The trio – king, queen, and princess – gasped in shock. Elred the Green was one of the oldest and best known of the dragoneers, one of almost faultless virtue and, despite having a temper fit for a volcano, a legend among the kingdoms. His old age never seemed to bother him, leading campaign after campaign against the western tribes.
“How old was he?” the king asked.
“He was seventy-three,” Edward said. “He passed away peacefully in his sleep this morning.”
“May the Maker guide him to his rewards,” the queen said.
Helen wondered about the dragon. According to Sage, if ever the bond between a dragon and rider breaks, either due to natural causes or to one of the taboos, the dragon will have to find another rider. She took a deep breath. “If I may hazard to ask what will happen to Irgon?”
“He is currently in my Province,” Mariel said. “My father is taking care of him. According to the grooms there, he is currently in shock over the loss.”
“I am not surprised,” the queen said. “They were together for almost fifty years.”
“Indeed,” the king said. He turned to Helen. “I fear we have to put your birthday on hold. No doubt the Festival of Names will have to happen now that Elred has passed on.”
Helen sighed again, this time with a bit more relief. The Festival of Names usually happened either a week after a dragon has been weaned from the Academy or a bond between dragoneer and mount has been severed. “I must let my sisters know this.” She stepped back from the group and curtsied, a mere dip of the skirts. “If you excuse me, parents, brother, Lady Mariel.” She turned and left.
It was not that she wanted the birthday, Helen thought to herself as she walked through the halls, but the fact that the pomp and the splendor would be more than she wanted. She always thought that her nineteenth birthday would be filled with celebration, with a masked dance and plenty of grandeur. But now, she did not anything.
She arrived at the gracefully carved and gilt double doors of Clarissa’s chambers and knocked.
The left door opened, and Rubella peered out. “Oh, what is the matter, Helen? You look very dreary.”
“Elred the Green has passed away.”
Rubella’s eyes went wide. “And the Festival?”
“Next week, judging from the look of things.”
“And that will probably interfere with your festivities.” She pouted a bit. “Ah well. I will let Clare know.” She reached out to gently pat Helen’s shoulders. “I am sure that we can do something else. Perhaps we can have a small dinner or something.”
Helen smiled wanly. “We’ll think of something.” She walked off without waiting for a reply.
She wandered the halls lost in thought, full of stories she heard of the dragoneer through the travelling bards. She closed her eyes a bit, dreaming how she could be a dragoneer, flying the skies and battling the western creatures.
She opened her eyes to find herself back in the mudroom. Apparently, her steps lead her to the dragon stables.
One of the grooms bowed respectively to her as he lobbed pieces of meat to Edward’s dragon. It was a solid emerald green. Its serpentine, short body looked oddly out of place with turtle-like shell on its back. Six elongated limbs with four splayed digits on each foot was covered in white bone. It has huge wings running from its shoulders to the middle of its tail. A row of long, tailing tendrils ran from the base of its skull, down its back, to the tip of its tail, giving it a look of a garden plot. The dragon gazed at Helen with brilliant green eyes and opened its mouth, showing off two small fangs dripping with clear fluid.
“Don’t worry about that,” the groom said in an effort to calm Helen down. “Silvi is just saying hello.”
It was a beautiful beast, and Helen said as such.
The groom patted a front foot, causing the dragon to hiss loudly, like air escaping a boiling kettle. “This is a Frilled Poisonhorn,” he said.
“This is a poisonhorn?” Helen said, awed. She took a step back to prevent herself from giving another dragon a snug, and with good reason. “I heard that even their scales are lethal.”
“Indeed, majesty,” a voice said behind her.
Helen turned around to find a short lady of a voluptuous build, every feature covered by her silver silk gown full and lush. She reminded Helen of a menacing tornado, with her slitted, jet black eyes and her thick, wavy, hip-length hair. It was as if she could attack at any moment in a fury.
“Oh,” Helen said flatly. “It is you.”
The lady raised a primly plucked eyebrow. “I will not have you with any kind of misbehaving, princess.”
“I rather not have you see me misbehaving.”
The other eyebrow raised. “Still not giving me any titles, I see.”
“I see nothing worth titling,” Helen said icily. “Though if you want names, I am sure I can give you several.”
The lady’s eyes narrowed further. “That is no way to talk to your future in-law, princess.”
“My betrothed told me that you have no right to call yourself such,” Helen said. “In fact, he even went so far to say that you have no need to call yourself such.”
“Now,” she continued over the woman’s outraged sputters. “Please inform me why you are here without any supervision? I am sure even your king would not leave you without care.”
The lady’s hands clenched into fists, and instead of explaining, she turned around and stomped off.
“Now that was a fine show, majesty,” the groom said.
Helen flushed crimson; she forgotten that there were witnesses. She turned around to find the groom scratching the dragon with a long, heavily bristled broom. “If you speak one word of this—”
“Nah, I won’t do that to you, majesty,” he said as he navigated through a tough patch of bone on the dragon’s neck. “We all don’t like her. Probably as much as you do, I reckon. Ah, there we go,” he added as a thick piece of hoary cartilage fell from the dragon’s back and landed on the floor.
Helen eyed the pale mass. “Should I pick it up?”
“Better not, miss. No idea what can happen. But if you can ask your teachers, I’m sure she’ll think of something.”
Helen nodded and started to walk out of the mudroom and back into the hall.
How dare she, she thought to herself as she angrily walked down. She has no right to come down here and to imply anything. Just because she claims she is royalty, she is a noblewoman, when all she really is a politically non-entity of a poor relation with nothing to prove her right! She fumed all the way to Murice’s tower.
The tower, unlike Sage’s, was large, tall, and somewhat archaic in design, with the grey-bricked walls and mortar painted in swirls of red and orange and yellow. Gothic windows let in the cloudy light. The wide doors were steel plated, riveted and enameled in black.
Helen pushed one open to see her teacher talking to a cloaked figure near the fireplace. The two turned to her, and she hastily swallowed her anger. “My apologies, teacher,” she said testily, giving a cursory dip of her skirts. Maybe she still had some anger in her. “I should have knocked.”
“So this is the Princess-Betrothed, Murice?” the hooded figure said, the voice rolling tones used to giving orders. “I expected a half-staved tramp with a witless soul and a fidgety mind.” The figure moved with a quickness that belied its largeness and grasped Helen’s chin with a grizzled hand.
“How dare you touch me!” Helen exclaimed, trying to escape the powerful grip, but the figure was stronger. She attempted to push the figure away, but another hand embossed in black swirls held the hand fast.
“Hm, she shows guts,” the figure said. “I am constantly surprised at her. It is like she changes every passing moment.” Both hands let go, and the figure stepped back.
“Who are you?” Helen demanded, but the figure turned back to walk to the fireplace. She noticed the cloak was of a scarlet color, almost of fresh blood. The back was embossed in a fanciful figure of a oddly-shaped bird in flight. “What business do you have here in the Province? Answer!”
“Now, highness,” Murice said soothingly. “E is here to talk about the skull.”
The figure turned around and drew the hood back, showing an ambiguous face. It looked vaguely male, and yet, as Helen gazed upon it, it slowly shifted to female and then shifted back. She turned her head away, feeling somewhat dizzy at the changes.
“I should introduce you,” Murice said, wiping his hands on his robes. He cleared his throat and gestured to the person. “This is, for our classifications, Heg’ort’ugbent.” He said the name as if he was growling in the back of his throat. “E is what we call a ‘mudperson’.”
“I prefer ‘clayfolk’, myself,” the figure interrupted.
“They are earth elementals,” Murice continued, glaring slightly at the person. “They have no sex, no gender to speak of. They are androgynous.”
Helen looked at the figure and did another curtsey. “My apologies, elemental,” she said in respectful tones, her anger completely forgotten. “I had a run in with one of my betrothed’s relations who is currently visiting.”
The figure waved aside the apology. “No need for that, child, as long as you know where you stand. I was informing your teacher about a recent death in the dragoneers.”
“Elred the Green?” Helen asked.
The figure raised an eyebrow. “How do you know of that name?”
“One of my brothers came in while we were eating lunch, and he told us of his passing. Which reminds me, teacher,” she continued, turning to Murice. “I was visiting the dragon stables, and a chunk of dragon bone was shed. I was told to report this to you.”
“I will take care of that,” the figure said. “What is taken from the earth is given back, as the saying goes.” And with hardly a warning, the figure sunk to the ground, leaving behind the cloak pooled into a neat pile.