I am not ashamed to say that I did not go quietly to my death.
I bucked, kicked, and fought all the way down the gilded hallways with their velvet draperies and marble statues. I caught one guard squarely in the shin as we passed under the baleful ruby gaze of the stone dragon that stood sentinel outside the hidden room. The guard cursed me as the dragon seemed to mock me in the otherwise deserted corridor. The guard smacked the back of my head hard enough my eyeballs nearly left their sockets. Chuckling, he a button on the bottom of a sconce. With my head still spinning, I was dragged from opulence into the dank shadows of a secret cave.
Once my vision cleared, my chest heaved, and my nostrils flared. Before me stood King Hiclyr and his wretched daughter, Princess Marguerite.
All my life, I’d been told the Creator had blessed me to so closely resemble Renvale’s beautiful princess. I never gave it a second thought until I was stolen away in the dead of night to take her place as the Dragon Sacrifice.
The Sacrifice took place every ten years. Every girl in the kingdom aged thirteen to twenty-one had their name entered. I thought I was safe. There was no way I could have foreseen this treachery. Ice ran through my veins.
“Be still,” Hiclyr said. “The Dragon will not want his prize bruised.”
I spat at him. Wrym. He wiped his face disdainfully.
He clapped once. A timid maid rushed from the shadows into the circle of light cast by the torch bracketed on the wall.
“Make sure she is Marguerite before she leaves this tunnel.” His voice was hard like granite.
My gaze landed on the princess. We’d been friends once. Some deep place inside me understood why this was happening. We had all lost someone we’d once loved to the Dragon. The King had lost his son, Marguerite had lost her brother, and I had lost my best friend. Hiclyr was desperate to save his remaining child.
But this was wrong.
It was wrong to steal me away. Wrong to sacrifice me instead. Not because my sacrifice wouldn’t be worthy, but because my sacrifice wouldn’t be enough. If I went instead of the girl rightfully chosen by lot, King Hyclir would break the treaty that had existed between the Kingdom of Renvale and the Dragon Lords for over a century. It would bring open war down upon us if ever discovered.
So, while I was here, I’d use every means within my power to fight for my life. But if I couldn’t escape before dawn light lit the sky, I’d have to put on the performance of a lifetime to save my people and my country. At the expense of my own life.
The next hours were full of forced pampering. I was scrubbed, washed, shaved, styled, and put into a dress with a ridiculous number of pleats. But at the end when they stood us together—the princess and the falconer’s daughter—even I had trouble telling us apart.
I fought like a banshee as the guards once more took my arms. Thrashing and digging in my heels did no good as the soft satin of my slippers tore against the rough floor. The guard cracked the door open and weak sunlight filtered in.
I bit the inside of my lip hard enough I tasted blood. There was nothing more I could do but continue the ruse. I prayed it would be enough to save my kingdom—save my family.
On wobbling legs, I stumbled to the wooden platform raised on the beach beside the castle. The ocean’s waves lapped calmly, lending me their strength with their soothing swooshes. Terror seized me as memory flooded my mind with images I’d refused to acknowledge for the past ten years. Fire, gaping teeth, blood, smoke, screams, and Daniel’s face as he’d been caught in the crossfire. I relived the Dragon’s teeth closing over his body, taking him from me forever.
A sob choked out and I would have fallen to the ground had the guards not been holding me. My friend. And now I would meet the same fate.
The ropes cut into my wrists as they tied me to the stake. The drums beat, the wind howled, the waves began crashing in fury.
I saw the Dragon’s aura before he came into view. Fiery red and streaked with yellow that caught the sun and set spots dancing before my eyes.
His grating shriek pierced the morning and screams of terrified villagers echoed off the crags.
Creator be merciful…
Unable to hold back a wail of terror, the breath left me in a staggering rush as the Dragon morphed out of the clouds, his black talons outstretched.
The Dragon blotted out the sun. Leathery wings folded and sent sand pounding against my sides. Bright scales, eyes like fire, and a face framed in horns stole the breath from my lungs. The wings creased, revealing an odd-shaped hunch on the creature’s back.
Before I could see any more, the talons crushed around me, lifting me and the stake into the air.
Dignity left far below, I screamed as the beast rose into the air, wings beating the winds into submission.
Soaring, wheeling, gliding over the clouds would have been exhilarating if it hadn’t meant certain death.
At last the beast landed on a high crag, tossing me and the stake into an enormous nest. A groan escaped then turned to another scream as flames bit through the ropes binding me to the stake. I tore my hands away from the ropes as the fire stopped.
Shakily I stood, mouth falling open as a dark figure slid from the Dragon’s back, favoring his left side. Throwing back his hood, the sun caught the marled, puckered skin of his cheek, the wide red rope of scar from scalp to chin. But the eyes. Those crystal blue eyes were the same.
The scarred mouth wrinkled on one side before pulling into a frown.
My mouth dried as my eyes grew larger.
It wasn’t a question this time. His eyes lit with excitement.
“Emma? It’s you, isn’t it!”
“Daniel,” I whispered. I was incapable of anything else.
The smile died on his face.
“This is my father’s doing. Truly, it was my sister’s name drawn from the lottery?”
I saw no point in keeping the ruse now. “Yes.”
The Dragon snorted and my knees quaked in terror.
“It’s alright. She won’t hurt you.” He stroked the amethyst scales covering the beast’s flanks. His eyes found mind again. “My father may have just started a war he cannot win.”
“What do we do?” I had to save my family—save the kingdom.
“We must go appeal to the High Dragon Lord. Will you come with me?”
He stretched his hand to me, tiny scars crisscrossing his palm.
Dread lodged in my throat.
His fingers were cool around mine.