The sound of the gong rang out through the great hall, deep and sonorous.
Standing on a dais at the very front of the hall, Prince Liev Drakos looked out at the sea of faces before him. Despite the huge number of people in attendance, he knew most of them – he could pick out the more familiar faces from the front several rows. All the clan leaders and their children were here, as well as many other dragons from his own clan besides. Huge though it was, the great hall in Drakos Castle was barely large enough to contain them all.
The second sounding of the gong. When it got to three, his father, King Aron, would speak the ceremonial words, and then Liev would officially be declared the heir to the Drakos throne.
Officially, Liev reminded himself. Technically, he’d always known he would – eventually – inherit his father’s crown, and everything that came with it.
Including getting married and producing an heir, Liev thought.
The idea should have filled him with pride – pride that he would be carrying on the Drakos name, ensuring that the future of their clan was safe.
But instead, it only made him feel uneasy.
Within him his dragon reared up, smoke curling from its jaws.
It will be our honor and our duty, it said, wings spread wide. Once we have found our mate, we will –
But that’s just the problem, Liev interrupted it. I haven’t found her. And I’m running out of time.
Liev was almost at the age when a dragon would have to find his mate – or live forever without her. It wasn’t possible for him, as the heir to the throne, to remain childless, however. If he didn’t find his mate before his twenty-fifth birthday, a match would be arranged for him with one of the eligible dragon princesses from the neighboring lands.
Despite the fact that protocol demanded he remain looking out at the assembled crowd, Liev couldn’t stop himself from glancing across at the group of women assembled by the edge of the dais – the daughters of the dragon kings and queens who were here to see him be designated heir.
They were all beautiful, there was no doubt about it. Any man probably would have envied him. In a few days’ time, he would almost definitely become officially engaged to one of them.
But none of them are our mate!
His dragon’s sudden howl, accompanied by a furious jet of flames from its jaws, almost made Liev lose his composure.
We have discussed this, he scolded it, trying not to let his sudden loss of equilibrium show in either his face or his bearing. You knew this would happen. We knew it would happen. And now, it is time to do our duty.
Just as he’d always done. As his father’s eldest son and the heir to the Drakos throne, that had always been what he’d done.
Most especially since his younger brother, Magnus, had gone missing.
For years, they’d had no idea whether he’d been alive or dead. Finally, after Liev and his family had almost given up hope, Magnus had returned. After being taken captive by dragon hunters, he’d been stranded in the human world with no memory of his past at all. It had only been after he had met his mate, Alanna, that he had remembered who he was, and found his way back home.
And it was my fault, Liev thought, sudden pain clawing its way through his heart.
Of course, they’d both been young. But that was no excuse. Liev had dared Magnus to go out flying beyond the safety of the mountain range, beyond the borders of the Drakos lands.
That had been how the dragon hunters had captured him. And after they had put a magical collar on him, there had been no way for Liev, his parents or his brothers to find Magnus again.
It had only been a moment of irresponsibility. But it had almost cost Liev his brother.
And I will never, ever repeat that mistake, Liev told himself, staring resolutely forward again. I will do my duty, no matter what.
Even if it meant having to drag his dragon, kicking and screaming, to the altar, he would do it.
It was his duty.
And anyway, if I don’t find my mate in the next few days, it won’t matter, Liev thought, trying to ignore the stab of pain he felt in his heart.
Every dragon always dreamed of finding their mate – but actually finding them was reserved for a very lucky few. Liev knew that dragons could go on to be perfectly happy without their mates: his own parents, despite having had an arranged marriage, had been very happy together.
But to find that someone who is made especially for you...
Liev couldn’t stop the twist of longing in his chest. He had seen the way that Magnus and his mate Alanna had looked at each other; how they always knew what the other was thinking and feeling, even without saying a word. Their connection was almost palpable, singing in the air between them.
Liev had dreamed of experiencing such a connection for himself, of feeling that spark of electricity when his eyes met his mate’s across a crowded room...
He had to stop himself from shaking his head to clear his thoughts.
Stop it. It’s pointless.
It would be better to reconcile himself to the idea that he was getting engaged to a princess he barely knew. There was nothing he could do to change that. His duty was clear.
The third ringing of the gong finally sounded.
I will do my duty, Liev thought again, as all the dragons in the hall, dressed in their ceremonial robes, rose to their feet.
The ceremonial robes of the Drakos Clan were black and gold – black for the color of their dragon forms’ scales, and gold for the enormous mass of hoard they had accumulated over the course of fifteen centuries. Their clan was ancient and their hoard massive, even by dragon standards. The material shimmered as his family stood, in all their finery. His father’s crown was encrusted in rubies and diamonds, while his mother’s, while slightly smaller, was no less richly decorated with emeralds and sapphires. Behind them stood his three brothers, Magnus, Cezar and Andrei, each wearing their own princely crowns.
He hadn’t spoken to any of them about his misgivings. It was his burden to deal with. He couldn’t put it onto any of them.
Still, he wondered if Magnus – standing with his own mate, Alanna, by his side – might have been able to detect some of what he was feeling.
He has his mate, Liev thought. He knows what it feels like to find the one who’s just for you...
And it was true. Magnus and Alanna had found each other and overcome all the odds to be with together. It was not exactly a match most dragons would have picked. Alanna, after all, was the daughter of the Lord High Dragon Hunter, and had been a dragon hunter herself when she and Magnus had met.
And yet, Liev thought. And yet –
“Dragon clans!” His father’s voice rang out through the hall. “I give you my son, and now my heir – Liev Drakos, the next leader of the Drakos Clan.”
Liev swallowed as applause rang out. He had been raised for this – trained in everything he’d need to be a true dragon prince. Etiquette, dancing, fencing, fighting, leadership skills: all were necessary, even though some things – such as swordplay – were not especially practical in this day and age. But traditional skills were still highly valued, and Liev was proud of the proficiency he had achieved in each. They had taken years of practice and training.
But still, even after all his years of being brought up as the heir to the throne, it was a daunting sight to look out over the packed hall.
And he knew he had big shoes to fill.
Wedding shoes, his dragon unhelpfully reminded him. Unless, of course, we find our mate.