Though Sam searched all through the surrounding area, he couldn't find any trace of Nat. He began moving through the darkened palace, disturbing the night guards who asked him if he needed anything and stared at him suspiciously as he moved around them.
He didn't want to immediately announce that Nat was missing, mostly because he hoped that he was mistaken. He was sure that he would find her soon and she would admonish him for worrying over something so inconsequential.
When the light of dawn began breaking and Sam, weary from spending the entire night awake, still found no trace of her, decided it was time to ask for help. He didn't care anymore if Nat admonished him later, just so long as she was found safe and sound.
Unsure of who else he could talk to, he made his way to the dining room.
Reanna and Aurelius were the only two awake. The two of them were smiling over their poached eggs when Sam walked into the room. Their conversation was cut off as they both turned and looked at him in surprise.
"Sam?" Reanna started, frowning at the state of him. "Are you... all right?"
His clothing had dried after being in the pond most of the night, leaving behind a series of irregular wrinkles and mud stains. Oil stained his sleeves and shirt while his hair was a wild mess from the number of times he had run his hand through it. He could only imagine how he must look to the two of them, rushing into breakfast like this.
"Rae, I... think there's a problem."
"What kind of problem?"
"Nat... I can't find Nat."
Reanna and Aurelius shared a glance before looking back to him. Aurelius stood slowly.
"What do you mean, you can't find Nat?"
"We were... walking last night and she stepped away from me. I heard a scream, and when I went to find her, she was gone." Sam ran his hand through his hair again. "I-I've been looking all night. I've tried everywhere I can think of. I can't find her."
"Did you check her room?" Reanna asked, waving her hand and summoning a servant.
"I don't know where it is." Sam admitted, frowning.
Reanna wasn't even looking at him anymore, she was giving directions to the servant. "Go to Nat's room and check if she's there. If she's not, find Giles and tell him that she's missing. Try to keep it quiet. I don't want to raise a fuss unnecessarily."
"Yes, your majesty." He bowed at the waist before turning and walking quickly from the room.
"It's not like Nat to disappear." Aurelius frowned, moving towards Sam. "You're sure you heard her scream?"
"I heard a scream. I can't prove it was hers." Sam shook his head, running his hand through his hair once again. "I'm rather sure it was though."
"We'll find her." Reanna assured him, her voice certain. "What were you two doing last night though?"
"Just... er..." Sam hesitated unsure of what he should say.
The two royals were giving him an odd look. Guarded but anticipatory. It was an expression that he had seen many times on Banae's face when she asked him a question that she already knew the answer to and was just waiting to see what he would say.
Taking a breath, taking a chance, he said calmly.
"We were hatching the dragon egg."
Aurelius' eyes narrowed and Reanna's jaw tightened, but neither of them seemed particularly surprised by his declaration. Confirming most of his suspicions in a single second.
They recovered quickly.
"And then?" Reanna asked, her voice soft.
"We were walking back. She went ahead of me and stepped out of sight. That's when she screamed."
Aurelius crossed his arm. "And the dragon?"
Sam hesitated only a second. "He's fine. He's resting in a... well, it appears to be a nursery that your goddess created for him at the side of her pond."
Reanna nodded, turning to her husband. "You look for Nat. I'll go get the dragon."
"Wait." Sam stepped into her path when she would have walked past him. "The dragonette is resting. Hatching is a difficult process. You should leave him there."
"I don't have the luxury of time."
"Nat's giant dog is guarding the nursery."
"Ey is?" Aurelius turned to Reanna. "Do you think Oceane put him there?"
"I imagine. Protecting the dragon is of utmost importance."
"I agree. So, leave him be while he's resting." Sam's face was hard. It may be an unusual, water loving dragon, but it was still a dragon and Sam would fight for its safety.
Reanna gave him a cool look. "Thank you for informing me of this, your majesty. We'll take things from here. You should go rest. You look rather haggard."
Sam's expression tightened. "I will not. Tell me why you want the dragon."
"What are you planning for him?"
"I am not leaving this alone." Sam fixed her with an unmoving stare. "I may be a poor king, but I take my responsibilities to my dragons very seriously. I don't care what is different about that dragon, it is still one of mine."
"Not any longer." Reanna met him with her own determined gaze. The sight of it hit Sam like a punch to the gut because of how perfectly similar it was to Nat's own expression when she had promised Sam he would never see the egg again. "That dragon belongs to Oceane."
"That dragon belongs to his parents."
"We are his family now. You are no longer needed here. Now, if you'll excuse me."
"I will not!" When Reanna tried to move past him, Sam grabbed onto her arm, forcing her to look back at him. The aggressive motion caused Aurelius to react and he stepped forward, his hands curling under as though he were bearing claws he no longer had.
Reanna, however, remained quite calm, though her voice was seething. "Remove your hand from me."
Sam did not fear her quiet anger. "Not until you tell me why you want that dragon. Why did Nat come all the way into my kingdom to steal it?"
"That is none of your business."
"The dragons are my business. Tell me. Now."
"Rae..." Aurelius said softly, giving his wife a look that spoke volumes.
Reanna stared at him, then moved her eyes back onto Sam. The expression on her face did not soften, but Sam could see her thinking over her options.
"What do you know?" She finally asked.
"I know that you're all conspiring to hide my dragon from me."
"It's not your dragon any longer. That dragon is not of earthly fire. It is of the ocean."
Sam's grip tightened. "What does that mean?"
"It means that it is a child of the ocean god, sibling to Oceane, and no longer your concern."
"Tell me what you need it for."
Reanna said nothing. She was only giving him information when he told her what he already knew. So, he offered his next piece of knowledge.
"I know that the former king isn't really ill."
Reanna's gaze tightened. "Did Nat tell you that?"
"No. Someone mentioned an antidote. Illnesses aren't cured with antidotes."
They stared at each other for a long moment before Reanna jerked her arm out of his grasp. He let her go only because he didn't think she would run from him. She crossed her arms, gazing at him with proud defiance.
"We need the dragon's blood to craft a cure for whatever has poisoned father."
Sam started. "Dragon's blood? Whatever for?"
"It contains incredibly powerful magic. We need the magic of the dragon blood."
"Absolutely not!" Sam threw out his arm. "You are not draining a baby dragon of its blood! That would kill it!"
"We don't need that much."
"Dragonettes don't have enough to spare! I know that poison, and I know how much you need, and it would be too much for a single dragonette to give and survive."
Reanna's expression hardened. "Then you are asking me to weigh that dragon's life against my father's. I can already tell you which is more valuable to me."
"You are getting that dragon's blood over my dead body." Sam swore, growling low in his throat.
Reanna opened her mouth, but before she could retort, the door was thrown open.
"Rae!" Larissa cried out, face pale with fear. "It's father!"
Nat sat, stiff and angry, with her arms and legs crossed. One of her feet was bouncing quickly in annoyance. Her eyes closed, her brows furrowed, she growled low in her throat.
It was probably an odd reaction, but she wasn't afraid or uncertain to find herself kidnapped and dragged away. She really was only angry and irritated.
"This is so humiliating." She growled aloud to herself.
She already knew where she was. Though she had never seen this place in person, she had been told about it in intimate detail. The small wooden shack, placed near the beach but hidden from the main road, was completely unassuming from the outside. Within, however, was the incredibly intricate and detailed recreation of the stars of the night sky that Andromeda had carved into the wood with a ring when she had been kidnapped and brought here.
Someone had taken the time to clean out the wood shavings, dried leaves, and dirt that had accumulated since last this place had seen a visitor. However, that didn't at all make the plain room with the single cot and tiny table with one chair any more comfortable. Bright, morning sunlight poured in from the single, high, thin window that no one could possibly fit through.
"When I get out of here, I swear, I'm burning this place down." Nat vowed, fingers tightening against her arm as the bouncing of her foot increased in speed.
She wasn't alone. There was a single guard outside of the shack, keeping watch for anyone coming to rescue her or to thwart any escape attempt. His uniform identified him as one of Cadmus' guard, which wasn't at all shocking to Nat.
Which probably explained her irritation. She couldn't believe that she had allowed herself to fall into his clutches so easily.
Though, for the life of her, she couldn't imagine what he gained from this. Taking her earned him absolutely nothing. He couldn't use her life against Reanna, because Nat had already made it clear to her elder sister that she would die before allowing such a thing to happen. She supposed it might just be petty revenge, though that seemed foolish considering everything.
As she sat there, irritated, brows furrowed over her tightly shut eyes, she was going through everything that she knew, trying to figure out why she was here.
Had Cadmus seen her with Sam? Could he be trying to use her against him instead? If so, that would make him unbelievably stupid. Unlike Poseidonium, that didn't even have a standing army, Rhamnus had dragons and Sam had already assured her that he would gladly turn conqueror for her. It was sweet, in its own way, if a bit dramatic.
She couldn't see that being the case either. So, then, why?
Maybe he knew that she was pregnant? Leveraging Sam's unborn child against him would surely illicit a similarly furious response though. Besides, there was no one who knew she was pregnant except for her sisters and-
"How did you know it was me?"
Her eyes opened and she turned to find that, while lost in her angry thoughts, the door had opened. Giles was standing there, shutting it back behind him. He had brought a parcel and was looking at her curiously, trying to determine how she knew him if her eyes were closed.
Nat's foot stopped bouncing, but her arms and legs remained crossed as she faced him with a cold, hard stare.
"I am going to ask you why I'm here, and I expect a completely rational answer from you."
Giles smiled at her, a twinge of sadness in his gaze. "So regal. So proud. You really are perfect, Nat. Well, you were." His expression abruptly darkened.
"That is not an explanation." Her voice was sharp and unforgiving.
"Don't worry." Giles forced a smile. "I'm going to fix this. Here."
He held out the parcel but Nat didn't move to take it. The calm expression he wore was so familiar and haunting that part of Nat almost refused to believe that he was really standing there at all.
"What is it?" She finally asked when it became obvious that he wouldn't lower his hand.
"A few vials of the poison that I've been slipping into your father's tea."
Nat's eyes narrowed. "You've been poisoning father?"
"Slowly, but certainly. Oh, but don't worry. The poison is really only lethal at high concentrations, or low concentrations for an extended period of time. I've already diluted these for you. You should only need to drink two or three, four at the very most."
"To what purpose?"
"To kill that thing festering inside you. Of course." Giles smiled. "You're so perfect, Nat. There's no one that will make a better queen than you."
"Excuse me?" Her eyebrow rose at the statement.
"I know that Reanna was chosen for the role by birthright, but, really, when I compare you two, you are far superior to her in every way. Temperament, work ethic, refinement. She's a fine choice, but why settle when there is someone better just one life away from the throne?"
Nat's eyes narrowed on him. "I believe that I demanded your explanation be rational."
"And, it is. Is it not?" Giles smiled. "You don't believe you are superior to you sister?"
"My sisters and I all have our strengths. Not one of us is superior to another."
"Well, you're wrong there. But, your humility and loyalty to your family is one of the things that makes you so perfect. I've known your father most of our lives, I knew the previous ruler, and I know the cursed princesses. Linus is a... caring ruler. He certainly has the heart for it, but he doesn't possess the greatness that makes truly astounding rulers. Not like you or I."
"My father is a wonderful king. You poison him and now besmirch his name!"
"Oh, no. He is perfectly passable, but, really, his name will be lost to history as just another in a long line. There's nothing he's done that makes him outstanding. You and I, however, we possess ambition. Strength of will. We can forge this kingdom into something fantastic."
Nat got to her feet, facing Giles fearlessly. "You and I?"
"Yes. You contain the blood right to rule and were born with the will and head of a ruler. I am your equal in that. I have been helping your father rule for years, I bring experience to our partnership, while you bring the vigor of youth. You see how well we complement each other?"
"You don't say." Nat didn't know if he was deliberately choosing to ignore her sarcasm or if he genuinely didn't detect it.
"Under our rule, Poseidonium will flourish!" He clasped his hand into a fist, face alight with eagerness.
"Poseidonium already flourishes. We have wealth and peace and security for our people. What else could you possibly think that we need?"
Giles beamed at her question. "Strength."
"We are powerful in wealth, but we lack true strength. No army, no mercenaries, nothing. We rely on a magical barrier and old treaties to protect us. Our conflict with Scabrosa, if it can even be called such, only exists because we have no strength to defend or deflect their attacks. In any other kingdom, what Cadmus has done to us would be an act of war!"
"What Cadmus has done?" Nat raised a curious brow. "I hate to point this out to you Giles, but you're using Cadmus' men to keep me in here. You're using poison from his land to kill my father. What do you call your actions?"
"I was thinking treason."
"Treason is only what they call it if you're unsuccessful."
"As you will be."
Giles chuckled. "Your spirit is one of the great things about you. I know you will be a fine queen that will help me lead Poseidonium into a new age of power and influence. First, however, we must rid you of the parasite in your belly."
Nat's arms finally uncrossed. She put her hand over her belly. "Do you know whose child this is?"
"No idea. It hardly matters. Take these."
"I carry Sam's child. The heir to the throne of Rhamnus."
Giles, unfazed, laughed. "You carry a bastard, Nat. And, you need not worry, I will give you a new heir to replace it the moment we're married. First, however, you must drink."
Nat slapped his hand away, sending the parcel falling to the floor. She met his startled gaze with a cold one of her own.
"You will be killed for this, Giles. Your body will not even be sunk into the ocean. You will be buried in disgrace."
Giles put his hands behind his back, watching her with a seething anger. "You will not disrespect me, my queen. And, you will drink. I will not allow you to eat anything until that poison is gone and that thing you carry is dead."
"My baby is not a thing. They are the prince or princess of two great and powerful countries."
"It is nothing but the bastard of a lazy king and his whore. But, I will fix this. You will understand why this must be done. This is for the good of Poseidonium."
"Don't lie to yourself, Giles. You're not doing this for Poseidonium. You're doing it for you."
Giles grinned. "You're strength is admirable. I must remind you though, Nat, if you starve, so too, does your child. You might as well kill it now and end it quickly. Either way, the child does."
"Yes, but if I die with it, you lose your queen. And neither Sam nor my sisters will rest until they see your death for what you do."
"Oh, my queen, they will never know it was me."
"I will tell them."
"No, you won't. You won't leave this shack until you understand my vision. By then, enough time will have passed from your father's death so that I can kill Reanna and her bastard as well. Then, my queen, the throne will be waiting for us."
He reached out, stroking her cheek. Nat slapped his hand away.
Growling, Giles returned his hand, striking her cheek. The skin tingled painfully as he pointed his finger into her face.
"Your disrespect ends now. You will be perfect Nat. Though, obviously, you've still a need to mature slightly. That's fine. It will come in time."
"Death first." She promised him, gaze unforgiving.
Giles smiled. "You're not that foolhardy, Nat. Try not to drag this out too long, eh? Your family will get worried the longer you're missing. Hate to do that to them, right on the eve of their father's death."
"What?" Nat frowned as he began to leave.
"Oh, you haven't heard yet." Giles turned back at the door, giving her a smile. "The king vomited Oceane's water this morning. He's no longer delirious, he no longer moves or speaks. He has begun drawing his last breaths. Today is the day the old king dies."
Nat's heart clenched painfully in her chest as Giles locked her back into the shack.
Linus was breathing, but the tiny puffs of air were shallow and sporadic. His eyes had rolled into the back of his head and his skin was beginning to turn gray. He didn't react no matter how hard Melania attempted to push water into his throat. Even massaging wasn't helping him swallow. Afraid he was breathing it instead, she had to stop trying.
His children stood around his bed. Melania held his hand. They all looked on with equal parts horror and lowering doom as they realized what this meant.
Seeing them all like this, Sam felt like he was intruding on something he wasn't meant to see. This familial grief and despair was not for strangers, or even friends. It was a personal and private moment that shook all of them to their core.
He remained apart from them, standing in a corner as he watched. Reanna and Aurelius stood strong together, while Larissa and Kaz held onto one another. Nero had his arm around Andromeda's shoulders while she draped hers around his waist. It was an image of a broken hearted family that made Sam more than slightly uncomfortable for daring to stand among them.
"What happened?" Melania asked, eyes red from tears that were no longer falling. "He was so well yesterday. The fairies, they..."
"That might be what did it." The physician whispered, putting a hand to the queen's shoulder. "It might have used up too much of his strength."
"Father..." Andromeda moaned, burying her head into Nero's chest.
He put his arms around her. "Don't cry for the elders that die, my precious. Attaining great age is the highest honor a warrior can earn."
"Father is not going to die. We have the dragon!" Reanna turned to Sam. "I don't care if that dragon dies. My father's life holds priority to me."
Sam faced her with grim determination. "I'm sorry, my friend. I cannot allow you to harm a dragon. My dragons' lives hold higher priority to me."
"You would condemn him to die?! For a dragon?!"
"I would!" Sam's head was held high. "My partnership with the dragons is of the utmost importance. I would let my own father die, every friend I have, before I allowed harm to come to a dragon."
Larissa reached out, touching Reanna's arm. The look on her face was sorrowful.
"Don't be angry with Sam, Rae. He's doing his duty, the same as you would in his place."
"It is no longer his dragon. It is ours. I say, we bleed it. If it dies, I will face that consequence."
"The consequence will be your entire kingdom." Sam promised.
"You threaten my people now, too?!"
"I cannot control my dragon friends! If they know that you have killed a dragonette, they will not rest until your kingdom is razed to ash in punishment. And, if my dragons go to war, I have no choice but to follow them. I am bound by my oaths to my god, Rae."
Reanna's fists tightened and he could see the part of her that was a queen and the part of her that was a daughter warring together in her eyes.
"Please, Sam..." She murmured, fighting back tears. "My family means... everything to me. If I have the means to save my father, how can I not take it?"
"I'm sorry, Rae." Sam swallowed back thick, hot guilt. "I cannot allow this. I will defend that dragonette until my dying breath. And if I die here..."
He didn't need to finish the sentence. If he died here, his dragon friends would, again, call to war. He was as much part of the dragon family as the dragons themselves. It didn't matter what he would wish, they would do it regardless. And his people would follow suit.
"Stop!" Andromeda snapped at them both. "We can argue this later. First... I want to get father down to Oceane's pond."
"What? Why?" Reanna frowned at her.
"It is Oceane's water that sustained him this long. If we can submerge him in the water, then maybe... I don't know. I just want him closer to Oceane right now."
"Mother?" Larissa turned to Melania.
The queen, who didn't appear to be listening at first glance, nodded once without turning from her husband. The physician immediately turned and began talking to the servants.
Sam began to step back but he was stopped when Reanna grabbed his arm.
"No. You will stay with us." She said in anger. "If you are going to condemn him to death, then you are going to watch him die."
Sam clenched his jaw, but he didn't attempt to argue with her.
The shrieking call of the eagle turned the massive hound's eyes up to the sky. He was still seated in front of the waterfall of the dragonette's nursery. He hadn't moved, listening only to the splashing of water and taking in the strange scent of a newborn dragon.
Ink came flying down towards him out of the sky, landing on the roof of the nursery, forcing Ey to stand and turn to him.
"Good day, Ink." He greeted politely. "What is it that has your feathers so ruffled this morning?"
"Have you not heard?" Ink flapped his wings in irritation. "Nat was taken last night."
"Taken? From where?"
"Here in the garden! They say she screamed, how did you not hear it?"
"I can hear little else but the falling water, my friend." Ey bowed his head apologetically.
"Well, we can't be angry about what's already been done. More importantly, you are a good tracker, are you not?"
"Then, what are you waiting for? Track her."
Ey looked down from the bird to the nursery. "My task now is to guard the dragonette. If anything were to happen to it..."
Even as he was speaking, from inside the nursery, a soft, wailing cry began. It was almost lost under the sound of the falling water, but Ey's ears pricked up on hearing it.
"Is that the dragonette?" Ink asked, head tilting at the sound.
Ey walked towards the nursery. The water parted for him like a curtain as he approached, revealing the tiny dragon where it had fallen onto the ground.
As Ey approached, the tiny thing whined louder, reaching up for him. Ink lowered his snout and flinched when the dragonette sunk his talons into him. Holding onto his skin, the tiny creature began crawling up along Ey's body.
"What's it doing?" Ink asked, calling from outside.
"I have no idea." Ey pushed his snout under the dragonette when it nearly fell, pushing it up further until it was seated on his back.
The tiny dragon paused then, catching its breath.
Curiously, Ey returned outside where the dragonette began whining again.
"What is it crying for?" Ey asked. "Do you think it might be hungry?"
Ink, head tilted at the cry. "It doesn't really sound that way. It almost sounds like a chick crying for its mother."
"It doesn't have a mother."
"No, but it has Nat!" Ink jumped in excitement. " Let's take it with us!"
"What? No." Ey shook his head. "Absolutely not. It is a delicate creature and the king's life depends on its survival."
"Oh, you didn't hear? Sam is refusing to allow them to drain the dragonette. The procedure would likely kill it, and he won't take that risk. Of course, the princesses are adamant that they should use it. I think this situation requires a third opinion. Let's have Nat weigh in.
"Which will require finding her first."
"What are you waiting for then? Let's go!"
Ey frowned before he turned and looked out into the garden. As he was doing so, Ink glided down and landed on his back, just behind the dragonette. His talons were relaxed against his fur, knowing that he couldn't fall from Ey's back and so forcing himself not to hurt his hound friend.
Ey nodded to him and began walking forward, following the path that he had seen Sam and Nat taking last night. All the while, he sniffed at the ground. He knew the scents of all the princesses well. The only problem was that the scents permeated this area thickly because they spent so much time in and around the castle.
While he was tracking her scent, Ink, on his back, was telling him that they had already searched the palace and the surrounding grounds and were beginning to go through the town.
Ey was listening with only half an ear. He wasn't particularly concerned with where Nat was not, only where she had been.
The freshness of her scent was still rather crisp as only a few hours had passed. It didn't take long before he caught the unfamiliar scent of a man's caught up in hers. He must have been the one who had taken her and it was his scent that Ey memorized.
With this new scent, he could more easily isolate the path he needed take.
"This way!" He declared, jumping forward.
Ink couldn't fall from his back; however, he could still fall backwards, reeling from the force of Ey taking off into a supernatural sprint.
"Warn a bird before you do that next time!" He snapped at him, trying to pick himself up against the wind that beat at him from the speed of Ey's movements.
"I apologize, Ink." Ey said over his shoulder. "I was told that this was important."
"It is, but still-!"
Ink frowned down at the dragonette, but his smaller, shorter body wasn't as buffeted by the wind. Still, his little head kept getting pushed back. Feeling pity for the tiny thing - despite the fact that it was over half his own size, Ink lifted his wings up and covered the dragonette. He heard it cooing from inside his wings and he bobbed his head.
"It's all right, little one. We've got you."
Ey continued running, rushing out of the city itself. Ink looked around, trying to determine where they were, but it was much different than looking from above.
He didn't recognize the shack they came upon. However, he did recognize the cut and color of the uniform worn by the man standing outside of it.
"Ey! That's one of Cadmus' men!"
Ey said nothing, but he bent his head down lower.
The loud thud of the man's body slamming against the door made Nat jump. She turned from the corner where she was dumping out the poison vials into the wood.
"Giles?" She called, confused.
There was no immediate answer, concerning her more. Dropping the poison down, she covered it with the parcel and quickly stepped on the remaining vials, shattering them. She didn't care what he threatened, she wasn't going to drink it.
There was movement against the door and Nat grabbed the parcel cloth, using it to protect her fingers as she grabbed one of the larger, more jagged pieces of glass. She turned, holding it out like a weapon as she waited.
It took longer than she would have thought. There was a great deal of bumping against the wood, making her frown as she stepped back, ready to fight. It began creaking open slowly.
Nat lifted the shattered glass.
Ey stuck his large black nose into the crack of the door, pushing it open fully.
"This is quite difficult without hands." He remarked simply.
"Ey!" Nat laughed, dropping the glass.
"I'm here as well!" Ink called from his back, unfolding his wings. "And look who we have with us."
"Hm? The dragon?" Nat frowned, rushing towards Ey.
Upon seeing her, the little silver dragon lifted his head and began cooing at her. His little talons reached up and Nat found herself picking him up without thinking. She flinched as his claws grabbed into her skin. Not deep enough to puncture, but it was hardly comfortable.
"Why did you bring him?" She asked Ink and Ey.
"He wanted to come. He missed you." Ink chuckled. "He's not the only one. Your family is missing you as well."
"My father! Is he all right?" Being reminded of him brought back that same, gripping fear.
Ey turned his eyes from her and Ink shifted uncomfortably.
Nat's skin paled and her fingers felt numb as her grip on the dragonette tightened. "He's... He's not..."
"No!" Ink said quickly. "I mean, not yet. It... It doesn't look good."
"We need the dragon's blood, Nat." Ey told her, sitting onto his haunches.
"Yes, but Sam isn't allowing it." Ink added. "He says that the amount of blood required would be too much. It would kill the dragonette to take it."
"You're kidding..." Nat frowned down at the baby dragon.
Now warm and comfortable in her arms, he had curled up like a cat into the crook of her elbow. His head rested along her bicep, leaning against her chest. His eyes were already closed as he began to sleep. A gentle purring vibrated his little body.
Maybe it was the knowledge that she was carrying a child affecting her thinking, but imagining trying to hurt this helpless creature, possibly killing it, choked her throat with tears and made her belly churn with a fierce, protective instinct.
And, at the same time, she imagined letting her father die and knew she wouldn't be able to live with herself she allowed it to happen.
"Nat?" Ey called to her softly.
She shook her head. "Never mind. We have something more pressing to deal with now. I have to get back to the castle."
"I will take you back, if you like." Ey offered.
Nat grimaced as her stomach turned at the very thought. If he tried running with her, she knew that her sensitive stomach would begin turning again.
She shook her head. "I'm sorry, Ey. I'll walk back. I will ask if you will escort me though."
"It would be my pleasure." He nodded.
Nat smiled at him gratefully before turning to the eagle. "Ink, go forward ahead of me and inform my family that I'm on my way. I'll be there shortly."
"As you say." He nodded once before taking off from Ey's back.
"Shall we?" The enormous hound asked, stepping back through the door.
Nat nodded and followed him, looking down at the dragonette.
Even when she moved, the dragonette didn't wake. If anything, he only cuddled himself closer to her.
Nat felt her heart clench at the sight. His skin was already thickening, allowing her to touch him without harm, but it was still mostly translucent and dry. Nat was already thinking that she needed to massage him with oil again.
She couldn't hurt this dragon.
The certainty of the thought settled over her with a grim blackness.
Because, even as she knew that she couldn't harm or bleed the dragonette, she knew that not doing so would kill her father.
But there had to be another way. Sam had promised her anything. And, if she could ask him for anything, maybe she could ask him for the blood of an adult dragon. Surely, one of them could spare the amount she needed without harm.
If they could retrieve it in time to save his life.
Giles' certainty that this would be her father's last day blackened her mood and hastened her footsteps. It wasn't far from here to the city, but it seemed to take forever.
The dragonette didn't stir all through her walk. It wasn't until she approached the city itself that he finally lifted his head. Tongue flicking out, tasting the air.
Ey was waiting for her at the entrance. He looked back as she approached before turning and letting out a long howl.
The people already knew Ey to be a friend of the royal family. They automatically stepped back when he began walking down the street. He cleared a path for her as easily as walking.
Nat followed behind, holding the dragon tightly to her chest. He might have been small, about the size of a house cat, but those that caught sight of him couldn't mistake him for anything else but a dragon. They began murmuring in wonder, seeing the beast in her arms.
"Who is that?"
The question ran through the crowd, making Nat grin. The Forgotten Princess wasn't even recognized when on full display.
She wasn't sure who was the first to identify her, but halfway through the city, she finally heard her name being tossed around. Some people didn't know it. She had to be explained, introduced to her own people, as she moved through the main street.
Guards on the gate of the palace saw her coming and immediately sent up a cry.
"Princess Nat has returned! Opened the gates!"
Their call finally set the wildfire and the remainder of those that didn't know her began whispering quickly in surprise.
The fourth princess? Was it really her? Why was she holding a tiny dragon?
The questions continued flaring as Nat walked through the gates. They were quickly closed behind them and she looked up over the castle.
"Your highness!" One of the guards ran up to her. "Your father has been taken to Oceane's pond. Your family has gathered there."
"Thank you." Nat nodded to him once before walking past him to move around the castle.
Her presence wasn't unusual in the palace. However, the dragon she carried was enough to prompt the people that lived and worked there to come gawk and stare at them.
She ignored their gaze. Walking around through the gardens to the back of the palace wall, she kept her head high and her eyes sharp for any sign of Giles.
He was nowhere to be seen. Nor did Nat catch sight of Cadmus or any of his people. She wasn't sure if that worried or relieved her more.
Oceane's pond was calm and still when she approached it. The nursery at one end, the fountain at the other, were familiar to her. The group of people situated between those two points, all of them gathered at the edge of the pond, were also familiar.
Linus had been taken down in a litter by servants that Reanna had already banished. That left only the family, plus Sam, standing around. Aurelius and Nero were carrying Linus' body while Kaz held his feet and Melania cradled his head. Around them, Reanna, Andromeda, and Larissa were hovering as they walked him down into the pond.
Water soaked through their clothes, but no one seemed to care as they lowered the king into the calm, abnormally warm water.
Melania sat on her knees, resting Linus' head in her lap as his body was submerged. When he was laid down against the ground, the men moved back. They stood aside, still kneeling into the water, as the princesses gathered around him.
"Father?" Reanna called softly, running her wet hand down his face.
"I think he's breathing easier." Larissa smiled sadly at Andromeda. "The water is working."
"Not very much." She frowned, watching the water lick at his neck and chin. "It won't last long. We need the dragon blood."
They all turned and looked up to the banks of the pond where Sam remained standing outside of the water. He faced them with a hard jaw and guilty eyes.
"I'm sorry. I can't..."
"Sam, please..." Reanna pleaded. "We'll endeavor to keep the dragon alive, but..."
"I can't." He shook his head.
The gentle crunch of Nat's shoes on the path caught their attention. They all turned to see her approaching and Sam immediately reached for her.
"Nat?! You're here? Are you all right?"
"Is that the dragon?" Reanna asked, standing in the pond.
Nat frowned down at the tiny creature. He was still purring.
"Nat, give him to me. Quickly." Reanna reached out her hands.
Sam frowned from Reanna to her. He said nothing, but she could see the turmoil in his eyes. He did not want to kill Linus any more than they did.
Tears pooled in Nat's eyes. "I... can't."
"Nat?" Sam started in surprise.
"Nat? What are you saying?" Reanna took a step towards her. "We have to save father's life! Give me the dragon!"
Nat shook her head, bundling him closer. "I can't. Rae, look at him. He's so delicate. He's not even a full day old yet."
"Wouldn't want you to kill an innocent creature for him. And you know it." Nat felt her tears falling. One of them hit the dragon and he cooed, tongue flicking at the salty drop.
"Nat..." Sam's shoulders began to droop. He couldn't tell if it was from relief or a worsening of the guilt. He reached out for her and she walked into his arms, the two of them holding the baby dragon between them, protecting him from her sisters' heartbroken gaze.
"I'm sorry, Rea. Mother. I just can't do it. I can't..." Her tears fell faster causing the dragon to make soft sounds of distress.
Sam touched his head, smiling at her sadly. "Thank you, Nat."
"Nat!" Reanna began to move towards them both.
She was stopped by a quick bubbling coming up from the center of the pond. They all turned, looking towards the bubbles as they parted, allowing Oceane's veiled figure to rise up. Sam's eyes widened as he stepped in front of Nat, protecting her as he eyed the strange appearance distrustfully.
She smiled, touching his shoulder. "It's all right, Sam. It's just our godmother."
That announcement did not ease his guilt or fear. If anything, it only made it worse.
The water from the pond smoothly, unnatural slid away from Oceane's body until she could throw back her full body veil, revealing herself to the light. She looked over the gathered group, pausing the longest on Linus, before her gaze moved onto Sam.
He felt his back snapping straight and he swallowed convulsively under her gaze.
"Samouel." She greeted, walking forward, rising up through the water. "I've heard of you."
Licking his lips, Sam bowed to her. "Goddess Oceane. It's an honor."
"Is it? You wish to condemn one of my children to death."
"That is not my wish. My wish is only to protect my charges."
"Oceane, please." Nat stepped out from behind him, cradling the dragon closer. "He's... He's so tiny and delicate. There has to be another way."
"Nat, this is our father we're speaking of." Reanna gestured to him.
The others, save Melania, were looking between them. They were waiting to see what judgment would be made. All but their mother. She continued gazing into Linus' pale face.
"It's too late to summon a larger dragon, Nat." Oceane assured her. "If one would even be willing to part with its blood."
"Then, take my blood." Nat held out one arm. "We have magical blood, don't we?"
Oceane was already shaking her head. "You think I didn't already consider that? You and your sisters all have very powerful magical blood, but not nearly equal to that of a dragon. I could drain all four of you of every drop of your blood and it wouldn't be enough."
Nat's arm dropped hopelessly, more tears falling.
"Then, what about mine?"
All eyes turned onto Sam as he stepped forward. Oceane looked him over.
"You would give your blood?" She asked, her voice carefully neutral.
"Will it suffice?" He held up his arm.
"Sam?" Nat called him softly.
He took in a fortifying breath. "I am bound by oaths to the lava god, as all my forefathers were before me in an unbroken chain going back generations before the ocean god ever gave you this land to rule. I share blood with my dragons and absorb my god's magic as they do. It is passed down through my line and continues to gather strength with each generation. Will the magic in my blood be strong enough to substitute?"
"Come here." Oceane gestured him forward.
Without hesitation, he walked towards her, stepping into the water itself. Oceane grabbed hold of his outstretched arm and touched the soft skin of his wrist.
She hummed thoughtfully before reaching up and taking a shell from her crown. The sharp edge of it slashed across the base of his hand and he winced but didn't attempt to pull away. It began falling down his wrist, dripping into the pond. Oceane let out a long breath as it mixed into the water.
"Such power..." She marveled.
"Will it suffice?" Sam asked again, his voice soft.
Oceane smiled, nodding. "It will. Though, you will need to give more than the dragon would have. Do you surrender it to me?"
Sam nodded once. "I do. Take as much as you need."
Oceane nodded before lifting the shell again. She placed it against his arm and pressed deeply, slashing downwards along his arm before turning it over. Blood rushed out of him, pumping down into the pond and sinking into the water and out of sight with each beat of his heart.
Sam grimaced as seconds passed and Oceane just continued to allow his blood to pour out. He said nothing however, remaining still even as he became lightheaded.
"Godmother." Nat called out for her, walking forward.
"Don't worry, Nastasya." Oceane smiled. "I'm not going to kill him."
Even as she spoke, she was turning his wrist over, putting her hand over the wound. Sam flinched as a strange prickling sensation burned along his arm. It lasted only a few seconds before Oceane pulled back her hand.
The long lacerations she had cut open along his arm and hand were covered in shimmering fish scales that seemed to join into his own skin. He could still see the cuts below them, but they didn't bleed and the skin didn't break even as he moved his arm.
"It will shed naturally." Oceane assured him, stepping back. "You might want to sit down. I took quite a bit of blood from you."
"That's... a good idea." Sam tried to step back but his head spun and he fell onto his butt, splashing into the shallow water.
"Sam!" Nat began to run to him but he held up a hand, stopping her with a smile.
"I'm all right. See to Linus."
Nat's mouth worked up and down without sound escaping. Though she didn't move towards him, she continued to stare where he sat as he observed the fish scales over his skin.
Reanna watched Sam for only a moment more before she turned to Oceane.
"Where did the blood go?" She asked immediately.
Oceane walked towards the center of the pond. "It's not just blood that's needed, Rae. Give me a moment. I'll finish concocting the rest of the antidote. Oh, and, thank you, Sam."
She turned back to him, giving him a genuine smile before falling down into the pond. Sam blinked and she was gone without a ripple.
"Sam?" Nat called to him from the bank.
He turned around, laughing sheepishly. "Sorry. I'd come hold you, but I don't think that I can really stand right now."
Nat chuckled in desperate relief, petting the dragon. "Let me go put him down. I'll come right back."
Sam watched as she walked away from them, aiming towards the nursery.
A hand on his shoulder turned his gaze back and he grinned at Aurelius.
"Need a hand?" His fellow king asked.
"Only if you don't mind lending me a shoulder with it." Sam took the offered limb and allowed Aurelius to pull him up.
The movement made him dizzy again and he blinked a few times as Aurelius steadied him. Sam felt Aurelius pull his arm over his shoulder as requested and shamelessly allowed himself to lean against him for support.
"Thank you, Sam." Aurelius said, turning to look at the others.
The girls were still gathered around Linus. They dripped water from their fingers to his lips, trying to let him passively swallow small amounts. It was only to keep him alive until Oceane finished her work. It shouldn't take long to mix the ingredients together.
"It was my honor." Sam assured him. "I didn't lie before, you know. So long as it didn't have anything to do with the dragons, I would give you all anything you needed."
"You're a good friend, Sam."
"Thank you. Though, to be perfectly honest, I have rather selfish motives."
"Regardless of your motives, you've sacrificed. That deserves some thanks from us." Aurelius began walking him up out of the water. "Let's get you inside. It's too cold out here to be soaking wet and suffering from blood loss."
"Can't it wait? I want to see Linus come around."
"I doubt the antidote will work so quickly."
"All the same."
Aurelius nodded. "Very well. I'll set you on father's litter then."
The litter used to carry the old king out here. Sam nearly tripped and fell twice just walking over to it, but Aurelius' grip was sure and steadying. He even lowered Sam slowly down onto the cushioned vehicle so that he didn't fall back again.
"Thank you." Sam said resting back on his hands. Even sitting perfectly still, he could feel his head spinning around on his shoulders.
"We'll have food brought to you the moment you're inside."
"Don't forget to put those little fire spices on it. I love those."
Aurelius chuckled, putting his hands to his hips. "May I ask a question?"
"We're friends, aren't we? No need to ask permission."
"It's a little personal. What are your selfish reasons for saving our father?" The look on his face was a familiar one. Guarded, but expectant.
Sam grinned. "We both know what that is, don't we?"
"I have to hear it from your lips."
Reanna's call interrupted them. They both turned their heads over to see her pointing.
From the center of the pond, a small wooden boat had burst up from below. Within it, a clay jar with a fitted lid rested.
"The antidote?" Sam guessed, recognizing the form of delivery.
Aurelius didn't leave Sam's side, waiting there to support him again if necessary, but he watched as Andromeda walked deeper into the pond so she could grab the boat. Lifting up the jar, she removed the lid to sniff at the contents even as she was walking back.
"Well?" Melania asked, finally lifting her eyes.
"Smells like rotten herbs and copper." Andromeda chuckled. "Which means it's probably medicine. It's rather watery. I imagine we have to get him to drink it."
"How?" Larissa frowned at him. "He's not drinking anymore."
"Let me have it." Melania held her hands.
She was quite accustomed at this point at forcing Linus to drink. The small drops they had been putting on his lips, his tongue, had worked their way down. Even if she had to sit here the rest of the day feeding him drops of this antidote, she would get him to drink.
"Linus." Melania kissed his forehead, pushing his jaw open. "You have to drink, my love. I know it's hard, but just a little bit more. All right? Drink for me."
She started with only a few drops, letting them fall on his lips, trickle into his mouth. All the while, she massaged his throat. It didn't initially elicit any reaction. He just laid there, letting the drops fall down his throat. She kept working.
All the while, her children sat around her, watching Linus with transfixed eyes. They tracked his breathing, the movement of his throat, the twitching of his eyelids. They were waiting for any sign of life to come from him.
After several slow, painful minutes, Melania's ministrations finally bore fruit and, almost reluctantly, Linus reflexively swallowed.
"He did it!" Larissa cried, grabbing Andromeda's arm. The two of them held onto each other as Reanna kneeled down beside his head.
Now feeling more determined, Melania continued pouring, a little more insistently now. It took several more minutes before she could make him swallow again.
But then his eyelids fluttered. They didn't open, but his eyes moved beneath them and it wasn't nearly so difficult to get him to swallow a third time.
"That's it, my love." Melania felt hot tears of relief pooling in her eyes. "You have to drink it all. You can rest after, I promise."
Aurelius felt himself relaxing as he nearly collapsed down, sitting beside Sam.
"I'm glad." Sam smiled.
Aurelius nodded. "As am I. Thank you, Sam. From all of us. You've no idea how much their father means to them."
"You're right." Sam frowned. "Unfortunately, I don't. However, I can say that I would do anything for my friends and I can just imagine how helpless I would feel if they were in danger. I might even do something stupid like stealing a dragon egg. If I were in your position, that is."
Aurelius chuckled. "When did you figure it out?"
Sam shrugged. "Hard to say. It's rather odd."
"Why is it so hard to remember Nat's face? Or her name?"
"Oh, that would be her gift."
"Right." Sam frowned. "The fourth princess. Gifted with..."
"Ordinariness. She is plain and simple. So much so that people have begun to think her completely forgettable. That's why they call her the Forgotten Princess."
Sam grimaced. "That's a terrible name."
"I've always thought so." Aurelius turned to him, frowning. "Now that you know, are you going to punish Poseidonium for what she did?"
"Hm? I'm not even going to punish her for what she did." Sam shook his head, laughing. "I'm far too soft hearted to be a king."
"As a king myself, I would have to disagree." Aurelius took his shoulder. "You're a good king, and a better friend. You only need the right woman to motivate you."
"I have one in mind."
"I have another question."
"I told you, you don't have to ask permission."
Aurelius nodded, frowning back towards his family. "If we had asked you outright at the beginning for the dragon egg, would you have given it to us?"
"Would you have bled a dragon for us?"
"Not even if your entire family were poisoned."
Aurelius chuckled. "You stick by your convictions. I'll give you that."
Sam smiled. "But, I would still have offered my blood in its place. For what it's worth."
"Considering you've saved his life, it's worth a great deal. Thank you, again."
Sam nodded. "There's just one thing I don't know."
"Just the one?"
"Why is the dragon... like that? It doesn't look like a normal dragon, and it seems to love water."
"Oh. That." Aurelius nodded knowingly. "Well, actually, there's two things you don't know."
"First, the egg." Aurelius explained to him what Nat had told them so many weeks ago. Back when Oceane had first described the egg's unorthodox origins.
"It's... a water dragon?" Sam blinked, started.
"It seems like it's more half water, half fire."
"Then, if you hadn't taken it..."
"Oceane said that placing it in fire would have killed it."
Sam lowered his head. "Then... you've saved the dragon's life."
"And you've saved our father's. I'd say we're more than even. If anything, we might owe you more."
Sam shook his head, giving him a smile. "I still feel indebted to you. Once Nat returns, I'll... Wait. Where is Nat?"
"Hm?" Aurelius frowned, looking towards the nursery.
She had only gone to set the dragonette down to sleep. It shouldn't take her so long. Especially considering their father was still laying there, mostly dead. She should be making with all haste to return to them.
"I'll go check on her." Aurelius assured Sam when he tried to stand.
Sam frowned, but his head was still spinning uncomfortably. He didn't think that he'd be able to go to her without falling and hurting himself.
Gratefully, he nodded once to Aurelius.
The other man only made it a few steps away before Kaz and Nero both abruptly moved at the same time.
The two reached for their weapons, jumping up to a standing position in the water. Their eyes were locked somewhere behind Sam and Aurelius.
A moment later, the latter of the two turned as well. Sam was slower to look.
"Don't move." Giles' voice calling out over the gathered crowd was as cold and sharp as the blade he held to Nat's neck.
"Nat!" Sam tried to stand but he moved to quickly, his head spun and he collapsed down onto all fours.
"What are you doing?!" Aurelius roared in fury.
"Not a step closer." Giles warned as, on either side of him, Cadmus' guards began moving to flank and surround the royals. "Nat's life is not the only one I hold."
One of the soldiers lifted a sack. Within, a tiny body moved and a dragon's distressed whines echoed through the air.
"No!" Sam's blood ran cold. "Let them go!"
"Don't worry. I have no intention of hurting them. For now." Giles gestured with his head. "I'm sure you won't risk their lives, however, Prince Casimir, Sir Nero, if you wouldn't mind dropping your weapons?"
Neither man made a move to obey.
Giles frowned and pressed the tip of the dagger deeper against Nat's throat until she hissed in pain.