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Uprooted(11)
Naomi Novik

I remembered being stone; what else could he do to me? I trembled and said, very soft, as if whispering could keep it from taking hold of me, “Vanastalem.”

My strength welled up through my body and fountained out of my mouth, and where it left me, a trembling in the air began and went curling down around my body in a spiraling path. I sank to the ground gasping in strangely vast skirts of rustling silk, green and russet brown. They pooled around my waist and swamped my legs, endless. My head bowed forward on my neck under the weight of a curved headdress, a veil spilling down my back, lace picked out with flowers in gold thread. I stared dully at the Dragon’s boots, the tooled leather of them: there were curling vines embossed upon them.

“Look at you, and over a nothing of a spell again,” he said over me, sounding exasperated with his own handiwork. “At least your appearance is improved. See if you can keep yourself in a decent state from now on. Tomorrow, we’ll try another.”

The boots turned and walked away from me. He sat down in his chair, I think, and went back to his reading; I don’t know for certain. After a while I crawled out of the library on my hands and knees, in that beautiful dress, without ever lifting my head.

The next few weeks blurred into one another. Every morning I woke a little before dawn and lay in my bed while my window brightened, trying to think of some way to escape. Every morning, having failed, I carried his breakfast tray to the library, and he cast another spell with me. If I hadn’t been able to keep myself neat enough—usually I hadn’t—he used vanastalem upon me first, and then a second spell, too. All my homespun dresses were vanishing one after another, and the unwieldy elaborate dresses dotted my bedroom like small mountains, so heavy with brocade and embroidery that they half stood up without me inside them. I could barely writhe my way out from under the skirts at bedtime, and the awful boned stays beneath them squeezed in my breath.

The aching fog never left me. After each morning, I crept shattered back to my chamber. I suppose the Dragon got his own dinner, because I certainly did nothing for him. I lay on my bed until supper-time, when usually I was able to creep back downstairs and get a simple meal, driven more by my own hunger than any concern for his needs.

The worst of it was not understanding: why was he using me this way? At night, before drowning in sleep, I imagined all the worst out of tales and fairy-stories, vampyrs and incubi drinking the life out of maidens, and swore in terror that in the morning I would find a way out. Of course, I never did. My only comfort was that I wasn’t the first: I told myself he’d done this to all those other girls before me, and they had come through it. It wasn’t much comfort: ten years seemed to me forever. But I grasped at any thought that could ease my misery even a little.

He gave me no comfort himself. He was irritated with me every time I came into his library, even on the few days that I managed to keep myself in good order: as though I were coming to annoy and interrupt him, instead of him tormenting and using me. And when he had finished working his magic through me and left me crumpled on the floor, he would scowl down at me and call me useless.

One day I tried to keep away entirely. I thought if I left his meal early, he might forget about me for a day. I laid his breakfast as dawn broke, then hurried away and hid in the back of the kitchens. But promptly at seven, one of his wisp-things, the ones I’d sometimes seen floating down the Spindle towards the Wood, came gliding down the stairs. Seen close, it was a misshapen soap-bubble thing, rippling and shifting, almost invisible unless the light caught on its iridescent skin. The wisp went bobbing in and out of corners, until at last it reached me and came to hover over my knees insistently. I stared up at it from my huddle and saw my own face looking back in ghostly outline. Slowly I unfolded myself and followed the wisp back up to the library, where he set aside his book and glared at me.

“As happy as I would be to forgo the very doubtful pleasure of watching you flop about like an exhausted eel over the least cantrip,” he bit out, “we’ve already seen the consequences of leaving you to your own devices. How much of a slattern have you made yourself today?”

I’d been making a desperate effort to keep myself tidy so I could at least avoid the first spell. Today I had only acquired a few small smudges making breakfast, and one streak of oil. I held a fold of my dress shut around that. But he was looking at me with distaste anyway, and when I followed the line of his gaze I saw to my dismay that while I had been hiding in the back of the kitchens, I had evidently picked up a cobweb—the one cobweb in all the tower, I suppose—which was now trailing from the back of my skirt like a thin ragged veil.

“Vanastalem,” I repeated with him, dully resigned, and watched a riotously beautiful wave of orange and yellow silk come sweeping up from the floor to surround me, like leaves blown down an autumn path. I swayed, breathing heavily, as he sat down again.

“Now then,” he said. He had set a stack of books upon the table, and with a shove he toppled them over into a loose and scattered heap. “To order them: darendetal.”

He waved his hand at the table. “Darendetal,” I mumbled along with him, and the spell came strangling out of my throat. The books on the table shuddered, and one after another lifted and spun into place like unnatural jeweled birds in their bindings of red and yellow and blue and brown.

This time, I didn’t sink to the floor: I only gripped the edge of the table with both hands and leaned against it. He was frowning at the stack. “What idiocy is this?” he demanded. “There’s no order here—look at this.”

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