Ero picked at his food. It was a bowl of seaweed.
Normally he would have enjoyed even such gimmicky food, but right now, he was strangely nervous. He had shifted back into human form so that he could sit in a chair.
The dining hall was lively and colorful, and since Ero and his family were the guests of honor, no dragons would try to eat them. But he was still ill at ease. Beside him, Ana had also shifted to human form, and ze was barely touching zir food.
As the heir to the throne, ze should be getting many greetings from the dragons around them. Yet, to Ero’s astonishment, everyone was ignoring zir.
The calf replayed what his grandmother had told them, that the people were not looking for someone popular, but rather for someone who was competent. He had no doubt that Ana was competent, yet how could ze rule if nobody paid zir any attention?
Ero had been so confident earlier, believing that Ana could just rise to the position and do great things. But now, he was having doubts. Was it normal for people to ignore their rulers? Or had Ero underestimated just how distant the other dragons were from Ana?
On the surface, ze had a decent relationship with zir mothers, and arguably with the queen. But at the moment, Freya, Leyla, and even the gentle Teefa were busy entertaining other guests, and completely ignoring Ana.
If this was the usual social setup for dinners, no wonder ze would prefer to leave.
The calf was about to say something to the red dragon, but ze spoke first. “Ero, I don’t feel hungry right now, so I’m going out for another walk. If my grandma or mothers ask where I am, you can just tell them the truth.”
With shock, Ero was about to ask if he wasn’t invited this time, but Ana beat him to it. “I’m going out alone, though,” ze said. “I need some space to clear my head. But don’t worry, I’ll be back soon.” Ana gave Ero a brief glance and a faint smile. Then the dragon shifter whirled away and slipped out of the dining hall.
Ero glanced around. He was both relieved and appalled that no one else noticed Ana’s exit.
Once ze had happily morphed back into a dragon, Anastasia flew up into the night sky.
It wasn’t as dark as one would imagine, with the palace lights below, and the stars above. But still, the night was a comforting embrace. Ana savored the cool air flowing over zir scales like water.
Too many things were rumbling through Ana’s mind, that it was hard to focus on anything. As the heir to the throne, ze would soon have the power to change a lot of policies; yet, deep down, ze was unsure. Despite zir young age of fifteen, ze wasn’t deluded enough to think that ze could do anything ze wanted.
There would be a lot of protest and backlash from nobles and other powerful dragons. Every decision from the throne had consequences.
Not that Ana wouldn’t push for the changes anyway.
But the red dragon’s thoughts were disturbed when ze beheld a familiar golden spark in the distance. It was a gold dragon, Revi. He was one of the nobles’ sons, and was a little older than seventeen.
He was — a nice kid, though he didn’t speak much and often moved off into the shadows by himself. Anastasia had never been one of the popular dragons and very much preferred to be alone, so ze was naturally curious about him. They didn’t talk much, nor could Ana call them friends. Ze didn’t know much about him, but ze couldn’t deny that ze was a bit intrigued by the gold dragon.
Before Ana could call out to him, however, Revi suddenly appeared in front of zir. Ana was shocked. Ze had forgotten just how swift the gold dragon was, almost as speedy as Ana.
Revi’s voice was as musical as ze remembered, though it was rougher and less euphonious than before. “Ana, I wanted to speak to you. I know what your grandma Freya says, but you can’t take the throne.”
The gold dragon’s eyes were crystal-clear pools with stars sparkling in their depths. He looked so benign and open, which contrasted with the words he just said.
Without backing off from this staring contest, Ana growled, “And why not?”
Revi frowned. He appeared genuinely puzzled. “Isn’t it obvious? You’re not a good fit for the title. You don’t even like the people that much, and you keep to yourself.”
Anastasia was both angry and perplexed. Ze peered at him, with his candid eyes and flashy golden scales. Ze replied, “Revi, I don’t know what your deal is. But sovereigns don’t have to be sociable people. We can rule just as well without being flocked by others. Also, I’m not sure why you’re making a stink about my preference for solitude when you’re not that sociable yourself.”
The other dragon seemed thoughtful, and he glanced away for a moment. “I’ve never been good with words, Anastasia, and I suspect you aren’t, either. I don’t mean any offense to you. But since nobody dares to oppose your grandmother’s decision, I have to speak up.”
“Were you even there when I made my objections to taking the throne?” Ana asked. Ze didn’t like how defensive ze sounded. In fact, Ana didn’t like how Revi made zir feel in general. The red dragon had never enjoyed using zir royalty status to stomp on anyone else, but at this moment, ze was feeling a surprising urge to do so.
Revi tilted his head to one side, as if he were contemplating whether Ana was sane or not. In a slightly quieter voice, which Ana took as menacing, the gold dragon said, “You don’t have to be afraid of me. I truly mean no harm and only want what’s best for you. Yes, I did see you in the throne room and I felt for you.
“Rarely am I this frank with my words, but I don’t want you to suffer. You have no idea how much pressure the royals go through. Queen Freya is a remarkable dragon. You are remarkable in your own way, but you know in the depths of your soul that you’re not suitable for the position.”
Ana felt zir hackles rise up. A surge of heat gathered in zir throat, but ze resisted the desire to blast him with fire. If ze couldn’t contain zir temper even with Revi, then how could ze rule an entire kingdom?
It was strange how Ana was so reluctant to accept the throne at first. But now that the gold dragon was trying to dissuade zir, ze ironically felt more motivated to take the reins.
The red dragon stared off into the distance. Ze watched the stars glittering starkly against the darkness. Then ze said, “You’re underestimating me, Revi. You don’t know what I’m capable of.”
Revi frowned again, his expression full of dismay. “No wonder they say that it’s a risk to challenge a royal. To be honest, I don’t want our kingdom to fall into ruin, and I don’t want you to be miserable, either.”
Anastasia really wanted to snap at him. Zir voice was hard steel. “Revi, I don’t understand your motives. You claim to be doing it for the good of the realm, and for the sake of my happiness. But I wonder if you yourself want to be the sovereign, or if you wish for a friend or family member to take the crown?”
The other dragon seemed unfazed. If anything, he just looked quizzical. “Why would I want to be the sovereign? And while I’m sure there are friends and family who would be interested, I wouldn’t want to put anyone into that position.”
Revi was silent for a second, before saying, “Ana, what I propose is that we cooperate to find a cure for the disease. Then we get Freya to renounce the throne early, and push for Leyla and Teefa to become the queens.”