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The Dragon's Kiss
Chapter 2 - TWO: This Is Goodbye

Kel blinked a few times as her eyes adjusted to the dazzling sunlight flooding the room. Dash and a few other guards she recognized were already gathered around a small table. The king stood at the head of the table, directing the discussion.

At the announcement of her arrival, all the guards turned and bowed politely.

"It seems Kel has arrived." The king greeted her, suppressing his laughter at the guards' shocked expressions at the mention of her name. "It's about time I introduced you all to my daughter's surrogate."

The soldiers gawked at Kel with mouths wide open. Although she wasn't particularly close to any of them, she knew these men. She'd trained with them, occasionally gone on missions with them and even shared food at the same table. She understood their bewilderment but couldn't help being amused by their reactions.


"Please join us." The king motioned her over. Turning to the men around the table, he added, "There will be plenty of time in the coming days to satisfy your curiosity."

The soldiers reluctantly turned their attention back to the king as the briefing continued.

"Marked here on the map is the route you will take to Pandreia." The king pointed to a line drawn with blue chalk. It started at the capital city of Mevani, their current location, and ran all the way down to the capital of Pandreia.

The journey would be difficult, but the real mission would begin once they reached their destination. In the princess's place, Kel would complete a marriage ceremony to secure Pandreia's alliance. As the continent's leader in sea trade, Pandreia's favor was vital, particularly for a land-locked country like Mevani.

Kel studied the line uneasily. This route was the fastest way to the capital, but also the most dangerous. It would lead them directly along the westernmost tip of the Serin Empire.

"Speak," the king ordered, perceiving Kel's reluctance.

"It's just that," she began carefully, "maybe if we adjusted the route westward and traveled near the eastern edge of Vitocia instead?"

Seeing the king and Dash exchange glances, she quickly added, "It shouldn't take more than an extra day."

"We had originally planned a route along Vitocia to begin with," Dash responded. "We decided to go with this alternative route after considering a recent report from the Vitocian border."

"What was the report?" Kel queried.

The man standing directly across from her cleared his throat after a nudge from Dash. He was around ten years older than Kel and among the higher ranking officers in their division.

"Serin soldiers have set a trap in Vitocia, close to the border. The only explanation we can think of..." he trailed off.

"Is a spy," Kel finished, "I see."

This was exactly why she had been assigned as a substitute for the princess in the first place. Serin possessed multiple covert footholds in the western kingdoms, so it was impossible to make a move as significant as a marriage alliance without the empire finding out. Now that they knew, Serin forces would undoubtedly try to intervene.

"From this point on, there is nobody we can trust," the king announced. "You will take this path and get to Pandreia as quickly and inconspicuously as possible."

After hastily covering a few more details, the meeting ended. Everyone agreed it was in their best interest to depart immediately. Everyone filed out the door, except for Kel, whom the king asked to remain.

"You've grown up so much since you first came here," he commented as the doors clacked shut.

"It has been several years, sir," Kel agreed.

"I thought General Itzae had finally gone crazy when he told me about a wild kid he picked up from the streets alongside his nephew," the king reminisced.

"I still don't know what he saw in me," Kel teased, "except for this gold hair of course."

"I do." The king suddenly turned to Kel with a solemn expression. "I know exactly what he saw in you."

"Ah, i-is that so?" She was caught off guard by the king's sudden gentleness. He couldn't possibly be referring to her fire ability, right?

"You know, Kel? I've come to think of you as another daughter," the king continued, reaching out to embrace her. His tone didn't indicate he had caught on to her secret. It seemed he wasn't talking about her secret ability afte-

"I hate to send you away like this," he whispered, interrupting her thoughts as he gently wrapped his arms around her. Kel froze, not sure how to react to the unfamiliar affection. She had very little experience giving or receiving hugs, and this was definitely the first time anyone ever referred to her as a daughter.

A daughter.

To be a daughter, one must have a father, and Kel never had one. Uncle Itzae was always like a mentor to her, and Dash was like an older brother. Additionally, her fellow guards and servants in the palace all looked out for her. Until now, she'd never once felt the longing for any other family.

To think having a father could be so warm, she thought, allowing herself to relax.

Tears filled the king's eyes as he let go of Kel. "No matter where you go, never forget that you are a precious child of Mevani."

She felt a stinging at the corners of her own eyes as he spoke. This was goodbye. Goodbye to her homeland, her way of life and her loved ones. In the best case scenario, she might return to visit Mevani as a princess of Pandreia. In the worst case, she would be another body that never made it back home to be buried.

"Thank you, sir." She bowed and hurriedly left the room before her emotions got any further out of control.

Dash was waiting outside the door, arms crossed, leaning against a pillar. Out of the corner of her eye, Kel noticed the king motion something to Dash who responded with a nearly imperceptible nod. She glanced over her shoulder to see the king smiling and waving.

"What are you looking at?" Dash inquired, grabbing her arm. "Let's go catch up to the others."

"It's nothing." Kel shrugged and followed Dash's lead down the corridor.

The other guards were waiting near the front gate, horses already saddled.

"Since there has been a change of plans, we'll have to travel much lighter now," Dash pointed out. Without a carriage, each member of the party was limited to a single duffle bag for personal items.

Kel recalled the heavy bags in her room, brimming with cumbersome dresses. She couldn't contain the satisfaction on her face at the thought of leaving them behind. She'd often heard the fashion of Pandreia described as light and breezy, and looked forward to replacing her entire wardrobe.

As she moved to make final preparations before mounting her horse, a dulcet call caught her attention.

"Kel! Dash!" A hooded figured was hurrying toward them. Recognizing the princess immediately, Kel instinctively scanned their surroundings. Luckily, she and Dash were the only two left in the stable.

She's so reckless sometimes, Kel sighed to herself. Even in the palace, very few people knew about Princess Adriell's surrogate.

When she reached them, the princess clasped Kel's hand to steady herself as she caught her breath.

"Were you.. really going to leave.. without.." Adriell gasped between breaths.

Dash and Kel glanced at each other and immediately cracked up. Nobody would ever guess that the supposed elegant princess was actually a huge clumsy mess. Throughout their lessons growing up, she often had to put in even more practice than Kel to achieve a dignified appearance.

"Stop making fun of me!" Adriell stamped her foot in feigned frustration. She managed to maintain her scowl for only moments before joining her friends in laughter.

"I have something for you two," the princess chimed as her giggles subsided. She produced two necklaces and presented them to Dash and Kel.

Kel eagerly took the jewelry out of Adriell's outstretched hand. The delicate chain carried a shimmering red pearl with an intricate floral design etched on the bottom.

"Incredible," she breathed.

"Aren't they?" Adriell beamed, revealing the purple pearl around her neck. "Apparently these are harvested from rare oysters on the beaches of Pandreia and then carved by expert craftsmen!" π˜ͺ𝗻nπ‘Ÿeπ‘Žπ’…. π˜€π’ο½

Her eyes sparkled as she spoke.

"I chose red for Kel's fiery determination and blue for Dash's unwavering loyalty!"

"What does purple symbolize then?" Dash smiled, glancing up from his pearl.

"Oh! This is for bravery!" the princess declared.

Dash and Kel resisted the urge to laugh again. Adriell was beautiful, charming, kind and intelligent. Bravery, however, wasn't a trait anyone would accuse her of possessing.

Sensing their amusement, Adriell's cheeks reddened. "It's to help me be brave while you're gone," she mumbled.

"Adri, you are brave," Kel soothed, reminded of a pitiful puppy. "Besides, Dash will be coming right back after he drops me off."

The three friends quieted as the unintentionally heavy words fell over them. Dash would be coming back, but Kel would not.

"I'll really miss you, Kel. Truly," Adriell said softly, breaking the silence. "Thank you for everything."

The past decade of Kel's life flashed through her mind. Princess Adriell had been a part of everything. From attending the same lessons to sleeping in the same wing of the palace and sometimes even the same bed, Adriell was always by her side.

Recalling her final conversation with the king, Kel grabbed Adriell's hands and whispered, "I'll miss you too, sister."

"Sister," Adriell repeated, voice shaking. "Saying goodbye is already such a burden." She yanked her hands out of Kel's and covered her face as sobs shook her body.

Several tear-filled minutes later, the group of soldiers were finally trotting out of the gate.

Kel expected at least one or two snide comments about the lengthy farewells, but the guards rode in silence. She wished for the usual friendly banter or even casual small talk to distract her from her nerves.

"Kel!" Dash called, trotting up next to her.

"Is something wrong?" she asked.

"I'll be going on ahead for a while," Dash replied. "The king has given me an additional assignment."

Kel thought back to his wordless exchange with the king right before their departure. This must be what they meant, she surmised.

"Is it something dangerous?"

"No. We've identified a potential Serin foothold nearby, so I'm going to drop false information, just in case."

"A good strategy," Kel affirmed. "How far out of the way is the foothold?"

"It's not far. I'll be sure to meet up with you again by the time you reach the Serin border."

"That's a promise, Dash."

"I promise." He winked at her before galloping out of sight.

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The Dragon's Kiss Chapter 2 - TWO: This Is Goodbye