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The dragon finally opened her eyes. Turning, she found her servant standing by her bed, waiting. She yawned and stretched lazily. "How long have I slept, Tavey?" she asked her servant, yawning again.
"A little over a hundred years, mistress," Tavey replied. "The king has called for you. He is in need of your counsel. The purple sand in his hourglass is almost gone."
"Humph," the dragon replied. "How typical of Fflergant," she said. "For all his bleating about tradition he has never done anything in a timely and correct manner. Now as his days end he calls for me. I have advised all the kings of Belmair since time began, but never have I dealt with one such as this king."
"Perhaps," Tavey ventured, "it was meant to be this way, mistress. Have you not always said that everything happens for a specific reason?"
The dragon arose from her bed. Her name was Nid-hug, and had she allowed herself to appear in all her glory she would have stood higher than her own castle. For simplicity's sake she used her own magic to stand no taller than eight feet. It allowed her to enter the king of Belmair's residence easily as the chambers there were only twelve feet high. "You know me too well," she said. "How long have you served me, Tavey?"
"Since the beginning of time, mistress," he answered her with just the faintest smile touching his thin lips.
"Humph," Nidhug responded. She stretched out her paws. "You have kept my claws nicely trimmed," she noted. "And my scales are quite supple."
"I have oiled them weekly, mistress," Tavey said. "Sleeping should not negate your need for maintenance. You are the Great Dragon of Belmair, mistress."
"How long ago did Fflergant call for me?" Nidhug asked her servant.
"Five days ago, mistress," Tavey responded.
The dragon stretched again, opening her delicate gold wings and extending them briefly before refolding them. She was a very beautiful creature, her scales an iridescent sea-blue and spring-green. The crest upon her head was purple and gold. She had beautiful dark eyes swirled with both gold and silver, and thick, heavy eyelashes that clearly indicated her gender. "Tell Fflergant that I will come to see him in the third hour after the dawn tomorrow morning," she told Tavey. "But before you go to him, tell the cook I will have two dozen sheep, a dozen sides of beef, a wheel of sharp yellow cheese and six cakes soaked in sweet wine for my dinner. Oh! And a nice salad, too, Tavey," Nidhug said. "I am in the mood for greens tonight."
"At once, mistress," the servant said, and hurried from the chamber to first speak with the dragon's cook. "She's awake," he said, entering the kitchens and giving the cook the order for his mistress's dinner.
"Is she ill?" the cook wanted to know. "'Tis scarcely a mouthful."
"It was only a nap," Tavey said. "Add a few dozen roast geese and capons to the order if it pleases you. She could very well discover she is hungrier than she thought, and will thank you for thinking of it," he said. Then he slipped out the kitchen door to cross the dragon's gardens, which led into the king's gardens and into the king's castle. Before he could find the king, however, he met the king's daughter, the sorceress Cinnia.
"Is she awake?" Cinnia asked immediately upon seeing Tavey.
"Yes, my lady, she is."
"When will she see my father? The sands seem to be moving faster," Cinnia said.
"Come with me, and you will learn the answer to your question," Tavey said.
"Tellme!" Cinnia demanded.
Tavey turned and looked at her. "You are not the king of Belmair, my lady, and my message is for the king, not his daughter."
Cinnia's green eyes narrowed, but the dragon's servant stood his ground. "I should be Belmair's next ruler," she said darkly.
"Belmair has never been ruled by a woman," Tavey replied quietly, and he began to walk toward the king's chamber once again.
"Does that mean it shouldn't?" Cinnia said.
"It is not our tradition, my lady," her companion replied. "The dragon has always chosen Belmair's kings. When there has been no son as has happened in this case the dragon chooses a suitable man, and if there is a king's daughter and she is unmarried, then she weds the new king so that the blood of the old king continues on as will happen for you, my lady. It is a good and sensible tradition, and has kept peace on Belmair."
Cinnia said nothing more. What was there to say? Her fate had suddenly been taken out of her hands. She was Belmair's most respected sorceress, but she no longer had any control over her own life. If she attempted to defy tradition she would be punished. The dragon's magic was far greater than was Cinnia's, and she was more than well aware of it for it had been the dragon who had taught her.
Reaching the king's privy chamber, they entered. Fflergant looked pale, but seeing Tavey, he seemed to perk up.
Tavey bowed to the king. "My mistress has just awakened, and, learning of your need, has told me to tell you she will be here in the third hour after the dawn tomorrow."
"Thank her for me, and tell her I eagerly await her coming," the king replied. Then he fell back among his pillows, and his eyes closed again.
Tavey looked to the great hourglass. The purple sand was almost all gone now. When the last grain of it dropped from the top to the bottom it would turn silver, and the king would die. He bowed again, and backed out of the chamber.
Cinnia went to her father's side. "You cannot die before this is decided," she said. "It is tradition. And you cannot die before you have passed your authority to your successor. That, too, is tradition on Belmair."
"I have almost waited too long," Fflergant said weakly. "My pride could not admit to the fact that I was getting old, Daughter. But my time is very close now. I heard your mother singing again in my dreams last night. She is waiting for me."
"And you will be with her soon enough, Father," Cinnia said softly, her eyes welling with tears. "But do not leave me until you have met this man who I must wed and who will be Belmair's next king."
"There can be no delay," the king told his daughter. "once he is chosen and brought to the castle, the marriage must take place. My last breath as king will be his first breath as king. That is also tradition, Cinnia."
The young woman nodded. "I chafe against it, but I will not break with tradition, Father. I will not be like those exiled from us so long ago," she promised him.
"I am relieved to hear it," the old king said with some small humor. "I know how difficult it is for you, my daughter, for you are not a woman to sit by her loom weaving contentedly. Nidhug has taught you well, and you are a great sorceress."
"I show promise, the dragon says," Cinnia responded with a chuckle.
"I wonder who she will choose to follow me," the old king said. "What are your thoughts on the matter, Daughter?"
The young woman considered, and then she shook her head. "I can name no one I would choose to follow you, Father. Unless there is someone in one of the three provinces I do not know of, I can think of none. Its dukes are ancient, and long wed."
"Memory fails me, Daughter. Do any have sons?" the old king asked.
"Only Dreng of Beltran," Cinnia answered, "but he is long wed."
"How odd," the old king said thoughtfully. "In a time when a king is needed it would appear there is none to be had."
"Perhaps tradition is about to change," Cinnia suggested mischievously, "and a queen will follow you."
"If that be so," replied her father, "the queen still needs a husband if she is to produce the next king. Even all your sorcery cannot give you a child without a man."
"We can make all the suppositions we want to make," Cinnia said. "Only the dragon can tell us what is to come, Father. Even I acknowledge that. I am sorry she did not come tonight, but I know how hungry she is after one of her little naps. She must eat before she can consider the solution to our problem."
And Nidhug was indeed enjoying her evening feast. She praised the cook lavishly for her presence of mind in including the poultry offerings. "No one, Sarabeth," she said to the cook, "can roast a goose as you do." She popped a whole bird into her mouth, crunching down upon it, her thin tongue whipping out to lick her lips. "Delicious!" Nidhug pronounced as she swallowed the goose. "And capon, too! Is it stuffed?"
"Of course, mistress, and with that apple and walnut stuffing you so like," the cook replied, forgetting entirely that it had been Tavey's suggestion to include a bit of poultry. "I only did two of them, but I roasted two ducks in the plum sauce you favor, as well," Sara-beth told the dragon.
"Excellent!" the dragon said. "I shall need all my strength tomorrow, for the king is not an easy man to deal with, I fear."
When the dragon had finished her meal she went up upon the battlements of her castle and stretched to her full height. Then unfolding her delicate wings she rose up into the night sky. Belmair possessed twin moons. One of silver, one of gold. Their phases were identical, and tonight they shone in their first quarter, lighting the landscape below her as she flew. Peace flowed through the dragon's veins as she looked down.
Belmair was not a large world. It consisted of four islands of varying size set in a great sea. The largest island, which bore the name of Belmair, was the king's land. The three provinces were the smaller islands of Beldane, Belia and Beltran. Beldane was a lovely land of valleys, gentle hills and glens. Belia was mountainous. Beltran consisted mostly of great tracts of forest and meadows. Each province was ruled over by a ducal family, and each duke answered to the king.
The kings of Belmair did not always follow a familial succession. From the beginnings of time as far back as the Belmairans could remember, it was a dragon who had chosen the king from among the ducal families. And if the preceding king had a daughter of marriageable age the new king was required to wed her.
Once many centuries back, a king designate had been betrothed to a woman he loved when he had been chosen to be king. The betrothed maiden was willing to step aside for her beloved's sake for no one chosen by the dragon to be Belmair's king could refuse the honor. The previous king's daughter was willing to give up her place for she saw the love the king designate had for his betrothed, and she was a maiden with a kind heart. The dragon settled the matter by sitting both maidens in a pen filled with peas. Somewhere among the peas was a pearl. Whoever found the pearl would be the king's bride. The rumor was that the princess, finding the pearl first, surreptitiously pushed it into the other girl's view thus giving up her place. The dragon, who knew all, saw the princess married to the young duke of Beltran, who was also in need of a wife, and blessed her with healthy children and many happy years with her husband to reward her for her good and thoughtful heart.
The dragon stopped to rest herself upon a mountain-top in the duchy of Belia. It was spring, and the snows were melting. The sea surrounding the island, visible from her perch, sparkled in the dappled moonlight. She closed her eyes briefly and breathed deeply of the fresh mountain air. There had been but one Great Dragon of Belmair before herher father. And when her time was over there would be another Great Dragon, but as she had yet had the inclination to raise a hatchling, she knew she would continue her watch over Belmair into the distant future.
The problem before her was to choose a successor for King Fflergant. But there was no successor here on Belmair. She knew each ducal family, and she knew all the men in those ducal families. But none of those males was the next king. She might have changed tradition and chosen Cinnia to be Belmair's queen. But Cinnia, while a great sorceress although Nidhug would never tell her so, was not capable of ruling Belmair no matter what the girl thought.
"Greetings, Nidhug. How beautiful you are in the moonlight," an elegant voice said, and then Kaliq, the great Shadow Prince of Hetar, laughed as the dragon's eyes flew open with her surprise to see him standing before her.
"My lord Kaliq, I greet you in friendship," Nidhug told him. "What brings you to Belmair?" Indeed what did bring him to Belmair? She had not seen him in at least a thousand years. Kaliq of the Shadows did not come casually. There was a purpose to his visit. And to come at this particular time? He had intrigued her as he always did.
"The purple sands in Fflergant's glass are almost gone," Kaliq began. "You need a king, and there is no king at this time here in Belmair, is there?"
The dragon shook her head. "Nay, there is no one, my lord Kaliq."
"That is because Belmair's new king is in my palace, Nidhug," the prince said.
"He is Hetarian?" This could not be!
"He is my son," the Shadow Prince surprised the dragon by saying. "His mother is called Lara. She is the daughter of Ilona, queen of the Forest Faeries in Hetar, and of a Hetarian called John Swiftsword. Lara has always believed that Dillon was the son of her first husband, Vartan of the Fiacre. We were once lovers long ago, and I told her that we Shadow Princes no longer reproduced. But how could I deny myself the joy of having a son with her for she was perfect. I left my seed in Lara, and when she was ready to give Vartan a child that seed bloomed. I saw to it that the boy had Vartan's coloring, and when people looked at him as a boy they saw Vartan through the magic with which I surrounded him."
Kaliq chuckled. "Lara has always thought Dillon gained his magic through her and her faerie blood. But he has my blood, too. He came to me for training when he was twelve. He is now twenty-two, and a great sorcerer. The perfect king for Belmair, and the perfect mate for the fair Cinnia, the sorceress of Belmair."