Stormy Jane grew up with an unusual exposure to fearsome things. Her father was a blacksmith whose fiery furnace belched flames and smoke all day. The sound of clanging metal was her constant companion. At night, the raging storms over the lake soothed her to sleep. Thunder was her lullaby, and lightning was her security lamp.
And, of course, there was her sole playmate—the serpent of the lake. (Not a sea serpent. Salt dries her scales.) She was ninety feet long and had sharp fins the size of courtly banners. Her mouth could hold a small platoon of full-grown men, and in fact, Jane often rode upon her lower teeth, grasping her fangs for balance while they whirled around the lake at great speeds. The serpent taught Jane to dive and swim and chew rocks. She taught Jane to shriek and leap and shimmy between the raindrops. Jane tried very hard to teach the lake serpent to floss and use sugar-free mints, but lake serpents don’t put much stock in oral hygiene.
Despite her friend’s terribly bad breath, only one thing really made Stormy Jane unhappy. She longed for a horse. She had seen knights riding out to her father’s workshop to commission great works of steel and silver. She admired the armor and the flashing swords her father made for them, but mostly she wished she could have a horse of her very own. Alas, she was only a blacksmith’s daughter living in a kingdom where only royalty could own a steed.
“Why in water would you want one of those scrawny little things?” asked the serpent. “You can ride with me any time you want.”
Jane, careful not to offend her best friend, replied, “I suppose for those days when I wish to be a little less wet.”
The serpent harrumphed. She had been growing more irritable of late. “When are you ever not wet? It hasn’t stopped raining over this lake in twenty-seven years.”
Stormy Jane surveyed the sky as it rumbled with thunder. “Yes, well. I’ve heard of something called a sunlight, and I thought I might go exploring one day, just, you know, to see if I could find one.”
“Hmm,” conceded the serpent. “That might be interesting. But why the horse? Couldn’t you just walk?”
Jane shrugged. “All the knights I’ve ever met ride horses when they go off on expeditions. I believe that’s the expectation.”
“Have you applied for a horse at the DMV?” asked the serpent.
“The Department of Majestic Vocations? No. I’m not a majesty.”
The serpent clucked her long tongue and winced at something. “I’m pretty sure there are waivers you can get for heroic types born out of the castle.”
Jane considered this. “It’s worth a trip, I suppose.”
“C’mon, there’s a local lake branch. I’ll take you!”
With Jane clutching tightly to her neck, the serpent dove deep into the lake—so deep that Jane became alarmed. She had never been to this particular underwater trench, though they had often darted over it in play. Just when she thought her lungs might implode (or explode—she wasn’t sure which), the serpent slithered into an underwater cavern and then shot upwards, bursting to the surface with a triumphant leap.
Not far away, Stormy Jane saw a tiny, bureaucratic building with beige blinds. She swam ashore, heaved open the door, and entered a stale lobby with hard plastic seats and bad lighting.
“Take a number!” barked a voice from behind a tall counter in front of her.
“Um, actually I just have a quick question—”
“Take a number!”
Jane stood on tip-toe, trying to find the source of the voice. “But… there’s no one else here.”
“DMV procedure. If you want a Majestic Vocation, you take a number.”
Rolling her eyes, Jane looked around the empty lobby for the numbered ticket dispenser. Her shoes squeaked loudly as she sloshed across the tile floor, but something told her no one would be putting up a yellow “Caution” sign any time soon.
She ripped the paper ticket from the dispenser. 364.
“364? Really? Is that like since ever? How many customers could you possibly get down here, anyway?”
She approached the counter, but before she could try another peek, the voice boomed, “Now serving number 311.”
“What? Are you kidding me? There are not 53 people ahead of me!”
A scaly, fish-eyed face loomed up over the counter for the first time and frowned at Jane. “Look, miss. You’re going to have to wait your turn like everyone else. Take a seat.”
“Please try not to drip on the floor.”
“The office is at the bottom of a lake!”
“Take a seat!”
Stormy Jane folded her arms and slouched to the floor on the spot. She spent the next fifteen minutes squeezing the excess water out of her hair before the fish face spoke again. “Number 325.”
No one had yet entered the room, but at least the line was moving faster than she had anticipated. At this rate, she’d be out in an hour.
Forty-seven minutes later, the dripping puddle on the floor had tortured her long enough and she had to get up to go to the bathroom. It was out of toilet paper, but the air dryer worked exceptionally well. With a little of the old soap acting as mousse, she was able to style her hair quite fashionably before strolling back out into the lobby and slipping flat on her back in the wet trail she had left behind.
“Number 413!” called the worker.
“What?! That’s not possible!” Stormy Jane bounded over to the counter and heaved herself up where she could stare down at the little man behind it. “I’ve been waiting over an hour. There is no way you just went through 50 more people in two minutes!”
“You’ll have to take another number.”
Jane grasped his throat. Placing her paper ticket on his protruding tongue, she dropped him back in his seat. “You take a number!”
He sputtered angrily, but removed the ticket and sneered at it. The ink had gone all blurry. “Oh look. 413. You’re next. Have you filled out all the necessary paperwork?”
Jane’s coiffed hair wilted. “What?! What paperwork?”
“Aren’t you applying for a Majestic Vocation?”
“Well, I came to find out if I even can. I’m not a princess or anything, but all I want is a horse, not a castle or anything.”
“In that case, you’ll need the EFP 25 form with a completed DIDRV.”
“Look, little man. I don’t speak Acronym. I just want a horse. You know, to go for a ride to some new places. Maybe find a sunlight or two?”
For a moment the man’s fish-eyes glazed over. “A sunlight? I saw one of those once…” Then he slipped a clipboard onto the counter. “Fill these out and return them no later than the 24th of the month. Have a nice day.”
Before Jane could object, he placed a placard on the counter and walked away. Out to lunch. Come back tomorrow.
Jane stared at the forms. “How am I supposed to get these home dry in order to fill them out when the office is in an underwater cavern?!” she shouted after the man.
Jane trudged drearily out the door and plodded back across the parking lot.
“So, how’d it go?” asked the serpent. “Took you long enough. Your hair looks nice like that. Dry. Different, but it works on you.”
“Don’t start with me.” Jane explained the form predicament and concluded that riding a horse was more trouble than it was worth.
“Oh, there now,” said the serpent. “You can store the papers in my mouth. Slide them between my teeth so they don’t touch my tongue, and I’ll keep my mouth shut while we swim home. Deal?”
“You’re the best.”
“That’s why we’re BFFs,” agreed the serpent.
Back on the shore near her home, Stormy Jane retrieved her paperwork. “Y’know, you really need to floss, girl. This clipboard isn’t the biggest thing stuck between your teeth.”
“Yeah, yeah. Nag, nag. Go inside and read where it’s dry and let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.”
Jane waved good-bye and ran through the rain to her home while the lake serpent moaned and groaned about something Jane couldn’t quite hear.
The next day, Jane arrived early enough at the DMV so that her wait was only an hour and a half. She slapped the clipboard down triumphantly. “There. The EFP 25—Exception for Peasants under 25 is all filled out. I’ve got my supplies gathered as per the instructions on page 13. By the way, what’s with the ‘hunk of cheese and half loaf of day-old bread’ bit? We have a gourmet kitchen. Is there a law against packing some dried cranberry trail mix or a—”
“DMV procedure, miss. Do you have the DIDRV filled out?”
“Ah. Yeah. About that. Damsel in Distress Rescue Verification. Okay, so I’m thinking that’s a little weird given that I am kind of in the damsel category myself.”
The fish-eyed man failed to blink. “Yes, I suppose you are.”
“So…” Jane gesticulated to show the giant wheels of logic that should be turning in his head. “Could we switch that requirement out to a dude in distress or something?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Could I rescue a boy?”
The man’s non-existent eyebrows shot up. “Now there’s an idea! Let me check.” He tapped at his keyboard and frowned for several minutes. “Nope. Sorry. The fine print does specify that all MVs must be granted only to EFPs who save a person of the female—and unattached, as in single—persuasion.”
Jane pouted. “That does seem a bit outdated, doesn’t it?”
“I wasn’t working here when they wrote it.”
“Can’t you change it?”
“No, sorry. You’re going to have to find a female damsel type in distress and fix the situation. If she can give you some kind of token of her gratitude or proof of your rescuing venture, you bring that back and voila, you can get your horse permit.”
“Does that come with a horse?”
“If that’s what you really want.”
“Not very ambitious, are you? Most knights want the horse in order to go on a quest to win a princess and a new kingdom.”
“I don’t need a princess. I need a horse.”
“You could probably be granted an honorary princess-ship.” He started to write something on her form, but Stormy Jane snatched it away.
“Just the horse.”
“I’ll still need the completed DIDRV.”
Jane banged her forehead on the counter three times. “Where am I supposed to find a damsel in distress?” Her jaw hurt from clenching it so tightly.
“Most of the knights say riding out to the eastern kingdoms is usually—”
“If I had something to ride, I wouldn’t be here in the first place!”
“I’m sorry, miss. DMV procedure is—”
Jane’s frustrated scream echoed through the lobby.
The serpent’s scream echoed across the lake.
“Wow, what is your problem today?” asked Jane.
“My whole mouth hurts. Are you sure you didn’t leave another clipboard, or maybe a stapler in there?”
Jane climbed into the serpent’s mouth and studied the teeth. “Your gums are pretty puffy. I told you to—”
Jane poked the inside of the serpent’s cheek. “That was totally uncalled for. I’m trying to help. Quit being such a baby. Now let me get some rope and I’ll get all this junk out from your mouth.”
For the next two hours, Jane did battle with the lake serpent’s gingivitis inflamed gums, picking and prying out fish bones, anchors, and abandoned paddleboat parts. And all through it, the serpent rasped and screeched, howled and writhed her neck in a flailing tantrum. Jane held on to a bicuspid and worked to alleviate her friend’s oral discomfort.
Jane and the serpent stopped, confused, and looked around the rainy shoreline.
“Did you hear a man’s voice?” asked Jane.
The voice came again. “Young damsel! Are you in distress?”
“I hink ere’s a guy o’er ’ere,” said the serpent, trying hard not to squish Jane in her mouth.
“Oh, yes. Over there.”
“Fair damsel! Are you in distress?” called the man a little too eagerly.
“Um, no?” She studied him. “He must be a knight,” she mumbled. “Very handsome. Nice horse.”
“Is that foul serpent trying to eat you?” he called.
“Nope, she’s just in a lot of pai—wait a minute!” shouted Jane crossly. “You get your own damsel in distress to rescue!”
“Back off, buddy. This is my damsel in distress! I’m rescuing her!”
“I beg your pardon?”
Jane shook her head and muttered. “He’s not the brightest, is he?”
The serpent tried to respond, but she couldn’t speak clearly with all the things sticking out of her mouth. Jane grabbed onto a fang and swung down so she dangled below the serpent’s maw.
“Wanna run that by me again, friend?”
“Not smart,” said the serpent. “But he’s got a horse. Maybe you two could work something out?”
Jane looked up at her friend and smiled. “You are a genius! Now rinse and spit.” She dove into the water. “I gotta go see a man about a horse.”
Before she could haul herself from the water, the knight trotted up to her (the horse waited further back) and swept Jane into his arms. “Sweet damsel! Let me take you from this dismal place!”
“Um, no thanks. But I’ve got a proposal for you.”
Startled, the knight all but dropped her. “I believe that’s my job.”
“Not a marriage proposal, silly!”
“I hate to sound shallow,” said the knight. “I mean, you’re very beautiful and all, but how big is your father’s kingdom?”
Stormy Jane gave him a look that would have started a thunderstorm if there hadn’t already been one raging. She wriggled free and stood with hands on her hips. “No marriage. I only want one thing.” She pointed. “That horse.”
He smiled benignly. “Of course we shall ride away on the horse and live happily ever after … pending the size of your father’s kingdom.”
“No, no. I shall ride away on the horse. You shall go file my paperwork for me in the DMV that makes it legal for me to own a horse.”
“Wait, you’re not a princess?”
“Nope. Just a dismal damsel. Look, if you need a selfie of you battling a dragon or something fierce, my friend can probably help you out. Just keep it blurry.”
The knight’s eyes shone with relief. “Really? I needed a POHA form!”
Stormy Jane stared at him.
“Proof of Heroic Act. Most of the five-star kingdoms demand that on your resume anymore.”
“Oh. Right. Go for it. Now gimme your horse.”
The knight, though thoroughly bewildered by all he had seen, was more than happy to exchange his horse for Jane’s DIDRV form and a few pictures of him “battling” the lake serpent. So while he swam to the underwater cavern and waited in line for nine hours, Stormy Jane rode away on her new trusty steed in search of a sunlight.
She found one at the top of a nearby hill, once she had cleared the rain clouds. It was nice, but overrated. She ended up letting the horse go free on a grassy meadow and trudged her way home to her father and her best friend.
Three weeks later, she received a package in the mail. She sat with the serpent on the shore while she opened it.
“Oh look,” said the serpent. “An honorary princess crown!”
Stormy Jane smirked. “Wheee.” She stuffed it between the serpent’s molars. “Let’s go for a swim!”
While on a nice, deep dive, they heard a voice call, “Now serving number 622.”