Dragon fire burned people alive. It boiled the skin, seared the bones, and left nothing behind but a charred smear of hot grease. But if Sabina stood away from the plume, just three handspans aside, then all her clothes were burned away, her skin took on a rosy blush, and she would end up flushed and naked before the most exquisite creature in the world.
Sabina stared at the fire in the inn’s hearth and remembered her past. She recalled the scorched smell of burning hair; the rough, abrading caress of scales on skin; the feel of a mouth so dry that her tongue could not even wet her teeth, much less her chapped and bleeding lips.
Dragon fire, dragon scales, and dragon loveshe had known them all, and all she had to show for it was a square piece of inky-red fabric. Oh, how she wept for her loss, though she was a thousand times a fool for doing so. Inside her heart, she ached and cried like a baby.
Outside, of course, she held up that tiny scrap of fabric and used it to change the course of a nation.
Dragon blood and dragon scales. A few drops into a vat of water, and even the cheapest muslin comes out looking like this. She waved the scrap in front of the inn fire and watched the cotton take on a shimmering glow that had everyone in the room gasping in delight. She couldn’t resist stroking the fabric, for though the texture was coarse and dull, the tingle of power flowed through it.
Glancing to the side, she saw Pentold frown at the scrap while his prodigious mind sorted through possibilities. Did he know? Did he guess this fabric contained much more than dragon essence? The scrap was cut from the gown she’d been wearing over a decade ago. It had been infused not just by dragon blood and scales, but also her own blood and her newborn child’s essence. Not just any child, either, but a dragon childthe product of a human woman and a dragonborn man. Sabina swallowed, holding back her tears. All that remained of her baby was this shimmering cloth that held so much magic that it stole her breathenough magic that repeated washing had not dulled the tingling against her fingers.
Part of her wanted to throw the hateful thing into the fire. Another part wanted to clutch it tight and scream out in pain. But the last partthe wise partlet the fabric shimmer in the firelight as she began to negotiate away her soul.
I have a supply of blood and scales, she said. I have trouble touching them because of the power
What is the power? What does it do? interrupted the lead cotton trader from the northern country of Gambolt. Her name was Danhai, and she had a cold, dark look to her face. She was the richest, most influential trader in all of Gambolt, however, and so the petite woman had a place here. Does it make the wearer impervious to arrows?
Sabina shrugged. It’s dragon magic. You know how unpredictable that is.
But does the dye give the fabric power? asked another merchant from the northwestern kingdom of Sihotts.
Sabina held the fabric scrap close to her heart and closed her eyes to better feel its magic. Even through her stiff gown, woven half of magicked loga wire, she could feel its power. Like dragon fire, it seared her thoughts and turned her skin pink.
Or perhaps merely the memories burned so. Either way, she let her body reflect the honesty of her emotions: the pain, the anger, the beauty, and the wonder.
When the tears became too much to hold back, she pulled the fabric away and took a deep, shuddering breath. There is power here. Feel it if you can. Then, though it killed her, she passed the scrap to the nearest merchant. Not one of them would admit to being insensible to the dragon magic now. Not after what she’d shown them on her face.
She watched as the fabric was handed from one merchant to the next, saw the way each shivered or gasped when they touched the coarse muslin. She could tell the true reactions from the fake ones; she had enough experience with dragon magic to know who lied and who didn’t.
The merchants from the theocracy of Sihotts felt the power. One dropped the scrap with a gasp, cradling his fingers as if burned. Another shuddered, then rubbed the swatch against his chest as if he wanted to bathe in its aura. The third merchant simply smiled, eyes shimmering.
Most interesting of all, Pentoldher fellow Ragonansimply held the scrap, wistful longing drifting across his features.
You sell your whole dragon stash? pressed the head Gambi.
No! her heart cried. Yes. For the right price.
Dragon scales, dragon blood, dragon dung? All?
She shook her head. Blood and scales. I have nothing else. That was a lie, but what little else remained of the Copper she would keep for herself alone.
The Gambi woman Danhai pressed forward. I want the dragon flint.
Sabina shrugged, though the movement pressed her ribs hard against her gown’s stiff bodice. So do a lot of people. I know nothing of it. Meanwhile, she turned her attention back to the fabric, the tiny piece of her soul. She reclaimed the bloody muslin and shuddered anew at its effect on her. She suppressed the reaction, of course. That way lay madness, and she was a sane, logical woman.
What exactly are you offering? Danhai pressed.
Odd, they were normally a rather cold and calculating people. Danhai seemed to be a rarityan impatient Gambi. Unless she had something in mind. A plan that required exact timing.
Regardless, Sabina had to continue the negotiation.
I offer enough blood and scales to change thirty vats of water into dye. Imagine the magical clothing you could create! Imagine the price you could demand for even one tiny handkerchief! She lifted her chin. You may begin bidding.
Silence. Not one bid. No one said anything.
Sabina frowned, worried. It had been a coup to get the lead merchants from Gambolt into this tiny inn in the first place. That she’d also pulled in a few of the top merchants from Sihotts made the accomplishment even more spectacular. But it was all for naught, if no one bid.
She stared at them, shocked that the Sihotts, at least, weren’t mad for what she sold. Even more than her own country of Ragona, Sihotts had a thirst for black-market dragon products. What was going on?
Here is our offer, said the lead Gambi merchant, a woman of dark hair and cruel eyes. You give the merchandise to us, and we will not invade Ragona, steal your stores, and kill your dragon.
Sabina blinked. You threaten Ragona? Are you joking? Dag Natiya rides a golden queen
Too young to fight, the woman sneered. Too inexperienced to even have fire in her lungs.
Sabina arched her brow in disdain. Unfortunately, one seat over, Pentold swallowed loudly. Damn the man for being a poet and not a negotiator! His one nervous movement had just betrayed that the rumors were true. Ragona’s golden queen dragon wastoo young to fight. D She might be the only dragon in the known world and a huge military asset, but the Gambi were right: she was very young. With no fire and no battle experience, she could be easily killed by a trained army. Which put Ragona in a vulnerable position. D’greth, how did she rescue the situation?
You can try to invade, Sabina replied with a sneer. We have an army, too, not just a dragon. But I do not negotiate under threat. She looked to the other Gambi merchants. Do you all stand with her?
They nodded, as she knew they would. The Gambi would stand together. They were stubbornly nationalistic; they negotiated and fought in a pack against all outsiders. It was only laterbehind the high Gambi wallsthat they would turn and fight each other.
Unfortunately, that did not help her. She turned to the Sihotts merchants. Do you have an offer?
Yes, murmured the youngest. He was a blond beauty like all of the Sihotts traders, with stark blue eyes and smooth skin, and he was much too young to be negotiating something so expensive. But it was good experience for the boy, and there was surprising canniness in his expression.
I offer grainall that my family has, save five percent to feed my peoplebut only if you say yes now before anyone else speaks.
Sabina blinked. She knew exactly what he was offering, and it was extremely tempting.
You know the value of Sihotts grain, the boy pressed.
She did. It was worth a dragon’s hoard of gold and would likely save Ragona from starvation during this terrible winter. The transition of Ragona’s governance from Dag Racho to Dag Natiya had been as smooth as any violent coup d’etat could be, but there were still disruptions in every aspect of life. Petty thievery and ugly rivalries jeopardized the fishing industry, Ragona’s primary food supply. A smart womana patriotic womanwould take the grain, save the country, and make herself a fortune.
But Sabina couldn’t make herself say yes. So much of her soul was wrapped up in her goods that she was unable to quickly accept. And in her hesitation, the possibility was lost. The Sihotts began to squabble.
That’s a stupid offer. He hasn’t got nearly the grain you think. And I offer jewels such as
I have gold! Gold is much more practical than pretty rocks.
You know nothing of my grain stores! the first trader interrupted. How dare His words were cut off as Danhai pushed a knife upward through his cheek, eye, and into his brain. Then, while Sabina watched in stunned shock, the Gambi merchant twisted her wrist, presumably to make sure the boy died.
She withdrew her stiletto with a sneer and glared at the remaining Sihotts. Leave now if you want to live.
To their credit, not a man left. They leapt to their feet, weapons appearing in every hand. Sabina stood as well, but there was little she could do now, no way to rescue the situation. She wouldn’t negotiate with murderersespecially not for something so precious and powerfuland the Gambi would clearly not allow anyone else to buy. Negotiations were over. No sale today.
Damn it, in her heart she was pleased.
Run! she screamed, then fitted words to action.
Or she tried. The Gambi had planned this. They blocked the near exit, and the far one was clogged by the two remaining Sihotts. This left Sabina trapped between the fire on her right and Pentold on her left. With surprising gallantry, Pentold stepped in front of her, his slim gentleman’s sword lifted in her defense. It was kind of him, but he was no fighter. She had to think of a better way.
I agree! I agree! she cried.
Too late. Too slow. The remaining two merchants from Sihotts had already attacked. She couldn’t say she was surprised, now that she thought of it. She offered thirty vats of magic. If negotiations included murdering the competition, so be it.
Behind Pentold, there was nothing she could do but watch. Two Sihotts fought five Gambi. Pentold entered the fray, simply trying to push through so they could escape. Unfortunately, he was quickly overpowered, given a shallow wound across belly and thigh, then shoved aside.
There was nowhere to go as the fight surrounded them on all sides. Every time they tried to edge out of the room, someone pushed them back, cut the air near their faces, or simply moved to block their path. It was all Sabina could do just to keep from being backed into the fire.
She frowned, clearing her thoughts of terror enough to realize that they ought to be deadat least, if the Gambi intended to kill them. Yet they were being kept in the room. Which meant the Gambi intended to keep them for some unknown reason.
We have to get out of here, she said into Pentold’s ear. He nodded and looked resolute, even with bloodstained shirt and pants. But how would they escape? Every time they pushed to one side or the other, a Gambi combatant managed to push them back.
And then it was done. The two last Sihotts were dead, along with two Gambi. This left Pentold and Sabina facing the three survivors, including the woman Danhai, who had likely orchestrated it all.
Sabina raised her arms in surrender. Why? she gasped. All so you can steal a scrap of magic cloth? Perhaps a sample? Sabina leaned down and pulled a tiny vial of blood from her satchel. Take it.
And the rest, rasped the woman, breathing hard from the fight. I will have it all.
Sabina shrugged. You know I will not tell you where my goods are stashed. Even if you tortured the information out of me, you couldn’t get to it. It’s hidden in the heart of Ragona, where you cannot go without being seen and stopped. They will be especially wary if I disappear. She shook her head sadly. It is not like your people to be so careless, Danhai.
If she thought to bait the Gambi into revealing her plan, Sabina was sorely mistakenthe woman was too canny for so simple a ploy. Danhai opened the door and murmured instructions to someone outside.
Sabina glanced at Pentold, but he could only shrug. He had no idea what was happening either.
Three burly men slipped into the room, two from the main door where Danhai stood, another from the opposite entrance. Clearly, both exits had been covered. Even if Sabina and Pentold had made it to one of the doors, they would have been stopped within moments. This was looking worse and worse.
The Gambi men quickly cleared away the bodies, showing no more care to their fallen comrades than to the dead Sihotts. Sabina remained silent, watching closely for some way out. There was nothing but the fire at her back, and the slim dagger clutched in her sweaty hand. And Pentold didn’t look so good. Though he still stood tall, his sword held ready, his skin held a slick sheen of sweat, and his mouth was pressed into a flat line.
Poison? she whispered. It wouldn’t surprise her.
The poet shrugged and didn’t answer, apparently too manly to admit that he was about to die. The last of the bodies was removed. One of the big men returned through the back door with a bucket and mop. Sabina stared in shock as he proceeded with quick strokes to restore the inn room to order, and still Danhai said nothing.
You planned this from the start, Sabina prompted. From the moment I contacted you about the dragon dye. You planned for
Master Pentold is growing weaker. Soon the strength will leave his legs and he will collapse.
At Danhai’s words, Pentold did indeed waver, his sword point dipping and swaying. Sabina reached forward to grab his arm, only to be stunned by the heat radiating off him.
What was on the sword? she snapped. Frugh mushrooms? Wolvarin venom?
Again, Danhai didn’t answer. She smirked, then directed the man with the mop to be sure to clean beneath the couch.
Sabina glanced at Pentold. A capillary in his left eye had burst, coloring the white with a dark red. He looked as though he might fall at any moment. Fire and blood! she cursed. Put your sword away before you slice off your own foot.
Pentold glared, but she didn’t give him the chance to argue. She held out his sheath, which was the bottom half of his cane, using the motion to maneuver between him and Danhai. Her friend didn’t want to give way, was still clearly feeling protective.
She took his hand and began to guide his sword into its sheath. Just behind the cane, she held the small vial of dragon dye. As subtly as possible, she shifted the vial into his hand.
The next time he moved, she gasped and grabbed him, pretending to keep him upright. But he really did seem to be falling. She guided him to lean heavily on his cane sword, whispering two words when she was close to his ear.
He blinked, his bloody eye making him appear vaguely demonic. She could almost hear his thoughts. After all, she’d just asked him to drink a fabric dye; for all they knew it could be as deadly as whatever damned thing was killing him. But the dye was infused with dragon blood and scales which had healed people before. It had also given some people scales and made at least one man glow bright red. Dragon magic was extremely unpredictable. But they were out of options.
She was on the verge of forcing the damned potion down his throat, when Danhai finally decided to talk. He won’t last much longer. Tell me what dragon blood does.
It keeps dragons alive, Sabina snapped.
Danhai looked amused. You are wasting time, and your friend doesn’t have much left.
He’s not my friend, she lied.
He won’t be for long, the woman agreed.
If I tell you all about dragon blood, will you save his life?
Danhai nodded. Of course.
A lie, if ever there was one. Sabina would have said something clever, an angry retort, but right at that moment Pentold’s knees crumpled. He dropped to the floor with a crunching noise. Her gaze cut hard to him. He hadn’t fallen on the vial, had he?
The dragon blood, dragonmaidwhat does it do?
Dragonmaid? No one had called her that in a very long time. And how the hell had this witch found out? Pentold’s eyes were rolling back in his head, both bloodshot now. Where was that vial? What had he done with it?
Dragon blood is unpredictable! she cried, truly desperate. It doesn’t work the same on anyone.
Danhai stepped forward. You lie!
Sabina nearly choked the woman for her stupidity. Fine, she lied. Dragon blood makes a drinker gorgeous and sexy and young. It does that for everyone without fail. It’s just like clockworker, I mean it’s as predictable as night following day. Rumor had it that clocks didn’t work so well in Gambolt. Now help him!
Pentold’s skin had gone clammy. No longer feverish, his skin was turning an ominous gray.
Tell me the truth! Danhai screeched.
Pentold shuddered and released a gasp. Sabina was holding his hand, still searching for the damned vial, which was nowhere to be seen. She felt his hand squeeze tight and then freeze. And thennothing.
Pentold! Damn it, save him! Pentold!
Too late. He was dead.
There was no clear moment between life and death, no death rattle or shudder or anything that signaled the transition. Suddenly the warmth in his skin and all vitality were gone.
No, Sabina whispered. The one word was all she had. No.
She tried to let go of his hand, to touch his cheek, to press an apology into his face. She tried, but her hand was locked tight in Pentold’s death grip. She frowned, pulling her arm back, twisting her fingers every which way, but she was held fast.
She was being held fast by a dead man? How ridiculous was that? She was kneeling on the stone floor, held in the grip of a dead friend, while maniacal Gambi mopped the floor behind her. And she could not get free!
Tell me what dragon blood does, Danhai repeated.
Sabina let her head droop as she tried to think clearly. Only a cool head could survive dragon fire. She straightened as much as possible from her crouch. When Pentold still would not release her, she snapped irrationally at the dead man, Let me go! Then she turned and glared at Danhai. You will die horribly for this, in fire and bloodand I will laugh.
It was a stupid threat, because there was no way Danhai would take her seriously. But in that moment, Pentold released Sabina. She didn’t feel the hand open or the muscles release, but whereas one moment she was held fast, the next she was slipping forward. She landed lightly on his chest and pushed quickly to her feet. Had her hand tingled? Was the magic still working on him? She wanted to turn back and see, but she had to focus on Danhai.
Why have you done this? What do you want? Sabina demanded. Tell me now, and I may forgive you.
The woman’s eyes widened in shock, a flash of fear crossing her face. It took a moment for Sabina to realize that she was looking down at Pentold, rather than quivering stupidly at her threat.
Danhai released a furious shriek. Where is the body? I need that body!
Sabina spun around. As she moved, she felt her skirt brush Pentold’s legs, but she couldn’t see him. She saw the stone floor, the soot from the fireand no body.
Moving her foot slightly, she felt around with her toe and received a tingling rush of power. Pentold was there, but his body was just invisible. So he’d drunk the dragon dye after all. And for Pentold, dragon blood made him invisible. But it hadn’t cured the poison, hadn’t kept him from dying.
Danhai rushed forward, hands like claws. Where is the body? What have you?
Sabina caught her easily, using the woman’s momentum to swing them both around. They landed hard against the stone chimney above the hearth. Denhai’s sword against Sabina’s dagger would have ended the struggle within seconds, but neither had weapons to hand, and unarmed they were closely matched.
At least, they would be closely matched until Danhai’s thugs joined the fray. Which left Sabina mere seconds to finish this fight.
She had questions to ask that burned her tongue. Why exactly did Danhai need Pentold’s body? Why did the Gambi care so much about dragon blood? There was no time to ask, however, and so with a curse Sabina swung Danhai around. The merchant was strong, but Sabina outweighed her by at least a stone and used all her bulk to throw her into the fire.
Truthfully, it wasn’t much an attack. Danhai was nimble, and though she nearly cracked the back of her skull against the stone chimney, she was able to recover with little but a singed behind. Of course, her footing was fouled as she stumbled over Pentold’s invisible body, but that proved exactly what the witch wanted to know: the corpse was still there, just invisible.
What Danhai didn’t know was that Sabina’s scrap of fabricthe small square soaked in dragon blood and birth magichad been stuck to her back in the fight. Now, as the merchant hit the wall and scorched her rear, that tiny piece of inky red cotton fluttered down toward the fire.
Sabina stepped to one side and crouched down, head tucked into her arms. One of the thugs stared in confusion. He didn’t know that cycles ago, Sabina had thrown pieces of her torn and bloodied gown into the firememories, grief, and fury causing her to destroy everything in sight. First she’d shredded the gown into scraps. Then she’d thrown a handful of pieces into a nearly dead hearth. She’d been lucky, nearly halfway down the hall by the time the torn pieces caught fire. The entire back half of her home had blown sky-high.
There’d been stone walls between herself and the explosion that day. Here, Sabina stood a claw’s length beside. But she was prepared, unlike Danhai or her men. She was crouched and focused all her soul into the fireproof magic of the loga wire in her garments. Her head and body were as protected as she could make them.
The fire didn’t touch her, but the blast did. She was thrown backwards and slammed hard against the far wall. Fortunately, loga could be strengthened, as well as fireproofed. Her dress kept her from being crushed, and only because she was very lucky.
It took long moments for her to come out of her daze. Longer still for any sense to return. By that time, people were running to help. Ragonan people, thank the Goddess. They were simple villagers who had come to help.
She opened her eyes long enough to see several charred bits of what she thought was Danhai, and felt the heat from the burning walls. She laughed once but couldn’t even hear the sound: her hearing was gone from the explosion. As her vision faded as well, she closed her eyes and knew no more.