Sunday, November 23, 2014

Chapter Two

Chapter Two

Elyra stood in the cramped servant corridor, her mouth frozen around a bite of stolen food. For long moments she simply stood there, scarcely able to believe the words that filtered through that crack in the wall. Usually the conversations of nobility held little interest for her, aside from discerning how best to avoid being dragged unwillingly into their beds again. Yet tonight their conversation gave her hope. Tonight they spoke of a way out of this wretched place.

Tonight the nobles spoke of a dragon.

Elyra first heard mention of the dragon as she slunk through one of many cramped, narrow servant corridors that wound through unknown recesses of the Hall Of Nobility. They ran between walls, connecting all the major rooms while bypassing the public hallways. Hidden doors and recessed alcoves allowed the servants a chance to enter a room, do their job, and then vanish before their presence offended the nobility. The servant corridors themselves were little more than bare stone, lit by the occasional lamp or candle. In the summer they were stifling and in the winter they were freezing. They were unpleasant, damp and stinking of mold.

Yet to Elyra they were also an escape and a rebellion. The nobles couldn’t strike her across the face or toss her into their beds when they could not find her. They had no way to know she was the one stealing food when all the evidence vanished into dank hallways they’d never set foot in. They couldn’t see her grinning through the crack in the wall when the herbs she slipped into their soup sent them rushing for the latrine. Most of them didn’t even realize how easy it was for their own servants to spy on them.

Dust motes danced in a stream of warm light pouring into the cold hallway from a crack in the wall. Elyra slunk towards the crack, swallowing her mouthful of food. The rest of the stolen handful of roasted lamb was all but forgotten. She pressed her gray eyes against the hole in the wall, trying to get a look into the room that lay beyond.

The cozy room was lined with burled walnut bookshelves filled with books Elyra knew the nobles would never actually bother reading. As inbred as some of the nobles probably were, she wasn’t convinced they even knew how to read in the first place. Beautiful tapestries of colorful landscapes brought back from some other conquered land hung between the shelves. A hearth built of interlocking blocks of white and black stone held a warm fire at the far end of the room. Two men sat around a circular, ebony table.

Elyra recognized Atrius immediately. She knew the heavyset man’s bald pate and porcine features even when she was too far away to catch wind of his stink. The oversized noble’s tacky clothing was also a dead giveaway. His garish, golden overcoat spoke of a man who only bothered to dress himself to show everyone just how wealthy he really was. The man sitting across from him was as wiry as Atrius was bulbous. His ridiculous ruffled blue shirt and bulging eyes made him look like a scrawny pigeon ruffling up his feathers.

“I’m telling you, it’s the village’s fault.” The pigeon man leaned back in his high-backed, blue-cushioned chair. Seemed even he was trying to stay clear of Atrius’ stench. It baffled Elyra how the more money the nobles had, the less they bothered to bathe themselves. “Damn dragon hadn’t bothered our interests in ages till they went and mucked it up.”

Atrius folded his stubby arms over his chest, his golden overcoat straining at the seams. “All because they wanted to save a few coins, eh?”

“Seems that way.” The skinny man picked up a snifter off the table, swirling his liquor in it. “Tried to send him some worthless girl. Damn beast didn’t want her after she pissed herself.”

“I wouldn’t want a girl who pisses herself, either.” Atrius chuckled. He picked up his goblet, sipped at his wine.

“That’s not the point,” said the pigeon man. He ran a hand over the ruffles of his shirt, scowling. “My association has a good thing going with those trade corridors, and your villages are mucking it up. They didn’t even have to give the dragon much. Dumb beast was as happy with food and the local sludge they call wine as he was with gold. Hell, half the so-called treasure they dumped on that hill over the years is worthless! Now he’s got it in his head he deserves himself a maiden, and he’s threatening to close the roads until he’s given one he considers agreeable.”

“Why don’t you just hire some men to slay the damn thing?” Atrius sipped his wine, then set his goblet down. “Some ugly dragon’s head would look good on your wall.” He glanced up at his shelves, grinning. “Or mine.”

Elyra chewed upon the rest of her stolen lamb while she listened. Trust a noble to decide if they didn’t like the way things were going they could just throw money at someone else to fix the problem. Besides, weren’t dragons always issuing demands for maidens and treasure? Not that she’d ever seen one.

“It’s not that easy,” replied Pigeon Man. He swirled his drink again. His scowl only made his eyes bulge further. Elyra half expected them to topple out of his head and into his drink. “Our predecessors tried to slay the monster for years and never managed it. Besides, if the dragon dies, then who’s going to watch over our trade shipments? I’m telling you, we had the stupid thing wrapped around our fingers. Slip him a few coins, and he keeps the bandits and the other filthy monsters away from the roads we send our merchants on. He costs us less on a yearly basis than hiring actual guards.”

“I still don’t see how this is my problem.” Atrius huffed to himself, gazing around the room as if bored by the entire conversation. “They’re your villages and your little…association, after all.”

“Don’t get smart with me, Atrius.” The skinny man set his drink down on the table, leaning forward. Something dangerous gleamed in his dark, bulging eyes. “It’s your problem because if you don’t solve it, my association shall go directly to the Royalty and tell them how badly your people are botching everything out here.”

“Fine, fine,” Atrius snapped, folding his arms. Elyra knew that anger. Given the chance, he’d take it out on some poor servant. “So he wants a maiden, does he?”

“Yes.” The pigeon man ran his hand over the blue ruffles of his shirt again. “A maiden servant of high status, as I was told. And not a virgin, either.”

Atrius quirked a brow, smirking. “Specified that, did he?”

“Your idiot mayor sent him a virgin, and the dragon took it as an insult.” The slender man waved his hand. “It’s what started this whole mess.”

“Sounds like even a dragon knows a virgin’s no good at pleasing a man.” Atrius drummed his fingers against his goblet.

“From what I’ve heard, the dragon claims he isn’t interested in her services of pleasure.” The smaller man picked up his drink again, sipping it.

“If that was true, he wouldn’t care if she was a virgin or not.” Atrius grunted, rolling his eyes. “No matter. I’ll have someone selected. We have plenty of useless servant wenches around here. One of those ought to placate the horny old beast.”

“That was the idea.” Pigeon Man snorted, slowly leaning back into his chair. He smirked. “They’d certainly not be a virgin. The dragon also demanded a woman of courage. Have you got a courageous wench lying around?”

Atrius swished his drink. “They’re servant wenches. They all do whatever they’re told. They’ll act brave if I order it. More importantly, no one will miss them when the dragon gets bored and devours them.”

Elyra grit her teeth, balling up her fists. How she hated that man and his ilk. They treated her and everyone like her as less than human. Some slave barely even worth being looked upon, and only worthy of being acknowledged when they were being punished and belittled, or used like some whore because no decent woman would have anything to do with the filthy nobles. The next time that foul-smelling man made her touch him, it would take all she had not to twist it right off.

Whoever they sent would be better off being eaten by the dragon than spending another day here.

In that moment, Elyra saw her way out.

One way or another, the nobles would send a woman to the dragon even if they had to force her. Elyra knew some of the servant wenches would fight, others would simply resign themselves with a sigh and give in to their fate. Some would beg and plead not to be fed to the monster. Most of the women stuck serving in this place had long since given in already. They had come to accept the abuse, the humiliation, the fact that there was no better life to be had for women like them.

They were punished for the crimes of family, the sins of ancestors, or their own youthful indiscretions. Elyra brushed her fingers over the branded mark on her cheek, as damning as the fiery red hair she’d inherited from her mother. The nobles’ servant wenches were all marked and servitude was a lifelong punishment. For most, it was just less painful to stop striving for something better.

Yet where others had given up hope, Eyra sunk her nails in and clung to it for dear life. Where others bowed their heads and whispered their acquiescence to any demand, Elyra bit back insults only because they would cost her life. Where the other marked servants stood silently and let the nobles put their hands all over them, Elyra fought the urge to lift their feet from the floor with her knee. Elyra always knew that one day, her rebelliousness and her refusal to let hope bleed from her heart would get her killed.

Now was as good a time as any.

If she was to die, let her die breathing free air.

In that moment Elyra decided to cast aside a life spent as a noble’s puppet. It was time to seize control of her own life. The dragon wanted a servant, and she was going to give him one. Elyra would volunteer to be the dragon’s maiden. Though it may lead to her death, a freely chosen demise at the claws of a dragon was better than even one more humiliating day as some noble’s plaything.

Resolute and as sure of herself as she’d ever been, Elyra turned and made her way through the hidden halls and back to the servant’s quarters. As she walked the cramped corridors, she turned the idea over in her mind as though it were some physical thing to be manipulated. The dragon wanted an experienced woman, and the nobles hadn’t let her become anything but. The beast wanted a woman with courage, and what was more courageous than volunteering to the dragon’s service? Perhaps he’d even be impressed. Might the dragon even grow to respect her? Respect from a dragon was perhaps too much to hope for. Yet it was hope that kept Elyra’s heart beating. So she would hope for the creature’s respect.

Elyra was happy enough just to make her own choice, to guide her own life. Whatever the dragon wanted of her, whatever he made her do, surely it could not be worse than what she endured here. Even if the beast did have perversity in mind, what difference did that make? She was already forced to tend the needs of an entire Hall filled with wicked creatures in the guise of men. Having to tend just one would be an improvement all by itself.

However wicked the dragon may be it could not be any worse than the nobles who branded Elyra in her youth. Perhaps if she satisfied the dragon properly, she could even talk the beast into flying her back here so she could watch him burn the Hall Of Nobility down. Preferably with the nobles still in it. Of course she’d have to find a way to let all the servants out first, but so long as she was dreaming, why not dream big?

Before Elyra reached the servant’s quarters, she wondered if she should tell anyone her idea. Should she tell them goodbye? Perhaps she should wait until she’d made it official. Elyra was certain they’d accept her as volunteer. It wasn’t as though any of the other servants were likely to offer themselves instead. Most of them would be terrified by the idea of serving a dragon, and Elyra herself was not without a bit of a fear. Yet her desire to escape this prison of humiliation was far greater than any amount of fear.

This was a chance she had to take. If she did not volunteer, every single time some wretched noble pushed her down upon her knees, she would wonder what might have been. Eventually she’d be put to death for mangling some noble with her teeth. She wished she could say such a death would make her a hero to the other servant wenches, but most of them had given in so deeply to their humiliating lives they’d only think her a fool.

Better they think her a fool for serving a dragon, then.

A single small wooden door led into her section of the servant’s quarters. It was marked only with a single carving, a sort of stylized, spiraling star. The same symbol had marked her right cheek for years. In years long past, the mark symbolized ownership among Elyra’s own people. The nobles had taken and bastardized that mark, used it for their servants. It marked the doors to their quarters, to their hallways, and for those like Elyra, it marked their flesh.

Elyra opened the door and entered into the quarters shared by a dozen women. The room was long and rectangular, with twelve beds all evenly spaced along one wall. Each bed marked another woman’s chambers, such as they were. A simple, thick curtain drawn between each bed provided all the privacy the servant wenches had. Each woman had a small dresser for clothes, a little table and a chair, and whatever personal effects they might have. And that was it.

At the end of the room were a few small windows that let in a bit of light but provided view of little more than soot-caked chimneys and smoke from cooking fires in the kitchens below. The room smelled of a mixture of perfumes, stale food, and the clinging unpleasantness of too many people crammed into too small a space. Hints of spicy incense used to cover the smells were just beginning to tint the air for the evening.

 An attached room had a large bookshelf with a few books whose pages scarcely clung to their threadbare covers. There were several couches in various states of disrepair. One of them spilled a little more of its padded entrails onto the floor by the day. Another room bore a latrine, along with six public bathing tubs, pumps to draw water from a deep well, and a few small iron furnaces to heat that water.

Elyra’s bed was near the far end of the room. Elyra was mostly ignored by the other women in the room as she padded by them. She did not dislike the others but most were so resigned to their hollow lives that she simply could not connect with them. Talking to them was like talking to an empty shell. Some of them tried to stay away from Elyra, fearful her little rebellions would somehow get the rest of them punished. Elyra pitied them the emptiness she saw in their eyes. Without hope, they had nothing, and they drifted through their humiliating lives as shadows seeking only to avoid pain before the end. Even if Elyra offered them a chance to take her place in volunteering for the dragon, she knew they’d never take it.

Elyra greeted those few she might consider a friend. One woman sat upon her bed, reading an old book Elyra knew she’d read at least a half dozen times before. She glanced up from her book to give Elyra a polite wave. Elyra smiled and inclined her head. Another woman squeezed up against a man upon her narrow bed. They smiled and whispered to one another, and they both waved at Elyra. Elyra smiled and waved back. Of all the other servant wenches, Elyra liked Jadira the best.

 Just like Elyra, Jadira never quite gave up hope. Better still, Jadira somehow found love in this terrible place when she met a conscript named Dahn. Dahn bore the same spiral-star brand on his cheek as the women did. Those with the brand were little more than slaves forced to do any task the nobles set them to. For the women that meant servant’s duties and whores for the nobles. The men among the punished were conscripted to serve as soldiers, or guards. They rarely had time to themselves, so Jadira and her conscript lover made the most of every little moment they shared. Most men would not be with a woman used as a noble’s whore, but Dahn did not care. Dahn loved Jadira just the same, and since he bore a mark himself, he understood.

Elyra envied their love more than she cared to admit.

Elyra reached her small, narrow bed and sat down upon the edge of it. Her woolen blanket was dyed dark green, and bore more patches than original material. It was scratchy against bare skin, but at least it was warm. Both pillow and mattress were filled with straw that poked her from time to time when she shifted on the bed. Still, it gave her somewhere to collapse at night.

It made her wonder, though. Where would she sleep when she served the dragon? The beast probably lived in a cave, yet she doubted he had himself a bed. Not that she’d want to sleep next to him. Maybe the dragon just slept on the stone floor or on a pile of gold. Perhaps she should bring a bedroll or something. But where would she get a bedroll? She didn’t even have the coin to buy so simple a thing.

Elyra wrung her hands in an attempt to ward off the creeping chill that was overtaking her fingers. Her toes were not faring much better. The more thought she put into this, the more her heart quickened. Her belly twisted. Was she really going to do this? Yes. She grit her teeth. Yes. She was. She had to get out of this place.

Elyra kicked off the simple rope sandals she wore, then stripped down to her underthings. She hung her gray and cream servant’s dress upon a hook on the wall, then crawled beneath her blankets. It was not that late, but her duties were done, and she had little else to do. She was safe from the nobles so long as she remained where she was. She could read a book, but she’d read them all many times. Her hoard of stolen art supplies was exhausted. She could go and chat with Jadira and Dahn, but she did not want to intrude. Elyra thought she may as well get comfortable and wait for morning.

Elyra lay her head back against the pillow, staring up at the barren gray stone walls. A few simple lamps hung from wrought iron hooks around the room. Though Elyra hadn’t yet lit her own lamp for the night, a few others had. Elyra’s section of wall was decorated with images she’d made herself. Admittedly Elyra was not much of an artist, but it was not about the skill, it was about the expression. Working on an image helped her forget where she was for a few moments, forget about the life she lived.

Whenever she had the chance she stole a piece of parchment, or stick of charcoal. Sometimes she got a quill and ink, other times she got a few tiny pots of paint and a brush. She used whatever she could get her hands on to create simple images from her mind. She tried to paint herself, and though it came out looking like a child’s drawing, she still liked it. An attempt at a portrait of her mother came out no better artistically yet held even greater value to Elyra.

One of her favorites was an ink drawing she’d done of some distant mountains. Though they could be glimpsed upon the horizon from the city, Elyra saw them up close once in her youth. One of her earliest memories was of those mountains. Though her drawing was little more than angled lines and simple shading, she decided to take it with her when she went to see the dragon.

Elyra smiled to herself, wondering if the dragon lived in the mountains. That would be nice. Elyra could grow to enjoy serving some regal beast in his mountain lair. She might still be a servant, but it would be by her own choice. And if servitude was in her destiny, why not spend her days somewhere beautiful? Perhaps the creature would even take her flying.

“Mmmm,” Elyra murmured aloud. How she would love to fly upon a dragon. It seemed like just the sort of terror she would grow to relish. “Yes. Take me flying, Dragon.” She waved her hand in the air a little, imitating the sort of pompous gestures the nobles always made when bossing someone around. “You wanted a girl with courage so take me as high as you dare!”

“Who are you talking to, Elyra?” Jadira called out from a few beds down. Elyra heard her and her lover sharing a giggle. “Did you say something about a dragon?”

Elyra froze in embarrassment. “Yes.” Her voice came out as little more than a squeak as scarlet heat rose across her face. “I’m just…imagining…”

“Have you been stealing wine again?” This time it was the man who spoke up, laughing.

Elyra smiled. “You know if I had, I’d share it.” Then she smirked to herself, her hands behind her head. “Not with you, Dahn, but with Jadira and the other girls. You could have some of Jadira’s, though.”

“Oh no,” Jadira said, giggling. “He could get his own. But I don‘t see what that has to do with a dragon.”

Elyra’s smile turned wicked. “I was just imagining a dragon had come to burn this place down. I was going to help him! Then I was going to have him take me flying for a while.”

Jadira laughed and gave a little sigh. “You’re an odd girl, Elyra. But I like it.”

“Thank you,” Elyra murmured.

Elyra spent the rest of the evening snuggled beneath her blankets, staring at the simple pictures she’d adorned her wall with. As the night deepened, worry crept into her thoughts. She was not so foolish as to think this could not go wrong. What if this dragon was a beast of great cruelty? What if he only wanted a woman to ravish her? Each time fear took hold of her heart, she wrenched herself free of its cold claws. At worst it would still be better to serve one cruel dragon than twelve cruel men.

Elyra kept her mind from tumbling into fearful holes by considering the dragon himself. How big a creature was he? What color might he be? Did he speak with a posh accent or did he snarl his words like an angry beast? How fast could he fly? Would he let her ride upon him? Was his back covered in spines? She’d never seen a dragon. As far as she knew, such creatures were not exactly common.

Thinking about the dragon eased her fears and helped the hours pass. One by one lamps were blown out, and darkness brought with it cooler air. After so many years in the same room, Elyra knew each woman by the way she slumbered. Some snored, some breathed heavily while others were so silent Elyra half-expected them to never wake. Elyra herself found sleep unreachable.

Long before dawn’s fire burned through the blanket of night, Elyra was already scrubbing herself in a simple wooden tub she’d filled with hot water and soapy froth. The scent of the soap permeated the steam that rose from the tub. At least there was always enough soap to go around. Despite the nobles’ apparent aversion to bathing, they expected their servants to look and smell clean and fresh. That at least was one demand Elyra was happy to comply with. She just wished they’d follow that command themselves. Most of those men were filthy.

Still, filth could be washed away. Elyra was at least glad she’d never had to fear catching a disease from them. The wenches were often subjected to humiliating trips to the healers to ensure they had nothing they could pass on to the nobles. The nobles in turn kept to the servant wenches to fulfill whatever desires their own wives might not be inclined to fulfill. Unlike street whores, the wenches were free and clean. They were also on a regimen of herbs to help prevent any unwanted childbirth. Rumors were that after a time those herbs rendered a woman completely barren. Elyra preferred not to think about that.

Thankfully she wouldn’t have to take those damn herbs anymore no matter what the dragon may require of her. A dragon couldn’t get her pregnant. Could he? She scrunched her nose as she worked a tattered cloth over her skin. She doubted he was even small enough to…well…Instead, he’d probably just demand that she use her…Elyra snorted. She’d worry about that later.

When she was clean, she pulled the plug on the tub and stepped out. She fetched herself a clean towel, wrung out her shoulder-length red hair, and then wrapped the towel around her body. Elyra went to her dresser and pulled out a fresh cotton dress. It was cream and gray like all the others. Unlike her other outfits, this one was in a modest cut that hid her curves. It was the most formal looking thing she’d been given. Which was just what she wanted for the meeting she was about to have with the Head Mistress of Servants.

After she was dry and dressed, Elyra brushed her hair. She’d had the brush so long she’d worn little marks in the wooden handle with her fingers. Elyra set the brush down and stepped into her shoes. Aside from her rope sandals she had only a formal pair of black leather shoes for the occasions where she had to serve food or drink to groups of wealthy visiting merchants. The shoes hurt her feet, but she would not have to wear them much longer.

Elyra settled on her bed as the first purple glimmer of pre-dawn light began to bruise the eastern sky. Any moment now another servant would knock upon the door to the wake the girls and bring them their morning porridge. They’d have a short time to eat and get bathed, and then it would be off to start their morning duties. Elyra had no intention of waiting for anyone to ask her why she was dressed so early. She knew the Servant Mistress would be in her office by dawn, and Elyra meant to be there waiting.

When the knock came, Elyra was at the door before anyone else was even out of bed. She opened it and smiled at the boy holding a tray nearly as large as he was. The boy bore reddish hair but no mark. That made him luckier than most in this place. Elyra tussled the boy’s hair and let him in. On his tray was an immense tub of bland but filling porridge and lots of empty bowls stacked atop one another. He set the tray down on an empty table, and then set about lighting some of the lamps around the room. Elyra watched him go from bed to bed, gently waking the women.

Elyra considered eating breakfast, but as knotted as her stomach was it did not seem wise. She could always steal herself something to eat later. While the other women were busy waking, Elyra slipped out into the hallway. Her quarters were in a part of the castle used by the servants, though at least the main hall was more accommodating than the servant corridors. Scuffed wooden paneling covered the walls, and the floor bore faded carpet long since flattened beneath countless boots.

Elyra strode down the corridor and took the first door into the hidden pathways that snaked through the Hall Of Nobility. Despite the official title of the place, Elyra always thought it more of a castle than a hall. Admittedly she was not familiar with the differences between castles, halls, palaces and so forth. The building was far older than the nobles who now claimed it as their home.

Elyra hurried through the narrow servant hallways. She ducked under pipes and beams, twisted to push her way through tight spaces, stepped over rises in the floor. After spending so many years navigating the cramped and confusing corridors she could just about run through them blind by now. She was careful not to get dirt upon her dress. It wouldn’t do to sit before the Head Mistress of Servants with smudged clothing.

By the time the first sliver of golden fire cast its glow across the horizon, Elyra sat in a stiff, uncomfortable chair in a small antechamber that served as waiting room. She was the first one there, arriving even before the Head Mistress. Elyra squirmed as she waited. Fear returned to gnaw at her belly, nausea replaced her usual morning hunger. She drummed her nails against the barren pine armrests of the chair. Every moment passed as an hour, every beat of her heart seemed a solitary moment surrounded by silence.

Elyra jerked upright when she heard the nearby door unlock. She tugged out the sides of her skirt and turned her face to the floor, a gesture that was half curtsy and half bow. She held it as Behka, Head Mistress of Servants, entered the antechamber. With her face down she saw only the woman’s shoes, black leather and bold buckles. Formal, as always.

“Oh. Hello, Elyra,” the Head Mistress said. Her tone was sharp but not disrespectful. “Have you seen my secretary?”

“No, Ma’am,” Elyra replied without straightening up from her curtsying bow. “I was the first to arrive here.”

“I see.” Elyra heard a tapping sound. She did not have to look up to know the Head Mistress was drumming the fingers of one hand against the palm of the other. “You must have something you wish to discuss with me, so come along then.”

Once Head Mistress Behka turned back to her office, Elyra straightened up and followed her. Of all the people Elyra served, the Head Mistress was the only one Elyra wouldn’t like to punch in the teeth with an armored gauntlet. Though the older woman was a stickler for traditions, she’d always treated Elyra and the other servants as fairly and respectfully as her position allowed.

Elyra hurried into the Head Mistress’ office. She settled into the single chair in front of her desk, and bowed her head. Elyra listened to the woman shuffling papers and rattling a quill in an inkwell until she was addressed again. Though the woman treated Elyra respectfully, she did stick to decorum. And decorum stated a servant could not speak to their betters until addressed.

“What did you wish to discuss, Elyra?” The Head Mistress glanced up a moment, scribbling something onto parchment.

This was it. The moment she had been anticipating since she’d first heard of the dragon. This was her chance. This was her opportunity to escape this terrible place, to seize her own life and guide it in a direction of her choosing. Her icy hands trembled. Her breath froze in her lungs. She curled cold toes inside her shoes. Just do it. Just say it. Elyra took a deep breath and forced strength into her voice.

“Volunteer!” Damn.

“What?” The Head Mistress gave her an odd look. The older woman scratched at the graying hair tied in a bun atop her head.

“I volunteer!” Elyra blurted out.

Behka quirked a thin brow, then idly adjusted the formal blue and black dress she wore. “You volunteer?”

Elyra’s mouth went dry. She licked her lips and scraped her tongue over her teeth to try and moisten it. Her voice came out raspy, but at least she spat out a few more words. “Yes. I’ve come here to volunteer.”

The Head Mistress sighed, easing back into her gray-cushioned chair. A smile tugged at the older woman’s lips. She tapped the tip of her quill against the paper she was writing on, leaving little black dots. “For what?”

Elyra blinked. Oh. Right. This was all going wrong. Her fear was getting the best of her. She balled up her hands into fists and grit her teeth. As she tried to find the words again, she glanced around the room. The Head Mistress’ mahogany desk was covered with organized stacks of paper and folders, books and ledgers. A few stone inkwells were organized in one corner, feathered quills sticking from one of them. Lamps hung from curved brass poles. The walls were decorated with beautiful tapestries. Directly behind the Head Mistress was a tapestry covered with mountains at sunrise. Layers of purple and gold depicted the rising sun banishing the nighttime gloom. It was a lovely image, and Elyra could almost feel the silence and serenity of it creeping into her soul.

“Lovely, isn’t it?” The Head Mistress glanced back at the tapestry, smiling. “Didn’t you once tell me you wanted to see the mountains?”

“Yes,” Elyra said, her voice little more than a murmur.

The older woman smiled, turning her attention back to her morning paperwork. She signed a few papers, then began to write a letter. “Take your time. I’m not going anywhere.”

Elyra smiled back at the older woman. Sometimes, a kindness as simple as a moment of patience was all it took to help set her mind at ease. Elyra received her duties from the woman for many years now, and she’d always showed more patience and respect than Elyra ever expected. There was a predictability to the Head Mistress that was almost as comforting as her moments of patience.

Every day she wore a dark colored dress with long sleeves that showed not a hint of skin below the neck or above her ankles. Her formal shoes always seemed new. A simple bronze locket hung around her neck. Her hair had grayed over the years but the bun tied atop her head never changed. Her face was dusted with a bit of powder but she made no attempt to hide the lines and spots of age.

Elyra might have thought her a spinster if not for some of the wilder rumors that circulated amongst the servants about her younger days. They were probably false yet Elyra thought the Head Mistress anything but a prude. She simply respected herself too much to show off her body to anyone but those she cared for.

A shame Elyra wasn’t given the same chance. Not that she blamed the Head Mistress for what the nobles did to the servant wenches. There were some things Elyra knew the Head Mistress simply couldn’t change even if she cared to. Exposing the noble’s habits with the wenches would just get her thrown in some dungeon.

Elyra stared at the tapestry behind the Head Mistress. In her mind she saw that golden light growing, bathing the entire mountain range in its brilliance. How beautiful the sunrise must be as it broke across the mountains. Elyra hoped she’d get to watch the sun rise above the rugged peaks at least once before the dragon decided to eat her.

The dragon. That was why she was here.

Without taking her eyes from the mountains of the tapestry, Elyra at last put words to her new life. “I have come to volunteer to be the dragon’s maiden.”

The sudden strength in her own voice surprised her. The scratching of the Head Mistress’ quill against parchment came to an immediate stop. The older woman slowly turned her penetrating brown eyes up to Elyra. For a moment she simply stared at her in disbelief. Then she set her quill down, and leaned across the desk towards Elyra.

“You what, Elyra?”

“I have come to volunteer to be the dragon’s maiden.” When Elyra repeated herself, her voice held the same fire she imagined flickering through the dragon’s teeth. “Ma’am, surely by now you have heard that a dragon has made a request for a maiden, and that it has fallen upon the nobility to provide that for him.” Elyra saw no reason not to put things bluntly. “It’s come to my attention that the dragon requires a woman of courage and experience. We all have the experience, Ma’am, but I think you would agree I am the most courageous of us all.”

“Come to your attention?” The Head Mistress sharpened her tone. A flick of her eyes told Elyra she already had documents on the matter.

Elyra ignored her implication. “I can see no more courageous a maiden than one who volunteers herself for the dragon’s service.”

Behka drummed her fingers against the papers she’d glanced at. Her words were a threatening knife aimed at Elyra’s heart. “You’re treading dangerous ice Elyra, and it grows thinner with every step.”

Elyra deflected the blade away. “I often do. I think the dragon will like that about me.” The Head Mistress stared at her, unblinking. Elyra refused to look away. She knew the woman well enough to press her luck. “The dragon has already been insulted once when they offered him some frightened virgin.” The Mistress’ cheek twitched, her eyes narrowed slightly. Good. Elyra wanted her knowledge to surprise the older woman. The longer this went in her favor, the better she kept control of her fear. “Do you think it wise to insult the beast again by sending someone quakes at his very voice? I think he would be more pleased with someone brave enough to volunteer.”

The Head Mistress finally sighed, sinking back into her chair. “You’ve found a way out, haven’t you.”

This time it was Elyra’s turn to be surprised. She hadn’t expected the older woman to see right through her so easily. She gaped a moment, and then tried to collect herself. “I simply wish to-”

“I always knew you’d leave us on your own terms, Elyra.” Behka smiled to herself, gazing around her office. She waved an age-spotted hand. “Though to be honest, I thought it would be via execution after you hurled Atrius out the highest window you could find.”

Hearing that from Head Mistress Behka was such an absurd moment that Elyra actually laughed. She shook her head, trying to fight back her laughter. “I’d never do such a thing, Head Mistress.”

“We both know they were never going to break you, Elyra.” Behka’s voice softened, her smile grew warmer. “There was always something in your eyes, just waiting to be unleashed. Waiting for that day you were ready to go out on your own terms. Has that day come, Elyra?”

“I…I don’t know,” Elyra admitted. She took a deep breath, held it till her lungs burned. When she could hold it no more, she heaved a great sigh. “I don’t think he’d demand someone courageous just to kill them.”

“Unless you anger him. Or insult him. Or he grows tired of you.” The Head Mistress ticked off a few fingers. “Or he simply likes to watch brave things die. He is a dragon, after all.”

“Then so be it!” Elyra spat, sitting up straighter. “If the beast kills me then at least I took a chance! At least it was my choice that led me there, at least I had a hand in my own fate!”

“Indeed,” Behka said, murmuring to herself. She pulled a fresh piece of parchment aside, and began to write upon it. “You realize that this wicked beast is male, don’t you? You know what the dragon is going to make you do for him?”

“Nothing the nobles don’t already make me do.” Elyra’s words dripped with bitter poison. Bekha’s quill froze upon the page for a moment. “If the dragon should so much as thank me in his drowsy satisfaction, that alone would be an improvement. Yes, I’m aware of what the beast may request. If you must know, serving the carnal needs of a single dragon already sounds better than satisfying a dozen filthy nobles.”

Behka went back to writing, and Elyra folded her arms. She stared at the mountain tapestry again. “Dragons live in the mountains, don’t they? I mean…this dragon. He lives in the mountains, right?”

Behka sighed a little, waving her quill. “I don’t know. I suspect he does.”

“I hope we have to fly to get there,” Elyra’s voice grew lower and lower. “I should love to fly. Perhaps he’ll give me some of his gold.”

“The beast is known to demand plenty of it, so I suppose he’ll have some to share.” The Head Mistress chuckled to herself. “Though I doubt such a foul creature would share it. Are you sure you want to do this, Elyra?”

“I can’t take this life anymore.” Elyra stared into the Head Mistress’s eyes. “I’m so close to leaving this horrible place I can almost taste the fresh air. If I turn back now and don’t take this chance? Then you’re right. The next time Atrius comes for me I really will put him through a window.” She closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the chair. “This is a chance I have to take.”

“So be it, Elyra.”

“I wonder if he’ll take me when he goes to make his demands.” Elyra chuckled a little bit. “Maybe he’ll even let me make a demand. It sounds exciting, don’t you think?” Elyra could not hold back her smile.

“It sounds wicked, actually.” Behka grinned to herself, then signed the document in a few places. She sanded the ink, then fetched a bit of red wax and a candle to melt it with.

“Head Mistress, I’d like you to know something.” Elyra leaned forward, her eyes fixed on the droplets of wax falling upon the document that would set her free. Her voice sank to a whisper. “You have given me comfort over the years, where everyone else only brought coldness and cruelty.”

Bekha’s hands shook a little as she set the candle down. She opened a drawer. She retrieved a small golden signet, and pressed it into the wax. Then she blew upon it till the wax began to dry. She blew away the drying sands, and very slowly pushed the document across the table towards Elyra.

“This will get you what you ask for, Elyra.” She sank back in her chair, heaving a sigh. “May you find some measure of happiness with it.”

Elyra had to work to quell the shaking of her hands long enough to hold the letter and read it. It was just as promised. It named her as the woman to be offered to the dragon, and that the request should be fulfilled immediately. Elyra read it three times to be sure. Then she bowed as deeply as she could. Not for decorum, but in genuine thanks and with real respect.

“Thank you, Head Mistress.”

The Head Mistress gave her a little smile, and waved. “You’re welcome. Good luck, Elyra.”

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