Pledged to the Dragon
Early winter is usually a boring time for Princess Ennette and her ladies-in-waiting, as her father the king and most of the men at court depart for the annual hunt. The only thing he's more interested in than the hunt is marrying the unwilling Poleen. Of his suffering people, the king does not care, leaving Ennette to struggle alone to help them. All she wants is a stable kingdom and to be able to openly love Lady Mawri, but with every passing day those dreams seem increasingly hopeless.
Meanwhile, soldier Nataneal just wants to be left alone to live his life on his terms. In a last desperate bid for freedom, he summoned a dragon to take him away to a rumored place in the forest where people can live in peace and happiness—and failed. Now he sits in the dungeon, awaiting trial for the crime of impersonating a man.
And that's only the start of the trouble plaguing the royal castle, and all the unhappy people in desperate need of a dragon...
There were whispers in the castle. There were always whispers, always gossip eagerly told, but these whispers alarmed Lady Mawri. She first heard it from Rosely, who delivered the rumor along with the first tray of tea before dawn. Rosely said there was a woman arrested last night who had been impersonating a man. She didn’t know anything beyond that, and no amount of pleading on Lady Mawri’s part could extract any more information out of her.
Lady Mawri reluctantly excused the girl and brought the tray into the room she and Princess Ennette’s other ladies slept, ate, and otherwise lived in. Lady Imogene, stoking up the fire from last night’s banked coals, asked what the news was.
“Nothing,” Lady Mawri said, trying to erase the look of worry from her face. “Just another arrest last night.”
“Anyone we know?” Lady Charron asked as she opened the door to the chamber beyond, where the princess slept.
“I hope not,” Lady Mawri said as she walked past and set the tea tray on the table inside. Lady Charron closed the door behind her, leaving Lady Mawri alone to wake Princess Ennette. The other ladies knew better than to intrude upon this early hour. They would have to get their gossip elsewhere.
“Good morning,” said Princess Ennette from the bed. She flung the covers open in invitation and Lady Mawri happily snuggled into her warm embrace.
“Good morning, my love,” Lady Mawri replied. “Did you sleep well?”
“Not as well as when you share my bed.”
“The other ladies get jealous when they notice I’m helping warm your bed more often than they are. They think I’m your favorite.”
“You’re not just my favorite, and you don’t just warm my bed,” Princess Ennette whispered into Lady Mawri’s ear. “You warm my heart. I love you.”
“I love you, too. Come on, get up before your tea gets cold.”
“I’ll drink it cold.”
Lady Mawri had gotten used to cold tea over the years. She had even grown to like it. Maybe it was because she associated it with a morning of lovemaking, whereas hot tea was more often associated with needlecraft and singing. Which was pleasant, too. Just not as pleasant.
“What’s worrying you this morning?” Princess Ennette asked as Lady Mawri helped her into her gown.
“Do I seem worried?”
“Well…” Lady Mawri swiftly did up the sixty-seven buttons down the back of Princess Ennette’s gown. “Someone was arrested last night, and I’m worried it’s a friend of ours.” She couldn’t bear to name them, irrationally afraid that saying it would make it true.
“Oh dear,” Princess Ennette said. “My dear, do you want me to look into it?”
Lady Mawri sighed in relief. “Would you?”
Princess Ennette gave a sad half-smile. “What else are princesses for?”
The Tespine City Dungeon was just a small part of a larger structure: the Criminals’ Catacombs. Many disappeared inside, never to be seen again, except as a skull on a shelf. Into this nightmare poured Turster Kingdom’s most wretched. Occasionally, a few of those wretched were allowed to limp their way out.
Nataneal wasn’t counting on being one of those lucky few. His morning had consisted of beatings, interrogations, and more beatings. At some point, having been stripped of all his clothes, he had been given a threadbare shirt and a moldy skirt to hide his nakedness. He wondered what poor soul had worn them last. Had she died right here where he lay on his lice-infested mat? Was this stain her blood?
“You shouldn’t be here,” a guard said from down the hall. For a moment, Nataneal pretended the remark had been for him.
“I have a right and a duty to inspect the conditions female prisoners are kept in,” was the response.
“We’re not sure if it is—”
“Oh, let her in,” said another guard. “Maybe she can decide what we’ve got locked up here.” There was the sound of a lock opening, and the bottom edge of the metal gate scraping on the stone floor combined with hinges in need of a good oiling. Then the sounds of the gate swinging back and being locked once more.
After about fifty strides, there was the sound of a key in the lock of Nataneal’s cell. “Careful, Princess,” the second guard said from beyond the door. “This one has been a soldier.”
Nataneal looked to the door with surprise. “Princess?” he whispered through parched lips. He would have flung himself to his knees at her feet if he hadn’t been too sore to move.
“She’s been beaten,” Princess Ennette said as she stood above him.
“Only enough to subdue her,” the guard said. “She resisted arrest.”
“Please,” Nataneal said. “Please.” He could no longer see through the tears that now clogged his eyes, but he dared not wipe them with his sore, filthy hands.
“Is the prisoner accused of any other crimes?” the princess asked.
“We haven’t decided yet,” the guard said. “It’s an odd case.”
“We need to get a doctor in here,” Princess Ennette and the guard said simultaneously.
“I’ve seen a doctor,” Nataneal managed to hoarsely whisper. “Back home.”
“I meant a doctor to see to your wounds,” the princess told him kindly.
“I’ve been falsely accused,” Nataneal asserted, as he had all morning. “Ask Doctor Thent Ironhill back in Chel. He examined me before I could become a soldier. I’m on the registry of soldiers back in Chel. I’m not a fraud or a fake.” He lapsed into a coughing fit before he could make any more protestations.
“You’re a man?” Princess Ennette asked.
“So she says,” the guard replied. “But, I mean… Look at her.” The guard gestured at him, pointing out what puzzling aspects of his body the ill-fitting clothes revealed.
“Has anyone sent for this Doctor Thent?” the princess asked.
“No, but…” The guard gestured again.
“Send for him at once,” Princess Ennette commanded. “I authorize the use of the signal flag network. In the meantime, send for a local doctor to tend to this man’s wounds. I’m going to send someone to help him wash and dress in more appropriate clothes. You will let my man in when he comes. Do you understand?”