Though Elyra’s second flight on dragon back was just as joyful as the first, she was more than ready to be home by the time they reached Galvarys’ fortress. Hours spent riding upon a dragon’s back and walking city streets left her body aching in unfamiliar ways. She’d relished the ride but hoped her body would adjust quickly so she wouldn’t be so sore next time.
Galvarys swept in over the rotting wooden posts that marked where a wall once stood. He dropped crates and packs to the grass where they tumbled and rolled to a stop. Then the dragon touched down, trotted a few paces and dropped to his belly so Elyra could dismount. She swung her leg over, and hopped down onto the grassy expanse.
Elyra pressed her hands to the small of her back. “I hope you’re willing to let me ride you often.” She groaned as she arched her sore back. “My body needs to get used to it.”
“I see no reason to deny that request.” The dragon turned away from her, padding back to the boxes and packs. He sniffed and nudged the crates with his indigo snout. “Let us eat ham now.”
Elyra laughed. “Let us eat ham indeed.” Elyra joined the dragon in examining the crates strewn across the mesa. “I hope you’ve not ruined our treats.”
“Food is not fragile.” Galvarys watched her, cocking his head. “Is it?”
“This food is soft and easily smashed.” Elyra found the box she wanted and searched for a way to open it.
Galvarys settled against the sun-warmed grass, and rolled to his side. He stretched his black-striped hind legs in front of his belly, with his wings draped behind him. He slammed a front paw against the crate holding the carefully packed hams. The crack of splintering wood made Elyra wince. Broken pieces flew in all directions. The dragon picked through the rubble and selected a ham. He sunk his claws in, sniffed at it, and licked at the sweet glaze.
Elyra shook her head. “There are easier ways to open that.” Elyra drew her knife, and slipped the blade through the simple bindings holding the box closed. She tossed the bits of rope aside, sheathed her knife, and eased the wooden top away from the box. “See?”
The dragon looked at his paw, then at the shattered box that lay before him. “My way was easier.”
“Your way was messier.” Elyra pulled some parchment away, smiling. “Ah! We’re in luck. They’re a bit smashed but not bad. Do you like cream rolls and honey cakes?”
Galvarys stripped the meat from the hambone with his teeth, then tossed the bone aside and reached for another ham. “I do not understand those words in that combination.”
Elyra carried the box to the dragon. “I’ll show you.” She kicked aside some broken wood and lowered herself to the ground near his various hams. Elyra winced as she settled down. “Think I overdid it today.”
“You are in pain?” The dragon lifted his frilled ears.
“Just a bit sore.” Elyra flashed the dragon a sheepish grin. “I did start the day by bouncing off of you and landing on my…well, around you I suppose I can say ass, can’t I?”
Galvarys smirked, fangs glinting in the late sunlight. “You may say whatever you wish.”
“Good to know.” Elyra folded her legs. “At least it was easier to dismount than it was to mount you.”
“Mount me?” Galvarys lifted his spines, grinning at her. “Do you know what this means among dragons?”
“No…” Elyra blinked, then went wide-eyed. Fire rushed to her ears. She jabbed a finger in the air at the dragon. “I mean yes! So don’t say it.”
“Just asking,” Galvarys said. “You haven’t the right parts, anyway.” The dragon lowered his head to peer into the crate. “What have you brought me? This smells delicious.”
“It is delicious.” Elyra wondered if all dragons had a mind like his. Sex one moment, food the next. Then again, that wasn’t so unlike the minds of men. Elyra pulled a half-flattened roll of pastry from the box. White cream leaked at both ends. “This is a cream roll.”
The dragon plucked the treat from her hand and popped the whole thing into his snout. It was gone in moments, but at least the rumble that ensued sounded quite pleased. “You’re right. Delicious. What else?”
“Honey cakes.” Elyra retrieved two of them. The swirled rolls of sweet dough were baked, coated in honey icing and dusted with cinnamon. Elyra offered Galvarys one and took a bite of the other. The sweet and spicy flavor filled her mouth, and she groaned. “Ohh, these are good.”
Galvarys took the other honey cake with his teeth. Elyra tensed, but never felt the dragon’s teeth against her skin. She took another bite as Galvarys ate his own in a single gulp. If not for the funny little trill he made, she would have wondered if he even tasted it.
“I shall take that noise to mean you enjoyed it.” Elyra spoke around a mouthful of pastry.
“More.” The dragon tried to push his muzzle into the box. Elyra swatted him on the nose with her free hand. Galvarys yelped and jerked his head back. He glared at her, baring his fangs. “I said more!”
“In a moment.” Given that she’d gotten away with hurling a goblet at his head, she doubted he was going to devour her for a little swat. “Eat your hams first.”
“I want treats,” the dragon said. The low, gravely rumble in his voice sounded like he was sulking.
“And earlier all you could think about was ham.” Elyra watched him as she chewed another mouthful of honey cake.
The dragon pawed at one of his hams, then picked it up. He stared at it and pinned his ears back. Bits of grass clung to the ham but did not dissuade Galvarys from devouring it. He turned his head, peering down at Elyra’s crate of treats again.
Elyra finished her cake and dusted off her hands. “You’re not used to being denied, are you?”
“Of course not.” Galvarys arched his neck. He flared his spiny frills, lifting and stretching the flower and ribbon circlet he still wore. “I am a dragon. When I want something, I take it, or demand that it be given to me. Now give me those treats.”
“You’d seem a lot more threatening if you didn’t have flowers on your head.” Elyra giggled. She pulled out a cream roll for herself and pushed the crate towards the dragon.
“It is tribute from a loyal subject.” Galvarys buried most of his muzzle in the crate. The wood shifted back and forth, creaking as the dragon worked his jaws and tongue around inside it.
“That isn’t what you said to the girl.” Elyra licked some cream from the end of the pastry roll, then bit into it. “You told her--”
“I know what I told her.” The dragon’s voice was muffled by pastry and wood.
“Her gift really touched you, didn’t it.” Elyra took a bite of her cream roll, watching the dragon rock the crate back and forth. The flower tiara shifted against his head. “I’m glad. I was afraid you’d break her heart. I think it’s sweet you were concerned for her.” Elyra wiped her mouth. “You’re ignoring me, aren’t you?”
“Attempting to.” The dragon growled. He lifted his snout and took the whole box with him. He lowered his head again, growling within it. “I do not wish to talk about what transpired with that terrified waif.”
“Not so terrified today.” Elyra finished her cream roll and licked her fingers clean. “No one’s ever thanked you before, have they?”
“I said I do not wish to talk about it!” Galvarys glared at her over the box. He put a paw on the crate and tugged his head back, but could not pull his muzzle free.
Elyra giggled. “You’re stuck in the box, aren’t you?”
“I am temporarily inconvenienced, that is all.”
The dragon lifted his head. The box came with him. The wood bulged at the top where it was stuck against the widest portion of his muzzle. Galvarys shook his head. The box rattled but did not come free. He lifted a paw and unsheathed his claws. As he dug his claws into the wood, Elyra could just see him accidentally cutting his nose open. Galvarys seemed to reach the same conclusion and set his paw down.
Galvarys’ spines sagged against his head in humiliated defeat. “I may be a little stuck.”
Elyra rose. Everything from her rump down ached in silent protest. “Perhaps you need a little help.”
The dragon glanced away, his ears and frills went purple. The box rattled around his snout. “Only a little.”
“I won’t even make you ask.” Elyra walked to his head, examining the box. “Sturdy thing, isn’t it?” She smiled at the dragon, patting the wooden box wedged around his snout. “I’ll pull it my way, you pull your head the other way.” She held a finger out for his attention. “Slowly. Don’t just start yanking your head around. Slow and gradual.”
“Just get this damn thing off my face.”
Elyra put her hands on the dragon’s face above the box. She ran her fingers across warm, pebbly scales till she touched wood. Elyra pulled the box towards herself as Galvarys pulled his head the other way. After a momentary impasse, the wood creaked across his scales. Galvarys cringed and Elyra hoped it wasn’t pinching anything sensitive. All at once the whole box popped loose. The dragon’s head jerked backwards and Elyra stumbled a few paces before she caught her balance.
“There. That wasn’t so bad.” Elyra set the box down. Laughter cascaded from her when she saw all the cream, crumbs and honey icing that coated the dragon’s muzzle. “You look like a cake!”
“I do not.” The dragon snorted and tried to lick the icing off his face.
“You do so.” Elyra wiped some of the cream from his muzzle and showed him her hand. “You’ve got this all over your face.”
“I still do not resemble a baked treat.” Galvarys lowered his head and licked her fingers clean. His tongue was hot velvet against her fingers. “However, I feel water may be required to properly clean myself.”
“It will. You look like some hatchling about to get yelled at by his mother for eating the entire cake she just baked.” Elyra giggled to herself at the idea of a dragon baking a cake as she wiped the drool from her fingers.
Galvarys stiffened. Pain flickered in his eyes, cold, shining and wet. He blinked it away, pawed at the earth, and pushed himself to his feet. “Dragons do not make cakes.” He strode towards his fortress, glancing back at her. “I am going to place this gift amongst my trophies. Then I shall take a bath before slumber. Do you wish to join me?”
Elyra watched him walk away, thinking about the look in his eyes. She rubbed her forehead, sighing. Whatever it was, it hadn’t lingered. A moment of pain, a flicker of memory, and that was that. It was probably for the best.
“Yes, Galvarys, I think I will.”
Galvarys strode through his home, pushing aside memories. Season by season, year by year, decade by decade, it was a little easier to push the pain aside. A little easier to forget it was ever there at all. Legends did not linger in regret over things that could not be changed or wallow in pain. Legends let that pain make them stronger.
Galvarys padded through his sleeping chamber. He glanced at the rolled up tapestry, considering tossing it over the cliff just like the sword. He pinned his spines back. No, if it was gone his gaze would simply linger at the empty spot where it once laid. The emptiness would be as painful a symbol as the sword was.
Galvarys snarled an old draconic curse under his breath and moved on. He paused for a drink at the burbling fountain. The cool water cleared the sticky-sweet taste of pastry and ham from his mouth. When his thirst was quenched, he walked upstairs.
On the staircase, he stretched his wings till their tips brushed stone. His minion was right, the staircase was larger than humans would require. It seemed unlikely he was the first large creature to call this place home. If a dragon lived here before, it was probably as a slave, forced to help build his own prison. Galvarys pulled his wings back, wondering if it would be better to live as a slave than to die an agonizing death.
Dragons were not easy to kill, and when humans did succeed in slaying them, it was never a quick death. Galvarys made his truce in part because he did not want to end up broken and bleeding. Helpless. Screaming.
Then the silence. The final, terrible silence.
Galvarys was happy to have his truce.
For any humans who broke it, the only answer was death.
Those who slayed dragons deserved nothing else.
Galvarys snarled as he walked to his trophy room. He was supposed to be forgetting that sort of thing. His truce had lasted decades, the villages would not break it now. His enemies were fewer than ever before. He had much less to fear these days. With Elyra’s help, his legend would grow until he could never be forgotten.
Galvarys snorted, glancing down the empty hall. He lifted a hind paw to scratch at an itch beneath his rib-scaling as he thought about his minion. Elyra treated him as far more than some monster to be slain. While she showed him almost all the respect he desired, it was not respect born from fear. He knew Elyra was not waiting for a chance to plunge a blade in his belly while he slept. In fact, Elyra treated him as someone she wanted to call…
Perhaps not a friend, but someone she hoped would respect her in turn. Respect seemed as new to Elyra as her treasured independence. Galvarys saw no reason not to show her that deference. That was rare for him. There were not many humans he saw reason to respect but Elyra deserved it more than she seemed to realize.
So did Amell.
The dragon lifted his paw and eased the tiara she’d made him away from his horn. He held it out to examine it in a bit of sunlight streaming through the broken panes of an old window in the stone. The sight of the rose and ribbon circlet sent warm waves rolling through him to wash away the cold pain of old memories. That damn girl made something from her own heart to give to a dragon. Not because he demanded it, not to earn his favor, but simply because she wished it. Because she wanted to thank him for returning her home, safe and sound.
His good deed.
Maybe the only good deed he’d ever done. The effort Amell put into the little circlet touched even the dragon’s armored heart. Galvarys smiled at the tiara. He pressed his nose against it, inhaling the sweet scent of roses. They still smelled fresh. Amell’s scent clung to it, bits of perfume he still remembered. A gift of heartfelt gratitude that she made for an old beast most of her village thought a monster they bribed for protection.
“It really made you happy, didn’t it?”
Elyra’s voice startled Galvarys. He jumped and flared his wings, dropping the circlet. His spines all stood on end. Galvarys swung his head, hissing at Elyra. “Don’t do that!”
Elyra winced. “Sorry!” Elyra slipped past him and picked up the tiara. “I was afraid you’d hate it.”
Galvarys struggled to flatten his spines even as a startled adrenaline pulse kept them upright. “Just because I am a dragon does not mean I cannot appreciate a heartfelt gesture.”
Elyra carried the tiara into the dragon’s trophy room. She turned a slow circle, gazing at the many pieces of his life decorating his most private chamber. “I know. I just feared you’d accidentally break her heart.”
Galvarys winced, splaying his ears. “You need not make it sound as though I do not have a heart of my own.”
“I didn’t mean it that way.” Elyra’s voice dropped. She turned towards him, and with a smile placed the circlet back around his spiral horn. “You’ve more of a heart beneath all those scales than you’d ever care to let on.”
The dragon cocked his head, peering at Elyra. “I am not embarrassed by the ability to find genuine gestures touching.”
Elyra laughed, and Galvarys found himself smiling. Her laughter was one of the prettier sounds he’d heard a human make. “Good. I just thought you weren’t the sort to talk about your feelings. Or admit you have them.”
“Why? Do I seem dishonest?” The dragon cocked his head. What was Elyra on about?
“Not at all.” Elyra’s eyes searched his own. “In fact you’re far more open and blunt than I expected.” She set a hand on his cheek. Her touch was warm and pleasant. “I feared you’d tell her dragons hated flowers and never wore tiaras. When you told her you thought it was beautiful, I believed you.”
“It is beautiful.” The dragon turned his head for Elyra to see it. Perhaps she had not had a good look. “Do you not think so?”
Elyra burst into laughter. While her chiming laughter made Galvarys smile, it also made him scrunch up the pebbly scales of his muzzle in confusion. His twisted his ears back. Why was she laughing?
“Oh, Galvarys.” Elyra stroked his neck while his head was turned. “You’re something, alright. Yes, it’s beautiful. It’s just that…” Elyra trailed off and stared at him. Her red hair cascaded around her face. The dragon liked her hair, red like flame and just as unpredictable. “I don’t think I could really explain myself without insulting you. And I don’t want to do that.”
“No.” Galvarys smirked at her. “You do not.”
Elyra smiled at him and patted his shoulder. “I’m glad you liked it, anyway.”
Galvarys settled onto his haunches, curling his tail around his paws. He eased the circlet from his horn and stared at it. “I did not expect her to remember me as anything more than some terrible moment in her life best left forgotten.”
Elyra touched the tiara as it sat upon his paw. While her fingers roamed the rose stems and ribbons, her eyes wandered the dragon’s body. Her gaze searched his scales as if seeking some crack through which to see his heart. He felt as though she was trying to see through him, to catch a glimpse of his very soul.
Elyra lifted her face, her gray eyes shone silver as they mirrored Galvarys’ gaze. “Is that what you do with your worst moments? Lock them away, and spend the rest of your life trying to forget them?”
“Is that not what you do?”
Elyra sighed, glancing at the circlet. “I suppose talking to people about the things that haunt you isn’t really something a dragon would do.” She rubbed her thumb against a smooth spot on the rose stem where a thorn was carefully trimmed away. “Then again, I’m one to talk. I was never comfortable discussing my pains with people, either.”
Galvarys shrugged his wings. “I need not explain my sorrow to validate it any more than I need to express my happiness to prove I am joyful. The more time I spend dwelling on my most painful moments, the further into sorrow I will sink. I would sooner forget those memories by focusing upon what makes me happy.”
“But without pain, we cannot truly measure our happiness.” Elyra held Galvarys’ new treasure out to him, smiling again. “I will not pry into your life or your memories, Galvarys. But if you decide you want to talk about anything, I am happy to listen.”
“I shall bear that in mind.” Galvarys grinned, and gently took the tiara. “I appreciate your discretion.”
“Think nothing of it.” Still grinning, Elyra poked the dragon’s nose. “Now. In the meantime, I should remind you that you’ve still got cake all over your face.”
The dragon blinked. He crossed his eyes, trying to focus on the end of his own indigo snout. Bits of white cream and light brown pastry flecked it. “So I do.”
“I’ll help you get cleaned up, if you want.”
“Not if there is soap involved.” Galvarys’ eyes watered just thinking about it.
“No soap.” Elyra held up her hands. “It’s just an offer, since you asked if I wished to join you in the bath.”
“Very well, I accept. Give me a moment to decide where to put this.”
Galvarys gazed around his trophy chamber. The dragon was thankful Elyra showed the moment reverence through silence, and did not ask for explanations of his trophies. Many came from victory in battle against soldiers and dragonslayers. Others were boasts of his great prowess in mating. He’d be happy to explain those. But a few personal treasures had memories wrapped around them that were far more painful.
Some days Galvarys could sit for hours going through his favorite treasures and reliving his own glory. Other days his eyes lingered upon the wrong reminders till he considered caving the whole damn room in. In the end, the dragon found the perfect spot for the tiara. He brushed his paw pads across a pile of dried dragon scales. They’d faded over the years, but still retained much of their beautiful blue hue. He murmured something under his breath in draconic and set the circlet atop the scales.
“It looks like a great spot.” Elyra smiled at him. “Was that some kind of dragon prayer you said?”
“No.” Galvarys snorted. That was not the sort of thing he did. If there were any Gods to pray to, they did not seem to care about the fate of dragons. Elyra looked downcast at his clipped reply. So Galvarys offered her a smile, and waved his paw around the room. “Everything you see here is a memory. A reminder of some moment in my life.”
“Would you share one? A happy memory?” Elyra’s face brightened, curiosity whirling in her gray eyes.
“Alright.” She seemed so hopeful the dragon could not bring himself to let her down. Galvarys’ eyes settled upon the tiara, a smirk twitched at his muzzle.
“Not the circlet.” Elyra grinned, waggling a finger at him.
Galvarys grunted. So much for that idea. He gazed around the room, flicking his tail tip in thought. “Ah!” The dragon grinned, lifting his ears as he spotted something suitable. “This!” He padded across the room, stretched his neck and took a trophy in his jaws. Then he turned, and handed it to Elyra.
Elyra hesitantly took it from his jaws. The trophy was the skull of a deer, a large buck with a broken set of antlers. She turned it over in her hands, made a funny face, and then looked up to the dragon for an explanation.
“That is the skull of the first deer I ever slew.” Galvarys arched his neck. A dragon’s first real hunt was always a proud moment in his life. “That was the first time I’d ever stalked full-sized prey from the air. I tracked it, slew it, and ate it.”
“And kept the skull?” Elyra scrunched her whole face up, handing back the trophy.
“Of course! It is tradition.” Galvarys grinned. The memories were still fresh. Throughout their long lives, a dragon’s memories remained buried but sharp as ever. “My mother was very proud.” He arched his neck a little more. “She insisted I clean the skull myself, and put it in the sun to dry.”
“In that case, I can see why it’s a pleasant memory for you.” Elyra handed the skull back, grinning. “Thank you for sharing.”
“You’re welcome.” Galvarys set it back where it came from. “I assumed you’d prefer that to the trophy I have from the first time I mounted a female.”
Elyra covered her mouth in a vain attempt to stifle her bubbling giggles. “Why am I not surprised a dragon takes a trophy the first time he ever has sex.”
Galvarys cocked his head. He did not understand why that seemed humorous. “Do humans not find their first mating memorable?”
“The less said about my first time, the better.” Elyra swallowed.
Even a dragon could see the storm clouds that gathered behind her eyes and darkened her expression. She turned her head away. Guilt tugged at the dragon’s heart. He had not meant to upset her. At least the darkness was gone from her countenance as quickly as it arrived.
“I suppose I wouldn’t put it past a man to keep a sex trophy.” She waggled her finger at him, her grin returning. “But I think for most humans, their first time is little more than quick and awkward.”
Galvarys growled his laughter, flaring his wings. He pinned his ears back, lowering his head. “If I am truthful, the first mating for dragons is quick and awkward as well. Mine certainly was. Still, it left me no less satisfied when I was spent. I felt pride at finally completing the act just the same.”
Elyra giggled again. She made a funny face Galvarys had seen before but still did not understand, raising a single eyebrow. “Finally?”
Galvarys ducked his head further, hot blood rushing to his nostrils and ears. “Just because a male is old enough to feel the urge does not mean a female is willing to hoist her tail.”
Elyra’s jaw hung open, her gray eyes widened. “Well, of course not! They like to be wooed.”
“Yes.” Galvarys licked his nose, trying to ease his blush. “She required extensive courtship before she would lift her tail and allow me upon her back.”
“Probably because you just kept blurting things like that out.” Elyra sighed, smiling. The light outside was fading, but her gray eyes sparkled just the same. “Surely even a female dragon wants to be romanced before she…” She waved her hand in front of the dragon’s nose. “Lifts her tail.”
Galvarys cocked his head. He’d never had insights on human mating habits before. It was oddly fascinating, like catching two prey animals coupling in the forest. “So you prefer to be romanced before you let a man mate with you.”
Elyra scrunched her face. There were those dark clouds in her eyes again. The dragon pinned his ears back. He was not used to cold claws of guilt twisting in his belly, but they were there just the same. Just as before, Elyra brushed off the darkness before it could take hold of her.
“I’ve never been romanced, Galvarys.” Elyra couldn’t seem to meet his eyes in that moment. Instead, she just gazed around at all his trophies. “It’s not a privilege the branded servant wenches are allowed. Though, I admit, given a chance I should love someone to romance me. There’s a woman back in the Hall, her name is Jadira.” Elyra fiddled with the sleeve of her blouse. “She’s the only one I ever knew who found love, let alone romance. They courted for quite some time before she finally took him into her bed.”
Galvarys suspected Elyra envied this woman, but he would not ask her to admit it. The dragon stared at his own forepaws. He unsheathed black claws and scratched little lines in the stone. “I did not mean to bring up painful memories.”
“I know. Neither did I, before.” Elyra sighed, wringing her blouse. “Doesn’t usually bother me. It was just one of those moments. But your concern is…touching.” Her face reddened. “You’ve already shown me more of that than anyone back at the Hall.”
“We share this, then.” Galvarys lifted his paw, gesturing at her with still-unsheathed claws. “No one really cares what happens to either of us.”
Elyra gently touched the dragon’s foreleg while he held it out. For some reason, her touch made Galvarys smile. She looked up at him and shared his smile. “We have each other now, at least.” Elyra stroked his limb’s black-striped scutes. “Dragon and minion, watching each other’s backs.”
“Yes.” Galvarys murmured and rumbled. “Your touch feels nice.”
Elyra ran her hand against his foreleg for a little while. Galvarys was almost disappointed when she stopped. He set his leg down and licked his muzzle. His sticky scales tasted sweet. Oh. Right. The cakes. Galvarys worked his tongue back and forth across his snout, trying to clean himself.
“Enjoying yourself, Dragon?”
“Not as much as I enjoyed those cakes.” The dragon rose back to all fours and walked to the door. “Come. You shall help me wash.”
Elyra laughed behind him. “It’s nice to hear that and know that actual washing is the only sort of extra attention you shall require.”
“Careful, Girl.” Galvarys flattened his wings and grinned at her over his back. “You’ll put ideas in my head.”
“I’ll shut my mouth, then.” Elyra patted his tail.
“I think you’d better.” In a flash of movement Galvarys curled his tail around Elyra’s middle, careful not to poke her with his spines. “After all, you did promise to allow me to watch you undress.”
“Hey!” Elyra slapped his scales. “I didn’t know you could do that with your tail.”
Galvarys smiled, ambling down the hallway. “I am full of surprises.”