It was late by the time Ana flew back to the dining hall. Most of the diners had already left, and of course Mildred was nowhere to be found.
Ana wasn’t sure if Mildred wanted to come back to the castle anytime soon. Even her dinner plate had a pile of corn and peas remaining, as if she had given up on her meal before streaking off to the forest.
Freya had promised Lucille and her family that they could stay in the guest rooms for as long as they wanted to. Besides, Queen Freya would like to see more of her daughter and grandchildren, while she was still well enough to do so.
Anastasia privately doubted that the queen even loved Lucille that much.
One of the few people left in the dining hall was Ero. He was still in his little boy form, and he stood restlessly around their table. When he saw zir, Ero beamed and his eyes sparkled with joy. Ana sadly thought about how different Ero looked compared to the ailing Vera.
But Anastasia hid zir gloom behind a smile. Ero darted forward to hug the red dragon; he nearly knocked over a chair in his enthusiasm.
The boy gazed up at his cousin and frowned. “Where have you been? I know the company here isn’t the best, but…”
Anastasia asked first, “Have my mothers or grandmother asked about me?” Ze was especially worried since Freya had presumably given Lance a vial to take to Vera earlier. What was the queen planning?
The calf-shifter glanced down at the floor. “Well, they did ask me where you went. I said that you wanted some air. They didn’t seem too surprised and were content to give you space. Freya said that these are big announcements, with her passing down the throne to you, and the news that she and your mothers don’t have long to live.”
The red dragon looked at him with puzzlement. “You seem unhappy about what she said.”
The little boy shrugged. “It just doesn’t sound right to me that, after giving you such shocking news, they would just leave you alone, virtually ignoring you, rather than talking with you about it.”
It was Ana’s turn to frown, and ze nudged the calf-shifter closer with zir wing. “Ero, I’ve always been a self-sufficient dragon, and some would even call me aloof. My mothers and grandma might want to talk to me about things, but they’ve learned from experience that I might get bristly and shut them out. So it’s better to leave me alone to brood and think first. Much later, I might seek them out for a talk.”
Ero gave Ana an astonished look. “So they weren’t ignoring you on purpose? Then how about the dragon nobles around us? You just got pronounced as the next ruler in line. Surely they would be more curious and want to talk to you, but they didn’t even look at you.”
Ana realized that Ero was a lot more upset than ze expected. The red dragon truly didn’t want that much attention. And while ze would like to talk more with zir grandmother and mothers eventually, ze understood that as royalties, the queen and princesses had to spend a lot of time socialising with the nobles.
In fact, Ana was relieved that zir parents and grandmother could handle those social duties, as ze had neither the patience nor the finesse to talk pleasantly with people ze disliked.
“Ero,” Ana began again, “I know you’re worried and want to look out for me, but there are norms among my family and the dragon nobles that you’re not familiar with. I wouldn’t say I love everything about my family or the kingdom, but you could have misunderstood some things, though I appreciate your concern.”
Anastasia took a deep breath and went on, “It really doesn’t matter to me what the dragon nobles think. I only care about what my family thinks.” This included Ero and maybe even Lucille. Ana was unsure about Mildred, and ze didn’t know Mateo that well, though he appeared to be a decent person and father.
Ero still didn’t seem satisfied with this response. He pouted and scuffed the floor with his shoe. “It’s cool that you don’t care, but I do. It sounds like a bad start, that you’re the heir to the throne, yet they’re so disrespectful that they won’t even acknowledge you.”
The red dragon sighed. Ero was truly too young and naïve, and saw things in black and white. “It’s no secret that I never got along with most other dragons, including the nobles. Some of them may have been jealous of my grandmother’s favor, and didn’t want to speak to me. Some others simply don’t enjoy talking to me, which suits me just fine because I don’t want to talk to them, either.”
Ero pressed his lips together with continued discontent. “But I still think they should give you more respect as the future sovereign.”
Ana nodded, not wanting to argue further. Too much had happened today, and ze had been given a tremendous amount of information. The dragon only wanted to rest and retreat for the night.
The next morning, Anastasia crept out of zir room after eating breakfast inside. Ze didn’t enjoy eating with others, and it had nothing to do with being “ignored” by the nobles like Ero had believed.
Last night, Ero had been reluctant to separate from Ana, but Lucille managed to persuade her son to leave his dragon cousin alone. While Ana liked Ero’s brightness and optimism, ze also wanted some time alone to reflect and sleep.
Before the red dragon had gone back to zir chambers, ze bumped into Mildred. The cow-shifter smiled in a friendly way, as though nothing had happened.
Ana had stared at her for a bit, wondering if any of Lance’s claims about her were true. Regardless, the cow-shifter didn’t stop to chat, and just went to her own guest room beside Lucille’s.
Anastasia didn’t ask her where Clive and Vera were.
Now, in the morning, the red dragon ventured out into the garden again, unaccompanied by anyone. Options zipped through zir mind. Then ze decided.
The red dragon bolted up through the sapphire sky; the sun shone with a shameless brightness.
Within minutes, Ana arrived at a house near the castle. The house was painted in shades of cobalt blue. Ze touched down and paused for just a moment before knocking on the front door.
Anastasia didn’t have long to wait. The door was opened not by a servant or butler, but by the master himself.
He was in human form, with light brown hair and vivid green eyes. He was dressed so resplendently that you would think he was attending a party, rather than just lounging around at home.
The man broke into a smile. “Ana, I knew you would come. As always, you do not disappoint.” He waved zir in.
Ana was relieved that Revi didn’t ask zir to shift to human form indoors, since not all nobles were so accommodating.
Nevertheless, the gold dragon shifter must have read zir mind, because he added, “If you like, you can shift to human form. No one else is in the house.”
The red dragon scowled at him. It was one of the many things that made Revi distinct from other dragon nobles. He chose to live alone, and though he had servants, most of the time he asked for peace and quiet, so his servants would stay somewhere nearby. They would come back to help their master from time to time, but he was usually unaccompanied.
Anastasia hesitated for a moment, before deciding to shift. For all Revi’s faults, Ana trusted that he would never misgender zir. In a quick blur of colors, the red dragon transformed into a human being.
Ze always felt more delicate and vulnerable in this state. Yet, despite Anastasia’s preference for being a dragon, ze sometimes missed being in human form. Ze just didn’t feel comfortable being human around most people.
Revi led Ana to the guest room where they sat around a big glass table. He said, “I assume you’ve thought more about what I said, about finding a cure for your mothers and grandmother?”
Anastasia studied him, searching again for any deceit. Revi seemed only pensive, not malicious. At least, Ana hoped he wasn’t.
Anastasia rested zir arms on the cool glass of the table. “What do you know that nobody else does?”
Revi shot zir a look. “Direct and to the point as usual. I wouldn’t have bothered your Highness if I didn’t have anything concrete to offer.” His gaze darted about the room, as though he were worried that he would be spied on in his own house. Then he rose from his seat. “Come with me. I have something to show you.”
Ana frowned but followed.
The gold dragon shifter ambled towards his bathroom.
Ana hissed. “I’m not getting a wash.”
Revi snorted. “Neither am I. But bear with me for a minute.” He flicked a glance over his shoulder to check that Ana was behind him. Then he reached over and turned on the faucet in the tub. He wrenched the knobs so they were at maximum heat.
Dragons, even in their human forms, weren’t afraid of such heat levels. But Ana was still wary of zir companion’s movements.
The gold dragon shifter put a finger to his lips, as though telling Ana to be quiet, which made ze roll zir eyes. And then, without warning, a hole opened up at the bottom of the bathtub.
The hole expanded until it covered a third of the tub, and all the water swirled down like a whirlpool.
Revi turned off the faucet, and Anastasia stared with dismay at what was revealed.