The first time a prince left the castle to fight the dragon, he returned without his horse.
“Ate it like a tea cake,” he gruffed out, the scent of woodsmoke still lingering in his velvet trousers. “Best of luck.”
Althea watched him from behind satin curtains. From her hiding place she could just make out her father, a noble and leaden king, cast the prince from the foyer.
“Blasted boys these days,” the king grumbled. “How hard can it be to rescue a princess from a snotting beast like a dragon? Fought five off myself back in my prime.”
Althea didn’t know how to tell her father that Ruby, her older sister, probably didn’t want the high-fluting princes to rescue her.
For as long as Althea could remember, Ruby was a witch.
She didn’t mean witch as in a hog-wash swamp lady who rummages through the mud everyday. No, Ruby carried magic in her hands the way some men carry swords into battle. Her room had been littered with baubles and tinctures. Once, Ruby had even enlisted Althea to snag an empty cauldron from the kitchens, and Althea had watched Ruby pour vials of various potions into its interior well into the night.
As the prince tromped from the foyer, Althea darted out from the curtains and skipped into the corridor. She passed portraits of flaming warriors, men who vanquished dragons far down her family line.
She thought of all the boys who had come knocking on the castle doors to court Ruby. Ruby, with her utility belt and mud-hemmed skirts. I wish I’d been born first, Althea griped. Ruby didn’t deserve all those courting princes.
Courting princes! The idea filled Althea with envy.
She stopped beside the window, where its glass pane hung on gleaming hinges. A careful breeze wafted into the dimly-lit corridor. Her gaze caught on the endless blue sky, undisturbed by the gathering treeline.
For a moment, she could imagine the great snarling dragon, how it had burst through Ruby’s tower and shot flames into the clouds with all the vigor of a striking blade. The way the blue of the sky had melted into fire, strange, foreign, like a boat beating against dark water.
Strange as Ruby.
The second prince to accept the quest to find Ruby never returned.
Althea and her parents heard rumors of his arrival back in the southern kingdoms, his clothes singed and hair lost to the curl of flame.
“He took our provisions and disappeared at the first snarl of dragon breath,” Althea’s father moaned as he drank from his tankard.
“No matter,” the queen reminded him. “We wouldn’t want a coward to take Ruby’s hand, now would we?”
Marriage is a knife at my throat, Ruby had once told Althea in her tower room, her arms bursting with leather-bound books from the library. I wish I was born a boy, free to enter knighthood, the blade in my hand as poised as a dragon’s talon.
Knights aren’t free either, Althea had griped. All those rules, that heavy armor.
Ruby shot her a malevolent smile. Now you’re onto something, sister.
Althea picked at her food and sank lower in her seat. “I bet it wasn’t even the dragon that scared him,” she said. “I bet Ruby ate his horse. She’s got a mouth big enough for it.”
Her parents shushed her in unison.
The final prince to slay the dragon returned with the wrong girl.
“My clothes caught fire,” he said drearily. “I found her well enough, in the end.”
Althea glared up at the woman, her hair piled high on her head in careful clasped ringlets, nothing at all like her sister’s black strands, each as dark as brimstone.
“Are you from Trent?” she asked the woman.
Althea’s parents collapsed into their worn thrones, their faces rising with new irritation. “This woman bears no resemblance to the princess,” her father said.
The prince, his hat clutched in trembling hands, knelt before the king. “You didn’t see the beast, your highness! Scales bristling with embers, a smile curled over with brazen teeth. It guarded no tower. No net ensnared your daughter! Surely she is lost to the belly of the dragon.”
Althea sat with her hands clasped in her lap, her head down. Slowly, she unfurled her grasp to reveal the tattered, singed satin fabric in her fist. She’d retrieved the fabric from Ruby’s tower moments after the dragon had taken flight, coughing as smoke and fire threatened to envelope all the contents of her sister's collection.
The satin was a portion of Ruby’s dress hem—it must be, with its careful stitching and scarlet color. Across the fabric was a dainty embroidered scene, one that depicted the great dragon of the west, a symbol of protection, a symbol of peace.
Peace. Althea thought of her sister, with all her ornaments, her experiments. The way her room had once held parchment across its walls like wallpaper, each one cluttered with charcoal notes and fanged creatures of the forest.
Ruby belonged in a castle the way a knife belonged in its sheath—unusable, estranged, stagnant.
No, Althea was certain the prince wouldn’t find her sister in a carefully guarded tower. No net ensnared her. She rose on the horizon, swelling with the wings of her discovery, the rebirth of a blade in her hand, the glow of fire in her throat.
Free as a dragon.