The Princess and the Dragon and Other Stories About Unlikely Heroes Chapter One

Chapter One | The Princess and the Dragon and Other Stories About Unlikely Heroes by Francesca Burke

The Kingdom of Mirrors, the loudest, southernmost and most magical of the Three Kingdoms, filled the bottom third of the crescent moon with olive trees, fishing boats and about ten thousand mirrors. It was ruled by the Durante line of the House of Stars, whose family tree was dotted with the types of people whose exploits are written into ten-minute songs about burning cities and eccentric fashion sense and enormous acts of courage in the face of fire-breathing dragons. Princess Amelia, the youngest of the Durante family, knew from early childhood that she, too, would one day have to defeat a dragon.

Nobody initially expected Amelia to face the dragon in question, partly because she was a girl and partly because she had been born second in line to the throne. Her older brother, Prince Nicholas, was both dashingly handsome and perfectly capable of embarking on such a heroic quest by himself. Unfortunately for Amelia, by the time she reached her teens Prince Nicholas found himself indisposed, so although most people were too polite to mention it, the task of dragon-slaying ultimately fell to her.

Amelia was fourteen, and in happier stories she would be learning how to dance or dabble in magic. In this story, Amelia was in charge of olive oil production. She was also kingdom treasurer, head of the royal family’s public relations department, occasional fisherwoman and part-time carer to her ailing father, the king. For someone born into a centuries-old dynasty, she spent a lot of time with ancient legal documents and recently gutted fish.

Amelia’s path to notoriety began one overwarm Monday evening in early spring when she had finished a day’s work in the kingdom treasury and was heading through the Kingdom of Mirrors’ busy capital city, Lumiere, to evening lessons in the castle. Today she would be learning mathematics with her tutor—which seemed redundant when she ran the entire kingdom’s budget from a piece of parchment and an abacus—so she dragged her feet as she walked through Market Street towards the castle.

Market Street was the epicentre of Lumiere and Amelia’s favourite part of the city. Lumiere looked like a fairytale, or a dream. It was a dream, of sorts: Amelia’s great-great-times-something grandparents designed the city themselves after the previous one was ravaged by one of those wars disguised as a marriage. Wait, no, this one was a war disguised as a war.

Neither grandparent was particularly conventional when it came to architecture, so every corner of Lumiere demanded your attention. White stone buildings rose into spires with forty sides, each one mosaiced with tiny chips of glass or ceramics. Colourful tiles trimmed every window and door, forming intricate patterns that drew the eye in a hundred directions. Only a few windows in each building held clear glass: almost everywhere boasted a stained-glass frieze of pictures or spirals. Even regular stone walls were round and misshapen, like someone plucked all the cobbles from the street and piled them on top of one another until they resembled a building. On every wall in the kingdom, from the tiniest cupboard to the largest battlement, hung a looking glass. No one was sure who had started the tradition, but they all appreciated how easy it was to check if you had food stuck in your teeth. Brightly painted doors, each competing for attention in violent shades of fuchsia or lavender or buttercup, were elegantly latticed with wrought iron. Some buildings were mosaiced entirely in silver, others in turquoise or tangerine. There wasn’t a grey space in the country and according to rumour, every colour in existence had been pressed into use somewhere in the kingdom. A staple of every primary school education in the Kingdom of Mirrors was a day spent naming the colours of each public building.

On some walls Amelia passed, mosaics formed cheery squares like kitchen tiles. On others they made bright, childlike images telling the history of the Kingdom of Mirrors. There were the olive trees, there was a woman brewing a potion, there was a boat next to some fish. The mosaiced fish were consistently bigger than the little people on the boat, which always made Amelia wonder whether the artist had no sense of scale or if they wanted to emphasise how brave the fishermen were, sailing out to face enormous krakens and territorial mermaids and climate change.

As she walked, Amelia gazed across Market Street to the little boats in the harbour, bobbing about on a minuscule breeze. Something moved near the hull of a dinghy, perhaps a school of fish or a merperson. The boat’s owner dozed on deck, oblivious. Up in the hills, lights twinkled from the peaks of each mountain. Lime green parakeets hollered over tiny sparrows, shouting over hulking seagulls.

Amelia stopped at one of Market Street’s twenty food carts to buy a snack before lessons. After a small diplomatic incident in which a local butcher replaced fresh lamb with fresh cat without mentioning it to anyone first, Amelia had lost her taste for kebabs, so she chose a cheese pastry and orange juice, praying that the cheese came from a farmyard animal. ‘You don’t have to pay, Your Majesty,’ the vendor told her as she rummaged through her purse. Although Amelia was dressed exactly like her subjects in a loose cotton dress and had the same umber skin and jet-black hair, the market knew her well. She frequently hid there to avoid going to the castle.

‘Of course I do…’ Amelia searched for the vendor’s name. ‘Sarah. Of course I have to pay, Sarah, I’m not going to go around stealing from my own people!’ Especially when you’re one of the few tradespeople who pays their taxes, she added silently.

‘Well, if you’re sure… can I put some magic in it, on the house?’

‘Oh, go on then.’ Amelia yawned and fanned herself with her sunhat. ‘Something to revive my desire to go to my maths tutorial.’

Sarah smiled and reached under her little counter for a vial labelled enthusiasm: medium strength. She flicked a couple of drops into Amelia’s orange juice. ‘Bad day at the office, Your Majesty?’

Amelia gazed across the square at children her own age. Walking home from school with cloth satchels slung over their shoulders, wearing faded patterned dresses or shorts, they jostled each other along in a way that always struck Amelia as very comradely. She tried to push back a pang of jealousy. Until Amelia’s father suffered a stroke when she was twelve, Amelia attended the same local school, wearing the same faded patterned dresses. Amelia hadn’t especially enjoyed formal education when she was forced to go, but after years of squeezing in private tutoring between royal business and gradually losing touch with her friends, Amelia would have given anything to spend eight hours with other people her own age. Especially since public schools let children take a class in brewing potions, and Amelia’s parents wouldn’t let her near any magical substances since an unfortunate incident with a dog and a growth potion when Amelia was ten.

‘Oh you know…’ Amelia shrugged. ‘Eighty per cent of our teachers and healthcare professionals have gone abroad in the last five years and we can’t afford to train anyone new. There’s also a shortage of sorcerers who know how to bewitch the weather, so we’re in for a long summer.’ She scowled and chomped her pastry. ‘Oh, and the Earl of Star’s Reach spent half an hour telling me how he plans to convert an entire room in his house into a shrine to the gods of gratitude. Gratitude! He’d do better praying to the gods of lost causes.’

Shrines in the Kingdom of Mirrors were like pairs of shoes: everyone owned at least one, but to people who considered themselves fashionable, they were the ultimate status symbol. Each building housed a shrine to one god or another, each made from chips of mirrored glass or colourful tiles. Some were the size of a post box, others the size of a shed. Some people, like the Earl of Star’s Reach, dedicated an entire room in their house to their shrine, replacing all the windows with stained glass and filling the room with candles, incense and tiny prayer scrolls. The Earl fancied himself a priest and a magician, although the rest of the court fancied him a nuisance, especially when his attempts at magic resulted in a castle-wide evacuation.

‘Is he thinking of going for any particular design?’ Sarah asked. Her kiosk’s little shrine to the water gods was the size of a milk jug and made from blue glass chips. It sat on the till, which Sarah had bewitched to open only when she touched it.

‘The Earl wants a plain mirrored mosaic floor in the shape of his family crest to remind him of his respect for the gods of hearth and home,’ Amelia recalled. ‘But his wife doesn’t like to be reminded of her mother-in-law.’

‘Maybe she should pray to the gods for a new husband, then,’ Sarah suggested. ‘Or send him south to Scavenger’s Ruin. The Sapphire Dragon will take care of him.’

Amelia tried to laugh, but something stuck in her throat.

She finished her food at the communal iron tables, soaking up the atmosphere as the evening sun reflected off the mirrors on each building, casting the entire street in strange beams of light and duplicating the market one thousand times over. When she was little, Amelia thought that every mirror contained another world, where another Amelia sat, looking into another mirror.

The temperature was starting to drop, so Lumiere was coming alive. Children scampered around fountains while parents chatted at cafés. Amelia could hear restaurants getting ready for the dinner shift, lighting fires to roast lambs and goats on spits, and she could smell oregano and bougainvillea plants. A cicada chirruped somewhere, almost drowned out by a marching band performing at one end of Market Street. The band appeared to be in direct competition with an orchestra holding a performance at the other end of the street. Babies’ cries mingled with dogs’ barks as street vendors contended with everyone. ‘Salted olives, a jar for a silver coin!’ Amelia could get two jars of olives for a copper coin; there were more olive trees in the Kingdom of Mirrors than there were people. A wasp buzzed near Amelia’s pastry wrappings, close enough to count its legs. She waved it away. Another vendor hollered, ‘Feather pillowcases, plucked from swans this morning!’ Very few swans lived in the Kingdom of Mirrors. Possibly the manufacturer had skinned several pigeons.

It was well past time to go to lessons, so Amelia hauled herself from her seat and brushed her sticky hands on her dress as the loudest voice of all cut through the crowd. ‘Magical gold amulets—guaranteed to keep your marriage healthy! Just five gold pieces for two!’

Amelia stopped at the stall, waving another wasp away from her face. Anything for another two minutes of fresh air. ‘What do those amulets do?’

‘They spice up your marriage, Your Majesty.’ The vendor, a sun-wrinkled old man called Harry, bowed when he recognised her.

My marriage?’

‘Or your parents’ marriage!’ Harry seemed to remember who he was talking to. ‘Not that the King and Queen need any help in their marriage! I am sure they’re blissfully happy!’

‘Yes, blissful,’ Amelia agreed. She rubbed her temples. The enthusiasm was taking its time kicking in. ‘Couldn’t the marching band and the orchestra perform at different times?’

‘Course they could,’ Harry grunted. ‘But that would be too easy. The orchestra is starring in a musical.’

‘Remind me never to see it,’ Amelia muttered.

‘You might want to, Your Majesty, it’s about the war with the Sapphire Dragon.’

‘Why on earth would I want to watch a musical about the war?’ Amelia demanded. Why couldn’t people stop bringing it up? First Sarah with her joke, now Harry. For ten whole minutes as she strolled through Market Street, Amelia had forgotten all about the war her people waged against their unfriendly neighbourhood dragon.

Harry shrugged. ‘Search me, Your Majesty, I’ve never been much of a theatre person. Can I interest you in a shell for calming headaches?’

‘No, no, I’ll take a tonic later on.’ Amelia knew that Harry’s ‘magic shells’ came from Lumiere’s beach. Although blood red and very pleasant as a table decoration, they held absolutely no magical properties. Amelia didn’t have the heart to tell him she knew the scam: not everyone in the kingdom was a magic user. Amelia never quite got over the fact that her mother, Queen Hazel, excelled at casting protection spells, while Amelia, Nicholas and their father, King Emmanuel, possessed about as much magical ability as a pair of socks.

She left Harry there as he called into the market once more. ‘Magical shells! Endorsed by the Princess Amelia!’


Miraculously, Amelia arrived earlier than her tutor. Madame Louisa taught every subject on a different day in their little room at the very top of the castle tower. Ten floors up, Amelia could still hear the orchestra and the marching band battling it out. While she waited, she flicked through the pile of newspapers they had used for her current affairs lesson the previous week. There was the war, again, on almost every page.

  ‘The Sapphire Dragon razes another town!’ screamed one headline. ‘Is he heading north from his cave at Scavenger’s Ruin?’

  ‘King Richard of the Valley of Dreams sends more troops to the Kingdom of Mirrors’ aid,’ announced another paper. ‘Meanwhile, King Emmanuel has borrowed money from Queen Margaret of Stormhaven to pay for another siege at Scavenger’s Ruin, to force the Sapphire Dragon from his stronghold.’

  ‘King Richard’s troops are killed in a failed siege of the Sapphire Dragon’s lair,’ bemoaned the most recent. ‘The latest failed attempt to oust the Sapphire Dragon, who has laid waste to the south coast of the Kingdom of Mirrors for 20 years, brought the military death toll up to 32,892 troops, and the civilian death toll to—’ Amelia stopped reading. She knew the numbers already.

What really depressed her was that these newspapers could have been from any year in the past two decades, ever since the Sapphire Dragon blew in from the Western Ocean on a terrible storm. Villagers spotted him curled on the beach at Scavenger’s Ruin, a fishing town at the southernmost tip of the kingdom. According to survivors, his wicked blue scales reflected the sun and his wicked grey claws left welts in the sand. Fire spat from his nostrils as he torched every building in sight, along with most villagers. War was declared immediately, of course. There’s a saying in the Three Kingdoms: sticks and stones might break your bones but they don’t do squat to dragons, so you’d better bring something stronger.

Everyone was hopeful for the first few years. Hundreds of well-trained soldiers marched south each spring, although barely fifty would make it back, and most of those spent months in the Lumiere hospital being treated for horrendous burns. The Valley of Dreams, the Kingdom of Mirrors’ closest neighbour, sent troops and extra weapons. Dragons are creatures of habit and prefer to live in secluded, enclosed spaces, so the Sapphire Dragon existed mostly in the hard-to-reach caves below Scavenger’s Ruin, venturing out occasionally to hunt fish from the once-plentiful sea or to meet the latest contingent of soldiers. Once or twice a year he would fly north, razing more towns and extending his territory just a little bit closer to Lumiere. Within some six years of the dragon’s arrival, half the nation was inhospitable and hundreds of terrified families had fled to Lumiere. Others went further north still, to the Valley of Dreams.

Lumiere soon started to creak under the extra pressure from its new inhabitants. Tensions built up in crowded communities as the war dragged on. After a few more years of state funerals for fallen soldiers and emergency aid relief for refugees, someone cracked and threw a brick into the tent of a refugee family, starting the famous Midsummer Riots. Amelia remembered watching the carnage from her bedroom window as a terrified six-year-old, counting the fires that spread across the city. ‘Dad will sort it out,’ twelve-year-old Nicholas assured her. ‘He has an army.’

‘He doesn’t,’ Amelia argued. ‘They’ve all been eaten by the dragon.’

‘The Sapphire Dragon doesn’t eat people,’ Nicholas assured her. ‘He just sets them on fire.’

Amelia refused to go near a lit candle for weeks after he said that. Emmanuel and Hazel finally bowed to political pressure and began to borrow money from Queen Margaret of Stormhaven to train even more soldiers. They signed an agreement with the Valley of Dreams, allowing thousands of refugees to relocate to safer lands in exchange for access to the Kingdom of Mirrors’ ancient magical scrolls, something no monarch had allowed for centuries. Eight years later, the kingdom’s debts were crippling its economy and all those extra soldiers proved about as effective as a comedian at a funeral.

‘Your Majesty!’ Amelia jolted out of her reverie as Madame Louisa swept into the room. ‘Apologies for my tardiness. Let’s get started with some mathematics!’

Madame Louisa didn’t set particularly difficult exercises today —but then, Amelia recently balanced Louisa’s family’s bank account. Amelia scratched away at algebraic fractions, trying not to think about dragons. She glanced out the tower window. All the way up here she could see the entire city, nestled amongst the mountains and olive groves, temple spires sparkling. People would soon be making their way to evening prayers, if not just stopping for ten minutes to light a candle in the nearest shrine. If she had magical vision, which wasn’t unheard of in the Three Kingdoms, she could see around the coast all the way down to Scavenger’s Ruin. From this distance the road looked like it was scratched into the mountain by a dragon’s claw. Her fist clenched around her pencil. Would she ever go anywhere without being reminded that her kingdom was on its knees?

The pencil snapped. Across the room, Madame Louisa raised her eyebrows and handed Amelia another.

Chapter Two
Chapter Three
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Copyright © 2019 by Francesca Burke

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

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