The Royal Gardens could handle short bouts of summer heat. Water was seldom an issue. A mountain spring kept the wells and fountains supplied, and massive cisterns, carved into the rock face directly behind the castle, held enough water to meet the many needs of the castle, from kitchen sinks to horse troughs.
Keeping the plants from going thirsty was a complex system of underground aquifers designed and installed by the original masons and serviced every year under Rake’s watchful eye.
Surrounded on all sides by battlement walls, the Royal Gardens enjoyed wide bands of shadow at dawn and dusk. For the rest of the day, trees, clipped and tamed into living sculptures, afforded pockets of shade.
It was under one such tree, trimmed into a depiction of a running stag, that Princess Lavinia was playing Dragon at chess. In truth, only Lavinia was enjoying the shade. Dragon was out on the hot flagstones where Lavinia had chalked out the board. The chess pieces were an eclectic mix of statues, flowerpots, and Rake’s barrows.
‘Rook to Queen Four,’ said Lavinia, waving a finger at a square some distance from Dragon.
‘Really?’ Dragon turned and looked across the garden to the far end of the chess board. ‘All that way? In this heat?’
‘Which part of Royal Command, escapes you, Dragon?’
‘That depends. Which part of I’m not a Royal subject needs further explanation?’ Dragon picked up Lavina’s rook, a rather formidable red geranium in a stone pot, and set off up the board.
‘Quickly Dragon, it’s too hot to spend all day at this.’
‘Is that right? Oops!’ The pot slipped from his hands, shattering on the flagstones. ‘All fingers and thumbs! Well, claws and thumbs.’
‘Having fun, Dragon?’ Jane arrived up the steps at the far end of the gardens. Haroldus was beside her. The man had donned a wide brimmed sun hat and was carrying a leather satchel.
‘No, Jane,’ Dragon picked up the geranium, scooped a hole into the nearest flower bed and planted the flower, tapping the soil back around its roots. ‘Not a word to gardener boy, you know how he gets.’
‘Dragon’s losing,’ said Lavinia.
‘I am not!’
‘Which is why you dropped my rook. You always break things when you start to lose.’
‘Listen to Little Miss Sit-in-the-Shade,’ Dragon turned to glare at her, and his tail swept the board, knocking over half the pieces.’
‘Remarkable!’ said Haroldus.
‘No really,’ said Dragon, ‘Large, magnificent tail, small articulate child, dwindling set of options.’
‘I meant YOU are remarkable, Dragon, playing a complex game. And your sense of humor, all signs of a sophisticated intelligence.’
‘Please don’t encourage him,’ Jane stopped at the shattered pot and began gathering up the shards. Haroldus carried on to Lavinia, and sat down beside her in the shade of the tree.
‘Hello Princess, you have grown these past years.’
‘Little girls do that,’ said Lavinia, ‘they mostly turn into big girls.’
‘Unless they are bothersome,’ said Dragon, ‘and turn into sticks of charcoal!’
‘There he goes again,’ Haroldus leant in to Lavinia and lowered his voice. ‘I shall note this in my journal later. The dragon is very docile, much like a tame kitten.’
‘A word of warning,’ whispered Lavinia, ‘best to avoid words like tame, and kitten. He can be very sensitive.’
‘Another word of warning,’ said Dragon, ‘best avoid whispering, he has sensitive hearing too!’
‘Which is more than can be said for your tail,’ said Jane. She had collected the broken shards into a pile in the middle of one flagstone. ‘You can make amends by stamping these to dust before someone cuts a foot on them.’
‘Yes,’ Princess Lavinia turned to Haroldus. ‘And by ‘someone’ she means me. I have an unhealthy disregard for my safety and might dance barefoot across these gardens at any minute.’
‘Is that so?’
‘My mother blames Jane for setting such a challenging example.’
‘Quite right,’ said Dragon. ‘Very challenging.’
‘Dragon!’ Jane pointed to the shards of pottery. ‘Foot, now!’ She glared at him. Dragon glared back. Jane stood her ground and carried on pointing at the pile. Neither spoke. Finally Dragon relented, he let out a long-suffering sigh before stamping the pottery to dust. Haroldus watched the theatrics play out, and shook his head.
‘Extraordinary. Dragon, I must be honest, your mere existence astounds me. I heard all the stories when I was here last, but I will admit to dismissing them as simple politics.
‘How so?’ Jane came over and sat in the shade beside him.
‘Sir Theodore is a noted master of deception and tactics. It was common knowledge that your Kingdom of Kippernia could ill afford a full mesnie to protect the castle.’
‘What’s a messy knee?’ asked Lavinia.
‘Shortlives with pointy sticks,’ said Dragon, ‘like old Rusty Legs and Jane. Castle guards.’
‘Listen to you?’ Jane shook her head. ‘Just a few hours ago you had no idea what ‘discretion’ meant.’
‘Dragon is correct,’ said Haroldus. ‘I was speaking of guards, or the lack of them. Encouraging rumors of a dragon making this his home, well, that is classic Theodore. And so I dismissed them as such. Mere rumors.’
‘And yet here he is,’ said Jane.
‘Undeniably so.’ Haroldus reached into his leather satchel and pulled out parchments, quill, and inks. ‘I wonder, Dragon, would you permit me to draw your likeness for my journals?’
‘A drawing?’ Dragon, who had turned his back on Jane in silent rebuke, tuned back immediately. ‘Like a rune? Why hasn’t anyone suggested such a brilliant idea before.’
‘I can’t imagine,’ said Jane.
‘I can.’ Lavinia smiled up at Dragon. ‘It’s because no sheet of parchment exists that would be big enough for your head.’ She jumped up and clapped her hands. ‘Can I draw with you, Haroldus? I know how to mix inks and sharpen quills. Jester has tutored me.’
‘Of course, I would be delighted to have the company.’ Haroldus set his materials on the grass as Dragon experimented with his pose.
‘Like this I think, proud and aloof, yet somehow vulnerable. Jane, which is my best side? Right or left?’
‘Any side but your dark side will do nicely.’ Jane settled back in the shade to watch, then spotted Prince Cuthbert marching out of the Royal apartments and down the broad steps towards them. She got to her feet and dipped her head as he drew near.
‘Good morning, your Highness.’
‘Not good. Boring. An utterly boring morning. Nothing to do.’
‘You can sit and watch me draw,’ said Lavinia.
‘Oh joy. My day is complete.’ He sat down in the shade with the others. Jane sat too, and watched as Lavinia and Haroldus filled their quills and began to draw. A comfortable lethargy came over her. She had been up since before dawn, and the heat of the sun was like a warm, soothing bath. Perhaps it was safe to doze a while. She closed her eyes and let the conversation wash over her.
‘So, you’re the adventurer everyone is gabbing about?’ Prince Cuthbert had never been a diplomat. He was heir to the kingdom and spoke aloud whatever came drifting through his head. Jane had grown used to it, she even appreciated it. She always knew exactly where she stood with the young prince.
‘We are all adventurers, are we not?’ replied Haroldus. ‘There is a tale told around many a fire of your adventure, Pince Cuthbert. The fateful day when a dragon stole you from these very gardens.’
‘Stole?’ Dragon shook his head. ‘No, I borrowed him, with every intention of his safe return.’
‘You tied me to a rock in your cave!’ said Cuthbert.
‘I might have.’
‘With a score of ropes. I was trussed up like a chicken.’
‘You kept wriggling; I didn’t want you running off the cliff. Safety first young man. Very important.’
‘Keep still,’ Lavinia pointed a royal finger at Dragon. ‘I can’t draw you if you move about like that.’
‘We could truss him up with ropes, little sister.’ Prince Cuthbert was poking through the contents of their guest’s satchel. Suddenly he stopped. ‘What is THIS?’ He had unfolded a square of parchment and was staring at four butterflies, their bodies pinned there for display.
‘Those are specimens. I collected them on a recent trip, rather beautiful are they not?’
‘Beautiful!’ the prince dropped the display and stood up, his fists clenched, his face and neck turning purple with rage. ‘You pin the corpses of these poor wretched creatures to a sheet of parchment and call it BEAUTIFUL?’
‘Look at the patterns and coloration on the wings,’ said Haroldus, his voice gentle and patient, a teacher speaking to a pupil. ‘Each is unique, even within the same species. The variety of life in this world is beyond measure.’
‘What is beyond measure is your behavior!’ The prince stomped away. ‘I will not stay in the company of a butterfly killer!’
‘Oh dear, I fear I have upset the lad.’
‘Pay him no mind,’ said Lavinia, ‘my brother chooses to be upset by almost everything. Now, what do you think of your portrait Dragon?’ She held up her drawing for everyone to see. Dragon came over.
‘I look like that?’
‘Exactly like that, yes.’
‘Lots of squiggly black worms fighting each other?’
‘I think it’s rather splendid,’ said Haroldus. ‘May I keep it?’
‘Maybe,’ Lavinia jumped to her feet, ‘I have to show it to Jester first. He keeps all my pictures round his walls.’ She paused and wagged a finger at Dragon. ‘Jester has taste, you see.’
She raced off, sweeping past Pepper who was heading their way with a tray of refreshments.
‘Apple juice and pastries,’ she said, and set the tray down in the shade beside them.
‘Delicious, thank you,’ Haroldus smiled up at Pepper. ‘I remember you from my last visit, you had affections for the young gardener here, did you not?’
‘She still does,’ Jane sat up and eyed the pastries. She wanted to take one, but waited for their guest to help himself. He didn’t, instead Haroldus reached into his satchel and pulled out a coconut.
‘This is for you.’ Haroldus held the coconut out to Pepper. ‘Have you seen one before?’
‘No, what is it?’
‘That, young lady, is for you to find out?’ Haroldus picked up his quill and resumed drawing. Jane defied etiquette and helped herself to a pastry. Propping herself on one elbow she reached for the parchment with its pinned butterflies. Scholarship was to be encouraged. It was a phrase Jester used all the time, yet looking at the dried specimens she felt some sympathy for Prince Cuthbert’s reaction. Did the quest for knowledge come with a price? For these butterflies, the answer was certainly, yes.
Sir Theodore took a deep breath, and closed the ledger on his desk. Prince Cuthbert had been pacing in front of him, venting his anger at their guest. The old knight sat back, drummed his fingertips together and wondered how best to appease the young man.
‘As I see it, your Highness, you were going through his things without his leave, is that correct?’
‘I don’t require anyone’s leave, Captain. This is my castle, and I will rummage through the bags of any who step over the drawbridge.’ The boy was still red with fury. He sat down on a stool beside the desk, kicked his heels a moment, then jumped back up and continued pacing. ‘And thank goodness I did search his bag. We would never have known the man was a killer.’
‘As am I.’
‘In service to your King, yes. That is to be applauded. But in service to science!?’
‘Is there a difference?’
‘Don’t vex me, Sir Theodore. You kill the enemies of my father. You kill villains, not innocent bugs whose only crime is to have pretty wings. I don’t like him. I want him gone.’
‘Very well, I will see he leaves first thing tomorrow.’
‘Today, Captain. I want him out of this castle today. He is not to be trusted.’
‘As you wish. I shall host in in the tavern outside these castle walls. Will that suffice?’
‘Yes, perfectly,’ the prince turned and made to leave. Then spun back around. ‘Were you planning to host him there anyway?’
‘And he is leaving on tomorrow’s tide?’
‘So you have conceded nothing. How is it you always manage to outmaneuver me like this?’
‘Then I want to be old, and quickly.’ The prince stuck out his chin and marched from the room. Sir Theodore sat back in his chair and flexed his fingers, rubbing each swollen joint to ease the stiffness that grew with each passing day.
‘I don’t recommend it young man,’ he said to the empty room.
The afternoon dragged on, as if anchored in place by the weight of the sun’s heat. Princess Lavinia had returned from showing her picture to Jester, and had spent the next hour dancing about in the fountain that stood at the center of the Royal Gardens. Her squeals of delight brought the queen, who scolded Jane for allowing it.
‘This is not acceptable, Jane, and you know it.’
‘She tried to stop me,’ Lavinia stood on the fountain’s rim, spread her arms, and leapt at her mother, ‘Catch me.’ Queen Gwendalin gave a shriek of alarm, did her best to comply, failed, and tumbled back on the grass, her daughter sprawling on top of her.
Jane rushed to offer her hand, but the queen waved her away.
‘No! We shall speak of this later.’ She got to her feet, took her daughter by the hand, and set off across the gardens. Jane sighed and looked across to where Haroldus and Dragon were deep in conversation in the shade of the west wall. There would be no support from them. Not that she wanted, or expected it.
Queen Gwendaline’s displeasure at Jane’s position in castle had been growing in step with Lavinia’s open admiration for her. The young princess had set her mind on becoming a warrior like Jane. That’s how the girl had phrased it – a warrior. At first, she had talked of becoming a knight until the King had explained how it would be unfitting for one of the royal family to be in service to the royal family.
For a while, Lavinia appeared to have conceded the point. Then she had heard the balled of the Warrior King, a man who had led his castle guard into every skirmish. That had settled the matter, Lavinia would be a Warrior Princess, and in time, a Warrior Queen. She had started writing long and bloody ballads about herself, stories of great feats yet to come.
Jane took herself up to roof of her turret room, settled in the shade of the stone battlement and allowed herself to drift off to sleep.
The sun was low in the sky when she woke, the shadows of her battlements reaching the full width of her turret roof. She stretched, and made her way to the stables where she stripped to her vest and leggings and climbed into a horse trough. The water had been sitting there all day and was too warm to be refreshing, but she ducked her head and scrubbed her hair with lavender paste.
For years, Jane had tamed her hair in the manner instructed by her mother. Most of the women of the court used bacon fat to ease the passage of the comb. But Queen Gwendalin used an oil extracted from lavender, a task she had given to Rake. For his part, Rake made sure he produced enough for Pepper, who, in turn, passed some on to Jane.
Jester, the most widely read of all the staff, had urged Rake to mix the ash of burnt oak with the lavender oil, and the resulting paste had been a revelation. Scrubbed through Jane’s hair, it released all the grime of the day in a single wash, leaving it lustrous and easy to comb. The added benefit was the absence of lice, which bacon fat seemed to encourage.
‘So, what is it?’ Jane was sitting with her friends around their table in Rake’s garden. Her hair was brushed and dry and she was wearing the bright tunic and leggings Jester had made for her months ago when Jane had refused to accompany him to a dance in the town square. Her excuse had been her clothes. She hated to wear a dress, and her patrol clothes would have been out of place. Jester had spent the whole day making her this outfit and, with great reluctance, Jane had tried it on.
The clothes were a perfect fit, and a delight. They were bright, but had enough leather details to make Jane feel disposed towards wearing them. She had gone to the town dance and had enjoyed the evening. She had managed to favor Smithy, Jester, and Gunther with the same number of dances, two a piece, while spending most of the evening watching Rake and Pepper dance their feet off together, their eyes fastened on each other.
‘I have no idea,’ said Smithy. He picked up the coconut and turned it around in his hands. ‘Looks a good deal like a hairy rock to me.’
‘I think it’s a seedpod,’ said Rake, ‘or the stone of a large fruit.’
‘A very large fruit,’ said Pepper, ‘we should plant it. I hope it’s from a giant plum, the fruit would be as big as my head.’
‘I know what it is,’ said Jester. ‘It is a device to discover just how ignorant we are.’ He pointed across the garden. Haroldus and Dragon had been deep in conversation for the last hour. ‘What does that man want? Why is he really here?’
‘This morning you were singing his praises,’ said Jane. ‘I thought he impressed you?’
‘He does,’ Jester paused, ‘and you too, Jane. You like him.’
‘He’s an adventurer, he’s courteous. He tells wonderful stories. So of course I like him.’ She studied Jester’s face and grinned. ‘You think I’m enamored of him.’
‘Him?’ Jester did his best to look irritated. ‘The man is three times your age? No Jane, that is not my concern.’
‘Good, after all, I love Dragon and he’s fifty times my age at least!’
‘And I love pig,’ said Smithy, and she’s two years my senior.’
‘Best we don’t go there,’ said Jester. The door from the kitchens opened behind them, and Prince Cuthbert came striding out.
‘Maid! Kitchen Maid!’ he spotted Pepper and put his hands on his hips, waiting for everyone to rise. They did, Smithy more slowly than the others, unfolding his bulk in a long, languid motion, a performance that gently intimidated the prince, who took a step backwards.
‘I shall take supper in my room tonight,’ said the prince. ‘No meat, just cream and fruit. What pies do you have?’
‘I have apple pie, your majesty.’
‘Apple again. It’s been apples for weeks!’
‘They are in season. I do my best with the provisions available. I could glaze the pastry with honey, perhaps?’
‘That will have to do,’ sighed Cuthbert. Then he caught sight of Haroldus on the far side of the yard talking to Dragon. ‘What is that butterfly killer doing?’
‘What all men of learning do.’ Said Jane. ‘He’s asking questions.’
‘Well I have a question for him. What did that poor butterfly ever do to him? Ask him that. And why is he still in the castle grounds? He was to be billeted in the tavern.’
‘Yes, your Highness,’ Jane dipped her head. ‘Sir Theodore has charged me to escort him there at sundown.’
‘Be sure you do, Jane. And why is he taking such an interest in your dragon? Will he pin him to a sheet of parchment do you suppose?’ The prince stopped as he noticed the coconut sitting in the middle of the table. ‘What is THAT?’
‘That is a conundrum,’ said Jester.
‘A what drum?’
‘It’s a present,’ said Pepper, ‘Haroldus gave it to me today.’
‘Is that so? Then the butterfly killer is also an outrageous flirt. It will come to no good. No good!’ The prince glared round at everyone, then stomped away, grumbling to himself.’
‘Flirting?’ said Rake. ‘With you?’
‘Of course not!’ Pepper picked up her coconut and set off for the kitchen. Then she stopped and grinned over her shoulder. ‘Perhaps he was, just a little. What do you think, Jane?’
‘No,’ said Jane, glancing up at Rake who looked suddenly lost and confused. ‘Absolutely not.’