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Princess and Her Dragon

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Bianca has always loved her sister. It is a complicated kind of love, weighed down by past and circumstance, twisted up by the declarations of their father and by their own differences, but it is still love. It used to be easier, Bianca remembers, simpler, before suitors and romance and marriage entered the picture. She misses those days. Now hate has edged into their love, born of jealousy and resentment and the way they are forever trapped by each other and Bianca does not know how to fix it. Spitefully, she sometimes wonders if she wants to. It would be so much easier to hate Katherine, after all.

But it used to be easier. Bianca remembers those times and it hurts, how happy they were. How easy it was to love each other. How easy it was to get along. Katherine had been easier, Bianca thinks. Katherine had been softer and simpler and so much less angry, less hurt. She misses the sister she had in those days, misses the girl she used to be.
Oh, Katherine has always been sharp. She has always been headstrong and willful, always been cutting with her words and brilliant and witty and full of fire, always had her temper and her spirit. That has not changed. But- the way that she was sharp was different. It had been steel in her spine and an unbending head and fierce eyes and a righteous temper. It has been strength and trust in herself and the deep, unshakable faith that she was right, that she knew right from wrong and could lead herself which ever way she wished and never get lost. It had been the sharpness of a blade in the hands of a warrior, certain and unwavering and only ever pointed at her enemies. It had been a soft kind of sharp, tempered by love and joy and the simplicity of childhood. Bianca misses that. Bianca misses her.

Katherine had been the one to climb trees and roll in the dirt and force her way on their nursemaids, on their servants and watchers and nannies and tutors, on their father. Katherine had been the stalwart defense and unshakable courage and she pretended to agree with no one she didn’t, pretended to like no one she hated, pretended nothing. She spoke her mind and Bianca had watched in awe at its brilliance, at its shine, at its edge. Bianca had always been a little in awe of Katherine.

It was her courage, Bianca thinks now. It was the way she shied from no one. Bianca had been a timid child, demure and easily frightened. Katherine had not. Katherine had killed the spiders and kept away the monsters in the dark. Katherine had turned her fists on bullies and mean boys who threw dirt and pulled hair. Katherine had held her and protected her and glared at the world, daring it to take her on, daring it to even try to get past her. Bianca had been safe behind that strength, had been protected. When they were told fairy tales of princesses guarded by dragons and rescued by knights in shining armor, Bianca had smiled to herself. Secretly, alone in the dark and safe because Katherine would destroy anything that even thought of lurking here, Bianca decided that she didn’t need a knight. She was the princess and Katherine was the dragon, but her dragon guarded her not to keep her prisoner but to keep her safe. Bianca feared the world and so Katherine kept the world away. Bianca loved her sister for many reasons, but the protection she found in her was one of the biggest.

Perhaps that was what made the first suitors so frightening.

They started when she was very young, Bianca remembers. Men drawn to her rosy cheeks and downturned eyes and full dowry. Men who waxed poetic about her golden hair, with eyes that gleamed at her soft, unsure voice, men who sought her hand when she had hardly turned ten. She was terrified.

Katherine had driven most of them off, bless her. Katherine had been aloof and haughty and cutting, Katherine had insulted them and ridiculed them and then sweetly reminded them that to wed Bianca was to take Katherine as a sister. She had hidden Bianca away and held her after, shushed her tears and comforted her fear. Katherine had promised that she wouldn’t let any of them take Bianca away.

The problem had been that it hadn’t been up to Katherine.

Bianca dreaded the day when a man came with enough money to sway her father, quaked at the thought of him agreeing to a suitor. Should he ever say yes, it didn’t matter what Katherine did, what Bianca herself wanted, she would get married to whoever her father approved. The thought paralyzed her.

“You would never marry a man you didn’t want,” Bianca wept into Katherine’s shoulder after one particularly persistent suitor had finally left, “You would never let them take you unless you wanted to go.” Her voice had been bitter, bitter toward herself, that she was not more like Katherine, that she was not strong like Katherine. That she could not stop them the way Katherine could.

It had been the spark that birthed The Plan.

Sometimes Bianca hated the plan, hated that she had been the one to think of it, hated how it had come between the sisters and twisted something beautiful into chains that held them fast and hurt them. Hated how it had been The Plan that had poisoned their love. Hated how it had made protection into prison.

Sometimes she loved it. Sometimes she held the thought of it desperately and treasured it because it was proof that once, at least, her sister had loved her too. Loved it because it had saved her. Loved it because it had spared her.

Hated it because it had not done the same for Katherine.

It had been so easy to put into place, so simple. Dropped comments about the impropriety of the younger sister to be wed before the older, casual stories of society whispers tearing down women with younger siblings wed. Mentions of how likely a young bride was to die in childbirth, Bianca sharing her fears in earshot of their father while pretending not to know he was there. It was so, so easy. Easy to make him think it was his idea too. And so it was declared- Bianca was not to wed until Katherine did.

They thought it the perfect plot. Katherine would not bend to pushy suitors, Katherine could act as a wall between Bianca and the greedy, fearful men who pursued her. Katherine would find a man to love but it might take a few years because Katherine was so very specific with the kind of man she might wed, and though neither voiced it aloud, they both knew that Katherine was not the kind of woman men flocked to. It would give them time. Katherine would find a man to love and she was strong enough to hold a wedding off until Bianca found one too, strong enough to make a courtship long and give her sister time. They had every angle covered, they thought. The hardest part would be convincing their father to accept the men they chose. It was flawless.
Neither expected Katherine not to find a man.

Times changed. Circumstances changed. But their binding didn’t.

Bianca grew up and found that she was no longer so afraid. She enjoyed flirting, enjoyed the men who flocked to her now in their youth and handsomeness. She enjoyed the power her words had over them, enjoyed the fluttery feeling in her stomach when they gave her their poetry, their tokens, their affection. She fell in love with love and stopped fearing. It was easier, now that she was older. Now that her father’s affection was assured, now that she knew that she could speak on her own behalf. He would at listen to her now, she could at least have the illusion of choice. Besides, she didn’t actually favor one man over the others, one suitor as better. She just wanted to be wed, she just wanted to be in love, and if she favored no suitor, then she opposed none either.

But still there was Katherine.

Unwed.

Uncourted.

And as long as that was truth, Bianca could not be married.

Katherine had changed too, over the years. But where Bianca had bloomed, safe in the walled gardens that her dragon defended, Katherine had withered. She had grown weary and defensive, far too used to needing her words, her actions, even her fists as weapons, far too used to finding an enemy before her and not a friend. She had grown lonely and bitter, angry and lost. There was no sanctuary for her, no place for her to lay down her weapons and rest, no place to be herself without facing animosity. Even their father had proven, time and time again, that he would take Katherine’s side last. There was no one to love her but Bianca, and Bianca had isolated her.

It had poisoned her, that isolation. Bianca thought with guilt of the actions that led them here, led them to this.

There had been suitors at first. Of course there had been, Katherine was wealthy and beautiful and this was before her fire burned everyone in reach, before she turned her cutting words and strength and rage on anyone who caught her eye. Plenty of men had thought her unique, a headstrong wife for a powerful man, a competent woman to stand her ground and only bend to her husband. Perhaps, given time, it could even have been largely true. Bianca thought that Katherine would never bend, but this was when she still listened. This was when she still knew the meaning of compromise. Had they woo’d and won her, she could have made her husband happy. Oh, exasperated and challenged and never king of his house, never alone in his power and never obeyed without question, but happy.

Katherine had never even given them the chance.

Still remembering the tears on her sister’s cheeks, still remembering fear and that her loneliness was all that stood between Bianca and that nightmare, she drove them off. She drew herself up and steeled her spine and fanned her flames and cut them down like a general on a battlefield. She was scathing and venomous, terrifying in her rage, swift and unyielding and brutal with word and action alike as she gave them no quarter. They left with their egos in shreds and heads hanging, battered hearts in hand as they drifted away, shell shocked and afraid. Katherine had watched them go with triumph in her eyes and clenched hands. She did not want to hurt them, Bianca thinks, but to Katherine they had threatened harm to Bianca and so she had routed them the most brutal way she knew how.

It was only later that Bianca had told her, softly, in the dark, that she wanted Katherine to find happiness too. That she wanted love someday, in the distant future. Bianca had begged her, quietly, meekly, not to destroy another batch of men. It would be cruel for Katherine to lose her love in order to protect Bianca from it. Katherine had agreed.

There had been no more men.

Rumor had spread, of the terrible shrew that Katherine was. Stories had been told, suitors had been warned and no one else came to seek a headstrong but loyal wife. Katherine’s chance had already passed.

Oh, there were still some men. Challengers was the best way Bianca could think to describe them. Men who had heard of Katherine in all her terrifying glory, men who had heard of her temper and her wit and her will and sought to break them. They came and swaggered and demanded and boasted of ‘taming’ her, of ‘fixing’ her. Bianca gritted her teeth and clenched her fists and quietly left the room before she burst into tears and raged against a world that would make these men the heroes, these awful, awful men who wanted to tear away her dragon’s wings and tear out her teeth and douse her fire.

Katherine did not leave the room to rage.

They always left, smaller and meeker than when they came and the rumors grew. Katherine’s reputation became more fearsome, the men who came became more rowdy and rude, and their numbers fell.

Before long, no one came at all.

Perhaps, had Katherine truly not wished to wed, things still could have been salvaged. She could have joined a nunnery, taken a vow, made her father’s proclamation null and void and thus freed them both. But despite Katherine’s hate toward men, despite her insisting that she wanted nothing to do with them, despite all that rage and pain and bitterness, Katherine dreamed of love. She always had.

Bianca remembered, when they were younger, children still and innocent, before the deal, before the plan, before the disasters that befell them, how Katherine had spoken of love.

Her voice had been soft, her eyes had been kind. There was a longing and joy in her face as she dreamed of the man she would marry, the family she would raise. She spoke of acceptance, of two against the world, of having someone to cherish and hold and treasure, to be cherished and held and treasured in return. Of the assurance of having someone always at your back, always on your side. Katherine cradled a doll in her arms and spoke of children, of babes soft and sweet with a whole world to learn of. Of trusting eyes and milky breath and how they were love and bond made solid, the tie between husband and wife literally personified. Katherine craved love, craved trust, craved that deeper connection and the happiness it could bring. To her, marriage was finally having a place just for her, where she could be herself and no one else. It was being chosen, it was being precious, it was being kind. Bianca remembers the gentleness of Katherine’s fingers on a cheek made of porcelain, the warmth and hope in her eyes as she spoke of love, the longing in her voice for a husband to love and be loved by in return. Bianca aches that no such man has been found yet, weeps at the thought that one might not be.

To take a vow against that future would free Bianca, but it would kill her sister. She has asked too much of Katherine already, and so for as long as Katherine keeps hope that love might still be waiting for her, Bianca will hold her tongue and her patience and wait with her.

Sometimes Bianca wonders, guiltily, if such a man has already come and gone. If in that first surge of suitors, before the rumors had spread and Katherine’s reputation grown, if in the men that Katherine had not even given the slightest of chances, if among them had been the man Katherine had dreamt of and he had already left lost forever. Katherine never said anything, but from the look in her eyes, Bianca knew that sometimes she wondered it too. It was just another sharp edge in their love, just another wound bleeding poison into them. Bianca ached that there were so many like it.

Now Bianca tried to reach out and chose all the wrong subjects, her life a whirlwind of love and romance that she wanted to share, and then the sharing brought Katherine pain and she lashed out with fists and angry words and hurt Bianca in ways that once, she never could have dreamed of doing. And every day seemed to drive them deeper, drive them further as no men came and father always took Bianca’s side and everywhere Katherine turned she could not escape the reminder that while Bianca was loved and cherished, she was alone. That people held her to Bianca and found her wanting. Wanted her to change the very base of who she was and ridiculed her when she would not. And Bianca saw the twisted, wretched, hurting monster her dragon had become, still faithfully guarding her tower long after she wanted to leave it, and wept.

It was why, when Petruchio came, Bianca had not protested. Alone and desperate, she had felt hopeful instead. Yes, the man was loud, yes, the man was rude, yes, she feared him to be another challenger and not a suitor, but he was handsome also, and he was uncaring of what the world claimed should be. So she held her tongue and her hope and let him try. Should he be like so many others before him, then Katherine had proven more than adept at driving them off. Privately, Bianca thought that his chances of success even if he wasn’t like the others was slim to none. But let him try. It could hurt no one for him to attempt.

And then the wedding was set and there was a man she favored and thought that maybe this was love and it seemed the whole future was opening wide! Katherine was to be married, which meant that she could be married, which meant that the plan was over and they were to be freed. And Bianca hoped, fiercely and with a quiet, tired hope that had died too many times before, that maybe this would be what healed the wounds. That maybe love would soften her sister back into the girl she remembered, that maybe her dear, beloved Katherine would be happy and kind again. That maybe the two of them could mend. That maybe the hate could fade, now that the pain was leaving.

It was why she said nothing when Petruchio was late to the wedding. It was why she closed her eyes to Katherine’s tears, to her fears, to the rage in her face at his name. It was why she brushed away her worries when he hauled her away before the party in celebration even began. Even though Bianca knew, she knew, how Katherine had dreamed of this day. How Katherine had planned out every moment when they were still children and simple, how Katherine had wanted to treasure this memory forever. Still, Bianca hoped and she was tired, so very tired of trying and so she laughed at his lateness, at his garish outfit, at his irreverence and his rudeness and the way he left early and dragged Katherine along. In her delusion, she thought only that it meant he was strong enough to stand up to her, that they would be a well suited match. Bianca had only thought Petruchio strong enough to match Katherine. She had never dreamed that someone existed with the power to break her.

And Bianca loved. Bianca chose and moved on and planned her own wedding, cheeks ruddy with joy and heart overflowing with fortune. She smiled and sang and hummed the days away and wondered what dear Katherine was getting up to, counting the days until her wedding, until the beginning of her life outside of her tower, until she saw the sister she thought lost so long ago again. She dreamed of Katherine, her eyes gentle, her hands soft, her smile bright and she was warrior again and not monster. Her words sharp but playful and carrying no pain. She dreamed of easy, quick-witted banter and getting to know her brother-in-law and the happy days that they would share together, husbands at their side and children at their feet. It was like all her dreams were coming true and she reveled in it.

And then her wedding came. And then Katherine came. And Bianca watched her dreams shatter once again.

This... this was not Katherine.

Bianca watched the quiet, sorrowful woman with her eyes cast downward and her words an agreeing murmur. Her fires were ashes, her steel warped and thin and dull, her teeth and fangs once brilliant now gone. This was not her sister. This was not Katherine.

When the men had their silly, infuriating contest over who had the most obedient wife, Bianca rebelled. For once, she raised her voice and resisted because she was not something to be admired and passed off and then ignored. She was more than gentleness. And she would not be like Katherine. Her head reeled, her heart hurt. Katherine was gone, or as good as, Katherine was broken and all her dreams were dust. There was no love in this, there was no happy future, there was no joy to be remembered in their autumn years. There was only pain and misery and stupid, stupid men who spoke over and looked past her.

Let others hear a message of obedience in Katherine’s speech. Let others hear an admirable lecture on the wifely dues. Bianca looks in her sister’s dull, hopeless eyes and hears her talk of men and women and power and places and shivers run down her bones as she hears something different.

Don’t bother, Bianca hears, and she knows her dragon has been slain.