Despite Father’s foul mood, or maybe because of it, Mother insisted on hosting a salon after lunch. Senara was expected to be there, front and center, leading the conversation. Her mother sniffed in disappointment when she turned up in her rather plain gown with her hair in a sloppy braid wrapped loosely around her head. “Forgive me,” she murmured as she curtsied, “I was not feeling well this morning and asked the maids to leave me be.”
“None of us will be feeling well if we don’t manage to get everyone’s spirits up,” the queen snapped. “While your father broods, it falls to us to entertain his guests. We can’t have them complaining, that will only worsen the situation. I haven’t seen his hopes dashed quite so spectacularly since…well. You know.” She waved a hand in dismissal and fixed a welcoming smile on her face as the first of the guests arrived. Senara pushed down a sigh and moved to take the seat beside her mother, mirroring her expression.
She did know what her mother meant. No one really seemed willing to let her forget that she’d committed the unmistakable sin of being born a girl, rather than the second son her father expected. Daughters were, in his mind, meant to be third or fourth children. Far enough down in the line of succession to be pampered and cherished, rather than required to learn the ins and outs of running the kingdom. Perhaps, if necessary, they could be married off to secure an alliance with a foreign power. But as second-born, Senara had duties, and her father had never let her forget how much this irritated him. Her mother was just as disappointed in Senara–not because she hadn’t wanted a daughter, but because Senara’s duties meant she had less time for the training the queen felt proper for a princess. She’d spent her entire life being pulled in two directions by the weight of her parents’ expectations, and as a result she could never quite shake the feeling that she was inadequate in both their eyes.
“Welcome, everyone, welcome!” Her mother said, calling for attention once everyone was gathered. Senara bit the inside of her cheek and forced herself to focus on the salon. She couldn’t afford to draw her mother’s ire right now. That would only result in the queen keeping her close to ensure she was behaving properly. Senara needed to hold on to what little freedom she possessed if she was to keep the egg safe and hidden. “I know it’s been a disappointing few days of canceled plans and failed adventures,” her mother was saying, her merry tone betraying no evidence of said disappointment, “but I’m sure we can find amusing ways to keep ourselves until this weather clears up.”
Senara risked a glance out the window, eyes tracing several fat raindrops as they fell past. In the distance, thunder rumbled. It looked like there would be no more hunting parties on this visit. Please, goddess, let the storm pass quickly so everyone can leave.
“We could have a ball!” Duchess Renata suggested, her eyes aglow at the thought. “That’s sure to keep us warm!” This was greeted by titters and giggles.
“We could put on a play,” someone else suggested, “or a musical recital.”
“Splendid ideas, all!” The queen beamed at everyone. Senara was too well-trained to roll her eyes but she had a hard time keeping the smile on her face. Father hated plays and recitals, and balls bored him. None of those were likely to improve his mood. Then again, she supposed if it kept the court occupied and out of his hair, he might not mind so much.
The group began discussing the options and Senara let her attention drift. Keeping the egg cool and dry would stop it from hatching, as far as she could tell. She could contrive a way sneak into the vault and stash it in a cabinet where it would be safe from discovery. One of the tower storage rooms would also suffice. But the idea of just leaving the egg in-between like that did not sit well with her. Dragons laid their eggs so rarely, and from everything she’d read that morning, it was only very rarely that they didn’t try to hatch them right away. A living creature had fallen into her care and to keep it from becoming felt wrong to Senara. Not to mention that encouraging it to hatch would mean that once it had, it could fly away to safety on its own. Her father and the others might call them beasts, but every observed behavior of dragons led Senara to believe they were thinking, reasoning beings. She felt like she owed it to the dragon in the egg to give it a chance to live.
If she had more resources at her disposal, she could arrange to send the egg south, she supposed. Get it safely out of the palace and away from Sunpeak, where it stood a chance of finding its own kind once it hatched. But she didn’t want to risk involving anyone else in such a momentous secret, and she didn’t know Eryl well enough to trust him to abandon his duties and sacrifice his position for such a quest. This was a decision that needed to be made soon. Wes mentioning grandmother’s solarium was a stroke of luck. With a little work, it would be the perfect environment to hatch a dragon egg. Then it would just be a matter of letting it fly off to its own fate. No one went in the solarium, but if she was caught there, she had little worry she’d be in trouble for intruding. Not with the twin excuses of remembering her grandmother and wanting a comfortable refuge from the cold to ease her aching leg.
“It’s settled, then!” Queen Jenifry exclaimed, calling Senara’s attention back to the salon. “We’ll hold a musical recital in the great hall tomorrow evening. Once you’ve decided what you will be singing or playing, inform the chamberlain and she’ll prepare the program. I am sure you will make the most of your time in between now and then to practice so that you may give your best showing for all of us! We shall let the king select a reward for his favorite performance.”
Senara had to give her mother credit where it was due–she’d just managed to give every guest at court something to keep them occupied and out of the way for the next day and a half. The chance to impress the king with their talents would ensure dedication to rehearsals, and the promise of a reward meant each would stick to themselves or their group to prevent their act being found out and upstaged.
“Princess Senara, will you be gracing us with a melody on your flute?” Duchess Renata simpered, looking as if nothing would delight her more.
Senara didn’t need her mother’s hint of a nod to know the correct answer. The flute was the only activity forced upon her by her mother with which neither of them had any complaints. “I will do my best,” she said, keeping her voice light and humble, “although I am certain my small talent will be the least of the evening’s entertainments.”
“If I might be so bold as to suggest,” the duchess leaned forward, eyes shining with eagerness, “vocal accompaniment might be just the thing to elevate your performance. Perhaps a collaboration with my daughter–“
“Oh, Mother, I cannot!” Renata’s daughter clapped a hand over her mouth, flushing in embarrassment. At her mother’s shocked expression she lowered her hand and explained, “I’ve already promised Lord Thymewood that I would sing a duet with him.” She shot a worried glance at Senara. “Forgive me, your Highness, I did not expect…” The lord in question looked just as worried, no doubt due to the scrutiny he was now receiving from the duchess.
“No forgiveness is required,” Senara said, smiling her encouragement at both of them. “I do not mind playing solo, and a duet sounds like just the thing. I look forward to hearing you sing together.” At least the first half of that was true. The idea of spending the next day and a half practicing with a partner would have been unpleasant in normal circumstances. But solo practice bought her time to sneak off to the solarium unquestioned for her own project.
The queen looked annoyed at the duchess’ presumption but did not say anything further on the subject of collaboration, instead allowing a shift in the topic of conversation to the king’s favorite songs. Senara once again let her attention wane, already knowing exactly the piece she would play.
Her afternoon archery lesson was canceled due to the rain, and her dance lesson postponed in favor of preparation for the recital. Senara took advantage of the free time to return to the archives. Wes was not there, but he had left the texts in which she’d been most interested stacked in front of the sofa with a note. “In case you wish to revisit these, your Highness.” She wished him silent thanks and settled in to read through the information one more time, just to ensure she had all of it remembered correctly. After that, she retreated to her rooms to practice her flute piece, taking comfort in the trills and whistles that so reminded her of birdsong.
It was all just a big distraction from what she really wished to do, which was to go at once to the solarium and check its suitability for the egg. She could have gone there from the archive, but some cautious part of herself believed it would be best to wait until Eryl was once more on duty as her guard. Just because it wouldn’t be too strange for her to visit the solarium, it was out of the ordinary enough that she didn’t wish to invite comment upon it, either.
To prevent any chance of the egg’s discovery, she laid out her own gown for dinner, choosing her father’s favorite colors–the sky blue of the family Legacy trimmed in black velvet. She was in the occasional habit of choosing her attire ahead of time, so it raised no eyebrows as the maids helped her dress. She picked at her dinner and tried to follow the flow of the conversation, such as it was. Most of the talk was overshadowed by the king’s loud disagreements with Duke Fernan over what could have caused the dragon to burst into flame during the night. It sounded like the Alchemist had suggested there must be some substance within the dragon that caused the inferno upon impact. Her father and the duke were of two minds as to whether he was correct, but neither one of them let slip anything to suggest they believed a person had been responsible for the dragon’s destruction. It was with great satisfaction that Senara listened to the duke lament that not a single scale had been retrieved, despite a thorough search of the area.
As dinner wrapped up, Senara realized she had no idea when the day shift for her guard ended and the night shift began. She would have assumed it to be before dinner, but the taciturn woman who had followed her all day was still there when she went down to the dining hall. She was rather surprised when she stood after dinner and turned to find Eryl stationed behind her chair. So surprised, in fact, that she almost forgot herself and spoke to him. He must have seen her intent, however, because his eyes widened in clear alarm, bringing her back to her senses. She smoothed her features and swept past him, following the other ladies of court to her mother’s parlor for tea and a poetry reading, bemused at her heightened awareness of him as Eryl slipped behind the group to follow her.
The poetry reading was tedious, but thankfully did not last long. Everyone seemed eager to return to rehearsals for the recital, and after only an hour of stilted verse, Senara was able to make her way back to her rooms, trailed by her silent guard. “Hurry,” she hissed, grabbing his hand to pull him through the door, “before anyone sees.”
“Your Highness,” he began in protest as soon as the door was closed.
“I’ve found a place to move the egg,” she cut him off. “The sooner we get it there, the better.”
His brow furrowed, and he picked his words with care. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to wait until fewer people are about?”
“Everyone’s distracted right now,” she countered, “and the servants are all busy seeing to them downstairs. Now is the best time to move it without being seen.”
She thought he would object again, but instead he nodded and met her eyes. “All right. Where are we going?”
“My grandmother’s solarium,” she answered, making her way to the wardrobe. “Here, help me get it out.”
“Isn’t that in the wing that’s off-limits?” Eryl gestured for her to step aside and wrestled the egg from its hiding spot.
Senara straightened her clothes and shut the wardrobe. “It’s off-limits to servants, yes, but not the whole wing, just my grandmother’s rooms. The family is allowed, we just….don’t go. It’s a little complicated. But that’s what makes it the perfect spot for the egg. Well. One of the reasons.” She snatched up her satchel from the night before, being careful not to jostle its contents, then led Eryl to the door and opened it a crack, peering down the corridor to make sure it was empty. “Come on.”
“I’ve got the egg, your Highness,” he said when she tried to help him take some of the weight. “You know where we’re going, lead the way.”
They reached the abandoned corridor that led to her grandmother’s old rooms and Eryl looked around, taking in the cloth-draped paintings and dusty surfaces. Senara moved the rope that blocked it off, gesturing Eryl through before replacing it. “At least this hall is carpeted,” she said. “No one will notice dusty footprints.” She started for the end of the corridor where the solarium was, digging in her bag and producing the components for another alchemical lamp. There were no lanterns lit in the corridor. “In here,” she said, reaching to open the solarium door. Even in the dim light, a flood of memories washed over her as she stepped inside, along with the heady scent of plants allowed to grow unruly. She felt a sense of rightness settle upon her. Yes. This was exactly where she was meant to bring the egg. “Set it down over here by the wall, and we’ll figure out where to put–Eryl? Are you all right?”
Eryl had stopped not far into the circular room. His face was alight with joy and his eyes shone as he looked toward her. “What is this place?”
“I told you,” she answered, unable to suppress a smile at his clear delight, “my grandmother’s solarium. It was like a hothouse and a parlor combined. It will stay warm in here, and if we revive the plants, it will be balmy as well. The perfect conditions for the egg.”
He shot her a puzzled look. “That’s nothing like the conditions where we found the egg, your Highness.”
“I know,” she answered. “I think its mother was just trying to keep it safe until she could get it somewhere else.”
“That’s not what we’re doing?”
“No.” Senara drew a deep breath and forced herself to meet his eyes. “We’re going to hatch it.”