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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8. Quests and Compromises

Quests and Compromises

 

                Melaina waved goodbye to her sister as their caravan headed for the port. Lucille was happy, and thanks to a dragon, Melaina was as well. As soon the caravan was out of sight she headed back into the castle. First stop was the stables. She had a favorite stable boy and a few favorite horses.

                Callum was waiting for her with her favorite mare. He was brushing her tawny hide when she saw him. Edelweiss was her favorite mare for two reasons. She wasn’t afraid of rough terrain, never scared of the critters in the underbrush. And when angry, she had a mean kick. Melaina had every intention of using that kick to her advantage.

                Edel whinnied as Melaina came closer. It had been a long time since she had been on a ride. She stroked the horse’s face gently and saddled her. In a quick trot she headed out of the stables and into the town square. Most of the soldiers she wanted on their trip were off their shift.

                She went around informing the soldiers to be at the castle by dawn of the next day. After she was done she left Edel at the stables and continued in the rest of her preparations. Food was packed for a team of two dozen men, for two weeks. It was all they could carry, and after that they would hunt.

                “Will you ever do what you are supposed to?” her mother asked as she was in the armory, picking out new daggers.

                “I would appreciate it if you left,” she said quietly. “You don’t belong here.”

                The sword maker grunted in approval. The queen didn’t move an inch, reaching out her hand to touch Melaina’s cheek. She flinched and stepped back. Eleanor wondered if she would ever get a kind word from her daughter again.

                She had chosen her six men, and the soldier from before, Alex, would bring along his six men. She didn’t face him at all during the day, as he had chosen not to follow her. She appreciated it. By sunset all the packing and preparation was done.

                Dinner in the dining hall would mean eating hot food with cold people. She settled herself at one of the tables in the kitchen and ate alone, ignoring the activity of the cook and the servers around her. After dinner she went back to her room where Manny was trying to get out his cage.

                She knew that the soldier hated Manny. It was all the more reason to bring him along. After years of seeing him, Edel wasn’t spooked by him anymore. She laid out her clothing for the day after and fell asleep, knowing she would have to be ready well before dawn. She didn’t need to hear a patronizing tone telling her she was late.

***

                In the morning she was the first at the gates. She woke up the sleeping stable boys and made them get the horses ready. The drawbridge for the moat was being lowered when Alex showed up, awake but slightly disheveled.

                “Couldn’t get your beauty sleep?” he asked cheekily.

                She looked over his appearance, the unkempt brown hair, the blue eyes with sleep still in them, and the clothes which he had hurriedly slipped into.

                “Looks like you didn’t get yours,” she laughed. He smoothed down his shirt and looked over at the horses. He immediately walked over to Edelweiss and gripped her reins.

                “Edel’s my horse,” she commented. “You can have your pick of the others.”

                He looked a bit disappointed, but took a black mare she had always liked for her speed. As he piled his bags onto the steed the rest of their group slowly crept in and got ready. Her father met them at dawn as they were about to leave. She saw her mother looking on from one of the windows.

                “Godspeed, Pint,” he murmured to her as he wrapped his giant arms around her.

                “I’ll be back soon, Pa,” she promised.

                They set off in a slow trot and headed for the port. She had been filled in on all the necessary details. The dragon had been captured from one of the territories of Lor, an island called Collyria, ruled by a Lord Nathaniel that no one seemed to know much about. But all of the records indicated that he ruled Collyria well, and had more than enough respect for her father’s rule.

                She was at the head of the group with Alex besides her. When she saw that there was enough distance between them and the rest of the group she started to speak, looking forward and keeping her face blank.

                “You will lead this group,” she told him.

                “What?” Alex couldn’t believe his ears. He thought she was scared, and was finally seeing sense. “Wise decision, princess.”

                “One. This decision isn’t because I’m afraid. It’s because I don’t need to lead,” she answered. “I know that you’re competent enough to do it. Not to mention that if I lead, your soldiers will follow with resentment. Not to mention their precious egos will be wounded, being led by a girl. I’d prefer they follow someone they trust and respect. I haven’t had the chance to gain either yet.”

                “Very well, then,” he agreed. “I’m the leader.”

                “Stop gloating, you sound like a child who won a prize at a fair.”

                She slowed Edel down so they were within hearing range of the rest of the group once more. The shocked look on his face was priceless. She fell into step next to a redhead from Felucca who blushed on seeing her. He turned purple when she withdrew Manny from around her neck where he was carefully concealed by a scarf.

                “Relax, Manny won’t bite you,” she informed him. “Not unless I tell him to.”

                She chose not to speak much to any of the Feluccans, keeping mostly to the soldiers from Lor. They had known her since she was a child. They knew what she was capable, that she could kill any of them if she had to. Her favorite was a young man named David. She’d trained with him for years, her first sparring mate. His was a family of army-men. His father lost his leg fighting bandits and now taught the younger soldiers. His sister was a nurse for the army.

                “Mel, I’m bored,” he complained. “This is a quest with you, the legendary Princess Melaina! Boredom should not be tolerated in the premises.”

                “Oh grow up Davie. The most adventure we’ll see here is hunting partridges. Unless that’s too much for you?”

                “Mel, I’m not joking. I’m going to go insane here. All those Feluccans, they’re like the undead the way they just stare ahead and ride.”

                She observed them and saw he was right. They were fiercely disciplined, and just as cordial with one another as they were with the soldiers from Lor. They worked together, but there was no fraternity. They spoke only when they absolutely had to. She knew how the army in Lor worked. Everyone who fought side by side immediately became family.

                Their ship waited for them at the port, due to sail the next morning. The port town, Murdock, was a clutter of buildings consisting of a few inns of varying quality and taverns for the sailors. As soon as they arrived they occupied the finest inn. Melaina knew the men expected her to stay restricted to the room. She loved surprising people.

                The woman at the inn was familiar. When the tyranny of her mother became too much she would take her horse and ride to the port. Maybel’s Inn was the one place she knew, because it was the place her father stayed whenever he had to wait a night for a boat. Maybel was a large woman of over sixty who mothered any stranger that walked into her inn and paid well. Her family consisted of her two grandchildren who helped her run the inn.

                Her granddaughter Eva was a pushover. Melaina borrowed some of her clothes and went downstairs in the guise of a barmaid. Her hair was loose, and she had caked her face with Eva’s makeup. Kohl made her eyes look bigger, rouge made her cheeks pink, and the bright red color she painted her lips with was the color of cherries. She looked like just another poor girl desperate to be pretty, definitely not a princess.

                The soldiers from Felucca were sitting in a corner, only sipping at their ale and observing their counterparts from Lor. Her soldiers were having fun. Although they drank more than the other soldiers, they were all keeping control, getting their fun from the music and the conversation. She took a seat next to David.

                A few whistles came her way as she took her seat, but she quickly silenced them with one of her glares. They quieted once they realized who she was. She wanted to talk to them without the hindrance of the Feluccans being there.

                “I’ve placed that soldier, Alex, in charge,” she told them. “Follow his orders, and if you have any questions, report to me.”

                “Ye should be leading, lass,” one of the older ones reported. “That lad’s got a fat chance of surviving the woods we’s about to enter.”

                “He’ll figure that out soon enough,” she answered. Although she’d never been to Collyria, the forests of Lor were the same everywhere, and not very forgiving to foreigners. Her handing over leadership was just a temporary compromise. She saw the Feluccans looking over at their group curiously and placed her hand onto David’s chest.

                “I’m going to leave before they figure out who I am,” she said with a loopy smile. “Follow me to my room, alright?”

                She got up and stumbled across the room, David right behind her, and the soldiers from behind made crude remarks to complete the act. She filtered out their cat-calls and continued up the stairs and stopped mid-way seeing who was blocking her way.

                “So, partying again?” he asked. She was still playing drunk, and immediately wiped the loony expression off her face.

                “Hardly,” she replied dryly. She turned to David, “Davie, go back to the tavern. I’m going to head to my room with Alex here.”

                He turned around without a response and walked away. Alex held out her hand for her to take. She ignored it and passed by him. She didn’t like the man. He was overconfident without displaying it, overly suspicious of her for no reason. She knew he didn’t like her in the least, and that wouldn’t change even if he believed that she didn’t arrange for Dain’s little accident with the dragon.

                She unlocked the door to her room when he spoke.

                “What kind of princess are you?” he asked incredulously. “You go dancing when your fiancé could be dead. You disguise yourself and keep a pet krait. You’re nothing like a lady. What is wrong with you?”

                She didn’t know why, but his words hurt. She prided herself on not being a lady, of killing the conceptions that people made about her. As she leaned against the closed door she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. She loved being herself. But the tone in his voice that she did not understand, it bothered her.

                Wiping away the little tears that hung on her eyelashes, she chided herself for being weak. A stranger’s words shouldn’t have had such an effect on her. Her own mother’s callous words didn’t bother her anymore. Taking a deep breath and squaring her shoulders, she took her long sword out of her bag and went through the usual movements, practicing long into the night.

***

                Alex stepped away as she banged the door closed. He knew it wasn’t intelligent to be so rude to a princess in her own country. She could have him hanged if she desired, yet she acted as if his words only bounced off of her. She was stronger than the simpering girls that he knew from Felucca that shed tears if they pricked their finger.

                He didn’t know what to think of her yet. He didn’t know whether to see her character as a wonderful anomaly, or as something that simply should not exist. Alex wandered away from her room and back to his own, where a soldier of his already lay snoring loudly. He heard the sound of the din from the tavern below, and wondered how a princess ever gathered the courage to enter that chaos.

                He heard the sound of soft footsteps passing by his door and sat up. He knew the sound of footsteps that didn’t want to be heard. Three people… that was all he could tell. He grabbed his dagger, tucked it into belt, and ventured outside.

                Shadows flittered past in a corridor and he followed. Hushed whispers sounded from a closed room. He knew that he could just be walking in on a soldier and a barmaid, but his gut told him otherwise. He entered and turned red. The soldier from before was in a tight embrace with a girl whose face he couldn’t see. But he recognized the dress. The boy was hugging Melaina.

                He stormed forward and wrenched them apart, punching the soldier in one swift move. The soldier fell back onto the floor from the impact and the girl behind him left out a startled cry. It wasn’t the voice he was expecting.

                “What in God’s name are you doing?” shouted a voice from the other side of the room.

                That was the voice he was expecting. He turned around and saw that the girl he mistook for Melaina was actually a flighty brunette who immediately rushed over to the soldier on the ground.

                “I asked you a question,” she said. “What the hell are you doing?”

                “I thought it was you,” he blurted out.

                She stayed silent for a second, before looking directly into his eyes. “And even if it was me, what gives you the right to punch Davie?”

                He didn’t have the right. The fact dawned on him. But he had been furious at the soldier, for a reason that he didn’t want to understand. He didn’t have an answer to her question.

                “I’m sorry, I acted rashly,” he said. She nodded in response, a bit confused.

                “Eva here is engaged to Davie,” she explained. “I just thought he would like to say goodbye to her before we leave tomorrow morning.”

                “They couldn’t do this tomorrow morning?”

                “Maybel’s against those kind of things,” Melaina answered. “I thought this would be better. And this way he won’t get teased by the rest of the soldiers about it.”

                She didn’t like that he still hadn’t left the room. Davie was nursing his hurt jaw, Eva fussing over him, completely oblivious to their conversation. She looked over and realized that Davie didn’t mind getting hit because of the attention he was getting.

                “Stop acting like he broke your jaw Davie,” she ordered.

                “Oh stop, Mel, I’m really hurt,” he replied.

                “Stop before I really hurt you,” she threatened. She turned to Alex, “I suggest that you go back to bed.”

                “Yes, again, my apologies,” he said.

                He walked out of the room and back through the corridor. His knuckles hurt from the punch, and he nursed one hand with the other. He had hated Davie when he had opened the door. And he didn’t the moment he knew he was engaged to Eva.

                His feet stopped in the middle of the corridor and his jaw dropped as he realized what he had been feeling. Jealousy. 

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