Dragon’s Empire — 5

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Society of Shadows

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«You are mad,» said Vincent, glancing warily at the parcel on the table in front of me. “ «At first was the violin, now this,» he pointed to the object wrapped in a white cambric tablecloth, which was already covered with tiny red flecks. The object was shaped and bulky, like a large head of cheese or a balloon wrapped in a cloth.

«You’d have to be insane to steal from under the hangman’s nose what he’s supposed to bury.»

«I think so, too,» I nodded, unable to explain why I flew over the pole and removed something that should have stayed there until it rotted away. Perhaps I should have done it, regardless of my own desire, should have taken Sylvia’s head back to where I’d first seen her, then still slung around her graceful neck, coquettish, smiling in the mirror, but… marble. Perhaps she would turn back to stone if I put her back on the console. Only, how to find that place among the gray plain, even in the prosperity of my father’s country, not everyone could find the archway and get through it to the meeting hall, hidden at the bottom of the ravine.

«What are you going to do about it?» Rose came so quietly to the table that I didn’t notice her until she was beside me. «Let me bury it in the garden near your theater or inr the vineyard, where the soil is loose and…»

«No, Rose, don’t,» I intercepted her hand as it reached for the roll. I wasn’t thrilled that she and Vincent, trying to be loyal as puppy, were following me around and trying to figure out how to solve my problems for me. Now I was really ready to believe that if I were to go down into the hell of it all, Rose would follow me without the slightest fear, just as she had once promised. I should have been glad of such displays of affection, but I was afraid for Rose, afraid that once she followed me out of habit she would cross the threshold into the furnace from which she could never get out. I had no intention of endangering those I loved. I could handle everything myself. It was just that I was used to playing the game with the victim, and this time the events dragged on only because I wanted to play the same game with the enemy. And I wanted to play with a capable enemy. The fact that Rothbart had again accumulated strength and could withstand me made the game more interesting and the feeling sharper.

«Don’t follow me through the streets in the night again, or…» I hissed, glaring at Rose, but the warning was directed at her as well as at Vincent.

«You won’t do anything to me,» Rose smiled victoriously. «Look, you won’t even squeeze my hand any harder to avoid accidentally scratching it with your nails, and you could easily break the bones of someone stronger than me or him if you wanted to,» she nodded toward Vincent. «Don’t be a hypocrite, Edwin. It’s not the walk through the streets in the night we have to worry about, it’s whoever’s accompanying us, and that’s you.»

Rose had seen right through me, probably ever since she’d first noticed the dragon’s wings fluttering in my eyes. There was no hiding it from her. I told her the story of my life. She knew all about me.

I remembered an amusing incident that had happened to us at Viniena just after Charlo, indignant and offended at being deemed insane, had been dragged from the square by two upset servants of the prince. Priscilla wept as she walked away from the place of execution. Her tears washed away the makeup on her face and smeared her mascara from her eyelashes, so that she looked like a rather talentless actress. Clovis behaved more courageously, and held the fellow by the neck’s collar, lest he should pounce on any passers-by, babbling nonsense and thereby exposing the whole secret society. The square was deserted, but carriages were still clattering in the narrow streets behind it. The horses, whether they smelled a dragon or death in my burden, started galloping away, but Rose was in the middle of the road, blocking their way. If it had been anyone else, I’d have been sure the horses would have trampled him, but I didn’t have to fear for Rose. She would have considered my overprotection to be picky. When she and the carriage were already a few paces apart, the horses snorted and bucked, and seemed happy to rush back, if only not to approach the graceful female figure frozen motionless in the narrow alley.

I saw the royal coat of arms on the carriage, and I was a little embarrassed that I wasn’t the first to rush to the aid to a benefactor who had decided to leave me his power. None of the courtiers would have been as negligent as the heir at that moment. They did not want me to inherit the throne so quickly. It was because they were afraid of me that they in no way wished for their ruler’s untimely demise.

When the king got out of the carriage to thank his beautiful savior, Rose in a flash had already managed to fly over the distance separating her and the horses, whispered something menacing in the ear of the muscular white stallion and grabbed the reins, as if trying to prove that this simple way and tame the horses. There was nothing supernatural about simply pulling on the reins.

«They’ve calmed down now,» Rose patted one of the horses on the withers. It was so frightened that it tolerated her touch. Any horse would have tolerated even a bite from a gremlin that peeked nimbly out of his purse and watched the animals with excitement, ready to jump on someone’s mane, but Rose hid her hand with the purse behind her back.

«Sit still,» she whispered to her pet.

«You have a brother, don’t you,» the king said, scrutinizing Rose’s face for anything familiar. «It was your brother or cousin who did me the same favor, I believe, a year ago.»

«Her Highness has no brother,» I said, causing the king to turn back to where I stood. «She has no one but me. She likes to help people out of trouble, never mind the first or second time she’s helped them out, and never mind the monograms on their carriage.»

I understood His Majesty’s amazement. It would have been a blow for anyone, even one warned in advance, to see his successor outside at night in the company of a girl who had shown too much mercy to be considered an enemy.

«Edwin sheltered me,» Rose explained. «And if, in one of the countries we visit, I should be sent to the scaffold, there would be no one to intercede for me but him.»

She shrugged her shoulders gracefully, but did not curtsy. Why should she? He’s a mere mortal ruler, and she herself may very soon be proclaimed ruler of an empire where no man will set foot again.

«I know I’ve been gone for a long time,» I swung my cloak lightly, imitating the spread of a dragon’s wing. «What can I do? There are things that can’t wait.»

«But tonight I can invite you both in,» His Highness didn’t even have the courage to tell me that we would be the most beautiful and unusual couple to ever cross the threshold of his palace.

Rose lowered her lashes, trying to hide the joyless expression in her eyes. She didn’t want to drag a gremlin into the palace, where he might bite the guests who were not as uncomplaining as the wordless horses. I pressed my burden tightly against my chest, trying to cover it with as much of the cloak as I could, and still I felt as if the king’s gaze could see through the cloth, that my mortal protector was watching and discerning, the dead, severed head in the velvet that I held to my chest.

«Some other time,» I muttered, my lips turning white. And I added to myself, «Not now, not with Sylvia’s head, which would be exposed to the court as soon as the footman removed my cloak.

The unpleasant conversation was behind me, but the fear of exposure had not passed. What would I have done if someone had pulled off my cloak and, calling to the night guard, pointed out to them the pale, golden-blond young man who was carrying the head of an executed woman in his hands.

His majesty smiled encouragingly and understandingly at me, deciding that I wanted to have a pleasant time with the living girl, while I tried with all my might to hide the dead one from his eyes.

«So much misery in life,» Vincent muttered aloud, and added to himself, «probably as much misery as Edwin had had girlfriends.»

I wasn’t offended. I remembered well that most of our troubles came from my former companions, such as Deborah. When she tried to take revenge, Vincent had a hard time, and now he feared a repeat of the same situation.

Vincent paced from corner to corner, contemplating what to do if this time the nails of the headless vigilante began to scratch at the window of the house in Lara. Rose fidgeted nervously with a shiny object, which I recognized without difficulty as Lady Selina’s locket. The necklace had vanished without a trace.

«It broke off when Vincent tried to take it away,» Rose explained.

«Haven’t you enough jewelry?» I asked without reproach or sarcasm. I really wanted to offer her something that would make her realize that the habit of stealing could be left to poor people like Vincent. I took the candelabrum, blew on the candles to make them flare, and beckoned her to follow me.

«Come along. I want to show you something.»

Rose was skeptical, but in the end, curiosity overcame fear. I wouldn’t lure her into a trap in my own castle, or take her away from the only witness to tell her off. If I had to threaten or swear, I didn’t hesitate to do it in front of Vincent.

I led her up the spiral staircase to the basement floor, but not to where my lab was located, but even lower, to the bowels of the earth. Beyond the curving spiral staircase there was a pair of doors with bas-reliefs. There were doors to the unknown. Just as I felt now, Rose, when Baron Raoul led me into his dungeons, to the terrible treasure hidden in them. The doors in front of which Rose stood were not chained, but behind them in an underground well slumbered a serpent — the guardian of his master’s savings.

«Come in! Do not be shy!» I grasped Rose’s arm with my free hand and pulled her through the doors, past the well, into the arched doorway, beyond which a dazzling glow pervaded the darkness. Here, in the dungeon, I kept not only the treasures I had inherited with the castle, but also what I had managed to gather or accumulate myself during my adventures. Besides a pile of gold coins and uncut, large gems, there was everything to attract any woman. But I wanted no one, noble ladies, young ladies, actresses, courtesans. All the women I met on my way were sooner or later victims, so why give them jewels when sooner or later they would end up at the bottom of the well anyway.

«And this is all yours?» Rose gazed admiringly at the chest with its lid folded back, where various necklaces gleamed, but hesitated to touch any of them.

«No. It’s not mine. It’s all yours,» I corrected her. «You can take anything that interests you.»

In one day Rose could not have carried one hundredth of this treasure, but even if I had not been so rich I would have offered her everything I owned. To me, the treasury was just a dead sheen of bars of gold and scatterings of gems, everything that reminded me of the past. There is a belief that dragons hoard treasure only to keep the memory of a bygone era alive in a changing, human-populated world. After all, precious ores are something that has existed on earth since the primitive world. The antiquity of gemstones determines their value to the dragon. Looking at the accumulation of opals and diamonds, I recalled my father’s treasury, certainly less rich, but no less brilliant.

I never spent long hours in my treasury, nor did I spend hours reminiscing or sleeping on piles of rubies. I had only to look at the walls of amber and turquoise, at the large carbuncles and the chests of bracelets and necklaces and pearl beads, trinkets that I had despaired of using, for only a girl would wear them.

I would have liked to see how all these earrings and pendants and clips and rings would have looked on Rose, and how the heavy necklace of diamonds she was considering would have snowballed around her neck and shoulders and covered most of her corset. All these things, which were priceless to people, I would have given her as mere toys, but apparently in tribute to old habits and the modesty Odile was trying to instill in her, Rose chose one simple sapphire necklace.

«It turns out we’re not as poor as I thought we were,» she said with delight as she watched her find shimmer in the light from the candelabrum. «The mother said that if I stayed with you I would either starve or die a violent death. I guess she didn’t know you were rich.»

«I never told her that,» I agreed.

«Besides, I only came to her to ask for the locket and she must have thought we were living a modest life,» she whispered and shook her head when I suggested her to try on the tiaras.

«I don’t feel comfortable picking up so much at once, I’d rather come back here again,» she suggested. «Just to make sure it’s not all a dream.»

She glanced again at the chests with emeralds and diamonds, at the collection of crowns, any of which would have made a mortal monarch jealous, and at the gold coins that didn’t fit in the chest and were piled unnecessarily in the corner by the door. I touched the twisted malachite pillar that supported the ceiling and, like the walls, was decorated with stones.

«What is all this worth compared to the happiness of seeing a living creature near you that can love you?» I asked, as if nature itself dictated that a dragon live alone near a pile of treasures, cold and useless. «In the company of it all I felt lonely, you came along, and I realized that someone needed me. So, it’s all rightfully yours. Consider it a reward for bringing back to one ruined heart the desire for life, for explaining to a fallen angel that he is still capable of flying. Not only to fly, but to rejoice in flying. Remember, no matter what burning city you find yourself in, to carry you from there, my wings will always sustain the two of us.»

«Yes, maybe,» Rose shook my hand, as if she wanted to seal some kind of oath. «But I don’t have wings, so I can only offer you my heart.»

«But that’s more than I could ever hope for,» I laughed, remembering that the first time I’d seen her I’d thought I was the cursed, evil creature, the one who couldn’t expect anyone to treat him kindly and had to ruin everyone. Then I decided to hide and let Rose choose a better life than with me, but fate decided otherwise.

Rose decided to take a couple of other things with her after all, a crown with pearl pendants and a wreath of diamonds.

«And I know that the prince would be happy to have even a thousandth part of what you are so contemptuous of,» she remarked playfully, her skirts rustling happily down the stairs.

«It is a dream of usurer,» I said, and thought to myself that I had made a very good point. Rothbart was accustomed to sue everyone and everything as if they owed him money.

«It is a dream of usurer?» Rose said. «I’d rather call him a buyer-up of human souls, like the ones they write about in fairy tales. Look, all those shadow servants act as if they’d sold themselves to him for nothing more than a promise.»

«Maybe,» I couldn’t help but agree that it looked that way from the outside.

«Vincent and I should be glad that you haven’t picked up your mentor’s habits.» Rose overtook me on the stairs and was the first to enter the hall. The light from the candelabrum I held high above her head was enough to keep her from stumbling down the stairs.

«So we’re going to find a ravine to take the head of your former sweetheart to,» she asked in the tone of a spoiled child.

«Rose, I’ve only talked to that woman two or three times in my life, and believe me, those conversations have left a very unpleasant impression on me. How could you possibly know anything about my plans?»

«And this woman, or rather this fairy, she went mad after you drove her away. Didn’t she?»

«I think she was insane before she met me, saying something about some secret, about a crown left in a deserted city. Now that crown is mine, but happiness is not in the crown.»

«Pray that your tutor understands that,» Rose joked.

«Do you think he would be happy to have my crown?»

«He wants something more from you, doesn’t he?» Rose frowned, as if she didn’t like the idea of making such a terrible guess out loud. «He wouldn’t follow you around like a lover if all he wanted was to take the throne from you. Then it would be war, not a game, not a talk dragged on all night like serenades, not trickery, but an open combat. He does not seek to fight you, and that can only mean one thing. He doesn’t want to damage something during the battle that he’d like to appropriate intact.»

Rose reached out and touched my cheek.

«He wants your angelic appearance. That’s why he’s afraid to go into battle. He’s afraid of hurting you or disfiguring you. Take advantage of that. Let’s attack first. You wouldn’t spare such a scoundrel just because you got used to his company during your imprisonment.»

«Honestly, it’s you who should feel sorry for him. After all, he’s your distant relative.

«From what you’ve told me, he’s changed like a chameleon in his life. If he had any close relatives left, I don’t think even they would recognize him as a kinsman. He had changed so much that they would take him for an outsider.»

«Rose,» I wanted to explain to her what I couldn’t understand. «I was never afraid of him. I was never afraid of anyone. Rather, I hated him, but in the beginning I respected the majestic stranger in him. As soon as he ceased to be a stranger, all the aura of grandeur immediately fell away, on close examination I revealed all his pettiness, malice, greed, and instead of respect I began to treat him with mockery. That’s what happens when you look at actors. From the distance of the orchestra pit they may still seem attractive, but up close you see only a layer of makeup. I don’t mean you, of course; on the «Marionette’s» stage that night you were the one and only occasional exception.

«So, you’re only being nice to him because he’s a part of a time that has now faded into oblivion?» Rose went to her apartment. I, like a shadow, followed her silently and steadily through the chambers of the castle. I didn’t want to be without company; I’d rather watch as she hid her jewels in the chest of drawers and sat down gracefully in the carved rocking chair in front of the fireplace. I liked silently watching her movements, which became as light and weightless as mine. I liked to be near her, watching her to write some spells or poems in her notebook, but to remain silent and not interfere with her in any way, except to help pick up pens or papers if they fell off the table. In this way, perhaps, only a guardian angel can watch over his ward, always be near her, but remain silent, love her, but not count on reciprocal feelings. It has been that way from the moment I saw her for the first time. Rose herself knew that a certain winged spirit guarded and loved her, but no one close to her guessed about this love.

Now all of a sudden, she wanted to protect me from danger. She was crumpling in her hands the very paper with the witchcraft formula that she had tried to give me before. The chair swayed on its own, and Rose sat motionless in it, as light as a feather and as mysterious as a ghost.

«Read your spells, and they will lead us to the temple, which you called the hall beneath the dome,» Rose was the first to break the silence.

«Do you really want to go there with me?»

«I want to see the place,» Rose stood up from her chair, easily and silently. It continued to sway for a long time, as if her shadow remained seated in it. The princess herself walked around the room, stroked the gremlin that slept on her muff, looked into the wardrobe, where were her gowns. I knew she was looking for her camisole and sword, but could not remember in which closet she had left them.

«We could meet Rothbart there and see how he learned to prolong his youth,» I said without thinking, as if someone had whispered a clue in my ear.

«Could he do you any harm?» Rose wondered. «Could he think of any way to end the life of an immortal creature? Is there any way to end your life at all?»

I looked at her carefully and said what I thought:

«If you leave me, I won’t survive it.»

«Oh, what would you do?» She laughed. «How will you kill yourself?»

The question struck a bell in my mind. Indeed, how? Jump from a height and crash? It is in vain. Even if I did not open my wings at the last moment, but crashed, every cell of my body would still recover. Stab myself with a knife? It is pointless. Drink poison? It is useless. Cut my veins? The wound would heal instantly.»

«The only thing to do is to decapitate me,» I suggested.

«As long as you are a human no one would dare that sacrilege,» she protested.

«He is not a human,» I corrected.

«The Prince appreciates your flawless features too much. So we have nothing to fear,» Rose found in the bottom drawer of the closet what she was looking for: a camisole, velvet pantaloons, vest, boots, and, of course, a sword in sheath.

«Get ready,» I nodded, glad to have a living and beautiful creature by my side at all times. Alone, the journey into the ravine might have seemed endless. «I must tell the king that even if I were to disappear, he must not surrender power to Henri if he should show up. Everything must be foreseen.»

I was already standing by the open window, behind which the snowflakes were swirling, and I was about to fly away, but I stopped, remembering that I should praise Rose for the way she had impressed Camille.

«You know, the author of the play is dreaming of your return to the stage.»

«I know you think „The Shadow and the Marquise“ is a libel, but, come to think of it, the author not only besmirched your honest name, but he made you, the dragon, a famous hero, at least on the stage.»

«It is comforting,» I muttered, smiling at the corners of my lips. Rose said something else, but her words were directed only toward the swirl of snow outside the open window. She seemed to be saying that she suspected some fantasy in the play, but thought it was different in life. I couldn’t hear her because I was in a hurry. Already pacing the streets of Viniena, I was thinking of the words I should have spoken instead of the actor. Of course, Camille had made it up; no conversation had ever taken place between me and Sabrina. I simply did not have enough time to have a conversation with her at the time, but the author’s rich imagination put into my mouth the lines that I could have said only to Rose, not to the victim. I tried to repeat a verse to myself and see if there was anything in the verse that offended me, or if Camille was just taking advantage of what we had talked about in the dungeon. It is too bad that you can’t memorize the whole play with the first time.

I paused, glanced at the disk of the moon high above the rooftops, and remembered Rose standing on the stage. How beautifully and well she had delivered her speech. Camille had written my speech in a way that would have suited him, as well as any of the magical creatures. There was no one in the streets; no one would have heard me, except some fairy wishing to oblige, but hiding in an alleyway for now. In a whisper, I repeated Camille’s poem, the stranger’s answer to the Marquise’s question, «Who are you?

«I am a creature of that country,

Where nature with a mixture of evil

We are born in spite of

Against all the rules of existence

We are our own among the shadows

We’re winged and proud

Always playing hide-and-seek among men

We have to play for it.»

And someone in the dark alleyway responded to my whisper with a muffled, understanding laugh. Only one bandit could greet another with such a meaningful laugh. I looked around, but saw no one.

I did not bother anyone in the palace. Why wake the king? He would be sure to talk me out of my dangerous undertakings, or offer his help. I ignored the door, used the second-floor window, sat down at the table in the king’s study, wrote a short letter to the king, and sealed it with the king’s seal. At least, that way it would be clear to everyone that only the heir could leave such a seal, but to make sure His Majesty did not confuse anything, I stuck a tiny imprint of my seal-ring, which the king had probably already noticed on my hand a long time ago. At any rate, it was better than the dragon’s claw print on the envelope.

I had to stop by the tailor’s shop, which was late special for the king’s successor. I ordered dresses for Rose there, and promised that I’d come pick them up some night. It was a strange order for a prince who was considered unmarried. The proprietor understood me in his own way and, just in case, introduced me to some pretty girls who were seamstresses. Who wouldn’t want their daughter or niece to be a minion? The dragon inside me laughed angrily, but I myself felt only embarrassed, and now I did not come for my things until nightfall, when the whole staff of workers was already asleep. The lamp in the window behind the curtains let me know that the owner himself was still awake.

I took the parcel and the motley hatbox, explained that I was in a hurry to see the lady, and was glad when the door closed behind me. At least the only person in all Viniena could confirm that I had a mistress waiting for me at night, and not a demon to whom I had sold my soul.

I should have hurried back to Rose, but I glanced at the moon, which had already moved in the sky to the left over the spires of the city, and remembered another scene from the play, the Marquise asking something about birth, youth, dawn, and the dragon in the form of a cavalier mysteriously answering and revealing my past in the words:

«My first dawn

Alas, I cannot remember,

I remember a gloomy dungeon

I remember the gloomy dungeon and the glowing candle,

I remember the chains that rang and the gown that rustled,

The voice of the demon in the darkness,

Fate is all-powerful and all-embracing

Death opened to me early.»

In Camille’s opinion, Sabrina could not believe such a frank confession. What could she think of an attractive young man but a pretender who had decided to play the demon for some reason? I could still hear her answer from Rose’s lips:

«Is it death? Is it metaphor or joke?

How many, by pretending to be one.

Have you been able to craze.»

I shook my head, as if I were trying to clear my mind. I should hurry home, not read someone else’s poetry. Before Rose had opened my eyes to the fact that the author was talented I had found the play to be a very offensive piece of writing.

Feeling someone’s light breath on the back of my neck, I turned around. The figure leaning against the wall of the tailor’s shop seemed so familiar that I didn’t even wonder who it was.

«Since when do you dress up in dresses?» someone asked me with a sneer, though no one’s lips moved, and the words sounded as if only I could hear them. Even if a passerby had been around right now, he wouldn’t have heard anything.

«They’re for a girl,» I answered aloud, not thinking that if the observer hadn’t really asked me anything, he might find my words strange.

«Are they for a girl?» It was either an echo or a chuckle. «Do you mean to tell me that some girl who lives with you can live long enough to try it all on?»

The words came out, and again it was unclear whether they were spoken aloud or only intruded into my consciousness.

«Come!» I commanded, not out loud, but mentally, so that no living creature could resist the order, but the figure did not emerge from the darkness, but instead dove deeper into it and disappeared around the corner of the house.

I could see no one in the murky alley, but I was somehow certain that someone was beckoning me to follow. It was awkward to run after someone with the boxes in my hands, so I put them by the base of some building, figuring I’d come back for them later. Even if someone were to pass by, they would not notice the rolls of dresses or the motley hat-cards. Outsiders could not see what no longer belonged to their world, but to me, just as passersby could not see the house I had bought in Lara, though they knew it was not torn down, but stood somewhere nearby in tantalizing proximity to them.

Who to follow if I could hear no footsteps or anyone’s panting breaths and exhalations nearby, and they must have been, considering that someone was running away from me with the speed of an arrow fired. No one’s footprints could have been left on the uneven paving stones, but I was walking like a treaded path. If I had called someone after me, even my soles would have left a deep trail of fire on the cobblestones. No one might have called me this time. Maybe it was just a faint premonition of danger, the kind that sometimes arises only in clairvoyants, somewhere in the strong, wired net of various dragon instincts.

I didn’t have to choose my direction; my feet led me to the square, to the very spot where I’d picked up Sylvia’s dead head. Was it dead? The clear and obvious question in my brain would have alarmed anyone. What if, even severed from her body, it was still alive, and when I took it out of the cambric wrap that replaced the shroud, her dead lips would move slightly to warn me of something.

There was only one tarred torch burning in the square, a tiny orange with a red core, visible from afar. There was a foul, stinking smoke from the flame, but it was beyond anyone’s sense of smell, for there was nothing around, and the torch itself seemed to be hanging in the air above the scaffold, without a stand or holder. Was the square empty? No, it only seemed so. The human eye could not distinguish what I saw, a mass of dark, graceful silhouettes exquisitely draped in black velvet and moiré. There were only shadows, indistinguishable in the darkness. Only the light at the center of the pandemonium of shadows was discernible, and the blessed night sheltered everyone else, even the torch-bearer who had brazenly climbed onto the platform. Night was their favorite time.

At first I watched them, leaning against the facade of the palace, with its dark windows overlooking the square. In contrast to them the dapper green tones of my clothes and the bright emerald folds of my cloak in pleasant contrast to the gold of my hair immediately attracted attention even at a distance, but I remained long unnoticed by any of the society of shadows. They were too engrossed in what the torch-bearer, Charlo, was saying to them. Or rather, he wasn’t speaking at full voice, but addressing the crowd in a hissing, almost inaudible to the human ear, but I could hear him and his companions all right.

«Why are we slow?» Charlo gestured for the crowd’s attention to his greasy, gypsy-black hair, and its curly tips parted against the stand-up collar, framing his narrow face in some unearthly black flame. The abyss in his deep-set eyes was even blacker than the night. «What should we wait for? Why hide from every retired soldier who passes by, why sit in back alleys, waiting for the smallest guard to march past. Why should we fear the King’s Guards or the cantoned cavalry, their guns, their swords, his majesty’s signed arrest warrants? We are an army ourselves. Why should we hide? We could have ruled this city long ago. Our lord says his teachings are the only right ones, he has revealed his secrets to us and we are now his favorites because we believed him and followed him, and he puts all dissenters at our disposal.»

Charlo tried to flaunt his education and eloquence and wanted to look like an orator, but instead he resembled a hissing viper who had grown bold enough to try to climb up the hill instead of crawling over rocks and sand.

I was surprised that most of the assembled audience listened to him with interest, and if their pale, porcelain faces were not so impassive one might even say with participation.

«Up to now we’ve only lived by catching people in night alleys. They had neither revolvers nor the support of the law to defend against us,» Charlo continued, out of breath. «Somehow their knives, sharpened to piss off the wandering strangers, didn’t frighten us. Good thing there was a war recently, and we had a goodly profit in the pockets of deserters and marauders we caught. Then we had only the midnight robbers at our disposal. Look, instead of seizing Viniena at our complete disposal, we are cleansing its quarters of criminals. We have no other means of subsistence than what we have extracted from the robbers’ purses. And if we only plunder at night one of these magnificent rich palaces, which contain more trinkets than the owners need, we will be hunted down by the very guarding companies from which we have so cleverly hidden so far. It can’t go on like this forever, can it?»

«Of course it can’t,» hissed a woman I recognized as Priscilla from the crowd. Her barely audible exclamation in the crowd of shadows was deafeningly loud. No one but the woman had dared to raise her voice to interrupt Charlo’s speech.

«What do you suggest we do?» Royce, always brash after her statement, immediately stepped forward.

«I told you,» Charlo straightened up. «No more delays, no more excuses. I think the hour is at hand. The chime is about to strike, but there are worse noises to rouse the most watchful of watchmen before the chime strikes. Let us do what we set out to do! It’s today or never!

Charlo pointed defiantly with his hand, clutching the shaft of the torch, toward the king’s palace. The triumphant cry, accompanied by that simple but eloquent gesture, resounded ominously through the night. But even if the sleeping townspeople heard something, it seemed to them to be no more than the long cry of a hoopoe or a cormorant, which on the coast foretold trouble to sailors, but who knows how it had come to be here in the town square.

«Go to the palace! You’ve gone quite mad,» Klovis, less impulsive but more judicious, folded his arms across his chest and rested his shoulder on the railing of the wooden staircase that led to the palace. A sneer flashed in his calm aquamarine eyes. Or rather, his eyes were different colors, one entirely aquamarine and the other three-quarters blue. I could see it even from this distance. Different colored eyes are a sure sign of someone who promises to be a capable sorcerer.

«That pretty girl was right to declare you insane,» Klovis grinned at the corners of his lips. Light and nimble, he could turn on anyone who contradicted him. «Our charming Shadow Infanta is not, as you told us, a pretty little thing, but… not only clever, but wise and perceptive. She was the first one to notice that you were mad, and we weren’t sure whether to believe her or not.»

«You’re just captivated by her doll face,» Charlo said impertinently, stepping back just in case there was enough distance between him and Klovis to make a run for it. «We don’t need a lover here. We should be thinking of our future, of prosperity, of success, not correcting grammatical errors in your love canzonets. Better get out of here while you’re still in one piece, there’s no room in our ranks for the cowardly and the cowardly. Cowards sooner or later become traitors. We don’t need such a nuisance. Go serenade the dragon’s mistress under her window. You could have been one of the lords of the world with us, but instead you prefer to be her servant. Get out of here! Go to your sweetheart and pray that her protector doesn’t scald your face with his fiery breath.»

«Shut up!» Klovis gritted through his teeth. The taunts had hit their mark. He was so angry that he tore the lapels of his cloak with his nails. The silk lapels on the sleeves were now nothing but scraps, but Klovis somehow decided it was better than leaving one tattered carcass from his recalcitrant counterpart.

«Eye for an eye,» Sharlo grinned evilly. «That pretty girl really hurt your feelings.»

I was going to get even with him for calling Rose a dragon’s minion, but I wasn’t sure what he would say. It was curious, to learn of the enemy’s secret plans from his own lips.

Without the mediation of spies, I could learn far more than they would have told me. Charlo persuaded the crowd with such zeal and such fervor. He had no idea that the dragon was watching him, not through a keyhole, but standing nearby, in plain sight and not even trying to hide around a corner. And still I was still a creature who had entered this world through a narrow tunnel not used by humans, connecting two worlds. I continued to feel like a spy, peeking at the gathering in the square and all of humanity in general from the tiny keyhole in the door that separates one world from the other.

«I won’t listen to an honest girl being insulted,» Klovis shook the invisible debris from his coat, turned on his heels and was about to leave, but Charlo’s menacing shout stopped him.

«Don’t you dare say anything to our illustrious Monseigneur Dragon, or the prince will rip out your tongue.»

Clovis turned and clenched his fists so that his knuckles whitened. He would have liked to challenge him to a duel or even a scuffle, but he knew that he could easily avoid the challenge by claiming that he was now a republican and had no intention of tolerating aristocratic habits, and that a fist fight would have been a distant prospect. Could anyone compare to him in running speed?

«What could you possibly have learned from a downtrodden noble family except prayers, swordsmanship, and philosophy?» Charlo grinned mockingly. «You prefer words to toil, slowness to lightning speed. You value long hours of leisure more than the swift path to glory and advantage. We cannot be lazy like you. Why did we come to the square under the cover of night, when everyone is asleep and there is no one to hinder us. This is the most direct path to the palace. We will come silently, swiftly and unexpectedly. No one will be able to resist us. Have you not sneaked up behind the dark ones we’ve robbed and disarmed them? You yourself acted like a thief in the night, and now you’re trying to play the moralist.»

«And you suggest that we storm the palace without even getting an order from the prince to do so. It’s better to wait for the lord’s command than to act on our own. At least that way we can count on his support. Where is he now? From which roof is he watching us and laughing at our foolishness? We will die, and he will find other, even more servile and subservient followers.»

«You’re talking nonsense,» Charlo protested firmly.

«I have every right to be, since I’ve already been banished, I’ve got to do something to establish my sullied reputation as a pariah so you won’t have any regrets about me.»

Klovis looked either questioningly or mockingly around the half circle of black figures, which had swung open to make way for him, and then turned again to Charlo.

«At least extinguish the torch so none of the sentries will notice the flame creeping up the path to the front door. We all prefer the ascetic way of life, dressed in black, like the monks, but they only wear cassocks and tonsils, and we hide from every passerby dressed in uniform. If you’re such an ardent ascetic, Charlo, you shouldn’t feel the lack of comfort because there’s no fire nearby. The moonlight is enough for shadow. You used to be the quickest to sneak off to the sewer grates if there was a cart rattling close by carrying convicts to their execution. Now you’ve suddenly grown bolder, offering to go to the King’s palace. Well, go!»

«That’s not all I suggest,» Sharlo said with a wry squint as if he were trying to establish some sort of rapport with himself. «Isn’t the second part of the plan appealing to you?»

«You try that, and even if they don’t drag you down to the palace door, you’ve signed your own death warrant.»

Klovis thought for a moment, as if he did not know how to express his fears accurately.

«You see,» he tried to explain. «It’s not just your life that’s at stake here. It’s a case of you and your instigator taking the lives of all your followers. It’s not enough to slit the throat of Viniena’s lord, you want willingly to become entangled with a man from whom others, the most dangerous and vicious, will flee at a moment’s notice. Believe me, you’re looking for an enemy who has killed people far greater than you for fun. You can’t beat him.

«I’m not asking you to fight him,» Charlo protested angrily. «To fight him would be a suicide. You’re not the only one with the foresight to see that. I’m trying to make it clear that if he comes to the old man’s rescue, we can steal from him, quietly, without being seen by him as missing any of the treasure. What would be garbage to him would be useful to us.»

«He may already know all about your plans,» Klovis assured him.

«How could he?» — Reluctantly, as if he were a mischievous sort of ruffian, Charlo snapped back. «Who could have warned him? Had His Majesty sent him the dispatch? He knows nothing of our plans. No one knows.»

«He knows everything,» Klovis tried his best to convince the intruders of his rightness, trying to create an atmosphere of fear in the square with his serious tone as opposed to the playful jokes of the instigator. Indeed, a chill ran down the skin of some. It was immediately clear that Klovis knew what he was talking about. His unwavering self-confidence elevated him above the others. It didn’t even matter that he was standing below the platform and that Charlo was preaching from the podium like a pulpit.

«Remember, he has all-seeing eyes. There is not a rebellious or even harmless thought in our heads that escapes him. He has the highest power with him, and behind us only is the arrogance and rebellious ramblings of someone who has apparently lost his mind.»

«That means you’re on his side,» Charlo snapped.

«I don’t even know his name. All I know is that he is more powerful than all of us.»

«What does his name mean to you? I don’t care if it’s Mr. Lucifer. Doesn’t a corrupt little soul care who he gets his bounty from? He may have already bought your vote, but not mine. We don’t care what power he has, as long as he has a treasure left unattended somewhere in the snow. He has cellars full of gold…»

«But he’s got a breath of fire,» Klovis protested, his tone fair enough. He seemed the most judicious of the group.

«You wouldn’t want your skin to burn as if you’d been in an oven, would you? There’s no such thing as a shadow with burnt scars.»

«Don’t listen to him,» Charlo said to the crowd.. «He’s only trying to delay our march to the Palace even for a moment. It’s because I’m foresighted that I’m taking you there first, and then to the gold mines. Apart from the king, there is no one to warn our handsome villain. Even if any of the courtiers could warn him of the danger, they wouldn’t lift a finger, because everyone is afraid of him. No one would save someone who later would certainly want to take the life of his own savior. We will be rich, and the prince will be pleased with us. Lock that fool up in a cellar somewhere, so he won’t bother us,» he pointed with the torch at Klovis.

«Lock him in a storeroom or a quarry or, better yet, drown him under a bridge. You can see he’s a dragon s fan. Anyone who colludes with the demon ends up dead in a noose, and he won’t think to help his pals. He treats everyone like an enemy.»

«You’re wrong, Charlo, I never quarrel first, but if anyone tries to quarrel with me, my anger will be terrible,» I said it mentally, so that only Charlo himself could hear, and he did. The torch fell out of his hand, went over the wooden board of the platform, and went out on the stones of the sidewalk. I didn’t want to see the flaming fire, so I let the torch fly away and go out instead of lighting the wooden beams, supported it with my invisible power, so to speak, and extinguished it at a distance.

Klovis did not hear my words, but, guided by some inner instinct, he turned around.

«Monseigneur,» he lowered his head with a guilty look, as if trying to explain, «I will accept your anger if it falls on me, but I am no longer with them.» The unnatural black curls lay on his forehead and covered his eyes, but I could make out the wrinkles in the corners of his eyes. He was some five or six centuries younger than me, and he, too, was in his early twenties, like me the last day of my human life, but he looked older than me, probably because he had already been dejected and suffering the vicissitudes of life in his younger years.

Charlo’s mouth fell open in surprise, but he couldn’t say anything. He only noticed me now, and finally realized that he’d miscalculated.

«What is the matter with you? Have you become unwell?» I asked mockingly, and walked to the scaffold with quick, brisk steps. Charlo was already numb with fear, and I was more confident than ever. «You wanted to go as far as my cellars and were not afraid of the hardships of the long journey, and when I myself came to you to listen to the petitions you were timid and no longer remember what you wanted to ask. Even girls are never so shy, but perhaps your shyness is due only to your deference to a dragon so great and famous?»

I spoke with dignity, but I moved lightly, nimbly, like an errand boy or a fox that had spotted a hare, but the crowd of shadows parted before me like before a very distinguished person. Some shuddered away from me, others stood dumbfounded. There was indeed an air of awe or fear all around.

I jumped swiftly to the platform, disregarding the ladder, easily getting off the ground and overcoming the height-a jaguar’s leap. Only a carnivore would act so coldly and calculatingly. I stood beside Charlo, letting him pull back, but blocking the path to the ladder, without which he couldn’t get down. Jumping from the height of the platform would have been an unacceptable risk for him, and he didn’t want to twist his ankle or break a bone. And my flexibility and invulnerability were just a little lacking by him.

«All right, shut up,» I said mercifully. «You don’t have to be a wizard to read everything in your eyes. Did you want gold?»

I snapped my fingers and a heavy, iron-clad chest appeared on the platform at Charlo’s feet. The wooden boards and beams sagged beneath its weight. The lid was flung open, and those present were dazzled by the glitter of the piles of gold coins.

«Are they real?» Priscilla flew up the steps to the platform like a butterfly, stooped in front of the chest, and raked the coins with her palms as if they were gold sand.

«I suppose I could use a little variety?» It was again a quick flick of my unnaturally long fingers, and on top of the gold an invisible hand sprinkled a guest of gems. Some of it crumbled, but just as Priscilla was about to pick it up and feel it, it crumbled to rainbow-colored dust under her fingers. The walls of the chest began to blur and eventually dissolved into a puddle of wet sand, which instantly vanished as though nothing had happened. The coins still rattled in different directions, but they did not remain a golden rain for long. It looked like a kind of optical illusion. In the first moment they were rounds of gold, but in the second they were sizzling embers. Charlo was afraid to touch the treasure as if it had been plagued by plague, and now he was glad of it. Priscilla realized she’d been tricked and pouted resentfully, but was too shy to say anything.

«You wanted to fight me?» I suggested, drew a sharpened stiletto from my inside pocket, and handed it to Charlo.

«You’re insane,» Charlo shrugged back. He could no longer keep up his show of unconcern. Well, I was disgusted with his impertinence to begin with. He was behaving like a normal human being for once, not ingratiating himself or trying to show he was above them all. The mask was torn off, and beneath it, instead of a shadow, just a fearful wretch who feared for the safety of his hide.

«I’m sane,» I countered calmly. «But you are sane or not. How can a healthy person observe such hallucinations as the ones you’ve just experienced? Can people who are even remotely sane see these things in their dream?»

I showed him what I’d shown many people, cutting my clear, pale skin with the blade, striking a vein, and dipping my fingers into the wound to leave a few blood droplets on it. Of course, the cut healed on its own, but it seemed to the audience that the scar had smoothed over my skin as soon as the moonlight touched it. A common belief, the moonlight touched the body and the restless spirit returned to it. I’d read enough scary books to know that, except that the moon cycle had nothing to do with my invulnerability. I glanced at my renewed skin, wiped the blood from my fingers with the handkerchief I’d left in my pocket, and, with a chuckle that would have scared the hell out of any demon, said Charlo:

«If you were in your right mind, you wouldn’t have seen anything like that.»

I jumped off the stage just as easily, and then added more kindly:

«I was only trying to persuade you that gold can only be obtained from a lord you serve faithfully, not by robbery. Do not think that I am a conjurer and that the chest is only a trick. If you had ever been to a circus, you’d know that people can’t perform such a trick. Think hard about what you saw. In the meantime, I advise everyone to go home.»

«Yes, I’m going,» Klovis threw off the short black cloak from his shoulders and aptly tossed it at Charlo’s feet. «I’ve had enough of the blackness.»

He staggered away at a brisk pace. Without his cloak he looked like a bird without wings. The cloak, like a tattered plumage, lay near the scaffold.

«No one can escape us,» Charlo shouted threateningly. «And you,» he said suddenly to me. «Why you not burn us. If you can breathe fire, why haven’t you burned all your enemies?»

«I can’t,» I said. «I can’t leave just a handful of ashes from everyone. Otherwise, I would put the executioners, who are on duty day and night in the torture chambers of my castle, out of a job. They have to practice their trade on someone, too, lest I turn them away.»

Charlo fell silent. He was uncomfortable with the prospect of my prison.

«I won’t be back for a while, but I’ll pick my own time,» I said as I left. «I’ve taught you a lesson, and now I’ll give you time to think. Consider, Charlo, what you’ve just seen, and conclude for yourself, perhaps your nighttime walks are bad for your sanity, perhaps you’ve just seen things no one else has, and perhaps I, the dragon, only exist in your sick imagination.»

I waved my hand, glowing like a firefly in the darkness, as if to send them all into oblivion, and ducked into the alley, where Klovis’ footsteps were already fading around the corner. I knew that someone swift and unpredictable was following him, nimbly leaping from one roof to another, hiding behind chimneys and ledges, scratching the tiles with his claws, and all the while intently observing the figure of the young man, who from a height looked only a dot crawling through the narrow streets.

There was again a nimble, precise leap. Someone’s claws caught on the ledge of a stacked brick chimney and scratched it. The gutter creaked, the heel of someone’s boot scraping lightly against the iron-clad heel. Klovis, of course, didn’t hear all that. He couldn’t have been as sensitive to the presence of another predatory creature near him, his hearing was not as acute as mine, and his thinking was not as quick. Compared to me, he was short-sighted. So, who could he have spotted on the rooftops, if even I guessed the existence of a stalker not because I noticed it, but by the sounds it made as it moved. Even I had a hard time distinguishing him from the average yard cat that climbed up on the roof.

«Don’t turn around!» I chased and shoved Klovis aside so that some heavy glass object, thrown from above, whistled nearby and shattered on the sidewalk. One sharp shard killed a mouse that had carelessly darted out from under the basement grate. Klovis barely restrained his nausea from my pushing it to the ground, not so far from the slashed body of the beast.

«It would have been you,» I tossed the ugly corpse with the edge of my boot where it belonged, behind the sewer grate.

The boy swallowed convulsively and nodded, as if trying to say «thank you!»

Someone who had jumped off the roof was now running away from us through the tangled streets. A person could not remain unharmed and uninjured by jumping from such a height. Another man would have been dead by now if he had dared such a maneuver, but this one was still full of energy and was running away almost at a hopping pace. Isn’t that monkey agility?

«What did I ever do to deserve your help?» Klovis got to his feet and shook down the dirt.

«Normally, help is required of me. But, believe, if I were to come at you from around the corner, no amount of help would bring relief.»

«He won’t let me get away. Wouldn’t he?» Klovis turned as if he could see the flaming footprints left on the stones by someone’s soles.

«He is strong, but he is not omnipotent…» I remembered that I had not only escaped the dungeon myself, but I had broken all relations between us.

«What do you mean by that?» Klovis looked to me hopefully, as if I were someone smarter and more experienced, someone who could answer any question correctly.

«Sit back somewhere, and then, who knows, things may turn in your favor.»

«Sit back? I must sit back as a fugitive?» There was a sound of doubt in his voice. Klovis wasn’t sure he could do nothing for a long time without growing tired of it. He was the sort of man for whom any work was better than forced idleness. Even doing useless work he would know that life goes on and maybe one day work would bring success, but lurking somewhere and fearing for himself was tantamount to burial for him.

«You are a fugitive,» I reminded him, though he knew it already.

«And where would I hide, they scatter through the city as night falls, as numerous and inescapable as the cloak of darkness that descends on the earth toward evening.»

«I would suggest you go to a monastery, but I’m afraid that, though it is the only escape, it would be unacceptable to you.»

«Is there somewhere else I could take refuge?» He wished to prolong his life, but his adolescent recklessness prevailed.

I waved with my hand in the direction of the rounded golden domes of the church belfry.

«Only there,» I said, and then added. «I don’t mean to turn you into a monk or lay-brother, but if you can get there you’d better not go out yet.»

I turned and wanted to go, but he stopped me.

«Does the Infanta really live with you?» He asked me hesitantly.

«Yes,» I said easily. «Did she call herself Infanta?»

«She said we could call her Infanta of the Shadows or Rosabella,» he admitted. «We didn’t know each other’s real names until you came to us.

«I mustn’t be too long, but I’ll see that you get to the porch safely, otherwise you’ll have to rely on yourself,» I did not add that Rose was already waiting for me. He was already a little upset.

«See you later,» I said goodbye to Clovis at the door, and added to myself, «I hope that you will be still alive.»

On the way, after picking up the gifts for Rose, which had remained untouched only by the cloak of invisibility, or their bright wrappings would have attracted someone even at this late hour, I headed back to the castle. Even before I flew over the square, I already knew that it was empty. All the shadows had scattered. There was no sign of Charlo on the platform, not even Clovis’s abandoned cloak. To the casual observer it would have seemed as if nothing had happened. The silence that followed the storm seemed unnatural to me, too. The storm had passed, the fire in the night had gone out, and the rage had at least reluctantly but temporarily subsided, if not cooled.

I returned to the castle at the moment that fate seems to have given us on purpose, to learn how to resist temptation. The writing-case I had noticed Vincent carrying more than once lay lonely on the table, while the owner himself was away. It would have looked abandoned had there not been a half-written sheet of paper on the writing-stand beside it, and the ink-stained quill had not yet had time to return to its hole in the inside of the case. A stack of neatly beaded sheets lay on top of the blank paper. The sandstone inkpot was half-empty, and small vials and bottles of colorful ink were designed specifically to highlight the most important lines in the manuscript. The pen-sharpening knife at the tip of its blade was painted in scarlet ink, as if the author had slit his wrists to sign the epilogue to the work in blood. A signature made in the wizard’s blood would burst into flames in a moment of danger to protect his copyright, but against my peeping, petty sorcery was powerless.

I could not resist the temptation. I had long guessed that Vincent was writing a book, most likely his own biography. It was something like a long confession. I wanted to know what he had experienced before he first met me and during our long separation, but I was too lazy or too delicate to dig into his thoughts or ask him directly. I feared that as soon as I began to read, some evil spirit would laugh at me, saying that the manuscript was only a decoy, the inked paragraphs would spread on the paper, and the paper itself would scatter with papyrus dust, but nothing of the sort happened. I settled myself in the chair in front of the fireplace, looked back at the door almost thievishly, to think I felt like a thief in my own house, but putting aside conscience and morality, I began to read, and I was unspeakably surprised. No confession on Vincent’s part. The charming weasel was too careful for that. What I held in my hands was the story of my own life, that is, of the section of it Vincent was watching. An incorrigible romantic, he had, either with Rose’s help or his own initiative, turned the whole novel into a love-adventure story. There was, of course, more fiction than truth. If Vincent had dared to put my entire background on paper, I would not have forgiven him. It was my right to tell the whole truth about myself, and I could not have a dodgy hanger-on confessing it for me. Fortunately, Vincent decided to be a fantasist. He sang the dithyrambs of my looks on almost every page. I was, of course, flattered. More than that, I was embarrassed for the first time. It turns out that Vincent saw me as a noble, almost blessed creature, which I had never been.

«What’s your opinion?» Suddenly Vincent’s voice came from behind the back of the chair. Rose had already crept quietly into the room, too, and it seemed to me that both she and Vincent had not entered through the doorway, but had grown right out of the ground.

«Who was that for?» Rose humbly clasped her hands behind her back and stared intently at the newly brought boxes.

«It is not for him,» I remarked about the gremlin, who, wielding his paws much more deftly than human hands, had already removed the lids from the boxes and was enthusiastically touching the soft orange ruffled skirt with his claws. He seemed to think that the whole pile of fancy rags had been brought here specially to make a cozy nest for him to sleep in.

«So how about my first… well, almost first literary audition,» Vincent insisted.

«Are you telling me you’ve written anything before that?» — I grinned, and then met his disapproving gaze. You can’t joke when someone has opened up to you about the most important thing. «Well, I guess no one’s ever made a villain a positive hero before.»

«Hmm…» Vincent was clearly expecting something more, at least praise for his labors, but instead of chiding me for being disrespectful, he nodded toward the carrier and suggested. «Open the secret compartment. There’s a hidden spring, push it.

I didn’t want to touch his personal belongings, the inviolability of which had already been violated, but since Vincent suggested it himself. I opened the stash easily and pulled out a stack of letters. There was no address on the envelopes. Half of them had a capital «B» written in ornate handwriting, and the other half had something like a red-ink-soaked fingerprint. All the letters were already printed out, so I unfolded the first one I picked at random and read it out loud:

«Your grace! I am your humble former secretary, having served under you as chief assistant, archivist, housekeeper, bookkeeper, housekeeper, cook, etc., etc.» I didn’t have the strength to list all the things I had read. My tongue was bony from what I had already read out loud. After skipping three lines, I continued. «Overcoming my innate shyness, I take the liberty of disturbing you, not through impudence or immodesty, but by virtue of grave circumstances. Our illustrious monseigneur has taken possession not only of the Lara, but of every acre of land around it, and there is not even a corner where I can rest my head without fearing every moment that it is about to fall off my shoulders. If I could find a corner in a warehouse or a cellar, where I could hide without the fear that a bat might fly past and report to its lord that there was an extra in town. No attic, alas, though it looks uninhabited, is actually so. Everywhere the servants of our sun-like monseigneur live, fly, or nest. Your humble servant would never trouble you with a request for intercession, knowing full well that it would be an impossible burden on you. You may wish to ask why I should not leave Lara, so I will answer in advance that, first, the protective ring of spells does not let anyone in or out of the city, of which you yourself are well aware, and that, second, I cannot afford to live anywhere else. On this point I dare remind you that you still haven’t paid me three-quarters of my regular monthly wages, and the whole of last month’s. Do not think that I resent you. I could have lived with my usual trade if all the purses in the city had not been counted among the servants of the new lord. Where one strong robber has gone, there is nothing for the smaller ones to do. Again, I would not have disturbed you if it hadn’t been for the utmost need. I heard recently that somehow you had managed to find a remedy for the return of youth. You have always reproached me for being too young, but time passes, and now, sitting in my fragile shelter, the doors of which may at any moment be blown open by a fiery explosion or a visit from a terrible guest, I feel like a decrepit old man. Even, my hand trembles when I write, unable to write out the letters accurately. Please tell me the secret of your transformation, if only as a reward for the one year, seven months, twenty-nine days and five hours I served you in so many positions before you not quite politely chased me out. I served you faithfully, and this sudden dismissal can be explained either by an empty treasury or the appearance of a new favorite, but I am not offended. As a reward for all the services I have rendered you, out of infinite respect for your person I do not demand a penny of money, only send me a prescription so that I can, like you, rejuvenate myself. P.S.. A blank piece of paper, so you don’t waste any money, enclosed. I would also enclose a postage stamp and printing wax, if you and I were to use regular postage. Thank you in advance, eternally yours, Vincent.»

«It’s a good thing I didn’t correspond with you,» I said with a sigh of relief as I read the letter. — You show a meticulousness in your written explanations that you would have been beaten for in real life.»

«And it was all for your sake,» Vincent said angrily. «I wanted to help, but it hasn’t worked out yet. Do you know what that fuddy-duddy wrote back? That he didn’t want anything to do with beggars. Then I wrote to him again, in the same way, but no longer with requests, but with threats. Only sternness has an effect on scoundrels. I was immediately given a polite answer, with even more meticulous apologies than mine, but he did not dare to reveal his secrets, as if he did not know what he was talking about, saying that he had no secrets from society, and he asked me humbly not to write further, as he had no money for a secretary, and he could no longer be away from work just to write some letters.»

«Has he sent you your letters back?»

«Yes, he must have thought that every piece of paper was precious to me, or maybe he thought it was bad luck to keep the things of someone who was about to be caught in the clutches of Monseigneur dragon. Just don’t think I gave him our address in Lara. I found letters every time in the hollow of an elm tree. The crows would bring them. I would put mine under my pillow, wish before I went to sleep the name of the addressee, and in the morning it would disappear, already in his hands.»

«It’s funny,» I agreed. «It’s news to me, too, that you’re in such dire straits.»

«Well…» Vincent blushed. «It would be a plight, though, if I took my scribbles closer to the printing press.»

«Who would agree to that?» I laughed. «Remember the sad experience of Camille, who only managed to get a play into an unpopular theater by threatening the director?»

«My case is quite different,» said Vincent confidently. — In addition, you are able to buy for us all the bookstores in Lara and not one printing press, and not a dozen pairs of workers. Gold or threats, it doesn’t matter to you what you pay with.»

«I may soon find myself in the claws of your venerable former employer, and you want to make a book hero out of me.

«For if the prince gets you back on your old path, you might find your biography with a delicate velvet bookmark on your bedside table, and you wouldn’t have to seduce anyone, they’d already be in love with you.»

«And if it’s not about the girls? What about the agitated superstitious peasantry, the suspicious laymen, the soldiers, the youths, the merchants, the proprietors? Do you think they will all love the one whose fiery breath could at any moment collapse on the roofs of their houses and turn a peaceful night to a burning hell. No one, from ministers to long-suffering students, wishes for such an end.

«Stop, Edwin. People are mostly mistrustful. They will consider all my work to be mere authorial fiction.»

«And that outlaw I spared? He told anyone who wanted to know about me. What if there was a survivor who managed to leave the burning city and noticed me. They wouldn’t believe them either.»

«Of course they wouldn’t. Sometimes in books, there’s a line where the fictional character becomes flesh. He’s already living on his own and can be too affecting for the impressionable. Ask Rose. She’ll confirm.»

Rose, who was at this moment looking for a way to coax the curled-up gremlin out of her new dresses, looked at Vincent dubiously and shrugged her shoulders.

«Francesca would have confirmed it,» he sighed. «You were a legend to her above all else.»

Rose gave up trying to wriggle new dresses out of her boyfriend’s clutches and came around to us.

«Edwin!» She rustled a cloud of silk skirts toward me. «It’s been hours and hours and the parcel is still on our table. You see, I cannot bear to have a dead rival near me.»

«It will be a long journey, with no map, compass, or guiding star to guide us.»

«But your magic will save us.»

«I hope so,» I said modestly. Rose was confident in my abilities, while I myself had my doubts.

It didn’t take long to pack. I didn’t need much to take with me, just a few scrolls, which I stuffed in my pocket as a precaution, a flask of wine, and some food in case Rose got hungry. I had no need for a telescope or compass. Superhuman eyesight substituted for the former, and intuition and the ability to orient myself in any unfamiliar space for the latter. I took my weapon with me not for self-defense, but out of habit. I liked to have a sword on my side and a musket in its holster, so that I looked like a simple man who could not grow dragon claws on his bare arm in a moment of danger. I carried the bloody bundle under my arm, and covered it with the hem of my cloak.

Rose was sure we would have to walk for God knows how long to our destination, so she spent a long time choosing shoes with sturdy soles, trying on boots, lace-up boots, and even some of my pairs of boots before she found something she liked, but despite her calculations we got there in a matter of minutes. The ocean was behind us, and before us was the desert mainland.

«Could this parched soil ever have been cultivated and sown?» Rose looked critically at the thick smears of ash on her leather boots. «Oh, Edwin, I find it hard to believe that even the smallest settlement, let alone an entire country, could once have stood here.»

«But it was here, there, on the coast, was the castle where I lived. Not alone, of course, but among an anthill of courtiers, advisors, consuls, servants, and many idlers who did who knows what they did and did what they did, just to stay near the shadow of the royal throne. There was the port,» I waved toward the sandy shore. The sand was now mixed with ash and had long since lost its usual yellow color. «There had been a flourishing city near the port, trade, merchant ships came here from the farthest shores, and then the watchmen on the ships could even see the light on the lighthouse, but they could no longer dock ashore. Back then, the world still remembered that my father’s country existed, but no one could reach it anymore, an invisible barrier prevented it, and gradually the whole state disappeared from the world map. You wouldn’t believe, of course, that once this desert had blossomed and borne fruit. Now, even if someone settled here, the withered earth would never grow again.»

I glanced toward the waves licking the scorched shores. Only the foamy swells remained unchanged. The fires of hell had flared up, devoured the country, and faded away, but the ocean remained.

«How I would have liked to put the prince on that very galleon, denying him both crew and anchor and shelter, off any shore, so that he could wander around all latitudes, no longer daring to harm anyone. Then he would finally understand the meridian of life that opened before me as I left the flaming homeland.

Ahead lay only a bare plain under the night sky, but suddenly somewhere in the distance I could make out a light, the smoke of a fire, the smell of burning. At first I had a crazy idea that that terrible night had returned, that everything would be reenacted, like in a shadow theater, but I would no longer be a participant in the performance, but just a spectator. But there could be no shadow performance where there was no memory of the past, no lodges, no stones, not even just descendants, nothing that could infuse the energy of disembodied beings who like to appear to someone, not to an empty space. So the mainland is not as desolate as I thought after all.

«Come on, let’s go see who got here,» I grabbed Rose’s hand. «Maybe someone was shipwrecked or thrown overboard from a pirate ship. Fishing boats could have gone off course in a storm, too.»

Rose hid her hair under a smart beret and looked like a boy.

«I didn’t see a boat by the shore,» she protested. «I didn’t even see a raft that would have helped rescue the passengers from the sinking ship. There’s only one way to get here: by flying, or with the help of a guide like you.

We approached the fire close enough to see those sitting around it, but so that they couldn’t see us. I wrapped my arms around Rose’s waist and soared into the air with her, a few meters off the ground, so I could see what was going on below without the danger of being seen.

There was only one man I knew warming up by the fire; I didn’t know the rest of them. Royce, stretched out on the ground and taking the most comfortable seat by the fire, looked like a puny schoolboy who had strayed into the respectable company of adults. I wondered how his roughly dressed, unshaven companions, accustomed to the hardships of outlaw life, would not push him aside to make them comfortable.

Royce looked regretfully at the bones that had been picked off by the fire, and clung to a half-empty bottle for solace. The single teenager in black looked strange, even unnatural, next to people dressed in sheepskin vests and darned linen shirts and simple pants, as if he were invisible to human perception and only Rose and I saw him because we were the same elusive creatures, and those who sat by the fire had no idea that an evil spirit was lying around them and watching them. Royce’s eyebrows drew together at the bridge of his nose, his fingers nervously tugging at the strings of his blanket as if he were really invisible, wondering what he could whisper in these men’s ears to incite them to a scuffle. It was more the evil spirit’s job to make mischief than to watch, but he couldn’t think of any suitable tricks, so he just lay there by the fire and kept silent.

— It’s getting cold,» someone from the untrustworthy company remarked. «Why don’t we go warm up in your caves or the ravine? Where’s that ridge you were talking about? I walked a couple of miles, almost got lost, but I didn’t see anything, not a cliff, not a rocky ridge, not even an ordinary rock underfoot. It is a damn island. I won’t let anyone else drag me to such a place.»

Some of those sitting by the fire, though they weren’t cold, shuddered at his words.

«We’re not going anywhere,» Royce said in a commanding tone. «My lord told us to wait here and keep an eye on what’s going on.»

«What can happen here?»

«Something interesting,» said Royce, his eyes sparkling mischievously. «If you could read, I’d let you see the story I stole, but you think learning to read is a sin. Why learn to read and write when you can sign on the throats of those who are late and have coins jingling in their pockets?» Royce laughed. «And since you are illiterate, my friend, you will have to content yourself with what I can state verbally.»

«Have you seen the demon the story is about?» Someone else asked, with interest, evidently someone who had spelled a little and read a few things for himself.»

«I no longer wish to see him at close range, the sun can only be seen at a distance, and even then it hurts my eyes,» Royce put down his bottle again and grinned blissfully, like a drunk. «How bad for those shortsighted brigands who meet a supernatural being by chance and unknowingly decide to rob him as a mere mortal. Wanted easy gain, and caught his own death,» Royce made a snap of his fingers as if he wanted to signal that a scene from a book he particularly liked was repeated before his eyes. «Imagine, you catch a young dandy, whisper „trick or treat“ in his ear, and suddenly he turns to you, and you realize that you tried to attack the devil himself, and you want to run away to save yourself, but you can’t, because you were in his clutches willingly. What would you do if you were in that situation? What would the bravest of you do in this case?»

Royce looked around the circle of his drinking companions with questioning, demanding eyes.

«Well,» said one who had been drinking heavily. «The main thing is not to be frightened, you have to fight back.»

«Oh, really?» skeptically grinned Royce.

«I would have used a knife. I’d have torn his claws out,» the braggart tried urgently to save his reputation, but there was a terribly sneering look in Royce’s eyes. Not that he’d had too much to drink, but he couldn’t have believed in my power unless he’d been shaken. Something must have happened to him that made it unnecessary to convince him that a dragon was invincible.

Royce was flighty and reckless, but he had suddenly learned at least one truth.

«I know how it is with simpletons who overestimate their fortitude,» he suddenly said. «I was disappointed. I was flirting, and I got caught in a trap. That’s how it goes, you see a pretty girl running past, not wanting to linger even for a moment near you, you catch up with her, catch her by the hand, and suddenly realize that you have caught your own death, which wanted to delay, give a reprieve, so it rushed away from you, and you caught up with it.»

Royce took another sip from the bottle, taking tiny sips, more for evidence that he was one of the company, but with the expectation of remaining sober.

«Ever since I was deceived, I’ve had the same dream all the time. It is a dream about her. She runs by, I grab her wrist, and suddenly I see that the skin I touched is riddled with tiny plague sores. She turns her pale face toward me, her eyes ablaze with scarlet fire, and I see a look of reproach in them. Death wanted to avoid me, but I followed her.

«You’re drunk,» the man who sat closest to Royce patted Royce on the shoulder in a friendly manner.

«The bottle is half-full,» Royce said optimistically.

«Yes, that’s right, no one’s ever been this tipsy before,» the bold man encouraged him and added. «And yet, as helpless as you’ve been in assuring us of our power, I wouldn’t be as taken aback as everyone else by the sight of one glowing eye, the one I caught with a knife to the throat, I’d tear out your dragon’s sting. Cut his throat and he won’t be able to bite or breathe fire. You just think you got a smaller share of the drinks, so you’re angry and want to intimidate us.»

«You don’t think half a bottle is enough for him to fall under the table,» my question sounded not out loud, but only in the braggart’s mind. It was amusing to watch him from high above as he looked at, trying to find the stranger whose voice he had just heard.

«Must be the wind,» he finally whispered, though he wasn’t sure it was. He just needed something to cheer himself up.

«Is it the wind?» Royce interjected skeptically. «The slightest breeze would have kicked up a whirlwind, and look at the ash everywhere.»

«Your madness is contagious,» said the other man. «I have the feeling that someone is watching us, someone we can’t see.»

I squeezed Rose’s waist tightly and laughed merrily, as if it were a witty joke. They heard the laughter, but they couldn’t see me. Because the sound came from above, it seemed to come from everywhere, from all sides of the desolate terrain.

There were no more caustic remarks. The laughter rang like a bell and fell silent, but none of those who heard the cheerful, ominous shimmering was able to utter a word. What if their next utterance brought something more frightening to life than just a chilling sound? Royce squatted, wrapped himself in his blanket and whispered something with his lips, as if he wanted to call for help. He was the only one in the company who seemed to realize that the laughter was coming from on high, and so he stared stubbornly at the ground, as if afraid to notice who might be watching him now, hovering in the air just above the heads of those who, unlike winged creatures, are chained to the ground.

Of course, I’d rather burst out laughing than smash someone’s head in, but the dragon inside me hissed. He wouldn’t have cared if he’d been censured, proud of every angry word he received, but laughing at him and not believing in his powers was a serious insult.

«What is the matter with you?» Rose mentally asked. She felt that the hand that gripped her waist was hot, not like flesh, but like a piece of iron. It was no longer thin, accustomed to the hilt of a sword and feather fingers touching her velvet camisole, but long golden claws. Claws so sharp that it was unpleasant for me, I involuntarily twitched, wanting to scratch someone. And I didn’t want to hurt those bums at all. They were just joking, bragging to each other, and they’d been drinking too much to hold themselves accountable for their own bluster, but the dragon didn’t care.

I set Rose on the ground, as far away from the fire as possible, so she couldn’t reach me until I’d finished the massacre. I walked slowly toward the drunken men myself, hoping that if I delayed the moment of encounter, my anger would subside a little and I could spare some mercy. The dragon couldn’t break free of the cage my body served, but its bony paw was trying to guide my every move.

From the friendly circle around the fire someone stood up, pulled his sheepskin vest up tight, and started rummaging through the bales of provisions. I recognized the braggart who’d promised to tear out the dragon’s claws before it could attack him. He knelt down, trying to get the still untouched wineskin from the bottom of the bale. Before we were alone on the desolate mainland, the tricksters had stocked up on quilts to flee the biting night frost and good food. I jumped easily over some sort of bunk. The absolutely silent movement could not attract anyone’s attention to me. The first victim was already mapped out. The false daredevil who had broken away from the group of companions was an easy target. He was unaware of my swift approach and the preparations for my throw, but his gut must have sensed something bad, and he flinched. He dropped a bag in his hands, and some mere copper snuff-boxes, apples, dried bread, and faded circles of silver coins fell to the ground. An equally dirty cloud rose from the scattered sniffs of tobacco over the ashes. My braggart coughed, cleared his throat, and cursed through his teeth in a very casual way, not even noticing that he was about to undergo a fatal change in his life. He was almost in my clutches. He should have been thinking of a last repentance, but he tried to gather his belongings from the ground and did not stop scrambling around until the ends of my boots almost grazed his palms.

Inwardly he shuddered, and I could see it in the slow way he lifted his head to look at me, as if he wanted to distance the fatal moment. Surprisingly, he didn’t mistake me for a charming stranger, though I hid my claw behind my back. He recognized death in person. Was the image created on paper so vivid that readers could immediately recognize the prototype in life? Or maybe it was my face that had such rage written all over it that it was impossible to mistake me for a harmless passerby.

Royce was awake at the fire. He couldn’t see me, but I got a good look at his frail neck, which I would easily break as soon as I had my first victim. The so-called victim tried to crawl away, but I grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and with a hard jerk he was on his feet. Sharp as if specially sharpened gold claws stroked the stiff bristled cheek. The prisoner trembled, aware that this simple caress might leave permanent scars on his skin.

«You wanted to meet me,» I whispered, almost touching the pierced earlobe with my lips. «You wanted to see how easy it was to kill a dragon. So where’s your resolve?»

The hilt of his sword was sticking out from under his vest, but he made no attempt to touch it, knowing that such a feeble act of self-defense would be useless. Any attempt to escape the golden claws was doomed to fail. Beneath the padded skin of my human arm as I clutched his shoulder, the captive felt the steel muscles, and realized how insignificant his strength was before such a treacherous and mysterious creature. Fear pervaded his body in a daze, and I, on the other hand, had a demon in me. I wanted to fight, I wanted the prisoner to resist me, and then the rage would be stronger.

«I get it,» I grinned. «You were expecting our encounter to take place in a dark alley, in a sleeping city, but this is nothing. That’s why you were embarrassed.»

With a quick, slight nod of the unruly golden-blond head a light flickered into the gray wasteland, and the outlines of the narrow streets and the houses pressed together seemed to rise up out of nowhere like the sight of a shipwrecked city beneath a ship’s keel. Here we were standing in the narrow street, the hood of the nearest lantern giving off little light, as if we could see it through the depths of water. It is only a mirage. The prisoner made no attempt to escape, so I drew his sword from his girdle, and handed it to him with the hilt forward.

«Take it, show me how easily you can tear my claws!»

As his numb fingers tightened around the hilt, I coolly and deliberately slashed his throat. The city, with its dim lights, remained forever his deathbed hallucination. The desert lay before me again, and the same fire was blazing. The glowing head rolled back to my feet. I stepped over it. Royce was the first to rise from his seat. That was the only thing that saved him from death. He shouted something to the effect that his comrades had to defend themselves, that they were paid up front to guard the borders, but in a fraction of a minute there was nothing but blood at his feet. The lad staggered back, wondering how he could squeeze any useful idea out of his cleverness this time. He thought feverishly about a rescue plan, but time was running out. He jumped deftly over the fire so that he and I were separated by a wall of fire, but he stumbled and fell and seemed to twist his ankle, or maybe dislocated his shin, I wasn’t sure. At least something was wrong with him, because despite the threat to his life Royce couldn’t get up and run.

«Fool, fire is my element,» I prompted, and snapped my fingers to make it more convincing. The fire was immediately extinguished. Then one light breath toward the smoldering embers, and the flames flared up with renewed vigor. Sparks sprinkled. The same mirage appeared before my eyes. It was an empty alleyway, a square with a fountain around the corner, the vague outline of a lamppost. A girl was running down a road winding between houses. A beautiful lady, as if she had just escaped from a ball held in one of the city’s mansions. She is wearing ball slippers, a sumptuous purple dress pleasantly rustling, and behind her, like a banner, long dark curls flutter. She runs closer, and instead of a blurry white speck, the outline of her face emerges from the darkness. I recognize her. Rose! She grabs my elbow, gently and powerfully, but she can stop the deadly golden claw that has already swung over the boy’s head.

«Edwin, stop it!»

Her cry brought me out of my stupor. The vision faded. The ghost town was gone, dissolving into the emptiness from which it had sprung. It was still the same plain, and there were no more diamonds on her bare shoulders or arms, and she wore the same man’s suit and her hair pulled back under her beret.

«You wouldn’t kill a child,» she thought her argument most convincing, and looked at me pleadingly.

«Is it a child?» I was astonished. «He should be marching in some regiment and eating dry rations in an army barracks instead of languishing in idleness. An idle man is a prey to evil forces. If this slacker had gone to school, he wouldn’t have had time to intrigue and attend shadow meetings.

«Or maybe he ran away from school,» Rose suggested. She was grasping at straws like a drowning man. «You know that the desires of the students are often at odds with the demands of their tutors.»

The beautiful girl had played on the most painful strings of my soul, and she had almost succeeded. I’d had enough of Rothbart myself, but I had little faith that Royce wanted a better fate for himself than his guardians had predicted.

Rose gripped my elbow tightly, and, surprisingly, the claws on my arm instantly shortened, the gold sheen dulling and the scales smoothing to the appearance of normal smooth skin.

«Let him go,» Rose insisted. «He can still get better, and it never hurts to have extra hands to work with.»

«Yes, don’t dare to touch me,» said Royce. «Don’t touch me or I’ll tell Infanta that you’re fraternizing with the pages.

«What are you going to tell her, you wretch?» I sprang forward, and Rose was scarcely strong enough to hold me back.

I drew forward, and Royce crawled away as far as he could, and from what seemed a safe distance, he continued his thought.

«Do you think she will like to know that you have made such a gentle friendship with a servant. When she finds that out she may throw your pretty little friend out, which is not likely to please you, for he is the only one you have spared of all those present. And if things get worse, she might just run off to someone else. Where will you find her then?»

«You don’t think I’d think I’d pay a visit to Clovis’ bachelor flat?» I asked, not out loud, of course, but mentally, so that Royce alone could hear, and the effect was startling. The brat opened his mouth in amazement and failed to close it.

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