The girl and dragon regarded each other curiously. The girl’s name was Alvara Wulf and she was the runaway daughter of King Roald and Queen Heloise of Ileodrudour.

The dragon was a beautiful pitch-black, so dark he seemed to absorb all light. His eyes were a luminescent blue.

Alvara kept her eyes locked on the dragon’s teeth, momentarily allowing herself a brief glance down at his massive feet and his claws that were longer than Alvara’s whole body and probably sharper than the sword she’d stolen from the armory.

Alvara and the dragon had been standing there, staring at each other for a good hour before either made a move. It was the dragon that moved first. He tilted back on his haunches and spoke.

“You seem too brave for a young maiden,” the dragon said, his voice a booming rumble that shook the mountain.

“I am Alvara Wulf,” the girl said, feigning confidence. “Princess of Ileodrudour.”

“The lost princess?” The dragon asked, interest flickering in the depth of his massive blue eyes.

Alvara nodded. “But I’m not lost. I know where I’m going.”

“I mean the kingdom lost you,” the dragon said. “You’ve been missing for a week.”

“I suppose,” Alvara agreed. “But I have no intentions of returning.”

The dragon nodded. “Why did you run away from such a privileged, luxurious life?”

Alvara thought back to two weeks ago, when she had finally made her decision to run. “That wasn’t for me.”

The dragon nodded, almost thoughtfully. “The correct thing for me to do now is to kidnap you and hold you until a charming young prince can rescue you…”

Alvara mentally reminded herself not to step back. Don’t show fear. “I’d really rather you didn’t. I have so much I wanted to do, now that I’m free of the palace.”

The dragon was silent, regarding Alvara for a moment again. Then he reached out and wrapped her in his giant clawed hand. The dragon unfurled his wings and took to the sky.

Don’t scream, Alvara thought, so scared she wasn’t sure if she could scream. I’m going to die. The dragon is going to eat me or feed me to his children and I am going to be history.

But when the dragon landed on the highest peak on the mountain range and carried her deep into his cave, she realized they were alone. There were no baby dragons, eggs, or mate. The dragon placed her down, surprisingly gentle.

“Are you going to eat me?” Alvara asked the dragon bluntly.

The dragon ignored her question. “My name is Styx.”

“Like the river in Hades?” Alvara asked. Fitting, if he’s planning on killing me.

“Yes, like the river.” The dragon gestured to the inside of his cave. “Well. Welcome to my Underworld.”

Alvara wasn’t sure if that meant the dragon would kill her or not, so she said nothing.

“I’m sorry for the mess. I haven’t had visitors in so long…” Styx said apologetically.

Alvara glanced around at the dusty rocks. Um…

“It’s nice to finally have someone over,” Styx said.

Then it hit Alvara. Styx wasn’t hungry— he was lonely. “Don’t you have any friends?” she asked.

Styx shook his head. “I had one— Khar— but he was killed a long time ago by one of your knights.”

“I’m so sorry, Styx.” Alvara was still wary of the big dragon, but she felt bad for him. She knew what it was like to want friendly company but feel as if you’re alone. Taking a risk, Alvara reached out to put a hand on Styx’s left front leg. Styx flinched slightly, but then held still for her touch.

“Three hundred years,” Styx said.

“What?”

“Khar was slayed three hundred years ago.”

Alvara wasn’t sure how to process that. The poor dragon had been alone for three centuries. That was fifteen times her age. “I’m so sorry, Styx,” she repeated.

Styx sighed, puffing out a billow of smoke. “It’s okay, little one.”

“That is a terrible way to live your life,” Alvara said. “All alone, with no one to talk to. Feeling as if the weight of the world is crushing your shoulders and no one is standing by you. I should know— it’s why I ran away.”

Styx watched the princess pace his cave. “You haven’t tried to escape my lair yet,” he stated in mild surprise. “Or started screaming and crying.”

“I’m not like most other noble ladies,” Alvara said.

Styx continued to watch her in interest. “I’m curious how such a privileged young woman became so… level-headed.”

“The women at court who act like they deserve nothing less than the sun, the moon, all thirteen galaxies, and all seven kingdoms on this planet drive me crazy. They are boring and predictable and they are arrogant. If I am to rule this kingdom one day, with a king by my side, I will be in charge— I take orders from no man— and I want to know what is really going on in the world, not just what people tell me. I want to be fair to the people and be familiar with their problems because I have seen them and the struggle first-hand.”

“I thought you ran away because you don’t want to be queen.”

“Being my father’s heir is hard. I am the first-ever female heir to a kingdom and a lot— too much— is expected from me.” Alvara smiled up at the massive dragon. “You’re easy to talk to, Styx.”

“Why did King Roald appoint you?”

“Mother can’t have any more children and they never had a son— just me, and the twins. But the twins can’t rule because they’re still both pretty young, only twelve-years-old. Plus Hattie is blind and Jasmyn has such a weak constitution— she’s always ill. At first, Father was completely against it. He wouldn’t even hear of such an outrageous idea— a girl in charge of his precious kingdom! But Mother eventually made him see reason and, not wanting our line to die out, he named me future ruler of Ileodrudour.”

“Queen Heloise is a persuasive woman,” Styx said.

“Indeed,” Alvara agreed. “But I wish my parents had managed to make a boy. An older brother for me and the twins, one who could take all this responsibility while I made friends and worried about silly princess things rather than letting down an entire kingdom I’ll inherit one day.”

“Though I’ve only known you for a short while, Princess Alvara,” Styx said. “I believe you will make a wonderful queen.”

“Thank you, Styx.” Alvara sat on the dusty floor of the stone cave. “I will try to lead Ileodrudour fairly and justly.”

“So you plan on returning, then?”

Alvara thought about that. When she’d snuck out of the palace, she’d had no intentions of ever returning. But Styx had made her think. She was the sole heir to the kingdom. The people counted on her. Hattie and Jasmyn would lead their queendom to ruin, whichever took the throne. Though neither was eligible, so that would be the end of their lineage. A different family would take over and there was no telling how fair they would be. No one wanted to repeat The Terrible King Kerimo’s rule. Kerimo was Alvara’s great-great-grandpa, her father’s grandfather. He had been a nightmare to the kingdom, only caring about drugs and women. He’d been only too happy to let the nobles go on treating the townspeople like dirt and enslaving them, as long as he got his money. King Roald’s father, King Ichnia, was better, but he was too scholarly to lead a kingdom. He only cared about his books and scrolls, not leading a kingdom, negotiations, war, or making fair laws. Then King Roald took the throne and earned the name The Great Empire Builder, for he rebuilt the kingdom and he was a good king. The people loved him, but they began to worry when his lovely wife who was also adored by the people, Queen Heloise, never bore a son.

“The people need me,” Alvara said. “I can’t let all my father’s work fall apart. What if the next family to take over is horrible? I would feel awful.”

“I remember King Kerimo’s reign.” Styx stared down at Alvara. “It was a deathly time. It was an era full of war and plague and starvation.”

“The Dark Ages.” Alvara nodded. “Years I do not wish to repeat.”

“So you’ll be off, then?” Styx asked.

Alvara stared at the opening of the cave for a long time, and then at Styx for an even longer time. “How would you like a job?”

Styx’s booming laugh shook the cave. “Me? I’m a dragon, Your Highness.”

“Well, the palace could use a good guard and I could use a friend. If you ever change your mind…”

Styx’s scaly face twisted into what Alvara assumed was a smile. “I’ll let you know.”

“Thank you, Styx.” Alvara went to the lip of the cave. “How about a lift down?”

Styx swept Alvara off her feet and carried her down the mountain cliff to place her gently on the ground. “Farewell, young princess,” Styx said. “I shall think about your offer… Though your guards are more likely to shoot me on sight than accept me as part of the palace.”

“I’ll go pass it by my father. And if you choose to come be at the castle with me… I’ll make sure the guards know to expect you. So they won’t panic and shoot.”

“Thanks, Princess.”

Alvara turned and started her long journey home, thinking about how dragons weren’t so bad after all.

Styx had been oddly accommodating. Alvara felt bad because all he’d wanted was a friend, and now she, too, was leaving him.

Then her thoughts turned to the anger and responsibilities that were undoubtedly awaiting her back home. She would be in so much trouble for this. This was not how heir to the kingdom should act. Mother would be just relieved she was okay, but Father would be furious.

There were so many things Alvara would have to do when she returned, like catch up on her tutoring and the annual ball was coming up. Alvara would be forced to choose a husband soon.

The thought of choosing a husband made Alvara freeze. She couldn’t let her father’s kingdom fall into the wrong hands, but she didn’t want to marry. She was still young. Plus all the princes she had met had been pigs. She wanted a fairytale romance or none at all. She wanted a prince with manners. If she met one more handsome prince who never put down his mirror…

Alvara was torn. “Kingdom, my happiness…” she muttered, weighing her options. She did not want to be married to a man she didn’t know, at a wedding arranged by her parents. But she couldn’t disappoint her kingdom either.

While she stood in the middle of a vast field she had been in the middle of crossing, she was too deep in thought to notice the large shadow fall over her.

“Princess Alvara.”

She whirled at the deep baritone voice.

An ugly sneer twisted the man’s face. “What are you doing out here, all by yourself? Where’s your guard?”

Alvara knew better than to say she was without one. “They’re nearby.”

“Oh. Well, last I heard, you had run away from the palace… unescorted.”

“Don’t believe everything you hear.”

“So it’s untrue?”

“Yes.” Alvara could feel her heart racing. She was heir to the throne and a virgin. Clearly this man knew who she was, so he knew what she was worth. If he raped her and then held her for ransom, he could get quite a lot from this. Especially if he raped her and then lied about it. The princess was supposed to stay pure for her wedding night. She would be useless if she had been touched. Her parents would pay quite a large sum to have her returned to them with her virginity intact.

The man seemed to know Alvara was lying, or at least he strongly suspected it. “Really? Well, We wouldn’t want our princess to be out here unprotected. I’ll wait with you until your guards return.”

“Oh, that’s not really necessary—”

“Nonsense.” The man interrupted her. “Better safe than sorry.”

I’m already sorry, Alvara thought. She never should have snuck out. Her life had been great. Stifling and demanding, but at least she’d been alive and pure. Where’s a big, angry dragon when you need one? But, of course, Styx was hours away by now and couldn’t read her thoughts.

Alvara thought of Styx’s neon blue eyes to calm herself down. She thought of his midnight-black scales.

Big, Alvara thought. I am tall and strong, just like a dragon. This man can’t hurt me.

Alvara wanted to believe it, but no matter how many times she chanted that in her head, she was still a short, lithe, untrained girl. She was too slender to have much muscle mass and she was useless with the sword hanging at her small waist.

“What are you called?” Alvara asked the man. So I know what name to use when I sign your arrest papers, and then the ones for your execution.

“Wendrake Vossen,” the scary man said. He was dumber than he looked.

Alvara decided to be blunt. “Are you going to kill me?”

Wendrake laughed. “Just another stupid princess.”

Excuse me?”

“I’m not going to kill you… yet.”

“But you are going to kill me?” I asked if, not when, you moron.

“Once your parents give me the money I ask for, I will assassinate you and disappear.”

“Doesn’t that defeat the purpose, since you told me your name, O’ Master of Stupid?”

Wendrake hesitated, realizing his mistake. “How do you know that’s my real name?”

Alvara couldn’t believe this man’s stupidity. How dumb do you think I am? Alvara raised an eyebrow at him, not even dignifying that question with a response. She felt braver now, knowing the menace’s name and just how high his level of stupidity went.

Wendrake continued on as if he didn’t notice Alvara’s lack of response. “I’m going to be so rich…” A grin made his face grotesque as he reached the same conclusion Alvara had before. “How about a little fun now? Your parents don’t have to know you’re no longer a virgin. And since your guards being here is a lie, we won’t be interrupted.”

Alvara jumped back, away from Wendrake. “Don’t you dare touch me!”

Wendrake shrugged. “You’re tiny— how are you going to stop me?”

I’m the heir to the kingdom. I refuse to be subjugated to another human being. “I’m not afraid to use this sword!”

Wendrake scoffed. “I doubt you can even lift that sword— it’s bigger than you are!”

Alvara bluffed, “I am trained like any prince would be and I am a master of the sword.”

Wendrake didn’t seem to be buying it. He gave her a droll stare. “You couldn’t have practiced too much, or your arms would be bigger!”

Alvara gulped, hoping he didn’t notice her sweating. Styx, wherever you are, help me!

But Styx could not hear her silent plea.

Wendrake would rape her and then kill her. There was nothing Alvara could do about that.

A giant shadow fell across them. Fearing the worst, Alvara turned, expecting to see one of Wendrake’s friends coming to violate her with him.

Not seeing anyone, Alvara turned her face toward the sky. There, she was met with a glorious sight. Styx was circling the field, coming to her rescue!

“Princess Alvara!” Styx’s booming roar shook the ground as he circled lower. “Has this man hurt you?”

“No!” Alvara shouted back to the angry dragon.

Styx landed, massive black wings unfurled.

Wendrake stared, aghast. Gaping, he stumbled back a step.

“Princess Alvara of Ileodrudour is under my protection!” Styx boomed. “Threaten her and I take it as a personal affront. Hurt her and I will kill you. No one touches my friends, especially low scum like you.”

Wendrake gasped like a fish out of water. He turned and ran.

Styx laughed, a deep rumbling sound, and turned to Alvara. “Are you alright, Princess?”

“Yes— thank you.”

“Just a moment, Princess.” Styx followed after Wendrake, catching him in a matter of no time at all and knocking him to the ground with his ginormous claws. He took a deep breath and Alvara saw the fire building in his long cavity.

“Styx!” Alvara shouted. She hated that man with every fiber of her being, but he didn’t deserve to be eaten or burnt to a crisp.

Styx turned to look at her. “What?”

“Don’t kill him.”

“He was going to rape you, you know,” Styx said.

“I know,” Alvara agreed.

“And then kill you. Painfully.”

“I know.”

“And you don’t want me to punish him?”

“I want him punished— hell, I want him dead. But I want him to have the same right as all citizens.”

Trial?” Styx stared at her. “He is a horrible man, Princess. He would have raped and killed you, but you want to spare him?”

“I want the court to decide what to do with him.”

Styx’s fire dissipated. “As you wish, Your Highness.”

“Styx?”

“Hmm?”

“Why did you follow after me?”

“I changed my mind, Princess.”

“So you’ll come be at the palace as a guard?”

Styx nodded. “I mean, it’s clear to me now that you need lots of heavy protecting.”

Alvara huffed at that. “A dragon guarding our palace will surely make our enemies think twice about attacking.”

Styx didn’t respond. He turned his attention back to his terrified, struggling captive. “What’s his name?” Styx asked without looking away from her attacker.

“Wendrake Vossen.”

“Wendrake Vossen,” Styx said, narrowing his eyes in disgust. “You are under arrest for the attempt of raping and the intention of murdering the princess. Shall we, Your Highness?”

Alvara climbed onto Styx’s back, placing her feet just under Styx’s wings and gripping him tightly around the neck, maneuvering her sword so as not to accidentally stab him.

“Off we go,” Styx said and, still clutching Wendrake in his claws, took to the sky.

Alvara yelped and clutched Styx’s neck harder, for fear of falling.

Styx laughed. “Afraid of heights, Highness?”

Alvara was too petrified to answer as they rose steadily higher.

It was a quick journey, as Styx loved to go fast. No one talked. Alvara was too terrified, Styx was too deep in thought, and Wendrake’s screams were drowned out in the air rushing by and Styx’s wings flapping.

Styx landed a few miles from the palace. “What if they shoot me?”

“I’ll make sure they don’t.”

“They’ll see me long before they see you.”

Alvara shook her head. “Trust me.” She stood up on Styx’s back and carefully shimmied up his long neck. She drew her sword and held it high in the air. “Onward, trusty steed!”

Styx laughed and started walking.

The palace guards went into a frenzy when they spotted Styx, nocking their arrows and taking aim.

Alvara waved her sword frantically in the air, yelling for them to lower their weapons.

Luckily, the guard captain saw her. Unfortunately, he saw her too late. He had just called fire when he spotted her, and they arrows were released. Most arrows missed Styx or bounced right off his scaled, not even piecing him. But one arrow embedded itself in her side. The breath went out of Alvara as she fell from Styx’s head to his back, and then slid to the ground.

Stop!” Captain Arak shouted to the archers. He ran inside the palace to fetch the healer.

Styx whirled around to guard Alvara with his body. Nobody would get through him if they intended harm.

The healer, King Roald, Queen Heloise, Captain Arak, and several of the guard came rushing out to greet their returned princess and her steed.

Queen Heloise was a strong woman, but she crumpled to the ground weeping when she was her daughter lying unconscious on the grass. King Roald knelt to pull his queen into his arms.

The healer, eyeing Styx warily, made her way to Alvara. She dropped her medical supplies on the ground beside her and tore away the sleeve of Alvara’s torn shirt. Inspecting the wound, the healing woman didn’t speak. Finally, she raised her head to order one of the guards to fetch some water. Then she proceeded to snap the arrow in half. Extracting the arrow wasn’t the hard part. Stopping Alvara’s flow of blood before she lost too much was.

Styx was glad Alvara was unconscious. She had to be in immense pain and watching herself dying of blood loss could not have been much fun. Styx knew he wasn’t having any fun.

King Roald seemed to notice the struggling man under Styx’s claw just then. “Um, excuse me, Mister, um, Lord… Dragon?”

“Styx,” the dragon supplied.

“Styx. Why do you have a man with you?” The king looked as if he was worried the answer would be ‘a light snack.’

“He tried to deflower and kill Alvara, Your Majesty,” Styx replied.

King Roald looked sick, turning pale green. Queen Heloise whimpered and passed out.

“So… you saved her.” King Roald said.

“I suppose,” Styx said.

“And then you returned her to us.”

“Yes,” Styx nodded.

“Arrest him,” King Roald said, motioning to Wendrake. Styx lifted his claw to allow the guards to drag Wendrake away. “Thank you for rescuing our daughter, Styx.”

“I always come when my friends need me,” Styx said. “Or, I did, when my only friend was alive.”

“You and Alvara are friends?” The king said, disbelief coloring his tone.

Styx nodded. “She asked me to come be a guard here at the palace.”

“A guard?”

“Yes. At first, I declined. But then I realized how lonely it was to be the last of my kind on earth. And I’m not even really my kind.”

King Roald didn’t comment on the peculiarity of that comment. “Well, it’s a good thing you had a change of heart or our daughter could be…” King Roald couldn’t even finish that sentence.

“She’ll live,” the healer announced, interrupting their exchange.

King Roald smiled weakly in relief. Queen Heloise, who had finally come to, clutched on to her king, almost desperately, as if she had been imagining losing her oldest daughter.

Styx was probably happiest of them all. He curled himself around Alvara’s body, refusing to let anyone close to her until she healed. Five days and four nights passed until he would listen to Alvara’s pleas to let her leave his sight.

“I have to bathe,” Alvara protested to the stubborn dragon. “I’m almost healed, Styx. My parents will want to see me.”

“They can speak to you through me.”

“I have to get back to my studies.”

“I can have your tutors and books brought out here.”

“Well, you must let me attend the ball.”

Styx narrowed his eyes on Alvara. “Must I? No, I don’t think I must.”

Please…”

Styx sighed a puff of smoke. “Fine. But take it easy and be carful with that arm.”

“Yes, Father.”

Styx was not amused with her sarcasm and he told her so.

Alvara laughed. “Oh, lighten up, will you? I’m not dead.”

“You very nearly were,” Styx reminded her. “You scared me half to death, as well.”

“Oh, relax. I’m fine.” Alvara said. “He only hit me in the side.”

Her nonchalance was really starting to anger Styx. “You’re lucky. He could have punctured a major organ or hit an artery.”

“It’s been nearly a week, Styx. You have to let me go.”

Irritated by her continued lack of concern about being shot, he moved his tail to allow her to leave.

“Thanks.”

He watched her walk toward the palace, with the sinking feeling that this would be the last time he saw her.

Alvara entered the palace and was immediately accosted by servants and maids and guards who wanted to know if she was okay and how her arm felt and all about the dragon at the gate.

Alvara managed to avoid most their questions and was eternally grateful when her sister Jasmyn intervened. “Al, Mother wants you in her chambers.”

Disentangling herself from the question-askers, she whispered a thanks in Jasmyn’s ear and got away.

Once they turned the corner, Jasmyn said, “Mother doesn’t really want you. I just saw how overwhelmed you were and thought I’d rescue you.”

“Thanks, Jas,” Alvara repeated. “I appreciate that.”

“Now you’d better start getting ready for the ball. You’re a mess and it’s tomorrow night.”

Alvara nodded as she slipped into her rooms, undetected by any more nosy servants. She went around the room, collecting stuff for her bath, humming.

“Someone’s in a good mood.”

Alvara whirled to see a devastatingly gorgeous boy leaning against the wall with a charming grin.

“Who are you?” Alvara demanded, overly wary because of her encounter with Wendrake. She wondered how she hadn’t noticed him when she’d come in. He must have been in the bedroom or her private bathroom, since he definitely hadn’t been in her sitting room. “How did you get in here?”

“I walked,” the boy said.

“What’s your name?” Alvara asked testily.

“Sebastien Marlon.”

“Never heard of you,” Alvara said. “Why are you here?”

“Waiting for you.”

“How long have you been in my room?”

“Not long.”

“Why?”

“Looking for you— I told you that.”

Alvara glared at the handsome stranger. “Why do you need me?”

“I wanted to meet the runaway princess who befriended a dragon.”

Alvara groaned in annoyance. “Go away.”

“I don’t want to.”

Tough,” Alvara spat.

“Why are you so antagonistically aggressive?” Sebastien asked. “I’ve done nothing to you.”

“Except sneak into my room and scare me half to death.”

“Sorry.” Sebastien’s voice and face seemed sincerely regrettable, but his bright blue eyes held mischief and amusement. He was laughing at her!

Alvara narrowed her eyes on him, trying to ignore how his black hair framed an Adonis-worthy face. “You are getting on my nerves, peasant.”

Sebastien laughed, an incredibly sexy and masculine sound. Alvara shivered as desire tore through her, leaving her breathless. “I’m no peasant, Princess.”

“What are you, then?”

Sebastien began pacing her rooms, gesturing to things. “These used to be my rooms, you know. My bay windows, my walls… only less pink.”

Alvara stared at him, slightly offended by his disdain for her wallpaper. “You’re joking.”

“No. I was prince here, once.”

“That’s impossible. My family has ruled this kingdom for centuries.”

Sebastien smiled. “I didn’t say it was recently.”

“I don’t remember any Marlon Dynasties,” Alvara said.

“Guess you weren’t paying attention in history lessons.”

“My history tutor is so dull,” Alvara complained. “He drones on, and on, and on. You’d fall asleep, too!”

Sebastien tried to suppress a smile, but failed miserably. He opened his mouth to say something, but there was a knock on the door.

Alvara went to answer it. Opening the door, she bit back a sigh at the maid’s appearance. “Hello. Can I help you?” She hoped the maid wasn’t disturbing her to ask another million questions.

“Your sister sent this, Your Highness,” the maid said, curtsying low and presenting Alvara with a letter.

“Thank you. Anything else?”

The maid shook her head.

Shutting the door, Alvara turned, but Sebastien was gone. Alvara went out onto her balcony, confused. He couldn’t have climbed down here or just disappeared. Shrugging it off, Alvara went to sit on her bed and open Jasmyn’s letter.

Dear Al, it read. I’m sorry you felt so overwhelmed you felt the need to run away. Being a princess can be hard. I know you’re worried about the ball and choosing a husband. I want you to know you don’t have to pick right away. Take your time and get to know the guy first. I don’t want you to marry a jerk just because he’d handsome or wealthy or Mother and Father tell you to. It is ultimately your decision. Good luck. I’m glad you’re home. Hattie and I missed you so much. If you ever need to talk, I’m here. Love, Jasmyn.

Alvara wasn’t sure what to say. It was nice to know her sisters, at least, had her back. Her parents were forceful of her marrying, and pushing her to choose a husband as soon as possible. But Alvara had been adamant she didn’t want them to arrange a match, so they had tried to stay relatively hands-off. If Alvara was going to be queen, she wanted a man who knew how she worked and who wouldn’t try to control her. She wanted a king who could rule with her, not try to subjugate her. She would not bend to any man’s will. She would show her people she was just as strong and brave and fair as any man. She would show them she could rule better than a man.

Alvara set the letter on her bed and went to bathe. The warm water was refreshing as she washed off a layer of grime. Once she was thoroughly soaking in her own filth, Alvara climbed out of the tub and drained the water. Refilling the bath, she climbed back in and just soaked in the bubbles and soap until her skin was wrinkly. Smelling of the sweet-scented soap she used, Alvara wrapped herself in a pink towel. When she went back to her room, she jumped half out of her skin.

Sebastien grinned up at her from her couch. “Hello there, Princess.”

“What do you want?” Alvara glowered at him.

“To keep you safe.”

Alvara rolled her eyes. “I’m perfectly safe. I don’t know how you could have missed the massive dragon out front, but no one will be attacking anytime soon.”

Sebastien threw his head back and laughed, and laughed.

“What’s so funny?” Alvara wanted to know, bemused.

“Nothing,” Sebastien said. “But how do you know you’re safe from people inside your palace?”

“You think there’s a threat among my own subjects?”

“Servants and nobles can be equally treacherous,” Sebastien said. “I find it’s usually the nobles who strike the worst.”

“You think my nobles are planning something?”

“They could be.” Sebastien shrugged. “It’s always the people who are closest to you that hate you the most.”

“Well, lucky for me. I have no friends.”

Hurt flashed across Sebastien’s face before he hid it. It was gone so fast Alvara wasn’t even sure it was there in the first place. “Is that so, Highness?”

Alvara nodded, then hesitated. Reconsidering, she said, “Well, I have one. A new one. But he doesn’t hate me.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. He wouldn’t hurt me.”

“That’s a lot of trust you have there for a new friend.”

“He saved my life,” Alvara said. “And my virtue.”

Sebastien nodded. “He seems like a rare gem indeed.”

Alvara smiled. “Yes, indeed.”

With an odd look in his eyes, Sebastien frowned at her. “I have to go.” This time he used the door.

Alvara followed him into the hallway, but by the time she stepped out the door after him, he was already gone. Confused more now then ever, Alvara went back into her room, dried, and changed. She went to her window and peered out, frowning at the empty lawn.

He’s probably circling the palace for intruders out back, Alvara thought.

Alvara went to lie on her bed, wondering where Styx had gone off to. She was too exhausted to realize the letter was gone, and there was a single black rose in its place.

The ballroom was enormous and elaborately decorated, full of ladies in vibrant dresses and gentlemen in dashing tuxedos.

It looks like my mother’s jewelry box, Alvara thought as a lady in an emerald-green dress twirled past, laughing with an older lord.

Alvara was immensely bored, but not at liberty to say so. She tried her best to act like she was having fun, but she probably just looked high.

“Princess, may I have this dance?”

Alvara focused on a handsome young man extending his hand to her. “Of course,” she said. He was attractive and seemed genuine enough. If she decided he wasn’t husband material, she could always use a fling. Or another friend.

The man pulled her to the dance floor and spun her around. “You look like an absolutely vision tonight,” he complimented her.

Instead of being insulted by the implication that she didn’t look nice every other day, she gritted her teeth and thanked him. Play nice, she told herself. My husband could very well be in this room. Don’t want to start a scene, even if I’m told I’m usually an ugly toad.

They danced through three songs before someone else cut in.

The new male was extremely good-looking, but off-putting since he knew he was pretty.

“It is an honor to have this dance,” he said.

“Why thank you…” She wasn’t sure what to call him because he hadn’t given his name.

“Oh, Lord Thomas Kingsby,” he said arrogantly as if she should swoon just at the sound of it. “But I meant the honor was yours.”

You pompous jerk, Alvara thought. Alvara prayed for an interruption. Thankfully, the gods were listening.

“Princess,” the new man said in a high, nasal voice. He was a lot older, with a balding head.

Alvara took his hand anyway, grateful to be away from the cocky prince.

“My name is Lord Pemberly,” the older man said.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, My Lord.”

“Likewise, Your Highness,” Lord Pemberly said. They danced until Alvara’s feet hurt and she had completely zoned out.

Alvara was lost in thought, thinking of her adventure to Styx’s mountain and wishing the ball was over, as another dancer took her hands. She didn’t even care who it was until she heard that insanely sexy voice.

“Hey.”

Alvara snapped to attention to see Sebastien smiling at her. “I thought you preferred sneaking into people’s bedrooms to public events.”

Sebastien shrugged. “It’s easier to keep you safe in here.”

“What do you mean? Am I in danger?”

“You could be.” Sebastien shrugged again. “An attempt on your life could be made at any time.”

Alvara was confused. “But I’m not in any seeable danger?”

“Not yet.”

Alvara sighed in aggravation. She secretly liked having someone look out for her and Sebastien as actually sort of sweet, in an off-hand kind of way.

Sebastien bent down to whisper in her ear, “You look lovely, by the way.”

Alvara shivered, causing Sebastien to laugh.

“Cold?” Sebastien asked. His smirk told her he knew exactly why she’d shivered and it had nothing to do with the temperature.

“A little,” she said.

There was a twinkle in Sebastien’s eyes. He knew she was lying, but she wasn’t going to admit it. “I have never seen a woman more beautiful,” Sebastien whispered in her ear, causing her to shiver again. Triumphantly, he grinned.

Alvara ignored his teasing, thinking. She had noticed something off about Sebastien, something almost feral. She had wondered about his past. She knew something about him was weird, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.

“You seem out of it tonight,” Sebastien stated.

“Hmm? Oh. Yeah. Just tired, I guess.”

Sebastien didn’t seem to buy her excuse. “You’re confused.”

“What? No.”

Sebastien raised his eyebrows. Alvara had answered too quickly.

“Well, yes,” Alvara admitted.

“What has you so stumped, Princess?” Sebastien asked.

“You,” Alvara confessed. “I can’t quite figure you out.”

Sebastien leaned his head down and growled in Alvara’s ear and suddenly the two unconnected pieces fell into place. She drew back to stare at him. “Styx?”

Sebastien grinned. “The one and only.”

“But… what?”

“I’m a shapeshifter,” Sebastien said.

Alvara couldn’t believe the shy, lonely dragon was this self-assured, confident man. The dragon she had decided she cared for, her friend. “Why didn’t you tell me this before?”

Sebastien shrugged. “You wouldn’t have believed me.”

You’re damn right. “You could have shown me.”

Sebastien shrugged again. “It would have scared you off.”

“I don’t scare easily,” Alvara said.

Sebastien chuckled. “I see that. You’ve taken this quite well.”

Alvara smiled. “I thought your eyes were familiar before, but I couldn’t place it. Now I know.”

Sebastien smirked. “They’re rather off-putting on a human, are they not?”

Alvara nodded, even thought she really liked his eyes. They were strangely bright and his pupils were slightly more oval than round, half-slitted.

“Want to get out of here?” Sebastien asked her.

“That would cause quite the scandal,” Alvara said. “Since you have no social standing.”

“I was a prince. Remember?”

“Well, you’re not anymore.”

Sebastien shrugged as if that didn’t phase him. Turning, he tugged on her hand. Alvara knew how it would look and half-hoped no one spotted them leaving together, but she didn’t really care enough to stay at the boring ball while a gorgeous man waited for her.

Sebastien led her outside into the gardens. He sat on the stone edge of a fountain, the water spraying in an arch out of a stone cherub’s mouth. He patted the cold stone beside him.

It was warm outside, but Alvara shivered anyway.

Sebastien smiled encouragingly at her hesitation. “I won’t hurt you.”

“It’s not that…”

“Then what?”

Alvara glanced back at the palace.

“I promise I won’t let anyone make this into a scandal upon your good name,” Sebastien said, his gaze following hers.

Alvara sat beside him.

Sebastien looked at her thoughtfully.

“What?”

“Say no if you want me to stop.”

Alvara frowned. “What—”

Sebastien leaned forward slowly, placing one hand by her leg and another on her cheek. He tilted her head back, his hand moving to her neck.

Alvara froze as Sebastien’s lips met hers. Sebastien was a phenomenal kisser, not that Alvara had much experience in that department.

Sebastien finally pulled back to look at her. “I’m glad you wound up on my mountain.”

“Me, too,” Alvara whispered. “Prince Styx.”

Sebastien laughed low. “It’s Sebastien Marlon now, Princess.”

“How would you like to be King Sebastien now?”

“What?”

Alvara leaned forward. “Marry me, Sebastien.”

Sebastien smiled, surprised. “I thought you’d never ask.” Morphing into the giant black dragon, Sebastien curled himself around Alvara. His voice was a deep rumble again. “It’ll make it easier to protect you.”

“And I’ll make sure you’re never lonely again.”

“Promise?”

“Forever.”

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