Chapter ONE

NIMUE

 

I GREW up with the stories of Merlin, a great wizard reborn as a dragon boy who had saved the magic people from the Earth humans and their humanoid robot pawns. Benevolent to a fault, Merlin had then saved the Earth humans from their own creations after the robot takeover and brought them all to an unidentified planet far away from Earth where they could live in peace. My people created myths about how one of us, a Dramanian, had ended up in a cave on Earth in the first place—for we claimed Merlin as our own, despite the rumors that he was a different type of dragon entirely—but no one ever came up with a convincing story. To our knowledge, not a single one of my people had ever left our planet, Draman. And yet how to explain the stories, or the few books from which the Dramanian dialect had been created, or the expressions that everyone knew but no one understood?

Of course, many of the storytellers also took the liberty of adjusting the gender of Merlin’s love—Lup became a girl, lithe and pale as a white lily—while his other mother, Dena, became an Igreefee man named Dean. These stories, or rather the lies we told ourselves, helped our people reconcile their heroes with their hostility toward anything outside the planet’s strict social statutes.

My mother, confined to her bed, asked me to amuse her with my own version of the tale. She sat propped up in the large, golden bed with a velvet pillow positioned carefully between her back and the headboard by a dedicated maid. My father, across planet on business, had asked me to watch over her in his absence. It’s Draman’s Curse, the doctor had told me wearily as he packed up his medical supplies for the last time and followed my father out the door. She will die before the next full moon.

Now, I sat beside her on the footstool and dabbed her forehead with a cool cloth. My mother’s long brown hair was damp from the water and her own perspiration, and liquid dripped onto the wooden floor like blood from a cut.

“Tell me a story of Merlin,” my mother whispered.

“Merlin?” I thought hard. “Before the latest rebirth, or after?”

“Before. During the time of Arthur.”

King Arthur, my father’s namesake, was another family favorite, as was the Lady of the Lake, who my mother had named me after. The Draman library had copies of Sir Thomas Malory’s works as well as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae and Vita Merlini, and with these books of unknown origin and the rumors that traveled across the galaxies, we had formed our own versions of the stories.

“Very well. As you know, Merlin was Arthur’s trusted advisor at that time. When he took on the Lady of the Lake, known then as Nimue, as his pupil, he decided to teach her everything he knew about magic. Little did he know that his dedicated student would later imprison him—”

My mother snored softly. She tired so soon these days, and could no longer make the dragon transformation, let alone fly. Even though we rarely used them, without our wings, we Dramanians were caged birds, soon to grow sickly and die. I did not need the doctor to tell me what I already knew.

As the king and queen of our land, my parents, and I by extension, lived in the castle of our forebearers. On the mountain below us lived our people, and beyond that, the wide, barren landscape of Draman. Here and there were small towns, each with its own mayor who reported to my father at monthly Council meetings, but otherwise, just long stretches of nothingness.

Long ago, before the time of my great-great-great-grandparents, the Artists had birthed this planet and given it to my family to rebuild an almost completely decimated race. Where we had come from, and why we had left so destroyed, were questions we had given up asking long ago. We believed that recently the Artists had given the wizards and Igreefee who traveled with Merlin another planet, Balu, while robots overran Earth. But like the tales we told of the round table, Lancelot, and Uther Pendragon, these stories were just rumors, in this case spread by traders who visited our planet for supplies.

I tiptoed out of the royal bedroom and did not turn back to check if I had woken her until I was at the door. Even sleeping, she wore her royal crown made of golden strands that wove together in the center to form dragon wings. Perhaps she could no longer part with the symbol now that her actual wings no longer carried her over the empty hills, same as her abandoned gowns of fiery red velvet that hung in the open wardrobe to my right. Never again would she remove the soiled white nightgown, nor wash off the smell of stale breath from the mysterious liquid the doctor prescribed to ease the pain.

Since the servants had been told to avoid moving through the hallways on this side of the castle, not a footstep disturbed my restless pacing. I preferred the silence; though a princess since birth, I had never enjoyed the company of others the way royalty should. In some of us, the dragon side was stronger than the human one.

“Princess Nimue?” My maid, Sara Lee, approached from the other end of the hallway.

My only close friend, she had grown up with me, and, since the time we could speak, had been my only confidant. She was androgynous, like many Dramanians, and her black hair was shaved on the sides and longer on top in the popular style. Sara Lee had the sharp features of a girl, but the skinny body of a boy. Her attire was that of the lower classes, a plain red robe with a dragon midflight sewn across her back. She had chosen to be a girl at our Naming Ceremony, had chosen the red robe instead of the black, but I often wondered if she regretted that choice. Not that our names mattered much on Draman, since underneath our clothes, we were all the same, but like humans, even dragons needed labels. We needed a father and mother, “boy” and “girl,” king and queen—or at least that’s what our leaders told us.

“Yes, Sara Lee?”

“Your father has returned from his trip and has asked you to meet him in the throne room.”

I sighed. The throne room, a dark space two levels below, was my least favorite place in the castle, mostly because I spent long, tedious hours sitting there with my parents during the variety of official engagements required of us: dances, subject complaint sessions, historical reenactments. At least the plays were amusing, though I threatened that if I had to watch King Arthur pull Excalibur from the stone one more time, I would strangle myself with my own gold belt. Even the Naming Ceremonies had grown tiresome.

“Must I?”

Sara Lee grabbed me by the arm and pretended to pull me toward the throne room.

“Is this the way to treat your princess?” I cried out, but I could not hide my smile.

“Princess? I don’t see any princesses around here, because they would do their royal duty and report to their throne room.”

“I’ll bite you!” I threatened, pretending to snap at her arm.

“Be my guest. But I’m dragging you to that throne room whether you like it or not.”

“You win.” I paused near the hallway mirror and straightened the red gown and golden belt I had selected in my private naming session. My father had been disappointed, of course—he’d wanted a prince—but he had never spoken of the day again. Like me, the king kept his emotions to himself.

“You look fine,” Sara Lee said as she ushered me away from the mirror. “Though I’d love to take a shearer to that long hair of yours.”

“It’s to honor my mother,” I said, which was half true. The other half was that I liked my long hair, liked the way it felt when I ran the golden locks through my fingers, and I couldn’t bear to part with it to satisfy a trend. Needless to say, the Naming Ceremony had not been difficult for me.

“Sure it is. And I’m guessing that’s your reason for all those gold necklaces, and the gold sandals with jewels on the buckles, and many, many, many velvet dresses too?”

“Exactly.”

Sara Lee rolled her eyes and disappeared into the stairwell, knowing I would follow. As I descended, I heard the clatter of beer stein against beer stein and the echo of voices bouncing around the high ceilings of the throne room. Bracing myself, I moved through the crack in the door to where my father and his many advisors were celebrating their most recent excursion.

“Nimue,” my father called from his place at the head of the table, “come sit beside me.”

“Very well, Father.”

I took the place to his right, across from Mayor Nemo, the mayor of the largest province besides ours. His son, Aduerto, sat to his father’s left. Both father and son took their roles as “men” very seriously, and they insisted on eating their chicken with their bare hands. Oil slicked the skin around their mouths, and some of the bird’s juice dripped onto the royal tablecloth. I stifled a gag.

“Mayor Nemo was just telling me about Aduerto’s latest accomplishments,” my father added.

“Oh?” I looked to Aduerto, whose bulky shoulders straightened at the sound of his name.

“Three hundred push-ups,” Aduerto said proudly. He ran his greasy hand through his half-shaved, half-long black hair. “Some of them were one-handed.”

“Fascinating.” No one caught the sarcasm in my voice, but that was typical, since sarcasm and humor were rarely practiced on Draman. Only Sara Lee understood my jokes, and could volley back with her own jabs. “Tell me more about your exercise routine.”

While Aduerto rambled on about the special protein shakes he made from ground chicken bones, a pinch of sea salt, and a bunch of herbs from his mother’s garden, I caught Sara Lee’s eye across the room. She clutched her arms around her sides to keep from laughing, but eventually bowed her head so she could grin without anyone else noticing.

“Maybe you should start drinking those,” my father told me with a nudge, breaking my stare. “Perhaps then you’ll find the energy to attend to your public duties.”

“It’s not energy, Father,” I said as I laid my napkin on my plate to indicate I had finished my meal. With the two hulking men across from me, the desire to eat had fled. “It’s willpower.”

He stared at me blankly.

“Didn’t you mention we might be able to experience a royal Naming Ceremony while we were here?” asked Aduerto as he sucked the marrow from a gnawed bone.

“Quite right,” my father said. I noticed that he too had finished his meal early. “Nimue, why don’t we go track down the master of ceremonies. Gentlemen, if you’ll excuse us.”

I followed my father to the small room behind the throne. Abruptly, my father turned and held me with one hand on each arm.

“What do you think of him?” he asked me eagerly.

“Him?”

“Aduerto,” he said, as though the answer should have been obvious.

“Oh. Him. He’s… quite manly.”

“You couldn’t get much manlier.” My father released my arms and began to primp his vest and royal crown. “I knew he would be the perfect match for my precious, pretty girl.”

The few bites of chicken I’d managed to eat threatened to come back up. Suddenly the corset my maids had stuffed me into that morning to hide my curves felt claustrophobic, and I fanned myself with my hand to keep from fainting.

“You can’t mean—”

“Exactly, Poppet! The princess and the son of the most influential mayor on the planet. A royal wedding is just what this planet needs to cheer the people up. Think of it: feather hats atop groomed heads, velvet gowns for all attendees, a new crown forged—”

“Stop.”

At first, I thought the word had slipped from my lips, but then I saw Sara Lee approaching from the other door.

“What is the meaning of this intrusion?” my father asked.

“Oh… well… I… the children are here, Sire.”

“The children?”

“For the Naming Ceremony.”

“Of course, the children!” my father said gleefully. Forgetting all about our conversation, at least for a while, he turned and left through the throne door.

Once I knew he was definitely gone, I sank into my mother’s throne chair, which had been removed once it was evident she would never return to her seat. Sara Lee placed her hand on my head and stroked my hair, which made me feel better, at least temporarily.

“I could never marry that monster,” I cried, though my breathing slowed to the pace of her hand. “Not even if the entire kingdom depended on it.”

“I know. Your father will understand that, eventually.”

“Sometimes, I feel like my father doesn’t understand anything about me. Not why I became the princess, not why I avoid the royal ceremonies, not even why I spend so much time with mother. It’s too painful for him, and he wants to pretend that she’s already gone.”

Sara Lee bent so that she rested on her knees and could look up into my eyes.

“Everything is going to be okay. But listen, I need to tell you something—”

“And that horrid slurping. Can you imagine living all day and all night with that noise, the crunching of bones between teeth? We might be half dragons, but that doesn’t mean we have to be monsters.”

“I agree. Listen, Nimue, I need to explain—”

“Nimue?” my father’s voice called from the other side of the door. “The children are here.”

“Coming, Father.” I turned to Sara Lee. “Can we talk about this after the ceremony?”

“Sure,” she said, but something seemed off about her voice. If only I had stayed and listened to her… but my father’s festive mood was infectious, and now that I was already in the throne room, I was looking forward to the event. Before she could say anything more, I slipped out the door and took my place on my golden throne before the children and their parents.