• "I've got it! The dragon!"

    Ahi'kiha looked up as Prince Keikiali'i burst into his study, somewhat breathless from the run, golden curls in complete disarray. As usual, it looked as though Keikiali'i had gotten into a fight with a dust mop and come out the loser.

    "... Highness?" Ahi'kiha said finally, as it became evident that Keikiali'i hadn't yet figured out that Ahi'kiha couldn't read minds.

    The prince hopped up to sit on a corner of Ahi'kiha's desk, heedless of the books, papers, and other miscellany he had to disturb to do so. "The dragon, 'Kiha!" Keiki said again, beaming. "The one that's been attacking ships off the coast for the last couple generations!"

    Again, Ahi'kiha waited patiently for the explanation that was not forthcoming for a few moments before prompting gently, "What about the dragon?"

    "It'll know how to break the curse, I'm sure of it!" Keikiali'i crowed, obviously pleased with himself for his deduction.

    Ah. Things began to make a little more sense, at least. Keikiali'i was constantly trying to find a cure for the curse that had been placed upon him at birth by an evil wizard. The wizard in question had been put to death shortly thereafter for his crimes, unfortunately before the royal family realized that no other wizard in the kingdom knew how to undo the complicated spell.

    It hadn't been particularly wicked, as far as evil curses went. Keikiali'i wasn't doomed to die on his eighteenth birthday or turn into a toad or anything like that, but for the energetic young prince it was almost worse.

    He was confined to the castle. If Keikiali'i took two steps past the postern gate he was immediately consumed with crippling pain. He couldn't even get to the main gate, as it was set further from the bulk of the castle proper. Combined with the fact that he was a healthy, lively young man, it made life in the Wahikalakupua royal palace rather... interesting.

    "Keiki," Ahi'kiha said patiently, "While they are magical creatures, dragons are not known for being particularly proficient in sorcery. What makes you think that the Black Serpent knows something that hundreds of other magicians do not?"

    Keikiali'i smiled in that crooked manner of his that never failed to make his emerald eyes shine in the most entrancing manner... and always meant he'd been up to or was about to get up to no good.

    "Three months ago," Keiki explained, almost bouncing in his glee, "The black dragon attacked a ship carrying several very rare books. Spellbooks, from overseas. The rest of the cargo was just a bunch of fabric, nothing a dragon would be interested in. So, obviously it collects books. I'm sure it's got to have one that will tell how to break my curse!" he finished triumphantly.

    Ahi'kiha blinked for a moment, trying to follow all the leaps Keikiali'i's reasoning had made to get to his conclusion. Ten percent facts, ninety percent wishful thinking, that was Keikiali'i.

    "Dragons have claws," Ahi'kiha pointed out, "Not hands. It would be a bit difficult to turn the pages. Perhaps the dragon merely picked the books up by accident."

    "Nuh-uh." Keikiali'i shook his head firmly. "I've been in the archives all day, going over what was reported stolen during dragon attacks going all the way back to grandfather's time. It's taken lots of books. It didn't say how many were magic, but I'll bet a lot of them. Come on, 'Kiha. You've got to admit that there's at least a chance..."

    Nonplussed, Ahi'kiha sat back in his chair. In his eight years as Royal Magician he'd watched the young prince come up with one wild idea after another trying to escape the bounds of his royal prison. While he could empathize with the desire to be free, some of Keiki's schemes gave an all new meaning to 'farfetched.'

    "You don't know where the dragon makes its lair," Ahi'kiha pointed out reasonably, "And as you are well aware you cannot leave the castle to go searching for it, so there is little point in pursuing the matter."

    Keikiali'i smiled slyly, scooting across Ahi'kiha's desk to move closer to the magician, knocking several sheets of paper, one book, and two small enchanted pendants to the floor. "That's not entirely true, 'Kiha," he murmured.

    Ahi'kiha blinked, blue and gold eyes going wide as realized what Keiki was implying. "Oh no, Highness," he protested. "That was for emergencies only! It is not something I should be doing so that you can go running off to chase dragons!"

    With a heartbreakingly handsome grin, Keikiali'i leaned forward so that their noses were nearly touching. Ahi'kiha wondered briefly how he managed not to fall off the desk while he struggled to keep his hands to himself. The beautiful prince strained his willpower on the best of days. At the moment, as close as he was and perched precariously like that, it was all Ahi'kiha could do not to reach out and tug the young man into his lap.

    "Call this an emergency mission to save my sanity," Keikiali'i said solemnly, sparkling green eyes giving away his true disposition. "Come on, 'Kiha. If you're worried, you can come with me and keep me safe!"

    Ahi'kiha sighed quietly, looking away before Keiki's emerald gaze did him in. "Your parents would hardly let you out of the castle without me to ensure your safety," he pointed out logically, knowing as he spoke the words that he was doomed.

    Keikiali'i beamed, sliding off the desk and into Ahi'kiha's lap long enough to throw his arms around the magician and give him a brief peck on the cheek before bouncing up and bolting for the door. "Thanks, 'Kiha!" he called. "You're the best. Make sure you pack warm. They're saying it's going to rain soon!"

    Before Ahi'kiha could blink, Keiki was gone out the door. He exhaled slowly, relaxing in his chair for a long moment before resolutely standing and beginning the necessary preparations. The spell he would have to cast was incredibly complex and difficult in the extreme, one of the myriad reasons why he'd never done it before.

    Possible, yes, but not easy. The curse on Prince Keikiali'i was quite touchy, and there was a particular clause that had caused no end of concern once it was realized. Should the object acting as the focus to Keiki's curse be destroyed, in this case the castle, it would immediately spell the prince's death. So while in case of an emergency Ahi'kiha had constructed a spell to transfer the focus point into another object, the breakable nature of most of the objects most capable of holding such a spell made it risky at best.

    Ahi'kiha sighed. Why couldn't Keikiali'i just be a good little pretty prince and stay at home to be admired like he should be?

    "Wow, I had no idea mother could yell like that," Keiki stated cheerfully, swinging up onto the horse that had been prepared for him with modicum of grace. Better than Ahi'kiha had expected, honestly, given that Keikiali'i was pretty much confined to the grounds.

    He stared at his own mount in resignation, already wishing he'd never agreed to this crazy quest. He hated horses. With a passion. He'd never been able to figure out why everybody seemed to be so enamored of them. Stupid creatures.

    "It's a good thing you pointed out that she'd be rid of me for a month," Keiki continued happily, "Or we might still be listening to her rant."

    Ahi'kiha rolled his eyes. "I was merely being practical. Granted, the absence of the royal magician will make things less convenient for the king and queen, but having you out of the castle, even for a short while, will make things so peaceful they won't know what to do."

    Keikiali'i shot him an amused look. "Aw, you wound me, 'Kiha."

    "Hopefully this little adventure will settle you down enough that everyone can relax for a little while."

    Keiki blinked. "No no, 'Kiha. That's the wrong way to look at it. You're supposed to say that this mission will be a perfect success and I can actually spend my time doing something useful in the kingdom rather than inventing trouble to get into back home."

    Ahi'kiha sighed. "Of course, your Highness, of course."

    Keikiali'i turned his horse out of the courtyard and through the main gate, smiling contentedly when he made it through without the crippling pain that normally would occur under the circumstances.

    "You don't think this will work, I know, but I do," he stated confidently, then twisted in his saddle to regard Ahi'kiha. "So what'd you move the spell to anyway? I wasn't really paying attention when you did it."

    "Somehow, that does not surprise me," Ahi'kiha muttered, prodding his horse to move. One of the accompanying guardsmen helpfully swatted the creature on the rear and it ambled along after Keikiali'i's. "A gemstone, Highness," he responded once he was relatively certain he wasn't going to fall off the animal. "One of those I reserve for particularly large and complicated spells."

    Keiki considered. "I hope we don't run into any bandits, then. They'd be bound to want to take something like that, and then I'd have to go with them. How annoying."

    "Not to worry, your Highness," Ahi'kiha said dryly, "You appear to have half the palace guard going with you."

    Keikiali'i slouched down in his saddle, somewhat petulant. "I told Mother that wasn't necessary. I feel like a coddled baby. It's so not fair. Every other prince in the neighboring kingdoms can go out without a full honor guard."

    "You are hardly a normal prince, Keiki," Ahi'kiha pointed out.

    At that, Keiki sat up a little straighter. "Not for long," he announced firmly. "This time, it'll work. Things will change. You'll see."

    Ahi'kiha sighed. Why did that sound like a warning of things to come?

    "Where is it?" Keikiali'i whined, slumped down face-first across the table of the inn where they were holed up. It had been raining almost constantly for the last week, more or less trapping the prince indoors, and he was already going stir-crazy.

    Ahi'kiha sighed. "Dragons are creatures of fire," he pointed out rationally. "I highly doubt they would be out and about in this mess. No sane dragon, at any rate. Besides, we've only been here a week."

    Keiki lifted his head enough to glare balefully at him, though the deep green gaze lacked any heat. "According to the reports I read, the black dragon has been showing up every two to three months to snitch something. Regularly. It's been nearly four and it's still not here!" He banged his head back down at the table, then managed a muttered, "Ow."

    "It's raining," Ahi'kiha pointed out again. "If I were a dragon, I would be happily holed up in my lair counting treasure or alphabetizing those stolen books of yours, not flying about in this dismal weather."

    There was a slight pause, then abruptly Keikiali'i's head snapped up. "Of course!" he exclaimed. "Its lair! Why didn't I think of that?" He beamed, sitting up in his chair. "We'll go look for its lair!"

    Ahi'kiha blanched. "I think not. There is absolutely no way you are going to convince me to set foot outside while it is pouring rain."

    "Aw, 'Kiha," Keiki tried.

    "No," Ahi'kiha said flatly. "I refuse to get soaked chasing after the hidden lair of a dragon that nobody's been able to find in generations of searching. Absolutely not."

    Keikiali'i eyed him consideringly, looking thoughtful. The expression didn't bode well, but Ahi'kiha remained resolute. He knew what that much water would do to his hair and clothing. At the castle, the servants called him vain when they thought he couldn't hear. He didn't care. He liked looking magnificent; there was no way that Keikiali'i was going to convince him to look like a drowned rat.

    "Hmm..." Keiki murmured. "There's nothing I can say or do to make you change your mind?"

    "None, Highness," Ahi'kiha said firmly.

    There was that look again. He really, really hated that look. It meant the prince had just figured out exactly how to get what he wanted, protests or no protests. Casually Keikiali'i stood up, shrugging out of his embroidered jacket and leaving him in only his white undershirt. He draped the jacket over the back of the chair then made his way casually through the inn to the front door. Two of the royal guards got up to follow him and he grinned as he caught Ahi'kiha's puzzled gaze.

    The prince stepped outside, his guards a pace behind him, and the door swung closed. Ahi'kiha regarded the door with a slight frown, trying to figure out what Keikiali'i was up to. Did he think to purchase something with which to bribe the magician? Surely not. That would be impossible.

    He didn't have time to consider other possible schemes before the door once more opened and Keiki's two guards walked back in, followed by the prince himself. All three were dripping wet, and Keikiali'i's thin white shirt left absolutely nothing to the imagination. Ahi'kiha bit back a moan. That was cheating!

    "So," Keikiali'i said casually, starting to perch on the edge of the table before deciding that it wasn't nearly sturdy enough to support his weight, "I believe we were discussing you changing your mind about hunting for the dragon's lair."

    "Highness," Ahi'kiha managed, his words coming out rather strangled as he attempted to look anywhere but at the prince, "You... you... you... how long have you..."

    Keikiali'i laughed. "You've been watching me for years, 'Kiha. It's rather convenient when I want something, but at the same time it's incredibly frustrating waiting for you to make some kind of move. You've got too much patience for one man."

    His fate was sealed when the prince, still dripping water from his hair and clothing, slid into his lap, straddling his legs. "So," he murmured, touching his nose to Ahi'kiha's, "Are you going to go with me to the mountains, or do I need to... convince you?"

    This. was. so. not. fair. Ahi'kiha let out a strangled moan as Keiki wiggled in his lap, bringing was little was left of his tattered restraint crumbling down around him. He stood suddenly, drawing a startled sound from Keiki as he physically lifted the prince in the process.

    "The rest of this conversation, Highness," he stated for the benefit of the curious eyes around them, "Will be continued in private."

    Keikiali'i blinked, then grinned, cheerfully skipping along up the stairs to the room that had been assigned to them. Ahi'kiha spared a single, rueful moment in which he realized the man had played him quite well over the years before following the prince up the stairs with as much decorum as he could summon.

    The next morning the storm clouds obligingly shifted south, as 'convinced' or not Ahi'kiha still refused to traipse about in the rain. Keikiali'i had been suitably impressed by the maneuver, commenting aloud that he'd never known Ahi'kiha could do that before. Most magicians could only foretell weather; a very few could sometimes manage to convince the clouds to hold their rain for an hour or two. But to actually move the entire storm?

    Ahi'kiha snorted. "I study, if you hadn't noticed, Kei." He wrapped his cloak a little more snugly over his shoulders, wishing the prince had decided to do his adventuring in the summer when it was warm. Stupid winter. He hated being cold.

    Keikiali'i grinned. "Yeah, I noticed. Your book collection's pretty impressive. I bet even the dragon's isn't that much larger. Though, still, I dunno when you actually have time to read them all."

    "I haven't always been the royal magician," Ahi'kiha pointed out. "I studied quite extensively before accepting the post."

    Keiki snorted. "You're not that old, 'Kiha."

    "I'm older than I look," Ahi'kiha retorted dryly.

    "Like what?" Keiki asked, slowing his horse so that their two animals walked apace. "You've got the magic-shot eyes of a powerful magician, so I guess in theory you could slow your aging..."

    "Something like that," Ahi'kiha agreed neutrally.

    "So," Keikiali'i persisted, "How old are you?"

    Ahi'kiha regarded him, one brow arched elegantly. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you, Highness."

    Keiki grinned impishly. "Try me."

    Ahi'kiha sighed. "I don't remember."

    Keikiali'i gave him one of those looks that quite clearly indicated what he thought of that. "You don't remember."

    "No." Ahi'kiha scowled. "Keeping track of years and birthdays was never of any interest to me."

    "You've got to at least have a guess," Keiki persisted. "What's so horrible about telling me how old you are? It's not like you're an old man." He smirked. "You're way too flexible to be an old man."

    Ahi'kiha flushed. "Kei! Highness! You..."

    The rest of his protest was cut off as the horses spooked. A moment later a band of bandits rushed down from where they'd been concealed, weapons drawn. The guards moved to protect the prince, but they were up high enough in the mountains that the trail was narrow and there was very little room to maneuver.

    Ahi'kiha muttered curses under his breath as he attempted to get his hysterical animal to hold still. He couldn't cast any spells while his seating tried to run away beneath him, and the guards were obviously struggling with the close confines.

    Not so, the bandits. Obviously they were used to the area, for they used it mercilessly against the hapless guards, cutting them down one at a time. Ahi'kiha managed to get his feet on the ground about the same time that one of the bandits popped up in front of the prince's horse, causing it to rear.

    "Kiha!" Keikiali'i exclaimed as he lost his seat, tumbling backwards over the edge of the cliff.

    Ahi'kiha's temper promptly snapped. "I have had enough," he hissed, gold-shot blue eyes flaring. "I'm cold and I'm tired and I'm hungry and I've been dragged all over this stupid kingdom and now you people have to show up and throw my pretty treasure off a cliff!" He growled, low and deep, and Changed.

    If he hadn't been so furious he might have found it amusing the way the foolish men gaped at the enormous black-scaled dragon that had suddenly appeared in their midst before screaming and running for their lives. Unfortunately for them, Ahi'kiha was not feeling remotely charitable. In a few snaps he'd caught them, ending their sorry excuses for lives between his sharp jaws. They'd probably give him a terrible stomach ache later, but he didn't particularly care at the moment.

    With a roar that shook the mountains and sent what was left of the royal guards scrambling for safety, Ahi'kiha spread his wings and lifted into the air. He circled back once he had enough height, looking for any faint indication that his pretty prince still lived. A familiar shape dangled several yards down from the trail, clinging desperately to a small tree that was slowly being uprooted by the extra weight.

    Folding his wings in close, Ahi'kiha dove, pulling back just in time to snatch Keikiali'i away from the cliff before snapping his wings open and veering upward into the open sky. It had been, as Keiki had pointed out, nearly four months since he'd last flown and the wind felt good beneath his body. He looped around, taking the long way back through the mountains to the high valley where he'd hidden his lair.

    They'd never have found it, no matter how long they'd searched. He'd made certain that the area was completely inaccessible save for by air, and then woven a powerful spell of concealment over the entrance just to be sure. No stupid thieves were going to steal his treasures.

    Ahi'kiha glided in through what appeared to be a solid rock outcropping, backwinging slightly to land once they were past the illusion spell and inside. He paced down the long hallway to the largest of his treasure rooms on three legs, the fourth still clutching Keikiali'i close, relaxing considerably at the sight of his glittering piles of gold and jewels scattered haphazardly around the looming cavern.

    Carefully he set Keikiali'i down, then resumed his human shape to glare balefully at the blinking prince. "Must you always invite trouble to follow you wherever you go?" he snapped, eyes flashing. "Chaos in the castle, rain in the port, bandits in the mountains... you could have been killed! Trying to keep you in one piece is becoming a full-time job in addition to playing magician for your family! Can't you for once just sit still and behave? What would you have done if I had not been around to snatch you off that cliff?!"

    Keikiali'i blinked a few more times, running a hand through his spun-gold curls before giving Ahi'kiha a lopsided grin. "So... you're the dragon, then?"

    Ahi'kiha snorted. "I should think that was obvious."

    Keikiali'i frowned slightly in puzzlement. "So what's a dragon doing playing Royal Magician for a bunch of humans, then? I can't imagine it'd be much fun..."

    "You'd be surprised how exciting it can be with a cursed prince running around trying to cause trouble day in and day out," Ahi'kiha muttered.

    "You didn't answer my question," Keiki observed in amusement.

    Ahi'kiha glared at him. "That should be obvious too," he retorted. When Keikiali'i merely raised an eyebrow at him, Ahi'kiha sulked. "I collect treasure. It's just something dragons do."

    "And...?" Keiki prompted.

    Ahi'kiha sighed. "And the royal palace had a treasure in it I couldn't just steal away, so I managed things so I got to stay nearby instead."

    Keikiali'i's brows furrowed in thought. "A treasure? Nothing back home is even half so spectacular as what you've got here..."

    Throwing his hands up and snarling in frustration, Ahi'kiha closed the distance between them, yanked Keiki close, and crushed their lips together. He took his time savoring the sweet taste of the prince, the way that trim body melted beneath his touch, the way Keikiali'i's hands made their way up around his neck to twine through his hair as the prince's body pressed up close against his.

    "Oh," Keiki breathed when they parted.

    "Yes, oh," Ahi'kiha muttered.

    "So, um..." Keikiali'i blinked several times to recapture his scattered thoughts. "You're... I'm... um... our stuff is still back on that trail..."

    Ahi'kiha arched a brow. "And?"

    "Um..." Those beautiful emerald eyes blinked several more times before Keikiali'i finally remembered what he'd been trying to say. "My curse. The crystal. I don't hurt."

    Ahi'kiha snorted. "I lied." At the utterly bewildered expression on Keiki's face, he elaborated. "I didn't move the curse to a crystal for just that reason. I shifted it to me."

    Keikiali'i blinked. "That's impossible."

    "I'm a dragon."

    "Well, yes, but..." Keiki considered. "I guess that would work. Dragons are by nature very powerful magical creatures... though I imagine it can't be at all comfortable."

    Ahi'kiha shrugged. "It's less annoying than watching your favorite treasure get thrown off a cliff by an idiotic animal," he pointed out.

    "Huh..." Keikiali'i mused, then grinned suddenly. "Hey, I like that. Then I'm not stuck at the stupid castle all the time, and you have to stay with me!" The prince's fingers shifted from where they'd been threading through Ahi'kiha's hair to trace simple patterns across the dragon's neck. "I can definitely deal with being tied to a dragon," he murmured, "Especially if the dragon is you."

    Ahi'kiha struggled not to flush, but it was extremely difficult with the pretty prince so very close, touching him. "Your guards saw me change... they'll know what I am... your parents will know..."

    Keikiali'i smirked. "Good. Maybe they'll finally get the clue that I don't need to be coddled if I've got a dragon for a bodyguard." He paused, then grinned deviously. "And you wouldn't happen to have any stolen beds hidden somewhere around here, would you?"

    "Beds, no," Ahi'kiha replied, surrendering to the inevitable as he threw the impudent prince over his shoulder and stalked off toward one of his smaller caverns, "Pillows and more yards of expensive fabrics than you'd know what to do with, yes."

    They almost didn't make it that far, as Keikiali'i decided his position gave him a very nice view of Ahi'kiha's a** and simply couldn't manage to keep his hands to himself.


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