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Uprooted(8)
Author: Naomi Novik

I even turned and looked out the window, miserably, and then I saw what the Dragon had been watching with such distaste. There was a cloud of dust on the road coming to the tower. It wasn’t a wagon but a great covered carriage almost like a house on wheels: harnessed to a team of steaming horses, with two horsemen riding before the driver, all of them in coats of grey and brilliant green. Four more horsemen followed it, in similar coats.

The carriage drew up outside the great doors: there was a green crest on it, a monster with many heads, and all the outriders and guards came rolling down off their horses and went into an enormous bustle of work. They all flinched away a little when the tower doors swung lightly open, those huge doors I couldn’t even shift. I craned my head to peer down and saw the Dragon step out from the doors alone, onto the threshold.

A man came ducking out of the belly of the carriage: tall, golden-haired, broad-shouldered, with a long cloak all of that same brilliant green; he jumped down over the steps which had been put out for him, took with one hand the sword which another of his servants held across the palms, and strode quickly between his men and up to the door even as he belted it on, with no hesitation.

“I loathe a coach more than a chimaera,” he said to the Dragon, clear enough that I heard his voice rising to my window, over the snorting stamping horses. “A week shut up in the thing: why can’t you ever come to court?”

“Your Highness will have to forgive me,” the Dragon said, coldly. “My duties here occupy me.”

I was leaning out far enough by then I might have easily fallen out just by accident, with all my fear and misery forgot. The king of Polnya had two sons, but Crown Prince Sigmund was nothing but a sensible young man. He had been well educated and had married the daughter of some reigning count in the north, which had brought us an ally and a port. They had already assured the succession with a boy and a girl for spare; he was supposedly an excellent administrator, and would be an excellent king, and no one cared anything about him.

Prince Marek was enormously more satisfying. I had heard at least a dozen stories and songs of how he had slain the Vandalus Hydra, none of them alike but all of them, I was assured, true in every particular; and besides that he had killed at least three or four or nine giants in the last war against Rosya. He had even ridden out to try and kill a real dragon once, only it had turned out to be some peasants pretending to have been attacked by a dragon and hiding the sheep they claimed it had eaten, to get out of tax. And he hadn’t even executed them, but had chastised their lord for levying too high a tax.

He went into the tower with the Dragon, and the doors closed behind them; the prince’s men began encamping on the level field before the doors. I turned back into my small room and paced the floor in circles; at last I went and crept down the stairwell to try and listen, edging down until I heard their voices drifting out of the library. I couldn’t catch more than one word in five, but they were speaking of the wars with Rosya, and of the Wood.

I didn’t try very hard to eavesdrop; I didn’t much care what they were talking about. Far more important to me was the faint hope of rescue stirring: whatever the Dragon was doing to me, this horror of life-draining, it was surely against the king’s law. He’d told me to keep away, to keep out of sight; what if that wasn’t only because I was a discreditable mess, which he could have repaired with a word, but because he didn’t want the prince to know what he was doing? What if I threw myself on the prince’s mercy, and he took me away—

“Enough,” Prince Marek said, his voice breaking in on my thoughts: the words had come clearer as if he was moving closer to the door. He sounded angry. “You and my father and Sigmund, all of you bleating like sheep—no, enough. I don’t mean to let this rest.”

I hastily flew back up the stairwell on bare feet as noiseless as I could make them: the guest chambers were on the third floor, the one between mine and the library. I sat at the top of the stairwell listening to their boots on the steps below until the sounds died away. I wasn’t sure I had it in me to disobey the Dragon directly: if he caught me trying to go knock on the prince’s door, he’d surely do something terrible to me. But he was already doing something terrible to me. Kasia would have seized the chance, I was sure—if she’d been here, she would go and open the door and kneel at the prince’s feet and beg him for rescue, not like a frightened blubbering child but like a maiden out of the stories.

I went back to my room and practiced the scene, murmuring words under my breath, while the sun sank down. And when at last it was dark and late, I crept down the stairs with my heart pounding. But I was still afraid. First I went down and looked to make sure the lights were out in the library and in the laboratory: the Dragon wasn’t awake. On the third floor, a dim fire’s glow showed orange beneath the first guest chamber, and I couldn’t see anything of the Dragon’s bedroom door at all; it was lost in the shadows at the end of the hall. But still I hesitated on the landing—and then I went down to the kitchens instead.

I told myself I was hungry. I ate a few mouthfuls of bread and cheese to fortify myself, while I stood shivering in front of the fire, and then I went back upstairs. All the way upstairs, back to my room.

I couldn’t make myself really imagine it, me at the prince’s door, me kneeling and making a graceful speech. I wasn’t Kasia, wasn’t anyone special. I’d only burst into tears and look like a lunatic, and he’d probably throw me out or, worse, call the Dragon to have me properly chastised. Why would he believe me? A peasant girl in a homespun smock, a low servant in the Dragon’s house, waking him in the middle of the night with a wild story of the great wizard tormenting me?

I went desolately back into my room and stopped short. Prince Marek was standing in the middle of the chamber, studying the painting: he’d pulled down the cover I’d put over it. He turned around and looked me over with a doubtful expression. “My lord, Highness,” I said, but not really. The words came out in such a whisper he couldn’t have heard them except as an inarticulate noise.

He didn’t seem to care. “Well,” he said, “you aren’t one of his beauties, are you.” He crossed the room, barely two steps needed: he made it seem smaller by being there. He put his hand under my chin, turned my face side-to-side inspecting it. I stared up at him dumbly. He was strange to be so close to, overwhelming: taller than I was, broad with the weight of a man who nearly lived in armor, handsome as a portrait and clean-shaven, freshly bathed; his golden hair was dark and damply curling at the base of his neck. “But perhaps you’ve some particular skill, sweet, that makes up for it? That’s his usual line, isn’t it?”

He didn’t sound cruel, only teasing, and his smile down at me was conspiratorial. I didn’t feel wounded at all, only dazed from so much attention, as though I’d already been saved without having to say a word. And then he laughed, and kissed me, and reached efficiently for my skirts.

I startled like a fish trying to jump out of a net and struggled against him. It was like struggling against the tower doors, impossible; he scarcely even noticed me trying. He laughed again and kissed my throat. “Don’t worry, he can’t object,” he said, as though that was my only reason to protest. “He’s still my father’s vassal, even if he likes to stay out here in the hinterlands lording it over you all alone.”

It’s not that he was taking pleasure in overcoming me. I was still mute and my resistance was more confused batting at him, half-wondering: surely he couldn’t, Prince Marek couldn’t, the hero; surely he couldn’t even really want me. I didn’t scream, I didn’t plead, and I think he scarcely imagined that I would resist. I suppose in an ordinary noble house, some more-than-willing scullery maid would already have crept into his bedchamber and saved him the trouble of going looking. For that matter, I’d probably have been willing myself, if he’d asked me outright and given me enough time to get over my surprise and answer him: I struggled more by reflex than because I wanted to reject him.

But he did overcome me. Then I began to be really afraid, wanting only to get away; I pushed at his hands, and said, “Prince, I don’t, please, wait,” in disjointed bursts. And though he might not have wanted resistance, when he met it, he cared nothing: he only grew impatient.

“There, there; all right,” he said, as though I were a horse to be reined in and made calm, while he pinned my hand by my side. My homespun dress was tied up with a sash in a simple bow; he already had it loose, and then he dragged up my skirts.

I was trying to thrust my skirts back down, push him away, drag myself free: useless. He held me with such casual strength. And then he reached for his own hose, and I said aloud, desperate, without thinking, “Vanastalem.”

Power shuddered out of me. Crusted pearls and whalebone closed up beneath his hands like armor, and he jerked his hands off me and stepped back as a wall of velvet skirts fell rustling between us. I caught myself on the wall trembling and struggling to get my breath while he stared at me.

And then he said, in a very different voice, a tone I couldn’t understand, “You’re a witch.”

I backed from him like a wary animal, my head spinning: I couldn’t get my breath properly. The gown had saved me but the stays were strangling-tight, the skirts dragging and heavy, as though they’d deliberately made themselves impossible to remove. He came towards me more slowly, a hand outstretched, saying, “Listen to me—” but I hadn’t the least intention of listening. I snatched up the breakfast tray, still sitting atop my dresser, and swung it wildly at his head. The edge of it clanged loudly against his skull and knocked him staggering sideways. I gripped it with both hands and lifted it up and swung again and again, blindly, desperate.

I was still swinging when the door burst open and the Dragon was there, in a long magnificent dressing-gown flung over his nightshift, his eyes savage. He took one step into the room and halted, staring. I halted too, panting, the tray still upraised mid-swing. The prince had sunk to his knees before me. A maze of blood was running down over his face, bloody bruises across his forehead. His eyes were closed. He fell over onto the floor before me unconscious with a thump.

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