All I wanted for my seventeenth birthday was to go out riding by myself. That was all. No big party, no ball, no jewels, no stuffed peacock, no obscure manuscript. Well, that was because I knew that my grandfather had collected all the obscure manuscripts there were to collect. Still, the point remains. I didn’t want anything fancy for my birthday. Nothing outrageous. It wouldn’t even require any effort from anybody else. All it would take would be for me to go down to the kitchen, early in the morning, armed with my father’s approval, and get some food. The cook’s fetching bread and cheese for me would be the climax of other people’s involvement. Then I’d go out to the stable, get my horse, groom her, put her saddle on, and ride off. I wouldn’t even trouble a groom. So effort was not an objection.
No, objections were made about propriety and safety. Which I thought—and said—was ridiculous. After all, I was seventeen, or would be by the time I was taking a ride on my birthday. True, I was a girl, and a princess, but that wasn’t nearly as important as everyone in the world except me seemed to think it was. To my knowledge, not a band of robbers, not a pack of wolves, not an assassin, had done anything very notable in Alea for at least twenty years. And that was a lifetime! My lifetime, anyway.
Theoretically, of course, it was possible that a band of robbers could go on rampage, a pack of wolves assemble, or an assassin emerge, just for the occasion of snatching a youngest princess when she was out by herself. But this was not in the least likely—and I wasn’t helpless. I had persuaded the captain of the guards to give me lessons in sword fighting, and he said I was good. Not to my face, of course—he was that sort. To my face he only told me that I might manage a blind, toothless goblin with its hands tied. He was talking to Father when I overheard him say that, for a girl, I could have whipped an unusually large portion of my weight in Weargnes. Also I had wangled a sword, a real one, for my fifteenth birthday, and was thus armed as well as trained. So I definitely was not helpless.
It would have been all right, my family said, if I had wanted to go out with just Eleanor, my favorite sister and best friend. But for my birthday, I wanted to go out by myself. Just to try it. Just once. Probably, I wouldn’t even want to do it again. But I wanted to do it once, and my seventeenth birthday seemed like the perfect chance.
An occasion’s being the perfect chance, however, is qualified by whether it works; and no considerations, however reasonable, however logical, however valid, however enticing, would convince that family of mine that I could take care of myself outside the castle for the whole long expanse of time between breakfast and supper. No matter how I presented the matter, my parents remained firm in their opinions and determinations. The quality of steadfastness, while universally acclaimed in lays (when it occurs among the protagonists, that is), is much better appreciated when it is not contrary to one’s own requests.
So, parents being parents, authority being authority, positions of power being positions of power, and life being life, I did not go for a ride on my birthday. Instead, I had a delicious breakfast with my family; I read some of The Homecoming of Hembalt; I had a delicious dinner; and Eleanor and I went out to take an airing. Strolling across the courtyard, I was content with my day—though, of course, I was sure that I would have been happier if I had been able to go for a ride.
Not really intending to go anywhere in particular, Eleanor and I climbed up onto the battlements and wandered along to where we were standing directly over the castle gates and looking down into the walled town surrounding the castle. It was market day, and the town square was a delightful kaleidoscope of people, colors, and noises. The big wagons bringing produce in from the countryside had left long before, early in the morning, and stalls were set up all around the marketplace. The vendors were shouting, hawking their wares—“Potatoes! Potatoes!” “Best oranges in Alea!” “Fresh cabbage!”—though I wasn’t really sure how you could possibly expect anyone to buy un-fresh cabbage.
“Jenny,” Eleanor said, “look at that juggler.”
“Where?” I asked.
“See? Right there.”
She pointed, and I saw a man in motley juggling something orange.
“He’s really good,” I said. “I wonder what he’s juggling.”
“Balls,” Eleanor said, “I guess—no, look, he just swiped an orange from that stand, so he’s juggling oranges—and he’s still juggling.”
“And look how high he’s tossing the oranges!” I said. “He really is good—oh no, he dropped one—but he’s still juggling the others—how does he do that?”
“Don’t look at the juggling, Jenny,” Eleanor said, “look at the orange—see? Those urchins must be looking to find any food they can around the marketplace—oh, too bad! And they needed it, too! That one doesn’t need the orange—you can positively see the fat little thing shine.”
“But look,” I said, “his mother took it away from him—middle class, if ever there was a specimen—she’s dropping it now—and did you just see that farmer do what I saw him do?”
Eleanor laughed. “If you saw him pick the orange up, polish it on his apron, and stick it in with his own oranges, then yes.”
“Oh,” I said, “and now the juggler’s taking it back—it’s larger than the farmer’s other oranges, I can tell it’s the right one—and you’d think the farmer could let him have it, he knows that it isn’t really his, why is he starting to get all mad at hi—ow!”
“Eleanor!” I said, looking up to try and see what had hit my head.
She looked up too, and we saw something very, very, large flying away northward. It was backlit, and all we could see was that the whatever-it-was was very large and had wings.
“What on earth is it?” I said.
“I have no idea,” Eleanor said, “but it’s huge.”
Whatever it was, it was fast, and soon we couldn’t see it anymore. Then we were almost wondering if we really had seen it—or at least I was—but I remembered the thing that had fallen on my head and looked down. On the stone at my feet, I saw a paper. I picked the paper up, fumbling it a little. It was a single sheet of paper, folded roughly in thirds and sealed with wax. The wax was black, with the design of a dragon head, mouth aggressively open, pressed into it. On the other side, it said, “To the Royal Family of Alea,” in a handwriting that I had never seen before.
“What is it?” Eleanor asked.
“I have no idea,” I said, “but I’m going to open it.”
“Jenny, I don’t think you should.”
“I don’t care. And I’m part of the royal family, and so are you, so that makes two sevenths of aforesaid royal family.”
“I think we should take it to Father.”
“He can see it afterwards. After all, it was my head that it fell on.”
I opened the paper, trying to keep the seal intact but failing. Eleanor and I squished close together to read it, both of us excited, her shoulder pressing against mine and one of each of our hands holding the paper.
Forty ells of black scales
Cut men off from telling tales.
Wings of iron, claws of steel,
Make wounds none can heal.
Eyes of fire full of ire,
A snake’s tongue with poison hung,
A heart of hate that governs fate,
Spines of horn, laugh of scorn,
Fire breath and iron teeth,
The dragon will be brought by Death.
“But—what does it mean?” Eleanor said.
“There’s a dragon coming, that’s what it means,” I said. “We’ve got to tell Father!”
“Jenny, wait!” Eleanor called, but I was already running. Along the top of the wall—down the stairs—a slip on the last step and a fall into the surprised arms of an unknown passerby in the courtyard—a hurried apology—a grab for the fallen letter—across the courtyard—into the hall—down one corridor—up another—finally, a skidding stop in front of Father’s council room’s door, panting, hand on chest, breath tight, hair disheveled, heart thumping, head light. I knocked on the door, and it was opened by a squire.
“Your Highness—” he began doubtfully, looking confused.
Announcing myself and trying to inveigle my way in didn’t seem like the best idea. I brushed past the squire, and he didn’t try to stop me.
Each man in the room, from one end of the long council table to the other, looked either surprised, startled, astonished, shocked, astounded, or unprepared. And my father looked displeased.
“Genevieve,” he said, “just what do you think you are doing here?”
The rhetorical aspects of this question looked inauspicious, but—
“I just heard some news—may I have a moment?”
“Certainly—after I am finished here. Genevieve, please leave this room now.”
“But, Father—Sir—it’s urgent, really. There’s a dragon coming!”
Father was… skeptical.
“So, there is a dragon. I assume you saw it through a magic mirror or one of those thousand mile telescopes?”
“No, of course not, they don’t exist—”
“My point was that neither does your dragon—”
“But I just got a letter that was dropped by something really large and flying, and it says that there’s a dragon forty ells long coming!”
Now Father was angry.
“Genevieve Lucy Adelaide, leave this room now!”