Twelve years ago:
“Do be careful with your blade, Kristobella.”
Kristobella, for herself, kept swinging the sword. Barely more than a dagger, really—a weapon for a child. But I’m not any child. I am princess of the Verakan House, and sir Jeroff says I’m better with a sword than anyone else at my age! The compliment from the master-at-arms still made her smile, especially since Jeroff rarely handed out any compliments at all. He was usually correcting her technique and pointing out her mistakes.
But she never made the same mistake twice. Never needed the same correction more than once. Maybe that was why the master-at-arms had been impressed.
“I only hit what I want to hit,” she replied with a cocky grin.
“And for that I am thankful. Now, do you want to work on our music?” asked Falmonila.
Kristobella loved her (slightly) older sister dearly. She truly did. But she did not understand her. Falmonila didn’t practice with swords, didn’t get excited watching the armies parading, didn’t take joy in running and wrestling and being tougher than the other children in the castle. Instead, she cared about the oddest things: Pretty dresses, floral arrangements, courtly manners, courtly music, and planning the perfect wedding to the perfect charming knight a decade or two from now.
Ah well. She supposed it didn’t matter. Let Falmonila be the perfect princess and queen. Kristobella would be the realm’s greatest knight!
Two years ago:
“...and that, in summary, is why the council must ban the vile practice of enslaving the denizens of the Western Archipelago,” said the Marquess of Randolin. “The Word tells us to treat our brothers and sisters with compassion and respect, and our treatment of the natives utterly fails to follow the Word, making animals of us.”
Falmonila stared with a practiced expression of boredom. As if the Marquess cared about the religious arguments. She cared that the new colonies being established in the archipelago, with their rich gold mines, would make the royal family’s mints at long last independent of the Randolin mines. If the enslavement of natives was prohibited, then the establishment of the colonies would become more expensive than the royal family could afford.
And Falmonila would not allow such a chance to pass. Not when her family might at long last secure an absolute rule over the kingdom that did not depend on any other House’s goodwill.
“While I can only applaud with great respect the devout qualities of the esteemed marquess,” she said, “the Word is on our side. Does the word not say, that all actions are justified so long as they bring more under the Word? The conversion of slaves is far, far easier than the conversion of free men. Why, much as they may suffer working for the glory of the kingdom, in the end, we are doing them a favor!”
She went on with her little speech. Not that it really mattered. The individual members of the council had already reached their decision.
That was why the marquess wasn’t too worried. She could count the votes. She knew that of the nine council members, one would vote with her out of moral outrage, one out of loyalty to the marquess, and three because they wanted to limit the power of the royal house.
And so the council voted.
And five voted to continue the policy of slavery.
The marquess stared, with shock and betrayal, at the duke of Montivox. He had been her great ally until that point. But...
Falmonila was nothing if not charming. They didn’t call her “the perfect princess” without cause. She had been diplomatic. She had been pleasant. She had been seductive, suggesting without promising. Encouraging the duke to think of what might be, and to then think it would be.
She had not outright promised to marry him. She hadn’t needed to. Though... she supposed, if it came down to it, it would not be her worst option.
The marquess, however, seemed unable to concede defeat gracefully. “You! You vile woman! I do not know by what trickery you have so bewitched the council, but I promise you, you have not—”
And then Kristobella slapped her. With her hand still inside the steel gauntlet.
“I have not given you permission to insult my sister.”
Falmonila smiled. As always, her younger sister had perfect timing.
Of course, things escalated from there. The marquess was livid. Kristobella wouldn’t give an inch. And Falmonila knew exactly how to egg them on. Before the evening was over, sir Gaigom—the champion of the marquess—was having a duel of honor with Kristobella.
Falmonila watched as, predictably, Kristobella’s sword beheaded the older knight. Her sister might lack her skill for courtly intrigue, but she was nothing short of a prodigy with weapons. And the added humiliation and loss of an ally would further defang the marquess.
Not that long ago:
Onward, onward, Kristobella rode.
She’d fantasized about dragon-slaying in her childhood, of course. What would-be knight did not? The fact that dragons rarely approached human lands nowadays had done nothing to dampen that fantasy.
But that apparently had not stopped one spectacularly brazen dragon from swooping down from the sky and abducting her sister while the princess was traveling to the summer palace. Miraculously, there had been no casualties.
Onward, onward, Kristobella rode.
The peasants she’d encountered on her way, to her growing concern, had been far less fortunate. While it didn’t matter much if a few villages had been burned to a crisp by the flying wyrm, it made her increasingly worried for her sister.
This was the fourth burned-down village on the way. She asked the survivors a few quick questions, and rode in the direction they had told her the dragon, princess clutched in its claws and still screaming for help, had flown.
Onward, onward, Kristobella rode.
And behind her, the uninhabited meadow remained, covered by lush, unburnt vegetation, without a human being for miles.
Falmonila had attempted conversation with the servants of her captor. Why a dragon would have so many attractive serving girls, she did not know and feared to guess. Even so, she had hoped that by talking to them, she might gather information, obtain allies, maybe manipulate someone into letting her escape.
No luck. While the serving girls had all been polite and smiled at her, none really engaged in conversation.
She didn’t remember much of the abduction. One moment, she’d stared out of the carriage to see the massive dragon swooping in. The next moment, she’d been in the... surprisingly luxurious cave. She supposed she must have fainted.
And now, here she was. At a dinner table. Apparently waiting for the...
The cave rumbled. She heard footsteps.
The rumbles got closer... yet simultaneously weaker.
And then a woman came in. She was not dressed like a servant. Nor was she fully human, from the looks of it.
“Lady Xerpentis!” the serving girls cooed adorably, helping the strange woman as she sat at the table.
“Forgive me for making you wait,” said Lady Xerpentis, since apparently that was her name. “A pleasure to meet you, princess Falmonila.”
She gave her most winning smile. “No apologies needed, Lady Xerpentis. Have I the honor of addressing the glorious wyrm that rules this underground palace?”
“Just a bit of a summer home. But, yes.”
“I had not been aware that dragons could take different shapes. Most fascinating!”
“Not all can. I am, in many respects, far above the norm.”
So they talked. And Falmonila made sure to be her most charming self. To make the monster lower its (her) guard. To see her as a well-behaved guest who had no intention of ever leaving. Soon enough, she was regaling Xerpentis with tales and anecdotes of her life, telling her abut her sister, about...
“...and then, sister dearest wrestled him to the ground until he apologized and forced him to play along with my cake party,” she said, eliciting polite giggles from her captor.
...Huh. All her life, she had pursued the more traditionally feminine fields, and allowed her sister to focus on the more uncouth, combative ones. Yet now, imprisoned by a dragon and unable to fight, she was suddenly seeing the appeal of swords, armor, and physical might. Had she been a tomboy like her sister, she could have fought the dragon... which, for once, seemed more dignified than all the courtly manners she had taken such pride in mastering. Her usual feminine pursuits felt... meaningless now. Never before could she have predicted she would envy her sister.
Still, she had to keep going. She kept telling the dragon stories. Yet the more she told them, the more dissatisfied she felt with her role in all those stories. She taken pride in being the perfect princess, yet now... now it all felt empty. Meaningless. Why did she have to seduce the duke, instead of gloriously dueling the marquess’s champion?! Why did she have to wear such utterly ludicrous dresses, while her sister trained in glorious weaponry?!
She found herself stopping mid-sentence, overwhelmed by self-loathing. THIS WASN’T HER! She didn’t care for fancy balls, romantic songs, intrigue and other such nonsense. She was a WARRIOR! She should have been out there, training her body, mastering the blade, becoming a badass like her sister!
She couldn’t even bring herself to care anymore that she was imprisoned by the dragon. She just stared at her dainty hands, disgusted.
Lady Xerpentis stared at her. “Forgive me, princess, but... I get the impression that you are not entirely satisfied with your life. Frankly... it sounds to me like your sister’s life is the one you truly wish for.”
She blinked. Had she been that transparent? No-one, least of all her, had ever suspected her of being a tomboy underneath the feminine exterior.
The dragonness grinned. “Well. Perhaps something can be arranged...”
Onward, onward, Kristobella rode.
Until she reached the cave’s entrance. The rock formation even made the cave look like a dragon, just like the survivors of the nearest burned village had described (she briefly wondered how such a striking geological feature had never been mentioned to her before).
Sword in hand, she crept inside the cave. Reaching, of all things, a door.
Crossing the entrance, she came face-to-helmet with someone wearing heavy armor. She raised her blade. “Who are you, and what are you doing here?!”
“I am the dragon’s knight. I serve the dragon faithfully.” The voice was female. Almost familiar, but the reverberation from the helmet made it harder to be certain.
“Then step aside! You serve a monster. A monster who has abducted my sister, princess Falmonila, heir to the crown of the kingdom!”
“I will not prevent you from entering. My liege has been expecting you. No harm is to befall you before you have spoken.”
Curious. Many tales described dragons as intelligent and capable of speech, but even so... hiring a knight? Preparing... whatever this was? She wasn’t sure what to make of it.
Cautiously, not dropping her guard for an instant, she followed the other knight as she led her through the underground complex. The well-staffed, wealth-laden underground complex. Servant girls, a gigantic pile of gold and jewels... She had so many questions.
And then her heart broke.
The dragon, staring at her, was gigantic. The idea that she could possibly defeat such a powerful creature in battle was utterly laughable—like an ant picking a fight with a bull. She could not save her sister by battling the dragon. She had been a fool for ever thinking otherwise.
Brute strength would not win the day here. But—her mind raced—perhaps guile and charm just might.
“Greetings, young lady,” the dragon’s voice roared. “Or should I call you knight?”
Kristobella was normally proud of her armor, but at the moment, she was crushingly aware of how ridiculous it was. “...Ah, no, no. M-mighty dragon, I, I come to you not as a knight, but as a princess. As the sister of princess Falmonila.”
“You are dressed like a knight.”
“An... oversight, I assure you.” Word damn it, why didn’t she have a reasonable set of clothes with her?! Like a dress?!
“Then perhaps you should correct your oversight. My servant girls will assist you.“
“...Thank you, mighty dragon.”
The servant girls brought her to a wardrobe full of clothes. And after all those years of looking down on frilly dresses, it was only now, pressed by circumstances, that Kristobella found herself truly appreciating them. The artistry that went into each design. The elegance. The beauty. Wearing such a pretty dress made her feel like a woman in an way too satisfying to be put into words.
The dragon’s knight complimented her on her new look, which filled her with indescribable pride, and then led her to a dining table... at which a woman who was clearly not fully human was seated.
“...Please forgive my manners,” she found herself saying, “but I do not believe we’ve been introduced?”
“How gauche of me. I am Lady Xerpentis, dragon owner of this domain.”
...The dragon had taken humanoid form. It occurred to her, briefly, that this might be her best opportunity to slay the monster. She did not have her sword, but, perhaps by grabbing one of the sharper knives...
...She found herself repelled by the idea. Physical violence... It was uncouth. It was what the old her would have done. The new her had proper appreciation for the traditional feminity expected of a princess. And a princess would solve her problems via charm and diplomacy, not by personally dispensing violence.
And so, she and Lady Xerpentis spoke for hours. The dragoness seemed particularly interested in hearing stories from her life with her sister. The more she talked about them, the more she realized how she had wasted so much of her life with crude, tomboyish pursuits when her sister’s interests had been the truly worthwhile ones. If she survived this cave, she swore to never hold a sword again! Oh, how she now longed for those fancy balls she had shunned before! Now, even gazing at the muscles on her arms was filling her with self-loathing—reminding her how she had wasted so many years being a disgusting tomboy.
“If you’ll forgive me,” said Lady Xerpentis, “It seems to me that your sister’s life is the one you truly wish for.”
She didn’t know why the knight beside her chuckled at that, but she nodded. “I... suppose this is true, Lady Xerpentis.”
The dragonness grinned. “Then perhaps you two should swap.”
At that, the knight removed her helmet, revealing...
“Indeed, dear sister.”
“I... I thought you were imprisoned here! And, and why are you wearing armor? No, how are you wearing armor?! This, this should be too heavy for you to walk in!“
“Her muscles will grow in time, and I provide a minor push to assist till then,” said Lady Xerpentis. “But for now, princess Kristobella... Feel my caress upon your soul.”
In the following second, the confused princess knew nothing but love and devotion.
“...and that’s the story behind these two.” Xerpentis gazed fondly at the former tomboyish knight, who, now wearing the frilliest dress she could find, was adoringly waiting on her hand and foot; at the formerly prim and proper princess who had now turned into a tomboyish bodyguard, honing her body into a weapon in service to her beloved Mistress.
“A lovely tale,” Miss Meme smiled; as she had learned by now, bringing some slaves with you to the teachers’ lounge was considered a rather typical conversation starter at Mind Control University. “Though, if you’ll forgive my prying... what, precisely, was your motivation in all this.”
“Hm. Well, part of it was politics. Their kingdom had steel plate armor and longbows while most of their neighbors were still lagging behind in weapon technology, but the same kingdom was lagging behind culturally. It was positioned to set human progress back by centuries while building a massive colonial empire on blood and tears. I also know, from experience, that when slavery-based colonial empires form, they quickly institute a legacy of racism and bigotry to justify themselves. I considered it beneficial to nip the entire thing in the bud. The succession crisis will tear the kingdom apart—the noble Houses know all too well that the royals were trying to establish an absolutist regime, and they will seek to decentralize, maybe even break away from the realm completely. They will remain a backward nation, instead of a continent-spanning empire.”
“Ruthless,” said Miss Meme. “Could you not have achieved the same result in other, less bloody ways? I understand you took over an entire planet once.”
“Yes,” said the psionics teacher, “in the whole minute it took to make literally the entire population worship me. It was fun for the first day. After that, I quickly realized I hated ruling over empires.” The dragoness stretched. “I make no claim of being a selfless agent, Miss Meme. I was trying to do some good, yes, but I was also experimenting with accomplishing that good with minimal effort, while having some fun.”
“Quite all right, my dear. I am not judging, merely trying to understand.”
“Apologies if I was a bit defensive. Considering some of our colleagues...”
“I assure you, you need not remind me.” Miss Meme sipped her tea. “Speaking of, what are your thoughts about the current situation of class 96?”
“What’s there to say? Emerald is a bitch of epic proportions, Tianshang is a pain, Norton has the sense of humor of your typical slab of basalt, and I suppose Yefeyfiya is all right.”
“I was thinking more of the students.”
“Daystar is infuriating, Velena is trillions of deaths waiting to happen, Connie tests my commitment not to rewrite students’ personalities, Taylor is one of my best students, Daphne keeps exceeding expectations, and Kate is a cutie-pie.”
Miss Meme chuckled. “Yes, I suppose she is. Makes it rather hard not to indulge at times.”
“Tell me about it.”