Dragon Day

A princess that's not a lady. A king that's not a gentleman. And a wedding that does not go according to plan.

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3. Arrangements and Engagements

Arrangements and Engagements

 

Two Years Later

            It was the dead of night; all the lamps of the castle had died out. Melaina stealthily crept through the corridors, knowing the castle well enough to make herself around it blind. She climbed up the stairs to the study where she knew her parents were talking about her and Lucille’s marriages.

            She had been able to chase away all the suitors for the last two years. Now her reputation preceded her, and most princes didn’t dare to come to Lor. Her mother was getting desperate, and desperate times called for desperate measures. Melaina knew she would do something reckless.

            Melaina climbed up the vine that led to the balcony quietly. Her parents’ voices were within earshot, and that meant they could hear her as well if she made even the slightest sound. She tip-toed across the balcony and leaned against the wall next to the open doors.

            “It’s all settled, Henry,” Eleanor said. “Nothing can go wrong this way.”

            “But what if she doesn’t like him?” Henry asked.

            “Well, she’ll grow to like him,” Eleanor said pertly. “We’ve shown her dozens of suitors. We have no other choice, Henry. All we do now is prepare for both weddings. They’re due to arrive tomorrow.”

            Her father sighed. Melaina’s heart dropped. She finally understood what her mother planned. It didn’t matter what she did anymore. Her fate had been sealed. A suitor had accepted her hand in marriage without bothering to meet her.

            She silently crept back down and slumped to the ground. Two years she had come up with ingenious plan after ingenious plan driving themselves away and saving her freedom. Her mother had finally won. Her mind fell apart as she made her way back to her room.

            Lucille would be happy. She was ready for marriage. But Melaina wasn’t. Manny was waiting for her in his cage when she entered her room, and she took him out. She laid down on her bed, tears pouring down her face. It wasn’t just her freedom that she loved. It was her father, her country and her people. She didn’t want to leave any of it.

            Melaina fell asleep onto her damp pillow, forgetting that Manny was still coiled around her arm.

***

            The next morning she got up mechanically, getting ready much slower when she heard the trumpets of the approaching caravans of knights and royalty. She started to slip into a grey dress but changed her mind. She finally settled for a white shirt, grey trousers, and worn leather boots. They were half-covered with mud, and there was crusted blood from a recent hunting trip.

            Maybe her appearance would be enough to drive them away. She walked out of the room and took the stairs two at a time. No one stopped her on her way. The grim expression on her face was enough to make them scatter in the opposite direction.

            She walked out to the moat, which had been deepened a few years ago, so the crocodiles no longer had any chance of escaping. Her family was already there, and her mother grimaced at her choice in attire. The first of the caravans stopped at the entrance, and a thin young man got out.

            He, in one word, very sickly. Melaina thought it was possible someone could see beauty in his thin feminine features and the airy way that he walked. She didn’t. But he was bound to be the better of the two princes. He was Lucille’s future husband, and sure enough he gave her sister a shy smile as he passed them by.

            Two years later, and Lucille still gets another Aubrey, Melaina thought. Then came the second group of caravans. It was flashier, bigger in every way and she found herself hating the ostentatious display. The procession halted, but one carriage continued moving until it stopped right in front of her.

            The carriage was bigger than the other, drawn by four white stallions decked out in elaborate white saddles with a matching carriage driver. The carriage swung a little as someone moved inside. Melaina could tell that they were big. The door of the carriage opened, and out stepped the groom.

            In front of her stood the biggest man she had ever seen. He wasn’t the kind of big man that could kill a dozen enemies at one go. He was the kind that could eat a dozen pies at one go. He barely fit through the large door on the carriage, and turned to the side to squeeze through. He was only a few inches taller than her, in his early thirties, but definitely more than twice her size. Melaina had no other words for what her future husband was. He was fat.

            She normally wouldn’t have had a problem with that, except the utter look of pride on his face was enough to send any positive thoughts about him running in the opposite direction. She tried to keep an open mind. But it was difficult the way he conducted himself, as if he was more than human and everyone around him was dirt.

            “Ah, my bride,” he said in a muffled voice, and she for the first time noticed the platter of pastries in his hand. The platter was almost empty. He was wearing more jewelry than she and her sister owned. His velvet robes dragged along the ground until two servants picked the edges up. He eyed her from head to toe, and a look of dissatisfaction came over his face.

            “Has she no dresses?” he asked her mother. The queen paled. “She looks like a man.”

            And you look like a mound of velvet covered dough, Melaina thought, sending the man a glare. Her next glare was directed towards her mother. Without another word she stalked off into the castle, leaving behind her mother’s appeals to come back.

            She strode purposefully up to her room where she took the nearest thing and slammed it against the floor. It was Manny’s cage. She gasped in shock, looking at the glass fragments until she realized the snake hadn’t been in the cage. She remembered the night before.

            Manny was loose in the castle. As far as she knew the only things he would hurt were the mice. But frightened people scared him easily, especially when they came at him with brooms or other instruments to kill him. She ran down the stairs and to the kitchen, his favorite place as he could hunt rats there.

            Even after she pulled apart the kitchen, looking in every nook and cranny she didn’t find him. She wondered at all the things that could happen to him. All the horses that were in the main courtyard, he could’ve been trampled by any of them as he was almost invisible against the sandy soil. He could’ve fallen in the moat. She didn’t know who would win in a win in a fight, crocodiles or kraits. She had a feeling it was the crocodiles.

            Her mother came into the kitchen to find her daughter sitting on the floor and in tears, staring at a nearly empty bowl of pudding dejectedly. She crouched down next to Melaina, stroking her hair softly.

            “I’m going to tell you something, Melaina,” Eleanor said. “Darling, what you’re doing, it’s not going to solve anything.”

            “It could solve everything,” Melaina muttered, thinking her mother suspected her of sabotaging the wedding.

            “No, darling, all it does is go to your hips,” her mother said.

            “Wha-?”

            “Comfort food doesn’t solve anything,” Eleanor lectured, looking dolefully at the small streaks of chocolate in the bowl.

            Melaina balked at her mother as Eleanor went on about all the wonderful things about a diet.

            “You know something, mother?” Melaina asked sarcastically. “I think you should have this conversation with the husband that you chose for me.”

            Eleanor was stunned, and Melaina took the opportunity to get out of the room and away from the insanity. Manny was in danger. That was her priority. She rushed through the rooms of the castle, looking for Manny. He usually sensed when she was in a room, and she had an ear for his hissing.

            She wasn’t done searching even half of the castle when her father pulled her into the parlor. The fat man, as she thought of him since she didn’t know his name, sat in the parlor with a cup of tea and Lucille’s fiancé next to him.

            Lucille and her prince were obviously smitten with each other, as they shyly glanced at each other over their cups of tea occasionally and then turned red. Melaina gritted her teeth and plopped down onto the sofa, sitting next to her father.

            “It’s so wonderful that the weddings will be on Dragon Day,” her father said. She was surprised at his words. The thought had escaped her. Dragon Day was her father’s favorite day of the year. His one excuse for celebrating the way he liked to instead of the stuffy balls that her mother organized for every other holiday.

            So her wedding was going to be on what used to be her favorite day of the year. It suddenly wasn’t anymore. Her father was trying to look enthusiastic. He was happy about the celebrations, but not about the wedding itself. She could see it in the way that he looked at the fat man.

            “So, Dain,” her father said, looking at the fat man. “Would you like to hear of our arrangements for Dragon Day festival?”

            “I’m sure it will be much like our festivals in Felucca,” Dain replied. “Except… less grand.”

            The insulting way that he spoke to her father made Melaina want to punch him. She held herself back, and stiffened on seeing a sandy thing moving along the armrest of the sofa he was sitting on. It was a miracle that no one had noticed Manny yet.

            She wondered if it was too much to hope for that Manny would bite the vile man Dain and get out of it unscathed. It probably was, but she couldn’t help but hope as Manny stealthily made his way towards the pale exposed skin of Dain’s wrist, lying on the armrest.

            Melaina mentally urged Manny to bite Dain, but the snake saw her first. Manny, the adorable thing in his effort to get back to her, slid over Dain’s wrist. The man immediately stiffened and his skin went the color of charcoal. He immediately shook his arm like crazy and Manny was sent into the air.

            “No!!!” Melaina cried out as the krait hit the floor with a thud. She rushed over, and Manny quickly coiled around her arm tight. As she looked at her palm, she saw it was stained with a little of Manny’s blood. One of Dain’s guards, until then standing in the corner of the room was inches away from Manny with his sword drawn.

            She instinctively hid her arm behind herself, and glared at the soldier. It didn’t help that he was a good six inches taller than her. He didn’t shy away despite her glare, not even bothering to step back or sheath his sword.

            “Step down soldier,” she warned.

            He didn’t, and said, “That snake was a threat to our highness. As his personal bodyguard, it’s my duty to kill it.”

            “You touch Manny, and I kill you,” she hissed.

            “I highly doubt that, princess,” he said with a smirk.

            “Manny?” Dain squealed.

            “He’s a pet snake,” Melaina explained, not taking her eyes away from the disrespectful soldier.

            The soldier, whose blue eyes were still looking for a way past her and to Manny, darted briefly towards Dain.

            “Your majesty, she’s lying,” he said. “That’s a spotted rock krait, the most poisonous snake in the world. No one in the world would be stupid enough to make a pet out of it.”

            She didn’t appreciate being called stupid, and in the time span that he was talking to his prince, she took out the pocket knife she hid beneath her belt and put it to the soldier’s throat.

            “Look, soldier,” she said. “Your prince over there isn’t the only royalty here. And do not forget that you are an ocean away from Felucca. You are in Lor, my kingdom. Where my rules are the ones to be followed. Step down, unless you want to die.”

            He dropped the sword reluctantly and raised his hands in surrender, taking two steps back.

            “His royal highness is king,” he said. “Not a prince.”

            Melaina finally understood. So that was why Dain had agreed to marry her. He was desperate. It was common knowledge that people didn’t take well to a king without a queen. And no self-respecting princess, lady, or even heiress would want to spend a lifetime with him and his arrogance.

            “Alex,” King Dain said. “She’s young. Besides, we were warned of her temper.”

            “Funny,” Melaina replied. “I was not warned of your impudence.”

            She stormed off to her room, stroking Manny slowly to ease his fear. The way he was coiled around her arm, so tightly her arm was going purple, he was terrified. She got some cotton and dabbed at his cut. After his wound was cleaned and covered, she gently placed him onto her bed, making note to get him a new cage made.

            Her room was her sanctuary. She walked over and locked the door, although she knew very well no one would dare to disturb her after they found out what had happened that day. Taking a seat near her window, she observed the people in the castle’s main courtyard below.

            The soldier was sparring below. Melaina admitted that he was good. Her father had let her train with the army since she was six years old, so she was just as good, if not better. He looked happy as he pinned a young redheaded boy to the ground. He was smiling, until he saw her sitting on the window ledge.

            Melaina drew the curtains closed and turned back to Manny, who looked slightly better. She was clueless how to treat his cut. She had to call the apothecary. It was lucky that he lived within the castle walls. The old man had treated every bruise, cut and broken bone of hers since she was a child.

            She walked through the corridors to the separate suite of rooms that were reserved just for the apothecary. He lived alone, his daughter having been married off years ago. Most people did not bother to visit him unless they needed to. He was like the friendly grandfather she never had, and although he usually didn’t approve of the way she was, she still went to see him.

            Oliver was pouring various clear but pungent liquids into a large pot as she walked in. Engrossed in his work he didn’t notice her enter and she tiptoed up to him.

            “Boo!” she yelled into his ear, causing him to spill a few drops of the liquid onto his shirt.

            “Oh curses, that smell will not go out,” he muttered to himself.

            “I will get a new shirt made for you,” Melaina said with a smile. “I need something.”

            He looked her up and down. “You don’t seem to have broken any bones this time. I suppose that’s an improvement.”

            “It’s not for me. It’s for Manny.”

            He frowned. “What is it with you and your father? I’m a healer of human beings, for god’s sake!”

            “What happened Oliver?”

            “You don’t know?” he asked incredulously. Then he slapped a hand to forehead. “Of course you don’t know. Everyone’s been avoiding you like the plague since the queen announced your wedding. Congratulations by the way.”

            “So you haven’t met him yet,” Melaina said.

            “How did you know?”

            “If you did you would be offering condolences, not congratulations. Anyway, what is it my father’s doing?”

            “It’s the Dragon’s Day re-enactment,” he said.

            Melaina knew that her father loved the Dragon’s Day re-enactment. Centuries before, their ancestor, a Henry who her father had been named after, had landed on the island. He saw it was rich and beautiful, but also home to a dangerous dragon. He slayed it and that was the beginning of Lor.

            Oliver lowered his voice and whispered, “He’s bringing in real dragons. And the two grooms are the ones going to fight them.”

            Snapping herself out of her shock, she asked Oliver, “What did he ask you to do?”

            “Drug the dragons,” he said solemnly. He ran his hand over his bald head, and continued, “I don’t know anything regarding dragon anatomy. No one does. I’m absolutely clueless as to the proper dosage. They could be immune to all narcotics as far as anyone knows. They could die of the dosage, and your father specifically said that he wanted to release them afterwards.”

            He was rambling, and Melaina shook him by the shoulders. “Calm down Oliver. First, get me something for Manny. That should be easy enough. You have two weeks to prepare for the dragons. Trust me. You won’t fail. Unless, would you be willing to?”

            “Melaina,” Oliver said. “The man doesn’t deserve to die simply because he wants to marry you.”

            “I suppose,” she answered. “But it would be wonderful though, wouldn’t it?”

            “If your grandmother were still alive, none of this would be happening,” Oliver said. “She got married at twenty, on her own terms and in her own time.”

            All Melaina knew of her grandmother were from the afternoons in her father’s study. As a child she would gaze admiringly at the portraits of a woman that looked like her as her father spoke of her adventures and her courage. She would’ve loved to meet her. Her father’s stories almost always ended in sadness, as he spoke of the way she rode off to a quest and had never returned.

            She felt tears pricking at her eyes, mourning a woman she had never met. If her grandmother had been here, she would’ve never agreed to the marriage. She would’ve kicked Dain and his entourage to the port without as much as a goodbye.

            Melaina reminded herself it was no good thinking of what could have been. Her hands were tied. The preparations for the wedding were underway, and if she sabotaged them it would break her father’s heart. After two years, she realized he was anxious about her marriage as well. It seemed her mother’s constant words of her turning into a lonely crone had finally struck his heart.

            She didn’t mind being an unmarried crone. As long as she was free, she would be happy. As long as she was in Lor, she would be in bliss. But no one understood that anymore. She saw it in the way the people in the castle looked at her. She’d become a visitor in her own home.

            Oliver was back with a green paste. He handed it to her and told her to apply it to Manny’s wound. She thanked him and headed back to the room, ignoring the decorations that were being put up and the laughter of the people around her. What brought her misery was bringing them joy.

            She grabbed a wicker picnic basket from the kitchen and headed upstairs. Manny was lying in a curled up mass. She guessed he was asleep, but couldn’t tell because of his transparent eyelids. Gently she placed the green paste over his cut and put him in the basket.

            The whole day she lolled about in her room, avoiding the things outside. Hunger was forgotten, and when night came she fell asleep quickly, but it was a sleep interrupted by nightmares and dreams. She dreamt of a life in Felucca, with corsets and high-heeled shoes, or riding side-saddle and being confined to the four walls of their castle. Then she dreamt of better things, of freedom and a future in Lor, a future that had no place for Dain. And then she dreamed of dragons.

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