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The Runaway Dragon
By Kate Coombs
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2009 Kathryn Coombs
All rights reserved.
MEG PUT THE BACK OF ONE HAND TO HER FORE-head and leaned against the windowsill of her chamber, looking out over the royal vegetable garden to the city of Crown, her imagination flying across the rest of the Kingdom of Greeve and into the wide world beyond. Her green gown flowed gracefully down her semi-slim sides. Her golden tresses — well, her light brown tresses — flowed almost as gracefully down her back. "Alas and alack," Meg said in a breathless voice, "will no one come to take me away from this foul place?" She snickered. Boring place was more like it.
Meg's mother was worried about the lack of princes coming to court her daughter. Meg wasn't. She was more interested in coming up with a way of convincing her parents to let her go on a quest.
Meg left the window to change into a more serviceable skirt, tunic, and short, soft boots. She clipped her hair back and buckled on her sword, then headed downstairs for her first class of the day. She nearly crashed into Dilly, who was coming up the stairs. Dilly used to be Meg's maid, but now she was Meg's one and only lady-in-waiting. "Sword lessons?" Dilly asked, after neatly stepping out of Meg's way.
"Sword lessons," Meg answered. Swordplay was Meg's favorite class, followed by statesmanship, a class taught by the austere Lady Fralen. Meg had expected to hate it, but to her amazement, she was pretty good at diplomacy and sort of liked it. Years of trying to get around her mother so she could hunt for frogs or roam the woods with Cam the gardener's boy had taught her a lot about smooth talking, and it turned out that was what statesmanship was. That and figuring out what the other person wanted.
Meg tried not to think about her other classes for today, etiquette and magic and dance. She was bad at all three.
"Lucky you," said Dilly.
"Why, where are you going?"
Dilly made a face. "Eugenia invited me again." Queen Istilda's ladies-in-waiting were trying to turn Dilly into a fluffbrain, but so far Dilly was resisting.
"You can tell me about it tonight."
"Oh, I will!" Dilly gave a positively evil little laugh. Her reenactments of the embroidery-and-gossip sessions put on by the queen's ladies were getting better with practice, though Meg suspected Dilly left out some of the talk about Meg not being courted by anyone. Laughing more normally, Dilly went on up the stairs, her brown gown and tidy black hair looking suitably demure.
Meg's swordplay instructor, Master Zolis, was already warming up when she arrived. Meg greeted him and began going through the stretches herself in a shaft of sunlight from one of the unadorned windows along the outer wall.
Master Zolis wasn't a big man. In fact, he looked nearly as unassuming as Garald, the king's dull prime minister. Master Zolis's hair had disappeared entirely on the top of his head, and his shoulders weren't particularly broad. But everyone in the castle knew that the swordmaster wielded his weapon as if it were a wizard's wand. All of the guardsmen stood in line for the chance to practice with him. Meg got her very own lessons twice a week.
Meg smiled a little as she leaned over her left leg and touched the worn wooden floor. As a teacher, Master Zolis wasn't one to dish out praise just because his pupil was a princess, but after Meg's last lesson, he had said, "Not bad." Meg had been treasuring the words ever since. Practicing in her room had paid off. She'd only cut her bed hangings once, over on the back of the bed where it didn't show from the door.
Master Zolis was usually a man of more sword strokes than words, but today he had something to say. He gestured to Meg to sit on a bench beside him. "Princess Margaret, you have learned enough to put on a very pretty exhibition match."
Meg hoped this was a compliment, but before she could say thank you, the swordmaster went on. "However, what will you do if someone really wants to kill you?"
"Isn't that what you've been teaching me for?"
Master Zolis shook his head, causing his bald spot to catch the light. "What I've given you is a mere beginning. If someone does try to kill you, you're best off running away."
Meg thought of all the imaginary monsters and dark sorcerers she'd been killing in her room lately and frowned. "That's not very heroic."
"No, it isn't. Now think, Princess. If an archer shoots an arrow at you, what do you do?"
"Duck," Meg said, not sure where Master Zolis was going with this.
"Very good." Master Zolis got up again and began pacing back and forth, swinging his sword as if it were much lighter than it looked, as light as Meg's sword. "And if a wizard throws a spell at you?"
"Certainly. What if a very large man with twenty years of experience at sword swinging comes after you?"
Meg sighed. "I should run away."
"That is correct."
"Have you been talking to my father?" Meg asked. A worse thought occurred to her. "Or my mother?"
"Not at all. But instructors are famous for dosing their students with wisdom or, in this case, plain common sense." He grinned. "I've seen how fierce you get in practice."
Wasn't that a good thing? "But if there's always someone better than me around the corner ..."
"Or simply more eager to strike a deathblow than you are," Master Zolis suggested.
"Or that. Then why bother studying?" Meg stuck out her lower jaw a bit.
Master Zolis's eyes twinkled. He gave his sword an intricate flourish. "As I've often told you, swordsmanship is an art. Come, Princess. Let me see the Seventeenth Griffin."
Meg got up and unsheathed her own sword, which was looking far more ordinary at the moment, as if it had been listening to the swordmaster's speech. Meg adjusted her grip on the silver sword hilt, relishing the cool feel of it in her hand. She set her left foot at a slight angle to her right and then lunged forward, twirling to her left at the last second and then dropping to one knee so that the tip of her sword rested just below her instructor's chin. Or that was the plan, anyway. Instead she felt a slight rush of air as the swordmaster moved, not acting at all like the opponent of Meg's imagination. Meg ended up flat on her back with Master Zolis's foot lightly resting on her inner elbow and her sword halfway across the room.
"Much better," the swordmaster said, moving his foot aside. "Hop up and do it again."
If magic had been any easier for her, Meg's least favorite class would have been royal etiquette, in which Mistress Mintz instructed Meg far too thoroughly in court protocol. All Meg could do was smile grimly and say, "Yes, Mistress Mintz," or "No, Mistress Mintz," as she tried to remember the prissy details that accompanied her royal status like so many chaperones. Just because she'd run away from home and acted in various unseemly ways a year ago didn't mean she was completely lacking in courtly graces. But her mother had thought so, and that was the reason for Mistress Mintz.
Meg approached the parlor where Mistress Mintz reigned over a little kingdom of lace doilies and flowered armchairs. Meg preferred real flowers herself — they were sloppy and friendly and swayed in the wind. Of course, nothing dared to move out of its place in Mistress Mintz's parlor. The complete opposite of the sword-master's austere domain, it was stuffed with ruffles and furbelows and amazingly adorable large-eyed knickknacks. Meg shortened her steps automatically as she came through the door.
It seemed to her that the etiquette teacher should dress in pale-colored flowers to match the decor, but as usual Mistress Mintz was wearing a tense black dress. She greeted Meg with chilly formality, asked her in appalled tones to take off her sword, and informed her that the topic of today's lesson was curtsies. "Now, Princess Margaret, let me see you curtsy," the etiquette instructor said. Her small eyes narrowed, anticipating Meg's least mistake.
Still, Meg dipped with such care that she really thought she'd gotten it right.
Mistress Mintz pursed her lips. "And to whom was that curtsy directed?"
"Um — to you?"
"To you, Mistress Mintz," the woman prompted.
"To you, Mistress Mintz," Meg repeated.
"No!" Mistress Mintz snapped. "I should certainly hope not!"
"Why ever not?" Meg asked.
"Why ev —" Mistress Mintz began.
"Why ever not, Mistress Mintz?" Meg said, trying again.
"I can't imagine you are entirely unaware that there are eleven types of curtsies," Meg's instructor announced. "Did you not read the lesson pages?"
"Oh, it's just that ... what happened is ... I was busy with other assignments," Meg said, twiddling her skirt nervously.
"Princesses do not make excuses," Mistress Mintz said. Then she looked at Meg's hands pointedly. "And they do not fidget."
Meg wasn't about to tell her etiquette instructor that last night she was practicing the Seventeenth Griffin. Who had time for curtsies? You just bobbed, was all. As for the book, it was called Royal Etiquette for Every Occasion, and Meg couldn't think of a single occasion when she'd wanted to read it. She and Dilly had laughed about it on and off for weeks, and not just because all of the women in the book were dressed as if they'd lived a hundred years ago, with very high collars and low-hanging, round headdresses that made them resemble a bunch of turtles.
For now, all Meg said was, "I'm sorry, Mistress Mintz." She made an effort to talk the way she was supposed to. "Perhaps you would be so kind as to demonstrate the curtsies for me?"
Mistress Mintz gave Meg a tiny smile. "Very well."
To no one's surprise, it soon became clear that Meg couldn't tell the eleven curtsies apart. And she couldn't remember more than three or four of their names. This was probably because, instead of having wonderful names like the Seventeenth Griffin or Death Comes Swiftly, they were all named after noblewomen who had lived about a hundred years ago and looked like turtles.
"No, this is the Lady Evaline," Mistress Mintz said, curtsying deeply.
"I thought that was the Queen Violet."
Mistress Mintz's blue-gray hair quivered indignantly. "Hardly, my dear." When she said "my dear," it didn't sound endearing at all. "Watch closely."
Meg tried and tried. With a great deal of swooshing and swishing and only a little bobbing, Meg produced a fairly good imitation of the first two curtsies.
"That was adequate," the woman said.
Meg couldn't help letting out a dismal sigh.
"When a young lady avoids her responsibilities as a princess," Mistress Mintz said, looking down her nose at Meg, "she naturally finds herself lacking in the most basic of royal requirements."
"What do you mean?" Meg didn't like the sound of that.
"I mean that anyone who shirks her duty by leaving her assigned place and interfering with her father's princely competition may find that she is thereafter shunned by young men of quality."
Mistress Mintz had never before dared insult Meg this openly about her adventures. "Quality? Those princes would still be frogs if it weren't for me!" Meg said hotly. "How would you like to be locked in a tower and have your father offer half the kingdom and your hand in marriage to some buffoon in a crown?"
To Meg's astonishment, the etiquette teacher looked positively wistful at the thought. But the woman quickly recovered her famous dignity. "The idea of a princess rescuing the very creatures intended to be defeated by such a contest is simply shocking, as you well know."
"Gorba is a nice witch, and Laddy is a sweet little dragon!"
"Next I suppose you're going to defend those bandits," Mistress Mintz said in acid tones.
"They're gone now. They weren't that bad." Even if they had taken eleven chests filled with dragon treasure when they went.
The etiquette teacher shook her head sorrowfully. "Princess Margaret, the work ahead of us is extensive."
Frankly, Meg thought her teacher's remarks were far from polite. But there was no point in arguing. Meg kept quiet, hoping this would soon be over. Whereupon Mistress Mintz gave her a long speech about why manners were of the utmost importance, after which she assigned Meg to really, truly read the chapter on curtsies. And finally, they were finished. Which would have been very good news, if it didn't mean that it was time for Meg's magic lesson.CHAPTER 2
AN HOUR LATER, WHILE MEG WAS BUSY STUDYING magic with Master Torskelly in his cluttered workroom, a dragon buzzed the castle. As Dilly was to tell Meg that afternoon, Nort had been staring at Dilly in the east hallway when the uproar started. Nort had been doing that a lot lately, and it was annoying Dilly no end. She was practically missing the days when the skinny apprentice guardsman used to alternately ignore her or tattle on her to her uncle, Guard Captain Hanak. Dilly was about to march up to Nort and tell him to stop it when a strange rushing noise was heard outside the window, followed quickly by an inhuman roar, a very human scream, a whoosh, and a smell of smoke.
Half the people in the hall ran to the windows; the other half ran away. Nort and Dilly met in the middle, where he tackled her manfully and threw her to the floor.
"Get off!" she yelled.
"I'm protecting you," he announced.
"Well, stop it!" Dilly spat, managing to say just what she'd been wanting to say about Nort's staring at her only a moment before. Dilly pulled free of her rescuer and hurried to the window, where she was treated to the sight of a red-and-gold tail flopping up over the battlements. "Dragon!" someone shouted rather obviously, and a volley of arrows sprayed the sky.
The tail looked familiar, Dilly thought. "Laddy?" she said.
"Meg's dragon?" Nort rushed to stand beside her.
The dragon seemed to fall backward. Everyone at the windows gasped, some hopefully and, in Dilly's case at least, others worriedly. Then the dragon spun itself about in midair and, thrusting against the castle wall with a back claw, launched off into furious flight.
The dragon wasn't huge, but it was a beauty, its underbelly and wings golden and its back scarlet touched with amber. It soared out of reach of the arrows, higher and higher, till it looked like a lost sunbeam and then disappeared altogether. "That was Laddy," Dilly whispered. Forgetting her annoyance, she turned to run. "We've got to find Meg!"
Meg's first thought was that she had conjured up something horrible. A few minutes earlier, she had been concentrating on her magic lesson, thinking maybe this time she would get her spell to work. Her magic tutor, for his part, had been thinking in a depressed, philosophical sort of way that some people who wanted to paint were color-blind, some people who wanted to sing were tone-deaf, and some people who wanted to make magic were — well, Princess Margaret. He did not say so, however, though the expression on his face was particularly eloquent.
"Not even close?" Meg asked woefully.
Master Torskelly shook his head. "No, Princess. Not a bit."
Meg peered down at the circle of spellwork. It looked just like the picture in the book. The hensleaf and the tickwort were in the right spots, as were a cricket and a bit of tapestry. Meg was also pretty sure she had said the spell properly: "Poppilin callifus haig." The spell just didn't do what it was supposed to: transform the cricket into a buttercup.
There was no help for it. Meg was abysmally bad at magic. Now, anyone can be incapable of magic, and that is what it means to be bad at magic. To be abysmally bad at magic, a person has to be able to cast a spell, but make it come out wrong every time.
For that reason, Meg's tutor waited anxiously, hoping the princess's spell wouldn't work at all. It was hard to tell. One of Meg's spells had seemed to fail, but a pitcher of cream in the next room was later found to have turned to seawater. And the twelfth third-floor housemaid had been more than a little distressed when another of Meg's attempts at magic had changed the woman's speech to the bloodthirsty cry of a gorebeast. They'd had to call in the boy wizard, Lex, to take care of that one.
Thbbbbbhbt! Meg heard, surely not in her head. "Sir?" Had her tutor really just given her the raspberry?! And behind her back?
"Yes?" Master Torskelly said, his voice as mild and cultured as ever.
"Did you speak or," Meg hesitated, "make a sound, just now?"
"Not at all. I know you need quiet to concentrate."
Maybe the poor old man was gassy. Or maybe she'd just imagined the sound. Meg began to rearrange her spell. Then a tumult filled the halls and poured in at the window.
"Now what?" Meg said.
Master Torskelly sighed for the fifth time that morning. "Come along. We'll find out what happened."
In the halls, everyone was rushing about and calling out the word "dragon."
Meg looked sideways at her tutor. "I don't think I could have conjured up a dragon."
Excerpted from The Runaway Dragon by Kate Coombs. Copyright © 2009 Kathryn Coombs. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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