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Naomi Novik

My father’s hand was warm on my shoulder as he stood beside me and bowed; my mother’s hand was clenched tight on mine on the other side. They reluctantly stepped back with the other parents. Instinctively the eleven of us all edged closer to one another. Kasia and I stood near the end of the line. I didn’t dare take her hand, but I stood close enough that our arms brushed, and I watched the Dragon and hated him and hated him as he stepped down the line and tipped up each girl’s face, under the chin, to look at her.

He didn’t speak to all of us. He didn’t say a word to the girl next to me, the one from Olshanka, even though her father, Borys, was the best horse-breeder in the valley, and she wore a wool dress dyed brilliant red, her black hair in two long beautiful plaits woven with red ribbons. When it was my turn, he glanced at me with a frown—cold black eyes, pale mouth pursed—and said, “Your name, girl?”

“Agnieszka,” I said, or tried to say; I discovered my mouth was dry. I swallowed. “Agnieszka,” I said again, whispering. “My lord.” My face was hot. I dropped my eyes. I saw that for all the care I’d taken, my skirt had three big mud stains creeping up from the hem.

The Dragon moved on. And then he paused, looking at Kasia, the way he hadn’t paused for any of the rest of us. He stayed there with his hand under her chin, a thin pleased smile curving his thin hard mouth, and Kasia looked at him bravely and didn’t flinch. She didn’t try to make her voice rough or squeaky or anything but steady and musical as she answered, “Kasia, my lord.”

He smiled at her again, not pleasantly, but with a satisfied-cat look. He went on to the end of the line only perfunctorily, barely glancing at the two girls after her. I heard Wensa drag in a breath that was nearly a sob, behind us, as he turned and came back to look at Kasia, still with that pleased look on his face. And then he frowned again, and turned his head, and looked straight at me.

I’d forgotten myself and taken Kasia’s hand after all. I was squeezing the life out of it, and she was squeezing back. She quickly let go and I tucked my hands together in front of me instead, hot color in my cheeks, afraid. He only narrowed his eyes at me some more. And then he raised his hand, and in his fingers a tiny ball of blue-white flame took shape.

“She didn’t mean anything,” Kasia said, brave brave brave, the way I hadn’t been for her. Her voice was trembling but audible, while I shook rabbit-terrified, staring at the ball. “Please, my lord—”

“Silence, girl,” the Dragon said, and held his hand out towards me. “Take it.”

“I—what?” I said, more bewildered than if he’d flung it into my face.

“Don’t stand there like a cretin,” he said. “Take it.”

My hand was shaking so when I raised it that I couldn’t help but brush against his fingers as I tried to pluck the ball from them, though I hated to; his skin felt feverish-hot. But the ball of flame was cool as a marble, and it didn’t hurt me at all to touch. Startled with relief, I held it between my fingers, staring at it. He looked at me with an expression of annoyance.

“Well,” he said ungraciously, “you then, I suppose.” He took the ball out of my hand and closed his fist on it a moment; it vanished as quickly as it had come. He turned and said to Danka, “Send the tribute up when you can.”

I still hadn’t understood. I don’t think anyone had, even my parents; it was all too quick, and I was shocked by having drawn his attention at all. I didn’t even have a chance to turn around and say a last good-bye before he turned back and took my arm by the wrist. Only Kasia moved; I looked back at her and saw her about to reach for me in protest, and then the Dragon jerked me impatiently and ungently stumbling after him, and dragged me with him back into thin air.

I had my other hand pressed to my mouth, retching, when we stepped back out of the air. When he let go my arm, I sank to my knees and vomited without even seeing where I was. He made a muttered exclamation of disgust—I had spattered the long elegant toe of his leather boot—and said, “Useless. Stop heaving, girl, and clean that filth up.” He walked away from me, his heels echoing upon the flagstones, and was gone.

I stayed there shakily until I was sure nothing more would come up, and then I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and lifted my head to stare. I was on a floor of stone, and not just any stone, but a pure white marble laced through with veins of brilliant green. It was a small round room with narrow slitted windows, too high to look out of, but above my head the ceiling bent inward sharply. I was at the very top of the tower.

There was no furniture in the room at all, and nothing I could use to wipe up the floor. Finally I used the skirt of my dress: that was already dirty anyway. Then after a little time sitting there being terrified and more terrified, while nothing at all happened, I got up and crept timidly down the hallway. I’d have taken any way out of the room but the one he had used, if there had been any other way. There wasn’t.

He’d already gone on, though. The short hallway was empty. It had the same cold hard marble underfoot, illuminated with an unfriendly pale white light from hanging lamps. They weren’t real lamps, just big chunks of clear polished stone that glowed from inside. There was only one door, and then an archway at the end that led to stairs.

I pushed the door open and looked in, nervously, because that was better than going past it without knowing what was inside. But it only opened into a small bare room, with a narrow bed and a small table and a wash-basin. There was a large window across from me, and I could see the sky. I ran to it and leaned out over the sill.

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