Amara was once more where she shouldn’t be.
The candle’s flame flickered against the warm wind that swept through the room from the open window. It was a dark, starless night, one that made the mind wander in the realms of danger and shadows.
She kept glancing over her shoulder, her hands gripping the book’s heavy cover on both sides, ready to snap it closed should an unbidden guest arrived. She couldn’t lock the library door, for fear of what she would say should one of her father’s men try to enter. It wasn’t very ladylike to lock yourself in a room, even if that was a room of knowledge.
It was that knowledge that she was trying to preserve—the reason she left the warmth of her bedding every night, to climb the endless steps that led to the top of this tower, where she spent her nights under the candlelight, nose buried inside the books, eating the words with her eyes, trying to memorize every page, every event, every story … Alas, it was impossible. Her human brain could not remember everything, and time was running short.
She closed the book and hobbled to the open window, resting her sore arms over the stone sill. It was a hefty task to hold these books all night. She raised her eyes to the sky. It looked empty and sad, not so very different from her heart. She leaned her head against the window frame and closed her eyes. Sleep threatened to take her in its arms, but she forced her eyes open and shook her head. She had to stay awake for him, for he had promised to come tonight—and he always kept his promises.
A ripple of warm wind pushed the loose locks of her hair back. She perked up. He was coming. Soon the barren sky filled with the presence of a creature the size of a snowy hill. His wings were spread open on both sides, fragile, like translucent veils. The moonlight glimmered on his opal scales, making him glow like a glorious savior.
Amara had seen Egorinth many a time, yet he remained the most magnificent dragon she’d ever laid eyes on.
Egorinth hovered in midair, bowing his flaming snout to her. “Princess Amara.” His voice was deep, like the bottomless sea, and it echoed in the room and in Amara’s heart.
“What news from the front?” she asked.
“I’m afraid none so good.” Egorinth flapped his wings and nestled around the tower’s spiky top. He stretched his long neck down, bringing his head to the window to face Amara.
Amara stood on the tip of her toes and stuck her head out to be as close to him as possible. “Tell me everything.”
“King Randoul’s army has reached the city of Rothendhar. The siege lasted three days and three nights. When the fourth day’s dawn broke, so did the gate of Rothendhar’s keep. I’m afraid nothing is left.”
Amara paled. Rothendhar was only a few days’ travel away. The war was closing in faster than she had expected. “What of the people?”
“Taken prisoner on the king’s order.”
“And the books?” Amara’s words trembled.
The dragon shook his head. “Burned. All of them. In the middle of the square for all to see.”
Amara shivered. King Randoul’s plan was canny: conquer the cities and burn their histories. For the conqueror king knew very well that once you took the stories out of the people, you took away their memories, and as the generations changed, people would come to forget their roots. Their minds would grow tired of preserving the endless knowledge. Perhaps at first they would remember some names, places, or events. But as the famine came, and people fought each other to get much-needed food and water, stories would matter the least to them. And soon they would forget, resigning themselves to live under the heel of the Conqueror, not bothering with memories of old.
Egorinth’s voice came again. “It is wise to start now, Princess. I have little time to rest. The war does not wait.”
Amara shook her head, casting away the fear and doubt. She looked at him with eyes filled with admiration. Egorinth was mankind’s only hope, for where the human mind could not hold the burden of remembering all stories, a dragon’s memory was endless, like an ocean.
She hastened back to the lectern, grabbed the heavy book in both hands, and returned to the window. “Tonight I wish to tell you our people’s bedtime stories.”
The dragon huffed, a soft wisp of smoke escaping his nostrils. “Bedtime stories? Why, I thought there would be more important matters that needed preserving.”
Amara shook her head. “The whole truth of life, as our people know it, is distilled into these stories. Do you know why bedtime stories are so powerful?”
The dragon narrowed his eyes and waited.
“It’s because when you’re told a story right before you surrender yourself to the hands of sleep, it doesn’t matter how much of it you stayed awake to hear, for your mind will continue the story in your dreams, as you know it to be true. And so the stories are evergreen and growing, carrying the soul of all our people, preserving the delicate nature of our being.”
The dragon blinked twice and offered no answer.
“You think I’ve lost my mind,” Amara said, clutching the tome close to her chest.
“I think you’re the noblest creature I’ve ever met,” the dragon said. “I am now ready to listen to the bedtime stories. And I promise not to drift off to sleep.”
And so Amara told the dragon all the stories the tome possessed, and added more details of her own that her mind had woven as she slept. It was for these delicate morning moments, when she opened her eyes and had a dream’s image floating before her, that she always kept a piece of parchment and a quill on her bedside table, to note the dream before it disappeared.
The dragon listened intently and, from time to time, chuckled or fought back a tear, for the stories Amara told were full of chivalry, courage, and love, and there was no greater thing one could store in his mind.
When the golden line of the sun touched the mountaintops around the kingdom, the dragon closed his eyes. “I shall rest now, Princess.”
Amara rose on numb legs. She rubbed them and felt the blood returning. She had been talking for so long her throat felt sore, as if she’d swallowed grain. “Will you return tomorrow?” she asked, her voice full of anticipation. “There’s still so much I want to tell you.”
The dragon shook his head and withdrew his long neck up to the roof, resting his head upon his claws.
Amara sighed and gazed at the horizon. Egorinth had said the army had reached the city of Rothendhar. Soon it would be here too, and there was nothing to stop them. She rubbed the rough leather of the book. How much she would miss her books.
Tears streaked her cheeks as she closed the library door and descended the swirling staircase.
She stayed in bed until midday, feigning sickness and mild fever. Her lady’s maid insisted she fetch the family doctor, but Amara dismissed her every effort and asked to be left alone.
When all the bedroom maids were gone, and a relieving silence spread in her room, she fished out a small tome she’d hidden under her bed. It was dusty but unharmed. She rolled over to her belly, pulled a white bedsheet over her head, and started reading. It was a book of poetry written in the old language of Rviath, and Amara loved the way the words gave her tongue a twist when she tried to pronounce them. She giggled and read on until the air under the sheet got too stale for her to breathe. She brushed the cover off and took a gulp of fresh air. It would be best if she found someplace else to read.
Where could she go? The stables were full of her father’s squires, preparing the horses for a fast-approaching battle and sharpening their swords against whetstones. The kitchens, then, but … no, no, no. She frowned. The men and women there were busy, storing away the food in barrels full of salt and placing them under the earth, in case the siege took longer than expected. She peered through her window at the gardens below. The maze’s shrub walls had grown taller and wild, for the gardeners had been tasked to help the squires with the battle preparations and had no time to tend to the king’s gardens. In the maze’s heart was a bench. The perfect quiet spot, where none would think to look for her.
She hopped down the stairs, skipping one or two, and landed on the floor with a soft thump. She glanced over her shoulder to make sure no one was watching her, and dashed for the maze’s entrance. Once she had taken a few turns, she breathed more easily. Now she was safe and would likely be undisturbed until the time for dinner came and her father sent for her to sup with him. She would obey and then ask to be excused and rush to the library once more to tell Egorinth all that she’d learned from this little book full of words that rhymed and danced before her eyes.
When she reached the bench though, Amara felt something was wrong. She wasn’t alone, as she’d expected. There, on the bench that should have been hers alone, sat a boy about her age with his face buried in his hands. His back trembled. Was he crying?
Amara crouched, thinking it best to leave and find another spot, but then the boy raised his head and looked straight at her. He had eyes blue like a crystal lake, but they were puffy from tears that fell without him even blinking. His hair was golden and long, and Amara thought this must be how the sun’s fingers looked, if he had any. His garments were plain brown wool, the type Amara had seen the city boys wear when they accompanied their fathers on their chores.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” Amara whispered. “I’ll find another place to sit.”
“Wait,” the boy said, jumping down from the bench. “Some company would be nice.”
“Really?” Amara said, looking around. “Seeing as this is the center of a maze, it’s not exactly the first place anyone would seek company.”
The boy brushed his tears with the back of his hand and gave her a smile. It was a bright, honest smile that warmed Amara’s heart. “My name is Luthrian.”
“Pleased to meet you, Luthrian. I am—”
“Princess Amara,” he said with a small bow. “My mother speaks of you with the highest words.”
Amara frowned. This boy seemed to be highborn, but his clothes did little to support this claim. “Have I seen you before?”
Luthrian shook his head. “We’ve only just arrived. Your father was kind enough to offer us a place to stay.”
“You’re staying at the palace?”
“Yes,” Luthrian said. And then, as if he’d sensed Amara’s doubt, he pinched the woolen tunic and said, “We had to dress as common folk to get away. I came to like it though. A nobleman’s clothes hardly offer any comfort or ease of movement.”
“Who are you?” Amara said.
“Prince Luthrian of Rothendhar.” He lowered his gaze. “Although this morning I heard it stands no more.”
Amara took a step closer. “This is why you were crying.”
Luthrian nodded solemnly. “It makes my heart bleed to receive news of such atrocity.”
“The war is fast approaching,” Amara said, her words sounding more like a question than a statement.
“I’m afraid it is, Princess. Faster than we would have liked.”
Amara sighed and staggered to the bench. She lifted her dress and sat on her folded knees in a way that would have made her governess blush and scold her. She dropped the book next to her. “What am I doing? It’s all worthless.”
The prince sat by her side and picked the tome up. “Rviathian poetry?” he said, raising a brow. “Hardly a light read before the end of good times.”
She shot him an angry glance. “I thought I’d save something from each art: poetry, fables, bedtime stories, historical works, maps …”
Prince Luthrian’s face darkened, and his gaze got serious. “You’re trying to preserve the knowledge. It is no use. The Conqueror burns every written work, even the ones etched on amulets or stones. Nothing ever inscribed will remain.”
“There is a place King Randoul cannot reach,” Amara said, faster than she could think. Should she trust this prince? She had only just met him. Yet his tears and the pain in his heart seemed honest enough for her to lower her guard.
“Which place would that be?” Luthrian said.
“Egorinth, the white dragon.”
Luthrian smiled. “A dragon? These beasts are all extinct.”
Amara shook her head. “Not this one. Egorinth survived the great massacre.”
“How come no one has spotted him across the sky? Dragons are hardly ever missed.”
“Egorinth’s presence is subtle, like the wind that blows in a summer’s late afternoon, when everyone’s too full and drowsy to notice. His scales take the colors of a snowy peak in the winter, and the silk grass’s greenness in spring. His wings are clear like the color of a raindrop, and his memory is so vast it holds everything I’ve ever told him, and I am relaying to him all that I know—”
“In hopes he’ll remember when the war is over,” Luthrian finished for her.
Amara nodded softly. “He is our only hope.”
The prince touched her shoulder. “Amara, could I see him? I have stories of my own to tell.”
Amara gazed into his eyes. She wasn’t sure she could risk such a thing, even though the prince seemed earnest. Yet how could she refuse a boy whose tears had barely dried on his cheeks? “Come to the white tower’s library tonight.” She stood. “I must go now. I can’t raise my father’s suspicions by being late. He has enough troubles on his mind.”
The prince nodded, and she took her leave, glancing behind her only once, to see him once more with his face buried between his hands, lost in deep thought.
A soft knock at the door made her heart jump in her chest. She went to it and peeped through the keyhole. It was Luthrian.
She opened the door just enough for him to slide in and closed it carefully behind him. “You came,” she said with a smile.
He nodded and strode to the middle of the room. He turned around and around. “What a magnificent library you have.”
Amara beamed. “I’ve chosen every tome myself. Come.” She took his hand. “Let’s go to the window. It is about time Egorinth showed, and you don’t want to miss your first time seeing a dragon.”
The prince laughed and followed her to the window. They sat opposite each other on the stony projection underneath the window and waited with the wind brushing their faces.
“It smells like freedom,” Luthrian said.
Amara sniffed the air. “What would that be?”
“The night’s dew on wet grass. Have you ever tried it? It tastes like the moon.”
Amara giggled. “The moon has no taste!”
“You don’t know that.” Luthrian shrugged. “How does freedom smell to you, then?”
Amara thought for a while. “Like books, I guess.”
They both burst out laughing.
It was then the wind’s strength grew, and Amara darted to her feet. “He’s coming!”
True to his word, Egorinth lowered himself to the window, making his enormous body visible against the moonlight. The prince whistled with wonder.
“Prince Luthrian.” Egorinth’s voice echoed. “I am glad to see you unharmed.”
“You know my name?”
“I know everyone’s name in these lands.”
Luthrian looked at Amara. “I guess you spoke the truth when you said that his memory is vast.”
“Egorinth, Prince Luthrian would like to tell you stories from his kingdom.”
The dragon bowed and settled on the roof as he had always done, craning his neck and positioning his head at the window’s level.
And so Prince Luthrian spoke to the dragon of his people—the men, women, and children of Rothendhar—and told of the truth that lived in their hearts and the kindness of their ways.
Amara listened to him speak until the morning light appeared, and she surrendered to a peaceful sleep.
The war came to their doorstep one day earlier than Egorinth had predicted. The neighboring city proved no match for King Randoul, who crossed over it as if it were a barren valley bearing no obstacles. And so Amara watched her father and her men throw themselves into a battle that was unfair and cruel. She hid in her closet as her lady’s maid bade her to, tugging at the surrounding fabrics, muffling her sobs with her fist.
When the merciless noise of metal against metal had ceased, she dared open the closet door and step outside. She rushed down the stairs, calling her father’s name, but all she met was the weeping faces of people, distorted by pain and loss.
“The king is dead,” everyone whispered. But there was also something else Amara caught in the whispering. It was something different from the usual mourning. It was a phrase of admiration and wonder. A single word that made her heart beat faster. Dragon.
She grabbed a crying maid. “What is this talk of dragons?”
The girl looked at her with wide eyes. “Haven’t you heard, Your Highness? There’s a dragon in the field. Poor creature, it must have been the only one left. But now it’s gone.”
Amara shook her. “What do you mean, gone?”
“Why, it’s dead, Your Highness. A spear through the heart.”
Amara’s legs betrayed her, and she collapsed to the ground. The maid scrambled away as soon as Amara released her.
Gone. Egorinth was gone. And with him, all was lost. Hot tears filled her eyes, and she did nothing to stop them. She let them fall for her lost friend, her father, and her life, which was to be the same no more.
Amara went to the window. The bailey below was quiet, and the red flowers on the maze’s bushes swayed in the summer breeze. Warm hands embraced her waist, and wet lips planted a kiss on the side of her head.
“This was the place I first saw you, remember?”
How could she forget? It was the happiest day of her life, when she had found Luthrian crying in the maze’s heart and then sat all night listening to his stories as he told them to Egorinth. And then that night was followed by the darkest day of her life, when her father and his men and her beloved Egorinth had fallen under the weapons of King Randoul, the conqueror that knew no mercy.
And now, twenty years later, there they stood, gazing at the place where they had first met, finally free of Randoul’s tyranny. His blood had just crusted over the sword of her husband. Luthrian had proved his words true, words spoken when he had promised her that day to take revenge. To avenge the deaths of her father and Egorinth and all the other men who had fallen under the tyrant’s hand.
Over the years that had followed the fall of her city, Luthrian had slowly and patiently organized and fed the rebellion, and ignited their hearts with words of glory and freedom. And the spark of uprising had spread into all the kingdom’s corners, until one day, when King Randoul had grown inattentive and too old to see friend from foe, they struck against him and repaid him with his coin, freeing their cities once more.
Amara sighed. “I want to see it,” she said.
His grip around her waist tightened. “I have to warn you, it’s not what it used to be. Randoul made sure there was nothing left.”
She turned to face him. “Let me go up there,” she said, and then, when he made to follow her, she added, “Alone.”
She climbed the spiraling stairs to the library once more. Something she hadn’t done since she was but a girl of fifteen years. The oak door hung open, its sides blackened.
She gasped. Luthrian was right. This room, full of blackened wood and ash, did nothing to remind her of the glorious library that it once had been. Unbidden tears came to her eyes, and she threw herself on the window’s stone, pushing the glass away, looking to fill her lungs with air. She reached into the air, longing to see the face of her lost friend again.
“Egorinth,” she shouted, and then she wept for what was lost and what little had remained.
When the night finally fell, she awoke to the sound of flapping wings. Her broken heart stirred. The figure of a dragon slowly appeared through the mist, and she grabbed the window’s edge. Could it be true? Was Egorinth back? As the dragon got closer though, she realized it couldn’t be him. This dragon was much smaller, with a short tail and scales that bore the colors of the wind, which were no match for the beauty of Egorinth.
The dragon edged closer and hovered in midair. “Princess Amara, or should I say, Queen Amara?”
“Queen of a barren kingdom,” she said with a sad voice. “It matters not. Who are you?”
“I am the son of Egorinth.”
Amara’s eyes grew wide. “Egorinth had a son? He never spoke of a son.”
“I’m flying right before you. My father knew the danger humans posed to us dragons. After the great massacre, whoever of us remained hid in mountain caves. My father was tasked to oversee mankind, to make sure that the histories were preserved.”
Hot tears fell once again from her eyes. “Your father was my friend. He listened to all my stories.”
“And it is for these stories I am here tonight, sweet queen. It is time we wrote them down so your heritage can never be forgotten.”
Amara shook her head. “It is no use. I can’t remember. I kept reciting the stories to myself, but there were so many … I lost everything that night.”
The dragon flapped his wings. “Nothing is lost, Amara. All your stories live inside me, for Egorinth was my father, and his blood runs in me, and so do his memories. Together we shall rebuild all that was destroyed, and we shall teach the people of the mistakes of the past and the glory that awaits in the future.”
Amara raised a hand to her heart. “For Egorinth.”
“For Egorinth,” the dragon echoed.