Jester felt completely at a loss about what to do. His instinct was to go after Gunther and knock some sense into him: convince him to go and speak to the King. Yet he knew he would fail, and he also knew that his duty was not to his young friends, but to his King and Queen. He ought to be at their side in their time of anguish. Not that he shared their fear for Lavinia; whatever had compelled Dragon to fly away with her, the princess was far more safe riding on his back than she was on the back of her favourite pony. If anything, Jester was more worried for Dragon.
After the initial excitement, most of the court and castle staff had moved back inside. Jester followed the hubbub of excited voices to the throne room. Dozens were assembled there, clearly wanting to be as close to the centre of the unfolding drama as possible. Yet the king and queen were not among them. Jester left, and hurried to their chambers where he found Sir Ivon on duty outside its closed doors.
‘Sorry laddie, no-one goes inside, not even yourself.’
‘I only mean to console them, or perhaps to distract them from their fears.’
‘Aye, but if read them aright, it’s not distraction they need. They need to boil in their anger a while. This day was always going to come, was it not? You can’t mess with the way of things for as long as Jane has without consequences.’
‘What has Jane to do with this?’
‘And you the bright one? Go on laddie, you want to be useful, I suggest you go to her room and pack her things for her. There is no coming back from this, now is there?’
Jester stared a moment, waiting for some words of rebuttal to jump into his head. Yet Sir Ivon was right. Completely right. Jester felt tears rising up, tears that he’d been pushing back since he’d read the passage from the Scholar King’s book down in the catacombs. All his imagined futures, all his secret wishes, they were all falling to pieces, all turning to dust. Sir Ivon sighed, reached out a hand and laid it on Jester’s shoulder. Then he pulled the young man to him and embraced him in a massive bear hug.
‘I know boy. I know. You grow used to it in time, trust me. Change is the nature of things.’ He released him, held him out at arm’s length and lifted his chin. ‘Look at me. The spirited young lassie who just flew off on the dragon. She is your full duty now. D’you understand?’
Jester stumbled back through the castle. He felt completely adrift,
a boat with no destination and no maps to guide him. Air, he needed air. He stepped out into the Royal Gardens, walked to middle, and sat on the stone lip of the fountain. One day! That’s all it had taken. One day for his world to come tumbling down. Events were running their course and he had no part in them. He stared up at the moon, a dozen curses forming in his head, a dozen rebukes to hurl at the moon.
Then he saw dragon. Or thought he did, just for a moment, a flicker of wings across the face of the moon, descending towards the village.
‘If you want my opinion..’ said Dragon.
‘Face forward!’ Lavinia had to shout to make herself heard. ‘When you roll your eyes to talk back at me like that, you also roll your head, which rolls your neck, which makes it very hard to stay on!’
‘Well excuse me!’
They were just a few wingbeats from their destination, Kippernia’s market square, where the merchant’s house presided like a huge tooth in a curved row of more discreet dwellings. It was one of the first that a visitor would pass when they had made their journey up the hill road into the town.
The main street was narrow, and curved its way around the castle walls. Any visitor forsaking the castle entrance in favour of the town would immediately arrive at the market square which was flanked on either side by two large buildings, the merchant’s house, and directly opposite, the tavern.
‘My opinion, wanted or otherwise, is that you should talk to Jane before you talk to this man. I do NOT trust him.’
‘Lots of reasons. His smell for one. The man splashes himself with oil like he’s a foreign salad. Plus, and more to the point, he has never liked me. Hard to believe, I know, but there it is.’
‘He just doesn’t know you, Dragon,’ Lavinia let go of one of Dragon’s horns and patted the top of his head. ‘You need to spend more time with him, if he understood you better I’m sure you would be good friends.’
‘Why would I? Friends are a burden.’
‘Really? You need to ask? This is why? THIS! Instead of sleeping in my warm cave, I’ve become a flying pony for the friend of a friend who for some strange reason thinks it’s appropriate to pat my head!’
‘That’s only two reasons.’
‘Two reasons for not liking the Merchant. You said there were lots.’
‘That man is always getting Jane into trouble, always, ever since she first started all her knighty-knighty training. And why? Because it makes his preening, prancing puppy look better than Jane.’
‘Yes, I don’t trust him either. He struts around like a little king, but he’s all talk and no toasting!’
‘He can be a little boastful, but Gunther has a kind heart. That’s what makes all this so hard and so very sad. I thought Gunther liked me too, and now he wants to push me around his chess board like I’m lowly pawn. Friend’s don’t do that, do they?’
‘You pushed me around on your chess board yesterday, in the hot burning sun.’
‘That’s not the same thing at all, we were playing proper chess on a chess board.’
‘Hmm, yes, about that. Where exactly does a princess stand on a chess board?’
‘Anywhere I choose to stand, Dragon.’
‘But, as I will indeed become a queen one day, it is fair to count me a pawn for now. For like a pawn, I can cross the full length of the board and be transformed into a queen, and I will Dragon, though not a queen of Kippernia. The sea is my board, and I must sail across it one day and marry the future king of some other kingdom.’
They landed in the moonlit square right outside the merchant’s house. It was a soft landing, for Dragon, though it still shook the cobblestones and rattled doors. A few windows pushed opened, faces appeared and quiet curses were grumbled. The main door of the tavern crashed open and a drunk tumbled out. Noise spilled out with him, a thick soup of singing, laughing, and shouting that was swiftly bottled again when the door closed behind him.
Lavinia scrambled down from her seat on Dragon’s neck and set off across the cobblestones to the Merchant’s house.
‘You can go, Dragon,’ she said without looking back. ‘Thank you for the ride and for your wise council.’
Gunther stared down into the village square. What in the name of madness was the princess doing here? A few minutes earlier he had crept into the merchant’s house and up to his own room. This forlorn place was the only home he could remember. He had been three years old when the merchant had married his mother, and he had no clear memories of his real father, or his birth home. If memories of some happier time or place had ever existed, this dark and brooding house had completely smothered them.
Gunther had raced here from the castle, ignoring Jester’s advice to go to the king and tell him of his father’s scheme. That fool lived in a world of make-believe, there would be no forgiveness from the king, and no safety from his father when he found. One option remained to him - to run; to get passage on a ship and put as many miles as he could between himself and Kippernia.
He had slipped into the giant house by the yard door at the back of the building. It led directly into a sprawling warehouse, a two story barn that adjoined the main home.
‘Oh Jester, why did I bleat my plans to you?’ Gunther scanned the vast storage space, looking for any sign of his father’s crew. At this time of night, most of the men would be at the tavern, the remainder would be in the grand parlour, gathered around the merchant’s dinner table, telling stories, and vying for favours.
Gunther crept through the warehouse and into the back hall of the main dwelling. Drunken laughter and table-thumping echoed down the hallway. Light shivered from the many candles that stood on the table amid the detritus of plates, beakers of ale and scattered food. No one turned and saw him as he hurried across the hallway and up a wide central staircase to his room.
This day had always been a possibility, and Gunther had planned for it as best he could. For three years his father had been giving him more authority in the business, empowering him to front some of the less honourable transactions. In time, and with a growing confidence, Gunther had started making small side deals of his own, squirrelling the profits away in a small chest behind a panel in his room.
He was pulling that chest out when the house shook. He knew the cause immediately, and stepped to the window in time to see Lavinia sliding down from her seat on Dragon’s neck.
‘No!’ he stared in disbelief as the young princess marched directly towards the front door of the house.
Jane cursed herself for discarding the torch earlier. It had been a hinderance, holding a flaming torch out to the side, far enough to keep the spluttering flame from spooking her horse. Now, a single cloud had materialised in the night sky, and was drifting towards the moon.
Why now? Jane cursed again and urged her horse into a full gallop while there was still enough moonlight to see the narrow track ahead. Throwing the torch aside had been an easy decision, for weeks the kingdom had been suffering a summer heatwave without any promise of rainclouds, so the odds of one materialising now were zero. Yet there it was!
At least the track was wider now, with no sheer drops to either side. Jane was below the tree line now, where bare mountain rock gave way to wind-blasted pine and scrub.
In her mind, she could see Princess Lavinia, her hands on her hips, delivering a lecture to the merchant, an innocent lamb walking into a lion’s den. Would Dragon watch over the girl? Would he council her to stay out on the street where he could look to her safety?
Jane shook the images from her head and focused on her riding, keeping her weight locked down through her legs into her foot straps; taking the stress from the horses back as Smithy had taught her. How much easier it was to ride on Dragon, all she had to do was sit tight, hold on to Dragon’s horns and enjoy the view.
Then the single large cloud began to cover the moon. Jane slowed the horse to a trot and sat back into her saddle. Within moments, the world around was pitch black. Overhead, the sky was a dazzling display of pin hole stars – except where the cloud sat like a puddle of tar. She had trained for this, for night patrol. Close your eyes Jane, close them and count to twenty, your eyes will adapt, when you open them again you will be able to travel by starlight.
Counting to twenty seemed to take forever, she tried not to think of the Princess. She knew this worked, she had done it a dozen times or more, and she knew that opening her eyes too soon would mean starting all over again.
Twenty. She opened them and could just make out the path ahead; not directly, but she could see the trees on either side, dusted in the faintest of silver starlight, the path a black space snaking its way between them. Perhaps the horse could see too, but perhaps not, so Jane decided to dismount, pleading silently for the cloud to hurry its journey across the moon. She slipped her left foot from its leather stirrup strap, and was swinging her leg free when the horse reared beneath her, its head lunging up so quickly the reigns were torn from Jane’s hand as she was thrown to the ground. Training kicked in and she managed to tuck and roll, her arms pulled in, not stretched out to stave of the ground. The impact still hurt as one shoulder struck the track first, then one hip. She heard, rather than saw, her horse racing off down the track ahead of her, he called out to it but the horse paid no attention, it wanted to be back in the safety of the stables, back with Smithy, not out here where it had just caught the scent of a wolf.
Jane had smelt it too, as she was falling, and by the time she had jumped to her feet she had heard it too, soft footfalls in the trees to her right.
Dragon watched the Princess as she strode away from him. What was it about this little shortlife that so impressed, and so irritated him? She was like a small Jane. Was that it? The child had many of the same ingredients but with one big difference: no self-doubt, not even a sniff of it. He settled down to wait. The girl was definitely a pain in the paws, but at least she was entertaining.
Gunther opened the window and whispered down to Lavinia as she reached the front door below him. She didn’t hear him. Gunther cursed softly, his father was feasting with a few of his henchmen in the main parlour right beside the front door! Their window overlooked the street directly below him! Had they seen and felt Dragon land outside? It was dark outside, the moon obscured by cloud, and they were making a lot of noise down there, one of the men had started singing and another was roaring at him to stop. Gunther stepped back from his window and looked for something to throw down. There was no shortage of choice, his room had long since doubled as a storeroom for wares of all kinds. He found a scattering of wooden buttons, grabbed one and launched it down at Lavinia. It struck the ground beside her and she looked up.
‘Gunther!’ She waved as she caught sight of him. Gunther waved back, and frantically put a finger to his lips.
‘Go round to the back!’ he whispered. But he was too late. Yellow light washed over the Princess as the front door opened. The merchant stepped out.
‘Your Majesty! My goodness. To what do I owe the pleasure? And at such a late hour.’
Gunther ducked his head back inside, turned, and stared straight into the scarred face of Pincher Bates, one of his father’s most ardent dept collectors. Everyone paid Pincher, there were too many tales of how happy it made him when he had to extract late payments in kind - one tooth at a time.
‘Hello boy, come to join us poor folk for supper have you?’