The recently crowned new Empress of Draconis, Galena, stretched her large, elegant body. Muscles rippled down her long neck and thick, meaty shoulders to her deadly claws. She yawned, baring her awesome fangs, and closed her mouth with a snap.
Then she ambled from her private caverns through the wide hall.
Her black-silver claws clicked on the same stones that had borne the mass of her ancestors, most recently her mother, and the echoes made her feel smaller than she was. She puffed out her battle-ready chest.
Soon, she would not be alone on this quest any longer. The mistakes she’d made, the betrayals she’d committed, they would all be justified. Forgiven, even. She had to believe that. Because she had done this, all of this, for one reason.
“My Empress.” Her female security guard Linarite, one of the few dragons who’d remained loyal, stared at her strong body with respect. “The most powerful males of the Empire have gathered to answer your engagement summons. We will open the pavilion on your command.”
This was it.
A shiver started at the base of Galena’s tail. The nervous tick made her scales rattle.
How funny. She had defeated all of her hardy, strong, brutal half-sisters in mortal combat to take this position, and a simple task like selecting a consort made her nervous as her first battle.
Linarite’s eyes widened.
“How thrilling,” Galena said with a forced laugh, trying to disguise her nerves as excitement. “So many eligible males. I look forward to the ceremony.”
Linarite bobbed her head, blithely accepting the lie. Her deep blue body shone with oil. “Shall I convey your command to open the pavilion?”
“Yes, of course.”
She spoke into a tiny communicator attached to her jaw. “Open the pavilion. Yes, the Empress ordered it. No.” Linarite’s gaze flicked to Galena and away again. “I’m just conveying her orders.”
Galena honed her claws on the ancient rock. “Problem?”
“It is nothing, my Empress. A small misunderstanding with the Palace entrance guard.”
“What kind of misunderstanding?”
“Once we open the pavilion, she doesn’t believe we have enough security dragons to keep low castes off the Palace grounds.”
“I already ordered the guards to allow low castes onto the grounds.”
“Yes, my Empress.”
“Did you remind her?”
Linarite swallowed and averted her gaze. “I am only your inner chambers guard, my Empress.”
Because after Galena assumed the crown, the head of security had resigned, along with nearly half the guards. That wasn’t unusual when a new Empress entered the Palace. What was unusual was that Galena didn’t bring her own feverishly loyal entourage with her. And, since the head of security and all the guards had known that, their resignations were a form of protest.
No one had expected her to become Empress.
That was why her selection of a consort was so important today. She had to choose the strongest, most powerful male to consolidate her rule.
But until then…
“I will speak to the leader of the entrance guards,” Galena said.
Linarite flew to the small viewscreen embedded in the cavern wall. Moments later, the head of the entrance security appeared on the screen. Throngs of dragons crowded outside the gates. Those with aristocratic piercings were waved through.
“My Empress!” the Palace entrance security guard cried cheerfully. “Have you got more dragons for us? My gate guards are good, the best, but there’s no way we can keep the mudrock low castes out if we have to split off and police the pavilion.”
“About that…” Galena said. “As I instructed you yesterday, do not worry about keeping the ‘mudrock low castes’ out.”
The guard blinked. “Huh?”
“Split off, as we discussed, and open the pavilion.”
“But the mudrocks—”
“Some of them may get in, yes.”
“And they’re not allowed.”
“Under normal circumstances, but today is a special day. Let’s overlook it.”
The guard gave a confused laugh. “But low castes aren’t allowed on the Palace grounds. That’s the rule.”
“Yes, I know—”
“That’s always been the rule. No low castes. Not on Palace grounds.”
An itch pinned Galena between her broad shoulder blades. One that no matter how she contorted, she couldn’t quite scratch.
“I’ve been a gate guard for five decades,” the guard continued, “and before that, I worked in the archives, and there were never any low castes allowed. Except, of course, the Scholars. They could be low castes, but they were allowed—only in the archives, though, never in the Palace proper. But them aside, Empress Horribus always declared there be no low castes…”
Galena endured her prattle until the itch became painful. She finally snapped, “Yes, I know my mother said that!”
The gate guard broke off in shock.
Galena took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “My mother isn’t empress any more. I am. Just this once, you are going to make an exception and ignore any low castes.”
“But they’re not allowed.”
“Just…If one or two got inside, would it be that bad?”
The guard blinked hard. “Yes! They’re mudrocks who don’t deserve to breathe the same air as worthy aristocrats like you and me. Well, like you were before you were Empress.”
“Indeed. Let’s review.” Galena’s muscles quivered. “Do I make the rules?”
“Yes, of course you do. You’re the Empress!”
“And do you obey my rulings?”
“I’m as loyal as they come, my Empress, you better believe—”
“Then do you understand that I am right now ruling to allow the low castes onto Palace grounds?”
The gate guard blinked several times.
“Yes,” Galena answered her own question. “They’re allowed. Now go open the pavilion!”
“B-but my Empress, we can’t leave the entry gates. The low castes have been waiting for their chance. We’ll be overrun by wily wyrms!”
She wanted to launch herself through the viewscreen and challenge the gate guard to teeth-to-claw combat.
Instead, she closed the connection and turned to Linarite. “Do you understand my orders?”
Linarite bobbed her head. “Yes, my Empress.”
“Is there a reason you never put yourself forth for head of Palace security?”
Her wings flexed against her back, very slightly opening and then closing tight like a proper dragon. “I’m so young, my Empress. Surely a more experienced guard deserves the job.”
“My critics also call me young and inexperienced.”
Linarite froze. She swallowed, and then her head bobbed. “Forgive me, my Empress.”
Galena removed one silver loop from the small chain at the base of her wings. It glittered with fire opals. She handed it to Linarite. “You will gain experience quickly. There is no fire so hot as the one that burns under your wings.”
Linarite accepted the loop and clipped it to her brow ridge. Only the slightest tremor showed her feelings about the promotion. “Thank you, my Empress. I will not fail you.”
“Open the pavilion,” Galena ordered. “Begin the ceremony. Low castes are allowed in the Palace. Make the gate security understand.”
“Yes, my Empress.” Her new head of Palace security whirled, intense dark blue scales flashing, and flew down the caverns until she disappeared.
Inexperienced or not, Linarite was at least efficient. And she understood Galena. Two points in her favor. Oh, and she was willing to accept a new idea. Point number three.
No wonder her mother had taken to ripping dragons’ arms off.
Galena wasn’t going to be like that. She would rule differently.
Starting with her choice of consort.
Nerves shivered across her scales again.
She sucked in and released a deep breath, shook her scales and her wings, and clicked slowly down the hall, crossing the same stones her ancestors had crossed for generations.
Would she destroy the Empire or save it?
It all depended on who she selected for her consort.
* * *
Flint flew through the ship, still wearing his dark gray business suit, and landed at the airlock beside his shoulder-height shipping trunk. The stellarium in his blood allowed him to reverse gravity at will, whether in human form or shifted to dragon.
He activated the trunk’s antigravitational buffer. The trunk hovered off the metal floor.
The airlock hissed as the air of Draconis rushed inside. He’d set the pressure, temperature, and atmospheric mix to change during the trip from his origin point, at his mother’s estate in the Outer Rim, to Draconis, and so his ears didn’t even pop.
The smell of brimstone and nearby desert, a sweet earthy dust-after-rain petrichor filled his human nostrils.
He pushed the freight out of the airlock and down to the planet.
The ground was blue, the sky brick red, and a large lavender moon hung low in the sky.
The Palace was centrally located on the largest continent—as was proper—against a glacial mountain range. Each mountain dramatically punched up through the earth and rock. Inside were ice caves where much of the population made their permanent lairs.
The landing area was south of the foothills on a plain that dropped into the turquoise sea. Smaller potholes of bright blue dotted the desert.
Based on the moon’s position, he didn’t have much time until the engagement ceremony.
Porters floated at the landing platform, gave him a once-over—assumedly searching for the silver piercings of an aristocratic dragon—and reversed. They awaited a more important dignitary.
That suited him fine.
Flint flew his trunk to the fastest exit.
Inspectors stopped him.
The main inspector huffed forward. He was a lumpy blue dragon with a yellow sheen over his scales. “That is a strange uniform for a lowly courier. Your exit is with the other no-names.”
“I have clearance to use this gate.”
“But you’re not an aristocrat, low caste. Get back to your side.”
Flint faced down the self-important male. “If my delivery to the Palace consort ceremony is delayed, you’ll answer to matriarch Ferocia Carnelian.”
“I’m doing my job.”
“So am I.” Flint tilted his head to take a better look at the inspector. Dragons were named after minerals in the modern era. “Let me guess. Inspector Evansite?”
The inspector’s jaw dropped. He snapped it closed and shook himself. “My name is none of your concern.”
“From House Tektite, I can see, by your half-hidden crest.” Flint tapped his human shoulder to indicate where Inspector Evansite had affixed an identifying charm. “Your matriarch is quite friendly with House Carnelian. In fact, she—”
“Don’t pretend you know me! I only surround myself with dragons of the proper rank.”
“Then don’t stop me, as I’m clearly on another level.” Flint bunched his muscles to fly.
“No, no, no. This is an inspection. A lone dragon like you is suspicious, and no one will say otherwise. Open the trunk.”
Flint weighed his options, then keyed in the passcode to open a sliver. Even at a sliver, the trunk unfolded to reveal wonders. Silk, wine, chocolate rested at the top, and each of them in the correct controlled environment.
Inspector Evansite’s jaw dropped. He called to the inspectors inside the control booth, “Hey, come look at this here!”
A crowd gathered in awe.
“Goods for the Empress? Yes.”
Inspector Evansite reached out to stroke the butterfly print silk on the top.
Flint shut the trunk with a snap.
Inspector Evansite jerked his claw out of the way. “Careful, low caste!”
“Don’t sully her goods with your claws.”
“H-how dare you!” Inspector Evansite puffed his chest, in dragon form towering over Flint. “Open it at once! I’ll touch whatever I want for the inspection. If anything’s damaged, you’ll be blamed.”
“Me?” Flint widened his eyes with innocence and tilted his head. “Inspector Evansite, do you know who I am?”
The inspector put his weight on his back haunches and traded uneasy glances with the other dragons. They didn’t.
Flint capitalized on his weirdness by floating closer to them, a tiny human in front of massive dragons, making them even more uncomfortable. “Do you want to?”
“W-well, if we can’t inspect, then we have to confiscate the whole trunk for breaking sumptuary laws. Low caste dragons can’t possess better things than aristocrats. Not even when they’re transporting them!”
“Check my import orders.” Flint grinned with all his very human teeth. “I dare you.”
The inspector growled. “I’m a generous dragon, so I’ll let you through. But if I ever catch you using the aristocrat entrance again, you won’t be so lucky.”
“Very generous.” He lifted the trunk again and flew toward the plains.
“I’ll cuff you in shackles! You’ll be judged by the Empress’s new consort!” The inspector shouted after him. “Nobody threatens me. The next time we meet, you’ll be on a transport for the killing fields of the Colonies! Low caste trash.”
Flint banked onto the main thoroughfare from port to Palace.
The insult slipped under his skin with mild irritation.
Being called low caste trash was such a common slur, and he shouldn’t feel anything. There was no art, no creativity in it. But in the same way he seemed to have lost control of his nervousness, the insult stung.
Flint flew over the knots of dragon porters carrying pallets of goods to and fro, the commerce that pumped through the veins of the Dragon Empire. All goods traveled through the Palace, no matter the start or the end of the journey.
The Palace was the heart.
It loomed, a stone monolith the size of a mountain, a tower as massive as the human’s mythical Babel that dwarfed everything around it. A complex of private caverns beneath were capped by exposed courtyards. Black char on the right tower was a mark of recent wars. Unlike Empire dragons, the Colonists had no compunction about scarring the Palace.
Flint followed the mass influx of visiting dragons to the main entrance.
Palace entry guards seemed sparser and more frantic than usual. One vigorously lectured a crowd of low castes on how they were never getting inside the Palace grounds, not on her watch, and not off it, either.
He casually joined the stream of dragons flowing in behind her.
The shadow of the cavern mouth fell over him.
No matter what happened after this, he would not leave on his own.
Whether he was chosen today for the Empress’s consort or not.
A soft blue glow illuminated the inner caves. He dropped to the fitted stone floor and walked, the trunk humming quietly as it floated on its own. Stalactites hung down like fangs.
The inner caverns felt even larger than the last time he’d walked through them. In human form, everything giant was multiplied.
Black marks scorched the inner walls. Colonist fighters had gotten this far before they’d been turned aside.
He approached the Dragon’s Gate. Aristocrats flew overhead, while others clustered and waited. Overwhelmed guards paid him no attention.
Flint crossed between the two massive dragon bodies with human female heads and blades for ears. The tips were broken off because a long-ago Empress had ruled that no dragon in the Palace could be taller than her—statues included.
Such was the score of history. One age carved massive statues to show the power of the Empire and another age knocked them down for the same reason.
“Flint!” His mother soared above the knots of aristocrats and landed in front of him. She lowered her head and her eyes made crescents in happiness. “You look so handsome. Just like your father. The Empress won’t be able to take her eyes off you.”
He automatically analyzed her statements.
First, Mother thought all her sons were handsome, even his horrifically scarred, former black ops brother Kyan. She suffered from maternal blindness.
Second, their father had been a low caste brimstone miner. He was truly the definition of a “mudrock” and had never been accused of being handsome.
And third, the Empress’s eyes might have trouble leaving him for many reasons, and not because of his looks. He’d entered Palace grounds as a low caste Onyx male, not as a caste-neutral Scholar.
His stomach flipped.
At least he had a good reason for it now.
But there was no need to burden anyone with his intellect. He managed a demure, “Thank you, Mother.”
“Of course.” She beamed. “Walk with me. Ferocia wishes to see what a fine dragon you’ve become.”
Flint pushed his trunk down the long, crowded Hall of Names.
Mother made a dominant sight, large and proud, her silver rings and piercings clinking. Younger aristocrats scrambled out of her way and even some older ones stared in silent respect. Their family name, Onyx, was inscribed at the midpoint of the Hall of Names, in the upper corner. He’d looked.
Everyone ignored him. Which meant their gazes traveled over his human form, seeking out the signs that he was worth their notice, and then actively deflected as if he weren’t there.
A low caste of no importance.
They broke out of the hall, crossed another wide courtyard, and then entered the grand pavilion.
This huge open-air amphitheater held the coronations, battles, and full council meetings of government. The sky formed the ceiling, and as the natural light faded into twilight, green and blue streaked the evening.
Flint followed his mother to the tiers.
Palace advisers and important matriarchs filled the lowest tiers. Then, aristocrats filled the tiers in decreasing levels of importance.
He forced himself to follow his mother up the middle steps. The sensation of eyes burned his exposed skin. The more tiers they passed, the more grumbling of the dragons could be heard. His scales shivered.
Finally, a guard stopped them. “His kind is not allowed here.”
Flint’s mother’s throat glowed and smoke curled from her nostrils. “But they told me he was. Today—”
“Only aristocrats are allowed inside the pavilion.”
“But he’s my dragonlet. He’s mine.”
“And you’re lucky we let you in. Outer Rim dragons are barely aristocrats.” The guard, a sleek but firm female, pointed the tri-clawed end of her long staff down the tiers to the exit. “No low castes.”
“He’s been summoned by the Empress herself! You should—”
“Mother.” Flint rested a calming hand on her quivering forearm. “It’s time, anyway. I should go.”
“But this isn’t right at all. You are my dragonlet.” Mother craned her neck over the guard. “Look. Ferocia is expecting you! She’s sitting with—”
“She’ll see me soon.” Flint reversed with the trunk, waved to his disappointed mother, and returned to the courtyard.
He followed the rowdier, louder crowd of males to the pavilion entrance. Entering at the bottom level, the roar on the air was deafening. All the tiers of dragons were filled with aristocrats. Far overhead, low caste dragons streaked across the sky for a view before being chased off. Flint was at the center of the universe.
And he only had one chance to prove his worth.
A single low caste dragon in front of an Empress.
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.