The Red Woman

by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by eluneth

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/270536.html)

illustrated by eluneth

In her ninety-fifth summer, Mayrat af-Qash met the dragon.

She’d been expecting something to happen; ninety-five was an auspicious number, after all, and to make it to one’s ninety-fifth year was an auspicious thing. Of course, most people lacked the heavy preservation of magic saturating their bones, making them look no more than four decades old, but Mayrat hardly considered that cheating. She’d given much of her life to her magic, and thus she thought it only fair it gave back.

She was working in her garden, tending to the grapevines that hung heavy with black summer fruit, when the evening air stirred and she looked over just in time to see a red dragon roughly the size of a large horse land on her roof. Most humans were struck dumb with awe and terror upon seeing a dragon; Mayrat was just irritated. “Get off!” she shouted, sweeping her arms in a great shooing motion. “You fat awful lizard, get off! You’ll cave the thatch in!”

For a moment, the dragon just looked at her, and Mayrat had cause to wonder whether or not all dragons were capable of understanding human speech, or whether they only sent forth as their envoys the ones who did. This one wasn’t very bright, obviously, or it would have settled on the clay path to Mayrat’s front door or the fallow field by the well or literally any other surface that did not include her somewhat fragile and quite flammable roof. “Get off!” she shouted again, and this time she cracked a shower of sparks from her knuckles; sure, she’d burn down her own house in the process, but she’d always been the kind of person who could accept the consequences of her own folly better than she could deal with the fallout from other people’s stupidity, and that went for dragons too.

But the dragon at last huffed and flapped its wings, relocating to the ground near the patio where Mayrat took her evening tea. It was a good thing this dragon was small, she realized; she’d seen paintings of ambassadors as big as cathedrals, whose long necks and terrifying claws gave even her great heart pause. Size notwithstanding, the dragon still wasn’t welcome. “Go away!” she shouted, marching over. She’d been weeding, and thus she found herself brandishing a trowel as though it were a sword without particularly meaning to. “I’ve no goats for you to eat and nothing of particular interest for you to knock down. Also, I’m a very powerful magician, and if you make me cross, I will … be very cross.” Damn it all, she was only wearing a light dress; without her robes or other trappings of office, she looked as imposing as a mother of eight on market day.

“I know who you are,” said the dragon, its voice soft and low as distant thunder. It beat its wings again, but instead of rising into the air, it sat upright in a way Mayrat associated more with begging dogs than with mighty creatures.

“Then you know why you should leave.” Self-conscious about her lack of attire, Mayrat brought her hand to smooth her hair and realized she’d pruned the vines right into her long brown curls. This was doing nothing for her dignity. Faced with a grooming choice, she opted to leave the plants there; perhaps they looked intentional. “Go on, then. Shoo!”

The dragon barked a laugh, and Mayrat could see little tongues of flame flick out from between its sharp teeth. Well, perhaps it would be especially impressed by her skill set. “You’d tell a dragon to shoo?”

“Not much of a dragon, are you?” answered Mayrat, standing now well within range of any attacks. It was easy to be brave, she supposed, knowing she couldn’t burn. “I’ve met camels who probably weighed more than you.”

“Camels?” the dragon scoffed, a low grumble menacing the word. “I could swallow a camel in a single bite.”

“Have to be a rather small camel, wouldn’t it?” Mayrat folded her arms across her chest. “Come on, go. The duke’s fields are a league and a half to the east, and he can afford to lose some goats, unlike the poor bastards around here. Go there for your snack and leave me be.”

The dragon looked as affronted as she supposed a dragon could make its face appear. “Aren’t you even curious as to why I’ve come to you?”

“Not especially,” Mayrat lied. Truly, by this point, she was more than a little curious, but she felt she’d already established herself as hostile and didn’t want to change her position.

With a huff, the dragon fell back down on all fours and peered closely at Mayrat; up this close to its powerful jaws, Mayrat had to admit that perhaps the camel-swallowing threat wasn’t such an idle one. Then, with a disgusted snort, it lifted into the sky and flew off toward the west, chasing the last few strips of daylight. Mayrat watched until it was invisible against the darkening sky, then stayed a little longer to watch the stars twinkle into view.

Well, that had been strange, but it hadn’t been the strangest thing that had happened all week, and for that she supposed she should be grateful. She raked the dead vines from her hair and tossed them on the ground, then went back inside her house (which mercifully seemed to have suffered no damage from its brief tenure as a dragon’s perch) and began to prepare supper. By the time she had finished her wine and bedded down for the night, she’d nearly put the whole encounter out of her mind for good.

~*~

Her next visitors were of the more expected type, and they came during the middle of the day, their faces veiled. She thought this had been a good compromise on the duke’s part; after all, if they were the ones who were going to show up unannounced and at irregular intervals, why should she be the one who spent her whole life covered and waiting for their arrival? She wondered how much of her they could see through that fabric, how heavy they’d had to make it until they could convince themselves the shadow of her they saw wasn’t enough to curse them. A large part of her wanted to rip off the veils and make them stare, but she knew that would only terrify two low-level messengers, when it was the duke she’d curse if she really had that power.

The taller of the two carried only a scroll, though his partner kept one hand on the heavy sword at his waist. Even their horses, left tied to the gate posts, had blinders drawn over their eyes. “Enchantress Mayrat af-Qash,” the taller guard addressed her, using the duke’s preferred title for her as he peeked from under his veil at the paper he held. “His Great Majesty Duke Naq ar-Javan ar-Baresh ar-Dain ar-Hamisar wishes to inquire as to the progress of your work.”

She tried so hard to be polite to the underlings, she really did, but it didn’t come easy. “Tell His Royal Nonsense that when I do find a way to make his impossible dreams come true, he’ll be the first to know.”

The two men shifted uncomfortably, such that she almost felt bad. The speaker cleared his throat. “Enchantr–”

“Oh, don’t tell him verbatim,” Mayrat said, waving her hand with enough force that she could hope he’d see. “Use whatever ridiculous honorifics and however many of his names he’s using these days. But the truth is that making me report on my progress is a distraction from actually making progress. And you can spin that any way you like, but it’ll still be true.”

There was a long silence, and then the speaker lowered the scroll to his side and took a step forward, keeping his eyes veiled all the while but now clearly trying to do his best to meet her eyes. “Enchantress, there’s more to the message.”

“No doubt,” she said. Her coffee was going to go cold before she even got to the first sip. “Well, go on and deliver it; the sooner you do, the sooner you can go.”

She had no doubt he agreed with the wisdom of her statement, but again he hesitated before speaking — and when he did, gone was the tone and pomp of a royal messenger; instead, he spoke like a weary man at the end of his rope. He couldn’t have been more than twenty summers old, judging by the sound of his voice, and likely less even than that. “The duke has made clear his intention to triple his tax tax on the temples and the people of the lands beyond the wadi in an–” He swallowed. “To make up for the money your work is supposed to have brought him, please, Enchantress, spare me, I only speak the message given to me, not to anger you.”

What a monstrous reputation she’d gained, though surely not without cause. “Please,” Mayrat said, and she saw their shoulders relax a hair’s breadth. “I appreciate honesty. Are you hungry?” Both men glanced toward one another and shifted uncomfortably, but gave no reply. She sighed. “Go now, and tell the duke you’ve delivered his awful message, and on your way back, take some dates from the grove at the crossroads.” She pointed back toward the direction from whence they’d come. “The trees are not on my land; they belong to no one. Let the horses drink from the stream there.” They were on her land and she tended to them as she did to all the other crops, but had they known that, their superstition would have overridden their hunger and done no one any good. She’d never poisoned a plant in her life and had no intention of starting now just to punish passers-by.

Without further discussion, they bowed to her and set on their way, and she did not watch them go except out of the corner of her eye, so as not to spook them. It was a terrible thing, being a terrible thing. Once she saw that they had indeed stopped at the grove to refresh themselves and their mounts, she sighed with relief and walked back into her house. That, at least, was one less thing to worry about.

Everything they’d told her, though, was one more. Entire tables and benches in her house were filled with various books and artifacts, and she had her experiments and her research that kept her entertained in her solitude, but never once had she come across anything that might bring gold into being where none had been before.

She had trained as an illusionist, or more accurately had trained herself as an illusionist, peeking in classroom windows and breaking into schoolhouses to read books. Even though the Great City of Kaluma boasted thirteen different great houses of training in the magical arts, few of them would take female pupils, and none would take pupils of any kind who couldn’t pay their way. Mayrat, on the other hand, had been born to beggars who spent their spare coins on food, not on schooling. She knew what it was to be poor, and she knew what it was to be at the mercy of men who would keep their people poor so long as they themselves grew richer. The people in the land where she lived now were both.

The duke was an idiot, but was hardly the first idiot in his line. His great-grandfather had been an idiot as well, and he’d been the one she’d first come to seventy years previous, full of raw power and empty of discipline; dozens of other rich men and rulers had turned down her offers of service, but she’d said ‘illusion’ and his eyes had lit up with the thought of the tricks he’d pull on enemies and friends alike, and that had been the end of her search for employment. He’d always been wary of her, especially when he’d seen the ghostly people and illusory monsters she’d conjured up from thin air, but he’d let her stay in the main manor and had made her something of a social celebrity. Not every minor ruler, after all, had his own witch.

That duke’s eldest son, the current duke’s grandfather, had also been an idiot, but he’d been a superstitious idiot and a lecherous idiot. Mayrat had refused his advances and he’d come down with a fever the same evening, which was all the proof his mind needed that she’d cursed him. She only wished she had, but the damage was done. He was too fearful of her to let her go from his service, though, but he made the city such a hostile place that when he offered her the chance to live on an estate in the country, she agreed without hesitation. He’d taught all three of his sons to fear her, and they in turn had spread that fear throughout the land.

But Duke Naq was not just an idiot, he was a greedy idiot, and those were the worst — like five-year-old babies throwing tantrums in the market because they couldn’t understand why they couldn’t have all the pretty sweets they wanted. Mayrat didn’t think he believed in the curses his father and uncles and grandfather had so deeply dreaded, which made him less of an idiot than his predecessors, but by now everyone else did, and he had nothing to lose by milking their terror. If nothing else, she was acutely aware, it kept the people from enlisting her help in overthrowing him.

She ran her hands along the dozen gold coins spread over her workbench. She could make them seem to multiply forever — could fill her entire house with gold coins that felt and tasted real — only the moment she stopped paying attention to them, they would fade. She could stuff the duke’s coffers to the roof and devote her every thought to their contents, but she would have to sleep sometime, and the instant she drifted off, they’d be as empty as they’d been before. That, she’d explained to him, was the essence of illusion. She made nothing; she only made things appear, for a time, to not be nothing. But when the duke had seen illusive coins drip from her fingertips, he’d become convinced there was a way to make them real, and as with a squalling toddler, there was no way to reason with him.

It wasn’t as though he were poor, even; the duke had more money than he could spend in a lifetime. But he had been infected with a sickness that made him believe the only thing in life better than money was more money. Starve the people, bleed the fields, just so long as the coins kept rolling in.

Standing there in her kitchen, wondering what to do with the mess she’d let grow up around her, Mayrat closed her eyes and wished very not for the first time in her life that illusion weren’t all she could ever hope to accomplish.

~*~

Two weeks passed before the dragon returned, and in that time, Mayrat slept at most a few hours a night, burning every candle she had as she pored through her books, trying to find some solution to the problem set before her. By that point, she almost wished she had a firstborn child to ransom in exchange for the knowledge, but magic had made her barren and her personality had made her unloveable, so there’d never been any chance of that.

She had set fire to a small, sickly tree in frustration and was watching it burn when she heard the flutter of leathery wings behind her. The great gusts sent sparks down toward the healthy trees, and Mayrat raised her hand and closed her fist, extinguishing them all.

“A human who plays with fire,” said the dragon. “I thought someone like that might be brave enough to talk to a beast.”

Exhausted, Mayrat was beyond the point of arguing. “All right, because you did not land on my house this time, I will hear you out. Fair?”

“Fair,” said the dragon, stretching out on its belly and folding one of its front paws over its other. Prone like this, it was little taller than Mayrat herself, and she supposed if she’d had a death wish, she could have climbed up on its back and asked it for a ride. “Though a shade less grateful than I would have expected, seeing who I am and what I’m offering.”

“Then who are you and what are you offering?”

The corner of the dragon’s mouth lifted in what might have been a smirk, though Mayrat knew little about reading human expressions and even less about seeing them performed by dragons. “I can offer you gold.”

“I don’t need gold,” said Mayrat, and on a personal level, at least, it wasn’t a lie.

“All humans need gold.”

“All humans think they need gold. Subtle distinction.”

The dragon huffed out air through its nose, blowing back Mayrat’s long skirts and tangling her messy hair into an even greater fright. “You do need gold though,” it said. “I heard the people in the villages. Your duke needs gold, which means the people he bleeds need gold.”

Perhaps the dragon had her there, but Mayrat wasn’t ready to concede rhetorical defeat just yet. “And where do you suggest we get gold? Which of the neighboring lands would you suggest we invade and slaughter?”

“Oh, you don’t need to kill people,” it said, fixing Mayrat with its ruby eyes. “Only dragons.”

A moment passed, a long beat. The heat finally worked its way to the heart of the burning tree, and the trunk split with a great crack that sent sparks swirling into the still midday air. It would burn itself out with no trouble, and the rest of the orchard would be better off for it. Mayrat hiked her skirt up away from her feet and began walking back toward her house.

The dragon made a noise of confusion. “Where are you going?”

“Away,” Mayrat said without turning back. “I’m mad enough myself; I don’t need to talk to anyone who’s worse.”

“I’m not mad!” The dragon plodded after her, up the hill to her front door, each heavy step sending tremors through the ground.

“Then go to the north and find a knight! Aren’t they always keen to slaughter one great beast or another?” Mayrat had never been farther north than Kaluma and everything she knew of the snowy mountain kingdoms came from folklore and legends, but it seemed to her they always ended with swords and bloodshed. She’d never heard of a knight that had killed a dragon, but there was bound to be one or two somewhere. “I’m not a butcher.”

“And what of that tree?” The dragon’s breath was hot and it licked the backs of Mayrat’s ankles.

“That tree,” said Mayrat, unable to believe she was even having this argument, “was doomed anyway.”

“So is that your metric? You’ll only put things out of their misery?”

“I’ll put you out of my misery,” said Mayrat, aware that ten seconds ago she’d made clear what an empty threat that was. With a heavy sigh, she stopped and turned to face the dragon, hands on her hips, looking as menacing as she could in the dress she’d worn for the last three days straight. Still, with her hair uncombed and her face lined with sleeplessness, she supposed she might look like the curse-dealing hag the people believed her to be. “And what makes you think I’m the one to help you?”

“Because you’re desperate.” The dragon folded its paws again, waiting. “Like me.”

Damn it all to hell, the dragon had her there. With a huff of air to show exactly how much she didn’t like this, Mayrat sat down on the low stone wall that ringed her house. “I will give you until the sun hits the top of the trees,” she said, pointing to where it was only a finger’s width away from the tallest of them.

The dragon sighed in kind, but it didn’t back down from the challenge. “What do you know of dragons?”

“Of dragons? Nothing.” Mayrat pointed toward the point on the horizon where the sun would disappear a few hours from now. “They live in the west, between the desert and the sea. They don’t come out much, and when they do, they tend to eat everything in sight. And apparently at least one of them likes to land on my house.”

Mayrat suspected what she saw next was what happened when a dragon tried to roll its eyes. “We don’t live in the west. We live under the west. The great plains that connect the four cardinal lands — the snows of the north, the rivers of the south, the deserts of the east, and the islands of the west — look flat from above the ground, but beneath are the great caverns where my people live. Have you ever crossed those plains?” When Mayrat shook her head, the dragon continued, “You have to pay, and you can’t stay any longer than you need to get over. If you stop to rest, even to sleep or for bad weather, they’ll start flying overhead in great circles, like vultures.”

She didn’t want to ask, she knew better than to ask, but curiosity being what it was, Mayrat couldn’t help herself. “Why are they in such a hurry to have people off?” she asked, folding her arms across her chest.

“Gold.” The dragon scratched at the ground with its claws, though it disturbed little more than the topsoil. “And gems, some buried no deeper than this. If humans knew….”

“If humans knew, they’d rake the ground as they crossed. So what is it to you?” Mayrat asked.

“The surface, if you’ll pardon the expression, is only the surface.” The dragon’s brow furrowed as it spoke, drawing dark red scales down over those luminous eyes. “You can’t imagine what’s beneath. I grew up in caverns filled with treasures forged by human hands and precious metals still in the walls. The chamber where I was hatched was encrusted with emeralds; the first thing I remember seeing outside my shell were veins of silver as wide as rivers. There’s wealth there beyond counting. And do you know what dragons do with it?”

Mayrat frowned. “Spend it?” she guessed, certain even before she spoke that she’d given the wrong answer.

Nothing.” The dragon’s long tongue flicked out from between its teeth as it spoke. “We sit on it. We hold some of it in common, and that which isn’t held in common, we fight over. We do nothing with the tolls the caravans pay us to cross. Those of us who can swim scour shipwrecks — or worse, cause them, then blame the sea and let the whole thing sink. Bodies scrambling for the surface aren’t nearly as easy to ignore as are corpses.”

The truth was that the whole setup — if it could be believed, Mayrat reminded herself of that — sounded monstrous, or perhaps human was the better word for it. “And what’s your complaint?” she asked. “From what you’ve said, it sounds to me like you’re not the one who’s been wronged.”

The dragon’s lip curled back from its teeth in a sneer. “It’s disgusting. I can’t stand it. The elders talk about the noble dragons and our regal history, while acting like common crooks. We don’t die of old age, you know, but we’re not immortal. Seven moons ago, another dragon ripped out my sire’s throat because my sire had laid claim to a great crystal the other wanted. The others all agreed no justice needed to be served, because if my sire had been the faster one, the other dragon would have been the one slain.”

Mayrat took a long moment to think about that, her arms folded across her body; the shadows from the tall trees were already touching her knees and soon would be to her face, marking the end of her self-imposed time limit. The day was warm, and she wanted nothing more than a cool drink. “Would you excuse me for a moment?”

“Where are you going?” The dragon rose, straightening its spine.

“Inside.” Mayrat pointed to her house. “It’s too hot in the sun.”

“Aren’t you going to invite me in?”

Mayrat looked from the dragon to her front door and back to the dragon again, then once more to the smaller-than-a-dragon front door, just to make sure the connection was clear. “You may come in, though I’m not sure you can.”

At that, the dragon sat back on its hind legs, lifting its forelimbs up to its shoulders. It stood twice as tall as Mayrat when it did that, and Mayrat clenched her fists out of reflex, ready to catch whatever flaming breath might come, just in case the dragon had decided that the only solution to a human-sized entryway was burning the whole place down. She didn’t know how long she could hold off dragonfire, but she was ready to try.

The dragon, however, started to shrink. At first Mayrat thought her exhausted mind might have been playing tricks on her, presenting to her the illusion of their rapidly growing apart. But no, the dragon was actually shrinking, melting as though it were a wax figure left too close to a fire. Its leathery wings sagged and drooped, then fell against its back and merged with the scaly skin. Its long, thick tail retreated into its body from where it had been the great beast’s counterbalance, though it now seemed no longer necessary, as instead of resting on its haunches, it stood on two thick legs. Mayrat watched with undisguised amazement as the dragon’s shape shortened and elongated at once, its muzzle flattening, its teeth receding, its claws softening.

At last, what stood before Mayrat on the path to her front door was a human woman — and a rather young one at that, about the age the village girls were when they started to wed. She was certainly a woman, though, as her bare breasts and her wide hips attested. She was short and had long, straight hair, and every inch of her was the same ruby-red shade the dragon’s scales had been.

The new woman locked her fingers together, raised her arms above her head, and smiled as her spine gave several cracks in quick succession. “That’s better,” she said; her voice was deep still, especially for such a young woman, but not the stormy baritone it had once been. “And now?”

At an utter loss as to any other response, Mayrat opened her front door and gestured for her newly resized guest to lead the way inside.

~*~

“I actually hate goat,” said the dragon-who-was-now-a-woman, as she stuffed another handful of dried figs into her mouth. “It’s stringy and terrible. Gamey. And they’ve got those weird eyes.”

Mayrat sat at the other end of the table with her hands folded atop its wooden surface, trying to quantify just what was taking place in front of her. She’d offered the woman-who-had-been-a-dragon a robe, which she had cheerfully refused, and every dish hospitality had compelled Mayrat bring to the table had been consumed and followed up with requests for seconds and thirds. “Is that so.”

“It is!” answered the dragon, her human mouth full. She took a heavy swallow of the wine Mayrat had poured for her; some of it spilled and made an darker-red trickle as it ran down the corner of her mouth and onto her breast. So she could look human, that was a fine enough trick, but no one sitting down to a meal with her would ever have believed she’d been raised human, even before they got to her odd coloring. “I don’t think anyone really likes goat. Not when there’s sheep.”

“Not many sheep around here,” Mayrat felt compelled to point out.

The dragon shook her head. “No, not here. Up north. That’s where I went first, but it was too cold. It was well enough, because I could cover my face and no one would see–” She gestured to the bright red tint of her skin and hair. She looked for all the world as though she’d dipped herself into a vat of red dye and walked out some uniform crimson shade. Some of the temples in Kaluma painted the statues of their goddesses with food on certain feast days, and the dragon looked like one of those now, stained with cherries or pomegranates. The whites of her eyes were white, and her teeth were a pale ivory, but everything else Mayrat could see about her was the same stunning red. Mayrat felt an urge to reach over and touch her, to see if the color might rub off her skin, but refrained. “I started sneaking out at carnival time in the nearest town, when everyone was painted. I’d wait until things got underway and emerge, and no one looked twice.”

“Wait–” said Mayrat, but it was too late; the dragon had already thrown a handful of pistachios, still tucked snugly in their shells, into her mouth. The dragon bit down and chewed as though nothing were amiss, though, and Mayrat supposed she could let that go without further comment.

After swallowing, the dragon let out a belch and grinned. She sprawled back in her chair, her legs spread wide, to the point where it was a work of conscious effort for Mayrat not to look down at the thick thatch of red hair at the juncture of her legs and the soft folds shadowed just beneath. “My sire was the most skilled, though. He could change his form into a man’s so that even other dragons couldn’t tell the difference. It was how he acquired many of the more precious items in his possession.”

“Can all of you…?”

The dragon shook her head. “No. Just like not all of us can fly, or swim, or eat stone. We’re quite diverse.”

Mayrat had never expected in her life she’d be learning this much about dragons, nor all at once. “And you want me to help you kill them?”

The dragon let out a sigh that pushed some of her long, limp hair from her face. “Maybe I exaggerated a little.”

“Exaggerated.” Mayrat started to refill her own glass from the wineskin, then was reminded that she had company and that a good host would fill their guest’s first. Well, she supposed she’d have to content herself with being a mediocre host; she filled her own glass to the brim, then poured the remnants, dregs and all, into the dragon’s. She didn’t imagine the palate that had taken whole pistachios indiscriminately would notice the difference. “A little.”

“It’s all too much,” the dragon said. “We’re no longer noble. We’ve become ridiculous. We’re parodies of ourselves at this point, sitting on top of gold eggs that’ll never hatch, hissing at anyone who comes too close because we’re afraid they’ll take the things we never even use. It’s awful to see things like that, and worse to know that if I stay, I won’t end up any different. Another few hundred years of it and I might have slit my sire’s throat for a pretty stone.” She raked her fingers through her long hair, and its weight held it back from her face for a moment, giving her a sleek, streamlined profile; for all the difference between her two forms, Mayrat could see they weren’t wholly disconnected.

The birds beyond the window started to sing their dusk-song, and Mayrat drew a shawl around her bare shoulders, mindful of the chill the night air would bring. “I’m hardly an etiquette teacher.”

That made the dragon laugh so hard that smoke came out her nose. “No,” she said at last, “that much I know. And if you tried a lesson, the closest one would just eat you.”

“Well.” Mayrat folded her hands in her lap. “That’s reassuring.”

The dragon arched one crimson eyebrow. “You don’t think I’d have come all this way without a plan, do you?”

By the time they finished speaking, the birds had all flown back to their nests for the night and the half-moon was peeking over the eastern horizon. They’d had arguments over certain matters, of course, and Mayrat had voiced all the practical objections she could think of, some of which involved some revision, but most of which the dragon had already considered. And at last, lit by candlelight, Mayrat agreed.

She took the excuse of having left something on her porch to step out for a moment. Alone in the darkness, she took several deep breaths and let them out in slow succession, a funeral march of air. It was madness, of course, and no small part of her knew exactly how foolish it was. In a better world, she wouldn’t have agreed; if she had been a better person, she wouldn’t have agreed. But she had, and she’d given her word, and if it was all she had to give, then it would have to be enough.

And if it all failed, what was her loss? She would die making something of herself, which was better than another century languishing in a remote house, too terrifying for visitors, too terrified to change anything. Alone with burning trees and the ghosts she made. Anything had to be better.

It was a selfish reason, perhaps, but she was ninety-five summers old; she had earned the right to be at least a little selfish.

Mayrat straightened a few things and went back inside, only to find most of her house empty and her bed full. She sighed, frowning at the tendrils of bright red hair that snaked all across her pillow. “I only have the one bed.”

The dragon popped her head out, looked around as though to confirm Mayrat’s inventory of her own furniture, and snuggled back down under the covers. “I don’t take up much space,” she said, while occupying a good three-quarters of the mattress.

“All you do is take up space.” Mayrat huffed and hung her shawl on a hook by the window. “And you shouldn’t sleep undressed. You’ll catch cold.”

The dragon rolled her eyes. “Colds are for humans.”

“You look human,” Mayrat said.

There followed that long, heavy moment where Mayrat felt the weight of her guest’s whole gaze on her, from eyes no less piercing for being smaller now they were no longer housed in a dragon’s skull. “Of all people,” said the dragon, her voice low like the rumble of a great bonfire, “I’d think you’d know not to let your lesser senses make your judgments for you.”

Mayrat had every intention of giving that a smug and condescending response, which was why she was startled to find the corners of her lips curving in a smile. “My senses greater and lesser are telling me you’re hogging the bed.”

The dragon shrugged. “Do you want me to say I’m sorry when I’m not?”

“I want you to move.” Mayrat punctuated the order with a light shove, delivered with her bare foot to the dragon’s plump bottom. The dragon let out a petulant hiss from between clenched teeth, but giggled a little as she then obediently rolled toward the wall, leaving Mayrat just enough of the bed to fit her body’s width, but no more. Mayrat climbed in beneath the sheets and lay flat on her back, folding her hands across her chest. This was all far outside of her normal range of experiences, and she suspected the dragon was only doing it to get a rise out of her, but she was going to be damned if she let anyone else see her give even a drop of sweat. She shut her eyes and took deep, measured breaths, willing herself to sleep.

Great self-control kept her from tensing every muscle in her body and flailing when the dragon draped her arm across Mayrat’s waist, but she couldn’t stop her eyes from snapping open. The dragon moved closer still, to where Mayrat could feel those great bare breasts against her own bare arm, soft and insistent. The dragon’s all-too-human lips came to rest just by the bare curve of Mayrat’s neck. “I’m not sleepy,” she whispered, her words those distant rolls of thunder again, her breath hot on Mayrat’s skin.

Mayrat tried to swallow, but found her throat had gone dry. Her own nipples were little peaks beneath her dress, and every time the dragon shifted, the fabric brushed against the too-sensitive skin. However long it had been since she’d had a guest in her house, it had been far longer since she’d had a guest in her bed, or been one in someone else’s. In her heyday in the first duke’s employ, she’d had lovers of all types and in all manner of configurations, and her body wasted no time in reminding her how good it was to have a warm and willing woman beside her. Her head filled with thoughts about how easy it would be to push the dragon on her back, to catch those red nipples between her teeth, to shift her body down toward the foot of the bed, to plant her face between those thighs, to taste the sweet skin there and taste it again and again until she made her lover cry the stop that meant more

I am,” Mayrat said at last, and that was that. The dragon did not push the matter, but neither did she retreat, choosing to fall into dreaming right where she’d placed herself. For Mayrat, sleep was a long time in coming.

~*~

The coach was a bit ostentatious, perhaps, but never would she let it be said that Mayrat af-Qash did not give fair warning to her arrival.

It was an illusion, of course, as were the impossibly strong horses that pulled it, but that only meant they could do their jobs better and without complaint, and that she’d have to waste no time housing them while in the city. She’d create an entire staff of servants once she settled in — far more for show than for actual use, but displays of power were their own kind of power — though for now she and the dragon sat in the coach by themselves, having etiquette lessons despite earlier warnings about their uselessness.

“In fact,” Mayrat concluded after nearly an hour’s worth of detailed instructions, “best if you don’t say anything at all.”

The dragon stuck out her tongue and folded her arms across her chest, beneath her still-bare breasts. From hints and bits of what she’d gleaned, Mayrat had more than a little cause to suspect that this dragon, though possibly as old in years as Mayrat herself, was little more than an adolescent by her people’s reckoning. “So, I can’t eat anyone, I can’t threaten to eat anyone, I have to stay looking like this, I have to wear clothes, and now I can’t even speak?”

“Until I tell you to, no.” Mayrat crossed her legs at the knee in the tight carriage, wishing she’d ever learned how to conjure something that was larger on the inside than it appeared from without. “You could pretend you can’t, if that makes it any easier for you.”

“How about rude gestures?”

“Absolutely not.”

With a great huff, the dragon sank back down into the corner of her side of the carriage and pulled her feet up on the seat next to her. They’d have to close the curtains once they got nearer to settlement areas, but for now, the parted drapes let the sunlight fall across the dragon’s prone body. Mayrat caught herself staring at those thighs, letting her eyes wander upward to where they met, and decided to distract herself with lunch. It was nearing midday, after all. “I know it’s a bit late to ask, but what’s your name?” she asked as she rummaged through the small basket she’d packed.

The dragon frowned. “I don’t have one.”

“Could I just not pronounce it?” Despite how she’d made a point of packing her more substantial provisions, Mayrat’s stomach had become tender with anxiety, and she left the dried meat and goat cheese aside in favor of fruit. She wedged a thumbnail inside a bright ripe pomegranate and cracked it into halves.

“No, I don’t have one.” The dragon sat up. “Humans have names for things. We know who we are.”

Mayrat frowned, a seed caught between her teeth in the moment before being bitten. “Then how do others call for you?”

“They want me, and I come. It isn’t difficult.” The dragon reached over and snatched a handful of small figs from Mayrat’s lap. “We just … know.”

“Well, you’ll need a name. You’ll be announced at court. Unless you just want to be Lady Shh Nobody Knows She’s A Dragon.”

The dragon shrugged. “I could do that.”

Mayrat’s eyes narrowed. “No. You couldn’t. You need a name.”

“How about just Lady Dragon?”

This was getting ridiculous. “You need a proper name.”

“Do you have a proper name?”

“Yes! I have a very proper name!”

Finished with the figs, the dragon went for the rest of the provisions, and Mayrat was only too happy to hand the basket over. “How’d you get your proper name?”

That was a more complicated history question than Mayrat had been expecting to answer this early in the day. “It was my mother’s mother’s sister’s name. She died shortly before I was born, and it’s good luck to name a child after a recently deceased relative.”

The dragon stuck out her tongue. “Considering that person just died, I’d say all the luck in the name had just run out.”

That made Mayrat smile despite herself. “Well, yes, I can’t say I’ve done much with it. Or with the rest of it, for that matter. Qash was my father. You’re only supposed to add your father’s name to your own if he was some sort of notable individual, so everyone can know, oh, that was his son. Especially if you’re a woman, in which case it’s more of a warning about who will give you trouble if you trouble her, or an indication of whom you’d have to pay if you wanted to marry her. But when I left Kaluma, I realized fast that no one outside the city knew the difference between the name of a great prince and the name of a beggar. What mattered was that I presented myself as though I came from nobility, and so I did.”

“There, that’s why I think names are foolish.” The dragon gnawed on a piece of meat as she spoke, and Mayrat decided she didn’t care enough to have that particular argument over table manners. “They don’t mean anything.”

“They mean a lot to the right people,” Mayrat said. “But I suppose you’ve got a point. They’re hard to erase, though, especially when they come with reputation. How would you have heard of me if I had no name?”

The dragon pointed to the fruit in Mayrat’s hands. “What’s that?” she asked, as though Mayrat hadn’t said a thing.

“This?” Mayrat held it up. In the sunlight coming in between the parted drapes, it was the same shade as the dragon’s skin. “A pomegranate. Do you want some?”

“Then you can call me Pomegranate,” said the dragon, taking the fruit from Mayrat’s hand and biting into it, skin and seeds and all, as though that were a remotely normal way to consume it. “Or Lady Pomegranate or Your Highness Pomegranate or whatever it is you do.”

Mayrat rolled her eyes. “You can’t be Lady Pomegranate.”

“Why not?”

“Because we are trying not to arouse any more suspicion than I will just by making an appearance myself.” One of the seeds had fallen out and stuck itself with its juice to the dragon’s thigh; Mayrat plucked it up and popped it in her mouth. “You might as well walk in declaring yourself Lady Dishwater, or Lady Wagon Wheel, or Lady Shoe.”

“And what’s wrong with any of those names?” asked the dragon, juice making her lips bright and wet. “They’re names for things.”

“Yes, but they’re not human names.”

“And I’m not human!” The dragon sighed and tossed the fruit back in Mayrat’s lap, scattering seeds everywhere. “I thought you were supposed to be smart! You keep forgetting this!”

“I didn’t forget,” said Mayrat, trying to cover how she had, indeed, forgotten. It was one thing to think of her guest as a dragon, but quite another to look at her current form and remember what she’d been before. “So by all means, back to your oversized lizard state. Fly right up to the duke’s hall and see how much he’ll listen — if, indeed, you can get past the city gates without fifty archers and pikemen bringing you down.” Mayrat didn’t relish the look of quiet fear on the dragon’s face that told her she’d scored a hit, but neither did she let it give her pause. “How many do you think it’d take?”

With a huff, the dragon pulled her legs closer to her chest and set her chin atop her knees. Mayrat didn’t know if it was the light and the expression or if her human face really was that mutable, but she looked so young at that moment, caught in her tantrum. Mayrat remembered all too well what that age had been like — it had been the age that had pulled her away from home, after all, drawing her on to greater adventures up from the streets. She’d thought she’d known everything, and she’d made promises to her parents to that effect, and she’d found out every hard way there was just how much she didn’t know.

She hadn’t thought much about her own parents in a long time, other than to realize almost two decades ago that they’d probably died before they’d become as old as she had been then. Her siblings, too, or else they would have been bent over with age, while she still stood straight as though she were a woman in the prime of her life. The knowledge had come with a dull sort of ache, a remote sadness about things long gone and things unchangeable. She’d never been sentimental, but the years had exchanged her heart for a stone. It was strange even now to think on what an easy trade it had been.

Anar,” Mayrat said, holding a single seed suspended between her fingers. The dragon lifted her chin and frowned at Mayrat, curiosity written on her features. “In the first language I ever learned, that’s what these were called. I’ve never heard anyone around here speak it. So you could be Anar. Or Lady Anar, or Your Highness Anar, or whatever it is that we do. Fair?”

The dragon’s eyes brightened, and she sat upright again. “Anar,” she said, testing every sound of the word across her human tongue. Her lips curled into a smile as she turned and faced Mayrat. “Call me that.”

“Call you–” Mayrat began, but the eager look in her companion’s eyes made the totality of the order clear. “All right. Anar.”

“Again,” said Anar, putting her hands on either of Mayrat’s thighs, leaning closer.

“Anar.” Mayrat looked her straight in the eye and addressed her as though trying to get her attention.

“Again.” Anar leaned closer, and the weight of her movement shifted the folds of Mayrat’s dress, sending several of the seeds falling to the floor.

“Anar.” In the closed carriage, the warmth of their bodies burned the air.

“Again,” Anar demanded, grabbing handfuls of Mayrat’s skirt in her fists.

Mayrat licked her lips and whispered this time: “Anar,” she said, with all the soft care of one calling her lover up from sleep.

Anar let go of Mayrat’s dress and grabbed her hair with the same ferocity, pulling herself into Mayrat’s lap for a hard, tooth-biting kiss. Mayrat might well have given protest, but the truth of the matter was that she didn’t want to, and they both knew that to be true. She reached for Anar’s heavy breasts and caught one in each hand, pinching her hard crimson nipples between deft fingers. Anar growled into the kiss and writhed on Mayrat’s lap, hiding nothing about how much she wanted the touch; she ground her body against Mayrat’s, until Mayrat could feel a telltale dampness spread against her thigh. Oh, Mayrat remembered this age well.

Before Mayrat could make the protest that perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to get up to this inside a vehicle she needed at least a bit of concentration to keep in existence, a great horn sounded on the hot midday air, startling them both into statues. Mayrat pulled back from the kiss just enough to whisper against Anar’s lips: “We’re here.”

~*~

Sartorial luck, at least, was on their side. Not much changed about the clothes the country folk wore, but in the city, fashion was fickle, to say the least. Not that she was worried about looking out-of-style — the limits of magic meant an illusionist could never use an illusion on herself, though she could have afforded to buy any change of clothes she wanted — but she knew already what she and Anar needed to wear, and it was best if those outfits blended in instead of sticking out.

Thus, when she stepped from the carriage into the duke’s outer courtyard, only her hands were visible; the rest of her body was wrapped in deep red cloth, great bands of fabric that started from knots around the crown of her head and wrapped all the way down to hide even her toes as she padded barefoot across the duke’s inlaid marble floors. The other men and women she passed were not all so conservatively swaddled — nearly all had their faces exposed, and some even dared to show their hair — but she supposed few of them had curses associated with their visages. The guards were of course in much looser, less covering attire; heavy, restrictive garments were for the well-to-do, to show how impractically they could dress because they could hire people to do for them anything that resembled work.

Anar followed close behind her, under strict instructions to keep even her hands tucked back into the robes. She’d made a fuss about having to wear clothes, about humans and their ridiculous affectations, but it had been more of a general cry to ills of society than a whine strictly directed at her current circumstances, and as such, Mayrat had let it go uncommented-upon. The gauzy red fabric across their faces made some vision possible, though not much, and every time Mayrat had to stop short, she felt Anar bump into her.

At last, the great cedar doors groaned open, and a herald’s voice cried out, “Presenting the Enchantress Mayrat af-Qash and her companion, the Lady Anar.”

There was a loud guffaw from her right, and though Mayrat couldn’t see the exact person who thought her arrival so amusing, she had no trouble guessing his profession. “And what have we done here, to earn a visit from such an illustrious guest?” asked one of the court magicians, false sincerity dripping from every word. “Did you run out of little fables to tell the goatherds?”

Mayrat wished her face could be seen so that they could get the full effect of her rolling her eyes. Instead, she took the same advice she’d given to Anar and ignored them completely, taking another step toward the duke’s great seat. “I’ve come to discuss matters of magic with which you have tasked me,” she said to Naq ar-Javan, who was only a red shadow in her vision, but a very distinct one. She did not bother with any formal address or signs of obeisance, knowing that they both knew any kind of deference on her part would have been phony.

“Wandered back from the sand wastes, has she?” sneered another court magician. She must have fallen far in the world indeed, that they would be permitted to speak to her like this so openly. Mayrat suspected they’d all been hired on since she’d last made an appearance, and thus had learned everything of her from rumor and reputation — dangerous teachers, to say the least. “Maybe she’s here to dance naked for us while she roasts babies on a spit. I hear that’s a good trick.”

“Brothers, please, let’s not be so rude to a fellow magician,” spoke a third, though there was no kindness to his voice. “She too understands the rigors of schooling and mentoring, just like we do, and has had training passed down from her elders, and has been through the initiation rites of–” He stopped, humming with mock puzzlement. “I’m sorry, my memory isn’t what it used to me: Where did you receive your training, again? And what order was it with which you pledged?”

Mayrat could feel Anar tense at her side, so she held a hand flat against Anar’s side, urging her to keep still. “Your Great Majesty,” she said, hoping that some pageantry might be the key out of this. “The matter of your alchemical requests is–”

“Oh, alchemy!” laughed the first magician. They looked upon any art that did not draw upon raw power as a master sculptor might regard a child’s idle scratchings in the dirt, and they considered Mayrat, who’d never had any god or goddess to fuel her talents, an insult to the craft. Small wonder the duke had looked to her for such elemental transformations.

A fourth magician — and whether the duke kept them around at all times or if they’d all just shown up to mock her, Mayrat couldn’t say — stepped in front of her, blocking her passage. “Little witch, little witch,” he hissed in her face. “You know, I’ve got a magic potion I could teach you how to use. It’s very simple, right perfect for your skills. You pour some in your hand, and when you rub it on my staff, it just gets bigger and bigger and bigger–”

So much for blending in. She reached up to the clip that kept the fabric coiled around her head and pushed it back, veil and all, until she was bare from the neck up. The reaction was instantaneous: the room full of people, all of whom had been watching her, filled with panic. Magicians who’d been so bold only moments before yelped like frightened children and scuttled away, insects startled by the light. Mayrat saw this only from the corner of her eye, keeping her gaze as fixed on the duke as it had ever been. Guards on either side of him lept into place as the room cleared, though they themselves were doing their best to avert their gazes even as they brandished their weapons.

Only Naq ar-Javan did not look away from her uncovered face, and as his court cleared, he smiled with what could only have been grudging respect. “Mayrat af-Qash,” he said with quiet amazement. “Never let it be said you don’t know how to make an entrance.”

“Let them go,” she said, gesturing to the trembling guards. “If I were here to hurt anyone, I would have done it by now.”

“So you would,” said the duke, nodding. “All right, men, remain in earshot but leave us be.” At that, the guards retreated gratefully, keeping their faces hidden as they filed out the doors to the chamber. If anything, acts of kindness like those made Mayrat even angrier — he did not abuse his servants and he gave no coin to superstition, both of which Mayrat found excellent traits. He was quite handsome too, dark-eyed and strong-jawed, and Mayrat found it all the more a waste that such a lovely body was fueled by the beating of a greedy heart.

But such things were not changed easily or often, and Mayrat had other goals at the moment. She approached, and he responded by rising, until they stood eye to eye, equal in height and dignity. “You tasked me because you know I have more power than every other magician in your employ combined, yes?”

Naq folded his arms across his chest. “What of it?”

“But the task cannot be done, and threatening the lives of innocents is not the magic that would make it possible,” Mayrat said. She knew this might go better if she played more openly to his vanity, but she had vanity of her own. “What’s more, I think you know I had no hope of accomplishing this. You wanted to show me your power by pushing me where I have none.”

“Have you come all this way just to call me naughty?” Naq smiled smugly. He was still not even as old as Mayrat herself appeared, but the men in his line went grey very early, and his dark hair was already shot through with silver. Mayrat had seen wolves like that illustrated in tapestries brought for sale from the north. “You could have saved yourself the trip and just assumed I don’t care.”

Mayrat did roll her eyes now, and made sure he saw. “I came all this way to present you with a counter-offer, which is more than you deserve for trying to get blood from a stone.” She stepped back and gestured to Anar — who, to Mayrat’s vague surprise, had not taken Mayrat’s earlier gesture as a cue to unveil herself. “You can choose to listen to us and become the richest ruler in the lands. Or you can send us away and leave us all empty-handed.”

Naq was indeed no idiot, and his face gave away that he believed the bait before him to have a hook right through it. Even so, Mayrat knew she’d played a good hand when she saw him take a long, thoughtful breath. “I’m listening,” he said, smirking as he did as though this were all very amusing and he were being politely indulgent. But he’d asked, and that had given away how much he wanted whatever she said next to be true.

“The dragons that control the lands between here and the sea sit on untold wealth beneath the ground. Even a small fraction of it would be enough for–” Mayrat waved her hands in a fancy way she hoped communicated ‘whatever stupid thing you want it for’ without her having to outright say so. “You’d be able to buy lands and buy armies to take whatever lands you couldn’t buy.”

“Yes,” said Naq, his arms folded even tighter across his broad chest, “and while we’re at it, let’s steal cobwebs from the islands’ fairy-folk. You came all this way for nonsense?”

“Not nonsense.” Anar had been so quiet Mayrat had nearly forgotten her presence, but now as she spoke up, she sounded quite sure of herself. “There’s a cave by the cliffs that overlook a waterfall on the eastern border of dragon territory. Except no one can see it, because it’s got strong magic worked over it. I know where it is, though. It’s the only way in and out for miles, and it’s the only exit big enough for some of them.”

“We set fires,” Mayrat explained, bringing her own addition to the party. “Big, sulphurous fires by the entrance, and blow the smoke in. The air inside will become unbearable. We’ll agree to stop for a price.”

Naq stroked his chin, smoothing the dark hairs there as he thought. “I thought extortion would be beneath you,” he said, though his earlier dismissiveness was gone. “What makes you think they’ll pay?”

“They’ll have to,” said Anar, still beneath her veils. “The caves are deep and the air is stale already. Fill it with smoke and they’ll be helpless.”

“Fifty men,” said Mayrat. “And most of them only to carry the treasure on our return. We travel fast and light there, and we make a show of force to say that we could invade while they’re blinded and make short of work of more than a few of them. If all goes well, not a single sword will be drawn.”

“And in return?” Naq fixed his dark, piercing gaze on Mayrat.

This had been the part she’d been dreading, not because she didn’t want anything, but because she did. In many ways, ones that she didn’t like to acknowledge, she and he were much alike. “I come to your court.”

Naq waited a moment, and when it was clear she wasn’t going to volunteer anything else, stepped closer, until they were well within arm’s reach of one another; either he trusted her good intentions or he thought her toothless, and she didn’t know which made him the bigger fool. “That’s it?” he asked. “A seat here?”

Mayrat shook her head. “A seat beside the most powerful man in the land. Not here, but what will be here once you return from this.”

He laughed and reached a hand toward her face, which she smacked away with calm composition. “I see,” he said, though his smile grew a bit hard at the edges to have the touch denied.

Only a seat,” Mayrat said, keeping her gaze level and trying to suppress the urge to hit him again. “Business. Not pleasure. It’s never been so with any of your fathers and it wouldn’t start with you.”

Naq laughed again, though the sound was far more forced now. “And why,” he asked, turning his attention toward Anar, “should I believe you?”

“Because I’m a dragon,” Anar replied.

There was a small pause, and then Naq snorted and turned his back on them both, walking over to the high cushioned chair where he sat. “Out. Go. Be comedians somewhere else.”

Anar looked up at Mayrat, and though Mayrat couldn’t see her expression through the cloth, she knew well enough what it was. Wordlessly, she gestured forward, as though showing Anar through a door. Naq turned again toward his guests just in time to see Anar pull the cloth of her garments from her body; they were illusions and they evaporated as soon as they fell from her hands, leaving her crimson and bare in the middle of the room. He opened his mouth — to comment, perhaps, or more likely to call back the guards — but whatever he’d meant to say turned into a choked gasp as Anar turned back into a dragon.

She was rather a tiny dragon, Mayrat knew, and her rooftop landing had been startling but not especially threatening. Here inside the chamber, though, enclosed on all sides by marble walls and pillars, Anar might as well have been as large as the building itself. Naq staggered and his knees gave way, sending him falling into cushions that lined the floor as he gaped fish-mouthed. “A trick,” he said, though his voice was more whisper than word.

Mayrat shook her head; she reached up and stroked Anar, who looked rather pleased with herself. “What was before was the illusion,” she said, glossing over the specifics of Anar’s own contribution to that illusion, which Mayrat herself didn’t fully understand. “This is real.” Anar punctuated the claim with a puff of fire that singed an especially ugly tapestry.

It was hard not to feel smug seeing the duke brought to such a state, so Mayrat didn’t bother not feeling so — she simply took care not to let the expression visit her face. “I came to you first for loyalty to your fathers,” Mayrat continued, pulling her garment back up over her hair. “We could go to anyone else. And we will.”

Naq cleared his throat and found his way to his feet again, though the procedure was tortuously slow. “I–” The word was lost in breath, and he cleared his throat twice more before speaking again. “I will need time to consider–”

“Of course.” Mayrat nodded, then turned back to Anar. “Come along, let’s get you to a little more portable again.” Anar looked as disappointed as Mayrat imagined a dragon could look, but she dutifully reversed the transformation, until she again stood on two human legs before the duke, naked and unafraid. “I will tell the guards you gave orders for us to be set up at your finest guest suite, and I expect this order will not be countermanded. Two nights, and on the third day we leave the city and do not return, not while you live and possibly not even after. Are we understood?”

With a quiet nod, Naq said, “Understood.” Even as he spoke to her, though, his eyes were fixed on Anar, looking at her not the way a man might at a naked young woman before him, but with the same eyes that had beheld the dragon only moments before. She’d scared him, but that was good. Fear was useful. Mayrat knew that as well as she knew her own name.

She made short work of spinning Anar an illusory garment, and when she threw open the doors of the duke’s chambers again, Mayrat had her face again covered. The magicians hunkered by, and she supposed she could have threatened them with another peek, but instead she chose not to given them even a second glance. Let them bicker amongst themselves, the petty monsters; let them look down on her for being untrained, rootless, female. Soon they would have to answer to her, and then they’d see who was laughing.

~*~

“This is stupid,” said Anar, flopping down chest-first onto the piles of silks and pillows that made the sleeping area of Duke Naq’s finest guest suite. “Is he stupid?”

Mayrat didn’t dare open the windows that faced the city, for fear of starting a panic, but one overlooked the desert wastes, and she pulled the shutters wide, letting in the breeze. Stripped down only to a simple dress, she felt much better now than she had when bundled up fashionably. “Not entirely,” she said, knotting her hair up at the back of her head; she fixed it there with a sturdy frond taken from one of the room’s many potted palms. “If he were, this would have been much easier. He’s clever enough to be cautious.”

Anar snorted and rolled over onto her back. “How long do you think he might make us wait?”

“I’m certain he’s trying to decide that himself right now.” Mayrat ran her fingers along the edge of the fine table that had been prepared for them: a fine selection of fruits and wine, intended to impress with its diversity, not its quantity. She poured herself a glass as she spoke. “Too soon and he’ll seem too eager, which means he’s opened himself up to being asked for more. Too late and he’ll seem a coward, as though worries about risk have held him back.”

“But you think he’ll say yes?”

“I know he will.” The wine was fine and sweet, not too heavy for drinking on such a late warm afternoon.

“Good,” Anar said, “because when you said we’d take our offer elsewhere, I found myself wondering if you had any other elsewhere in mind to go.”

Mayrat shook her head and poured out a second glass, then walked over and took a seat on the pillows; she offered Anar the glass, and Anar sat up gracelessly before accepting. “Nowhere I could be guaranteed a position in return.”

Peering over the edge of the goblet, Anar frowned. “Do you … really want to work with him?”

Mayrat finished her whole glass in a long, slow drink before she found herself ready to answer that question. “Yes,” she said at last, then shook her head. “No. I–” The explanation came harder to her than she would have hoped; in fact, she had been hoping she wouldn’t have to explain herself in the first place. She expected to be interrupted by Anar’s next impatient inquiry, but Anar remained still, and so Mayrat at last found an answer to a different question: “I came from nothing. I became interested in magic because I saw the masters and the pupils walking from their schools, and all I could think was, if I had that kind of power, no one else would ever be in control of me again.

“So I learned everything I could. And I learned badly–” She held up her hands, palms out toward Anar’s face, where time had diminished but had not erased the burn scars of self-taught disasters. “But I learned. And even when I came first to the court of Duke Dain ar-Hamisar, I thought, I will submit to him, but only because it is my choice. He will never be able to force me to do anything I don’t wish to, and my reputation and my life will be my own.”

Anar reached for Mayrat’s hand, and only then did Mayrat realize she’d been clutching the stem of her glass almost hard enough to bend it. “And now?” Anar asked, her voice soft.

Mayrat gave a bitter little laugh. “Now? I’m a witch.” She sighed, shutting her eyes and leaning back against the pillows. “A witch who can curse just by being seen, a minor fool whose talents are bought through extortion. I’m laughed at because they’re frightened of me — and I want them to be frightened, no question. But … not like that.”

With a nod, Anar took both their glasses and placed them atop a low table, then lay down beside Mayrat, tucking her head in the crook of Mayrat’s arm. “I think you’re impressive enough to be afraid of.”

It had been meant as a kindness, Mayrat knew, but she couldn’t help scoffing. “You’ve barely seen me do anything.”

“I’ve seen you make a coach from thin air and burn trees,” Anar said. “That was impressive.”

“And I’ve seen you turn from dragon to human and belch fire when you laugh.” Mayrat turned and found her face pressed in Anar’s brilliant red hair. She smelled like warmth and smoke, like hands after making a campfire. “In light of that, I hardly would consider my abilities extraordinary.”

Anar turned and propped herself up on one elbow so Mayrat could see her face. “Don’t you think I haven’t met other human magicians? I have, you know. Poor scryers and jesters to entertain children, most of them. The schools teach them what they can do, but also teach them what they can’t do. No one ever taught you your limits. No one ever taught me either. No one had to. You were right when you said you have more power than all those awful men combined. I can feel it from you. I can taste it on you.”

“You’re so lovely,” said Mayrat, reaching up to stroke Anar’s cheek — not because she meant to change the subject, but because it was true, and she didn’t want to let such a truth go unspoken.

“So are you,” Anar said in return, bending down to kiss Mayrat on the lips briefly before straightening her back again. “You deserve to rule, not just to prop up someone else’s throne.”

Mayrat smiled. “One goal at a time,” she said, and this time she grabbed Anar’s hair and pulled her into a deeper kiss, rolling them both so that Anar lay atop Mayrat’s body. She raised a knee and caught it between Anar’s thighs, and Anar gasped as she writhed against the contact, turning Mayrat’s smile into an outright grin. “Right now I have my sights set on something else.”

Anar gasped as Mayrat’s fingers slipped between her thighs and found her clit. “Yes,” she whined, “right there, please, human fingers are the best.”

That startled Mayrat into a laugh, but she did as she’d been begged and pinched the hardening nub of skin there, feeling her knuckles dampen with Anar’s juices. She didn’t even have to move her hand much; Anar was wriggling and writhing all over, rocking back and forth against any pressure Mayrat’s body would give her. She shifted her weight back on her knees and Mayrat obliged her the change of position, offering up two fingers for penetration. Anar slipped right back onto them, taking them so easily inside her that Mayrat added a third for good measure.

She fucked herself on Mayrat’s hand for several strokes, letting her soft, heavy breasts bounce every time she lowered herself back down. Her long, wild hair spread around her like fire, and she grabbed it with both hands to pile it atop her head, giving Mayrat an even better view of her lovely body. She was all smooth red curves, the kind of voluptuous body Mayrat had known early on would never be hers to own. Still, hers to pleasure was just as good.

“Come here,” Mayrat said, and Anar leaned forward enough for Mayrat to grab her breast and catch a nipple in her teeth. That made Anar squirm again and moan; she let her hair down and it fell in curtains around them. With her thumb, Mayrat teased Anar’s clit in time with her tongue across her red nipple, speeding up every time Anar groaned wordlessly for more. This was its own fine kind of power, this complete control that came from such trust. Anar was a horny little thing, which always made things easier, but it hadn’t taken Mayrat long to find all the right buttons to push. Mayrat had been with many women who’d taken pains to moderate their sexual responses, and she’d even been like that herself at the start, but Anar was utterly shameless in her pleasure. She had what she wanted, finally, and seemed bound and determined to enjoy it.

When she came, there was no polite shiver or theatrical moan — Anar laughed as she reached her climax, though each exhalation was another push of her body onto Mayrat’s hand, and tendrils of smoke poured from her lips. Her body jerked and twisted beyond her control, and she giggled with the delight of it, enough that Mayrat felt herself laughing too. This was good, being together like this, knowing and being known so well.

At last, Anar popped herself off of Mayrat’s hand and flopped onto her back, panting and kicking her feet with glee. “Waiter, I’ll have a dozen more of those.”

Mayrat bopped her soft tummy with a small decorative pillow, then wiped her soaked hands on its fringe. Someone else could clean up. “Quite an appetite you’ve got.”

“I could have sex forever as a human.” Anar rolled onto her stomach, wiggling her bare bottom. “Dragon sex is … not nearly as versatile, we’ll say. Usually just in and out. Nobody gets fingered, nobody gets sucked, and nobody ever puts on seductive undergarments.”

“I don’t have on seductive undergarments,” Mayrat pointed out, tugging at her skirt. A large damp spot marked the place where the fabric had settled between Anar’s legs for a time, in almost the same place she’d left a stain earlier. This dress needed to be laundered, if not burned.

“You don’t need any,” she said, standing and holding out her hand, and Mayrat obliged. With a laugh, Anar took her over to the open window. The desert landscape was empty even at this time of day, and would stay so until the cool of night settled in, meaning they had a breeze but no audience. “You’re too dressed as it is.”

“You’re usually too naked,” Mayrat countered, though really, she had no complaints. She smiled as Anar went for the buttons that fastened her dress and gave an obedient raise of her arms as Anar lifted the fabric over her head. Bare and feeling much cooler for it, she turned toward the window. “Help, help,” she called out in a voice no louder than the one she’d been speaking with before, “I’ve been trapped by a fierce dragon.”

“Oh, very fierce.” Anar leaned up against her, kissing at her collarbone. “We dragons love eating maidens.”

“Do you? Because I’m sure I could find one around here if you–” Mayrat’s joke was cut short as Anar planted a bright kiss right atop her nipple, making her shiver. “Or not.”

Anar suckled at the sensitive skin there for a moment more before kissing down Mayrat’s belly, kneeling as she went. She was short already, making the height different work to her advantage as she knelt before Mayrat and nudged her legs apart. “I was just thinking how much I like hair,” she said, and then she nuzzled her broad nose into the dark thatch right above Mayrat’s pubis such that Mayrat nearly toppled over.

“Ticklish!” Mayrat swatted at Anar’s hair, still laughing. “Bad lizard!”

Best lizard,” Anar countered, and before Mayrat could think of a response, Anar grinned and stuck her face right between Mayrat’s legs. Mayrat’s laugh turned into a low groan as she grabbed the window-dressing to keep herself upright. She was being eaten by a dragon; help, help, indeed.

This close to the window, the breeze blew across her bare breasts, making her nipples stand at attention as Anar sucked her clit and licked at the folds beneath. Whether or not jokes about cannibalism were accurate, Anar certainly knew how to put her tongue and teeth to good use. It wasn’t the first time Mayrat had had someone’s face between her thighs (and she hoped it wouldn’t be the last), but she’d never before had someone there so single-minded about her pleasure. Anar barely came up for air — in fact, Mayrat wouldn’t swear she breathed at all. She alternated between flicking her tongue across Mayrat’s clit and sucking on it, keeping Mayrat on such a razor’s edge that she began to gasp and moan and not care who heard or even saw them.

Her first orgasm was intense, but almost polite, in that it shuddered its way up from her core and out her extremities, leaving her breathless but still standing. That had been fun, she thought, and she shifted to give Anar room to stand up — only to find Anar grabbing her thighs and redoubling her efforts. “What are–?” Mayrat bit back a soft cry as Anar’s teeth grazed almost too-sensitive skin. “Isn’t it … your turn?”

Anar emerged a moment later, wild-haired and grinning. “Dragons are good at connecting,” she said breathlessly, nuzzling the soft brown hairs that downed Mayrat’s thigh, “and you and I are very … connectable.”

“Oh?” asked Mayrat — and then her mouth formed another oh, one of comprehension. She never got to making the accompanying sound, though, because Anar was at her again, kissing and licking with all intensity at just the right spots, and no wonder she knew where they were now. Her fingers pet at Mayrat’s lower lips, teasing but never penetrating, and Mayrat felt her whole body shake as a second orgasm came for her. Anar gripped her thighs as she came, leaving little angry half-moons in Mayrat’s brown skin, something Mayrat had gone nearly a century without learning that she liked.

The third and fourth climaxes blurred together, in that Mayrat was fairly certain she’d come twice more, though was willing to believe it had just been once lasting several minutes. There was a small pause then for Anar to wet her throat with wine, but she got right back to work and licked Mayrat again so intensely that Mayrat heard herself crying out Anar’s name with pleasure. By then she really was too weak-kneed to stand, so they staggered back over to the bed and fell into the pillows together, kissing and holding one another tight. “You are simply magical,” she whispered against Anar’s lips as she played with those wonderful soft breasts.

“Precisely.” Anar looked smug as anything, and all Mayrat could do in response was to kiss her again, kiss every inch of her, never stop kissing her.

A pounding sound woke them both only a few hours later, and Mayrat was startled less by how someone was knocking at their door and more by how that someone did not have the polite, inquisitive rap of a servant. On the contrary, the fist hammering there surely belonged to someone who was not accustomed to having to knock at all. Mayrat grabbed a robe and wrapped it around her body just enough to be decent, then opened the door with a swift sweep and barely missed having Duke Naq’s hand connect with her face. “We’re going,” he told her. Behind him, two guards stood in the hallway, facing one another and not even glancing in her direction.

Mayrat waited a beat, letting her just-awakened brain catch up. “Now?” She glanced toward the window, which looked out onto a starless night. “…We?”

“Now.” He huffed as though irritated by the entire process, though Mayrat could see the way his body trembled with a little boy’s excitement. “And yes, we. If I send you out with my men, I’ve no guarantee either you or the treasure will return.”

Mayrat shrugged; though she didn’t relish the thought of any more of his company than was strictly necessary, fair was fair. “Where shall we meet you?”

“By the gates,” Naq said, turning on his heel and marching out. “We’re all waiting for you.”

She didn’t point out that they might not be waiting now if he’d summoned her earlier, but she did make a rude gesture toward his retreating back that made her feel marginally better. She shut the door and turned to explain, but found Anar standing by, holding Mayrat’s one bag open to what clothes she’d bothered to bring. “Can I eat him?”

“Maybe later,” said Mayrat with a smile. She pulled out a clean dress and tugged it on, then used a scarf to cover only as much of her head as she needed to keep her hair out of her eyes. The soldiers would have to overcome a lot more than baseless superstition if they were to be successful. Might as well give them an early start.

Dressed as she was ever going to be, she started for the door, but Anar caught her sleeve and tugged her toward the balcony. Mayrat followed, confused but willing to accept the trajectory, until they were both standing out in the night air. “Stand back,” said Anar, and as Mayrat did, Anar bent forward and transformed into a dragon again. That one, she looked at Mayrat and nodded toward her own back. “All right, get on.”

Well, that answered the question of how Mayrat herself was going to get off the balcony, but it raised many others. “Are you certain?”

Anar laughed, only now the sound was not her pretty alto purr, but a deep, cavernous tremor. “He said you know how to make an entrance, didn’t he?”

Mayrat supposed she couldn’t argue with that. Anar lowered one of her thick wings and Mayrat braced her foot on it, then was lifted by a strong flutter that nearly knocked her over. She kept her balance, though, and found a grip along the sturdy ridges that ran down Anar’s neck. She took a moment to find herself a secure place to sit, just up on Anar’s back from where her wing met her shoulder, then took a deep breath and prayed she didn’t have a fear of heights gone undiscovered in her life until this moment. “All right,” she said, “let’s be impressive.”

With a deep growl that Mayrat knew could only come from satisfaction, Anar beat her wings and rose into the air, and Mayrat, holding her head high so no one could see how nervous she was, rose with her.

Flying, as it turned out, was easy — or, Mayrat supposed, it was easy provided she wasn’t doing the actual work of keeping herself airborne. But as the ground grew distant and she rose with Anar over the tops of even the tallest minarets, she found that she had been more afraid that she might be afraid than she’d actually dreaded flight itself. The low, cloudy sky showed no heavenly lights, but reflected back the lamps and lanterns of the city, giving the heavens an orange tint, almost as though they themselves were on fire. Anar swooped low and Mayrat held on tight, but found herself laughing at the sensation. She worried for a moment about being seen, then chased that worry from her head — let the people below get a good look. When she returned triumphant, they’d be looking anyway.

Five black lines stretched out over the marble ground of the courtyard, though as Anar approached, those lines began to tremor and then break entirely as they stopped being five lines and instead became fifty men, weapons at the ready to battle the unexpected beast. With a great beat of her wings, Anar blew them back, and Mayrat conjured up a tall platform where Anar could land, careful not to trap anyone inside the illusion as she made it reality. At the far end of the courtyard, the duke and his retinue emerged from behind heavy doors — she’d beaten them down here, how about that? — but before they could approach, Mayrat drew up a signal fire in her hand and addressed the men. “Look at me,” she said, and when most of them did not comply, she squared her shoulders and demanded again: “Look at me.

There was a pause, and then fifty heads of fifty soldiers all turned toward her. At last, she had their attention. “You know who I am,” she said, “by reputation if not by experience. But much of what you’ve been told are lies. None of you is cursed to look upon me, nor should you fear for health or sanity just to see.” She reached up to stroke Anar’s head the way she might do to a friendly dog. “Nor have you anything to fear from my friend here, provided you do not cross either of us.”

Naq had nearly reached their ranks, well to the point where they should have been turning to mark his passage, but instead all their eyes were fixed on her. She studied their faces in the firelight, seeing the terror there despite their training. They were just boys beneath those helmets, eyes wide and faces still soft with youth; if her life had been quite different, she might now have had great-grandchildren that age. “I cannot promise your safety,” she told them, being as honest as she dared, “though I will swear this on my life, that I would not lead you into danger if I did not think us all likely to return, and better for it.”

“Nor would I,” said Naq sharply, and at that all fifty men jumped to attention as he passed them by. Mayrat wondered how many of the soldiers there knew that was a lie — and, to that end, how much by contrast they believed her. She continued to pet Anar almost absently as Naq stomped his way to the front, though her impromptu landing site kept Anar’s feet well above the level of his head, creating a visual hierarchy she rather enjoyed. “We mount and ride for the western lands at the enchantress’ direction.”

“‘Illusionist’ will do,” said Mayrat, closing her hand and snuffing out the flame. She’d always hated ‘enchantress’ — one step up from ‘witch’, she knew, which itself was one step up from ‘crazy old woman with marginally medicinal plants’ — but for years she hadn’t felt she’d had the leverage to argue against it. That changed now. Many things changed now.

Naq’s mouth set in a thin line, but he recovered in short order. “The illusionist Mayrat af-Qash,” he said, giving her a small bow. “Tell us then, Lady Illusionist, where shall we all now go?”

Mayrat’s response was to tap Anar’s shoulder twice, and Anar rose in another great beating of wings, which sounded to Mayrat like nothing so much as the pounding of a very slow heart. Despite the hour, the trumpets blew as the gates opened wide, and the men filed through them toward their waiting horses as Mayrat and Anar rose above. They hovered only long enough for all the men to mount their steeds, then turned toward the point on the horizon where the land embraced the setting sun each night. It was time to go west.

~*~

“Okay, okay, stop,” panted Mayrat, batting at Anar’s head; she was breathless and exhausted and giggling, when had she done that last? “Stop!” She batted again with the last of her strength, then fell back against the pillows. “Don’t kill us both before we get there.”

Anar lifted her face from between Mayrat’s thighs and grinned, then gave the soft skin of her clitoris one more strong suck before obeying. The fabric that made the covering of the tent was real enough, but the exquisite bedding was all illusory — and thus bearable, Mayrat thought as she sprawled naked atop fine satin sheets. Anar wiped her chin on one of the pillows before curling up next to Mayrat and giving her a deep kiss; Mayrat could taste herself on Anar’s tongue, which was no surprise, considering where it had been for the last hour or so. Sounds of camp life and activity sounded beyond the canvas walls, but there wasn’t likely a man in camp who didn’t know what went on inside the illusionist’s tent. Let them know, Mayrat thought; taming a dragon to ride was one kind of feat, but turning one into a lover was quite another.

With a yawn, Anar cupped Mayrat’s bare breast in her hand. “I counted ten.”

“I lost count,” said Mayrat, kissing Anar’s forehead. “But we should sleep.”

“Are you tired?”

“No,” Mayrat said with a sigh, “but we should sleep anyway, if we’re going to make the edge of dragon territory by tomorrow nightfall.”

Anar nodded, but Mayrat could feel the way the smile slipped from her face at the mention of their destination. It had been a trying journey most of all for how it hadn’t been trying — in fact, the trek had been monotonous in the extreme. They’d had little trouble skirting the edge of occupied territories between the duke’s lands and the west, and though she knew they’d been seen by guardposts along the way, fifty men was much more likely a royal retinue than an invading force: in short, nothing to write home about. They’d traveled more in the dark than in the light, and as soon as dawn began to change the sky from black to grey, Anar transformed into a human and they both rode atop horses of Mayrat’s making.

Mayrat hadn’t been called on to do this much illusive work in a great while, and though she’d feared she’d find it taxing, the work was instead exhilarating. On the road, out in the wild, headed on a journey with a purpose, she’d never felt so powerful in her life. The first night they slept on the road, she expected she’d wake and find the pillows and blankets she’d conjured up gone, unable to sustain themselves with her conscious mind given over to sleep. Instead, she awoke as comfortably as she’d drifted off — minus, of course, the way Anar tended to sprawl in her sleep and take up all available space, but even that had its own charms.

With a deep breath, Mayrat shut her eyes and stroked Anar’s hair. “You could stay with me, you know,” she said, her voice soft. “After this is all over.”

“I–” Anar swallowed. “I don’t know….”

“Or visit.” Mayrat could tell herself she hadn’t expected Anar to say yes, but somehow hearing the hesitation made Mayrat break out into an anxious sweat. “If you didn’t want to stay. I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t want to be anywhere near the duke or his men.”

“Oh, the men aren’t so bad,” said Anar, nuzzling Mayrat’s shoulder. “But … I feel if I leave my people, they’ll never learn what they need to learn. They’ll slip back into their old ways. I should stay — as a threat, if nothing else. A reminder that they aren’t as strong as they pretend to be.”

Mayrat’s eyes widened with surprise. “Won’t that … be dangerous for you?”

“Don’t worry about me,” said Anar with a quiet laugh. “I’m tougher than I look.”

“You’ll forgive me if I’m not comforted.”

“Forgiven!” Anar raised her chin so she could look Mayrat in the eye. “Might makes right with them, perhaps, but I have a lot of might. With this, I’ll have proven I can out-think them all, and some of them are old and slow, but they’ll all have to respect that. And maybe they’ll see the old ways of greed and fighting aren’t doing them any good.”

Mayrat stroked Anar’s back, feeling the heat burning just beneath her smooth, soft skin. “That’s a lot of maybe,” she said, trying to keep the worry from her voice. She’d never thought the idea of sending a dragon back to other dragons might give her so much cause for concern.

“Maybe I’m very smart.” Anar smiled and kissed Mayrat on her lips. “And when you’re done doing whatever you do with humans, you can come to me.”

“Me?” Mayrat looked at her, startled by the offer. “Among the dragons?”

Anar laughed. “Why not? You’re dragon enough already.”

“Oh, of course, how hadn’t I noticed? With my long tail and my terrible claws and my wings.”

“You are.” Anar stuck out her tongue, then licked the tip of Mayrat’s nose, giggling as Mayrat swept at the spot with the back of her hand. “Magic doesn’t come from humans — not the power, and not the knowledge. That’s why human schools teach you to pledge yourself to gods and goddesses and spirits and whatever else you call on. But none of those are real. We dragons are older than any gods. They’re just power given personalities. When you do magic, where do you get your power?”

Had she had proper training, she could have given a proper answer, named some patron and given some great lineage. But she’d taught herself her first spells before she’d ever learned that magicians were supposed to require wellsprings for even the simplest workings. “Myself,” she said, and though it would have gotten her another round of mocking laughter from any proper magicians, it was true.

“So do we,” said Anar. She took Mayrat’s hand and placed it in the center of her chest, between her breasts. “You learned from us: fire and illusion, both from the dragons, long before written human records. You didn’t, but humans did. Healing from the dryads, blood magic from the fairies, transmutation from the skinwalkers, alchemy from the undine spirits — humans have no magic, which is why you can learn anything. Or didn’t you know that already?”

In fact, she hadn’t. “You’re saying I could have learned to become a dryad instead?” Mayrat asked. She thought about pointing out that dryads and fairies and skinwalkers and undine spirits were all fictional — then remembered that she was, after all, talking to a dragon in human form, so perhaps she shouldn’t be too keen to dismiss such possibilities.

Laughing, Anar moved closer until their breasts pressed against one another, trapping Mayrat’s hand between their heartbeats. “You could have tried. But you would still have burned. Like me.”

Burning, Mayrat decided, was as good a reason as any to put off sleep for a little while longer.

~*~

The cliffs were so beautiful, it was almost a shame they weren’t real. Of course, if anyone there — herself included — touched them, they would feel solid rock beneath their hands, and not even the most magically attuned passer-by would have detected anything amiss. Only Anar’s direction let Mayrat know there was something more there to be seen, and even then she’d had to walk up to the wall and press her face against the stone to be absolutely, perfectly sure. It wasn’t that she thought Anar might intentionally lead her astray, but that the magic was so good, she wanted to be sure it was magic at all before she began to take it apart.

But it was, and as she walked up and down the length of the wall, touching and whispering and listening to each point to determine the boundaries of the illusion, the soldiers built four great pyres on the riverbank. It was nearly sundown before they’d completed their task; Mayrat’s instinct had been to prepare the attack under cover of darkness, but no, Anar had told her, for a group of creatures accustomed to living in fire-lit caverns underground, darkness covered nothing.

Behind her stood Naq, his two generals, and Anar as beastly as she’d been when Mayrat had met her, and behind them the men in fierce formation, arms at the ready, looking on the edge of attack. In fact, they had all been given orders in no uncertain terms to hold ground, not take it. If everything went well, stubbed toes and sore backs might well be the worst casualties. Strength could draw blood, but it could also make bloodshed unnecessary. That could be part of her reputation as well.

She raised her hands as though to touch the wall, even though she stood now on the far side of the river. That was all right; she wasn’t reaching for the wall anyway. She shut her eyes and reached out instead with her mind. Illusions were acts of power and will, and she had come to this challenge with superior power and superior will — at least, she had to hope that was true, because if it wasn’t, she didn’t stand a chance.

Her fingers began to close as though grabbing handfuls of drapery fabric, and she could feel the material of the conjuring bend and buckle in her grip. It was old magic, stronger for aging, but weaker for having been taken for granted so long. She drew back her hands just a fraction, just enough so that the physical gesture helped her concentration know what her power had to do, and she heard from behind her a sea of muted gasps. This must be the place.

“Hurry,” said Anar from behind her, in her deep dragon’s growl. “They know something’s wrong.”

Mayrat wanted to hurry — wanted to have this all over and done with as soon as possible, in fact — but the illusion clung stubbornly to the real rock around it, disguising its edges. Mayrat dug her heels into the ground and gritted her teeth as she pulled, feeling her breath rasp from her nostrils. The coming night air brought with it a breeze that turned the sweat that beaded her forehead to ice. “Come on, you bastard,” she muttered under her breath.

At last, she felt something snap. She worried first that it had been inside her, but moments later she felt another of the illusion’s anchors give way, and then another, and then she tore her arms down to her sides with all the force she had in both body and mind as the whole rock wall gave up its claim on existing. She opened her eyes in time to see it shimmer and fade, falling forward as though to crash into the ground, but never completing the journey. In its place stood a great dark maw, a cave that opened into pitch darkness. Breathless, Mayrat wanted nothing better than to fall over right then and there, but she knew her task was only halfway done.

She thrust her hands into the air in a great sweep — like little girls tossing flower petals into the air at a spring festival, she’d once heard while eavesdropping on some musty old professor’s lecture — and on either side of her, great pyres burst to life. Laced through with sulphur powder, the fires sent huge clouds of noxious yellow smoke belching up toward the darkening sky. She opened her mouth to shout the cue, but there was no need — Anar was already there, batting her wings into a storm much larger than her size might have suggested she could make. The wind whipped the smoke into curls and sent it into the cave, where some of it trickled out, but most disappeared into the black void. Mayrat’s hair and skirts whipped around her as she stood in the midst of the blazes, holding her ground. Sparks flew from the pyres and singed little black marks into her clothes, but those embers that landed on her skin were brushed away with the next gust of air; fire would not burn itself.

After what seemed like hours but could have been no more than a few minutes, Anar stopped and came to rest beside Mayrat. “Your turn,” she said, gesturing toward the cave. “Speak; they’re listening.”

Little in her life had prepared her for a career of extortion, but Mayrat had always been one to learn on the job. “I am the illusionist Mayrat af-Qash,” she declared to the darkness, not expecting her name to mean anything yet, but wanting it there anyway. “You have been found out.”

There was a moment’s pause, and then Anar nodded. “They want to know why you’re doing this.”

“You sit on treasure unearned, taken from my people for no reason but to satisfy your own greed.” Mayrat neglected to clarify that no one she knew personally had ever been a victim of the dragons’ practices, but she hoped that shared humanity would suffice for a bond. “You demand tribute from those in need to satisfy needs you do not have. It is cruel and it is unjust, and it will not stand.”

The ground began to rumble, then to shake, and then a great roar poured from the cave that coalesced into a word: “Unjust?” The voice was like Anar’s, only larger and more terrifying; Mayrat could only imagine the size of the chest in which the sound began. “A thief demands a ransom and calls her victim unjust?

Anar exhaled sharply. “You should hear what they’re calling me,” she said under her breath.

“I am not a thief,” said Mayrat, hoping that she might claim it with enough confidence that she herself began to believe it. “I want nothing from you but that which humans have given you in the first place. Gold and treasures to fill five wagons, and then we will be gone. The secret of this place will be kept, and we will disturb you no further.”

And if we refuse?” asked the great unseen dragon.

Mayrat made the pyres flare high again with a clap of her hands — only for a moment, but enough of a warning. “Then no one breathes easy tonight, or for a long time after.”

That brought a great angry growl from the cave, and Mayrat braced herself, but Anar shook her head. “They’re thinking,” she said. “They’re angry but they’re thinking.”

“And why aren’t you the one giving the ultimatum here?” asked Mayrat.

Anar shrugged as much as her stocky shoulders would let her. “To a dragon? You’re far more threatening than I am.”

Before Mayrat could even scoff at that idea, the voice spoke again: “There are more of us, and more ways out. Only a few of our number would be needed to come and swallow you all whole.”

“Of course you could,” said Mayrat, and she tried not to smile as she heard the men shift uncomfortably behind her. “But you’d have to get us all, and even then, you have no idea who else we’ve told of this location. When we haven’t returned in a fortnight, the message goes out to other lands, and you’ll have more than a few fires on your doorstep to contend with. The gold, and you have my word on my honor and my name that no other kings or magicians shall know.”

Mayrat hadn’t realized how well things had been going, hadn’t measured how confident she’d begun to feel, until she heard a voice from behind her that made her heart plummet into her stomach. “The gold now,” said Naq, strutting forward to the place where she stood and bellowing into the cave mouth, “and once a year, the same.”

Anar stiffened and Mayrat drew horrified breath as the voice spoke again: “Another little thief?

“Thief? I am Duke Naq ar-Javan ar-Baresh ar-Dain ar-Hamisar!” he shouted, and Mayrat felt certain in that moment that as little as her title may have impressed the dragons, his did even less so. She wanted to stop him, to throw herself on top of him and gag him with his own turban and break his neck if it came to that, but she was paralyzed; she could barely find air enough to breathe, much less to speak. “And I demand tribute as it is due to me! Give me what I am owed, or else I order my wizard to push the fires as deep as they can go, and I wait until I’ve smoked you all out to take what I want.”

Mayrat took back every kind estimation she’d ever made of him: he was an idiot, a complete idiot, the lord high king of all idiots, and he was an idiot most of all because he wasn’t an idiot, but he’d let his greed twist him that way. He’d heard the beginnings of weakness in the dragon’s voice and had taken that not as a sign of success, but as an indication that he should push on. He’d violated his own wisdom he’d shown in waiting to accept Mayrat’s offer, and now it was all going wrong. In an instant, Mayrat’s plans began to shift from how she was going to receive the ransom to how she was going to escape with her life.

Greedy monsters,” hissed the dragon in the cave, and Mayrat’s heart stuttered as she saw the dim, cold light of flame flicker deep inside the darkness. “Petty little lives.

“You’ve lost!” yelled Mayrat, running forward until her bare feet splashed at the river’s edge; she didn’t know if she could take control again, but she had to try. “Accept so now while you can choose your terms!”

We do not bow,” roared the dragon from inside, and now it was close enough to the cave’s entrance that Mayrat could see the contours of its body. It was a long, sinuous thing, with a serpentine neck and pearly grey scales; its black eyes reflected predatory moons of light as it looked at her. “No human will threaten us again. What is ours, we keep.

Mayrat braced herself against the coming fire, but what caught her attention instead was the water around her feet — the deep, slow river began to shake, sending strange ripples from the bank to its center and back again. Once, as a child, she’d been playing near one of Kaluma’s many fountains when a tall temple had collapsed quite suddenly. She’d been too young to understand at the time what such a thing might mean, either in human or in spiritual terms, but she had remembered the way the shocks had caused the one-still waters to splash violently against the walls that held them in. She hadn’t thought about that in years; now, standing as waves crashed against her ankles, the memory flooded her mind.

“Mayrat!” shouted Anar, and Mayrat turned to see Anar’s great red body rushing toward her — only it wasn’t rushing, it was expanding, and it wasn’t red, it was turning grey. Terror widened Anar’s crimson eyes, and then they too filmed over, as prettily as frost might form on the top of a small puddle. Mayrat started to run to Anar’s side, but the ground split open and tossed her back — and then tossed her upward, shooting toward the sky. From there, she could only watch as Anar’s wings shot out from her back, only to come down again as stony mounds. They were turning her to stone.

Another pair of sharp petrified wings roared out of the ground behind her, sending a shower of stone chips tumbling down, and Mayrat realized she was wrong: They were all turning to stone.

Far below her, the men had scattered, their training forgotten as they ran in all directions. She thought she saw some escape, but others were caught as the ground picked up beneath them and soared up into the clouds. A sudden jolt made her lose her balance, then took away her footing entirely as what had once been a riverbank turned into a steep incline. Mayrat scrambled for something to hold, bloodying her fingers as she grabbed at rock that might once have been a tooth or a tail. There was no way to tell anymore; even the figure that had been Anar had been distorted out of any recognizable shape.

Trees ripped from the ground as great chasms swallowed and churned them to splinters, sending roots and branches flying. Mayrat caught the root of a great cedar that must have been thousands of years old, popped up from its place as though it were little more than a pulled weed from her garden. Around her, great spires of stone lurched into the sky, churning what had once been rolling grassland into a nightmarish terrain of jagged edges. The sound was unbearable, great roars and groans as huge boulders smashed together and whole shelves of rock grated against one another.

Her body smashed into a rising pillar of rock, making her cry out in pain as both her shoulder and her head ripped open. The world swam in front of her eyes, leaving her only enough sense to realize that she could see her breath in the cold air. That was strange, she thought absently, since it had been so warm earlier that day. Then something else hard caught the back of her head, and she took the opportunity to pass out.

~*~

The world was so quiet when Mayrat woke that she thought she might have gone deaf. Or died, she amended, she might be dead. She moved her arm and yelped as she saw white bursts of pain behind her eyes, then concluded that she was neither, though that didn’t make her feel altogether better. Gritting her teeth through the pain, she touched the back of her head. Her hand came away bloody, but the blood was mostly dry. She had no idea if that was a good sign or not.

She’d lost her grip on the root during her ordeal, but the cedar had come with her, and it had wedged itself a few feet above her, blocking most of the debris and leaving her a makeshift shelter — though even that was a polite term for where she found herself. Sheltered from the elements on most sides, she still wasn’t anywhere anyone would consider a hospitable location. A quick shifting of her limbs assured her that nothing was broken, though everything was bruised and sore. That was as close as she came to good news now, though; she had no provisions and lacked any sense of where she was.

She was also cold, she realized, and not just chilly, but cold. She’d read books by visitors to the north, and she’d spent days under the hot desert sun dreaming of what a glorious thing it would be to be in crisp, icy winter. But a few flakes had started to blow in to her little den, covering her feet, and she took no time in revising her opinion.

She also noticed that she was having trouble breathing, as though the air weren’t doing its job. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath and heard a gurgling in her lungs as she pressed it back out. If only she had taken the educational path of the dryads; maybe then she’d have a way to make herself whole again, or at least to make her head stop feeling like it had been smashed against several rocks. She rubbed her eyes, but the world had taken on a blur she couldn’t erase.

Well, she wasn’t going to sit around feeling sorry for herself. Grasping once more at the tree root but careful not to pull it all down on top of her, she pulled herself to her feet, then held on tight until she no longer felt the ground sway. She drew in as much air as her lungs could hold, then blew it out in a warm gust that lifted both her body temperature and the temperature of the enclosure several degrees. She couldn’t burn, but she could easily freeze, and she’d have to hope that the fire in her could hold out long enough to–

To what? It was a fair question, and she was being honest enough with herself that she had to admit, she didn’t know. But there was no way of figuring out in here, so she took several more warming breaths until even her fingers and toes had regained some feeling, then stepped out.

Her first view of the landscape was disorienting — the sky was the clear pinked blue of dawn, but someone had replaced the ground with a rolling silver fog. Several other sharp stony peaks poked their heads out over its slow waves, their peaks dusted lightly with bright white snow. She’d never seen such a low fog, she thought, before realizing that it wasn’t fog; she’d been lifted above the clouds. Her bare feet crunched against frost and rocks as she trudged farther out, stopping every few steps so she could catch her breath again. The pounding in her head was so fierce she considered self-decapitation as a solution, one which seemed even more reasonable as the sun broke over the horizon and assaulted her with light. Wincing, she turned away and waited for her eyes to stop watering.

Daylight burned away the clouds in short order, revealing a landscape that would have been breathtaking if she had been atop it on purpose. The first rays of dawn painted the sides of the mountains rosy pink — and they were mountains indeed, ones where no mountains had been so shortly before. They were crisp and sharp, like ridges down a dragon’s spine. Raising her hand to shield her eyes, Mayrat could see glimpses of the land they’d crossed to get here, proving that she hadn’t gone far, just high.

What she didn’t see, however, was a way down. She staggered close to the edge, only to find herself looking over sharp drops that made her ill with vertigo. Hell of a way to discover the nuances of her fear of heights. And here she’d thought flying–

The thought of Anar hit her as sharply as the rock had, and she tried to push it down, but the memory of Anar’s face kept pushing right back. She’d been so afraid at the end, so pained and horrified, and Mayrat had been responsible for getting her into this, or at least for making her stupid idea possible. And it had been a stupid idea, she could see that clearly now, and she’d been stupid for indulging in it. She was a thief, and a miserable little monster to boot, and knowing this about herself just made her double over on all fours and retch until she coughed up stomach acid. After all this, it was right that she should be stuck here. She deserved to die.

Of course, what Mayrat deserved and what she accepted for herself were two different things, and after a moment, she slapped herself in the face. It hurt, but pain was clarity. “Stop it, you ninny,” she told herself, surprised at how well the sound carried at such an altitude. “You are an adult, and you are going to act like it.”

What was she going to do? She couldn’t get back down, and even if there were a path, she had no supplies and no guarantee of how long it would be before she met someone who could help her. She was alone.

“Right, well, if you can’t go down,” she said, pushing herself to her feet with great and pained effort, “you go up.”

Up? Up was a stupid choice. How could that possibly help her situation?

“I don’t know, and I don’t care, and if you don’t go, I’ll hit you again.” She raised her hand and looked at it, nodding to tell herself that she meant it. After a moment, she sighed and clenched both her hands into fists, then started up.

The first steps were painful but almost exciting, spurred on by a distant hope. Up was a direction, and one that contained the possibility that something might be different — something good, something useful. She stopped every few seconds and gulped in air, then blew it out in great breaths as she focused on warming her extremities. Progress was slow but steady, and she felt certain that it would get easier if she could just get a little farther. There was a small rise ahead of her, where she could surely see more and better paths to take. Things were looking up.

By the time she made it to the rise, the sun had crawled several degrees across the sky and she had come to realize just how little sense of perspective she had up here. A boulder she’d estimated to be as tall as she was turned out, when she finally reached its side, to be over ten times her height. She rested a hand against its side, bracing herself as she caught her breath — then yelped and jumped back as something about the rock’s contours made her certain that what she’d touched had once been an eye, engorged by petrification.

“You idiots,” she muttered to herself — and then, filled with a sudden stab of anger, she turned back the way she’d come and screamed: “You idiots!” The mountains’ only reply was her own voice, bounced back to her in ever-diminishing echo form. The only thing, it seemed, that listened less than dragons did was stone. And yet, as a woman who’d once nearly burned down her house to spite a pesky dragon, she had to respect their decision. It had been nothing if not effective.

By the time the sun had reached its zenith, she had settled on a destination. The nearest peak, connected to where she was by a thin, exposed ridge, was not sharp like all the others, but instead appeared smooth and round. Furthermore, she could see great cracks up its side, which seemed to her exhausted, dehydrated brain the best possible way to return to the caverns that had once existed beneath the plains. Maybe the whole transformation had been an illusion, and the hollowed-out earth still held its reptilian inhabitants, tucked comfortably away, pleased with themselves and their cleverness. As possibilities went, she had to believe it could be true, because she was running out of other reasons to keep moving.

There was only a little snow on the mountainside, seeing as it hadn’t even existed until a few hours before, but there was enough that she could gather some and melt it to drink. She was sweating now with exertion and the sun’s rays beating down on her, but the wind still blew cold, taking that warmth away from her. As she walked, she also began to notice that she was developing a cough, a raspy little hack that made her lungs and throat ache. Nothing about this altitude was kind.

As she walked, her mind wandered, and she found herself thinking about the duke and his men. Dead, she assumed, unless a few of them had managed to run far enough fast enough; the mountains stretched on for miles in all directions, though, leaving her unable to imagine how far and fast that could have been. And any that had survived the rise would likely have frozen to death. She felt bad about that — she hadn’t promised them a safe return, it was true, but she had believed in one, and she had made them believe with her. At least her ill repute would not survive her, she thought with a grim humor, and her bitter little laugh became another cough.

She couldn’t think of Anar, but Anar pressed against her mind anyway. Had she known this might be a possibility? No, the look on her face had been terror, but it had also been confusion. She hadn’t known what was happening even as she was drawn against her will along with the others. Idiots, perhaps, but idiots who didn’t believe in leaving anyone behind. And now they were all together, and their treasure was safe, and they would never be blackmailed by humans over that secret again. It was hard to argue with logic like that..

Careless with her footing, she stepped in a pile of loose rock and went down — not far, but enough to bring her to her hands and knees, and to slice her lower lip on a jagged outcropping. That pain startled tears to her eyes, and she punched a fist into the ground, not caring how it opened barely healed cuts. “Anar,” she said, gasping out the only word she could think to say. “Anar, I’m sorry, Anar, Anar.”

“Don’t be sorry,” a familiar voice said. “Walk.”

Mayrat’s heart leapt in her chest, and she raised her head to see a pair of pudgy red feet standing just beside her face. With a cry of joy, she grabbed for them — and felt that cry turn to anguish as her hand fell through them as though they were smoke.

“No,” said Anar, stepping back, “you’re still too weak, I–” She reached out her hand as though to help Mayrat up, then pulled her arms back. “I’m barely here. But you’ve got to get up.”

“How…?” Mayrat felt her lip throb as she tried to question what she saw before her.

“I told you, you have power.” Anar looked off toward the west, toward the too-quickly setting sun. “But it’s fading fast. You’ve got to get to shelter.”

She was hallucinating, she was dying — but at least she could feel better that she wasn’t alone. “Just … just stay with me….” Mayrat shut her eyes and rested her head against the rock. It was cold, but so was she, and soon enough they’d be the same temperature. No fire burned forever. Magic either ate its practitioners young or preserved them, and she’d been lucky enough to find herself in the latter category. Ninety-five was good, and it was more than most people got. Maybe it was time to go.

“You stupid bitch!” Anar’s shout cracked at Mayrat’s ears like a whip, and its echoes stung no less. “You wanted to rule the world, and now you’re going to die up here? Pathetic! Those men were right to make fun of you!”

Insults had never sounded so sweet. “You’re just trying to make me mad,” Mayrat said with a tired smile.

“You stupid, selfish bitch, I am trying to save your life!” Anar kicked at a pile of rocks, though her feet passed right through them. She wasn’t even standing, but hovering, floating at an approximation of ground level. Mayrat had never conjured unconsciously before; absently, she was impressed with herself. She had her eyes half-closed again before Anar snapped at her again: “I’m trying to save my life!”

That was odd. “What do you mean?” asked Mayrat, lifting her weary head.

Anar pointed toward her feet. “I’m down there. Somewhere in the stone, I am. We all are, but we’re fading. Soon we won’t be anything but rock, and I won’t be anything but rock, but somehow you called me out and brought me here. This is all that’s left of me. And if you go, I go. You give up, and you kill me too.”

She felt rage boiling up through her bones. She wanted to hit Anar, to hit something, to choke every dragon, to find Naq and stab his (surely dead by now, cold comfort though that was) body repeatedly, to scream, to call down fire. She settled for getting her bloodied hands underneath her body. Bracing against the surest stone she could find, she took a deep breath and shoved herself up from the ground.

“That’s it,” said Anar, and though Mayrat couldn’t see her face, she could hear tears of relief in Anar’s voice. “Come on, you awful old hag, walk.”

“Shut up, you fat lizard,” Mayrat gritted through teeth clenched with effort and pain. Her body hurt in places she hadn’t known she’d had.

“Crazy old witch.”

“Bossy mannerless reptile.”

“Puny mortal mammal.”

“I–” Mayrat staggered forward, expecting to tumble again, but the ground held. “I am going to conjure you whole again just so I can set you on fire.”

“Do it.” Anar walked backward on ahead, keeping pace with Mayrat, giving her a steady goal and a sense of perspective. “But you’ve got to live first.” And the bastard part of it, Mayrat knew, was she was right.

The sky had grown so dark by the time she reached her destination that she didn’t see that she’d arrived so much as feel the bitter wind cease. “Don’t stop,” said Anar, beckoning her forward with the same pleading tone she’d used the last several hours for alternating encouragement and insults. She was, in fact, so creative with her insults — delving into an extensive knowledge of grotesque subterranean creatures to compare Mayrat to — that Mayrat had become a bit more convinced with every labored step that she wasn’t hallucinating. Her own hallucinations, she felt, would be more polite.

“Just a second,” said Mayrat, reaching out a hand to brace herself. The walls here were cool and smooth, yet felt to Mayrat unlike all the other rock she’d spent the past day stumbling over. “Let me sit down.”

“If you sit down, you smelly ear-grub, you will never get back up again and you know it. Now look up.”

Mayrat did, not knowing what she was expected to see in the near-darkness — and certainly not expecting to see what she did. A pinprick of light shone from just above her. Using what little strength she had left in her frozen limbs, she drew a flame to life in her hand. The chamber where she found herself was too large for the light to reach its walls, though, so she took a deep breath and blew on the flame, sending its sparks high and lighting the air.

She shouted and flattened herself back against the wall as her eyes finally made sense of what surrounded her: a dragon, five times as large as Anar had ever been, though ghostly white and skeletal, and tucked in on itself. The feel of the wall finally connected in her mind with the sense-memory of helping her mother make the evening meal long ago. “Eggshells,” she whispered.

Lit beneath one of the flickering orbs, Anar nodded. “Don’t stop,” she said again. “You’re almost there. But the last thing you need to be a dragon is a dragon heart.”

A heart — that’s what it was, shimmering in the darkness. The poor creature in here had never made it past its shell, but here its innermost core kept beating. “I’ll–” Mayrat swallowed as she stepped forward, trying not to yelp as she realized what she stubbed her toes against were thick carpals, even in their fossilized state more bonelike than the grey stone Anar’s body had become. “I’ll kill it.”

“He’s already dead,” said Anar. “As dead as I am, at least, and no deader than you will be soon. But maybe if you can get to it, you can save all three of us.”

She’d lived in desert climates all her life and was no stranger to bones; she did not butcher animals herself, but did not object to the act, and often bought and cleaned carcasses for her own meals. Even so, making herself touch the baby dragon’s skeleton was an act of sheer willpower. It was smooth and cold, but she couldn’t shake the feeling it might close around her and crush her at any moment. Step by hesitant step, she made her way around curled wing and up arm bones, then stepped between its great ribs into its chest cavity. It couldn’t have been that large in life, but magic had distorted it until it had the same monstrous scale as all its kin.

Mayrat swallowed. “Now what?”

“Take it,” said Anar.

Mayrat extended her bruised hand toward the glowing object, then hesitated and drew it back. “Are you sure?” It was smaller than her fist and bright yellow, bright enough in the darkness to make her eyes ache. It was smooth, too, not the shape of a heart, but more spherical, like a gem from an expert jeweler’s hands. It was beautiful.

“All dragon hearts are made of stone.” Anar lay a hand across her chest. “Some old legends say we were mountains to begin with, that all the gems and metals we mine are just our ancestors’ bodies and blood.”

“Is that supposed to be an answer?” Mayrat grabbed the side of one rib for balance, then reached her hand out and closed her fist around the heart.

Great flames shot out from the point of contact, burning through the whole eggshell and out into the night, and Mayrat fell back, but kept her grip tight. The first thing she noticed as she landed hard against the spine was that she wasn’t cold anymore — in fact, she hadn’t even realized how cold she’d become until the chill had vanished from her body. She could feel all her extremities, and though the ache wasn’t pleasant, it was preferable to the gnawing numbness. The cold was still there, but she no longer had to mind it.

The second thing was a pair of arms wrapping around her, real arms, sturdy arms, bright red arms. Anar cradled her, and she clung back with one hand, her other one still clawed around the heart. She could feel its beating match hers, as though it were pumping blood through both of them now — no, better than blood, magic. She was still weak and exhausted from her ordeal, but she felt filled again, rejuvenated, recharged. Weary as she was, she was no longer so tired she thought she might die of it.

And the third thing was a baby’s cry, so strange and hollow that she took a moment to convince herself she’d heard it at all. But after a moment, she lifted her head and looked at Anar, expecting some sort of explanation. Anar looked as confused as she, though, and presently they helped one another to their feet.

There in the hollow where the heart had been lay a baby — a human baby, in fact, small and wriggling. And male, Mayrat noted with some absent amusement. Keeping her fist tight around the heart, she scooped her arm under the boy and lifted him to her chest, where he stopped squalling almost immediately. She’d expected him to be frozen in this air, but he was as comfortably cool as she, and being tucked up to her chest seemed to be all he’d wanted. She was sure she’d lived stranger days in her life, but she couldn’t name when.

He was as chalk-white as Anar was red, though his eyes as he opened them were bright glacial blue. Mayrat felt a hand on her shoulder and turned to let Anar see, hoping again that Anar might have some special insight. Instead, though, Anar extended her other hand toward the baby, who wrapped a fist around her thumb and seemed content with the arrangement. “What do we do now?” she asked, her voice soft.

Mayrat thought about dragons and dukes and obligation. She thought about expectations, of herself and of others, and about rumors and expectations, and about reputations good and ill. She thought about restrictions others had placed on her and she had placed on herself. They all seemed so small now, so many thousands of feet away, insubstantial in such high, thin air. Even power as she’d regarded it only days before was ashes in her mouth. So many things had died so recently, so suddenly — including Anar. Including herself, for that matter, for all it mattered to anyone. And the dead were under no obligations at all.

“Now?” she echoed, feeling a freeing smile lift the corners of her mouth. “Anything we want.”

Author’s Notes

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