Chapter One

Adelaide had died. Twice.

Once, when the Gyndilians had murdered her sister. Emma had been surrounded in desperate shouts and sticky crimson when so often she’d been surrounded by bright laughter and tender kindness. Her sister had faced the end alone—smoke, terror, and screams her only companions.

Perhaps her sister would still be alive if Adelaide hadn’t left to buy leather. At least Emma wouldn’t have died alone.

Adelaide knew Elias would still be alive if she hadn’t begun the rebellion to overthrow him. Honorable Elias, her once-enemy, prince, king, dragon, friend, had gazed up at her, his life draining away from the wound that Gunter, her best friend, had given him.

She’d been the one, though, to present that dagger to Gunter, to enflame him and the others with her fiery words.

And now Elias was gone forever, drifting alone in the sea, never to flash those stone-blue eyes on her, never to stretch his golden wings again, never to rule their kingdom justly.

Adelaide shivered. It was so cold in this cell without him, so quiet without his deep voice soaring into song. She shrunk into herself. I’m so sorry Elias. He had healed her from her grief and prejudices, and she had rewarded him with death at the hand of her friend.

She clenched her legs tight to her chest, willing herself to shrink into nothing. If she couldn’t have Emma’s arms wrapped tight around her or Elias’ cloak draped around her, then it would be better not to exist at all.

If only Elias had executed her for planning to overthrow him and his father instead of branding his own shoulder. Then he’d still be alive, uniting the dragons and humans, and Adelaide would be gone, unable to make any more mistakes.

Boots scuffed the tower’s steps below, and Adelaide stood. It wasn’t time for either of her meals; the sunlight slanting through the tiny window in her cell showed it to be early afternoon.

Berold’s stubble-lined face came into view outside the room’s barred door. He looked as if he’d aged ten years since Elias had died. Adelaide probably looked little better. The days since Elias’ death seemed a lifetime—a lifetime of tears, regrets, and longings.

After her first flight as a dragon, she’d landed beside Elias’ body. She hadn’t been able to bear seeing him alone on the cliff, so, in her dragon form, she had gently placed him into the sea that he had loved so much. Perhaps it would carry him to Niclond—the land of dragons.

Then she had turned, painfully and unwillingly, back into a human.

Just as the glow of the transformation had dimmed, Berold had showed up and Cyr darted away.

“What have you done?” Berold had gazed at Elias’ bobbing form as if a dagger had struck him as well.

Adelaide hadn’t denied his accusation, and Berold had marched her here to this cell two days ago.

“Why did you do it?” Berold now asked, shaking the bars.

As much as Adelaide blamed herself for Elias’ murder, she also blamed Gunter. “I already told you. My friend, Gunter, threw the dagger.”

Berold stared at her. Then, his face scrunched up as if someone was stepping on his foot, he asked, “Why did you kill him? He took that burn for you. He loved you.”

“I know. I know,” Adelaide whispered, sinking to her knees.

As she had so often, she again watched the brand meant for her skin turn at the last moment and sear Elias’ flesh—by his own hand. She smelled the smoke and nauseating scent of his burned skin. She heard him answer Berold’s astonishment at such an action by saying, “Because I love her,” with the intensity of a dance.

Tears trickled down her dusty cheeks. “I did care for him.” The realization had come too late, and now there was nothing she could do about it.

Berold looked past her at the wall, his face impassive. “We need him now more than ever.”

Adelaide stood. “Why? What’s happened?” For the first time since Elias’ death, she thought of her parents and Odo back in Alesfirth.

Berold’s gaze was an ice storm as he met her eyes. “Why should I tell you?”

“Because I care about this country.”

“Then why did you kill our king?”

Adelaide closed her eyes. What was the point in arguing? Berold had never liked her and was clearly not going to remove the blame from her unless he saw proof. Proof that she didn’t have.

“Because I was wrong and foolish.” Adelaide hung her head, waiting for the axe to fall. She was not disappointed.

Emotionless, Berold said, “You are to hang at dawn.”