Nanjing, Ming Dynasty China, 1469
Chelsie, youngest daughter of Bethesda the Heartstriker, knelt prostrate on the black marble floor. Beside her, her mother, adorned in Aztec gold from head to toe, knelt even lower, pressing her crowned forehead against the cold stone as she wept tragic, beautiful tears that somehow left the dark paint around her eyes perfectly intact. It was a stellar performance, and it should have held all of Chelsie’s attention. Bethesda never put that much effort into tears unless she really wanted something. Now, though, Chelsie barely spared her a glance, because for once her mother was not the most dangerous thing in the room.
“Whore of the Heartstrikers.”
The angry voice was dry as old paper, and Chelsie lifted her red-rimmed eyes to the massive golden throne shaped like a coiled dragon that dominated the marble hall’s northern end. In the middle of the coils, where the dragon’s head should have been, was a second throne of pure white jade with a god-like man sitting on top of it. His entire body from head to feet, including his face, was veiled in golden silk, not that it changed anything. Even with the heavy cloth, Chelsie could feel his angry eyes on her like teeth. But despite his obvious fury, the god-like man’s was not the voice that had spoken. That belonged to the ancient dragoness sitting beside him on the slightly smaller, but still incredibly ornate, black jade throne that had been built into the coils of the golden dragon’s tail, glaring down at the bowing Heartstrikers in absolute disgust.
“You must have a death wish, harlot,” the old dragoness spat, her face—which already looked like wrinkled rice paper—crumpling even tighter in her rage. “Coming here yourself after what your wretched, shameless daughter has done. But then, you always were as deranged as your father, the Quetzalcoatl. Perhaps you are proud to have produced a dragoness whose morals are even more degraded than your own?”
“That is why I have come to you, Empress Mother,” Bethesda said tearfully, raising her head so that the gold-shrouded man on the white-jade throne could see the full effect of her beautiful weeping. “My youngest daughter is as stupid as she is ambitious. I sent her to your Empire to form a simple alliance, but she had plans of her own, and now her bungled power grab has caused great pain for both of our clans. I have no excuse for her failures. I can only throw myself on your legendary mercy and beg the boon of your forgiveness.”
“Mercy is the privilege of the powerful,” the Empress Mother agreed, resting her long, lacquered nails on the gold-swathed arm of the man beside her. “But my son is no mere dragon. He is the Qilin, the Golden Emperor, Dragon of the Middle Kingdom, Living Embodiment of All Good Fortune, and Head of All Clans. He can easily afford to be merciful, even to ones such as you, but what have you done to deserve it?” Her cold, reptilian-red eyes flicked to Chelsie. “This is no mere insult. Your daughter has dirtied our family name, leaving us open to rank gossip and ridicule. These injuries are not so easily mended, even for ones as great as ourselves.”
“And I am prepared to make amends,” Bethesda said immediately. “I have wealth, gold—”
“We have plenty of that,” the Empress Mother scoffed, rapping her knuckles on the golden dragon that surrounded her and her son. “We are the dragons of China! All the fabled cities of gold in your pathetic jungle put together wouldn’t merit a blink of my son’s eye. But this is not an injury that can be mended with gold.”
She pointed at Chelsie, who shuddered. “We welcomed your daughter as our guest, showed her great hospitality, and she repaid us with deceit and treachery. She sought to make us look as foolish as you in the eyes of our subjects. It is our good standing, our pride she struck, not our coffers, and if you wish to make amends for that, Heartstriker, then you must pay in kind.”
Bethesda’s green eyes grew wary. “What do you mean?”
A cruel smile crept across the Empress Mother’s wrinkled face. “Even among dragons, you are infamous for your arrogance. The stories of you that reach our court are so wild I dismissed them at first, but one look at your gaudy display today shows that was a mistake. You are clearly every bit as prideful, feckless, and self-absorbed as the rumors say, and so that shall be your price.” She pointed at her feet. “Beg,” she commanded. “Get down on the floor and plead for your daughter’s life. Show us that even the Heartstriker can be humble before her betters, and perhaps we shall show mercy.”
By the time she finished, Bethesda had gone still as the stone beneath them, and Chelsie’s tiny flicker of hope began to die. She’d never do it. There was no way Bethesda the Heartstriker would beg for—
Chelsie’s racing thoughts slammed to a halt as her mother dropped her head to the floor, pressing her golden crown flat against the stone with her jeweled hands outstretched on either side in a show of full submission. “Please,” she said, the word shaking with the effort it had clearly taken her to force it out. “Please, Golden Emperor, spare my stupid daughter.”
The Empress Mother laughed in delight. “Excellent!” She cackled, settling back on her throne to enjoy the show. “Now, say you’re a whore.”
Bethesda’s fingers dug gouges into the marble floor, and Chelsie held her breath, bracing for the explosion…that never came. Somehow, impossibly, Bethesda held herself together, glaring hatefully up at the old dragoness as she growled through clenched teeth.
“I am a whore.”
“Louder,” the Empress Mother commanded, waving her hand toward the unseen dragons Chelsie could smell waiting outside in the courtyard. “I want the whole court to hear you confirm what everyone already knows.”
Smoke began to curl from Bethesda’s lips, but again, somehow, she forced the words out.
“I. Am. A. Whore.”
“And a desperate one at that,” the Empress Mother agreed, turning to her son, who had yet to say a word. “You see now, my Emperor? It’s just as I told you. Bethesda the Broodmare is the worst kind of trash. Even before she killed her father, she was famous for shamelessly seducing bigger, better dragons to add more soldiers to her infant army. She’s barely five hundred years old, and already she’s laid five clutches. Five! The last of which hatched just last year.”
Her beady red eyes snapped back to Chelsie. “With such a mother, how can we expect the child to be different? Bethesda claims it was her daughter’s idea, but it is obvious to me that this whole mess was yet another of the Broodmare’s plots. I wouldn’t let her breed her filth into one of our clans, so she sent her daughter to worm her way in by deceit instead. And why not? The Broodmare and her children are cut from the same cloth. The lot of them are nothing but tacky, grasping scavengers who’ll take power any way they can snatch it. They are incapable of speaking the truth and unworthy of your presence. I advise you to kill them both now before they poison our ears with more treachery.”
Bethesda shot to her feet. “You lying—”
The Empress Mother waved her hand, and dragon magic stronger and older than anything Chelsie had ever felt crashed down on top of them, forcing the Heartstriker back to her knees. “Worms do not stand in the presence of dragons,” she snarled, baring her yellowed teeth. “A creature such as you does not deserve the gift of the Golden Emperor’s condescension, much less his mercy! The best you can hope for is a swift—”
The dragon beside her lifted his hand, and the Empress Mother’s rant cut off mid-breath.
“Is it true?”
His voice was as lovely as the golden throne he sat on. So rich and inviting, it drained the anger from the air. Even Bethesda relaxed when he spoke, but Chelsie could only lower her head. It was impossible to see through the golden shroud he wore to hide the glory of his face from the undeserving, but now as before, Chelsie could feel his eyes through the heavy fabric, boring into her like knives as he repeated the question.
“Is it true, Chelsie?”
The sound of that voice saying her name was almost too much to take. Everyone in the room was looking at her now, including Bethesda, who seemed to be holding her breath. She was wondering if there was any way she could sink straight into the stone when the Golden Emperor snapped, “Look at me.”
Slowly, painfully, Chelsie forced her head up to see that the Golden Emperor had taken off his veil, making everything a thousand times worse. She would much rather face the distant god with his unreadable mask of silk than to be forced to look at that heartbreakingly familiar face, his beautiful eyes—not red like his mother’s, but golden. The rich, pure, buttery, glittering gold that dragons cherished above all other treasures—beseeching her as he rose from his throne.
“Tell me it’s a lie,” he said, his lovely voice growing desperate. “Tell me she’s wrong, Chelsie, and I’ll believe you.”
She dropped her eyes, hands curling into fists on the stone floor as she fought the temptation to yell that both of their mothers were wrong. That it was all a lie and she’d never meant to betray him. Never meant for any of this to happen. It would have been so easy, too, because it was the truth. And yet…
“Don’t you dare,” Bethesda hissed in their own language. “If he finds out the real reason you tried to run, an ocean won’t be far enough to save us. His anger will destroy everything.”
Chelsie doubted her mother had considered that last part, but for her, it was the final twist of the knife. She’d tried so hard to fix her mistake, to make things right, but she’d only made everything worse. Even the last-ditch call for her mother’s help hadn’t changed a thing. If she told the truth now, all it would do was destroy everything even faster.
With that, Chelsie knew her fate was sealed. Her only hope was to keep her greatest mistake a secret forever, but she couldn’t do that while the Emperor was looking at her. She needed to get away. Far, far away, where he could never find her. Never know. Keeping him in the dark was the only chance she had left of righting the massive wrong she’d done them both, and so Chelsie committed to her path, raising her head to look the Emperor straight in his beautiful, golden eyes as she prepared to tell the biggest lie of her life.
“Everything your mother says is true,” she said solemnly. “I was doing nothing at the bottom of my own clan, so Bethesda sent me to China to make myself useful by manipulating my way into your household. The original plan was only to gain a foothold for our family on this continent, but once I arrived at your court, I saw my own road to power. So, like any properly ambitious dragon, I abandoned my mother’s more modest plans and grabbed as high as I could reach. Too high, it turned out, but I have no regrets. Even though I got caught in the end, I still got farther than anyone expected.” Her look turned cruel. “All the way to you.”
By the time she finished, the Golden Emperor was staring at her like she’d stabbed him. “And this is the truth?” he said at last. “Are you certain this is what you mean to say, Chelsie?”
“What else could I be?” she asked callously, giving him her own version of her mother’s famous smile. “I am Bethesda’s daughter, and Heartstrikers always go for the heart.”
The false words hung like foul smoke in the air, and then the throne room began shake. Cracks appeared in the black marble beneath Chelsie, and porcelain vases tumbled from their stands along the wall, each one hitting the ground at the exact worst angle that would smash them completely beyond repair. Even the jade thrones were beginning to crack, and the Empress Mother lurched sideways, grabbing her son’s sleeve so hard, her claw-like lacquered nails tore straight through the golden silk.
“Remember yourself!” she hissed, her reptilian eyes gleaming with something very close to fear. “You are the Golden Emperor, the Qilin! You are good fortune made flesh! She is nothing but a scavenger. A lying, conniving, power-grasping harlot by her own admission.” She turned on the two Heartstrikers. “I will kill them myself! Once they are crushed, you will see how little the schemes of worms mean to powers like us!”
“No,” the Emperor said, clenching his fists. The earthquake died down moments later, though it had yet to stop completely when he turned back to Chelsie one last time, staring down at her with a hateful glare that was so out of place on his handsome face, he looked like another dragon entirely.
“You,” he said coldly. “Leave my lands and never return. If I ever hear that you or any of your wretched family have set foot in my kingdom again, I will take my mother’s advice and crush you myself.”
“Of course,” Bethesda said immediately. “Thank you, Golden Emperor. Your mercy is truly—”
“Don’t thank me,” he said sharply. “Just leave.”
The command was still echoing through the wrecked throne room when the Emperor turned on his heel and walked out, vanishing through one of the hidden doors behind his enormous throne. His mother followed a second later, pausing just long enough to give Bethesda a final, disgusted look before she hobbled after her illustrious son, leaving the Heartstrikers alone in the still-trembling throne room.
The moment the Empress Mother was out of sight, Bethesda shot to her feet. “This is all your fault!” she roared at her daughter. “I did everything Brohomir told me. I crossed the ocean. I begged. I humiliated myself for you, and for what? Your foolishness just lost us this entire continent forever!”
“I know,” Chelsie whispered, lowering her head. “I’m sorry. I—”
Bethesda grabbed a handful of her daughter’s waist-length black hair, yanking Chelsie up until her feet were dangling off the ground. “I don’t care about sorry!” she snarled. “You cost me more than China today. You cost me my pride. You cost me what I swore I would never give, and you’re going to pay for it.” Her green eyes narrowed as she bared her sharpening teeth. “Every day, for the rest of your life, you will pay.”
Point made, Bethesda dropped her youngest daughter on the ground like so much trash and walked away, her golden sandals clicking musically across the cracked floor. Chelsie was still lying where she’d landed in shock when a hand landed on her shoulder.
“Get up,” Brohomir said softly. “We have to go.”
Chelsie blinked in surprise. She hadn’t even realized her brother was here until he spoke. For a desperate moment, she almost interpreted that as a good sign before she remembered even a seer couldn’t save her now.
“Why should I?” she whispered, pressing her face into the mercifully cold stone. “You heard her. I’m going to pay for this forever.” And forever was a very long time for a dragon. “I think I’d rather die.”
“If that was actually true, you wouldn’t have put us through all this,” her brother said gently. “But like it or not, you lived, and now we have to move on.”
Easy for him to say. “You saw this would happen,” she growled, tilting her head to give the seer a hateful look. “Why did you let me come here in the first place if you knew it would end like this?”
“Because, believe it or not, this was the happy ending,” Brohomir said with a sad smile, reaching down to brush her long, tangled black hair out of her face.
“You still could have warned me.”
He shrugged. “Would it have made a difference? You already knew exactly how bad things could get when you embarked on this foolishness. If that couldn’t stop you, what hope did I have?”
The rightness of his words hit Chelsie like a punch, and she slumped back down on the stone, defeated. “I know,” she whispered, wrapping her arms around herself. “I know I was stupid. So, so stupid.”
“You were,” Brohomir agreed. “But there’s no point in dwelling on it. What’s lost is lost forever. All we can do now is move forward, and you should be glad you have that much. There were a thousand ways you died today. I bent over backwards to steer us down the one path where you didn’t. You might not thank me for that in a few minutes when you see what Mother has planned for you, but trust me when I say this was the best of bad options. Now.” He reached down to help her up. “Let’s go home, before any more of the ceiling falls on our heads.”
His hand hovered just above her own, but Chelsie couldn’t bring herself to take it. She knew he was right, that the only choice left was to accept what had happened and find a way to live with it, and with herself. But when she tried to imagine her future, all Chelsie could see was her mother’s boot coming down on her throat over and over again forever, and…and she just couldn’t. She couldn’t move forward. Not if that was all she had left to look forward to.
“You see all our futures, right?” she whispered, looking up at him. “Tell me it gets better.”
The seer didn’t answer. He just sighed in that way of his, as though he’d already gone through this a thousand times before. To be fair, maybe he had, but Chelsie refused to give up.
“Please,” she begged, reaching out to grab his hand with both of hers. “You always tell us never to ask about the future, but I need to know it won’t be this way forever. I don’t care if it’s a one-in-a-million chance that won’t come for a century, just tell me a way out exists. Give me hope that I won’t actually be paying for this stupid, foolish mistake for the rest of my life. Please, Brohomir!”
She was crying by the end. Big, ugly, hopeless tears running down her cheeks as she clung to her brother’s hand. Again, though, the seer said nothing. He just leaned down and picked her up off the ground, carrying her out of the throne room to the palanquin waiting outside, where Bethesda was already writing out the details of the blood oath Chelsie now knew for certain she would never, ever escape.
Heartstriker Mountain, New Mexico, USA, 2096
The desert was full of dragons.
It had been just over ten hours since Algonquin, Spirit of the Great Lakes, had broadcast her intention to wipe dragons off the face of the Earth, and the Heartstriker stronghold in the New Mexico badlands was seething like a kicked-over anthill. Dragons had been arriving all night, clogging the mountain’s tiny airstrip and two-lane highway with their limos, motorcades, private jets, and the requisite human entourages all of that luxury implied. A few even arrived under their own power, their giant feathered wings casting huge shadows in the bright desert moonlight as they flew in from all over the world. No matter how they arrived, though, all of them wore the same grim, cautious scowl, their green eyes constantly sizing up the competition as they crowded into their ancestral home.
Even for Julius, who’d grown up in the mountain, it was more dragons than he’d seen in his life. Bethesda liked to keep her true strength a mystery, so there was no official number for just how many Heartstrikers there were, but Julius had always assumed the true count was somewhere near one hundred for the simple reason that keeping more than a hundred dragons in line at any one time was impossible. But it seemed he’d underestimated his mother, because his dragon count had passed a hundred an hour ago, and the arrivals hadn’t slowed down a bit. At this point, he couldn’t even guess what the final tally would be, but staring out the window at the never-ending parade of monsters, Julius was certain of one thing: this was more dragons than anyone should ever have to deal with.
“I can’t do this.”
“Nonsense,” Marci said. “You’ll do fine. You just need to get away from the window and stop freaking yourself out.”
Julius didn’t think that was going to help. Looking out the window might not be good for his blood pressure, but if he turned around, the only other thing to look at was Marci lying propped up in her hospital bed, fixing the spellwork on her damaged bracelets while Ghost slept on her lap.
That was not a sight that made him feel better. Despite being patched up by one of Katya’s sisters (Julius had already forgotten which. Other than Svena and Katya, the terrifying blondes all looked the same to him), Marci had still had a whole chest full of broken ribs thanks to being thrown into a wall by Estella. Fortunately, Heartstriker Mountain was equipped with a state-of-the-art mortal infirmary to handle the inevitable injuries that cropped up when hordes of human groupies spent too much time around dragons, and they’d treated Marci very well. If it weren’t for the fact that everyone referred to the place as “the vet,” Julius would have had no complaints. Other than Marci being injured in the first place, of course.
“You’re doing it again,” she said, rolling her eyes. “For the last time, Julius, I’m fine. Ysolde the Frostcaller already handled all the actually dangerous stuff. The doctor just said I was pretty much healed. They’re releasing me today, for crying out loud.”
“I know, I know,” Julius said, plopping down on the foot of the bed. “It’s just…I hate that you got hurt. You shouldn’t have to suffer for my mistakes.”
“What mistake?” she cried. “Dude, we won! Things might have been a little hairy at the end, but who cares? We did it! Estella’s gone, the Three Sisters are dead, and you’re legit friends with the new head of their clan. And let’s not forget that you also took over your clan, which means Bethesda no longer has the authority to ruin your life. That’s a victory by any definition. You even got a fancy sword for your trouble.”
“But I didn’t,” he said frantically, placing a hand on the Fang that dangled awkwardly from his hip. Justin had dug up a sheath and belt for him to use, but having the blade covered did nothing to hide just how ridiculous he looked wearing a Fang of the Heartstriker. “The only reason I was able to pull it at all was because I had a seer super-weapon forcing the universe to keep me alive. I didn’t do any of it on my own!”
“Maybe not initially,” Marci said. “But the chain Dragon Sees the Beginning gave you is long gone, and you can still use the sword, right?”
“Yes,” Julius admitted. “But—”
“But nothing,” she said, grinning wide. “Justin won’t shut up about how Fangs choose their wielders. Assuming your brother’s not full of it—and I realize that’s a big assumption—but if he’s right, then the fact that that sword will even let you touch it means that it must at least tolerate you on your own merits.”
“That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement,” Julius muttered, nervously eyeing the window where he could see yet another massive feathered Heartstriker coming in for a landing. “But even if you’re right and the Fang is legitimately mine, I still can’t do this. I couldn’t even handle one of my mother’s parties! How am I supposed to help run an entire clan?”
“Hey, the Council was your idea.”
“But I never thought I’d be on it!” he cried, running his hands through his already rumpled black hair. “I just wanted to make a system where we weren’t ruled by Bethesda’s whims. I didn’t think they’d put me on top of the stupid thing!”
Marci sighed. “Julius…”
“I’m completely unqualified to run a clan,” he went on, getting up from the bed so he could pace. “I’m supposed to have the first meeting with my mother in half an hour, and I have no idea what I’m going to say. Zip. Zero. I don’t even know—”
He stopped short to see Marci glaring at him. “Quit panicking and listen,” she said, reaching out to take his hand. “I agree. You are completely unqualified to run a clan. But what you’re not understanding is that that doesn’t matter. You’ve been completely unqualified to do everything we’ve been through, and yet you’ve always pulled it off. Maybe it didn’t always go smoothly, but we made it in the end because you refused to accept anything except what was right. So if you just keep doing that and avoid becoming one of the selfish, power-hungry dragons that got us into this mess in the first place, I’m pretty sure everything’s going to work out just fine.”
Julius didn’t believe that for a second. He’d taken history classes. He knew that incompetent leaders could be far worse than the tyrants they replaced. But it was hard to keep arguing when Marci was holding his hand.
“I’m going to mess everything up,” he muttered, sinking back down on the bed beside her.
“Maybe,” she agreed. “But whatever happens, it’s not like you can do worse than Bethesda sacrificing her youngest son in a play to scam her way into a mating flight. The bar is already on the floor here. Nowhere to go but up.”
Julius was opening his mouth to explain the difference between minimal competence and not being an absolute disaster when Marci leaned forward, resting her head on his shoulder.
And just like that, everything else became unimportant.
Between her hair and his shirt, she wasn’t actually touching him, but she was far closer than anyone normally got to a dragon. Close enough that he could feel the warmth of her skin and smell the tang of her magic, which was more than enough to set his heart pounding.
Of all the ways his life had been turned upside down in the last twenty-four hours, this was the one change Julius had zero qualms about. He wasn’t sure what he and Marci were, exactly. They’d had no time to discuss it since he’d kissed her in the field before fighting Vann Jeger, and he wasn’t about to corner her with the defining-the-relationship talk now while she was stuck in a hospital bed. But the fact that she didn’t move away when he put his arm around her shoulder struck him as a very good sign.
If the whole thing hadn’t felt so new and delicate, he would have tried to kiss her again. But even with all the other seismic changes in his life, that felt like a bridge too far, so Julius told himself to just enjoy it. Thankfully, Marci didn’t seem particularly inclined to move, either. For several beautiful minutes, they sat there in silence, staring out the little window at the endless parade of planes and dragons, until Julius’s phone went off in his pocket.
“That’s my death knell,” he said bitterly, silencing the alarm. “I have to go meet with Mother about the Council.”
“Good luck,” Marci said, moving back to her nest of pillows and sleeping ghost cat. “Because given how mad your mom looked last night, you’re going to need it.”
He shuddered at the memory. “Do you know when they’re letting you out of here?”
“The doctor said noon,” she said, poking her bandaged ribs through the hospital gown. “But it might be sooner. Like I said, I’m pretty much healed up. They do need you to come sign me out, though. Apparently, I was listed as your human when I came in, and that means I can’t just walk off on my own.”
The implications of that sentence were enough to make Julius wince. But as much as he hated the draconic habit of treating people like pets, he couldn’t deny he was a little relieved. Even for someone like Marci, Heartstriker Mountain was no place for a lone mortal, and that was on a normal day. Now, with the mountain packed to the rafters with nervous dragons, Julius was hard pressed to think of anywhere more dangerous.
“I’ll come back down to get you,” he promised. “But until then…” He trailed off with a smile as he reached into his pocket to pull out a brand-new, top-of-the-line Augmented Reality phone. “I got you a present.”
Marci’s eyes lit up as she snatched the shiny new toy out of his hand. “When did you get this?”
“From the concierge desk,” he said, grinning. “Being part of a giant and wealthy dragon clan does occasionally have its advantages.” He reached down to press his fingers against the phone’s mana contacts, and the augmented interface appeared instantly in the air around them, the neon icons floating like well-designed fireflies in the Augmented Reality bubble only those touching the phone could see. “Everything should be set up to let you transfer over all your old bank accounts and mail and so forth. I’ve already put my number into your contacts. Just message me when you need a pick-up, and I’ll come running.”
“You really have to stop giving me phones,” she said, blushing. “But are you sure you don’t mind? I know you’re going to be crazy busy today, and—”
“I’m never too busy for you,” he said quickly. “You’re…”
She glanced up innocently. “I’m what?”
The most important thing in the mountain to me.
That was what he wanted to say, anyway. But even after their moment earlier, blurting out his feelings now felt premature. With all they’d been through, it was easy to forget that he and Marci had only known each other for a little over a month. Kissing her before Vann Jeger was one thing, but without the looming threat of imminent death, he couldn’t think of a way to tell her how much she meant to him that wouldn’t make him sound like an overly attached weirdo. Marci was still waiting for an answer, though, so Julius settled for the truth, albeit a toned-down version.
“You’re my partner,” he said quickly. “I’m not going to leave you at the mercy of Mortal Services. I’ll be here whenever you need me, and”—here went nothing—“I was also hoping we could have dinner tonight. Just the two of us.”
The words came out in a rush, but considering how long he’d been prepping to ask Marci out, Julius was pleased with his delivery. Marci, however, looked inexplicably disappointed.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, instantly panicked. “Is dinner bad for you?”
“No, no, dinner’s great,” Marci said. “It’s just…” Her cheeks turned pink as her eyes went back to the feathered dragons hovering in the sky outside. “I was kind of hoping you could take me flying.”
Julius’s heart skipped multiple beats. “Flying?”
“Only if you can,” she said quickly, face getting redder by the second. “I don’t know anything about the physics of it, but I’ve always dreamed of flying on a dragon. If you don’t want to, though, that’s totally cool.”
Not want to have Marci clinging to his back, shrieking in delight as he flew her over the desert at sunset? Julius couldn’t even imagine it. “I will absolutely take you flying.”
His reward was instantaneous. “Really?” Marci cried, her whole face lighting up before she sprang out of bed, nearly tackling him in a full-body hug. “You are the best dragon ever!”
When she said it like that, Julius could almost believe it. He was about to wrap his arms around her as well when someone knocked on the door. When Julius looked over his shoulder, Bob was standing in the hallway on the other side of the infirmary room’s observation window, making exaggerated hand motions at the spot on his wrist where his watch would be if he’d been wearing one.
Julius’s stomach sank. “I think that’s my cue,” he muttered, turning back to Marci. “You’ll call me?”
“I will,” she promised, looking him in the eyes. “And remember, Julius. You fought a dragon-slaying fjord spirit, went to another plane of existence, foiled an ancient seer, and saved your clan from utter destruction, and that was just what happened yesterday. You can totally handle a meeting with your mother. Don’t let her tell you otherwise.”
Julius dropped his eyes, face burning. He couldn’t tell her how much it meant to hear someone say that, but he was determined to try. “Thank you,” he said. “Really, Marci. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” she replied, giving him a shove. “Now get out of here. Your brother’s scaring the nurses, and I’m worried it’ll delay my discharge.”
She wasn’t kidding. Bob’s gestures had been getting more and more extreme as they’d talked, eventually reaching the point where the human nurses in the hall had started actively backing away. Clearly, Bob’s presence was not good for efficient running of the clinic, so Julius gave Marci a final smile and stepped outside to greet his brother.
“Well,” Bob said, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively as Julius closed the door. “That looked promising.”
“What are you doing here?” Julius asked, ignoring the heat that remark brought to his face. “And why are you dressed like that?”
Every time Julius saw Bob, the seer looked as if he’d gotten dressed by falling backwards into his closet and wearing whatever he landed on. That was still the case this morning, only Bob seemed to have stumbled into a much fancier closet. Rather than his usual odd shirts and paint-stained jeans, he was wearing a dizzying combination of black tuxedo pants, a peacock-blue silk trench coat, a snake-skin vest, and a burgundy velvet top hat complete with multiple white ostrich plumes. Even his pigeon had a pink lace rosette tied to the top of her head like a little hat, and the combined effect was enough to make Julius—who was still wearing the long-sleeved black T-shirt and jeans Bob had left for him after he’d changed back from his dragon last night—feel like the odd one out.
“Should I be dressed up, too?”
“Probably,” Bob said, wrapping an arm around his shoulders and steering him down the hall. “But there’s no time for that now. This is your big morning, Julius the Nice Dragon! You don’t want to be late to the inaugural meeting of the brand-new first-ever Heartstriker Council.”
Julius grimaced. “About that. I—”
“This is the chance we’ve been waiting for,” Bob said over him, his green eyes sparkling. “At long last, the future is wide open. Estella, my greatest obstacle, is dead, and even if her replacement were born tomorrow, it would be fifty years before she mastered the World of Seercraft enough to comprehend my plans.” He grinned in delight. “For the first time in my life, the entire board is mine. Do you know what that’s like?!”
“No,” Julius admitted. “But aren’t you getting ahead of yourself? There’s still the Black Reach to worry about.”
Bob clicked his tongue. “Firstly, if you can’t see the irony inherent in telling a seer he’s ‘getting ahead of himself,’ I’m officially disowning you as my brother. Secondly, I don’t bother worrying about the Black Reach because I can’t do anything about him. His plots function on a completely different level than mine. Now that you know what he is, I shouldn’t have to explain why.”
Julius nodded. He’d already figured out the Black Reach was really Dragon Sees Eternity, twin brother to Dragon Sees the Beginning and an immortal construct dedicated to preserving the future of all dragonkind. He was also, at least according to Bob, the one who was ultimately responsible for the death of all seers. That struck Julius as the sort of thing you should keep track of, but Bob had already moved on.
“I’ll deal with the Black Reach in time,” he said, hurrying them both out of the infirmary and into the crowded hallway that connected the side building where the mortals were housed to the main spire of Heartstriker Mountain. “Right now, we have a wide-open playing field, which means it’s time to think BIG.”
“Last night wasn’t big enough?” Julius asked, struggling to keep up with his much taller brother’s strides.
“Overthrowing Bethesda and changing the entire Heartstriker clan structure was just set-up,” the seer said flippantly. “Once I’ve got my dragons in a row, it’ll be time for the real show.”
Julius nodded. “Which is?”
“Nice try,” Bob said, wagging his finger. “But you’re in the big leagues now, kiddo. That means no more freebies.”
“Come on.” Julius groaned as they crossed the marble lobby toward the golden elevator that would take them all the way up to Bethesda’s throne room at the mountain’s peak. “It’s easy for you to be relaxed. You already know how everything’s going to turn out! But all this uncertainty is hell on the rest of us. After everything we’ve been through, can’t you trust me enough to give me a hint?”
“Trust is irrelevant when you can see the future,” Bob said, turning on his heel to stare down at his littlest brother. “But if it makes you feel better, it’s because I trust you that I can’t tell you what’s coming.” He smiled wide. “You are the best, most sophisticated tool I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. You are the crowbar I’ve picked to pry apart the universe, Julius Heartstriker. If you think I’m going to jeopardize that so you can feel less anxious, you’re crazier than I am.”
“But you’re not crazy,” Julius said, crossing his arms over his chest as he stared right back up at the seer. “Are you?”
Bob’s confident smile didn’t budge, but something in his face sharpened. It wasn’t even a movement, more like a shift of perspective that threw his usual carefree smile into a new, unsettling light.
“There’s a certain madness inherent in all seers,” he said quietly. “It’s impossible to see as much as we see, to know what we know, and not have it change your perspective. Eventually, you stop seeing the individuals at all. It’s all just percentages and likelihoods, moves on the board, and when you’re always playing twenty moves ahead, you can’t help but look insane to everyone who’s still trapped in the present.”
He sighed and reached up to adjust his pigeon’s hat. “It’s a lonely life, sometimes, but a very exciting one full of possibility. And speaking of possibility.” He dug into his jacket pockets, pulling out several crumpled sticky notes, a mismatched set of silverware, and one of those lace-wrapped packets of birdseed people threw at weddings before finally producing a densely folded piece of parchment. “You’re going to need this.”
“What is it?” Julius asked, taking the paper, which had been folded over so many times it was practically a solid cube.
“The new clan charter I had everyone sign last night. The magically binding document that lays out the redistribution of Bethesda’s powers to the Council and thus determines the future of our entire clan.”
Julius nearly dropped it. “And you’ve been carrying it around balled up in your pocket?”
“Next to my heart,” Bob said sweetly, laying a gentle hand on his chest. “That’s my only copy, so be careful. I’m only entrusting it to you because you’re going to need it. This morning marks the first official meeting of the Heartstriker Council, and you can bet your newly unsealed tail feathers that Mother’s going to try every trick in the book to undermine the process. Your only hope of stopping her is to know exactly what the new rules are and force her to follow them. Otherwise, we might as well just give up now and hand her the clan back.”
That was a defeat Julius didn’t even want to think about. “I’ll try my best,” he promised, carefully tucking the folded square of paper into his own pocket. “But why are you saying all of this to me? Aren’t you going to be there, too?”
“Why would I go?” Bob said with a shrug. “I’m not on the Council.”
Julius recoiled in horror. “You can’t make me do this alone!”
“But you must be alone,” the seer said firmly. “You were the one who wanted it this way, Julius. You refused to kill Mother and take power properly. You were the one who wanted a Council and the one who put himself into one of the three seats—”
“Only because no one else would do it!”
“—and now you have to follow through,” Bob said over him. “You got everything you wanted. Bethesda was overthrown with zero Heartstriker deaths, and the whole clan has been turned down a new, hopefully less abusive path. But just because you swept the board doesn’t mean you’ve gotten out of the responsibility of actually making it all work.” He dropped his voice to a menacing whisper. “It’s time to put your money where your mouth is, Julius. No good dragon goes unpunished.”
He said that as though he were handing down a death sentence, but before Julius could think of a proper way to respond, the golden elevator they’d been waiting on finally arrived.
“No time for regret now,” Bob said, his face going back to its usual goofy smile as he pushed the elevator’s slowly rolling door all the way open and shoved his little brother inside. “But it won’t be so bad. You’ve already got two seats of the three-seat Council locked down. Once you fill the final vacancy, the Council will be complete, and the three of you will be the Heartstriker, magically and legally. That’s power, Julius! I know you’re a miserable excuse for a dragon, but even you should be able to enjoy that. Especially since Mother’s the one who’s sealed this time. Also, you’ve got your lovely sword now.” He nodded at the sheathed Fang strapped to Julius’s hip. “You have nothing to be afraid of.”
That was easy for Bob to say. He’d had his Fang since who knew when. Julius didn’t even fully understand how his worked yet, not that any weapon could make him feel better about confronting the mother he’d lived his entire life in mortal terror of on the morning after he’d gotten her dethroned. But it was way too late to back out now. Bob had already mashed the button for the throne room, blocking the other dragons who tried to get on with his body as he waved Julius good-bye.
“Good luck!” he called as the doors closed. “And remember my sage advice!”
“What advice?” Julius said, grabbing the elevator door only to snatch his hand back again when he remembered that his mother didn’t bother with safety features that kept closing elevators from taking off fingers. “You didn’t tell me anything!”
The seer smirked at him through the last crack of the closing doors. “Be yourself.”
Julius was getting mighty sick of that line, but it was too late to ask his brother for more. The mirrored golden doors had already shut, and the elevator had started to roll, whisking Julius up through the mountain at terrifying speed toward the peak, where Bethesda waited in her lair.
Or what was left of it, anyway.
With all the craziness that had happened last night, Julius hadn’t had much time to think about what the aftermath of battle in the throne room would mean for the actual, physical throne room. In the sober light of morning, though, the damage was staggering. The grand stone hallway lined with the heads of Bethesda’s enemies where the elevator let out wasn’t too bad, but the great gold-painted wooden doors at the end had been turned into splinters from the blast Bob had created when he’d broken Amelia’s ward, and it only got worse from there.
In the huge cavern of the Heartstriker’s throne room itself, massive structural cracks ran down the walls and into the floor. The enormous golden mosaic depicting Bethesda in all her feathered glory had been obliterated entirely when Conrad had thrown Justin into it, and the balcony was blackened on all sides where Estella’s white fire had touched it. In the center of the room, his grandfather’s giant skull, which had been proudly suspended from the gilded ceiling, was now lying haphazardly on its side, and his mother’s ornately carved throne was a pile of gilded rubble.
Since he’d been here when it happened, none of the damage was actually surprising, but seeing the trappings of his family’s power lying broken on the ground hit Julius harder than he’d expected. He was still staring at it when the door that led to his mother’s private apartments—the one that had been hidden behind the giant throne, but was now just a door in the wall—opened to reveal a cross and surprisingly dusty-looking Frieda.
Julius flinched. He supposed being greeted by his mother’s secretary was better than being jumped by Bethesda herself, but not by much. Like most Heartstrikers, he’d always been leery of Fs. Unlike the rest of her children, whom she’d expected to leave the mountain and make a name for themselves as soon as was physically possible, Bethesda had always kept her sixth clutch close. They were the ones trusted with the unglamorous but vital jobs that kept the Heartstriker clan running. The Fs were her accountants, security staff, and managers for the army of human servants that kept Bethesda’s mountain fortress from falling apart. They even raised her children. Julius’s own clutch had been brought up by a pair of F sisters—Francis and Fiona—with Bethesda visiting only when she felt the need to inspire the proper levels of fear.
There were all sorts of rumors about why F-clutch had been singled out for this special treatment. The most popular one was that F-clutch’s father had jilted Bethesda, and she’d punished his children with menial labor as a result. Another theory was that since F-clutch had been born so soon after E—less than a year, in fact, a speed that was unheard of among dragons, even one as famously fertile as Bethesda—they’d all come out magically stunted, forcing Bethesda to keep them close lest they become a liability.
Knowing his mother, both of these explanations seemed likely to Julius. But however the Fs had come to be servants in their own mountain, none of them had ever seemed particularly happy about it. This went double for Frieda, who, as the eldest female F, had the honor/curse of being Bethesda’s personal aide, a job that would break anyone.
She seemed to be feeling the full brunt of it this morning, too. In addition to the dust that covered her usually impeccable suit dress, her normally sleek black hair was escaping from its tight bun in long, frazzled wisps. Even standing up straight with the doorframe for support, her whole body looked wilted, her green eyes ringed with dark circles as she sourly looked Julius over.
Julius was not late. Thanks to Bob, he was actually precisely on time for the eight a.m. meeting. Now didn’t seem like a good time to argue, though, so he let it slide, flashing his sister his most polite smile. “May I come in?”
Frieda stepped to the side, holding the door wide to accommodate Julius’s sword as he stepped into his mother’s receiving room, which looked very different than it had when Bob had sent him in here to change clothes last night. Then, it had been an impressive showcase of gaudy golden furniture, endangered animal skins, tables too ornate to actually hold things, and other trophies of Bethesda’s expensive and questionable taste. Now, it was an even bigger mess than the throne room.
Every piece of furniture—the silk couches, the gilt mirrors, even the wrought-iron fireplace grate—had been smashed beyond recognition. The damask-papered walls were shredded, and the Persian rug had been burned almost beyond recognition. One of the corners was actually still smoking, and Julius quickly moved away, joining Frieda on the only remaining clear stretch of floor.
Frieda looked at him as if he were stupid. “Mother.”
Julius winced. Before last night, he never would have believed Bethesda would do something like this to her property. Other people’s stuff, sure, but never her own. Apparently, she was taking her reduced power even worse than he’d anticipated.
“It’s been this way all night,” Frieda continued, kneeling down to resume sweeping up the shattered remains of what had been a crystal brandy decanter with matching tumblers. “She’s very upset.”
Her dirty look made it clear she blamed Julius for that, but while his heart went out to his sister, he refused to apologize for Bethesda’s temper tantrum. “Where is she?”
“In the lounge,” she said, tossing the broken glass into the bucket beside her. “Down the hall, first door on the left. Try not to make her any angrier. We’re running out of furniture.”
There was no way he could promise that, so Julius just thanked his sister and walked through the door she’d indicated, carefully stepping over the rest of the broken glass as he made his way deeper into the Heartstriker’s lair.
He didn’t have to go far. Despite being the private quarters of the (former) head of the largest dragon clan in the world, Bethesda’s apartments were still situated at the peak of a thorn-like mountain. That didn’t leave much space for extra rooms once you accounted for her egg-laying chamber and private gold vault. Julius had actually been hoping he’d get to see that last one. He was still a dragon, after all, and the piles of gold Bethesda famously liked to lounge on were the stuff of legend. Unfortunately for his curiosity, his mother was exactly where Frieda had said she’d be: sprawled on a leather fainting couch in a smoky, red-velvet-covered room that, though ripped in places, was still mostly intact.
This was an improvement over the hurricane-level destruction of the entry room. After looking around, though, Julius couldn’t help but wish she’d wrecked this room as well. Maybe if she’d beaten the velvet couches and copious nude paintings a bit more, he’d have been able to ignore the fact that he was basically standing in what could only be described as his mother’s boudoir. It didn’t help that the silk dressing gown she was wearing fit the scene perfectly, falling off her shoulders in a way that didn’t quite leave her naked, but still revealed way more of his mother than Julius would ever be comfortable seeing. Which, knowing Bethesda, was precisely why she’d worn it.
“Well, well, well,” she growled, her green eyes glowing in the low light. “My illustrious co-ruler arrives at last.”
Julius sighed. He’d known this wouldn’t be easy, but he’d hoped his mother’s natural lust for power would encourage her to at least try working within the new system, if only to figure out how to game it. Clearly, even that was too optimistic. Bethesda didn’t look ready to do anything except eat him alive. She was also, he realized suddenly, not alone.
“You know David, of course,” she said, waving her hand at the dragon sitting in the enormous armchair in the corner. “Senator of New Mexico.”
“Of course,” Julius said. Other than Bethesda, David—a five-term senator and the first dragon ever to be elected to public office in the United States—was the most famous Heartstriker, at least among mortals. He played the part perfectly, too. Where most dragons did everything they could to emphasize their position at the top of the food chain, David did the opposite. His smile was trustworthy rather than predatory, and his dark hair had been dyed strategically gray at the temples to make him look less eternally young. Like all dragons, he was still ridiculously handsome, but in an approachable way, the kind of man you’d trust to look after your house, or your country. But unlike the rest of the voting population, Julius was also a dragon. Good as the ruse was, he could spot the hunter’s gleam in David’s bright-green eyes as he stood up to offer Julius his hand.
“I’m happy to meet you at last,” he said warmly, giving Julius a crushing handshake. “I’ve heard so much about you.”
“I’m sure you have,” Julius said, glancing at his mother, who bared her teeth. “But, um, this is supposed to be a Council meeting, so—”
“Why do you think he’s here?” Bethesda snapped, giving Julius the look she saved for her especially stupid children. “He’s going to be our third seat.”
Julius jerked in surprise. “What?”
“I was honored to be asked,” David said, his deep voice smooth as silk. “And delighted to accept. I’m happy to do whatever I can to aid our clan in these troubled times.”
“Spoken like a true politician,” Bethesda said proudly. “But you can drop the act, dear. It’s only Julius.”
David flashed their mother a smile that almost, but didn’t quite, reach his eyes. Julius, however, was putting a stop to this right now.
“I’m happy you’re not fighting the Council anymore,” he said to his mother, pulling out the folded-up charter Bob had just given him. “But you can’t just make David part of the Council. It clearly says right here that the third seat must to be elected by a majority vote of the—”
“But that’s ridiculous,” Bethesda scoffed. “I’m still sealed, and I don’t get unsealed until this stupid Council is complete. David is more than qualified. He’s also the highest-ranking Heartstriker without a Fang other than Amelia, and his popularity with the upper alphabet clutches gives him loads of internal support.” She flashed her son a proud smile. “He was actually my second suspect for potential coups after Amelia, but you and Bob beat him to the punch.”
David chuckled. “You should thank them for that, Mother. I was planning to kill you in your sleep.”
“I almost wish you had,” Bethesda said. “At least you would have managed a proper draconic overthrow instead of this mess.”
They both had a good laugh over that, and Julius, who already felt sick to his stomach, decided to just move on. “It doesn’t matter how good he is or how much support he’s got,” he said firmly. “There still has to be a vote.”
“And there will be,” Bethesda said. “Or haven’t you noticed the Heartstriker migration?” She gestured at the boudoir’s tiny window, where the shadows of dragon wings flickered almost constantly in the morning light. “I called everyone in last night. By noon, the whole clan should be assembled. Once I’ve got everyone together, I’ll explain what happened, tell everyone how to vote, and this Council nonsense will be resolved.” She grinned. “I’ll have my wings back by sunset. Assuming the bag of hot air I call daughter can actually undo the seal she put on me.”
That was a far more sensible plan than Julius had expected from his mother, but there was still one problem. “You can’t just tell everyone about the open Council seat and then have the vote immediately,” he said. “What if someone wants to run against David?”
Bethesda shrugged. “Not my problem.”
“Yes, your problem,” Julius snapped. “The entire point of this Council is to let Heartstrikers choose who we want to lead us. That can’t happen if you’re just appointing people.”
“Oh, Julius,” Bethesda drawled. “You say that like I should care. But this is your dream, not mine. The only reason I’m playing along at all is because I’d rather have a little power than none. If you wanted all these lofty ideals, you should have been here fighting for them, not gallivanting around with your little mortal girlfriend. But no. You were off playing while I was running my clan.”
“I wasn’t here because we had a meeting this morning,” he growled, trying his best to stay calm. “And you shouldn’t have been doing anything with our clan to begin with. Not without informing me first.”
“Like you know anything about what it means to be the Heartstriker,” his mother scoffed. “I bet you don’t even know how many dragons we have.”
He couldn’t answer that, and Bethesda smiled cruelly. “Thought so.”
Julius clenched his fists. Ten minutes into their first meeting, and things were already spinning out of his control. But it was always this way. Even now that they were technically equals, talking to his mother still made him feel like a hunted animal. But while Julius wanted nothing more than to turn around and walk out, he didn’t have the luxury of running this time. This Council was the culmination of everything he’d fought for. It was the chance at a better future he’d made everyone suffer to create, especially Marci, and Julius would keep his mother from riding roughshod over it if it was the very last thing he did. He was about to tell her as much when David cleared his throat.
“Though she’s wrong in her motives, Mother does have a point,” he said in a politic voice. “I would love nothing more than to give all of Heartstriker a chance to properly consider their options, but we simply don’t have the time. By her contract of surrender, Bethesda’s power as the Heartstriker is now divided evenly among the three Council members. Unfortunately, this means that, until that final seat is filled and the Heartstriker Council is complete, we can’t make any clan decisions. That’s a dangerous liability on a good day, but with Algonquin’s declaration of war last night, it could be a catastrophic one.”
David leaned forward in his chair, looking at Julius with an earnestness that was almost sincere. “As the dragons of the Americas, the Heartstriker clan is Algonquin’s closest target. We are also, thanks to you, in complete disarray. That’s a deadly combination, Julius. Now more than ever, we can not afford to appear weak or indecisive. We must fill the final seat as soon as possible, before Algonquin realizes just how wounded we are.”
He finished with a winning smile, and for a treacherous second, Julius was almost swayed. The only thing that saved him was the fact that he’d been hiding from dragons like David his whole life, which meant he’d seen this game enough to know when it was being played on him. “I see,” he said. “So it’s just convenient that, since you’re the only one who knows there will be elections, you just happen to be the only one prepared to win them.”
“Any good statesman protects to his advantage,” David said with a shrug. “But just because it benefits me doesn’t mean a quick election isn’t also what’s best for the clan. With my connections in the American government, our newly formed Council will be a strong wall against Algonquin’s inevitable encroachment. Honestly, I really don’t see how we could do better, unless you have another Heartstriker in mind?”
“I don’t,” Julius admitted. “Honestly, you probably would be very good for the job, but that’s not the point. This is supposed to be a fair election, and that implies having more than one candidate. I understand that Algonquin is a serious threat, but I didn’t do this so dragons like you could crowbar your way into power.”
“Then perhaps you don’t understand just how serious a threat Algonquin is,” David said, his voice growing cold. “Mother?”
Bethesda snapped her fingers, and Chelsie stepped out of the shadows, making Julius jump.
In hindsight, he supposed he should have expected it. Chelsie was never far when Bethesda was involved, and she never entered a room normally. But while the clan enforcer’s presence should have been a given, the bloody bandages covering her left arm and torso were not.
“What happened?” he cried, looking her up and down. “You weren’t hurt last night!”
“Of course not,” Bethesda said. “She was fighting you, and all you do is run. These are from the job I sent her on this morning.”
“And why was she on a job?” Julius demanded. Last he’d heard, Chelsie had been sleeping off the effects of Estella’s chains.
“Because I sent her on one,” Bethesda said, flashing him a smile so sweet, it made his stomach curdle. “Really, Julius, I’d think you’d be happy. Thanks to my quick thinking, Chelsie was able to get a look around inside the DFZ before Algonquin’s defenses went up.”
“You sent her to the DFZ?” he said, unable to believe his ears. “But she just got out from under the chains.” He squinted at the bandages again. “Are those bullet wounds?”
“Anti-dragon rounds,” Chelsie said, nodding. “Algonquin was prepared.”
By this point, Julius was so angry he didn’t know what to do with it all. His mother, on the other hand, looked smugger than ever. “Just because you coerced me into this Council nonsense doesn’t mean you get everything,” she said, reaching up to pet Chelsie’s short-cropped black hair. “The clan might be yours, but Chelsie is mine. My shade, my spy, mine to do with as I please, always and forever.”
Chelsie dropped her eyes as she said this, staring at the floor. Julius did as well, but for a completely different reason. How could he have been so stupid? He’d assumed they’d taken everything from Bethesda when they’d removed her as clan head, but he’d completely forgotten about Chelsie. Given how no one seemed to want to talk about why Bethesda’s control over Chelsie was special, the oversight might have been excusable until you remembered that Chelsie herself had said she couldn’t take the Fang’s seat on the Council because she’d just be giving their mother another vote. He should have realized the truth then and made Bob rewrite the contract to remove Bethesda’s control from Chelsie as well, but he hadn’t even thought about it. Stupid.
Before he could think of how to even start making this right, though, his sister shook her head. “Your face always was transparent,” she said grimly, meeting his eyes at last. “I know what you’re thinking, Julius, but it doesn’t matter. My duty to Bethesda is a private matter. It’s not something you can sign away with a contract.”
He shook his head. “But—”
“Let it go,” she growled. “Now do you want to hear what’s going on inside the DFZ or not?”
Julius didn’t know what else to say, so he shut his mouth and nodded. Once Bethesda had nodded as well, Chelsie began her report.
“Algonquin’s got her city locked up tight. Her mages were out all night putting up wards on the borders while her anti-dragon task force did sweeps inside the city itself.”
The way she said that made Julius’s blood run cold. “How bad was it?”
“Bad,” Chelsie said. “Let’s just say it’s a really good thing that you and Ian were already gone when it hit. She knew right where we were—safe houses, strongholds, emergency bunkers, everything—and with so many units, she was able to hit multiple clans simultaneously. By the time the warning got out, her teams were everywhere. No one escaped.”
Julius began to sweat. “But what about the dragons who weren’t causing problems? You know, the ones who were just living their lives in—”
“No one,” Chelsie repeated coldly. “There were four Heartstrikers in the DFZ last night: Iris, Gia, Henry, and Jessica. All four were dead before I reached them.”
That last name sent Julius slumping against the door behind him. He’d never particularly liked Jessica, and he didn’t know the others at all, but the thought that four of his siblings were just…dead. It didn’t seem possible. It was barely a month since Jessica had let him stay at her apartment the first night Bethesda had kicked him out to the DFZ. How could she just be gone?
“All things considered, four isn’t bad,” Bethesda said pragmatically, dismissing her daughter with a wave of her hand. “It could have been much worse.”
“But it’s not just dragons she’s hitting,” David pointed out as Chelsie vanished as silently as she’d appeared. “Algonquin’s teams also seized our human assets, our employees, spies, and so forth. The official word is that she’s merely detaining them for questioning, but the day is still young.”
“How can she get away with that?” Julius asked. “DFZ might be Algonquin’s playground, but there’s more to the world than Detroit.”
“There you are correct,” David said. “Arresting humans who’ve broken her laws is one thing, but all the Heartstrikers she killed last night were American citizens in addition to being dragons. Algonquin knew that, but she put their heads on spikes in front of her tower anyway. Critical mistake. America has gone to war over less. I’ve already talked with the president about it, and we’re going to lodge a formal complaint along with the resumption of strict sanctions starting this afternoon. It won’t stop her, but the loss of trade should slow her down until we can get our clan back on its feet. Provided, of course, that Julius allows us to do so.”
“He shouldn’t be allowing us to do anything,” Bethesda said, glaring down at Julius with a look designed to make him feel one inch tall. “The only reason he’s on this Council at all is because none of the other Fangs could be bothered. If this Council of his survives one year, I’ll be amazed.”
The malice in her voice was enough to make Julius flinch, but for once, that was as far as it went. His mother was still terrifying, still cruel and conniving, but he was no longer the same dragon he’d been. He might never be able to face his mother without flinching, but that didn’t change the weight of the sword on his hip or the bulk of the paper contract he still clutched in his hand. The one she’d signed on her knees when he’d spared her life, giving him the power to say what he was going to say next.
“There will be a vote,” he said, amazed that his voice didn’t shake. “Algonquin will always be a threat. We have a much better chance of standing up to her if we do it together, but we can’t do that if Bethesda keeps trying to wiggle out of her agreements.”
His mother’s eyes flashed with anger, and Julius put a proactive hand on his sword. “David is right. We need to get our clan up and running again as soon as possible. That said, a surprise election where the only candidate is your chosen successor is not acceptable. So, since this is supposed to be a Council, I suggest we compromise and have the vote tonight. It’s still too fast, but at least this way everyone will have a chance to actually get to the mountain and learn what’s going on before we spring this on them. That way, if one of them wants to run, they’ll have a few hours to prepare, giving us a chance at a fair election.”
“Or an epic mess,” Bethesda snarled. “You have no idea the can of snakes you’re opening here, but I suppose a good compromise should leave no one happy.” She sighed. “Fine. I don’t see how a few hours will make a difference, but if it will shut you up, we’ll have the vote tonight at six.”
He’d been thinking eight, but Julius was ready to take what he could get. They’d only been at this for fifteen minutes, and he was already exhausted.
To be fair, part of that was natural. Between everything that had happened last night and visiting Marci this morning, he hadn’t actually gotten a chance to sleep last night. Or the night before. Now that he thought about it, actually, he hadn’t slept since Marci had left with Amelia after they’d failed to break the Sword of Damocles. Given how much of that he’d spent fighting, fleeing, and being otherwise terrified for his life, Julius was amazed he was still conscious. But while he definitely felt run down, he wasn’t nearly as bad as he should have been. Apparently, being unsealed had done a lot more for him than he’d first realized. Now he just had to escape this room before his mother sapped what little energy he had left.
“Six it is, then,” he said tiredly, opening the door. “See you then.”
No one spoke as he left. The moment the door closed behind him, though, the plotting began fast and furious. A proper dragon would have stayed to listen, but Julius wasn’t a proper dragon, and he didn’t particularly want to hang around in a hallway, eavesdropping while his mother and his brother discussed how to undermine everything he’d worked for. He just wanted to go to bed, so he turned away, striding out of his mother’s lair as fast as he could without actually running. But his plan to get downstairs as fast as dragonly possible hit a bump when he opened the door to the throne room just in time to see Katya entering from the other side.
Unlike everything else today, this was a pleasant surprise. The last he’d heard, the new head of the Daughters of the Three Sisters taken her clan out to hunt for Svena, who had yet to return from her mating flight. Not that anyone expected her to. Given what Estella had done—brainwashing her and sending her on a mating flight with Ian as part of an elaborate scheme to kill Bethesda and destroy the Heartstriker clan—Julius wouldn’t have been surprised if Svena never set foot on this mountain again. But clearly he wasn’t giving the White Witch enough credit, because moments after Katya entered, Svena swept in behind her looking no worse for wear. Even more surprising, Ian was right beside her, walking arm in arm with the dragoness with the smuggest smile Julius had ever seen.
Okay, the smug part wasn’t surprising at all, but the fact that Ian was still alive was. He would have put money on Svena eating the younger dragon for breakfast the moment Estella’s chain broke. But Ian and Svena had always had an odd sort of relationship, and whatever miracle had returned his brother to the mountain alive, Julius was glad of it, especially since both of them looked so uncharacteristically happy.
The other remaining Daughters of the Three Sisters were coming in as well now, but as Julius lifted his hand to greet them, something froze him in his tracks. It was so sudden, Julius couldn’t even say what was wrong until Ian looked straight at him. Even then, it took him several seconds to pin down what his danger instinct was freaking out about. When he saw it, though, he didn’t know how he’d noticed anything else.
Ian’s eyes were no longer green.