When Artemis awoke later and saw the dark, starless sky of night... she had a tiny heart attack. She had slept longer than expected and was now certainly late to the party.
"Shoot..." she cursed under her breath and tossed the silken sheets away from her body.
Lane would probably admonish her for being careless. Although he had been joking about her missing the gathering, she was expected to attend. Most of the guests would be loyal friends of his, but as her father used to say, she was expected to represent the family well, too.
The lesson had been a clear one but she still held it gingerly, almost bitterly. Was it such a crime to like the feeling of mud between her toes, or to climb with her brother up the tallest tree on the outskirts of Glassgarden's grounds? But each time she had been caught doing any of these things – among many others – when she was younger, she was scolded, and none too gently; even with Lane and Razorit right next to her, her partners in crime.
But in this case, she had simply slept in. There wasn't a very good excuse for it, until she remembered that Razorit would likely be awake and basking in his success. Realizing this, her haste slowed, and she decided there was no need to rush.
Maybe the black dragon humbled him a bit, she thought with a bitter smile, pulling a loose silver gown from her wardrobe. It was long and simple with little bead-work or flash. It wasn't fancy... bordering on plain, but attention was the last thing she wanted to garner or steal tonight.
Throwing the gown on in a hurry and stumbling to the door, she jammed the heavy dead-bolt aside and exited, shaking off the slight ache in her hand. The lock was a weak precaution against Razorit... but it was more about the message than the method at this point.
Not that Razorit was allowed to take dragon form in the castle anyway anymore. She could easily recall the reason why. He had once gotten so angry at Lane that he’d exploded out of his human skin in an eruption of smoke that singed the curtains twenty paces away, shattered two doors with his tail, broke the head maid's arm, and took down part of the wall in the eastern wing, all in a matter of moments.
It hadn't made her trust him any more than the sliver she did already, especially since her father was deceased and had been the one who had introduced the rule to Razorit.
Artemis hurried down the long, stone corridors, ducking and sheepishly thanking the unfamiliar guests who congratulated her on her family's sudden success. Maybe her clothing still was too fancy. It was giving her away. Or could it have been that her features that were so similar to Lane, both with dark eyes and black hair?
It was only when she saw the first truly familiar person bobbing along through the crowd ahead of her that the fist that was gripping her stomach finally begin to loosen.
"Hermis!" she shouted, a little desperate, as she jogged up behind him. "Thank the Great Ones."
Their old, wobbly advisor turned, perhaps happy to see her, too. "Ah, little dove, finally awake," he teased. She shrugged and smiled, knowing he wouldn't scold her beyond that.
"I was just on my way back to the celebration," he said as he kindly offered her the arm that wasn't currently holding his crooked cane. "I confess that Razorit's tale, while most exciting, fuels the guests into rambunctious behavior... and I can't see that well these days. I needed some air."
Artemis smiled tightly. "I suppose I'll have to hear this tale sooner or later."
"Indeed, he has been asking for you."
The news didn't surprise her but her heart still dropped. It had been her sincerest intention to avoid him for as long as humanly possible, but she knew how keen a dragon's eyes were. If he was actively searching for her, she wouldn't last long—even in the fray.
The doors to the dining hall were thrown wide open for the celebration, the smell of roasted pig and spiced apples wafting generously from within. Her stomach growled, unhelpfully tugging at her focus.
Before the two of them had even reached the doors, the noise from within already almost had her covering her ears. Almost. It was going to take a lot more than that to get her to let go of Hermis's arm.
People were cheering loudly and throwing their hands up. Mugs were tilted and smashed together with heedless abandon, tossing small waves of ale to the floor. The air was thick and musty from the number of bodies that were packed into their dining hall. More than she'd ever seen inside her home, certainly. With the floor so slippery from the spilled drinks and so many bodies crammed together, it looked like there were more people off their feet than on them.
She had to let out a little laugh, despite everything. "How did you manage to stay up?" she asked Hermis.
The old man raised his bushy eyebrows at her. "I didn't."
Artemis grinned and pulled him along, further into the crowd. "Come on, I'll keep you safe."
As they elbowed and teetered back and forth through the swarm, the promise was not an easy one to keep. It was only when they both managed to reach the edge of the dining table that she realized it was the last place she wanted to be.
Razorit was on top of it, hollering and provoking the crowd. His dirty blond hair bounced around his square face. His lips were plastered with that familiar sly, arrogant smile. Lane was right about the scarring. Across the left side of his tanned face was a gaping, angry gash. If he didn't have the blood of a dragon and possess abnormal restorative abilities, the wound would have killed him. Of that Artemis was certain.
The dragon kicked plates without a thought to their direction and squashed flickering candles beneath his feet so that the wax sizzled against the table. "And then I let forth my spark while she was spiraling down to the charred land! I torched her wings and she struggled like a newborn in the air! She would never fly in my sky again!"
He whipped his mug down at the table so hard that it shattered into a shower of splinters and let out such a loud crack that she and Hermis flinched. Again, the crowd went into an uproar.
"I dove at her like a streak of lightning and before she could have the mercy of touching down... I dug my claws into her flesh and tore her wings from her body!"
Fists banged the table as he painted the vision for the onlookers. Glass plates danced and wobbled until they tipped off the edge and plummeted to the floor, shattering like icicles falling from the underside of the balcony in the spring.
"And then this guy," Razorit bellowed, dropping to his knees and roughly tousling the black hair of Lane, who Artemis hadn't even noticed sitting at the table until now, "He delivered the final strike! He severed her squirming head with one blow, while I held the dying beast down with my fangs!"
Artemis stared long and hard at Lane in uneasiness. The young lord merely shoved Razorit away like he would a brother, and rolled his eyes. The black dragon's dead eyes glowered down at them. Artemis realized then that they hadn't even given her a proper burial. Dead dragons were meant to be burned.
"Let’s go..." she said while turning back to Hermis, no longer hungry. That was when she realized the old, balding advisor was nowhere to be found and she had been holding on to the arm of a complete stranger for what must have been a good minute. She stammered out an apology and retreated away from the table. Squeezing through the crowd was even more problematic when she was going against the grain.
Razorit's voice made her eyes fall shut momentarily. "Artemis! There you are! Wait!"
She didn't. She wormed through the crowd with evermore determination. A wall would do her just fine for the duration of this outrageous gathering. She would find a good conversation partner and make small talk for the rest of the night. Perhaps another dragon who had spun him or herself into human form for the occasion. Dragons were always interesting to talk to. Anything was better than facing Razorit.
But Razorit’s rough, calloused hand grabbed her wrist. "Hey, where are you going?"
"Nowhere," she answered reflexively. "I'm just not feeling well. Please let go."
If anything, his next comment made her think this was exactly what he wanted to hear. "I'll bring you to your room. Come on."
He all but dragged her through the rest of the crowd, though if he knew she was struggling to get free of his iron grip he didn't show it. While substantially less powerful when not in his dragon form, he was still stronger than any human.
Artemis swallowed in panic. The doors she had just minutes before entered through loomed ahead, promising solitude for the two of them.
"L-Lane!" she sputtered out. "I want to see Lane."
Another desperate thought appeared. "Then Kendric."
Her betrothed had to be in here somewhere she realized.
Razorit's reflective, orange eyes turned to her, glaring, and his mouth pulled into a devilish, angry scowl. "That fool Kendric is a waste of space who doesn't give a damn about this. Why the hell would he be here? Scratch that, why the hell would I let him be here?"
The green dragon had pulled her into the hall finally, though she was literally putting everything she had into leaning away from him. Without minding if anyone was attempting to exit after them, he pushed the giant wooden doors shut. Artemis stared at it longingly, but now the party was nothing more than a giant, blocked wall of second-hand sound.
Artemis didn't answer his previous anger with words, fearing the topic of Kendric would remind the green dragon of marriage. When he turned after closing the door, she was already ten paces down the hall. Unfortunately for her, it was ten paces too little. He closed the distance within seconds.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," he chided from a pace or two behind. "You haven't seen me in months and this is the welcome I get?"
She struggled to seem calm, but inside her heart was racing. "Sorry. Congratulations on your title."
His hand closed around her arm again, much harder than the first time to the point where she was sure she would bruise. He never had been good at controlling his strength, or even trying to. "Arty..." he was suddenly sighing as he jerked her to a stop. "You're such a frustrating little human."
Artemis swallowed and stared at the ground, but she'd heard the rumble of warning in his voice. If her father had taught her any off-hand advice about war, it was to trust her instincts. Right now, her instincts were telling her to panic.
Though he turned her to face him somewhat gently, the orange eyes that were on her were not gentle in the slightest. "Why do you avoid me?"
She pressed her lips together and considered her position – back up against the wall, arm locked in the dragon's grip. The answer seemed completely obvious.
"I never used to like you, you know," he said, his grip loosening a little. "You used to be way too disobedient for my taste."
She tried her luck. "I haven't changed."
A thin, arrogant smirk came to his lips. "Maybe so, but ever since your father passed, you've grown into a remarkable young woman. Though a bit too elusive," he said, leaning a little bit closer to her face.
Artemis slid aside as quickly as she could manage. "You haven't changed either," she said, letting out a nervous laugh to cover her discomfort. The dragon stayed positioned where they had both been for many moments, flexing his empty grasp and eyeing her from beneath a slit in the curtain of his blond curls. It didn't take long for her to realize she had angered him.
He had that look again. That look that signaled to her that he was considering breaking free of his human form and that she might want to take a few more steps back – but in that moment, a quiet black shadow from beyond the balcony passed over them both, briefly redirecting his attention. Artemis let out the breath she had been holding as Razorit’s blazing orange eyes flicked away to assess the motion. Silently, she thanked whatever guest had decided to go for a midnight soar.
It passed though, and Razorit's orange glare turned back onto her. Pretending she hadn't seen his previous irritation, she turned again and headed for her room. Perhaps this would work out in her benefit after all. She wouldn't ruin Lane's night and she wouldn't have to entertain any guests. All that was left was to ditch Razorit the Nightbreaker.
The hope was short lived. "Artemis of Glassgarden..." Razorit's voice hissed lowly. "I know you're aware of dragon customs."
To lie now would have been a wonderful option, but since she had no dragon of her own to learn the customs from, she had worked diligently to learn everything she could from her father's books. When they were younger, the green dragon used to make fun of her for constantly having her head plunged into the old books. Now he was using it to his advantage.
"You know that once I earn a title, I'm free to take a mate," Razorit continued.
Before the sweetly untrue words had even made it past her lips, Razorit's hot, calloused hand had clamped painfully around her jaw. A gasp involuntarily escaped Artemis, but when she tried to struggle and pry his hand away, he just held on even tighter and dug his bony fingers into her cheek. His other hand had woven its way under her dark hair and had taken a fistful by the nape of her neck.
"I've grown tired of your little games," he hissed into her ear. "You've no right to refuse me. It was me who killed the last black dragon, didn't you hear? It was me who brought Lane back safely for you. You should be honored."
The last word rumbled out of him with such intent that she whimpered. If only she was stronger. If only she had a partner herself.
"K-Kendric...!" she tried to reason through tears. His dragon was the next best thing.
It only enraged the green dragon more. "Kendric," he spat with such venom that she knew she had made a mistake, "and that good-for-nothing dragon, Palhano, will die in my flames if they come near you again!"