As she swayed back and forth to the rhythm of her horse's steps, Kaylein watched the shadow hover and zip along the ground. Whirring wings, a long, extended tail, careful precision…
She wondered if that what was what the shadow of a dragon looked like when it was flying so high overhead it could barely be seen.
The shadow zipped up her mount's flanks, and Kaylein turned her gaze to its blue and crystal-colored insect counterpart as it floated past her nose. The creature was beautiful, graceful, delicate, not exactly what she would have expected from a creature named after a dragon.
As her eyes followed the dragonfly, they paused on a beauty of a much larger kind: the castle of Athelis, embedded in the center of the kingdom's capital city like the centerpiece of a daydream. With her attention on the castle, Kaylein's fingers slacked on the reins; her horse stopped, gleefully reaching to the side of the road to snatch a mouthful of grass.
"Wow," Marta breathed beside her. She brought her mount to a stop beside her sister's. "The castle alone has to be ten times the size of Kelna."
"One room in that castle is probably ten times the size of our dear village," Kaylein countered.
"Keep moving, please," one of the soldiers comprising their escort said patiently.
Their mounts trotted through the gates of the capital city, then through a second set of gates around the castle itself. Several small buildings, presumably for the servants and lesser members of the court, lined the cobblestone paved road and clustered around the base of the castle. Somehow, the buildings managed to make the castle walls appear to be an embodiment of safety; at the same time, they looked for all the world like a cage.
Kaylein craned her neck, trying to catch a glimpse into the windows. She had always loved exploring the insides of houses, any houses, an obsession which practical Marta had never understood. Suddenly, her gaze met a pair of brown eyes staring out from one of the windows. The eyes were following the girls' and their escorts' slow progress along the path, and the vacant stare betrayed that their owner's thoughts were roaming far beyond what she saw.
Kaylein hastily glanced away, embarrassed to have been caught snooping. When she glanced casually back over her shoulder, the owner of the brown eyes had disappeared.
"Not too much further now," one of the soldiers said kindly, mistaking her motion for restlessness.
Their quarters turned out to be nothing like the smaller homes they had seen: To Kaylein's delighted surprise, they would be staying in one of the castle's main wings itself. Their escort led them to the castle's back door, where the two soldiers helped the sisters dismount before leading away their horses. A maid wearing a crisp brown dress and freshly starched apron as stiff as her smile greeted them. "Welcome, mistresses, to the King's Academy of Athelis. Follow me; your rooms are in the east wing." With that, she turned and strode away, her footsteps clicking briskly as they hurried to follow.
The two girls, clutching their luggage, were led up and down several winding halls and what felt like endless flights of stairs. Kaylein, unwilling to look like the country girl from Kelna that she was, attempted to look interested but not overawed. Realizing she probably looked more absurd with her nose in the air, she inwardly snickered and gave in to her desire to gape. She caught sight of her reflection in several mirrors- a novel experience since her mother had not purchased another looking glass since she had cracked one as a seven-year-old- and tried not to imagine that the eyes of the lifelike portraits that lined the walls were following her. The carpet was a rich red and so soft she wished she could shuffle on it barefoot, and, oh, the temptation to slide down the slick banisters! They finally reached a long corridor lined with doors spaced periodically, and the maid stopped in front of a door with the number 126 emblazoned on it in smooth letters.
"Here is your chamber," the maid said. "The king has requested the presence of all academy students this evening at six. Promptly. One of the household staff will come to guide you."
"Thank you," Marta said as they stepped into their room. Kaylein began to peak into the drawers and study the simple framed art above the double bed she and Marta would share; to her delight, there was even a rack on the wall for her sword.
"You'll have time to look at your room later," the maid said. "But first, the king asks that all new students be shown the library. Set your bags down, and come with me."
Both girls obeyed, and the maid escorted them to a large room with stained glass windows portraying famous historical battles of Athelis. Above the door was draped a fabric cloth embroidered with the symbol of the King's Academy of Athelis: a dragon's talon locked with a sword.
As they stepped inside, the maid called softly to an older man sitting at a desk. It was so close to the opening of the library that the sunlight shone through the stained glass and scattered rainbows across the open book in front of the scholar. He scribbled a final mark with his quill on the almost full page before glancing up. "Yes?" He squinted at them over the top of the spectacles perched on his nose, looking slightly lost after being ripped out of whatever study he was conducting. Then the disorientation cleared, and he smiled. "Ah, yes. You are new students, I assume? Welcome, welcome! What are your areas of study?"
"Math and science, sir," Marta said.
"Ah, very good. Books on those subjects can be found in that section of the library." He pointed toward a corner to his right, then turned and blinked at Kaylein over his spectacles. "And you?"
She shook her head. "That's all right. I'll just go with my sister for now."
"Very good. But please remember, many of these books are valuable. They may be used to aid you in your studies, but they may not be removed from this library."
Nodding agreement, the two girls moved toward the section the scholar had indicated. Immediately Marta was reading titles, running her fingers gently over the book bindings as she walked down the row. She stopped, pulled out a book, and began flipping through the pages.
"Look at this, Kaylein," Marta said, holding up the book to show her a page covered in scrawling formulas and a detailed diagram of a fire catapult. "Now this is how you fight dragons."
"You can have your inventions with all the whys and how's," Kaylein said, patting the sheath at her side. "I'll keep my sword."
"As you wish." Marta's head was already bowed over the book and her fingers tracing the words. "If the speed and height of the trajectory are based on rates of mass and acceleration," she muttered. "And the materials used burn at—ah, yes, the fire would burn for about three minutes before dying. I wonder, if you changed the fuel source to, say, a combination of pine resin and sulfur…"
Kaylein moved to a shelf of musty history books to study the display of ancient weapons hanging on the wall behind it, her lips twitching up in a smile. Her jealousy that her sister was known as the "smart one" in their tiny village of Kelna had faded long ago when she had found her own purpose in life. It had come in the shape of her sword, a family heirloom bestowed on her by an uncle. She had loved everything about it, from the glitter of the blade in the firelight to the way the hilt had fit perfectly into the curve of her palm. That alone had not been enough to sustain her through the training, which had made her collapse into bed each night with sore muscles and wake at sunlight with fire burning in her shoulders.
No, it had been the memory of her father that had sustained her. It had been the memory of his smile as he called her and Marta his princesses, as he wore the flower crowns they had made for him, as he used his hands to project shadows of birds and bunnies on the walls so she wouldn't be afraid of the dark. It had been the memory of the day when she had kissed him goodbye, torn between childish anger that he was leaving and pride that her daddy was chosen to fight dragons. It had been the memory of the day when he had returned from fighting dragons in a long wooden box, sealed tightly. She had tried to pry at the corners with her tiny fingers to "let him out," sobbing when her mother gently pulled her away. It had been his memory that had driven her to learn swordplay to protect her family and continue his legacy.
And that had also brought her to the attention of the king's academy, persuading them to ask her to continue her studies with them. To train to kill dragons. Would one of those dragons, she wondered, be the monster who had taken her father's life? She found the idea pleasurable, sending a tingle of excitement and energy up her limbs. Certainly, few dragons still survived in Athelis because of the King's Academy and other schools designed for the sole purpose of training warriors, but the dream of her father being avenged by her own hand was too strong to quench.
In accompaniment to the tingle, an army of fleas was hopping around in her stomach. Not only were there more opportunities at the king's academy, but the stakes were higher if she didn't perform well.
The maid waited more or less patiently (mostly less) while the girls explored the library, then shepherded them out and back into their room. "Remember to be ready at six this evening," she said before striding out of the room.
"Promptly," Kaylein said, tapping her fingernails against the bedpost to mimic the brisk clip of the maid's shoes against the floor.
Marta flopped down on the bed and grinned at her sister. "Now where have I heard that before?"
Dianna, the owner of the brown eyes, watched until the horses bearing the two sisters had passed by. Sighing, she seated herself back at her desk. Her eyes skimmed the words of the poem the king had requested for the banquet he was hosting in two nights' time, but inspiration refused to lend her any aid. She tugged open her desk drawer, staring down sadly at the painted brown eyes of the portrait that gazed up at her. Dianna had rescued the beautiful painting of the former queen from the trash when the castle servants had been cleaning a store room a few years back. The gentle face had always seemed to encourage her to persevere when the rhythm of certain lines wasn't quite right, or when she couldn't find the perfect word to convey that emotion. Today, though, Dianna only saw accusation in the kind eyes.
"Well, what can I do?" she said aloud to it, rubbing her pounding forehead. "I can't refuse a request from the king."
The clock on the wall interrupted her with a melodious chime. Torn between feeling grateful for the excuse to shut the drawer on those eyes and feeling guilty for her gratitude, Dianna rose. She walked into the backroom of the small home and spoke to the small figure lying on the bed, swaddled in blankets. "Syra. Syra, wake up."
The seven-year old's head appeared out of the nest of blankets. "Huh?" she moaned. Her eyes, bleary from sleep, stared out from under a mop of tousled hair.
Dianna gently smoothed a strand of hair away from the girl's face. "Wake up, sleepy. You have to play with the princess this afternoon."
Syra obediently rolled out of bed and pattered over to the wash basin. She had grown used to afternoon naps, followed by late nights. Dianna often wished for a more normal schedule for Syra's sake: Specifically, one that didn't involve having to drag the poor child around at the castle celebrations and dinners until almost midnight. Fortunately, Princess Ivy, the daughter of the second queen and the only other child who frequently attended the gatherings of the king's court, had claimed Syra as her personal playmate and confidante. The princess's friendship, although it was a bit possessive at times, somewhat eased Dianna's guilt. And despite her misgivings about what kind of a life she was giving Sara, Dianna was fortunate, grateful, and overwhelmed to have her position and the opportunities it brought for her future and Syra's. After all, few poets had been hired at Dianna's age to read their personal compositions for the king's court.
When Dianna had first come to the king's attention at the age of eighteen years old, she had been brought to the castle to read a poem she had written for the Princess Ivy's birth. Once her poetry had gained her an entrance to the court, she had never left it. She had adapted to the manners and intrigue of the court quickly: She knew when to be quiet and humble, to stay in her place, and she knew when to reveal her numerous ideas, thoughts, and philosophies about life and matters of the court. She knew how to avoid the pitfalls set by those in the court who coveted inexperienced, gullible youth to use to further various causes and plots. She knew how to accept both flattery and opposition with grace and dignity, without allowing either to influence her mindset in the least. Overall, she was "bright, and very promising," as the lords and ladies whispered in the corners of the ball rooms when they thought she wasn't listening. "Very promising, indeed." Although Dianna prized her occupation as court poet, the whispers bolstered her hopes to achieve an even higher position someday: one of the king's advisers, even.
The bristles of Syra's hairbrush prickled against Dianna's palm as the child pressed it into her hand. Syra knelt and wiggled between Dianna's knees, then waited in expectant silence. Dianna began to run her brush through the girl's hair, each stroke working the matted clumps back into the child's normal shining locks. As was their routine, she began a story. "Once there was a- "
"A knight," Syra interrupted. "Like the one they're having a banquet for. The one who killed the dragon."
And who was also the topic of Dianna's poem.
Dianna's fingers separated Syra's hair into portions, then flew as they wove the strands into dainty braids. She forced a smile onto her face, but the reservations she had felt about the king's request for a poem in honor of the knight flooded back. It was difficult, writing words of praise and exuberance for a man who had murdered a dragon. The words were being forced from her mind and pen slowly, but she knew she would be able to accomplish it. After all, she was a writer and a member of the king's court: She was essentially an actor on a stage, playing a part for the world through her words and actions. She was an expert at the game of secrets and intrigue now, far better than anyone at the castle suspected. After all, no one had seen any signs of the fear that had threatened to squeeze the breath out of her chest upon hearing the king's glad news. No one had seen the single tear leak through the only crack in her carefully-built dam.
"A knight. All right, then," she said aloud to Syra. She began intertwining the child's braids at the nape of her neck, pinning them into place. "Once upon a time, there was a knight."
Kaylein and Marta crept into the throne room after being waved in by a maid. As they joined the throng of children and young adults, the heavy doors behind them slowly began to shift back toward each other. As they finally clicked back into place, the stained-glass images on both doors combined to form a gleaming representation of the mythical protector of Athelis battling a dragon. The two creatures were separated again as the doors swung back open, admitting a pair of manservants. They stepped to each side of the doorway with a bow.
The king strode through, slowly, serenely. The group of youths sank to their knees almost as one, although some of the younger ones did not drop their eyes; instead, they gaped with curiosity at the rich garments and sumptuous robe of the king. They were newly recruited and had come from poor villages, obviously never having seen royalty up so close before. Others bowed with courtly respect and practiced grace: Even if their garments had not already distinguished them as upper class, their status as the children of nobles would have been evident. In the presence of the monarch, Kaylein suddenly became painfully aware that she and Marta could probably be identified as the first group at first glance.
The king walked to the front of the room, but did not mount the stairs to his throne. Instead, he simply turned to face them.
"Some would say that I have assembled a strange group for my academy," the king said. "Youths from all regions, walks of life, and ages." He paused, his eyes travelling through the group. "The one thing you all have in common is talent. I need your talent for a very important task, one which you all know- To rid our kingdom of the foul beasts that have so long been terrorizing it." He gave another dramatic pause, leaving Kaylein with the need to restrain an impulsive snort. The awe of her first encounter with royalty was quickly fading, and she hoped it wasn't a weekly occurrence for the students to hear grandiose speeches from the king. Her impatience abruptly vanished with the shock of the king's next words.
"A knight has already accomplished part of your task for you," the king announced. "Another one of the last dragons in our fair kingdom has been killed! Within a year, dragon kind could be extinct in Athelis. The few that yet live, however, have not be able to do so out of stupidity. I urge you to devote yourself even more to your studies, that we may purge this scourge from the earth. And when we accomplish that task, I will still need you, the best and brightest of our kingdom's youth. Only then can we devote your talents and energies to other tasks that will better our kingdom."
The king paused to allow for scattered clapping, then continued. "To celebrate Knight Vance's accomplishment, there shall be a banquet held in two nights' time. You are all invited to attend a separate banquet held specifically for my academy students."
Some of the youth, who were obviously the sons and daughters of noblemen, knew their cue. They gasped with delight and murmured appreciatively to the tune of "Oh, how delightful! The king is so generous," and "My goodness, whatever shall I wear?" Others, like Kaylein, just blinked. Even in the flood of dreams, worries, and anticipation that had followed her acceptance into the academy, she hadn't expected so much excitement on the first day!