Once Upon a Wager
Once Upon a Wager
Once upon a time in a faraway kingdom called Bootleg Springs there was a prince named Alistair. Alistair was a problem. A big, princely problem. His parents, the king and queen, had so been looking forward to their retirement in the even farther away sister kingdom, Bluewater. However, their son had remained staunchly single, refusing each and every marriage candidate they presented him.
They’d matched him with princesses, duchesses, one or two fairy godmothers. They introduced him to princes, dukes, fairy godfathers, and even a very handsome farm boy. Because Bootleg Springs was an open-minded kingdom where love was love and that was that.
Yet Alistair had not fallen in love. He certainly hadn’t minded dating a few of the smarter, funnier, fouler-languaged ladies. And the fairy godfather and handsome farm boy were now both regulars in his weekly poker tournaments. But none had captured his heart.
The kingdom waited, holding its breath, desperate to discover who their next queen… or king would be.
The king fretted.
The royal court jester jested nervously.
The royal cook cooked frantically.
The castle manager enlisted the entire royal scribe department to craft a “prince or princess wanted” missive in the kingdom’s weekly news show, a live performance delivered by a troupe of actors who traveled from village to valley.
And the queen… well, the queen put forth a queenly ultimatum.
One night, she called Alistair to her throne room. She and the king kept separate throne rooms for everyday business. The shared throne room was reserved for very large parties. And arguments. And castle game nights.
“You summoned me, mother?” Alistair asked, striding into the torch-lit room. He was a handsome man nearing his fortieth year. He was smart and thoughtful. Funny and fierce. He was charming, logical, and a very good listener.
However, he was also stubborn and not wearing pants.
The queen gave a royal eyeroll at his undershorts. “Darling, haven’t we discussed this pants thing?”
“We have many, many times,” he said, flopping down in the smaller, less flashy throne next to hers. “Yet you insist on bringing it up again and again.”
“You cannot just stroll around the castle without pants,” she said in exasperation.
“I do not wear pants at home,” he said with a princely grin that had been charming ladies out of their undergarments since his 17th year. “The castle is my home.”
“Your chambers are your home. The castle is my home. And until you find a suitable partner, it will remain my home.”
A servant tottered in on soft shoes. Only the queen and king were allowed to tip-tap on the stone floor. The man held a golden tray with golden goblets. He was wearing a sling on his chest. A brown, furry thing poked its tiny head out of the opening.
“Ah, Gary,” the queen said, accepting one of the goblets. “How is your darling little otter?”
Gary bobbed his head and bowed grandly to Alistair. The only thing Gary loved more than animals was the prince. It was a one-sided mancrush of royal proportions. “He’s doing much better, your majesty. I believe he is completely over his case of the sniffles.”
The otter in question wriggled out of Gary’s baby sling and stuck its furry face in Alistair’s goblet.
Gary’s already googly eyes bulged in horror.
“It’s quite all right,” Alistair said, nipping the otter by the skin of the neck and pulling it out of the mead. “You’re much too young for this,” he said sternly to the otter.
The otter linked its tiny little fingers and blinked adorably at Alistair. He handed the animal back to Gary who scurried out of the room scolding his furry charge.
Alistair plucked an otter hair out of his mead. The kingdom of Bootleg was known for its mead industry. He turned back to his mother. “You’re telling me, if I get married, I can cease to wear pants in the castle?” he teased.
“You may cease to wear pants in the entire kingdom for all I care. I’ll be sunning myself in a courtyard overlooking the sea while your father swims with dolphins.”
Alistair didn’t understand how his parents could just leave the hills and lakes and springs of their kingdom. The brisk autumns when the leaves turned umber and russet. The winters when inches of snow covered the grounds and cottage chimneys puffed out smoke all across the land. He would miss these lands too much to ever leave them permanently.
“Mum,” he sighed. “I just haven’t met her yet. I’m not going to settle for someone I sort of like. I want what you and Father have.”
“Our marriage was arranged,” the queen insisted.
“A blind date orchestrated by your lady in waiting and his squire is not an arranged marriage.”
She waved a royally ringed hand in his direction. “Whatevereth. In any case, your father and I are ready to retire. And this ‘ruling a kingdom’ thing takes more than one person. You need a partner and it’s time you start taking the search seriously.”
It was true. He hadn’t really been looking. It wasn’t that he was lazy. Nor was he indifferent to love. But he knew something his queenly mother didn’t. On Alistair’s 10th birthday his fairy godfather, a great drunken lout of a man who—before he’d gotten a bit too close to one of the torches and lit one of his wings on fire—had issued his proclamation.
10th birthday proclamations were a rite of passage in Bootleg Springs. And as such, were always kept secret. Only the fairy, the birthday-haver, and a scribe with top secret security clearance at the Vault of Birthday Proclamations ever knew the secret.
Fairy Godfather Hubert had grandly announced that Prince Alistair would “meet his wife in a most entertaining way before his 40th birthday.” Then he’d muttered something about deadly fire and possibly a pump handle, but 10-year-old Alistair hadn’t been listening that closely as most 10-year-old princes are inclined to be distracted by very large stacks of presents and an eight-tier cake.
According to at least that first part of the proclamation, he had nearly three weeks to find his wife.
“I’ll find her, Mother,” Alistair said confidently. He glanced around the throne room. “Have you ever considered redecorating in here? Maybe add a nice tapestry over there. Some plants to soften up all this stone?”
“You will find her by your 40th birthday,” the queen said, ignoring his décor critique. “At which point, if you are still single, you will be hand-fasted to Gary.”
Alistair spit a fine mist of mead into the air. “Gary the Otter Guy?”
His mother did not appear to be joking. Queens rarely joked. Kings were allowed to tell terrible jokes and were immediately forgiven. But queens were generally held to a higher standard.
“He’s been serving our family for decades. He knows the ins and outs of running a castle. And he clearly has warm feelings for you.”
“Mother, you cannot be serious. The man caused a wiener dog stampede at last year’s petting zoo,” Alistair gasped. Further words eluded him.
“I’m quite serious. You have twenty days. Or else.”
A week slipped by and then a second one. As the days passed and no future queen appeared in an entertaining way—with or without deadly fire—the prince’s confidence in the proclamation began to tremble. And then crack.
One night, while performing his princely duty by presenting a trophy at the Bootleg Springs Annual Mead Pong Tournament, he’d drank a bit too much of the gaming brew and proposed to elderly the Widow Matilda with his ruby pinkie ring.
She’d laughed, a great, cackling laugh that rattled the candle chandelier above them in the town hall. It was the last thing he remembered before waking up the next morning under his bed wearing one shoe on his hand and two pairs of pants.
His squire, Claireth Kingsley, assured him that she was almost one hundred percent certain that no marriage had taken place. Which both pleased him and terrified him. He’d much rather marry the Widow Matilda than Gary the Otter Guy.
By the morning of Alistair’s birthday eve, the prince was in a frazzled state. Today was the day. He had to find a wife before midnight or else… He hadn’t slept all night and had just drifted off to sleep when Squire Claireth burst into his room.
“Your highness, geteth your ass out of bed!” she shouted.
Alistair jerked away and fell out of bed.
“For Oprah’s sake man, put some clothes on,” she said, tossing a pair of breeches at his face.
It did feel awfully drafty around his under carriage and Alistair realized he was quite naked.
“Why am I putting on pants?” he grumbled, wriggling into the leg and ball prisons.
“Because there’s a woman downstairs.”
“There are always women downstairs,” he said, catching the linen shirt she hurled in his direction with one hand. Fifty-two percent of the castle staff were women to ensure the exact representation of the ratio of women to men in the kingdom.
“This one showed up knocking on the castle door claiming to be your mail-order bride.”
Prince Alistair got lost in his shirt. His arm came out the head hole and he pressed his face to the corset tie at the neck. “I beg your pardon?”
“She is claiming that you ordered her. She brought a wedding dress.” Claireth’s voice was reaching pitches that could possibly incite another wiener dog stampede.
In his haste to right his shirt, the prince tumbled over a tufted ottoman. “Squire!”
“Yes, your highness?” Claireth said, dragging him to his feet and stuffing his head through the head hole.
“Is this an entertaining way to meet?”
“Considering you appear to have no memory of purchasing a mail-order bride and your pants are on backwards? Yes. I would consider it entertaining.”
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Lady Ingrid Wilhelmina Kathryn Nolan of the Van Morrison Nolans nervously paced the faded rug in the south east parlor receiving room. She was about to meet her future husband. A man who had no idea this had all been a terrible, terrible mistake.
She’d learned her lesson all right. And unlike her six sisters, who had no problems behaving like proper ladies, she was going to pay for her misdeeds for the rest of her life. Or at least her future husband’s.
Perhaps the prince was very, very old and wouldn’t live more than a year or two.
That thought cheered her considerably.
Or perhaps he was very, very young. Didn’t some kingdoms arrange marriages at birth? Oh, Oprah. What if she’d just committed herself to a squalling infant prince? She wished the very large vessel of mead she’d packed wasn’t in the bottom of her trunk. She could certainly use a drink right about now. The squire who had admitted her to the south east parlor receiving room had positively skipped through the doors on her way to fetch the prince.
Perhaps the man was horrifically unfunny. One of those people whose face is carved into a permanent scowl.
Decorum be damned. She needed her mead.
Ingrid was on her knees flinging hosiery and corsets over her shoulder digging frantically when a throat cleared behind her. She squeezed her eyes shut and sent up a prayer to the heavens. Please let him be very, very old.
The man with her favorite pink chemise draped over his shoulder was not very, very old. Nor was he very, very young. He was also not scowling at her. No, his rather handsome face was indeed wearing a hopeful sort of smile.
He had green eyes and a manly beard. His hair was the color of sunshine and was pulled back with a leather thong into a bun of some sort. He was quite tall. His shoulders quite broad. And his pants accented his muscled thighs as well as his… princely moose knuckle.
She gulped. “Your majesty,” Ingrid croaked. Her curtsy was as wobbly as her voice.
“You may call me Alistair. And what may I call you?” the prince asked, his smile widening.
Lady Lies a Lot. Lady Loser Britches. Lady Who Thinks You Have Divine Eyes and a Very Nice Smattering of Chest Hair.
“Ingrid,” she said.
“Ingrid, how would you like to take a walk with me?” Alistair asked, offering her his hand.
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Alistair tried not to stare as his bride—had his drunken fairy godfather been right after all—donned an emerald green cloak. It swirled around her figure, making her long, wavy hair appear even more coppery. Her eyes were a softer shade. One that reminded him of misty meadows that his favorite stallion loved to gallop through.
He couldn’t stop looking at her. And, given the number of shy glances she sent his way, Lady Ingrid was experiencing the same problem. He led her out the front door of the castle into the courtyard. The winter air was crisp and cool. But the sun cast a warm glow. All around them were the sounds of water trickling out from under mounds of snow and flowing downhill.
A small contingent of soldiers dressed in head-to-toe armor accompanied them at a safe distance. Close enough to tackle any overzealous commoners, but far enough away not to overhear their conversation above the clank of armor.
“Your land is quite lovely,” Ingrid said, looking at the village beyond the wooden drawbridge.
Alistair took a moment to appreciate the view. Stone cottages and stucco storefronts crowded narrow cobblestone streets. Wagons rolled by pulled by smart ponies. A handful of harried adults with a small army of children tethered together crossed the street in front of them, weaving their way in and out of mounds of livestock excrement.
In Bootleg Springs, even the shit was quite nice. Organic and all that.
A lone chicken in a hand-knit jacket, strutted out in front of an oxen cart halting its horned team and busy occupants.
“Thank you, though I must confess. I can’t take the credit. Our people are responsible for all this,” he said, gesturing at the otherwise spotless streets and gleaming windows. It was the truth, the kingdom rather seemed to run itself for the most part. Disputes were largely settled by its occupants in an archaic, yet fair exchange referred to by most as Bootleg Justice.
If a neighbor stole your sheep, you were entitled to take it back along with another item of equal value like perhaps a nice dining table or a handy middle child. If a man at a tavern spilled your mead, you were expected to dump his over his head.
He paused when they came to the street and lifted Ingrid over the gutter with its deluge of melted snow.
“Thank you,” she said, her green eyes were wide and locked on his. He forgot for a moment what he was doing and held her aloft by the waist.
He liked how she felt in his hands. Even through the twenty-odd pounds of clothing she wore. He wondered how she felt about pants in the home.
“Um, I can’t seem to touch the ground,” she said finally.
“Right. Of course. Terribly sorry,” he said, setting her back on her feet.
“Oh! A bookshop,” she gasped when she spotted the window stuffed full of musty, old volumes.
“You read?” Alistair asked.
“I suppose you think it’s an inappropriate hobby for a woman?” Ingrid’s green eyes narrowed dangerously.
“Not in the least. I just don’t think I could be married to someone who didn’t enjoy an evening curled up with a good book.”
“Then you won’t be aghast if I tell you my job involves… involved reading?”
“What sort of men do you have in Van Morrison?” he asked, incredulous. “And why does your job involve the past tense?”
She paused long enough for Alistair to look closely at her and wonder if she’d forgotten what they were talking about.
“What’s all the commotion?” she asked suddenly, pointing toward the flags and banners lining the main street.
She was either distracted by shiny things or she was avoiding his questions. When measured up against the alternative—Gary the Otter Guy—Alistair was confident he could work with either.
“’Tis a celebration. Not only is today Leapeth Day. But also, Taco Tuesday. Today we feast. Tonight, we gather in the courtyard for wintery games of human chess, connecteth four, and of course Contorted Bodies.”
“Taco Tuesday?” she asked. “What on earth is a taco?”
Prince Alistair slapped a hand to his chest in feigned shock. “My dear lady. You have never had a taco?”
“In my kingdom, we serve mutton at festivals.” She sniffed the air. “I suddenly feel deprived.”
“Your kingdom sounds terrible and stupid,” Alistair observed.
She laughed then. And he didn’t know if it was the sound of it or the way those lovely eyes crinkled up at the sides, or if it was perhaps the particular shape of her mouth, but he decided he very much liked it when Ingrid laughed.
“You’re not wrong,” she said finally. “And I must say I’m rather relieved to find your kingdom more pleasant.”
“I’ll take that pleasant and raise you excellent,” he said.
“And just how will you prove your excellence?” she asked.
He could think of a few ways. Most of them involved taking off his pants and her underskirts and a merry chase around his very large bed. However, that could wait until later once they knew more than each other’s first names and reading preferences.
“I shall ply you with tacos,” he decided. “Come along.”
They headed toward the heart of the festival with his squad of loyal soldiers clanking along behind.
“You see, the meat is seasoned and then wrapped in a corn or flour envelope of sorts,” he explained as they watched the cook expertly craft a platter of tacos for them in the back of a wagon bearing a sign that read Kelsey Kingsley’s Taco Bus.
“What’s that she’s putting on them?” Ingrid asked in fascination.
“Lettuce, tomato, onion, and this new thing my Uncle Vacado just discovered in a faraway land. We’re calling it an avocado,” he said, pointing to the odd green fruit on the butcherblock mounted to the floor of the wagon. He’s sent us wagons full of the little buggers, but they must be monitored carefully for they are unripe for an obscenely long time and then immediately go bad if you don’t catch them in their prime.”
“Fascinating,” Ingrid marveled. “I’ve studied world cultures and magicks and history, but I’ve never heard of tacos and avocados.”
“Did your job involve these studies?” he asked, accepting the platter of tacos from the cook and passing her a coin.
The woman’s eyes lit up. “Thank ye, your highness.”
“My job is… something I probably shouldn’t discuss with a man I just met,” Ingrid said, eyeing the tacos.
“Come. Let’s sit over here by that tree while you explain why you are willing to marry a man you never met, yet don’t think you should discuss things like work with him.”
They sat under a large tree on a blanket thoughtfully spread by two of his soldiers and observed the festivities. There were fire eaters—perhaps that was the deadly fire his fairy godfather had predicted—and jugglers. Plate spinners and bards. Children ran in and out of throngs of adults as their parents ate, and drank, and gossiped. It was a very fine Leapeth Day Taco Tuesday.
Ingrid was suitably impressed with the tacos, even the vegetable-only one. Alistair was suitably impressed when she ate seven of them.
“Tell me all your secrets immediately,” he demanded.
Ingrid blinked up at him. “That’s quite a stupid thing to say.”
He couldn’t blame her. It had been quite stupid. But she made him nervous with her pretty green eyes that seemed to be filing everything she saw away for examination later. He wanted to know something about her before he married the bride he didn’t remember ordering.
“All right, then tell me why someone as lovely and smart as you would decide to become a mail-order bride.”
She rolled those pretty green eyes at him in a way that definitely had queenly potential. “That’s my secret.”
“I have a secret. And I’m sure it’s much bigger and worse than yours,” he said, very seriously.
“I doubt that,” she scoffed. “My secret is much bigger and worse than yours.”
“Care to wager?”
“Yes. I mean, absolutely not,” she said. “I no longer accept wagers of any kind. Even the kind like this that I would most certainly win.”
“We are to be married tomorrow,” Alistair pointed out. “If we’re not willing to share our secrets, what kind of relationship are you hoping this will be?”
“I got into an argument with my boss at a job I dearly loved and lost my temper. I quit on the spot and when I couldn’t find another job, my younger sister dared me to scribe a mail-order bride profile,” she sighed.
“That’s not much of a confession,” Alistair told her through a mouthful of delicious taco.
“I have this terrible habit of never backing down from a wager,” she said miserably.
“How is that a terrible habit?”
“I lose. Every time. I’ve never won a single bet. And if I’m being honest, it’s not so much a habit as a compulsion. On my 10th birthday, my fairy godmother told me I’d lose every bet I’d ever make,” she lamented. “I suppose I’ve spent all the years since, trying to prove her wrong.”
A minstrel scooted by playing a brass instrument from the back of a small goat cart.
“So, you lost a wager, scribed up to be a mail-order bride, and now you’ll have to live out your days as Queen of Bootleg Springs.”
She eyed the last taco on the platter and he handed it to her. “I must say, if I can enjoy these delightful little meat envelopes, perhaps losing this last bet isn’t the worst thing that has ever happened to me.”
Alistair cleared his throat and gestured at himself. “What about me? Don’t I compare to your tacos?”
She took a bite and eyed him thoughtfully. “I suppose it depends on what your secret is.”
He leaned in and considered kissing her but took a bite of her taco instead. “I don’t remember ordering you,” he said finally.
“You… don’t remember?” she gasped. “Then what am I even doing here?”
“I lost a game of mead pong, several in fact. And my mother, the Queen—you’ll meet her later—had just issued an ultimatum. Marry someone of my choosing by my fortieth birthday or marry Gary the Otter Guy. I must have panicked and strolled past the classifieds board in the town square.”
She leaned back against the tree and let out a peal of laughter. “So, you don’t even remember my profile, do you?”
“Clearly I was taken by your descriptive narrative of your character.”
“I said I was a very sturdy woman of 93 with a stoic personality who was a champion field plower and rock thrower.”
Alistair studied her closely. “You appear to be none of those things.”
“I’m quite good at rock throwing, however I was hoping to be able to be released from the contract for false representation.”
“You were willing to spend a week in the stocks rather than marry whomever chose your profile?” he asked, further intrigued.
“The wager was that I would apply to be a mail-order bride, not succeed.”
“You must have been appalled when you received my drunken missive,” Alistair observed.
“Your missive was just the kind I’d expect from a man interested in the woman I described in my profile.”
Alistair pinched his nose between his fingers. “What on Oprah’s green earth did I say?”
“Truth be told, your scrawl was rather difficult to decipher. But I was able understand that you were in dire need of a bride who didn’t eat pants.”
“Like pants. Not eat pants. Though I’d prefer if you didn’t eat them either,” he told her.
“What a pair we are. A lying maiden and a drunkard prince,” she mused. She stood and rearranged her cloak. “I suppose I should be going then.”
Alistair climbed to his feet. “What? Why?”
“I’m not going to marry you, Alistair. I barely know you.”
“But Gary the Otter Guy!” Alistair was embarrassed that his voice was rather high and whiny. “You signed a contract. I signed a contract. Besides all that, we met in an entertaining way just before my fortieth birthday. And despite the lack of any deadly fire, you, Lady Ingrid, are my bride.”
“Back to this deadly fire thing,” Ingrid said, suddenly looking rather nervous.
“To be honest I don’t know if my fairy godfather said deadly fire or Fredly Dyer, who was my father’s head mead brewer before I was born.”
A shadow passed over head. Alistair didn’t bother looking up, but Ingrid did.
“Oh, pump handle,” she swore under her breath.
“Pump handle,” Alistair said triumphantly. “Fairy Godfather Hubert predicted my future wife would say that as part of our entertaining meet cute.” He was thrilled that his future wife was not only lovely and sharp-witted, but also wasn’t above using slang terms for princely anatomy.
The shadow passed again and this time Ingrid reached out and gripped the prince’s hand.
“We need to get as far away from this festival as we can.”
“I was thinking similar pant-less thoughts,” he confessed.
“Mother of Oprah, man. Run!”
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Ingrid was unfamiliar with downtown Bootleg Springs and accidentally dragged Prince Alistair into the midst of what looked like some sort of charred meat competition on the backs of carts pulled by racing donkeys. Dodging a particularly slow donkey, she pulled the prince down a side street and then another one.
Her sense of direction was quite good she thought as the castle loomed on the hill above them.
“We’ve got to get back to the castle immediately,” she hissed to Alistair.
He pulled her into a tight embrace and for a magical moment or two, she forgot about the circling danger above them. It felt quite nice to be wrapped in the prince’s arms. And if he were to kiss her, she might allow him.
“Darling, I must say, your enthusiasm is quite charming but we’ve got the rest of our lives to look forward to nights of nudity and all the pump handling your heart desires. However, right now as enthralled by your beauty as I am, I would like to get to know you a bit better before the ceremony tomorrow.”
“Uh-huh. Sure. Of course,” she muttered, shaking herself out of her sexual stupor and recalling the danger. “Is there a faster, less open way into the castle?”
He leaned in and brushed the backs of his knuckles over her cheek. “Are you saying you’d like to see my dungeon?”
“Yes. Yes! That’s exactly what I’m saying!” Dungeons in this part of the land notoriously had supply tunnels. Leaky, spidery supply tunnels. “Lead the way.”
They made a few more twists and turns through the town, dodging commoners walking ducks on leashes and carrying baskets of breads and cheeses, until Alistair came to a stop in front of a ghastly looking tree. It was knotted and gnarled as if a wizard had enchanted it with an ugly duckling spell.
The troop of soldiers clanked and clunked their way to them just as Alistair pressed one particularly bulbous knot. A door in the trunk opened. “After you, mi ‘lady,” he said grandly.
Ingrid hurried inside and dragged the prince with her.
“About the wedding, how do you feel about braised boar tacos?” Alistair asked as he strolled farther into the dank deep.
“What if we just pretend to be married?” Ingrid suggested nervously.
“Pretend? We can’t actually get married and then pretend to be married,” he pointed out.
“Oh, right. I forgot about the wedding part,” she said. “Where do you keep your weaponry? Do you have any very large swords?”
He stopped in front of her and she ran into his broad back. He turned around. “I say, darling. I’m rather new at this relationship, but is something bothering you?” he asked, with a frown.
Her heart did a little pitter pat when he looked at her like that. It was entirely too bad that she and this man were mere minutes away from being killed.
“You might say that,” she hedged. Something caught her eye. “What are all those?”
He glanced in the direction she pointed and his face lit up. “Ah! My sort of hobby. Would you like to see them?”
She didn’t have time to unfurl the hundreds of scrolls. Not when she was about to face her own tragic death.
“Have a look,” he said, gesturing to the open scroll on the table in front of them.
She spared the parchment a glance and then looked again. “Is that a throne room?” she asked, peering closer at the inked drawing.
“It is. Sometimes, when I drink too much mead—which I realize given the way we met might sound like a frequent occurrence—I barge into peasant homes and sketch pictures of things I like.”
“Do you mean to have all of these furnishings and cook all of these meals?” she asked in wonder he unfurled another few scrolls.
“Of course not. I just like thinking about buying the things and eating the food.”
What an odd hobby, she thought.
Just then, a great thud shook the dungeon walls.
“What the ‘ell was that?” a thin, reedy voice called from one of the darker, danker cells.
They could hear the sounds of distant screams from above. Oh, bloody hell.
“Nothing to concern yourself with, Pippa,” Alastair called back. “You just sit tight.” He took Ingrid’s hand and drew her toward the stairs. “Pippa’s a repeat offender. Keeps feeding her neighbor’s unicorn baked beans to make it fart rainbows.”
“Shouldn’t we go see what that noise was?” Ingrid suggested. “Perhaps stopping by your arsenal so I could admire a crossbow or a spear?”
“Don’t you worry your lovely bridal self about a thing,” Alistair insisted. “I’m just going to deposit you in my—er—our chamber and take care of a princely thing or two and then we can arrange a dinner date tonight.
Ingrid knew exactly what that princely thing or two was and she wasn’t about to let an innocent man face down her problem.
They reached the main hall where two dozen soldiers were barricading the front doors. A great thump sounded again and part of the door splintered.
“We canna hold it back!” one of the suits of armor shrieked.
Calmly, Alistair shoved Ingrid toward the stairs. “Now, you just head up those stairs. Fifteenth door on the left. Feel free to order up a hot bath or a snack. I’m going to take care of this nuisance—”
A stream of fire exploded from the hole in the door.
The flower arrangement on the front table wilted.
“Ah! So, it was deadly fire,” Alistair said cheerfully. “Someone get me my sword!”
Ingrid felt weak in the knees. She grabbed him by the cloak. “You can’t go out there.”
“Of course. Not without kissing my bride first,” he agreed. There was nothing gentlemanly about the way he gripped her shoulders and dragged her up onto her toes. And there was certainly nothing stuffy about the way his lips crushed hers nor the way his tongue invaded her mouth.
Prince Alistair was quite the expert kisser. She couldn’t let him be turned to charcoal. Not with the oral skills he was currently demonstrating. She managed to disentangle her tongue from his and took a step back. “I must go,” she breathed, and sprinted for the stairs.
“Where’s my swo—Oh, thank you, Squire Maeth Wood,” she heard him say behind her.
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Alistair swaggered through the front door alone. He didn’t need his soldiers turned to brisket. It had been quite some time since he’d last fought such a challenging opponent, but that kiss from Ingrid had turned him into an unstoppable hero.
Which was quite convenient given the fact that there was a six-story dragon loitering on the stone wall built around the courtyard. He wasn’t quite up on his dragon anatomy, but he was fairly certain this was a female. When she glanced lazily down at the painted claws on her left dragon hand he was sure.
“Halt, foul beast!” he yelled, brandishing his sword.
“Good Oprah, man! Put that thing away before someone loses an eye,” the dragon said, pointing its tail at him. She wasn’t pointing so much at his sword, rather than his very obvious erection.
If he were marrying Ingrid, he really must start wearing longer shirts.
“You’ll be losing more than an eye if you don’t leave my kingdom without barbecuing or eating anyone.”
The dragon rolled her eyes. “I’m looking for Lady Ingrid Wilhelmina Kathryn Nolan.”
“You will most definitely not be finding her,” Alistair announced with a voice as steely as his sword… also his penis.
“Hey, four eyes! Up here!”
The dragon lifted her massive head in the direction of Ingrid who was hanging much too far over the third floor south gathering room’s balcony.
“Noooooooo!” Alistair shouted.
“There you are,” the dragon said, swooping in to get a closer look at her.
“Do not move a muscle or I will carve you to pieces,” he announced.
“You need to drop this ridiculous charade and come back to work immediately,” the dragon said to Ingrid.
“I most certainly will not. You were rude and inconsiderate, just like all the other archivers warned me. They bet me I couldn’t last six months working for you. And they were right. I stuck it out for five months and twenty-eight days.”
“But who will catalog all my scrolls and art and books? You were doing such a fine job,” the dragon sighed. When she did a thin stream of fire singed two of the potted evergreens on the terrace.
“A fine job? Now you tell me. Last week it was all ‘you’re a bumbling idiot’ and ‘if I paid you more could you possibly get more stupid?’”
Alistair had never seen a dragon blush, but something was definitely happening with her dark green scales.
“Oh, all right. I’m sorry. Are you happy? I’m a grump. Grumps are mean and rude and everyone accepts them because they have to. Besides, I can’t find my glasses since you left.”
“Well, I don’t have to accept you anymore,” Ingrid said.
“I’ll double your salary and give you Wednesdays off,” the dragon offered.
Ingrid paused. It was a very good offer.
“Triple it and I want Sundays off as well.”
“Hang on a minute,” Alistair said waving his arm and sword. “Time out. You’re about to become my wife. You can’t move back to Van Morrison. You have to stay here and help me rule the kingdom.”
The dragon and his future wife shared a look. The prince wasn’t sure what it meant and didn’t loosen his grip on the sword.
“I say, have you got any large abandoned caves?” the dragon asked him, turning her gargantuan head in his direction.
He thought for a moment. “As a matter of fact, we have an entire network of caves under Blue Moon mountain. Our last dragon met someone in Romania and moved there. As far as I know, they’re still empty. And the rent is quite reasonable.”
“I tire of your pathetic pleas for your life,” the dragon said to him. Alistair turned around to see if she was speaking to someone behind him. “I accept your offer to move my treasure trove to your caves so long as I can still use Ingrid’s archiving services when she’s not busy helping you do whatever ridiculous things you stupid humans do.”
Ingrid cleared her throat and crossed her arms.
“Oh, all right.” The dragon sighed out a puff of smoke directly at the prince. He coughed and gasped his way to fresh air and swiped a hand over his forehead. It came back black and sooty. “Please may I move into your abandoned caves and borrow your wife from time to time. She’s quite good at archiving and cataloging treasure, you know.”
He didn’t know. But there were a lot of things he was looking forward to learning about Ingrid in the future.
“Then it’s settled?” he asked suspiciously.
The dragon nodded. Ingrid nodded. The prince nodded.
“What in blistering bloody boils is going on out here?” Alistair’s father the king appeared on the balcony above Ingrid’s. “Holy crap,” he said when he got a good look at the dragon.
“Father, meet our kingdom’s new dragon and on the balcony below you, my bride.”
“The name’s Annie,” the dragon said. “Annie Dyer Dragon.”
His father looked rather dazed. Unfortunately, the man fainted face first off of the balcony.
“Oh, for pump handle’s sake,” the dragon hissed. She lit into the air gracefully catching the plummeting royal on the top of her head. “I demand a discount on the cave rent.”
Just then, her dragon tail flicked to adjust for changing air currents. The long, spiny tip whacked Ingrid right off her balcony.
“Oh, shit,” the dragon said.
But Alistair was still ready to play hero. He spun around, tossed his sword to a valet, then jogged two steps to the right.
“Drop her,” came Gary the Otter Guy’s shout from behind him.
“Shut up, Gary,” Claireth said. “It’s not happening, man.”
But Alistair was too busy catching his bride in his arms.
“That was smooth, your highness,” Ingrid said, looping her arms around his neck.
“That’s what she said,” he murmured just before she kissed him hard and in an entirely unladylike fashion.
He pulled back a moment later. “About that whole not marrying me thing,” Alistair began.
“What about it?” she asked breathlessly.
He grinned smugly. “I wager you 50 gold coins you fall in love with me in the first week of marriage.”
She opened her mouth, then closed it. She grinned at him. “I’ll take that wager.”
And they lived happily ever after.