convince you different,” Kennis finished. “You are special, Ghleanna. And some blokes — they can never handle that. While others. .” “While others what?”

“While others were born to be the sheathe to your sword — you just need to find that one, lass. Like we did.” “Like your Da did. But she can’t do that if she stinks of ale and misery, Kennis.” “Not unless she wants a miserable bastard like herself, Kyna. And gods! Who’d want that?” And Ghleanna, realizing the truth of that, headed toward the lake and prepared to meet with her queen.

Please don’t hug me. Please don’t hug me.

But she did. She did hug him. Right there in front of her entire court and, more importantly, in front of her consort. The most unpleasant of dragons, Bercelak the Great himself.

And Bram the Merciful, royal emissary for Queen Rhiannon of the House of Gwalchmai fab Gwyar, knew his queen did it on purpose. He knew she did it because she enjoyed torturing her mate, but she often failed to realize that she also, in the process, tortured poor Bram. Or perhaps she realized it but simply didn’t care.

“Oh, Bram! You look so wonderful. Doesn’t he look wonderful, Bercelak?” Bram heard that growl of disapproval across the queen’s chamber.

“Bercelak thinks you look wonderful, too,” the queen lied. She patted Bram’s shoulder and stepped away. “So my dearest Bram, are you ready for your most important of trips?” “I am, my queen. I think nothing but good can come from this and I look forward to—” “Yes, yes.” She sat down on her throne, a bit of rock jutting from the cave wall. It never looked very comfortable to Bram, but the queen didn’t seem to mind. “But I’ve been worrying about your safety.” “My safety? I’ll be fine, Your Majesty.”

“I’ve been hearing rumors. There are those who do not want this alliance to go through. They will try to stop you.” “Why? It’s not Lightnings I go to see. The dragons of the Desert Lands have never been our enemies.” He was simply ensuring that they would not side with those who were.

“Always so logical, my old friend. Logical and thoughtful and smart. But still. . nothing is ever easy in the world of dragon politics, and you of all dragons should know that.” “Understood, my queen. And I promise you that I’ll be quite care—” “So I’ve arranged for your protection.”


“Your Majesty, my contact in the Desert Lands is only expecting me. Not an entourage.” “An entourage sounds so large and daunting, and it’s nothing of the sort. Just a few of my most trusted Dragonwarriors to ensure you make it safely to and from your destination.” “Dragonwarriors?” Gods, kill him now.

Which nightmare Dragonwarriors had this female dug up from the pits of hell to send him out with? Probably Bercelak’s brothers. Or, even worse, Bercelak himself. The black dragon had never liked Bram due to Bram’s apparent affliction to “thinking too much and lusting after my sister.” And Bercelak was right, of course. About the thinking — and the lusting.

Ghleanna the Black, now the Decimator, had been Bram’s unobtainable dream since he was a young dragon, barely even sixty winters. She’d stolen his heart from first glare when she’d slammed Bercelak’s head into the wall and ordered him to, “Leave off the royal!”, meaning Bram. Ghleanna had been in a recent battle, one of her first, and she’d gotten her first scar. A six-inch thing that cut across her collarbone. Bram had seen that scar and his mouth had dried up, his knees had gone weak, and he’d forgotten words. Not specific words, but all words. She’d rendered him temporarily mute.

But unlike Bercelak, Ghleanna barely noticed Bram after that, barely paid attention to him, barely remembered his name. He was the royal who sometimes visited her mother or her sister Maelona. The “thinkers” in the Cadwaladr Clan.

“And which warriors would that be, my queen? Anyone I know?” The queen smiled — something that did not give Bram ease — and he heard a voice he knew so well say from behind him, “I can’t believe you sent those mad bitches to fetch me, Bercelak. Do you not care for me at all?” Bram briefly closed his eyes before looking at the female who now stood beside him. They eyed each other for a long moment until Ghleanna the Decimator sneered and demanded of her brother, “Babysitting? You dragged me all this way to be a babysitter to a weak-willed royal?” “Thank you, Ghleanna,” Bram murmured. “That was very nice.” “Nothing personal,” she muttered back, her claw patting his shoulder. “Long night.” Long night? Looked more like a long century. Although he knew what it was that had one of the most decorated and feared captains of the last few centuries appearing as if she hadn’t slept in years. Her hair, always short and well groomed, now reached her shoulders, the ends uneven. Her armor, always spit-shined and battle-ready, was now covered in dirt and dents and, if Bram wasn’t mistaken, bits of some poor sod’s brains. Even her battle axes, her favorite weapons as far back as Bram could recall, looked as if they had not been cleaned in months, the blade edges still encrusted in blood and bits of bone. No, this was not the Ghleanna he had known all these years. The Ghleanna he’d adored. More fool him.

“Oh?” Rhiannon asked Ghleanna. “Are you frightfully busy at the moment?” “I know I’m too busy for this centaur sh—” “Honestly, my queen,” Bram cut in, “there’s no call to involve Captain Ghleanna. I’m quite fine traveling on my own.” In fact, he preferred it. This trip was too important for him to be distracted by the one female who still kept him up some nights. Sweating.

“Nonsense, Bram. I won’t hear of it.”

“Well, find someone else,” Ghleanna told them all. “I didn’t go through half-a-century of training and more than that of battles to end up the babysitter of Bram the Merciful.” Insulted, Bram snapped, “Would you like an actual blade to twist in my gut, Ghleanna?” “It’s nothing personal,” she said again.

“Right. Nothing personal.”

“What I find amusing,” Rhiannon observed, ignoring them both, “is that you think I’m asking you to do this task, Ghleanna of the Cadwaladr Clan. After all this time being Captain of the Tenth Battalion, one would think you could tell an order from a request.” Ghleanna made a noise through her snout that sounded like an angry bull about to charge. “And one would think that a queen wouldn’t waste the skill of her Dragonwarriors with centaur-shit tasks like babysitting!” “Don’t raise your voice to me, Cadwaladr! I am not one of your troops!” “I can tell that because they don’t waste my bloody time!” “That is it!” Bercelak the Great roared, silencing both females. Black eyes, so much like his sister’s, locked on the angry Captain. “Apologize, Ghleanna.” “Like hells I—”

“Apologize!” the consort’s voice boomed across the cavern, every royal beside Bram making a hasty move for the exits. Ghleanna immediately lowered her gaze.

“I’m sorry if I offended you, my queen.”

Rhiannon grinned. “Now, now, sister. We’re all friends here.” We are? “And I know you’ll do this favor for me.” The queen rose, walked down to Bram and, to his horror, patted his shoulder. “Bram means so much to me and to this court. We grew up together — and his safety is of the utmost importance. Do you think I would trust that with just anyone?” She laid her head on Bram’s shoulder and Bram curled his claws into fists, desperate to move away from this crazed female. “Isn’t Bram simply marvelous? The way he negotiates such important alliances and truces for me? Don’t you simply adore him as much as I do?” The queen’s consort stood in front of Bram now, towering over him as most males of the Cadwaladr Clan did, and he glared at Bram with such loathing that all Bram wanted to do was scream out, “It’s not me! I swear, it’s not me!” But before the terrifying bastard could remove parts of Bram that would definitely be missed, Ghleanna caught hold of her sibling’s forearm and tugged, sighing loudly.

“Come, brother. Tell me what this all-important task is and why I, of all Dragonwarriors, must do it.” She dragged Bercelak from the cavern and Bram gazed at his old friend and now ruler of all Southland Dragons. And, with all honesty, he asked, “Why, Rhiannon? Why do you hate me so?”

“What is going on?” Ghleanna demanded of her brother once she’d found them a quiet alcove.

“How should I know? I mean what could Rhiannon see in that overthinking bastard? All he does is read all day and write papers. It’s like his mind is a thousand miles away at all times. He’s a talker that one, not a doer.” “I’m not talking about that, you git. I’m talking about what’s going on that you think it’s necessary for me to accompany the peacemaker anywhere. And it better be a good reason, brother. Or I’m likely to get cranky.” Bercelak took in a deep breath, trying to calm his desire to tear poor Bram wing from wing. Gods, the two of them

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