Dawn of the Jade Empress
The agonized squeal of an injured dragon split the air. Belen's head snapped up as she sunned herself on a cliff. She knew that voice. Rising, she scanned the area below, eyes narrowing when she caught the glimmer of her sister’s sky blue scales.
Chandra was pinned by a hardscale dragon nearly three times her size. The bully's scales were jet black with hints of deep purple. He loomed over her, tail lashing as he snarled at the smaller dragon.
“Chandra!” Belen shouted, her voice echoing through the canyon. She launched from the cliff and glided towards them with deadly intent in her eyes, claws extended. "Leave her alone, Kaltik!"
The bully spun around to face Belen, his eyes widening in surprise at the sudden appearance of another dragon. He tried to puff himself up, making himself look larger than he really was to intimidate her, but Belen didn’t flinch—instead, she readied herself for battle.
"Stay out of this, Belen. This doesn't concern you," Kaltik growled.
"Chandra is my clutch-sister, so it does concern me," Belen shot back, mantling her emerald wings. The black dragon outweighed her, too, but she stood a better chance than her sister. Not only was Chandra small, but her vision was poor. She could barely see past the tip of her snout. "If you harm her, you'll face a reckoning with me."
Kaltik's claws tightened on Chandra's neck. The blue dragon gasped for breath, a bead of crimson blooming beneath her attacker's claws. “Wait. What if we can come to some sort of compromise?” Chandra’s voice was a pained rasp.
Belen hesitated, still poised for battle, but Chandra continued speaking. “It doesn’t have to be a fight—we can both get something out of this if we work together!”
"There is no compromise," Kaltik rumbled, tail coiling like a snake. "You're an abomination. Dragons aren't meant to have magic."
Ah, so that was what this was about. Like the others, Belen wasn't comfortable with her sister's newfound power, but she wasn't going to turn her back on family. But magic or not, Chandra had a canny mind. She flicked a glance at her sister. "What do you propose?"
"I said no compromise!" The black dragon bared his fangs.
"Then you will die," Chandra whispered, certainty in her voice.
At her pronouncement, Kaltik hesitated, his ear-flaps flattening. "What? Is that a threat?"
He loosened his grip on Chandra. She shook her head sadly, as if the news grieved her. "No, it's a promise. But if you let me up now, you will live."
The bully relaxed his grip, scuttling away. "Stay out of my way, you star-crossed albatross." He tossed a glare at Belen to include her in the insult, then launched into the sky in a thrashing of broad wings.
Once Kaltik was away, Chandra slowly clambered to her feet. She shook out her wings, sighing. "Thank you."
Belen nudged the azure dragon gently. "Are you hurt?"
"Nothing that won't heal soon enough." Chandra squinted at her sister. "You would have fought him for me?"
Belen shrugged. "I think we could take him together. We're both much smarter than he is." The larger hardscale dragons weren't known for their wit. "Did you see a vision of his death? Is that why you told him that?"
Chandra chuckled. "I told him he would die. I didn't say when, however. Everyone dies, some day. It wasn't a lie."
Oh, her sister was a wily thing. Belen grinned at her. "Well played."
“I wish the others thought of me as you do.” Chandra lifted a claw, gingerly rubbing at the marks on her tender neck. The blue dragon shivered.
“Kaltik’s skull is full of rocks,” Belen huffed.
Chandra gave her a gentle nudge. “You’re so kind and brave, Belen. I wish everyone could see that.”
The azure dragon's eyes narrowed as she looked off into the distance, as if searching for something beyond her physical sight. When she finally spoke again, her voice was soft but determined. "Belen, I have seen a vision of our future." She paused, gathering her courage before finishing the sentence. "I saw you become the Jade Empress—but at a great cost to yourself."
Belen froze. Never had such an honor crossed her mind, but… “What? Me? The Jade Empress? How is that possible?”
"It is only possible if you are willing to sacrifice your own heart," Chandra said solemnly. "Your path will be painful, and you will have to make choices that no one should ever have to make. But if you do, history itself will be changed forever."
At the pronouncement, Belen stiffened. Was a declaration like this what had set off Kaltik? Chandra needed to guard her words. "Are you certain of this?"
Chandra shut her eyes, her tail twitching as the sound of birdsong filled the gap of silence. After a moment, she nodded. "When the visions come, they're as plain as day. Not all of them are so...certain. But this one..." She swallowed.
"It is," Belen finished for her.
"And what is your part in this?" Belen asked.
Chandra arched her neck, unwilling to meet her sister's gaze. "I'm destined to become the Seer. I'll receive a summons to the Vault of Fate within the next three full moons."
A chill threaded down Belen's sinuous spine. Chandra's word choice mattered. Not just a Seer, but the Seer. A dragon Seer had lived on the isle of the Vault of Fate for the last two centuries, ever since the disaster that had spread the taint of magic across the world. It was rare for a hardscale dragon to have magic—that was normally relegated to the smaller drakes.
"I suppose the Seer is very old," Belen murmured uneasily. "But Chandra, you don't have to leave the Cerulean Court." She wanted to beg her sister to stay. Chandra was the closest thing she had to a friend.
A sad smile tugged at the corners of Chandra's lips. "I do."
"What happens if you stay?" Belen challenged.
Chandra sighed. "Something worse."
"Worse than what?"
The blue dragoness lowered her head. "You don't want to know."
The Jade Empress. Belen couldn't stop thinking of Chandra's vision. Was it possible for her to rise to such a position?
She and Chandra were not the whelps of the Cerulean royalty. Each Dragon Court was led by an Emperor and Empress, who ruled their home island. Courtiers were attached to each Court, tasked with protecting their island and migrating in search of the precious ore and gems needed to keep the hardscale dragons in top condition. Younger dragons couldn't withstand the rigors of the migration, so until they reached maturity they remained on their home island, awaiting the return of the older dragons with the precious nutrients.
Belen was on the wing for her first migration as she mulled over her thoughts of Chandra's words. She should have been reveling in the ecstasy of her first migration as an adult, but here she was, befuddled by her sister's vision.
And not only that…missing her sister.
As foretold, the Seer had tapped Chandra before migration season began. The blue dragoness had flown off to the Vault of Fate to begin her training in earnest.
Belen tried to assure herself that she was happy for Chandra. With her low vision, her sister would never have been able to complete a migration. She would have been forced to stay on Cerulean Cove with the Emperor, Empress, and a handful of guards to watch over the fledglings.
She shook her head to clear her mind. I need to concentrate on the migration! Belen had almost lagged too far behind the dragon she had been following, which would have spelled disaster. Her instinct told her to go north, but little more than that.
The dragon ahead of her dipped lower in the sky, eventually wheeling down toward an island where Belen noticed other dragons had gone to rest. She approached warily, noting that some of the largest dragons were bickering over the carcass of a whale that an apex-class dragon had hauled ashore.
Others had discovered a grove of dragon fruit, falling upon the bounty with glee. Belen abstained from joining them—dragon fruit had a hallucinogenic effect on dragons, and she wanted to keep a clear mind.
Belen made it a point to steer clear of the more aggressive hardscales, focusing on the nearby trees full of ripe fruit. A few other dragons had made the same decision, and before long, they were gnawing on mangoes beneath the shade of a stand of palms.
"Is this your first time?" one dragon, a female with purple scales, asked Belen by way of greeting.
"Yes." Belen tucked her tail around her feet and introduced herself, eyeing a lovely golden mango. She plucked it from the tree before anyone else could deny her.
The purple nodded. "I'm Kya of the Crimson Court and this is Sivarth." She lifted a claw toward the red dragon, who sat opposite her.
"Jade Court," Sivarth supplied, tossing aside a mango seed. He paused, sharp fangs worrying at the skin of a fresh mango. "Have you heard the news?"
Kya's eyes widened, and she leaned in. "What news?" She went still, as if she feared any movement would dissuade the red dragon from sharing his gossip.
"Prince Roshan's former consort died. Jade Court will select a new consort when we return from migration." Sivarth’s jaws slid into a lopsided grin.
Belen stared. The Jade Court... By the winds, is Chandra right? But the consort had died. That was alarming. "How did she die?"
Sivarth glanced from side to side, conspiratorial. "The Emperor insists it was natural causes. But rumor has it she was murdered."
Kya shivered. "Who would murder a consort?"
"A rival," Sivarth supplied automatically.
Belen wasn't as certain. Oh, how she wished Chandra was here. They could have found a cozy thicket to sit and bandy about ideas. Something about this wasn't right. But by the same token...this was her chance. I could really be the Jade Empress.
"How would a dragoness put her name in contention for the honor?" Belen asked.
The red dragon gave her an assessing look. "You're little more than a whelp. I don't know if you have the experience Roshan will be looking for."
Belen bristled. "This may be my first migration, but I'm not some soft-shell whelp. I can hold my own." She lifted her chin, defiant. Her emerald scales gleamed in the shade-dappled sunlight.
"Hmm." Sivarth traded a glance with Kya. "I suppose everyone deserves a fair shot. After you drop off the ore and gems from your treasure gullet, you would need the permission of your Emperor or Empress. Then simply bring a token to signify their blessing. Something green, preferably."
As a green dragon, Belen thought she might be token enough, but there was wisdom in the advice. She nodded. "I appreciate the information. I'll recall your kindness when I'm the Jade Empress."
Sivarth laughed. "I admire your confidence!”
Belen smiled, a mostly polite baring of fangs. He had no idea. She was about to speak when a distant rumble interrupted her. Belen's head swung around, seeking the disturbance. She tensed at the sight of a bulbous dark speck on the horizon.
"What is that?" she whispered.
Kya followed her gaze, though the purple dragon merely flicked the tip of her tail, unconcerned. "Nothing to worry about. A human contraption. They think they've mastered the sky." She snorted derisively.
Belen frowned. "What is it called?"
"The Jade Court has taken to calling them sky whales," Sivarth rumbled. "Though they're rather shy of dragons. If we come near, they turn tail and flee."
"As they should," Kya said. "We are the masters of the sky."
Belen nodded. And nothing would ever take that way.
The rest of Belen's first migration was uneventful. She accompanied Kya and Sivarth to the continent. The dragons found mines that humans had blasted into the mountains, eating or running off any humans who dared get in their way as they foraged.
As a young dragon, Belen had consumed her share of precious metals and gems to help harden her scales. But those had always been straight from the treasure gullet of another dragon. To rip open the side of a mine shaft in search of the delectable emeralds she sensed nearby...it was a seductive sensation. Empowering.
And even better was the honey-sweet taste of those same gems on her tongue. The more she ate, the tougher her scales became and the stronger she felt.
But the weather turned cooler, the signal for Belen and the others to migrate back to the warm dragon latitudes. With her appetite for metal sated and her scales glowing, Belen's treasure gullet brimmed with loot for the young ones. She flew back to the Cerulean Court triumphant.
Belen followed the line of other migrating dragons to the metal larder. As she waited in line to deposit the contents of her gullet, her thoughts turned to Chandra. She missed her sister's steadying presence. But in the same thought, Belen's mind turned to the blue dragon's dire prediction.
"I shape my own destiny. I will not succumb to fate," Belen murmured. The dragon before her in line, a matronly yellow, peered over her wing at the younger dragoness. "Um, sorry, just talking to myself."
Belen clamped her jaw to hide her embarrassment as the yellow turned away. She blew out a frustrated breath. I have no reason to be embarrassed. One day I'll be an Empress. All I have to do is approach my own Emperor and Empress.
The Cerulean Court was abuzz with excitement as Belen made her way through the knots of gossiping dragons. Everywhere she went, dragons chattered about the upcoming selection process for the next Jade Consort.
Belen sucked in a steadying breath. I can do this. Keeping her spine straight, she strode toward the mouth of the tunnel that led to the chamber of the monarchs. A guardian dragon bobbed his head in greeting, but otherwise let her pass unchallenged.
Emperor Maheer and Empress Malvika reclined on a sumptuous rug in the middle of the cavern. They weren't alone–courtiers ringed the cave, necks arched as the intimate groups gossiped. The royal couple looked up at the sound of Belen's claws on the stone. Malvika's ear-flap twitched in surprise.
"Ah, my niece returns from her first migration. I hope you fared well." Malvika aimed an indulgent smile at her.
Belen lowered her head in deference, extending her forelegs into a bow. "It was an adventure, Empress. But I've come with a request. I wish to be considered for the role of Jade Consort." Belen swallowed. She didn't know what would come next, and she feared rejection.
The Emperor and Empress exchanged glances before Maheer spoke. "You are young, Belen. What makes you think you could fulfill such a task?"
Belen took a deep breath. She had thought long and hard about this on her return flight. "My travels have taught me much about the dragons of this court, as well as other courts across the latitudes. I'm not just a hatchling anymore; I am mature enough to understand the importance of what this role can do to benefit the Cerulean Court." She paused before continuing, choosing her words with care. "I am strong willed and determined, two qualities essential for any consort."
Malvika gave her a fond look. "Niece of mine, I know you speak the truth." She scraped her claws against the stone floor, a nervous gesture. "But word has come to us that Roshan's former consort died under mysterious circumstances. And I would never wish harm to fall upon you." The conversation snared the attention of the courtiers around the chamber, their glowing eyes intent on the delicious conversation.
Belen stiffened, Chandra's prophecy heavy on her mind. She pushed all thoughts of it aside. "The former consort was from the Amber Court. We Ceruleans are made of sterner stuff!" At her declaration, the nearby dragons lifted their voices into a rousing roar. Belen smiled to herself, waiting for the clamor to wane before continuing. "And I ask to do this not for my own benefit, but for that of the Cerulean Court and all dragons."
Maheer sighed. Belen knew she had them. The mixing of bloodlines among the Courts was critical to the continuation of their species. Every year, a handful of young males and females were exchanged between the courts. But to have a consort for another Court selected from among the Ceruleans? It would be a powerful boon.
And as far as Belen knew, no other dragoness had stepped forward.
"We can't deny that this would benefit every dragon who calls Cerulean Cove home," Maheer said after a moment, his gaze drifting across the assembled dragons. Likely hoping that another candidate might step forward. But no one did. Belen knew that the majority of her Ceulean brethren were lazy and disliked change. "You have our blessing."
Malvika nodded, then held up a claw to signal for Belen to wait. The Empress rose, making her way into the dark recesses of the connected chamber she and Maheer called home. She returned a moment later, clutching a golden chain in her claws.
"A gift to grant you luck," Malvika whispered, slipping the chain over Belen's horns and onto her neck.
It rested against Belen's breastbone, and though it was light, it still felt as if it had a strange weight to it. Something she couldn't quite discern. "What is it?"
The Empress glanced askance to make sure no one was near enough to hear her murmured words. "It's a magical item, crafted by a drake. An item with the power to let you understand the speech of any other race, and they, in turn, will understand you."
Belen shivered at the mention of magic. It was anathema to a dragon. Was her aunt giving her a curse, or was this truly an act of kindness? Belen gritted her teeth. Whatever it was, she had to feign grace in this moment. "Your kindness knows no bounds, Empress."
Malvika dipped her horned head. "And before you set out, fill your gullet with jade and emerald. Green gems from an emerald dragon. That should impress the Jade Court."
Perhaps the necklace wasn't a show of bad faith after all. Belen smiled. "As you say." She bowed before the Cerulean Empress, vowing that this was the last time any of the Cerulean Court would see her bow to anyone.
Jadefire Island bustled with activity. The scales of hundreds of dragons glimmered under the early afternoon sun. Belen swallowed, less confident than she had been previously. It had been easy to assure herself that she was the best choice to be consort as she had flown here, but now that she was on the island, surrounded by so many unfamiliar dragons...it was another thing altogether.
Counting the Jades, there were six Courts in all. While the Ceruleans had only sent Belen, the Pearls, Amethysts, Crimsons, and Ambers had sent two candidates apiece. Nine dragons, all eager to be declared the next consort for the Jade Court.
The hopefuls gathered in the middle of the massive ring of dragons, awaiting the start of the trials. From what Belen understood, they would take part in three challenges.
A mighty roar reverberated across the island valley. A magnificent green dragon soared in, alighting near the hopefuls. Roshan, the Jade Prince. Like other creatures, dragons didn't always breed true to a single color, so often an Emperor or Empress might have scales a different shade from that of their court. But the Jade rulers were all green—and Belen hoped that gave her an advantage, as the only green dragoness in contention.
Roshan spread his wings wide and dipped his horns to the assembled hopefuls. He surveyed them with a piercing gaze, noting each one before he spoke. His voice was deep and resonant, carrying over the entire island valley.
"Welcome and fair skies," he said. "You are here today to compete for the honor of being my consort, and I thank you all for participating."
The crowd of dragons roared their approval, Belen included.
"Today we shall begin our first trial," Roshan continued when the clamor died down. "A test of agility—you must weave through a series of obstacles while avoiding any contact with them. The fastest dragon across the finish line will be declared the winner!"
"Where will we do this?" one of the candidates, a dragon with yellow-gold scales, asked.
Roshan gave them a toothy grin. "Follow me and witness the marvels of the drakes of Jadefire Island!"
Drakes? Belen touched a claw to her golden chain, but didn't have time to wonder as Roshan took off. The air was filled with the thunder of wings as audience and hopefuls alike followed the prince.
Roshan led them to a box canyon at the far end of the island. The dragons perched along the rim, peering down. Strange rock formations seemed to have reared up from the ground like spires. As Belen watched, a tiny dragon stood at the entrance to the canyon, scratching at the ground with a claw.
Belen leaned closer to her nearest neighbor, the gold who had spoken up earlier. "What's that dragon doing?"
"Drake. Softscale drake," the yellow nearly sneered.
Belen scowled. She couldn't fathom why the yellow dragon spoke in such a way. Wasn't that disrespectful to the Jade Court? "What do you mean?"
"Magic," the other dragon clarified, and in the single word, Belen understood.
Her home court didn't have drakes, but she had heard whispers of them. They were smaller and different in a way that made the hardscale dragons vaguely uncomfortable. Empress Malvika had once expressed relief that the Ceruleans boasted no drakes—which had made Belen uneasy about the gifted chain. But the Jade Court did...and not only that, flaunted them.
Roshan landed beside the drake, nodding in approval. "Behold the wondrous work of Asher! My potential consorts, you will be called down here one by one and fly through this course. But have a care...it's not as simple as it seems."
Belen's brow furrowed. "What?"
As if in answer, the Jade Prince glanced at the drake. "Asher, please show them the hazards they face."
The drake nodded, stepping forward. Belen squinted, trying to see what he did. As far as she knew, he buried his claws in the dirt...
And the spires came alive.
They flailed like the tentacles of some massive stone kraken, snapping through the air before slamming into the ground. Belen's pulse sped at the sight, and she heard the whimper of another candidate.
"Impossible. That's what this is," the yellow dragon growled. "Roshan wants to stay a widower!"
Belen lifted her chin, determination swelling. She was smaller than many of the other contenders, which would be a boon in this situation. "Not impossible. The prince wants the best, and the best he shall have."
The first dragoness fluttered down to the course when Roshan called her name. Belen watched as she flew off like a shot as soon as the time began. But the dragoness was at a disadvantage—as the first, she didn't know what might happen. In only seconds, one of those writhing stone pillars pinned her to the ground.
"This is unfair!" the dragon complained as the drake called off his abomination. "No one can do this."
Roshan studied her with glittering eyes. "No? Well, if everyone fails, then I suppose you'll be on the same footing for the next challenge, which will be of a more intellectual nature." He turned away and called for the next competitor.
All the other dragons went through the course, with only one of them succeeding—a red dragon who was dainty compared to the others. Then it was Belen's turn.
She flew down to the course, giving the prince a regal bow. "Thank you for the opportunity, Your Grace. I hope to do you proud."
He tilted his head. The other dragons had said little to him when they came down, too focused on the task at hand. His ear-flaps pricked at her, then Roshan nodded. "And I wish the same. Prepare yourself...and...begin!"
Belen took off, her wings beating powerfully. She had watched the other dragons carefully, analyzing their failures. She was determined to not make the same mistakes.
The other dragons looked on in disbelief as Belen zig-zagged past each pillar, barely missing them with a scales-width of space between her body and their jagged edges. She flipped over one spire before dropping down in an arc and gliding across a narrow ledge that ran along one wall of the canyon.
It was almost too easy—she could feel herself getting cocky as she pushed forward even faster, twisting her body around a spire before making a sharp turn to avoid another that flailed at her like a great tentacle.
Finally, Belen emerged from the course unscathed. She rose into the air, flying in a triumphant loop before landing beside the Prince.
The other dragons roared with excitement as Roshan smiled in approval. He motioned for them to stop and said, "That was remarkable! You have all exceeded my expectations—and one of you has done so much more. Belen, you have succeeded with the fastest time. I declare you the winner."
Belen arched her neck and scratched at the turf with a claw, the very image of humility. "It was nothing, Prince Roshan." But inside, she celebrated. One down, two to go.
The second challenge began bright and early the next morning. Belen arrived to find the valley from the previous day empty of all but the hopefuls. The royals hadn't invited the audience? She peered skyward and found the Emperor and Empress on a ridge overlooking them, tails twitching.
"Prince Roshan chose yesterday's trial, and now it is my turn," Empress Cordova announced, her voice airy and bright. "Today's task requires you to combine your minds and show off your intellect."
Work together? Belen shifted uneasily. By nature, dragons didn't work together very well. Hardscales were temperamental and conceited, believing they were more than enough for any task. Even Belen knew she fell prey to this.
The other contenders grumbled, no doubt feeling the same. But none of them spoke out against it.
Cordova nodded. "Excellent. We will split you into two teams. Your goal is to solve a series of puzzles. Each puzzle will provide you with the clue to lead you to the next. The first team to complete all four puzzles wins."
After the first test, three dragons were removed, leaving only six. Before long, Belen found herself teamed up with a yellow dragon named Patli and a magenta named Andressa. Neither was excited to work with others, but before long, they gathered in a knot, prepared to do their best.
A copper-scaled drake approached, bearing a scroll. The drake cleared her throat, unrolling it. "Empress Cordova has charged me with assisting you with this task. You'll find the riddles written upon parchment."
Patli bared her fangs. "You think we have sullied ourselves with the human scratching?"
"She does not, which is why she is here," Belen said, surprised that the yellow dragon hadn't made that connection. Only a few dragons knew how to read, mostly those who had studied with the Seer at the Vault of Fate. And drakes, it seemed.
Belen edged closer, peering over the drake's shoulder. To her surprise, the ink scratches on the page made sense. "I am a necklace of the ocean, a circle of life that embraces the island. What am I?"
"You can read?" Andressa's eyes widened.
Belen winced. She shouldn't have said that aloud. But she had been so surprised by the revelation... The golden chain shifted against her scales, a reminder. Was the gift responsible? There was no other explanation.
"It's not hard," Belen muttered instead. Because in truth, it hadn't been. The shapes on the page simply made sense to her.
"You're correct about the words," the drake said, sounding pleased. "Now you must decipher the meaning."
"A necklace," Patli repeated, tail twitching with agitation. "Islands don't have necklaces."
"It's a riddle. It's not literal," Belen said. What could it be? The tide? The sea? But as far as answers went, those ideas were too broad.
"The sky, maybe?" Andressa ventured.
Belen shook her head. "That's too big. It needs to be more specific like..." Her brow furrowed. "The lagoon!"
The drake nodded. "Very good. Hurry to the lagoon to find the next riddle."
Belen led the way, her mind still reeling with awe at her newfound ability. The other dragons and drake followed behind as they made their way toward the lagoon.
They approached a small sandy cove that overlooked the turquoise waters of the lagoon, and Belen's eyes widened when she saw what awaited them there: a large boulder with a sheet of parchment tied around it with a black ribbon.
"This must be it!" Belen exclaimed, racing to it with excitement coursing through her veins. She quickly untied the ribbon and unrolled the parchment, revealing a new riddle written in neat black ink.
"I am a home to the vulnerable, a place where many grow, but if you step on me, I'll disappear. What am I?" Belen frowned as she concluded the riddle. Vulnerable? Her brow furrowed as she examined the different bits and failed to make connections.
Patli and Andressa were invigorated by solving the first riddle, and both mulled over a variety of answers, though none of them were suitable. After a few moments, Andressa flexed her claws in the sand. "I've got it! Coral reef. On my home island, we're told to be careful of the reef when we go swimming so we don't kill it."
The drake beamed. "That is correct." She glanced at the lapping waves. "One of you must swim out to the reef and find the clue in a waterproof tube."
"I've got it." Patli slogged into the waves, vanishing beneath the froth before Belen or Andressa volunteered. The yellow dragon return moments later, clutching the tube in her claws, seawater dripping from her scales. She tossed the tube to Belen. "I can't let you have all the fun. I'm here to win this, too."
The next riddle led them to a cluster of mangroves, where they picked up the final parchment. "I am always hungry, and I must be fed; but the more I am given, the thinner I get. What am I?" Belen tilted her head, thoughtful.
"Fire," Patli said after a moment. "But I didn't see any signs of a fire anywhere."
"No, but I think I saw the remains of an old bonfire on the beach at the lagoon," Andressa supplied. "When you were swimming to the reef."
"Only one way to find out," Belen said, and together they flew back to the lagoon.
True to the magenta dragon's word, there was an old bonfire on the beach—and not only that, Empress Cordova stood by the ashes, waiting. She smiled at them. "Well, I see there are three of you that can work together without breaking into a brawl! Because of that alone, I would declare you the victors. But you also succeeded at solving every riddle. And for that, you should be proud. Welcome to the final challenge, consort hopefuls."
Emperor Danilo greeted them bright and early the next morning. Only Belen, Andressa, and Patli remained in contention. The losers had joined the ranks of the audience, and today it appeared they were permitted to watch the final challenge.
The sun was just beginning to peek out over the horizon as the regal green dragon flew to an overlook and addressed his court. His voice echoed through the crisp morning air as he announced, “Today’s challenge will be a test of strength. The three of you shall face off in a three-way battle!” He paused, letting his words sink in before continuing.
Emperor Danilo raised his claws dramatically, gesturing towards the valley. “A platform has been set up for this battle. It is surrounded by a ring of pillars that reach up to the sky. Atop these pillars are flags representing each contender—bright green for Belen, brilliant red for Andressa, and deep gold for Patli. This will be your battlefield; here is where your strength, courage, and wit are put to the ultimate test!" He went on to explain that the winner would be the dragoness who claimed all three flags.
"Emperor, are we allowed to harm one another?" Andressa asked.
The Jade Emperor fixed her with a look. "The life of a royal is not as cosseted as it seems. Use tooth and claw, tail and scale. Use everything you have to win and survive—even if it means killing another."
Belen swallowed, her eyes widening. She had known this might be dangerous...but she hadn't expected this. She took a calming breath, reminding herself she had an advantage the other two lacked. Chandra had seen her as the Jade Empress. And if Chandra truly was a Seer, her vision would come true.
"Do you understand?" Danilo asked, tone grave.
All three nodded.
"Excellent. The challenge begins now!"
What? Belen only had time to blink and register the start as Patli and Andressa surged toward the pillars, each with their sights on the other's flag. Belen shook her head, uncertainty growing. They were both larger than she was. Did she even stand a chance?
With dogged determination, Belen pushed off and flew to the pillar that held her own flag, watching as Patli snagged the red flag and Andressa captured the gold. No doubt before long they would come for Belen's. She had to make that a problem for them.
Belen narrowed her eyes. Danilo hadn't said their flags needed to stay on the pillars. So, in theory, she could move hers. Belen stripped it from the flagpole, heart thumping as she considered what to do next. Should she carry it around with her? No, too easy to lose...
Hide it. She needed to hide it. Belen considered stuffing it into her treasure gullet for safekeeping, but realized that might encourage the larger dragons to rip her apart. No, she had to hide it somewhere else.
Glancing over her wing, she found Patli chasing after Andressa, roaring in fury. Good. They were too distracted to pay attention to her. She pushed off from her pillar, gliding out of the valley and to the mangroves. Belen tied her flag to a shade-dappled root, then returned to the field of battle—
Patli slammed into her, knocking Belen off course. The audience gasped as Belen bounced off the valley wall, the breath torn from her lungs. Everything hurt. The world swirled around Belen's vision as she tried to clear her head. The large yellow dragon stood over her, sides heaving from exertion.
"Where is your flag?" Patli demanded.
"Where's Andressa?" Belen asked, mostly because her brain was still dazed and it was the only thing she could think of.
Patli snarled. "Where is your flag?" Her fangs loomed uncomfortably close to Belen's neck.
"It'll be hard to find if you kill me, that's for certain," Belen shot back, earning a frustrated roar.
At that moment, Andressa swooped in from behind and launched a surprise attack on Patli, clawing at her wings and shrieking. Belen felt a surge of hope. If the other two were busy fighting, it would give her time to escape and get the flags. She scrambled out of the way as they fought, locking eyes with Andressa's briefly as she flew by. Was that understanding in her gaze?
Belen didn't have time to consider it further as she quickly noticed two flags fluttering atop Andressa's spire. Gold and red. She soared to the spire, talons outstretched to snag the banners, and shoved off again. The audience cheered wildly as Belen flew back to the mangroves and moments later returned with all three flags in her claws. As she soared higher and higher into the sky, Belen knew without a doubt that she had won this challenge.
A day later, Belen stood in a row with Patli and Andressa. They were all alive, but battered. Andressa had a broken wing, though a drake had tended it and now the magenta held it tenderly close to her body. Deep claw marks scored the yellow dragon's haunches and torso.
By comparison, Belen had gotten off lightly. She had bruises from colliding with the valley wall and scratches from Patli, but little more.
Prince Roshan stood in front of his parents. The royal dragons' scales gleamed like sun-fired emeralds in the early morning light.
"I wish to thank all of the contenders for taking part," Roshan announced, his gaze drifting over the remaining hopefuls. "Choosing a consort is not a simple task, and the Jade Court requires the best of the best."
At his words, a low rumble fell over the audience. Belen glanced over her folded wings when she heard the breathy mention of the deceased consort from a spectator. She clenched her jaw, shifting to stare straight ahead.
If the murmurs bothered Roshan, he didn't show it. He ambled up the line of potential consorts, studying each with a critical eye. Finally, he came to a stop before Belen. "I found it odd that the Cerulean Court only sent a single dragoness."
She swallowed. Did she dare reveal that no one else had volunteered? No, that would be an insult, and it wasn't something she could afford. Belen aimed a charming smile at the green prince. "The Cerulean Court only sends the best to such a contest, Prince Roshan."
His nostrils flared. "Indeed. And that is why today, I choose Belen of the Cerulean Court as the Jade Consort."
Belen froze as a chorus of deafening roars rolled over her. It couldn't be true...could it? Chandra's prophecy was under way, with Belen starting down the path of the Jade Empress. She lifted her chin, eyes gleaming with pride. She stepped forward, meeting her new mate's gaze. "And I choose you." She was not a pawn to be used. Belen was determined to be a force in her own right.
Roshan's toothy grin widened, pleased by her response. "I would expect nothing less."
The unsuccessful competitors grumbled and slipped into the anonymity of the dragon audience. Roshan stepped beside Belen, his scales a shade lighter than her own deep emerald. "I present to you, the Jade Consort!" And with that declaration, he leaped into the air, wings spread wide. Belen followed.
The Jade Court erupted into celebration—a feast was prepared that afternoon, and music provided by the drakes drifted through the air. Courtiers came forward to make their introductions, and Belen was pleased to find Sivarth among them. The red dragon winked before bowing low to her.
The Emperor and Empress of the Jade Court made moving speeches about the joys of welcoming a new consort into their family. Roshan, too, gave a rousing speech, even recounting his excitement at watching Belen thread her way through the enchanted rocks of the first challenge. By the end of the evening, Belen felt as if she might float away on the next cloud.
"You've endured many rigors, so we'll delay our mating flight for a day to allow you to recover," Roshan whispered as they left the celebration together. His wing brushed against hers. "I hope you don't mind."
Belen raised her scaled brows. "I could use rest, though I will admit I was looking forward to having you all to myself."
He blinked. "You're rather bold."
"I'm a dragon who knows what I want," Belen corrected. And she knew the path she was on—the one she was determined to change. There would be no heartache, no loss. Only victory, love, and joy.
Roshan nodded. "This is good. My last consort...she was more reserved." He sighed, an edge of sadness in his voice.
Belen was about to ask about the previous consort when a sheen of familiar blue scales illuminated the darkness ahead. She drew up short, staring. "Chandra?"
The Seer sat in the middle of the path, tail wrapped around her body and wings folded. Her gaze was unfocused, though she still seemed to stare at Belen. Chandra nodded slowly, as if she had heard a question that hadn't been asked. "Yes, I have come." Her voice was low and serious. "I beg you not to follow this path. The heartbreak before you is…insurmountable.”
Beside her, Roshan bristled. "What is the meaning of this?"
Belen growled, a warning low in her throat. "Do not ruin my moment of happiness, Chandra."
The azure dragoness lowered her head. "I've come to spare you misery."
The prince glanced between the pair. "What is this dragon talking about, Belen?"
"Chandra is my sister," Belen said through clenched teeth. "But she is unwell. She dreams she sees the future, but she does not."
At the declaration, Chandra's head jerked as if she had been struck. "For many months, I have trained under the wing of the Seer of the Vault of Fate. The visions I see are not madness. They are truth."
Roshan shifted nervously, as if he were second-guessing his selection. Belen couldn't have that, not now. "I will not allow a prophecy to dictate my life!" she declared, her voice ringing through the night air. "I have come this far and am determined to see it through. I will not let anyone—not even my own sister—stop me." She grabbed Roshan's claw and stepped forward, turning her back on Chandra. "We must go now," she said firmly. She vowed never to look back.
Belen held back tears as she walked away—tears of anger at Chandra's interference and sorrow for the rift she knew this would create with her sister. But the future was hers to shape—and she would make it better than anything even Chandra's visions could have foretold.