Senara poked at her dinner, wondering how much longer until she might excuse herself from the table. She’d been looking forward to a light dinner in her own rooms tonight, but a cold snap this morning caused the cancellation of her father’s scheduled hunting trip. That meant that not only did Senara not get the day to herself that she’d anticipated, the entire palace had to spend the whole day placating a grumpy king. King Massen Poe of Sunpeak did not care for his plans to be thrown off track for reasons he considered worthy. Complaining nobles who couldn’t handle “a bit of a bite to the air” didn’t even begin to qualify as a worthy reason. He’d not gone out of his way to hide that fact, either.
It had been a long day.
The king insisted his wife and children join him each evening for dinner when he was in the palace. With so many members of his court in residence because of the failed hunting trip, Queen Jenifry insisted they be invited to dine with the royal family as well. The argument brought on by this had the already jumpy palace staff tiptoeing around in fear of their lives as they served a hastily assembled feast to Massen’s family and followers. It was to the kitchen staff’s credit that the feast was delicious, given their short notice, but no one there was really in the mood to enjoy it. Senara’s leg ached terribly from the chill weather, a souvenir of a childhood break. All she wanted to do was slip away to the archives and curl up in front of a fire with a thick tome about the birds that inhabited the Dusk Isles. Instead, she was forced to make small talk with Duchess Renata’s daughter, whose name Senara could never seem to remember.
“This weather is such a shame,” the girl sighed for at least the tenth time since they’d been seated. “I’d so hoped to take a tour of the lake. Mother absolutely forbids me to go anywhere near it in these temperatures.”
“A shame, indeed,” Senara agreed, arranging her face in as affable a smile as she could manage. Her dining companion seemed inclined to go on at length about the lake and its many wonders, but she was mercifully cut off mid-sentence by the arrival of a frantic messenger slamming open the door despite the guards’ protests and rushing to the head of the table.
“Oh my,” Senara’s companion breathed, turning wide eyes on Senara. “Your father won’t be pleased by this, will he?”
No, he likely won’t, but at least it’s a distraction from this unceasing meal. Senara bit her tongue and made a noncommittal sound, turning her attention to the messenger as he reached her father.
“Forgive me, your Majesties,” the messenger sketched a bow to Senara’s parents, almost falling over in the process. The king frowned and reached out a hand to steady him. Probably, Senara considered, to save his dinner from becoming the messenger’s landing place.
“I trust this is worth interrupting the court’s dinner?” Massen said, the question conveying threat as well as a request for information.
“It is, your Majesty, and that’s the goddess’s own truth.” He straightened and drew in a deep breath. “A dragon has been sighted flying over the city.”
The room fell silent at this proclamation. Even Senara stared at the messenger, waiting for him to elaborate.
“Where?” Her father recovered himself and stood, glancing around the room as he tried to decide who could be trusted to aid him in this crisis. “We’ll need to rouse the Guard and man the defenses. What is it, man? Is there more?”
The messenger shook his head and held up a hand, as if to stall the king’s orders. “The beast only passed over the northern border, your Majesty, headed toward the foothills, but there’s no need to mount a defense.”
“Whyever not?” Massen growled. “Even if it’s disappeared into the forest, there’s nothing to say it won’t be back. We must be ready.”
“Of course, your Majesty, except that the dragon has already been shot down. It’s no longer a threat.”
At this, the dining hall erupted in a cacophony of reaction. One or two lords stood and whooped, the momentary foe vanquished. Still more grumbled in disappointment that they would be unable to slay the beast themselves. Senara even believed one or two of those complaints to be genuine. The duchess, having fainted dead away at the first mention of the dragon, roused just in time to hear it was slain and was overcome with tears of relief. Her daughter, on the other hand, broke out in a bout of hiccuping giggles that, Senara couldn’t help but think, were most unbecoming, no matter what news might have caused the reaction.
Senara herself felt a wave of unabated grief wash through her. She looked down at her lap and gripped her napkin to avoid letting her feelings be seen. They would also be considered quite unbecoming. Perhaps she judged the duchess’ daughter too harshly, but at least she had the decency to hide her reaction. Maybe the duchess wasn’t so strict a teacher of decorum as the queen.
She was beyond grateful when her father declared dinner over and swept out of the room with the messenger, her brother Enyon trailing them. She made to slip out in their wake and at last sneak off to the archives, but stopped short when some of the conversation ahead of her broke through her thoughts.
“The lass is sure she brought the beast down?”
“Yes, Majesty, but I’ve got her settled in a parlor so you may interview her.”
“Very good.” Massen nodded his approval, clapping the messenger on the shoulder. “She can tell us where to find the remains. Assuming her story is genuine. You believe her credible?” He resumed walking, picking up the pace as the messenger led him to the huntress. Senara found herself following them, far enough away to avoid notice, but close enough to continue listening.
“Oh yes,” the messenger assured Massen. “She’s got a reputation for taking down big game, and the dragon sighting was confirmed by several other people.” They stopped outside a door a floor below the dining hall. “In here, Majesty.”
“Thank you. I’m sure you’re tired, lad, but if you would, please assemble the Guard Captain, the head Alchemist, and Duke Fernan in my study. They’ll be the most useful.”
Massen grinned. “Oh yes. Once I’ve ensured this huntress is on the level, we’ll choose a team and make our plans to retrieve the beast first thing tomorrow. That dragon’s body is worth twice its weight in gold, if not more. Teeth and bones and scales! Just imagine the advantage that gives Sunpeak!” Massen laughed in delight. “Now, go fetch them. Then you can get yourself some supper in the kitchens. You’ve done well, lad. If this shakes out, I won’t forget your part in it.”
The messenger beamed. “Right away, Majesty. Thank you, Majesty!” He bowed and darted off down the corridor to round up Massen’s requested helpers. Senara slipped back into a recessed statuary nook as he passed, her eyes on the parlor door.
I have to get in there. I have to hear where the dragon is. If anyone had asked her why she needed that information, she couldn’t have answered them in that moment. All she knew was that the idea of carving up that poor dead dragon into parts for the Alchemist’s experiments, or to sell to other alchemists or who-knew-who else made her sick to her stomach. She needed to find out everything she could about that poor dragon.
The parlor door swung shut and Senara drummed her fingers on her thigh, thinking hard. Inspiration struck and she glanced up and down to make sure the corridor was clear, then darted through a door a little further down. It was another parlor, and once inside, Senara made her way to the stained glass doors on the far wall. She opened one with extreme care and slipped outside onto the balcony, then crept along to the next set of doors, thankful for the darkness that hid her figure as she approached them.
She shivered in the cool night air, the ache in her leg intensified, making her wish for a shawl or cloak. Wishing won’t help you right now, she chided herself, reaching for the brass handle. Moving as slow as the sunrise, she pulled the handle down, careful not to make a sound. She pushed the door open just a crack, enough to let voices through, and crouched down to listen.
“…haven’t told anyone else about this?”
“No, your Majesty. Just the city guard and your messenger, Kenny. I went to the guard station to let them know the dragon wasn’t a problem anymore, since I was sure there’d be panic with it flying so close to the city. They were just getting ready to notify you, so Kenny brought me along to report in person.”
“Very good, very good. We should be safe to leave it until the morning, then.”
“I should say, so, your Majesty,” the huntress agreed. “The thing left quite a trail when it fell, but at night in the forest, even I wouldn’t risk trying to find it. Too easy to break a leg in the furrow it left, and it’s no good taking the thing apart without proper light.”
“I hope it wasn’t too torn up by the landing,” Massen mused. This was followed by a thumping sound that Senara thought might be her father tapping the table. Maybe the location where the dragon fell? She had to get in there to see the map!
Her brother snorted. “I’d be more worried about the forest’s denizens beating us to our prize,” Enyon said.
“I wouldn’t worry too much about that your Highness,” the huntress assured him. “Or about damage from the landing, Majesty. The dragon did more harm to the land than the land did to it, I’d wager. Their hides are tougher than anything dirt or rocks or even trees can throw at them. I only brought it down with a lucky shot. Very lucky. It plowed through a good kilometer of the forest, if I’m any judge, tore it right up like a plow horse tilling a field. Looked like it landed half a kilometer west of the river bend, like I said. I doubt there’s a bear or wolf goes anywhere near that area tonight. They know better than to bother even a dead dragon. Birds won’t pick at it, either. They’ve got a respect for the beasts baked into their blood. Your only real concern is that someone who saw it flying gets brave and tries to take it on, then finds its trail before you can get out there.”
“Well, with you to guide us, we’re sure to beat any foolish adventurers,” Massen said, sounding amused. “We’ll leave at first light. Enyon, see to it that Huntress Ora is shown to comfortable quarters for the evening, then join me in my study. We’ve plans to make.”
Senara heard sounds of movement, then the door opposite her position opened and closed. She waited ten heartbeats and then slipped into the now-empty room. She looked around with hopeful eyes before cursing. If there had been a map, her father had taken it with him. She sighed and leaned against a wall, considering her options. “They said the dragon fell west of the river bend,” she mused aloud, tapping a finger against her lips. They’d also said the creature left a wide trail in its wake, and that the wild animals of the forest were likely to steer clear of the area for the evening. Surely if she took a torch, she could find the trail and follow it to the dragon…but what to do then? She looked around the room again, her gaze falling on the fire burning in the grate.
“Of course!” Her eyes widened and she grinned, pleased with herself. Dragons might be tough, but they were susceptible to fire, from all of the histories she’d read. A beast as majestic as a dragon deserved nothing less than a funeral pyre lit by a princess. If she could manage it, by the time her father reached the creature tomorrow, anything of value would be long-since burnt to ash. “Perfect,” she whispered, slipping out of the parlor and heading to her rooms. She’d need to change her clothes and gather supplies.
I think there’s a codex in the archives that will tell me the best place to light the flames so it burns. Set on her mission, moving with purpose, Senara failed to notice the shape that slipped through the shadows behind her.