragon is wearing a collar studded with red gems.
I’ve seen drawings of such a collar. It’s a magical device, created to control the will of another.
This dragon is under the control of someone else.
As soon as the creature draws its last breath, the collar melts into a blood-like ooze.
An uneasy feeling shivers through my body.
Why had someone sent a Fe collar-wearing dragon to the palace in the first place?
I scan the jungle around me. All nature is silent, scattered from the body of the fallen dragon and my monstrous beast.
My nostrils flare as I try to detect any uncommon scent, but the smell of trees, earth, and freshly killed dragon is all I pick up. Unfortunately for me, in my beast form, a dead dragon smells delicious.
My eyes close.
Get it together, Kyla.
My wings spread, and I make a running start to fly back to the palace and report my alarming findings.
After the guests are notified the threat is over, Fletch, Sola, Lord Calbir, my mother, and Kalvar all meet with me in the private gathering room to discuss the Fe collar.
“Are you sure it was a Fe collar?” Kalvar asks after my tale of the doomed dragon is finished.
“Seriously, Kal?” I cross my arms over my chest. “A dragon in its right mind would have shirked upon hearing me. This one flew headlong in my direction! Besides, I know of no other magical or mundane devices that dissolve like that upon a being’s death.”
“I feared this day would come,” Mother murmurs, and all eyes fall on her. Her expression is far away, as if she recalls years past. “But why would it happen now?”
“What do you mean, Mother?” Kalvar asks. “Are you talking of the Sorceress?”
“What person could create a Fe collar, let alone get close enough to place it on a wild dragon?” Mother murmurs, standing from her seat.
“There must be another explanation,” Kalvar says, shaking his head, but I can sense fear stirring inside him by the sound of his racing heart. He’s afraid. My brother, the future king of Underland, is afraid of what this will mean for his care-free royal lifestyle. No arranged marriage or charismatic personality can prove of use where dark magic abides. And with a baby on the way, I’m sure he thinks the bright future his offspring will have is possibly in question.
“My son,” Mother says, walking over to him and placing her hands on his shoulders. “There is no need to fear. There is peace in this land. If it was the Sorceress, her feeble attempt at causing chaos by this attack is laughable at best. Kyla made short work of her minion just as her father showed her. I believe she thinks us weak because your father is no longer with us. This was a test. But we’ve shown her we are not weak. Light and peace have filled our kingdom for years. She will not gain power through this. Be not dismayed.”
“Queen Lucy is right,” Sola speaks, and because we all know Sola has the unique talent of prophecy, we all await hearing what she has to say. “I do not believe we have reason to worry, yet,” Sola continues, looking at me and narrowing her eyes. “Kyla, you feel very alone. Don’t you?”
I thought we were talking about Fe collars and the Sorceress, not my popularity.
“Why do you say that, Sola?” Mother asks. “Kyla has Kalvar and me. She’s not alone.” Mother walks over to me and takes my hand. “Kyla, you’re not alone.”
The turn in conversation onto me makes me uncomfortable as I’m not too fond of scrutiny of any kind.
Talk about anyone else but me, please.
“Mother, Sola, please, I’m not what is important right now,” I say.
“But you are important, Kyla,” Mother says, “Without you, that dragon would have attacked the palace. Yes, the guards would have taken the beast down, but who knows if there would have been injury or damage done before they’d done so?”
“I only did what father would have done if he were here,” I say quickly, trying again to get the discussion off of me.
“Should I tell Sylvia to postpone her arrival?” Kalvar asks, he’s noticed how uncomfortable I am, and I can tell he’s trying to change the subject for me.
“No,” Fletch says, adding to the conversation finally. “Another alliance might seal out chaos for good. Your marriage to Princess Sylvia will create unity among the three human kingdoms, which has never been achieved before in Axus. If we’re looking to keep that sorceress’ fate in irons, this marriage is important.”
“I still don’t see why marriage is the only way to create an alliance,” Mother huffs, still holding my hand.
A yawn falls out of me unexpectedly, and I realize I am exhausted. My mind is tired of processing all this excitement.
It’s been a long day. The dressing up, getting caught in the courtyard half-dressed, dancing and flirting for the first time, killing a dragon, finding the Fe collar… I need some sleep.
“I’m going to bed,” I announce. “You’ll have to inform me of anything relevant that you discussed here in the morning.”
“Sleep well,” Mother says, patting my hand.
“I will,” I say and kiss her on the cheek before I leave. “Goodnight, Mother.”
On my way up the stairs to my chambers, I’m finding it hard to breathe. My throat is tight, and my hands are sweaty. The stairs sway beneath my feet, and I grip the railing.
This isn’t the first time I’ve felt like this since Father disappeared.
All the anxiety inside me is bubbling up. I stand on the stairs until the world stops spinning.
Inhale. Exhale. Inhale… Exhale…
Finally, the anxiety attack diminishes, and I continue up the stairs and enter my quarters.
Once in my bedroom, I close the door and unwrap myself from my dress, slip into a comfortable nightgown that doesn’t cover my wings, and plop down on my four-poster bed face first.
A harsh knock on my bedroom door jolts me awake just as I begin to doze off.
Groggily, I get up from my soft, warm bed and lean against the door. It has to be my personal servant, Maybelle, or my Mother since the hour is so late, and no one else has access to my chambers.
“Maybelle?” I ask, my voice comes out cracked, “this better be an emergency because I will take my more beautiful form and roar in your face if it isn’t.”
“I’d love to see you do that,” a male voice answers back, “but unfortunately, I do believe this is an emergency.”
“Rift?” I’m suddenly quite awake.