Chapter 11: Riddles, Dragon Edition

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Jane's mind stuttered to a halt. "Alone?" she squeaked.

"Come now," said Nikolay silkily. "As an avtorka, you will need to face much scarier things than a little fire-breathing dragon."

Coming here had been a bad idea. A really bad idea.

"A few pointers, hm?" said Nikolay. "Don't look the dragon in the eye. Don't believe everything she says. They find lying distasteful, but they are fiendishly good at wordplay. Don't insult her. And whatever you do, do not mention me. I think that covers the basics."

"You can't make me go up there!"

"Can't I?"

The familiar hook-through-the-navel sensation made Jane wince. She shot Nikolay a pleading, furious glare, but he had already vanished.

If she survived, she was going to kill Nikolay!

His levitation charm deposited her just inside the mouth of the dragon's cave. The smell hit her immediately: a smoky, sulfurous odor. Jane would have gagged, had she not been furiously scanning the cave for the dragon.

It was not hard to find.

The dragon was night black, from its wicked snout to the long, lethal hook at the tip of its tail. Each one of the dragon's scales was bigger than Jane's head. One swipe of those clawed forelimbs could easily crush her.

Jane swallowed.

A trickle of smoke threaded from the dragon's nostrils. There was a lethality, a wildness to its features, from the reptilian slant of its eyes to the forked tongue that tasted the air with surprising rapidity. Its blue eyes were half-lidded, but Jane knew it was awake.

Jane remembered Nikolay's warning about not meeting the dragon's eyes. That advice now seemed ludicrous. Did he expect her to look away while the dragon attacked her?

"Who dares intrude?" said the dragon. Its voice was landslides and sizzling lava.

Desperately, Jane tried to cast a concealment charm on herself.

The dragon laughed.

"I can still see you, little darling. Your silly human spells are ineffective against my eyes. Why have you come here, intruding on my quiet?"

Jane felt her magic trickle away.

"I—" she said. "I'm here because—"

Nikolay's earlier warning—Whatever you do, do NOT mention me—echoed in her head. However much she loathed him, it seemed unwise to disobey.


"Your... Greatness..." Jane tucked her shaking hands against her chest and bowed. "I need your help. The Tsar of Somita is dying. I heard you have a magical healing chalice that might save his life."

The dragon laughed, a low grinding sound that sent thrills of fear through Jane's belly.

"This is really too much," it said. "Come here, Precious."

It turned the full intensity of its gaze on Jane.

Jane's mind blurred.

Against her volition, she stepped forward. Her arms and legs were no longer hers to command; they moved loosely, independent of the signals her brain sent them.

She should have felt panic. But perhaps that was also part of the dragon's enchantment. The longer she stared at the dragon, the more remote the danger seemed. A gentle fog settled over her mind; it was almost pleasant to relax, to obey...

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