When a dragon storms the castle, what should a (virgin) princess do?
Why, turn to her studies, of course! But nothing practical-minded Princess Andromeda of Acadia finds gives a definitive solution. The only Traditional answer, though, is soothing the marauding dragon by a virgin sacrifice. Things are going fairly smoothly with the lottery--except for the women chosen, of course--until Princess Andromeda herself is picked!
But facing down the dragon doesn't go quite as planned, and now, with the help of her Champion, Sir George, Andromeda searches for the dragon's lair. But even--especially--in the Five Hundred Kingdoms, bucking Tradition isn't easy. It takes the strongest of wills, knowledge, quick wits and a refusal to give up, no matter what happens along the way....
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May 01, 2010
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Excerpt from One Good Knight by Mercedes Lackey
One Good Knight
by Mercedes Lackey
Princess Andromeda stood on the very edge of a ledge three-quarters of the way up the cliff above the Royal Palace of her mother, Queen Cassiopeia of Acadia, holding out her arms to the wind. The same wind flattened her tunic against her body and sent strands of her hair flying about her face as they escaped from the knot at the back of her neck. She raised her face to the sun, closing her eyes.
I wish I had wings--I used to dream about flying when I was little. It would be so glorious to simply step off this rock and fly, to escape the dreariness of being a Princess, with the din of "musts" and "must-nots," day in and day out, from governesses, tutors, her mother's ladies and, of course, her mother.
Especially the "must-nots."
There was an almighty number of "must-nots." You mustn't laugh too loudly. You mustn't speak your opinion unless it's asked for. You mustn't talk to anyone below the rank of noble, unless it's to give an order. You mustn't be seen reading in public. You mustn't frown in public. You mustn't smile at anyone below the rank of a noble, and you mustn't smile at any young men, ever. You mustn't let anyone call you "Andie," nor refer to yourself by that name. You mustn't be seen moving at anything other than a graceful walk... the list was endless. It seemed that all she ever heard was what she shouldn't be doing. No one ever told her what she could do--aside from look decorative, wearing the serenely stupid gaze of a statue. No one ever came to her and said, "Princess, there is a task you and you alone can perform." One "must" along those lines would have been countered with a hundred distasteful "must-nots"--but one never came.
Surely that had never been her mother's lot. Cassiopeia had begun her life as Crown Princess and then Queen with responsibilities. In no small part because her husband, at least according to gossip, had been so good at avoiding them. That was why the old King, Andie's grandfather, had handpicked her out of the daughters of his nobles. He had wanted a girl with ambition, since his own son clearly had none, and a girl who would see that things got done.
Who ever would be foolish enough to envy the lot of a Princess with all of that hanging over their head? Nothing but restrictions without responsibilities. I'm less free than a slave, and not allowed to do anything that has any meaning to it.
She took a deep breath of the sea-scented air, and sighed it out again. At least her mother was not going to be plaguing her with one of her unannounced inspections this afternoon, inspections that inevitably ended in well-mannered murmurings of disappointment and the appointment of a new governess. Queen Cassiopeia was holding a very, very private audience with the Captains of the Acadian Merchant Fleet, followed by another with the foreign merchants who plied Acadian waters, and the meetings were expected to last all day and well into the night. Trade was the lifeblood of Acadia. Without trade, this Kingdom would probably die. Anything that threatened trade and the taxes it brought in, threatened Acadia as surely as an army. Despite her mother's being asked, begged, by her daughter to be allowed to attend, Andie had been told to "run along." Under any other circumstances, she would have been happy about the freedom from her governess's supervision and the opportunity to get out in fresh air and to make a raid on the library. But being treated like a child put a bitter taste on the treat.
She pushed at the stiff wires crossing the bridge of her nose, part of a contrivance called "oculars," making sure they were firmly on her face, then curled the wires of the side-pieces securely around the backs of her ears. They were a bit of a nuisance, but she loved them, because without them, she'd be half blind. The Royal Guard's own Magician had made them for her when he'd realized, watching her try to hold a book right up against her tiny nose as a child, that she was terribly nearsighted. He'd been pleased enough to do so, though the Queen had been less than happy the first time she saw her daughter scampering about with the wire-and-glass-lenses contraption perched on her face. "It's unnatural!" she had complained. "It looks like a cheap mask! What need has a Princess to see clearly, anyway?"
She had finally given in only when it was made demonstrably clear that Andie's never-ending series of bruising falls came to an abrupt end once she could see where she was going.
Not that her mother cared if I fell, except that all the bruises were an embarrassment to her. Andie sighed again. I can never please her, no matter what I do, so I wish she'd just get used to that and make use of what I actually can do.
Queen Cassiopeia wanted a pink-and-white, sugarplum Princess, a lovely daughter who as a child would have been all frills and giggles, big blue eyes and golden curls, and as an adult (or nearly, anyway) would be the younger image of herself, immaculately groomed, impeccably gowned, graceful, lovely-- not to mention quiet, pliant, uncomplaining and unthinking. A marriage pawn, who wouldn't argue about anything, or ask awkward questions, or want to do anything except to look as beautiful as possible. There had been nibbles of marriages over the years, but nothing ever came of them. Cassiopeia had enough ambition for two; she didn't see the need of it in her daughter.
Andie gave herself a mental slap. Maybe not unthinking. But--certainly more obedient than Andie was. And assuredly much prettier, much neater and much more concerned with her personal appearance than Andie could ever bring herself to be. So far as her mother was concerned, looks were one more weapon in the arsenal of a determined woman.
Cassiopeia never spent less than two hours in the hands of her maidservants before first appearing outside of her rooms. Andie could barely tolerate having the maid comb her hair and put it up, and she insisted on bathing herself, without all the oils and perfumes her mother seemed to think were necessary. Cassiopeia went through as many as six gowns before choosing one for the day, and it was always something so elaborate it took at least two maids to help her into it. Andie threw on whichever of her tunics the maid gave her, and if forced into a gown, made it the simplest draped column of fabric with cords confining it at her waist. Cassiopeia wore enough jewelry to finance an expedition to Qin for the most ordinary of days. Andie never wore any ornaments but a hair-clasp.
Cassiopeia had a lush figure that caused poets and minstrels from Kingdoms hundreds of leagues away to come write songs about her, and a face that had inspired fifty sculptors. Andie's figure was straight up and down and no gown could disguise that fact, and as for her face--well, as her mother often sighed, who would look past the lenses that took up half of it?
So how could the Queen ever be anything but disappointed in her daughter?
Andie had long since resigned herself to this, burying the hurt a little deeper each time Cassiopeia made some unconsidered remark. At least there was one area she could achieve success in--anything intellectual. And the Queen did seem to take some small pleasure in that, though she might bemoan the fact that Andie's nose was almost always in a book. The trouble was, she didn't seem to think that all of this study had any useful applications.
Even though I've quoted her facts and figures about Acadia until I've run out of breath. Every time she was going to have an important audience or meeting and I was able to find out about it, I did all the research on the subject anyone could ask for. Today at breakfast, Andie had detailed the revenues on import-taxes, given her historical background on inter-merchant disputes... but she might just as well have been telling her Godmother tales. The Queen just said, "How interesting, dear," as if she wasn't even listening.
She probably wasn't listening, actually. She probably thinks I'm just reciting my lessons for her. Once Cassiopeia had realized that her daughter was not going to develop into a miniature copy of herself, she'd left Andie's upbringing to nurses and governesses, who mostly passed in and out of Andie's life without making much impact, for none of them had lasted very long. Not because Andie was a difficult child, but because even when they were competent, and a shocking number were not, the competent ones sooner or later ran afoul of the Queen and were replaced. The incompetent, of course, were soon found out and sacked.
Not that it had ever mattered. The ones she'd had as a child, when it might have made her unhappy to lose a nurse she had become fond of, had, one and all, been rather horrible. Horrible in different ways, but still horrible. Some had been strict to the point of cruelty, some had been careless to the point of danger, some had been neglectful, or had scolded and criticized until Andie was in tears.
If it hadn't been for her loyal Guardsmen and Guards-women, she would have spent a lonely and very miserable childhood. But they had been everything that the nurses should have been and never were. The same set of Six had been standing watch over her safety since she was an infant, and when nursemaids were asleep, or drunk, or in the bed of their noble lovers, or lording it over the lesser servants, or off flirting with stable boys, the Guards were the ones who saw that she drank her milk, wiped her tears when she fell, and told her stories at bedtime.
Just as well that I wasn't the sort of child to get into serious trouble. They never had to get me out of anything difficult.
Not that she was spoiled. The nursemaids had strict orders from the Queen on that particular subject, and no few of them had taken great glee in loading Andie down with punitive punishments at every opportunity until she was as much of a model of correct and polite behavior as anyone would have asked. And her Six had too many children of their own to put up with nonsense from her.
From that faithful set of six Guards, she learned to know every member of the Guard assigned to the Palace as soon as her curiosity led her out of the nursery, Guard in tow. If she hadn't, she'd never have gotten her oculars.
Now she was something of a mascot for the entire Palace Regiment, and she did her best to help them whenever and wherever she could. Not that any of them had ever permitted the slightest slip so that the Queen learned of the peculiar attachment.
If Cassiopeia ever found out, she'd banish the lot of them to some awful assignments at prisons or remote Guard-posts, and put Andie in the care of even more horrible governesses.
One day soon, though, her faithful Six would be retired; Demetre and Leodipes were getting very gray, and the rest weren't much younger. It was only the fact that duty in the Inner Palace was largely a sinecure that kept them active. She dreaded thinking of that day, hoping their replacements would be guards she liked.
Andie looked down at the Palace and the city below it; from here, just below the lookout point for the Sea-Watch, it looked exactly like the model in the Great Library. The city of Ethanos was deceptively peaceful from here, its people reduced to little colored dots moving along the white streets, the striped awnings and banners too distant to show their stains and tatters, and none of its glorious, brawling untidiness evident from this height.
Which was, she reflected, probably the way her mother preferred it. Cassiopeia didn't like untidiness--not in her Palace, nor her city, nor her Kingdom, nor her daughter.
Unfortunately for the Queen's peace of mind, the only place she could keep untidiness from intruding was within the walls of the Palace--and then only within the places where she herself spent any amount of time.
Andie shook off her melancholy; after all, even if she was still being treated like a child, she had the whole afternoon to herself, without the intrusion of Queen or governess. She'd finished her set lessons, even the embroidery she hated, and knowing that the Queen was not going to appear in the Princess's Wing today and would be too busy to think of sending one of her ladies to do it for her, Andie's governess had gone off for a good long gossip somewhere, leaving Andie free to do as she liked.
She had seized on the opportunity to climb the cliff, and thought that while she was at it, she might as well take the Sea-Watch Guard's noon meal up to him. It was a long way up, and she always made a pause near the top, to survey Palace, town and harbor. Today for her lessons she had just been reading poetry, which made her wonder, perversely, why the poets always talked about the "wine-dark" sea.... It's no color of any wine I ever saw. Nor the color of anything I'd ever feel safe drinking.
She turned away from the sea and the view below, and scampered up the last few flights of switchback stairs cut into the rock of the cliff. The stairs ended in a platform planed as flat as a sheet of paper, with a three-sided stone shelter square in the middle of it, a shelter that kept the Sea-Watch Guard shaded from the sun and protected from the worst of the weather. On a gorgeous day like today, Sea-Watch duty was a pleasant thing, but in bad weather it was something only the strong of will and body would dare to undertake.
"Thesus!" she called, "I've brought up your rations!"
"Come around to the front, Princess!" came the reply. "I've got a sail in sight and I don't want to lose it."
"A sail?" She hurried around to the front of the shelter, where the big telescope was mounted--created by Sophont Balan, the Royal Guards' Magician who had created her oculars. "Sophont" just meant "wise man;" there were a lot of them, and most of them actually weren't magicians.