Chapter 1

She found that plummeting thousands of feet was the most peaceful way to start her morning.

Neoma felt anything but panicked as she fell towards the canyon below. Her braid whipped her cheek, leaving red marks on her already flushed face.

The feeling of weightlessness in the pit of her stomach was not one that could be replicated by anything else. It was true freedom.

And like all good things, it ended too quickly.

A dark shadow sped by her and swooped under her with a deafening swoop of its wings. Her hands instinctively grabbed the for the worn leather saddle, pulling her body to a sitting position as the creature began to righten itself. Her feet hooked in the stirrups, thighs tightening to keep her flying off the back.

With an umph she was airborne on the back of a massive golden dragon.

"Come on, Az, a few more feet wouldn't hurt!" Neoma shouted against the wind, her grin as wild as her hair. The beast only huffed, his disapproval clear as they circled back towards the ground. The spires of the palace grew in the distance as they veered over a particularly flat mountain-side, Azron's claws brushing against the long grass before he came to a thundering stop. He dropped one of his wings to the ground, allowing Neoma to step on the scaled muscles and tendons. Her feet and hands found familiar purchases as she lowered herself to the grass, swatting at the longer pieces that came up to her hips.

"Don't give me that look. It's good exercise for the both of us," Neoma shot a look at the grumbling dragon, her fingers deftly unbraiding her hair and letting it fall down her back. The curls were gold, as Azron's scales, but were much lighter than his majestic coloring. While his body shone like a handful of coins in the early morning light, her hair was a mix of whites and yellows that looked like corn silk when it was thrown carelessly over her shoulders. "You haven't failed to catch me yet."

He chuffed, settling to the ground and nudging her back with his snout. Unfortunately, his head was twice her size so this action nearly toppled her to the ground. She managed to catch herself and snorted, flopping down to sit with her back leaned against one of his feet.

"What a view," Neoma always sighed those words when she sat up among the wildflowers and weeds. With her knees spread wide, elbows resting lazily on them, she could see all of the city and surrounding towns. The palace was the centerpiece of the area, elevated slightly above the districts that circled it. A wall zigzagged around the entire city, built of a mixture of stone and marble, and separated the city from the country towns that were sprinkled a few miles away from the city.

Her fingers plucked at the wildflowers around her, weaving them together as she and Azron enjoyed the brisk morning. Spring had only recently sprung, so the morning air nipped at her skin and chapped her lips. A part of her yearned for a steaming hot bath with the freshest roses available sprinkled over the top but a part of her wanted to remain on that mountain forever.

But she'd settle for simply the morning.

The crown of flowers that she made was far too large for her, even able to fit over her hips. Even still it only fit over one of Azron's ears and draped above one of his eyes. He shook his head a few times to adjust it, causing petals to rain down on Neoma. She stared up with delight in her eyes, trying not to grin as he tilted his head back to try and see her handiwork.

"You're the prettiest dragon in Aurousa now."

He huffed and tossed his head about to try and displace the crown.

"Sorry, sorry!" Neoma laughed and put her hands up, backing up a few steps. The ground below her shook as he thumped his tail, head lowering to her level so he could properly express his displeasure. "You're handsome, not pretty. The most dashing dragon I've met."

This seemed to placate him and settle him on the ground once more. She put her hands on her hips and gave a shake of her head, returning her attention to the land below once more. Her land. Aurousa was the most tame environment, compared to the other five countries that inhabited Ithica, but that didn't make it any less beautiful in her eyes.

Rolling golden hills made up the majority of the countryside, broken up by the occasional mountain range or deep valley. Other countries bragged of thick forests with trees that stretched to the clouds, glassy oceans with soft beaches and tropical islands, or even snowy mountains with towns and castles built into them so that people could see the dancing lights in the skies at night. Aurousa's beauty came from its citizens made up of artisans, musicians, and seamstresses. Those who lived in the capital were the very best in the country, able to create stunning works that were sold by traveling merchants throughout the entire continent. Troupes of actors often traveled to Bergeone, often referred to as the Jewel of Ithica, in hopes of performing at the gold gilded opera houses and theaters that ringed the palace.

When Neoma wasn't spending her free time falling from the sky, she often took to the streets and spent hours walking from booth to booth in the Spice District where chefs beckoned with tangy meats, sweet rolls, and bowls of stew that left her mouth burning.

Her city was magnificent and her people were capable of extraordinary things.

And now, as the sun crept further up the clear blue sky, she had to return to them.

"Come on, Az. I'll get you something special for breakfast if we get back before Ms. Frien finds out that I left," She tempted her dragon with a sly look, knowing that his motives primarily came from his love of smoked meat. He immediately stood, lowering a wing impatiently. She scrambled up his back, hands gripping the tall spines on the ridge of his spine as she pulled herself into the saddle. After securing her feet in the stirrups, she gave a shout to urge him forward and off of the cliffside to the city in the distance.

She was glad that she didn't rebraid her hair as they flew, the air fresh and crisp. While it would leave her head a twisted rat's nest by the time they reached the palace, it was worth it to feel the wind tugging at her roots while her stomach dropped from a particularly rough swoop. She'd flown more times than she could possibly count, but she couldn't help letting out a triumphant whoop as they skimmed along the lake outside of the city walls. Az's claws brushed against the water, creating a fine mist that wet her face.

Nobody was alarmed as a dragon flew over the main gate, not even the two dragons that stood as sentries on either side. It was almost a daily occurrence to see the princess and her dragon soaring through the sky. She gave a wave to one of the women that watched the front gate, not bothering to say anything as the wind temporarily deafened her.

There weren't too many dragons in the city since there wasn't much space in between the buildings, but it wasn't uncommon to see a few napping on top of sun-baked rooftops. Most didn't have the ability to breathe flames or acid like dragons from other regions, so the only worry was that one would accidentally collapse a building if they were too heavy.

Az's wings pounded the air as they approached the palace grounds, slowing as he circled one of the four towers inside the walls. As he approached her balcony, she removed her feet from the stirrups and squatted in the saddle. She held her breath as she leapt from Az's back onto the clean white marble. The first few times she did this, it sent an uncomfortable jolt through her shins. Luckily she'd learned how to absorb the fall before she sprained or broke anything.

"There should be smoked beef down in your paddock," Neoma reached out to pat his snout gently before he turned and began to make his way back over the city to his makeshift home outside the walls. Paddock was a generous term for the man-made cave that contained a collection of silks, riches, and a blazing hearth. She watched him until he disappeared in the distance, fingers threaded in her hair as she tried to tug the knots out of it.

"You stuck the landing today, Neo."

She jumped at the sound of her father's voice, not expecting him to be casually reading a book at her desk. It was a silly romantic novel that she hadn't read in years, but he was flipping through as though it was more enamoring than his daughter dismounting from a dragon into her room.

"Every day that I don't slip and break my neck is a success," she gave up on her hair and settled on tying it back with a piece of leather. Her father's eyes sparkled as she walked further into the room with a smile on her lips. "I was expecting Ms. Frien."

"She informed me that you were gone about half an hour ago. She was very distraught," he shut the book and set it to the side. "I let her know that I would be overseeing your tutoring today."

Neoma straightened in surprise, excitement filling her. If she had a day off, she could go down to the market and check in on the dress she'd ordered the other day. There was a checklist of things that she had to do before they left for the Feast of Life the day after next. When she'd learned that Frascht was hosting it that year, she immediately began to sketch out plans for fur-lined outfits that would keep her warm enough to explore the mountains at night for the perfect place to watch the rainbow lights that randomly appear in the spring.

"Fantastic! I'll be heading to the market then," Neoma rushed to her wardrobe and threw it open, eyes searching for something appropriate to wear out. "I'll be home for dinner-"

"Ah, unfortunately I was telling her the truth," her father watched her rush about with a raised eyebrow. He couldn't help but laugh at her crestfallen expression, finally standing up and moving around the desk. King Phoesias Lamine wore his age well for a man who had fought in two separate wars. Like his daughter, his hair was a silky gold which he wore tied back at the nape of his neck. His skin was marked with wrinkles on his forehead and a fine white scar that stretched across his nose and down his right cheek. "Feel free to grab some breakfast before coming down to the training grounds."

"Father," the complaint left her lips before she could swallow it. "I don't really see a point. I won't be bringing a sword with me to Frascht."

"You've gotten lazy."

"I have not!"

"When was the last time you picked up your sword?"

"I'm a lady, father. I'm good at...sketching dresses and embroidery. Public speaking and even playing the harp on occasion-"

"Ah, that's a good point. Your enemies would beg to meet the end of your sword before they were subjected to your harp playing," her father slapped the desk as he roared with laughter. Neoma scowled and snatched up the pillow from her bed, throwing it from across the room at him. He easily grabbed it out of the air, wheezing for air as he tried to compose herself.

"I've played the harp for years!"

"Time doesn't translate to skill, unfortunately."

"Father!"

This only sent him into another fit of laughter that lasted until she kicked him out so that she could change. She grumbled to the empty air, trying to convince herself that her harp playing wasn't that terrible. It didn't matter that her tutor asked her if she'd like to switch to another instrument every time that Neoma had lessons and it truly didn't matter that her cats had a bad habit of running from the room when she began to pluck at the strings of the instrument.

She peeled off her leather riding pants, hands nimbly undoing the straps and buckles around her thighs and calves. Once she set the pants to the side, she pulled on a looser fitting pair of trousers and replaced her flowy blouse with a form fitting tunic that would hopefully keep her from getting too sore when her father inevitably broke through her flimsy defenses.

She'd never been interested in swordplay. In the books she read, the heroine had always rejected the feminine activities that Neoma loved. Instead the heroine would learn how to fight. From a young age, Neoma decided that she didn't want to be a heroine. She was content being a humorous side character that gave the heroine a dress to wear in times of need.

Of course, Neoma's time was often spent in the depths of politics and negotiations as she prepared for her time as ruler of Aurousa. It would be years before she would inherit the throne, but it was never too soon to prepare.

She considered making it much sooner as she was thrown to the ground for the sixth time that day.

"As I stated," her father offered her a hand, "lazy."

She batted his hand away and stood on her own, groaning at the ache in her bones. Only an hour in and she was drenched in sweat and was sure that bruises were blossoming on her ribs. The swords were dull and wouldn't do any real damage but they still did enough to annoy her.

"I would equate it more to my lack of interest in the subject," Neoma countered as she picked up her blade once more and gave it an experimental swing. The movement itself reminded her that she was out of shape. Riding Az required so much leg and core strength while this called for steady arms and a sharp mind. While she was fairly good at predicting moves, the issue came when she had to figure out how to counter those moves. She was sure that overthinking would be the death of her. "Can we go back to the short-sword? My arms may give out any second."

She never understood why her father insisted she learn how to wield the longsword as opposed to it's shorter counterpart. She'd much rather use a shield and rapier, but she often found herself with two hands on the hilt of the training longsword. There'd been improvement over the years, but it still felt bulky and off-weight in her hands.

"That means that what we're doing is worthwhile," her father gave her a quick wink before he raised his broadsword and charged at her without warning. She let out a frightened noise before she sidestepped him and stumbled back a few steps. He left no room for reprise as he swung around with his blade aimed at her shoulder. She hefted the sword up and blocked his attack, clenching her teeth as the vibrated from the strength of the blow.

"I wasn't ready!" She protested, quickly disengaging and raising her weapon.

"Your enemies won't wait for you to be ready, little mouse," he chuckled and stepped forward again. This dance continued with her barely blocking his blows and trying not to fall backwards when he pressed forward. Her brain raced, trying to see an opening. Each plan she came up with required a shorter, more agile blade. She couldn't beat him with brute force, which was what the longsword required.

Perhaps she didn't necessarily have to rely on it as much as she was.

When he swung again, she braced her feet and caught the blade with her own, raising her arms so that the edge slid down to the hilt. She got a raised eyebrow for her technique before she shoved with all her weight forward and let go of her longsword. This threw the king off balance for a moment, long enough for her to step to the side and grab his weapon-wielding wrist as he fell. She twisted, forcing him to drop it and scrambled to scoop it up as he reached for her forgotten longsword.

As his fingers brushed against the handle, a shining broadsword was pressed against his neck. Neoma stood panting above him, arms shaking as she squeezed the hilt with both hands. Her father's hand drifted from the blade he was reaching for, instead moving to push himself back into a sitting position so that he could properly appraise his daughter.

"That was a dirty trick," he grinned despite the words. She blew a stray strand of hair out of her face and stood up straight, letting her weapon swing to her side as she offered him a hand.

"I was only doing as you taught me."
"Aye, and it seems I've taught you well."

She gave a very unladylike snort and helped him stand, offering his weapon back to him before she gave a long stretch. Her back gave a few satisfying pops by the time her father put away the swords and returned to her. She prepared herself for another hour of training when he patted her back and nodded towards the doors that led back into the palace.

"Go on. That's enough training for today."
Neoma perked up and threw her arms around him in a quick hug. They were both covered in sweat after training under the beating sun since there was no cover offered in the white-stone pavilion. A few servants and guards that had lingered to watch were beginning to disperse about the lawn as the princess disappeared inside with a quick "thank you" to her father.

He watched her go, smile fading once he was finally alone. With a deep exhale, he tilted his head back and listened to the changing season.