Risantha grimaced as something squelched under her palm, releasing an odor worse than the priests who claimed shaving was against their religion. When her father and maker had told her princesses didn’t get their hands dirty, she had blithely told him she would do what she had to do. She hadn’t realized how literal “dirty” would be.
She crawled through the cramped cave tunnel, hoping the back way she had found would pay off. She would have to wriggle feet-first to retreat.
A flicker of light caught her attention. She huffed out a relieved breath, but remained tense. The dragon had defeated several seasoned knights who were, if not the best swords of the land, then passingly good…the sort of men who would strive for the hand of a princess who was blotch-skinned and had eyes the color of hardened leather. She hadn’t mourned for any until the last: Kaulin, a sweet young man whose family had been llama herders until his father was knighted.
For Kaulin, then. She hoped her lessons in sword-dancing from her vociferously unmarried aunt would be enough. She fully intended to catch the dragon by surprise: this chivalry nonsense was an excellent way to become an h’ors doeuvre.
The light expanded into a glow, illuminating a ceiling pockmarked with stalactites. Her secret way seemed to come out at the top of the massive cavern. Clouds of smoke wafted towards her. Instinctively, Risantha held her breath…but not soon enough to prevent a wash of heavenly aroma from swimming through her nose.
Saffron and cloves, along with the tang of wood smoke. It smelled better than her adoptive mother’s birthday feast – where, of course, the matriarch’s age had been a state secret. The golems had carried in a cake without a single candle.
Risantha wriggled until she could see the cavern floor. The sight was so astonishing the last thing she noticed was the dragon.
Young men dressed in white rushed about, moving between cookpots the height of a person and tables piled with every conceivable fruit and vegetable, and some she couldn’t conceive of that were bright blue or checkered. The clang of metal echoed like a joust, but the sound came from the contact of cooking implements.
The dragon supervised with a satisfied, matronly air, her head tilted just so and her eyes narrowed to inspection squint. Gold and pearl coils extended thrice as long as a royal wedding train – which was, to be precise, ridiculously long.
Risantha suppressed a gasp as she saw the bobble of Kaulin’s nut-brown curls. Her heart bounced in her throat, disrupting the delicate mechanisms of her body. He was all right! Was he being held captive here? What about the others? She frowned, dredging up memories. These were the other knights who had ridden out to slay the dragon.
Could the dragon be holding them all? If they rushed her as one, surely she could not stop them…and the frenetic faces below seemed eager, not frightened.
Risantha peered down at a sequence of rocks that might serve for handholds. If she could climb quietly, perhaps she could get answers…or at the very least, sneak a taste. She had the tongue of a noted epicure, after all.
She felt exposed as she worked her way down. Thankfully, the chivalrous chefs never looked up, and the dragon paid attention only to their work.
“Start more stock.” The walls reverberated with the order. Risantha squeaked, her foot slipping. She clung to the rock, almost breaking a stitch in her arm with the strength of her grip. She managed to brace her knee against the wall before the thump of her body could draw attention.
She risked a look below. The kitchen knights scrambled to obey the order. In the renewed chaos, she finished her descent, dropping to the ground. She found herself not far from a laundry basket with piles of soiled white outfits; she shrugged one on.
Head ducked, she darted through the culinary confusion until she reached Kaulin’s cookpot. His head tilted up as she approached, and his eyes widened – surprise first, then a flash of delight followed by alarm. He hooked her arm with a ladle.
“Risantha?” he whispered. “What are you doing here?”
“Rescuing you,” she said.
He blinked. “I don’t need to be rescued. I’m staying because I like it here.” His face flushed, an apologetic quiver coming to his lips. “I love you, Ris, but I’d never win you without defeating the dragon, and if I even tried…the other knights would swarm me.”
She risked a glance at the immense, scaly supervisor, thinking. This was not just a wrinkle she had not expected, it was a ruined wardrobe. She knew better than to try and charm her erstwhile suitors. It was true, she had unique talents that would serve her in a fight, but she would just as soon not be cut down to size only to lose and…what? Go into a soup pot?
It was only then she realized what he had said. Her initial urge was to swoon, much as her constitution was not that of a typical lady. She lifted widened eyes to his face. “I love you, too,” she said, “but you can’t stay here. The dragon has been terrorizing -”
“You, with the dirty uniform!” The dragon’s voice flooded the cavern, drawing every eye to her. “Have you no pride in yourself?”
Kaulin paled, instinctively moving to shield her with his body. The other knights turned, staring. She ducked her head hastily to hide her face, hand going to her sword…then sliding away. He was right: she couldn’t defeat the dragon and all the knights.
The dragon huffed impatiently. “Speak up!”
“It was my fault,” Kaulin said. “I splashed he… err, him.”
“Look at me,” the dragon commanded, “or I will scoop you out of the kitchen myself.”
Trapped, Risantha tilted her chin up in what she hoped was a defiant fashion. “You will not get away with this,” she said.
The low rumbling that vibrated the floor sent a chill of terror up her spine…until she realized it was laughter. She blinked, vaguely indignant. She knew she wasn’t a particularly credible threat, but the dragon could at least contain her amusement.
“Get away,” the creature finally said, “with what?”
“Terrorizing the peasantry,” Risantha said, righteously sure of that much. “Stealing cattle and grain carts.”
“Err, Risantha…” Kaulin murmured.
“I’ve never terrorized anyone. Royal propaganda.” The dragon snorted. “And do you know what I do with the ingredients I requisition?”
Risantha hesitated. There didn’t seem to be a polite way to point out how obvious it was.
“I feed your poor, your luckless, your prone-to-burning-their-houses-down – which is a larger percentage than you might think – with the finest haute cuisine.” One pearly shoulder undulated. “I’m doing your kingdom a favor.”
“It’s true,” Kaulin said. “I’ve helped distribute the meals.”
Risantha pursed her lips, trying to look wise as the world spun around her. Everything she believed had been turned on its ear. Could she take the dragon at her word? The proof surrounded her…and Kaulin spoke it without fear or hesitation. That was enough.
“Then I need to go back to my father,” she said, “and tell him what’s really going on. He’ll stop hunting you…if I bring someone with me who can describe your efforts.” She looked significantly at Kaulin.
“Not so fast,” the dragon said. “We’re making princess soup.”
Kaulin inhaled. “You can’t be serious!”
Risantha remained calm; her heart never skipped a beat. “How much meat do you require?”
The creature peered down, scaly brows furrowing. “About a pound, I should think, but …”
Risantha pulled aside the neckline of her tunic and found the subtle seam in the flesh of her shoulder. She popped the chunk of flesh free. The nearest knights gaped.
“Will this do?” she said.
“Very nicely,” the dragon said. “I didn’t realize you were a flesh golem, princess. Take your messenger and your message with you, with my blessing.”
Kaulin continued to stare. “But…how…?”
Risantha flashed him a smile. “When my father offered my hand to the person who could defeat the dragon,” she said, “what did you think he meant?”