The First Dragon was well aware of the noise outside the sunny room. The murmur of voices, both masculine and feminine, wafted up to him from what he knew was a stone-set patio below. But here, on the second floor in the small room with cheerful yellow paper patterned with turtles and reeds, the noise was muted, even though the window allowed in a soft summer breeze.
He moved past a lacquered dresser and a small bookcase bearing a carousel lamp and a telephone to the crib that sat near a window.
“Do you hear them, little one? The dragonkin like to talk,” the First Dragon told the baby lying in its crib, its arms and legs moving to a rhythm that only the baby could hear. He leaned forward, smiling at the latest of his descendants. “It was always so. We are very passionate beings, and we share our feelings. Ah, you are a girl, I see. I am your ancestor. Your family calls me the First Dragon, for that is what I am. All dragons who ever were, and all who ever will be, are descended from me. You are part of a great heritage, child, one that most mortal beings know nothing about.”
The baby blinked at him.
He considered her for a moment. He had a policy of telling new dragons just what traits he saw in them during his welcome visit. “You will not be blessed with the grace of your sister, but you will captivate males nonetheless. They will be charmed by your unique ability to see through illusion, and your fearless nature.”
The baby gurgled up a spit bubble, her tight little fists waving about in a manner he found amusing. He touched a spot on her forehead, murmuring, “Blessings, child of the green dragons,” before giving in to temptation and stroking her tiny pink fingers.
Immediately she gripped his finger, delighting him with her chuckle of pleasure.
“You are a little warrior, are you not?” he told her, oddly reluctant to leave this, the latest dragon to be born. “You possess your mother’s courage and your father’s intelligence. You will be a formidable enemy, and a stalwart ally. A very perceptive one.”
The baby continued making gurgly chuckles, her fingers still holding on to the tip of his, her legs kicking out in that particular swimming motion that babies had. She had managed to remove the light covering laid over her, but given the warmth of the day, he was loath to put it on her again. He grimaced when she pulled his finger over to her mouth, and began gumming it, the wet saliva bubbles clinging to his skin.
“I must leave you, little one,” he told her firmly. “I visit all newly born dragons, but I do not remain for them to chew upon me. I have many things of importance to do. I am the First Dragon.”
The baby continued to mash his finger between her tiny, slobbery gums, unimpressed with his statement. Indeed, he had the feeling she was unimpressed with him altogether.
“Oh, very well, but only for another minute, as you are so determined,” he said, resigning himself to having a wet finger. “I will admit this has been a pleasant visit to meet you. Of late, I find myself …” He paused, frowning at the odd sensation that had gripped him the last few years. “Lonely is too strong of a word. Lonely implies a need, and I have no needs. Perhaps it is a desire for contact that I am experiencing. I wish to have more contact with … someone. Someone who would talk to me. Someone who would care about me. Someone who—”
An explosive sound came from the depths of the baby’s diaper.
He transferred his frown, which had been directed at himself, to the small dragon that gurgled delightedly before him. “I suspect what you have just done is not worth such pride, but I will take into account your age, and pass no further judgment. Farewell, newest green dragon. There may be a time in the future when we meet again, but if not, fare—”
The door opened on the word, causing him to take a step back from the crib. He wasn’t startled by new arrivals, for he was the First Dragon. He never startled. But he was mildly surprised to find himself suddenly in the company of not just one dragon’s mate, or even two, but three of them.
“The First Dragon!” the first mate cried upon seeing him. Aisling, he recalled, was her name. She was also a Guardian, if he remembered correctly, and he always did. “Eek! You’re not going to do anything to my baby, are you? Because she’s a dragon already, and she’s cute, and she sleeps through the night, so I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t do anything to her.”
“Aisling,” the mate named May said, elbowing the taller woman. “You can’t talk to him like that. He’s a god.”
“Demigod, actually,” said the third woman, moving forward. She gave him a steady look, one that always secretly amused him. Of all his descendants, this one never failed to stir emotions in him. Mostly exasperation, but there were moments, as now, when her spirit shone brightly and touched his soul.
“Child of light,” he said, greeting her.
“Daddy-in-law,” she said in a flippant tone that he knew was intended to irritate him.
He allowed one eyebrow to rise half an inch. “You are still annoyed with me, Ysolde?”
“Considering that I found you trying to convince my oldest son to allow you to make him a dragon when you know perfectly well that he’s happy being a human—yes, I’m still annoyed. Baltic is furious.”
“When is he not?” he couldn’t help but ask.
He looked beyond the women to the hall. No males had followed them. “There is a sárkány?”
“Not for a couple of days.” Ysolde gestured to Aisling. “They’re having a party to celebrate Ava’s birth, and because half the wyverns are here for that, they decided to have a mini-sárkány.”
“It’s really more of a State of the Union than a full sept meeting,” Aisling said. She looked with mildly curious eyes at him. “But I think the bigger question is, what is the First Dragon doing here?”
“I’d say interfering, but as you pointed out, Ava is already a dragon, so I have no idea,” Ysolde answered. She gave him a pointed look that he chose to ignore.
Aisling tched in the back of her throat, and hurried over to her child, flinching as she did so. “Holy cats, Ava! You can’t possibly be responsible for that smell!”
“You wouldn’t believe the diaper shenanigans that Anduin got to before we got him potty trained,” Ysolde said, still giving the First Dragon a gimlet look. “So, do you want to tell us why you’re here?”
He lifted the other eyebrow. “Are you speaking to me, Ysolde?”
She winced at the little flicker of power he added to her name, and cleared her throat, but instead of backing down, tilted up her chin and challenged him with her gaze.
He sighed. “I greet all new dragons, and welcome them to the dragonkin. I have ever done so, and I will continue to do so.”
“That’s a thoughtful thing for you to do,” said May, her voice soft and light as the wind. “But you look angry about something. You can’t be mad at Ava.”
“Child of shadows,” he said, acknowledging May, mate of the silver wyvern. He had a fondness for her, too, since she had once formed the dragon heart from the shards given to each sept. “I am not angry at the babe. I simply do not like explaining my actions.”
“You sure it’s not something else?” Ysolde asked, tipping her head to the side while her gaze swept over him. “I’m thinking that you’re not quite so happy as you claimed you were last time.”
“Last time?” Aisling asked from where she’d been cleaning and diapering the baby. She looked confused. “What last time? The one in Egypt?”
“No.” Ysolde gave him a long look, but he did not answer it. “He’s been coming to see Anduin a lot. Well, twice. And then I caught him once with Brom, trying to convince him that he should be a dragon. And then Baltic said he saw him once, when we were out shopping. I think …” Ysolde hesitated for a moment, her eyes softening on him. He smiled to himself. She had the tenderest of hearts of all his children, despite her definite lack of respect. “I think he’s bored, and needs a girlfriend. Or better yet, a mate.”
There was a collective gasp from the other two mates. He thought about rolling his eyes, but decided it wasn’t an action of a demigod, and so maintained his usual placid expression. It had always stood him well when dealing with his sometimes fractious children, especially the volatile firstborn, those five dragons who had been born of his mates and gone on to found the existing septs.
“A mate!” Aisling said, coming forward with the baby in her arms, her eyes bright with excitement. “Of course! It can’t be fun being all by yourself, and Ysolde said that Baltic’s mom was one of your mates. … Er … how many have you had? Or is that a rude question to ask?”
He gave another little sigh, but no one heard it. “Some might say to address me in such a manner is rude in itself, but I will answer your question because I know that if I do not, Ysolde will continue to ask it.”
Ysolde smiled, and the other women clustered around him. “You know me so well. Go on. What’s the number? I’m guessing it’s in the triple digits.”
He allowed his lips to thin a little at her to indicate he was not pleased with such flippancy. “I have had two mates: the first was a minor goddess who bore me four children, the founders of the red, black, blue, and green dragon septs. Later, I took a dragon, Maerwyn, as a mate, and she bore Baltic and a child who did not survive the birth.”
“A dragon?” Aisling asked, then wrinkled her nose. “I don’t mean to sound disrespectful and all, but isn’t that … well … incestuous?”
“She was six generations beyond my child,” he told her, sadness leaching into his awareness. He had truly loved Maerwyn, which is why he’d taken her as mate. Her death left him bereft for centuries, during which time he had withdrawn from his dragons, withdrawn from everything.
May instinctively moved closer, and put out a tentative hand to touch the sleeve of his shirt. “Ysolde told us how Baltic’s mother died. That was terrible.”
He inclined his head in both agreement and acknowledgment of the sympathy she silently offered.
“That was, what, four hundred years ago?” Ysolde took his arm in hers. “It’s time you moved on. And I mean that in the nicest sense. Just because you’re a demigod doesn’t mean you can’t be happy. Now, as it happens, this is the ideal time for you to be here, because as we mentioned, Aisling and Drake are throwing this party for Ava, and there’s going to be a band playing tonight, and a sárkány tomorrow, and a bouncy castle in the side garden for the kids—which you probably won’t want to be a part of, because they’re loud little buggers—and basically all the dragons in Europe and a lot from other parts will be here, so you will have all the single ladies to look over.”
“Yes, and we were going to have our Mates Union meeting now while the boys are downstairs guzzling dragon’s blood wine, and the kids are out romping in the wading pool, but we’ll just put the meeting on hold in order to take care of your business.” Aisling put the now-stenchless baby back in her crib, and turned on a mobile bearing little dragons and jousting knights.
“What an excellent idea,” May said, sitting cross-legged on the floor.
“Would you take this seat, Mr. … er … First Dragon.” Aisling pushed forward a rocking chair, and seated herself next to Ysolde on a pink striped love seat.
“Hey, Ash, the kids went through the chips in record time and want to know when lunch is going down—holy shitsnacks! It’s the First Dragon!”
The First Dragon, who had been contemplating the chair that Aisling had offered him, turned to eye the large black Newfoundland dog who marched into the room. “Ah,” he said, noting several things about the dog, mostly the fact that it was not really a dog. “A demon. I had not realized the green dragons were in a state to require the assistance of a demon.”
“Jim lives here,” Aisling said, waving the dog to her feet. “It’s mine, actually. I’m a demon lord, but I just have the one demon, and it doesn’t do anything for us.”
“Hey, now!” Jim protested, reluctantly marching over to its master, but pausing long enough to snuffle the First Dragon’s shoes. “I do all sorts of stuff, not the least of which is entertain your spawn by giving them rides. And we gotta talk about that real soon, ’cause it’s undignified, and if the other demons heard I was doing it, they’d give me no end of grief.”
“We’ll talk about it later,” Aisling said with a warning glance at her demon.
The dog took a few whiffs of the First Dragon’s trouser legs. “Hiya. Name’s Effrijim, but everyone calls me Jim. Is it true you can make peeps into dragons? Not that I want to be one, because there ain’t nothin’ better than being a demon in Newfie form, but just in case someday Aisling completely loses her mind and starts acting like a real demon lord, it would be nice to know there are other options.”
The First Dragon looked hard at the demon. Its eyes opened wide and it backed up to its master. “Man, I just asked! You don’t have to look so scary. Ash!”
“You poke the dragon, you deal with the fire,” Ysolde said calmly, pulling out a small notebook and pencil. “Right, let’s do this properly.”
The First Dragon weighed his options, and decided that his interest was piqued enough to remain. He sat in the chair Aisling had offered, and crossed one leg over the other, wondering just what the mates would do next. He had to admit, it was more entertainment than he’d had in a very long time.
“I call this meeting of the Mates Union to order,” Aisling said in a formal voice, then added in a much more natural tone, “Jim, would you close the door? We don’t want one of the men wandering up to accidentally hear us. Thanks. OK, let’s see, we have stuff on the agenda, but we’re putting that aside to deal with the First Dragon.”
She cast him a quick worried glance. He tipped his head toward her and pierced her with a look.
“Or rather, to help him,” she amended quickly.
“Way to piss off the head dragon,” Jim said in a stage whisper to Aisling. “Now he’s gonna smite Drake, or something.”
“Quiet, you. And yes, that’s an order. Unless you have something important to contribute to the conversation, and then you may speak. Honestly, Ysolde, you wouldn’t believe the things Jim has taught the twins to say. They swear in Latin, they call Drake Daddy-o, and just yesterday I caught them trying to summon a demon to do their chores. …” Aisling evidently realized that this was not the moment to continue. Instead she gave everyone a bright smile. “I turn the floor over to Ysolde, since the First Dragon is her father-in-law, and he’s resurrected her a couple of times, so she knows him better than anyone else.”
“Thank you, Aisling. Remind me to tell you later about how Brom is teaching Anduin the joys of dissecting roadkill.” Ysolde gave a small cough, and continued in a businesslike voice, “Let us take stock of the situation. The First Dragon wishes to have a mate.”
“As a matter of point, I don’t believe I ever stated that desire,” he said mildly.
“You don’t have to,” Ysolde answered, tapping the tip of the pencil on her lips. “You loved Baltic’s mother, and you’ve been alone for several hundred years, and now it’s time for you to find another woman with whom you can spend your life.”
May raised her hand. “Forgive my ignorance, but can a demigod get intimate with a mortal? I mean, is it possible?” She made a vague gesture with both hands. “Can they … er … hook up?”
The First Dragon gave her a look that had her blushing beet red.
“Yes, well, I think we’ll take it as read that everything is in working order,” Ysolde said, making a note.
The First Dragon turned the look on her.
She ignored it, just as he knew she would. “But you bring up a good point, May. Immortality is going to be of prime importance. So, we have a limited pool of possibilities. I think the best way to tackle this is to get a list of the First Dragon’s likes and dislikes.”
“Smart thinking,” Aisling said, nodding. “Who would you swipe right on?”
“Do you have a preference on hair color?” May asked.
“Do you like funny, or insightful? Walks on the beach in the rain, or curled up inside with a book and glass of wine?” Aisling asked.
“Are you into more athletic women, or homebodies?” Ysolde added her questions to the collection.
“And you’re sure everything”—May did the hand gesture again—“will work OK? I mean, if it’s been four hundred years …”
The First Dragon stood up. “I believe that you all have good intentions, but this is intolerable.”
“Why?” Ysolde asked, frowning at him and tapping the pencil against her lip again.
He was taken aback for a moment. Few beings had ever questioned him, and no dragons … except Baltic and his Ysolde. He debated dismissing her question as not worthy of his attention, but decided that since she had a pure heart and a shining soul, he would unbend. “Even if I wished you to locate a female with whom I desired to spend time, you would fail.”
“Oh, I do love a challenge,” May said.
“Me, too,” Aisling said, sitting up straighter. “Why do you think we would fail? You underestimate the collective power of mates. We’re pretty good when we put our heads together.”
“You would fail because if such a woman existed, I would have found her,” he answered.
“You say that, but how hard have you looked?” Ysolde stood up and moved to within a foot from him. “You’re never around in the mortal world. Except for popping in and trying to convince my son to be a dragon.”
“You don’t know what women today are like,” Aisling said.
“Women have changed. So have the men, but mostly women have changed since the time when you were hanging out with mortals.” May lifted her chin when he cocked an eyebrow at her.
“You’re out of touch with the modern-day dragon, that’s what it is,” Aisling decided.
“And women of today! You have no idea what we like and want.” Ysolde made another note. “Maybe we don’t need to find a woman for you so much as you need to experience what modern life is like. Then, once you have a grounding in reality, we can take your wish list and help you find someone.”
He considered whether he should be insulted, realized that they might have a valid point, and decided to see where the conversation led. He had forgotten just how entertaining it was to be amongst his kin.
“Excellent idea, Ysolde,” Aisling said, giving her a thumbs-up.
“I agree,” May said after some thought. “I think you won’t connect with a woman of today unless you know what modern life is like. Therefore, you will have to stay here for a bit.”
“Here?” Aisling said in a near squawk, her eyes widening. “Goddess! Well, I suppose he could have the St. George room, although that means booting Gabriel and May from it—”
“We’ll be happy to move if it means helping the First Dragon,” May said quickly.
“That’s settled, then,” Ysolde said, making a tick mark next to something on her notes.
“Nothing is settled,” the First Dragon felt obligated to point out. “I have not agreed to your suggestion. Nor do I have any intention of doing so.”
Ysolde gave him a long look. “You wouldn’t be afraid of us, would you?”
His eyes widened at the brazenness of her comment. “You forget to whom you speak, child of light.”
“Not in the least. I didn’t mean to slight your courage, but I do think that perhaps you’re hiding from the possibilities of finding another mate because of your memory of Baltic’s mother.”
“Which we totally understand,” May added.
The other mates nodded and murmured platitudes.
“Even if that was true, I am the First Dragon,” he said, allowing them to feel the weight of his words.
“That doesn’t mean you don’t have feelings like the rest of us.” Ysolde smiled. “What was Baltic’s mother like?”
He was mildly taken aback by the question. “She was gentle. She enjoyed embroidery. She had a great love of nature, and liked to weave in the garden quite a bit.”
“Right. Crafty, nature girl, more crafty,” Ysolde said, making more notes. “What else?”
He rummaged through his memories. “She was very social. She loved to have kin visit. She once said that without dragonkin, she felt lost and alone.”
“Extrovert,” Aisling said with a nod. “So no bookish introverts for you.”
He allowed a little smile to escape. “She definitely was not one for books.”
“That gives us something to go on,” Ysolde said, and the other mates nodded their agreement. “We can start looking right away.”
“I am the First Dragon,” he reminded them. “I have existed for centuries without a mate. There is no reason I need one now.”
“Uh-huh.” Ysolde looked thoughtful for a moment. “How about if we put this in terms of a wager? We, the collected mates of your wyvern descendants, are willing to place a wager that you cannot stay in the mortal world.”
“And live like a modern dragon,” Aisling said quickly.
“And learn about modern women,” May added.
“A wager!” He allowed them to see his disfavor. “I do not wager.”
Jim the demon dog made chicken-clucking noises until Aisling swatted it on the head with a pillow.
“We wager you that you can’t live like a modern dragon—modern wyvern—and get to know modern females of a dating age for a year,” Ysolde said, the other mates murmuring their approval.
The First Dragon thought about his life, and unexpectedly found himself saying, “A day.”
“Six months,” countered Aisling.
“We will naturally settle on a month,” Ysolde said with blithe indifference to the fact that his gaze was quite pointed. “You live here, with us, for a month. No magic, no demigod stuff, just be a normal dragon who meets and interacts with females like any other dragon, and at the end of that time, we’ll know you well enough to find you a woman, or you will have found her yourself.”
“That is not a wager,” he couldn’t help but point out.
“Not in the strict sense, no, but it is a challenge.” Suddenly, Ysolde smiled, and he saw again why Baltic, his most fractious child, was so smitten with her. “And I don’t think you’re one to back away from a challenge any more than we are. Do we have an agreement?”
He thought for a few moments. Perhaps such an interlude would be sufficiently amusing to keep the increasingly frequent feelings of disquietude at bay. “Very well, I agree to your terms.”
“Excellent,” Ysolde said over the voices of the other mates as they declared their approval. “I think you’ll find this will benefit us all. We’ll get to know you better. You can see the children all you like, although to be truthful, I can’t imagine why you would want to. Brom is going through moody teen years, and Anduin is a little terror, while Aisling’s twins are—”
“Horrendous little monsters in adorable four-year-old form,” Aisling said calmly.
“But assuming you did wish to see the latest generation, you can. And more, you will see how dragons fit into the world today.” Ysolde’s smile grew broader. “All the while we can be finding someone perfect for you.”
He smiled a long, slow smile, one that said without words just how unlikely that would be.