Dragonsong is a standalone novel in the Dragons of Ascavar universe, coming soon! Here’s a little sneak peek…
Maybe if Cecilia was a pro soccer player instead of a middling cellist, she might have attracted an actual audience, instead of a handful of inattentive patrons in the coffee shop just two blocks from the stadium.
Not that she would blame them.
How was she supposed to compete with six-packs and sexy accents in a history-making soccer playoff? Adding in the two-for-one draft beers at the concession stands, her hip classical-pop fusion cello concert couldn’t compete. But she was only halfway through her first fifteen-minute set, and it was far too early to call it quits. And there was Sabrina, giving her an eager thumbs up from the back of the room. The pity encouragement was almost insulting.
Cecilia tried to focus her frustration into the strings, telling herself that her emotions would ring out into the universe and prompt some sort of change. She’d be the Pied Piper with four strings and a rapidly evaporating ounce of optimism.
Frustration aside, there was serenity in making music. She’d spent most of her life with the cello, learning every intricacy of the sound and sensation. Like a long-time lover, she knew its peculiarities; how to draw the best from it and what tiny flaws she had to accommodate. Its rich sound vibrated into her body, drowning out her inner turmoil.
Closing her eyes, she focused on the subtle vibrato in her left hand. She let her face relax into a peaceful smile and surveyed the room again. A beautifully hand-lettered chalkboard advertised Cello Goddess, Cecilia Gale, Tonight! Sabrina had tried, at least.
An older couple sat in the back corner sharing a piece of pie, while a handsome man in a gray suit sat at a table near the door. His face was clean-shaven and smooth, but his hair was pure silver. He stared intently at her. A thrill of nerves tickled down her spine, and she immediately closed her eyes, giving a dramatic gesture as she finished the piece. He applauded vigorously. Her cheeks flushed as she averted her gaze and pretended to be looking intently at her next piece of music.
The dismal audience might have been less upsetting if Travis had shown up. Expensive Suit Hottie was gorgeous and all, but he had probably stopped in for an espresso after a day at his lucrative job as an investment banker or something equally impressive. After this, he was headed home to his model girlfriend who rescued puppies as a hobby.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. She’d texted Travis about her concert several times. The most recent reminder was a bit weak, carefully crafted so she didn’t sound needy.
If you can make it tonight, I’d love to see you!
“I love that you’re so chill, babe,” he often said. He seemed to mean it as a compliment, but it never felt like one. Two hours later, he’d texted back that he’d try to make it. That was a no and they both knew it. Like her, Travis was a freelance musician and sound tech. They both traveled a fair amount from the Dallas area, and spent weekends together when they could.
Well, not when they could. When he could be bothered.
Sabrina told her she was being too available. If she wanted a commitment, then she had to quit letting him get away with not committing. “Tell him no the next time he calls,” Sabrina told her, giving her a pointed look. “Make him behave better. You deliver the booty like it’s Amazon Prime, and that’s why he does it.”
Easier said than done.
At the end of the set, Cecilia stood and took a quick bow. There was a smattering of half-hearted applause. The silver-haired hottie was the only one looking at her. “Thank you all so much for coming,” she said. “I’ll be taking a short break, but I’ll be back on in about ten minutes. Make sure you check out the drink specials tonight!”
Expensive Suit Hottie’s gaze followed her, burning a hole in her back as Cecilia headed for the counter. “I’m sorry, it’s got to be this stupid soccer game,” Sabrina said, already preparing a conciliatory drink of coffee, whipped cream, and caramel. “Business usually picks up once they’re over. If I’d know they were going to go to the stupid playoffs, I’d have scheduled you for literally any other night. Plus, parking is crazy, and-”
Cecilia forced a smile. “It’s okay, really,” she said. “Solo cello isn’t most people’s thing.”
“Shut up,” Sabrina said. “You’re amazing. You just have to get out there more.”
“Yeah,” Cecilia said blankly as Sabrina pushed the cup over the counter. A mountain of whipped cream and dark chocolate shavings bobbed precariously on top of the white mug. “It would have been nice if Travis had at least showed up.”
Her friend rolled her eyes and took a sip from a monogrammed cup behind the counter. “I guarantee when you leave, you’ll have a text asking you to come over.”
“Don’t do it,” Sabrina said. “He’s told you exactly who he is, and you just don’t want to believe it.”
“I know,” she said with a sigh. But she wasn’t getting any younger, and her lifestyle wasn’t exactly conducive to long-term relationships. Guys weren’t lining up at the door for a girlfriend who was on the road constantly. She glanced over her shoulder. “Maybe I should send him a picture of that guy.”
“The silver fox? Yes,” Sabrina said. “Tell him if he doesn’t show up, you’re leaving with that. I approve.” She giggled. As she did, the man turned to glance at them. Her friend’s eyes went wide as she made a hiccupping sound. “Did he hear us?”
“No way,” Cecilia said. Her heart thumped.
The man gave her an enigmatic smile, then turned away. No way he heard them from across the room. And if he did…well, maybe she wouldn’t have a lonely night after all.
She glanced at her phone. Still no message from Travis, but it was time to start another set. The sooner she started, the sooner she could concede defeat and go home to a hot bath and a glass of wine.
As she stepped up to the elevated dais that served as the impromptu stage, she surveyed the room again. The old couple was clearing their table and returning the pie plate to the counter. The woman had her bag over her shoulder, so they were probably leaving. In the brief intermission, a younger woman with a laptop had come in to sit on one of the couches by the window. Oversized noise-canceling headphones covered her ears.
Great, a net loss.
Cecilia opened her binder and picked out a pop medley of recognizable songs. Maybe her one attentive patron would know at least one of the tunes.
Despite the disappointment, playing felt good. Since leaving college, she rarely got to perform as a soloist. Cecilia often joked that she was going to add Professional Runner-Up on her resume. She’d never been a star, had never been principal cello, not even in high school. But she really didn’t mind.
She was content with being second best, or more often, fourth best. With a realistic sense of her own talent and a manageable ego, she’d built a career as a musician, traveling all over east Texas and Oklahoma to play in regional orchestras, chamber groups, and musicals. She spent a lot of time in the car, splitting her attention between a string of romance audiobooks and contemplating if her dad was right when he said she should have gotten an MBA instead of a masters’ degree in music history.
Who was she kidding? He was right.
But he wasn’t paying her student loans. She was.
Though a short commute and reliable paycheck might have been nice, sitting in an office couldn’t compare to the joy of weaving magic from the air itself.
Her head bobbed slowly as she played a minor cover of a pop song, mournful and slow. She spared a look up from the strings and caught the hottie in the gray suit watching her. His eyes were narrowed, his mouth set in a tight, netural expression. It sent a chill down her spine.
Cecilia closed her eyes. She’d arranged this piece herself and knew it from memory. Her chest tightened as the rich vibrations filled her body. It felt self-indulgent to be so emotional with her own playing. But it was a hell of a performance, not a single note out of place.
She wished Travis was here to see it.
It was just past nine when her last set ended. A handful of college students had come in, talking quietly over books in the corner. Still no Travis. She had another set, but she’d planned the encore in case of a packed house of adoring fans. It was time to take the L and go home.
Cecilia pasted on a smile and began packing up. While she wiped down her strings, she glanced up to search for the silver fox. He’d stayed for the whole show, but now he was at the counter, speaking quietly to Sabrina.
Was it bad that she’d hoped he would come speak to her?
No sooner had the first pang of disappointment echoed through her when he turned on his heel and began walking toward her. Her heart raced, and she realized her lust was purely theoretical. There was no way she could talk to him, let alone touch him. A guy like that could find way prettier partners.
Oh God, walk away, she thought.
He didn’t get the message, still taking long, purposeful strides toward her. He was tall and lean, with high cheekbones and a smooth jaw. Despite the silver hair, he was obviously young. Did he dye it that way? And his eyes were remarkable, so pale blue that they were almost silver. From the neck of his crisp white shirt, she saw a thick silver chain. No other jewelry, not even on his left hand.
He smiled as he approached. “Your performance was very good,” he said. He even had a nice voice, a pleasant tenor. There was just the lightest hint of an accent that she couldn’t place.
Her mouth went dry. “Thank you,” she managed. “Thank you for staying for the show.”
He nodded graciously, then gestured broadly to her belongings. “You have to carry all this by yourself? It looks very heavy.”
Cello case, portable speaker, music bag, backpack. It looked like a lot, but she was used to it. “It’s not so bad.”
“Let me help you,” he said.
The thrill of the attractive stranger approaching her twisted into something darker. She pasted on a smile to cover the twinge of fear that slithered through her. “That’s okay,” she said. “I can get it. Thanks anyway.”
He stepped closer, one foot propped up on the edge of the stage. A pleasant, smoky scent wafted toward her. Even in the low light, his pale eyes seemed to glow with an internal light. They were eerie, almost, like weird costume contacts. Those couldn’t be his real eyes. A warm sensation washed over her. “Please, let me help you.”
His voice seemed to resonate down into her bones. The warm sensation slid down her throat and into her belly, like the aftermath of a shot of whiskey. “Okay,” she said, even as her rational mind was thinking stranger danger. Why did she suddenly trust him? She didn’t know him. She should probably stay right here and have Sabrina walk her out.
And yet, she just smiled like an idiot at the silver-haired stranger as he picked up her cello and carried it toward the door. Sabrina was in the kitchen doing something. She’d say goodbye later. Cecilia slung her bag over her shoulder and followed the hot stranger to the door. Her tongue felt thick and clumsy as she asked, “What’s your name?”
He chuckled. “What is yours?”
It was the tiniest thing, but he spoke formally. Not what’s yours. “Cecilia. But people call me Cici.”
“A pleasure,” he said. “Which way?”
Outside in the balmy evening air, she hesitated. She was parked around back, which was a quick walk through a dark alley. The thought of following the stranger – sexy as he was – was still scary. She hesitated. Why the hell did she trust him to carry the cello? It was literally her most valuable possession. She leaned toward him, lightly grasping the handle. “I’ll get it from here.”
It had to be a trick of the light, but his eyes glowed as he turned back to her. One firm hand rested on her forearm. “It’s really my pleasure. Please, let me help you.”
Everything was fine. She felt warm and fuzzy. Nothing to worry about. “This way.”
The dark stone spires of home beckoned. But Emahn Nightwalker yearned to stretch his wings wider and let the wind carry him past the constricting halls of Blackstone, over the cracked landscape of Ifrahl, until he reached the blue-black expanse of the Thessanahl Sea. Perhaps he would fly beyond, and this curse would not follow into strange lands.
Those were thoughts of a coward, of a foolish boy who could not handle the responsibilities laid upon him. Those were not his thoughts, or at least, they should not be.
Reluctantly, Emahn shifted his massive gold wings and began a gentle descent toward thie cracked gray stone of his blighted homeland. Bleached gray stone stretched for desolate miles in every direction. Scraggly brush stubbornly clung to rocky outgrowths. And just a few miles away was the warm yellow glow of home.
The small city of Blackstone paled in comparison to the massive cities to the north and east, but it was home. A beacon to a weary dragon, the castle of dark stone stood upon a hill overlooking a mismatched spill of houses and buildings below. A narrow road like a dried-up stream meandered out of the city toward the east. Few traveled the road now, so it was a reminder of better times.
Several Kadirai circled the skies above, their scaled wings barely moving. Emahn headed for the castle’s courtyard. There, crushed quartz and flecks of silver were laid into the stone, catching the moonlight to illuminate his landing.
Burning braziers at the corners of the courtyard welcomed travelers home. Below, three guards in dark crimson uniforms scattered from the beacon.
Emahn gave a clipped growl to alert the Nightblade before landing. His wings strained as he slowed his descent, then came in for a landing. One wing clipped a stone column. The surprise of it sent a jolt of burning fury through him. He whirled around to snap his jaws at the offending stone column. His vision darkened. Primal instinct took over as he looked for something to tear with razor-like claws.
One of the crimson-clad guards approached. “It’s all right, friend,” he said in a soothing voice. “Come on home.” Lightning crackled in Emahn’s chest. He snarled. The soldier’s blue eyes gleamed. “It’s all right. The Mother’s eyes are on you.” His hand rested gently on Emahn’s scaled brow, cool and certain. A gentle thrum of energy radiated from the man’s touch.
At the simple touch, Emahn’s mind cleared. He was home. There was nothing to fear.
Wrapping his wings tight around himself, he released his dragon form. Like trying to wake from a deep slumber, it felt as if he was grasping for something that was just out of reach. The dragon felt separate of him these days, a wild creature in itself instead of another state of being. Its claws scraped down his spine as he returned to human form.
Blinded by pain, Emahn reeled on all fours. Gritting his teeth, he pushed through the awful sensation of his spine reforming, popping back into place. A stubborn smattering of golden scales remained along each of his arms.
Come on, he thought. It’s over. His skin itched furiously as the last of the scales disappeared, leaving only sweat-damp skin. There was a solid thump as the leather bag from his back hit the ground. The enchanted strap was easily three times as long as he was tall, but was rapidly shrinking down.
He let out a heavy sigh and looked up to see the guard extending a hand. “Welcome home, sir,” the Nightblade soldier said. With his mind finally clear, Emahn recognized the man as Abeon, who regularly guarded the skies. Abeon helped him up, and his female companion draped a heavy red cloak over Emahn’s shoulders. The fine fabric felt like rough grit against his sensitive skin.
“Thank you,” Emahn said. “How is the queen?”
The two guards exchanged a glance. The woman was Tabra, but he usually only saw her patrolling the city. Abeon spoke up. “She has been in her quarters for the last few days.”
The vague answer was more than enough to set him worrying again. Though Emahn missed his family and worried about his mother’s health, it had been strangely peaceful to wake up each morning without immediately going into a state of alert, wondering what next? That relief had been followed quickly by guilt, which was only compounded as he stared up at the imposing face of Castle Blackstone. “Please send word to my brother that I have arrived.”
Abeon furrowed his brow. “He just arrived home a while ago. He…had a guest.”
“A guest? What kind of guest?”
“Perhaps you should ask him,” Tabra said. “I’m sure it’s none of our business. We’ll send word right away.”
Emahn frowned. What the hell was his brother up to? He nodded to the guards. “Thank you. Mother’s blessings on you.”
He gathered his bag and walked through the open archway, into the dim glow of Castle Blackstone. The air was cool and dry inside the castle. Silence hung thick as smoke in the halls, a place that had once been lively and noisy at all hours.
Emahn headed for his brother’s room, not sure whether to be confused or angry by Abeon’s revelation of Iradon’s recent arrival home. He had only agreed to the long diplomatic trip because he trusted that Iradon would be here with the queen. There were discussions to be handled with the Shadowbane clan, their kin to the south.
For the last six months, Queen Vazora was in no shape for diplomatic discussions, but they had been trying to keep her condition quiet. Iradon was a capable warrior, but naïve and prone to let more clever people pry secrets from him. So the trip to the Shadowbane lands fell to Emahn, who had the brains but not the bloodline to speak for Vazora. He knew well what was whispered behind his back, but ignored it so long as people respected the word of the “bastard prince.”
On his way upstairs, he saw several patrols of crimson-clad guards. The Nightblade nodded to him as he passed. “Welcome home,” several murmured, giving him a polite bow. He nodded in return, more concerned with Iradon.
One of the Nightblade stood watch at Iradon’s quarters on the fourth floor. The soldier bowed politely to Emahn. “I need to see my brother,” Emahn said briskly.
“Sir,” the soldier said, stepping aside to push the door open.
Inside, his brother sat on the edge of a neatly made bed. His plain black coat was open, as if he’d been interrupted while dressing. Beads of sweat gleamed on his brow, and his white hair was mussed. The thick, smoky smell of Kadirai, of a recent transformation, was in the air.
“Brother,” Emahn said mildly.
His brother’s head snapped up. His pale eyes widened as he hurried across the room, arms opening for an embrace. “Oh, bless the Mother. Your timing couldn’t be better.”
Emahn clapped Iradon on the back, then pulled away. “What’s going on? How is she?”
Iradon’s eyes skated away. “Not good.”
“The guards mentioned you just got home,” Emahn said. There was something wild in Iradon’s eyes. “Where did you go?”
When you were supposed to be here watching over her.
“Let me just show you,” Iradon said.
“Can I dress first?” Emahn said, gesturing to the plain cloak that threatened to reveal his soft bits every time he took a step. Iradon flung his hand toward the wooden wardrobe in the corner. With the silent approval, Emahn dug through his brother’s clothes and found a pair of loose black trousers and a belted tunic with fine gray embroidery. As he dressed, he regarded Iradon carefully. “What did you do? Abeon said you brought a guest.”
Iradon shook his head, then raked his fingers through his white hair. “Mother had another of those spells while you were gone. She changed, apparently in her sleep, and it took a dozen of us to get her back. Crushed half the furniture in her room, slashed two of the Nightblade nearly in half. When she awoke, she didn’t remember a bit of it, and she…” His voice cracked. “She didn’t recognize me.” His jaw clenched tight, and his eyes drifted just beyond Emahn’s gaze.
Emahn’s throat clenched. “And now?”
Iradon shook his head. “She still doesn’t remember, but she knew me yesterday. I told the Nightblade not to tell her what happened so she wouldn’t be upset. They replaced the furniture while #Tymora kept her occupied in the bath.”
He raised his eyebrows in a silent question. “You’ve avoided my question,” Emahn said. “You seem distressed. Why did you leave?”
“Just let me show you,” Iradon said.
Emahn’s heart thumped with apprehension as he followed his brother down the hallway, across a wide sitting area, and across to the opposite hall. Down this hallway were several smaller rooms, typically reserved for guests of the queen or extended family members. Most of the doors stood ajar, giving a glimpse of the empty rooms beyond. With Vazora’s illness, they had not invited guests for months. But the first door on the left was closed, with a thin sliver of light peeking from underneath.
With a key from his pocket, Iradon quietly unlocked the door and opened it. Inside, a slender woman in odd black clothing lay on the bed, one arm splayed out with slender fingers dangling toward the floor. An oddly curved black box stood in the corner of the room. Emahn sniffed the air. She was human, with the dry papery smell of their kind. His eyes widened as he turned to his brother. “What the hell did you do?”
“I think she can help,” Iradon said. “I brought her here to play for Mother.”
Moving as quietly as he could, Emahn reached past his brother and pulled the door shut. He grabbed Iradon’s coat and shoved him back into the wall. Fury ignited in him. “You stole one of the Vak and brought her here?”
“Not from here,” Iradon said.
“Did you learn nothing from the fall of the Skyshatter clan? You cannot remake the law to suit you!” Emahn seethed. Gods above, he had just left a castle that still smelled of death, even two years after their cruel cousins were violently overthrown.
“I’m not going to hurt her,” Iradon said.
“Are you sure that your mind is not addled, too?” Emahn asked. He regretted the words before he’d even finished speaking. There was a blur of movement in his peripheral vision. He caught Iradon’s wrist just before his hand struck his face. Flame licked against his cheek. Tilting his head away, Emahn watched the fire that wreathed his brother’s hand. “Easy, brother.”
“Both our bloodlines are cursed,” Iradon snapped. For a moment, his pupils extended into dark slits, turning reptilian as anger surged through him. His shoulders rolled back, like he was feeling for phantom wings.
“And I only wish to help.” Emahn squeezed Iradon’s wrist tight enough to make him wince. The fire still blazed in his hand, burning away the sheen of sweat on Emahn’s face. “But you must tell me what’s going on.”
Iradon clenched his fist, extinguishing the flame. “I’m sorry,” he said, bowing his head. He shrugged off Emahn’s grasp and carefully adjusted his coat again. But the sight of that flame, that tiny loss of control, burned into Emahn’s mind. “I can explain.”
“I should hope so.”
There was a quiet creak, then a thump. Then the tiniest little, “Huh?”
Emahn’s heart raced as he looked toward the door. Iradon followed. “She’s awake,” Iradon murmured. “What do we do?”