Rhianon-6: Mistress of Magical Creatures

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Shine and Shadow

His tower was like a piece of hell. It bore almost no trace of Rhianon’s presence. And yet he hoped that somewhere in the gloomy corridors her azure train was about to flicker. He could almost see it. He wanted to see it. God and defeat had given him the gift of creating those illusions that colored his bleak world in bright but terrifying hues.

And now he imagined a hem woven with gold thread stretching over a cluster of black creatures crawling in disarray on the marble floor. Rhianon was above this chaos. A jumble of ghastly burned bodies, and bones must have been beneath her feet. And so was he. If she is even better than him, he belongs beneath her feet. He had forgotten his place. And now he was paying the price.

Madael violently knocked the gold cups filled with blood off the table. They rattled across the floor, scaring the infernal creatures away. The infected blood, and the blood that had been collected on the battlefield, stained the marble. Soon his servants would begin to lick it off, but for now they howled in agony, burned and hungry. Their hunger would not be satiated by a whole hackneyed army for lunch. In the winter, all his demons roamed the forests, tearing apart packs of wolves for meat. Hungrier than wolves they had fed on animals; now, with the blossoming of spring, they would need human flesh. Well, forward to the battlefield, he was ready. How many battles were not in the recent past, and he wanted more. His hunger for battle and death was now nothing to satisfy either. He wanted blood. Not to drink it, but at least to spill it, to see its color and destroy the pain inside him. He and God had once had an argument, violent and bloody, that continued to this day. Even defeated, he felt victorious in the contest. He was sure that since he was the most beautiful creature in the world, he had the upper hand. With the appearance of Rhianon, everything changed. As soon as he saw her, he knew he had to give up his pedestal. She was created as if in mockery of him. Yes, a more perfect creature than Dennitsa could illuminate even the human world with her presence. He is no longer the first. Praise the new dawn. It pained him at the sight of his own sunset. Even the angels in the heavens did not suffer for him as much as mortals rushed to die for the beautiful Rhianon. Truly she was a new lightning bolt, brighter than the former favorite of the god in the heavens. But she was created after him and in mockery of him. The god decided to replace him with someone else. Madael stubbornly refused to acknowledge the primacy of his own copy. She was only a reflection of him. She was a female parody of him, since on earth the most beautiful should be women, not men. There was no such distribution in heaven. There, everyone was equally as sexless. And no one fought for supremacy but him. The fairest among all, he found his followers. They, with the appearance of Rhianon, got the chance to see that their head was not and would not be the best and the only one. It was quite a tangible blow. Madael never suffered it. He followed the impostor everywhere, trying to find a single flaw in her, but he was only more convinced that she was better than him. Those who had thought him great could now die of fervor. His fallen angels had chosen him as their warlord, dazzled by his unique beauty and strength. They thought there was no one equal to him, and if so, they were not afraid to die for him. There was no one to replace him and he was the best. If he were gone, there would be nothing left to exist for. Where would there be another dawn? There’s a new dawn. It is a worthy substitute for him. With a heavy heart, Madael had to admit it. His subjects began to look at her with interest, even to adore her from afar.

Naturally, Madael’s dream was to get rid of the cause of his pain, but as soon as he got close to her…

He gripped the golden goblet so tightly that it nearly cracked in his fingers. The warmth of the blood, laced with poison, stung his throat so that he could have screamed. But he was used to physical burns. Something else was more tangible.

“A rose has thorns,” said a bard he had met on the road. In spite of his dark cloak and hidden wings, he recognized Madael, perhaps because he was a Fallen One himself, seeking the way to the Cathedral of Thunder. That is not important. The fact is that his phrase still rang in Madael’s ears, more poignantly than Arnaud’s perpetually whining flute.

“The rose has thorns…”

Or else he hadn’t guessed it himself. He kept repeating the phrase to himself hundreds and hundreds of times now. If he had said it out loud, his tongue would have broken.

You have to be strong. One must rush into battle. It reminded his conscience, if only he had one. He knew that the rules of his long game on earth were subject only to force and sword. He and God played with human lives and felt quite comfortable. What are humans? God and his punished lover can spin them as they please. They are as soft as clay and pliable and trusting. You don’t need a sword with them if you whisper something in their ear. But Madael liked the sword better. He was meant to be a warrior. The game went on, the men were pawns, he was a force among them, and surely the Almighty was the moving hand that decided everything. He did not agree with that. He’d rather have him and God as equals. Some played white, but he always played black. He had yet to assert his rights.

“You are a rose!” He whispered, leaning over the empty, clawed table, where bloody wine dripped and bones piled after feast. The rings on someone’s nibbled finger bones still glittered, just like the ones she liked to wear. And why was he the only one who found it so difficult to say her name. Why is it a rose and not Rhianon? A rose has thorns. He touched his hand to his heated forehead, brushing the disheveled hair from his temples. It was like scarlet gold, still pure with just a touch of something dark. His wings were already almost entirely black, but the bouncy strands of hair still twisted like gold worms. His eyes were still blue and his skin lily-white, too, except that the mirror was a burnt monster instead. There, beyond the mirror’s edge, a charred, incredibly evil and terrifyingly ugly creature lived and moved on its own. What if, shattering the amalgam but one day, it would burst into the outside world and swallow it whole. Absorb even the beautiful golden image of the still-existing Madael. He did not want to become that charred creature. But had his hour already come? What taboo had he broken to become this scarecrow? He wanted to be himself, but there was nothing he could do.

“Only not to break his taboo,” his conscience told him, and the sword clutched in his hand said otherwise. He may be a devil, but he has honor, and his own desires and desire for freedom, even if the shackles never fall, he must be free in his choice.

If he becomes as burnt and embittered as Asmodeus, the fragile line will be broken, the balance between sun and darkness will disappear. The world will cease to be a field of ruthless play between the god and his first warrior. Everything around it would become irrelevant.

He pressed his fingers to his forehead, trying to hold back his tearing consciousness. So this is how people go mad, long and painfully losing their own sanity. He had helped them so far, his subjects whispering to them to speed up the process. He himself made sure that the pain inflicted on people was as full as possible. He watched the pains of others and still he himself was in more pain.

Is it funny? People did not lose what he had lost. By falling, he had lost himself. Or on the contrary finally gained independence? Or maybe he was just taking the first step. As Rhianon would have decided? But here was Rhianon again. Could he not live and think without proclaiming her his chief advisor? Without her there was nothing to live for. If only the misery he was leading here could be called a life. He was the lord of worm gold, black creatures, and spilled blood. Alone in his tower, or rather surrounded by an evil entity, among whom he was alone all the same. And always will be.

Once he lost his loneliness, and his virginity, and his impregnability. It was all for a mortal girl. He dug his claws deeper into the marble tabletop.

“Damn you, Rhianon… and bless you. It was as if there was nothing but you…”

He didn’t say the words out loud, but they burned with fire in his mind. Like the fiery symbols scorched on his body and soul. They didn’t go away, the pain didn’t subside. The suffering didn’t stop for a moment. There was only one drug to take away the agony — the body of an earthly princess. He would do and give anything to have that body back in his bed. Let her only pretend she still needed him, and then she would get everything she wanted from him. He can give her anything, after all. He has enough power to do that. But what does she want? Why did she leave? No matter how hard he tried, he could not get through to her mind.

Black creatures crawled beneath his feet, and he didn’t care. He didn’t even rush to disperse them. The ashy traces of their touch remained on his golden sandals and immediately disappeared. Madael stared into the void.

“Well, do you like being betrayed?” Asmodeus’ flattering, luscious, and invariably insidious voice was like a serpent crawling in ashes.

Madael did not react at all to the mockery. His handsome face furrowed slightly, but he remained arrogant, even as he habitually crossed his arms across his chest and stepped forward, watching with pleasure as the servant staggered away from him.

“There is merit in this, the desire for revenge is an interesting feeling, and it will be even more interesting to get satisfaction from it,” one fling of his hand and his golden nails clenched forcefully on the black dried throat. His servant wailed. His burnt skin hurt as it was, and this touch stung even worse.

He gripped the writhing thing for a moment, then tossed it away from him.

“Me first, not you,” he reminded her, then looked away. Let the wretch crawl back into its hole. The creature crawled back down its hole. The black bodies began to coil themselves in a tangle of writhing black bodies, snaking across the floor, but not under his feet any longer, beyond the empty space that had cleared. The emperor needs honors. He is their king still. This thought gave him pep. He even tasted the bloody wine left in one of the goblets. It tasted disgusting and at the same time somehow appealing.

Asmodeus crawled to the side, scrambling over the tangle of strangers’ bodies, even uglier than he was.

“And what if she were to be the first,” he remarked venomously.

“Well, then there’d be nothing left of you,” Madael grinned. If the servant had meant to hurt him, he had done so wrong. “My copy could be fierce. Her cruelty need only awaken.”

Asmodeus hissed in annoyance as he crept away. Good riddance. Let him sit in his hole, climbing the world, whispering and doing evil, or raping golden-haired girls and boys again. Madael didn’t care about the mischief of his subjects, but he himself had no idea how symbolic the last words would be. His smooth forehead furrowed for the first time in thousands of years. What if, without giving much thought to the meaning of what he said, he happened to be right?

Rhianon looked at the sleeping children. Were there any marks on them? The dragon could have burned the symbols into their smooth skin, just as he’d burned them into the walls of houses, fields, even the ground. There was nothing to destroy them afterward. Grass could not sprout again where the ground had been touched by dragon fire. It was alarming and frightening. People tried to avoid places where such symbols remained. The poisonous vapors emanating from the burnt areas could affect many. Rhianon herself was more sober about it all, but she couldn’t deny the existence of magic. She remembered how the creature conjured at the hearth and how the flaming symbols hung in the air. What did they mean? After all this time, she should know by now. Having lived with Madael long enough, she’d learned to understand the hisses of the angelic language, but what about the signs they left behind. They should have made sense to her, too.

Two dark-haired baby heads and one redhead rested on the grass. Rhianon already knew the children’s names: Marla, Shon and Quentin. They only remembered their names. They could have spent hours in vain asking what the dragon had done to them, or to their playmates. Marla only remembered that someone had approached them while they were playing in the yard. His shadow blocked the sunlight… and that was it, not another word could be got out of her. Her freckled face wrinkled, tears welled up in her eyes at every question. Did she remember nothing, or did she not want to remember? The boys didn’t answer questions at all, just huddled together fearfully. The dragon was gone, but his shadow still hung over them as if he would not let them speak. Its presence was still felt close by. There may have been some magical power nearby, visible only to the bewitched children, but it still restrained them better than any chains.

There was still something left of the chains, by the way. No matter how hard Ferdinand’s knights tried, they couldn’t free them completely. They had yielded somewhat since the dragon’s disappearance, but Rhianon could still see the thin, thick ring of iron jammed into the girl’s wrist.

Marla was asleep and as if she felt no pain. Or maybe she was just used to the iron hoop. Rhianon decided that her powers were enough to undo the iron with her bare fingers. Her new powers, springing up as if from nowhere, allowed her to do things she’d never thought possible before. She guessed at the source of these powers, but she preferred not to speculate about procreation just yet. The supernatural fruit fed her from within. Perhaps by carrying the supernatural seed within her, she herself ceased to be human.

With just one light squeeze of her hand, Rhianon effortlessly unfolded the steel ring without even waking the girl. Marla only moved slightly in her sleep. A scratched part of her neck flashed under her reddish curls. Rhianon noticed that the arm where the hoop had been worn was very red. She didn’t need to light the lamp to see the scarlet rash on the baby’s delicate skin and anything else that looked like a burn.

Carefully, with her fingertips, she touched the scorched mark. It was a symbol. It was a familiar symbol. Already familiar images flashed through her mind, so distant and yet vaguely recognizable. Fighting among the clouds, swords striking like lightning, carnage, screams, broken wings, severed arteries and fire reflected in the azure-blue, ethereal pupils. Hell and heaven became one in that instant, equally engulfed in flames. Only there was no hell at that moment; only after the battle would it begin to unfold below. Perhaps further away, perhaps, where the earth would emerge later. Rhianon didn’t know the exact location, and she didn’t want to know.

“And you should, because that’s where you might have to look for your lover,” came a nasal voice from behind her, with a slight hint of hoarseness. Without even turning around, Rhianon already knew who she was going to see. Of course Fate had come out of the ground again. He seemed to be hiding in every bush, in every bush, in every hill, in every subterranean inch of the road she walked, and only came to the surface when he wanted to tease her.

She wasn’t interested in him right now, so she only gave a careless sniffle in response. She was much more interested in the sleeping children. Had the dragon scorched the marks on all of them with his fire? And why would it do that? Then his plans were frustrated, the sacrifice had not taken place, and the children were alive but marked. She knew that the dragon’s flame was capable of destroying living matter. Flesh is no exception. If these unfortunates are alive now, that doesn’t mean they won’t feel sudden fatigue and the call of death the next day. The dragon’s poison may work slowly, but it is still devastating. If these children are poisoned, it was better not to save them. Why drag bodies into Vinor that might start decomposing while they were still alive?

Besides, they were behaving strangely. It was as if their minds were trapped somewhere far away, away from the machine-moving bodies. What if a dragon still possessed them, held their minds and their wills captive. Just as in the afternoon, during a halt, Rhianon caught Marla drawing some signs on the ground. Only not the kind of signs the dragon had burned on her body, a little different. How could a child of five or six remember something so complicated? And a scholarly old sage could have been confused by it. All the scientists and connoisseurs of the sciences and even the stargazers in the royal court are, after all, only human; the possibilities of their minds are limited. Rhianon knew only one kind of creature who knew everything and nothing is a mystery to them. It was the angels, whose head to this day was Mastema, and therefore the dragons that lived in the caves full of books belonged to them. Some of them might have forgotten what they once looked like and still be shocked in front of a mirror. Are they forgotten as quickly as moments of bliss? Hardly, dragons had always seemed too wise to her.

And now Rhianon was staring at the marks scorched by dragon fire on living flesh, and she was growing uneasy.

She tried not to think about what awaited her. The children reminded her of that. She knew what happened to pregnant women. It was different with her. Her belly still hadn’t rounded, though her conception date was probably a long time ago, probably as far back as that first night in the angel’s tent. Yes, it must have happened back then. It was as if she’d felt the flow of fire, not seed, inside her. Since then it was as if some power had entered her, dwelt in her, and began to change her perception of the world. By producing a supernatural being, Rhianon herself ceased to be human. She could see and hear differently than humans, she could easily learn magic tricks, understand the language of birds and beasts, and hear the voices of spirits. Her sense of smell was also heightened. She could spot a mouse in the grass a hundred paces away, or recognize tiny pixies on a flower from afar. The magical world opened up to her completely. It was everywhere: in the grass, in the trees, in the water, in the air, in the sunlight, and, of course, in the dark. On every blade of grass a lovely young creature, like a dragonfly in size, could flutter. Rhianon was fascinated by the supernatural world, but she tried not to forget her main problem. Fire had always lived inside her; now, besides fire, something crushing was maturing there. Childbirth can be extremely painful for humans as well, and what happens to the one that gives life to a supernatural being. What if the newborn actually kills her? What if it doesn’t? If she returns to Loretta and gives birth to a child who has no father, will this child turn out to be strong enough to strike fear into everyone. It is the child of a fallen angel. If it will not protect her from gossip, the same remedy remains — fire. It is not for nothing that by nature she is given the ability to ignite so easily and ignite everything around her. It is her only self-defense. And she must defend herself. Everyone in Loretta is against her. And there are only enemies in the world, except for Ferdinand. He turned out to be quite nice. It’s worth seeing if he’ll last. Whether his attitude toward her will change when she asks for his help?

Rhianon sat down on the grass next to the sleeping children and rested her chin on her knees. She didn’t want to have a child. She had never wanted one. But fate had seen it her way. What would happen now?

“I can’t sleep, either,” Ferdinand approached her, sleepy, rubbing his eyes and trying in vain to brush his fingers through his tangled blond hair. He sat down beside her on the grass.

“I like to look at the stars, too,” he said immediately. She doesn’t know how he could see the stars through the foliage. He must have followed Rhianon’s gaze to find a patch of black-blue sky between the larches.

“Do you like night skies? It’s a beautiful sight, I admit.”

“And what is beautiful about it?” She became angry, involuntarily. “Once upon a time, these poetically beautiful skies had been torn apart by a hellish battle. And now its echoes still echo through the skies. The war is gone, but the pain remains…”

Could he understand her? Rhianon shivered. She was no longer expressing her own thoughts, but his, Madael’s. She shouldn’t speak his words to mortals. None of this is for mortal ears at all. But Ferdinand tensed. It was as if he understood something.

“It terrifies me, too, to think that one day a dragon will fly across this sky, even if it shines like a treasure trove of gold, but it’s still dangerous and will burn all our crops.”

“Have you ever seen a dragon in flight?”

“No,” he said, a little taken aback by the question.

“I have,” Rhianon said, remembering the valley, and the swirling, colorful bodies, wriggling like jewels in a treasure house.

“And you were still alive after that?”

“Yes,” she told him the truth without hesitation. Perhaps one day she would regret it. Who could confess to evil spirits and stay alive after that, if not a witch. Perhaps one day Ferdinand will draw conclusions from her words. Just because of the fire inside her, she could be declared a witch. In Loretta they did not do so only because Conrad needed her. Had he not had a son who wanted her, Manfred would undoubtedly have taken the opportunity. How easy it is to declare an heiress a sorceress and get rid of her once and for all. But no, Conrad’s young blood had been roused and plans had to be changed.

Manfred saved her life for nothing. That is what she will tell him when she kills him. Every time she clutched the weapon in her hands she imagined slitting his flabby throat. The thought was as sweet as revenge itself. It was sweeter than the apple of paradise, sweeter than Madael’s lips… even nicer than an angel’s embrace. Revenge always comes first. Everyone must get what he deserves and there is no mercy for his enemies. Madael himself had fought to defend his independence and avenge his forced fetters, he should have understood her. He was only the first to set the example — you cannot tolerate any oppression over yourself, not even the oppression of a deity, and now every strong man in the world was following in his footsteps. What can you do, the world is set up so you have to follow the devil’s example to survive in it and become strong.

That’s what Rhianon was going to do. No one, not even Madeel himself, could stop her.

Her shoulders trembled a little with inner tension. She was already preparing for the fight and everything inside her trembled. Ferdinand interpreted her gesture in his own way.

“I must have a warm cloak in my saddle-bag. I will fetch it to you, my lady, to keep you warm.”

Rhianon gestured for him to stop.

“Leave it. I’m not cold.”


He was taken aback when he saw the beautiful lady lift her fingertips and a flame flicker above her fingernails. At first it might have been an illusion, but gradually the flame took shape and hung like a hot ball over her palm. Now it would be unnecessary to remind her that it was quite chilly in the woods at night, and her shoulders were bare. Rhianon proved that she could warm herself.

“I don’t need warmth, especially human warmth.”

It would be a trifle for her to make a great fire in the evening. But she watched coldly as the others piled brushwood and searched their surviving luggage for drones, flints, and splinters of flint. They could not find anything. She had to sleep without the warmth of a crackling fire. Rhianon felt no remorse for refusing to help her knights. She had no intention of demonstrating her abilities in public. Why should she need to be called a witch? Some people were already mistrustful of her because they remembered her coming out of the woods, alone, without a horse and no retinue. A noblewoman should not be alone in the woods. Not a princess, or rather a queen. She needs companions, chaperones, ladies-in-waiting, bodyguards and pageboys. And it’s not customary for ladies to walk. It’s easy to step in light satin shoes on impassable forest roads. No one, after all, knows that for her it is now nothing to overcome long distances at the speed of the wind. People who meet her must have many questions. Where are her attendants, where is her carriage, her servants? To all this she could not give an honest answer. And even when she could, no one must know who she had spent the last months of her life with. Fairies’ company, life in the company of unearthly creatures, and embracing the devil were not adventures worth telling everyone about. It’s better to keep it a secret so as not to compromise herself. But what if the descendants from another world following her, already by their mere presence near her, will brazenly compromise her in front of people? A queen followed by an impostor… Rhianon wondered. Before the deadline it was forbidden to tell anyone about her friends, but Ferdinand had been so honest with her. She didn’t want to lie to the man who had laid his soul bare before her, and yet she cautiously glanced in the direction where Fate had appeared recently. She wondered if he was still there, waiting for the moment when he could come at her again with his threats and incitements.

Ferdinand would have been shocked by this dwarf alone. But luckily he wasn’t around at the moment. That’s who really follows her around like an evil fate. She wished he’d just left her the pendant and disappeared on his own. But no, he had to torment her with vile remarks. Now she had to live with the constant tension of knowing that an unwelcome companion might appear out of nowhere at any moment. Considering that she now had companions, it was very uncomfortable.

“You are unusual.”

Rhianon shuddered at these quiet words addressed to her. Ferdinand must have blurted it out spontaneously, not wanting to hurt her at all, but everything stirred inside her.

“As unusual as those burned at the fires of the Inquisition?” She even laughed, short and bitter. The laughter echoed dryly through the leaves. “I can burn anyone myself, and you can see that. Are you afraid of me?”

She looked directly into his eyes, even in the darkness they were dazzling blue and clear. What an open look for a man who has to hide his political games. Does he look at everyone or just at her? Involuntarily she thought about it. Just one effort and she could read all his thoughts. Even an open book is not as accessible and easy to read as the human mind had become to her. And yet she was in no hurry to look into his mind. Perhaps it was because she herself was frightened to discover such insincerity?

“I admire you,” he leaned so close to her that he must have felt the heat of the fire emanating from the ball in her hands. His brow furrowed painfully, but he tried not to suppress the look of pain. Rhianon noticed the beads of sweat protruding on his smooth forehead. He wasn’t just hot around her, he felt threatened, but he didn’t pull away.

“You could be adored.”

“In spite of the fire?” She looked at him feignedly — innocently, and meanwhile the ball of fire above her palms began to grow in size and even hotter. Just as easily she could squeeze the solar core in her fist, just as she had once held in her hands the heart of Dennitsa, once in love, but still like a red-hot fire. What is it to her to crush the soul of a mortal king? It is a simple game, not an effort. Only she didn’t want to hurt Ferdinand at all. She felt that he was already hurting — his whole life before he met her.

“The women in Vinor are afraid of fire themselves,” he frowned. “I tried to tame the Inquisition. But my father always said it was necessary. It is necessary to keep the people in fear, and the unholy are far beyond the borders of the kingdoms. For this there is religion and its monstrous spawn: dogmas, rites, witch trials.”

“And yet in the king’s palaces the astrologers take refuge. They’re as important to you as your advisers.” Oh, how easy it was to read his mind. Ferdinand didn’t even catch her at it, didn’t ask her how she knew that. But he tried to justify himself.

“They are useful, the Inquisition almost not. The fires of the mortal martyrs don’t shut the magical creatures out of the forest…” he paused and looked expressively at her.

Rhianon understood and nodded. Meanwhile, the fireball in her hands had grown to the size of a child’s ball. If she hurled it forward, the flame would be enough to burn down a house or start a forest fire.

The fire was hot, but it didn’t burn her palms. Ferdinand, on the other hand, felt hot, almost to the point of pain. Let him know what it was like to be in a furnace. Rhianon grinned wryly.

“I am fire,” she whispered confidentially. “The element of fire is in me. Sometimes I think so. But I’m not going to turn innocent people into martyrs, only my enemies.”

“I’ve seen how those diabolical creatures, the dragons, react to you.”

She nodded.

“You don’t think I could burn them more, do you?”

He only shrugged.

“Maybe there’s something different about you.”

“Not looking for a halo over my head or hooves and a tail under my dress. I don’t have a martyr’s crown or devil’s horns under my hair. And I hope I never will.”

“So who are you?”

Now she shrugged her shoulders. To confess would be to break the fragile trust that had developed between them.

“Better tell me about the Inquisition. How long ago it appeared. Is it as long ago as religion itself. Or much later, people began to notice that there were those among them who tried to summon spirits at a time when faith and God should ward them off. Even in villages there are illiterate maidens who learn and draw witchcraft symbols on the road to summon and tame evil spirits, and then set them on the villagers. How to fight such witches, if not by lynching and bonfires? The Inquisition absolves others of guilt by exterminating witches or abusing their duties by dragging to the stake those who are in the clergy’s desire.”

“Sometimes,” he admitted honestly, “but…”

“But I would be executed for such speeches in Vinor,” she chuckled shortly. “It’s a simple power mechanism, to execute all those who displease you before they revolt against you. If I were the ruler of an earthly country, I could easily decide everything without executioners, without sentences, without advisers, with just one fire.”

She lowered her palms, and the fireball hung in the air, shining like the sun. Now it would explode with a million glittering sparks, or fly to ignite a dry fallen tree, her choice. Rhianon stared at the fire and wondered what she should do with it. Ferdinand beside her held his breath.

“I try to be fair,” he whispered softly, but it did not sound very convincing.

“There can be no justice where you want to keep power,” Rhianon remembered Manfred, and all the traitors in Loretta. If she hadn’t been so soft and weak and prone to justice, she could have defeated them all. All it took was a little cunning, to seduce Conrad, to get him to kill his father, and then to condemn him himself. A thousand cunning plans could have been devised, and she had simply decided to escape. Nothing more elaborate than that occurred to her. It was a pity…

No, there was nothing to be sorry about. She had met Madael, after all. If things had gone differently, she wouldn’t have recognized him. She’d come to know Dennitsa himself, and the consequences didn’t matter. Fire and eternity united. It was worth everything.

“I really try to make sure that at least others don’t break the laws.”

“Your established laws, and are they all just,” she interrupted defiantly. She wasn’t at all afraid that he might want to blow her head off, or at least intimidate her with his power. She was sure he wouldn’t do that.

When you hold someone in your arms, like this ball of fire that now hung in the darkness in front of her, you don’t worry about anything anymore. Tame fire is your element; there can be no rebellion in it. The ghost of the School of Witchcraft knew what he taught her. All you need is to know how to control fire, and it will not frighten you.

“I want justice, Rhianon, I want no unhappy people in my realm.”

“And I don’t want outside threats either. It is not only from men, but also from the evil of the forests. For this you are even ready to conclude a new political marriage, this time not with a mortal princess, but with a fairy queen out of the woods? You believe that an alliance with her would make the borders secure and the wicked obedient.”

Rhianon saw the blush on his cheeks. It pleased her. It was nice to see someone’s embarrassment.

Now she even understood why Orpheus so often joked and mocked others, he liked to feel like a winner. The joker is always on top, and the one who believes the joke is his plaything. That’s how jesters rule over kings. She laughed involuntarily. If Orpheus appeared to her now, she would not allow him any more such liberties. She must hold him in her hands.

“Don’t take everything so seriously. You, the ruler, are responsible for the people, for the nobles and for your own head. Just one conspiracy you didn’t watch out, and it’ll be off your shoulders. One mistake, one oversight, one failure to follow through, and you are no longer a king. Politics is a perpetual balance, life is black and white, there is no wholly white and wholly black even in heaven. God is also a ruler, sometimes very cruel, and the Devil is only his servant. The devil does evil only when he does God’s will, not when he wants to. We humans, ordinary and crowned alike, resort to belief in God only in order to protect ourselves from the devil. All is hypocrisy, and we live with it. So why should we, mere mortals, strive to be nobler than deity. After all, we are his creatures and we think in his image.

He looked at her and didn’t even dare raise his hand to wipe the burning sweat from his forehead.

“Are you excusing me or condemning me?”

“People are just trying to survive in an unjust world. And you also have great responsibilities. But I condemn all those who, instead of doing the work, indulge their own ego — the Inquisition and men of the rank among them. I despise them. And the evil one is not afraid of them. Think about it, can those who themselves stood in the ranks of the angels of God be afraid of divine symbols. Besides, these symbols were invented not by God, but by people. There is a belief-the serpent and the cross. I often imagine a crucifix wrapped around a serpent. It is said that such symbols are stamped on the covers of witchcraft books. But does the dragon run from the cross. Show him the cruciform shape of your sword and he will disappear. When you went into battle, you counted on it.”

“Not quite! More like a sword blade,” he admitted honestly. “Not really,” he admitted honestly. “We had archers, a lot of men who died in the swamp, cannon on a gun carriage, chains, maces…”

“Not even a catapult would have done you any good. Not many cannons, — dragons are invulnerable.”

“It’s their scales. They’re like jewels, aren’t they?”

Rhianon gave him a hard look.

“You are very observant. You noticed that too, didn’t you?” She stared at his face for a long moment, the straight, graceful nose, the seductive lips, the thoughtful, big eyes. He’s smarter than she first thought, yet he can be so sincere.

The ball of flame was still hovering in the air, but it had already begun to cast sparks. One of them fell on Rhianon’s dress, but it did not burn the thin silk. The cloth woven by fairies’ hands was not flammable, nor could it be damaged. Rhianon smoothed the ruffles with her fingers. It was as if sparks hadn’t touched them. The air around the balloon grew hot. She could feel the heat, but it didn’t hurt, and it was harder for Ferdinand, who was sitting beside her, to bear it. He was tense, but he wasn’t about to leave. He liked to sacrifice his own comfort to be near her. Rhianon leaned back and leaned her head against the trunk of a beech tree. Her golden hair laced the bark. She could feel the roughness of the wood in the back of her head, hear the woodworms crawling up and down the trunk, and hear the superhuman life bubbling up and down the leaves and the roots. Oh, she suspected it was there. There were supernatural beings everywhere, even if they remained completely invisible to mortals. No Inquisition could help against them. Ferdinand is somewhat ridiculous. But he could be so loyal and understanding. Just the kind of friend she had always dreamed of.

Madael hid his secrets. With him, understatement was acceptable. He was an angel, he was a mystery himself. Humans are simpler. Someone mortal could get closer and even say goodbye to life because of you. But a beloved demon is still no substitute for him. The handsome young man beside her dreamed of shared love, of mutual warmth, of trust. She could only offer him scalding fire.

She purposely loosened her grip for a moment, and the fireball burst into a myriad of sparkling sparks. Some of them burned Ferdinand. Other sleeping warriors, now reluctant to wake, muttered a curse and hurried to extinguish the items that had begun to ignite, or even the dry branches beneath them. A torrent of sparks fell into the grass and the driftwood, and even touched the trees, but there was no fire. Rhianon now knew how to neutralize the destructive force. Tiny sparks of fire reluctantly subdued her and went out, flying away harmlessly.

So she knew how to do some things without needing the advice of her mentor. Both Rothbert and Clive were right. They each said, in their own way, that he who has a priceless gift must learn everything on his own. So Rhianon was learning. She liked to master her talents the way others mastered the arts. To control the power that dormant in you is wonderful.

Ferdinand was impressed, but she knew he would not say a word to his entourage. No one would know that the little nighttime fireworks display was no accident. It had been set off by a lady who had come out of the woods. Now someone was reciting prayers, someone was inspecting the gaps in their cloaks, Ferdinand, for example, was holding back from blowing on his burned palms. He had taken off his gauntlets at such bad timing. Large red spots were now spreading across his fingers and down to his wrist. Such severe burns could not have occurred after the nettles. In her mind Rhianon sympathized with him, but she didn’t know how to help. It was unlikely her touch would be healing, and she was not yet versed in medicinal herbs. She was not Hildegard, she had no need to fumble with poisons and potions. Even if such ability came to her in time, she had no use for it. Her power lies elsewhere.

“Angry that I burned you?” She asked in a casual tone as the others went back to sleep after some grumbling. No supernatural foe threatened them from the darkness, and yet many knights clung to their swords even in their sleep. Ferdinand, unlike them, was calm, though he already knew what the source of the danger was.

He only shook his head in the negative and a coy smile bloomed on his lips. He had beautiful lips, Rhianon noted to herself, his mouth wide and sensual, his lower lip a little full, the color of his skin pale and still reminiscent of a juicy fruit. What would it be like to kiss a human rather than an angel? For the first time she thought about something like that. Aloud, however, she spoke on a very different subject.

“No one is allowed to insult the king. A wrongdoer, even an accidental one, can’t stay alive after he’s harmed you.”

She wanted to tease him, but it didn’t work with Ferdinand.

“But after all, fairies are supposed to have special privileges.”

How seriously he takes everything. Rhianon almost laughed in his face. So in his charming blond head there is still a plan to tie himself in a dynastic marriage to a fairy and thus protect his kingdom from invasion by evil spirits. She didn’t dare tease him about it. He was honest with her, and therefore did not take jokes.

Rhianon touched his palms gingerly and noticed the ugly red burn spots lightening. The decisive moment seemed to have arrived. Ferdinand believed her.

“If I ask you for something, so, as a fairy, you won’t deny me any request.”

He nodded. His consent she secured. Rhianon gave him a mysterious smile.

In the morning, promising that she would return soon and join the tiny cavalcade before she even entered Vinor, she turned the horse onto another road. The animal did not budge, though she felt her trembling. The danger of what she had conceived was weighing on her; the road was becoming perilous. There was also the risk of losing Ferdinand, whose support she had already secured, but Rhianon was betting first that her new talent for covering any distance quickly would help her catch up with him before the city gates, and second that she needed to find support still on the side. Mortal troops alone were not enough. She needed help from supernatural forces. The powers that interested her at the moment dwelt in the mountains and in the water. Very conveniently she remembered that Vinor was also a major maritime power. There are many ports here, where merchant ships from various lands arrive. There is a large flotilla, an armada of royal galleons. Rhianon involuntarily stared at them at the first port she saw on the way. She did not know whether this small piece of land in front of the endless expanses of water belonged to Vinor or to a neighboring country. The small port seemed ghostly. The little port town next to it was full of caryatids and sandstone statues. They were images of supernatural beings. And the port itself is called “Angelo.” Isn’t that a little eloquent. She would have thought that only the servants of Madael lived here. They might have taken over the city, pretended to be statues, or lurked in the shadows of the poor houses, which for some reason were decorated too lavishly with stucco and flowers. It was an amazing luxury for a port city. And the statues of supernatural beings are striking, as if they were the work of an unearthly sculptor. And the architecture of the town is strange. At first the streets seem empty, but then you notice the people and the perpetual accumulation of people in the port. On the way, she was told that even on the cloudiest day, Angelo’s harbor is always full of people. “They’re waiting for those who never come back,” a strange passerby told her. That is, mermaids and drowned men, she wanted to joke, but she kept silent. Wasn’t it the same creatures she was looking for herself now?

Now it was beginning to rain, and the crowd on the wharf was still thickening. Rhianon could see the forest of masts, the ships anchored or sailed away. In the noise of the rain there was no sound of work, no shouting of sailors and no creaking of rigging. Barges, galleys, schooners, small boats and dinghies, as well as huge ships with carved figures over the stem — there was a lot here. There was plenty to see. She was impressed only by the ships where the stern figure looked like a dragon. She wondered if the real dragons would decide to attack their wooden counterparts on the high seas. That would be fun. She flashed before her the names embossed in gilt letters on the hulls “Luck”, “Fast Wind”, “King of the Seas”, “Unicorn”, “Golden Apple”, so much fiction and ingenuity, somehow no one occurred to call their vessel a mermaid or an undine. Bad omens were feared by all. No one wants to go to the bottom. Not surprisingly, one ship, the largest and most intricate, caught her attention. “The dragon is a winner.” Who would dare shout such a motto? Rhianon squinted. And indeed if she looked closely the ship had the shape of a dragon, its head replacing the figure in the bow, the hull taking the shape of carved wings, if not for the masts, sails, and rigging, the illusion would probably be complete.

Rhianon stared at the unusual vessel, then she scolded herself for her own curiosity. That was not why she had come here. It was not the ship she was after; it was something else, hidden in the depths. But how would she get to it? She needed to find a deserted spot: a rocky shore, a lonely lagoon, an empty pier, where there were no crowds. Then she can summon those who live on the bottom.

“Wouldn’t it be easier to steal someone’s boat and swim into the deep water? Sometimes fishermen get caught in the nets of sea creatures instead of catching them. Swim deep and see for yourself,” someone whispered in her ear.

Rhianon turned, expecting to see a fairy or a playful elf standing nearby, but all around were mortals, lifeless and tired. And who spoke to her was not human, she thought, for it was too heartfelt and rich in different tones. People didn’t talk like that. Rhianon looked around and almost shuddered. It seemed to her that the carved figure of a sitting angel on one of the rooftops had come to life. Illusion, it was only an illusion, she repeated to herself, squeezing back through the crowd to get out of the port. A wild imagination might have painted that picture for her. And yet a strange suspicion lingered in her mind. Maybe it was Setius.

The beautiful curve of its eyebrows, though marbled, and the carelessly haughty flutter of its wing were so characteristic of him. It was amazing how, from this distance, she could even see the expression on his face. It was truly a dragon’s eyesight. She was afraid to look up at the statue again. It was better to look at the passersby and the people crowding the port. Their gray, expressionless faces and diminutive figures were much safer than watching a statue come to life. That’s when she spotted him, the giant in the cloak. The familiar figure was moving nimbly through the crowded lines as if there was a tunnel between them. And there was nowhere to go but through them. Now Rhianon shuddered. Even beneath the billowing cloak she could see the shape of wings. And the figure itself was familiar. Those shoulders, the curved chest, the height, the hands, the handsome thin fingers that held the curtains, the golden threads streaming out from under the hood — all so familiar, so near and yet so indescribably distant. Now the stranger would raise his face, and she would see the burning blue eyes of Dennitsa.

“Run while there’s still time,” the same voice whispered.

Run? Is it from him? How could she flee from him? If only he would let her. Rhianon was torn between the desire to stay and to hide in the crowd. Was it him, or was she just imagining it. But the little voice above her ear was already screaming again that she must run, and she obeyed. Soon the port and the city itself were behind her. Rhianon held the reins of her horse as it carried her through the valley, past thickets of heather and small hills. The mountain ranges in the distance beckoned. What if there was a dragon there? She could not see steam or flames rising over the mountains, nor could she sense the proximity of treasure or magic, and then she rode on. She needed to negotiate an alliance with at least one of the dragons. What if none of Madael’s servants wanted to talk to her? The dragon packs only obey him. That she had already seen for herself. But there had to be one exception. She wondered if any dragon might be seduced by her beauty and serve her, betraying their first master? It is improbable, but one of them might be tempted by Dennitsa’s repetition of her face. If it is so dear to them, then what is it. Rhianon bet primarily on her charms. Well, maybe some cards, too. She’d even forgotten that one deck was still with her. It was the very first card deck in the world that Orpheus had made especially for her. It could be used in case of an emergency. After all, that was how she had gotten Athenais to agree. She simply had no choice but to gather helpers for Rhianon. Then she would have to be fitted to gather the rvil spirits as quickly as possible. Rhianon wasn’t going to procrastinate with the war. Except that for a first offensive, she wouldn’t need Ferdinand’s troops and small, flattering imp, she’d need someone more intimidating.

“Give me a sign when you sense a dragon near,” Rhianon whispered to the harpy sleeping in her saddle. The creature, sensing the opportunity to rest, curled up snugly as a salamander in a crucible, cooing for gold. The harpy was of no use to her asleep in the saddle, and Rhianon tried to shake her awake.

“Do you think I can do it?”

She heard nothing but a sleepy, indistinct mumbling in reply. The harpy was obviously unhappy about being poked and prodded. She used to run at the first call. That’s how Ferdinand makes supernatural creatures unhappy with his excessive attention. If he treats his subjects the same way, he will be lost. Rhianon involuntarily thought of the conspiracy. Yes, he needed the queen’s firm hand and her urgent advice. The blond fellow doesn’t know how to run a business himself. He’s gone to fight a dragon, thinking his armor will protect him. What a fool. Better on your own? One searches for a dragon in the mountains and woodlands.

If her plan fails, she will be in trouble. However, unlike the simple-minded Ferdinand, who can only count on himself, she always has one option. Call for Madael, and he will fly in. Even if he decides to abandon her, he won’t abandon his supernatural child. Does he even know about him? Rhianon wondered. She did not say. But he could sense everything. How someone who knows every movement of sinners or impurity in the universe, both on earth and under the earth, may not know that his seed has sprouted and now an unearthly creation will be born. Dennitsa will become a father. Is he ready to be one? And what will his child be like? If he combines his beauty with his strength, it will truly be a disaster. How not to fall in love with him and how not to be hurt by him? The sun burns. Rhianon was not burned by her closeness to her beloved only because she herself was like the sizzling sun. Would the dragon appreciate her strength, and her beauty? Would he agree to an alliance, or at least a treaty, with her?

She looked once more at the valley and the mountain ranges. At last she sensed something. It was the nearness of something supernatural. Fire, dreams filled with magical memory, ingots and things of gold. It was all around her somewhere.

She frowned. What if she rode at random? The horse beneath her began to fidget. Rhianon felt him shudder and startle. The only thing that prevented him from jumping and fleeing was her strong hand clutching the reins. So she hadn’t been wrong in her calculations after all. The animal’s reaction was evidence of that. Horses can sense a threat approaching, just as she herself senses another’s fire. The harpy in her saddle woke up, too, and perked her ears. Clearly the proximity of gold spears, precious deposits, and her former companion had attracted her, too. Rhianon had noticed that it was the jewelry that most attracted the supernatural creature here on earth. It was still different in the heavenly castle, but Dennitsa lived there, and away from him the harpy’s greedy claws reached for anything that even remotely reminded her of her former owner. She tried to tear a large sapphire from Rhianon’s dress until her claws scraped it off. She felt pity for the beast, and gave it a single gold coin. She was glad to see it. The feeling that the gold was Dennitsa’s glow was so strange. It reminded her of him, too. It was all the more clear why dragons were so fond of hoarding gold. With them they are closer to their dreams. Even the reminder of the warlord who led them to this day’s doom was so sweet that they would not let it out of their claws, would not let it out of their sight, and even would attack any man who saw a gem that caught their eye. In part, Rhianon understood them. If even here on earth her lover was such that it was impossible to resist him, then how was he to lead his heavenly armies into battle. It must have been a sight that burned them all as much as the punishing fire. That’s why they’re hoarding gold now. It was for the memory of the past and their idol.

Rhianon heard the gold coins clinking in the distance. The dragon himself was asleep, but the pixies were counting his gold, riding his pearls, climbing into gold goblets, and feasting there. When the sleeping monster awoke, Rhianon involuntarily shuddered. He was there in the mountains, in a deep cave, she on a stake in the wasteland, and still, when he opened his eyes, she felt it.

It was as if he were calling to her, and she drove forward, imagining rough, keratinized skin, scales like emerald armor, shiny yellow eyes. Eyelids covered with skin like a dense crust. The sharpest dagger could penetrate it, and not a scratch would remain. The weapon might break, but it would not wound a dragon. Rhianon had no reason to arm herself. No blade would line up in front of such armor. All she could rely on was her latent abilities. But if you do the math, they are just as reliable as any earthly weapon. She would achieve more with sorcery than she would with a sword.

Be brave! Whether the same haunting voice whispered it to her, or whether she thought it up herself. It was no longer important. Rhianon had entered dangerous territory. There was no turning back. Now she would indeed have to be brave and uncommonly clever. She would have to negotiate, not fight. Who dares to offend his lord’s chosen one? That was one of the things Rhianon was banking on. They could not harm her. But they must obey her.

Well, there’s nothing but trouble. She pouted, like a hurt child, and unintentionally released tiny rings of fire into the air. The horse beneath her roared in fright at the flames, but Rhianon pulled the reins tighter. The strength of her hand forced the animal to obey. And the strength of her will. Leading beasts was easy. One mental effort and they obeyed you. If only it were that easy with supernatural beings.

But if she could do the first, she could do the second. In the end she would succeed. After all, she is the queen of demons. That’s what Madael said. He wanted her to be his queen.

At the foot of a small hill, Rhianon dismounted and told the harpy to stall the horse. The sleepy beast became lazy. Rhianon pondered feverishly who she should leave to watch the horse. Not a harpy. She might need her nimble claws for anything. Stealing something, planting it, or fetching it on time, that’s just what the sloth would have to cope with. Of course you can’t steal anything in a dragon’s cave, but Rhianon was suddenly excited.

“Hey, you,” she called out to the tiny dwarf who had appeared suddenly at the foot of the hill. It wasn’t Fate, and it wasn’t one of her longtime acquaintances. Dressed all in red, the little man bore little resemblance to those she had met so far.

Rhianon rummaged through the folds of her dress and with a magician’s gesture drew out a gold coin. The gold pieces were sticky to the silk fabric and didn’t even need to be put into the little purse she wore on the lanyard at her waist.

“Take it as a reward for your hard work,” she held out a dwarf’s coin. “I want you to look after my horse.”

The dwarf cautiously approached the horse. Rhianon heard him whisper a few sweet words before he took the reins. The horse did not seem to be frightened of him. That was a good thing. Except that the dwarf shook his head negatively at the glinting coin.

“No payment, ma’am.”

“As you wish,” Rhianon hid the coin back with mild disappointment. She couldn’t wait to get rid of all the gold. It was as if it were weighing her down. She felt lightness every time she parted with a piece of gold. She wanted to dance right on the spot, as if it was not the empty purse that lightened, but her soul. Could it be that by parting with that enchanted money, any man could say goodbye to most of his misery and even disease. It would seem so. Rhianon hoped that by spending the last coin she would be rid of all her problems at once. And the main problem was Loretta. Or rather, the fact that she did not own it yet. Well, that was exactly what she was going to fix.

Rhianon cast a long glance at the mountain range. Rather instinctively she knew where the cave should be located. She could not see it from afar. Perhaps the entrance was enchanted. The girl sighed in frustration. No, she could not retreat. The harpy, already bustling around the hem of her dress, seemed to agree.

Already crossing the meadow separating her from the mountains and rocky spurs, Rhianon thought that the dwarf was right not to accept a coin from her hands. All those to whom the gold had fallen into the hands had died in strange ways. She thought of Leon and his conspirators, for example. It turned out to be simple, ridiculous, and quick. She wanted to buy off their evil with these coins, and she gave them death herself. It was a wonderful reward for their evil. Everyone gets what they deserve. If it is true, and the coins have such power, she will reward Loretta’s advisors with them. But will she have enough coins for everyone. Rhianon could hardly keep herself from reaching into her purse right now to count the coins. She probably would have done so, had there not been an unsettling snore somewhere in the stony depths. Rhianon felt the proximity of steam and flame. Such sounds as reached her could only be made by a single creature. It was a dragon. Then she was almost there.

She took a deep breath in her chest and stepped forward. There must be a cave nearby. The sounds and sensations of something dangerous but desirable grew stronger. She held her breath. If anything, she might well breathe out fire now, and fire so strong that it would consume half of these mountains. There was a real elemental bubbling inside her, and something was slumbering in the depths of the cave.

The harpy lurking behind her train suddenly fell silent. Rhianon realized that she had to step into the darkness first. She found the entrance to the cave easily. As she drew nearer, the view of the mountain hollow opened up to her. If the path was enchanted for others, it was not for her. All doors in the magical world seemed to be open to her as of late. Along the way, she wondered if this was the same dragon cave where Madael had led her once. It didn’t seem to be. It was much more spacious, and there was no hilly terrain or heather fields in front of the ridge. And there were shimmering stalactites and stalagmites, but here it smelled of slime and mold and stale blood. Rhianon saw a pile of tarnished weapons in front of the entrance. The blades were rusted with dried blood and something else. Green slime trickled across the stony floor, like dragon poison. It was the same kind that the creatures at the bottom of the well usually exuded. The glitter of the jewels in the distance also seemed too dim. What attracted Rhianon was something else: the books. The precious folio covers must have cost a fortune. One such book, with its gold clasps studded with carbuncles and sapphires, could buy its own fortress or estate. They were decorated with large emeralds, topazes, opals. One ruby, like a large tear, twinkled against the gold binding, and looked as if a heart had been taken out of her chest from afar. She wanted to open the books and see what was inside. Whether she could read the intricate symbols, the whole ligature of ancient witchcraft spells? Rhianon let her hands free and reached for the precious settings. The clasps clicked lightly, and immediately she pressed them with her finger and the pages, made of calfskin or maybe even human, rustled. The dry parchment resembled the rustling of autumn leaves. Autumn! Rhianon sighed softly. Soon it would be summer, the heat, the sultry days, the season of bright sunshine. But after all, the sun is associated with Madael, and thus with luxurious autumn. She met him in autumn, and autumn is a time of fading. The last flash of nature’s exuberant luxury paves the way for a harsh winter. What else could be more symbolic of the fallen angel? Autumn seems to characterize him — his rise and his fall. Those brightly colored gems on the covers of witch books also remind us of autumn, colored with unusually variegated colors before the fading. Can the coloring of a gemstone also fade? Probably yes, but only with the demise of Dennitsa. As long as he is, the jewels will not lose their value, nor will they fade or crack like simpler, short-lived materials. It is as if he feeds his gold with his own life. It’s part of him.

“Isn’t it?” Rhianon asked the books. It wasn’t just a hunch, but the truth that had been revealed to her in her secret knowledge. The question hung in the silence and remained unanswered. Even the pitiful echo of the damp cave did not accompany it, but it seemed to her that the gems gleamed dazzlingly, as if hundreds of multi-colored eyes had winked at her.

The harpy crawled nimbly between the books and climbed onto a tall stack of folios. The little clawed paws did not even scratch the gold covers. Rhianon still wanted to drive it off. She had an involuntary respect for these books, for the ancient symbols and secrets hidden in them, as well as for witchcraft in general. She could do anything without prior training or study, and still the forbidden arts beckoned her.

She was so engrossed that she didn’t even feel the dragon approaching. When she turned around, he was right there. The emerald scales glittered like a treasure trove. Rhianon looked intently at the scales on its dense torso. They looked like solid armor of tiny emerald stones stitched together. And they called it skin. She fought the urge to reach forward and touch the shimmering scales with her hand. She could crush it into emerald dust or make an impenetrable armor, but would it ever shine as brightly as it did when separated from the dragon’s body? Moonstone eyes stared at Rhianon piercingly and angrily. With a guilty look she slammed the book shut and set it aside. The latches slammed shut. The harpy also hurriedly climbed down from the stack of books. The dragon’s approach did not make her happy. She hid nimbly behind Rhianon’s back.

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