A yawn escaped Elly’s lips as she woke up, and she stretched. It was the weekend. Elly was a huge fan of weekends, she loved nothing more than to spend her free days curled up in bed with a warm cup of tea and a good book. Somehow she had managed to make it through her final exams without being kicked out of school, so she deserved some time to relax.
Of course, she couldn’t go full lazy weekend just yet. It was time for breakfast, and the rumbling in her stomach coaxed her out of bed.
Wendy was lying on her bed reading. Elly smiled, some things never changed. Even though they were basically done with the school term at this point, Wendy was still studying like the diligent student she was. At the same time, Elly noticed that Melody was gone. Elly’s other roommate had been spending a lot more time to herself these last few weeks, usually reading in the library.
“Hey Wendy, g’mornin’…” Elly yawned again, waving to her friend. Wendy peeked up from her book and flashed a bright smile, sitting up in bed.
“Good morning, Elly!” Wendy smiled.
“Want to go get breakfast?” Elly asked, climbing out of bed and starting to get dressed. “I’m feeling a little hungry.”
“Yeah, sure, I could eat,” Wendy nodded. The two girls headed out a few minutes later, with Wendy’s nose still buried in a book. As a fellow bookworm herself, Elly had to admire the girl’s dedication.
“Are you feeling okay, Elly?” Wendy asked as the two headed into the cafeteria. “Your wounds are all healed up, right?”
“Yes, I’m fine,” Elly assured her. Wendy had been a little too clingy these days. Elly was honestly touched that the girl was so concerned for her health, but how many times did she need to say that she was okay before Wendy would believe her?
“Well, you can have some of my fruit today, ‘kay?” Wendy decided. “Fruit helps stimulate the healing process, after all, and is also really good for giving you energy!”
Elly couldn’t help but smile, the diligent student was such a mom. Well, maybe she didn’t have to completely discourage Wendy’s clinginess.
The two girls filled their trays with food, Wendy getting the usual bacon and sausage. Elly still didn’t understand what was so appealing about meat, the one time she’d treid it had made her stomach all gross and twisted and she’d puked all over her shoes.
She looked around the cafeteria, hoping to catch sight of Melody or Reed. But she didn’t see-
A rude grunt caught Elly’s ear and she turned her head to see Sabine standing in front of her, flanked by her friends Mindy and Jasmine. Sabine was carrying a breakfast tray herself, and wore a look of disgust on her face as she met Elly’s gaze.
Elly was wary of Sabine. She had come a long way since her first days at the Rem Magic Academy when Sabine terrorized her, and she didn’t cower in fear at the sight of her anymore. But that wasn’t to say she was totally comfortable around the redhead either.
Elly swallowed her discomfort and smiled. “Good morning, Sabine!”
Sabine clicked her tongue and made a grunt. She flipped her hair behind her shoulder and turned her nose up at Elly, strutting off in the opposite direction.
“How rude!” Wendy scowled. “I don’t know why she has to be so mean to people all the time!”
“Let it go, Wendy,” Elly smiled, shaking her head. She didn’t let it bother her. Sabine probably wasn’t the kind of person who would ever end up being her friend. Right now she was comfortable with a polite distance.
Elly and Wendy sat down at one of the tables to eat breakfast, Wendy scraping some fruit onto Elly’s plate. The two began digging in, when a shadow crossed over them.
“Oh! Lance!” Elly brightened, greeting her half-brother. Lance flashed a charming smile at Wendy and sat down next to her, turning his eyes to Elly. “How are you doing?”
“Hey,” Lance said. He lowered his eyes to his lap, and Elly felt a bit of an awkward cloud hang over the table.
“Something wrong?” Elly asked. He was usually more talkative than this.
The minute Elly pointed it out, his entire demeanor changed. He brightened up and his charming smile returned, leaning forward like nothing was wrong. Elly wasn’t fooled. She was still working on getting to know her brother as a person, but she could see the lying in his eyes.
“Elly, you’re friends with Blake, right?” Lance asked.
Friends? Elly wasn’t sure she would go that far. They were kind of okay-ish, they talked sometimes, but Elly didn’t know him nearly well enough to call him her friend.
“Um… maybe?” Elly offered. “Not really, no, why?”
Lance set down his bag and pulled out two letters. Wendy gasped and Elly’s eyes widened in surprise. The seal on the letters was known to everyone in Saekoria: twin lightning bolts stricken on a shield with two swords crossed behind it, the emblem of the royal family.
“Is that a letter from-?!” Wendy gasped in disbelief. Lance quickly shushed her, nodding his head.
“I’m supposed to deliver it myself, but… things between Blake and I still haven’t cooled down. I’m honestly not sure how he would react, so…” Lance trailed off and shook his head. “No, that’s shameful. Sorry for asking.” He sat up a little taller, his face hardening. “I should give it to him myself.”
Elly couldn’t believe it. Blake was getting a letter from the king? Her eyes shot to the other letter he was holding. Who is that one for, she wondered?
“This one’s for Reed Rivers,” Lance answered her like he could read her mind. “I was going to ask you to help with it, but it’s okay. I have more to deliver too, for Ark and Amy, and even for Eve.”
That was a lot of letters. Elly was about to ask what the king could want from a bunch of students when she realized what they all had in common. They’d all been connected to the events of last month, when the Estvalians had attacked them to try and steal Blake’s dragon eggs, and Blake had ended up fighting them off with some help from the others.
“Is there…” The words slipped from her mouth before she could stop them. She knew better than to ask or be hopeful about getting a letter herself. “No, no, never mind…”
Lance winced. That was answer enough.
Elly shook off the discomfort with a smile. It wasn’t worth getting sad over. She didn’t expect to hear anything at all from the king.
“Elly…” Wendy reached her hand out and placed it over Elly’s hand, and Elly felt a bit of wetness touch her eyes. But she stood up and pulled her hand away, smiling. That was weak Elly, who always cried. Strong and tough Elly was cool and smiled, just like Reed!
“Let’s go see Blake and Reed!” Elly suggested. She’d suddenly lost her appetite. “You want to deliver those letters, don’t you?”
Elly looked expectantly at Lance and Wendy. They both seemed a little awkward. She didn’t understand what they were so concerned about.
“…I’m still finishing my breakfast,” Wendy said, glancing down at her plate. “You two can go!” She looked like she wanted to say something, but before Elly could ask what it was, they were interrupted by Lance standing up. All signs of discomfort were gone from his face, leaving only a smile.
“Sounds great,” he nodded. Elly sighed in relief. She didn’t want things to get awkward. She had just started working on building a relationship with her brother; sliding back into being uncomfortable around him was out of the question!
“Knowing those two, they’re probably at the Menagerie, playing with Blake’s dragons,” Elly explained. These days it was a little-known secret that if someone wanted to find Blake, they should check the Menagerie. And Blake + Dragons = Reed sighting, that was math so simple even an idiot like Elly could do it.
The Menagerie was the name for the labyrinth of underground tunnels Professor Drana Salamandra had constructed to house the various curiosities she discovered in her travels.
The professor had explained it all the first day she’d taken the cohort down to see it. She was a lover of magical beasts, especially the rare and exotic ones. She befriended her favorites, but looking for places to house them had been a chore. So she’d approached the faculty, and corded off a large amount of space in the underground tunnels to design the perfect enclosures for all her magic beasts, where they could have all the space they needed.
This result was the Menagerie. And Elly had to admit that it was impressive. The professor had used magic to create and maintain artificial environments for the different magic beasts to live in; grassy hills, fake skies, even rivers and lakes, they had all been crafted with exquisite detail so much that entering one of the chambers was almost like walking into another world.
If Elly hadn’t been given the explanation, she might have believed that the professor did it with portals.
“I’m stunned that this place is so big,” Lance said as they walked through the caverns, following the pathway deeper into the Menagerie. “And it’s all under the school?”
“The island is pretty big,” Elly said. “I guess since they didn’t want to build it up above on the surface, they let her use the space down there.”
“Wow, imagine the Menagerie but on the surface like any other zoo?” Lance laughed. “Wow, that would be…”
His voice trailed off, and his gaze turned distant as he was no-doubt imagining what the Menagerie would look like.
Elly was picturing it too, and the image nearly made her burst out laughing.
“That would be bigger than the whole school!” She giggled.
“Yeah, you’ve got the Rem Magic Academy over here, and then right beside it you’ve just got a huge area filled with all different sorts of stuff, and cages like… wow, that’s insane!” Lance laughed, holding his stomach.
The two calmed down after a few seconds and kept walking. But the smile refused to leave Elly’s face. To think that a day would come where she could walk side by side with the prince, sharing a laugh… it seemed so impossible not that long ago.
“I’m glad…” She hadn’t even realized the words had escaped until her brother turned to look her way.
“Hmm?” He asked, raising his eyebrow.
“Oh-Oh!” Elly gasped, her face flushing crimson. “I was just saying that I’m glad… that I listened to you before. About… you know. What happened back then? I… I had half a mind, back then, in the library, to just run away again. But I’m glad I stayed. If I hadn’t, then we wouldn’t be able to laugh like this.”
She smiled his way, but a look of sadness crossed his face. That wasn’t what she wanted, she didn’t want him to feel sad! “Lance?”
“I’m sorry,” Lance apologized, his voice quiet and hard. “You should have gotten a letter, too. From dad. It’s just…”
“Hey, no, it’s okay,” Elly said, shaking her head. Her hand trembled before it reached him, but she pushed past the hesitation and patted her brother on the arm. “Look, I know that things between the king and I are… complicated. But-“
“But you’re still his daughter,” Lance snapped. Startled, Elly pulled her hand back. The two shared a tense look, before things calmed down. Lance shook his head, banishing the shadows that danced across his face. “When we go home during Unification Break, I’m going to talk to my father personally, and get him to understand exactly how this isn’t okay!”
Oh. Oh, NO. That was NOT something Elly wanted ANYTHING to do with, not at all! “Um, actually, no, please don’t,” she pleaded, feeling the familiar sensation of fear running through her veins again. “That’s just… asking for trouble.”
Okay, so maybe new brave Elly wasn’t as brave as she would like to be. Standing up to bullies? Sure. Standing up to crazy terrorists? Not a problem. Standing up to the king and queen, though, that was a step too far.
Before the conversation could get any further, though, they had reached the enclosure for the dragons, and were forced to change the topic.
Entering the chamber that Professor Salamandra had delegated for the dragons was quite an experience. If Elly hadn’t known any better, she’d think they’d found a tunnel leading outside. The stone pathway gave way to soft grass, and the orica-lit walls were replaced by the bright shine of an artificial sky. Elly could even feel the wind blow through her hair, she had no idea how Professor Salamandra had done THAT.
The chamber was massive, or maybe it just appeared that way due to the false sky. In the center of the cavern was a large wire cage that surrounded a habitat filled with bushes and stones, and even a small lake. The cage stretched on and on, practically the size of the training field outside, more than enough room for five baby dragons to explore. Lance and Elly walked up to the gate, which was locked. Elly was just about to call it quits right there, when Lance cupped his hands in front of his mouth and called out, “PROFESSOR!”
A few minutes later, Professor Salamandra walked up to them out of the brush. She carried a dragon with red scales in her arms, and wore a quizzical expression on her face.
“Elly and Prince Lancelus, hello, nice to see you! What brings you around to these parts?” The professor asked, running her fingers along the small dragon’s scaly back.
“Hello professor,” Lance smiled. “You’re looking nice today.”
“Oh, why thank you, my prince,” Professor Salamandra smiled, brushing her bangs out of her face and dismissing his harmless flirting with a professional smile. “How can I help you two today?”
“I’d hate to be a bother while you’re so busy looking after Blake’s dragons, but we were looking for Blake and Reed,” Lance laughed. “Can we talk to them, it they’re here? If it’s not too much trouble that is.”
“Oh, those two? Yeah, they’re playing with the dragons right now,” Professor Salamandra said, nodding over her shoulder. “Come on in if you like! The more the merrier!” She unlatched the gate and let the two of them in.
“Thank you, Professor Salamandra!” Lance grinned. “I knew there was a reason you were one of my favorite professors here.”
“Oh, you’re so sweet, if only your grades could reflect your admiration,” Professor Salamandra laughed, turning and heading deeper into the enclosure.
Elly trailed after Lance and the professor, jealousy stinging her heart. Sometimes it was like the prince could sweet-talk anybody into anything! Elly was lucky if she could make a request come out of her lips at all.
“Blake! Reed!” Professor Salamandra called. “You have some guests!”
The trio made it out of the bushes to see Blake and Reed. Reed was sitting on a log with a sky blue dragon in her lap, and wore a smile as always. But it twisted into a fake scowl as she turned to Blake, who was sitting cross-legged in the grass, holding a dragon with emerald scales in his arms, while the spiny brown one rubbed against his leg.
“It’s just not fair,” Reed huffed. “Look at you, sitting there with your two dragons, while I only have this little cutie!”
“Are you seriously being greedy about this?” Blake asked, scowling. “They’re my dragons, of course they love me.”
“Well, this little dragon calls me mommy, so there!” Reed said, sticking her tongue out. Elly giggled as she approached them. Reed was the same as always, but it was a relief to see that Blake was starting to soften, even if just a little.
“Elly!” Reed brightened when her eyes landed on Elly, and she rose from the log to walk over to her. “You won’t believe what happened!”
If there were two things everyone knew about Reed Rivers, it was that she loved dragons and that she always smiled. But right now, Reed’s smile was brighter than Elly had ever seen it. “Something good happen?” She asked.
Reed held up the small blue dragon. With its slender figure and feathery wings, the cute thing looked like a beautiful bird. Elly reached out to pet it, but the dragon shied away from her. “Turns out, I Soulbonded with this sweetheart!” Reed exclaimed.
“Soulbonded?” Elly asked, confused. Reed opened her mouth and unloaded a bunch of stuff about dragons and bonding and familiars and a ton of other words that Elly politely tuned out, nodding and smiling. “Wow! That’s so cool!”
“I know, right?!” Reed gushed.
Elly was glad that she and Reed were hitting it off nicely, because there was a far more awkward discussion happening right beside them. She glanced over to see her brother approach Blake, looking down at him. Neither boy said anything.
“…Good morning,” Lance said, greeting Blake politely. Elly winced. She knew he could be more charming than that. The problem was, Lance and Blake hadn’t gotten started on the best of terms, and Blake wasn’t exactly a friendly person on his best day.
“…Morning,” Blake said curtly. Elly sighed. It seemed Blake had a long way to-
“Oh, come on Blake, that’s not the way to do it!” Reed laughed, skipping over and crouching down next to him, ruffling his hair. “The prince came here and gave a polite greeting, the least you could do is give him a smile!”
Blake made a face that looked like he had sucked down a lemon. He forced a crooked smile onto his lips and turned to Lance. “Good… morning…” He muttered out.
Elly sighed. That was as good as it was going to get, she imagined. She went over to join them. “Hi, Blake!” She greeted.
The smile he sent her way was a little friendlier. “…Hey.”
“Your dragons are really cute,” Elly said. She wanted to take some of the pressure off of her older brother, and changing the topic to something that Blake was interested would hopefully lighten the mood.
“Thank you,” Blake said, smiling a little more. He glanced down at the green dragon in his hands, and the small creature let out a purring sound.
“He looks a little bigger than the last time I saw him,” Elly said, half-tempted to pet the small thing, before remembering that the blue one hadn’t liked to be touched, either. It was better to be cautious, for both the dragon’s sake and the sake of her fingers.
“She,” Blake said.
Elly blinked, glancing up at him. “Hmm?”
“She,” Blake said a little louder, lifting up the green dragon slightly. “This one’s a girl.”
“Oh!” Elly said. “Sorry, whoops.”
“Wait, how can you tell?” Lance asked. Elly was glad he was getting involved in the conversation, but she hoped it would have been a little smoother than that.
“Trust me, I can tell,” Reed boasted, raising a hand to her chest and smiling smugly. She held up the blue dragon. “The green one and his cutie are both girls, and the other three are boys.”
Elly felt something brush up against her leg and gasped, jumping back. She looked down in surprise to see the large brown dragon staring up at her with its- no, his shiny bronze eyes. Smiling, Elly knelt down next to him. She had been wary of petting the other two, but this one? She had held him in her hands as he’d hatched from his egg. His hide might have been like a walking thorny bush, and yet he let her touch him without issue.
She petted him. The scales were as smooth as she remembered.
“I like this one,” she admitted to Blake, glancing up at him. “He’s my favorite. Have you picked out a name yet?”
Blake opened his mouth, but shut it, looking away. “It’s… a little more complicated than that.”
Elly wasn’t sure what he meant by that. She looked to Reed for an explanation, but all the girl could offer was an awkward shrug.
“Naming dragons, that’s a little…”
“Dragons aren’t pets,” Professor Salamandra stepped in. “They’re as clever and self-aware as you or anyone else. Even moreso, actually, by this point. After only a few weeks, they’re probably as smart as a five year old.”
Elly gasped in surprise.
“Dragons have a very quick maturity cycle,” Reed explained. “They tend to reach full maturity anywhere from three to five years after they hatch, and only get larger from there. Right now, these little fellows have already picked out their own names!”
Elly looked to the professor again for confirmation.
“Reed’s correct,” Professor Salamandra nodded. “Dragons have their own language. They don’t need to learn it, and it can’t be taught. It just comes naturally to them…” Her voice trailed off as she saw Reed’s expression. Elly could see how much the blonde was holding back, wanting to say something.
She decided to be nice.
“…Actually, professor, would you mind if Reed explained it to me?” Elly asked sweetly.
“Of course,” Professor Salamandra smiled, nodding.
Reed lit up and began her explanation. “So anyway! Dragons naturally develop the ability to communicate with each other. It’s a mixture of coos and chirps that guide a psychic link. It’s part of the reason they can Soulbond with humans and other species, they meld their minds together. Because of this natural development, many dragons pick out their own names for themselves not long after they are born.”
“So you’re saying that these dragons already have their own name?” Elly confirmed, looking down at the scaly dragon on the ground. It was a rather surprising thought, that something so young and small had already matured enough to pick out its own name.
“Exactly,” Reed said, nodding. “From a young age, dragons have to adapt to living in a psychic bond with other dragons in their nest, so it’s only natural. And you can imagine that it’d be really rude to just force a name on one without their agreement! Absolutely not!”
“So what are you going to call them, then?” Lance wondered. “I feel like saying ‘the brown one’ or ‘the blue one’ is going to get old rather fast.”
Reed gave a shrug. “There’s… not really much we can do,” she admitted. “We have to wait for them.” She nodded down to the small dragon in her arms.
“What do you mean?” Elly asked.
“They’re Blake’s dragons,” Reed said. “They’re bonded with him, since he’s a member of House Harker and the one who hatched them. He’s their parent. Members of House Harker wrote a lot of books on the subject of dragons and Soulbonds. See, when a dragon forms a Soulbond with someone they trust… they will eventually tell that person the name they’ve chosen for themselves. It’s a gesture of absolute faith in their partner. And Blake has five, the lucky dog!”
“They’ll tell me their names someday,” Blake said, “I’m happy to wait until then.” He was smiling. It was the brightest smile Elly had seen from him all day, one that softened her heart and brought a smile to her lips as well.
She was glad that he seemed to be doing better.