By Lauren Everdell
“He’s wobbling,” Cador said, applying one grey eye to a tarnished spyglass.
“What is it this time? The horse bones?” asked Arista, not looking up from her book.
“The boots,” Cador said. Arista remembered the boots. Their leather still shining and dark as bitter chocolate, abandoned on the sweep of marble steps to the tower door.
“It’s not the boots, though is it?” she asked. “It’s the severed feet you left inside them. He couldn’t give a pixie’s ribbon for the boots.”
“No, Princess, I suppose you’re right,” Cador said, grinning a grim reaper’s grin.
“I don’t know why you still watch,” she said. “They never do anything but die.”
“Oh I’m not sure about that. This one appears to be singing.”
“And he’s brought a cow,” Cador said. Arista surrendered her book.
That was new.
They heard him coming long before he arrived. The tower was tall and his armour was loud.
So they were well prepared when he crashed through the door.
“I— I am,” he gasped for breath and tried again. “I am His Royal Highness Crown Prince Percival Angrid Jorbir III, Duke of Hanheim, Count of Rolant, and Baron of Wicard. Heir to the great kingdom of Miraith, whose borders stretch from the cold mountains of the North to the frozen seas of the deepest South.” The prince sucked in another lungful and raced for his finish.
“I have outwitted the beast, your jailor, with my bold mind and my magic. Let us be away to my court where I will marry you.”
“No, you haven’t,” Arista said.
“You haven’t outwitted the dragon.” She gave a lingering two-note whistle. And the prince’s
eyes, at last, settled on her face.
Arista walked the curtain back from where it covered one curved wall. Or what should’ve been one wall. She’d had it removed and the bedroom opened to the air. The building shuddered as something vast coiled itself around the tower’s throat, but Arista kept her gaze on Jorbir. He didn’t faint, which would have impressed her if not for the rune on the face of his shield. Her lip curled as she saw the glyph trace itself in blue fire.
“Jorbir, this is Odile. Odile, meet Jorbir,” she said.
The dragon’s head filled the wall opening. Her fire-heart yellow scales glowed in the falling
light of day’s end and her tawny eyes were dancing. The prince fell back half a step before his shield rune glowed once more and he could stay his ground.
“You’re playing with your food.” Arista turned to the dragon, who chittered a rumbling purr and rested her head on the stone floor before her princess.
He was singing so prettily, Odile said, a voice in Arista’s head like growing mountains or the birth of the world. And from the way Jorbir almost leapt out of his armour, Arista knew he heard it too. Cador only grinned a jack-’o-lantern’s grin and placed himself before the door.
“You didn’t eat the cow, did you?” the princess asked. Odile blew a smoke ring from her nose that broke around Arista in the scent of forest fires and saffron. A dragon’s way of saying do you take me for a hatchling?
“Impossible.” The word burst from Jorbir like a belch.
“Oh?” asked Arista.
“The monster should be sleeping. Spellbound by the power of my enchanted song.”
Arista snorted, crossing to him and hooking the white silk neckerchief from under his
armour, she eyed the runes embroidered there.
“She was pretending. Who told you this would get through dragon hide?” Jorbir looked at
her like she’d turned into a bird and laid a solid gold egg in his mouth. She sighed, returning to her dragon and leaning her whole weight against the side of Odile’s snout. The creature’s warmth was intense, like basking on a sunbaked stone. Odile hummed a deep, rumbling purr, vibrating Arista’s bones until she giggled.
“What is this?” Jorbir croaked. “Th-This...is insanity.”
“Insanity?” Arista asked, stroking the dragon’s nose. Odile chittered, and Jorbir’s shield rune flared again. His knees seemed to be working hard holding him up.
“The thing is... Well, you of all people know the price of beef. You brought a cow.” Odile
chirruped and her lips fell back from her teeth. Dragon laughter. Jorbir looked like he might throw up.
“I’m kidding. Odile simply can’t tolerate livestock. Sensitive stomach. Have you ever been around a dragon with acid reflux? Don’t even talk to me about goat.” Odile nudged the princess with her chin.
I like goat.
“So do I, but they give you indigestion and you know it.” She turned back to Jorbir, watched him teetering. “So, if you wouldn’t mind taking off your armour and your clothes.”
“Cador and I normally draw straws for going down to do it. But since you’re still alive...” Jorbir flinched away from the caretaker, who only dipped a sarcastic bow as if to say I would help you but, alas, you’re not dead. Yet.
“My armour... my clothes! Are you insane?”
“Do you eat an orange with the peel on?” Arista asked. Odile chirruped and bared her teeth again. Cador joined in, his laugher dusty with disuse.
“You cannot do this to me.” His bellow filled the tower room, fear seeming to flash-boil into rage. A match struck by wounded pride.
“I am first born son of King Hardigen and heir to all the great kingdom of Miraith. The greatest warrior in our land. They tell tales of my quests in every kingdom. Do you know who I am?”
“Do you?” Arista asked.
Jorbir stared, flushed and frowning, held still by the fierce light in her eyes.
“The rune on your shield,” she said. “A spell for courage, yes? So you don’t wet your
knickers in battle. And the ones on your sword and your armour; to strengthen your arm, to straighten your aim, to sharpen your eye. Can you fight at all without them?”
“What is the source of magic?” she asked. Jorbir was silent, but his eyes flickered to Odile. He knew.
“I’m rescuing you,” he said. “You don’t understand. Your reason is lost in capture and imprisonment. I’m saving you.” He raised his chin as if to say there, now an end to it.
“Did I ask to be saved? Or did you hear of a dragon to slay, and think nothing but glory and the ring of your name in tavern stories?”
He looked then. Truly looked. At Arista. At the dragon purring under the caress of her hand. And Arista saw the truth bleed into him like poison: a cage was not a cage if the bird chose to be there, and called it her castle.
No, not a cage.
“Witch,” he hissed, despair sending him cruel. “Trickster and witch. Who are you to tell
such a lie? To feed princes to a pet?” He sneered, the whites of his rolling eyes bright in his reddened face.
“Have I lied? Or have I simply lived, and your prideful dreaming did the rest?”
Odile rumbled, pressing her nose to Arista’s back. Smoke pooled at the princess’s feet, curled up the walls, inched towards Jorbir. It smelled of the mountain heart of Odile’s birth.
“Now,” said the princess, “take off your boots.”
Lauren Everdell lives in Gloucestershire, UK. Her work is forthcoming in Neon, and has appeared in The Drabble, Ellipsis and Reflex, as well as several anthologies. When not writing she’s usually painting furniture but either way is never without Fable, her chocolate Labrador. You can find Lauren on Twitter.