‘Lovely fish soup, Dad,’ Amelia ventured, as she sat down to dinner with her parents later that evening. The family ate in the ancient, drafty castle kitchen. Ever since the head chef and kitchen staff moved away to find jobs in more prosperous parts of the Three Kingdoms, her father assumed the role of castle cook. Amelia could see zero olives, which meant he was having a good day. After his stroke, Amelia took on most of his responsibilities so Queen Hazel didn’t need to double her workload, but he insisted on running the kitchen. Across the table, her mother attacked a loaf of bread and tried not to raise her eyebrows. Amelia dipped her spoon into the bowl. ‘Wow. I can really smell… garlic?’ King Emmanuel was an enthusiastic chef, but the people of the Kingdom of Mirrors generally survived on what they could afford, which was bread and olives. There are a great variety of ways to serve bread and olives, but they all require imagination, which King Emmanuel ran out of around the same time his teenage daughter took over his job.
‘Garlic is the only thing that makes the fish seem fresh,’ her father said sadly. ‘I mean, er, it is fresh. Of course. It came from the harbour… yesterday.’ Amelia knew it had come from the harbour a week ago because she was the one who went out with the kingdom’s little fleet of fishing boats to see what was left in the sea after so many years of the Sapphire Dragon helping himself to its fish. She also knew how much effort it took for her father to be able to stand at the kitchen counter at all, so she tucked in.
As they ate, the family went through the day’s business. ‘As you know, Emmanuel, Queen Margaret sent messengers last week to remind us we owe another portion of loan repayment,’ Queen Hazel said, ‘but Amelia managed to persuade her to give us until the winter solstice.’ Amelia was surprised at Queen Margaret’s leniency. King Emmanuel had put off asking Stormhaven for money until after the Midsummer Riots because no one did business with Margaret de Winter unless they wanted to spend the rest of their lives feeling like a fly trapped in a spider’s web. Stormhaven was the richest of the Three Kingdoms, and its ancient matriarch ruled with a personality far colder than her name.
Queen Margaret travelled all the way south when Amelia was small; Amelia’s abiding memory of the visit was the elderly monarch’s icy stare and enormous fur coat, which she insisted on wearing even as the midday sun melted windows and one of her servants fainted from heatstroke. Amelia never saw Margaret emit a bead of sweat. Rumour had it that she slept with a dagger under her pillow, had locked one of her nephews in a dragon-guarded tower and planned to rule from beyond the grave via an Ouija board and set of tarot cards, despite a kingdom-wide ban on magic use. Amelia believed every rumour.
‘How much does Margaret want for this installment, exactly?’ King Emmanuel asked. He had his daughter’s wide brown eyes and awkward shoulders and when they smiled, they were copies of one another: all teeth and lots of dimples. Neither of them had smiled recently, and although Emmanuel was only fifty, he could have passed for Amelia’s grandfather.
‘She has demanded five hundred gold bars,’ Amelia replied. ‘Unfortunately, we have zero gold bars. Do you think she would take the equivalent weight in olives?’ she asked. She was only half joking. The Kingdom of Mirrors’ olives were famous throughout the Three Kingdoms and the nation’s most popular export. Just last year Amelia traded a quarter of the state’s olive oil stock for a thousand cattle from the Valley of Dreams.
‘The only language Margaret speaks is money,’ her mother sighed. She sipped some soup, winced, then looked at the table. ‘Of course, Amelia, Queen Margaret would be very happy to marry you to one of her sons or grandsons.’
‘No.’ Amelia said flatly.
‘Amelia…’ her father began.
‘No.’ Amelia uncovered an olive and stabbed it. ‘How many times do I have to say no? You can’t just marry me off to clear our debt!’
Her parents did not mention that they could. Nor did they mention that her older brother had been happy to marry himself off until fate threw him off course. They didn’t need to.
‘Oh, we’ve had another message from the merpeople,’ her mother added. ‘The dragon has taken two more children this summer. Parents are starting to move north to safer waters.’
‘That’s all we need,’ Amelia groaned. ‘Half the population of merpeople in the harbour won’t make life difficult for anyone. ‘
‘They’ve suffered as much as we have,’ Hazel pointed out. ‘And they can’t just move to dry land.’
‘Thanks for mentioning that, it hadn’t occurred to me!’
Her mother raised her eyebrows, which suggested Amelia had better stop arguing, so she spent the rest of the meal in silence and excused herself as soon as the plates were washed. She wandered the castle for half an hour and found herself back in the classroom at the top of the tower, staring at the newspapers. The Kingdom of Mirrors was once a prosperous, vibrant nation known for its lively street festivals, beautiful architecture and delectable sea food. Her parents weren’t to blame for its terrible fortunes. But if no one did anything about the dragon, the war and their debts soon, there would be no kingdom left to rule when her father died. Which, a tiny and horrible voice in the back of her head whispered, would probably be sooner rather than later.
Irritatingly, Amelia wouldn’t be in this position at all if not for her annoying brother.
Because she grew up with an older sibling, Amelia was never expected to shoulder a large portion of royal responsibility. Throughout her childhood she was taught the basic requirements of being a good princess—how to make small talk with someone who has bad breath, the best way to throw a dinner party for politicians with special dietary needs, the fastest way to stab an adversary with a longsword—then left to her own devices. But when Amelia was twelve, Prince Nicholas embarked on the customary coming-of-age quest that all wealthy, promising young men undertook when they reached their mid-teens or decided they did not enjoy academic study.
His quest was to ride north to the castle of Queen Margaret of Stormhaven and choose one of her many offspring to marry (or her offspring’s offspring—there were enough of them to choose from). In return, Margaret would cancel half of the kingdom’s debt. He was also to rid one of Stormhaven’s many mountains of a pesky goat-eating lion on his way, just to prove his worth. Instead, Prince Nicholas killed the lion on the slopes of Traveler’s End Mountain and, when a local goat farmer named Raphael made Nicholas dinner to say thank you, he decided to marry him. Although marriages between royalty and commoners were perfectly normal in the Kingdom of Mirrors, Nicholas wanted to live on the mountain with his husband and their goats rather than inherit a large, hot kingdom filled with olive trees and refugees, so he abdicated. Most of the kingdom protested: marrying below one’s station is one thing but rejecting public duty to become a farmer (albeit with the title Duke of Lumiere) is quite another. Gossip columnists complained that Princess Amelia was even less tamable than her brother, although critics agreed that at least she would have decades to practise being queenly.
King Emmanuel had his stroke six months later.
Amelia and her mother did a pretty good job of running things with the help of their High Council, but they spent most days wondering how much longer the kingdom could go on without defaulting on their loans. A few years ago, Amelia hadn’t even known what the phrase ‘defaulting on loans’ meant, and she hadn’t cared. Why couldn’t her brother have quested to the south coast instead of heading north? He could have killed the dragon like a good prince was supposed to do and then gone on some little journey to rid Traveler’s End Mountain of that lion. It wasn’t even a magical lion, Amelia thought bitterly. It was a standard, goat-eating lion. She was even more annoyed with herself for missing having him around the castle. He would have liked Harry the amulet salesman, and he always made royal engagements feel like an adventure instead of like a piece of complicated homework.
Amelia tidied the newspapers and organised a few textbooks, just for something to do. Her favourite history book, The Magic, Mayhem and Mystery of the Kingdom of Mirrors was dog-eared and out of date, but the author had recently moved north and was now focusing on researching the Valley of Dreams’ historical association with the wine industry. Then there was The Monarchies of the Three Kingdoms (and how two of the kingdoms managed democracy), and Sorry, Dragons Don’t Really Die, But Here’s How You Can Try. Amelia scowled at it. Down on Market Street, a trombonist started a solo. A second later, a cellist started one too. Why on earth were they still playing music? It was night time! When Amelia became queen, her first Royal Decree would be a change in live music laws. She pulled Dragons Don’t Die from the shelf, angrily sweeping past the sections on Ruby Dragons, Emerald Dragons and the Lesser Spotted White Gold Dragon. There was the section on the Sapphire Dragon:
Sapphire Dragons are not the largest of the dragon family, nor the most dangerous. They can’t spit poison and their eyes won’t paralyse you. They do not eat people. Unfortunately, what they lack in strength they make up for in cunning: it is hard to outwit a Sapphire Dragon, and their only known weaknesses are their sensitive ears and delicate eardrums. They cannot stand high pitched sounds at great length, and if anyone were to shoot an arrow into the ear of a Sapphire Dragon, they would surely slay it, as the opening of the ear is the only part of the Sapphire Dragon’s anatomy that isn’t protected by a layer of scales. No one in human history has ever come close enough to try, though.
Their sensitive ears.
An idea hit Amelia like a beam of sunlight.
Before she could think too much, Amelia hurled herself down the tower stairs and through the castle, so quickly that the stained-glass windows started to blur together. Her parents were sitting in the smallest drawing room with cups of wine. The king worked through his physiotherapy exercises while the queen read a book about strategic negotiations.
‘I have a plan to slay the Sapphire Dragon!’ Amelia gasped as she skidded to a halt on the rug, narrowly avoiding the wine cups.
Her parents looked up. ‘Amelia,’ her mother chided, ‘can’t this wait until tomorrow? Your father can’t take too much excitement.’
‘I hardly think a conversation with my daughter is bad for my health,’ the king murmured, although he didn’t look entirely convinced. ‘Does this have anything to do with your plan to build a giant water cannon and fire it at the dragon?’
‘I made that plan ages ago,’ Amelia said dismissively. ‘We don’t have enough equipment to build a canon powerful enough. This is a new plan.’
‘All right,’ Queen Hazel shrugged. She had the same long afro hair as Amelia, but while Amelia braided or tied up hers to keep it away from her face, Hazel wore a new style or accessory every week, refusing to fire her hairdresser even as they cut down every other expense. She also remade all her dresses, so she looked like she had a new outfit for every occasion, even though it was really the same material, redesigned four or five times a year. Even curled in a frayed armchair, she looked more like a queen than Amelia ever would. ‘Let’s hear it.’
Amelia took a deep breath. ‘Well, the reason the kingdom has had to borrow so much money over the last twenty years is that we’re fighting a war we can’t win, and the entire population of the south of the kingdom moved north and the bottom dropped out of the tourism industry. That’s correct, isn’t it?’
‘Correct,’ her father agreed.
‘And the reason for the war, refugee crisis and tourism trouble is that the Sapphire Dragon razed every village on the south coast and is sitting at Scavenger’s Ruin right now, setting fire to anyone who tries to kill him. That’s right, right?’
‘Right,’ her mother sighed.
‘And it’s entirely possible that, were the dragon to disappear then the war would be over and within three to five years, and assuming we ran a sustainable tourism programme and ploughed proceeds into rebuilding towns, life as we once knew it would return.’
Both parents nodded.
‘Well then,’ Amelia said. ‘It’s time the dragon disappeared.’
‘Oh, well, I’m glad you’ve thought of that,’ Queen Hazel said with a wave of her hand. ‘We’ve spent twenty years thinking that we quite like having him around.’
‘Mother!’ Amelia was stung. ‘I’m only trying to help.’
‘We know that, Amelia…’ the king said gently. ‘But if we knew how to kill the Sapphire Dragon, we would have done so by now. Dragons can’t be killed easily. Or at all. Do you really think we haven’t tried everything we can think of?’
‘Of course not!’ Amelia said quickly. ‘It’s just, you’re going about it all wrong.’
Queen Hazel’s eyebrows did a complicated dance. ‘How, exactly, are we going about it all wrong?’
Amelia steadied herself. Please don’t let them laugh at this please don’t let them laugh—
‘Wasps at the food carts in Market Street don’t sting all the people to make them abandon their food. They just buzz around until people are so irritated that they go indoors to get away.’
‘Um, yes,’ Queen Hazel said. ‘But I don’t think we can get rid of the Sapphire Dragon with wasps.’
‘We need something more annoying than wasps,’ Amelia pressed.
‘Mosquitoes?’ her mother suggested.
‘Fish soup?’ her father asked.
Amelia rolled her eyes. ‘People. People are so annoying! They yell at you about feather pillows, they insist on selling you fake amulets and they play their trombone at the same time as someone else is trying to play the cello! What’s the most annoying thing you’ve ever heard?’
‘Oh, that’s easy,’ her father replied. ‘It was the time you and Nicholas decided to form a jazz band. Half the castle got tinnitus.’
‘I think the most annoying thing for me was when our seamstress had quadruplets,’ the queen mused. ‘None of them would sleep at the same time, remember? For months, you could always hear a baby crying. Eventually you thought you could hear a baby crying even if it was quiet. I thought I would go insane.’
‘Some would say you did,’ the king said amicably. The queen stuck her tongue out at him.
‘So what you’re proposing is that we just annoy the Sapphire Dragon into just getting up and flying somewhere else?’ King Emmanuel asked.
‘We can if we make everything he hears ruin his delicate ears.’ She held up Dragons Don’t Die. ‘The Sapphire Dragon’s ear canal and eardrum is the only unprotected part of its anatomy.’
Her parents looked at each other. It was the same look they exchanged when Nicholas brought Raphael the goatherd home.
‘How do you propose we make enough noise to ruin his hearing?’ King Emmanuel asked.
‘We hold a festival.’
‘A festival?’ the king asked. ‘For… for whom? The dragon?’
‘For our long-suffering troops down on the south coast! This year is the twentieth anniversary of the dragon’s arrival. Our brave soldiers deserve a traditional Kingdom of Mirrors festival honouring their work and sacrifice. So I’m suggesting a three month event—’
‘Three months?’ Queen Hazel asked. Her eyebrows did another dance.
‘Three months,’ Amelia continued, ‘of sporting events for the soldiers, each one with its own marching band. Three months of accompanying orchestral performances, street theatre, opera shows, circus events. Three months of jazz music.’
She knew she was onto something, because her parents exchanged another look. It was the look they exchanged at Nicholas and Raphael’s wedding.
‘All right,’ her mother sighed. ‘Call the council to meeting.’
Amelia smiled as she swept from the room to find parchment to write notes to the High Council, calling them to a breakfast meeting the next day.
When Amelia was queen, she would commission a new mosaic for the castle’s walls, depicting how she defeated the Sapphire Dragon.
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Copyright © 2019 by Francesca Burke
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