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Cloud Skimmer landed on the opposite side of the courtyard, as near to the New Palace as she could get. I leaned forward to give Cloud Skimmer one more squeeze around her neck, then dropped both of my legs over her side and slid down her foreleg.
___, former leader of the Guard, was waiting for me on the ground. I pretended to stumble, bouncing a step forward and leaning toward him. He gripped my arm tightly and whispered, “Keep calm. Everything will go fine.”
“Of course it will.”
He paused, searching my face for something. I pulled my shoulders back, lifted my chin and stared back in his eyes.
I had been perfecting my mask for years. I remembered the first time I was called to sit in on a council meeting. Every dragon bonded had to be in a meeting at least once. Even with Druk sitting close beside me, my brain began to fog up as soon as the discussions began.
I watched the head of the dragon bonded council and tried to copy him. With my back pressed straight against the chair, my hands clasped loosely in front of me and my head held still, I was able to pay more attention.
It took me a few seconds, however, to realize when the discussion was thrown my way. My eyes jumped around the room while I kept my head still, until they finally found the head council man. He frowned across the table at me. “What do you think about the king’s request for another scouting mission?”
“We can do anything, we are the dragon bonded.” One of the school responses that were drilled into us. “No scouts have ever gone far into the ___ wilderness, except perhaps the wisp bonded…who better to cross this frontier then us.
“And,” now that I had started, I might as well keep going, “this is the King’s request. How would we say no?”
The head councilman continued to frown at me. I squeezed my hands tighter together to keep them from shaking and stared back at him. He didn’t say anything, but his frown slowly eased out and he nodded. The tension in the room dissipated. Another councilman at the other end of the table began to speak. Druk shifted and pressed his leg against mine under the table. I slowly turned my head and smiled at him.
___ was sitting on the other side of Druk. He caught my eye over Druk’s shoulder and gave me a smile and a small nod. But there was something in his eyes, the same thing that was in his gaze now. He was the one person who I could never fool. But like then, he didn’t call my bluff now. He just nodded and released me.
Cloud Skimmer called my attention back to her by shoving me in the back. I turned and pushed her head away from me, then held it at arm’s length. Cloud Skimmer stared back at me with an unreadable expression- a mixture of sadness and longing. I shook my head and pushed her away. She sighed, a long drawn out sound that caused my breath to hitch again.
Staring at me the whole time, she backed away from me as far as she could, then she unfurled her wings and jumped into the air. ___ and the closest guards backed away quickly so they wouldn’t be caught in the updraft of air from her wings, but I welcomed the rush of air. The coolness enveloped me for a few moments and the pressure caused my ears to pop and my mind to clear, a last gift from my friend.
There was a rush of sound as the other dragons took off after Cloud Skimmer. With them gone, the courtyard grew two dozen times in size. The Guard was slowly revealed, each of them standing beside right next to where their dragons took off, hands on their belts. The belts were empty, no visible weapons were allowed inside the New Palace by anyone but the King’s guards. But that didn’t mean we are defenseless, I reminded myself, inconspicuously running a hand down my thigh.
The Guard arranged themselves into three lines a short distance behind me. ___ turned so that he stood at my left elbow, only two steps behind me. Druk took up the same position at my right elbow.
I allowed a small smile to escape as I nodded to them, then turned and mounted the steps. The King’s men had finally managed to arrange themselves. One stood every few steps, framing ___, Druk, and me. There were three men posted along either side of the New Palace and two more men posted in front of each door. When I reached the top of the stairs, they turned and opened the doors.
A noble man waited just inside the Palace threshold. He stepped forward slowly and looked me up and down. After a moment, he gave a shallow courtesy bow, which I returned with a small nod.
“Who is it that seeks admittance to this Palace?”
“Jaha, leader of the dragon bonded Guard.”
“And what business do you have here?”
“I seek an audience with the king.”
The noble man glanced past me to the others still standing in the courtyard. “Wait here.”
I smiled at him and nodded my thanks. It took a few minutes for the doors to open again. When they did the noble man approached me again, this time with urgency in his steps, and bowed low. “The king is expecting you…Miss.”
I nodded once again. He motioned me forward and held out a hand to help me over the raised threshold. I pulled my hand away as quickly as I could, shifting my hands from my belt to my sides. The noble man turned sharply on his heel and led me across the threshold. His hard heeled shoes made sharp clacking sounds on the granite floors, making every movement seem extravagant.
Watching him bouncing along in front of me, I shortened my strides and placed my feet carefully. I doubted my shoes could make the sound that the noble man’s did- they were made of soft leather and double padded for warmth and comfort- but I returned my hands to their position at my belt. I wanted the difference between us to be clear.
Everyone we passed by stopped what they were doing to bow. I could feel them staring after us and whispering, but except for a quick glance to ___ and Druk, I didn’t pay them any attention except to notice that there were very few noble women.
The noble man pretended not to notice anyone in our path, bouncing forward without waiting for them to move. He led us through the foyer, down the hall that was set between two large staircases. Then turned sharply and continued down an even larger hall.
It seemed to take an hour to walk to the end of the hall. By the time I was standing in front of the double doors that housed the King’s audience chamber I was taking deep breaths, just to make sure that I kept breathing. The large portraits of past kings that adorned the walls and, doubled my feeling of being watched, didn’t help matters.
I spent the last minute trying to block out the portrait that glared at me and calm my breathing. The doors were hauled open before I could manage either, so I told myself that deep breaths made me keep my back straighter which made me look more opposing.
The noble man stepped inside the audience chamber, bowed at the waist and then dropped to one knee. “Your majesty,” he waited to be acknowledged, then he stood and gestured grandly to the doorway. A few more seconds of emphasized pausing, then “Jaha, leader of the dragon bonded Guard and her companions!”
I half expected a trumpet fanfare to play, but when it didn’t I continued forward. My hands dropped automatically to my sides and though I kept my head held high my gaze stayed on the bottom of the King’s throne.
The rest of the Guard stopped in the middle of the room, dropping together to one knee and bowing, while Druk, ___, and I continued to the steps that led up to the throne. There I paused, letting the other two kneel and bow fist.
When it was my turn, I didn’t fall to my knees but lowered myself down to the ground slowly. I balled my right hand into a fist and thumped it against my heart, a gesture that was not familiar to the King’s court, and paused to make sure that it was noticed before bowing. I held myself above the floor, my nose almost touching the top of the first step and stayed down for a full minute. Then I slowly raised myself back up.
Time for one more long intake of breath and then I looked up and met the King’s gaze. A small sigh escaped me before I clenched my mouth shut. I quickly dropped my head, supposedly compelled to show more respect, but inwardly shaken.