Disclaimer: I do not, unfortunately, own Jane and the Dragon or any of its characters, but I am writing about them anyway. Please don't sue me, because I don't have any money. Well, except maybe about twenty-five dollars, but I'm planning to blow that on makeup later this week.
"Gunther, you utter biscuit weevil! Have you never heard of fighting fair?"
"Perhaps. I think I have heard the term before, mayhap I read it in a book… what does it mean?"
"Do not smirk at me like that! You know exactly what I am talking about!"
It was sparring time in the practice yard. So, as usual, Gunther and I were hurling insults at each other, the sound of wood against wood punctuating every word. And, as usual, Gunther was cheating. Which meant, of course, that he was winning.
All as usual, unfortunately.
"Ha! Eight in a row!" Gunther declared as he knocked me to the ground.
I brushed the dust from my leggings and stood, ignoring the soreness in the leg I had landed on. "Because you cheat!" I said hotly. "Perhaps if you were following the rules, then I could actually beat you —"
"Jane, do not be ridiculous. Do you think, in a battle, that anyone would care who is playing fair?" Gunther snorted, leaning on his practice sword.
I paused at that, glaring him down. "Fine," I spat eventually. "Then I will cheat too, and we shall see who wins." I knew what Sir Theodore would have to say to this idea, the disapproving tilt his eyebrows would take, but was so irritated after spending the entire day with Gunther that I no longer cared.
We raised our wooden swords once more and began circling, little puffs of dust rising each time our feet hit the ground. My eyes were tight on his, and I tried not to be distracted by the idea of whacking him repeatedly in the head with my sword hilt.
"I bet the first real fight you are in, your opponent will knock you down with the first blow," he taunted, gray eyes gleaming almost viciously.
I gritted my teeth. What a satisfying sound sword on skull would be. "Please do not talk."
"Why? Does it distract you? Is it challenging for you to spar and talk at the —"
"No, it is your breath — I can smell it from over here," I snarled. It was a lie, but nevertheless it made Gunther swipe at me in exactly the way I wanted him to. Swinging my sword forward, I rapped his fingers sharply, right at the knuckle. His sword clattered to the dirt, and I placed the wooden tip against his throat, feeling smug.
"Dead," I said triumphantly, eyes boring into his, lowering my sword.
"Congratulations," Gunther snapped. "Unfortunate, however, that in a real battle you would have died eight times before managing to kill me."
"Do not be a sore loser, Gunther," I said darkly, wiping the sticky mixture of sweat and dust off my forehead, eyeing how he rubbed at his right knuckles with perhaps more enjoyment than was honorable. "Knights accept loss with grace." Which was something I needed to work on as well, based on today.
Gunther wiped his mouth and spat, leaning to grab his sword from the dirt, the line of his shoulders tight with irritation. I turned away from him, heading to store my practice sword in the weapons shed, passing Dragon where he lounged on the castle wall.
"How was practice?" he called, opening one fiery orange eye to look down at me.
"Decent," I said, ignoring Gunther's nasty muttering from in front of me, though I could not help a glare at his back. "How was your nap?"
Dragon snorted. "Was? Who says it is over yet?" He closed his eye and shifted to the other side, dangling a wing over the wall.
I rolled my eyes with a smile and shook my head, sticking my sword in the shed next to Gunther's.
"Maybe you should practice more, Jane," Gunther said, his voice now sticky sweet, gesturing to the dummy. "We would not want you to die eight times in real battle, would we? That would be heartbreaking."
I scowled at him, but when he sneered down at me, I removed my sword again and started to the dummy anyway.
"Maybe you should be less of a beef-brain, Gunther, and people would actually like you," I grumbled, smashing my sword into the dummy with a bit more force than the cloth figure really deserved — considering it never had anything rude to say.
"I heard that!" Gunther yelled.
"Good!" I shouted back, striking the dummy as hard as I could, again and again, until I was drenched with sweat and bits of fluff were coming out of the holes I had made.
"Oh, good. Fish. I am starving," I said, pulling the platter towards me and scooping some onto my plate.
"We heard you at the dummy, today, Jane," Jester said, his mouth full of herring.
"Jester, would you please swallow your food before opening your mouth?" Pepper reproved lightly, shivering a little in the autumn breeze as she poured water for everyone.
"Yes, please," I smiled, sticking a huge forkful in my own mouth.
Jester swallowed very exaggeratedly before beginning to speak again. "Anyway, Jane, we heard you attacking that poor dummy. What were you so angry about?"
"Gunther was being aggravating, as always."
"Ah, Gunther," Jester said, as if that in itself were answer enough.
"What did he do?" Smithy asked, picking a tiny bone out of his fish and placing it on his napkin.
I shrugged. "He fights in the dirtiest ways." I paused, another bite of fish on its way to my mouth, remembering that today I had not been so innocent myself either. The fish nearly tasted bitter, but I was sure it was just a pinch of regret.
"Hmm," Smithy answered, more interested in his meal.
We returned to our food, and only when the plates were empty did the conversation resume.
"You should unleash your temper on him more often," Jester said, his hat jingling as he turned to look at me.
My eyes darted to his, thinking for a second that he had seen my somewhat questionable methods today, but his eyebrows were only waggling comically.
"My temper?" I asked carefully as Pepper stacked the plates and whisked them away.
"Do you not know what your red hair means?" he asked, his head tilted to the side, a smile quirking his lips.
I looked up, where a few wisps of orange fluttered at the edge of my vision, before glancing back to Jester. "No?"
"Well…" Jester leapt off the bench and gestured to me with an overdone flourish. "It means your head is on fire, of course."
I snorted, as did Rake and Smithy.
"It is true, fair lady! And, one day," Jester said, leaning in to Rake, Smithy and me and concluding in an elaborate whisper, "you will get so angry and it will get so hot that it explodes."
"Explodes," I echoed skeptically.
"Absolutely. And since Gunther will surely be the one to set it off, he will explode right along with you," Jester finished with a grin, crossing his arms.
"I swear it is true, Jane. Look forward to it."
I snorted again. "Oh yes. Gunther will be gone and I will be without a head."
Jester grimaced a little, plopping down on the bench once more as Pepper brought out pastries for dessert. "Yes, well. Everything has a downside, I am afraid."
I rolled my eyes at his attempt at humor, finishing my pastry in three bites and licking the honey off my fingers. "I think I would rather keep my head and let Gunther live a while longer."
"You must sort your priorities, Jane," Jester said, shaking his head a little sadly.
I shook my head back at him, amused despite myself, before rising from the table with a yawn. "I think I will head up to bed early. Fighting Gunther is such an ordeal."
Trudging up the stairs to my tower, I felt as if someone had placed lead weights in my shoes when my attention was elsewhere — how else could my feet possibly move so slowly? When I reached my door, I barely had the strength to push the heavy slab of wood open. I fell into bed without changing out of my clothes, my eyes instantly closing.
Despite my exhaustion, I had trouble falling asleep — I was thinking about how it was simply not fair that Gunther should be stronger than me just because he was a boy and I was not.