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Naomi Novik

“Then you needn’t keep me!” I flared, angry and wounded—horse-faced stung.

“Much to my regret,” he said, “that’s where you’re wrong.”

He seized my hand by the wrist and whipped me around: he stood close behind me and stretched my arm out over the food on the table. “Lirintalem,” he said, a strange word that ran liquidly off his tongue and rang sharply in my ears. “Say it with me.”

“What?” I said; I’d never heard the word before. But he pressed closer against my back, put his mouth against my ear, and whispered, terrible, “Say it!”

I trembled, and wanting only for him to let me go said it with him, “Lirintalem,” while he held my hand out over the meal.

The air rippled over the food, horrible to see, like the whole world was a pond that he could throw pebbles in. When it smoothed again, the food was all changed. Where the baked eggs had been, a roast chicken; instead of the bowl of rabbit stew, a heap of tiny new spring beans, though it was seven months past their season; instead of the baked apple, a tartlet full of apples sliced paper-thin, studded with fat raisins and glazed over with honey.

He let go of me. I staggered with the loss of his support, clutching at the edge of the table, my lungs emptied as if someone had sat on my chest; I felt like I’d been squeezed for juice like a lemon. Stars prickled at the edge of my sight, and I leaned over half-fainting. I only distantly saw him looking down at the tray, an odd scowl on his face as though he was at once surprised and annoyed.

“What did you do to me?” I whispered, when I could breathe again.

“Stop whining,” he said dismissively. “It’s nothing more than a cantrip.” Whatever surprise he might have felt had vanished; he flicked his hand at the door as he seated himself at the table before his dinner. “All right, get out. I can see you’ll be wasting inordinate amounts of my time, but I’ve had enough for the day.”

I was glad to obey that, at least. I didn’t try to pick up the tray, only crept slowly out of the library, cradling my hand against my body. I was still stumbling-weak. It took me nearly half an hour to drag myself back up all the stairs to the top floor, and then I went into the little room and shut the door, dragged the dresser before it, and fell onto the bed. If the Dragon came to the door while I slept, I didn’t hear a thing.

Chapter 2

I didn’t see the Dragon for another four days. I spent them in the kitchen morning until night: I had found a few cookbooks there and was working through every recipe in them one after another, frantically, trying to become the most splendid cook anyone had ever heard of. There was enough food in the larder that I didn’t care what I wasted; if anything was bad, I ate it myself. I followed the advice and got his meals to the library exactly five minutes to the hour, and I covered the dishes and hurried. He was never there again when I came, so I was content, and I heard no complaints from him. There were some homespun clothes in a box in my room, which fit me more or less—my legs were bare from the knee down, my arms from the elbow down, and I had to tie them around my waist, but I was as tidy as I had ever been.

I didn’t want to please him, but I did want to keep him from ever doing that to me again, whatever that spell had been. I’d woken from dreams four times a night, feeling the word lirintalem on my lips and tasting it in my mouth as though it belonged there, and his hand burning hot on my arm.

Fear and work weren’t all bad, as companions went. They were both better than loneliness, and the deeper fears, the worse ones that I knew would come true: that I wouldn’t see my mother and my father for ten years, that I’d never live again in my own home, never run wild in the woods again, that whatever strange alchemy acted on the Dragon’s girls would soon begin to take hold of me, and make me into someone I wouldn’t recognize at the end of it. At least while I was chopping and sweltering away in front of the ovens, I didn’t have to think about any of that.

After a few days, when I realized that he wouldn’t come and use that spell on me at every meal, I stopped my frenzy of cooking. But then I found I had nothing else to do, even when I went looking for work. As large as the tower was, it didn’t need cleaning: no dust had gathered in the corners or the window-sills, not even on the tiny carved vines on the gilt frame.

I still didn’t like the map-painting in my room. Every night I imagined I heard a faint gurgle coming from it, like water running down a gutter, and every day it sat there on the wall in all its excessive glory, trying to make me look at it. After scowling at it, I went downstairs. I emptied out a sack of turnips in the cellar, ripped the seams, and used the cloth to cover it up. My room felt better at once with the gold and splendor of it hidden away.

I spent the rest of that morning looking out the window across the valley again, lonely and sick with longing. It was an ordinary work-day, so there were men in the fields gathering in the harvest and women at the river doing their washing. Even the Wood looked almost comforting to me, in its great wild impenetrable blackness: an unchanged constant. The big herd of sheep that belonged to Radomsko was grazing on the lower slopes of the mountains at the northern end of the valley; they looked like a wandering white cloud. I watched them roam awhile, and had a small weep, but even grief had its limits. By dinner-time I was horribly bored.

My family weren’t either poor or rich; we had seven books in our house. I’d only ever read four of them; I had spent nearly every day of my life more out-of-doors than not, even in winter and rain. But I didn’t have many other choices anymore, so when I brought the dinner tray to the library that afternoon, I looked over at the shelves. Surely there could be no harm in my taking one. The other girls must have taken books, since everyone always said how well read they were when they came out of service.

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