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THE PRINCE AND THE DRAGON
I stared into the flames of the small fire, which was crackling serenely about six feet away from me. The orange flames danced and flickered, the wood sizzled because apparently it was damp, and it gave off a nice, warm glow. I was totally comfortable, laying there, watching the fire eat away the wood that was expertly stacked to ensure optimal burning.
No scent of burning meat.
I jerked, rolled away from the fire and threw up, coughing and spluttering. I was thoroughly miserable, and while trying to stop the dry heaving – seriously, what's with that? Once a stomach is empty, it's empty, but somehow my body didn't seem to get the message – the memory of the dragon came flooding back to me.
Yellow eyes, that had looked at me in a way that had made me realize I was but a very small prince and he was a very big dragon. The scales, protecting him from almost anything. The soft belly, which I had gutted and his intestines had simply fallen out...
Those thoughts almost made me want to throw up again. Well, not want. Throwing up is not fun. I should know, because I had a lot of practice at it. And thinking about that, in the roundabout way that my mind always works, I remembered the empty bottle of rum in my saddle bag, now containing water. For some reason, that thought quelled the nausea quite a bit, and I managed to sit up.
"Ah, prince Florian, you are awake."
Brandon's voice sounded soothing and friendly. I looked around and spotted him on the other side of the fire, a piece of parchment on his lap, using one of his books as a smooth surface so he could write on it.
"I was just coming to your heroic encounter with the dragon, how you played with him, singing, taunting him, daring him to attack, and how the dragon fought you, fearing for his life, knowing that his evil deeds would not go unpunished, and..."
"Brandon," I said tiredly, "Quit it. I don't want to hear, alright?"
I really didn't. I didn't want to think about the dragon ever again. And I most certainly didn't want to hear a glorified account of my desperate fight, which only took place because I had absolutely no other choice, in the form of a poem or song. I was sore all over, my muscles aching, bruises and small cuts everywhere, and on top of that I had a fierce headache. Other than that, I was in surprisingly good health.
I was also missing my clothes.
I drew the thin blanket up and scooted a little closer to the fire. Then I looked around. I distinctly remembered it being completely dark when the dragon came after me. Now, it seemed like dusk. And slowly getting darker, not lighter, which meant... what?
"How long have I been out?" I asked.
Brandon, who had been quietly scratching his quill on the parchment, looked up.
"A night and a day," he said noncommittally, "I was starting to get a little worried."
"A little worried?" I said, "Only a little worried? I'm the crown prince! I was unconscious for a day! I should say that warrants a little more than worry!" I looked down at my bruised body. "Where are my clothes, anyway?"
Brandon nodded at something behind him. I squinted, and could just make out some clothing shaped things hanging from the branches of a tree.
"They were... rather filthy," Brandon said, "I took the liberty of washing them in the stream."
I grumbled something unintelligible and started scrambling to my feet, wrapping the blanket around me. Slowly, carefully as not to aggravate my screaming muscles, I stepped around the fire, wincing every now and then when hitting a sharp stone or twig with my bare feet. When I came to the decorated tree I reached up and felt what seemed like my tunic. It used to be blue and velvety, nice and comfortable and if I remembered correctly insanely expensive. Now it felt rough and it smelled awful. And still damp.
"I'm sorry," Brandon said, "The weather had been quite uncooperative. It's a miracle I managed to start a fire at all, which only goes to show what good fortune you have. First, a chance to slay a dragon, and then me, making a fire so you won't die of hypothermia. That would have been ironic, and not good song material at all. I would have had to seriously consider deviating from the facts and have you be slain by the dragon after all."
I glared at him, not at all amused by his commentary, even more so because I knew he was completely serious. The man didn't have an ounce of humor in him. I had tried to tell him a few jokes on the way here and he hadn't laughed once. OK, so they weren't really good ones, telling jokes is among the many things that I'm not good at, but he could at least have had the decency to smile politely. Instead, he had just stared at me. I think he didn't even recognize they were that, jokes.
I looked at the clothes again. "Thanks," I said.
"You are welcome, prince Florian," he answered.
I ignored his use of the hated name and picked my way to the pile of saddle bags standing on the ground. There had to be something I could wear.
"What happened?" I asked, as I slowly, painfully dressed in my only spare set of clothes.
I hadn't taken too much with me, because one, we were going to be just the two of us and I didn't have a whole lot of room in my saddle bags and two, I had had to leave some space for all the rum I had taken with me, now sadly all gone. As I was dressing, feeling warmer by the minute, I was contemplating the fact that I could have brought more rum if I had let out the clothes I was now wearing, and that would have kept me warm as well.
I put on my damp boots – no spares for those – and sat back down next to Brandon, who handed me a piece of meat. I didn't question what it was – rabbit, probably – but just dug in. After all, I hadn't eaten in a day. Brandon kept looking down at the piece of parchment on his lap, and I leaned in to see what he had written. I couldn't read it though, he had the most illegible handwriting I had ever seen, apart from my own, and he had scratched things out and written small comments in the margins with arrows and exclamation marks. As soon as he noticed me looking, he turned away a little, holding his hands protectively over his writing.
"You'll hear it when it's finished," he said primly.
"Aw come on, Brandon," I said, "At least tell me what happened when the dragon fell on me."
He looked at me, a little suspiciously, but then relaxed.
"I suppose I could tell you," he admitted, "And I don't mind telling, because it was rather heroic of me. You had slain the dragon, and then you were just standing there, looking as it fell down on you. It covered you completely, and I was afraid you would suffocate, so I approached the beast and started to... um... hacking my way to you, so to speak. You are lucky he fell partly on his side, because I would never have been able to cut through those scales."
"You dug me out," I said, trying to picture Brandon hacking my spare sword into the soft underbelly of the dragon.
"Yes," Brandon said, "And the tail was still twitching, so it was very dangerous. I didn't know if it was completely dead yet."
I shuddered and looked at the half eaten piece of rabbit in my hand. Suddenly, I wasn't so hungry any more. I put it down and hugged my knees, staring into the fire. The flames quietly bristled, giving off a cozy warmth. But I remembered the heat coming from the farmhouse, and the smell of burnt meat, burnt people. Fire would never be the comforter it used to be.
Seven nights of nightmares, way too many burnt rabbit, way, way to little rum and a week later found us riding into the shiny capital at noon, my home town, weary and battered – me – or weary and annoyed – Brandon. Annoyed, because I had flat out refused to go back to the dragon and cut its head off so we could take it back into town with us, thereby making our return legendary.
There's no way, I had said, that I'm going back there and have another look at the thing from up close. I had had quite enough of the beast, I didn't need another good look at something that I could see very well whenever I closed my eyes. The dragon was dead. I would take Brandon's word for it.
Brandon would have gone on about it, but the fact that it would have been impossible to take the head anyway – it was as big as a horse – and the fact that if we did somehow manage to pull it along, the horses would probably have panicked, quieted him. About taking the head with us, that was. It didn't stop him from complaining about it, to my chagrin.
In the end, just to shut him up, I had gone back and had collected a few scales for my father's collection. And then, because I was there and could no longer ignore it, I had buried the remains of the people from the farmhouse. I hadn't been hard to do, not a whole lot of work. Just gruesome. And Brandon had stayed at a safe distance, saying his stomach couldn't handle severed arms. Of course, the fact that I had just miraculously slain the dragon somehow made me the perfect candidate to do it. Never mind that I hadn't been able to keep anything inside for two whole days and was starting to feel distinctly light headed. There was a lesson in here somehow, if only to always save one bottle of rum for after the fight.
Not that I intended to ever do something like this again.
So as it were, we rode into town, and went mostly unnoticed by the people. I wondered about that for a while, until I remembered that I was no longer wearing my armor – annoyingly heavy and totally useless anyway – and I had lost the piece of string that held my long hair in a pony tail in the nape of my neck, so it now hung loose all around me, but mostly in my face. That, I thought morosely, was another stupid law I was going to change when I got to be king. No more stupid dragon slaying. Send the army. And the hair comes off.
Still, it was nice to ride around town anonymously.
We led the horses in a slow canter through the busy main streets, all the way up to the gates of the palace, where we were stopped by the guards. I was about to ride on through the seemingly invitingly open, but in reality well closed off gate like I was used to, when two of them stepped forward and challenged us with their peaks.
"On your way, vagrant," one of the guards said from under his helmet.
I had always hated those helmets. You couldn't really see who was underneath them. They shone brilliantly, extended all the way down to the nose, but left the eyes clear. I squinted, trying to make out who it was. Then I pulled my hair back.
"Morris," I said, "It's me. Let me in."
He looked up at me. From the way his eyes changed shape, I gathered he was frowning. I started to get annoyed.
"Morris! Don't you recognize me? You owe me three coppers!"
His eyes widened and he stepped back, retracting his peak and motioning the other guard to do the same.
"I'm sorry Flint..." He shot a furtive glance at Brandon, "...prince Florian, I hadn't expected you to... I mean, I didn't recognize you there for a moment..."
He hadn't expected me to return. I scowled at him, but realized he had been close to the truth. Even I hadn't expected me to return. Not in one piece, anyway. Maybe Brandon would have returned, carrying a collection of arms and legs, although the dragon hadn't seemed to have had a problem with eating legs. I wondered why he had left the arms. Maybe he had once almost choked on one, and had since then decided that arms were a risk.
Thinking about the dragon brought all sorts of unwanted mental images back to the surface, so I quickly spurred my horse and rode on, closely followed by Brandon. I could feel the guards' eyes in my back, but I didn't look back. I'd visit them later, perhaps, have some beers in the tavern down the road... a lot of beers, and then, when I was drunk enough, I could tell them how I had bravely fought the dragon and had killed the stupid beast.
We ignored the main entrance – used for making grand entrances by noblemen and women, visiting royalty, ambassadors and otherwise important feeling citizens that felt their ego needed to be stroked by riding up in their carriages to the huge oak doors that screamed Entrance To Palace, unaware of the fact that the huge doors made them look small and insignificant – and rode on to the side of the building, where the stables were. I had always felt more comfortable there, if only because my sisters didn't really like horseback riding or horses in general, and by being there I could avoid their infuriating mothering over me. As soon as we entered the small courtyard, we were surrounded by the grooms who had no trouble recognizing me at all – which probably says something about the state they sometimes found me in when I was trying to sneak back into the palace all stealthy like – and we were quickly helped off our horses.
I was a bit wobbly on my legs after having been on horseback for so long, and for a moment I worried that my legs had gone all crooked. That'd look weird, and I didn't want to look weird on my welcome back party, especially not for the girls I had in mind dancing with. And in any case, dancing would be awkward with crooked legs.
I shrugged, happily let Brandon carry all our bags, mine as well as his own, and almost entered the palace through the side door skipping. I only just managed to contain myself, but I couldn't keep the huge grin off my face. I stuck my head into the kitchen in passing, backpedaled when I discovered a warm pie on the table and helped myself to a piece under the scowling but forgiving face of the cook. She had always had a soft spot for me, and I shamelessly exploited it. Brandon stood in the doorway, huffing and puffing under the weight of our luggage. I rushed past him and traversed the long, familiar corridors of my home, crossed the main hallway and ran up the stairs two steps at a time.
Once upstairs, I stopped, tilted my head and listened. Voices, coming from the main conference room. My father, probably, in some meeting or other. Nothing that couldn't be disturbed for the return of the long lost son... well, not long, but definitely lost. I took a few big steps, threw open the doors and entered the room.
The conference room is a rather large room with a huge, oval table in the middle surrounded by twenty comfortable chairs lined with red plush. High stained glass windows, heavy drapes, pulled back by a cord, wood paneling all around and a great number of paintings, mostly of hunting scenes, horses and a few with brave knights fighting a multi headed dragon. I knew they were there, and I purposefully averted my eyes from them.
I had walked right in the middle of a conference of some sort. My father was standing at the head of the table, several other people were there too, not sitting at the table but standing close to my father. They seemed to be poring over maps, spread out on the part of the table they were standing at. I recognized several ambassadors, ministers from other countries and our own good old defense secretary Miles. My father's advisor, the self-proclaimed wizard Henman was standing close by and I flinched. The man didn't like me very much and always got me in trouble. OK, so I got myself in trouble most of the times, but he was always the one to advice my father on the appropriate punishment. He was very creative. I recalled cleaning every bathroom in the entire palace once, and believe me, there's a lot of them.
When I burst into the room, they all looked up to stare at me. I took advantage of their momentary paralysis to approach them, stepping around the table. My boots scraped threateningly on the floor, and for a brief moment I enjoyed their shocked faces. When I was about six feet away from them, I stopped.
"Hello father," I said, ignoring the others, "Surprised to see me?"
He was. His eyes were bulging, his mouth was hanging open. He recovered quickly though.
"Florian!" he exclaimed, "You... you're alive! I thought... was afraid... what happened? You didn't... I mean... the dragon?"
I shrugged and let my eyes wander over the other people present. They too were displaying various degrees of surprise on their faces. Some were whispering, shaking their heads or simply staring at me. None of them, except for my father, expressed any genuine joy at my safe return though. Unsettling.
I didn't have time to contemplate that though, as my father suddenly rushed forward and almost crushed me in a bear hug. Then he stepped back, looked at me and grabbed my shoulders, grinning.
"Your mother is going to be so happy you're safe," he said. Then he frowned. "But I'm afraid..."
"You ran, didn't you," Henman said.
I turned to him and raised my eyebrows. He was a tall man, taller than my father, who is by no standard a small man himself, gray haired with a long gray beard and a somewhat faded blue robe with stars embroidered on it. For the first time in my life, it occurred to me that he looked slightly ridiculous. I had always been afraid of him, had always felt uneasy whenever he was in a room with me. Somehow, I had had the feeling he'd turn me into a frog for looking at him wrong, but compared to the dragon, he seemed like a minor threat. Mind you, I still didn't want to be turned into a frog, but I somehow doubted that he would be able to do that, or that my father would let him.
"Nope," I said, and turned to look at the door, where a panting Brandon had appeared, still carrying our bags. He was just standing there, looking uncertain, obviously reluctant to come into what must have seemed to him like a conference of the powers that be. He didn't know of course that what these men mostly did was talk about where to plant the roses, complain about their children and how to divide trade contracts with countries outside our little group. Profit. Money. Life as we knew it, giving us the opportunity to live life in luxury. I wasn't complaining, it was my life too, but at least I wasn't under the impression that the discussions in this room were that high standing. I learned all of this by eavesdropping of course. I mean, how else was I going to find out anything in this place.
I should have eavesdropped on Henman advising my father about the stupid dragon law. I saw that now.
"Hey, Brandon," I said happily, "Come on in." I turned to my father and grinned. "I have a present for you."
I heard Brandon step into the room and approach us, and when he had almost reached us I turned around and grabbed the large sack from his shoulders. I ignored his sigh of relief, put the sack on the floor, opened it and then proceeded to turn it upside down, making the dragon's scales clatter on the floor.
A deathly silence fell over the room. My father, Henman and the others stared at the scales, clearly coming from a red dragon. There even was some black blood on it. I didn't look at the scales though, I looked at Henman.
He looked up and looked me straight in the eyes. "I suppose you are going to tell us you fought the dragon?" he asked.
"Yup," I said flippantly. I could really use a beer right now. "Ask Brandon here. He's been composing a song about it. It's slightly exaggerated of course, as all songs are, but the essence is still there. I killed the dragon."
"You...," Henman said, looking at me, at Brandon and then back at me again, "You... killed a dragon?" He gestured at the scales, which I thought were pretty convincing, "And you're saying you didn't just find these somewhere and took them with you to show them to us as proof that you did?"
I took a step forward and placed my hand on the hilt of my sword, something I wouldn't have dreamed of before the whole dragon fiasco. "I don't need proof," I said quietly, "My word is enough in this. Look into your precious law books, Henman. But if you really want to be certain, I suggest you jump on a horse and ride all the way south to the mountains. It's still there. It won't smell too good, mind you, but I don't think it has completely rotten away yet."
He didn't like that. His eyes darkened, and he took a step back, as of to get away from me. I removed the hand from my sword and looked at my father, who looked dumbstruck. He shot Henman a puzzled, and, to my satisfaction, a somewhat irritated look and then turned back to me.
"Of course we believe you, Florian," he said, "And you're back! Safe and sound!" His eyes traveled over my face down to my arms, which still showed the scratches and bruises from my fight with the dragon. "Now why don't you go and freshen up... take a bath... a long bath, and then tonight we'll celebrate your return, yes? And go see your mother, she'll be delighted to see you!"
I knew a dismissal when I heard one, and only for a very brief moment considered simply ignoring him, something not many people would do but I, as his son, had a privilege to. After all, if you can't defy your own father whenever you feel like it, what else have you got? I used to do the opposite of whatever my parents told me when I was a teenager, but now I was a little more mature. I smiled at my father, nodded at the other people present – pointedly ignoring Henman – and left the room, signaling Brandon to follow me.
Brandon hesitated for a moment, looked down at the scales on the floor and then up at me, but left them where they were when I waved impatiently. My father could keep them. I never wanted to see them again, but seeing as that they would probably be displayed next to the scales my great-great-grandfather had taken from his dragons, that would be improbable. They were displayed in the main hall pretty prominently.
Once in the hallway, I grabbed a passing lackey and told him to take care of the bard. Then I sauntered happily down to my mother's quarters and barged right in, not caring at all that she was having a tea party with some high standing ladies and two of my sisters that were still living in the palace, Gabriela and Ursula. They were all suitably happy to see me, and their gushing over me made me feel all warm and fuzzy. That's what you get from growing up in an all female environment. My mother refused to hug me though. In fact, she wrinkled her nose and held up her hands to ward me off when I approached her.
"Florian, dear, as much as I'm happy to see you, you really do need to take a bath first," she said.
I grinned at her, winked at my sisters who wore the same look my mother had on their faces, bowed elegantly and left them to their party. I rushed up the stairs, taking the steps two at a time and practically ran the last part to my room, quietly cursing myself for insisting to be as far away from everybody as possible. Once inside my suite I slammed the door behind me, leaned against it and slowly let myself slide to the floor.
The next half hour or so I just sat there, quietly breaking down. I didn't cry. But it was a close thing.
After a while, I managed to gain control over myself and I got up, groaning from stiff muscles and the still painful bruises. I stumbled to the couch in my living room, sat down on it and took my boots off. Then I leaned back and simply closed my eyes.
It was already getting dark when I made my way to the grand dining room, the dining room my parents used when having really large dinner parties. I could hear the chatter getting louder when I got closer, and I smiled a little. Trust my parents to throw a dinner party for their long lost son at short notice, getting everybody that mattered to show up and admire the hero. I wondered who I would be sitting next to, and vaguely, but idly, because I knew my mother, hoped it would be one of the pretty daughters of one of the Counts that lived close by, and of who I was sure would show up on occasions like these.
I reached the side doors, only to be sent back by one of the guards, apologetically but firmly, saying my father insisted I use the main doors to make a grand entrance. My father obviously was going to make the most of my heroic actions, and he knew of my habit of sneaking in and out whenever I pleased. There was no sneaking in now. Shrugging, I complied, traversed the long corridors to go around and presented myself at the huge doors. Two lackeys were standing there, and as soon as I approached them, they opened the doors, stepped inside and alerted the two trumpeters standing right inside the room. They raised their trumpets and started a triumphant jingle that silenced the room. About four hundred heads simultaneously turned in my direction.
"His Royal Highness, Prince Florian, Dragon Slayer!"
Eerie how those lackeys managed to say that perfectly in sync. I wondered if they practiced on that. I could see them, standing in storage room or something, placing their arms over their chest, looking straight ahead and shouting names of nobility... maybe they even had classes for it, and a whole bunch of them would sit in neat rows, all reciting names of princes and counts and then they would have advanced classes for the pronunciation of foreign names which, as I knew very well, could be quite tricky...
I stepped inside. To my right, a bard struck a chord on his harp, and then started to sing. And as I made my way to my seat, all the way on the other end of the room, right next to my parents, a place of honor, Brandon sang the heroic tale of a prince who slew the dragon, and I was already halfway through the room before I realized he was singing about me.
I almost stopped to glare at him right then and there.
This was so not how it happened. He went on and on about challenging the dragon, taunting the beast with clever remarks I was pretty sure I hadn't made, and then had me valiantly thrust my sword into the dragon's heart. Suddenly, I began to wonder about the tales about my legendary great-great-grandfather. Had he really been the hero everybody thought he was? Or had he been a scared idiot, like me.
I kept going, however, a frozen smile on my face, nodding and waving at the people sitting at the tables, looking at me wide eyed and in total admiration. It was both ego stroking and uncomfortable.
When the song ended I had almost reached my parents – that's how ridiculously long the room realy was – and they stood up and clapped, thereby inviting the rest of the people present to do the same. I stopped right in front of them and waited for everybody to finish, which took quite a while. At some point, I just started staring longingly at the food spread out on the table. My sister Gabriela noticed it and frowned at me. Then she nudged my mother, who took one look at me and then stopped clapping. The room went silent.
"My dear friends, citizens of Armagondia, honored guests from our neighbors," my father said, looking around the room and nodding at people. "My dear family." He looked at my mother and my sisters and then, finally, at me. "My brave son."
Here it comes, I thought, keeping the smile frozen on my face. I was doing great in that respect at least, after all, I'd had a lot of practice at it. Always keep smiling.
"Today," my father said, "My son, Prince Florian, returned from his quest to slay the dragon that laid waste on our lands, farms and villages. And I am most grateful..." His voice cracked and he actually brought his hand to his eyes to wipe away a tear. He did care after all. "... Most grateful that he is safe and unhurt."
Get on with it, I thought, say your speech, keep it short like it's supposed to and then let's eat because I'm starving.
"Most important of all, however," my father continued, "Is that he returned victorious. As you have all heard tell by the illustrious bard Brandon, my son bravely fought the dragon and struck him dead, saving our country from further hardship. Hail Prince Florian!"
Everybody stood then, placed their right arm in front of their chest and, as one, canted, "Hail!"
Now that was disturbing. I started shifting my feet and glancing sideways at some of the girls sitting at the table a little further down. They all beamed at me and I smiled back hesitantly. At least I didn't have to worry about attention tonight. For some reason, being the crown prince had never brought me the much wanted attention of girls the position is supposed to guarantee. Gabriela says it has something to do with my personality and then usually starts a lecture on how to behave, which I always thought was a bit unfair as she is only a year older than me.
My head shot up. Somehow, during the rest of my father's speech, I had let my mind wander again.
"Huh?" I said.
My father scowled at me. At least that hadn't changed. I looked around and realized he had finished. Quickly, I stepped around the table and sat down next to my father. The smell of the food on the table made my mouth water, but I knew my manners. As king, my father was always the first to dig in. Nobody could start eating before he did. Not even me. At long last, however, my father picked up his fork, which I took as a signal to pick up mine. I was just about to shove a rather large piece of meat in my mouth, when the door on the other side of the room flew open.
My father put his fork down. Reluctantly, I did too.
One of the lackeys at the door raised his voice. "Important messenger from the Gurundia kingdom."
The messenger, a plain looking man with graying hair, looked at the lackey who made a 'go on then' movement with his hands, and then started traversing the room. He was holding a letter in his hands, and for some reason my eyes locked on that letter. I kept staring at it, feeling uneasy.
The man walked up all the way to my father and stopped right in front of the table we were sitting at. He never looked at the other people in the room, but kept his eyes on my father the whole time, except for one short glance in my direction. I looked down at my plate and the delicious smelling food on it, and then placed my hands in my lap. The messenger bowed.
"Your Royal Highness," he said, "I have an urgent message from King Vladimir. This is a request for assistance."
Again, he glanced in my direction. I tried to will myself invisible, which is kind of hard to do when sitting next to the most important person of the country all eyes in the room were trained on. Somewhere in my head a thought train started which I definitely didn't want to see the end of because I didn't like the direction it was going to.
"Her Royal Highness, the Princess Maritgen of Gurundia has been abducted," the messenger continued, "By the evil wizard Apo Calypse."
"When did that happen?"
The words fell out of my mouth before I could stop them and I felt like glaring at myself. I was already attracting way too much attention, and although I rather enjoyed the admiration in everybody's eyes, I didn't want a repeat of the whole rescuing thing. But it seemed odd that only hours after I had returned, something else would happen in our quiet, peaceful and – admittedly – boring country.
The messenger turned to me. "This afternoon at two o'clock," he said politely.
Only two hours after I had returned home safely. Two hours. Either somebody was really quick in organizing another... challenge... for me, or this was a coincidence. A streak of bad luck. Bad luck. Me, Flint, stupid crown bloody prince Florian, who lucks out on everything. Bad luck. The messenger turned back to my father, who, I saw, had gone rather pale.
"This is a formal request," the messenger said, handing over the letter which I now noticed had a rather large seal on it.
My father unceremoniously broke it, opened the letter and started to read. A few tables down, somebody stood up and cleared his throat, then looked at me with a rather smug expression on his face. I looked back at him with a sinking feeling in my stomach.
"Your Highness," Henman said, "The law says..."
"I know the bloody law," my father snapped in an uncharacteristic display of irritability.
Next to him, my mother gasped and placed her hand over her mouth, and I could hear a murmur going through the room. The messenger stepped closer, turned to me again and bowed.
"Prince Florian," he said, "If you would come with me, we can reach the capital of Gurundia before midnight."
I stared at him, and then looked up at my father. "Dad," I whispered, knowing full well I wasn't supposed to call him that in public, but not caring one way or the other at that moment, "Tell me this isn't what I think it is..."
My father didn't look at me, but instead started to carefully fold the letter. I looked desperately at my mother and sisters, who all looked at me with wide eyes. They all sympathized... which was wonderful, but entirely unhelpful.
"Dad!" I hissed.
"Get packing," he said, still avoiding my eyes, "You have ten minutes."
"But..." My voice was rising, as was my anxiety. "But... I haven't eaten!"
"They specifically request your assistance. It's almost eight o'clock now, Florian, and it's a four hour ride. You need to get going."
"But dad, a wizard? I can't fight a wizard?! He'll turn me into a frog!"
My voice was way to loud now, and I knew it. Around the room, people were starting to get restless. My father saw it too, because for the first time he turned to look at me. The look in his eyes silenced me. He leaned closer, placed his hand on my shoulder and whispered in my ear.
"You are Prince Florian. Show some dignity. You're not getting out of this. The law requires us to comply with every request for assistance from our allies. They asked for the crown prince. You're it. Now get going."
My stomach chose that precise moment to grumble. I got up, looked wistfully down at my plate, and then up at the man who represented my fate. I thought about frogs, and turning into one, and then about the abducted princes, and her turning into one. That last thought almost brought a smile to my face until I remembered I was supposed to do something about it. Slowly, I got up, put down my napkin and looked briefly at my parents, before following the messenger out of the room.
I should have known this hadn't been the end of it.