Outside the palace, the autumn hills framed distant blue mountains that were just starting to show a rosy twilight alpine glow. It was September, nearly equinox, and the endless summer daylight was giving way to the inevitability of night and the coming winter in Alaska.
The windows to the informal dining hall were open. The breeze coming in was cool and comfortable, and it smelled of fresh air and dry moss. All of Toren’s brothers except for Kenth were gathered at one end of the table, along with Captain Luke of the Royal Guard.
“Toren could do that,” Tray suggested.
Toren looked up in alarm. He’d been liking posts at his fanpage on Facebook and hadn’t been paying any attention since the family meeting started, so he had no idea what he was being volunteered for. Since Tray was trying to get out of it, it probably wasn’t a fun job.
He racked his brain for an excuse to avoid the task, but since he wasn’t sure what it was, it was challenging to come up with something that would disqualify him.
“I’ve already got…ah…something to do?”
Not that he actually did. He might see if he could talk one of his brothers into playing some hockey, or watch some television. Maybe he should go into town and pretend he was blending in when he really wasn’t. Pretty girls would recognize him, and that was always flattering. He could even go flying.
“You weren’t listening at all, were you.” Fask, sitting at the head of the table where their father ought to be, didn’t make it a question.
Toren gave a shrug and a crooked smile. “Weren’t you? One of us ought to be paying attention to these things.”
Their oldest brother was definitely the responsible one. With their father in what the media was calling a medical coma, Fask was the one keeping Alaska running. He was the one doing bureaucratic stuff, managing the cities and villages, talking to the press, being diplomatic with the royalty of the other Small Kingdoms countries.
Fask gave a long-suffering sigh and pinched the bridge of his nose. “The wards were activated. There’s a squatter on royal lands a few hours past Angel Hot Springs. Someone needs to go scare them off.”
Normally, the Royal Guard took care of interlopers. But the road past Angel Hot Springs was the middle of absolute nowhere. It would take hours to drive there, and hours back, occupying an entire day for at least two guards, just as they were getting the capital city ready for an equinox celebration.
It was a much simpler task for a dragon who could fly there.
Most of Alaska did not realize that The Dragon King was more than a fanciful affectation for their beloved monarch; the media had seized on it as fun and slightly frivolous, but dragons, and magic altogether, were dismissed as fiction, and officially treated with disbelief.
But there was truth to the title.
The sleeping king and all six of his sons were shifters, sharing their souls and their shapes with dragons.
Magic was real and most magic of all was the Compact. What was officially a trade document binding the Small Kingdoms was actually a magic spell, meticulously exact in every detail, not only establishing the terms of their agreement, but enforcing it.
It was seven hundred pages of tiny script, every line carefully crafted to protect each of the kingdoms, dictating their military and humanitarian responsibilities to one another. It also outlined their order of inheritance, selecting for each destined heir a fated mate, called as needed. They would know each other when the time was right and the need was great.
Personally, Toren drew the line at mates. He knew that the magic of the Compact was real, and the dragon that shared his head and could shift his skin was certainly undeniable. But mates? Specifically mates selected by magic to fulfill a grand destiny?
It was more likely that the Compact was stuck with an heir—it was almost always the eldest child—and randomly found someone they wouldn’t dislike as a partner. No one had been called on anything remotely resembling a quest in several lifetimes now.
Toren opened his mouth to fabricate a reason that would keep him from having to do the unwelcome task of scaring off the squatter. As the youngest of the six brothers, he could often get out of his duties simply by feigning incompetence.
We have to do this.
Toren shut his mouth and blinked in surprise.
Usually, his dragon simmered in the background of Toren’s head. He sometimes spoke up to keep Toren from the worst kind of trouble, or offered wry observations about the frailties of humans, but otherwise, he didn’t bother much with casual conversation.
He certainly had never offered an opinion about chores
Why? Toren wanted to know.
We have to, his dragon insisted unhelpfully.
Fask had taken his silence for agreement. “Try not to show them your dragon,” he said, tapping his notes into a tidy pile. “If you can just show up and order them off, that would be the best way.”
“I know that,” Toren said, stung by the reminder. Did Fask think he was completely incompetent? He might be the youngest brother, but he was still a prince of Alaska, and he was capable of ordering around some long-haired lost hippy hermit without resorting to his dragon’s might.
“Wear a uniform,” Fask said mildly. “You’re representing Alaska.”
Was he afraid that Toren would show up in pajamas or something? Why would a squatter even care?
Their meeting was apparently over, the brothers and Captain Luke shoving their seats back and standing up.
This job wouldn’t be so awful, Toren thought, standing up and pocketing his phone. It was autumn, the trees were all in their showiest colors, and there was good weather for flying. No one would notice or care if he took a few extra hours, maybe even stopped at the hot springs for a soak. He could put it off until afternoon and—
Toren couldn’t remember the last time his dragon had been this focused on something.
Don’t get your scales in a twist, he protested. We can go now if it means that much to you.
Appeased, his dragon subsided and Toren bumped shoulders with his milling brothers and bemusedly went to put on a uniform.
Well, this would be something to do.