In the hopes of fighting fear with knowledge and making the best of bad situations, it occurred to me to try to learn, from the princes and knights who seemed to be flooding my life, as much about this system as I could.
I must say, the more I considered the system, and the more I learned of it, the more foolish it seemed. For instance, if the prize for slaying a dragon was the princess’s hand in marriage, it was a prize that could go to one man and one man only. So under the system, it made sense only for a single man to attack a dragon. This was insane. Dragons are in nearly every way physically superior to men. In normal circumstances it would be logical to take them in groups of four or five. Men were needlessly dying for this system, not to mention the dragons.
The dragons are an interesting case, too, because their options are so limited. Unfortunately they need lots of food to live. If they take livestock, kingdoms get serious about hunting them down and their survival is unlikely. Hunting’s an option, but as a lifestyle it makes every day a struggle. The dragons have adapted to a lazier lifestyle, and see this as a reasonable system. They don’t hesitate to kill knights, because they know they’re there to kill them, and besides the knights who lose, who’s really getting hurt? And anyway, the animosity between humans and dragons, sparked by the seeming conspiracy of the monarchies to keep the politics secret from their people, makes it next to impossible for a dragon to get an honest job to pay for food. For the dragons, the choice is a lazy life of crime or a life of noble struggle.
It wasn’t unheard of, I found out, for one party or the other to actually give up and have their life spared, once they realized they were bested. Of course, there was the matter of the armor. Dragonhide armor, a not-so-charming young prince once informed me, was ‘one of the most amazing quasi-magical compounds known to man.’ Besides being virtually flameproof and insanely tough, dragonhide had one exceedingly bizarre quality that, among other things, protected it from theft. Only the one who slew the dragon from which it was made could wear it. On anyone else, it would turn brittle like shed snakeskin.
Dragonhide was a status symbol amongst knights, so they would sometimes try to kill a surrendered dragon for a piece of their hide. It just went to show you it wasn’t all about princesses.
“And it’s really a good thing,” I was telling Jarrod shortly after I found out, “Because I was starting to feel really guilty. Like people were dying for me and I was so ungrateful all I could think of was me. It’s all just really screwed up.”
"It really is," he replied.
We were quiet for a moment.
"Well, maybe I could rescue you."
I laughed. "Jarrod, have you ever seen a dragon?"
"Hey, I'm a good man in a fight."
"I'm flattered, but there's no way. Anyway, what makes you think I'm so hot on marrying you?"
"Maddy, I didn't mean-. I mean you didn't think I was saying-. I just, if it was me we wouldn't have to get married."
"Yes we would. My parents would see to it. That's the whole point. It's the system. I'm essentially promised to whomever can kill whichever giant lizard captures me. The only way I could get out is if... Well, maybe if I killed the dragon."
I laughed at the absurdity of the idea, but Jarrod seemed to take it seriously.
"Maddy, that's brilliant. Why not?" he asked.
"You're crazy," I said, "I could never -"
"I bet you could. One, you’ve got the element of surprise. The dragon would never expect an attack from within. Plus, shit, you've got immunity. A dragon can't hurt you without bringing down the wrath of a whole kingdom - without risk of tearing down the whole system. With enough planning, Maddy, you could do this. Free yourself from the whole thing."
"That's crazy, Jarrod. Maybe I'll just talk to my parents. Tell them how I feel."
"Fine," he replied, "You go talk to them and see where that gets you. I'm going to make a plan."
I left laughing, but also intrigued. Mainly I was just thinking dreamily about how dedicated Jarrod was to me, to come up with this whole silly plan.
The talk with my parents, as you’ve probably guessed, was like talking to a wall.
“But why don’t you want to get married?” my mother asked frantically.
“I’m not saying I don’t want to get married, I’m saying I don’t want to get married this way,” I tried to explain.
“Well what way do you want to do it, then? Have a bloody contest like the Eefratapi?” He paused. “Actually that wouldn’t be the worst idea. Bring a lot of money into the economy. Everybody loves a big tournament.”
“Don’t be stupid, Mylton,” my mother told him. She turned to me.
“This system worked for me. It worked for my mother. It’s worked for our family for generations. It works for the knights, and it even works for the dragons. I know it seems scary and frustrating to you, Maddy, but just try to think of it as the next chapter of your life. You’re going to marry a handsome young man and have a fine life.”
And that was the end of that. My parents were set in their ways, my suitors were many and varied and ridiculous, and my time was running out.
By and by as my stress level increased, I started to take Jarrod’s idea seriously. He, of course, had never directly mentioned it since that first time, but I knew, I knew he was working on it. He wanted to have it ready when I finally relented. I wanted to talk it out with someone else. My friends wouldn’t hear of it I was sure, and my parents were out of the question. That left Ariadne, the little brat.
“Madz, are you serious!? That’s crazy!”
“That’s exactly what I said when he suggested it. But honestly, he made some good points. It could really work.”
Ariadne thought a minute, picking up and studying my dolls as she thought.
“Well, what if he is right? What happens next?”
“Well, after I slay the dragon I win me. And that means I get to be my own person, and marry anybody I want.” I actually hadn’t thought about it, but when Ria called me on it I felt obligated to make something up in a hurry. Now that I had though, I liked my explanation. Whomever slays the dragon gets the girl, even if it is the girl. Makes perfect sense, I thought. Ria, apparently, thought differently.
“Do you really think Mom and Dad will see it that way?” she asked, raising an eyebrow and crossing her arms.
“Well, what choice will they have?”
She sighed and rolled her eyes. She was certainly turning into a teenager early.
“They could get angry, Madz. They might do something really bad.”
I smiled. “Why should they get angry,” I asked, “They never said I couldn’t slay a dragon.”
Ariadne did not think this was as funny as I’d hoped.
“Be careful, big sis,” she said, and walked out.
Obnoxious and pretentious as she was, she was almost certainly right. Even if I pulled this off there was no guarantee it would work out the way I wanted it to. Nonetheless, I was leaning more and more towards it as an option, and the scare I needed to push me into it came the next night.
Horizon was having a little get-together at her kingdom. It was really an excuse to get to know Prince Ryan a little better, but she invited the three of us (Bri, Jenny, and I) to allay suspicion. She also invited Prince Steven, for which I currently hated her. Anyway, much to Horizon’s chagrin, the two princes were chatting politics at the castle while us girls played some croquet on the lawn.
“How do you think it’s going?” Rizzy asked.
“He’s totally into you,” I said, rightly enough.
“But you knew that,” said Bri, “It’s your parents that are the problem.”
“I can worry bout that later,” she said, “After all, I don’t have a big scaly ticking time bomb to worry ‘bout.”
At just that moment, as if summoned by her words, a huge red form streaked toward us. We all knew what it was. I screamed. Jenny ducked. Horizon voiced an expletive.
Bri ran at the dragon, screaming, “Take me, take me!”
And it did. Well eventually. First it stopped and surveyed the scene. Then it asked, in a deep throaty voice, “Princess Briana of Sesiquill?”
She nodded fearfully. It nodded back, then produced a tiny card from between two scales and gave it to me, of all people.
“See that this gets to her parents,” it said, then picked up Bri and took off. She looked positively ecstatic.
The rest of us were a bit shaken. The party was broken up immediately, the card was sent to Sesiquill with the fastest messenger in the kingdom, and we all went home to our respective parents.
I was horrified by the sheer size of it. Dragons were the sorts of creatures you could hear about your whole life, but never be prepared to see, up close and personal. The sheen of the scales, the deep gravelly voice, the unhumanity of it. On the one hand, Jarrod’s plan seemed more impossible than ever. On the other hand, it seemed essential. After three or four days in bed recovering from the shock of it, (time that would have been mandated by my parents even if I hadn’t needed it) I went to see Jarrod.
“So tell me about the plan.”