Princess Lydia had been kidnapped by a dragon.
This, at least, was the news that met Prince Stiles at breakfast. "Oh my God," Stiles said, then belatedly checked behind him to make sure none of the religious advisers were around to chastise him. "This is it. This is—"
"Breathe deeply, son," his father the King said. "She'll wait for you to finish your oats."
Sometimes it seemed like the King didn't like Princess Lydia very much, even though Princess Lydia was gorgeous and brilliant and incredibly talented at everything she turned her hand to. She would make a great Queen. Stiles's, preferably, as long as no one else rescued her first.
Stiles shifted in his seat. "May I be excused?"
"Your oats," the King said pointedly.
"I haven't been kidnapped," Princess Lydia said when Stiles came to rescue her. "Prince Jackson's already been here, and so has Prince Aiden. You're late."
The dragon's cave was in the forest half a day's ride from the capital of Stiles's kingdom, and Stiles had cheated, a little, by using magic. "Hardly," he said.
Princess Lydia rolled her eyes. Her beautiful red hair, usually so delicately arranged, was pulled back from her face and pinned up; instead of silk-and-gold finery, she wore a long tunic and leggings tucked into stout boots, like what Princess Allison wore to fence in. "In any case, you needn't have bothered. I haven't been kidnapped, and I don't need to be rescued. I'm content where I am, thank you very much."
"With the dragon?" Stiles said.
"Yes, and my autonomy," Princess Lydia said in a tone that suggested Stiles didn't know what autonomy was.
Stiles crossed his arms. "I've waited ten years for you," he said. "I'll wait ten more."
"You do that," Princess Lydia said.
Making camp in the forest was one of the things Stiles's tutor made him practice along with Prince Scott when they were younger, after their widowed parents had wed and their kingdoms were joined. Neither Stiles nor Scott were particularly good at the practical components, such as setting up a tent or starting a fire without using Stiles's spark, but it was nice to spend time outside, to sleep under open skies once they'd given up on the tent. Stiles didn't have a tent now to bother with, so that was fine. He improvised with the flotsam and jetsam that Finstock had packed in one of his saddlebags, tying a stretch of twine between two branches and draping one of the large pieces of oilcloth over it for a shelter. Then he laid the second on the ground and secured both in place with some rocks.
The other saddlebag yielded an apple, a piece of moldering cheese, and a squashed loaf of bread. Stiles wished that he'd eaten a more substantial breakfast.
"You again," Princess Lydia said the next day.
"Me again," Stiles said.
Stiles became increasingly more adept at foraging for berries and catching small game in the forest over the next week. It didn't hurt that Prince Scott came to check on Stiles with a few changes of clothes and a hefty load of pastries from the cook. "You're the best," Stiles said fervently as he came shivering but clean out of the nearby stream. "The actual best."
"You're my brother," Scott said.
They shared a royal fistbump.
Scott had been carried off by the dread dragon Peter the previous year, only to be rescued by Princess Allison within the day. They were due to be married at the end of the year, bringing an end to years of tension between the Argent and McCall kingdoms. It was all very romantic, and Stiles wasn't jealous, not at all.
"You again," the dragon said.
"We've never met," Stiles said, because that was the sort of person he was: unable to resist picking arguments over petty details with dragons. This one was easily twice his size, with fearsome claws, broad wings, and shining scales that were a pale, opalescent green. "I'm Prince Stiles of Beacon, by the way."
The dragon arched an eyelid the way a human would raise an eyebrow. "Lydia has mentioned you, yes. You're very persistent."
"I've been in love with Princess Lydia since we were eight years old and she explained the Pythagorean theorem to me," Stiles said.
"Did you understand it then?" the dragon said.
Stiles had to admit that he had not.
"Humans," the dragon said. It gave a flaming roar and retreated into the cave.
"Go home, you're making Prince Scott fret and write sad letters to Princess Allison," Princess Lydia said the next day. She was wearing a blouse and skirt of plain, sensible fabric, and there was dust smudged on her knees.
Stiles sighed. He was plainly dressed as well, but at least he was clean, even if his shirt hadn't quite dried before he dressed and his back felt rather clammy. "Does the dragon have a scrying mirror?"
"I don't need a scrying mirror for that," Princess Lydia said. "Derek does, however, have an extensive library, which I am presently organizing."
"Oh?" Stiles said, interest piqued. "Can I borrow a book?"
Princess Lydia sighed. "You're not going to rescue me, and you certainly can't rescue Derek's library."
"You're very constant in your devotion," Derek the dragon said during week number four. "Dragons are the same. We hoard."
"Are you hoarding Princess Lydia?" Stiles said. A fair question: Princess Lydia had hair like rose gold, skin like porcelain, and eyes like agate. She was exceedingly precious.
Derek snorted, little grey puffs of smoke. "The opposite," he said. "She's organized everything in my den. I can't find a thing. I'm ready to send her to my sister—"
"I HEARD THAT," Princess Lydia's voice echoed from the still maw of the cave.
"—who has a larger, better appointed library," Derek continued.
"I have a library," Stiles said. "The finest in my kingdom. And we have treasury enough that Princess Lydia wouldn't lack for—"
Princess Lydia came out of the cave. She was wearing her tunic and leggings again today, and her hair was up in a braid that crowned her head. There was a hefty book in her arms with a worn leather binding. "It's not you, Prince Stiles," she said. "I want to be a scholar and have adventures, so I'm doing what I must."
"Do you think I'd keep you from your studies?" Stiles said while Derek spread his wings and made an unnecessarily dramatic exit. "Do you think I—I love that about you, that you're so intelligent, so clever. I—"
"I don't want to be a princess," Lydia said, smiling sadly. "Not yours, not anyone's. I'll have to be queen of my own kingdom eventually, but not for a good long while."
"Oh," Stiles said.
It wasn't like Stiles to give up on anything or anyone, especially not someone he'd wanted and cherished so long as he had Princess Lydia. However, the same flame of devotion that had nourished Stiles's heart all these years forbade him from impeding her happiness. Princess Lydia didn't want him or anyone else, because no one could give her the freedom she needed, whatever gold and diamonds and titles they could lay at her feet. There was nothing Stiles could do but respect that. So he moped around the forest for a few more days before packing up his camp, saddling his horse, and preparing for the journey home.
"Princess Lydia?" he said when he came to the cave to say goodbye.
"She isn't here," a familiar voice said. "She's gone to stay with my sister, King Laura."
"King?" Stiles said. "Does that make you a Prince?"
"It's a job title," Derek said as he stepped out of the shadows.
Derek was in his human form, which Stiles had never seen before—he'd never met a dragon before Derek, either—and he was as handsome as Princess Lydia was beautiful. His hair was dark and wavy, his skin ivory pale, and his eyes the cool green of his scales. When Derek smiled, Stiles could see the little crooked bunny teeth in his mouth, a contrast to his usual gnashing white fangs that did funny things to Stiles's stomach. "Um."
"I'd like to hoard you," Derek said.
Stiles gulped. "I don't know, I just got out of a relationship—"
Derek rolled his eyes. "That wasn't a relationship, you were obsessed with her. And we don't—you could maybe help me out here, for now, just—"
"You said Princess Lydia organized everything," Stiles said suspiciously.
"I might need some help un-organizing," Derek said.
"Is there room for a dragon in the castle?" Stiles asked his father the King when he came home for Prince Scott and Princess Allison's wedding. "Maybe a cavern or an empty ballroom or a wine cellar somewhere?"
The King sighed. "Son," he said, gesturing the wedding feast spread between them. "Finish your dinner."