The beating of the drums was loud, and Nya’s small body shivered with each boom. It wasn’t cold outside, but as she stood on the dais overlooking all of the residents of the kingdom, she felt like it was the dead of winter. All of the blood seemed to have left her body. She felt fragile, frail. Cold.

Smoke billowed in the air from the torches that lit the area. The stars lit the sky overhead, but in order for the thousands of people assembled to see her father, the king, the flames were necessary. Plenty of guards held the torches as well. Off in the distance at The Point, the place where the sacrifice would be secured and await his or her fate, more torches dotted the landscape. It was a little over a mile’s trek from where she stood to the place where the unfortunate soul who was about to find out their short life was over would be tied up to away the dragon’s talons, but she could see the lights as clearly as she could see the ones on the perimeter of the dais.

The last two days, Nya had been sick to her stomach every time she thought about the ceremony that was about to take place. For some reason, she knew things would not go well. It had all unfolded in her mind thousands of times. Over and over again, she’d see her father pull the small scroll from the large clay pot and read the one name she didn’t want to hear. She’d rather he read her own. 

She’d confided in her mother, letting her know that she was worried sick over poor Gavin. Queen Shu had patted her hair and assured her that all was well. “The chances of your friend being chosen are so slim,” she’d reminded Nya. “I wouldn’t worry about it, dear.”

She knew that her mother’s words were true, and yet, Nya was worried. Standing there now, dressed in a green gown, its silky fabric confining as the long sleeves wound around her arms and the full skirt dragged along the wood of the dais, which towered over the ground a good ten feet in the air, she felt like she might vomit all over the intricately embroidered gown, perhaps splatter the first row of onlookers with the remnants of her lunch.

To distract herself, she let her eyes wander across the stage. Her sister didn’t seem worried at all. She’d proclaimed long ago that she could care less who was taken by the dragon since she knew it would never be her. Princess Eru was the exact opposite of Nya. Her long dark hair was braided neatly, her blue gown catching the light and glistening. She was tall and graceful and wore the gown as if it were a second skin, not a cage that had her legs imprisoned and twisted beneath her. She was next in line for the throne and spent most of her time studying how to be a good leader. Nya couldn’t be bothered with any of that. Since she was second-born, she knew she’d never rule anything and preferred to spend her time running through the woods. She was naturally drawn to the sword and fighting, but her mother kept a damper on that. Any practice Nya had with weapons was done in secret, usually with Gavin as her sparring partner.

Along the back of the stage, his father, Xaver Cross, as well as many other military leaders, such as Rok Phin, who had Nya’s muscles tightening, preparing to run, just from looking at him. His dark eyes landed on her for a moment, and she had to look away. 

The king and queen were standing in the center of the dais, her mother’s gown even larger and more ornate than the one she wore. Mostly white, with large blue sapphires affixed to it, the gown had to weigh at least fifty pounds. Since her mother was almost as small as Nya, she had no idea how she was wearing it, let alone smiling. Her dark hair was piled on top of her head, the large queen’s crown surrounding it.

Her father was wearing his royal red robes, as well as dark green pantaloons and a tunic. He had a sash across his chest, and a large golden bejeweled crown on his head. His hair was a dark blond, which still didn’t explain Nya’s near-white hair. The small frame she shared with her mother was the only physical attribute she shared in common with either of her parents.

The drum beats continued to echo through the night sky as her father surveyed the crowd for a few moments. Nya did the same. There were so many people there, but then, that was to be expected. All families with youths aged between six and seventeen must be present. Anyone else who cared to attend was permitted to, but if someone’s name was called, and that person was not present, not only would the sacrifice be hunted down and taken to The Point anyway, the entire family would be sacrificed.

As far as Nya knew, that had never happened. Most people were compliant. Her father sent seasoned soldiers from door to door to make sure that everyone who was required to come was there. Anyone who was caught hiding or refused to come would be fined, and the penalties were stiff. The people of Frindom were not poor, for the most part, but no one wanted to pay a hefty fine when they didn’t have to. 

The chances of any one child having his or her name called was about one in ten thousand, according to her mother’s calculations. There were about ten thousand eligible children in the kingdom at any given time. While there was no doubt all of the parents with eligible children were nervous, as were those that were eligible themselves, Almost no one would ever experience losing a member of their family to the dragon.

But that didn’t matter to Nya as she stood there, feeling the beat of the drums reverberating in her chest, smelling the smoke that choked the air from her. In a moment, her father would signal for everyone to be quiet so he could begin the ceremony, the one that would end with one name being called. And as if it had already happened, Nya had seen it time and time again and knew what name her father would call.

King Zar signaled for the drums to stop, and the crowd quieted as well. The moon was full overhead, and a cloud passed over it, leaving Nya feeling a shiver down her back that had nothing to do with the warm weather. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the king began, “thank you for joining us here this evening.” His piercing green eyes surveyed the crowd, his weathered skin giving him a distinguished look that let everyone know he had many life experiences to draw upon. “Tonight, we choose one esteemed youth to serve our kingdom in the holiest and most distinguished manner possible. Though our soldiers fight to protect our lands, our leaders work hard to provide for our every need, it is this individual who will keep our kingdom safe for a full year from the savage and barbaric infiltration of our deadliest enemy--the dragon.”

At mention of the dragon, the crowd groaned and moaned in fear. Nya kept quiet, more frightful of what her father was about to say than the dragon himself.

“As all of you know, every eligible youth between the ages of six and seventeen have had their names written on a scroll and dropped into this jar.” He gestured at the large clay pot, teh same one that had been used since the ritual began, over a hundred years ago. “While I take no pleasure in drawing and reading the name, I know that the youth that is selected, and the family who will lose a loved one tonight, understands the honor that is about to be bestowed upon them.”

Nya kept herself from making a face. That simply wasn’t true. It wasn’t an honor. It wasn’t a privilege. It wasn’t something to be proud of to lose a child to the dragon. It was a dreaded catastrophe, one she wished she could eliminate.

How many times over the years had she wondered why they didn’t simply march out to the mountain where the dragon lived and kill it? Certainly, it would be difficult. Perhaps they would lose many soldiers in the process. But… wasn’t losing soldiers who had volunteered to fight and die better than losing innocent children who had done nothing wrong and were completely blameless?

Of course, her questions had been ignored, and she’d been told she was a foolish child, one who should be happy that her name would never be placed in the clay pot. She wasn’t happy, though. She’d rather have her own name called than listen to her father read the familiar name she somehow knew he was about to pull from that jar.

“And now… it is my task to read the name of the sacrifice,” King Zar said. He moved to the clay jar, and pulled off the lid, sitting it aside on the table next to the menacing object. Reaching in a hand, he pulled out a scroll and unrolled it. Nya sucked in a breath and held it.

When her father’s words met her ear, it was like she was daydreaming again. But this time, it was real. “Gavin Cross!” King Zar’s voice rang through the crowd. Nya’s stomach tightened, and her eyes flew open wide as she stared at her father. His dark eyes met hers, and he slid the scroll into his pocket.

The scream loosened itself from her mouth as the crowd began to cheer and the drums started to beat again.  Her cries were not completely drowned out as Nya moved toward her father in disbelief. That couldn’t be right! She needed to get that paper from his pocket, to see it herself.

Before she could take a step in his direction, arms surrounded her from behind. The stage was a whirl of activity as the royal family bowed, curtseyed, and waved, making their way off of the stage. But not Nya. She was still struggling against whoever had her in his clutches, trying to claw her way free so she could reach her father.

She knew who it was that was pulling her backward off of the stage.  The stench of Rok Phin’s breath on her cheek would’ve given him away even if she hadn’t looked down to see his familiar uniform and thick, hairy knuckles. When he spoke in her ear, it confirmed it, even though she still hadn’t turned her face to look at him. “Come along nicely, Princess. There’s no reason to get hurt,” he growled.

The idea that he would dare hurt her and face the wrath of her father entered her mind, but then, hadn’t her own father just delivered the death blow? 

Frantic, she searched the crowd, looking for Gavin. He would be brought up to the stage and escorted back to a small room where he’d have an hour to say goodbye to his family. She didn’t see him anywhere, but she did see his father.

Xaver Cross, hardened military man, faithful servant to the king, and one of the most trusted officers in the entire army, stood at the back of the stage, weeping.

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