Dawn of the Jade Empress
The days that followed were a flurry of activity and joy for Belen as she adjusted to her new role as the Jade Consort. She accompanied the Jade Prince on his daily duties, impressed by how effortlessly he charmed those around him with his engaging smile and kind words.
She was also surprised by his attentiveness to her throughout their time together. He made it known that she was more than just a shiny ornament in his court and took any opportunity to get to know her better. Conversation with him turned into debates, which blossomed into deeper, more meaningful talks. They revealed their hopes and aspirations, fears, and secrets to one another, connecting over their shared love for their Court and their growing bond with each other.
As she became more comfortable in the Jade Court, Belen took the time to engage with the other dragons who made up the heart of the island. She took every opportunity to listen to their stories and ask questions as she sought to learn more about how their Court worked.
In all of her conversations, Belen couldn't help but notice the growing discontent among the drakes. The Jade Court considered them servants. It took a few weeks for her to understand the responsibilities of the drakes. They cared for the hatchlings, prepared food for the Court, served as sentries for the island, and used their magic in ways Belen didn't fully grasp.
On the outside, the drakes seemed to be treated well enough. They weren't abused, but there was a simmering resentment that Belen detected just below the surface, written in the tense body language of a few drakes. Still, Belen needed to do something. Unrest of any sort needed to be handled.
"Roshan," she began one afternoon as they lay curled together, basking in the sun. "Do you know why the drakes are unhappy?"
He angled his head, frowning. "Unhappy? What makes you think that?"
Belen paused, blinking. How could she explain it to him, if he hadn't noticed it? "They just...look like they're discontent."
The Jade Prince chuckled. "Why would they feel like that? They're a part of the Jade Court, living on the best island in the dragon latitudes. They're safe here. There's enough food for everyone. They have the pleasure of serving us."
"But they're not happy," Belen insisted. "I'd like to speak to them and find out why. Shouldn't everyone in the Jade Court be content?"
Roshan's brow furrowed. "They're just drakes. But I suppose if it pleases you, ask them." He edged closer, nuzzling her neck lovingly.
The next morning, Belen made her way to a grove where she knew the drakes congregated before starting their day. As she broke through the leafy ferns, the three drakes who had been lounging around stared at her with terror.
"Consort," one of them blurted, bowing low. His scales gleamed like polished obsidian. "We were...ah, that is..."
Belen lifted a claw in what she hoped was a calming gesture. "No need to explain yourself. I wish to have a conversation, if you'll allow it."
The drakes exchanged hesitant looks, then nodded. A coppery female drake gestured to the ground nearby. "Then make yourself welcome, Consort."
Belen settled beneath the shade of a papaya, glancing at the assembled drakes. "Let's see. If I recall correctly, you are Asher, Ignatius, and Macawi." Asher and Macawi had both taken part in the selection process. Asher had used his power to create the living stone pillars, and Macawi had assisted Belen's team in the riddle hunt.
"Yes," Ignatius said, warily tilting his glossy black head. "Few dragons bother to learn our names, aside from those we serve regularly."
"I'm not most dragons," Belen replied, sitting up straighter. She hoped it made her appear regal and assured. Like she had authority in the Jade Court. She would, one day. "I will speak plainly. I've noticed that the drakes aren't happy."
All three froze. The black drake looked as if he was about to flee for his life. Macawi, the copper drake, swallowed. "We love serving the Jade Court." Her voice trembled with the lie.
Belen snorted. "I was hatched at night, but not last night. This is not a trap. I'm here to help. I'd like to know why you're unhappy, and what I can do about it."
The drakes exchanged startled looks again. Ignatius still seemed ready to bolt. Asher, a drake the color of moonstones, sighed. "What does it matter? Nothing will change."
"With that attitude, perhaps not," Belen agreed, eyes narrowed. "But I didn't come to the Jade Court to sit around and have my scales polished all day. I'm here to make an impact. I can't do that without information."
Asher blinked in surprise. Then he nodded. "If you insist. We're stuck here, Consort. There is no hope for us beyond being servants to dragons our entire lives. We are not even allowed to leave the island."
Belen frowned. "I was informed you don't need to migrate. No treasure gullets."
Macawi nodded. "We don't have treasure gullets to bring back metal and gems, but that doesn't mean we want to stay here forever. There's a big, wide world out there. We'd like to see it."
While Belen didn't understand the attraction to the idea, it was reasonable. "I see. What else?"
"We're left out of all decision making," Ignatius spoke up. "Not a single drake has the ear of the Emperor or Empress."
Belen shot a look at Asher. "I thought you were Roshan's friend."
"Dragons are not friends with drakes," Asher said, voice taut. "I serve him. Roshan is kind, but I am still subservient to him." Something flashed in his eyes. Resentment. And something else...something dangerous.
Belen suppressed a shiver. "Anything else I should know?"
"The larger dragons disrespect us," Macawi said after a moment.
Belen sighed. "The apexes and leviathans disrespect anyone without brute strength to back them, even other dragons." She shook her head. "Nothing new there."
"It's not just the leviathans and apexes." Macawi glanced down at a long scrape on her shoulder that Belen hadn't noticed until then. "Every dragon likes to remind us we're smaller. Weaker."
"I'm sorry for that," Belen said, meaning every word. "I'll admit, you've given me a lot to think about. I'll take it back to Prince Roshan and discuss the matter. I'm hopeful we'll find a way to change your circumstances."
They gave her dubious looks. "Best of luck, Consort," Ignatius said.
"I don't need luck," Belen said, rising. She was going to forge her own destiny, starting with this topic.
She found Roshan resting on the beach, delicately plucking grapes one after the other and popping them into his mouth. A drake stood sentry nearby. Belen glanced at the drake, then settled down beside her mate.
"Did you have a pleasant chat?" Roshan asked.
Belen nodded, steeling herself. "I did. And I discovered we must address the grievances of the drakes. They feel undervalued. We should work towards creating a more inclusive Court."
Roshan offered her a grape. "I understand your concerns, and your heart is in the right place. However, we cannot change the circumstances of the drakes. Things are as they are for a reason, and the dragons of our Court would not tolerate the drakes being free or having more influence. We must maintain the balance of power to ensure the stability of the Jade Court."
Belen frowned, her heart heavy with disappointment. But this was a minor setback. She would bide her time. One day she would be the Jade Empress.
One day, she would be the change.
Months passed, and Belen dove headfirst into the swirling currents of Jade Court politics. Meetings, feasts, and ceremonies filled her days, as she navigated the intricate web of alliances and rivalries. She studied the key players, seeking allies like wise Councilor Miralda, and wary of threats like the ambitious apex dragon Tarnis.
Belen approached Miralda, the Councilor's scales a radiant tapestry of sunset hues. Seeking guidance, she asked about the Court's inner workings.
As they basked in the waning sunlight one afternoon, Miralda eagerly shared her wisdom. "I want to provide you with the information needed to make the right decisions for the Jade Court," she said, while Belen listened attentively.
Belen listened to the wise old dragon as she explained the different factions within the court, absorbing each word like a sea sponge.
Her influence grew, and Belen became the Jade Court's emissary, forging alliances with other islands. Her diplomatic prowess and magnetic presence won over even the most skeptical.
In one negotiation, she faced Regent Veyra from the Crimson Court. Calm and focused, Belen countered Veyra's demands with fair proposals, crafting a mutually beneficial agreement.
"Jade Consort," Veyra purred at the end of their discussion, "your reputation hardly does you justice."
Belen dipped her head. "Cooperation benefits us all, Regent. We're stronger together."
Veyra's eyes flashed with surprise. "Unusual beliefs for a dragon."
"I pride myself on being an usual dragon," Belen countered.
Whispers of admiration trailed Belen like a flock of seagulls, her decisive words echoing through the Court. Soon, her influence shaped the destiny of not just the Jade Court, but the dragon world.
Yet she never lost sight of her goals. She challenged the prophecy that haunted her, advocating for the drakes in the shadows of the Court.
Walking the beach with Roshan one evening, she raised the subject once more. "Roshan, I know you said we couldn't change the drakes' circumstances, but I can't help but feel we must do something. They deserve a better life."
Roshan sighed, his gaze drawn to the moonlit waves. "I understand your compassion for them, but you must remember the delicate balance of power within our Court. We cannot simply change such things without consequences."
Her determination flared. "I know, but we can find a way. I believe we can make the Jade Court a better place for all its members, including the drakes."
Roshan marveled at her relentless passion. He nuzzled her affectionately. "You're a force to be reckoned with, my love. If anyone can make a difference, it's you."
"Come. We must speak." Ignatius bumped his hip against Asher, interrupting the Stoneshaper drake.
"I was in the middle of something," Asher murmured, his claws rasping against a smooth stone orb. His friend knew he hated interruptions when he was at work, yet Ignatius persisted.
"It will wait, my love," Macawi's soft voice piped up as she approached. Her eyes glowed in the evening moonlight. "I know you're distracting yourself from your true feelings by burying yourself in work."
Was he that obvious? Perhaps to his mate, who knew him better than anyone else. He was helpless to live out his internal dreams of destroying the dragons, one by one. They'd had a difficult enough time removing the previous Consort, and she had simply been their test.
Asher, Macawi, and Ignatius found a secluded grove, far from the prying eyes of the dragons, where they could discuss their situation. The discontent among the drakes had grown stronger since their conversation with Belen, and they knew they couldn't rely on her to solve their problems.
"She wears a nexus chain," Asher murmured once they settled in the grove. He lifted a claw to pull out the golden chain that encircled his neck, usually hidden beneath his flexible scales. "I know you saw that, Macawi. How did Belen get a nexus chain?" His gaze snapped to Ignatius.
The black drake's lips peeled back as if he were about to fight off a hidden accusation. "Don't look at me! I may craft magical items, but I'm surely not the only one with the talent." Ignatius snorted out a breath.
"She arrived with it," Macawi said, slinging a wing over Asher's back and drawing him closer. He liked that, and he settled against his mate's warm side. "And then she won. Do you think perhaps she was sent to liberate us?"
Oh, at times his darling mate was far too optimistic. Asher shook his head. "What, you think the drakes of the Forgotten Library would send a dragon to free us?"
Macawi aimed a wounded look at him. "It's possible not all dragons intend to keep us as servants. I think she really does want to help us."
"Perhaps she does," Ignatius said with a prim nod. "But from what I see of the Court, she will have an impossible time convincing the others."
"Or if she does, it will take years." Asher shook his head. "And we've already waited long enough." He had reached the point where he was unwilling to wait any longer. Macawi had laid her first clutch of eggs last week—a veritable miracle, after many years of trying. Asher didn't want his children born into servitude. Not when there was so much more out in the world for them.
Macawi rested her head against his shoulder, as if she sensed his thoughts. "But what can we do? The dragons are too powerful. We don't stand a chance against them."
Ignatius lifted a hand and stroked his claws over his own nexus chain, a nervous habit. "Maybe we don't need to fight them directly. What if we sought allies outside of the Jade Court?"
Asher frowned. "What do you mean? It's unlikely any of the other Courts would move against the Jades. They're all dragons." He had pondered the idea of luring another Court in to conquer the Jades. Maneuvering some sort of territorial dispute. But it had seemed like nothing more than swapping out one master for another.
Ignatius looked thoughtful. "There's a world beyond the Jade Court. And it's filled with humans who might be willing to help us."
Macawi tilted her head, intrigued. "Humans? How could they help us?"
"Well," Ignatius said, "we have unique abilities, and humans are fascinated by magic. Perhaps we could form an alliance with them, using our powers to our mutual advantage."
Asher considered the idea. As far as plans went, it wasn't terrible. Ignatius was right. Humans would be interested in his ability to bring stone to life. It would be useful for construction or protection. Macawi was gifted with plants, able to manipulate vegetation in a variety of ways. And Ignatius was skilled at crafting jewelry that held magic—especially the nexus chains that helped the drakes focus their powers.
Macawi made a soft sound of consideration. "If we were to approach the humans, we'd need to do so in a way they wouldn't find threatening. We can't reveal our true selves to them right away." They had all heard tales of encounters between dragons and humans. Dragons usually had the advantage—and though drakes looked like dragons, a human would have a much easier time killing one.
"And that is why I suggested humans," Ignatius whispered, gesturing between them. "We can assume their form. It would be the perfect way to approach them and gain their trust."
The tip of Asher's tail twitched. Ignatius was right. Every drake could shapeshift, but most could only master one other form. As whelps, they chose a shape and, in secret, practiced the change until it became second nature. The drakes of the Jade Court could shift into humans, pegasi, unicorns, griffins, elves, Theilians, and Knossans.
"Well, this is certainly not the worst idea," Asher agreed, warming up to it. "But it will take time." He exchanged a worried look with Macawi, who leaned into him in a show of comfort.
Ignatius nodded. "Exactly. We'll have to be delicate about this. We need to find the right humans to ally with."
Macawi glanced around, making sure they were still alone. "If we're going to do this, we must be cautious. If the dragons uncover our plans..." She swallowed. Macawi didn't need to say more. They knew the price for discovery was death.
"I'll do the initial survey," Ignatius volunteered. "With my speciality, the dragons understand I must leave on occasion in search of materials."
In fact, of all the drakes belonging to the Jade Court, Ignatius was the most traveled. He had been to many of the islands in the dragon latitudes to barter for items he needed for his craft. The drake had learned to fit in reasonably well with humans, and in turn had advised Asher and Macawi on all things human.
"And perhaps in your travels you can uncover the location of the Forgotten Library," Macawi suggested, her eyes glimmering with hope.
The Forgotten Library is a myth. But Asher dared not say it aloud—he didn't relish an argument with his beloved. If there was an island teeming with other drakes out there, why didn't any of them know about it?
There were other drakes in the dragon latitudes, that much was certain. But like Asher, they were subjects of their dragon courts. The Pearls and Ambers had the only other notable populations of drakes, though they weren't in the same sort of subservient position as the Jade drakes, from what Asher had learned.
"I will certainly try," Ignatius agreed, tone solemn. He glanced at Asher. "Our tomes of magic had to come from somewhere, my friend."
Asher raised a scaly brow. "Yes. Our ancestors wrote them."
In the drake warrens, a collection of special books of magic remained hidden from dragon eyes. Some of the books theorized on the origins of drake magic. Others attempted to explain it it, offering simple lessons to help young drakes learn to harness their abilities. They were a precious collection, and Asher was determined to escape the island with them, too.
Ignatius sighed, rolling his eyes. They'd had this quarrel before. The black drake shrugged. "So, it's decided, then? I'll begin scouting?"
Asher and Macawi exchanged a look, and then both nodded. "We deserve this. Our children deserve this," Macawi whispered.
True to his word, Ignatius searched for allies. To Asher's great surprise, it didn't take him long to find a likely match. Before he knew it, he and Macawi were devising a way to bundle up their eggs for travel.
With the help of a few other drakes who they brought in on the plan, they created slings to hold the eggs and the books Asher wanted to keep from the dragons. Then he, Macawi, and Ignatius set off into a starless night, winging toward what Asher hoped was a brighter future.
After a perilous journey through late-season storms, they arrived at the island. Dead Man's Dare, so Ignatius said the island was named, was far prettier than the moniker implied. Thick jungles appeared to take up most of the land, though that had worked in the human's favor. Asher noted a plume of smoke in the distance, a sure sign of habitation.
Macawi shivered in anticipation, her scales chiming softly. "We made it. I can't believe we made it."
Ignatius chuckled. "Find a hiding place for your little ones. I'll go wander into town and find my...friend."
Asher watched the black drake hurry off, then helped his mate as she hunted for the perfect location for the eggs.
"I'm so relieved," Macawi whispered as she dug a depression between a pair of mango trees. She nestled the eggs into the hole, then laid her claws against the bark of the nearest tree.
"It only gets better from here." Asher smiled as he watched his mate work.
The roots of the mango tree writhed like sleepy snakes, then slipped over the eggs in a tight, protective netting. Macawi found a nearby thorny vine, encouraging it to come closer. She pushed her magic against it, accelerating the vine's growth. Huge thorns burst from the vine as it curled around the eggs.
"There," she said, settling onto her haunches with satisfaction. "My plants will be the perfect caretakers until we return," Macawi crooned to the eggs. "We'll be back soon, my loves."
With their eggs protected, Asher and Macawi hurried to catch up with Ignatius. When the first signs of humanity became visible, both drakes assumed their human forms.
It had taken time to figure out the nuances of these forms. Humans, they discovered, had a tendency to parade around in finery they called clothing. Asher assumed it was because their hides were too thin and they had little in the way of hair or scales to offer protection. This was the one downside to choosing the human form. Though, Asher recalled, elves were the same way.
"How do I look?" Macawi smiled at him, her short reddish-brown hair bobbing around her slender shoulders as she spun in a blue dress that hugged her body like a second skin.
"Not bad," Asher said, distracted by his own change. Somehow, he'd shifted with a pair of trousers and sandals, but no shirt. Stupid human clothes. So confusing.
Macawi rammed an elbow into his side.
Asher gasped, aiming a look at her. "What was that for?"
"Drake or human, never tell a female not bad." She lifted her chin, eyes narrowed.
Asher blinked, then laughed. "I'm sorry. I was trying to figure out what happened to my shirt."
"You don't see me complaining." Macawi grinned at him. "The human form isn't as attractive as a drake, but as far as they go...I would say you're not bad."
Asher raised his brows. "And now you're teasing me."
"Maybe." Macawi started forward, hips swaying with each stride. "Keep up, scaleheart."
Asher jogged until he was beside her, and together they made their way to the outskirts of town, where they waited in the deep shadows of a mahogany tree until Ignatius appeared.
The drake wasn't alone. An older, dark-skinned man with a face lined by wrinkles accompanied him. Though the hair crowning his head was grey, there was a sense of power and authority to him. He clutched a book under one arm.
"A wizard," Asher whispered, eyes widening. This was either very good...or very bad. Should he send Macawi away? One of them needed to survive, or the eggs would die...
"We have a friend," Ignatius announced, his voice carrying.
Asher and Macawi exchanged glances, then stepped out of their hiding place. The wizard's gaze landed on them, and Asher felt a shiver course through his body. There was something unsettling about the way the man looked at them, as if he could see through their human forms and into their very souls. Ignatius seemed unfazed, however, and gestured for them to come closer.
"Jeriel, this is Asher and Macawi," Ignatius said, indicating each of them. "More of the drakes I told you about. My dearest friends."
Jeriel's eyes flicked over them once more before settling on Ignatius. "Drakes. And here I thought your kind was lost to myth."
Myth. Like the Forgotten Library. Asher swallowed, not liking this. And he didn't care for the fact that Ignatius had already told this human what they were. But they had to show a united front, so he didn't call out his friend.
"We're very much alive and well," Asher said instead, eyes narrowed.
The wizard chuckled. "So I see. It's...amazing. That's all."
"Jeriel came to the dragon latitudes to study dragons," Ignatius supplied.
Jeriel nodded. "I did. I'm from Ravance...don't know if you know where that is. Far, far away."
Asher didn't know, and honestly didn't care. What mattered was that his man had magic and he might help them with their cause. "Ignatius has explained our purpose to you?"
A strange expression crossed Jeriel's face. "Yes. I have mixed feelings on dragons. They're so..." He paused, wonder gleaming in his eyes. "Regal. Beautiful. I could watch them fly all day. But they're also terrible and cruel. I saw one land on a fishing boat a few months ago and eat the crew."
Can't fault them for that. Humans are small and prey-shaped. Asher might have done the same. He might be the same size as Jeriel at the moment, but in his natural form he would tower over the man.
"He says he will help us," Ignatius said.
Jeriel shook his head. "I said I would take your request before the Council when you came back. But I think they'll be receptive, given how many we've lost to dragons over the years."
Macawi lifted her chin. "We have magic. Like you."
The wizard tilted his head. "And unlike me. Yes, Ignatius told me. I'm the only magic-wielder here, so your presence will be welcomed by some." He cleared his throat. "Ignatius also promised that I could read the books you brought."
Asher bit back a growl. That blasted drake. He glared at Ignatius.
For his part, Ignatius shrugged. "It's a worthwhile trade. He's going to read them, not keep them."
From what Asher knew of wizards, most of their spellwork was done via their grimoires. He wasn't worried about the wizard keeping the book, no. Asher was more concerned about the wizard potentially adding drake-specific information to his own grimoire.
I might have to kill this wizard when all this is said and done, Asher thought with resignation. But first we have to get that far.
Jeriel gestured toward the town. "I've been a rude host. Let's not keep talking out here. You're surely tired from your travels. I'll welcome you to my hearth. And tomorrow you can make your plea."
Macawi bit her lower lip. "Are all welcome?"
The wizard turned to her. "What do you mean?"
The female drake put her hands on her hips. "Eggs. I have hidden eggs on the island, and while they're safe for now..."
Jeriel smiled with understanding. "You would feel better if they were near. Yes, of course. They're innocent babes. Worthy of protection. Fetch your eggs and bring them back. Like you, they are welcome here."
Macawi's breath caught and she grabbed Asher's hand, squeezing it in excitement. "I'll be right back!" And then, perhaps forgetting herself, she shifted into her sleek drake form and vaulted into the air.
Jeriel stared, his mouth tipping open. "She just..."
Asher glared at him, ready to defend his mate if needed. "You named us as drakes. That's what we are."
The wizard swallowed, shaking his head as if he were shedding water. "Yes, but there's a difference in thinking something is true and seeing it in person." Then he whistled. "Never in all my years did I expect to witness something like that!"
Asher relaxed. The human sounded pleased, which was good. No need to call up an army of stone golems to destroy him...yet. They waited on Macawi's return, and Asher thought that maybe, just maybe, they had a chance.
"The dragons have command of the sky," Rance, the man Asher presumed to be the leader of the island council, pointed out. He shifted in his seat, nervous in the presence of the drakes.
Some of the humans were reluctant to help. Asher understood—many of them had children, and though his were still in the shell, his heart broke at the thought of them in peril.
Still, they couldn't let fear stop them. Not now. "But so do humans," Asher said
Rance scowled. "We have no griffins or pegasi in the dragon latitudes."
"Airships," Macawi piped up. She, Asher, and Ignatius had discussed this part in detail. "You have airships. We saw them in your landing field."
Tori, a dark-haired human female, shook her head. "Airships are too delicate to go against a dragon. One talon scratches the balloon, and every person on that vessel is doomed."
Asher eyed the wizard. "And you have not used magic to fortify it?"
Jeriel frowned. "I'm a wizard. I'm limited to casting the spells I know, and I don't have any like that. You'd need a specialized mage."
"Or a drake," Ignatius said softly, eyes gleaming as he lifted his chin. "I work with metal...I might be able to work with your airship."
"Work with it how?" Rance asked, voice tense.
"Make it capable of standing against a dragon, for one," Ignatius said. He paused. "And even if I can't, there is knowledge in the books—"
"No," Asher growled, whirling on Ignatius. That was a step too far. Let the wizard read the books for himself and discover it, yes. But openly speak of the capabilities of drakes, in public? Absolutely not.
"I doubt it can be done, at any rate," Tori said with a shake of her head. "Even if the balloon is protected, there's a hundred other ways a dragon can take down one of our airships."
"It can be done," Ignatius insisted, clearly not caring about Asher's concerns. "Of that, I can promise you." His eyes glittered with determination.
Asher clenched his fists, wishing for his drake form so that he could roar out his frustration. But that wouldn't do. Ignatius had committed them to the course, so what else could he do but go along?
"We can teach you how to fight the dragons," Asher volunteered. He and Macawi had already discussed options. Humans used harpoons to hunt seals and tuna. With the right force behind them, it might be possible to pierce the armor of a hardscale dragon...
Rance traded a look with Jeriel. "You would teach us how to slay your own kind?" Rance asked.
Asher lifted his chin. "We're not dragons." In his mind, it was crucial they understand the difference. He didn't want to be linked to their enemies in any way. And the less humans thought drakes and dragons were alike, the better for drakes in the long term.
Jeriel rubbed his palms together. "I think at this point, it's in our best interest to learn what we can."
With the humans convinced, the drakes spent the next several months sharing their knowledge of the dragons. Ignatius went to work with a dozen other humans, including Tori, who seemed to know quite a bit about the airship. They worked to fortify the Revenant and make the airship proof against the attack of a dragon.
Asher set to work as well, creating an army of stone constructs that would fight on their side against the Jade Court.
And most surprisingly, week after week, more drakes joined them in the settlement. Many of them prepared to fight the dragons, while others, savoring their first taste of freedom, set off on their own adventures.
Before long, Asher counted fifty drakes who had deserted the Court. Twenty of them stayed, eager to fight the dragons and free the rest of their friends and family who remained on Jadefire Island.
The night before their planned attacked, Asher joined Macawi in their borrowed quarters. Jeriel had set them up in something called a boarding house. The room was small, which meant they were stuck in human form unless they wished to find somewhere to sleep outside.
But their eggs were in the room, and Macawi wouldn't leave them. She had nestled them in the middle of the bed, swaddled in blankets. Macawi lay curled around them, her auburn hair fanned out on the pillow.
"You should stay here," Asher said, not for the first time, as he sat on the edge of the thin mattress.
Her dark eyes locked on his, and she swallowed. He saw the conflict on her face. Macawi reached out and snared his hand with her own. "I'll stay because I must...because they need me. But know that my heart flies with you."
Asher leaned down, pressing his forehead against hers. "I'll be back. I promise."
"Don't make promises you can't keep," his mate said, drawing back.
"I fully intend to keep this one," Asher said, resolute. He trailed his soft human fingertips over the rough eggshells. They were warm, and he fancied he could hear the strong heartbeat of the whelp within. "I need to come back for them. For you."
Macawi pressed her lips together. "You say that, and yet continue to go forth with your latest plan."
Asher crossed his arms, giving her a cutting look. "You've been around the Jade Court dragons. The only way they'll understand our message is by making it clear that if they cross us, they will suffer."
"You're going to slay the youngest of them. The ones who have done us no wrong," Macawi shot back, her voice soft.
Asher shook his head. The way he saw it, this was the only way their plan could possibly work. Most of the adult dragons were out on migration, though a few would have returned by now. The Court would be weak, with the strongest and fiercest dragons away.
"If we wait and have a fair fight it will be our end," Asher snapped. "There is no such thing as a fair fight with an entire island of dragons!"
Macawi's gaze lingered on their eggs. "And how will we explain this to them when they're old enough to understand? That their sire had no qualms with slaughtering dragon whelps?"
Asher's lips pulled back into a snarl. "They'll understand that their sire would do anything–anything–to give them a chance for freedom. For safety!" His shoulders slumped, and he ran a hand through his short, silvery hair. "By the winds, Macawi. You know I'm not doing this to be cruel. I'm doing this to survive."
She nodded, but the uncertainty in her eyes spoke volumes. Macawi didn't argue the point anymore, and they both attempted to sleep, though Asher was too nervous of the battle to come.
The day of the attack dawned sunny and warm. Asher had already loaded his golems into the hold of the airship the day before. He watched as the human warriors boarded. He didn't understand all the intricacies of the airship–he'd left that to Ignatius. The other drake stood on the deck in human form, going over plans with the ship's captain, Tori.
Asher stood on the beach with Macawi. She was still a woman, but he was back in his native form. She peered up at him, resting her palm against his chest. Asher hoped she might say something, but she was lost in her thoughts. She let her long human arms encircle his neck in a hug before stepping away to allow him room to take off.
"I promise to return," he whispered to her. But he didn't know if she heard, over the rumble of the airship's engine. Swallowing a lump in his throat, he shook his head. He had to set his sentiments aside. It was time for battle.
He pivoted, spreading his wings to take to the skies.
The flight back to Jadefire Island was long but uneventful. As they neared, Jeriel used his magic to summon cloud cover that masked their approach. Ignatius remained on the airship, but Asher was flanked by more than a dozen other drakes, all prepared to go to war with their former benefactors.
Tucked away in the cloud cover, the Revenant soared over the valley walls. As planned, the clouds dissipated as the ship sank lower, moving into an attack position.
The first roar of warning met them. Asher saw the sentry, a dragon with gleaming orange scales. "Now!" he called to his fellow drakes.
Drakes were faster and more agile than dragons. One against one, a drake would almost always lose to a dragon. But as a dozen drakes fell on the larger beast, she was no match for them and after only seconds she was spiraling toward the ground, her wings shredded. She would not survive the fall.
Dragons poured into the valley, appearing from cave mouths and the shade of trees. Most of them juvenile, their wings not yet developed enough for long flights. They were joined by confused drakes who came out to stare at their brethren in horror and surprise.
"Betrayers! Traitors on the island!" a voice cried out. The Emperor surged onto the scene, wings spread wide. "Destroy them all!"
Asher grinned, flying up to the Revenant. He hailed one of the humans. "Open the doors to the hold."
It was time to fight.
"And then I said he was–" the drake who had been busily grooming the scales along the crest of Belen's neck froze. "Did you hear something?"
Belen cast a glance at the lump of her eggs, cuddled in a warm nest of colorful blankets the dragons had seized from a merchant ship. "I thought I heard a roar," she said, though she paid it little mind.
"As did I," the drake, Aitana, agreed. "Stay here, Consort. I will–"
In a clatter of claws against stone, Roshan burst into the cave. "The Court is under attack!" His sides heaved, as if he had flown and then run as quickly as he could. "Protect the eggs, Belen."
"Under attack?" Belen repeated, the words sounding strange on her tongue. How was such a thing possible?
The Jade Prince didn't reply. He likely hadn't even heard. He was already away, talons clicking with his quick steps as he rushed to join the fray.
"They did it. They really did it," Aitana whispered. "It must be."
Belen whirled to stare at her. "Who? What is it?"
The drake's eyes widened, and she took a hesitant step backward. "It's nothing. Perhaps I should go help in the defense."
Before she could skitter away, Belen grabbed the drake's tail. Any other time, she would not have used her size against Aitana, but danger was near and Belen was desperate for answers. She pinned the drake to the ground. "Tell me."
Aitana squeezed her eyes shut. "Drakes. There were rumors..."
The drakes. Belen gritted her teeth. Over the past several months, drakes had gone missing, never to be seen again. Deserters, Roshan had said. Ungrateful creatures. But he hadn't been bothered by the losses, since there were still more than enough drakes to handle the necessary tasks.
"What do you know?" Belen hissed.
Aitana shook her head. "Nothing. Only rumors, but none of them helpful."
Belen growled. Traitors. The drakes were traitors, after all she had tried to do for them! She huffed out a hot, frustrated breath, torn between shielding her beloved eggs, the future of the Jade Court, and going out to protect the young dragons.
She knew one thing she could do, though.
"I do not abide treachery," Belen whispered.
Aitana writhed beneath her. "Please!"
Belen sank her talons into the drake. Like the others of her kind, Aitana had soft scales, so piercing them was as easy as slicing a mango. Aitana squealed, struggling as Belen carved a gruesome line from breastbone to abdomen.
"We trusted you," Belen growled, pushing away from the dying drake. She cast a conflicted look at her eggs. Stay with them? She might only delay her own death. Better to face their attackers head on and do what she could against them. Aitana would only be the first to die beneath her claws, she vowed.
Belen rushed from the cave and into the chaos. The screams of dragons and the clashing of metal echoed through the air. Belen's breath caught as she saw drakes battling the dragons of the Jade Court. She rushed towards them, her wings beating fiercely against the wind. Belen let out a deafening roar, causing the drakes to pause in their attacks.
"Traitors!" Belen spat, her eyes blazing with fury. "You turn against your own for what? Power? Greed?"
A drake the color of white marble winged down to her level. "You know it's nothing of the sort, Consort!"
She recognized him. Asher. Belen had spoken with him months ago. And now he was a traitor. She narrowed her eyes, tail lashing. "If you had only been patient!"
"We're done waiting around for a freedom you'll never grant. We're here to take it," Asher shot back, gesturing with his claws.
A massive stone fist reared up, wrapping around Belen and snatching her from the sky. She yelped as the fist slammed her into the ground. The world spun in her vision, her head pounding, as the hand released her and rejoined the battle.
Belen pushed up, tottering on her feet. Something in her side hurt. Maybe a cracked rib. Whatever it was, it was a problem for later.
For now, the drakes had to die.
A huge airship loomed over the battlefield, harpoons whipping out at any dragon who dared come too close. That was a problem. But from what Belen had observed, airships were delicate things. She could take it out...but first, she needed to rally the other defenders.
"Jade Court! Group up," she commanded. "You are stronger together." That was a simple tactic her brethren forgot all too often. "Cluster with the young!" There. The reminder that the vulnerable needed protection might be enough to do it.
Sure enough, the older protectors swooped into a knot surrounding the younger dragons, pushing back against the drakes and humans. Belen nodded, then took to the air to go after the airship.
Belen flew a circuitous route, first flying away from the battle before climbing to gain altitude. She was too wily to come directly at the airship. No, she wouldn't be easy fodder for them to pelt with harpoons.
She came down on the balloon, talons extended to rend the delicate exterior. But to her great surprise, she struck an unyielding barrier. Her bones jarred with the impact, her earlier injury flaring up. Belen gasped in pain as she shoved up to reconsider her plan.
"Magic," she growled, shaking her head in fury. Those winds-damned drakes! They had struck a bargain with the humans. This was a level of betrayal she hadn't expected.
She went into a dive so quickly the humans manning the harpoons didn't have a chance to get her in their sights. Belen discovered that her dragons had, in fact, pushed the drakes back. Some of the drakes, severely injured, were winging up to the airship, blood spattering the sky in their wake.
Belen came to the ground with the Jade defenders, roaring her defiance as the airship retreated from the scene.
Breathing hard, Belen turned to survey the devastation. The scaled corpses of drake and dragon alike littered the valley. Her heart raced so quickly Belen feared she might collapse. She struggled to master herself, shaking her head as she fought back the terror that replaced her earlier rage.
"Empress," a wounded dragon hissed, bowing to her. "What would you have us do?"
"Empress?" Belen repeated, the word a puzzle. She glanced over her shoulder, searching for Empress Cordova. But the royal emerald dragoness was nowhere to be seen. Which meant... "Are you addressing me?"
"Yes, Empress," the dragon rasped. "Empress Cordova and Emperor Danilo were the first to be slain by the drakes."
The blood froze in Belen's veins. Her legs trembled so badly she almost fell. "I see. First, we should gather the survivors. Take care of the wounded. Set a watch." She paused. "Where is Prince Roshan? Surely he'll have more ideas." This was hard. Belen couldn't do this alone. She could barely stand! Her mate would help, of this she was certain.
Councilor Miralda limped up. "Empress, perhaps you should walk with me."
Belen nodded, moving alongside the orange dragon. Miralda was silent as they slowly strode east, weaving around the gutted corpses of drakes and the smashed bodies of dragons. Rubble from a stone golem partially buried a dragon with brilliant green scales...
"No!" Belen wailed as Miralda led her to the front of the dragon. Roshan, his eyes closed, as if he were sleeping.
Belen surged over to him, shoving a chunk of stone off his wing. He didn't move. Belen fought back a sob. She laid trembling claws against the familiar curve of his neck. He was cold. So cold.
"Wake up," she whimpered. "Roshan, my love. Wake up. Wake up, wake up!" Her heart broke with every desperate syllable. She tipped her head to the sky, roaring out her agony. "Wake up! Wake up!"
"Empress..." Miralda whispered close to her ear-flap.
"Wake up!" Belen screamed, her words echoing off the valley walls.
Roshan still didn't move.
Belen slumped beside him, vaguely aware of Miralda slinking away to leave her to mourn in privacy. This. This was what Chandra had warned her of, so long ago. She was the Jade Empress, but at the great cost of everyone she loved. Of much of the young of her Court. And she had been so certain she could escape the claws of fate.
She would do something about the prophecy later. For the moment, she allowed her heart to shatter into a thousand tiny pieces.
Belen surveyed the ruins of the Jade Court before her, wings folded protectively close like a sort of armor. It had been two long weeks since the attack, and the migrating dragons had returned to find their world forever changed.
"Empress." It was Miralda. The older dragon hobbled over. "What would you have us do?"
In her heart of hearts, Belen wanted nothing more than to be left alone for a very long time as she grappled with the void of emptiness. But she couldn't. She was the Jade Empress, and not only that, in a few short months her eggs would hatch. Roshan's legacy. Her legacy. They needed to be protected.
"Rebuild," Belen said after a long moment, raising her voice.
Miralda swallowed, but nodded. "As you say. But we no longer have the drakes to carry out such tasks."
Belen lifted her lips in a snarl. Drakes. Now she understood why most of the other Courts hadn't bothered with the treacherous beasts. "We don't need drakes. We will rebuild this Court ourselves. As dragons, for dragons."
The Councilor winced. "No one is used to such tasks."
That gave Belen pause. It was true, and perhaps it was a hardship the survivors didn't need foisted on them. In time, they could learn to do for themselves, but for now, they needed help.
"Choose a representative to send to the nearest Courts. Cerulean for sure, and perhaps Amethyst. Request aid for our rebuilding efforts."
Miralda raised her scaly brow. "Won't this be an admission of weakness?"
Weakness. Miralda had a point—to show weakness now opened them to attack from another dragon court. But at the moment Belen didn't care. Based on what Chandra had told her, she didn't think it would come to that. "Send the representative. We're not in a position to rebuild alone." Belen glanced at her nest. "And Miralda? I'll require our most trusted apex dragoness to watch my eggs for a week."
"A week?" the Councilor blurted. "Where will you be?"
"There is someone I must visit."
Belen said no more on the topic as she made her preparations for travel. Miralda sent out a representative and found an apex to mind Belen's eggs, and once those tasks were complete, she set off.
Belen flew across the Sanguine Sea, her heart heavy with grief and anger. The Vault of Fate loomed ahead, an island that looked like any other in the dragon latitudes, save for the ancient temple nestled in its heart.
She landed on the rocky shoreline, awaiting the sentries she knew must come. Belen wasn't disappointed. Before long, the sentinels approached, and after a short discussion, escorted her to the Temple of Foresight.
Other dragons watched her approach with interest, though none of them spoke. Did they know the agony that wracked her heart? The pain that even now sent a spike of grief through her? Belen wanted to roar her fury at each and every one, but she held it in, waiting.
At last, her escorts showed her to a room inside the temple where a blue dragon stretched before a fire. The dragon wore a hood over her head, concealing her eyes. A huge white, winged canine lounged beside her, though the beast lifted its head, ears pricked, at Belen's approach.
"Sister," Chandra murmured, voice soft as she turned her hooded head in Belen's direction.
Belen's heart skipped a beat at the sight of Chandra. She couldn't help the pang of anger and betrayal. After all, it was Chandra who had warned her about the great loss she would suffer to become the Jade Empress. Why hadn't she warned her about the attack on the Jade Court? Belen's eyes narrowed as she stepped closer to Chandra.
"I trusted you," Belen hissed, her voice low and dangerous. "Why didn't you warn me about the attack?"
Chandra sighed and stood up, turning to face Belen. "I did warn you, sister. But you chose to ignore my words."
Belen's wings flared out in anger. The tips of her talons bit into the stone floor. "Ignore your words? You told me that I would suffer a great loss, not that my entire Court would be destroyed! Not that I would lose my mate!"
The white canine’s upper lip curled in a silent warning, a flash of fangs. Belen was tempted to swipe at the beast, just to have an outlet for her renewed anger.
Chandra lifted a claw to stroke the canine's silky head. “Peace, Vesper. I couldn't prevent the attack, Belen. It was part of the path we were on, ultimately leading to your rise as the Jade Empress."
Belen's voice shook as she spoke. "But at what cost, Chandra? My family is gone, my Court is in ruins! How can you stand there and say this was meant to be?"
Chandra hesitated, her hooded gaze shifting to the floor. "There are some things I cannot change, Belen. I cannot control the course of fate."
Fate. Belen hated winds-cursed fate. She refused to be its pawn any longer. "Tell me everything, Chandra. How did this happen? Why did the drakes turn against us?"
The Seer heaved a long, whistling sigh. "I believe you know why."
Belen mantled her wings, baring her fangs. "I was going to help them when I became Empress!"
Chandra nodded. "And now you are. So what will you do? What path have you taken?"
"We killed all the drakes left at the Jade Court," Belen growled, passion rich in her voice. "I took the path of vengeance. Of honoring the memory of my mate and the previous Emperor and Empress."
"Do you really believe all that death honors them, or will it lead to a cycle of hate?" Chandra asked.
Belen bristled. How dare Chandra question her? "It's very easy to stand on the outside and judge my actions. You have lost nothing."
Chandra shook her head. "No, I've lost my sister. And I will mourn that for the rest of my days."
"You can't mourn someone who's not dead," Belen shot back. "Betray, though? You can most certainly do that."
The Seer shivered, her azure scales chiming. "I'm sorry," Chandra said softly. "This is the path we must take, Belen. I know it's hard and I wish it could be different, but all other paths would have led to far worse outcomes."
"There are worse things than this pain I feel?" Belen snapped, her tail lashing. "Than losing my mate? Losing the dragons of a Court?"
"I know it sounds–"
Belen didn't let Chandra finish. In a flash, her claws shot up as she slapped them across the blue dragon's face. Chandra gasped in surprise, her head snapping to the side as a set of four slashes on her cheek wept with crimson. The winged dog snarled, ears flattened. Belen bared her own fangs at the beast.
"Don't patronize me, Chandra. I thought I could trust you. Curse you and curse your visions. If you ever dare betray me again, I'll kill you."
And with her proclamation, Belen stormed out of the Temple of Foresight.