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Promises and Presumptions

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Human Wren drawn by Vanessa Stefaniuk

Wren snaps up the gift eagerly.

Her human has often brought her items, whether presents or things only to show her but not to keep (to her disappointment). This one is in a thick wooden box laid upon her human bed, the one Shy had given her, but also not to keep, only hers for as long as she remains a guest in his city. She rattles the box, tempted to wrench it open, but instead her nails clatter along the edges in contemplation. Being a human for so long has given her more patience and understanding, and so she’s able to tell that this box is very precious and deserves her care while handling it.

Her nails flick up the locks on either side in a near simultaneous clickclick.

She has a number of ideas of what she wishes is inside the box, but when she lifts the lid, she’s just… puzzled.

Folds of fabric lift up as if gasping for breath with the release of the box’s confines. Fabric? Did he expect her to craft him something? Surely he knew that dragons are better with other challenges.

She lifts the fabric up. Unexpectedly, it unfurls and billows out to reveal the shape of a dress.

Wren hums to herself in delight. Very fine craftsmanship. She admires the delicate weaves and stitching near the bust, the smooth lines of the sleeves, and the way the colour appears to differ depending on the intensity of the firelight. She purrs to feel it brush her soft human skin, delighting in the sleek fabric so unlike her coarse ordinary daytime clothes. If he expected her to wear this from now on, she would not object.

She’s so preoccupied with trying to decrypt how this garment is worn that she only notices the note after stepping on it twice.

“Instructions,” she sighs with satisfaction, and snatches up the parchment, flicking it open deftly without putting down the dress in her other hand.

It’s a letter. She sits on the edge of her bed, pouring over the words her human wrote to her - she thought she came to understand human writing after learning from Shy’s journals, but after being presented with bound books written by other people, she realized that Shy’s handwriting was not at all as legible as normal human writing. And so it takes her a moment to work out what the paper says.

 

Dear Wren,

This dress was one that my mother brought with her from her home many years ago. She no longer wears it, but I hope it will fit you. You might have noticed that the people working in the keep have been busy these past few days. Tonight is a celebration of the longest night, and it is also the anniversary of my birth into the world. I hope you will wear this and join me at the celebration. Ask Jayne if you have any problems getting it on. Please be kind to her, she only wants to help.

Yours sincerely,

Shyler.

 

Wren flicks the paper aside atop her bed and gives the beautiful dark blue-green-purple dress another inspection. She snorts in derision; no way would she need Jayne’s help to wear a human gown.

Minutes later, she emerges with smug satisfaction from her chambers, marching out with the dress worn backwards, an arm slung through the neck, a breast visible out a shoulder hole, the leg slip poked by her knee, and her hair a static charged bird’s nest. Jayne, having been waiting outside after the last several disastrous attempts to help Wren uninvited, gapes at her in horror. Her hands shoot out and she shoves her back into the room with not but a hasty glance down the hall. She prayed to the gods that no one saw her charge like that.

It was many, many minutes later before Wren was actually presentable (and decent, though she still didn’t understand why humans were so ashamed of very specific parts of their bodies). It took much, much longer than she had hoped. But her patience was getting better, and she only ground her teeth just a little as Jayne ruined the hair that Shy had braided for her, brushing out the tangles and making it too poofy.

Whatever. It was dealt with, and now she can see this long night party for her favourite human.

She only had to be reminded once that it wasn’t lady-like to run, and to please be elegant when she enters the great hall. Jayne’s pleading earns her a snort from Wren and a sharp reminder that she’s not a lady, but she slows down all the same.

There is a queue to enter the great hall, to Wren’s utter frustration. More waiting. Some man dressed in a mask and a funny gown is shouting everyone’s names as they enter. Wren looks around. Everyone else is wearing a mask. She turns sharply to Jayne, her slitted eyes wide with anxiety as she searches the girl’s face. Jayne squeaks in fear. Wren reaches up and flicks at the mask that’s pulled up and resting on the top of Jayne’s head.

“Are these required?” Wren asks in an urgent hiss. “I don’t have one!”

Jayne gulps, though whether because she’s the subject of those eyes that scare her so much or because of the realization that she’s about to present her charge to the celebration without a key piece of her outfit, Wren is unsure.

“Stay here. Let others go in front of you if I am not back before you’re to be presented!” she insists, then breaks off into a run down the hallway.

Wren’s face twists in fury. Why is Jayne permitted to run in the halls and Wren gets scolded for it? Wren folds her arms, eyes narrowed at where Jayne disappeared. She would just have remind the servant sharply that there are rules against running.

The line thins. Wren paces in a very small circle in agitation. Jayne still hasn’t returned when Wren reaches the front of the line, and she steps aside, surprising the silly looking man who was about to ask for her name. Hastily, she waves through an older couple who gape at her, snapping at them to go ahead first. This is very patient of her. She didn’t even raise her voice or growl like she might have years ago when she first met Shy.

Finally, the mousy servant round the corner in a wide run, padding quickly and shaking something in front of her. She’s out of breath by the time she reaches Wren, and the dragon girl looks at her with a twisted and apprehensive face. The scolding for running left her mind at once. Her fingers pluck the mask from Jayne’s shaking hand, and she holds the finely crafted and decorated half-mask up to catch the light. It seems to be made of the same colour shifting material as her dress, dark and illuminated like the night sky that Wren had been shown by the fae and was told were lights in the north sky. A thousand little shimmers are imbedded in the material, but when Wren drags her nail over a handful and tries to pick at them, Jayne scoffs and taps her hand, telling her to stop wasting time and put it on already.

Wren remembers about the running rule, her temper and the injustice of it flaring up in her belly where the heat of her dragon’s fire would be, but she knows the girl is right. Dipping her head, and with the help of Jayne’s fingers to ensure her hair isn’t too disturbed by the ties, she slips the mask on. It hugs her face like it was moulded to sit hers and only hers in all the world. Had Shy made this for her from the sketches he did of her? But, no… the dress was his mother’s, so the mask would logically be, too. Wren’s lip juts out in puzzlement as she runs a finger along the edge. Magic, she decides, magic lives inside this mask.

Jayne steps ahead and tells the servant Wren’s name, the man perplexed that she only has one of them to say. But he blinks in surprise when he catches sight of Wren in full costume, murmuring and conceding that she needn’t have another name, that no one will forget a beauty like that, not in a thousand years.

Wren snorts. Humans say such strange things in flattery.

The man shouts her name, and with only a little urgent hand waving from Jayne, who is already inside the busy hall ahead of her (and unannounced, Wren notices belatedly, something else she’ll have to scold her for doing that broke the rules she so loved to fling at Wren but not follow herself), Wren steps inside. Far too many pairs of human eyes look her way. She silently curses at Shy for giving her a strange dress that his people couldn’t take their eyes off of. Or maybe she had forgotten to do something when she entered.

Either way, there was relief in her when the little prince Mason runs up to her and catches her hand.

“You’re here! Finally! I was saving some of the cakes for you! Wow,” and he stops the pulling he was immediately doing to her arm to gape at her dress, having only just seen it shift colours, “I wish I could have worn my glass eyes tonight. I swear on the roots that it looked like your dress was blue but then it turned green!”

“Yes,” she confirms in a satisfied hiss, touching her free hand to a bunching up of fabric at her hip, finger manipulating a wrinkle. “Blue and green and blue and purple. It is your mother’s dress. My- Shy gave it to me.”

Mason’s face splits into a cheeky smile, interpreting that differently, or perhaps seeing exactly what Wren doesn’t see about Shy gifting her a dress like this.

“It’s nicer on you,” he compliments mildly as he turns and tugs her hand. “Come on, before someone steals my cakes.”

She has no choice but to follow him, the people parting to let them through, presumably for respect for their prince, but small as he is, they likely see Wren first and know to move because of that.

Wren self consciously adjusts the mask on her face. That’s a new feeling all together for the dragon turned young woman, a wariness of people’s eyes on her that she’s never quite shaken since arriving in Duskhollow. She smiles politely as Mason leads her around a plump woman, but from the way she draws away from Wren, the dragon woman supposes that not everyone likes the sight of her fangs as much as they like the look of her dress.

Wren had started to think this whole party was a bad idea right up until Mason suddenly stops in front of two plates of bready desserts overflowing with out of season fruit. He lets go of her hand and thrusts a plate up at her.

“The berries are from our trading partners in the south! The kitchens can keep anything fresh until we need them, as long as they’re put on the ice boxes. Taste it!” Mason’s delightful round face beams up at her with expectation, and Wren knows she can’t let the little prince down, not during his brother’s party.

She tastes it with a generous, over exaggerated bite to please him, but what astonishes her is how much the sweet flavour pleases her instead. A growl of delight ripples through her throat, and she mashes the remainder of the dessert into her mouth and smacks her lips once it all passes her tongue.

“Good?” Mason asks, though his giggle that follows reveals that he already knows her answer.

She nods vigorously, then snaps her teeth into another one with darker berries without haste.

“You two should think to leave some of those for our other guests,” a voice chastises without any heat.

Wren twists, inelegantly hurrying to eat the rest of her blue berry bread before this newcomer expects her to speak. Or before he might steal it away right from her mouth. Her tongue flicks over her lips, doing nothing to rid them of the bluish stain. Really, the colour suited her ensemble, Shy noted, trying not to let himself linger too long on her lips, especially not when his eyes are so punctuated by his fine wooden mask.

“There are plenty,” Mason argues, finally beginning to eat his at a much slower pace to relish the taste like the fine little connoisseur he is.

She ruffles his brother’s hair, ignoring the food muffled protests and leaning over him to lift a small tart from the desserts table. Although there are years between them, Wren notes that Shy isn’t far taller than his brother, and that the smaller prince would someday tower over his brother and be able to lean over him in revenge. It brings a small wicked smile to her lips to imagine that revenge.

Still, her affection for the eldest prince flares alive in her belly much more passionately than her alliance with the young one, so even in her mind she feels it necessary to draw attention to his finer qualities. His hair is sleek as a raven’s feathers, brushed as it is back into a bundle and tied with a ribbon that matches her dress. His shoulders are broad and help to hold him in a fine line when he is relaxed, and stoops when she observes him ever feeling small or disheartened, but that is rare now that Wren is here to help him to prove his worth. She drums her nails along the underside of her empty plate, trying to catch a glimpse of the deep liquid eyes that match the wood of his mask so well. She succeeds, and watches his face heat and burn outwards toward his ears underneath the delicate accessory. Her blue stained lips curl into another wicked smile.

“Good wishes on…” and she struggles to remember what Shy’s letter had called this, settling instead for, “your birth anniversary, my human highness.”

Shy’s own mouth quirks in amusement. “Close,” he praises her, sending a flare of delight across her arms which she mentally blames as a chill of cold because her dress is without sleeves. “Generally it’s Your Highness, and it isn’t my birth anniversary yet until the moon is at its peak, but thank you.”

“What am I supposed to do here?” she asks tactlessly. She doesn’t mean to be rude or indignant in most things, but while her fae upbringing taught her the ways of the supernatural world, it failed to prepare her for human courtesy and customs. Mason and Shy don’t so much as blink, used to this as they are by now as she’s stayed with them for weeks. She really has gotten better.

Shy side steps around his brother and joins Wren at her side. The great hall’s tables have been moved aside to allow for dancing, and musicians are in the rafters, their sweet music sprinkling down like rain in the vaulted room.

“We celebrate in a number of ways,” he explains patiently. Wren just barely resists leaning her chin on him as she did for years when he would tell her stories as a dragon. Something about being human makes this touch shocking, she found out.

“There is eating, of course, and there is drinking alcohol that loosens our spirits and leads to the dancing and merriment… and sometimes mischief,” he adds hurriedly. “Sometimes there are gifts presented to my parents if we have visitors from outside the city, but those such visitors rarely come here during the harsh winter months. More often, that’s during the summer solstice or autumn harves--”

“But I am from outside the city,” she interrupts in an urgent hiss. Her eyes are frantic, pupils slitted in distress. “Why didn’t you tell me to bring a gift?”

“Oh… I meant more like guests from--”

“I wasn’t prepared,” Wren reasons abruptly, interrupting again. Her fingers curl around his sleeve - oh, of course he is allowed warm sleeves but she is made to go bare - and her nails pinch his soft vulnerable skin. Fire reflects in her inhuman eyes as she insists, “I will fix this.”

Shy’s mouth moves soundlessly, his tongue catching up after a brief silence between them. “N-no, it’s really all right, Wren, it’s something that ambassadors and politicians and royals do, it’s not something my parents will expect from… well, they think you’re just a guest after all…”

Wren huffs indignantly. Shy had explained repeatedly why he hadn’t told his parents yet what she truly was, but none of it made sense to her. She had assumed it was for human reasons of tact and bloodlines, but never until now had it ever occurred to her to worry that he might in fact be ashamed of her true identity.

Shy can see that he’s losing her, see something behind the literal mask and into the one hardening on her face that she has the wrong idea about this. To placate her, he stammers out, “But, but for anniversaries of birth, sometimes there are gifts. So you can do that just for me. All right? And not right now, either, since you didn’t have any time to prepare…”

A mighty sigh passes through her nose, and Shy can feel her ease and see her thoughts whirling. He gently peels her fingers from his arm, flexing his fingers first as the sting shoots down his arm, willing himself recovered so that he may instead take her arm in a much more comfortable and appropriate way.

He doesn’t have the chance, though, as Wren whirls toward him and into his personal space. It seems she had largely forgotten about Mason, who widens his eyes in incredulous disappointment before making himself scarce with the rest of his plate, but she also ignores the throngs of partygoers around them who can see her familiarity with him. He steps back into the space that Mason vacated to put room between them, which is fruitless as Wren simply follows him.

“My gift will be that,” she proclaims, nudging her head in the direction of the dancing couples. They both turn to look at them, the whirlings fabrics of gowns, the tails of jackets lifting, the variety of masks touched together at the forehead as lovers speak so closely they can only hear one another. And, there are also those who believe the privacy of their masks to extend further than they actually do, stealing kisses from one another while moving more slowly across the dancing area.

“Well, we can certainly dance…” he trails off, and forces room between them as he mimes out which part he refers to, “but I’m afraid if we did any of the other things… people might be bothered by that.”

“Why?” she asks, squinting over her shoulder at the couples. “If they are bothered, we can do it somewhere else where they can’t see us.”

Shy swallows. He buys himself some time with another cursory look out at the masquerade attendees, his people. His tongue feels heavy in his mouth as he tries to form an explanation to her question, an answer that he doesn’t truly take to heart himself and therefore has no motivation to defend. Cued by the sweet note of a violin, he sighs.

“There are expectations of me, Wren, and to deviate from those expectations would cause unrest.” He could hear his father’s words come out of his mouth and tries to stand taller to match them, his shoulders pulling back to help extend to a height he’ll never grow to match. He can feel the dragon woman’s peculiar eyes watching him. “If I were to show any special interest in anyone… well, my people might feel that unfair, or pass judgment that expands the duties expected of you.”

A snort of very human annoyance bursts from Wren. She folds her bare arms part in a further show of annoyance, but also because it’s cold and she has not felt warm since leaving her furs in her chambers. The cold of winter permeates her vulnerable human skin even here, surrounded by hundreds of bodies and the roar of fires. She misses the very real fire inside her chest and hates the churning, uneasy feeling of the human fire that licks her soft insides.

For the first time since arriving in Duskhollow, she wonders if she would have been better off home in hibernation.

When she doesn’t answer him, unusual as that is, Shy lightly nudges her with his shoulder. The brief tickle of fabric over her arms earns him a scornful glance. What height he managed to rise in himself with talk of duty and honour melts under her gaze, and for a moment he looks again like the half scared boy who hunted her in the forest those years ago. The fire in her stomach twists in a way that tells her that she’s both sorry to hurt him and nostalgic for that boy and their time alone together.

She slides her arms apart and turns to him in a half step. “Dance with me,” she demands, though her tone is the softest she can manage and still be heard over the sweeping music. She lifts her arms in a poor imitation of the dancers, looking more like she’s imitating a duck than welcoming him to an elegant dance.

He can’t help it. He smiles.

“Of course,” he accepts, the politeness worthy of his position returning to his voice, and he takes a step back in a grand gesture of a broad bow. She keeps her arms up all the same, wondering with a quick peek at the quieting dancers what she’s supposed to do in return.

He rises and takes one of her hands from the air, guiding her away from the tables. “I’ll show you everything, since I’m leading anyhow,” the prince assures her, his brown eyes sparkling like slick mud in warm daylight. “Let’s find somewhere with enough space so we aren’t knocking into anyone.”

Mason watches from nearby, his own mouth stained in the corner from deep red fruit filling of a pastry. Curious if his brother’s secret dragon friend knows how to dance, he clambours to a higher vantage point up on the royal seating platform to watch. He might even see some toes stomped on. That brushes a cheeky smile over his lips.

Shy positions her arms first, following up by warning her aloud where he’s going to put his hands next. Nothing he does can stop his face from reddening when he touches her, though, and unlike his dragon friend, he feels it’s much too warm in the great hall and he’s far too warm to remain here long. Wren, perplexed, remains statue still in place save for her furrowed brows and eyes flicking here and there, to their feet and his hands and his blood hot face. She’s seen it do this before, but has never puzzled out what it means.

She moves both hands suddenly to his cheeks. “Here, be cold,” she commands in affectionate worry, her indeed cool fingers shocking his warm skin. He swallows down a yelp in surprise, swatting at a wrist while glancing around with frantic worry.

“Keep them at my shoulders!” he barks in a quiet embarrassment. “Just… just step when I say to step, and let me lead you!”

The dance is clumsy and fumbled, but not altogether unpleasant as it draws to an end with the pair in giggles and Wren kicking her shoes off to observe the damage to her toes. Somewhere, Mason is also laughing.

Wren brushes off Shy’s concern as he leads her to an empty bench. “You aren’t heavy enough to damage me,” she jeers, her fanged teeth bared in a wicked smile as she teases him.

“Keep making me eat my brother’s pillaged desserts and I will soon be! ” he counters, lightly pinching her hip as he helps her to sit. He’s suddenly red again in shame to have allowed himself to be so publicly familiar with her, but he can’t see anyone nearby who might have noticed his misdeeds.

She rolls her eyes and flexes her fingers threateningly at his face. “You need to stop that. Humans are weakened by too much heat and I am not strong enough in this body to carry you as I once did when you insisted on racing me to the waterfall last autumn.”

He sits, yanking her down with him to force her off her feet. “That’s unfair, it was a particularly warm autumn!”

“Colder than this enclosement,” she scoffs, but she sets her hands in her lap.

He smiles at her for a moment, the adrenaline of his dance with her finally fading, but his heart is no more calm than it ever is in when he is by her side.

“Your duties.” Shy is surprised to hear her remind him, to pull him away from their precious time alone, but in the same breath he’s so very fond of her for learning to care about what is proper. He rewards her with a squeeze of her hand in his own. If their fingers linger longer than necessary, then he can blame it on needing her hand to cool his own.

“Yes,” he clears his throat, separating regretfully from her as he stands. “I’m sure there will be other opportunities to ask you to dance again throughout the night, but for now…”

He bows, a half-bow this time, not as grand as his invitation to dance. She watches him adjust his wayward mask and mirrors his movement to touch her own, but it hasn’t budged at all, the seal of magic keeping it perfect atop the bridge of her nose and pressed faintly into her brows and cheeks. Only the sight of his mask reminded her at all that it’s there.

The night stretches out and Wren enjoys it from that sticky warm bench, occasionally bothered by one or another man with an invitation to dance. She merely gestures at her feet, trying for apologetic that her long gone injury keeps her from accepting. Shy, on the other hand, has danced with several other people, spoken to many more, and accepted gifts from certain dignified guests with fancier costuming than most attendees adorned.

Wren bristles.

She tries to look up the vaulted ceiling for a view through the enormous glass, but no sign of the moon is visible to her. Her hands wring with anxiety, something she had never experienced before meeting Shy and cursed to her marrow for what it does to her.

Suddenly, she springs to her feet with resolve. He will receive a gift from her.

She doesn’t notice the eyes identical to the ones of her favourite human watching her from the royal platform. Nor does she feel them on her back when she scurries through the crowd and out the great hall doors, the queen quietly watching the young woman wearing her old dress.

Making quick excuses that she needed to fetch new shoes from her chambers, Wren walks at a sharp pace down the stone hallway. She’s very grateful for the brisk cold on the bottoms of her feet and the fresher air available in this near abandoned area of the castle, and almost considers not returning. Until, that is, she realizes that her pace has become sluggish with the rapid loss of warmth.

She shakes her head. This is serious. She can’t allow herself any thoughts of sleep, and definitely none to hibernation once she’s in dragon form to forge her gift. Needing somewhere very warm but also private, Wren navigates deftly, silently thankful for Prince Mason’s tours and especially the gift of him showing her the enormous fires of the kitchens. The night is winding down and she saw no new food emerge in quite some time, so she deducts that most servants have been allowed to join the masquerade with their duties wrapped.

Still, she’ll need somewhere private so no one sees a dragon and raises an alarm. As she passes the first grand fire she’s ignored by the skeleton staff of two kitchen workers and passes through to the store rooms. With quick touches to the stone walls, she finds a dark but warm grain storage room that she guesses must be behind the great fire for the heat that pours from its walls. It’s not but a second later that she is stretching and unfurling as a dragon.

Artwork by Vanessa Stefaniuk

Her feet are unsteady on the grain. Her tail and wings feel almost peculiar to her after these months without them. She only allows herself a few minutes of adjustment to her new old body before setting her mind to task. She sits, plopping a dragon shaped indent into the pile of grain. Her clawed fingers roam over her shoulders and down her arms. Unsatisfied, she tries the other side, then down the spine of her tail, until her fingers finally pause at her chest.

Working deftly, she removes a large loosened scale from her body near to her great thumping heart.

Squinting in the low light, she brings the scale to her eye. Taking great care to be precise, she aims her first claw over the scale to find the right area, fussing and adjusting. This is for Shy, her human. It requires perfection. Finally, she pierces the scale with a claw to create a hole in it whereby she can string a chain. She presses the scale between her claw hooked hands and shuts her eyes, the orange suddenly blazing brightly and her chest’s fire matching it briefly as magic imbues itself into the scale.

And with that, and a satisfied nod of her grand dragon head, she is small again. The scale is much bigger in her human hands, a hefty pendant for any necklace but very worthy of a prince. She smiles down at it in what dim light she can see by, immensely proud to soon be gifting a part of herself to her beloved human.

She makes her way out of the kitchens largely ignored by the remaining staff, the scale delicately cupped between her hands, barely small enough to remain covered. Her dress has nowhere to hide the gift. A very inefficient flaw in the design, she decides, wondering why humans would choose to do something so impractical. Still, this leaves her with the problem of concealing her gift until the intended recipient receives it, and preventing any of these easily startled humans from taking it from her when they realize what it is and the value it holds.

A dragon’s scale grants the human possessing it with the command of will over the scale’s originating dragon. Old scales of long dead dragons hold no such promise; they can’t raise the bones of the dragon and give it life again any more than they can a human’s skeleton. Wren knows that the humans are usually practical, but their wit and reason can become clouded when they see something of value like this scale. They wouldn’t think about how dragons haven’t been seen on the continent since the last great war ended, when the fae hid away the remainder of the dragons and brought them into their own realm to protect them from the humans who possessed them and flew them to war.

She brushes her thumb over the textured side of the scale in her palm, her eyes sharp on lookout as she navigates the castle’s hallways. As an autumn dragon, the scale is a deep burnt orange of licking fire. She remains one of few dragons permitted temporary access to the human world after many decades of peace, her hide allowing her admittance during the harvest months and only within the Whisperwoods where the great expanse of orange leaves provide her with natural camouflage.

Nonetheless, her human had found her.

She doesn’t notice that she smiles when she thinks of him. The short young prince proclaimed himself a man to her and she had laughed, but she could now see how his words are now true. He is a man now, a few short years since he used his books to learn how to track her in his people’s forest. But he had never harmed or threatened her, and he expressly denied ever wanting to command her into war efforts should any ever arise again as they once did. So, Wren came to the conclusion that the fae were mistaken, and that her human is worthy of a willing gift of servitude.

The swell of heat in the great hall welcomes her with open arms. Folding the scale into her hand as best she can, she presses it against the fabric at her stomach as she strolls the hall in careful search for the eldest prince. She still hadn’t the chance to spot the position of the moon outside to know if it is now into the following day, but that shouldn’t matter. Humans can be so fickle.

She sees him talking to a woman in a feathered mask, no doubt someone important to afford the luxury of brightly coloured feathers. She pauses, her bare toes curling against the wooden floor planks as she weighs her next move. Interrupting, she’s been expressly told after doing so many times at the start of her visit, is something frowned upon. Still, he would just continue to have his time monopolized if she didn’t make herself known.

“And it’s really quite a shame you haven’t come out our way, Prince Shyler,” the woman purrs, setting a hand on Shy’s upper arm for the briefest of moments, but her eyes search his out from under her mask in a way that tries to drive her point home. As if Shy could’ve missed it.

He smiles weakly.

“Sylvaqua is a good distance from our lands,” he concedes apologetically with a minor bow of his head. “I’ll have to look into a visit when the weather is kinder.”

This was the right thing to say, Wren observes from just steps away, because the woman’s face brightens and she pinches his sleeve, giving it a shake. “Wonderful! Do let us know and we’ll make the grandest preparations. My daughters will be delighted to finally meet you in person after all I have written them to say about you and our time here.”

Wren stands at Shy’s shoulder now, holding a glass of an amber liquid to mimic many of the people surrounding them. She’s not sure if it’s meant to be ingested since it smells like it has gone off. Quite possibly, it would give hallucinatory effects or worsen her reaction time with its toxicity.

So instead she holds it by the stem decoratively, the other hand still pressed possessively to her stomach to conceal her gift. Her presence is known now, with the woman looking startled at Wren’s appearance, and Shy’s utter relief washing over him to have an excuse to politely leave this conversation.

“Madam Agoyné, may I introduce you to my friend, Wren. Excuse me, Madam, I think I’m needed…?” Shy’s eyes search Wren’s out of view from the Madam’s, silently pleading with her to help validate his excuse.

“Yes, tragically that is so,” Wren answers, testing her best mimicry of the formal cadence these important types respond best to. Another trial and error on her part in her early days involved learning this the hard way. She tilts herself into Shy and he takes her arm by the elbow, the one clutching her precious present firmly to her stomach. It still doesn’t budge, regretful as she is that he can’t take her hand.

She leans her head in and whispers for only him to hear, “I need to speak to you alone.”

Worry splashes over Shy’s features and stiffens his body at once. He had noticed Wren was missing from the party for some time and had even asked Mason and Jayne separately if they knew where the dragon woman was. While he was relieved she returned, it’s replaced now with a dozen worst case scenarios she could drop at his feet.

Wren answers his shift in expression with a severe rise of an eyebrow.

“Out there,” he decides hoarsely, nudging his chin toward a balcony just up a set of plain wood stairs adorned for the occasion with swaths of near white fabric.

The air is shockingly cold. Shy realizes his mistake almost immediately, shrugging off his cape and tucking it around Wren so she doesn’t immediately lose herself to the chill. She abandons the glass of alcohol on the railing in favour of a tighter tuck of the fabric around her body.

“I bring you your gift,” she finally tells him, stepping in place as her bare feet chill on the sharp cold stone.

His relief is palpable, but quickly replaced with confusion. “But I already told you, you don’t owe me a gift, Wren. And… besides, what could… is that why you disappeared?”

The moon. She suddenly remembers she’s outside and stretches her upper body to angle and navigate her eyeline to see the moon. On a good clear day, the sun and moon are only visible from above due to the thick expanse of enormous trees engulfing the city. Wren can see now a faint glow from above the roofline. Shy’s hands move to steady her as she leans nearly backwards over the railing to confirm the time. Well past midnight.

“It’s your birth anniversary,” she points out with brimming excitement. She’s never had one of these human milestones, though she can deeply empathize with the need to be seen as a self sufficient adult, and this - this must be it, the one that her human has spoken of for years. He certainly looks and acts like an adult now, especially compared to when she met him those autumns ago.

Shy is quietly reflective. “So it is,” he agrees, his voice distant and soft. His dark eyes blink several times under his mask, swirling through several emotions that Wren doesn’t yet have names for. The one she does recognize, however, is fondness, and it’s the one he gives her specifically.

Despite the chill in the air, Wren’s chest burns with passion in her own fondness and it warms her to be the recipient of his gaze.

“Here!” She thrusts her hand out, noting how cold her palm is in the winter air with the sweat that has collected on her palm while dearly clutching the gift.

Several long quiet moments flow between them. To Shy it feels like no time at all as he turns the gift over in the dim light and tilts it, angled toward the firelight from inside the hall to see it better. To Wren, it feels like eons, like she can hear the churning movement of the continents in her ears, long enough for a hundred generations of fae creatures to live and die before Shy will ever so much as flinch in reaction to the gift of her scale.

“Do you like it?” she asks hurriedly, her voice thick with anxious energy and emphasized by the taf-taf-taf of her soft human feet padding up and down on the frigid balcony stone. “It’s… it’s my scale. It’s for you,” she explains dumbly.

“It’s very beautiful.” Shy lifts it closer to his eye, finally catching an angle where a wall sconce just inside the door brightens the scale to an auburn colour and picks up the bumpy surface of the exterior side of the scale. The side laid against his palm is silky smooth and still quite warm.

“Did this hurt?” he asks suddenly, lifting his eyes from it with great difficulty and catching the end of the immense relief that washes the anxiety from her muscles.

Her coiled hair, no longer properly tamed by the braiding that Jayne wove it into earlier, bounces against her ears and pieces tickle the skin at her neck and the cloak over her shoulders.

“No, no,” she reassures him in what’s practically a purr, a very unusual tone he’s rarely heard her speak in. “Nothing like that. I don’t think anything would hurt if you asked me to do it. It wasn’t any worse than the first time you combed my hair.”

He rolls his eyes and stutters out a laugh, his brain stuck on what she inferred about her following his requests. Very inappropriate ideas claw their way up from places he thought he buried deeply. He swallows.

“W-well, it’s very- it’s a very precious gift. Thank yo-”

“That’s not everything it can do,” she interrupts, hopping forward when her thrill of pleasing him tries to find somewhere to go. Her hands clasp around his, soothed by the warmth of them and the intimacy of touching him. “I used my magic on it. Do… do any of your books, those books you always talked about that spoke of my kind, did they tell you what the scales are used for?”

A little jerk of his head doesn’t loosen his memory in spite of him trying to do just that. He’s extremely aware of her hands on his. Worry eats at him that she’s far too cold out here and she needs to return to the warmth, but they can’t risk being overheard speaking of this, and--

No, he does remember. The dragon scale pendants of the Dragonriders in the last great war. His stomach flops when he realizes that the hole in one end of the scale isn’t a natural phenomenon, but that she intentionally bore into it to allow it to hang on a chain. Many images of the riders made certain to show the pendants and the effective control they gave over the dragon’s actions.

Wren watches him very closely, her cold nose tipped up and slitted eyes widening to try and interpret his microexpressions. She can see he remembers what it does and rewards him with an encouraging squeeze of her hands, but they fall loose when his face grows ashen and his mouth quivering as if all of his words are dribbling out soundlessly. As suddenly as it was lit, the pleasant aching fire in her chest is snuffed out by a breath of cold sad wind.

“What’s wrong? Is it wrong? Did I… Shy? My human?” Her voice chokes and she hates that sound, hates it, hates the feeling of choking without hands around her neck, the sting of water in her eyes, and most of all she hates the way he looks at her with a sickened palor so far from the red one she had hoped to earn. Her human skin bristles like the flesh of a plucked bird. The air is bitter and harsh.

And then he thrusts the scale back into her hands, tucking her fingertips around it to force her to accept it back.

“I can’t,” is all he manages to say. “I can’t, Wren, I can’t… I can’t…”

“Yes you can! ” she protests, and she knows that if she were still a dragon, it would come out as a mournful roar. As it is, her lungs are human, and her voice is pitiful.

He swings around, pacing in a short oval. He brings a hand to his hair, bumping his knuckles against his mask when he forgets the height of its wooden spires. “I can’t! ” he answers more firmly, his fingers latching onto a tuft of hair and pulling. “Wren, I can’t take your free will like that. I’ve always told you that’s not why I came to find you. I never wanted…”

The fight leaves her. It’s an entirely new sensation, and this night seems to be making a habit of presenting Wren with such things. The scale would have fallen from her hand had the hole not found its way on her fingertip. Reflexively, she curls the rest of her fingers around it and pushes it against her breast. She holds it there so hard, it’s almost as if she’s trying to return it to the place where it came from, the patch near to her dragon heart. But it goes nowhere, it does nothing, it heals nothing.

“Wren…” Shy’s voice is so gentle and cautious, as if trying to soothe a crying child.

To her horror, Wren notices that her eyes are leaking. She is the crying child.

A strangled whimper escapes out of her. In the time it takes Shy to reach out to touch her shoulder, she’s turned for the door and throwing it open. Another fumbled movement from the prince fails, and she’s gone from his sight entirely as she’s swallowed up by the party’s crowds.