56. Memory Thief

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The mage found us the next morning.

As Cardan requested, I found myself sitting with Little Rabbit and listening to the lessons of years past. It was a good day for the teacher, for he had more than a dozen scrawny children sprawled in the shadows cast by the palace steps to listen to his lecture. I was leaning back against the tallest portion, running my fingers through Little Rabbit's black hair while she stared avidly at this man telling stories of countries she never thought existed. A smile pulled at my lips as I undid the thin braided portion and raised my eyes to scan the courtyard.

She was lingering in the shadows of a nearby alley. Loose, dark green robes were draped over her entire body, hiding even her hands from view. A matching veil covered her hair and was worn to also conceal the lower half of her face. Were it not for the color of her eyes, I might never have guessed what she was. They were the exact shade of her robes. Worse, they were locked directly onto my child.

It caused no disturbance when I shot to my feet and pulled Little Rabbit after me. Only my daughter made any protest as I began to drag her up the stairs into the palace. I paused a second before following her over the threshold and looked back. The emerald woman was gone.

Taking up Little Rabbit's hand once more, I dragged her along with me to one of the inner courtyards. My first thought was to take her back to our room and barricade ourselves inside, but I had no idea what the woman might be capable of. Therefore, I was more willing to take my chances in a place where I knew there were several exits. If I had to, I could send Little Rabbit any direction while I faced off with the woman. Since I suspected her of being the dragon, I had no hope that she would not make it this far.

"I am no Dragon," murmured a soft voice.

At once, I whipped around and shoved Little Rabbit behind me in the same instant. "Who are you? What do you want?"

She drifted along the paths as silently as a shadow, though she was careful to maintain a distance great enough to give my daughter room to run. "My name is Ellania. I am a Mage. And I am here to teach Kalie."

As she spoke, a gloved hand reached up to pull the veil away from her face. What I noticed first was the strange pale color of her skin. It was a shade darker than milk, nearer to sand. No people in all of Maeror had such skin. Then she removed the hair covering and I gasped. The heavy tresses that fell around her shoulders and down her back were the exact color of her eyes. Just as Little Rabbit's once had been.

My blood ran cold and my grip on my daughter tightened. "Who sent you?"

"The Mistress of us all."

"You serve the Blood Dragon?" I could barely get the words out, my throat was so dry.

"I do."

"She wants you to teach Li—Kalie?"

"In her words 'a weapon works best when it is properly honed.'"

I looked over my shoulder at my child and saw her wide, luminous eyes filling up half her face. She was as frightened as I was. The idea that she was to be honed for something specific gave us both pause. It horrified me most to know that the dragon thought of her as a weapon. When she learned to harness her gifts, which unsuspecting innocent would the dragon set her on?

The mage hissed, "Her tasks will not be so vile. The Dragons have not attacked innocents since they forsook Maeror."

"How little you seem to know of your mistress," I snarled. "Do you know what I had to do to save a child whose only crime was being born of your lot? Do you know what she threatened if I did not give my daughter to her for slaughter?"

"Would any other words have sufficed to make you cooperate? Then words were all she needed. Your tribe was in no true danger."

"Tell that to the Rider and Gryphon who saved this child's life! The dragon would have let them die if I had not made the deal."

"They interfered where she deemed they should not. They broke a pact of their own and were punished for it."

My lips curled back in pure animalistic rage. "You will defend her though she is cruel and unfeeling. What need has my daughter of a teacher so blinded?"

This drew the mage up short and her frame sprang erect. "You will do well to remember where your loyalties lie, Bridge Walker."

"My loyalty lies with that girl! My loyalties lie with my tribe and the Forest and Valhoal! I hold no loyalty for your precious dragon. All she has of me is a debt to be called in. And damn her every day for how she extorted that from me."

"Calm yourself, Tallie. Your place in this story is but one small part."

"To you, it may be. But seeing as it is my life, it feels rather important to me. If that makes my concerns for it an inconvenience for her or you, I find that amuses me. Now tell me why I should let a dragon-lover like you anywhere near my child?"

"Because my presence and my objective are beyond your control. Whether you allow me access to her or not, I will not fail in my mission. Your daughter will learn how to use her Ability beneath my tutelage because I will not allow your fear and ignorance to injure her. You were warned, Tallie, that you do not know what she will become."

I did not need the reminder. As soon as she mentioned the Ability, I knew that I would lose this fight. With little grace and less willingness, I would concede this battle. Only because I remembered what Little Rabbit had learned on her own, and the thought that there might be someone willing to guide her in its usage gave me some small measure of relief.

"I have conditions," I announced.

The woman before me smiled. "Yes. She said you would."

My scowl deepened. "You will not mention that dragon to my child. You may teach her what she needs to know of her Ability, but you will not hamper her progress in any way. I do not care whose orders you are following. And if you attempt to hurt my child, I will kill you."

Mage she might be, but my blade could reach her heart before I had to think about it. Judging by the sour look on her face, she had heard that.

"What is your Ability?"

Her expression grew colder. "They have no name for what I can do. In my youth, however, I was known as the Memory Thief."

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