[Editor’s note: this is a work in progress, there will be part 2.]
Princess Salina walked out onto her balcony and shuddered as the cold night air bit at her ankles, forearms, and face. She was clothed in dark-blue dress, a lamb-skin jacket on top of this. A pair of boots and an eared hat, made from the same material, completed her ensemble. On her back was a black leather satchel.
She walked across the spacious balcony to its edge, where a thigh-high barrier separated her from a drop of several hundred feet down to the river and the falls below. A nearby fire illuminated her face. Tears sparkled in the darkness for a moment, before she wiped them away.
A locket hung around Salina’s neck, a silver and gold beetle adorned with a few small rubies. She opened the locket and looked at the half-dozen small rough pebbles inside it. She picked up two pebbles and dropped them into the fire. In moments the small stones began to sputter and emitted a pungent and very purple smoke. Salina watched as the column of it rose in the night’s quiet air.
A soft, familiar clatter of keratin-on-rock came as Kim the royal pet sauntered over.
“Hey old girl,” the princess welcomed her old friend and ran a hand through the leopard’s mane. “Not long now. We’re going our separate ways, and where I go, you cannot follow.”
“I’ll miss you,” purred Kim.
The princess got down to the cat’s level and wrapped her arms around Kim’s neck. The tears came again, and this time Salina didn’t wipe them off. The cat turned and licked at her friend’s face.
A flash lit up the balcony and moments later the sound of an explosion disturbed the peaceful night. The princess stood up and walked over to the edge and looked down.
Below the castle, on the high side of the river, was the town, its main square packed with revelers, large groups that mostly formed concentric circles of dancers around three bonfires. The city around the square was alight. A dull roar of “crowd” rose to the balcony, and competed for attention with the sound and vibration of the waterfall under the castle. The familiar sound of her home.
A star rose from the edge of the crowd, flew up to the level of the balcony, then continued higher, before finally a fireball quietly expanded from it and spewed bright sparks into the night sky. The sound of the firework reached the balcony a few moments later.
Salina watched the revelers for a few minutes. Kim thrust her head between the columns that formed the barrier and peered out at the city.
“You’ll miss them,” Kim purred.
Salina didn’t say anything, just dropped her hand to the beast’s mane and ran her finger through the comforting hair.
A line of fire shot through the sky and disappeared moments later. The strange fireball lit up the balcony, the tower, the town below. This one, the princess noted, was much brighter than any of the other fireworks, and did not come with a bang.
Salina looked around, watched for any movement around the fireball. It and the fireworks had made a slow-moving cloud of smoke that rose over the river and traveled slowly away from the tower, farther into the valley. As Salina watched, the cloud of smoke was torn asunder by massive dark wings. They ripped through the cloud and formed vortices of smoke. The vortices faced the princess, like two gray eyes staring out of the void.
“The Eyes of Smoke,” Salina slowly spoke.
A large dark void passed overhead and for a moment blocked out the moon. Salina shuddered from the sudden intrusion, then quickly regained her composure.
An earthquake shook the balcony and the princess steadied herself against the barrier.
Here and there the light of the fires reflected off blood-red scales, but it was still too dark to make out much detail. The princess had the dark outline to go on, and from this she could tell that the creature was at least three stories tall.
Salina stepped back, her foot hit a slippery patch of ground, and she fell, toward the balcony and over it. Down toward the waterfalls below.
“Oh shit!” the creature muttered.
The creature charged at the princess, brought out its talons and aimed for her, but was too late.
Salina fell. She tried to grab at anything to hold on to, but everything solid was just too far away. Her balcony had hundreds of feet below it. She tumbled head over heels toward the cold hard river.
The creature leapt down and launched itself toward the princess, sleek and folded into a fleshy missile. It reached the princess, grabbed her to its bosom and flew away from the tower, back through the smoking vertices.
“Sorry sorry sorry,” Salina screamed, before realizing she was no longer falling. She looked down at the land under them, an eagle’s eye view of the lands of her youth, the first time she had seen it like this.
She watched for a while.
“Are you alright?” the creature asked.
“Yes. Just… Flying, you know? It’s new for me. The world, it’s so beautiful.”
The dragon nodded, its snout moved up and down like a dog’s. Salina was enthralled.
They flew through a forest, up over a snow-peaked mountain, and beyond the desert lands, to the Red Canyon.
The dragon dove down into the canyon, about midway. Salina watched.
They flew under the lip of the canyon into a large cave. It stood open before the river that had cut the canyon and this alcove.
A dozen fires burned around the space, lighting the entire cavern. The river formed one side, the other three were the stone walls. The space was about the size of the town square they had left behind. A small hut occupied its far end.
The dragon sat down on the ground, a few feet from the shore of the river, next to a tree that had a lantern in its lower branch. Salina walked to the tree and held onto it for a while. Her eyes were closed.
After a minute she looked up at the dragon.
“I am Princess Salina.”
“Welcome, your highness. I am Rubicon.”
Salina bowed to the dragon, and Rubicon returned the gesture by bending his neck down to Salina’s level.
“Princess, when did your mother die?” The dragon’s lips slithered, pink reflection in the night.
“Two years ago. Climbing accident.” Salina looked down at the ground and was quiet for a bit, then continued, “She spoke of you, often, Rubicon. She said a lot of good about you.”
“A pleasure to hear that, princess.”
The dragon walked back and forth along the shore, splashing itself once in a while, as it talked with the princess.
“Thank you for saving my life.” Salina said.
“Think nothing of it.” The nostrils exhaled clouds of steam as the dragon spoke, and these were lit up by the lantern. “I’m glad you sent the signal. I have been waiting for a while.”
“Apologies for that. I had unfinished business.” Salina took off her backpack and heaved it for the dragon. “I have some books, that I can read to you.”
At the mention of books the dragon’s eyes lit up, the pupils expanded to plate-sized.
“That’s incredibly generous, princess.”
“Then, I think, I shall retire for the night. Let’s meet tomorrow? I am weary from the flight, and quite shaken up.”
“Of course, your highness.”
Salina set off from the tree, walked toward the hut, past the dragon.
Rubicon made his way opposite, to the shore and out into the body of water. His form submerged, his head bobbing along and getting closer to the water, until he fully dove below the short waves of the slow river.