Drake felt the weight of responsibility settling around his shoulders as he made his way to the throne room of the royal castle of Draconia. He'd sent the messenger at the last possible moment, but he knew the king would be expecting him. Drake wanted to make this visit as brief as possible. He didn't want to see anyone other than the king, if he could avoid it.
Coming back to Draconia after all these years was quite possibly the hardest thing he'd ever done, but it was necessary. Nothing less than the safety of the land, its people and dragons could have made him break his vow never to set foot in his homeland again, but it had come down to that, at the last.
Drake had a message to deliver that was too urgent to wait. It had to be him, much as he could have wished otherwise. He'd been closest to the borders of Draconia and there was no time to find another trusted operative to deliver the warning. This had to be done as quickly and covertly as possible so as not to alert their enemies.
The giant doors to the throne room were open and he could hear the soft murmur of voices from within. He'd hoped to catch the king alone, but it was not to be. Drake took a deep breath for courage and resigned himself before stepping through the dragon-sized portal.
Nico was there, closest to the doorway in the huge room. Drake sketched him a saucy bow as he caught the new king of the Jinn's eye. Nico smiled and started toward him. They met in the center of the large chamber, exchanging a firm handclasp and a short, pounding hug of true welcome.
"Drake! You're here sooner than I expected. Your messenger only arrived yesterday."
Drake stepped back, his grin genuine, if a bit sheepish. "That was by design."
"Ah. Just enough time to recall Roland if he was elsewhere and not enough time for word to spread too far. You're a cagey one, Drake. Always were."
"Has word spread? I mean, does my family know I'm here?" He felt like a fool for asking, but he had to know, and Nico was as close as a brother to him, though he was in fact his liege lord twice over--once as Prince and Spymaster of Draconia, and again as King-Consort of the Jinn.
"You mean, does your blood-father know?" Nico cut to the heart of the matter. "If he does, he didn't hear it from me."
That should have set his mind at ease, but Drake knew Nico too well. His careful words were too vague for Drake's comfort, but he didn't have time to wrangle with the Prince of Spies about it. Roland had spotted them.
Few had the nerve to keep King Roland of Draconia waiting. Nico, of course, did but he was his brother. Drake, while having grown up alongside the royal princes, still couldn't claim that kind of kinship. And Roland was king now, after all.
Drake walked toward Roland, Nico beside him. When Drake would have fallen to one knee in respect for his king, Roland stopped him, grasping his hand and giving him a back-thumping hug, much as Nico had done.
"It's good to see you back home, Drake. We've missed you." Roland stepped back and nodded. That simple gesture of approval said more than mere words to Drake, who'd known Roland and his understated ways since they were both youngsters. "Your work on our land's behalf has not gone unnoticed and I thank you."
Drake stood back, amazed by the welcome. He hadn't left under the best of circumstances, but all he'd done in the years he'd been away had been for the safety and security of the dragons and people of Draconia. Apparently Nico had told his older brother a bit about Drake's work as head of the Jinn Brotherhood's network of informants and spies. He didn't know quite what to do with praise of this kind. He'd heard so little of it in his life.
Drake bowed to the king. Roland's opinion mattered more to him than that of almost any man alive. Roland had been forced to assume the throne at a young age after the murder of his parents, and had always been a steady, solid influence on Drake while growing up. Later, after Roland had become king, Drake had been there, part of the royal court, younger than Roland, but not by much. He'd admired the young king as a friend and a leader even back then. Drake suddenly realized he'd missed Roland's strong personality and the influence of his presence in the years he'd been gone.
"It's good to be home, my liege."
Drake knew he had never spoken truer words.
A scuffle from behind caught all their attention as heavy, hurried, dragonish footsteps sounded through the large throne room. Drake's back was to the doorway, but he knew the sound of those particular dragon feet. He'd grown up hearing them and would never forget the rhythmic click of this dragon's claws on stone. A feeling of mixed dread and delight stirred in the pit of his stomach and he steeled himself before turning to face his destiny.
The feel of her voice in his mind caused Drake's knees to weaken. It felt so good, so right. Drake had denied himself this feeling for far too long.
The peach colored dragon approached him at full speed, her wings outstretched as she landed with a bounce in front of him. Without pause, she swept him into her wings and pulled him in against her smooth, scaled neck.
Jenet had grown since the last time he'd seen her. She was almost full size now, and so beautiful it made his heart ache.
"Sweetheart." Drake hugged her close, allowing himself the luxury of burying his head against her sinuous neck for a short moment. Jenet had been born when Drake was about five years old and they'd grown up together. They were closer than brother and sister. They loved each other deeply though they were of different species. "It's good to see you again."
Drake felt the tightness behind his eyes that he refused to humor. He had to keep firm control of his emotions here. He'd learned the hard way over the years he'd been gone, to temper his feelings--for good or ill. His hot temper had cost him his family and home once before. He had learned a hard lesson then, and had never let his emotions get the better of him again.
Jenet stepped back, her wings withdrawing as Drake stood facing her. Her fiery jewel eyes focused on him as she sent her thoughts out to all in the room. "I claim you, Drake, as my knight partner--"
But Drake cut her off. "We'll have none of that, Jen. I told you before I left that it's just not meant to be. I'm no knight."
Gasps sounded from all around and Drake realized their audience had grown. He stepped back to see not only Roland and Nico, but his mother and her two mates, as well as their dragon partners had entered the room. They stood behind Jenet now, staring at him.
Of all the family now gathered in the room, his mother had been the least to blame for the blow up that had caused him to leave. She had tears running down her beautiful, pale face, and Drake opened his arms as she ran to him, enveloping her in a huge hug.
She hadn't changed much in the fifteen years since he'd stormed out of their home. Partnering with dragons expanded their humans' lifespans by hundreds of years, but Drake had given all that up when he took to the road fifteen years ago. He knew his own face showed every moment of the time that had passed.
His mother clung to him, her pale blonde hair glistening in the light from the overhead dome, vented to let out the dragon smoke. She was petite and seemed shorter than he remembered, but then he'd grown to his full size since leaving home as a teen. She wasn't shorter. He was taller. The thought gave him pause. What else about him had changed? And would it be so easily seen?
"I've missed you so much, Drake. I've dreamed of the day you'd return." His mother moved back, stroking his face with her delicate fingers. Drake loved his mother and had missed her, but he wouldn't allow emotions to overrule his better sense again.
"I've missed you too." Truer words had never been spoken.
A hard, masculine hand thumped his shoulder and Drake looked up to find his dark-haired father smiling at him. His mother moved away so the two men could share a quick hug and handclasp.
"You look good, my boy. You've filled out and wear your years well."
"Thanks, Ren. It's good to see you again."
A sparkling red female dragon dipped her head near. "Hello, Drake. You're looking well."
Drake reached up and scratched the dragon's eye ridges. "You're still as beautiful as ever, Lil."
He knew the dragon who had helped raise him wanted to say more, but the problems between Drake and his family had never had anything to do with Ren and Lil. They backed off to reveal a magnificent golden male dragon, with his blond-headed knight beside him. It was obvious to anyone with eyes in their head that this man was Drake's blood-father. They shared the same golden good looks, the same strong features, the same muscular build, height and keen intellect. The same impenetrable will was also broadcast by identical stubborn jaws.
It was a clash with this man that had caused the rift all those years ago.
Drake knew he had to face Declan head on. To avoid the confrontation would only diminish himself in all of their eyes as well as his own.
"You're looking well, Arlis." Drake addressed the huge gold dragon first, then dropped his gaze to the silent knight at his side. "Hello, Father."
Silence reigned as the older man strode forward, the dragon moving with him. When he drew close enough, Drake could see the battle going on behind the sky blue eyes, so much like his own.
"Is it true? Did Jenet try to claim you before you left?"
The question wasn't what Drake had expected--nor was the stricken look in his father's eyes. Drake recognized the hotheaded temper that mirrored his own, the wisdom that came with the passage of time ... and the regret.
It was that last which struck him most. Never before had he seen his stern father show even the slightest crack in the armor that surrounded his heart. At least not around Drake. No, Sir Declan had always been a hard man, not given to patience with the son who was his very image. He'd demanded a lot of Drake as a child and never seemed satisfied with Drake's best attempts to live up to the Knight's Creed.
Over the years, Drake had given up trying to please his demanding blood-father, opting instead to deal with his mother's other mate, the comparatively easy-going Ren. He'd found grinning approval from Ren and his mother Elena, and bloomed into a strong young man with their loving guidance while his father watched with quiet, measuring eyes. Drake had always felt the weight of that icy stare, always fearing in the back of his mind that he didn't quite measure up to the ideals of the Creed.
"I asked if it was true, boy." His blood-father's stern voice pulled him from his memories. "Did Jenet try to claim you before?"
Drake sighed, suddenly weary of all the drama. "Yes, Father. But don't worry. I didn't take her up on it then, and I won't now. She was only doing it to get me to stay and I wouldn't saddle her with an inferior knight when better men were available."
The older man looked stricken and for a moment, Drake grew concerned.
"Is that what you really believe?"
Feeling the failures of his youth once more, Drake nodded.
"Son," Ren's voice sounded from Drake's side, "you're an ass." Far from laughter, Ren's deep voice was laced with fury. "I thought we raised you better than that, but for all your skills and daring-do, you're a blind idiot." Ren's voice rose in true anger, shocking Drake. He could count on one hand how many times he'd seen Ren truly livid and this was definitely one.
"What?" Drake was surprised by the vehement anger directed at him.
Ren stepped right up to him and poked him in the chest with one hard finger. "A dragon speaks the words of Claim to you and you accept. You don't dither or keep her waiting for fifteen years while you play at being a spy."
"Ren." Elena put one hand on his arm, trying to calm him though her eyes were full of sadness and disapproval when she looked from Jenet to Drake.
"Jenet has pined for you all these years." Declan had moved closer while Ren was fuming and now stood only a few feet away, Arlis right behind. "And now I find it was my own pigheadedness--and yours, Drake--that caused it all. Sweetheart," Declan addressed the young female dragon behind Drake. "Can you ever forgive me?"
The peach-gold head dipped over Drake's shoulder and for just a moment it felt so natural to be sheltered in the coil of the dragon's long neck. Jenet nudged Declan in the chest with her nose.
"I love you, Papa Dec, even if you are as stubborn as your son."
Declan shocked Drake by laughing and reaching out to rub Jenet's pretty head with his big, battle-scarred hands. Maybe his father had mellowed in fifteen years, but Drake was reserving judgment.
When Jenet lifted away, the two men were left facing each other. Drake almost dreaded the serious look in his father's blue eyes.
"Son, I'm done trying to run your life. You're too old for that now anyway." The self-conscious chuckle, as well as the words stunned Drake. "You were still just a boy when you left here, but even then I respected your willingness to stand up for yourself--to stand up to me. I'll admit I didn't always handle things between us as well as I ought. It took your leaving to make me realize that for all your youth, you were already a man. In the years since, Nico has been kind enough to let us know what you've been up to, though your mother still worried. It took me too long to realize you wouldn't come crawling back--that you'd made quite a bit of yourself--all on your own, and I couldn't be more proud, though I take none of the credit. You found your way in life despite my interference. You're a good man, Drake, and you've done your family proud, though I could've wished things had been different for Jenet's sake, and your mother's. They've missed you, son. And for the record, there is no man worthier to partner our little girl than you."
Stunned, Drake could do little more than return the fierce hug his father bestowed on him then, while the proud golden dragon who was his father's partner watched over from above. When, at length, Declan moved off, Drake was left facing Arlis, the mighty gold dragon who was also Jenet's sire.
"You've behaved like the idiot Ren named you, Drake," the dragon began, "but you've also done good service to the dragons and people of this land, even from afar." Drake didn't know where the somewhat austere dragon was going with his words and was even a little afraid of what Arlis might say next. Arlis had always been a quiet dragon--a deep thinker who spoke only after much deliberation--or on the odd occasion when his temper got the better of him. "Welcome back." Arlis's gleaming golden head dipped down so his jeweled topaz gaze could pin Drake. "Work things out as you will, but don't hurt my girl again."
Drake took the warning to heart. Dragons in general--and this dragon in particular--were not to be trifled with. Displeasing a dragon could have dire consequences.
"I'll do my best, Arlis, but I'm only here to deliver a message. I'll be leaving again as soon as I've done so."
At this, the king stepped into the charged silence. "Do I have to issue a royal command to get you to visit your own family, Drake?" His tone was teasing, but King Roland's expression was serious.
"Not to worry, Rol." Prince Nico clapped his brother on the shoulder. "I'm sure I can think of some task to keep my Spymaster nearby for a bit. Perhaps he could help us with the influx of Jinn in the new town. He is one of their celebrities, you know."
"Excellent idea," Roland replied with a calculating grin.
Mention of the Jinn brought back to Drake the purpose of his journey. He turned pained eyes on his family. "I promise to see you all later, but right now I must complete my mission here."
It was Declan who motioned the family to withdraw. "We know you have important matters to discuss and we'll leave you to it, but it's good to see you, son. I'll expect you to keep your promise." Declan and Arlis turned to leave, Ren and Lilla not far behind.
Drake's mother hugged him before following. "I'll expect you for dinner tonight, if you finish your business in time. I'll make all your favorite dishes."
Drake couldn't say no and found himself sighing with relief as the room cleared. The thing he'd feared and dreaded most about his return to Draconia had just occurred and he was still standing. Perhaps this homecoming wouldn't be as bad as he'd always imagined. Turning back to the king, Drake was startled to see Jenet still there. She'd always followed him like a shadow since she'd first learned to toddle around, so he shouldn't be surprised, yet it was odd to have her around after all these years without her. Missing her.
"Jenet?" His gaze swept to Roland in question.
Roland nodded. "Lady Jenet is welcome here, Drake. She is companion to my younger brothers, and like family to me."
"Companion to the young princes?" Drake was taken aback by the synergy of events. "Then Jenet absolutely must hear what I have to report."
"Shall we adjourn to a more private room for our discussion?" Prince Nico led the way, Roland following with quick, decisive steps while Drake brought up the rear with Jenet. It felt good to have her at his side again, her warm presence heating the cold places in his heart.