Chapter 3: Arrival
Kale noticed three young people in the field as he prepared to land. He could just make out their dragons scrambling into the woods to hide. He had forgotten how rarely the campus had visitors. He had chosen the field because in mid-winter he hadn’t figured that anyone would be out here, but the three of them had a blanket spread out and it looked like a picnic, of all things. He hopped off Vestis’s back as soon as they hit the ground, hoping to calm the clearly panicked students. As he approached them, he was struck by how young they looked. The two men must have been freshmen, he thought, because they exuded youth. The girl seemed a bit older and appeared more collected than the others at the sight of a strange dragon.
As he walked towards them, his eyes caught the younger-looking of the two men and he froze midstep. This was the one. The one whose mating flight had summoned him from Washington DC. There was no question. That auburn hair hanging in loose locks around his face, the wide, innocent eyes and pouting lips. He could almost feel the start of arousal just looking at the face but he forced it away and continued to draw nearer to them. Men who were bonded to female dragons were rare, but Vestis assured him that the boy, Jamie, as Vestis informed him, was indeed bonded with a female.
He is bonded to the queen, Vestis said in awe. He can speak to me the way you speak to me. He wishes to know who you are.
Kale nearly stumbled. A queen? It had been decades since the academy had produced a queen, and that queen hadn’t lasted long because the bond between human and dragon was so weak. But if this Jamie’s bond was so strong that the mating flight could be felt thousands of miles away, it must be a true bond. The implications of the council getting their hands on a well-paired queen were shocking.
Let me introduce myself, Kale told Vestis, who tossed his head and curled up.
The children – for it was hard to think of such young-looking people as adults – looked nervous as he approached but they didn’t run away. He studied Jamie until the boy blushed, then turned to examine the other two. The other man had a medium complexion and a hawk-like nose that fit his gleaming brown eyes, and the woman wore her blonde locks loose to her shoulders, framing a petite, pale face.
“My name is Kale,” he said, extending his hand to Jamie first. “I’m a former graduate of the school.”
The other man pulled Jamie back as if protecting him, then took Kale’s hand. “I’m Amar. This is Jamie and Nikki. What are you doing here?”
Another man abruptly appeared in the field, trotting towards them quickly. When he caught sight of Vestis, however, his pace slowed. Kale felt his heart skip a beat as he recognized the man. Ashton. One of the three students must have summoned Ashton. Kale had hoped to get settled before Ashton arrived, because there was always the chance that Ashton would kick him out. Or, worse, would insist that Kale take up his former position and share chambers with the man. Kale unconsciously fingered the gold chain around his neck. It was so dangerous coming back here when he was claimed by this man.
“Kale,” Ashton said warmly, and embraced him.
Kale was stiff as Ashton held him close. He would not go back. He would not sleep with Ashton ever again. He would not become a sacrifice for the rest. He still remembered with vivid accuracy the day that Ashton had taken him to the volcanic crater and spoken of sacrifice, of helping the council maintain its power. He would never do those things for the council and it had taken all of his strength and skill to escape the campus afterward. Now he was back, and he was terrified that Ashton would pick up where they had left off.
“What brings you here?” Ashton asked.
“The mating flight,” Kale said. Best to be direct and get this over with. He had never been able to lie to Ashton. “We all felt the queen’s mating flight and I came to investigate.”
“How did you know it was a queen?”
“I recognize the boy,” Kale said, gesturing at Jamie who went pale and hid behind Amar. “And Vestis just informed me there is a queen here. Who else would have that kind of power?”
“Six years you’ve been gone,” Ashton said, letting his hand trail across Kale’s cheek and drop to the collar around his neck. “I thought you were hiding from us.”
Kale blushed. Ashton’s hand should not feel so good against his skin. He had been hiding, in a way. He had been doing the council’s work indirectly – the council sent instructions to Vestis and Kale obeyed – but there had been no direct communication between Kale and the council in years.
“Please,” Ashton continued. “Stay with us a while. There are rooms available in the apartments or in the canyon.”
Kale let out a sigh of relief. Ashton wouldn’t insist that he sleep with the man. He could have his own quarters and pretend not to be Ashton’s favorite. Unless Ashton had a new favorite, he thought suddenly. A new favorite who was sleeping in Ashton’s quarters, receiving Ashton’s favors, being prepared for the same talk on the volcano that had scared Kale into running away for six years. If there was a new favorite, it was one more person Kale needed to save.
“The apartments would be nice,” he said, wanting to be as far from Ashton as possible.
Jamie and the others packed up their picnic and followed Ashton and Kale back to the main campus. Vestis followed in the air above, and two beautiful blue dragons emerged from the forest to circle him. The smaller one, a male, was exceptionally gorgeous and must have belonged to Amar because he butted his head against Vestis playfully and had little of the seriousness that dragons developed as they aged. He seemed, if anything, determined to play with the much larger green dragon and wasn’t going to take no for an answer. To Kale’s surprise, Vestis let out a snort of amusement and gave in to the little blue, circling him and butting against him as if he were a hatchling again.
Kale and Ashton walked side by side with the other three following, but it was Jamie that Kale wanted to talk to. He slowed down and Ashton seemed to guess what he was doing because he gestured for Amar to take Kale’s place at his side as they walked. Kale studied Jamie, who blushed and looked at the ground.
“I’m sorry,” Jamie said. “I had no idea so many people would be affected.”
“You have a powerful gift,” Kale said, already thinking of all the ways the council could manipulate it. This boy had to break free from the council. “What is your dragon like? The queen?”
A bright smile lit his face and he looked at Kale fully for the first time. Despite being so young, he was truly beautiful, Kale thought idly. If Kale were a few years younger he would have pursued the boy himself.
“She’s huge,” Jamie said proudly. “Much bigger than the males. She barely fits in the apartment.”
“Shouldn’t she be in the canyon? I thought there was a special room set aside for the queen.”
He wasn’t actually sure whether or not that was true, since it had been so long since they had a queen, but the rooms in the canyon were consistently larger than the apartment. Surely the council knew this. They must have some reason for keeping the queen in the apartments and as the boy’s face fell, he knew he had stumbled upon something.
“I can’t go there yet,” Jamie said. “Not until Scott is ready.”
“The queen’s mate.”
The phrase, so innocently uttered, sent Kale’s heart pounding in a swift tattoo. The queen’s mate. The only man equal to the council, a counter-balance to their power. Every rebel knew about it, but no one had ever suspected that a queen would be born, let alone live long enough to mate. And above all, no one had ever suspected that the council would let anyone claim the title of queen’s mate. It was a title that reached back into Tarragon history, back when there were gatherings of dragons across the globe and each had their own queen and mate. Back then, the queen took care of her nest and the children and dragons who served her, while the queen’s mate made sure that the outside world stayed away.
As the queens started dying off and weren’t replaced, however, the last great queen’s mate had formed a council of elders who would protect the dragons from the outside world. The mate ruled the council, but the council ruled the other dragons. When the last queen died, all power went to the council.
Having a new queen was change enough, but the queen’s duties had always been at home and that was no real threat to the council’s power. In fact, they were probably glad to cede the responsibilities to someone else, as many council members thought they distracted from their primary goal of manipulating world events. The queen was not a threat, but anyone who claimed the title of queen’s mate was setting himself up to be the leader of the council and surely Ashton wouldn’t allow that. Ashton was far too power-hungry to let anyone mess with his authority and Kale wondered what would happen to the unfortunate person who had made the mistake of claiming the powerful title.
“Do you know when Scott will be ready?” Kale asked, wondering if Ashton would ever let an intruder take the title.
“Soon,” Jamie said with bright eyes. “Marisol will have to be moved soon.”
Ashton, walking in front of them, must have heard the last comment because he turned and placed a casually possessive hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“Why do you say that, Jamie?”
“She’s showing,” Jamie said happily. “Her scales turned to gold overnight.”
Ashton’s face went pale and it was interesting to watch, Kale thought. It was rare that the composed, powerful man ever showed emotion other than cruelty but he seemed genuinely concerned.
“We’ll need to move her immediately. Today. I only hope it isn’t too late.”
“It isn’t,” Jamie said. “She said she can still move for a little longer.”
Ashton turned to Kale. “Kale, I would love to show you to your quarters but there are things I have to do to prepare. I’ll send someone to take care of you. Until then, please feel free to speak with Jamie and his friends, and meet the queen for yourself. She is quite impressive,” he added with a smug smile, as if he had anything to do with it.
Kale nodded and watched the man head to the dragon canyon. He hoped Scott, whoever he was, was ready for Ashton because if he failed, Kale knew Ashton would have no qualms about killing him to prevent a threat from taking over the council. Silently he prayed that this Scott would have the common sense to keep his head down and do whatever Ashton told him, because once the queen’s mate was in place, the rebellion might gain a powerful new ally that could actually succeed where they had been failing for decades.