“This,” Kazul says, shifting into humanoid form with a smoky sigh, “is a tremendously bad idea.”
“Nonsense.” Cimorene passes Kazul her favored silk robe with an elegant economy of movement the king still startles to see in a human. “You know as well as I do that we’ve already put it off too long,” the princess adds, not bothering to look up from her massive, leather-bound day planner.
“I thought you ran away to join this circus and avoid all the pomp and circumstance,” Kazul frowns and gazes pensively at the balcony she’d just landed on. Four-jointed fingers trace the loose tie at her waist and she wonders if perhaps it’s not too late to—
Cimorene is studying Kazul with narrowed eyes and a determined set to her mouth. “If you so much as daydream about pulling a runner before the delegation arrives, I’ll switch the seating so you’re next to Lord Roxim at every gala, tea party, and concert from now until the end of time.”
Kazul hastily secures the tie of her robe and heads for the dressing room.
“I thought so,” Cimorene rolls her eyes and follows Kazul, day planner trailing after like a well-trained hound. “You can stop acting so put out about it. I know you’re looking forward to seeing Telemain. You can have him take a look at that wonky magic carpet the giants gave you at the coronation. And anyway, it’s not as if anyone wants to spend Winter Solstice hammering out trade agreements and presiding over territory disputes. Negotations concerning power restrictions are boring for all. Everyone from the Enchanted Forest will share equally in your misery, Your Majesty.”
“‘Everyone’ is not hosting the blasted thing,” Kazul grumbles and spits violet sparks as she snarls at the lighted mirror. “I’ll spend the majority of the week looking like this,” she motions at her entire person with a taloned hand, lips curling in obvious distaste, “and attempting to make our esteemed guests comfortable.”
“Which would kill a lesser being, I know.”
Cimorene casually manhandles Kazul into the vanity chair. In a matter of minutes, Cimorene tames poisonous green curls into some semblance of order, lines yellow eyes with kohl so they look nearly as feline as in Her Majesty’s preferred form, and cajoles the King of the Mountains of Morning into a slinky black gown that highlights her supernaturally smooth gait.
“There,” Cimorene grins, securing the gown’s final mother of pearl button. “Feeling slightly more yourself?”
Kazul studies her reflection for a long moment, then nods in satisfaction at the aide-de-camp’s work. “Just one thing missing.”
“The state crown might be a bit much for the initial meet and greet,” Cimorene hisses, following King Kazul down the Grand Staircase.
If Kazul were actually human, she’d be immobilized by the sheer weight of the gold adorning her person. Really, if they insist her natural form is an inadvertent method of coercion, she’ll go out of her way to remind the ninnies exactly who and what she is however she can.
“Nonsense,” Kazul replies, mimicking the dismissive tone Cimorene adopted earlier. “I’ve not met the dandy who’s running the EF these days, but I’m sure he’ll arrive bedecked in whatever paltry kit his kingdom could dig up from the castle vaults.”
“The ‘dandy’ is King Mendanbar, and after his defeat of the wizard Zemenar, he’s both popular and powerful,” Cimorene says in the weary tone of the long suffering. Tucking a stray strand of raven hair behind her ear, she adds, “I know it’s contrary to your nature, but do try not to be so dismissive just because you’re his elder.”
“One hundred and seventy-two years of additional experience,” Kazul replies, smiling with an overabundance of teeth. Her clawed feet scrape gently across the flagstones of the front walk. The delegates’ caravan rolls to a stop and Kazul shoots Cimorene a sly look. “And I’ll be as dismissive of the whippersnapper as I like.”
“Oh, this is going to go brilliantly,” Cimorene plasters on her ‘court smile,’ standing a precise foot and a half behind and to the left of Kazul.
Before the footmen can open the carriage doors, a bearded man in a garish, velvet traveling cloak leaps out of the lead coach with a startled yelp. The cloak’s azure silk lining is smoking and crackling with crimson sparks.
He bats at the growing flames with an ineffectual hand, shouting, “I’ll see that, that hedge-witch stripped of her powers for this grievous offense!”
“I can see we’re already off to a grand start,” Kazul’s grin is more a baring of teeth than anything.
“Oh, for the love of—” Cimorene mutters a spell under her breath and the bearded man is promptly doused in a splash of soapy water.
The remainder of the delegates tumble out of the carriage. They barely keep their feet in their haste to watch the man splutter indignantly, his singed cloak hissing in a pitiful fashion.
“I truly didn’t mean to,” a redheaded woman wails. Tears stream from her eyes only to evaporate in small wisps of steam before they pass her chin.
“Of course you didn’t, Shiara,” Telemain hushes the fire-witch, placing a gentling hand on the sleeve of her robes. “Antorell would test the patience of a sphinx.”
“And it’s not as if you set anything important ablaze.” The last speaker is a young man of Cimorene’s age, lanky and aquiline of nose, a modest circlet adorning his shaggy brown hair.
“I beg your pardon, King Mendanbar!” Antorell seems to be recovering from the shock of his abrupt dousing.
“As you should,” Mendanbar replies, voice sharp as he takes a protective stance between Antorell and Shiara.
“I have never in my life—”
The raucous comes to a sudden halt at the loud clearing of Kazul’s throat.
“It is my sincerest pleasure to formally welcome the delegates from the eastern kingdoms to the Mountains of Morning. I am King Kazul, and I’ll be your host. Would you like to step inside and refresh yourselves before the evening meal?”
Cimorene buries her face in her hands with a groan. Some days she longs for the blissful normalcy of her father’s court.
The first night’s dinner is an informal gathering in one of the smaller drawing rooms. A series of round tables have been apportioned throughout the room. In deference to the holiday, the only lighting comes from the massive fireplace, candles, and the hovering witch lights. Cimorene is seated with several of the guests from the lead carriage. They’re far more pleasant once rid of their wizard companion. Antorell is pouting, seated at the table nearest the fireplace with two gnomes, a hedgewitch, and what appears to be a lion in humanoid form.
“Not precisely the sedate first impression I’d hoped to make on Her Majesty,” the fire-witch, Shiara, is resplendent in an emerald tunic and black leather leggings. She’s secured her vibrant hair in an elaborate plaited bun, crimson strands delicately woven with luminescent black flowers.
“Oh, King Kazul is infamous for her own temper and penchant for setting things ablaze,” Cimorene offers, nodding her thanks to Telemain when he refills her wine glass with a wave of his hand. “The first time my father attempted to retrieve me Her Majesty roasted and ate his prized destrier.”
“Why was your father trying to retrieve you?” King Mendanbar asks, brow furrowed. “Forgive me, but I don’t see why he’d be displeased with your occupation. Aide-de-camp is a highly sought after position in most realms.”
“Yes, but Linderwall’s a conservative kingdom,” Cimorene shrugs, cutting her quail into precise squares. “Kings tend to think it’ll reflect poorly on their reputation if their daughters start running off to gain employment with dragons.”
“Oh. Oh, your father is—right then,” Mendanbar looks a little dazed, dark eyes fixed on Cimorene.
“Were you unaware that our dear girl was Princess Cimorene of Linderwall, Mendanbar?” Telemain grins, winking at Cimorene. They’ve known one another for years, since her own ill-fated dalliance with Morwen ended and Cimorene decided to play matchmaker for the magician and witch.
“I daresay I had no idea, Your Highness,” Mendanbar snaps to attention, politely inclining his head in a sort of seated bow.
“My official title is King’s Secretary and Chief Documentarian,” Cimorene smiles, attributing the slight flush of her cheeks to the wine and not the handsome man grinning at her from across the table. “Feel free to just call me Cimorene.”
“Then I’m quite simply Mendanbar,” the King of the Enchanted Forest reaches across the table to offer her his hand, which she shakes with no small amount of surprise.
“Oh, I like that,” Shiara snorts, warming her mead with a muttered spell before downing the last of her glass. “He called me ‘that insufferable redhead’ until I stopped the night elves from burning down half his ruddy kingdom.”
“If I recall, rightly,” Mendanbar glares and settles more comfortably into his highbacked chair, “you referred to me as ‘the royal tosser’ until you were granted a fiefdom.”
Shiara smiles smugly, eyes bright as she elbows Mendanbar in the side. “You were a tosser. Complete stiff,” she adds, grinning at Cimorene. “He’s much more pleasant now that the wizards aren’t tangling up his precious forest’s magic.”
This leads into Shiara and Mendanbar regaling Cimorene with the tale of wizards stealing magic from the forest itself. There was a quest, which was how they met Antorell (who was surprisingly helpful), as well as Telemain and Morwen. Morwen couldn’t—or perhaps didn’t care to—join the delegation since Aunt Ophelia and Miss Eliza Tudor are both expecting kittens.
“She’s promised you first pick of the litter,” Telemain tells Cimorene, taking a last bite of fudge cake.
“Which litter?” Cimorene asks, feeling warm and pleasantly drowsy with wine and firelight.
“Whichever comes first, I suppose,” Telemain shrugs.
“What’s this about litter?” Kazul sidles up to their table, yellow eyes crinkling with amusement.
“The cat kind, Your Majesty,” Shiara explains. “Dreadful creatures,” she mutters into the wine glass she’s stolen from Telemain.
“I’ve always been fond of them, myself,” Kazul says, blood red lips twitching upwards. “Particularly tasty when roasted over an open flame with some tarragon. Kittens are particularly delicious.”
Cimorene bursts out laughing at the guests’ horrified expressions.
“Her Majesty considers herself a bit of a jester, which is why she hasn’t appointed one to the court,” Cimorene giggles, wiping an errant tear from her cheek.
“Shall I ask Antorell if he’d like the position?” Kazul offers, features carefully blank.
“Now I know what my father meant,” Mendanbar smiles, swirling the wine in his glass.
“And what was that?” Kazul asks archly.
“Well, you met him. He was a regular stick in the mud. He often said, ‘Avoid the Mountains of Morning, Danny-boy—it is a silly place.’ I thought he was a bit daffy. I’d never have expected a dragon’s kingdom to be so full of laughter.”
“Danny-boy?” Kazul smiles, all teeth.
“Oh, dear,” Cimorene sighs, resting her chin in her hands.
“Humans,” Kazul sighs, leaning against the back of Cimorene’s chair. “Children, all.”
“My mother still calls me ‘Cimmonen,’ when she visits. Our parents will always think we’re children, but we get along just fine, thanks,” Cimorene tilts her head back, scowling at the king as best she can with her eyes refusing to focus properly.
“Yes, dear one, I dare say you do,” Kazul pats her aide-de-camp on the shoulder with one taloned hand. “Perhaps it’s time for all good boys and girls to toddle off to bed? We’ve an exciting morning of border negotiations ahead of us.”
Cimorene groans and nods as Kazul walks off. She motions for the attendants to clear the dishes and pass out the enchanted maps. Everyone would wind up hopelessly lost without them. If Antorell’s map draws an unnecessarily convoluted route, well, the magic of dragons is capricious at the best of times.
“We’ll see you at breakfast, yes?” Shiara asks, blinking rapidly before squinting at the spidery scrawl of her map.
“Possibly,” Cimorene stretches and gives Telemain’s fluffy hair a friendly ruffle as she stands. “I may be needed elsewhere, but I’ll join you if possible.”
They all bid a friendly good night, and wander off to follow their maps.
Cimorene wakes disoriented, sky dark outside the window and heavy fistfalls echoing against the oak of her chamber’s door. Mumbling curses, she bundles into her robe and stalks toward the door.
“What?” she snarls, flinging the door wide with an accusatory expression.
Telemain and Mendanbar, both in similar states of undress, are standing with raised hands and wide eyes.
“Uh--you--nice hair,” Mendanbar settles on, earning him a particularly bloodthirsty glare. “I mean, that is--”
“We need your help, Cimorene,” Telemain cuts the king off with a sharp look. “I awoke to a feeling of ill ease, and went in search of the kitchens for a glass of warm milk. As you know, it does a wonderful job of inducing slumber in most people of magical ability. The protein content alone--”
“Did you wake me for an actual reason, or am I going to set the younglings on you when they return from their morning hunt?” Cimorene yawns, rather diminishing the threat of imminent roasting.
“The door to Shiara’s chambers was open wide,” Mendanbar explains, running a hand through his disheveled brown hair. “Her things had been rifled through, furniture was knocked over, there was a puddle by the fireplace, and she’s nowhere to be found.”
“She’s--right. I’ll have to wake Kazul.” Cimorene shoves her stockinged feet into the slippers beside her door, and adds, “You might want to wait outside.”
“Busy!” Kazul yells through the door of her chambers.
“There’s a bit of an emergency, Your Majesty,” Cimorene yells back, hands on her hips.
“Unless it will result in damage to more than half of the kingdom, I don’t care,” Kazul roars and a violet glow is briefly visible below the door.
“Right,” Cimorene mutters. She turns to Telemain, who’s just approached, now clad in sensible trousers and a wooly jumper. “I’m only proficient in cleaning and sorting spells. Can you get this door open?”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” Telemain says, eying the thick oak contemplatively. “As a visiting delegate--”
“Oh, open the door, Telemain,” Mendanbar calls, jogging down the hall dressed in his riding kit. Cimorene most definitely does not appreciate the fit of his trousers, the way his sword belt rides low across his hips, or the glimpse of golden skin visible above his shirt collar. “Who knows where Shiara’s got to by now?”
“Very well,” Telemain sighs, muttering an incantation.
It’s one of Cimorene’s favorite things, the completely unflashy manner in which Telemain does magic. No bang, no poofs of smoke, just a few words and the job’s done. Fine work needs no embellishment.
The door swings inward, and the party gathered outside hurries into the outer chamber.
“Your Majesty, one of the delegates is miss--” Cimorene comes to an abrupt halt in the sitting room. “Missing,” she finishes as Mendanbar plows into her from behind.
She supposes it shouldn’t be such a shock to find the King of the Dragons canoodling with a fire-witch on the parlor sofa. It’s just that she’d been sure the ‘prepared for anything’ in the job description referred to singed hems and the ability to cook literal buckets of cherries jubilee. Not, well. This.
“Found her,” Mendanbar says, helpfully, peering around Cimorene’s shoulder with arched brows and a crooked grin.
Cimorene shoots him a baleful look before returning her gaze to Kazul and Shiara. “Are you both alright?”
“We were getting along splendidly before you magicked your way into the king’s chambers,” Kazul hisses, spitting violet sparks in their direction.
“Right, it’s just that Shiara’s chambers were in quite a state,” Telemain offers, shuffling awkwardly and refusing to meet anyone’s eyes.
“Oh, that’s because Antorell tried to kidnap me earlier,” Shiara says, snuggling closer to Kazul’s warmth with a small, satisfied smile. “Still a bit angry about the cloak, apparently.”
“Well, where is he now?” Mendanbar asks, hand drifting to the sword at his belt. “Such an offense can’t be taken lightly.”
“Oh, that’s already been taken care of,” Kazul grins, tendrils of flame licking the corners of her mouth.
"You didn't roast him, did you?" Telemain looks hopeful.
Kazul shakes her head, poisonous green curls quivering with her laughter. "Shiara took a page out of Cimorene's book."
“Out of my--oh! Oh that wasn’t just a puddle in your rooms,” Cimorene returns Kazul’s grin. “That's brilliant, Shiara!”
“Just a touch of lemon and you’ve got Instant Wizard Melt,” Shiara flushes at Cimorene’s praise. “He’s not a very good wizard, so he should be back to normal by the time we’re through with negotiations.”
“And now, if you wouldn’t mind terribly--” Kazul pointedly looks from Shiara to the others.
“Right! We’ll just be letting you get back to...uh, w-what you’re getting to,” Telemain stammers, before neatly disappearing.
“Well, that’s a handy bit of magic for an awkward situation,” Mendanbar says, admiration evident in his voice. “After you, milady,” he bows to Cimorene and nods deferentially to Kazul.
“Thank you,” Cimorene hurries out of the king’s chambers and into the hallway, Mendanbar close behind. The door slams shut, and they stand in silence for a long moment.
“Oh my god,” Cimorene bursts into laughter, leaning against the cool stone wall of the corridor.
Mendanbar collapses next to her, head drooping towards his knees. “Worst diplomatic mission ever,” he mumbles into his palms.
“There, there,” Cimorene smiles, sliding down to sit next to him. “You’re really the lucky one, here. In a few months I’m going to have to plan a royal wedding, and you’ve no idea how awful those are.”
Mendanbar makes a horrified face, nose wrinkling in distaste. “Royal weddings are living nightmares. My cousin Hildy got married last year and it was a miracle there wasn’t a duel at the reception.”
Cimorene stifles another laugh. “Well, at least one good thing’s happened.”
“And what’s that?” Mendanbar asks, smiling warmly.
Cimorene ignores the butterflies in her stomach. “We know for certain my wizard-melting spell works.”