Chapter 2:

Chapter 2

The Rise of The Dragon Queen

No matter how many adventures I went on or dragons I faced, there was nothing more intimidating than standing before the gates of Queen Evelyn's palace. Vixia and I approached the castle the morning after we received the letter and I tried to swallow the knot in my throat as I gazed at the solid bars of the gate's doors, each topped with a sharp spike to deter intruders. The rest of the castle's perimeter was lined by tall walls made from gray bricks. I wondered why a dragon hadn't attacked this place when I spotted the roof poking above those walls. It was a much bigger target than the plaza. But those thoughts faded away when we stopped in front of the gates to find two guards waiting for us. They marched over to us.

"What business do you have here?" one of them asked.

"The queen sent for us," I replied, holding up the envelope bearing the queen's seal.

"Her majesty has been expecting you," the second informed us. "Follow me." Vixia and I nodded in unison and the duo turned toward the gates. We exchanged unsure glances as the guards pushed them open. The second of the two guards beckoned for us to follow him and the first closed the gates behind us.

"Right this way, please."

We followed a gray stone path across a massive yard. It was as grand as I imagined it would be. The roof was the same color as those that topped the rest of the buildings in the city, but I guessed that the shingles were made of higher-quality materials. The castle itself was made of thick stone bricks and tall towers were built into its sides. More guards were perched up 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 security and aesthetic. When I turned my attention to Vixia, I noticed that she was staring at the bushes adorning the castle's perimeter, each one dotted with numerous dark blue roses and even more thorns. She didn't look away from them until we came to the entrance. Now there were only two metal doors between us and the inside of the palace.

The guard with us looked at one of the towers and gave a brief hand signal. When the guards in the tower saw him, the doors in front of us were pried open from the inside. We followed the guard into the main hall.

Two spiral staircases stood at either side of the room, leading up to a balcony, and the whole floor was covered in white tiles. The walls were also a pristine white, lined with gold and covered in expensive-looking decorations and paintings. Vixia and I looked around in awe, then at each other. That was when the guard that had led us bowed down, catching our attention.

"Hello there, dragon-slayers." Vixia and I looked over to see Queen Evelyn standing on the balcony. We immediately fell to our knees and bowed.

"Your majesty, I am so sorry for our disrespect—"

"Be calm," she instructed. Her voice was soft, but it still carried enough volume to reach us in the spacious room. "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 she was leaning over the railing a little, her lengthy, black hair hanging over her shoulders. She wore an elaborate dress, primarily dark 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 descending one of the stairs. I was amazed that she didn't have to hold it still. When she approached us, the sound of her hidden shoes clacking against the floor echoed off the walls and I could see that she had a smile on her face.

"I shall lead you to the drawing room," she insisted. She then looked at the guard. "Please see to it that our guests have the proper accommodations."

"Yes, your majesty," the guard replied and left. She finally turned back to us, offering her hand to Vixia and me. A smile crossed her face.

"Please, follow me."

After we stood up, Queen Evelyn led us down a wide hallway on the western wing of the palace. I was surprised to find that one side of the hallway had the same intricate windows I had seen outside and the other was lined with bookshelves that nearly reached the ceiling. I was staring at them in awe before I caught Vixia smirking at me.

"Wish you could have married the queen instead, huh?" she joked in a hushed whisper, so quiet that I was practically reading her lips. "Then you would have all the books you could ever read."

I didn't say anything back and chose to roll my eyes instead. I then looked down at my hand, fidgeting with my wedding ring as we followed Queen Evelyn through a doorway at the end of the hall.

When we entered the drawing room, I was amazed to see even more bookshelves similar to the ones in the hallway. A few couches were scattered around the room, but at the center of it was a cedar table with a massive leather chair behind it. Queen Evelyn took her seat there and motioned to the comfy chairs on the opposite side of the table.

"Please, sit."

We did as we were told and took our seats. After we sat down, I noticed that the queen's deep blue eyes were focused on us.

"You are probably wondering why I 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 desperately. I have a request."

"Does it have to do with the attacks, your majesty?" I asked.

"Precisely!" the queen cheered. "However, not as much as you may think." Vixia and I exchanged worried glances as she added, "This mostly has to do with my guild, the IronScale Slayers."

"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 threats as quickly as we can. 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 have invited you here."

We stared at the queen in confusion as she smiled again.

"I would like to make you an offer 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 accept," I answered. "I fear that your guild would not be welcoming to us, based on experience." As soon as those words left my mouth, the Queen's polite smile twisted into a smirk and her eyes narrowed.

She planned for this.

"That is not an option. Ketsuna, you are not from this kingdom, yes?"

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.

"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.

"You see, this is why you can't refuse. If you join my guild and help eliminate the problem, I will grant you permanent citizenship. If you still refuse, I will have no choice but to send you back to the land from which you came since you have been interfering with the guild's activities. You are Draladenian, correct?"

I slumped in my chair as the reality of her words sunk in. I couldn't remember living in Draladen since I spent most of my life in Zaledrid. There would be nothing to return to and I would have nowhere to go. Vixia was also struggling with this realization. I watched her ears fold back from the corner of my eye.

"Your majesty, I think you are making a mistake," she began meekly. "Ketsuna hasn't done anything wrong. By sending her away, you'll risk the lives of your citizens."

Queen Evelyn didn't even flinch. Her expression fell flat and indifferent.

She's got us in a corner. There's nothing else I can do now.

"Vixia, it's okay." I stood up from my seat, staring the queen straight in the eyes this time. "Queen Evelyn, it appears that we have no choice but to take your offer. Where do we begin?"

Less than a week later, Vixia and I had all of our essentials and a good portion of our clothes packed up in bags. It was a bright morning when we first set out for the guildhall, but if I had to describe our state of mind that day, I would say that we were both pretty gloomy. After we stepped onto the porch, I locked the door to our home, admiring it for what would be the last time for a while. I remembered the queen's words as I stared at the ward Vixia had fastened to the door.

You will need to live at the guildhall for a while. The guild master and I have arranged for you to have a room between the two of yourselves rather than bunking with the other guild members. Do not worry; this isn't a permanent arrangement. You will be able to return home when things become a bit more stable. I am counting on you, dragon slayers.

I let out a sigh as a thought popped up into my head. But when will that be? How do we even fix this?

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. 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. When we turned to leave, I spotted our little garden out of the corner of my eye. I realized that we would have to restart it when everything was over.

"Vixia, did you collect all of the herbs that you're going to need?" She nodded and opened one of the bags she was carrying to show me several glass jars she had filled with them.

"Okay, then we should probably get going. I may not want to leave if we don't go now."

"Yeah," Vixia agreed in a near whisper. So, we turned and left, carrying everything we could in a few bags.

We arrived at the guildhall around noon since we made several stops on the way. It was a large building; for a moment, I wondered if it was half the size of Queen Evelyn's palace. The roof was the same blue as the other buildings, but the walls were built from stones that reminded me of the castle's walls. I also noticed that the frames of the windows and doors were covered in intricate carvings, too. A wooden sign hung over the entrance with the name of the guild scrawled across it in large letters. Vixia and I admired it when we walked up the front steps, also crafted from slabs of stone. We stood there for a moment, hesitating.

"Do we just . . . walk in?" Vixia asked. I shrugged my shoulders and approached the double doors. They let out a loud creak when I 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 spell. The floor was covered in dark-colored wood and the walls' stones appeared lighter inside, but these weren't the first details I noticed. The first thing my eyes wandered to was the crowd of people sitting at tables scattered about the main room. The bar was next, which stood right beside the stairs leading up to the second floor. Metal sconces clung to the walls and a wooden chandelier illuminated the room. In its light, I could see the faces of some of the guild members. They seemed to be having a great time and the sound of laughter and people chatting filled the room. That is until they noticed the creaking of the door and the clattering of the windows when it closed firmly behind us. After a moment, they all looked toward the door and fell silent, their eyes piercing us like daggers.

"What the hell are you doing here?" someone shouted. I looked over to see that it was the guy I had argued with the other day. He was now standing beside his table, but as soon as our eyes met, he began walking toward us.

"Zelora, help us," Vixia whispered to herself in an exasperated tone, closing her eyes. I gripped the straps of my bags a little tighter as he made his way over. He stopped a few feet away from us, then continued his tirade.

"What, you here to argue some more?" he billowed in an attempt to look intimidating. "You can't do shit here. Get lost before we boot you out!"

"Sparrow, hold your tongue!" a voice snapped. Everyone looked toward the balcony that overlooked the dining area to see a woman with dark hair and glasses glaring down at all of us. "That is no way to treat your new guildmates, especially those admitted 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 headed toward us.

"Everyone, I'm sure you've heard of Ketsuna and Vixia Wynstar. Today is their first day as a part of the Ironscale Slayers. I expect you all to be on your best behavior."

"Yes, ma'am!" some guild members shouted but most began to grumble and complain amongst their groups. The woman finally made it over to us and I realized that she was wearing some sort of royal uniform rather than armor or adventuring gear. There was a metal emblem in the shape of a shield pinned to the left side of her chest, right over her heart. I was looking at the dragon's head imprinted on it when she started talking to us.

"Hello there," she began. "I'm Nesryn, the guild master of the Ironscale Slayers. Pleased to meet you."

"We're pleased to meet you, too," I lied, bowing my head slightly. Vixia did the same, but she stayed silent.

"I've heard a lot about you from her majesty." A grin crossed Nesryn's face. "You two should be quite useful in our effort to eradicate the dragons."

"I hope so," Vixia replied quietly, looking down at the floor. Nesryn's grin turned into a warm smile.

"Here, I'll show you to your room. After all, you two should spend the first day trying to get settled. 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. She began to retrieve the jars of supplies from her bag and stacked them beside it. Thankfully, she packed only the bare essentials for her worship because the room was already cramped. A large bed stood in the middle of the room, taking up a large portion of space even though the headboard was pushed up 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 didn't bring much.

I looked over again to see that Vixia had already set up an offering on her makeshift altar. It burned slowly in a small porcelain dish while she traced a circle around her with her finger. She sat in the center of it and it began to glow faintly. She sat with her legs crossed on the floor and bowed her head, closing her eyes. I watched quietly, noticing the peaceful expression on her face and how her ears perked up as she listened to her patron goddess. Her long, silver hair draped over her shoulders and down her back and her tail was 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 as I turned to open it, the knocking not ceasing until I did. When the door was finally open, I found Sparrow standing there with his two other party mates. His hands were on his hips, just like when we first met. I stepped out into the hall and quietly closed the door behind me, trying to avoid disturbing Vixia.

"You have some nerve, requesting to join this guild," he began. "Especially directly to the queen." The other two 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 closer, trying to loom over me. Unfortunately for him, it took much more than that to intimidate me, so I stood my ground and glared 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 written on her face. Sparrow, once again, stepped away from me. "They were admitted by the queen because she requested Ketsuna and Vixia personally. Her majesty recognized their efforts and wanted them to join, not the other way around. Maybe you would get that same recognition if you pulled your weight around here."

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. He opened his mouth but didn't say anything.

"You should 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 party remained silent for a moment, staring at me. Again, I glared back. Eventually, Sparrow let out a scoff and started to walk away. The two others followed and Nesryn turned back to me after they left.

"I'm sorry about all of that. Sparrow will be written up for all of this."

"It's all right. Not your fault that you have some hot-headed guild members." She smiled and let out a chuckle.

"Please try to get some rest. I'll give you guys your first assignment tomorrow."

"I will, thank you," I replied with a nod and turned back to the door. When I opened it, I found Vixia preparing a ward for our door.