Flint navigated the pavilion filled with the throngs of aristocratic males.
Earlier this year, Empress Horribus had sent her marriage summons to Flint’s brothers one at a time. It had scandalized the aristocracy and convinced everyone she was losing her mind.
The new Empress had announced to all the Empire she would choose her consort today. And Flint had received a personal summons on her behalf.
It raised questions.
How many other males had received a personal summons?
Who was Flint’s real competition today?
The males of the highest families had gathered to woo her favor. They were strong, arrogant, and well-attended by servants.
Half the servants wore human clothing—it was becoming trendy even in the heart of the Empire—and so Flint did not stand out as he followed the others onto the pavilion. His rivals set up elaborate displays of rubies the size of boulders, bricks of highly valuable waterstones used in dragon food replicators, scale models of warships.
He selected a spot in the center with good visibility to the stage. Not too presumptive, not too meek. He disengaged the antigravity, and the trunk lowered to rest on the silt-dusted stone.
Snarling fights erupted over the best spots. Guards intervened, separating parties before blood was shed.
One male shoved Flint’s trunk with a broad shoulder. “Get out of my spot.”
“There are no assigned spots.”
“And your master’s not here to defend himself. Get out.”
Flint’s mind whirled with possible answers.
He didn’t act quickly enough.
The male slammed a claw into his chest and threw him to the stone. Fangs snicked at the tip of Flint’s nose. “Out of my way, low caste.”
A guard swished by, ignoring the fight.
Because it wasn’t a fight, of course. It was an aristocrat putting a low caste dragon in his place.
The male stepped off Flint’s chest and shoved his trunk. It slid into another dragon’s camp. They roared and shoved it away. It disappeared into the crowds.
The male’s servant, a lesser aristocrat with shiny black scales, murmured, “Oh, my lord, you don’t want to set up too close to that suitor. His chest is so barrel-shaped he makes a healthy dragon look positively weak. Perhaps over there, on the other side?”
The male stalked off, not even taking Flint’s spot that he’d fought over.
Flint picked himself up and dusted off his suit. Dirt had smudged it, and claws made small rips. Pebbles dripped onto his collar. He patted the dust out of his hair.
Bitter anger boiled in his chest.
He chased his trunk through the crowd, imagining all the ways he could come into power and then decimate the male. That male, the guard who had insulted his mother, and all the aristocrats who had looked down on them.
He found his trunk against the farthest corner, half-hidden behind a quartz display.
The fantasy burned hot.
He sucked in a deep breath and let it out.
Passion got him nowhere. Only intellect would save him now.
Flint floated atop the trunk and got his bearings. His good spot had been taken by a dragon suitor who didn’t worry about the shape of his chest.
Flint dusted down his slacks again, then cracked the trunk. The contents had their own gravity, so they were unharmed by the outside abuse.
There was no space to set up.
Therefore, he had to make a new strategy to catch the Empress’s attention.
He removed a small sewing kit, shouldered out of his jacket, and sewed the repairs. Many dragons didn’t have this talent, but he had developed it when his family had established their clothing company. Finished, he stowed the kit in his inner suit pocket, spot-cleaned and lint-rolled his jacket, and put it back on. Then, he sealed the trunk and perched on top, legs casually crossed, chin resting on one hand, looking for all the world like a human who’d come to watch a spectacle.
A cry directed all attention to the stage.
The Empress emerged.
Respectful silence filled the pavilion, even far overhead, and the low howl of winds cut by the mountain’s teeth could be heard.
Flint’s stomach churned with nerves.
The Empress floated over the pavilion, neck arched, wings spread and then soared over the gathered males and the tiers of the aristocrat audience. Dark gray, almost black, scales glistened with silver highlights in the setting sun.
Large and fast for her age, she was still sleek, and despite winning the brutal battle, she seemed untested. She assumed her perch on the stage, arched her back to flare her wings, and posed.
Everyone shouted in unison. “Empress! Empress! Empress!”
His own voice joined them.
She folded her wings against her sinuous spine.
The chant cut off.
Now began the viewing ceremony.
Matriarchs of the hundred important houses, plus their advisers, descended to the pavilion and walked past the Empress, showing their obedience through attention.
Security dragons patrolled with weapons.
Her seat had been hard-fought and there was a lot of uncertainty about her ability to hold.
Flint committed the passers to memory. The exercise had been useful in the orphanage and invaluable when he’d tested into the Scholars.
Finally, the matriarchs returned to their tiers and the pavilion walkways cleared.
“The Empress will now evaluate the consorts!” a crier announced.
The Empress nodded to her security and descended into the crowded pavilion.
Conversation buzzed with an undercurrent of anger and tension.
The Empress strolled from one dragon to the next curiously, her scales shimmering with health. She stopped and watched one male aristocrat bite a metal bar into pieces.
He smiled with pieces of metal lodged in his fangs. “I will tear apart any dragon who threatens you with my own teeth and claws.”
Without answer, she moved on.
Another dragon caught her eye, a much older mature male with a gruff voice and unmistakable virility. “My house creates unstoppable warriors. I have fathered multiple dragonlets who have been decorated in the Colony Wars. When you ally with me, you ally with strength.”
She lifted a silvery brow ridge, amused or possibly intrigued, and carried on. Past one camp and another, considering each suitor, never stopping for longer than a moment, she wended toward and then away from Flint, touring until the sky turned a deep blue and red flames erupted from the historic torches all along the amphitheater.
And then she returned, all the way to the back, thorough in her inspections.
Her eyes passed over Flint’s and then jerked back and she stopped.
Her gaze electrified him.
She tilted her head as if she had never seen a dragon in human form before. Amusement rippled across her sleek silver-black scales. “What in the Empire is this?”
The adviser accompanying her took the question to be genuine rather than rhetorical. “He is Flint Onyx, my Empress, youngest of the Outer Rim Onyx House and an unrecognized low caste.”
The Empress lifted one elegant brow ridge. “And the costume?”
He jumped to his feet atop the trunk and bowed low. “My Empress. I have taken this form because I cannot bite metal into pieces, I have not fathered any dragonlets, and my experience sadly lacks conquering of planets.”
“You don’t sound of much use to an empress, then.”
“Correct. To an ordinary empress, I am of no use. But you are no ordinary empress.”
She lifted the other brow, intrigued. “Oh?”
“The other suitors have suggested that you are lacking in strength, intelligence, or foresight, but you are an exceptional female. Therefore, I will not attempt to control an asset you already possess.”
Her voice lowered dangerously. “What asset, then, do you offer?”
“I have spent the last five years on Earth gathering materials to delight your senses. After a long day of ruling with the strength, intelligence, and foresight you already possess, allow me to offer you a cozy lair filled with comfort to entice your cravings. It will refresh, intrigue, and delight you.” He rested a steady hand on his racing heart. “I vow it.”
“You make an interesting observation, Flint Onyx.” She cast a glance over her shoulder at the crowd of curious dragons listening in. “I thought that I alone heard the insults inflicted upon me today. Accusations of being weak, infertile, or an incompetent commander have filled my ears with boasts about how my problems require correction. But you heard them as well. Perhaps your background as a Scholar has trained you to see things even the highest caste has missed.”
A sharp hiss and unsettled mutterings rippled through the pavilion.
The adviser beside her puckered her thin lips as though she’d consumed poison.
Flint’s face warmed.
The Empress was incisive, and yet she maintained a slight smile, as though amused by the others’ discomfort. Her gaze refocused on Flint. “Your Earth materials are in the trunk? Show me.”
The adviser cleared her throat. “My Empress, he is low caste.”
“And has yet to insult me.” The Empress’s tone sharpened like a jagged knife. “Unlike the many others who imply they are above my rank when they should know better.”
The adviser looked as though she’d swallowed poison again.
Flint hopped down to the ground, landing lightly, and cracked open his trunk. “My Empress, although any dragon will appreciate these delights, you will experience them most intensely if you also take human form.”
She abruptly transformed into a goddess.
Her long dragon limbs pulled into shapely legs and arms, her claws retracted into toes and fingers, and her scales sucked into her human skin. Black hair cascaded down her back and rolled across her shoulders. Silver chain and shimmering gemstone adorned her wrists, ankles, hair. She waited unselfconsciously, a statue with full breasts and fuller hips, proud and beautiful in any form, dragon or human.
His heart thudded in his chest.
He fitted her with a silk over-the-shoulder gown in metallic rose gold with draped bodice and ruffled skirt. Intricate, sparkling gemstones complemented the dress. “This is a small taste of what I have gathered for you.”
“Mm.” Her lips curved and her eyes sparkled with interest. “And what else?”
His heart kicked. “I can offer you a selection of tastes, scents, and delights such as you’ve never experienced. And once I know your preferences, I can shower you with your favorite treasures.”
He opened a small chest of jewelry.
She examined silver rings, shining moonstones, and curving palladium that referenced her house of origin. “You are clever. So careful to offer instead of order, invite instead of demand.”
“You are more than capable of ruling on your own. As a Scholar and a traveler, my only talent is to offer you the gifts of my study.”
She lowered her fingers to her hips. “There is one other thing I have heard about Earth. A specialty of theirs.”
“I have studied all the specialties extensively.”
“Mm.” She fixed him with a penetrating, black-silver gaze. “Then you know all about it.”
Her lips twitched. Even though she seemed younger, in this moment, as the most powerful female in the universe, she smiled as if she knew more mysteries of the Empire than he could fathom. “I will test your knowledge.”
He sucked in a breath. This was further than any of her other suitors had gotten. “I am ready.”
“The subject is reproduction.” Her irises glimmered with challenge. “Dragons couple in one position. A problem of navigating the tails. Humans do not have tails and so they have developed more positions. How many, would you say? Ten or twenty?”
His throat went dry. “Hundreds.”
“So it is true? They apply their non-shifter recessiveness to other forms of creativity?”
“And have you studied them? The positions.”
“Not all the positions,” he admitted, “but I have perused the online educational video repository PornHub and the associated pictographic magazines human males read only for the articles. Earth’s humans are an endless well of creativity in all things including reproduction.”
She turned and cast a seductive gaze over her shoulder that made his stomach twist. “Come. Show me what you’ve learned.”
He followed the Empress.
Her human hips swayed as she wove between the towering dragon males, but she seemed utterly unafraid. Behind him, the Empress’s security team sealed his trunk, activated the hover, and pushed it after them.
They ascended the stage. The crowds roared in shock. Blood thumped in his ears.
He paused on the threshold to the Empress’s private exit.
Could he really do this?
She noticed his pause. Her lips curved. “If you ‘delight my senses’ such as ‘I’ve never experienced,’ then perhaps I will extend to you the opportunity to advise me in other matters as well. But be prepared. I have a high expectation for your performance.”
His heart lodged in his throat. “I will impress you.”
“Good. If you do not live up to the promise, I suppose I’ll have to rip your arms off.” She turned on her heel and strolled deeper into the private caverns.
His swallow sounded loud in the cave.
And so that was how a low caste, no-name dragon temporarily got the chance to have a private audience with the Empress.
If he could satisfy her, then he would live. Flint should have spent less time studying the strategy board and more time studying the educational videos…
I hope you enjoyed this! I’m posting the first four chapters of Onyx Dragons: Flint leading up to its release into Kindle Unlimited on May 19, 2020.