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Naomi Novik

The Dragon’s tower stood in the foothills on the western border of his lands. All our long valley lay spread out to the east, with its villages and farms, and standing in the window I could trace the whole line of the Spindle, running silver-blue down the middle with the road dusty brown next to it. The road and the river ran together all the way to the other end of the Dragon’s lands, dipping into stands of forest and coming out again at villages, until the road tapered out to nothing just before the huge black tangle of the Wood. The river went on alone into its depths and vanished, never to come out again.

There was Olshanka, the town nearest the tower, where the Grand Market was held on Sundays: my father had taken me there, twice. Beyond that Poniets, and Radomsko curled around the shores of its small lake, and there was my own Dvernik with its wide green square. I could even see the big white tables laid out for the feasting the Dragon hadn’t wanted to stay for, and I slid to my knees and rested my forehead on the sill and cried like a child.

But my mother didn’t come to rest her hand on my head; my father didn’t pull me up and laugh me out of my tears. I just sobbed myself out until I had too much of a headache to go on crying, and after that I was cold and stiff from being on that painfully hard floor, and I had a running nose and nothing to wipe it with.

I used another part of my skirt for that and sat down on the bed, trying to think what to do. The room was empty, but aired-out and neat, as if it had just been left. It probably had. Some other girl had lived here for ten years, all alone, looking down at the valley. Now she had gone home to say good-bye to her family, and the room was mine.

A single painting in a great gilt frame hung on the wall across from the bed. It made no sense, too grand for the little room and not really a picture at all, just a broad swath of pale green, grey-brown at the edges, with one shining blue-silver line that wove across the middle in gentle curves and narrower silver lines drawn in from the edges to meet it. I stared at it and wondered if it was magic, too. I’d never seen such a thing.

But there were circles painted at places along the silver line, at familiar distances, and after a moment I realized the painting was the valley, too, only flattened down the way a bird might have looked down upon it from far overhead. That silver line was the Spindle, running from the mountains into the Wood, and the circles were villages. The colors were brilliant, the paint glossy and raised in tiny peaks. I could almost see waves on the river, the glitter of sunlight on the water. It pulled the eye and made me want to look at it and look at it. But I didn’t like it, at the same time. The painting was a box drawn around the living valley, closing it up, and looking at it made me feel closed up myself.

I looked away. It didn’t seem that I could stay in the room. I hadn’t eaten a bite at breakfast, or at dinner the night before; it had all been ash in my mouth. I should have had less appetite now, when something worse than anything I’d imagined had happened to me, but instead I was painfully hungry, and there were no servants in the tower, so no one was going to get my dinner. Then the worse thought occurred to me: what if the Dragon expected me to get his?

And then the even worse thought than that: what about after dinner? Kasia had always said she believed the women who came back, that the Dragon didn’t put a hand on them. “He’s taken girls for a hundred years now,” she always said firmly. “One of them would have admitted it, and word would have got out.”

But a few weeks ago, she’d asked my mother, privately, to tell her how it happened when a girl was married—to tell her what her own mother would have, the night before she was wed. I’d overheard them through the window, while I was coming back from the woods, and I’d stood there next to the window and listened in with hot tears running down my face, angry, so angry for Kasia’s sake.

Now that was going to be me. And I wasn’t brave—I didn’t think that I could take deep breaths, and keep from clenching up tight, like my mother had told Kasia to do so it wouldn’t hurt. I found myself imagining for one terrible moment the Dragon’s face so close to mine, even closer than when he’d inspected me at the choosing—his black eyes cold and glittering like stone, those iron-hard fingers, so strangely warm, drawing my dress away from my skin, while he smiled that sleek satisfied smile down at me. What if all of him was fever-hot like that, so I’d feel him almost glowing like an ember, all over my body, while he lay upon me and—

I shuddered away from my thoughts and stood up. I looked down at the bed, and around at that small close room with nowhere to hide, and then I hurried out and went back down the hall again. There was a staircase at the end, going down in a close spiral, so I couldn’t see what was around the next turn. It sounds stupid to be afraid of going down a staircase, but I was terrified. I nearly went back to my room after all. At last I kept one hand on the smooth stone wall and went down slowly, putting both my feet on one step and stopping to listen before I went down a little more.

After I’d crept down one whole turn like that, and nothing had jumped out at me, I began to feel like an idiot and started to walk more quickly. But then I went around another turn, and still hadn’t come to a landing; and another, and I started to be afraid again, this time that the stairs were magic and would just keep going forever, and—well. I started to go quicker and quicker, and then I skidded three steps down onto the next landing and ran headlong into the Dragon.

I was skinny, but my father was the tallest man in the village and I came up to his shoulder, and the Dragon wasn’t a big man. We nearly tumbled down the stairs together. He caught the railing with one hand, quick, and my arm with the other, and somehow managed to keep us from landing on the floor. I found myself leaning heavily on him, clutching at his coat and staring directly into his startled face. For one moment he was too surprised to be thinking, and he looked like an ordinary man startled by something jumping out at him, a little bit silly and a little bit soft, his mouth parted and his eyes wide.

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