Golden sweep of wing folded neatly against shining scales. Bright, orange eyes glowed like burning embers.
The top of the creature's ornately scaled head reached Nicholas's shoulder. Its nostrils flared, and a faint, ominous stream of smoke issued from its aristocratically narrowed nose.
Nicholas Rahl had a great many pets.
When he was five years old, he had rescued a kitten from drowning in the moat. A decade later, his cat Garie was the matriarch of a large feline family and behaved as though she owned the People's Palace.
His father had taught Nicholas to ride, snatching the time away from the daily glitter and grind of ruling the D'Haran Empire. Braith, the prince's sorrel mare, had been a gift for his seventh birthday. He and Darken had trained her together.
Nicholas had learned to hunt around the same time that he had learned to ride, and when he was at the palace he always had one or two huge black hunting dogs at his heels. His sister Dara complained that they got hair all over her dresses, but secretly she loved Idris and Hefina just as much as Nicholas did.
The crown prince of D'Hara also possessed a turtle. Aeron had been a gift from the ambassador of Eldoria, and spent most of his time in the garden. Sometimes he kept Kahlan company while she weeded.
But this time, Nicholas had brought home a dragon.
Kahlan Rahl put a hand over her heart.
Her son beamed at her.
The dragon raised its head and blinked lazily in the bright D'Haran sunlight.
The guards were backing away from the royal family, where Lord and Lady Rahl and their three daughters and Lady Jennsen stood gathered at the palace gates to welcome home the heir.
Kahlan didn't blame them. Loyal the guards might be, but this was a dragon, even if it was only the size of a gar.
Kahlan wished she could believe that the dragon would stay that small. Legend had it that they could grow to over one hundred feet long and live for thousands of years.
Of course, legend also had it that dragons were extinct. Legend, like prophecy, suffered from a certain unreliability.
"Nicholas, no!" Kahlan exclaimed. "Where would you keep it? What will it eat?"
"Princesses," said Dara Rahl, with cruel relish.
"Really?" gasped Melantrys, who was only three years old and still believed every word her older siblings spoke was the Creator's honest truth.
She hid behind Kahlan, crumpling her mother's skirts in her small fists, and peered nervously at the dragon.
The dragon yawned. Possibly it considered the crowded scene before the great gates of the People's Palace boring, but it was plain that its audience found the yawn anything but dull.
Jennsen trembled like a leaf, but fear kept her from retreating back to the palace. She looked as if a gust of wind might blow her away.
Beside her, First Mistress Dahlia of the Mord'Sith brushed her fingers against her sheathed agiel as though to remind herself that there were more dangerous things in the world than a dragon.
At that moment, however, it was doubtful that the other Mord'Sith and D'Haran soldiers gathered here beside the gates agreed. For fifteen years they had feared Nicholas Rahl, but it was not his Confessor touch but his dragon's pointed teeth that terrified them now.
Every single sparkling white and above all incredibly sharp tooth was revealed as the dragon stretched its jaws wide.
Darken was only inches from the teeth, but he appeared totally unconcerned. He was admiring the dragon while Nicholas beamed proudly at his side.
Kahlan thought they looked unbearably sweet together—father and son and deadly magical creature.
"I found the egg in this tiny cave in the Ran-Sing Mountains," Nicholas explained.
"I always wanted a dragon," said Darken, stroking the creature's ears.
"There's a surprise," Kahlan murmured.
She exchanged a significant look with Dahlia. She valued both her friendship with the Mord'Sith and Mistress Dahlia's shrewd judgment.
Dahlia glanced from Kahlan to the dragon and widened her eyes. Almost as if she had spoken, Kahlan knew the Mord'Sith thought Nicholas had gone too far this time.
"Dragons don't eat princesses," said Dacey Rahl complacently. She grabbed Melantrys's hand and tugged her little sister a step closer toward the dragon. "They capture the princesses and make them cook and clean and stuff. It's in all the nightwisp stories."
Melantrys looked doubtful.
"That doesn't make any sense," scoffed Dara, tossing her honey-colored hair so it shone in the late summer sun. "Why would a dragon have a princess to cook and clean and stuff? I guess you're safe, Dacey, since you can't even make cookies."
"I'm certain we can find your brother's dragon someone to eat," Darken purred.
"Condemned prisoners, perhaps," her husband suggested, a wicked twinkle in those dark blue eyes. "They'll die anyway."
Kahlan knew that twinkle. Darken was teasing her.
Her lips curved into an unwilling smile, but she said sternly, "This is no matter for jest, Darken."
He grinned at her, and for a moment Kahlan forgot to be afraid.
Then she rounded suddenly on Andrews, a captain of the Dragon Corps who had already risen far in his king's service. He was in command of the prince's guard.
Suddenly Kahlan found herself wondering where the name Dragon Corps had originated.
"We sent you with Nicholas because you're trustworthy," she complained. "How could you let this happen?"
"My lady," said Captain Andrews, sketching a bow.
"'My lady' is not an answer," Kahlan observed. "It is an evasion."
"Does the dragon breathe fire? Can it fly?" interrupted Dacey Rahl, stretching up on her toes with excitement. "Nicholas, can you make it show us? Dara, do you think your blood would poison it because it's a magical creature?"
Dara folded her arms. She was pristinely ungifted, as was her aunt Jennsen, and her blood was anathema to magic. She couldn't see nightwisps at all, but she was having no trouble observing her brother's newest pet.
"Can dragons be confessed?" Dacey asked.
The dragon narrowed its eyes. They were slitted like a cat's, and shone with something alarmingly akin to intelligence.
"No, dragons may not be confessed," Nicholas said sternly, glaring at his little sister. "And he's only a few weeks old, so he can't fly very far yet."
Darken tapped his fingers against the dragon's scales and murmured something to it, and the creature bent its head for all the world as though it not only heard but also understood.
Dacey hadn't let go of Melantrys's hand, and now she pulled the little girl along as she made to dash forward to investigate the dragon more closely.
"Oh, no, you don't," said Kahlan, grabbing her adventurous daughter by the shoulders and holding her in place.
Dragons were deadly. This one might be only a few weeks old and not much taller than eight-year-old Dacey, but those teeth looked sharper than Kahlan's daggers, and a dragon's flame was hotter and stronger than Wizard's Fire.
Nicholas and Darken both had their own magic, so the sight of them standing so close to the dragon was only moderately terrifying for Kahlan.
But Dacey was still learning to use her wizard magic and to control her powers of confession. She wasn't going anywhere near the dragon if her mother could prevent her.
"Fire bad," said Melantrys solemnly. She glanced up at Kahlan, who was still holding onto Dacey, and then toddled over to her terrified Aunt Jennsen. "Up!" she ordered. "Want to see!"
Jennsen actually seemed to calm down with her arms full of imperious Rahl toddler. "Why don't we go back to the palace?" she suggested, leaving unspoken her obvious hope that wise counsel might yet convince Nicholas to give up his new pet.
Melantrys shook her head so that her black curls bounced everywhere, and snuggled closer to her aunt.
"Can Mord'Sith repel dragon fire?" asked Dacey. She stood passive in Kahlan's grasp, but her fearless curiosity was undiminished.
"I don't know," admitted Nicholas.
"Can we test it?" Dacey asked hopefully.
"No!" said Darken and Dahlia together.
"Why not?" asked Dara, in a honeyed soprano drawl. At eleven years old, she already had a fine command of sarcasm. "You're going to let Nicholas keep the dragon and then it'll burn the palace down. Wouldn't it make sense to find out now if Mistress Dahlia can even do something? Father says forewarned is forearmed."
The dragon shifted its wings. Everyone tensed.
Nicholas ran a gentle finger along the scales of its back, and addressed the dragon in a voice loud enough to carry to his entire audience, "Don't listen to Dara. She doesn't know anything."
"Monster!" Dara hissed at Nicholas.
"Freak!" he snapped back.
"Dara," Darken said, in his most forbidding tone.
His daughter hung her head and glared unrepentantly from behind her hair.
Nicholas and Dara traded insults often, and this had once infuriated Kahlan as much as it horrified Darken. But gradually her perspective had changed.
Nicholas was a male Confessor. If he had been the monster that Confessor wisdom and the lessons of history claimed, then he would never have allowed his younger sister to call him one.
Dara was pristinely ungifted. While that didn't make her a freak, it did make her different. And like male Confessors, the pristinely ungifted were often murdered as children because they were dangerous.
Nicholas and Dara acknowledged the darkness they had been born with. They spoke of the unspeakable, and so it lost its power over them.
Kahlan admired that.
"The dragon isn't going to burn the palace down," Nicholas explained patiently. "And he isn't going to eat anyone, either, because that would be wrong."
"Not from the dragon's point of view," Darken said mildly.
Kahlan and Dahlia exchanged another look. Trust Darken Rahl to see things from the perspective of the deadly fire-breathing magical creature.
Kahlan watched her husband with the dragon and thought of the empire that she and Darken ruled. She remembered that, although lions were traditionally called the kings of the forest, that was only because dragons were supposed to be extinct.
"Anyway, he has a name," said Nicholas. "Everyone, this is Belshazzar. Belshazzar, this is everyone—my family, I mean."
He spread his arm in a sweeping circle that indicated Darken, Kahlan and Dacey, Jennsen and Melantrys, Dahlia, and Dara. Everyone else had retreated several paces, even Captain Andrews.
The dragon blinked lazily at them all. Kahlan could have sworn that the creature raised an eyebrow, except that his eyebrows were more like protruding bars of a slightly deeper gold than his scales.
"Well," said Kahlan briskly, "I won't have him in the gardens or the nursery or the conservatory. Or the throne room." The last thing the throne room of D'Hara needed was a scorch mark on the wall.
"We'll see," said Darken, tracing his bottom lip with two fingers. "Not the garden, certainly, but the throne room…"
"You'll need to find somewhere to keep him yourself," Kahlan went on. "A lair? Somewhere out of the way so he doesn't frighten the servants."
"We'll have to see about getting you a hoard allowance," mused Darken. "Was there any gold in the cave where you found the egg? How did you get it to hatch, anyway? Could you tell how long it had been there?"
As Nicholas explained the precise spell he'd used to wake the dragon, Melantrys squirmed out of Jennsen's arms and ran to the dragon before Kahlan could stop her.
She touched one of the creature's clawed talons and said cheerfully, "Shaz!"
"No, Melantrys, Belshazzar," Nicholas corrected, but it was no good: the dragon was Shaz from then on.
Nicholas Rahl kept his dragon. Shaz didn't burn down the People's Palace, and only ate someone once: an assassin from the Order of Blood who was trying to kill Darken and Nicholas. And he spat the assassin back out—in several pieces—because the man didn't taste very good.
Shaz had taken the entire Rahl family under his protection.
Nicholas was his human, after all.