Princess Meredith only had one more challenge before she could truly claim the kingdom. She had to evade the giantest of the dragons and collect the treasure, and then she would give it back to her parents and they would be so wealthy they would be crowned the rightful king and queen and wouldn’t have to work anymore; they would just pay somebody else to do all the governing. Meredith had heard about servants and advisors and other people who did the king and queen’s work for them so the king and queen could lounge around all day in their massive halls and quarters. Meredith wasn’t quite accustomed to saying “halls” and “quarters”—she preferred the terms “kitchens” and “dining rooms”—but she didn’t exactly have the authority to correct her older brother Prince Hawthorne when he told her what queens and kings called things because she couldn’t read. Prince Hawthorne could read very well. Meredith was too busy fighting dragons.
Around her, small creatures buzzed, scurrying either to the warmth of the dragon’s lair or away from its fire. The lair was a relatively safe place for little animals to stay because it had, obviously, the warmth, and the remains of the dragon’s food, which was plentiful for tiny stomachs, and you could look at all the rows of treasure. The animals knew better then to take the treasure, or eat too much, or get too close to the dragon, because then they would be executed. Hawthorne knew what that meant, too.
Two robins chirped next to Meredith’s left foot. The ground was dry and dusty—no grass could grow so close to the heat—but wily evergreens covered the dirt in a mosaic of shade and sun. Meredith leaned down to the robins. Sometimes she fancied she could talk to them.
“We’re very, very sad,” the robins cried. Robins spoke simply because, like Meredith, they couldn’t read, but unlike Meredith they had no Hawthorne to read to them.
“Why are you sad?” Meredith knelt down so her brown head was aligned with the robins’ red.
“The dragon told us we can’t have any treasure!” they wept. “Can’t and never will!”
Of course they couldn’t and never would. That was the whole point of the treasure. Everybody else had to stand gaping at it like an exhibit in a museum while only a true princess could access it and distribute the riches as she wished. Meredith believed she was a true princess. She didn't entirely know what made a true princess but conquering the dragon had to account for something.
Meredith crept past the slumbering bears and sweet bees, making sure not to disturb their natural environment. The dragon’s lair loomed ahead, a cavernous menace. Inside she could make out the dragon’s beady, amber eyes, searing through Meredith’s brain and into the rosebud of her soul. Hawthorne once saw the dragon while playing with some wayward pirates and claimed that the dragon’s eyes turn your heart to stone. Meredith didn’t think so. Eyes couldn’t do that. She refused to believe that eyes could do that. She figured that the pirates already had stone in their heart and the eyes just brought it out. Meredith solidified her philosophy: the dragon’s eyes bring out what’s already in you, so she didn’t have anything to worry about because true princesses only have good in their hearts.
Meredith approached the lair’s mouth: wide-open, the dragon daring her to enter, and she complied. Inside were rows and tunnels of stone and mica, glittering like fairies at some angles but blinking like flickering candles held high above by an unknown observer. Meredith ducked from shadow to shadow—because a true princess was stealthy—and even barrel-rolled right up to the dragon’s lumpy, clunking back. She reached out on finger, touched it; her nail stained upon contact with the grimy, oily metal.
That ruined it! Meredith kicked herself. It was no small feat transforming the dismal, anxiously-twitching factory into a magical woodland but it was possible! But once the cold metal jolted her to reality there was no going back. The spools were no longer ominously-bared teeth and the puffing radiators no longer smoky, fiery breaths. The dragon wasn’t a dragon but a threading machine and Meredith wasn’t there to defeat it, she was there to work it so that she could be paid and bring home the money to her parents so they could afford a half an apartment in the wintertime.
“Mary!” the bear grumbled—he called all his employees Mary even if their names held no resemblance to Mary, resulting in many Mary-Graces and Mary-Catherines and Mary-Annes and even a Mary-Ludovica, from Italy—and rolled off of his chair, drowsy and a cigarette dangling haphazardly from his meaty mouth. “Mary, get to work!”
Meredith nodded and ducked her head, her fingers deftly threading thread into some holes and extracting it from others. She tried pretending that the true princess was unlocking the dragon’s bank, prepared to sneak in and take it all for herself, but the effect was ruined by the many other girls doing the same. There could only be one true princess. That was how all of Hawthorne’s stories went, sometimes with duels. Too many true princesses would mean that none were actually true and that defeated the point of having a true princess!
Besides, a true princess wasn’t supposed to push anybody else down, yet all the girls, though trying to appear friendly, knew the other was her greatest rival. They were in a tactical fight for the treasure and the dragon liked that. It held the treasure up and gave them a new task to climb. The tasks were fun, at first, then boring, then painful, then leaving them with bloody fingers and tired eyes and sore feet.
Meredith shook her head, pushing wispy strands of hair out of her vision. If only she were Hawthorne. Hawthorne got to be a newspaper-boy. He got to be one because he was older and because he was a boy—though Meredith saw some girls who just pretended to be boys and nobody seemed to care—and instead of standing next to the foggy window, clogged up with gas too pungent to seep through the drafty cracks, he got to run around to all sorts of exciting places. He told Meredith that New York City was very large and had oceans and beaches and mountains and everything, and even better it had people who taught him how to read and how to write and how to draw and how to do math. He started teaching Meredith but all that she could comprehend was the large print at the top of the extra papers Hawthorne brought home for burning in the fireplace: November 5th, 1901. November 9th, 1901. November 17th, 1901.
A true princess knew lots more than the date. That’s why they had libraries filled with books. Pirates didn’t have books: they had treasure ships and cake. Meredith decided that would be a better option. She would pretend to be a pirate so that she could join the newspaper-boys and run around on many fine adventures. That seemed like a grander situation.
Meredith wiped her chapped fingers on her apron, leaving brown-maroon smudges. True princesses didn’t get dirty, Hawthorne insisted. Being a true princess was such a bore.