Dragon Guardians of Magic Book 2
‘If the first book was a lighthearted, sometimes invigorating adventure, this one grabbed you by the neck and didn’t let go until the end.’
After rescuing a dragon egg and saving her king, Peri finds herself saddled with a mischievous baby dragon, and the center of attention in a nation in turmoil over the rise of magic.
When an elven delegation from Thelanore is attacked en route to Kalin and the magical gift they brought for her dragon is scattered throughout the kingdom, King Thadeus assigns Peri a secret mission—retrieve the shattered dragonstone before its unstable magic throws Kalin further into chaos.
Peri knows little about magic and less about dragons. But if she doesn’t learn fast, the dragonstone fragments may just be the last straw that burns her kingdom to the ground.
Keep scrolling to read the sample chapters.
Release Date: 5 Nov 2021
Author: Juliana Ariffin
Publisher: Juliana Ariffin
Genre: Epic Fantasy, Sword & Sorcery, Action Adventure, Fantasy Romance, Coming of Age Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Fantasy YA, Dragons & Mythical Creatures, Folk Tales & Myths
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Note: Beware of spoilers! I recommend you do not proceed if you have not read Foundling: Dragon Guardians of Magic 1.
“So Peri, how does it feel like to be the most magical person in the kingdom?”
Peri shifted uncomfortably as she stared at the reporter. He was a freshfaced young man, with a thick mop of wavy red hair piled on top of his head and a pair of oversized horn-rimmed glasses that slid down his nose as he leaned forward to study her intently, pen held at the ready over his notepad.
“I’m afraid you’re quite mistaken, Mr. Merrick.” Peri tried to speak softly, but there was no way to stop her voice from echoing throughout the ballroom. “I don’t think I’m the most magical person in the kingdom. The little magic I may possess is completely due to Wild.” She gently patted the baby dragon’s belly who, for the moment, was content to loll around in her lap. Wild responded with a soft chirp, raising a paw to bat at her cheekily, claws retracted.
Mr. Merrick gave her a knowing look, and wagged his pen at her. “Ah, but it was you who found his egg. Not Mother Acacia nor any of the other monks who’ve lived at Mossy Gorge throughout the years. Not even the Ostmouth mages who’ve scoured our continent for decades in search of magic. Surely that can’t be a coincidence.” He lowered his voice in a confiding manner, “Tell me, how did you know where to look, and what did you do to trigger the hatching? Our readers are just dying to know.”
Peri’s eyes wandered over to Roy as she considered the question. He sat beside and slightly behind the journalist, his tall and well-built frame making the ornate chair beneath him appear a little too delicate to bear his weight. His hair was usually swept tidily to the side, but it had been a while since she’d last seen him and the golden brown locks seemed more unruly now, a few longer strands falling into his eyes as he focused on a sketchpad propped in front of him.
How had she known where to look? She hadn’t. No one had even known that a dragon egg existed at Mossy Gorge. It was just her own impulsive nature and luck that had led to their discovering Wild’s egg when she’d taunted Roy into practically demolishing its hiding place with a hammer.
As for the hatching… all Peri could remember was overwhelming terror, pain and cold. She’d been out of her mind with fear that the tiny life within the egg would be snuffed out, and desperate to save it no matter the cost. At some point, the terror had been drowned out by a throbbing pain deep within her. It had felt as if someone had reached down her throat to try to wrench her very heart out of her chest. Every pulse seemed to suck the lifeblood out from her veins, leaving behind a mind-numbing chill that slowly enveloped her limbs.
By the time the agony subsided, Peri had been barely conscious. Vaguely aware only of Roy’s hands, first clutching her own with a desperateness that helped to anchor her consciousness, then holding her so close that she’d felt his voice rumbling in his chest and his breath brushing hotly across her forehead. She hadn’t needed to hear his words to know he was telling her that everything was going to be all right, that she was going to be safe, he’d make sure of it.
“Miss Peri?” Mr. Merrick pressed, drawing her back to the present.
Peri averted her gaze from Roy’s sketchpad and looked up to meet his eyes. Embarrassed at having been caught staring, she arched a brow in a silent question.
Roy smiled slightly, then shook his head, immediately understanding what she’d wanted to ask. They’d discussed it before, after all. She didn’t really need to confirm yet again that he didn’t want any attention or credit for helping to find the egg, or smoothing over the deal between King Thadeus and the Bloodless. He didn’t think it was appropriate considering what his parents had done.
But even though Peri understood why Roy wanted to stay out of the limelight, she couldn’t help but sigh inwardly, wishing she could do the same. So much had changed for her seemingly overnight since the Blessing.
This was her fifth interview since she’d moved into the palace. The first one had been held with the Kalin Times, a few days after the Blessing with King Thadeus present. The questions had been respectful and relevant, and with the king himself taking the lead, Peri had hardly needed to say a word. The article that had come out of it the next day had been succinct, factual, and accurate, so Peri hadn’t thought twice before accepting the next interview. And the next, and the next.
Three in one day, and Peri had done them all, striving only to be as friendly, honest, and open as she could be, so that everyone would understand what had happened and welcome her baby dragon along with the changes he was bringing to their world.
Needless to say, it had led to disaster.
Horrified at what had been written about her, Peri had shredded each resultant article to pieces, then spent the next few days hiding in her bedroom. She’d been too embarrassed to step foot into the rest of the palace until King Thadeus himself had summoned her for a private meeting in his study.
“I think I owe you an apology, Peri,” he’d said, to her utmost dismay. “I should have anticipated this and assigned an assistant to help you screen the interview requests and coach you on how to craft your answers.”
“Oh no, Your Majesty, it’s completely my fault! I should have been more careful about what I said. But you must believe me, I just meant to convey how grateful Wild and I are for your support and protection. I never intended to imply anything else.” Peri gulped back the bile that had risen in her throat at the sight of the tabloid headlines on the king’s desk.
Fresh from the Temple and straight to the Royal Quarters!
Dragon dowry for the Crown!
Young Witch enchants Royal Eye—is a magical wedding on the horizon?
The pile of tabloids had only gotten fatter since her maid, Daisy, had presented them to Peri the day after her interviews. It seemed that even the news agencies she hadn’t given interviews to were jumping onto the bandwagon, further reiterating and twisting what she’d said, with added comments and quotes from anyone who could claim the faintest connection to her, and even some who couldn’t.
“The thought never even crossed my mind.” King Thadeus chuckled. “I know from my own experiences how easily a harmless comment can get sensationalized. You mustn’t let such gossip trouble you or occupy your mind. The palace has already issued a statement that should help sort this out, and even though we can’t stop more articles from being published, I’m sure something new will happen soon to distract everyone from all these rumors.”
Unfortunately, he’d been absolutely right.
Thanks to Wild’s hatching, fresh magical energy had surged throughout the kingdom like an invisible tidal wave. Reports of its effects soon began to flood the papers, and requests for interviews with Peri only grew more abundant with each passing day. Still stinging from her recent experience, she’d rejected every single one… until Roy turned up at her door, sent by the Kalin Chronicles to personally request an exclusive interview with her.
Peri could have said no. After all, she’d only promised him exclusive rights to paint Wild in that bargain they’d struck all those months ago. She was under no obligations to give him an interview, even if his association with her had caused him to be thrown behind bars by his own father. Even if, thanks to her actions, his family’s involvement in Lord Lethwaine’s plot to overthrow the king had been exposed, and Sterling Rails was forfeited to the Crown. After all, Roy himself had played a hand in all of that too. And it was Roy’s own decision to cut ties with his family and strike off on his own to work with the Kalin Chronicles.
Despite that, and despite her better judgment, Peri had taken one look at Roy’s face and immediately found herself agreeing to the interview.
“I was just at the right place at the right time, I suppose,” she finally replied. “As for the hatching, I’m sorry, but I don’t remember any details since I was unconscious when it happened. You might have better luck asking someone else who was there to describe it.”
The people who had been there were the Bloodless who’d saved her life, and Roy, King Thadeus, and Camellia, who’d accompanied her back to the palace in the same carriage. But no one could hide from Kalin’s public as well as the Bloodless, and Peri was sure her friends and family had already been pressed for juicy details. So far, not a single one of them had said a thing to add to King Thadeus’ prosaic announcement.
“I see. That’s understandable.” Mr. Merrick’s shoulders slumped, but he quickly scribbled her answer down. “And how do you feel about being the guardian of the only dragon in existence in the world? Your life has completely changed, hasn’t it? Tell us all about it.”
Peri leaped at the opportunity to promote Wild as a harmless and lovable dragon. “Actually, it’s very similar to when I used to take care of my younger sisters at the temple. Wild is very curious and loves to explore, so I’ve just had to be a little careful when he gets excited because he sometimes releases sparks or breathes fire. But that’s to be expected since he’s a dragon.” She laughed lightly. “He doesn’t mean any real harm. He’s quite playful and affectionate, and as you can see, really loves to cuddle.”
A stifled snort sounded from behind Peri.
“What about his ability to do magic?” Mr. Merrick leaned forward again, eyes keen. “I’ve heard some accounts that he can turn invisible. Surely that makes things interesting? And maybe there’s more that you’ve had to deal with…”
“Turning invisible is the most he’s done so far, but it rarely happens, really,” Peri said hastily. “He only does it when he feels frightened. Then he usually hides somewhere he feels is safe.”
“Oh, so you can’t make him do it now? Perhaps we can try giving him a little harmless scare.” Mr. Merrick gazed longingly at the baby dragon as he spun his pen around his thumb.
“It wouldn’t work. He’s gotten a lot bolder these days, and—”
The pen catapulted through the air until it neared Wild’s face. The little dragon darted forward and snapped it up in his fangs. He crunched it a few times between his teeth, then spat out the bits and curled his ink-stained tongue in disgust.
“—hardly anything startles him anymore.” Peri hid a grin as the reporter stared in dismay at the remains of his pen. What did he expect, taunting a baby dragon? “Do you need me to find you another pen?”
“Ah, that’s all right, I came prepared.” Mr. Merrick drew out another pen. He had wilted slightly at the failure of his trick, but he quickly perked up again as he revisited his list of questions. “How about we move on to what it’s like to live here at the palace? I imagine the two of you are often the center of attention. Everyone must want to spend time with you, like the mages, temple scholars, nobles… perhaps even the king?”
“We have met some nobles and King Thadeus, too, on occasion. After all, like you said, we live in the palace, and as big as it is, people tend to run into each other along the hallways. But we mostly just try to keep to ourselves. Wild is still very young and not everyone is comfortable being around a dragon. Most are frightened, actually.” And she’d been very careful to avoid those who weren’t, unable to trust their good intentions or desire to study Wild. “But it’s been a great honor to be invited to live here, and I’m very thankful to be permitted to be the guardian of such a wonderful baby dragon.” Peri smiled, glad that this time she had an appropriate answer prepared for that exact question.
Mr. Merrick’s eyebrows flew up his forehead, and he adjusted his glasses as he peered curiously up at Mr. Curry. The court painter’s corpulent body swayed precariously on a sling as he painted clouds high up on the ceiling. He was working on a massive new fresco that spanned the entire length of the ballroom and depicted several dragons frolicking across a mountainous landscape. Though he was halfway across the ballroom and suspended at such a height, his disgruntled mutterings bounced off the ceiling to reach their ears, the words just as sharp and crystal clear as if he were standing right beside them.
“Wonderful dragon, hah! Dangerous miscreant, I’d say! Never have I ever seen such a rascally, pestiferous creature in my entire life… why, my eyebrows still haven’t grown back, and I swear it’s been at my paints. And I don’t mean the greens or browns, no, the little beast had to develop a hankering for my best crimsons and golds and precious blues. It’s like it’s trying to bankrupt me! Why… the stories I could tell would blister your ears, that’s for sure!”
Mr. Merrick stuck the tip of his tongue out of his mouth as he scribbled furiously on his notepad.
Peri cleared her throat loudly and hoped her face wasn’t too red. Unlike Peri, most of the people in the palace still hadn’t gotten used to Wild. “Do you have more questions, Mr. Merrick?”
The reporter stopped writing to look at her, eyes bright behind his glasses. “Ah, yes. Sorry, I was just a little distracted for a moment. Let me see what else I’ve got for you.”
Peri sighed inwardly. She didn’t even want to think about what the reporter might concoct out of those remarks, or what the court painter might say if he was approached for an exclusive interview with the Kalin Chronicles.
Perhaps she should have chosen a more private location for their interview. But the suite King Thadeus had given her in the royal quarters was out of the question. Palace servants gossiped, and she could already see the headline: King’s Sweetheart Entertains Young Men in Private Suite! Magical Gathering, or Something More?
And besides, it was always a risk to allow Wild into any of the lavishly furnished rooms in the palace. He never meant to break or burn anything, but accidents still happened, especially when he entered a new and unfamiliar environment. So Peri had decided to go with the ballroom. They often spent time in there—though usually only when Mr. Curry was done with his work—since it was spacious enough for Wild to gallop around in. Peri had thought that would help if Wild got bored and needed to burn off some energy during the interview. Unfortunately, choosing the ballroom also meant that anyone could walk in and overhear—or make a comment—during the interview.
“Right.” Mr. Merrick looked up from his notes. “I think we can move on to another topic. I’m sure you’ve heard of the Children of the Dragon by now, Miss Peri. Do you have any comments to make about them, particularly in regards to their recent claim that Wild is a reincarnation of their dragon god?”
Peri hesitated. As far as she knew, the Children were devotees of the Great Serpent Circle who, thanks to a stunt she’d pulled, were convinced that a powerful dragon spirit had reached out to them through the dragon statue at the Golden Temple. She’d hoped their fascination with the affair would die out in time, but the devotees had only grown more devout following the events at the King’s Blessing and Wild’s subsequent hatching. The Circle had yet to comment on their beliefs—or even to acknowledge the role the previous abbess had played in trying to dethrone the king—but that hadn’t stopped the Children from banding together to worship the dragon statue. Still, this was the first time Peri had heard any mention of Wild in association with the group.
“Miss Peri?” Mr. Merrick prompted.
“No, I’m sorry, but I don’t have any comments on this topic.” That was what she’d been told to say if she encountered anything too controversial.
Mr. Merrick sighed heavily. “I know you’ve been trying your best, Miss Peri. But at this rate, I might as well just reprint the original article from the Kalin Times. Can’t you give me something new? Something genuine and unfiltered by the palace advisers that might perhaps, help our readers to connect with you?”
Peri winced, hearing his unspoken words: Say something interesting or I’ll have to search elsewhere for my juicy tidbits.
“Fine, ask me another question and I’ll give you as genuine an answer as I can.”
“Truly?” Mr. Merrick’s eyes grew wide and hopeful.
“You have my word,” Peri said firmly. This was for Roy, after all. She could bend a little, for him. She smiled at him and he nodded encouragingly back, causing her cheeks to warm slightly.
“Excellent!” Mr. Merrick’s eyes gleamed as he said, “All over Kalin, people are waking up with horns on their heads, or hooves where their feet used to be. Some have discovered newfound strength or dexterity, while others are struggling with uncontrollable cravings, such as an inexplicable appetite for meat or bloodshed. As the person responsible for triggering this change in their lives, do you have anything you’d like to say to them? An explanation for your actions maybe, or some advice on how they should cope with their sudden and unexpected acquisition of magic? Do you recommend they join the recently exposed secret society known as the Bloodless, who have recently been granted citizenship in Kalin via an unprecedented and controversial decision by King Thadeus, or do you support the popular opinion that everyone with a magic lineage should be sent back to their countries of origin?”
Serpents. She’d walked right into that one, hadn’t she?
Roy was drawn out of the reverie he’d fallen into while sketching Peri when she frowned and shifted Wild around in her lap. He quickly ran over the last few seconds of the interview in his mind, then leaned forward to address his partner.
“Merrick! You said you’d stick to the list of questions,” he hissed.
“I did,” Merrick whispered back. “See?” He tapped the notepad in front of him. “‘Reaction to magic’. Don’t make a fuss, Roy. The girl can handle herself.”
Roy opened his mouth to retort, but Merrick spoke over him. “So, Miss Peri. Anything you’d like to say? I assure you, the Kalin Chronicles will print your statement word for word. We’re not like those other disreputable news outlets.”
Roy frowned. Merrick was pressuring Peri so she wouldn’t have time to think of a vague answer or evade the questions. “You don’t have to answer, Peri.”
Merrick shot him a glare, but Roy just narrowed his eyes back. Peri had only agreed to the interview as a favor to him, and he’d promised her he would screen all the questions. Merrick had crossed a line.
“Oh, it’s okay,” Peri said. “I understand that a great change has happened in a lot of people’s lives, and I do feel responsible, since it was my actions that brought it about.” She met Roy’s eyes. “Which is why I’m happy to explain my side of it, especially since we didn’t quite cover this aspect in my previous interviews.”
He hesitated, then nodded. She had a right to speak after all.
“First, I’d like to say that I never intended for all of this to happen.” Peri paused to gather her thoughts. “I didn’t understand what it meant when I first found Wild’s egg. I wasn’t even aware that people like the Bloodless existed. All I was thinking of was the creature in need of my help. It was in danger, abandoned, and I wanted to make sure that it was safe. Then, once I realized that it was magical, and that it would cause magic to surface and affect everyone around it, or at least, those who have a predisposition for magic, I still didn’t fully understand what the consequences would be.
“I’m not saying I’m not to blame, I know what I did impacted people’s lives. I know there are people struggling… I’m struggling too. But our magic isn’t an abomination, and it doesn’t change who we are. Yes, you may have horns, you may have hooves, but you’re the same person inside, and you definitely shouldn’t have to leave Kalin if you don’t want to. If you’ve lived here all your life, this should be your home. And I don’t think anyone should feel like they have to join a secret society just to feel accepted.” She paused as an idea occurred to her. “In fact, there’s no reason why magical people should feel unwelcome in Kalin. We used to be part of Thelanore after all, so if your ancestors were one of the Folk, it just means that you’re a true native of Kalin. No one has more right than you to be here.”
Merrick paused his scribbling and looked up at Peri, brow furrowed. “Come again?”
“Sorry, I must have spoken too fast—”
“No, that’s not it.” Merrick darted a glance at Roy that immediately sent alarm bells ringing in his head. “I’m just not sure you I understood you correctly. Do you mean to say that you think that mags are the rightful inhabitants of this continent?”
Roy shook his head slightly as he tried to catch Peri’s eye, but Peri didn’t seem to notice as she stared at Merrick.
“A term coined by yours truly to differentiate between nonmagical and newly magical Kalinese. I consider it to be a broader term than the Bloodless, since that term refers specifically to the secret society whose members have always known about their heritage before magic began to return to Kalin. The Bloodless have always had magic, though they suffered from the lack of it here. Mags, on the other hand, includes them as well as anyone who possesses any degree of magic. So it also applies to those who are only just discovering their magical heritage and who previously considered themselves to be human. Naturally elves and dwarfs and the other magical races from other countries may also be classified as mags, but we traditionally refer to that whole group of naturally magical people as the Folk.”
Peri nodded slowly. “So… in other words, a mag is someone who is Kalinese and descended from the Folk.”
“Well, not quite. You may have Folk ancestors, but to actually be considered a mag, you should also have enough magic that it has started to manifest within your body, thereby transforming you into something beyond human. Therefore the term mag wouldn’t apply if you’re a mage or anyone else who just uses magical equipment. It also wouldn’t apply if you can do magic but have no discernible features or abilities inherited from any of the magical races.”
Merrick politely didn’t add that someone like that was normally considered a witch, but he didn’t have to. Peri already knew what people were calling her behind her back.
“And does it matter if you’re pro- or antimag?”
“No. Those terms just refer to whether or not somebody is for or against magic in Kalin. It depends on your ideology on magic, not your physical state. It’s entirely possible for someone to be a mag, but also antimag. Though that would probably be a very unhappy situation to be in,” Merrick said with a wry smile.
“All right. It’s a little confusing, but I think I understand now.”
“Good. Now, about what you said… did you really mean it?”
“Actually, I think what she meant to say is that—”
Merrick kicked at Roy’s chair so hard, his sheaf of sketch paper tumbled from his lap to the floor. “Don’t put words into her mouth, Roy. Miss Peri can speak for herself.”
“Oh, dear. Here, let me help you—” Peri began to shift Wild off her lap to get up. Roy dove forward and slowly began to gather his papers, hoping to exchange a word with her when she came to help.
But Merrick swiftly knelt beside him and scooped the papers up with surprising efficiency. “Sorry, I should help since it was my fault they fell. Here you go.”
He smacked the sheaf against Roy’s chest then settled back into his chair and plucked his pen from where he’d stuck it behind his ear. He poised it over his own notebook and looked at Peri expectantly. “Now, you were saying?”
“I…” she hesitated, frowning slightly as she glanced at Roy. “Yes, I was saying that I think the mags as you call them, should be fully accepted into our society. They have as much right as humans to be here after all.”
“More perhaps, since some of them might actually be descended from the original inhabitants of Kalin,” Merrick said nonchalantly, “back from when it was still under Thelanore’s rule. Isn’t that right?”
Peri shrugged. “That’s what I learned in history.”
“Indeed, indeed. I remember learning it too.”
Roy sighed as Merrick scribbled frantically in his notebook, then shook his head at Peri when she raised a brow at him. She’d said nothing that was factually incorrect after all, and it was too late to backtrack now. But perhaps Merrick would be decent enough not to twist her words. He’d just have to make sure of it, Roy decided.
“As for coping with the unexpected changes that magic brings… I think there’s nothing we can do now, but to help each other embrace these differences and learn to live with it. It’s just another side of ourselves. And I know that it’s easy for me to say that, when I’m not the one who has horns or—” she glanced at Merrick “—feels the urge to draw blood?”
He nodded. “There’s been a few incidences lately.”
Peri winced. “I’m sorry to hear that. I can’t pretend to have all the answers. But perhaps we can find the solutions together. I believe that it’s something special to have magic, or to be descended from a race that has magic, no matter how much you actually possess. And while the changes may be strange and hard to deal with now, there might be some hidden benefits. New abilities, or a side of ourselves that has been missing and that we never knew we lacked before. It might also enable us to get to know our heritage and discover new relatives.”
“Or a different side to the ones we currently have.” Merrick chuckled.
“Anyway, no matter what’s happening, I hope that all those who have been affected by magic can learn to adjust. No matter how hard it might seem, none of us are alone. We’re all in this together, and we’ll definitely get through this challenging time.”
Peri looked at Mr. Merrick. “How’s that as an answer?”
“Very heartfelt, Miss Peri. I’m sure many Kalinese will appreciate you opening up like this.” Merrick smiled widely as he finished writing and wiped at the nib of his pen.
“Good. Just please don’t misquote what I said.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll quote you word for word. Now, perhaps we can move on to what you plan to do next. Judging from the drawings that Roy’s been doing, it looks like Wild has more than tripled in size and it’s only been what… two months since he hatched from his egg?”
“Are you surprised at how fast he’s grown? And will the two of you remain here at the palace? What if he gets too big to fit indoors?”
“A little, but he does eat a lot. And yes, we’ll probably stay for the foreseeable future, at least until he gets too big. Then we’ll have to think about where to go, but I suppose it will still be somewhere in Kalin City. We don’t have any solid plans yet.”
“I see. Well, that’s good to hear. A dragon is powerful and Wild’s presence here should definitely boost Kalin’s influence among her fellow nations. And speaking of power, the dragons of old are said to have been sworn guardians of the people, but Wild here wasn’t born with such constraints, was he?”
Peri hesitated, then shook her head. “No, it isn’t something that happens naturally. I think that would require a spell to be enforced.”
“And have you performed such magic?”
“No, not yet. He’s still too young for such things.”
“But what about when he grows up and his strength and magic far outweighs any influence you may have on him?”
“Wild would never hurt anybody…”
“Not even if he was ordered to? Surely you’ve considered the possibility that he could be trained to fight for Kalin if necessary?”
Peri frowned and bit her lip uncertainly. “Uhm..”
“No?” He scribbled something down on his notepad. “Well then, do you mind letting us know what King Thadeus and you have planned for his future in terms of what his role and duty would be for our country?”
Again, Peri failed to answer.
“Perhaps that’s too much to think about right now. Why don’t you just share what you hope or envision for Wild when he grows up, Miss Peri?”
“Merrick!” Roy hissed, unable to stand it any longer.
“What? We already discussed this, Roy, look.”
Roy glanced at Merrick’s notepad on which it was written: ’Possible plans for the future’. “Yes, but you don’t have to keep pressuring her.”
“This is what we’re supposed to do, Roy,” Merrick retorted. “She can decide not to answer if she wants to, just like she did before.”
Roy glanced at Peri. It was obvious she was too distracted by the issues Merrick had brought up to think clearly. All her earlier confidence and bearing seemed to have evaporated. He ignored his partner’s dirty look and began to reassure her. “Look Peri, you really don’t have to—”
A footman stepped through the doors to the ballroom and made a beeline towards Peri to whisper in her ear.
Peri immediately jumped to her feet.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said, looking more relieved than apologetic. “But King Thadeus has summoned me for a private meeting, so it looks like I must cut this interview short. I hope you have enough to publish your article, Mr. Merrick?”
Though she spoke to Mr. Merrick, she glanced uncertainly at Roy as if to say she could find a way to stay if he really wanted it. Roy appreciated the thought, but he shook his head and jerked his chin to indicate she should go.
“We have enough for now,” Merrick said hurriedly, “but perhaps we can arrange for a second session to address—”
But Peri was already scuttling across the ballroom, hot on the heels of the footman. Roy grinned as he noted how tomboyish her gait still was, even with the fancy dress.
“Hmm. She was very eager to see him, wasn’t she?” Merrick noted. “And don’t they seem very familiar with each other, for the king to summon her in the middle of the day at such short notice? Perhaps there was some truth in that article from The Tableau.”
“What? No, she’s just happy to get away from you, that’s all. It’s not surprising considering you were practically interrogating her. Peri doesn’t deserve that sort of questioning.”
“Please, there’s more to Peri than meets the eye. No ordinary girl just stumbles across a dragon egg, let alone succeeds in hatching it while also saving her king.”
“She didn’t do it single-handedly. Peri had a lot of help,” Roy pointed out. Even though his part in everything hadn’t been fully exposed to the public, plenty of people, including himself, had been acknowledged for fighting for King Thadeus at the King’s Blessing. And the Bloodless were partly to credit for Wild’s successful hatching. After all, Peri and Wild couldn’t have survived their injuries without their magical aid.
“Sure, sure. I’m just wondering how a little country girl like her got through it all in one piece. There must be a sharp mind underneath all of that naiveté she shows on the surface. Don’t you wonder what she’s really hiding?”
Roy snorted. “Probably all the stuff Wild recently chewed up or broke.”
“Oh yes, that’s all it must be. A smart and pretty girl like Peri’s just sitting around all day cleaning up dragon spit and twiddling her thumbs.”
Roy frowned, not quite sure what Merrick was implying. “What would you know about it anyway?”
“Bucketloads. You’re speaking to the Kalin Chronicles’ most eligible young journalist, don’t you know?” Merrick boasted. He lifted a hand to his face, gently grazing the tip of his chin with his thumb and index finger and frowning slightly as he gave Roy an intense and sultry gaze from beneath half-lowered eyelids.
The pose was an exact match for the signature picture that accompanied each of Merrick’s articles, but Roy raised a brow, completely unimpressed. “Would you like me to paint you a new portrait that makes you look less constipated?”
Merrick released a disgusted sigh and dropped his hand. “You mock me, but I get at least twice as much correspondence as most journalists, thanks to this face. Most of it is rubbish, but some of the information I receive is quite valuable. For instance, did you know that aside from the effect of new magic, the hottest topic on everybody’s minds is whether or not Peri will marry King Thadeus? Every single lady in Kalin is currently tearing their hair out with envy over her, while every eligible bachelor is trying to figure out how to sidestep him and draw her attention. And then there’s the droves of long-lost mothers, fathers, aunts and more who are all clamoring to have suddenly discovered their relations to her.
“Poor little orphan Peri is such a hot commodity right now, one wonders if her rise to fame is entirely natural. Some of our more discerning readers are already speculating that she’s just another puppet, planted by some noble family who wanted to oust Lethwaine and use her to control King Thadeus behind the scenes.” Merrick tapped his chin thoughtfully. “It’s farfetched, but rumor has it the two of them have been found alone in all sorts of odd locations around the palace. Now that Wild’s in the picture, an alliance between King Thadeus and whoever’s really pulling her strings should completely shape Kalin’s future in—”
“Complete and utter rubbish!” Roy growled. “No one’s pulling Peri’s strings. She’s only here because of Wild. He roams all over the palace, so of course King Thadeus and she run into each other once in a while. There’s nothing odd about it.”
“You might be right,” Merrick conceded. “But regardless, Peri’s still an impressionable young girl living under the same roof with the most eligible bachelor in the kingdom. Even if there’s nothing going on at the moment, there’s no way she hasn’t at least thought about him. King Thadeus isn’t the rake his father was, but he’s far more handsome than King Thelamon used to be at his age. Plus, no one can resist the allure of royalty. What do you think, Roy? Do you see a royal wedding on the horizon? Let’s take a bet and see who’s right. But no cheating, if you have inside information from Peri, you have to—”
“You should switch to writing fiction, Merrick. You’re starting to sound completely mad. There’s absolutely no evidence of anything going on between Peri and King Thadeus, and if you have any decency, you’ll put an end to such rumors and conspiracy theories when you come across them instead of making things worse by giving them weight.”
Peri wasn’t like other girls. He should know. He’d had firsthand knowledge of how immune she was to things like status and riches. Why, he’d been the richest and most eligible bachelor she’d ever laid eyes on, coming from Mossy Gorge, and she’d barely said a decent word to him until they got to know each other better. No, not even the prospect of marrying royalty could turn her into a simpering, ambitious ninny like Mrs. Canterwell’s daughters or someone who others could manipulate. Peri was cut from a completely different cloth. Nobody had realized it yet, but he knew the truth.
Merrick stared at Roy in astonishment. Then he seemed to come to some sort of realization and his expression turned sympathetic.
“Look, Roy,” he said awkwardly. “I’m only saying this for your own good… but you should forget about Peri. You might have had a chance when she was just an orphan and you were still the heir to the Sterling fortune. But you’re penniless now. You work for your bread, like the rest of us organ-grinding monkeys. Meanwhile, she’s living here at the palace, official caretaker of the most powerful creature in the land. Even if she has no agendas, her prospects have changed. She probably won’t be able to marry just anyone she likes, so you’d do well to realize that and not get your hopes up. And besides, don’t you have other fish to fry? Lady V’s been dropping by every other day and—”
“She only comes to the Chronicles for business, not for anything else. You should be careful what you say so you don’t tarnish her reputation.”
“Tarnish her reputation?” Merrick raised a brow. “I don’t know if that’s even possible. But if you don’t want me to bring it up anymore…”
“Well then, I won’t. But you should take my advice anyway. There’s definitely something going on between King Thadeus and Peri.” Merrick tapped his notebook. “It’s just a matter of time till the truth comes out.”
Want to know what happens next?