It landed at the pavilion’s front not with a thud, but with such grace that Jai barely heard anything. Yet he did feel the gust of its great wings, billowing the fabric ceiling and clouding dust.

This was the first dragon he had ever seen. Indeed, it was likely the first dragon any Sabine had ever seen, even Leonid himself. This must be – if the stories held true – one of the last of its kind.

At first, he only saw its shape, surrounded by dust- a haze of its own making. A serpentine neck and languorous wings that folded into its back like a cloak. A tail, curling beneath itself in the tight space between the back ranks of the legion and the platform of the tent. The dragon was as large as three warhorses nose to tail.

Jai took in its colour. Emerald scales that gleamed like burnished armour, smooth but for the row of spikes that studded its back down to the spur at its tail’s tip. A horned head completed the sight, one with a long snout and a hint of sharp teeth at the edges of its mouth, its lips curling wolfishly.

It was all so much to take in that Jai hardly noticed the rider straddling the beast’s back. Only when they leaped onto the platform of the tent did he tear his eyes away.

The figure was lithe, clad in a white muslin dress that clung to her legs as she stalked closer to the thrones. Her face and hair were covered by a thin veil, and though Jai might have guessed the visitor was a she by the grace of her movements – a curl of waist-length golden hair that had come loose from behind the gauze confirmed it.

A bejewelled hand tucked the strand away as she approached the emperor’s throne. The seat of Constantine the Blessed. Or, as most knew him . . . Constantine the Cruel.

She came to a stop before the two thrones of the emperor and prince, silent as the cries of battle drifted on the wind.

Besides the emperor, guards twitched hands closer to their hilts, and murmuring began when she did not kneel. Even Prince Titus had to bow before his own father, yet the girl stood unabashed, her head slowly turning in curiosity at the spectacle of the raised thrones before her.

“We bring you a gift, Emperor Constantine,” she called out.

Her voice was loud and hard, accented with what Jai knew to be the lilt of the Dansk. The people of the Northern Tundra; a kingdom unconquered by the Sabines. Apparently, they had chosen to marry into the dynasty rather than fight it.

Constantine motioned with his hands to the guards on either side of him and the tension in the room eased with the emperor’s sudden smile.

“What gift is that, Princess Erica?” Constantine replied, leaning forward to look closer. “Perhaps the early pleasure of your company? We had not expected you for some weeks yet.”

“Victory,” was the girl’s reply.

As if by some unseen command, the dragon lifted its head to the sky. The great mouth opened, revealing a tooth-filled maw that could swallow a man whole. The sight stopped Jai’s throat.

Then, a roar.

The sound tore through the tent and up into the sky. Even above the din of battle, it echoed across the plain. It went on and on, the great beast’s chest heaving with the effort. With every passing second Jai had to resist the urge to run.

Silence in the tent followed, but for the distant clash of arms and the wails of the dying in the field. And then, an answer: another roar, far away. Jai could now see another dragon in the sky, soaring above the ridge beyond. But it was not this that drew his eye, but the darkening wave forming where the ridge met the horizon. One that glimmered in the sunlight, above the morass of the Huddite horde.

An army had arrived, but a hundred feet behind the back ranks of the Huddites. Thousands of men, axes clashing on shields, chanting a guttural Warsong in tandem with the beat. Now, the exhausted Huddites turned to face a new threat, their wails of horror just audible above the clamour.

Constantine stood on his throne for a better look, then clapped his hands in delight.

“You have your work cut out for you, my boy,” he laughed, leaning over and slapping his son’s shoulder. “Your bride will have you for breakfast if you’re not careful. If her dragon doesn’t first.”

Constantine laughed again at his own joke as he sat once more, as did the entourage that stood behind him. Titus, sitting beside his father on his own throne, only scowled at the words, turning to whisper to his personal guard.

As always, Jai was struck by how unassuming the emperor looked, with his clipped goatee and thin moustache. He shared the same upturned nose as his son, who glowered at his father from beneath a mop of blond hair. The prince’s sharp face twisted, his lip curling. He did not greet his future bride.

Beside Jai, Leonid tutted beneath his breath, peering at the scene through bleary eyes. At a dozen paces away, the old man could just about see the interaction between dragon rider and emperor. It was a relief for Jai that he did not ask for a description, for he did not wish to break the relative silence of the tent. When Constantine spoke, few dared do anything but listen.

The girl stood alone, almost awkward in her stance, until she turned her back on the royals. Her dragon let out a low rumble, stretching its graceful neck towards her from where it sat beside the platform.

At this rudeness, even Constantine frowned, but the reason for the girl’s movement was soon revealed. Jai could hardly believe the speed at which the other dragon traversed the maelstrom of battle, but in moments the second beast landed beside the first, and Jai ducked his head as dust billowed once more.

Excerpted with permission from Dragon Rider, Taran Matharu, HarperVoyager.