A very hearty thanks to the enduring generosity of Mysterious Mitch, who sponsored about half of this chapter!
The Patroness was considerate enough to allow Dane her own room rather than insist they sleep together in her quarters—Dane could hardly imagine what a dragon’s quarters of a castle would look like, and was glad of not finding out—and so Dane chose the darkest, smallest, windowless room right at the other end of Castle Gallifront. Thick stone walls and a lockable heavy wooden door were the only barriers strong enough to allow her to fall asleep, but not until she’d checked the bolt a dozen times and tossed and turned for half the night listening to the strangest sounds coming from all over the castle.
The following morning there was a tray of breakfast waiting outside her bedroom in the hallway, along with three or four curious baby dragons who hissed at her and scattered in panic up the walls as she opened the door. Despite how appetising the food smelt, Dane was highly suspicious of anything that was probably cooked entirely by unholy magic—especially as it had remained steaming hot for an ungodly number of hours—and she ended up setting it aside. That didn’t stop her from feeling guilty about wasting good food as she washed in the hand basin and went to don her armour, however.
She was midway through mechanically laying everything out in preparation to buckle herself into it when she noticed something was awry: overnight, her buttonless undershirt had mysteriously re-acquired all its buttons.
She held it up to inspect it; each button was neatly stitched back on with its original thread as if the Patroness had never—Dane gulped—ripped them free in their throes of passion.
Feeling deeply uncomfortable, Dane slipped it on under her armour anyway. Had the Patroness entered her room while she was asleep? What had been the point of giving Dane her own lockable quarters if that had been her intention?
Dane found the culprit standing in the courtyard holding Epiphany’s reigns. The horse looked rightfully horrified by this arrangement.
Dane rescued the reigns out of the Patroness’ hands. “You were in my room last night!” she accused her, interrupting the woman as she made to greet Dane.
The Patroness closed her mouth on the greeting, eyebrows high. “I’m afraid not,” she said, and then added somewhat playfully. “You’d most certainly remember if I had been, good sir knight. That much I promise.”
Dane was not in a mood for that sort of jest. “Then how has my undershirt come to be fixed? Of course you were in my room, unless you’re suggesting that the buttons sewed themselves—”
“Magic,” the Patroness said easily, as if that were any comfort.
In fact, it was the opposite of comfort to Dane; she’d almost preferred the Patroness had entered herself. The idea of insidious, unholy magic creeping around her while she slept, doing all manner of insidious, unholy things to the clothes on her body while she was completely helpless to stop it was abhorrent to Dane. “If you wanted to assist me, perhaps you could have lent me a needle rather than using trespassing magicks in my room as I slept!”
The Patroness may have rolled her eyes ever so slightly. “You’re welcome,” she said dryly. “Now, shall we leave? I’d like to arrive at the capital with as much daylight as possible.”
Dane was still distracted by the thought of not being safe from the unholy magic even in a locked room, and it took her a moment to realise what the Patroness had said. When she did, she could make no sense of it. It was a good two weeks back to the capital, why would what time they left the castle today make any sort of difference? She opted to leave it; nothing about this woman made sense. “Very well,” she said are cordially as she could muster. “I will wait for you while you change into something more appropriate.”
The Patroness laughed pleasantly. “Is that your polite way of telling me my dress is too outdated?”
Dane considered it; ‘outdated’ seemed the wrong word. ‘Outlandish’ was perhaps more correct: where the ladies at court favoured pastel poufs and ruffles and frills, the Patroness seemed to favour bright, sleek, figure-hugging satin. That hadn’t been what Dane meant, however. “I meant into your travelling clothes,” she clarified. “Epiphany will kick up all manner of dirt as we ride.”
“I don’t plan on riding. What a waste of time!”
Dane frowned at her. Perhaps dragons couldn’t ride on horses? “I hope you don’t intend to walk all the way to—” Something horrifying occurred to her. “Heavens above! You don’t mean to fly?”
The Patroness laughed again. “Goodness, no! I don’t have a death wish,” she said, and then inclined her head towards Epiphany’s saddle with a coy little smile. “Now, isn’t the knight supposed to help the lady up? That’s how all the stories go.”
Dane still didn’t understand what she’d meant by not wanting to ride. Rather than inquire further—perhaps she meant they’d journey by boat?—she simply helped the Patroness into the front of the saddle, and put one foot in the stirrup.
She remembered feeling the slap of the leather saddle against her thighs as she landed in it, and then suddenly there was bright light and a deep, barrelling hum like the sound of something enormous whizzing past her head and—
—then she was falling. Too fast, and picking up speed as she went. She grabbed at Epiphany’s reigns—the horse was screaming—a sharp, panicked sound that split Dane’s ears—and the horse’s legs were flailing and her eyes rolled white in their sockets—
Dane was screaming, too. She only realised it when she discovered all the breath was clear of her lungs, and she was reaching towards Epiphany and begging the Light to please, please spare them both—
—when her side slammed into something. She tasted dirt. Her body was still once again, but her head was still going, spinning, rolling, hurtling through the air—Epiphany’s hooves scraped on the soil and then something wrenched out of Dane’s hand—then there were hoof beats at full gallop, travelling away from her.
Dane opened her eyes into the frost-caked wildflowers that were pushing against her cheeks. Above her, birds sang with the new dawn.
Stiffly because of her armour, she pushed herself onto an elbow. What had just—?
“So that’s why we’re not supposed to transport humans this way,” a familiar voice commented from above Dane. “How interesting!”
Dane craned her neck upwards. Was she— What did she just—? She opened her mouth to demand what had just happened, but she never began. The words died on her lips: up behind the Patroness’ head was Sundial Mountain, the crooked backdrop of Dane’s youth. It had been mid-morning at Castle Gallifront, but here, the snowy peak was orange in the sunrise.
They were in the capital?
Dane was too shocked to speak for a moment, and it was only when the Patroness politely offered, “Would you like me to conjure your horse back? I don’t suppose she’s used to arcane travel, either,” that Dane’s chest filled with burning hot anger.
She’d had enough. She’d had enough of this foul, unholy power doing as it wished with her.
In an instant, she was up on her feet and jabbing her finger towards the Patroness’ face. “No more magic!” she yelled as the Patroness blinked at her, unfazed.
“You have to admit, good sir knight,” the lady began, looking completely unrepentant, “it may be a little uncomfortable, but I just saved two whole weeks of the discomfort of—”
“No!” For a moment, Dane wanted to throttle her. “No! Just—!” She did a circle on the spot with her hands on her head—how to get through to this creature? She took a breath. “No!”
The Patroness frowned. “You’d take two weeks’ discomfort over a single moment of it?”
Dane would take strangling this woman with her bare hands over anything in the world right now, she almost swore it. Her body ached from that fall, and goodness knows how Epiphany was, or where she was. And this woman—her wife-to-be—didn’t so much as utter a single word of apology. Speechless with anger, Dane turned away from her and began to walk up the path that led beside the mountain to the city, her armour clanking.
The Patroness’ footsteps were not far behind. “I promise you’ll get used to it, Sir Dane,” she was saying as she drew even with the knight. “It’s very convenient! I know, as a human, all of this must seem—”
Dane stopped abruptly and made a firm hand gesture. “Listen,” she said in no uncertain terms, “I will do my duty as a knight of the council and marry you. It is the Light’s will. But you will not—I mean not—subject me to any more of your foul magic, is that clear?” When the Patroness went to speak, Dane cut her off. “Is that clear? My head is still spinning, Heaven knows how my poor horse is! You scared the life out of her!”
She was frowning as if straining to understand. “To be perfectly honest, I didn’t expect that,” she confessed. “I have much to learn about lesser mortals. They are much more fragile than I anticipated, despite their aptitude in battle.”
Lesser— “Is that how you think of me, your husband-to-be?” Dane asked, completely aghast. “A fragile lesser mortal?” When the Patroness didn’t answer immediately, Dane shook her head in disgust and made to turn away from her once again. A delicate hand on her arm stopped her.
It was a moment before she spoke to Dane, though. “It’s just— Well, you must understand that humans have been food to me for well over a thousand years.”
It was hardly an excuse. Dane turned sharply back to her. “And I have witnessed dozens of dragons destroy places I loved and murder the people I loved, yet I am not mistreating you, I am doing my duty as your betrothed and honouring you! Therefore, if I had hurt you unintentionally, I should want to apologise for it! Yet that doesn’t seem to have occurred to you!”
For a moment it looked like she might protest, but she thought better of it. Then, with several false starts as if apologising was some great feat of exertion for her, she managed, “Very well, you have a point. I apologise for causing you and your horse discomfort.”
Dane wasn’t sure how genuine it was, but hearing her say it was somewhat of a relief anyway. She exhaled, and nodded.
The Patroness visibly relaxed. Then, after a moment of giving Dane a peculiar look, she laughed nervously. “You have no idea how odd it is to worry about your food forgiving you,” she said wryly as they began walking up the pass again.
The pre-dawn air had a bite to it—even though it was spring, frost still lined the clearing on either side of the road and crunched under their feet. Dane was mapping Epiphany’s hoof prints in the mud and worrying about her wellbeing when, beside her, the Patroness exhaled audibly. Dane glanced across at her; it prompted her to speak.
“Look at us,” she said, gesturing between them, “betrothed a day and already fighting like cats and dogs. It normally takes couples years to be so tired of each other.”
That was her fault. “We will fight considerably less if you honour my request to not use that magic of yours on me.”
The Patroness frowned. “You see, that’s what I fail to understand. Don’t you see how useful magic could be to you? It makes light work of heavy tasks, and it saves so much time. For someone with such a short life, I would have thought that would be immeasurably valuable.”
Dane felt a bit stung by that ‘short life’ comment. She left it, however. “Hardship builds character,” Dane argued, repeating the priests of the Light. “There is satisfaction in working hard at something and completing it. Good, honest hard work is no burden at all.”
The Patroness gave her such an odd look. “So you find it holy to deliberately punish yourself?”
“I’m making a simple request of you, my lady.”
The Patroness persisted. “But there’s nothing in The Light’s Eternal Truth that forbids using other magic.”
Dane bristled. “I’ve made my wishes quite clear,” she said shortly, almost shivering at the thought of foul magic oozing around her. How did one stop themselves from being subjected to it? She would have to quietly ask the priests later; perhaps there were sigils she could wear or prayers that could be said to protect her.
The Patroness was still frowning and there were clearly inquiring words on the tip of her tongue, but after some time wrestling with them, she managed not to press Dane further. “Very well, I shall keep my magic to myself,” she told Dane at last, and then said no more on the matter.
Dane kept waiting for her to revive the subject anyway—she clearly was having trouble letting it rest, and Dane could feel the lady’s eyes on her as they walked—but by the time they arrived at the greater city gates, she hadn’t spoken again.
They crossed the threshold into the city at exactly the moment that dawn broke. The sun had just lifted over Sundial Mountain and the first rays were touching the towering spires of the Great Cathedral. The cathedral itself was a monolith dwarfing the houses, reaching with pointed steeples up, up above the city towards the sky itself. Prism-filled windows at its peak carved the new sunlight into a million shards and spilt them all over the houses below. Light-flecked rooves carpeted the whole vista from harbour to mountainside and only stopped at the city fringe and the stone walls of the Light’s Vigil—the seat of the crown and the stronghold of the Council of Protectors.
With the red rooves, the orange sun and the glittering water framing the city, Dane forgot her predicament and all at once ached with patriotism: this was her city, her blessed and beautiful city, the beautiful northern capital Aurora.
The Patroness must have been watching Dane instead of admiring the city. “You must truly love your home,” she observed.
Dane’s cheeks flushed red. She felt somewhat trespassed upon again, having someone witness the private emotion she’d just felt. She was about to comment to that effect, when she noticed the walls of the Light’s Vigil: her own flag was flying high on every corner. The Council knew of her return.
For a moment she wondered how in the world that was—had the Patroness done some sort of magic again?—but then she remembered they were missing one very loyal warhorse. Of course Epiphany had fled right back to her stables in Light’s Vigil: Dane couldn’t wait to be back in familiar rooms and surrounded by holy priests, either. She’d almost have run there herself.
The two of them had hardly taken a single step through the gate toward it before a thunder of distant hooves on the stones echoed off the walls of the houses. Down the hill, they could see a number of Council knights approaching the city gates.
Despite how far away they were, Dane recognised them immediately and her stomach dropped; she wasn’t ready for the performance she was about to have to give.
The Patroness had inclined her head, considering their livery as they approached. “Isn’t that the Queen’s Guard?” Dane nodded, and her brow lowered further. “Why are they coming to greet you? Do they do this for every knight?”
Dane swallowed, and shook her head. “Only me,” she said, and then took a breath. “That’s my father at the head of them.”