Chapter 7

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The village of Montervein on the furthest outreaches of Serenian greets us with a still quietness in the darkening afternoon light. People mill about as if they were waiting for us, appearing and disappearing between the sand colored, clay houses.

Niilo stops us in the center of the village square, the click of horses hooves on cobblestone bringing an eerie silence as they stop. I stay at the rear, on the farthest reach of the village in the company of a couple of soldiers tasked with keeping me away from the people's eye. But I'm not too far away that I can't hear what's being said.

Niilo calls out to two people standing by the village tavern. They answer with a pleasantry and suddenly the town comes alive. People burst from every nook and alley, all of them wanting to wait hand and foot on their visitors. The flight response in my brain tells me to back up, and I do, nearly stepping on the toes of the soldier standing beside me. She throws me a growl of annoyance, which I ignore.

"It's about time we came across a village that recognises our stature." Dax smiles at a young stable boy as he grabs the reigns of his mare. The stable boy grins, his teeth too white and too wide, and his eyes a unfocused. It's like we've been caught in the center of a play back in the castle.

"Welcome," the tavern owner calls to Dax. "Please make yourselves at home here in Montervein. We live only to serve the crown." He drops into a low bow, one that seems a little too hard for a man of his size to accomplish. Dax and a squad of his men clap the man on the back and follow him into his establishment.

Niilo turns in his saddle, his dark eyes meeting mine, and then those of his guard around me. They nod as if he had spoken some silent command and then I'm being pushed—poked, really—into a lopsided green and grey barn on the edge of the village.

I will not be pushed around and locked in a barn.

With a soft growl of defiance, I use my armoured shoulders to push back until they bring out their spears and I'm forced to do as they say. The heavy barn doors slides across its rails as my tail passes the threshold. I swing around in the small space full of straw and the smell of pine needles to find Niilo standing before the closing gap, a grim expression on his face. At the last moment he nods once, as if trying to reassure me, and then I hear the lock slide home on the outside. I understand they don't want the villagers to freak out when they see me—dragons are becoming rare in these parts, especially one as big as I am—but locking me in a barn? I am a princess. Not a cow.

As soon as I'm human, Niilo is going to get a stern talking to on how he treats his dragon.

I settle in to wait for the moon rise. It can't be too far away now.

While I wait, I twist so I can take in the entire barn and it's contents. A small brown and white goat bleats at me from the back corner, its thin, bony shoulders shaking with fear. It's so thin, I can see it's rib cage poking through its rough hide. I move as slowly as possible until I'm facing the poor, wretched creature. The village outside appeared to be quite wealthy. I'll admit, it's odd for a village this close to the Rift, but I thought nothing of it, until now. If they are so prosperous, why is this goat on the brink of starvation? Something doesn't feel right.

Moonlight shivers across my spine, glittering across my obsidian scales through the slits in the wooden planks with a sting of pain. I relish in the agony, it reminds me that I'm still human. A groan pushes past my semi-human lips and I fall to my side as my body shrinks, reverting into my human self. I rock from side to side as the world tilts, fraying at the edges. Blackness consumes me for half a second, and then I'm staring at the half-rotten beams of the barn's ceiling, my eyesight lacking in colour and brilliance--human.

My chest heaves with each breath. In, out, up and down until I can finally form a coherent thought. Straw digs into my bare skin, reminding me of my indecent nature.

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