A CONFEDERACY OF DRAGONS
14 July 1901
She was dressed in gauzy white, a material that floated around her in diaphanous layers as she strolled down the street, hints of her strawberry blonde hair visible under the large hat that shadowed her face. She held a parasol, but it was furled, allowing Bastian to appreciate her lively expression.
“Bastian? We will be late if we stay out here much longer, and you know how angry Pierozzo gets if we aren’t on time for sept meetings.” Rey, Bastian’s oldest friend, nudged his shoulder before starting up the stone steps that led into the building owned by the blue dragons.
Bastian remained standing with one foot on the lowest step, his gaze still on the woman across the street. She was in the company of two other women, one older and dressed soberly in black, clearly a chaperone, but he could tell there was something special about the blonde. Her aura was golden and warm, lighting up everything around her. Without thinking, he unshielded his mind in order to gently probe hers, wondering who she was.
He met with instant resistance, but not before the woman, who was laughing with a dark-haired young woman, stopped in midsentence and glanced around the busy street, her eyes finding his after a few seconds.
For the count of three, their gazes locked, and he felt as warm as if he were standing in a shower of dragon fire.
“Is something wrong?” Rey marched back down the stairs to nudge him again, but his unwavering gaze caused her to glance across the street. “What is it you are—oh, a woman? Really, Bastian, are you so deprived of female company that you must ogle women on the street? I thought I taught you better than that.” Laughter was rich in Rey’s voice, the laughter of a woman who was happily mated.
“There’s something special about this one,” Bastian told her, and with reluctance took his gaze from the woman, feeling for a moment as if the sun had gone behind a cloud.
“You can find her later. Right now we must go or Pierozzo will have words to say to both of us.”
He allowed Rey to pull him up the stairs where her mate waited impatiently, his mind still reaching out for that of the woman with the shining aura.
He found her the following day after having pulled in three of his friends—Rey excepted, since she refused to be a party to what she called a hunt—to scour the streets of Firenze. One of the friends, Luca, found the three women entering a museum, and rushed to tell Bastian.
He managed to arrive when they were a mere block away, obviously on their way back to their hotel after having viewed the museum’s offerings.
“Signora,” he said, bowing low first to the chaperone, then to her two charges. “Signorine. I am Bastiano di Giardino. You are new to Firenze, yes?”
“Yes,” the woman with the shining aura said, her hazel eyes lit with laughter. Now that he was close to her, he could see she had a heart-shaped face and the pale skin of the English. He basked in the warmth of her gaze while her smile deepened. “How clever of you to know that. I’m Alex.”
“Alexandra, really,” murmured the chaperone, casting Bastian a wary glance. “One does not respond to strangers introducing themselves in the middle of the street.”
“But he’s not a stranger, Mrs. Erwan,” the woman named Alexandra said, her eyes dancing with obvious mischief.
“Oh?” She glanced again at Bastian, who gave her his best smile. “You’ve met, then? Properly met?”
“I wouldn’t think of speaking to a stranger,” Alexandra said, her lips twitching a little as she gestured toward the third woman. “But I don’t think Mr. di Giardino has met Mary. Mary is my cousin, and this is her former governess, Mrs. Erwan.”
“Bastian, please,” he replied, bowing over the dark-haired woman’s hand when she offered it. “You will permit me to escort you back to your hotel? I have lived for many years in Firenze, and would be happy to point out sights of interest.”
“How very thoughtful,” Alexandra said, and, with another look brimming with amusement, took her friend’s arm and strolled forward.
That was the start. He did not fool himself that Alexandra was a mate, but she was unusually prescient, and if she had training, he had a feeling she would make a gifted oracle. Instead, he wooed her and spent five years with her before she died of consumption, leaving Bastian with a heart made heavy with grief, and a two-year-old daughter named for her mother.
He rocked Alessandra to sleep each night for a week following the death, her tears wetting his face and neck as he tried to provide comfort where he himself found none. He slept fitfully, his dreams haunted by Alex, by his guilt in not being able to save her when she grew ill.
The dreams seemed to gain in intensity as the weeks passed. Alessandra was more resilient than he, and found solace in friends and sept members who came by each day. Two months later, Alessandra was back to romping in the garden, laughing and singing and talking to the flowers, and leaves, and little beetles she found crawling in the loam.
“Alessandra has forgotten her mother,” he told Rey, watching his daughter at play. “I find myself torn between being relieved that she is not suffering, and dismayed that she could so easily forget.”
“Sandra is but two years, my friend,” Rey told him, her hand resting on his arm. “And Alex had been sick for much of the last year. I know it pains you—as well as your own grief—but, Bastian, Alex was mortal. You knew that someday she would grow old and die. At least her daughter will be spared such a fate.”
“She is most definitely a blue dragon,” Bastian admitted, even giving a short, pained bark of laughter when Alessandra pulled her pinafore and dress over her head, and proceeded to run around the garden clad in nothing but her shift, drawers, and stockings.
“And you?” Rey tipped her head to the side as she studied Bastian’s face. She touched a spot on his cheek, near his mouth. “You have lines that were not there a year ago. You grieve. That is right and proper. But do not make yourself ill. Pierozzo will not grant you the position of heir if you are pining for the loss of a mortal who was not your mate.”
“She was not my mate, no, but I could do no less than grieve her passing,” he argued, feeling that Rey did not understand since she had never engaged in relationships with mortals. “Just because she was not a mate does not mean I did not value her.”
“No, of course not. I know how much she meant to you, and you to her. I apologize if I seem uncaring. It’s just that mortals … well, I have said enough on that score. I will respect your desire to honor Alex as you choose.” Rey hesitated before she asked, “Are you still having the dreams?”
“Yes,” he said, turning away and returning to the relative darkness of the house.
Rey’s forehead furrowed as she followed him. “I do not profess to understand why you are unable to sleep without dreams of Alex, but perhaps …” She bit her lip before saying quickly, “Perhaps you should do as she wants.”
“Alexandra is dead. Her appearance in my dreams is simply a manifestation of my grief,” Bastian said flatly, avoiding the knowledge that he was lying to himself. At that realization he mentally tsked, and was obligated to add, “It is, perhaps, something beyond my grief that causes her former chaperone to visit me in my dreams, but that is surely guilt that I could not stop Alexandra from falling to her own mortality.”
“I’m not so sure,” Rey said slowly, her gaze now on the door open to the garden. “Perhaps … perhaps this woman wants something from you.”
“They are dreams, Rey, nothing more,” he said firmly, scribbling a note to be given to Alessandra’s nanny. He gave himself a mental shake, telling himself he needed to heed Rey’s advice and focus on his petition to be named heir to Pierozzo Blu. Although his nephew Fiat had mentioned giving him a run for the position, Bastian knew Pierozzo viewed him with favor. He would not let down his wyvern, or his sept.
“Perhaps,” Rey repeated as he left the room to change for a meeting with Pierozzo. “Or perhaps it’s a sign.”
The woman came to him that night, after he was finally able to drift into a restless sleep.
“You have tried very hard to avoid me,” Mrs. Erwan’s voice came from behind him.
Bastian spun around, surprised to find himself once again on the street outside the museum in Firenze where he had first spoken to Alexandra. “Why do you haunt me? Is it not enough that I must live with Alexandra’s ghost?”
“Her spirit does not remain bound to the mortal plane,” Mrs. Erwan said in what Bastian thought of as a cold, proper English voice, but there was a hint of gentleness nonetheless. “She has moved on to her choice of afterlife, so if you are being haunted, it is not Alexandra who is responsible.”
“Then why are you here? Why do you come repeatedly to my dreams?” Bastian asked, brushing aside the woman’s comment. “My mind must be much troubled to keep manifesting you, for I can think of no reason for it to do so.”
For a moment, amusement flashed across the woman’s face, but almost before he could register it, her expression had returned to its normal dour state. “You have hidden from yourself for long enough, Bastiano di Giardino. It is time that you face the truth.”
“Face what truth?” He straightened his shoulders and looked down on the woman, drawing about him the natural dignity that all dragons possessed when dealing with mortals.
The woman reached up and brushed a thumb across his forehead. He jerked back, both in surprise at the unexpected gesture and with the heat that seemed to sear deep into his brain. “You are a dream walker, a dream warrior, and yet you have refused that calling for too long. Now it is time that you face your true self. Embrace that which you were always intended to be. Protect those who cannot protect themselves. Guide your kin who do not see a path. Follow your heart.”
Bastian rubbed at his forehead, confused and disoriented for a few seconds. “Guide my kin? Do you mean become Pierozzo’s heir? I have already petitioned—” He stopped, realizing that the dreamscape had shifted, leaving him standing alone in a forest. Ahead of him through some trees, a light glittered, and he heard voices.
He stumbled forward, almost falling over a downed log, mentally shaking his head at the disturbed dream his mind was producing. Three shadows moved against the trees, the moon overhead casting a ghostly light that filtered through gently rustling branches.
“Fine. I guess we’re going to go with outright idiocy instead of self-preservation today. Hello, Xavier. As usual, it’s horrific to see you,” a woman said in English. There were two others with her—one man who stood slightly ahead of the woman, with his back to Bastian, and a third man who stood in shadow—but it was the woman who drew his gaze.
Where Alexandra had exuded a glittering golden light, this woman was surrounded by a gray mist, one that wove around her with long, smoky tendrils. He could see only the back of the woman, but she had chocolate-brown curls tipped blond, and was clad in tight-fitting men’s trousers that left little to the imagination when it came to her ass and legs.
If he hadn’t been deep in mourning for Alexandra, he would have appreciated those trousers, but he put that thought aside. Someday, perhaps, he would find women such as this one catching his attention, but he was not ready yet. His heart might not have been bound to a mate, but it had been touched by Alexandra nonetheless.
“A dream walker,” the shadowed man said. “I have not heard of another dragon who was such.”
“Dream walker?” Bastian spoke the word aloud before he realized it. He backed away from the three people, shaking his head. “Dragons can’t walk in dreams. It is impossible, beyond our natures. Only the First Dragon can—” He stopped, touching the spot on his forehead, struck with a thought so amazing, he was almost unable to process it.
“Dream warrior,” he heard Mrs. Erwan say again, her voice carried on the wind. He spun around, trying to find her, trying to protest that he was not worthy of such a boon as the First Dragon had evidently decided to bestow upon him, but there was nothing surrounding him but shadows and tall firs. Even the three people he’d overheard were gone. All that was left was wind and shadows and a mild sense of panic.
He lifted his hand, aware of the pressure of a palm-sized object digging into his flesh. He spread wide his fingers and stared at the narrow blue crystal.
“You do me a great honor, dragon sire,” he said softly, his fingers closing back around the crystal. It elongated in a blue-white light the shape of a sword, heavy in his hand despite its appearance.
He knew he should be grateful that he had been sought for such an honor, that any other dragon would be thrilled to be so singled out.
And yet, he had a horrible presentiment that rather than a boon, the First Dragon had instead laid a curse upon him.
He just hoped he’d survive it.