Dani’s Choice

Book 4 – The Dragons’ Bane Chronicles

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by Simon Driscoll

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One

“You look lovely, Dani,” Benka said. “I think red really is your color.”

I sighed as I stared at myself in the mirror. The red dress did accentuate the freckles on my face, and gave a good contrast to my green eyes. It wasn’t the color I objected to, it was how much this dress made me look like a princess.

There was a knock at the door. Benka opened it and Prince Eyroc walked in without being invited. “Are you ready to go?” he asked.

“As ready as I can be,” I replied as I turned to face him.

The freckles on his face were a match for my own, and seemingly a rare find. When I had traveled up and down the Mountain Road with Miazan, I only saw two other people with freckled faces. But that was the only feature Eyroc and I had in common. He was seven inches taller than me, and a couple inches taller than most men. His blue eyes and red hair made him stand out even more in a crowd.

“Oh my, you look lovely tonight,” he said. “I might have to change my favorite color.”

My scowl was automatic. The main reason I chose this color was to protest against both Eyroc, whose favorite color was blue, and Miazan the dragon, with his lovely green scales. I was in love with Miazan, and Eyroc was in love with me. I only agreed to stay in the palace because it was the best of the horrible choices my circumstances permitted.

Eyroc offered his hand, and I took it. He held my hand as we walked, the way a betrothed couple was expected to.

“Is it really your mother’s birthday,” I asked, “or did you invent a reason to have a party so you could celebrate my return?”

“You’ve been back for more than a week,” Eyroc said. “If we were celebrating your return, we would have done so by now. And yes, today really is my mother’s fiftieth birthday.”

We walked through the castle to the main courtyard, where all public celebrations took place. I was still too upset with both him and Miazan over their bargain to say much more. After all, the only reason this was a place to hide at all is because it was the last place anyone would expect to find an orphan on the run.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the herald called out, “I present to you, Prince Eyroc Bimtor, and Princess Danielle Dwyer.”

All eyes turned to us as Eyroc led me down the pathway. Cheers and applause drowned out the sound of my heart beating in my ears. Right now this crowd was both a prison and a place to hide.

“I’ve often wondered why we have to walk through the other circles to reach the center,” Eyroc said.

“These are the people I know best,” I replied. “I spent twelve years of my life as one of them; as the lowest of them. These are good people, hard workers who deserve your respect.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Eyroc said.

“Then what did you mean?” My contempt for him and the whole human race flared up. When I was an orphan living on the streets surrounded by these kinds of people, I was chased off, and treated like vermin. Thankfully, in less than a year I would no longer be human.

“I meant I feel like I’m showing off,” Eyroc said. “These people come out in their finest clothing, wearing their fake jewelry to see the royalty parade pass them in our hand-made clothing, adorned with gems worth more than they make in a year.”

Looking around, I saw what he meant. The people in the outer circle were well fed by their efforts of industry, and those in attendance tonight could afford the fine clothing they wore, but all their jewelry was made of glass and paste, occasionally set on silver chains. There were many parts of Eyroc’s world I did not know, but I had a healthy education in gemstones during the years I spent with Miazan.

“Have you ever asked them why they come?”

“Well, no. I don’t get much chance to speak with them,” Eyroc replied.

We walked through a simple archway which, along with a line on the ground, divided the outer circle from the inner circle. The contrast between the people in the two circles was quite clear.

“These are the people I see most often,” Eyroc said.

“You don’t worry about parading past the merchant class?” I asked. I wasn’t sure if his comments were snobbery, or ignorance, or something else which he was failing to communicate.

“Well, for some of them, it is an opportunity to see their work on display,” Eyroc said. “Whether it’s in the jewelry they wear, or with things they have sold to the royal family.”

Behind us the herald called out a name I didn’t recognize, taking at least half the attention off of us. I took the opportunity to look more closely at the merchant class, and found that most of them wore at least one piece with real gemstones, hanging from silver or gold chains. Their clothing was also an improvement over the outer circle, made with finer fabrics and brighter colors.

Bixby introduced me to this class of people in Barrington when he found me. All it took was wearing finer clothing, and it was as if no one in the town knew me anymore. My clothing alone was enough to tell them all I had money to spend. It was actually rather sad to think about, so I focused once more on the present.

That was when Cordifray nodded to Eyroc and bowed to me. Once more he was wearing the most outlandish clothing, though at least today it was all bright yellow, instead of the multi-colored stripes he wore when we first met.

“You see what I mean?” Eyroc said. “Cordifray made your dress, and this is the first opportunity for the public to see what he can do. From the stares you’ve been getting, I’d wager he’ll never lack for work in this town.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I’ve always known you were beautiful,” Eyroc said, “but that dress proves you are absolutely stunning.”

I blushed at the compliment and turned so that Eyroc wouldn’t see the smile he’d put on my face. Without meaning to, I found myself smiling at Cordifray.

He smiled back.

The next archway led to the inner circle, sparsely populated by guests of the ruling family of Nebo. Only royalty could enter here, or those specifically invited. My birthright allowed me in, and told the rest of the world this is where I belonged. The king and queen had not yet arrived.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the herald called out, “King William, and Queen Lawanna.”

The fireworks went off, and the people cheered far more than they had for Eyroc and me. Almost before the fireworks ended, the band began playing, and the people in all three circles sang along to a short birthday song I’d never heard.

As the king and queen made their way slowly through the crowd, taking the time to shake hands and speak with people briefly, I turned to Eyroc and said, “What would you say about the people of the center circle?”

“Well, what is there to add?” Eyroc replied. “Being invited to the center circle is a great honor for anyone who isn’t royalty, or part of the castle staff.”

“Is that why there are so few people?” I asked. “Very few meet up to your standard of honor?”

“That’s not what I meant,” Eyroc said. “How do you twist my words like that?”

I scowled at him. “I don’t twist your words. I’m just telling you how I hear them.”

“You hear them with disdain,” Eyroc replied.

“You seem to have done okay clarifying them so far,” I said.

“I’m not in charge of the invitations to the center circle,” Eyroc said. “That’s up to the king and queen. No one enters here without their permission. If you want to know why the list of honored guests is so small, you should take it up with them.”

I took a step away during his heated tirade, and for the first time since we left my chambers, our hands parted.

“You look lovely tonight,” Queen Lawanna said, “though you don’t appear happy to be here.”

It took a moment for me to recover and give the queen a proper response.

Before I could, Eyroc stepped in and said, “My apologies, Mother. I was explaining some of the finer points of protocol and got carried away. Forgive me, Dani, I didn’t mean to upset you.” He bowed to the both of us and walked away.

Lawanna smiled at me. “He must really love you.”

“You call that love?” I asked.

“Yes I do. I haven’t seen him this worked up about anything since William insisted on a betrothal a year ago. Eyroc was furious.”

“He was betrothed last year?” I asked. “He never said anything.”

“Well, he wouldn’t,” William said as he joined the conversation. “The whole thing was my idea, and he was all too happy to cancel it when he found you. That’s why I was so worried when you disappeared. We’re all glad to have you back though.”

“Yes we are,” Lawanna agreed. “Though I’ve noticed since your return that you don’t seem pleased about it.”

My efforts to smile over the past week didn’t do much to hide the pain I felt. “I have lost much recently, and even this gala does not erase my grief.”

“Of course,” Lawanna said. “Perfectly understandable. Still, we are glad to have you back, and hope you find ways to replace your grief.”

I nodded to her, unwilling to either agree or tell her the whole truth. They believed I had recently lost my child, born before her time. It was not a child I birthed, but a dragon egg, which Miazan now kept safely hidden until it was ready to hatch.

“That’s my job,” Eyroc said as he returned. “I’m sorry that I’m doing so miserably at it tonight.” He offered me a glass filled with juice. “Would you like something to drink?”

“Yes, I would. Thank you.” The juice helped to quench my thirst and drowned the last of my anger.

Music began to play, and people in all three circles started dancing. It was a highly spirited tune, and the noise of laughter and merriment drowned out any conversation even a few feet away.

Eyroc extended his hand and said, “May I have this dance?”

Miazan was the first person I danced with, and the memory of that event brought a smile to my face. I had to keep up appearances, so I left the smile there as long as I could and danced.