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       Moonbeam, p.19

           Adrienne Woods

  “That’s harsh.”

  “No it’s not. I hate his girlfriend!” she yelled. It was what I’d been waiting for the past few hours. “She is such a prima donna and a pain in my ass.”

  I couldn’t help but laugh. Pretend Elena, pretend. “She can’t be that bad.”

  “Oh, wait. You’ll see. You are going to spin another story at the end of the night. She’s behind all of this. She’s insecure.”

  Is she beautiful? Please, Sammy, just answer that. But she didn’t bring it up and I didn’t ask directly. She just complained about what an evil cow she was.

  “You’re his rider, or you will be,” she said. “You should forbid him from dating her.”

  It made me laugh again. I wondered if he would even obey if I did say it. Would he stop seeing her, even if he wasn’t technically my dragon?

  I took my seat next to my mom. Sir Robert was on his phone.

  My mother’s annoyance at Blake’s absence was evident in the way she fidgeted. She crossed and uncrossed her legs and smoothed her silk blouse a hundred times.

  It was not okay. But tonight I would pretend that it was.

  Every birthday party of mine was the same. Important people got up and made speeches, because I was the princess. I didn’t listen to any of them. I was so distracted by the fact that Blake wasn’t here.

  His father was angry, too. I made a mental note of never speaking to him again if he didn’t show. My nonchalance became harder to maintain as my rage bubbled up.

  But then, during my mother’s speech, he finally arrived.

  I saw the Ice Queen. Calling her beautiful would have been an understatement. White hair framed her long, oval face. Her light blue eyes sought mine immediately. I saw a challenge there—or did I imagine that? Their entrance made everyone gasp. My mother’s words dried up. Oh crapity creek. She was going to be livid.

  “Oh, look who finally decided to grace us with their presence. Welcome, Blake and plus one.” Her tone dripped sarcasm.

  “Sorry,” Blake said in an overly friendly voice. He took a seat, not even his, at the table right at the back.

  My mother caught my eye and winked.

  “Like I was saying. Every year you get more beautiful, Elena. I just don’t have the words anymore to tell you what I feel.” Her eyes started to glisten. “Thank you for being such a wonderful teenager.” I sucked in my lips and could see my father squinting slightly at her.

  “You are growing into such a wonderful young lady. You’re a great fighter, a sharp student, and will one day be an excellent queen. And you’re a stunning young woman now. I’m honored to be your mother. To my beautiful daughter Elena. And may she have the best birthday ever.” Everyone raised their glasses and cheered. Camera flashes went off as the assembled party raised crystal goblets in a toast.

  I kept my face expressionless. She’d really put an emphasis on the word ‘beautiful’ tonight, even though I couldn’t feel beautiful next to the Ice Queen.

  Then chef brought out my cake. I had no idea what it was going to be this year. But when he revealed it, it was a beautiful shoe. A strappy green stiletto.

  I laughed. Mom and Dad laughed even harder.

  I didn’t think we would be this late. I saw the missed calls from my father. He was going to be livid, which for some reason didn’t bother me that much. Lately, I resided in seventh heaven. I finally knew what it felt like not to be a virgin anymore.

  This wildcat next to me was more than just a lame-ass dragon. I just hoped Elena could love her as much as I did.

  She had to.

  I didn’t want to make it all the way to where I usually sat. Too many people to squeeze past. I plunged down at the nearest table occupied by men from King Albert’s court.

  Elena’s mother had sounded so sarcastic when we came in. She hated tardiness, but hated it more if someone interrupted her speeches. So this was expected. Her speech this year was a little different, though. She kept emphasizing how beautiful Elena had gotten. Elena was always beautiful, just like Sammy. The girl had soft green eyes. Big, soft, emerald eyes, which had the ability to make it impossible to tell her no when she really wanted something.

  Fuck! It hit me. I hadn’t gotten her a fucking birthday present. Not cool, Blake. So not cool. I needed to find some way to make it up to her.

  “I feel underdressed,” Tabitha whispered in my ear.

  “Nonsense. You are gorgeous,” I whispered back.

  She took a huge breath and smiled. She was looking forward to finally meeting the royals. She’d always only seen them on TV, never in real life. This was like a dream come true to her.

  I tried to see Elena, but Sir Laudy’s gigantic body blocked my view.

  The room was a low roar of way too many heartbeats to hear hers.

  I hoped she was okay with me bringing a plus one. My mom had dreaded tonight and cautioned me not to bring Tabitha. But Elena had said she wanted to meet her to approve of her—with a big HAHA JOKING next to it.

  She was like my sister, and I was like her big brother. I’d tear anyone apart if they ever hurt her.

  “Look,” I murmured to Tabitha. “Elena is a bit extravagant. Always runs into my arms when she sees me. Please don’t throw a fit.”

  “A fit?” She raised one graceful eyebrow, but with a faint smile. “She is the freakin’ princess. What she says goes.”

  I laughed. This earned me the baleful stares of the men at the table, but I didn’t care. Tabitha sure knew how to make me laugh. She was one step away from perfect.

  The speeches wrapped up and I excused Tabitha and myself. We made our way to my usual table. I swept over to Elena and bent down. “Sorry I’m so late,” I said.

  “It’s okay,” she shook her head, but she was different. She didn’t act like herself. She was… growing up.

  Queen Catherine glared at me. I pulled my face. “Your mom is so not happy with me.”

  Elena giggled. “You know how she feels about someone interrupting her speeches, Blake. She’ll get over it.”

  “Okay, I hope so.” I moved along to my seat, which wasn’t far away from Queen Catherine’s ubiquitous glare.

  “Sorry,” I said sheepishly.

  King Albert chortled.

  “You’d better be sorry,” she sniped. Then she turned to chat with Tanya.

  I rolled my eyes and shook my head while Elena tried desperately to suppress her smile.

  The evening went great. We ate and then Chef brought out his cake.

  I always loved his big reveals. This year, though, it was disappointing. It was a shoe.

  King Albert, Queen Catherine, Elena, even the freakin’ reporters laughed like it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen. I didn’t see the humor in it.

  What did I miss? Why is she getting a stupid shoe?

  “Thank you, Chef. It’s the best cake ever!” Elena said.

  I struggled to decipher if she really meant it or not.

  Then King Albert and Elena opened the dance floor with the dance. They did every single year. But tonight it was a new song. This year, they really upped their games. It was like a tango, with flamboyant moves in time to an upbeat tempo and warbling strings and horns from the live band.

  “She is so cute!” Tabitha yelled.

  Queen Catherine heard it. Tanya wielded her shield and I could see her lips moving as the queen’s gaze locked on her dragon. But whatever she said, I couldn’t hear. I saw Queen Catherine smiling and then the shield disappeared.

  Okay, that was strange. Why did I get the feeling her mother didn’t like my plus one very much—or that comment she’d just gave? Of all people, I had expected the queen to be thrilled that I had met someone. I always treaded lightly around Queen Catherine. One did not want to upset her in any way, especially when it came to Elena.

  When their father-daughter dance was over, our table cheered the loudest.

  Servants cleared the dishes and tables were pushed off to the sides of the room. The night finall
y started.

  Elena disappeared. She was just gone. I didn’t know where she went.

  It wasn’t like her to just disappear.

  I was really starting to worry about bringing a plus one to her birthday.

  I went to my bathroom and cried. It was the only room in my chamber that was soundproof.

  Tabitha—no, the Ice Queen—was perfect. I would never beat that. It didn’t matter how many times my mom emphasized the word “beautiful.” And now, now I had red-rimmed eyes and couldn’t show my face in public. He would know I wasn’t okay. Under normal circumstances, somebody would have to be dead for me to cry like this. This was so lame.

  There came a knock on my bathroom door.

  Please don’t let it be him. Please.

  “Elena?” my mom’s voice said.

  I opened the door.

  She looked at my tears and hugged me tightly. “The night is almost over. He’s asked where you are a million times. I don’t know what else to say anymore.”

  I gestured forlornly at my face. “I can’t go out looking like this, Mom.”

  “This can be fixed with a small incantation, sweetheart. I’m just scared you’re going to give yourself away.”

  “I’ll be fine. Take it away. I hate crying. Especially over this.”

  She was busy when my father made his way in. Even more humiliating.

  “Get out. This is girl stuff!” my mom yelled at him. Without a word, Dad spun on his heel with his cocktail sloshing in his hand. His hurried obedience made me giggle wetly. Mom smiled. “She is nothing compared to you, sweetheart.”

  “She is everything to him, Mom. Didn’t you see how he whispered to her the entire night and kissed her fingers? It’s gross.”

  “It is, but just remember, he is your dragon. She, no doubt, feels more threatened by you than you do by her.”

  I never thought about it that way. “Okay, I’ll remember that.”

  I looked at my eyes in the mirror. It didn’t look like I’d cried at all. “So what is my excuse?” I said.

  “Pappi phoned.” Mom’s eyes sparkled with mischief. “You know how long he can talk.”

  “He would know it’s a lie, Mom. He knows Pappi never phones me on my actual birthday.”

  “You saw how confused he looked at that cake. He felt left out. He had no idea what that shoe represented. Things have changed. He’s going to learn the hard way that if he doesn’t pay attention, he’s going to lose out on a lot.”

  I smiled. “Thanks, Mom.”

  “You’re welcome. No more tears, okay?”

  I nodded and went back to my party.

  The night wasn’t a total flop. He totally bought the Pappi phoning tonight story; they’d had some malfunctions with signals lately. I gave him a hug, but not the deep way that I always hugged him. It was a quicker, cooler embrace. I met the Ice Queen. She was seriously so annoying. She wanted a tour of the castle and freaked out when she met my father, who pretended to be just as excited as her. He jumped up and down on the spot like a teenager.

  I couldn’t help but laugh at him. He was so clever. How did he manage to make his subject feel important, and make his daughter happy that he’d made fun of her?

  I played tour guide and even showed her my treehouse. But out under the tree, Blake and Tabitha started making out. I felt like an intruder when they couldn’t keep their hands off each other. I decided that I was going to fill up my glass.

  I found Lucian, Arianna, and everyone else at the swimming pool. All the windows of the pool room were flung open to embrace the warm night air. I planted myself beside them and stayed there.

  The two lovebirds finally made their way back and were surprised to find me sitting with my friends, and enjoying actual conversation.

  “Here you are!” Blake said. “We were waiting for you to get back.”

  “Waiting?” I rolled my eyes. “That tree house got too small all of a sudden.” I laughed, light and unconcerned.

  Blake blushed and Tabitha flared her nostrils. Everyone laughed.

  Lucian gave me a surprised look and took out a bottle of booze. “Are you insane?” I yelled at him. “Put it away, my mom will skin me alive.”

  “Oh c’mon, Elena. It hasn’t stopped you before,” Blake teased.

  I stuck out my tongue at him. I knew it was too immature, but that was what he was used to. Besides, I was only fourteen. I wasn’t going to act older than I was anymore. I didn’t need to pretend anymore. It came naturally.

  “Fine. Just don’t get caught,” I said and took the first shot.

  The rest of the bottle made its way around. We played thirty seconds, a game where we had to describe words and people without uttering the actual words.

  Blake and I used to win every time, but tonight he teamed up with his precious—as Sammy called her. I teamed up with Sammy.

  She wasn’t as good as Blake, but we still won. Tabitha, as smart as she was, didn’t know what Blake was talking about half of the time. It gave me plenty of moments to jeer. They were so not compatible after all.

  We swam for a while, under dancing electric lights that mimicked the stars outside. At eleven o’clock, Tabitha was horribly drunk. I had a suspicion that she’d shown up tipsy, because she hadn’t had enough shots to get her that wasted.

  My mom finally called it a night. I had to help Blake put Tabitha in the SUV my dad sent. Gerald was driving. He was one of the new guards who had started a few weeks ago.

  “Sorry about this, dude,” Blake said. “She is out like a stone.”

  “It’s why they call it stone cold, Blake,” I chirped.

  He stood behind the door.

  “Sorry we were late tonight.”

  “It’s fine. My birthdays are huge affairs. You know how it goes.”

  “I do.” He looked guilty.

  “What?” I said, dreading what was going to come out of his mouth.

  “I was so busy this year, Elena. I know it isn’t an excuse, but I will make it up. I promise.”

  “What are you talking about?”

  “I forgot your present.”

  It was a shock, but I feigned nonchalance. “It’s fine. Classes are super difficult at Dragonia. And you can be glad you are dating a smartass.”

  “Still, I feel like crap.”

  I admonished, “Better make Christmas a good one.”

  “Oh, you bet it will.” He frowned. “I didn’t understand this year’s cake.”

  “It’s stupid. The ’rents thought it would be funny.”

  He just looked at me. “I’m waiting.”

  “She should get to bed, Blake.”

  “C’mon, Elena. Just tell me.”

  “I broke my ankle this year, wearing that shoe, okay?” I said through a smile.

  His face fell. “You broke your ankle? Why didn’t you tell me?”

  “You had other things on your mind, Blake.” This wasn’t a lie. “I’m not going to bother you with stupid things like breaking my ankle.”

  “Elena, it’s not stupid. You broke your ankle. I’m sure it hurt like fucking hell.”

  “It did.” Also not a lie. “After Constance came, she healed it fast, and it was over. So only a day, not much. Besides, like I said, you were busy.” It sounded sadder than I wanted it to be.

  We both sighed. “Come here,” he said and he pulled me in for a hug. The second hug he’d given me tonight. It felt so good. “I messed up this year. I’m sorry.”

  “You didn’t mess up, okay? We both knew that this was going to happen eventually, Blake.”

  “Yeah, but I completely missed the punch line, and if you broke your ankle, it’s cruel of them to laugh about it, Elena.”

  “They weren’t cruel. It was funny as hell.”

  He forced an uncertain laugh. “I promise I will always be there. This,” he pointed at Tabitha in the SUV, “will never change that, Elena. So next time you break something, send a fucking crow.”

  I smiled. He really cared about m
e. And then I didn’t think. I kissed him.

  He pulled away immediately, before my lips fully made impact on his. “Elena, what are you doing?”

  “Sorry,” I said. My cheeks burned. “I shouldn’t have done that. Sorry.” I turned and ran, holding back the tears.

  “Elena!” he called after me, but I didn’t stay. I kept it together until I was inside.

  What the fuck did I just do? This was such a big mess.

  Blake just climbed into the SUV and left. Elena cried the entire night.

  I was livid. Albert wasn’t. I resented his cool-headedness in that moment.

  I tried to comfort her, but she didn’t want me to. Around two, I heard an annoying tap like something hard on glass.

  I went to investigate and found a crow on Elena’s sill, rapping against her window. She was so dead asleep, she didn’t even hear it. I went to her drawer, got a dry mouse treat, opened the window, and took the envelope in its sachet as the treat went down the crow’s greedy gullet.

  I held onto the pouch so the bird couldn’t fly away, and opened her letter.

  It was from Blake of course, about tonight.

  Why did you do that? I thought I was like your brother. This changes everything. I don’t feel what you feel, Elena, and I can’t become the bad guy in this story. You are my rider. Why did you do that?

  I am so mad at you. You’ve just ruined everything, and I mean everything.

  I looked at the bird. If this was the sort of letter he was going to send her, then no more letters.

  I used meta-compulsion on a fucking crow.

  It was forbidden. Meta-compulsion was like a virus. The order would spread with every bird it would come in contact with.

  Green Vapors were actually one of the deadliest dragons out there. Some of them had no idea of the depths of their power. Tanya had granted me her Green Vapor gift that allowed me to control minds.

  I told the bird what he needed to do. Every time he made contact with another crow, my order would spread.

  Starting tonight, crows would be compelled to deliver every one of Elena’s letters to my window and not hers. And every letter she sent him, they would be forced to fly halfway to their destination, then return to me with that letter. The crow’s eyes turned green and went back to black.

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