friend a dragon like you could hope for.” He turned slightly, both of them very close to each other, and smiled. “Best friend, my ass.” She laughed until that black snout pushed between them, forcing them apart, pitch black smoke streaming from the nostrils.

“Oh, hello, my love,” Rhiannon said to her consort. “I was just giving Bram here a pep talk before he goes to face those difficult Sand Dragons. Wasn’t I, Bram?” “Uh. . yes. She was.”

“Now go with my blessing. And good luck to you.” Please don’t hug me. Please don’t hug me.

But she did.

Ghleanna waited outside the Queen’s Privy Chamber, not surprised when she heard her brother’s roar and the silver-haired royal slid-stumbled into the alcove, shoved there, no doubt by her intolerant kin.

“What were you thinking?” Ghleanna asked Bram without rancor. “Hugging her like that?” “I didn’t hug her. She hugged me!” “Uh-huh.”

A squeal came from the chamber and Rhiannon called out, “Bercelak! Put me down, you low-born bastard!” Although she didn’t sound nearly as angry as she wanted to.

“We better go,” Ghleanna offered, heading down the alcove.

“Yes, but—”

“No, Bercelak!” the queen cried out. “Not the collar! Not the chain! You bastard!” “Stand there any longer, royal, and you’ll get a visual you’ll not forget for a very long while.” Bram rushed up behind her, his eyes focused on the ground, his silver scales nearly glowing from embarrassment.

“That was. . awkward.”

“Get used to it. Them two like to play their games.” Ghleanna shrugged. “And who are we to stop them? If it makes them happy.” “I don’t mind what they do together. I just hate it when they involve the rest of us.” “Then you shouldn’t be hugging the queen.” “I didn’t hug the bloody queen!” “If you want to believe that.”

Once out of the court, they headed to one of the exits that would lead them from Devenallt Mountain, the long-time Southland Dragon power stronghold and home to their reigning monarch.

“Look,” Ghleanna continued, “all I’m saying is that you’re my responsibility until this gets done. So perhaps you could not get me and yourself killed in the process. But especially me. I’m the most important.” “I’ll do my best and yes, you heard sarcasm.” Ghleanna stopped and faced the royal she was tasked with protecting. He was taller than she, but so were her brothers, and she could take most of them in a fight. And she had, too.

“Listen well to me, Bram the Silver. You may be of royal blood, but I’m a Cadwaladr who’s been given the task of keeping your peacemaking ass alive for the next few weeks, which means that until we return, you belong to me. So do us both a favor and don’t piss me off. I’d hate to return to your beloved queen with only your head in tow, your body and that precious alliance you’re so eager to have the Sand Eaters sign left back in the Desert Lands — both torn to shreds by me.” He glared at her for what felt like several minutes until the royal snapped, “Damn that female, but she was right!”

And when Bram the Merciful stormed off, muttering to himself, Ghleanna could only shake her head and follow, readying herself for a deadly long trip she was not looking forward to at all.

Chapter 2

Ghleanna stood outside Bram’s home. She was allowing him time to pick up a few things before they got underway, and she was quite surprised.

“It’s a castle.”

“It is,” he said, digging through his travel bag for who knew what while walking across the small courtyard. They’d shifted to human and put on clothes a few miles back and Ghleanna realized she’d forgotten how attractive Bram was as human. Actually. . very attractive. Long silver hair framed his handsome face and brought out the deep blue of his eyes. His nose was flat and a little wide, making her want to poke at it with her finger; his lips full; his jaw square; and his hands and fingers long and elegant. He was as tall as Addolgar but not nearly as wide. It was clear he spent no long hours working with any weapon except the one he had attached to his shoulders, but he wasn’t so thin that he looked emaciated or weak. There was some muscle there — very nice muscle.

“Why?” she asked, gazing up at the tower attached to the castle. It wasn’t a large building and it was a bit rundown, but it could last through a battle or two as the spears embedded in the castle wall and the bit of damage done to the gate could attest.

“Why what?” Honestly, was the dragon listening to her at all?

“Why do you live in a castle?” She thought only her father did that, Ailean the Wicked even going so far as to raise his offspring in one.

“I work with as many humans as dragons.” He tripped on his way through the doorway, but seemed to barely notice and she briefly wondered if he did it every time he walked through there. “And humans simply don’t feel comfortable coming to a cave to discuss business of any kind.” They walked into the hall and Bram finally looked up from his bag.

“Charles?” he called out. “Are you here?” A human ran in from the back somewhere.

“I’m here, my Lord. I’m here!” “It’s Bram, Charles. You can call me Bram.” “Of course, my Lord. Uh. . my Lord Bram.” Bram sighed and she knew he’d immediately given up.

“I need my papers for the Alsandair trip.” “Yes, my Lord. . uh. . Lord Bram. . uh. .” “And that book on etiquette of the Desert Lands. I should refresh my memory.” “Oy,” Ghleanna finally cut in. “Don’t bring a whole bloody library. I’ll not be carrying all that bloody crap there and back.” “I think I can manage a few books and papers by myself, Captain.” “You better,” she muttered.

Bram faced her. “Are you going to be this difficult the entire trip?” “Probably.”


He motioned to a large table covered in papers and books; then she noticed that nearly every wall in the hall had floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with books and scrolls, but especially books. More books than she’d ever seen before in her life. She thought her mum had a lot — she didn’t. And Ghleanna had a feeling there were even more books within the castle and the attached tower.

Gods, had he read all these books? Was it possible? He hadn’t been alive for that long.

“You can sit there. I won’t be long,” he said while still searching through that blasted bag.

“Good. I want to meet with my brothers before the suns go down.” The dragon stopped, peered at her. “Whatever for?” She frowned. Didn’t they just have this conversation on the way here? “Because they’re coming with us. . to protect you? Remember?” “Dammit, I’d put it out of my mind.” More like he’d hoped she’d changed hers. “It’s better to be protected by five Cadwaladrs than just one.” “Perhaps, but your brothers hate me.” “Only Bercelak.”

“No. I’m certain they all hate me.” “Don’t be so full of yourself — my brothers barely know you exist.” Now he looked insulted. “So I’m meaningless?” “To a Cadwaladr. . yes.” “Then I’m so glad it’s the Cadwaladrs protecting me.” And that sarcasm lashed across the room.

“You don’t have to take it so personally. Most royals don’t matter to us. So you don’t especially not exist to us. You’re just one of many royals that don’t exist to us.” “Is any of that supposed to make me feel better?” “Thought it might help.” “It didn’t.”

“I hope you don’t always take things so personally. It’ll be a long trip for us both if you do.” “Thanks so much for the warning.” He dug through his travel bag again. “Blast and damnation! I can’t find—” “The terms of your proposed alliance agreement?” Charles asked, holding out a scroll to the royal.

“Oh,” Bram said, taking the scroll. “There it is.” With a weary sigh, Ghleanna dropped into a chair and put her feet up on the table.

“Oh, my Lady!” Charles cried, horrified. “Please.” He rushed to the table and carefully lifted Ghleanna’s boot-shod feet so he could remove the books and papers from under them.

“Sorry, Charlie,” Ghleanna said with a smile. “And you can call me Ghleanna. I’m not a royal like Bram over there.” “Of course, my Lady. . uh. . Lady Gh — I mean… uh. .” “Or just Captain. You can call me Captain.” Appearing

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