Politics has no place in the bedroom. Cressida had tried to impress that notion on her little sister, Lysandra, before she left.
As she hiked the deep forests so far from her coastal home, she pictured her sibling as she last saw her - sprawled across the lush grasses of the royal garden, in the shade of a tree that grew flowers bigger than her head which bobbed ridiculously in the breeze.
Little Lysandra, all the older siblings would call her teasingly. Fifteen years after being born early, weighing scarcely more than an apple, she had never quite caught up to the size she was supposed to be.
"So what, if I don't want to be a knight, Cressida?" She crossed her twig-thin arms behind her head. That was another thing they didn't have in common. Cressida and her older siblings all had long, sun-browned limbs, well-muscled from continual training and adventuring.
"Being a hero is part of being royal," she said, hand automatically landing on the hilt of her dagger. "And you don't have to do it forever. Just bring some glory to the family name, then buy an estate out on the coastal plains, get married and live out the boring part of your life."
Lysandra had her eyes closed, lids flickering. "I think falling in love is the most exciting part of it. I'd rather skip to that, instead of waiting until I'm two and twenty."
"No more romantic fairy tales." Cressida rolled her eyes. "You need to pull your head out of the clouds. Marriage doesn't get you anywhere."
"Not unless you marry well, which I plan to." She sat up, her long, chestnut hair shivering behind her. "Someone with money and good standing. Like the young Duke from the party last night. Or one of the sand princes from the Southlands - that would be so exotic."
"Politics and love don't mix," Cressida warned.
She quirked an eyebrow. "Tell that to Domitia."
"Domitia is going to be Queen. That's different," Cressida replied. "You have a different destiny, you just have to get out there and find it."
That had been well over two moons ago. Cressida's memory of the scene dissipated as she looked across what must have once been manicured garden space like the royal gardens at home. Untouched for the past several hundred years, the majority of it had grown up in forest. Only a few low, stone walls and sad looking angel statues were left as reminders of the yard's previous splendor. She continued whacking through the thorny, gnarled undergrowth, and through the trees a castle started to appear. Not her castle, of course, but a castle nonetheless.
It stood, dark gray and brooding. It took her breath away, even in its sad, dilapidated state. Two sad rows of statues stood guard between her and the front stairs. Some of them had been knocked over, and many more had missing appendages - stone arms, wings, and heads littered the ground.
The sight of something human shaped made Cressida glance over her shoulder. She noticed bandits following her earlier that day, but hadn't had a glimpse of them for the past several miles. Still, she needed to be quick here. She didn't know how long she could outrun them.
What a shame, she thought wistfully as she climbed the stairs. She'd heard of this place through local legend alone - some speculated that it didn't even exist. Just a piece out of a fairy tale about a cursed king. Her brain buzzed just at having even found it and her heart grew heavy to know how soon she would have to leave.
What would she take with her to document this place's existence?
Wasting no time, she sashayed into the entrance hall. The architecture inside, she found to be just as dark and intimidating as it had been on the outside. Thick, decorated pillars propped up a high ceiling laced with gothic arches. The remains of a crystal chandelier had crashed to the floor long enough ago to be decorated with cobwebs. Still, bits of mineral crunched under her boot as she passed the wreckage.
Seeing little of interest in the entrance, she decided to make her way through the castle systematically. She was surprised to find most everything untouched - vases in the drawing room still had the dried, withered remains of flowers in them, books had been left out and open in the reading room. Had nobody thought to loot this place before her?
When she traipsed into the ballroom, at first she thought part of the ceiling had fallen in, leaving a strange mountain of debris. Wait. That was no debris. Cressida stopped dead in her tracks.
In front of her, sprawled out across the ballroom floor, was a huge creature, the size of one of the huge cargo ships she used to watch sail at the harbor. Except up close, and much, much bigger.
Cressida took a few steps closer, staring in awe at the shiny black scales the size of dinner plates glittering along its hide. A basilisk? No, basilisks didn't have legs, and she certainly saw a big, taloned foot against the creature's side.
This gave her cause to pause. Was it sleeping? Petrified with fear, she watched a few long minutes, staring hard at the animal's flank. Nothing. Stone still. No rise and fall that would indicate breathing.
A dead creature then. Starved, maybe. She was sure it didn't get much company out here.
She walked carefully around, marveling at its size alone. And its scales. And what appeared to be wings folded against its sides.
Wings? All she could do was stare and stay on her feet. Some of the local stories she heard mentioned a dark lord, a dragon king. Legend has it, he would come to the village and steal away a young girl every twenty or so years. Horrifying stuff.
So horrifying that she doubted there could be any truth to it, but here was the proof, glittering darkly in the dusky sunlight coming through the ballroom windows.
Coming around the front of the terrible beast, she felt like a deer looking a hunter in the eye. It took every ounce of will not to bolt. She stood next to its head, feeling dwarfed as its closed eye was level with her face. Mustering all of her strength, she reached up high and ran a hand over its brow.
It was smooth, scales warm from basking in the sunlight.
Then, it blinked.