To Blake’s relief, his first term at the Rem Magic Academy ended without incident. Unification Break came, and with it came a whole new set of concerns and obligations, ones that he wasn’t exactly excited about.
In the end, he’d decided to accept the king’s “offer” to host him at the royal palace. Not out of any loyalty to the crown, or to make Lance happy, or even because he wanted to see the Unification Festival (although that was definitely a plus). In the end, he’d had his reasons, and they have been compelling enough for him.
Now, Blake was in the Menagerie, working on assembling the special traveling carrier that Professor Salamandra had designed for the dragons. It was smaller than he would have thought, but it was the size she had assured him.
Blake had learned a lot from the professor about the difficulties of transporting his dragons all the way to Stormstar. Dragons may have been resilient creatures, even as babies, but he still wanted to take every precaution he could. She’d explained the space needs and food needs, and Blake found himself rather grateful that the royal treasury would be taking care of his expenses. That had been one of the conditions he’d set with the prince for coming.
The prince. Besides the added concern of taking care of his dragons while traveling abroad, that was the other thing that gave Blake pause about this trip.
Elly had explained to him that her relationship with her half-brother, Lancelus, had all been based on a misunderstanding, and how Lancelus really did love her and was looking out for her the best that he could. That had improved Blake’s opinion of the prince considerably, and he no longer held the same animosity for him that he once did.
But that didn’t mean Blake had to LIKE him, either. The way Blake saw it, Lancelus hadn’t tried to help his little sister nearly enough. Not that Blake was one to talk. He’d seen Elly as deserving of his pity, but… he hadn’t done a lot to help her himself when Sabine was picking on her.
But that was going to change, if he had anything to say about it. He didn’t want to see Elly get hurt.
“You know, Blake, being gentle with your dragons isn’t enough,” one of Reed’s gentle scoldings rang in his ear, “you should also be nice to the people around you. Make some friends who can help you look after your dragons.”
Reed might be a bit out there normally, but in this case she was right. Professor Darkflame had tried to tell him the same thing, but he had only realized it when he saw Trevan in Estval. Trevan had had people to support him, but Blake… Blake had been alone.
Blake could understand the need for friends, but it wasn’t like he had any experience making them. This trip is probably going to be difficult for Elly… I’ll try to be nicer to her, Blake decided.
For Blake, the more difficult part would be trying to be nice to her brother.
Blake glanced up from the carrier to see Reed waving to him. She skipped over and crouched down beside him, her eyes looking at the carrier with a joyful shine. “So this is how you’re going to carry around the dragons? It’s so small!”
Blake felt the same way. The carrier was made out of a special mesh that the professor had provided, with some metal fortifications, and was light enough to carry, even with the dragons inside, but… each dragon was about the size of a cat. And there were five of them. The amount of space they took up wasn’t inconsiderable, and the cage was something he could still carry on his back, or with both hands.
It didn’t seem nearly big enough.
“That shouldn’t be a problem!” Professor Salamandra said, coming up to the students. In her arms she was feeding the sleek black dragon that Blake had only seen a few signs of. The other four followed after her, eating the scraps of meat she tossed down around her.
“Are you sure?” Reed asked. She was still smiling, but her eyes looked serious.
“I’m still worried,” Blake said, walking over and petting the red and green dragons. “I want to take care of them, and locking them up in this cage…”
“It’s only when you’re traveling around,” Professor Salamandra reminded him. “When you’re in private, I would advise you to let them out and give them some room to breathe. They may not be old enough to fly yet, but they do need a lot of fresh air to move around in. Apart from that, I can promise that they’re in perfect health, and use of the carrier shouldn’t impact that at all. So you don’t have to worry!”
She smiled, but Blake still felt himself getting worried. He shrugged those doubts off, though, and finished up with the carrier. Reed picked up the sky blue dragon and set her in one of the small cages, the tiny dragon curling up right away. She looked like she was comfortable and it seemed like she had enough room to move around, but still Blake wasn’t sure.
“Remember, this is just temporary,” Professor Salamandra said strictly. “You shouldn’t keep them cooped up in there for longer than four hours at a time, and you’ll need at least six hours of freedom in between, understood? Otherwise, their growth could get stunted.”
It was always a surprise to see the normally laid-back Professor Salamandra look angry like this, but it was a relief. It reminded Blake that she knew what she was talking about, and that was enough to convince him of her sincerity.
While Blake helped the other dragons into their new homes, he listened to the professor remind him about their dietary habits for the hundredth time. It reached the point where he was tempted to ask if she wanted to come along to supervise, but he knew she had responsibilities of her own, looking after the animals in the Menagerie.
“Don’t worry, professor!” Reed said, coming to his defense with a smile. “I promise, I’m going to take good care of him and make sure that everything’s okay, so you don’t have to worry!”
She glanced at Blake and gave him a smile and a wink. Blake had never expected to feel relieved by Reed, but the thought that she would be taking some of the responsibility for looking after his children was reassuring.
Professor Salamandra clearly felt the same, because a smile crossed her lips and she nodded, giving him a thumbs’ up. “Sounds good!” She declared, laughing from deep in her belly. “Then you kids have a nice break, and enjoy Stormstar!”
“Of course!” Reed chirped.
Blake smiled a little and nodded, reaching down to lift the cage off the ground. His eyes widened in surprise, it was lighter than he had expected. He could carry it quite comfortably.
Discussing the caretaking methods for the dragons during the trip, Blake and Reed walked through the twisting caverns of the Menagerie and came out into the halls of the academy.
“…So I was thinking, if the blue one stayed with me, then-“
“Wait, Reed,” Blake said, cutting her off as he noticed someone was coming their way. Professor Darkflame was walking down the hall, his eyes stern as always. “Good morning, professor,” Blake greeted him.
“Ah, yes, good morning, Mr. Harker, Ms. Rivers,” Professor Darkflame said, clearing his throat. He was a little flustered, he clearly hadn’t expected to run into the two of them. Blake noticed that he was holding a large traveling trunk. “I see you’ve taken your dragons out for some fresh air?”
“Yeah,” Blake said, glancing at the carrying cage in his arms. “I’m taking them with me to Stormstar.”
“I see, I see,” Professor Darkflame said, nodding. He stroked his chin as he stared at the dragons. “They seem to be growing up rather healthily… but are you sure it’s a good idea to take them on such a long trip this early in their growth period? What if they get sick, or one of them gets taken by someone else?”
Honestly, Blake wasn’t sure. But he knew that whatever happened, he was going to look after them. “They’re my children,” he said, trying to tell the professor with his eyes how serious he was. “I’m going to look after them, because they’re my responsibility.”
A thin smile crossed the professor’s lips. “I see,” he said, nodding his head thoughtfully. “Well then. I know a bit about being responsible for someone else myself, so far be it from me to get in your way. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some business to discuss with Professor Salamandra before the train to Stormstar leaves, so…”
Blake was surprised. “Are you also going to the capital, professor?” He asked. The thought reassured him, knowing there would be someone else there he could turn to, even if he wasn’t likely to ever run into him there.
“I have some business of my own to take care of,” the professor said, walking around the two. “Maybe we’ll run into each other at the Unification Festival… in the meantime, I hope you kids are packed and ready to go, the train will be departing within the hour.”
“Shit!” Blake cursed. He’d been so focused on taking care of his dragons, he hadn’t even begun to pack! And the dorm rooms were on the other side of the campus, there was no way he could get ready in time, unless…
Blake glanced at Reed, who had been spending the conversation making cooing noises towards the blue dragon. It killed him to ask her for help, but he swallowed his pride and cleared his throat. “Ahum, um… Reed…”
“Hm?” Reed asked, straightening up and giving him a smile.
Blake felt really uncomfortable asking her for help while she looked at him like that, but he didn’t have much choice.
“The train is going to leave soon, and… I’m not packed yet, so… I was wondering…” He felt like he was Elly, unable to spit out a single word. If only it wasn’t Reed, then…
Clearly seeing how flustered he must have been, Reed’s eyes narrowed and her smile took on a playful tint that sent a shiver down Blake’s spine.
“Hmmmmm? Blake, what is it?” She purred, tilting her head to the side. “You were wondering… what?”
“Could you please, um… help me get to my room so I could pack?” Blake asked through gritted teeth. “With your magic?”
“Whaaaaat? You want me to use my magic to transport you to your dorm room?” Reed asked, her eyes widening. She held her hand over her mouth as she pretended to be shocked. “But that’s against the rules, Blake! Are you sure?”
By the Celestials this girl knew how to piss him off.
“Tell you what, since you’re such a great guy, I’ll do it,” Reed decided, her face glowing with delight as Blake fumed. “Buuuuuuut… you have to ask very nicely. You’re trying to get better at making friends, after all!”
Clenching his jaw, Blake lowered his head. “Please… Reed… can you… use your magic…?” He asked. If she was going to make him grovel next they were fucking done.
“I knew you could do it,” Reed smiled, snapping her fingers. “But next time, let’s see a smile, okay?”
Blake had a few choice words for the girl, but before he could say any of them the portal opened up and he was sucked away.
With Reed’s help, Blake was able to get packed up and ready just in time to make it to the station as the train arrived. With Soulfire over his back and his dragons in his arms he’d had to ask Reed to help him carry his luggage to the porter. Thankfully, she hadn’t made him get down on his knees or anything this time.
“Oh! There they are!” Reed said, waving her hand. “Elly! Over here!”
Blake turned to see Elly walking up, and the prince was following her. They weren’t alone, either. The prince never went anywhere without his underlings, after all.
Following Lancelus was Rafe, the dog malkin who had chased Elly into Blake’s cabin in the first place the last time they had all been on the train together. Standing next to him was a shorter blonde boy Blake remembered was named Est. Unlike Rafe’s brown ears and tail, the only thing noteworthy about Est was that his luggage included a thin sword.
“Hey! It’s the dragon boy!”
And rounding out the party was the obnoxious Josie Krost. Dressed in casual clothes, she really stood out from the other nobles gathered together in the plaza waiting for the train. She wasn’t wearing a dress like Elly or any of the other noble ladies, but rather a set of trousers and a dark pullover with the sleeves torn off. Her entire outfit looked like it had gotten into a losing fight with a rabid lion, and Blake suspected that was intentional. Her stringy black hair hung over her pale face, partly concealing the empty look in her dark eyes, but the vacant smirk on her lips gave the gaunt girl an uneasy vibe that made Blake shy away from her.
He should have expected someone like that wouldn’t take the hint.
“So, are these the dragons?” She asked, reaching for the tarp Blake had placed over the cage for their privacy. Blake pulled back, not wanting to let the creepy girl anywhere near them. She blinked for a second and grabbed her sides, laughing. “Wow! It’s just like you said, Lance! Guy gets so skittery when people get too close!”
“Josie, leave him alone,” Lancelus said, stepping up and pulling the girl away. He turned to Blake and gave a smile that would probably be considered apologetic, but to Blake just looked condescending. “Sorry about her, she can be a bit of a pest.”
“And much worse!” Josie chimed in, following her statement with an unnerving cackle. The prince’s lopsided grin sort of froze on his face and he gave a resigned shrug as if to say “what are you going to do?”
Blake couldn’t wait to get onto the train and just put this whole mess behind him. It was bad enough that he’d be spending his time in the palace with the prince, the more time he could get to himself before then, the better.
“I’m glad you agreed to come,” Elly said, giving Blake a shy smile as she glanced at the carrier. “I hope you enjoy the capital, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Blake wasn’t sure if Elly was trying to make him feel better about the trip, but the way her eyes kept glancing between Blake and the prince suggested to Blake that deep down she was actually really worried about the two of them not getting along.
Blake sighed. He would try to make nice with the prince, as difficult as that sounded. Luckily, they were beginning the boarding process, so that gave him a nice excuse to separate. As the students loaded onto the train, Blake turned and headed for the private compartments, only to be stopped by a hand on his shoulder. Looking back and seeing the prince, Blake clenched his jaw. What did that jerkass want now?
“Not there,” he said, shaking his head and jutting his thumb to the cars closer to the front. “We’re sitting over this way.”
“A suite?!” Reed exclaimed, twirling around the center of the massive room. It was so big, it took up half of an entire car. “This is amazing! It’s even better than a single compartment!”
Blake couldn’t help but be impressed. The suite was probably the most lavish thing he had ever seen. A gold chandelier filled with orica illuminated the room, lighting up the white walls so brightly they shone. Fancy paintings hung across them, and the furniture was no less expensive-looking, from elegantly designed couches with soft silk cushions to the hand-carved dining table filled with fresh fruit. The beds were larger than any Blake had seen, looking as soft as a cloud and surrounded by a cradle of silk curtains. It was like getting a sneak peek at the rooms at the royal palace.
“Each of these suites is made for two,” Lancelus informed them. “We can pick-“
“Awesome! Which one is mine?” Rafe asked, walking into the room and looking around with shiny eyes. His ears twitched and his tail was wagging wildly behind him.
“…Neither,” Lancelus said, raising his eyebrow. “They’re reserved for the four of us this time. You, Est, and Josie are in normal compartments.”
“What?!” Rafe exclaimed, his jaw hitting the ground. “But you always let Est and I room with you! Come on, my prince, you can’t just-“
“Rafe,” Est said sharply, narrowing his eyes at the malkin. Rafe flinched, and let out a sigh, his ears drooping as his tail hung limply behind him. Est dragged him out of the suite, Josie following after them and cackling like a lunatic.
“With that settled-“ Lancelus turned to Blake, but before he could continue Reed interrupted him next.
“I call rooming with Blake!” She exclaimed, holding her hand up high. Her eyes were shining with excitement as they met his. “Think about it! We can stay up all night playing with the dragons! Won’t that be the most wonderful thing ever?!”
No. By the CELESTIALS no. Reed was fine in small doses, he even enjoyed her company. But spending the trip to Stormstar locked in the same room as her, that promised to be a unique kind of torment, because he could tell that she was completely serious when she said that they would be up all night.
Blake loved dragons, and of course he wanted to play with them. But Stormstar promised to be stressful, and he wanted to at least be rested when he got there.
Lancelus cleared his throat.
“I’ll be the one sharing this room with Blake,” he decided, which was the first Blake had heard of that little arrangement. He was more willing to switch with Rafe or Est and take a private compartment for himself.
But one look at the luxury suite in comparison to the compartment he’d taken on the trip here, and he knew that was out of the question. It had barely been enough for him and Elly; the dragons would need as much space as they could get, and like it or not, the luxury suite could accommodate that.
There was no way that Lancelus would let him stay with Elly, so his choices were rooming with the prince or with Reed. Somehow, it was a more difficult question than most of the ones on his final exams.
“I agree, it makes the most sense to split the boys and girls,” Blake agreed, nodding to the prince. A look of relief crossed Lancelus’s face, which was another surprise. Now Blake was wondering why the prince was so insistent on the two of them spending time together…
“Awww but I wanted to play with the dragons!” Reed pouted. Her bad mood lasted for all of two seconds. “Well, I guess I’ll have to settle for hanging with my best girl instead!” Reed skipped over to Elly and threw her arms around the girl, nuzzling her cheek with a tight hug.
“…Yeah, sounds fun,” Elly smiled, laughing a little. Blake gave her a silent apology, knowing better than most the long night she was no-doubt in for. The two girls left to head to their own suite, leaving Blake alone in the room with the prince.
Neither boy said a word, and that was fine with him. Blake turned and walked over to one of the beds, setting down the dragons’ traveling carrier. He removed the cloth covering and began to unlatch the cages, helping the dragons climb down.
The small things were nervous at first, looking around cautiously. Blake didn’t blame them, it was the first time they’d been on a sky train since the day they were hatched, and they’d spent most of that trip asleep. Blake was looking forward to seeing how they’d react to the suite.
The black one, of course, scurried off and hid under the bed. Blake had expected that, and knew that he was probably going to be in for a tough time getting him back in his cage when they arrived, but that was a problem for a later time. Of course, the blue one curled up and kept to herself, since she was the most peaceful of them, but the other three were excited. The green dragon led the way, scurrying across the carpet to explore her new environment, the red dragon running after her. The brown one was a little slower but followed after his siblings, all three eager to see what they could find.
They weren’t the only ones that were curious. While Blake had been unlatching the cages, he had heard the prince’s footsteps shuffle over towards him, sensing the other boy’s presence. Lancelus hadn’t said anything, but he was clearly as curious about the dragons as anyone else was.
“Elly was right,” Lancelus commented. “They are quite cute.”
Blake sighed. So they were going to be talking after all. He stood up and turned to the prince, trying hard to be reasonable. He thought about Elly, and what she would want. He’d come on this trip for her sake, and she wouldn’t want him picking fights with her brother, even if the guy was an arrogant sod who deserved it.
But something else came first.
“Thank you,” Blake said. The words hurt to say, but he needed to say them. The look of shock on the prince’s face almost made it worth it.
“You’re thanking me?” He asked. “For what?”
“Back in Estval,” Blake said. “The story might be that I helped protect you from terrorists, but… really, you were the one who helped me. You protected my dragon eggs when Trevan and Rio Saleigh tried to steal them, and you got hurt because of it.”
The guilt from that day had been eating away at him for the last few weeks, and it was a relief to finally get it off of his chest. “I should have thanked you before now, but… I didn’t. Sorry about that.”
Lancelus gave him a perplexing look that Blake wasn’t quite sure how to interpret. He stroked his chin and nodded his head. “I see. I hadn’t considered that something you needed to thank me for, but I’ll accept your gratitude nonetheless.”
Now it was Blake’s turn to be surprised. “Of course I would thank you,” he said. “You got hurt trying to protect them, it’s only natural.”
“You were in my group,” Lancelus said. “As a prince of Saekoria, it’s only natural that I should try to protect the people around me. You don’t need to thank me for doing my duty.”
Blake took a moment to consider what the prince was saying. “So… you protected my eggs because it was your responsibility? But it wasn’t, it was my responsibility.”
Lancelus shook his head. “It was my duty to look out for everyone in our cohort, including you. And if you were going to risk your life protecting those dragon eggs, could I really call myself your prince if I wasn’t willing to do the same?”
Blake still wasn’t buying it. “What about Elly?” He demanded. “Wasn’t she supposed to be under your protection, then, too? So where were you when Sabine was picking on her, huh?”
“I tried to-!” Lancelus nearly shouted, but he caught himself. Stiffening up and clearing his throat, he tried again. “I tried to do what I thought was best for Elly,” he said, glancing down at the floor to hide his eyes from Blake. It didn’t matter, Blake could see the guilt in them. “But in the end, I was just making things worse.”
“…That’s right, you were,” Blake agreed, and the prince flinched at that. But then, I’m not one to talk myself, because I couldn’t help her at all either…
Blake felt like he was seeing another side to the prince, a side he’d never quite seen before, or had willfully ignored. Maybe this was the Lancelus that Elly saw, that the rest of his cohort saw. Blake had decided that the prince was a shit, but then, Lancelus had friends. He had respect among the other students in the cohort, while Blake was alone.
There had to be a reason for that, and Blake couldn’t keep pretending it was just due to the prince’s status.
The awkward silence between the two was starting to suffocate Blake, so he decided to try to give Lancelus a chance, and let him know the truth. Sitting down on the soft bed he’d claimed for himself, Blake looked up at the prince.
“If I’m being honest with you, my prince,” Blake began, using the prince’s title with hint of genuine respect, “I didn’t come here out of loyalty to the crown,” he admitted.
Lancelus looked surprised. Whether it was due to Blake’s sudden polite tone or what he’d revealed, Blake couldn’t be sure, but at least he had the other boy’s attention.
“I agreed to come on this trip for Elly’s sake,” Blake explained. “I’m sure I don’t have to remind you about how she was at the beginning of the term, do I?”
Lancelus shook his head, sitting down on the other bed across from Blake.
“From what I’ve heard about her home life back at the royal palace, that place… it isn’t good for her. And she might be in a better place now, but… I can’t help but think about how scared she was back when we first met. All because of what she experienced growing up there.”
Blake wanted to see what the prince’s thoughts on the matter were, but a part of him felt genuinely good letting this out. At the very least he knew Lancelus would keep Blake’s words to himself. “Elly and I… I wouldn’t call us friends. But I’m still worried about her. I’m concerned that if she returns to the palace that she might return to the way she used to be, and that’s not good.”
Honestly, Blake was surprised that he cared so much. When he’d first met Elly on this same train all those months ago, she had been amusing, but not someone he was particularly concerned with. But somewhere in the term she’d managed to wiggle her way inside and now he found himself worried about her a lot, like he was worried about his dragons.
Maybe that protective instinct was what friendship was. Blake wouldn’t be the one to know.
“…So you agreed to my father’s summons… because you wanted to be there for my sister?” Lancelus quietly asked, the first words he’d spoken since Blake began his little explanation.
“Someone has to be,” Blake nodded.
A small smile crossed Lancelus’s face. “I think… I’m starting to understand you a little bit better, Blake Harker,” he mused. Before he could say anything further, the red dragon climbed up the bed sheet and curled up in his lap, surprising Blake and Lancelus both.