Lance curled up his lips with disdain, and his blue eyes were piercing. “You’re so full of brave talk, Ana. So smug that your grandmother chose you to be her successor.”
Smoke puffed out of Ana’s nostrils. Lance was abysmally ignorant and ze shouldn’t have to deal with him. Ana turned towards Vera. The calf-shifter bore almost no resemblance to her cousin Ero. Ero was bright and lively, while Vera was sad and withdrawn.
Now Vera was still hiding her face in her father’s chest. Clive bundled up his daughter in a protective embrace.
Ana muttered, “Are you sure that your healers are enough? I’m sincere about wanting to help. I know you don’t trust dragons, but you can at least trust me.” Ana paused and glanced at the dark-haired woman beside Clive. “Mildred, you heard Ero suggest that I could use my power to make reforms.”
Mildred smiled slightly. “That was the argument that persuaded you to take the throne, huh?” The cow shifter’s posture was still guarded, but her voice was gentle.
Ana nodded and tried to ignore Clive’s scowl. The bull-shifter was even harder to win over than his wife. Ze went on, “Precisely. If Ero — and you — can believe that I want to reform our kingdom to protect other species, then why wouldn’t I help you and your daughter?”
Mildred sighed and stared at the ground. “Again, you have benign intentions, Ana. But you don’t understand.” Her black hair brushed her cheek like a soft curtain. “We’ve had a bad history with dragons, and your Auntie Lucille’s experiences frankly didn’t endear us to your species, either.”
Ana frowned and gave her and Clive a hard stare. Ze wanted to say that it wasn’t fair to assume that all dragons were bad. But the cow and bull-shifter weren’t about to change their views anytime soon. Instead, ze peered at Lance, who smirked like he knew better than all of them. Ana snorted at him, then looked back at the bovine family.
Ze gazed down at Vera. She was frail and dishevelled, but she no longer hid her face. The calf-shifter gazed back at Ana with wonder and curiosity. Ana asked in a low voice, “How are you feeling, little one?”
Vera blinked her wide eyes, and glanced hastily at her parents. When Mildred nodded and Clive just made a “hmph!” sound, Vera replied in a small voice, “I’m…well enough.”
Ana frowned, as Vera clearly wasn’t willing to be frank with zir. The red dragon tried again, “I meant what I said, Vera. I will find a cure for you if it’s the last thing I do.”
Vera looked down and nodded mutely. Her pinched expression was too sombre and serious for her age.
“Are you done with your interference yet, dragon?” Clive said, his teeth bared in a snarl. “We have good reason to distrust dragons, even if your track record is squeaky clean, and I’m sure it isn’t.”
Ana heard a loud sniff. It was Lance, of course. The blue dragon shifter said, “Ana, these people are incurable. If they do change their minds and accept your help, then you can do something. But you can’t force someone to accept your assistance if they don’t want it.”
“You could say the same for yourself,” Mildred spat at him.
Lance ignored her and continued, “I know we’re not friends, Ana, but I’m not your enemy, either, despite any grievances I may have had with your bovine relatives.” An odd tension now thrummed through him. “Come soar with me through the sky. I have something I want to tell you, my future sovereign.”
Anastasia was amazed that he didn’t sound sarcastic when he uttered the title. But neither could ze believe that the blue dragon shifter would have a change of heart. Ze looked over at Mildred and her family. Though Mildred appeared sympathetic, Clive was still hostile and Vera seemed unsure.
Ana sighed. “Fine. But don’t try anything funny and don’t take too long.”
Lance flexed his arms, as if preparing to shift already. He grinned. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to assassinate you.”
Anastasia and Lance leapt up the tree branches. Lance’s human features warped until he became a big blue dragon. He launched himself into the air and Anastasia zipped up with him. The sky still looked like a swath of darkness studded with silver stars.
Unlike Revy, the gold dragon who could be friend or foe, Lance was probably completely malicious, no matter what he claimed.
As the blue dragon coasted beside Ana, Lance finally spoke up. “I can sense your wariness, Ana.”
“Can you blame me?” the red dragon snapped.
The blue dragon did not reply to that and just kept going. “I know you always see me, Demiel, and most of the Valve dragons as evil. But you’re still so young that you can’t see the whole picture.”
Ana huffed. “I didn’t come all the way up here just to hear you deride my intelligence.”
Lance shook his head as if with wry amusement. “You’re so defensive. I wonder what kind of ruler you would be if you couldn’t listen to anybody’s feedback. Even Freya isn’t as stubborn.”
Anastasia was about to tell the blue dragon not to drag zir grandma into this. But ze decided not to quarrel about these extraneous details. “So what is it you wanted to tell me?”
Lance was silent for a long while, and it seemed as though he wanted to ride the skies and evade responsibility. Ana was about to snipe at him again, when he responded slowly, “I know you won’t like to hear this, but you shouldn’t trust Mildred, or even her husband. They’re hiding a lot from you, and I’m not just talking about Vera’s condition.”
Ana’s jaw tightened. “It’s clear to me that Vera isn’t just suffering from a flu, though Clive might really believe that. But still, what do you have against Mildred and Clive, for you to distrust and judge them so?”
“And what makes you distrust and judge my brother and me so?” Lance asked.
“They’re hardly the same thing,” Ana retorted.
Lance’s chortle expressed how he felt about Ana’s assertion. “You are such an innocent and unknowing dragon. I feel sorry for you. And believe it or not, I don’t actually dislike you, though I know you hate me. I respect that you’re trying your best, despite your lack of knowledge. But sometimes, you’re helping the wrong people, and you’re too idealistic to see it.”
The red dragon glowered at him. “You can’t throw random accusations like that. Mildred and her husband don’t trust you or most of the dragons. She doesn’t trust me, either, though she has a better opinion of me. But you just sound salty because they don’t like you.”
Lance made a sound that was half amused and half angry. “There are times like this when I don’t get why Freya and the others say you’re so smart, but I suppose you’re just as dumb as the rest of us when you feel too strongly about things. You’re too obstinate to see past your own narrow beliefs.”
Ana felt like snapping at his neck. “Stop trying to distract me from my question by hurling petty insults.”
The blue dragon glided down a bit in the sky. “I wasn’t trying to distract you. I was only saying that even you can’t see past your preconceptions. Why are you so determined to see the bovine shifters as good?”
“And why do you have to see them as evil?” Ana countered.
Lance shook his head, as though with grief. “Life isn’t just about good and evil, Ana. I’m not claiming that Mildred and Clive are bad people, but things are not as they seem. You’re far too young and gullible, and I fear for the day you become our ruler.”
Ana was about to protest that they would find a cure for Freya, Teefa, and Leyla in time. But ze stopped zirself before the blue dragon could borrow this tangent to dodge the topic again. “Just answer my question,” Ana said with a growl. “Why do you tell me not to trust Mildred and Clive? What’s really going on here?”
Lance fell silent again. “I wonder if your cousin Ero knows about it. I get the sense that even Lucille is clueless.”
Anastasia sighed in exasperation. “Why won’t you be clearer in your words? What exactly are you talking about? What sorts of awful things have they done or are they doing?” And why would Lance, out of all people, know about it? Anastasia may not be the most eloquent dragon in the world. But ze was also less susceptible to flowery wordplay and distractions. Ze wanted to cut straight to the heart of the matter, without being dazzled by all of these verbal gimmicks.
At this point, Lance stopped soaring and just hovered in midair. He cast a curious glance at Ana. “How much should I trust you?”
The blue dragon’s gaze was meaningful, as if the truth would cost Ana to find out.