When they entered the palace, Anastasia was not prepared for the gloom that surged over them.
The palace was brightly illuminated, but there was something strange and threatening in the air.
Ero nuzzled against Ana’s haunches. He had shifted back into a calf, as he felt oddly vulnerable in human form.
Lucille glanced at her son and looked like she was about to say something. But she frowned and turned her head away again. Lance and Demiel had shifted to human form, as a courtesy to the queen, and because they were huge.
Ana was small enough to not have to transform. Plus, ze was royalty and did not need to conform to these rules. This was zir home, after all.
Mildred, Mateo, and Lucille were still in human form.
They stepped through the palace past the rich halls, gorgeous gardens, and fanciful rooms. There was no end to this splendor.
Mildred moved up to Ana and Ero, and placed a hand on her cousin’s head. “Hey kid, you all right?”
The calf grumbled, “I’m fine. But stop touching me.”
The young woman lifted her eyebrows, shrugged, and walked away.
Anastasia glanced at zir companion and whispered, “Why do you hate her so much?”
Ero responded with a sullen face, “She’s just annoying. I want to be left alone.”
Ana snorted. “Okay, if you want more space to yourself — ”
Panic appeared in Ero’s eyes. “No,” he said, “I didn’t mean you…”
Anastasia marveled at how quickly ze and Ero had grown close to each other over the past few days. While Ero was usually the attached one, Anastasia would also feel amiss if the calf was gone for too long.
But the two of them hadn’t been apart since Ana went hunting in the forest.
Before Ana and Ero could carry on their conversation, they reached the throne room. The dragon guards were in human morph, as their dragon forms were too enormous for the palace to contain.
When Anastasia beheld zir grandmother on the throne, ze finally realized the source of zir unease.
Grandma Freya’s face was wrinkled even beyond her age, and her body was emaciated.
The dragon queen was dying.
Anastasia flew to zir grandmother’s side.
Freya smiled slowly at Ana and the rest of zir company. “My dear grandchild.”
Ana couldn’t help but quip, “Ero is your grandchild, too.” Ze knew it wasn’t zir grandma’s fault. But Ana didn’t want the calf to be excluded.
The dragon queen was not affronted, and beamed at the small calf-shifter. Ero stared back, as though dumbstruck at meeting the queen, his grandmother, for the first time in his life.
Freya began to cough violently, and her maid patted and rubbed her back. Ana stared with consternation at this scene.
Zir grandmother stopped coughing for a moment, though she seemed to struggle to maintain her composure. “My dear Anastasia, Ero, and — Lucille.” She gave a strained grin to the cow-shifter.
Lucille looked unimpressed. She was either unaware of or unconcerned about her mother’s welfare. The cow-shifter said, “Mother, what did you call us for?”
Anastasia flinched at her callous tone of voice.
The dragon queen sighed and cast her daughter a fond look regardless. “You’ve grown even lovelier since I’ve last seen you, my child. But I — have contracted a disease that I’m not going to recover from. Our healers predict that I have less than a year left to live, though they don’t know how long exactly. But I currently have no spouse, and have two daughters, including you.”
Anastasia chipped in, “What happened to my mothers?”
From the shadows, Leyla and Teefa appeared, both in the form of beautiful middle-aged women. “Ana, it’s so good to see you again,” Teefa said.
Despite zir mothers’ looks of affection at Ana, the red dragon could tell that something had changed. “Oh no,” Ana gasped when ze realized.
Purple pockmarks were beginning to gather around their necks, like a necklace about to throttle them.
Grandma Freya interrupted, “As you can see, whoever cast the poison has gotten all three of us. Your mothers can still live at least a couple of years, as their symptoms are still early in their progression.”
The younger dragon couldn’t believe this and growled. “Whoever did this will pay. And is this why you’ve been getting the Valve dragons to give you Lucille’s milk and rejecting Mildred’s?”
Ze heard Lance and Demiel snort from behind, but ze couldn’t be bothered to mind them right now.
Cow-shifter milk had healing properties, but it was no guarantee against illnesses and poisons. Moreover, the healing power of milk from a cow who was closer to them, whether by family or friendship, was said to be stronger.
Ana had always thought it was a myth that Freya made up to persuade the people that it was okay to adopt a cow-shifter child.
The red dragon narrowed zir eyes. “So neither Mildred’s nor any of the palace cows’ milk were of any help?”
Freya shook her head with a forlorn expression. “The milk made the symptoms less painful to endure, but the symptoms are still there and they are worsening. And I’m sorry to say that Mildred’s milk wasn’t any different from the other cows’.”
“But you returned all of Mildred’s milk to her,” Ana countered. Ze tried not to think about how ze was about to lose all of zir family in one fell swoop.
Freya grimaced. “We did extract some of it, but our medicine maker could tell from that small extract that it was not enough. So we decided to spare the rest of her milk, with sincere apologies.”
Freya raised her eyebrow. “I’m sorry, Ms Mildred, but it can’t be helped.”
The young cow-shifter pouted and said, “Well, I’m sorry that you’re not finding any cures, but I doubt you’d get the milk from my aunt’s body, either.”
Ero’s mother hissed in warning. “Watch your words, young lady.”
The younger cow-shifter spread her arms. “It’s not like you want uncle to knock you up and get you to produce milk as soon as possible, on the off chance that it can save your mother, sister, and sister-in-law.”
Mildred’s words were blunt but honest, and Anastasia could not bring zirself to blame her, despite everything. It must be grueling to be used for your milk and then cast aside like that. But ze was not sure how Lucille felt about it.
Lucille huffed. “No, I don’t want my husband to ‘knock me up,’ as you so eloquently put it, just for me to make milk that may or may not help them.”
Ero cut in, “But why? At most, I would have a younger sibling.”
Bless Ero, Anastasia thought. He was so innocent, even if he pretended to know more about the world than he truly did.
Ero’s mother crossed her arms over her chest. “I simply don’t have the time to take care of another child. One is more than enough.”
Ero turned his eyes away from her with a miffed expression.
To Anastasia’s surprise, Lucille actually looked a bit remorseful at her son’s reaction. She added, in a softer voice, “It’s not that I don’t love you, Ero, but raising a child is not something to be taken lightly.”
Her son didn’t seem mollified. “But lots of other people have a sibling. Why should that be such a big deal? I can help you take care of my younger sibling, too.”
Lucille gritted her teeth and looked torn.
Anastasia felt an odd twinge of sympathy for the normally proud cow-shifter. Ze said, “Ero, come on. I can be your sibling. And neither your parents nor you would need to raise me.”
That was apparently the wrong thing to say, because the calf made a face at zir and turned away.
“Ahem,” Freya broke through the turmoil. “If you’re all done squabbling, I understand that not all cow-shifters want to have more children. My own hands are quite full with Teefa and Lucille, thank you very much, even if I wasn’t way past my prime.” The dragon queen cleared her throat again, and sounded as though she were trying to suppress another cough. “So I have a different proposal.”
The dragon queen looked awkward and tormented for a moment. “Assuming we won’t find a cure in time, I — want an heir to take my place. It can’t be Teefa or Leyla, for obvious reasons. And I’m sorry, but I can’t choose you, either, Lucille, because the dragons would never accept a cow-shifter as their leader, even with my blessings. And I frankly don’t think you would be a fit queen, anyway.”
Lucille sniffed, but otherwise said nothing.
Grandma Freya paused before speaking again. “And so, I will pass my throne down to Anastasia.”
The silence that ensued echoed through the room like a shadow.