No matter how many dragons I faced or adventures I went on, there was nothing more intimidating than standing before the front gates of Queen Evelyn’s palace. Vixia and I approached them the next morning after we received the queen’s letter and I swallowed the knot in my throat as I gazed at the solid gold bars of the gate’s doors, each one topped with a sharp spike to deter intruders. The rest of the castle’s perimeter was lined with tall walls made from white brick. The roof of the tall palace poked up into sight above the walls and I could remember wondering why a dragon hadn’t attacked it, seeing that it was a large target. We stopped in front of the gates when two guards, clad in matching uniforms, marched over to us.
“Are you Ketsuna and Vixia Wynstar?” the first asked.
“We are,” I replied as Vixia nodded.
“Queen Evelyn has been expecting you,” the second informed us. “Follow us, we’ll take you to her majesty.” Vixia and I nodded in unison as the duo turned around toward the gates. We exchanged unsure glances as the guards opened them. They beckoned for us to follow and closed the gates behind us.
“Right this way, please.”
We were led across a massive yard full of lush grass and we followed a gray stone path that approached the front of the castle. It was as grand as I imagined that it would be. The roof of the castle was a deep blue color like the other roofs in the city, but the shingles were made of a different, higher-quality material. The castle itself was made of thick stone bricks and tall towers were built into its sides. More guards were perched there with crossbows, keeping a lookout. Even the windows were framed with metal and had intricate designs woven throughout the glass, which I assumed to be both for aesthetic and security. We came up to the entrance and there were two large double doors made of what appeared to be solid mahogany. The guards with us looked to one of the towers, giving them a sort of hand signal. As soon as the guards in the tower saw the signal, the doors were pried open and we followed them into the main hall.
Two spiral staircases stood at either side of the room and the whole floor was covered in white tile. The walls were also a pristine white, lined with gold and covered in expensive-looking decorations. Vixia and I looked around in awe at our surroundings, then at each other. That was when both the guards bowed, catching our attention.
“Hello there, dragon-slayers.” Vixia and I both looked over to see Queen Evelyn standing on an indoor balcony above the staircases. We immediately fell to our knees and bowed.
“Your majesty! I am so sorry for our disrespect—”
“Be calm, Ketsuna,” she instructed, her voice soft. “You have brought me no disrespect. You two are an asset to this kingdom. You may lift your heads.”
We both did as instructed and looked at her. This was when I noticed her long, black hair and her intricate dress, which was primarily blue and white with adorning pieces of gold. A matching crown sat atop her head, but I didn’t realize how large it was until she began her descent down one of the flights of stairs and I was amazed that she didn’t have to hold it still.
“I shall meet you in the drawing-room,” she insisted. “I will lead the way. Guards, please see to it that the proper preparations are made for our guests.”
“Yes, your majesty,” they said in unison before they left. She finally approached us after a moment, the heels of her hidden shoes clacking against the tile and echoing off the walls. She offered a hand to Vixia and me. A sweet smile crossed her face.
“Please, follow me.”
After we stood up, Queen Evelyn led us through a wide hallway toward the western wing of the palace and into a large room at the end. My eyes traced the edges of the walls, which matched those in the main room but were now lined with large bookcases that almost stretched to the ceiling, and then scanned the light tiled floor, each square sharing the same freshly-polished shine as the rest. It was decorated much like the main room, but now there were couches and tables scattered around the room, much like a library. I stared at the bookshelves in awe for a moment before I caught Vixia smirking at me.
“Wish you would have married the queen instead, huh?” she joked in a hushed whisper. “Then you would have all of the books you could ever read.”
“Of course not,” I answered just as quietly, rolling my eyes at her. I looked away from her for a moment, adjusting my wedding ring on my finger nervously as we followed Queen Evelyn to a large cedar table at the center of the room. She took her seat in a massive leather chair, resembling a throne, on the opposite side from us.
We did as we were told and took our seats, which were two very comfy chairs that were just slightly smaller than hers. After we sat down, I noticed that her deep blue eyes were focused on both of us.
“You’re probably wondering why I have invited you here today,” she began, “so I will get straight to the point. You two are top-notch dragon-slayers in a kingdom that needs them right now. I have a request for you.”
“Does it have to do with the attacks, your majesty?” I asked.
“Precisely!” Queen Evelyn cheered. “However, not as much as you probably think.” Vixia and I exchanged worried glances as she added, “This mostly has to do with my guild, the Ironscale Hunters.”
“We apologize for any trouble that we may have caused, your majesty,” Vixia interjected, bowing her head. “But we have found that the guild does not respond to attacks as quickly as we can and we cannot stand aside while people are in danger.”
“Lift your head! There is no reason for you to apologize. That is precisely why I invited you here.”
We both stared at the queen in confusion as she smiled again.
“I would like to make you an offer that you cannot refuse, my dear dragon-slayers. Join my guild and I will give you a hefty reward for your trouble.”
Vixia and I exchanged unsure glances, then looked back at the queen.
“I apologize, Queen Evelyn, but we cannot take your offer,” I answered. “I fear that your guild would not be welcoming to us, based on past experience.” The queen’s polite smile grew into a smirk and her eyes narrowed as she stared at us.
“Ketsuna, you are not from this kingdom, right?”
Those words sent a jolt through my body. I averted my eyes and stared down at the floor. I reached up to touch my ears, the main feature that made me stand out.
“No, your majesty, I am not.”
“And you are aware that your marriage to Vixia does not grant you citizenship, correct?”
“Yes, your majesty, I am aware. We learned that long before we even got married.” The grin on the queen’s face widened with that remark.
“You see, this is why I said that it was an offer that you can’t refuse. If you join my dragon-slayer guild and help get rid of the problem, I will grant you permanent citizenship. If you refuse, I will have no choice but to send you back to the land from which you came. Draladen, right?”
I slumped in my chair as the reality of her words sunk in. I still took it better than Vixia, though. She surprised us both when she slammed her palms down on the table, her face turning several shades of red over the course of a few seconds.
“Your majesty, that is ridiculous!” she shouted, standing up from her seat. “Ketsuna hasn’t done anything wrong! How could you risk the lives of your citizens by sending away one of your strongest dragon-slayers?”
Queen Evelyn’s expression fell flat and indifferent, but it only lasted for a second.
“Vixia, it’s okay.” I stood up next to her, staring the queen straight in the eyes this time. “Queen Evelyn, it appears that we have no choice but to accept your offer. Where do we begin?”
Less than a week later, Vixia and I had packed up most of our things in suitcases. It was a bright, early morning when we set out for the guildhall. I locked the door to our home after we stepped outside, admiring it for what would be the last time for a while. I remembered the words of the queen.
You will need to pack your things and live in the guildhall for a while. The guild master and I have made arrangements for you to have a shared room instead of bunking with the other guild members. Do not worry, this is not a permanent arrangement. You will be able to return to your home during the weekends if we can stabilize everything. I am counting on you, dragon-slayers.
I let out a sigh as a thought popped into my head. But when will that be? How do we even start?
Vixia must have noticed how I was feeling because she put her hand on my shoulder, snapping me back to reality. I looked back at her.
“It’ll be okay,” she promised. “We’ll deal with these dragons as quickly as possible and then we can come back.”
“I hope you’re right,” I murmured, turning my attention back to the house as I slipped the key into my pocket. It was like many of the other houses in Tidalsong City, but I was specifically looking at the small garden at the front of the house that Vixia and I had planted together. I realized that we would have to restart it when everything was over.
“We should probably get going,” I said finally. “Otherwise, I may not want to leave.”
“Yeah,” Vixia agreed in a near whisper. So, we turned and left, carrying everything that we could bring in a few bags.
We arrived at the guildhall around noon that day after making several stops to get food and other supplies. It was a large building and, for a moment, I wondered if it was half the size of the palace. It had the same blue roofing as every other building, but the walls were adorned with stones. The windows and doors also had a particular amount of attention paid to them, their wooden frames covered in intricate carvings. There was also a wooden sign hanging over the entrance, which had the name of the guild scrawled across it in large letters. Vixia and I were admiring it all as we walked up to the front steps, which were also made from slabs of stone. We stood there for a moment, unsure of what to do next.
“Do we just . . . walk in?” Vixia asked. I shrugged my shoulders and approached the double doors. With a loud creak, I slowly pushed them open.
The building looked even more massive from the inside. The ceiling was incredibly high, much higher than anyone could reach without a ladder or a spell. The floor was covered in dark-colored wood and the walls were built from light stone, but these weren’t the first details that I noticed. The first thing that I noticed was the crowd of people sitting at tables scattered about the main room. The next was the bar, which stood right beside the stairs that led up to the second floor, where the dorms were. Metal sconces clung to the walls and a large chandelier illuminated the room and the faces of the guild members. They seemed to be having a great time, eating and joking with each other. Laughter and the sound of people chatting filled the room, that is, until they noticed our presence. After a moment, they all fell silent after they looked toward the door and their eyes pierced into us like daggers.
“What the hell are you doing here?” someone shouted. I looked over to see that it was the guild member that we had argued with the other day. He had stood up from his table and was walking toward us.
“Zelora, help us,” Vixia whispered to herself in an exasperated tone, closing her eyes. I gripped the handle of my bag a little tighter. He stopped a few feet away from us, then continued his tirade.
“What, you here to argue some more?” he shouted in an attempt to taunt us. “You can’t do shit here. Get lost before we boot you out!”
“Sparrow, hold your tongue!” a voice snapped. Everyone looked toward the wooden balcony that overlooked the dining area to see a woman with dark-colored hair and glasses glaring down at all of us. “That is no way to treat new members, especially ones appointed by the queen herself.”
“No way,” Sparrow said quietly, disbelief woven into his voice. He took a few steps back but didn’t return to his seat until the woman began to descend the stairs. She began walking toward us.
“Everyone, I’m sure you’ve heard of Ketsuna and Vixia Wynstar. Today is their first day with us at the guild. I expect you all to be on your best behavior.”
“Yes ma’am!” most of the guild members shouted, but immediately afterward they began to grumble and complain amongst themselves. The woman approached us and I realized that she was also wearing some sort of royal uniform rather than armor or adventuring gear.
“Hello there,” she began. “I’m Nesryn, the master of the royal dragon-slayer guild, the Ironscale Hunters. Pleased to meet you.”
“We’re pleased to meet you, too,” I replied, bowing my head slightly.
“I’ve heard a lot about you from her majesty.” A grin crossed Nesryn’s face. “You two should be quite helpful in our effort to get rid of those dragons.”
“I hope so.” Vixia was looking down at the floor. Nesryn gave us both a warm smile.
“Here, I’ll show you to your room. You two should spend the first day trying to get settled, after all. Follow me.”
Vixia and I were escorted to our room upstairs and I closed the door behind us with an exasperated sigh. My wife immediately began unpacking one of her bags, setting up a temporary altar in the corner farthest from the door. Thankfully, she packed just the bare essentials for her worship, so the altar was small and didn’t take up much space in the already cramped room. There was a large bed in the middle of the room that took up a large portion of space even though its headboard was pushed against the wall. A wooden chest rested on the floor at the foot of it and there was also a small closet and a table underneath the only window. Other than that the room was empty.
Good thing we packed fairly light.
I looked to Vixia again to find her sitting on the floor before her makeshift altar, her head bowed in prayer and her eyes closed. I watched quietly, taking in the peaceful expression on her face and how her ears perked up attentively as she listened to the goddess, Zelora, herself. Her long, silver hair draped over her shoulders and down her back and her tail was completely still on the floor. I continued to watch her until I heard someone knocking aggressively on the door behind me.
I felt my brows furrow together as I turned to open it, the knocking not ceasing until I did. When I did, Sparrow was standing there with his two other party mates, his hands on his hips like when we first met. I stepped out into the hall and quietly closed the door behind me, hoping to avoid disturbing Vixia.
“You have some nerve, requesting for the queen to let you join this guild,” Sparrow began. The two other men in his party stood silently behind him, nodding in agreement.
“You’ve got it all wrong.”
Before I could say anything else, he stepped in closer to me, trying to loom over me threateningly. Unfortunately for him, it takes a lot more than that to intimidate me, so I stood my ground and glared up at him. “Do I now?” he asked in a gruff voice.
“Yes, you do,” Nesryn interjected. We all looked over to see the guild master approaching us, annoyance practically written on her face. Sparrow, once again, stepped away from me. “I told you before that the queen requested for Ketsuna and Vixia to join the guild personally. Her majesty recognized their efforts and wanted them to join, not the other way around. Maybe if you actually pulled your weight around here, you would get that same recognition.”
I could almost see the gears turning in Sparrow’s head as the realization of what Nesryn said hit him. His eyes widened and he looked between the guild master and me.
“You should probably avoid harassing us, especially at this time of day,” I warned. “Vixia is praying right now, and if you interrupt her like this again, I will deal with you myself. She may be quiet and shy, but I’m not.” Sparrow and his team remained silent for a moment, glaring at me. Again, I stood firm. Sparrow let out a scoff and started to walk away. The two others followed and, after they left, Nesryn turned back to me.
“I’m sorry about all of that. Sparrow will be written up for all of this.”
“It’s all right,” I replied. “Not your fault that you have some hot-head guild members.” She smiled at me and let out a small laugh.
“Please try to get some rest. I’ll give you two your first assignment tomorrow.”
“I will, thank you,” I said with a nod and returned to my room.