I do... Editor
The Dragon Bride
by Jenny Schwartz
"Listen, dragon," began Princess Julia of the Kingdom of Vanarre. Her hands were on her hips, her right toe tapping. "This can't go on."
The Southern Dragon, bigger than a house and with a row of spear point spikes along his spine, looked bemused--as well he might. Julia often had that effect on people. Who else would open parley with a dragon by chiding him like a naughty puppy?
The dragon opened his mouth and sent a stream of flame to incinerate a nearby pine tree which flared like a torch before falling into powdery ash in the intensity of the maintained flame. The dragon blinked in a satisfied manner, then glanced sideways to see how Julia had taken the demonstration of power.
An odd rusty sound emerged from the dragon.
"Yes." The dragon curled its tail comfortably around its body and settled in for the parley. "You have courage, princess, but not a great deal of common sense."
"Rubbish," said Julia robustly. She gave up on her ash ruined velvet skirt and sat down on a chunk of rock. "I'm the practical one of the family."
"Heaven help Vanarre, if that's true." The tip of the dragon's tail twitched like a cat's.
"Humph." Julia snorted, but when she thought of her scatterbrained mum, her romantically minded sisters, her sailing mad and currently lost brother, not to mention her daft but lovable dad...the dragon had a point.
No one had expected her dad to become king. He'd been a younger son and the whole family was content to exist in a crumbling drafty castle, interfering in village affairs and pursuing their odd hobbies. But the unexpected death of both the king and his son--their uncle and cousin--in a coaching accident had propelled the charming but impractical family willy-nilly into court life.
The then royal steward--who had known Julia's dad when he was a boy--had retired on the spot. The remaining members of the royal household went around looking confused, but lately Julia had seen signs that they were being seduced into the madness of her family.
Just the other day she had seen the Sewing Mistress making a vest for her sister Emily's half bald pet parrot. Jake the parrot had been Eric's last gift to the family--and he hadn't considered the language that old bird already knew. If Julia's dad ever wanted to swear at his stuffed shirt royal advisers he just borrowed Jake and let the bird talk. The advisers were soon cussed out of the chamber and Jake rewarded with his favourite treat of sultanas soaked in rum.
"Err-hmm." The Southern Dragon cleared his throat with a rumble like thunder.
"Oh, sorry." Julia often grew distracted when she thought of her family. Really it was Eric's responsibility to parley with the dragon, but Eric was off discovering the Farawy Islands and currently out of contact somewhere on the uncharted seas.
"You said you had a proposition for me," prompted the dragon.
"I do." Julia smoothed her ash specked skirt, rubbing the ash deeper into the velvet pile. "Vanarre really can't afford to have its silver trade closed. Your hijacking of the Waylin Mountains, and particularly, of Port Argen, is causing Dad's hair to fall out."
"Tsk," mocked the dragon.
"Of course, no one is starving--and I am grateful that you haven't eaten anyone--but we are all missing the silver trade. Without it we don't have the money to buy other goods, import goods, important things like coffee."
"Ah." Now the dragon understood. "Am I talking with a caffeine fiend?"
"Yes," said Julia grumpily.
"And without the money brought in by the silver trade, the coffee merchants are taking their goods elsewhere."
"Yes." A snarl.
"So, it's not altruism that brings you here, but addiction."
"No! I can live without coffee, if I have to, but the loss of the silver trade has thrown thousands of people out of work--miners, traders, silversmiths--and that's flowed on to depress other sectors of the economy."
"You sound like a political adviser," said the dragon. He didn't sound pleased.
"Well," conceded Julia. "That is what Dad's royal advisers are saying, but it is commonsense. Vanarre has always been a happy country and we can't just sit around and let you ruin it."
The Southern Dragon huffed, sending the heap of white ash spiraling into the air. "Don't ever join the Diplomatic Corps. I don't think Vanarre can cope with a dragon and a war. Cut the cackle and tell me your proposition."
"Well, the way I see it, you're not guarding the Waylin Mountains because you need silver--everyone knows it's gold dragons love--so you must be hijacking our silver trade so that we have to ransom it from you. The question then is what do we have that a dragon could want. It can't be gold since it's untarnishing silver that Vanarre is famous for. Clearly you don't eat people or livestock."
"I make do with fishing," interjected the dragon. "A giant squid is a splendid meal; tentacles like spaghetti."
Julia shuddered at the thought, but ploughed onward. "So, that leaves only a princess."
"A princess," repeated the dragon thoughtfully. "You?"
"Well, I'm not letting you have my sisters."
"Isn't family loyalty wonderful?" the dragon asked the world at large. "Just out of interest, why would I want a princess?"
"I did wonder about that," admitted Julia. "But it is traditional."
"Tradition is important," said the dragon solemnly.
"And a princess could keep your cave tidy, your scales polished, even cook your giant squid."
"So could a general servant, and probably better."
It was inarguable, so Julia abandoned the point. "Shifting from the general to the particular."
"Why don't we?" agreed the dragon with a lurking amusement that enraged Julia.
Her voice sharpened. "I speak three languages, which you may find useful."
"I speak four. Five including Dracaonic."
"I sing and play the lute."
The dragon shuddered. "Next you'll tell me you're a mime artist, too."
"Certainly not." But Julia was fair. She relented. "Well, not everyone enjoys the lute."
She ignored the provocation. "And then there's my talent."
"I paint," she said defiantly.
"I can hire a house--ahem--cave painter."
Julia stood and stamped her foot. The powdery ash swirled up. She sneezed.
"Gesundheit," said the dragon.
"Bah," said Julia. She sneezed again. "I paint pictures, and I'm good. So good that sometimes people think my paintings are real."
The dragon yawned.
"Well, then," said Julia. "Why are you holding the silver trade to ransom? What do you want?"
"I thought you'd never ask," said the dragon.
Julia folded her arms and waited.
The Southern Dragon sighed. "I need a princess."
"Duh. What did I just say?"
The dragon held up a talon. "I need a princess to marry me."
Julia sat back down, bruising her bottom on the rock. "Marriage?" She considered the proposal in horrified consternation. "You have noticed that we're different species?"
"You're talking about sex," said the dragon.
"I'm talking common sense. Why do you want a princess bride, anyhow?"
The dragon coughed, and for the first time, looked embarrassed. He shuffled his huge feet. "It's my mom," he rumbled.
"Pardon?" She hadn't quite caught the words.
"It's my mom, all right," roared the dragon. "She wants to see me married."
"Oh." Julia covered her mouth with one hand, but she was too slow. A giggle slipped out.
"That's right, laugh," grumbled the Southern Dragon. "But if I don't get married, Mom will force me to marry Exmeralda, my third cousin four times removed, and Exme's talons are always dirty."
"Couldn't you find a different dragon--dragoness?" asked Julia, smothering her giggles. "One with clean talons."
The dragon gave her a nasty look. "May I remind you that you want my help."
"Yes, yes," said Julia, waving a dismissive hand. "A dragoness?"
"Don't want one," mumbled the dragon.
"Are you gay?"
"Keep your scales on," said Julia. She frowned. "Wouldn't your mom object to a princess bride?"
"She couldn't," said the dragon, exhibiting the triumph of a son who thinks he's putting one over his mom. "Some of the most famous dragons have had princess brides."
"I've never heard of any."
"You're not a dragon."
"Fine," said Julia at this piece of rudeness. She kicked at the ground.
"Well?" said the dragon. "Will you marry me and save the kingdom?"
Julia scowled. "I don't even know where you live--I mean, when you're not holding our silver trade to ransom."
"You'll have to take me on trust," said the Southern Dragon.
Julia rolled her eyes. "Great idea."
"Come on, Julia," coaxed the Southern Dragon in a rumbling roar. "For your family, for your kingdom, will you marry me?"
She paused. "Oh, all right."
The wedding was a quiet affair; that is to say, an elopement.
"Dad might be dopey," said Julia. "But he'd lock me in a dungeon rather than let me marry a dragon."
"There's no need to be rude," said the dragon.
Julia gave him a scornful look. Since there was no time like the present, they sought out the Hermit of Holy Wood who was also a priest, and therefore, capable of marrying them. Although whether he would or not, Julia wasn't willing to wager.
"And you're not to threaten the Hermit," she told the dragon.
"Me?" The dragon sounded scandalised.
"Huh," snorted Julia. "And I can't keep calling you dragon. What's your name?"
She stopped walking to stare at the dragon. "That doesn't sound very draconic."
"Only to ignorant ears," said Lucas. "Didn't you do any research before marching up here?"
Since she hadn't, Julia huffed again, and started walking. "A velvet dress isn't the right thing to wear to a wedding, and certainly not one covered in ash."
"The Hermit won't mind."
Her long suffering sigh said, "Men, what would they know?"
The path down the mountain circled to right, then the left and stopped abruptly at the Hermit's hut.
"Hallo the house," shouted the dragon.
"Is that anyway to treat a holy man?" scolded Julia. She raised her hand to knock, when the door opened.
"Lucas!" the Hermit sounded delighted. He brushed breadcrumbs off his white beard. "And a lady. Don't tell me you've done it, Lucas? You've found a bride?"
"A princess bride," Lucas confirmed. "Princess Julia, in fact. Julia, close your mouth."
She closed it with a snap. How did the Southern Dragon, scourge of the mountains, know the Hermit? She made a mental vow to find out, later.
"Will you marry us?" Lucas asked the Hermit.
"Delighted. Delighted," said the Hermit. "No church, but then, Lucas, I doubt you'd fit in anything less than a cathedral. Are you ready, my dear?" he asked Julia.
She nodded, thinking of Lucas in one of the fashionable city cathedrals. The noble ladies would faint. So would the archbishop.
"Very good," said the Hermit. And that was that. Within ten minutes, Julia found herself married to Lucas the Southern Dragon. "And I hope you'll be very happy," said the Hermit.
"I hope so, too," said Julia doubtfully, but quite unable to snub the kindly old man.
He waved to them as they departed.
"I'll have to tell my parents," said Julia as they climbed back up the mountain to Lucas's cave.
"Of your sacrifice for the good of the kingdom?" inquired Lucas.
"That I'm safe, but married, and that Dad can stop worrying about you," snapped Julia. She frowned. "I don't think Mum'll like being a dragon's mother in law."
"I can be charming," said Lucas in mock hurt tones. He smiled, evilly. "Besides, think of your own mother in law."
"Oh, goodness." Julia stumbled, and a talon caught and held her elbow. She gave an uncertain giggle. "A lot of people say their mother in law's a dragon, but mine really is."
"I certainly am." A dark shadow drifted over them and a deep voice boomed.
"Mom." Lucas sounded resigned, but not particularly worried. "We'll meet you at my lair."
"I hope you cleaned it for your bride. The last time I saw your treasure heap..."
"He didn't know I was coming," said Julia, vaguely moved to defend her husband although she shook her arm free of his talon. After all, she could hardly claim great tidiness herself. She brushed once more at her ash-ruined skirt. She thought about her last statement. "We didn't know you were coming. We could have delayed the wedding."
"A nice thought," said Julia's mother-in-law. "But if I'd been fifteen minutes earlier, there'd have been no wedding."
"Can't this wait till we're at the lair?" suggested Lucas.
"No," said his womenfolk.
"Fine," he stepped to the side of the path, bringing Julia with him, and giving his mom room to land.
She did so in a gentle swirl of dust that coated her opalescent, blush pink scales and set Julia coughing.
"My name is Maura," said the dragoness grandly.
Coughing, Julia flapped her hand in a pleased-to-meet-you gesture.
Lucas sighed. Smoke issued from his nostrils, adding to Julia's breathing problems. "Mom, this is Julia, Princess of Vanarre. Julia, this is Mom."
"You know, Lucas, if you don't want her to asphyxiate, you might want to stop smouldering at me. Besides, sulking is so unattractive."
Julia nodded vigorous agreement.
"I am not sulking." Lucas inhaled and held his breath for a count of twenty. When he exhaled, the smoke had gone. "Why would I sulk? I won."
"Leaving me to explain the situation to Exmeralda's parents, and the girl, herself."
"That seems fair to me," said Lucas with silky politeness. "After all, you're the one who brought up the idea of an arranged marriage."
"For your own good."
Julia held a hand to her chest as her breathing steadied. "Why would an arranged marriage help Lucas?"
"It would settle him down. He needs responsibility. At the moment, he's too airy fairy. He meddles."
"Like with Vanarre's silver trade," said Julia, feeling suddenly in sympathy with Maura.
The dragoness inclined her head in graceful agreement. "Lucas's trouble is he doesn't consider the consequences of his actions."
"I do, too." Lucas stopped, then cleared his throat with a bass rumble.
Julia grinned. Family dynamics, you had to love them. And it seemed even dragons could be trapped into juvenile patterns. Do too/do not.
"Marrying Exmeralda would have made him responsible for her actions, and Exmeralda has a lot of problems."
"Bad tempered, brainless and dirty," said Lucas.
"She's not that bad." Maura jerked back, shocked by his words. "She had a bad upbringing, but I'd not marry you to a harridan. I believe she can be saved."
"Mom, she ate a knight last month."
Julia shivered, and pressed against Lucas. She appreciated his outrage.
He shifted so she rested in the crook of his elbow.
"I hadn't heard." Maura sounded thoughtful with second thoughts. "Was it a clean kill?"
"That's bad." Maura shivered her wings in the manner of a human shrugging off nastiness. "Still, you could have told me. There was no need to marry a princess."
"It puts an end to your matchmaking attempts."
"Yes, but...Lucas, I know I taught you what happens to dragons who marry princesses."
Julia gripped one of Lucas's talons and held it tightly. "What? What happens to dragons who marry princesses?"
"They become heroes."
Julia sniffed, offended. She released Lucas's talon. "We princesses aren't so bad. I call that rude."
Crr-crr-crr. Mother and son laughed.
"Daft," said Lucas as he hiccoughed a final laugh. "The hero badge isn't for wedding a princess--although with you, I'm sure I'll earn it. The hero tag is because our marriage is a sign I'm willing to interest myself in human affairs. That means magical and practical challenges of hero status."
"Oh. So that's why the hermit approved of our marriage."
"And that's why I wanted to stop your marriage." Maura brought her large head close to Julia. "I'm sure you're a nice child, but I want to keep my child safe. I don't want him hurt defending your kingdom."
"I understand," said Julia. "But, oh dear, this is funny." She laughed so hard she slid from Lucas's elbow and sat on the ground.
The two dragons stared at her, baffled.
"You see." Julia made an heroic effort to control her laughter. "The biggest threat to Vanarre isn't magical or dangerous or...or...anything. It's my family. Dad needs an adviser. My brother needs finding. My mom needs a friend. And my sisters need spanking. Just yesterday they tried to capture a griffin. We're chaos."
She sent a sparkling look in Maura's direction. "You want Lucas to have responsibility. If he takes on my family, he'll have it in spades."
"Interesting." Maura's eyes narrowed in concentration. "And it does shine a different light on things."
"I thought I'd fight sea monsters," said Lucas. "I've been practising with the giant squid."
Julia shuddered. "We have a navy," she said firmly.
"And you, my boy, have responsibilities," boomed his mom.
Lucas sighed, but this time, without smoking. "Oh, very well. If you'll climb aboard, Julia, we'll fly down to the palace. I suppose I should meet my new responsibilities."
"Very good," said Maura. "I'll come with you. If the Queen needs a friend, I think I fit the picture. After all, I have experience with troublesome children." She extended her large wings and flipped into the air.
"Lucas." Julia walked around till she could frown at him face to face. Sapphire eyes gleamed back at her. "You did this on purpose. You've set us all up."
"Yes." He grinned, showing large teeth. "Your father will find me an excellent strategist. Last winter, I was getting bored with life, and then I saw you berating an ogre and sending it away, club dragging. I knew you were the woman for me."
"Because I shout loudly?"
"Because you have courage. And Julia, about consummating our marriage."
"Hmm?" she answered warily. New dragon husbands seemed full of surprises. She'd have to stay on her toes.
"I'm a shapeshifter. Want a ride?"