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Princess Sativa played with her amber ring as she waited for her father to notice she'd arrived. For years now, it had been too small to fit on her fingers, so she wore it on a thong around her neck.
Her heart went out to her grey-haired father, for now he looked like an old man.
Her father had aged a lot since the dragon came. First the loss of her mother, then the dragon plaguing the city, and then the final blow of losing her sisters in one fell swoop, just as the seeress had predicted, though Queen Dorota had not lived to see the dragon devour her daughters.
Sativa's sneezing had kept her indoors, away from the parade where her sisters had died that day. It was bittersweet, to know her affliction had saved her from a fiery death. If the dragon had only torched the fields of straw instead, perhaps she would have seen some bright spot in the animal's advent, but no. It stole sheep and maidens, and only burned knights who tried to slay it.
Or it had until last night, when everyone within a hundred miles had learned of the dragon's death. How it had happened, no one knew – not even those watching from the city walls, for there'd been so much fire and smoke no one had been sure the dragon was dead until a man walked through the gates, carrying a maiden, and announced that he'd killed the beast.
And now her father wanted to hold a feast for the man? It was too much. They were still in mourning for her sisters. To host this sort of celebration when…
"Sativa, my dear! How go the preparations? Do you need a new gown to wear?" Her father was so cheerful it could only be a lie.
Yet she forced a smile that matched his. "The castle kitchens are cooking up the feast to end all feasts, they say, they are so happy the dragon is dead. But I thought, so soon after the loss of my sisters…something more sombre might suit…" She caught the look of horror on her father's face and lapsed into silence.
For a moment, she stared into eyes that mirrored hers. All the guilt and devastation at such a tragic loss, the wish that it had been her instead, and the complete and utter despair of having to live knowing the girls were gone, shone through his irises.
"Your sisters would have wanted a celebration. The biggest, grandest feast ever held in our halls to mark the death of that foul beast. They would want it to be remembered. It is the end of mourning, for today we celebrate a triumph over the devil himself!" Father said fiercely. "You and all the court will wear your brightest raiment. We will commemorate this day! A thousand years from now, they will still talk about how the dragon was slayed!"
Sativa hoped that sometime in the next thousand years, someone found out how the dragon had been slayed. So far, the only part of it they'd found was its head.
"Yes, Father," she said dully. She would do as he asked, because he was the king, and if he gave in to the despair she knew filled his heart, they would all be lost.
* * *
"I find that hard to believe, Sir George. You've slayed monsters that were more troublesome than a dragon?" Father asked.
The dragonslayer – a shoemaker, Sativa had been horrified to discover, who her father persisted in addressing as though he was a knight – looked down at his food, abashed. It took him a moment before he managed to say, "Your Majesty, every monster is troublesome. Your dragon is certainly the biggest beast that I've ever faced, but size is not all that matters. Some of them are so cunning, or there are so many of them, or they are so intent on killing you…why, it's a wonder I'm still alive. There was this pair of unicorns up near your western border…"
Sativa beckoned a server over to refill her cup. She half-listened to the shoemaker's story, which seemed to include pigs, giants and his paragon of a squire, who had saved his bacon more times than he could count. Every time he mentioned his squire, his gaze swept the hall, settling on a table at the back, where the squires sat. Most of them squabbled over the food, focussed only on stuffing their faces with more meat than most of them had seen in months, judging by their ravenous appetites, but there was one on the end, smaller than the rest, who sat aloof from the fighting.
The small squire turned to look at the dais where Sativa sat, and she found herself staring back in the most unladylike way. The squire was no squire at all, but a woman, wearing leather armour that had clearly been made to accommodate her breasts.
She had saved the shoemaker's life?
Surely not. Had she been the maiden the shoemaker carried off the field yesterday? She must have been hurt fighting the dragon, yet she showed no signs of any injury now.
Sativa shivered. Something about the girl's eyes, even across the hall, chilled her very soul.
She began to pay attention to the shoemaker's story in earnest now, eager for details on what this woman had done.
"Truly, I couldn't have killed the dragon without her," the shoemaker concluded.
Father laughed. "You are too modest, Sir George. But the time has come to make you more than that." He rose to his feet, more unsteady than usual. He'd drunk more wine to maintain the cheer he insisted upon for this event.
"My subjects!" the King shouted. "Lords, ladies, knights, men! We are here to celebrate a great victory. Sir George has defeated the dragon that oppressed us for so long." He raised his cup in a toast, then drank. "And he shall be rewarded!"
The crowd cheered and drank with him, but Sativa merely bowed her head. With all eyes on her father, no one would notice that her cup stayed on the table where it belonged.
"Kneel, Sir George!"
The shoemaker stumbled a little and Sativa prayed that he would not embarrass her father by sprawling at his feet. Someone must have heard her prayer, for the shoemaker managed to regain his balance and make his way to her father without any further mishaps.
Now Sativa drank as the shoemaker droned his way through his vows of fealty to her father. Someone must have coached him, she suspected, because he didn't stumble over the words as he presented her father with his sword.
Her father made him more than a knight – when the shoemaker rose, he was a lord.
This seemed to make him even more nervous – it took him a couple of tries to get his sword back into his scabbard, so that when he succeeded, a cheer rose up from the hall for the newly minted lord.
Even Sativa managed a smile at this.
"And as a final reward for his heroism, I have decided to bestow my only remaining daughter, Princess Sativa, on him in marriage this very night. My personal confessor and priest will marry them in the castle chapel after the feast, and if I'm not mistaken, Lord George will have an heir on the way before the night is through!"
Sativa's smile died.
* * *
In the flurry of activity around the new Lord Shoemaker, Sativa slipped away before her welling tears fell. The crown princess could not cry before the court.
She barely made it to the corridor before tears blurred her vision, but there was no one to see her distress as she fled to her chamber. A chamber she had once shared with her sisters, but was now cold and empty.
No one had lit a fire in here, and horror enveloped Sativa as she realised why. She was not meant to return here tonight – she was supposed to spend the night in her new husband's chamber. Crushed under the body of some shoemaker, as they consummated a marriage she did not want. Had not agreed to. Would never agree to, while she was betrothed to Prince Reidar of Viken.
Her fingers flew to the ring she wore on a thong about her throat, a solid reminder of the boy she had not seen since their betrothal. The prince would be a man grown now, strong enough to challenge the shoemaker for his rightful bride.
The thought of Reidar made her smile through her tears. He would ride up on his charger, wearing armour like the knights who'd come to fight the dragon. Only he would come to fight for her honour, and her love. He would make short work of the shoemaker, before lifting Sativa herself in his arms and carrying her off to his kingdom.
Her heart swelled at the thought. Yes, yes! Reidar would save her.
Sativa darted to the table and seized a quill, then searched for a clean piece of parchment. She would write him a letter, telling him about the dragon and the shoemaker and Reidar would come…
Because her father would have her marry the shoemaker tonight. Tonight, the lowborn boy would take her maidenhead and make her miserable. Would Reidar even want someone so tainted when he arrived weeks later? What if she was carrying the shoemaker's child?
Sativa shuddered. She would not give her body to a man who did not deserve it. Who did not love her. Better to be devoured by a dragon, like her sisters had been, than that.
As long as she stayed in the castle, she would not escape this marriage. Her father would force her to it, for he could not go back on his word.
But Sativa refused to go back on her word. She'd promised to wed Reidar, and she would. She'd leave the castle tonight, and by the time her father realised she was missing, she would be far from his walls. There was no time for farewells, and who would listen, anyway? Her sisters were dead, and her father had given her away like some bauble. No, there was nothing for her here.
Down went the quill. Instead, she collected what coins she could find. Her sisters had no need for money now, and she had no idea what the price would be for passage to Reidar's kingdom, she told herself as she pawed through the chests containing her sisters' belongings. For if he could not come to her, she would go to him. With him, she would be safe.
She bundled together some spare clothes, then donned a cloak in the hope that it would hide her. Sativa paused for a moment to say a silent farewell to her sisters' spirits and the home she had known for all her life, before she turned her back on it forever.
* * *
Sativa had managed to saddle her mare, Salt, and fasten the saddlebags to the animal, when she heard approaching footsteps. Swearing silently, she slid into the stall with Salt, praying that the intruder would go away. She held her breath as she peered through the gaps in the stall wall.
Whoever it was did not respond to prayers, for they came into the stable. One of the squires, she thought at first, until the squire came into view.
Sativa almost swore again as she recognised the flaming hair of the woman the shoemaker had been staring at all night. The one who'd been so indispensable at slaying all those monsters. She would not let her lord's bride escape.
"Who's there?" the woman demanded, sliding her dagger from its sheath. "Show yourself!"
Sativa sidled deeper into the stall, hoping the woman wouldn't see her. She refused to be dragged back to the hall, to be a prize for the shoemaker. The straw shifted under her boots and Sativa nearly fell on her behind, but caught herself in time. Salt lifted her head from her dinner and snorted at Sativa, blowing fragments of straw everywhere.
Sativa gasped in horror, the worst thing she could possibly do.
The tickle started in her nose, building until it was unbearable, as if an angry bee had lodged up there and wanted out. Sativa couldn't stop it. She couldn't.
Damned pea straw.
The door to the stall flew open, and the flame-haired woman stood in the breach, blocking Sativa's escape.
Sativa kept her head down, hoping the woman wouldn't recognise her, doing her best to keep the horse between them.
Would you like to read more?
A princess who refuses to be a prize. A prince’s promise. Perhaps dragons aren’t so bad after all.
Once upon a time…
Promised as a prize to any hero who can slay the dragon, Princess Sativa flees the palace in search of the prince she was betrothed to as a child. But there are many miles between her and the boy who has become a king.
Can a lone princess cross the sea and convince the king she’s the princess of his dreams?
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