Chapter One


“Hurry up, girl! Where’s that potion?” Abertha barked at Gwen, dodging the limbs of the wiry young man that lay on the treatment table. The humidity of the treatment room had twisted her mentor’s peppery hair into tight ringlets, and as she scowled in Gwen’s direction, her wizened face became a map of deep lines and wrinkles.

“We could just touch-heal him and not have to bother ourselves with a pain reliever,” Gwen muttered under her breath as she continued to work on the potion. Brewing it wasn’t difficult, but it certainly wasn’t pleasant—nor was it quickly finished. As a healer, she hated to see her patients suffer a moment longer than they needed to. Though this particular patient did seem to be making things worse for himself, refusing to sit still despite his injury.

“Gwen?” Abertha said impatiently.

“I’m coming,” she told the old healer. “Give me a second.”

“Stop moving!” Nesta, Abertha’s young apprentice, squeaked. “I thought owl shifters were supposed to be stoic.”

“You try sitting still while the royal company is approaching! I have to get back out there to see what’s going on,” he insisted.

He’d been dropped on their doorstep this morning, restless and in pain after dislocating his left shoulder in a fight with some other shifters. Gwen worried he might have hit his head as well—why else would he be ranting so much about seeing the royal company traveling the road to town?

No royal had any reason to be out here, in the far reaches of the kingdom. That was why Gwen and Abertha had chosen to move to this tiny village in the first place. 

“You probably mistook a small military contingent for the royals,” she said, trying to push down a creeping sense of unease. We’re safe here, she reminded herself. We’re safe. 

The shifter craned his neck to look at her. “I know the royal guards when I see them. And they weren’t traveling alone. They were with the prince!”

Gwen caught Abertha’s eye. It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t. Her hand started shaking, and she hid it in her pocket, not wanting her mentor to see. It brushed against sprigs of rosemary and soft, fuzzy lemongrass leaves—she’d been foraging earlier and had, as usual, stuffed her pockets with the ingredients common to so many potions. In fact…

She poked around in her pocket until her fingers brushed against something sharp. She smiled, retrieving the fragrant, green needles that were needed to finish the potion.

Gwen torched the needles in the flame beneath the beaker. They started to hiss and pop, crackling the way she imagined a wizard’s spell might. When the ends were crisp, she dumped them into the beaker and took a long metal spoon, stirring the concoction together. 

She stifled the flame beneath the burner, grabbed a strainer, and emptied the liquid contents into a tin cup before rushing over to Abertha. Gwen leaned against the treatment table, offering the cup to the young man. 

The shifter was petite, no more than fifteen—almost the age Nesta was now—his face still marked with the spots of youth, though most bird shifters remained tiny even as they aged. Hollow-boned, Abertha called them. It made them light and fast and difficult to pin down. He had bright, round eyes that darted around the room like he was looking for a perch where he could escape.

“Drink this,” Gwen ordered, attempting to tip the contents of the cup down his throat. The shifter turned his aquiline nose up at the cup, spluttering as the pain-relieving potion touched his lips. “I know it’s not pleasant, but it really will help. Otherwise, it’s going to hurt when Abertha pops your arm back into place.”

“It’s vile,” he cried, sitting up so quickly that Gwen almost dropped the potion cup while Nesta stumbled against a shelf filled with old parchments and healing recipes. “Can’t you just magic me back together? This is going to hurt more than when I dislocated it!”

“You know that’s not how we do things,” Abertha said sternly. “Keep him still!” She struggled a bit as she removed her boot one-handed. Her right arm ended in a stump—a “gift” from the royal family of Basilicos after Abertha had failed to save the ailing king. Gwen had still been her apprentice back then, and the sight of Abertha’s stump always made her shiver with memory.

“What are you going to do?” Nesta wondered.

“If you get the heel of your foot in their armpit, it gives you leverage,” Abertha said, sitting on the edge of the table and setting her stocking covered foot down. “Then you grab their dislocated arm and pull hard while pushing in with your heel.”

“You’re going to rip my arm off!” the shifter exclaimed.

“I’m doing no such thing,” Abertha said. “Now drink your pain tonic and stop whining.”

“I don’t think so!” He curled his knees up to kick at them, finally succeeding in knocking the pain reliever from Gwen’s hand. The tonic splattered across the wood floor, seeping between the crevices.

“Hey!” Nesta cried.

Before they could stop him, the young man shifted, his limbs contracting almost instantly as feathers sprouted through his skin. His cry became an aching screech as his human form was replaced by a small barn owl with dark eyes and golden wings. With his injured arm converted to an injured wing, he couldn’t fly away from them, but his much smaller form was perfectly able to tuck itself into a gap under a cabinet where he’d be difficult to reach.

“That’s quite enough!” Abertha bellowed, putting her left hand and her right stump on her hips. “Get back out here this instant.”

The owl screeched at them.

“I think that means no,” Nesta said.

“I don’t see why we couldn’t have just touch-healed him,” Gwen said loud enough for Abertha to hear her this time. “We could have already finished.” Touch-healing wasn’t an option for Abertha anymore, of course. Not without her healing hand. But Gwen and Nesta both had the gift—and Gwen had already started teaching Nesta how to use it. Treating this boy could already be over and done with, letting them move on to the next patient in the long line waiting outside their door.

“Some things should be done the old-fashioned way,” Abertha reminded her. It took every ounce of Gwen’s self-restraint not to roll her eyes as the healer started in on a familiar rant. “Magic is a gift, not a shortcut. And your supply isn’t infinite. You should reserve it for when it’s truly needed. A simple dislocation like this should be easily remedied without magic.”

“But it takes far longer to properly heal.”

“Good. Then he’ll have plenty of time to think about how stupid it was to start squabbling with shifters twice his size all because he claims he saw the prince,” Abertha said. “Maybe this way, he’ll learn to be wiser in the future.” She paired her words with a sharp look toward the corner that hid the owl. Abertha had little patience for foolish behavior. Actually, she had little patience with most things. No one would ever call Abertha a soft woman. She was honorable, capable, and enormously skilled—with or without her healing hand—and she was even kind in her own gruff way, not to mention generous toward Gwen, the orphan she’d taken in as a baby. But soft? No, never that.

Gwen pursed her lips, accepting the scolding that was meant for her as much as for the shifter. She still thought healing the boy would be best…but this was Abertha’s infirmary, not hers. Abertha’s decisions ruled. “Very well,” Gwen said, taking off her apron. “We’ll do it your way.”

Using her apron as a net, she managed to get it wrapped around the shifter, dragging him from his hiding place. He hooted in protest and tried to scratch her with his talons, but her apron was thick and sturdy, and he was wrapped up too tightly to have much leverage. 

She dumped him unceremoniously back on the treatment table. “Excellent,” Abertha said, unwrapping the owl from Gwen’s apron and pointing her stump at it. “I’ve faced more terrible things than you, boy, so I’ll warn you against trying anything like that again. Now, I can attempt to fix you in this condition, but it would be much easier if you were human.”

The owl gave a soft hoot just as a harsh knock sounded in the front room, startling them all. On their healing days, everyone knew they weren’t to be disturbed. Healing was a delicate business, requiring attention and concentration. A loud, unexpected noise at the wrong moment could botch a potion or interrupt a touch-healing midway through, which wouldn’t be comfortable for the healer or the patient. Those in need of their services waited patiently in a line outside until it was their turn. Who would have the audacity to pound on their door this way? Abertha’s gaze landed on Nesta. She flicked her head and the girl hurried down the hall to answer the door.

Abertha sat the owl on the treatment table. He hooted again, tilting his head, those black eyes studying them. “I know you’re in pain,” Abertha said. “Two minutes and this could all be over.”

The owl tried pecking her stump.

 Gwen couldn’t help feeling a little sympathy for him. She didn’t like it when Abertha treated her like a child, either. Maybe it was time for her to seriously think about striking out on her own. Her apprenticeship was finished, and she was a healer in her own right. Abertha had Nesta to help with the tasks that would be difficult without her hand, including touch-healing—when and if Abertha agreed it was truly necessary. Gwen wasn’t needed here, not really. She just…wasn’t sure where she would go, out in the world all on her own. Abertha was the closest thing to family Gwen had. And even if she never said the words, Gwen knew Abertha loved her. Walking away from that wouldn’t be easy—especially when she didn’t really have anything to walk toward

The owl shifted back suddenly, his limbs lengthening at alarming speeds, the feathers retracting back through his skin. What was once a soft, heart-shaped face with a beak became the bony prominences of a human skull. The young man clutched his dislocated arm, squinting in pain.

Abertha tutted. “See what happens when you do a ridiculous thing like shift in the middle of your treatment? Now lay down.”

“Gwen!” Nesta shouted from down the hall. “I need you!”

With a sigh, Gwen marched off down the narrow hall toward the wooden door that Nesta leaned against. “What’s going on?” she asked. “We just got him to shift back. You’re about to miss Abertha relocating his shoulder.”

Nesta’s expression was frozen, her teeth clenched, a deep line between her brows. Whatever was on the other side of that door clearly wasn’t pleasant.

Gwen’s concern skyrocketed. “Is it a patient? Someone in a serious condition?” No, that couldn’t be it. If there was an emergency, Nesta would have already brought the patient inside. Was it someone looking to make trouble? There could be tensions sometimes between the shifters and the other humans throughout the nation of Basilicos—and their infirmary, focused on the treatment of shifters, was an easy target.

Nesta scurried out of the way, and Gwen wrenched the door open, expecting something terrible, but what she saw was worse. 

Oh stars! she thought as her jaw dropped. Nesta’s panic suddenly made perfect sense. She automatically dipped into a shallow curtsey, her heart in her throat. “Prince Tagaris,” she bit out, staring at her feet. The shifter had been right. It was the royal company he saw traveling on the road. And now she was face to face with the man—the dragon shifter—she had hoped to never see again.

The man who had taken Abertha’s hand.

The trembling in Gwen’s hands was back, but she clenched them into fists, not wanting him to see her fear. She straightened, taking the prince in like a bad dream. He was taller than she remembered, towering over both her and Nesta, with the powerful musculature that dragon shifters were known for, even in their human forms. 

He was still the most handsome man she’d ever seen. 

It seemed wrong that someone so harsh should have those lush, soft-looking waves of black hair—that someone so cruel would have such angelic features. The most striking thing about him were his eyes, a shade of blue so icy they almost looked silver. She’d always had trouble meeting those piercing, penetrating eyes. When she was younger, living in the palace as Abertha’s apprentice, she’d get flushed and embarrassed when their eyes met. Now, the sight of them sent a chill down her spine. 

It took a minute before she even realized there were others with him—a royal contingent of guards. Each of them bore the crest of the house of Basilicos on their armor and their shields: a flame-spitting dragon etched in gold with a small blood-red ruby for an eye. It was a sign of both the wealth and the power of the royal family. As if anyone needed a reminder. The royal court was composed entirely of magical shifters, but it was always dragons who ruled—with fire, razor-sharp teeth, and iron fists. Currently, it was Tagaris’s sister who sat on the throne rather than Tagaris himself, but the power he held was terrifying all the same. In part because he headed the army—and in part because of the sheer strength he held.

The last thing she wanted to do was speak to him or entertain his reasons for being on their doorstep. Frankly, she would have been happy to never see him again. But apparently, that wasn’t an option. “Your Grace, I apologize, but we have patients to see,” she said curtly, shoving Nesta back into the infirmary. “If you could excuse us—”

She tried to close the door, but the prince threw his hand out, catching it so forcefully that Gwen had to marvel at his strength. From the corner of her eye, she swore she saw a flicker of smoke seep beneath his hand where it touched the wood. Was he doing that on purpose? It was impossible to say. Dragons had control of fire…but in her experience, they rarely had control of their tempers, and when they were riled, things tended to catch aflame.

“I am in need of assistance,” he said brusquely.

“As is the shifter we have on our treatment table,” Gwen replied, wondering what the prince could possibly want from them when the palace was equipped with its own royal healer—the one who had replaced Abertha when she was relieved of her title and her ability to touch-heal.

“I have traveled a long way in search of help,” he said. “You will hear me out.”

“Abertha!” Gwen called, taking a step back. If he wanted anything from them, then he could go ahead and speak to the woman whose hand he took.

Abertha hurried down the hall. “What is taking you two so long?”

Gwen stepped aside, letting Abertha see just who had interrupted their morning. Abertha hid her shock well, but Gwen had been living with her long enough—all twenty-two years of her life—to know when the healer was rattled. 

Abertha lowered her head and gave the prince a perfunctory curtsey. “Your Grace,” she said. “You’ll have to excuse us. We’re in the middle of a treatment.”

“I am here to speak with you about an urgent matter.”

“Are you injured?” Abertha asked.

His eyes narrowed. “No.”

“Are you actively dying?”

“No,” the prince repeated, his lips curling back over his teeth.

“Then I am bound by my oath as a healer to focus on the others who arrived here before you.” Abertha gestured down the side of the building where a snakey line of patients—mostly shifters since that was their specialty—waited for care. “I’ll have to ask you to join the queue.”

“This is the Prince of Basilicos,” one of the guards barked.

“And we are one of the only infirmaries in this region,” Abertha pointed out. The healing oath bound each healer to treat all patients equally, whether they were members of the royal family or the lowliest creatures in the land. Tagaris knew that too, which was probably why he scowled at Abertha instead of forcing the issue. 

“If you are truly in need of our assistance,” Abertha continued. “You can wait your turn like all the others.”

Then, to Gwen’s surprised delight, Abertha slammed the door right in his face.

Chapter Two


“The prince!” Nesta whispered, hardly containing the squeal of excitement that rattled between her teeth as they walked back to the treatment room. “Here! On our doorstep. Can you believe it?”

Gwen didn’t want to believe it. That was half the problem. By all the stars in the sky, what was the crown Prince of Basilicos doing here? She took a little comfort in the fact that she and Abertha hadn’t been immediately arrested or attacked. In fact, the prince had actually seemed as if he needed help of some sort. But what could he possibly want of them?

Nesta grabbed her arm and squeezed. “It’s him. It’s really the prince!”

“It’s not the kind of honor you think it is,” Gwen said, taking the girl by the shoulders and steering her down the hall. “Trust me. It’s much better to stay away from the royals and the deceptions of their court.” Not to mention the danger and the violence. That type of power was a messy, bloody thing, the likes of which Gwen hoped Nesta would never experience.

But from the enraptured look on Nesta’s face, it was clear to Gwen that her words were falling on deaf ears.

“I knew the prince was said to be handsome, but I didn’t know he would be that handsome,” the girl gushed, and Gwen fought the urge to roll her eyes.

“Poisonous snakes are sometimes beautiful,” she pointed out. “That doesn’t make them any less deadly.”

“So you think he’s handsome too?” Nesta asked, wide-eyed. “But you never think anyone is handsome.”

Gwen sighed. It wasn’t that she never thought anyone was handsome, it was just…she didn’t care how any of the men in town looked. Her studies and her work were all that mattered. They were how she earned her keep, how she proved her usefulness. Wasting her time on a silly romance never seemed worthwhile compared to that.

“How long do you think he’ll wait out there?” Nesta asked, still babbling as they entered the treatment room. “Will he think us very rude if we don’t offer refreshments? I could brew some tea.”

The young owl-shifter sat on the edge of the treatment table, clutching his injured arm which was now immobilized in a sling. Abertha had obviously popped it back into place while Gwen was gaping at the prince. “I told you, didn’t I?” he boasted. “It really is the Prince of Basilicos!”

“You were right!” Nesta squealed as if opening the door to find royalty was the most fantastic thing that had ever happened to her. Nesta had no idea how truly lucky she was to have lived her life sheltered in the tiny village of Kala’s Well. She’d been spared the ruthless scramble for power that came with life at court—and she’d never had to fear the long, terrible shadow of the royal family’s anger falling on her head. Gwen could only hope that, no matter what the next few hours held for Gwen and Abertha, Nesta would be spared.

“Did you see the guards?” the owl-shifter asked.

“Six of them,” Nesta said, grinning now that someone was indulging her excitement. “They have rubies on their armor and swords longer than my arm!”

“I heard the royals only employ predator shifters in their personal guard.”

“What else could possibly defend a dragon?” Nesta said.

Gwen lost track of the conversation as she watched Abertha poke around the supply shelves. The old healer hadn’t said a single word about the prince after slamming the door in his face, and she was deliberately avoiding looking at Gwen. If she was trying to hide her worry, there was no need. Gwen was fretting enough for the both of them. She wondered if Abertha’s right arm ached with the phantom pain of her healing hand. All Gwen could think about was the sharp sound the heated metal ax had made as it sliced through the air, severing Abertha’s hand from her body, and the rancid scent of scalding flesh. The blade of the ax had been so hot it immediately cauterized the wound and there had been very little blood. But Gwen remembered the scream that had ripped from deep in Abertha’s chest and the endless pain that had followed. She remembered foraging for willow bark to keep the fevers and infection away as they traveled away from the capital. They’d been on the road for days when a man with a wagon had finally taken pity on them and offered them a ride. Gwen had sat in the back of the wagon for two days, Abertha’s head in her lap, as she tipped a pain reliever into the old healer’s mouth drop by drop.

Gwen shook off that memory and went back to racking her brain, trying to come up with a scenario that the prince would consider an urgent matter.

“Here,” Abertha said, finally turning around. She handed Gwen a small packet of herbs. “Finish up with this patient and bring in the next.”

Abertha’s fingers lingered against Gwen’s palm, and she felt a sudden rush of devotion for the older woman. She was the closest thing Gwen had to family. She hadn’t known enough all those years ago to help Abertha save the king. If she had, she might have been able to save Abertha’s hand.

“What are you waiting for?” Abertha said, as brusque and impatient as ever.

“Nothing,” Gwen replied, turning toward the treatment table. 

The owl shifter looked up at her, his wide, studious gaze full of wonder. She could tell he was entranced by the thought of royalty in their town, eager to flee to the streets and discuss the happenings with his friends. No doubt the prince had marched in through the town square with his golden banners flying. It wasn’t a market day, so the square would have been quiet, meaning the sound of rattling chainmail and steel-plated boots would have echoed down streets and alleyways, attracting the attention of every household in Kala’s Well. The entirety of the town was probably already whispering about the visit, poking their heads out of shops and leaving their fields just for the opportunity to bow at Tagaris’s feet. Only Gwen and Abertha knew the true danger of eliciting a dragon’s attention.

“Take this,” Gwen said, smoothing the pack of herbs between her thumb and forefinger before pressing it into the owl-shifter’s hand. “Brew it into a tea, no more than once in the morning and once at night, to help with any pain. Submerging your shoulder in cool water can also help with the dull ache.”

The shifter nodded, jumping down from the table. “Thanks.”

“No strenuous activity,” Gwen continued. “Not until you’re fully healed. That means no shifting. No flying. Or else you run the risk of reinjuring yourself and—”

He groaned. “For how long?”

“You should be able to remove the sling and resume most activities in about two weeks.”

“But shifting?” he said pointedly.

Gwen sighed, knowing he wasn’t going to like her answer. “It can take up to three months for a dislocated shoulder to properly heal.”

“Three months!” he cried. “I think I’ll just accept the risk of reinjuring it.”

“Suit yourself,” Gwen said. She knew from experience that arguing would be a waste of her breath. He’d learn caution and good sense on his own or not at all. There was nothing she could do about that. She steered him toward Nesta. “Can you please walk him out and bring in the next patient?”

Nesta nodded and the pair fell into immediate conversation about the prince, scurrying down the hall to go spy on the royal company. Gwen stared after them, losing her train of thought as she spotted Tagaris through the window. He’d shed some of his armor as he waited, though with his powerful muscular build, he appeared to be just as intimidating as he was when he was wearing his chest plate and leather spaulders. His hands dropped to his hips and he shook his head, his mouth moving as he likely spoke to one of his guards. He was probably giving orders. Suddenly, Tagaris surged forward and pressed his head to the glass to peer in the window. This time Gwen knew she wasn’t mistaken—two spirals of smoke bled from the space beneath his hands.

Gwen ducked out of sight. The prince was clearly unimpressed with having to wait. Maybe even a little anxious to discuss this urgent matter.

“Get your head on straight.”

“What?” Gwen said, turning on her heel to face Abertha.

“We have a full day’s worth of patients lined up outside. I need you to focus.”

“I am focused,” Gwen insisted. She followed after Abertha as she wiped down the treatment table. “What do you think the prince wants?”

“You’re focused on the wrong things,” Abertha pointed out, tossing a rag at her.

Gwen caught it, helping to tidy the treatment room as they waited for their next patient. “You really have no idea why he’s here?”

“I’m as clueless as you,” Abertha said. “But at least I’m not letting myself get distracted, staring at the prince.”

Gwen tossed her rag down and tucked the loose hairs that dangled by her face behind her ears. She wasn’t distracted. And even if she was distracted, it certainly wasn’t because she was staring at Tagaris. It was because she was worried about what he might do to them. Even if he was there because he needed something from them, that was no guarantee he’d be polite about demanding it when the time came. “I’m just trying to be prepared. Aren’t you the least bit concerned that you just slammed the door in his face and told him to wait his turn?”

“No,” Abertha said thoughtfully. “That part felt rather good.”

The corners of Gwen’s mouth twitched. Okay, so they were in agreement about that. A giggle sounded from the hall. She turned to see Nesta carrying a small child on her back. Nesta carefully deposited the girl on the treatment table, and Gwen swept to her side. “How can we help you?” she asked, bending to look the girl in the eyes.

The girl ducked her head shyly.

“Her mother said she fell this morning as they were crossing the market,” Nesta whispered like they were all playing a game. “She’s complaining of a sore ankle.”

“Oh,” Gwen said, trying to get the girl to smile. “The market square is full of those pesky stones, isn’t it? They can be hard to walk on.”

The girl nodded.

“Can I have a look at where it hurts?”

The girl stuck her legs out and Gwen chuckled. She inspected both of the tiny ankles, comparing one to the other. It was clearly the girl’s right foot that had been twisted in the stones. Gwen could see the swelling right away. The lower part of her leg had ballooned up to twice its size.

“Can you walk on it at all?” Gwen asked.

The girl shrugged, wrinkling her nose.

“I bet it hurts when you do,” Gwen said. “But you’re being very brave. Can you wiggle your toes for me?”

The girl did.

Gwen prodded the swelling with the most gentle of fingers. The little girl held impossibly still, hunching over like she was preparing to jump off the table if Gwen pressed too hard. Gwen kept her movements soft and slow. There was no major bruising. No bony deformity. She was almost positive that they were dealing with a sprain and not any kind of fracture. Surely Abertha wouldn’t begrudge her the small amount of magic it would take to touch-heal this child. It wouldn’t leave her drained in the slightest. And it wasn’t as if the girl needed to learn a lesson from her injury. She was so tiny—still getting used to walking at all. Of course there would be some falls. If she could spare the child from having to suffer through her recovery, then surely that was the right thing to do. Just in case Abertha would disapprove, Gwen glanced over her shoulder, making sure Abertha was occupied at the workbench. “Well, I think there’s only one thing to do,” she said.

The little girl’s eyes widened.

“We’ll have to make Nesta carry you everywhere.”

Nesta flopped down on the end of the treatment table, feigning exhaustion. The little girl finally laughed. Gwen took her foot in her hand. If she hurried, Abertha wouldn’t be able to stop her. The sprain would be healed, and the little girl would be on her way, as good as new.

Gwen felt a familiar tingling sensation start at the top of her head, dripping down her neck and along her spine like a water droplet over uneven tree bark. The tingling became a warmth that coursed through her entire body. All she had to do was channel the warmth through her hand. Gwen closed her eyes, guiding the healing energy. 

A loud knock thundered at the door, and Gwen’s eyes shot open. Nesta ducked out into the hall and returned a moment later.

“There’s smoke billowing under the door!” she said breathlessly.

“What color is it?” Abertha called over her shoulder.

Nesta shrugged. “White?”

“Pay it no mind, then. We saw this all the time in the palace. It’s black smoke we need to worry about. The prince needs to learn to keep his emotions in check.”

Nesta grimaced, flitting to Gwen’s side. “It’s not just the prince. It’s the guards, too. I heard them talking,” she whispered.

“What did they say?”

“That this impertinence would never have been allowed in the capital.”

The prince was getting testy, which worried Gwen. But the patients came first. She wouldn’t budge on that, and she knew Abertha wouldn’t either. 

“Gwenllian!” Abertha snapped, and they all jumped, finding the old healer beside them suddenly. Abertha rapped her knuckles against Gwen’s hand.

Gwen recoiled automatically, releasing the little girl’s ankle to sooth the back of her own hand. Startled, the little girl started to cry.

Abertha wrenched Gwen away. “You’re using the wrong hand,” she hissed.

Gwen stopped massaging her hand and looked down. She had started to heal with her left hand instead of her right. For her part, it made no difference to her—she could heal equally well with either hand. Yet Abertha was militant about insisting Gwen heal with one hand only. Gwen honestly wasn’t sure whether it was superstition, or custom, or something more serious. Abertha rarely was inclined to explain herself. 

“Don’t look at me like that,” Abertha said. “You know the rules.”

Gwen frowned at Abertha, stepping forward to comfort the child that was now sniffling into Nesta’s shoulder. 

Gwen touched the girl’s ankle again with the right hand, and summoned her magic, ignoring Abertha when she called the magic an unnecessary waste. It flowed from her as easily as water over the lip of a bowl. Gwen felt the swelling in the girl’s ankle deflate immediately.

Gwen pulled away, nodding in satisfaction. This had hardly used any energy at all. The little girl gasped, inspecting her foot and wiggling all her toes. “Better?” Gwen asked.

The little girl hugged her and smiled. Nesta held her hand out and the girl jumped off the table, following her out of the infirmary. Gwen tried not to let her gaze be drawn to Tagaris and his retinue as the front door opened and closed, but she found it difficult.

“Stop fussing over them,” Abertha said.

Gwen didn’t turn away this time. There was no use in denying what had occupied her attention. “Nesta said the guards were complaining about having to wait.”

“Let them complain. It’ll be good for them to learn a little patience.”

“Could someone have sent a complaint to the palace about us, angry about all the shifters who come here to visit our infirmary?” Not every town had an infirmary—and not every infirmary was willing or qualified to treat shifters, whose anatomy sometimes blended human and animal characteristics in subtle and unusual ways. But since that meant that there were many miles between them and the next closest healer for shifters, shifters came to them from all over the region. It was possible that there were some in Kala’s Well who disliked the influx of shifters into their town. 

Unease between humans and shifters wasn’t uncommon in Basilicos. Places where the populations were more evenly mixed were usually fairly calm, but when one side outnumbered the other significantly, it was common for fighting to occur. “Do you think they’re here because of the anti-shifter riot that broke out in the next town the other day?”

Abertha waved off her concern. “Tensions rise and fall. They may be high right now, but a healer’s job is to care for her patients in whatever form they take—a call that transcends politics and factional squabbling. The royals also lost the right to control our patient population when they banished us.”

Gwen nodded her agreement, then signaled to Nesta to bring in the next patient.

For the rest of the morning and into the early afternoon, they tended to dry coughs and fevers and aches of every kind. Tagaris waited, practically steaming with impatience the whole time. Frankly, Gwen was surprised he hadn’t bullied his way to the front of the line or shifted into a dragon and blasted their door down. True, Gwen and Abertha were technically in the right in adhering to their healer’s oath, but since when did dragons care about technicalities? Tagaris’s sister, the queen, was known for shifting into dragon form and eating anyone who annoyed her, whether she had just cause or not. 

When it was Tagaris’s turn, Abertha admitted him to the treatment room herself.

He walked in, wearing a black silk tunic tucked into leather pants. His armor had been left outside with all but the one guard who accompanied him indoors. Even without all the extravagance, he was still intimidating. He made the burly guard next to him look like a child.

“Now,” Abertha began. “What can we do for you, Your Grace?”

Tagaris stood so straight it was like he had a metal pole hammered in place of his spine. He tucked both hands behind his back. It was the way soldiers stood. “I am here to seek your aid, but before I do, I must ask that our conversation be kept confidential. The matter I speak of is relating to the security of the entire kingdom.”

Nesta gaped, looking from Gwen to Abertha.

“All conversations between a healer and their clients are confidential. We wouldn’t have the trust of our patients otherwise,” Abertha pointed out. She crossed her arms, showing off the end of her stump.

Gwen didn’t miss the way Tagaris avoided looking at it. “Very well. To save us the time,” he said, the words almost a growl, “I’ll get right to the matter. An important member of the royal court is ill with a disease that has baffled the current court healer.”

Gwen raised a brow.

“And every other healer we have summoned to the capital,” he added, “they’ve attempted touch-healing with poor results. Coming here, to the practice of a disgraced former court healer, is a last resort. But I am out of options. Abertha, you once had a reputation as the best shifter healer in all of Basilicos. We require someone with your depth of experience to come up with a different treatment plan.”

Nesta’s eyes were so wide they might have popped out of her head. Gwen felt the same as she took Abertha by the arm, hauling her aside. “You can’t consider going back to the shifter court,” she whispered under her breath. Whispering likely didn’t matter. Dragons had heightened senses, even in human form. Anywhere they went in the infirmary, he’d be able to hear Gwen’s desperate pleas, but she didn’t care. Let him hear. Let him know what she truly thought of him and his royal court. “It’s a vicious, treacherous place, and the cost of failure last time was your healing hand. This time it’ll be your head!”

“Don’t fret,” Abertha said, dropping her stump onto Gwen’s shoulder. “I’d never go back there.”

Gwen let out a relieved breath.

“My time has passed,” Abertha continued. “This time I’m sending you.”

BONDING FIRE will be released February 28th, 2024. My new YA fantasy is available for pre-order from Amazon.