As I danced with yet another suitor I looked up at my father, the king of the Amanita. Even in his older years he was a strongly built man. In the last few years his golden hair had gone so white it was nearly luminescent. I had inherited my golden locks from him, luckily the rest of my looks came from my mother. My father was many things, but handsome was not among them.
My cerise frilled gown twirled as my current partner tried to woo me through the wonders of dance. My ladies in waiting had done their research. I knew this particular prince was something of an embarrassment to his family, peasants and merchants on the roads at night had a nasty habit of disappearing and all evidence pointed to the prince. His standing kept him out of trouble, but the people talked, and the royals as far wide as the elven lands had already began to distance themselves. His kingdom was suffering due to his indiscretions, if he didn’t make a strong ally soon the future his looked to be filled with assassins and civil war.
I gave a little twirl with my free hand as we danced. Across the room my lady inspected a crystal goblet which just happened to catch the light from a nearby candle. A moment later the music began to wind down. My partner bowed as we parted, he gave me a smile that was two shades too desperate to be charming before he walked away.
On cue my other lady appeared at my elbow almost instantly to hand me my fan. I opened it as we walked off the dance floor.
“Please, kind lord, the princess needs her rest.” My lady spoke as she stepped between approaching suitors and my exit.
I understood the reason for this ball- I was a princess of age to wed, the kingdom of Amanita was a desirable ally, and we needed allies for our own problems. The majority of the suitors were in the dark about that last part. The law of our land stated that any foreigner that I married would be a crown-prince while I reigned as Queen. Our two kingdoms would be aligned and any heirs that I bore would be destined to the throne as King or Queen.
The goal today was to charm enough suitors to entice their pledges of alliance and possibly find my future husband. I wasn’t prone to thoughts of fancy, true love only happened faery tales or theatre while my life was neither. My kingdom is the home to humans that could bend space with magical fields and gnomes with a talent for alchemically charged agriculture. Our allies would hope to acquire those secrets just as we hoped to use their armies to deal with the impending invasion from the dragon-folk.
For years the dragon-folk lived in the harsh lands beyond the mountains to the south. Their only natural enemies were the lizardmen of the coastal islands and the occasional run-ins with roaming desert gnomes. Things had changed in the past couple of years. Someone had unified the dragon-folk to conquer the lizardmen and enslaved the desert gnomes. Now the draconian gaze turned to the lush Amanitian fields on the other side of the mountains.
Our forces had already met along our borders. They had somehow roped the wizards and warlocks that lived in the mountains to their cause. We had slowed their progress by pulling our people back to the central providences and closing the portals to the borderlands. The dragon-folk marched steadily on toward the heart of the kingdom.
I stopped at the base of the stairs that led to my father’s throne and gave a curtsy. He gave me a familiar sad smile. My mother had died when I was younger, their marriage had been a political one, but he had loved her. She was beautiful, gracious, and calm a raging storm with a word. They said I looked exactly like her, but I lacked her magical talent and had golden hair like my father.
“Your royal highness,” an accented voice addressed me from my right.
I turned to see a thick built man with black mustache that was curled up at the ends. The top of his head came up to my nose and he was dressed in a rich red tunic with silver trim. My lady gave a hidden sign of remorse as she noticed the suitor that had somehow slipped through her guard.
“Princess Persica it is my honor to introduce myself, Sir Marius of San Ceorl, Knight of the Realm.” The short knight bowed once more as he spoke.
“Rise, Sir Marius.” I replied in Ceorlish. “You are a long way from home.”
His eyes lit up as the rolling cadence of his native language graced his ears. She saw a small tear in the corner of his eye as he rose.
“Forgive me, your highness.” He slipped into Ceorlish as well. “It has been a long time since I’ve heard my native tongue spoken by anyone other than myself and my man, Ludovic.”
My gaze went to the man standing a few steps behind him who wore a similar mustache and tunic, but was nearly as tall as I was.
“After an evening of dancing I prefer a rest.” I looked from the knight to my lady. “Would you care to join me?”
“It would be my honor.”
Marius gave a sharp bow and then stepped aside to allow me to take the lead. Ludovic and my lady stepped into place behind us as we walked. I led our small procession to a set of doors that opened to a balcony. Archers were positioned on the floors above and below the grand ballroom at each window. We had pulled as many people as we could behind the walls of the keep and to accommodate the influx there were now more guards along the walls than I had ever seen.
“Tell me about yourself, Sir Marius.” I kept our conversation in Ceorlish to allow for privacy. “Do many knights of your realm reach so far beyond your borders?”
“No, your highness,” Marius smiled. “My man and I were guards in a small town near the far border of the lands of the Scimmia. A lady was taken by one of the tribes. We rescued her when others failed and were rewarded with knighthood. We turned our new standing to become protectors of the land.”
“Noble of you.” I meant it. “Others would have grown fat on their new standing.”
Marius patted his taught tummy under the tunic. “We did not stay local for long, your highness. My man and I traveled our land gathering others to the cause. Soon we had many strong soldiers under our command. We are connected with companies Ceorl as well as Amanita and a few other lands.”
“Tribal peoples of the world put to the sword?” I arched an eyebrow.
He gave a small, two-note laugh. “We fight who we must and have recruited many Scimmians into our fold as well as a select Niloctus.”
“The lizard-men from the swamplands?” I caught myself a moment after the shock my voice betrayed me.
“Yes, your highness.” A bright smile flashed under his mustache. “They’re not as bloodthirsty as stories say.”
I looked toward the window to avoid looking him in the face. Marius was an unexpected treat; a knight with mercenary connections, well-travelled, and open to new ideas. Perhaps he would do, it spoke well that I tolerated his company this long considering how tired I was. We were in need of soldiers and, if he was to be believed, knew where to find them. His being from a foreign land, and of low birth, would ensure my reign, which could be an issue if I was saddled with some minor local lord. Some enterprising noble would find a way to work the bloodlines to usurp my throne. Luckily there weren’t any kings or princes that were of marriageable age.
A gnome walked by carrying a serving tray. He tottered slightly as he walked and brushed against my elbow. Marius caught the gnome and steadied the tray in an efficient motion. The gnome mumbled something that did sound quite right. Gnomes and humans spoke the same language in these lands, but the accent was off. I straightened the long glove on the arm the gnome had knocked loose. My fingers felt odd as I pulled them away. On inspection they were damp with a bright blue gel.
I looked after the gnome he disappeared into the crowd. The little man was lost, but I caught sight of another gnome holding a serving tray. This one also had blue hair, but there were thin streaks of the color running down his golden skin. Gnomes in the area were pales as the moon at night with shocks of hair that ranged in wild colors, it was a byproduct of their long history with alchemy. Desert gnomes, on the other hand, had skin tones that ran a golden gradient with brown or white hair. The two peoples didn’t mix well, something in their history had split them as much as the mountains did.
My eyes rested on the blue patch. What business did a desert gnome have in Amanita?
“Bellis.” I whispered.
At the sound of her name, my lady tore her gaze away from the silent conversation she was having with Ludovic. She took a short, practiced step forward and straightened her shoulders. The words in my mouth failed come out as the tall double-doors at the main entrance of the ballroom opened. Standing in the center of the doorway and flanked by honor-guard of lizardmen on either side was the most regal dragon-folk I had ever seen. His scales were a rich vermillion except around his eyes which faded into a deep emerald shade. A simple white tunic stretched across his broad chest.
The dragon looked at the nearby herald that was frozen in fear. Sharp reptilian eyes swept over the crowd as the dragon took a step forward.
“Eirikr the Dragon Lord, first of his name.” His voice rumbled through the silent room. Those wickedly intelligent eyes traveled from me to where my father stood. “I’ve come for the princess.”