Dragon Queen, the final book in the Dragons of Kaitstud series publishes on Wednesday. This will be the final installment in Birgith and Haydn’s story. Read on for a sneak peek into the first chapter!
Hosting the Congress
Birgith stood at the entrance to the Bear Clan Building, her stomach roiling. For nearly two seasons, she’d been Bear Clan leader. She was still settling into that role, overseeing the care of her people. Now she was hosting the Clan Leaders’ Congress, where, for the first time, she’d meet the other three Clan Leaders and the Grand Master of the Conservatoire as their equal.
At least she had the advantage of familiar ground. Even so, sweat trickled down her spine and her clammy palms itched.
She glanced at her brothers Nikulas and Vincenc flanking her to the right, and Artur and her friend and advisor, Haydn, on her left.
They were her protectors. Wearing matching dark-blue doublets with silver clasps polished to a blinding shine, they looked the part of her inner circle, even though they’d only spent a few seasons together. The rest of her council stood opposite the entrance, several paces back, where they would welcome the other leaders after her.
Members of her clan lined the route through the Citadel. They waved flags and cheered as, one by one, the other leaders’ floatships passed. It had been three summers since the Congress had last been held in the Bear Citadel, so Birgith was determined to put on a good show. The roar of her people as the floatships approach grew louder. Her stomach cramped. She’d been too nervous to eat breakfast, so thankfully the churning didn’t bring on sickness.
The competing melodies powering each floatship combined to form a raucous cacophony. She counted three hovering just high enough to breech the crowd. Where was the fourth? With all the flags and people she couldn’t tell who was missing.
The first floatship drew near, halting to one side of the open area in front of the building. A large man with fluffy blond hair stepped down. His bare knees peeped out between grey shorts and long white socks. He wasn’t showy enough to be a wolf. And Birgith had met the Fox Leader before. This had to be the Cat Leader. An older man and a middle-aged lady followed him. They ambled across the grass.
Birgith smiled and greeted them.“Welcome to the Bear Citadel.”
The Cat Leader frowned. “I’m here for the Congress, girl. Why isn’t the new leader here to meet me?”
A rush of irritation and hostility flowed through Birgith’s bonds with her brothers. With one hand, she gestured to them to relax.
Birgith forced her smile to stay in place. “I am.”
The Cat Leader sniffed at her. “Really? The Bears have chosen a cubling to lead them? You must be what, barely tested?”
Birgith refused to confirm his suspicion.
“The Bears are crazier than I thought.” He shook his head, continuing into the building and the comfort of the other people there.
Birgith blew out a breath and forced her shoulders to relax. One difficult conversation was to be expected. They wouldn’t all be that way. And once they spent time together she was sure they’d work well with her. They had to, for the sake of the whole of Kaitstud, after all.
The second floatship stopped behind the first. A stern lady with spiked hair and a purple skirt suit with pointed shoulder pads stepped down. It was the Fox Leader. Nikulas stiffened beside Birgith. She swallowed, remembering their last encounter, when she’d ordered Birgith to accompany her uncle’s dead body back here. Birgith tried to be grateful, as the decision allowed her to become Bear Leader. Their reunion would likely be difficult.
“Well.” The sharp, familiar voice jolted Birgith back to her surroundings. “This is a surprise. I knew the Bear Leader had changed, but you weren’t who I expected to meet.” The Fox Leader stood with one hand on her hip, her assessing gaze fixed on Birgith.
Birgith straightened. “Pleased to see you again. I must admit, it wasn’t what I expected either.”
The other lady laughed. “Please, call me Sarona. Looks like we’ll be spending more time together after all.”
Birgith’s body relaxed. “In which case, call me Birgith.” She gestured into the building beyond. “We have refreshments inside.”
The Fox Leader nodded. “Thank you. I look forward to speaking with you again soon.”
With that, she passed Birgith, followed by an older lady and a man Birgith remembered from her visit to the Castilion over the winter. They greeted the Councillors and made their way into the hall.
Birgith frowned as the third floatship stopped on the other side of the first two. Was this the Wolf Leader, or the Grand Master of the Conservatoire? Both were expected, yet one was missing.
A man climbed down. She relaxed to see it wasn’t the Grand Master of the Conservatoire. So he must be the Wolf Leader. She had corresponded with him, to gain his consent for Haydn to remain with her as an advisor. Typically everyone stuck to their own territories unless they were travelling to trade or selected visits. They didn’t stay a whole season, much less multiple. But he’d agreed to allow it.
The man stood taller than she’d imagined. Dark skin gleamed under his bright blue embroidered three-quarter length shirt which showed off his defined forearm muscles. He surveyed her and the surrounding area. A predatory air coloured his smile.
“My dear. I am honoured to meet you in person. Your letters do not convey your innate beauty.” He bowed over her hand, lifting it to his lips.
He was at least twice her age, so it felt uncomfortable to have him fawn over her.
Birgith swallowed, aware of the men behind her tensing to defend her. “Um.” She retrieved her hand from his clammy, calloused fingers. “Welcome to the Citadel. I hope you enjoy your stay.”
He nodded, leaving her to join the others inside without further prompting. Two young ladies in skimpy dresses disembarked from his floatship and followed him, scowling at Birgith.
She ignored their slight and checked the parade route again. No other floatship was within sight. Had they been delayed? She waved at the clan members gathered along the route. They cheered, before returning to their homes or businesses for the remainder of the day. With the trees lining the road in full leaf, they disappeared quickly from sight.
The tap of a stick scratching along the stone walkway caught her ear.
She turned to find Wulfric, her First Councillor, leaning on his walking stick as he approached. His open face and thinning hair gave him an air of trustworthiness. She was glad to have him as part of her council. His experience with previous leaders had proven invaluable and she’d learnt to rely on his advice.
He looked out at the trampled path. “All the Clan Leaders are here, but the Conservatoire attendees are missing. I don’t think we can wait for them.”
Birgith nodded in agreement.
He turned towards the building. “We must attend to your guests.”
He made his way inside. The other two councillors, Dorset and Solphie, followed. Dorset had been instrumental in her Aunt Thanca’s attempt to become Clan Leader. While that had failed, Birgith struggled to believe his loyalty to her.
A familiar nasal voice cut through the chatter from inside. “Well, she likes to think she’s the leader, but you’ll find that her role is more of a temporary solution. Trust me. Her title doesn’t hold the same weight as yours. Our clan carries on well day-to-day with no input from her.”
Birgith’s stomach sunk. How had her aunt joined the gathering?
“Her reign won’t last that long.” The uninvited woman continued. “Representing the previous leader, and, hopefully, the future one, I have a unique position here.”
Birgith grimaced. Thanca had refused all attempts to be included in the new Clan Leadership. Yet here she was, insinuating that she still ran things. Birgith’s fists clenched at her sides.
Haydn grabbed her arm, spinning her round to face him. “She’s not worth it.”
“She’s not supposed to be here.”
“True, But if you confront her now, you’ll only undermine your own position. Take the high road. Ignore her. Let her know you hear her, but don’t respond in front of the other leaders. Don’t let their first impression of you be an attack on your aunt. Especially not when she’s expecting what could be Otto’s child.”
Unfortunately, Thanca’s claims of being pregnant had proved correct, giving her the right to reside within the Citadel, even as a human. Her child had the potential to be a clan member, so Birgith couldn’t force them to move to a human settlement. Not that she wanted to, as dismantling that system was one of her aims as Clan Leader. She had lived in the one in Littledenn for a season, after all. Sending her aunt there would be hypocritical, however much she wanted to get rid of her.
Birgith sighed. “You’re right. I know you’re right. But I’ll need your inner strength to ignore her.”
Haydn rubbed her shoulder. “I’m always here for you. Anything you need. But this, you must do on your own.”
She relaxed into his touch. “Can’t I stay with you?” She shuffled closer to him, craving his warmth.
He pursed his lips. “Go in. Represent your people. All of them.”
She sighed. “I don’t want to.”
“The longer you stall, the harder it will be to quieten her lies.”
“I know.” With a deep breath, Birgith stood straighter. “Wish me luck.”
“You don’t need luck.” He brushed her arm. “You’ve got this. We’re all behind you, even if we can’t enter at the same time as you.”
She stroked his cheek. “I wish I could walk in on your arm. But I understand why Wulfric says we shouldn’t.”
“I’ll join you as soon as I can.” He caught her hand, pressing it to his lips.
While the Bear Council had accepted the three dragon brothers and Haydn as her advisors, the other Clan Leaders wouldn’t be so accepting of non-shifters being part of their discussions. Her brothers had the right to become clan members, but they’d decided not to join. They considered their role to be Birgith’s guards, and becoming clan members didn’t help them with that.
With a last smile at Haydn, Birgith followed her councillors into the throng inside.
Dragon Queen publishes October 26th on all retailers – preorder your copy now!