The dragon wasn’t fully grown; they grow to be larger than most houses. Still, it was beyond intimidating. It was five solid feet of armor, claws, fangs, wings, and ferocity. The roar sent birds to flight from the trees all around the clearing.
Rose-Marie froze in terror, while Joseph leapt into action, pulling the sling shot from his rucksack. Neither stopped to consider what effect a slingshot would have on the dragon, but Rose-Marie found an armed Joseph more comforting than the unarmed version.
“Stay behind me,” the young prince said in an almost theatrical tone, which struck the princess as odd.
“What? Did you think I was going to go charging at the thing?” she asked incredulously.
“Just stay back. I’ll take care of him,” Joseph repeated, again in the over-exaggerated, theatrically brave tone.
“Take care of him? Are you crazy‽ We should GO!” she shrieked. All the same, Rose-Marie didn’t think she had enough control over her body to flee. Her wings felt like they were covered in mud and she didn’t think she had enough control of her legs to run off. She was frozen in place with terror in the face of a beast she thought was supposed to be mostly rumor and myth. Dragon sightings were rare enough that most sane people doubted they existed in the first place. It didn’t really make sense that such large beasts could stay hidden from the world. The few stories that emerged about dragons were conflicted in their details, though all of them featured the common theme: avoid dragons if you can help it. The opportunity to avoid the monster was past; now there was little to do but watch her new friend be devoured by the giant lizard.
The dragon let out a hiss, breathing little wisps of fire into the air. Almost as though the fearsome display triggered his response, Joseph charged the dragon whooping a war cry all along the way.
Horrified, the princess cried out, “No! Stop! You’re crazy! I want to go home. I’m sorry I ever dragged you off to this tea party! I’m sorry I tricked you! I just want to leave now. Please come back! Don’t get eaten and leave me here alone!” Her words crumbled into sobs and tears as she dropped to the meadow weeping hysterically.
Then, something very strange happened. The princess lay on the ground, her head in her arms, unable to look up at her frog friend’s certain death. However, instead of the tortured croaks of a frog on fire, she heard laughter. Not just laughter, but riotous laughter.
Looking up she saw the dragon and the frog rolling on the ground.
“What?” the fairy asked, stunned by the strange turn the events had taken. A moment before, she was convinced that the prince would soon be a snack to a baby dragon. Now she stared, not comprehending the situation she was witnessing.
“Is this magic?” she wondered, starting to grow angry at the absurdity of the situation. “What is happening?”
“Oh help. Save me from the terrifying dragon,” Joseph coughed between fits of laughter.
“Tell me this instant what is happening!” the princess demanded, boiling with anger.
“This is Pete, my best friend,” the frog choked out, while gesturing to the dragon, who lay on his back kicking the air, shrieking with laughter. Little plumes of flame curled from his nose as he whooped.
“You are horrible!” the princess shrieked, as she turned and did the butterfly equivalent of stomping off toward the tree line.
“Wait! Wait!” the prince called. “Come back! I’m sorry. Come here, meet Pete.”
The princess rounded on the pair and glared. “How dare you! I am a princess! You can’t laugh at me. I thought we were friends!”
“Apparently, we CAN laugh at you,” Pete managed to choke out between laughs.
The princess said nothing, instead communicating her feelings by shaking with rage and clenching her fists. Her creamy white skin turned to a dangerous, dangerous looking shade of purple, and she turned to stomp off in the direction of the castle again.
“Wait; don’t go. Pete will go to the tea party. It’ll be the three of us,” the Frog Prince said in a consolatory tone.
“I’ll do what now?” the dragon asked, suddenly finding the situation less funny. “I don’t want to go to a dumb tea party.”
The Frog Prince turned to his friend and through clenched teeth prodded the dragon, “Cut it out. She’s a princess, she’s getting me out of lessons, AND she is gonna give us fairy food at the tea party.”
At the mention of food, the dragon’s ears pricked up. “Food? Why didn’t you say so right away?” Turning to the princess, Pete stuck out his arm and introduced himself. “I am Pete. Nice to meet you Miss Fairy Princess.”
“What kind of dragon name is Pete? Aren’t you all supposed to be named Smaug and Falkor?” Still peeved, the princess loaded her response with sarcasm and made a show of not shaking the dragon’s hand.
“If I said my real name out loud, it’d make your ears bleed. Dragons’ names are always spoken in the language of the dragons. You wouldn’t be able to understand it and…”
“His name is Eustace. He’s embarrassed by it, so he makes up crazy stories to justify using a nickname. His parents named him from some magic book about a dragon. I call him Pete ‘cause it’s a better name,” Joseph volunteered, interrupting his friend.
Perturbed, the dragon shot the frog an irritated glance. “Yeah, call me Pete.”
“I am Princess Rose-Marie, daughter of…” the princess began, somewhat mollified by the dragon’s obvious embarrassment over his name. However, before she could get her entire pedigree out, the dragon eagerly interrupted her.
“So, fairy food? There is going to be fairy food? When is that going to happen?”
“We are going to have a tea party.”
“With food, right?”
“Yes, with food. First, we have to set up,” the princess conceded, rolling her eyes while rummaging through the folds of her dress before producing a satchel that seemed to materialize out of nowhere. Opening the satchel, Rose-Marie dug around and found a large vial full of pink liquid, which was bubbling slightly.
“That doesn’t look like tea, and it definitely doesn’t look like food,” Pete remarked, his voice full of doubt.
“It doesn’t look like food – yet,” the fairy responded sharply. Pulling the cork from the vial, she fluttered around, scanning the ground until she found a purple flower. Gingerly pouring several drops of the vial’s contents onto the flower she said, “At home, we have a cook who makes these potions. It’s a magic tea party in a bottle.”
The flower, now speckled with the pink potion, smoked for a moment before growing. The plant stretched and contorted, still purple, but now reshaping itself. Slowly purple plates, cups, a teapot, and serving dishes began to take shape from the flower petals, and a table and chairs morphed from the stem and leaves. The table and place settings still vaguely resembled the plant they had grown from, but now they had a strange shine, almost as if they were made from highly polished glass.
Steam wafted from the spout of the teapot, filling the air with a warm, delicious scent: chocolate mixed with cinnamon. The petal plates, rising from the surface of the table, took shape in the center of the table, complete with cupcakes, a trifle, parfaits, and several unrecognizable desserts. The largest cake, in the center of the table, was a deep brown, with a layer of lighter brown frosting. Joseph thought that he had never seen a cake that was so warm and inviting; his mouth watered in anticipation of the rich pastries. It almost seemed as though staring at the cake filled his mouth with chocolate coffee flavors. He had read about magical food that you could taste before you ate it, but had never fully understood it until that moment.
Emblazoned across the frosting was a scene of fairies flying through trees, outlined in what appeared to be white chocolate and powdered sugar. The fairies each carried wands, with dark red berries in the place of the stars that typically studded the tip of fairy wands. Their candy sapphire eyes, hair made from some sort of sugared strands, and clothes of green marzipan shaped to resemble feathers seemed almost too beautiful to eat. Almost. Joseph noticed that Pete had begun to drool at the sight of the fare.
“Wait a second,” Joseph said, a question popping into his head. “Back in my room, you stopped the marble from hitting you with magic. Then you said you can’t do magic. Now you are making a whole tea party out of a flower. How did you do this if it isn’t magic?”
“You can’t do magic? What kind of fairy can’t do magic?” Pete asked, shocked at the suggestion. “Every fairy in every story can do magic. Are you really a fairy?” the dragon cocked his eye suspiciously at Rose-Marie.
“Of course, I’m a fairy. We just can’t do magic when we’re young. We start to develop magical abilities as we get older. Plus, you have to learn to do it. It’s not that easy. You’ve got to will magic to happen. It’s part from our hearts and part from our minds. We sort of make the magic in the world obey us. I’ve started to develop magical abilities. Just started. Usually, I think too hard about it and everything sort of sputters out and comes apart. As for the tea party, I told you that the cook made it. The royal cook mixes these potions. She did this magic; I just poured it out on the flower. Besides, I could ask the same of you, dragon. Who ever heard of a dragon that talks…or doesn’t burn down villages…or steal treasures?”
“You read too many stories. We don’t do any of those things. We just want everyone to think that we do,” Pete said with an air of haughtiness.
“Why would you want that? Everyone’s afraid of dragons because of those stories,” the Princess asked incredulously.
“Exactly. We want everyone to be afraid of us. That’s why we encourage those stories. Every once in a while dragons let ordinary people see us, and we put on a show just to scare them.”
“There are only a few dragons left,” Joseph chimed in, “and they’re loaded with their own kind of magic. They used to be hunted for their scales, hearts, lungs, eyes, claws, everything. It’s all magical. Poachers from all over the 12 Kingdoms hunted dragons until there were only a few left. Now, they hide and keep everyone afraid. This way, people are too afraid to hunt them.”
“That happened to us fairies, too,” Rose-Marie nodded sadly. “That’s why we hide in the treetops. The Mountain King gave us strong magic, but the gift was a curse. We have to hide, or evil people in the world hunt us down and force us to become slaves. My mother said that’s why the Swamp People are so important. They’ve helped defend and protect us.”
“Oh, I didn’t know that,” said Pete sadly.
“My grandfather used to tell me about fighting the Underground Kingdom to save the fairies, back when he was a knight,” said Joseph. “He told me that when he became king, he forced the enemies of the magical creatures back underground. That’s how he earned his reputation as a fierce warrior, like I’m going to be. That’s why Pete and I are friends. The frog kings have been friends to the dragons for centuries. There are even dragons in some of the tapestries at the castle from before my grandfather’s grandfather was born. I’d have loved to see the head seamstress force a dragon to sit still while she stitched his portrait.”
“I’ve heard stories about your grandfather. The fairies sing songs about him,” the princess responded solemnly.
“Really?” Joseph replied, stunned.
“Yes, really. We owed him a lot.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Joseph responded, staring at the Fairy Princess surprised that there was more to her than fluff and sparkle.
“José, are we ever going to eat that cake?” Pete asked.
“José?” Rose-Marie grinned mischievously.
“No one calls me ‘Joseph the Third’; the same as no one calls Pete ‘Eustace’. Pete calls me José. He learned that José is how they say Joseph in the Kingdom of the Birds. He and his parents travel the kingdoms, sort of ruling the dragons. They don’t have their own kingdom, but they do have leaders that watch over them and make sure they aren’t being hunted or causing trouble. He heard about ‘José’ on one of his trips a while back, and now that’s just what he calls me.”
By this point, Pete was tired of talking. He plopped down in one of the chairs, after awkwardly turning it sideways to accommodate his ample tail. “Chairs just aren’t designed with dragons in mind. The backs get in the way. You fairies make food out of flowers, but you can’t make a dragon chair,” he needled, while carving out a chunk of the cake with one of his 3-inch talons.
“Leave some for me,” Joseph bellowed, while he plopped down, snatched up the cake server, and hacked out a piece for himself.
“Your table manners are atrocious. Haven’t you ever been to a tea party before?” the princess complained.
They both paused, their faces now smeared with frosting and covered by crumbs, to stare at her skeptically.
“I guess not. Well, you should use proper table manners, and make sure that the lady is served first,” Rose-Marie explained in a condescending tone.
Joseph handed her the serving knife, having just dropped a third of the cake onto his own plate. The gesture elicited a sigh of exasperation and an insincere, but polite, “Thank you.”
Pete suddenly grew gravely serious and with gravity remarked, “This is the best cake I’ve ever eaten. Heck, this is the best THING I’ve ever eaten. This cake is all I ever want to eat ever again for the rest of my life.”
Joseph agreed through a mouth stuffed with food, while eagerly shoveling more in. The taste was similar to chocolate, but richer. The texture was light and fluffy. It dissolved on his tongue, sending shivers of joy through his body. He sat still for a moment, letting the taste spread across his tongue. Both boys greedily slurped at their tea, refilling their cups several times to wash down the magical food.
The princess daintily nibbled at her food, while sipping tea from her cup, with her pinky sticking out from the handle. She tried several times to engage the boys in the sort of conversation that was proper for tea parties, but gave up when their responses were nearly unintelligible and spoken through half-chewed food. The tea party with boys was like none she had ever attended, but she was glad to be sitting with someone while drinking tea and eating cake.
Joseph and Pete relished every last bite of food that was on the table. The dragon unashamedly licked his plate with a long, forked dragon tongue. After finishing, both boys basked in dazed contentedness.
“That is the best thing that has ever happened in my life,” Joseph remarked after several minutes of silence. Rose-Marie sipped her tea and watched the boys’ reaction, amused at their enjoyment of a simple fairy tea party. She wondered what they would have said about a full magical banquet.
“Would you like to play the game now?” she finally asked.
“What game?” Pete responded, always ready for rough and tumble play.
“It’s a game with hammers!” Joseph shouted, suddenly breaking from his post-dessert daze.
“Well, for starters, they’re called mallets,” Rose-Marie responded. “Fairies discovered this game in one of the magical books that one of our priestesses conjured from somewhere else. No one knows where the magical books come from, but we think the Mountain King makes it possible for us to reach into other worlds and get them. This one tells the story of a mythical creature named Alice, who traveled to a wonderful land, where she learned to play this game with a queen that she met. The way they played the game in the story didn’t work when the fairies tried it out. They used hedgehogs and flamingos. We changed it to use balls and mallets to make it work. Whatever magic exists where the book came from doesn’t work here.”
As she spoke, Rose-Marie rummaged around in her satchel, finally producing a wooden box, entirely too large to have come from her satchel.
When the boys rose from their seats the table, chairs, and tea set puffed away, as though they were a cloud. Purple and green mist was all that remained, and the breeze dissipated that quickly.
“How did you get that box out of that bag?” Pete asked in astonishment.
“It’s bigger on the inside,” Rose-Marie responded with a twinkle in her eye.
“What else have you got in there?” Joseph asked.
“All sorts of things. If you’d rather, we could play dress up instead of the game. I have plenty of outfits for everyone.” A hopeful grin spread across Rose-Marie’s face as she offered the suggestion.
“No!” Pete responded a bit too enthusiastically. After a brief pause and with less gusto, he continued, “No. That hedgehog game sounds great.” With that, the dragon took the wooden box from the fairy and read the cover, into which the word C-R-O-Q-U-E-T had been engraved. He attempted to sound out the word, but the syllables came out all jumbled.
“No, it’s pronounced ‘Krow-Kay’,” Rose-Marie corrected in her best know-it-all voice.
“Weird,” Joseph responded.
“How did you get the flamingoes to stay in the box?” Pete teased.
“I told you! We couldn’t make that magic work. We had to use mallets.” Rose Marie pulled the lid off the box in Pete’s hands. The box contained 5 hammers, each a different color, and shaped to look like flamingos with the nose acting as the head of the hammer, the body and legs serving as the shaft. Rose-Marie handed the black mallet to Joseph, the green one to Pete, who struggled to hold it and the box, eventually managing to do neither, and she kept the pink mallet for herself. The box clattered to the meadow floor, spilling its contents everywhere. Wooden balls, each in a color matching the mallets and carved to resemble hedgehogs, were scooped up and distributed. Finally, the fairy flitted about, hammering posts into either end of the field and setting up archways between the two posts.
“The game is a race from one end to the other,” Rose-Marie began. This perked up the interest of the two boys, who frequently raced against each other, though Joseph usually won being smaller and more athletic. Pete tended to lumber when he ran, through no fault of his own. He was a dragon, after all. They were big and heavy and tended to lumber everywhere.
The fairy continued to explain the rules of the game, garnering additional interest from the boys when they were told about launching the opponent’s ball away. The instructions took longer than they should have, largely because Rose-Marie keeps chasing after rabbit trails in her explanation, including a lengthy explanation of how difficult it was to launch your opponent’s ball away when the game was played with hedgehogs. The animals didn’t care for the experience, so they tended to wander off. This seemed reasonable to Joseph, who wouldn’t hang around to be pummeled with a flamingo either.
They played through the remainder of the afternoon. Pete quickly discovered that winning was a lot less interesting than attacking the other player’s balls. Pete and Joseph had to admit that croquet was fun. He sent Rose-Marie’s pink ball flying twice and launched Joseph’s ball three times. He also didn’t bother to advance through any of the archways, which Rose-Marie called wickets. Over the years of their friendship, Joseph had found that Pete was often more interested in being silly and messing with the people around him than he was in winning. This wasn’t all that surprising being that dragons spent their whole lives remaining hidden from most people, traveling the country side, and scaring villages or travelers. It was important to dragons that they remain mysterious and terrifying. Pete loved living this way, mainly because he loved scaring the stuffing out of people and laughing about it afterward.
Joseph tried hard to win, but couldn’t match Rose-Marie’s experience. Apparently, fairies loved croquet and played it often. Their version was even more difficult as it was played in the canopy of the forests that surrounded the Mountain King’s domain. She wowed the boys with stories of playing ‘extreme croquet’ in the trees. The game was challenging enough on the ground. Playing it in the trees would be crazy. The comparable ease of the grounded version of the game compared to the treetop version gave the princess an easy victory.
“I want a rematch!” challenged the prince, as Rose-Marie tapped her ball through the final wicket and struck the post. The enchanted game set came to life when her ball struck the post sending streamers of sparkling pink light shooting into the sky from the top of the post.
“I don’t think we can today,” the princess replied. “The sun is almost setting. I don’t want to be out here in the dark.”
Joseph looked at the sun, nearly beginning to set, and nodded. “Tomorrow. Unless, you’re chicken.”
“Sure, I’ll beat you again tomorrow,” the princess teased with a smile that seemed to go from one side of her face all the way to the other.
“You wish. I just had to learn the game. Next time, it’ll be even,” the prince shot back.
As he spoke, the princess held up her satchel and shook it vigorously. The mallets in the boys’ hands tugged free and flew through the air, along with the rest of the croquet set, reassembling in flight, and dropping into the waiting bag.
“Did you do that magic?” Pete asked, astonished.
“It’s the satchel,” she responded, smiling broadly. “It cleans up for me.”
“Can I borrow that to clean my room later?” Joseph joked.
“Only if you want me to take your stuff with me.”
“No, I guess not.”
“I guess I have to get home, too,” Pete said. “Can we have dessert again? And play the game? Maybe tomorrow?”
“I’m stuck here all week for the coronation. You two are the only kids I have to play with. I don’t think I want to spend time with Joseph’s brothers.”
“They’re not that bad. Dan is kind of a jerk,” Joseph responded. “And he’s just trying to prove himself to the others. My father said he will just keep doing it to look good in front of the others, ‘cause he used to be the youngest.”
“You just say the word, José. I’ll come deal with him for you.” Pete offered with a mischievous grin spreading across his scaly face, revealing his fangs and giving the expression a ghoulish look.
“Nah, I have to handle him myself. That’s what Dad says.”
“Suit yourself,” Pete called over his shoulder as he turned and headed for the tree line where he had emerged.
“You aren’t coming with us?” Rose-Marie asked with surprise.
“Pete can’t live in town. If he did, it would ruin the dragon mystique. He can’t be hidden from the world if he lives in a village. He and his family live out here,” Joseph explained.
“Oh. Well, it was nice to meet you, Pete,” Rose-Marie said while curtseying.
“Yeah. It was fun. See you tomorrow.” With that, Pete disappeared into the trees. Rose-Marie thought it was strange that such a large beast could move through the brush so silently.
Joseph led the princess back through the swamp, arriving at the village just as the sun set. It seemed as though there were even more wagons and rats scurrying about. Joseph found it hard to believe that there were so many rats in the world. Under the cover of dusk, the pair slipped easily past the guards at the gate, no longer supervised by Palaingo. The encounter at the gate seemed to have happened days ago, after such a full day with Pete and the princess. Joseph found himself wondering about the strange appearance of his teacher and an odd lack of familiar royal guards at the gate. Why would someone with less than no military training be put in charge of any aspects of security for the town or celebrations? It didn’t make any sense at all.
“Can we go play in the swamp again tomorrow?” Rose-Marie asked when the pair reached the castle, interrupting Joseph’s rumination.
“You don’t even have to ask. If I don’t have to be in my lessons this week, that’s where I’ll go every day,” Joseph laughed as he spoke the words. It seemed like the most obvious response in the world. “Why would I stay in the castle? There are so many rules. I can barely have any fun. The swamp is the best place in the world.”
“Goodie!” the princess squealed. “Goodnight, José!” She called over her shoulder as she fluttered toward the guest wing.
Stopping suddenly, the fairy turned and swooped back to the prince. Throwing her arms around him she exclaimed, “Thank you!”
The Frog Prince flushed uncomfortably. He hated to admit that he had fun with the talkative princess. “It was fun,” he conceded before turning and heading for his room, hoping his brothers hadn’t seen him hugging the princess. If they had, it would be the main topic of teasing for months and months.
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