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Naomi Novik

Grey smoke billowed up around me and into my nose and mouth, choking me, stilling me. It stung in my eyes, and I couldn’t blink, I couldn’t reach up to rub them, my arms refusing to answer. The coughs caught in my throat and stopped; my whole body froze slowly into place, still in a crouch on the floor. But I didn’t feel afraid anymore, and after a moment not even uncomfortable. I was somehow at once endlessly heavy and weightless, distant. I heard the Dragon’s footsteps very faintly and far-off as he came and stood over me, and I didn’t care what he would do.

He stood there looking down at me with cold impatience. I didn’t try to guess what he would do; I could neither think nor wonder. The world was very grey and still.

“No,” he said after a moment, “—no, you can’t possibly be a spy.”

He turned and left me there, for some time—I couldn’t have told you how long, it could have been an hour or a week or a year, though later I learned it had been only half a day. Then at last he returned, with a displeased set look to his mouth. He held up a small raggedy thing that had once been a piglet, knitted of wool and stuffed with straw, before I had dragged it behind me through the woods for the first seven years of my life. “So,” he said, “no spy. Only a witling.”

Then he laid his hand on my head and said, “Tezavon tahozh, tezavon tahozh kivi, kanzon lihush.”

He didn’t so much recite the words as chant them, almost like a song, and as he spoke color and time and breath came back into the world; my head came free and I shied out from under his hand. The stone was slowly fading out of my flesh. My arms came loose, flailing for a grip on anything while my still-stone legs held me locked in place. He caught my wrists, so when I finally came loose all the way I was held by his hand, with no chance of flight.

I didn’t try to run, though. My suddenly free thoughts ran around in a dozen directions, as though they were catching up with lost time, but it seemed to me he might have just left me stone, if he’d wanted to do something terrible to me, and at least he had stopped thinking me some sort of spy. I didn’t understand why he thought anyone would have wanted to spy on him, much less the king; he was the king’s wizard, wasn’t he?

“And now you’ll tell me: what were you doing?” he said. His eyes were still suspicious and cold and glittering.

“I only wanted a book to read,” I said. “I didn’t—I didn’t think there was any harm—”

“And you happened to take Luthe’s Summoning off the shelf for a little reading,” he said, cuttingly sarcastic, “and merely by chance—” until perhaps my alarmed and blank look convinced him, and he halted and looked at me with unconcealed irritation. “What an unequaled gift for disaster you have.”

Then he scowled down, and I followed his look to the shards of the glass jar around our feet: he hissed his breath out between his teeth and said abruptly, “Clean that up, and then come to the library. And don’t touch anything else.”

He stalked away, leaving me to go hunt out some rags from the kitchens to pick up the glass with, and a bucket: I washed the floor as well, though there wasn’t a trace of anything spilled, as though the magic had burned off like the liquor on a pudding. I kept stopping and lifting my hand up from the stone floor to turn it over front and back, making sure the stone wasn’t creeping back up my fingertips. I couldn’t help but wonder why he had a jar of that on his shelf, and whether he’d ever used it on someone else—someone who had become a statue somewhere, standing with fixed eyes, time eddying past them; I shuddered.

I was very, very careful not to touch anything else in the room.

The book I’d taken was back upon the shelf when at last I girded myself and went into the library. He was pacing, his own book on its small table thrust aside and neglected, and when I came in he scowled at me again. I looked down: my skirt was marked with wet tracks from the mopping, and it had been too short to begin with, barely halfway down my calves. The sleeves of my shift were worse: I’d got some egg on the ends that morning, making his breakfast, and had singed the elbow a little getting the toast off before it burned.

“We’ll begin with that, then,” the Dragon said. “I needn’t be offended every time I have to look at you.”

I shut my mouth on apologies: if I began to apologize for being untidy, I’d be apologizing the rest of my life. I could tell from only a few days in the tower that he loved beautiful things. Even his legions of books were none of them exactly alike: their leather bindings in different colors, their clasps and hinges of gold and sometimes even dotted with small chips of jewels. Anything that anyone might rest their eyes on, whether a small blown-glass cup upon the window-sill here in the library, or the painting in my room, was beautiful, and set aside in its own place where it might shine without distractions. I was a glaring blot on the perfection. But I didn’t care: I didn’t feel I owed him beauty.

He beckoned me over, impatiently, and I took a wary step towards him; he took my hands and crossed them over my chest, fingertips on each opposite shoulder, and said, “Now: vanastalem.”

I stared at him in mute rebellion. The word when he said it rang in my ears just like the other spell he’d used me for. I could feel it wanting to come into my mouth, to drain away my strength.

He caught me by the shoulder, his fingers gripping painfully hard; I felt the heat of each one penetrating through my shirt. “I may have to put up with incompetence; I won’t tolerate spinelessness,” he said. “Say it.”

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