Life for Princess Lavinia had been kind. Thus far. The most complicated thorn in her soft bed of roses was her brother, Cuthbert, and even that discomfort had grown less with the years. There were times when she even confessed to liking him, though not to his face.
‘Cuthbert is only mean when he’s unhappy,’ she had confided to Jester a few short weeks ago. ‘When he was little he was unhappy all the time, almost everything set him pouting or stamping. Now he can be happy for whole hours at a time.’
‘I have yet to witness that,’ said Jester. The conversation had taken place at a small corner table in the Great Library where Jester was tutoring the young princess in myths and mythologies.
‘Well he can, I assure you,’ Lavinia folded her arms and set her elbows on the table. ‘We can play a game of checkers without him kicking the pieces over and storming off.’
‘A whole game? That is progress. Tell me, what happens at the end, when he loses to you, as he always does, what then?’
‘He storms off and finds something else to be horrible to. Never to me or to living things, just doors and walls. Anything which makes a great deal of noise.’ Lavinia brought a hand thumping down on the table. ‘Like THAT.’
‘Well, Princess,’ Jester waved at the oak shelving that covered the wall behind him. ‘As you know from your history books, it takes a great deal more than a good temper, to be a good King. We must both do our very best to guide your brother in the years ahead.’
‘He can be very kind sometimes, just like father. That’s a good quality for a King.’
‘A very good quality.’
‘The other day, Cuthbert rescued a large spider from mother’s chamber’s. A dress maid was summoning the courage to stamp on it. My brother went into a rage. He commanded the maid to stand her ground, then he scooped the scuttling monster up in his hands and took it off to the gardens.’
‘A kind act indeed, which sets you a difficult task,’ Jester pulled a look of mock concern. ‘If your brother continues down this path of good deeds and kindness, you will have to invent a more serious foe to spar with.’
‘Gunther?’ Jester sat back and studied Lavinia’s face. ‘The poor fellow suffers enough grief from his father. I think Gunther needs all the friends he can get.’
‘So why don’t you like him?’
‘Liar, liar, legs on fire! You argue with him every single day. I’ve watched you.’
‘Then watch more closely. I like him, but I don’t trust him, not entirely anyway. Gunther is a complicated fellow. His father is tough and overbearing and it’s left its mark on him.’
‘You feel sorry for him?’ Lavinia leaned forward and stared into Jester’s, eyes. ‘Speak truly, I know when you’re telling me fibs, your eyes lose their sparkle.’
‘How very disconcerting.’ Jester blinked rapidly, as if trying to polish any lingering sparkle. ‘The truth then. Yes, I feel a little sorry for Gunther. I believe there is a goodness in him. In his heart. Sir Theodore thinks so too, or he would not be expending such time and effort training him in the knight’s code. I think Gunther has a difficult road ahead of him, and I don’t want to make it any more difficult.’
That conversation had been several weeks ago; now Lavinia sat in the hayloft, quietly remembering it. Jester had been her friend and council for as long as she could remember. He was the rock she had always turned to, for he rarely played court politics and always spoke the truth as he saw it. Always.
‘Not this time, Jester,’ Lavinia’s voice was barely a whisper. ‘I can’t share this with you.’ She stood up and dusted shafts of straw from her dress and her long, braided hair. Would Gunther really plot to have his father killed? Would he treat her, Lavinia, with careless disregard for her feelings, to bring this event about?
‘Dragon!’ She nodded to herself as she uttered this. The whole court would have recognised the expression – a nod of the head and a determined pushing out of the royal chin. When Lavinia decided on a course of action, nothing short of a bolted door could keep her from her task.
‘It has to be Dragon.’ If she went to her father, Gunther might be thrown out of the kingdom for plotting such a thing. Her mother see to it that both Gunther and his father were sent into exile. Jane would advise her to go straight to Sir Theodore who would go to the King and the result would be the same. Doing nothing at all was not an option. If she waited, if she left things to unfold, then Gunther’s plan would work and his father would be executed. This was much too complicated to work through on her own!
Lavinia stepped outside into the knight’s training court and scanned the rooftops and battlement. Dragon was nowhere to be seen. She shielded her eyes and looked beyond the castle to the mountain peak. Was that Dragon? That a small speck of green perched on the lip of his cave.
Jane paced the floor. She had followed Sir Theodore’s request to make herself as presentable as time would allow. She had hurried to her room, splashed her face with cold water, changed out of her dusty patrol clothes and raked her hair into submission with a short comb Princess Lavinia had gifted her three years ago. She threw her patrol clothes on the window ledge and packed her dragon sword in the wooden chest at the foot of her bed.
‘Ready,’ she said, and crossed to her mirror. ‘Maggots! I look like one of Rake’s scarecrows!’ Jane sighed, opened her door and peered across to the Palace Gardens. Pepper was setting plates on a great table that overlooked the rose garden. No one had yet arrived for the meeting. Good. She needed time to gather her thoughts. Her head was spinning with too many questions. Her meeting with Sir Theodore had answered some of them, and tabled many more. Now they were to face the King and explain the events of the day.
‘Explain? I can hardly explain them to myself.’ Jane turned and looked back into her small tower room, a place both comforting and confining. How could she embrace the future, embrace it completely and freely, while burdened with all these touchstones and trinkets? Looking around the room she felt trapped by a cobweb of comforting memories that resented change. That morning, before setting out on patrol, she had made the decision to gift all these toys and trophies to the children of the town – a small step towards clearing the stage of her life, clearing it for whatever new act her ballad might bring.
Yet now, after her encounter with Robert, the confusion and uncertainty he had wrought on her thinking made this room feel like a sanctuary again, a place where the world turned as it was meant to, and everything sat calmly in its place.
So what DID she want from this meeting? She knew what her captain wanted. Or believed she did. Sir Theodore wanted to bring his King fully into the picture on the nature of his pledge to his old companions, and how his duty to the King had not been in conflict with this pledge. Looking out for the wellbeing of Dragon had kept the kingdom safe from external hostilities. It had allowed a poorly funded, depleted King’s Guard, to keep aggressors at a distance for almost twenty years.
Jane sighed, too much thinking never led to clarity, it opened up a chessboard of moves. Gunther excelled at it, like his father, but intrigue and endless games of speculation had always irritated Jane. Action, not words, brought clarity. Action forced life to play its hand.
‘Action then,’ Jane stepped out onto her battlement walkway and strode down the narrow steps that led to the Royal Gardens. Pepper was still there, setting refreshments on the long table. She looked up and beamed at Jane.
‘You look scrubbed.’
‘Good scrubbed, or bad scrubbed?’
‘Fast scrubbed. Did you oil your hair?’
‘No, Can I help you?’
‘Rake’s lending a hand. What’s the big kerfuffle? Sir Theodore’s been driving us about like cattle. No doubt it involves our handsome young guest.’
‘It does. Have you seen Jester?’
‘Not since I was in the kitchens tending to our guest, now tell me, Jane,’ Pepper planted her fists on her hips. ‘How DID young Robert burn his hands? Gossip has it, that you pushed him into a fire.’
‘By gossip, you mean Gunther and his little band of courtiers?’
‘No,’ Pepper shook her head. ‘Robert himself.’
‘He said that?!’
‘He said you misunderstood his embrace and you pushed him away. Was he trying to kiss you?’
‘No! Well, perhaps. It was all very fast and muddled. I thought he was attacking me.’
‘With his dangerous lips? How terrifying for you.’ Pepper spun away and set off for the kitchens. ‘Jester has been beside himself with worry all day. Worry for your safety he said. Now it seems he had good cause.’ She laughed, and skipped away into the shadow of the castle keep.
Within a few short minutes, everyone had arrived for the informal audience. It took place in the shade of a conservatory that overlooked the Royal Gardens. Above a sturdy oak table, a canopy of interlacing vines fought for light. There was honeysuckle, a variety of Italian grape, three colours of climbing rose, and a vigorous ivy that Rake struggled to keep on top of.
The table had been set with jugs of chilled apple juice, dishes of dried figs and a platter of salted herring. It was a long table, and the meeting occupied one end. The king sat at the head, with his queen and Prince Cuthbert to his right. Opposite them sat Jester, Jane, and Sir Theodore, who had requested the audience. He had not expected the young prince to attend.
Cuthbert had seated himself himself directly across from the old knight, and sat with his arms folded and face glowering like a red volcano set to blow its vapours.
After a few minutes of small talk that focused on the heat of the day, a small and tiresome subject they could all agree upon, the king asked about the nature of the meeting.
‘Does this concern our guest in the cellars?’ he took a large fig and began to nibble one corner.
‘It does,’ Sir Theodore glanced round the table. ‘My comrade in arms from a former time, Haroldus.’
‘The butterfly murderer,’ growled Cuthbert.
‘Quite,’ Sir Theodore acknowledged the prince with a slight dip of his head, ‘Haroldus is a scholar of many things.’
‘Why did he not attend us yesterday?’ the Queen sat with her usual poise, her hair and dress impeccable. ‘I learnt of his visit from one of the maids. I would have welcomed the distraction. He earned our respect and affection when last he came.’
‘I made him leave!’ Cuthbert lowered his eyes for a moment, his voice losing its authority.
‘Did you now?’ The king reached across the table, placed a finger under his son’s chin, gently tilting the boy’s face. Their eyes met and the king smiled. ‘Keeping the castle safe from rascals is a fine sentiment, but perhaps we should have debated the matter, together? Hmm?’
‘Yet this man now resides in our cellars,’ the queen smiled at Sir Theodore. ‘Which suggests my son’s instincts might be correct.’
‘Which part?’ the queen stared down at her drink, her long fingers wrapped around the horn goblet she always favoured. It was a plain vessel with no silver inlay and no intricate engraving, a family heirloom presented to her by her father on the day of her wedding. Carved into the side was their family motto: stay strong. She had. From the first day of her marriage she had been a steady rock her husband could hold to. Whatever challenges the kingdom had faced, they had met them together, a couple united in their sense of duty.
She looked up at Sir Theodore, smiled kindly, and listened without interruption as the old knight told the story of the day, and the history of the events that had brought Haroldus to their door.
‘So this young man…’ the king circled one hand as is conjuring a spell to manifest the name.
‘Robert.’ Jane prompted.
‘Yes, this young Robert? You say he enlisted Haroldus to assist him in this elaborate charade.’
‘The purpose alludes me.’ The king reached for another fig. ‘Please explain it to me again.’
‘Allow me, my dear,’ the queen put a hand on her husband’s elbow. ‘I believe I have the heart of it,’ she smiled at Jane. ‘Please correct me at any point.’
‘I will, thank you.’
‘Very well. The story goes like this. Young Robert has taken up his father’s cause. In the course of doing so he has become obsessed with a legend. He has come to believe, or chooses to believe, that it is his destiny to be your Dragon’s companion. Is that correct?’ She raised an eyebrow at Jane, inviting her to disagree.
‘Yes,’ Jane nodded, ‘that is exactly how he put it to me.’
‘That part I understood,’ the king took a sip of apple juice, ‘but why all the devious shenanigans? The young man could have come and spoken to Dragon himself, could he not? The creature can be a little odd, but he has never bitten the head off anyone as far as I am aware. We trust our own children in his care, do we not?’
‘We do, my dear,’ the queen smiled at Cuthbert, who banged the table in agreement.
‘Yes mother. Which is why I sent the butterfly murderer away. He was wrapping Dragon around his finger, patting him with false flattery and learning everything he could learn about him. He wants our dragon for his collection.’
‘Not OUR dragon, Cuthbert,’ the queen leant over and stroked a curl of hair from her son’s face. ‘According to the ballads, a dragon belongs to no-one. And yet, according to this young man, a dragon will chose a shortlife companion for reasons we don’t understand.’
‘Yes, your majesty,’ Jane glanced around the table. ‘Robert tells me these companions were called dragonblades. Every dragon would choose one and gift them with a sword forged in the flame of their own breath, a sword so sharp it can pierce their dragon hide.’
‘That is stupid,’ Cuthbert threw his arms wide. ‘It must be all made up from a silly romantic ballad where everyone does idiotic things for no sensible reason. Why would dragons make swords that can kill them, and give the swords to shortlives?’
‘A good question, young man,’ the king tapped the table in approval. ‘It makes no sense at all.’
‘Let us debate that in a moment,’ the queen turned back to Jane. ‘First I want to complete my summary of young Robert’s intentions, to be sure we all understand this saga so that we can debate what is to be done. Agreed?’
‘Of course my dear, please go on.’
‘Our young guest has been smitten with this notion, that it is his destiny to be Dragon’s companion, to be his Dragonblade. Then, unfortunately for him, standing in the way of his ambition, is Jane. What a conundrum this is for the young man. Should he pursue his ambition, or honour the pledge his father made all those years ago? If Jane has truly been chosen by Dragon to be his Dragonblade, then Robert’s duty is to put his personal ambition aside and support, even promote, Jane’s place at Dragon’s side.’
‘Ah!’ The king patted his wife’s hand, ‘How eloquent you are my dear. Thank you. I see the boy’s quandary. He must find a way to test Jane, or remove her from his path. So Jane, we come to the meat of the issue, do we not? What is your opinion on the matter? It seems to me, and clearly to Sir Theodore, that Dragon has made his choice, that he made it all those years ago when you confronted him and released prince Cuthbert from his cave.’
‘I have no idea.’ Jane shrugged and looked around the table at all the faces. ‘All I ever wanted was to be a knight of the guard.’
‘And now?’ the queen leaned forward and locked eyes with her. ‘Has Robert stirred a new ambition in you? I believe this is why you called for an audience, is it not Sir Theodore?’ Although she had addressed her captain, the queen kept her eyes on Jane, her gaze unwavering. ‘Jane cannot serve two masters. Either she is a knight of the King’ Guard, sworn to a life of service to this family, or she is a Dragonblade, and must follow her dragon wherever his destiny takes him.’
‘May I speak?’ Jester raised a hand.
‘No,’ the queen kept her gaze on Jane, ‘we have championed you, Jane. All of us, everyone from the young staff to my husband himself. You have been the cause of delight and consternation, you have challenged us all in our different ways. Dragon’s devotion to you has been a gift to the kingdom at a time of great uncertainty. With a depleted guard and empty coffers, we encouraged the town in its tendency to spread rumours via every fishing boat arriving to buy our herring. Rumours grew of the giant green dragon that lived in the mountain above us, a dragon who might reign fire on anyone who dared take up arms against us. For all this we are grateful, and for Sir Theodore’s steadfast tutoring of you. You are a true knight Jane, and you deserve nothing but our thanks and our admiration. If you chose to dedicate your life to Dragon, no one here will question your right to do so. And if you choose to stay with us as a knight of the guard, you will have my full support and undying gratitude. You must confront your feelings in this matter and decide, and then you must tell Dragon, and your parents, of your decision. Only then, when your heart and mind are clear and united on this, can we all come together to debate the consequences of your choice.’
Jane couldn’t speak. It was as if a dense fog had descended around the table, a cloud that reduced the world to this table and this moment, a world of fog and ice and the queen’s piecing stare.