I’ve trained my whole life for this, I can’t fail now!
The RainWing ducked under the claws of her attacker, closing her wings and shoving her powerful shoulders up into her opponent’s chest. They reared back on their hind legs, unbalanced, and with a swift strike she hooked her forepaw around the other dragon’s hind leg and toppled them on to their side.
As the older dragon got back to their feet, the RainWing bounced on her heels, grinning. “I did it right this time! I knew I could!”
“I knew you could too, little rosebud,” the older RainWing agreed, joyful strands of pink and gold lapping against her deep purple scales. “You really surprised me, with how strong you’ve gotten.”
“I’m going to be the strongest RainWing ever!” The younger dragon chirped, dropping into a hunting crouch and stalking an invisible enemy across the platform. “Nothing will ever want to threaten the rain forest when I’m in charge!”
“You’ll send the MudWings scurrying back to the rivers,” the older dragon assured her.
A loud crashing noise from below the platform made them both freeze. The older dragon glanced swiftly at the other, relaxing slightly as the smaller RainWing spread herself out and changed her scales to hide against the cut wood.
She relaxed completely when a dragon pulled themselves up over the side; another RainWing, with green scales that blossomed orange and red as he met her gaze.
“Queen Verbena, Princess Anaconda,” the new dragon greeted them, dipping his head. The younger RainWing popped up from the floor with a happy chirp, running over to greet him.
“King Fern,” Verbena answered, her voice warm. “Come to oversee your daughter’s training?”
“Not today, I’m afraid,” he crouched down to meet Anaconda mid-leap, letting her scramble up on to his shoulders. “You’re not going to be my little snake much longer!”
“I’m going to be big enough to carry an entire anaconda on JUST my tail!” The Princess declared, propping herself up against the King’s neck to get a better view of the forest.
“I’m sure you will, sweetheart,” Verbena told her. While Anaconda was distracted by the view, she gave a darkened, desperate look to the King. He very subtly shook his head, his frills darkening to a mournful black.
“Can I go looking for bananas again?” Anaconda asked, turning back as their silent conversation ended. “I’ll bring some back this time, I promise.”
“Not today, little rosebud,” Queen Verbena answered, forcing her scales to wash in pale yellow instead of the worried gray they wanted to be. Anaconda’s head drooped. “Your father and I have something we have to do, so you’ll have to stay and guard the village.”
The Princess brightened instantly, hopping off of her father’s back and running in a wide circle around her parents. “I’m going to be the best village guard EVER! I’m going to eat a TIGER!”
“Remember you have to protect other dragons before looking for tigers to eat,” her father reminded her with a strained laugh. “We’re putting a lot of faith in you.”
Anaconda skidded to a stop, straightening out and puffing out her chest. “I will protect the RainWings. I promise .”
Princess Anaconda sat on the lookout post, feeling very small and very important. The post was meant for a fully-grown dragon, so every few minutes she paced the edge of it to check her blind spots, but the night was quiet.
Toooo quiet, Anaconda thought to herself, doing a dramatic prowl. And I’m going to defend all of the RainWings from whatever’s out there.
She sat up on her hind legs, peering into the dark. Well, maybe not all of the RainWings, she amended. I haven’t even seen half of the Kingdom yet! Mom and dad will have to take care of the ones wayyyy out in the forest.
She shook her wings out against a sudden shiver. All of a sudden, she didn’t feel like such a great protector. She was only three! If there was something out there that was so dangerous that her mom and dad had to go to protect the outlying villages, would she really be strong enough to beat it?
I HAVE to be. Anaconda thought to herself, working her talons into the wood. If I’m going to be Queen one day, I have to be able to protect the RainWings whenever they need it. I’m going to keep them safe.
Anaconda nearly jumped out of her scales as another dragonet dropped onto the platform behind her. The newcomer with a golden-yellow, her back and shoulder dappled with softly blooming orange, and she fixed Anaconda with a bright blue gaze.
“Leopard!” Anaconda yelped, her voice pitched two octaves higher.
“Princess Anaconda,” Leopard replied with a grin, “you came out to guard all alone? That’s-”
“Brave!” Anaconda exclaimed, struggling to keep her voice down, remembering other dragons were sleeping.
“I was going to say stupid ,” Leopard replied, rolling her eyes and walking up to Anaconda’s side. “You’re little!”
“You’re little too, and you’re out alone!” Anaconda shoved her with a wing. Inside, all of her fear melted away. Her best friend was here! Nothing can stop us!
“I’m not alone, I’m helping you .” Leopard replied, sitting down and straightening her back so stiffly she looked like she was going to tip over. Her eyes sparkled with merriment. “And if I save your life, I can be Queen!”
“That’s not how it works!” Anaconda protested. “I was BORN to be the Queen!”
“Maybe that should change,” Leopard said, curling her tail around her feet. Her bright blue eyes met Anaconda’s again. “What if your dragonets are bad at trying to rule? The whole Queendom would suffer."
Anaconda scrunched up her muzzle. “Ew, I don’t want to have dragonets! It’s so WEIRD!”
“If you adopt, will you only adopt dragonets that would be good leaders?”
Anaconda looked away, tilting her head. “...I guess I probably would.”
“So it should be a contest to be Queen,” Leopard pressed, mesmerizing black spots appearing and vanishing along her neck and back as her thoughts raced. “And then any dragon that would be good at ruling could rule! The flock would be stronger than ever!”
“What if someone was better than I was?” Anaconda asked, her voice shaking. “I-I don’t want to be replaced! My mom wouldn’t replace me!”
“If you don’t want dragonets, you won’t be replacing anyone,” Leopard reassured her, twisting their tails together. “So once you’re Queen, then you can change it!”
“What if they want to take over from me as soon as I announce it?” Anaconda’s orange eyes darkened as she searched Leopard’s gaze. “What if I’m a bad Queen?”
“I’ve been your best friend since we could walk ,” Leopard said with a smile, “and I know you’re going to be the best Queen ever .”
“I have to prove it to everyone else ,” Anaconda said, fretting.
Leopard leaned over, but she looked away to scan the forest below. “Then we’ll prove it tonight,” she whispered, “by hunting whatever the King and Queen are worried about.”
Hunt something two adult dragons are scared of? That the KING and QUEEN are scared of? Anaconda looked around like Leopard had. “...let’s do it.”
Leopard let out a muffled, happy squeal and jumped down from the platform, her little wings flapping quietly in the dark. Biting back the sudden rush of fear, Anaconda followed her, using her friend’s bright scales to guide her through the trees that felt like they were going to swallow the dragonets up.
Anaconda wanted to yell ahead to Leopard, to say that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, but she’d learned from a young age that even a grown dragon was vulnerable in the forest at night. Yelling, with her young, high-pitched voice, would only bring more trouble.
Even if they were going to find trouble intentionally.
Leopard landed on the rainforest floor, darker greens and blacks dappling across her scales as she turned a slow circle, eyeing the undergrowth. Anaconda landed beside her, wincing as sticks cracked under her paws. On the ground, with the village so far away and so dark, she felt utterly alone.
Leopard pressed against her side, as if she felt the same way, and flashed a line of color across her snout. Anaconda nodded, following the silent pointer further away from the village. Only Leopard was keeping her from fleeing back to the village as fast as her claws could carry her.
Is Leopard feeling the same way? Anaconda thought.
She turned to ask, only to hear a pained screech from deeper in the forest.
“A dragon’s in trouble!” Leopard yelled, forgetting the danger. “We have to help!”
Anaconda barely had time to nod before Leopard charged past her, her claws tossing clumps of decay-scented mulch up behind her. Anaconda ran after, ferns and undergrowth slashing across her face and forelegs.
They barged into a clearing, where the undergrowth was flattened down as if it had been squashed by a huge foot. Anaconda’s heart felt like it was climbing up her throat as she spotted her mother lying in the crushed ferns, writhing and spitting at some dark shadow almost as big as she was that kept darting out from the forest to swipe at her with huge, gleaming claws.
Anaconda charged forward, her mottled scales blazing to an infuriated red as she leaped over her mother’s body. She didn’t have time to acknowledge the Queen’s horrified gasp as she plowed into the black creature, digging in her claws and struggling to close her jaws around anything she could tear.
A moment later, it threw her off, mouth opening like a raw wound, and screamed in her face. As it bunched up to swipe at her, Leopard threw herself across the clearing, colliding with the beast’s flank and causing its strike to shred harmlessly through the grass.
Anaconda jumped back into the battle, matching Leopard’s blows and steadily driving the beast away from the Queen. Anaconda saw Leopard’s grim snarl out of the corner of her eye. Has she been watching my battle training?
Leopard met her eyes for a split second, and then ducked under the creature’s chest and shoved herself upwards. Anaconda recognized the move instantly and shot forward, hooking the beast’s paws out from underneath it.
It fell with a yowl, but instead of throwing itself back into the fight, it gave the dragonets one last snarl and loped away into the trees.
“Coward!” Leopard roared her own challenge after it. “Go hunt something else!”
Anaconda turned back to her mother, seeing the Queen was slowly raising herself up into a crouch. She gave Anaconda a weak smile, but her chest was scored with scratches and one of her wings had been torn halfway up the vane.
“You fought wonderfully, my little rosebud,” Verbena purred. Anaconda ran up to her, pressing her muzzle into her mother’s shoulder. “You were so brave.”
“I wasn’t brave at all!” Anaconda protested. “I only went because Leopard wanted to go. But don’t get her in trouble!”
“How could I get a dragon in trouble after they saved my life?” The Queen replied with a breathy laugh. “Thank you, Leopard, for helping my daughter.”
“She’s going to be a great Queen,” Leopard answered, dipping her head respectfully.
“Yes, she is,” Verdena replied, nuzzling her dragonet. “But what about you?”
Leopard’s eyes went wide. “W-what about me? I’m just happy you’re both alright!”
“Hmm,” Verdena eyed her knowingly. “You know, Fern used to push me into being brave, too.”
“You’re always brave!” Anaconda protested.
“Not always, little rosebud. He used to push me because he loved me.”
“I think Leopard would be a better Queen than me,” Anaconda insisted, giving her mother a stern look. “She says the Queen should be the best dragon for the flock, not just a dragon with royal blood. And I think Leopard’s the best dragon for the flock instead of me.”
The Queen smiled. “You’re right. She will be a great Queen.”
“You can’t replace Anaconda!” Leopard yelled, running up to the Queen and glaring at her. “She’s kind and brave and generous and she’s going to be a great Queen!”
“Verdena gave her a comforting nudge with her muzzle. “Yes. I think you’ll both be great Queens.”
“Both?” Anaconda asked quietly. She looked over her shoulder, meeting Leopard’s eyes and finding them gleaming with pride and wonder. “O-oh! Really? Mom, can we really both be Queen?”
“Of course you can,” Verdena murmured. “And you’ll be wonderful together.”
Leopard’s eyes narrowed as she grinned at Anaconda. “I’m going to marry you.”
“Not if I marry you first!” Anaconda laughed back.
“I had dibs!” Leopard yelped.
“Let’s get back to the village, first,” Verdena interrupted, heaving herself up on to her feet. “I’m going to need two very brave, strong dragonets to keep me safe on the walk back.”
Verdena stood on her raised platform, adorned in flowers and softly billowing fabric. Anaconda sat beside her, her shoulders draped in interwoven white flowers. On Anaconda’s other side, Leopard looked out across the crowd of assembled RainWings, her scales swirling wildly with joy.
“You are all aware of the actions of Princess Anaconda and Leopard in saving my life from the panther four years ago,” Verdena began, her voice clear and strong. “I hope you have grown familiar with them as they aided myself and my husband in carrying out our tasks, as my wing has never truly healed. I have persisted until I was sure that my daughter would properly carry my title, and now I am sure.”
Anaconda scanned the crowd, seeing the proud gaze of her father, the welcoming, elated smiles of Leopard’s parents, the entire RainWing flock looking up at her with wide, bright eyes. Her heart swelled in her chest.
“I, Queen Verdena of the RainWings, speak for myself and King Fern when I say the time has come for us to retire. We hope that we will be able to guide the flock as elders for many, many years to come. In our footsteps, a new generation will follow.”
Verdena stepped back, spreading her wings to cast a bright golden background behind her daughter and her love.
“RainWings, you look upon the next leaders of our flock; Queen Anaconda and Queen Leopard!”
In the deafening chorus of roars and cheerful shouts that followed, Anaconda and Leopard met each others’ eyes. Anaconda wrapped her tail around Leopard’s, her heart lighter than it had ever been.
“To a long and happy reign,” Leopard whispered, flushing pink.
Anaconda smiled, just as flushed. “To a long and happy family. ”