The knock on Tythel’s door in the middle of the night startled her out of a deep sleep. Visions of Alohym soldiers bursting into the room, unlight weapons drawn, drove her out of bed with the rapid frenzy of pure panic. It wasn’t until she was on her feet, extending her talons, that her brain registered it had been a gentle rapping, not the hard knock soldiers would make trying to break into her quarters.
“Tythel? Are you awake?” a voice whispered on the other side of the door.
“Tellias?” Tythel asked, blinking to clear her eyes. “Well, I am now.” She walked over and unlocked the door to give him entry. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” Tellias said, stepping into her room. He was fully dressed for departure, although the first light of dawn had not yet crested over the horizon. He certainly cut a dashing figure. His coat was as immaculate as possible from months on the road, black with gold inlay, and it looked like he’d taken some time to attend to his hair and trim the stubble he’d been developing of the last few days. “I just wanted…oh.” A bright red blush crept up Tellias’ cheeks, and he turned his back to her abruptly.
Tythel cocked her head in confusion. “Tellias? What is it?”
“Um…you’re still in your smallclothes.” Tellias said, his voice sounding half strangled. “I didn’t mean to…I mean, I wasn’t trying to…”
Tythel felt a blush creeping its way up her own neck. Karjon had told her many times that humans found it shameful to be seen too unclothed, although he’d never been able to explain why. She’d gotten the impression it was because he hadn’t fully understood it.
Up until this moment, Tythel had been as confused as her father. Right now, however, the fact that Tellias had seen her wearing only a night shift filled her with a sense of something like shame. It didn’t feel exactly like it, but she was blushing, and her heart was racing, so it seemed like the most natural reaction. “I’m sorry,” she blurted. “I should have…hold on, let me fix that.”
Tythel had laid the next day’s clothes over the railing of the bed before going to sleep. She pulled them on as hastily as she would have if the Alohym had found them and were pounding up the stairs this instant. “It’s terribly unfair that you woke me up this early and then find the sight of me so offensive,” she said, muttering more to herself than to Tellias.
“I didn’t – I mean, it’s not offensive. Quite the opposite. Er. I mean you aren’t offensive. It’s offensive for me…hang on, I’m terrible at this. I meant it was just – improper.” Tellias said, sputtering between each word.
“As improper as being unescorted in a young lady’s room at this hour?” Tythel asked, cinching the rope on her trousers. “You can turn around.”
Tellias did. “I didn’t think – you care about that?” Tellias asked. He was still bright red, which to Tythel’s mind was perfectly acceptable.
“No,” Tythel admitted. “Just pointing out that propriety isn’t something we normally worry about. I don’t understand why being unescorted around a lady is improper in the first place.”
“Of course you don’t,” Tellias muttered to himself. “I – that is to say – it’s because,”
“Light and shadow, man,” Tythel said, crossing her arms. “I am desperately hoping you did not wake me so you could stammer at me.”
Tellias glared at her, which seemed to help give him control over is tongue. “Of course not. I wanted to talk to you.”
“Poorly?” Tythel asked.
“Apparently!” Tellias said, far louder than Tythel thought was strictly necessary. “Light, I’m not good at this.”
Tythel bit back an agreement. “I’m not certain what you mean,” she said instead, cocking her head again, although she was starting to suspect. The romances that she’d read in Karjon’s library had be damnably unclear on the nuances of human mating habits, but they were extremely detailed about this kind of interaction.
“I want to court you,” Tellias blurted out. He took a deep breath and then launched ahead before Tythel could even fully process the directness of it. “I wanted to court you as soon as I knew you existed, before I had even met you. You’re the princess, of course I did. But then I met you. You are utterly unlike any woman I’ve ever met before. I didn’t expect to enjoy your company so much, to find you so intriguing. You’re beautiful too, but it’s – you fascinate me, Tythel. If I could, I would be speaking to your father about this first, even though that would mean asking a dragon to court his daughter. Since I cannot, I find myself not knowing how to properly express it. So, I sputter at you like a boy just noticing women for the first time. But I wish to court you.”
Tythel stared at Tellias for a long moment. “Thank you,” she said quietly, and found she meant it.
Tellias took a step forward, a wide grin spreading across his face. “So you -”
Tythel held up a hand to forestall his advance. “Tellias…I’m honored and flattered. Truly. But…this all very sudden.”
“Is it though?” Tellias asked, although he stopped approaching. “We’ve been travelling together for weeks. You fell asleep against me. We’ve shared battle, we’ve shared secrets. I thought…I thought I’d seen you look at me with interest.”
“I don’t know if I have,” Tythel said, shaking her head.
“How can you not know?” Tellias asked. He didn’t sound offended, which was a relief. Just confused. Tythel couldn’t blame him for that. She barely understood herself.
“Tellias…I’m a dragon.”
Tellias blinked slowly. “Half-dragon, you mean.”
Tythel waved her hand to dismiss the difference. “Dragons don’t experience attraction the way humans do. We don’t fall in romantic love. We have a breeding season, after which the male takes half the clutch and the female takes the other half. They almost never interact again. Sometimes if they’re friends, but-”
“But you’re not just a dragon,” Tellias said. “You’re also human.”
“For now,” Tythel said. She stepped away from Tellias, walking over to the window. “I’m still transforming. I don’t know how far the transformation is going to go. My father died before he could explain it to me. Romantic attraction might be something I won’t be capable of once it’s finished.”
She wasn’t watching him, but she could hear Tellias stiffen. “I…that’s so sad.”
Tythel turned to face him, arching her brows in confusion. “No? I mean…I guess I can see how it would seem that way to you, but I’ve never wanted romantic attraction. I wanted to be a dragon.”
“And what about the kingdom? You’re the princess, you’ll need an heir.”
Tythel shrugged. “Then it’ll be a blessing. Princesses rarely get to marry for romance regardless. It’s my duty to have a politically advantageous marriage after the Alohym are defeated. Preferably someone who knows a single flathing thing about leading a kingdom, since I know nothing.”
“I have been schooled in-” Tellias didn’t seem angry – at least, not yet. Or maybe he was. Tythel was trying to read his face, but the emotions on it were not part of the handful she’d learned to recognize easily. His forehead was furrowed, especially between his eyebrows and the corners of his lips were turned downward, but not as deep as a full frown.
“I know,” Tythel said. “And that would be taken into consideration. But Tellias…I don’t know if I can be what you want. I don’t want to be that.”
“You want to be a dragon,” Tellias said, his voice flat.
“I am a dragon,” Tythel said, trying not to bristle.
Tellias was definitely getting angry now. She could see it in his eyes, the way they flashed with an intensity like burning coals. Or maybe that was passion. Tythel assumed the former – she had never seen the latter. That she knew of. Why are humans so confusing? “I don’t understand,” Tellias said.
“I know,” Tythel said, her voice going soft. She took a step towards him and reached out, then withdrew her hand, not sure what she’d been intending to do with it in the first place. “I’m sorry.”
Tellias sighed. “Me too.”
They stood there for a moment, and Tythel realized she was at a complete loss for words. It seemed Tellias was too.
“I should go,” Tellias said, his voice stiff.
“We only have an hour before we are to depart,” Tythel said. She didn’t want him to go, but she didn’t know how to address this anger, this tension, the sudden awkwardness. It wasn’t how things were supposed to go. He was her friend.
“You have the right of that,” Tellias said. “All the more reason for me to finish getting prepared.”
Tythel couldn’t find a reason to deny him a graceful exit. He left, and Tythel sat back on the bed.
Sleep hadn’t returned by the time Eupheme arrived to collect her.