The Multiverse Chronicles
Season One: Episode Two
* * *
Ornate, stained-glass lanterns adorned the grand hall of Britannia’s primary castle. Their flickering yellow arc lamps depicted the glorious reign of the Dragon Dynasty with vivid images of gold and crimson dragons soaring amongst pink-tinted clouds at sunrise. Further along the grand hall, these stained glass lanterns projected the first Dragon Queen as she sent her dragons to battle an unkempt hoard of miscreants. Later, the lanterns revealed a portrait of the same Dragon Queen with her proud chin high as she morphed into the form of a glistening dragon, uniting her subjects into an unshakable empire.
That empire had lasted for the past two-and-a-half centuries, and after tonight, its reign would be secured for at least half a century more.
The current Dragon Queen, Queen Catherine V, smiled as she sat at the head of the hall in a massive throne. Bone-white ribs splayed out from the back of the chair, constructed from the remains of dragons who had defied the previous queens. A golden ridge with tiny rubies crowned the arch of ribs, backed with red velvet. The queen’s hands rested lightly on the gilded armrests, the end of each rest adorned with the skull of a young feral dragon and painted to the likeness of the dragons her ancestor had tamed. A ruby glinted from each of the skulls’ eye sockets.
The queen’s own dark, calculating eyes examined the luxurious ballroom before her. All was fitting and perfect, with rigid guards in their ribbed helmets and gallant red uniforms standing among the waltzing guests. Her guards were stationed near each marble column, their antique ornamental halberds ramrod straight and precise. Only their eyes flicked with movement, watchful of anyone out of place among the dignitaries who bowed and curtsied and offered their hands in hopes of a dance.
The guards were hardly necessary in terms of protection.
The queen could protect herself. No one had dared attack her since she personally beheaded an assassin a few years ago. A pitiful attempt on her life. Fortunately for his family, her telepaths had confirmed that he had been acting alone.
She quirked a smile. Her legacy remained untouched, untarnished, and soon, extended into yet another country.
The regal, middle-aged man to her left dipped his head. He had gentle eyes the color of chocolate fudge, and short, dark hair that had been trimmed and styled for the occasion. A rich beard wrapped around his cheeks. His chair was not quite so fancy, but he still sat high above the swirling diplomats in their elaborate gowns and pressed waistcoats.
“This is a wonderful evening, my dear. You planned this well,” he said.
“Thank you. I do my best.” She patted his hand and gave him a curt nod, approving. Prince Ramón of España, her delightful husband. He truly was. He had gifted her with a daughter, her only child, a beautiful young woman she named Cassandra.
Cassandra was strong and dutiful as she sat in her throne, the chair to the queen’s right. She held her posture upright, with the grace of a dragon… not like some of the princesses the queen had noted from the surrounding kingdoms.
Moving down the line, the Dragon Queen eyed the youngling a seat below her daughter. His name was Prince Alfons of House Egilhard, prince to the Industrial Union of Prussia. The young man craned his head toward Cassandra, his eyes straying from the decorated guests to grace the princess with adoration. The queen had to admit that the prince was far too relaxed. He slacked on the formalities she had worked so hard to instill in her daughter.
But the prince would adapt, just like her Ramón.
She rapped her fingers on the armrest’s dragon head. Her telepaths had assured her that the prince was faithful, even if his doting bodyguard was something of a slob.
Bodyguards, too, could be adjusted.
She exhaled in time with the methodical orchestra, and returned her attention to the guests. Amongst the rigid guards and the pristine diplomats, amongst the proper dukes and the swirling, bejeweled duchesses who danced at their side, stood a lone, blue-uniformed soldier.
Alia Behringer, the prince’s favorite bodyguard. She was tall, especially among this crowd, with wheat blond hair and a lean, muscled body. She cast a furtive glance toward the Dragon Queen, caught her glower, and looked away.
* * *
Alia’s attention returned to the prince. He was her charge, and she would defend him with her life. Months ago, he would have been joking at her side, not perched on Miss High-and-Mighty’s “graceful, endearing, and oh-so-lovely” arm.
But times had changed, and now he was courting a princess in a foreign land, leaving his former best friend to watch from the distance.
The Dragon Queen rose from the center throne, her crimson dress shimmering with gold sequins and diamond drops. Alia held her breath as the queen raised her arms to include the crowd. Her draping, translucent sleeves revealed defined muscle, her dress doing little to hide her imposing stature. The ballroom quieted, each Britannian anxious to hear what she had to say.
Alia’s throat constricted.
She would be perfectly happy if the queen didn’t speak at all.
“Ladies and gentlemen, what a beautiful evening!” The queen’s voice carried across the room without need for a sound elemental, and her sharp face glowed with self-proclaimed radiance. “Indeed, this has been a marvelous party, fit for the first Dragon Queen, and now, for my daughter.” She cast a loving gaze to Princess Cassandra, who beamed with pride.
As if either of them were ever anything but prideful.
Alia kept her face blank, but her cheeks burned at the thought of that snooty, high-horsed princess being anywhere near Alfons.
Not that there was anything she could do about it.
“Over these past months,” the queen continued, “I have been impressed with the courtliness of Prince Alfons, crown prince of the house of Egilhard, who has treated my daughter with the utmost respect to be expected from a man of his station.”
Because anyone who isn’t raised like some prude isn’t expected to be respectful?
Alia clenched and unclenched her fists, but Alfons was too busy fawning over his princess to notice the queen’s slight.
“…and it is with great pleasure that I announce the engagement of my daughter, Princess Cassandra, to the Industrial Union’s Prince Alfons!”
The crowd erupted with cheers of “Long live Princess Cassandra! Long live Prince Alfons! Long live the queen!”
The lump in Alia’s throat lodged deeper as she clapped. She truly was happy for Alfons’ engagement, but this princess was worse than working with a stuck gear on a motor carriage.
As long as that princess was around, Alia couldn’t get near him.
Her despairing heart sunk and she started toward the gilded doors at the edge of the hall. She’d known Alfons since she was a child, and because of their unshakeable friendship, she had received the job as his bodyguard.
It was perfect. He was always nearby.
Always nearby until Cassandra.
In the corner of Alia’s eye, Princess Cassandra and Prince Alfons rose to accept the Dragon Queen’s announcement.
“Thank you, Mother,” Cassandra stated, tears of joy gleaming on her eyelashes. “But if I may protest, the party has only begun.”
The Dragon Queen chuckled. “So it has my dear, so it has.”
With a flick of her wrist, a prima donna in a gold dress with red lace and a silver corset sashayed out from a shimmering, translucent curtain. Her silky voice began a ballad of the first Dragon Queen. The lilting notes swept high through the rafters, and an illusionist used his powers to project massive dragons of pure light over the enthralled crowd. The creatures looped through the stained-glass lanterns, their fiery breath projected in deep, royal blues and crimsons.
Alia’s eyes widened. Save for their relatively small size—that many dragons wouldn’t fit the hall—they seemed so real. Their scales rippled on the underside of their bellies, their fire was warm, comforting, and their eyes glistened with fresh dew. Of everything she and Alfons had seen in Britannia, this had to be the finest.
But they wouldn’t be sharing their thoughts about this display.
Not like in the past.
She lowered her eyes. Though she could never admit that she loved the prince, not even to herself, she missed him terribly.
With a deep breath, she tucked her loneliness aside, scanned the crowd for anyone suspicious, and returned her attention to Alfons. He nuzzled noses with Cassandra, murmuring cutesy phrases Alia couldn’t—and didn’t—want to hear.
She scowled. With all the redcoats watching the princess, her attention was probably better placed on the crowd. She gritted her teeth and politely excused herself to the perimeter.
The party continued until night’s blue darkness slipped through the windows. The prince and princess retired from socializing to the nearby garden, for “privacy,” most like.
As was her duty, Alia followed, along with four of the rigid guards. Two took position at the garden’s entrance, while the other two patrolled the hedges with their ribbed helmets glinting gold from the stained glass window.
Alia followed suite. It was for the best, since Princess Cassandra would no doubt hog the prince to herself. For the umpteenth time, Alia dug her nails into the palms of her hands, trying her best to keep her face blank like all the stupid guards who might as well have had their tongues cut out.
She wouldn’t have put it past the queen, really, if they weren’t required to give verbal reports upon the changing of the guard. The first time Alia had talked with Alfons while the princess was around—a mere “the weather seems a bit gloomy here”—the princess scolded her for “stepping out of line” and “abandoning her duties.”
Apparently the guards around here didn’t amount to anything more than protection.
Spoiled brat and her stupid Britannian principles. He was my friend first.
Alia stole another glance toward the couple. They held hands as they ambled past giant, imported rhododendrons and spiral topiaries. They stole a kiss before settling onto a wrought-iron bench within earshot.
Alia scowled. Since that first scolding, she hadn’t approached Alfons while Cassandra hung off his arm.
Which was most any time Cassandra wasn’t in her chambers.
Still, Alia was his bodyguard, so she had to remain within earshot—whether she wanted to or not.
“That was an impressive show,” Alfons said, his eyes bright.
“Agreed. Mother knows how to host a party.” The princess cozied up to Alfons and slipped her arm around his shoulder. “The prima donna has a beautiful voice.”
Alfons rested his cheek against the princess’s dark hair. “My love, her voice cannot begin to compare with your beauty.”
She giggled. “You flatter me.”
“It’s true!” he insisted, waving his hand as if to ward off an accusation.
Alia rolled her eyes. They would be at this all night.
She leaned over the hedge, checking for anything mischievous. Perhaps a “sinister spider” hanging from its web, preparing to scare Miss Dragon-Born off her tuffet.
But the princess would probably just squash it… or use beast mastery to command it to write love letters in its webs.
Alia grimaced. No, spiders wouldn’t be helpful at all.
Leaves rustled behind her and she spun around, pistol drawn.
A large, cinnamon-colored rat waddled out from under the bush. It sniffed the air with its tiny nose and stared at her with a beady black eye. Alia scoffed and holstered the gun. The rat was the princess’s pet. “Scram,” she muttered. She kicked a bit of dirt at the rat. It squeaked and skittered away.
Britannians. A strange lot, all of them. They had beastmasters and doting princesses and some crazy idea that the Dragon Queen was the descendent of a shapeshifter who had a daughter with a dragon.
Weird didn’t begin to cover their mess.
Thankfully, she wouldn’t have to deal with the prince’s two-penny romance for long. Her replacement was checking in with the guards at the garden’s entrance. After showing his ID and complying with the guards’ telepathic check, the middle-aged Prussian slipped past the more elaborate topiaries of a dire wolf family and stepped over to Alia.
“Change of guard.” He saluted her and they retreated to the corner of the garden, both being careful not to disturb the princess—not that she would notice anything other than the lock of the prince’s hair she was twirling. “Nice evening.”
“Thanks, Geoff.” Alia took one last look around the garden. “Couldn’t ask for better.”
Geoff lowered his voice. “Anything to report?”
“Well… Princess Cassandra has dazzling eyes, Alfons’ curly hair is so adorably cute, the moon’s light is glistening with unabashed radiance in Cassandra’s eyes like the eyes of a great, majestic dragon… and that pesky rat is scurrying about, so try not to shoot it. I doubt Her Royal Highness would be pleased.” She forced a smile.
Geoff chuckled, earning a nasty glare from one of the passing redcoats.
“Sounds like all is well.” He smirked. “But you look a little under the weather. Everything all right?”
“Everything’s fine. It’s just… it’s been a long day.”
Geoff gave her a knowing look. “Why don’t you take it easy for the rest of the night? If the rat gets out of line I’ll straighten him out.” He patted his holster and grinned.
Alia laughed, earning another scowl from the redcoat. She appreciated her friend’s attempt to change the subject; Geoff knew that she and Alfons had been close before the engagement, and now the poor rat took the majority of the cheap shots.
A warm breeze flitted through the topiaries, carrying with it the scent of roasted ham and boiled carrots. Someone was having supper outside the castle gates. A meal didn’t sound bad, given that she avoided eating on the job when the princess was around.
She sighed. “I figured I might catch a few stories at the pub before retiring for the night.”
“Sounds good.” Geoff patted her shoulder. “Rest easy.”
“Thanks,” Alia said. She walked to the entrance and checked out with the Britannian guards.
* * *
Inside the ballroom, the Dragon Queen excused herself from a delightful dignitary with ties to South Africa’s diamond trade, then passed by the tall floor-to-ceiling windows that lined the garden. She paused and gazed into the darkness. Arc lamps flicked warm light over the bench where her daughter sat with the Prussian prince.
Wonderful. Cassandra was burgeoning into a beautiful, intelligent young woman, and her marriage with the prince would be fruitful. She would be a good queen.
The Dragon Queen waited until the prince’s bodyguard finished checking out with the guards before passing to the next window. A pity the prince didn’t have better protection to bring to the queendom, but some things couldn’t be helped. Like her Prince Ramón, he would eventually dismiss those pitiful customs for a stronger, nobler heritage.
Then her daughter really would be in good hands, with connections to a fast-growing industry. Those connections were worth their weight in diamonds and gold. She chuckled to herself, accepted a glass of wine from the nearest butler, and returned to the party.
* * *
* * *
After a long night of conversing with foreign dignitaries and investors, Elizabeth Calroe stood quietly outside the castle gate, waiting for her husband, Benjamin Calroe, to join her. She glanced to the iron gate, where a small gathering of alchemists were laughing about some joke a scholar had brought from Alexandria. Her husband stood among the three of them, accompanied by the acclaimed Francis Wyot and Emile Page. Together they could jabber for hours, never once considering the fact that they ran rival companies.
Thankfully for Benjamin, he had married into business sensibility. Though he was a skilled craftsman—he had even earned the attention of the queen, which was why the Calroes had been invited here tonight—it was Elizabeth who kept the finances and ensured their contracts were as beneficial to their business as possible.
Another round of laughter burst from the circle of alchemists.
Elizabeth sighed. Certainly they were entertaining, but she was tired. Perhaps she could call for a carriage—
“Mrs. Calroe!” a short, stout man called from behind her, his Frankish accent unmistakable. He waved his hand for her attention, then half-jogged to reach her. “That was some party, was it not?”
Elizabeth resisted the urge to rub her temples and stave off the coming headache.
The present man was Armel Hardy, an investor and stock broker from Francia. He had spoken with her once before about investing in her family business—specialty artifacts enchanted with various powers, and her power-blocking shields in particular—but his terms were hardly acceptable. She had turned him down with no uncertainty.
Still, one did not earn favorable contracts by eating lemons.
She offered him a coy smile. “Mr. Hardy… yes. I remember you. What can I do for you?”
“Well—” He rested his chubby hands on his knees and took a series of shallow breaths. She had noted him chasing the other investors all evening.
Once he caught his breath, he adjusted his bowler hat so that it fit squarely on his round head, and then he straightened his posture. He gave a nervous laugh and tugged his shirt collar. “I was curious to see if you had reconsidered my previous proposition?”
Elizabeth snorted. “No. My husband and I are not in any need of your support.”
“Mrs. Calroe,” Mr. Hardy interjected, “if you are doing well now, just think of how well you could do for yourself and my associates with their financial assistance.” He gestured wide, as if to encompass the whole world with his offer.
“Mr. Hardy, I am well aware that you have ties with some very wealthy people, but let me assure you that my husband I have wealthy ties, too.” Hopefully in the form of the Britannian treasury, if tonight’s social calls went well. She smiled, smug, and continued. “I am confident that we will commission our goods on our own, at our own prices, without having to share the profits with any stock holder.”
Mr. Hardy nodded vigorously and waggled his finger as if to approve. “You’re a powerful woman, Mrs. Calroe. I like that. My associates like that. I have no doubt you will succeed. But—just in case—do not forget my offer. When you do make it big, let me know if you want to do a little investing of your own.” His eyes twinkled in the glow of the buzzing arc lamps, which stood tall along the wrought iron fence around the castle.
“I will keep your offer in mind,” Elizabeth said, though the corner of her lips framed an involuntary smile. She had a few terms of her own, if she ever “made it big,” and those terms did not include the likes of Mr. Hardy.
“Good—good,” Mr. Hardy said. “Have a good evening, Mrs. Calroe.” He half-bowed, nearly loosing his hat in the process, then hurried off to chase other potential investors.
Elizabeth shook her head. That man was something else… a nuisance mostly.
She smoothed her pleated skirts and straightened her scarlet corset, then glanced again to the alchemists. She loved her fool husband to pieces, but if he would never stop talking, they would not get a good night’s sleep.
Time to interrupt the alchemists.
Elizabeth hiked up her skirts and trudged across the sidewalk. The morning would come early, and there was plenty of work to be done at the shop.
* * *
The adventure continues in the next episode, when Alia visits a local pub for solitude and instead gets friendly advice from a Britannian storyteller…