With the exception of a few youths he passed, Bane’s presence was mostly ignored. He couldn’t blame the curiosity of the young ones, their eyes widening slightly as they watched him walk by. Even living in Central, how often did they see a dragon this close? His kind made it a point to only come to Central when they absolutely had to. Dragons were much more comfortable in the country, where they had room to spread their wings…literally. Not some crowded, busy city full of hustle and bustle. Already he felt as if the walls were closing in on him, and he’d just arrived.
Bane’s stride was long, full of graceful movement. The closer he came to the Grand Council’s chambers, the more his mind wandered into the past. How many times had he walked these same corridors with his rider by his side? Living six hundred fifty-seven years, having outlived four riders, had given him ample opportunity to walk this way many times. But that didn’t mean he liked it. Especially being here alone. Too many memories, both good and bad, popped up.
The last time he’d come to these chambers was to inform them of the death of his rider and to release all responsibility of his territory to a younger dragon and rider team. That was over a season ago, and he’d sworn to never return. Yet, here he was again.
He stopped in front of the closed doors at the end of the corridor, the ones that would take him into the chamber where the Grand Council received visitors. He put one hand on the door as if to push it open, but stopped. His head dropped, and he exhaled. He knew what they wanted. What they always wanted. But he wouldn’t give it to them. Couldn’t give it. Not anymore. He was finished.
Straightening his posture and filling his lungs with a deep breath, Bane pushed open the door and strode into the large room as if he owned the place. He ignored the surprised looks and gasps from the slaves and servants. He only concentrated on the seven sets of eyes that had turned to him the moment he walked in.
Bane didn’t gape at the high ceiling or the worldly art littering the room. He wasn’t in awe of the brightly colored metals decorating the tables or the fireplace across the room that was large enough for a man to stand in. Human materialism was a bore.
Stopping before the semicircular table the Grand Council members sat behind, Bane placed his right hand over the middle of his chest, fingers balled into a fist, then bowed at the waist. It was supposed to be a sign of respect and note of their authority. Bane did it out of habit.
“Dragon Gaius,” Elder Scrad acknowledged, nodding slightly. He was the youngest elder on the Grand Council, having been inducted three seasons before. His hair hadn’t begun to gray with age yet.
Bane straightened as his gaze glided over the seven men who made up the Grand Council. Some of the gazes were expressionless, while the remainder showed annoyance at his intrusion. Being an elder was the highest honor a human male could hold on Ketall. It gave the man and his family honor, fortune, and prestige. The position was inherited from male to male in the seven bloodlines. It was a highly political position, but that was human business, not dragon.
“What brings you before us?” Elder Richter questioned, his tone a little too haughty for Bane. But then, it always had been so when he appeared before them. Richter was the one member of the Grand Council who, even as a young man, had thought he was superior to dragons or even their riders. Bane had never liked the man.
“That is my question to the Grand Council. I’ve received twenty summonses in the past five cycles.” His gaze focused on Elder Richter’s red hair. His dull gray eyes seemed to bore a hole right through Bane’s heart, as if he could kill him with just a stare.
“Your mourning time has long passed, Dragon Gaius. Your services are needed. It is time for you to locate your next rider,” Elder Meher announced, his wise hazel eyes locked on Bane.
Bane shook his head. “I will not take another rider. I told you the same the last time I was here. I’ve served the Grand Council since I was a hundred and two years old. My time is through.”
“If it were up to us, we would submit to your wishes. However, there are problems in the Zaire Forest. You are the only one that has knowledge of its mazelike interior.” Elder Scrad tried to soften their insistence.
It was true. Bane had spent most of the years with his fourth rider, Rylin, in that territory. It was a forest not many wanted to get lost in, though it had a host of occupants living along its borders.
“Last I heard, Dargo and his rider, Tyrus, were assigned there.” Bane’s stomach tightened in foreboding as his eyes scanned each face of the elders.
“Rider Tyrus Paige has missed his last check-in. No one has seen or heard from either he or his dragon for nearly two cycles.”
Bane’s heart paused mid-beat. Dargo was his second sired offspring. Dragon males had little to do with their offspring’s youth until it was time to leave the nest. Only then did the father or surrogate male step in to train the youth. Dargo was Bane’s fiercest student. He served the Grand Council and his rider well.
His first instinct was to abide by the demands of the Grand Council and start toward the Zaire Forest. But Bane was no yearling. His mind was able to override the wants of his heart.
“Dargo is a strong, intelligent dragon.” He wished he felt the confidence that accompanied the words.
“During his last check-in, Rider Tyrus informed us he was investigating several mutilated animals found near the outskirts of the forest. There were also reports of a number of the villages’ youths missing. We need your expertise of the area to take up where Rider Paige left off and discover what happened to him,” Elder Meher said. He was the oldest of the Grand Council, his hair white and falling down his back. He’d aged well; his wrinkles weren’t deep like that of others his age. Bane believed he was the most compassionate of the seven.
Bane shook his head. He ignored the fact they weren’t really interested in what had happened to Dargo. But then, knowing his offspring, he wouldn’t have left his rider.
“Even if I wanted to go in, I couldn’t. I would need time to locate my rider, then to train him or her. Not to mention the time it takes to form the bond. It’s not something to be rushed. Taking an untrained rider into the Zaire Forest would get both of us killed.”
“Dragon Gaius --” Elder Richter started, scowling.
“No.” Bane’s voice carried deep and loud through the room. The slaves near the table jumped from fright. “It isn’t possible. You may regulate those who have human bondmates, but not lone dragons. I won’t be forced to search out a rider that may not even be born yet.” He couldn’t endure the pain of dealing with a rider again. He continued, his tone softer, “You will have to find another to send.”
“They will be as lost to us as Rider Paige and his dragon should we send someone unfamiliar with the forest.”
“Find one willing to go in. I will share my knowledge of the territory with the dragon and rider. That is all I can do.” His voice was stern, leaving no room for argument. They didn’t have to know that he would follow the pair as he investigated Dargo’s whereabouts on his own.
Bane bowed again and turned to leave the room. His heart pounded wildly in his chest. He fought the urge to immediately set off to search for Dargo. Fought the parental instinct to protect his offspring even though he was fully grown.
The internal battle was so strong he didn’t notice the woman racing down the hall outside the Grand Council’s chambers until she nearly bowled him over. He automatically reached out and caught her arm before they both tumbled to the floor.
She gasped as she straightened, her mouth dropping open and eyes widening as she got her first sight of him. Bane was too busy trying to force air into his lungs while heat doused his body to care about her gawking. His gaze was glued to her beautiful full lips. They weren’t the usual red like most human women he’d associated with, but a dark pink. He was fascinated by the way the tip of her tongue flicked out and wet them. Her scent enveloped him. His sensitive nostrils could smell the sweet honeyflower that made up her soap, but beneath that was a scent uniquely her own. It was like a newly discovered spice. He briefly wondered why she covered it up with such a sweet soap.
She suddenly jerked her arm from his grasp as if his touch burned. His gaze rose from her mesmerizing mouth to her eyes. They sparkled brightly with emotion, a beautiful cornflower blue. The same shade as his dragon form.
“Dimwitted dragon,” she grumbled angrily. “Watch where you’re going.”
Not waiting for his reply -- his tongue was too tied to speak anyway -- she spun on her heel with her fiery red hair swinging over her shoulder. She pushed on the doors before her and entered the room he’d just exited.
When she was out of sight, Bane was able to inhale gulps of oxygen. His pulse raced. Sweat beaded on his forehead. And his cock…it was rock hard and aching.
“No,” Bane whispered in denial. “Lord Ezra above, don’t do this to me.”
His trembling hands balled into fists at his sides and he took several deep breaths. But the image of her lips and her spicy scent still lingered within his mind. The tip of her tongue. The feel of her skin. It was all a torturous pleasure. Everything about the woman was tantalizing.
Bane turned and ran down the hall, ignoring all the gasps, grumbles, and stares. At the first available window, he pushed open the glass and jumped. The minute his feet left the sill, his clothing dissolved and his body shifted to his dragon form, flying from Central.
* * * * *
Sianna rushed into the Grand Council’s chambers, breathless. Not from her quick stride, but because of the man she’d encountered just outside the doors. His image was etched forever into her memory. His black hair, as dark as midnight, fell recklessly around his face and over his shoulders. His cheekbones were high, his nose straight and narrow; his lips demanded to be kissed. The chilled blue hue to his skin made her shiver and wonder if his flesh would be cool or warm. However, his eyes had been what captured her attention. They were deep green and sparkled like jewels.
Living in Central, she’d seen several dragons in both human and beast form. They fascinated her and, unlike some of her friends, she’d never thought them frightening. In either form, they were the most beautiful creatures she’d ever seen, whether male or female. She was often envious of their beauty, as she thought herself very plain.
This was a first to be affected this way, though. When the stranger touched her, she’d felt as if she would burst into flames. Lust and the need to be near him filled her like she’d never experienced. The intensity of the emotions that had rolled through so suddenly scared her. Using the only defense she could, she’d berated him with the haughtiness she’d learned from her father and left his presence as quickly as possible.
“Daughter, is everything all right? You’re flushed.”
The voice of her father brought her back to reality. For a moment, she forgot why she’d even come here.
Sianna give a quick curtsey to the elders. “Forgive the intrusion. If I may speak with my father a moment?”
Elder Richter sighed. “What is it now, daughter? The day is not yet halfway over and already there is a crisis?”
For some reason, her grounds for barging in now seemed petty. Inconsequential, really. But she refused to look the fool. Gathering her wits and lifting her head high, Sianna spoke to her father. Nothing had happened out in the hall. All was as usual. At least that’s what she kept telling herself.
“I demand that you move my slave to a position better suited for her…skills. You must find me one that is of better use than lying on her back and spreading her legs for every male that comes into our household.” Okay, she was being a bit abrupt and crude for a lady of her station, but this had to stop. Lately, every female her father brought into their house was useless except for one thing. If her father wanted a harem, he could keep them away from her.
Sianna found her anger and voiced her complaint, the emotion fueling the disagreement she was having with her father. This wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last. Her mind, however, couldn’t stop the image of her mysterious dragon kneeling between her legs and spreading them wider. A sliver of heat slipped up her spine, spreading warmth inside.