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Naomi Novik

So I boldly went to a shelf and picked out a book that nearly called out to be touched: it was beautifully bound in a burnished leather the color of wheat that glowed in the candle-light, rich and inviting. Once I’d taken it out, I hesitated: it was bigger and heavier than any of my family’s books, and besides that the cover was engraved with beautiful designs painted in gold. But there was no lock on it, so I carried it away with me up to my room, half-guilty and trying to convince myself I was being foolish for feeling that way.

Then I opened it and felt even more foolish, because I couldn’t understand it at all. Not in the usual way, of not knowing the words, or not knowing what enough of them meant—I did understand them all, and everything that I was reading, for the first three pages, and then I paused and wondered, what was the book about? And I couldn’t tell; I had no idea what I’d just read.

I turned back and tried again, and once more I was sure that I was understanding, and all of it made perfect sense—better than perfect sense, even; it had the feeling of truth, of something that I’d always known and just hadn’t ever put into words, or of explaining clearly and plainly something I’d never understood. I was nodding with satisfaction, going along well, and this time I got to the fifth page before I realized again that I couldn’t have told anyone what was on the first page, or for that matter the page before.

I glared down at the book resentfully, and then I opened it to the first page again and started to read out loud, one word at a time. The words sang like birds out of my mouth, beautiful, melting like sugared fruit. I still couldn’t keep the train of it in my head, but I kept reading, dreamily, until the door smashed open.

I’d stopped barring my door with furniture by then. I was sitting on my bed, which I’d pushed under the window for the light, and the Dragon was directly across the room from me framed in the doorway. I froze in surprise and stopped reading, my mouth hanging open. He was furiously angry: his eyes were glittering and terrible, and he held out a hand and said, “Tualidetal.”

The book tried to jump out of my hands, to fly across the room to him. I blindly clutched after it from some badly misguided instinct. It wriggled against me, trying to go, but stupidly obstinate I gave it a jerk and managed to yank it back into my arms. He gaped at me and grew even more wildly angry; he stormed across the tiny chamber, while I belatedly tried to scramble up and back, but there was nowhere for me to go. He was on me in an instant, thrusting me flat down against my pillows.

“So,” he said, silkily, his hand pressed down upon my collarbone, pinning me easily to the bed. It felt as though my heart was thumping back and forth between my breastbone and my back, each beat shaking me. He plucked the book away with a hand—at least I wasn’t stupid enough to keep trying to hold on to it anymore—and tossed it with an easy flip so it landed upon the small table. “Agnieszka, was it? Agnieszka of Dvernik.”

He seemed to want an answer. “Yes,” I whispered.

“Agnieszka,” he murmured, bending low towards me, and I realized he meant to kiss me. I was terrified, and yet half-wanting him to do it and have it over with, so I wouldn’t have to be so afraid, and then he didn’t at all. He said, bent so close I could see my eyes reflected in his, “Tell me, dear Agnieszka, where are you really from? Did the Falcon send you? Or perhaps even the king himself?”

I stopped staring in terror at his mouth and darted my eyes towards his. “I—what?” I said.

“I will find out,” he said. “However skillful your master’s spell, it will have holes in it. Your—family—” He sneered the word. “—may think they remember you, but they won’t have all the things of a child’s life. A pair of mittens or a worn-out cap, a collection of broken toys—I won’t find those things in your house, will I?”

“All my toys were broken?” I said helplessly, seizing on the only part of this I even understood at all. “They’re—yes? All my clothes were always worn out, our rag-bag is all them—”

He shoved me hard against the bed and bent low. “Don’t dare lie to me!” he hissed. “I will tear the truth out of your throat—”

His fingers were resting on my neck; his leg was on the bed, between mine. In a great gulp of terror I put my hands on his chest and shoved with all my body against the bed, and heaved us both off it. We fell heavily together to the ground, him beneath me, and I was up like a rabbit scrambling off him and running for the door. I fled for the stairs. I don’t know where I thought I was going: I couldn’t have gotten out the front door, and there was nowhere else to go. But I ran anyway: I scrambled down two flights, and as his steps pursuing me came on, I flung myself into the dim laboratory, with all its hissing fumes and smoke. I crawled away desperately under the tables into a dark corner behind a high cabinet, and pulled my legs in towards me.

I’d closed the door behind me, but that didn’t seem to keep him from knowing where I’d gone. He opened it and looked into the room, and I saw him over the edge of one table, his cold and angry eye between two beakers of glass, his face painted in shades of green by the fires. He came with a steady unhurried step around the table, and as he rounded the end I darted forward scrambling the other way, trying for the door—I had some thought of locking him in. But I jarred the narrow shelf against the wall. One of the stoppered jars struck my back, rolled off, and smashed on the floor at my feet.

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