Valynne held up her arms and stared at the cream white ceiling as her maid tightened the constricting corset around her waist. “Is this really necessary?” she muttered, barely able to breathe. She felt as if her lungs were being pushed up into her throat, and her breath came out in short gasps.
“Of course it is, my lady. You must look your best for your own birthday ball. After all, your father wants you to find a suitable consort sometime soon. Might as well show off your pretty self tonight with all the noble boys around, hmm?” the maid replied, grunting a bit as she tightened the strings on the device that was said to be fashionable, but might as well be classified as deadly.
With a sigh, Valynne whined, “But why must I start searching now? I’m eighteen, for goodness’ sake! I’m far from ready to be married!”
The maid gave her a knowing smile. She was a pretty thing, about Valynne’s age, give or take a year, with a dimple in her left cheek and a sparkle in her eye. “I know, Miss, but your father’s not getting any younger. He wants to be sure you’re happy and taken care of.”
This comment gave Valynne pause. It was true; her father was aging quite considerably. Lately there had been rumors of dragons attacking the villages at the kingdom’s borders, though the culprit was most likely their neighboring kingdom, even if no one had sufficient evidence to prove it. Her father had tried to calm the people, but they were having none of it. Prejudices against the dragons from long ago had been revived, even though they lived in the sky, far away from anyone on the earth. To add insult to injury, her father was ill. Not so ill that it was fatal, but it might as well have been, considering how he worked himself to the bone to keep his kingdom happy and prosperous. Physicians kept telling him that doing so was unwise, but he wouldn’t listen, no matter how much Valynne herself insisted. His health was suffering, and it showed in every new gray hair.
Not willing to go down that line of thought, Valynne focused as her maid helped her dress in the fancy ball gown that her father had had the castle seamstress sew a few weeks ago. Its wide, bell-shaped skirt swished across the floor as she spun, and the puffed sleeves followed the curve of her shoulder perfectly. The neckline went down to her collarbone, leaving her shoulders exposed. The maid draped a ruby necklace around her neck, which contrasted boldly with the pinkness of the dress, along with ruby bracelets and golden bangles. Pink heart-shaped earrings were put in her ears, and her hair was arranged in a high braided bun with two curls framing her face. Valynne then put on her simple pink slippers, the final touch to her ensemble.
Sighing dreamily, the maid gushed, “You look beautiful, my lady.”
Valynne took the maid’s hands in her own and responded, “All thanks to you.” The girls giggled together. While normally separated by class, a simple activity such as dressing for a ball bonded them in friendship.
Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. “Vally?” a soft voice called. Her father. The maid released Valynne’s hands and went to open the door to reveal the king of Kostivalle standing in the entryway. She curtsied politely and left the room, closing the door behind her.
“Father,” Valynne breathed, hurrying over and embracing him. A chuckle reverberated through his chest as he wrapped his arms around his only daughter. He seemed to be doing better, which was a relief to her. Perhaps he’d finally gotten some sleep.
He pulled back, his hands on his daughter’s shoulders, and looked her over. “My, you look beautiful, Valynne,” he murmured with a smile. “Your mother would be proud.” This made Valynne’s lips turn up. She was the spitting image of her mother, who had died shortly after she was born, her last word being the name she wanted her daughter to have. The only remnant of her that Valynne possessed, out of the many her father had kept after her death, was a hair ribbon her mother used to wear all the time, which was now threaded through her hair.
Her father straightened, his soft expression hardening into what Valynne had come to call his “king face.” He held out his arm to his daughter as a gentleman would, to escort her into the ball, a teasing smirk crossing his face. With a giggle, she linked her arm with his and let him lead her out the door and down the corridor. A few times he lifted his hand to his face and coughed, and slowed down, but otherwise, there were no visible signs of the king’s illness, except his new gray hairs and the dark circles under his eyes.
Just outside the door to the ballroom, he kissed his daughter’s temple affectionately and said, “Happy eighteenth birthday, my dear Valynne.”
“Thank you, Father,” she whispered back, wishing she could hug him again. Seeing as they were just about to enter the ballroom, however, she couldn’t, as it violated the rules of decorum.
The towering doors leading to the ballroom opened, and a fanfare of trumpets accompanied their appearance. A voice rang out through the room: “Now presenting, His Royal Majesty, King Alaric of Kostivalle, and Her Royal Highness, Princess Valynne of Kostivalle.” Thunderous applause immediately followed the announcement, with father and daughter bowing and curtsying to their subjects respectively.
Voices swelled to fill the room as the orchestra began playing again, leaving all the guests to mingle as they pleased. King Alaric turned to his daughter and bowed his head. “If you’ll excuse me, Valynne, I must greet the ministers from around the kingdom. Would you mind leading the first dance?”
“Of course, Father,” Valynne replied, bowing her own head in return. Spotting a table laden with refreshments, she drifted over to it and got herself a goblet of punch. Sipping it every now and then, she chatted amiably with all who came up to her. She’d asked her father and the royal advisers to invite all the subjects in the city surrounding the castle to attend, instead of just the nobles, since she felt the celebration would be livelier if that were the case. Indeed it was, for the nobles were talking with the peasants, and vice versa, and all were clearly enjoying it. A smile graced Valynne’s face as she watched her father’s subjects come together.
Before long, it was time for the first dance, but as of yet, no one had approached to ask her to dance. All were too busy either catching up with old friends or meeting new ones. Valynne frowned slightly, wondering how she could lead the dance without a partner.
Suddenly, a young man about her age strode over and bowed to her. “Greetings, Princess.” He lifted his head. His auburn hair seemed red in the light of the various chandeliers in the room, and his eyes were a sparkly amber...or were they a darker yellow? It was hard to tell. A smirk danced across his lips as he straightened. “May I have this dance?” he asked, extending his hand to her.
Flustered, Valynne stammered, “Why, yes. Yes, of course you may.” She took his hand, noting its warmth, and allowed him to lead her onto the dance floor. After all, it wasn’t every day such a handsome man asked you to dance with him.
Even though it was expected to happen to a princess like her.
# # #
Earlier, that same auburn-haired boy strode down the hallway of a castle that was not his own, a determined scowl on his face. Another boy hurried after him, his smaller stature struggling to keep up with the first boy’s taller one. “Are you sure you want to go through with this, Your Highness? What if you’re caught before you’re able to lure the princess away…?”
“I won’t be.”
“Karl,” the boy interrupted, turning on his heel to face the smaller man. “I know what I’m doing. I will succeed in this mission, and when I do, the humans will realize the error of their ways, and apologize for what their ancestors did.”
Karl sighed, as if knowing he’d never get the stubborn boy to waver. “Alright, Prince Ekar, but...be careful. Please. I hate to think what your father would do if he found out I let you get captured...by humans, no less.”
Ekar gave Karl a knowing smirk. “No need to worry. I will not let him do anything to you. And I will not be captured… After all, they are pathetic humans. We have always been stronger than them.”
His valet did not answer, for he knew his master was right. Humans were weak creatures, incapable of fighting their kind. It was a wonder they’d been able to slay their ancestors long ago.
“Good luck, Your Highness,” Karl murmured, bowing, as was customary.
“Thank you, Karl,” Ekar responded, his scowl giving way to a smile. His head dipped to match the bow. Karl had been his valet since they were children, and the two had been inseparable since then. They knew each better than they knew even themselves. Despite this however, there had always been a divide between them due to their different social standings. Affection wasn’t easily won from Ekar, except to maybe his younger sister, but to Karl, it was more respect than anything.
The prince turned and continued down the corridor until he reached a side door leading into the ballroom. Trying to go unnoticed, he slipped in through the passage and immediately blended into the crowd. Many of the girls he passed attempted to flirt with him, and while he smiled in their general direction, he did not return their banter. All the while his yellow eyes searched the crowd.
Finally, he found her. The princess of Kostivalle, Valynne, known through all the land as possibly the most beautiful girl to have ever lived.
Noticing that she was alone, he smiled widely. This was going better than he had thought. The original plan was to wait until all possible suitors had danced with her, and then make his move. But it seemed as if all the nobles and peasantry were too busy intermingling to pay attention to the princess, even though it was her birthday. Humans are so very oblivious...leaving their princess alone, susceptible to capture… He was about to start chuckling maniacally, until he realized he was still in a room full of people.
With a bounce in his step, he strode over to her and bowed, as was customary in this culture when met with royalty. “Greetings, Princess,” he said, almost in reverence, hoping he was passing off as a member of the nobility. Lifting his head, he noticed her gaze darting all over his face. He must’ve seemed unusually regal in her eyes...or maybe she’d noticed his yellow eyes. Either way, he had her attention, exactly as he had planned. Without meaning to, he let a smirk cross his lips as he straightened again, offering his hand and asking, “May I have this dance?”
The princess, clearly flustered by his sudden appearance as well as his looks, stammered in response, “Why, yes. Yes, of course you may.” Taking his proffered hand, she allowed him to lead her to the dance floor. He kept a genial smile on his face while he adjusted his plan. Without the expected line of suitors to wait patiently in, Ekar would be able to escape with the princess and meet Karl outside of the castle.
Suddenly, the princess stopped walking. Ekar looked down at her, confused, before glancing around him. They had reached the center of the dance floor without him realizing it, and so, he turned to face the princess. Having studied human customs intensely so he could blend in, he knew that he and the princess would lead the first dance by themselves. This was the perfect chance to gain her trust. Yet again, Ekar found himself wanting to laugh maniacally, but he couldn’t, not with her right in front of him. Instead, he took her left hand in his right and placed his other hand on her waist. As soon as the music started up, they began to dance.
They practically flew across the dance floor, twirling and spinning gracefully. Ekar was proud of himself; after all, he’d only learned how to dance like a human a few hours ago. To Princess Valynne, it must seem as if he’d been practicing for years. He looked down, his eyebrows immediately raising. Her eyes were closed, and a serene smile was on her face, as if she was focused on nothing more than the dancing itself. At this rate, they were going to get nowhere, and he wouldn’t be able to finish his mission.
“So, Princess…” he began, hoping to somehow make pleasant conversation with her. Not that the conversation would be pleasant for him.
Her eyes flew open at the sound of his voice, and her dark brown eyes raised to meet his gaze. With a kind smile, she said, “Oh, please, just call me Valynne. My father’s advisers call me ‘Princess.’”
“Alright, then.” Ekar tried not to snarl. He didn’t care what he called her; he didn’t intend to become her friend. All he cared about was kidnapping her. That was all he was here for. That was the only reason he was in this idiotic human form, with all these dimwitted humans, dancing this foolish waltz. He didn’t want to be here, he had never wanted to be here.
But it was the only way to bring glory back to his father and his ancestors.
“Why are there commoners here, Valynne?” Ekar asked in a casual tone, genuinely curious, for once, about the actions of humans. “I believe there is no precedent for what you have done here.”
Valynne, her hand shifting on his shoulder, looked down at their feet. “Well… I felt my birthday celebration would be more of a celebration with them here, since all the nobles are all so focused on manners and decorum.” She paused to giggle. Her laughter was melodic, and something about her face seemed to light up as joy washed over her features. With her eyes crinkling at the corners in her merriment, he almost believed her to be a younger, carefree girl, and not the heir to the throne of Kostivalle. “Besides, I’ll be ruling over all of them someday, so I should take every opportunity to get to know my subjects.”
“That is an interesting way to look at it… Valynne,” Ekar responded, hesitating to use her given name. “I am sure that when you take the throne, you will bring the people closer together as you have here.”
“Thank you.” Valynne dipped her head gratefully, a tiny smile appearing on her face. Ekar blinked. Had he really...just made the princess smile? Did humans really derive joy from the simplest comments? He could’ve laughed at the simplicity of these damned humans.
At long last, the song ended, and he and Valynne stepped back from each other. She immediately sank into a deep curtsy, and he bowed low in return. “All that dancing has made me thirsty. Care to join me for some punch?” he asked.
The sweet smile remained on Valynne’s face as she nodded. “Yes. I’d like that.”
They drifted together to the punch bowl and watched as other couples convened on the dance floor, flirting and laughing and making merry. Ekar glanced off to a set of doors leading to a balcony, and gently nudged Valynne. “Want to look at the stars?”
She nodded, smiling kindly up at him, and followed his lead outside into the pleasantly chilly night air, immediately gazing up at the shining stars. An awestruck wonder filled her eyes, and a gentle breeze stirred her hair gently, while Ekar surveyed the balcony, plotting an escape. He had never much cared for stars, especially since much of his time was spent beneath them anyway, riding strong winds and sleeping on soft, pillowy clouds. Breathing in the crisp autumn air, he peered over the gilded balcony railing, he squinted and spotted Karl waiting for him at the towering, silver castle gates. The distance was about one kilometer, give or take a meter, by his approximation. Between here and there was the bailey, with fragrant gardens (of which he was able to smell even from this height) stretching around the corners of the sprawling walls. No trees were at the front of the grounds, so he would not have to risk scraping himself or Valynne on the rough bark.
Ekar sighed in relief. His plan was almost complete. Turning back to Valynne, he murmured, “Princess.”
“Hm?” She faced him, her eyes reflecting familiar starlight back at him. He was momentarily dazzled by this, until he mentally slapped himself and reached out to her. He cupped her face gently in his right hand. Hearing her inhale sharply, he smirked. Wrapping his other arm around her waist, he leaned down so they faces were a millimeter apart.
“Humans are so gullible.”
With his arms around the princess, Ekar leaped off the balcony, which was three stories up, and spread his arms, momentarily letting go of the princess. The rushing wind covered any sound of any scream the Valynne could muster. Thus, unless someone had been watching (which was doubtful, since all the guests were busy mingling), no one had seen their jump.
Rough, ruby red scales started to appear all over Ekar’s body, and two red knobs began to protrude from his shoulder blades. They extended out and grew into a pair of imposing, bat-like wings with a wingspan of ten meters. Meanwhile, his body had lengthened and stretched out into legs with razor sharp claws and ridges along his spine and stretching up to the back of his head. His nose grew into a snout, and a tail sprouted from his back. Soon enough, he was a full-sized dragon with glittering yellow eyes and curly horns sprouting from the top of his head. The scent of smoke seemed to envelop him, even though he had not produced any flames, and as he moved, his scales seemed to slide and rub against one another, making a sort of clicking sound. In his front claws, he grabbed the princess before she could hit the ground, and hastily flew to the front gate, where Karl was awaiting him. Below him were surprised and confused shouts from guards, wondering how a dragon had managed to sneak onto the castle grounds, but he was over the stone wall before they could do anything. Karl, now in his emerald green dragon form, nodded at him, and they proceeded to fly up to their rendezvous point on a nearby--for dragons, that is--mountain peak, fraught with crags and cliffs.
A large group of dragons were waiting for them, and as soon as they saw the girl in Ekar’s grasp, they started to cheer. Some even snorted smoke or blew fire up into the air. Ekar’s eyes widened in surprise at the sight of his father, King Zechariah, standing proudly at the forefront of the dragon assembly. Landing gently on the rocky slope, and setting Valynne down, he bowed his head. “Greetings, Father.”
The king appraised him for a moment before a wicked grin spread across his crimson-scaled face. “My son,” he boomed. “I commend you for taking on this mission for our species, so we can avenge our ancestors and right the wrongs done to us by the humans. Thank you, Ekar.” All around him, roars of approval rose into the air, and some of the other dragons threw back their heads and laughed.
Mouth twitching, Ekar kept his head bowed respectfully. “Of course.” Looking out at his future subjects, he announced, “Today shall be the day that our species’s honor is restored to its former glory!” At his words, the dragons cheered, though they did not clap, as humans did. They spread their wings in unison, creating a collective rustling that echoed around the mountain, and leapt into the air, circling the soaring mountain peak and making patterns in the clear night sky as they did so. The air moved as they did, and strong winds blew around the king, his son, and Valynne, though they affected the princess the most, blowing her hair and dress every which way. Ekar’s father head tilted slightly downward, as if to acknowledge Ekar’s words. His cruel orange gaze switched to the human princess in the wind-ruffled pink dress before him. He snorted, expelling a plume of smoke that wrapped around his head, and made Valynne cough.
“And now,” the king drawled, bending down to look at Valynne, “time to decide what to do with you, little girl.”
To say the least, Valynne was confused instead of terrified. One moment she’d been gazing into the boy’s eyes (and suddenly realizing she’d never gotten his name), and the next she’d been hurtling through the air, clutched in a dragon’s claws.
Looking up at the dragons before her, one red and the other green, she could not help but admire how regal and majestic they looked, and how the flapping of their wings rose above the sound of the wind generated by their speed. The green one was slightly smaller than the red one carrying her, with a rounded snout and a stubbier tail. Every so often, he snorted loudly, but whether it was laughter or derision, she couldn’t tell. Meanwhile, the red dragon, who only minutes before had been her dance partner, had a wingspan that must have been three times as long as she was tall, and a noble curve to its face. From where she was, she could smell smoke surrounding both of them, which she assumed came from their ability to spit fire. The claws she was held in were sharp, and poked into her sides and and arms. Though she wasn’t bleeding, the rush of freezing air against her body and hair numbed the pain.
Was this dragon really the boy I danced with? She wondered. It was hard to believe that the yellow-eyed boy who’d seemed so polite was a dragon. It was true that dragons and humans didn’t necessarily get along, but still, why would that give them any reason to take her?
The crowd of dragons waiting on the mountain peak fascinated her, though. They came in a variety of vibrant colors and physical builds. With the moon and stars above them, the dragons’ scales seemed to sparkle. Valynne barely noticed the red dragon setting her on the ground and turning to talk to an older dragon. Though she was not able to follow the conversation, she was able to catch the boy’s--no, the dragon’s--name. “Ekar.” What a unique name, she thought.
Suddenly, the giant crimson dragon bowed his head and spoke directly to her. She stammered, her voice hoarse from the smoke the dragon blew toward her, “W-what do you mean by that?”
He simply chuckled. Since he was much larger than her, and because of his close proximity, his laugh reverberated through her body, causing her stumble slightly. “My dear princess, we are going to hold you hostage until your father comes to pay off our ransom.”
Valynne blinked up at him. “And what you want for ransom?”
The younger red dragon--Ekar, she reminded herself--growled, “We want you humans to make amends for hunting our ancestors. You’ve stopped now, but probably only due to our retaliation. Other than that, you all blame us every time you attack each other, to draw attention away from your own kind. After all, only dragons can be that savage.”
As he spoke, Valynne lowered her eyes to the ground. Though she’d never really said it out loud, she’d always felt guilty for the slaughter of the dragons that had been approved by the kings before her father. For centuries, humans had ruthlessly killed dragons that had come down to earth. Whether it was out of jealousy or pure spite, she would never know, but the dragon’s blood on Kostivalle’s soil had never really gone away.
“I see,” she responded slowly, not wanting to infuriate the dragons further. “May I ask a question?”
The elder of the red dragons chuckled. “Of course, Princess.”
“What is it like? Living in the sky?”
Murmurs rose into the air at her question, and Ekar glanced down at her, clearly puzzled. His father, meanwhile, looked at her curiously. “What do you mean?”
Shuffling her feet, and noticing that the hem of her dress was dirty, Valynne explained, “I have always found dragons fascinating, and I always wondered how it is you live in the sky. Since I was born a princess, I take an interest in others who live differently than I do.” With a sweet smile, she added, “That may very well be why I’m so close to my maid, Cassandra. It was also part of the reason why I invited peasants and commoners to my birthday ball. I thought such an action would help to unify the people of my kingdom.”
Ekar glanced at his father, and then back at her. “Valynne,” he began deliberately, “what do you plan to do once you become queen?”
Peering up at him questioningly, she answered, “I hope to slowly break down the walls between social classes so everyone can be treated equally.” Fixating on the ground again, she continued, “I also want to stop the terrible rumors that dragons are attacking the border towns, if at all possible.”
The dragons surrounding her on the ground and in the air seemed shocked. Surely, they were used to humans’ prejudice, and had expected her to be quaking in her shoes, or at least screaming profanities unbefitting of a lady. At the very worst, they had expected her to be derisive and angry at them for taking her away from her birthday ball.
Her eyes nervously flitted from dragon to dragon, confused. “Did I...say something wrong?”
Simultaneously, all of the gathered dragons shook their heads. The dragon king let out a hearty laugh, his body shaking as he suddenly pushed off the ground into the air. Ekar and Valynne stared up at him, wide-eyed and alarmed. Now that he was flying, Ekar’s father seemed far less threatening and imposing than he had before. With a large grin, the airborne dragon exclaimed, “Ekar, my son, it seems as if we’ll have to escort the human princess home.”
“Wh-what?” Ekar exclaimed, lashing his tail in frustration. “I went through the trouble to kidnap her, and now you want me to take her back?!”
Valynne looked back and forth between father and son. What had made the dragon king change his mind so suddenly? Had her words given him a change of heart?
Ignoring his son, the elder dragon turned to her. “My dear,” he rumbled, “I have a proposition for you. When you take your father’s throne in three years, will you strive to achieve all those things that you said you hope to accomplish?”
“Father, what are you--” Ekar tried to interrupt.
“Silence!” the king yelled. “Well, Princess?” he continued, looking back at Valynne.
Her hands involuntarily curled up against her chest as she stared up at the airborne dragon. “Yes. Yes, I will. But...why?”
Angling himself so his face was closer to hers, the dragon king smiled kindly. “Because,” he explained, “you could be the key to finally achieving peace between our species, and satisfy both sides.”
Valynne and Ekar exchanged a confused glance. What exactly did he mean by that? Was he planning on using her as a tool? She hoped that wasn’t the case. No matter how timid she was, she knew she wouldn’t be able to pull off working under orders from the dragons. “How?” she asked.
“It’s simple. When you are coronated as the queen of Kostivalle, we will gather the other kings and queens and sign a treaty between humans and dragons. Slowly but surely, we will break down the walls that have gone up between our species. And it will all have been because of you, Valynne Kostivalle.” Staring expectantly at her, the king of the dragons continued to hover midair. Beside her, Ekar was openmouthed with shock. His inborn prejudices against humans were being challenged by the dragon who had probably driven them into him.
“I will make that happen,” Valynne promised, surprised to hear herself saying the words. Ekar also looked down at her, surprised. When she looked into his eyes, he seemed conflicted, confused--but he also seemed to have a newfound respect for her.
“Good,” the king shouted, beginning to laugh once again. The dragons around him flinched from him as flames spurted from his nostrils and mouth haphazardly. Valynne cowered behind Ekar, who instinctively moved one of his wings to protect her.
She looked up at him, confused. I thought he hated me, she thought. Ekar seemed to realize what he’d done and took away his wing, staring pointedly at the ground to avoid looking at her.
“It is settled then,” Ekar’s father announced, turning to face his subjects. “From this day on, we shall consider ourselves friends of the humans!”
The dragons looked at each other, debating whether or not to cheer. Finally, one of the dragons on the ground began to stomp his feet. Others joined in, and soon the airborne dragons were whooping and cheering, with Valynne and Ekar at the center of it all. The male dragon sighed and looked at the human princess. “I suppose I should take you home now.”
“Yes,” she agreed, smiling up at him, as she had before, at the ball. “Thank you, Ekar.”
“Of course, Valynne.”
# # #
King Alaric peeked outside and stepped onto the balcony. “Are you enjoying your ball, Valynne? I didn’t see you dancing.”
A passing breeze blew Valynne’s skirt around her legs. If her father had looked closely, he would’ve noticed dirt staining the hem of the pink gown, and tiny tears in the bodice. But he was solely focused on her as she stared up at the sky, a mysterious glint in her eye.
“I’m sorry, Father,” Valynne apologized, facing her father with a guilty smile on her face. “The stars looked so beautiful tonight… I lost track of time, I suppose.”
“Then shall we rejoin our subjects?” her father said, extending his arm toward her.
With one last glance at the sky, Valynne took her father’s arm and allowed him to lead her back inside. “Yes, we shall.”
Behind her, the flapping of a dragon’s wings echoed through the night, unnoticeable except to those who knew to listen for it.