Saving the Dragon (Penelope’s Dragon Book 1)
© April 2015
Princess Penelope wants nothing more than to study at the Academy of Mages. Despite her natural talent, her father refuses to even entertain the idea. So when the opportunity arises to visit her mysterious wizard godfather, Penelope leaps at the chance. She never expects to find a different kind of magic in the arms of her godfather’s reclusive nephew, Stefan.
When an unexpected enemy uses Stefan’s secrets against them, Penelope’s magic and courage are put to the test. Can she rescue the man she loves? Or will she fall Saving the Dragon?
A brief mention of the threat of sexual assault.
Adult language (including a singular instance of the f-word my mother has never forgiven me for).
Penelope pulled her scarf up before peeking around the corner. The scarf served two purposes: it hid her very well-known face, and it kept her nose from freezing off. Thick, woolen scarves are an absolute must for royal persons attempting to do something outrageous in the dead of winter. It was only a pity that such things were not as practical in the summer months.
The coast was clear. With a final tug to make sure her hood hid her hair, Penelope stepped around the corner into the busy street. With her well-made but nondescript cloak and scarf, the princess quickly blended into the crowd of nobles and wealthy merchant class people that thronged Old Saleria’s Market District. Less affluent shoppers hustled through the snow while the wealthier shoppers’ drivers jockeyed to keep the distance from carriage door to shop entrance as short as possible. Even in the dead of winter, the Market District was a busy, bustling place.
Penelope passed all of the shops without sparing them a glance. She’d been to several of them on many occasions, always with great fuss and fanfare. For Saleria’s princess, there was no such thing as a quiet shopping trip, which was one of the reasons for today’s little excursion. No dressmakers, jewelry makers, hat makers, or the like today. Penelope walked right past them all, making not-quite a beeline for the eastern of the two gates that separated the older, upper portion of Saleria from the newer, poorer districts. What she was after could be found in the Market District, of course, with less risk to her person, but news of her purchases would get back to her father, and that was absolutely the last thing Penelope wanted.
The gates were monstrous creations of iron set in the thick stone wall between the halves of the city. Once, this wall represented the end of Saleria, with the gate being the only thing that separated the city from the wild. Now the gates mostly stood open during the day, closing only at night to keep the riffraff out of the wealthy neighborhoods. In the event of Saleria’s lower walls being breached, they could close the gates and protect the core of the city. It was a good, sound military strategy not to remove the gates, according to her father’s military advisors. And perhaps that was true, but to Penelope, they represented a deep and disturbing divide in her beloved city.
Once she passed under the gate, the change in the atmosphere was immediate and incredibly jarring. Walking into Lower Saleria from Upper was almost like walking into a completely different city. Unlike the gleaming, orderly shops of the Market District, the buildings in the Lower Market were a jumble. Many of them appeared to be cobbled together from whatever the owners had on hand. Others were heavy, two-story brick affairs that sat along a vague grid. These had been built during her grandfather’s reign in an attempt to bring some order and prosperity to the district. Further south, many of these were actually tenements her grandfather had designed to get the poor out of the terrible hovels they used to build against Upper Saleria’s walls. Most of those buildings had been taken over by landlords of ill repute. The poor were once again building hovels, this time outside Lower Saleria’s walls. While noble, her grandfather’s attempts to help the poor had backfired miserably.
Penelope shook the thoughts from her head, forcing herself to concentrate on where she was going. She carefully navigated her way down a set of stairs roughly chopped into the hillside. While most of the city’s incline was gentle enough to not warrant stairs in the streets, it was unavoidable in a few places. The area Saleria was built on sloped up to the spot where the palace was built before dropping away in a breathtaking cliff. Another sound military choice, apparently.
The shop Penelope was looking for was small, its sign worn to the point of being nearly illegible. While most signs in this district were merely pictures for the uneducated, this one had words carved into a board. Dingy, dirty windows faced the street but gave no view to the interior. Unperturbed, Penelope pushed the door open, causing a little bell above to tinkle.
If the outside of the shop was uninviting, the inside was the most hospitable place imaginable. A fire crackled merrily in the old potbellied iron stove, warming the entire small space. Immediately Penelope felt all the cold and damp melt away, leaving her warm and slightly flushed. Even her toes, frozen in her boots mere moments before, were toasty.
Magic and cinnamon spice filled the very air of the shop. Things filled everything else. Shelves and tables were crammed into the shop, leaving only very narrow aisles between them. Interspersed with these were comfy chairs for curling up and reading or sipping steaming mugs of tea. These chairs were faded, frayed, and patched, but that only seemed to add to their charm. Then there were the things on the shelves! Books of every kind, jars of powders, amulets, rings, scrolls, feathers, and all sorts of wonderful, interesting things. Being in the shop made Penelope giddy, her eyes bright and wide and curious as a small child in a toy shop.
To the right of the door, in the very front of the chaos, was a neat little counter. Behind it sat a very old, wizened man with wispy white hair. When the door opened, the old man looked up from a book he had lying open on the counter. Pulling his reading glasses down his nose a bit, he peered over them at Penelope.
“Good to see you, Your Highness. It’s been a while.”
And with that, he closed the book and stood, making his way around the counter. Pushing back her hood and pulling down her scarf, Penelope moved to meet him. She hugged him carefully, mindful of his frail body.
“It’s good to see you, too. It’s been harder and harder to sneak away these days. I swear Father must have them watching me in my sleep.”
The old shopkeeper frowned.
“You shouldn’t be sneaking around, Your Highness. It’s not safe for a pretty young girl to be wandering around the Lower Markets by herself.”
“I’m fine, Master Goodleaf, I promise. Father doesn’t understand my desire to learn; he never has. He would be put out if he knew I was still studying magic. Dabbling, as he calls it.”
Master Goodleaf sighed, running one bony hand through the faint wisps of white that still clung faithfully to his mottled old scalp.
“I suppose there’s nothing for it, then. Would you like a cup of tea?”
“I’m afraid I can’t stay long. They’re bound to notice I’m gone. I just need a few things, and then I’ll sneak right back the way I came.” She gave the old wizard what she hoped was a reassuring smile. “Hopefully, if I reappear quick enough, there won’t be too many questions.”
The old man nodded his understanding and waved vaguely at the shelves and tables, indicating that she was free to help herself. That was one of her favorite things about Master Goodleaf; he let her do things for herself. There was no bowing and scraping with him. Respect, yes. And affection. He was like a wonderful eccentric grandfather, and Penelope had grown to love him dearly. She could only pray her father never found out. While he was generally a good and fair man, Penelope harbored a secret fear that he would retaliate against Master Goodleaf if he found out the old man had been tutoring her in the arcane during her brief visits.
Moving as quickly as she could among the shelves, Penelope found what she needed among the chaos with surprising ease. It was almost as if as soon as she thought about an item, it drew her to itself. It was more magic of the shop, she suspected. She found herself standing before a chipped old vase filled with eagle feathers. Selecting two perfect feathers, Penelope smiled. Exactly right, as always.
Setting her intended purchase on the counter, Penelope fished around in her pocket for the few coins she had brought with her. Carrying a purse would have made her a target, especially in the Lower Markets, so she had settled for carrying just a few coins in a hidden pocket that she’d sewn discretely into her dress.
“Ah, trying some air magic,” Master Goodleaf said, picking up one of the feathers. He ran one crooked finger across the edge of it. “A fine choice of a feather, I must say.” He then took the other feather up as well, wrapping both together in a package of brown paper held together with just a bit of string. He slid the package across the counter to her as she slid a heavy gold coin his way.
“Oh, Princess, I don’t have change for that.” He always said this.
“No change needed.” She always said that, too, with a big smile on her face.
Master Goodleaf would shake his head, but he always kept the coin. Once Penelope could have sworn she saw moisture in his eyes. Not this time. This time he was studying her intently.
“It’s you who keeps this shop going, you know.”
“I would have closed up ages ago if it weren’t for you, Highness. You’re the only thing that keeps this place going.”
“But what about all your wonderful things? Your cures? What would people do without the shop?”
“Most don’t even know I’m here. Traveling wizards never find me; most of what they need is available in the Market District. Most of my loyal local customers are dead and gone or stopped coming since I had to move down here. These last few months, I’ve been able to take my cures around to those who need them most, and that’s thanks to you, my dear. I just wanted you to know what it means to this old man.”
“Master Goodleaf, you’ve become like a dear grandfather to me…”
The old shopkeeper put up a hand, forestalling any more words.
“And that is why it pains me greatly to say this, Highness. You must not come here anymore. It is too dangerous. Please, Highness, I beg you. You’re safe enough when you’re here in the shop, but there’s a good bit of road between here and the gate. It would break my heart if something were to happen to you.”
Penelope reached across the counter and took the old man’s gnarled hand in hers.
“If it means that much to you, I will see about getting an escort.”
Feeling much more subdued, Penelope left the shop after one more goodbye, her hood and scarf once again pulled up to hide her features. She walked back towards the Market District in a haze of preoccupation, her mind running in circles. Who could she trust to escort her down to the Lower Markets? Her new maid, Tiffany, seemed trustworthy enough but would hardly be the sort of protection Master Goodleaf was hoping for. The Palace Guard was generally obsessively loyal to her father; the likelihood that one of them would go along with her quietly was essentially nil. Her brother was out, too. As the crown prince, his safety was more important than hers. Worse, he’d always been a stool-pigeon. It was as these thoughts swirled around her in an endless game of catch-the-tail that Penelope didn’t notice the broad back in chainmail just steps in front of her.
“Excuse me,” she gasped, though it was barely intelligible around her thick scarf when she collided with the solid form. The man’s thick winter cloak and surcoat did little to pad the encounter. Penelope found herself staring up with wide blue eyes at a young city guard who was scowling right back.
“M-my apologies,” Penelope stammered, moving around the guard quickly, but not quickly enough. His gloved hand shot out and grabbed hold of her arm through her cloak, stopping her dead in her tracks.
“What have we got here? Lower Saleria riffraff trying to sneak into the decent folks’ city?” He studied her for a moment, his keen brown eyes taking in the quality of her cloak and the fabric of her dress where it peaked out towards her feet. She could practically feel him counting the petticoats.
“No, I think not,” he said, at last, releasing her arm. “What is a well-bred young miss doing in the Lower Markets?”
“Please, sir, I am just a maid for a very well off family. I was sent down here to get something for my mistress.” The lies came quickly to her tongue. After all, this dress was just like the ones she’d had made for Tiffany. It was plausible clothing for a servant of an exceptionally wealthy family. “I’m on my way back, and my mistress is expecting me. Please, sir, if I don’t hurry, I’ll be in big trouble.”
The man just kept scowling.
“I can’t understand a word you’re saying around that scarf. Speak up, girl.”
Before Penelope could react, that guard struck out quick as a flash and snatched the scarf down from her face. A moment as thick and tense as any Penelope could remember followed as the guard stared at her. It only took a second for his eyes to widen.
“Princess,” he whispered. Almost by reflex, the guard tried to take a knee, but Penelope grabbed him by his surcoat.
“Please, none of that. I don’t want any trouble, and I especially don’t want any recognition. Please, just let me go and pretend you never saw me.”
“But Your Highness, it’s not safe to be wandering around the city alone. Where are your guards?”
“Other people do it all the time, and so long as no one recognizes me, I am just like other people.” The frantic shaking of his head was almost amusing. “The gate is right there. A few more steps, and I will be back in the safe bosom of Old Saleria.”
“Please, Highness, allow me to escort you back to the palace.”
Penelope sighed, a hard, heavy sound laced with frustration. Of course, he couldn’t let this be easy.
“To the Palace District, and no further. I’m trying not to attract attention.”
Releasing the guard’s surcoat, Penelope quickly pulled the scarf back over her nose. Her eyes darted about, searching for any sign that their altercation had aroused any suspicions. No one was paying them any mind. Guards interrogating people moving between Lower and Upper Saleria wasn’t exactly uncommon.
Penelope started away, moving quickly through the crowd with the guard right on her heels like a faithful puppy. The glimmer of an idea began to form in Penelope’s mind. She studied him critically over her shoulder.
“What is your name, soldier?”
“How would you like a side job, Eric? One that would be a great help to me.”
The young man appeared thunderstruck.
“A side-job, Highness?”
Well, that wasn’t the “anything for you” answer she’d been looking for, but he hadn’t said no. Yet.
“Yes. Sometimes I need to move about the city in a discreet manner. Obviously, taking the palace guards anywhere is the antithesis of discreet. It has been brought to my attention, however, that moving about on my own may be less than prudent. How would you like to act as my personal bodyguard? Just once in a while, mind you, when I find myself in need of making a trip down to the Lower Markets.”
“I would be honored, Highness.”
“Good. It’s settled then. I will send you word a day in advance when I require your services. You will escort me from the Palace District gates to the Lower Markets, find something to occupy your time while I do my shopping, and then escort me back to the Palace District. And you will breathe a word of this to no one.”
They had reached the gate to the Palace District. Unlike the thick walls and gates that divided Upper Saleria from Lower Saleria, these gates were more decorative than functional, serving merely as a boundary marker.
“This is where I leave you. Remember, Eric, not a word of this to anyone.” She pressed a pair of silvers into his hand. If her station didn’t demand his loyalty, maybe her money would buy it. She hoped.
Penelope left the perplexed young guard standing in the middle of the road staring at her retreating back and fingering his sudden wealth. She kept an eye on him over her shoulder, thinking perhaps he would follow her, an overzealous protector. He did not follow, although he didn’t make any move to leave until she was nearly out of sight, either. He could follow directions. Excellent.
The streets were quieter here. Although there were many carriages about, there was little foot traffic. Only the nobility ventured into the Palace District. The townhomes of the gentry ran in straight rows, rising up three stories from the street. Smoke rose from numerous chimneys on every building. Expensive stone and polished wood made up most of the facades. However, there was the occasional cheerful brick in reds, yellows, and oranges. The latter usually belonged to the poorer nobles, and Penelope found them much more pleasant and inviting.
Up ahead, towering over the nobles’ townhomes, was the palace itself. Even in the dim winter light, the white granite gleamed. The dark slate of the roofs was lost under the snow, and icicles dripped from every overhang. The trees lining the huge front promenade were sheathed in crystalline ice that glistened in the weak sunlight. It was a winter fantasy, surely the home of a snow queen.
Penelope turned away from the promenade and its clear, shoveled path. Instead, she trudged along the length of the palace’s outer walls, heading for the far east corner. A small service door was recessed into the granite wall. It was easy to miss and rarely locked. The servants used it to come and go on their way to the market. It only led into the public part of the palace. The hard part would be getting into the private guarded part without detection. That part would take a little something special. Penelope was having to get more and more creative as her father made the watch on her tighter and tighter. In the early days, it had been easy; sneaking in and out hadn’t even required any magic.
She crossed the grounds cautiously, sticking to the parts where the servants went about their business and avoiding the public gardens and waiting areas. Penelope picked her way carefully to the wall around the kitchen garden. By palace standards, the wall was low, only seven feet tall. It was also made of conveniently rough stone. Penelope jammed her foot into a space several feet up and started the climb over the wall, stopping at the top to peek over and make sure no one was in the garden. This route was the easiest but also had the greatest risk of discovery. The coast was clear.
Making her way along the edge of the garden, Penelope felt around in her pocket for a small piece of rounded glass. Rubbing it between a finger and thumb, she began a whispered incantation. Several times a strange sensation, almost like a shiver, ran through her body, but Penelope didn’t stop. This particular spell had become a favorite for her of late. A few more words and another shiver, and Penelope disappeared against the dead plants and rough stone wall. The illusion was a good one – it ought to be with all the practice she’d gotten with it – but the more she moved, the greater the chance of discovery. With the spell active, she had to move slowly and purposefully, making her way into the palace kitchens.
The trip through the palace was surprisingly quiet. Penelope flittered from column to column, doorway to doorway, and alcove to alcove like a ghost. Once or twice a maid armed with a feather duster would start, convinced she’d seen movement from the corner of her eye, but whenever she looked, there was never anything there. Such incidents seemed to happen with more frequency of late. The servants were beginning to fear that the princess’s dabbling had angered spirits who now haunted her wing of the palace. None of them ever imagined that it might be the princess herself haunting the corridors.
Penelope stopped short in the corridor outside her chamber. Two guards stood at attention right outside her door. Crap.
Searching frantically through her pockets, Penelope racked her brain desperately for a useful spell. Her fingers closed over a small silver bell she had wrapped in fabric to prevent any inopportune ringing. Perfect. If she could just get the sound to project from around the far corner, much farther than she’d ever tried before, maybe the guards would go investigate. Brow furrowed in concentration, Penelope began the incantation.
The guards jumped when a sudden loud ringing sounded down the corridor. Penelope silently cheered as they both started down the hall.
Oh, no. One of the guards moved to investigate the inexplicable sounds, but the other had stopped short. Now he stood on the far side of the door with his back to her. Penelope considered making a run for it, only to realize she’d stopped chanting and the ringing had faded. The other guard came back around the corner, both palms up, and his shoulders shrugged.
“Maybe this wing really is haunted.”
The bell wouldn’t work a second time, of that much Penelope was certain. If only she had learned how to transform the sound into something else. Some nice, loud feminine screams, perhaps. Now that would send the guards running.
She contemplated trying, but she was saved from it by the sudden appearance of Tiffany at the other end of the hall.
“Miss Tiffany, was that you ringing the bells?”
The guards looked at each other.
“Uh, nothing, Miss.”
This was Penelope’s chance. She crept down the hall while the guards engaged her maid in further conversation. One heart-stopping moment later, Penelope ducked under Tiffany’s arm as the maid stood with the door ajar and tumbled into her room. The maid jumped a bit, startled.
“Are you alright, Miss?”
Tiffany stared at the empty space between the door and the jam for a long moment.
“Yes, I’m fine. Thank you.”
Once the door was closed, Tiffany leaned back against it and let out a deep sigh.
“You can make yourself visible again, Princess.”
Penelope found the little round piece of glass in her pocket and muttered a few words. The illusion of invisibility dropped like a curtain. A gasp ripped itself from Tiffany’s mouth, her hand coming up to her heart. Even when one was expecting it, the effect was jarring.
“Oh, Highness. Do you have to do it like that? You’re going to age my poor ticker before its time.”
“Where have you been, Highness? I’ve been all over the palace looking for you. His Majesty wants a word. I don’t know how much longer you can keep him waiting.” The maid stopped, her brow furrowing as she took in Penelope’s attire. “Is that my dress?”
“No, but I had it made from the same fabric.”
“Princess, you didn’t.”
Tiffany shook her head but lost not another moment in taking Penelope’s wet cloak and scarf. The maid then pulled a coat rack near the sitting-room fire and hung the wet things from it.
“Come, Highness, we best get you changed. You’ll catch your death in those wet things, and it won’t do for His Majesty to see you dressed like your lady’s maid.”
Penelope let herself be led to the dressing room off the bedchamber that also connected to a room dedicated to her private bath. Though she longed for a nice, long hot soak, Penelope shucked off her dress and took the fresh one Tiffany handed her without complaint. The maid helped her lace up the back and do up all the tiny buttons. It seemed to be that the higher one’s station, the more impossible it was to dress oneself.
Now wearing a gown much more befitting a princess, Penelope made her way to her father’s study. The two guards outside her door bowed respectfully as she emerged from her chambers, then fell into step behind her.