Authors: Christine Pope
Tags: #Fantasy, #Romance
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, places, organizations, or persons, whether living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2012 by Christine Pope
Published by Dark Valentine Press
Cover art by Nadica Boskovska. Cover design and ebook formatting by
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My mother shut the front door and looked over at me. I waited on the bottom step of the staircase at the far end of the foyer, wishing I could flee and knowing all too well how that sort of behavior would be rewarded.
“Well?” she asked.
I hesitated. For the briefest second I contemplated the sort of prevaricating non-reply that might allow me to make my escape without having to give her the truth, but I knew better than that. My mother could sniff out a lie at twenty paces. I told her, “He’s forty-five if he’s a day, and his breath stinks of onions.”
“Rhianne.” My name on her lips was barely a sigh…albeit a sigh that spoke volumes. “You are in no position to be so choosy. When you are the eldest of four daughters—”
“—it’s your responsibility to get yourself married off and out of the way,” I finished for her. I knew the tale all too well by then, but that did not make me any happier to hear it once more. “I assure you, I know what is expected of me, but really, Mother—could you find no better prospects than Liat Marenson?”
“He is one of the richest men in Lirinsholme. He trades his wool all across the continent. And with the new factory he is building, he will only increase his wealth.”
She spoke simply, as if reciting facts I had never heard before, but of course I knew them already. A town the size of Lirinsholme, with roughly five thousand souls within its walls and a little more than half that number living on its outskirts, did not have many secrets. I knew how many sheep Liat Marenson owned, knew that he had just spent a goodly sum to refurbish his large house on Lampwell Square. His first wife had died a year before, in childbed, and apparently he thought enough time had passed that he could go looking for a new one without causing too many tongues to wag.
I also knew that I could never, ever marry Liat Marenson. A fine house and gowns of Keshiaari silk were not inducement enough to lie down with a man old enough to be my father.
“I am sure Master Marenson will make a fine husband for some lucky girl,” I said, since it was clear my mother expected some sort of reply. “But not me.”
Her lips pressed together, and her dark eyes narrowed slightly. It was the only sign of anger she would allow herself. In all my almost twenty years, I had never once seen her lose her temper.
The gods only knew I had given her reason enough on more than one occasion.
Voice even, she said, “If you married him, you would be safe.”
That again? In less than two months, I would not have to worry one way or another. I would have turned twenty, and therefore be too old to be selected as the Dragon’s Bride. My mother and I both knew that, and we also both knew that her pressing me to marry someone so unappealing had far less to do with my supposed peril at the Dragon’s hands…or talons, I suppose…and far more to do with the understanding that once I was Master Marenson’s wife, his wealth could help to improve my younger sisters’ prospects immensely.
Because that thought was uppermost in my mind, I found it easy enough to reply in flippant tones, “I think I would rather be married to the Dragon than to that paunchy, smelly old man!” as I gathered my skirts and hurried away up the stairs before my mother could remonstrate with me. As it was, I heard the shocked intake of her breath at my words, and I wondered if I had gone too far.
After all, marriage to an overweight, balding wool merchant was not a certain sentence of death…unlike marriage to Theran Blackmoor, the Dragon of Black’s Keep.
The curse had been part of our lives for so long that we accepted it as part of the natural course of things, like the color of the sky or the phases of the moons. But of course there was nothing natural at all about a dragon who used to be a man.
How exactly such a thing had come to pass, no one could say, and the Dragon kept his own counsel. Legend had it that in ages past, when magic still existed in the world, Theran Blackmoor was cursed by a mighty sorcerer. What Lord Blackmoor had originally done to so upset a sorcerer was now shrouded by the passage of time. A few tried to argue that he had never been a man at all, but had been born in his monstrous dragon form, although that theory was not widely supported. Whatever the case, the Dragon had cast his shadow, both literally and figuratively, over Lirinsholme for more than five hundred years…and he had been claiming his Brides for just as long.
All young women between the ages of sixteen and twenty lived under that shadow. We never knew precisely when the summons would come, for apparently it pleased the Dragon to vary his schedule to keep us off balance. Seven years might pass before the ominous banner of red silk would be hoisted above Black’s Keep, or it might be as short a span as three or four. My grandmother told me once that in her grandmother’s grandmother’s time, there was a period of almost twenty years where the Dragon was not heard from, and people thought perhaps he had finally died and released the town from its peculiar bondage. But then fierce storms swept down on Lirinsholme from the mountainside where Black’s Keep stood, ravaging the town. The earth itself shook, leveling houses and injuring many. Soon after, a bright red gash appeared against the sky, signaling the doom of one of the town’s daughters, but at least once she had been sent, the town itself suffered no further catastrophe.
Whether these incidents were connected, my grandmother could not or would not say.
One might think we should appeal to the king, so he could send his knights and warriors against the Dragon. This happened once, even longer ago than the storms and the quakes. The ruins still stood to the north of Lirinsholme, where the original town square stood before the wall was built. The scorched bricks and scattered stones were left as a warning, I think, and in any case, no other king dared raise his hand against the beast that dwelled just within the farthest northern borders of his kingdom. The sacrifice of one young woman every once in a while did not seem too great a price in order to avoid any further destruction. And besides, the Dragon always compensated the families of his Brides well. One thousand gold crowns in exchange for a daughter. Some might say it was a fair price.
Because of all this, Lirinsholme was left to manage its own peculiar curse.
My father was a potter, and quite a successful one, as such things are measured. On his own, he probably would not have done so well, but my mother managed him just as capably as she managed her daughters, and if he had had a son to carry on the family business, all would have been well.
Of late, however, his eyes had begun to fail, and for the last few years I’d taken over the fine painting on the most expensive pieces, those items destined for the houses of rich merchants such as Liat Marenson and his ilk. I had drawn since I could remember, using up the precious lead pencils intended for my sums and penmanship studies to instead draw the mountains surrounding the town, the faces of my sisters, the horses tied in front of the shops and taverns—anything save the occupations for which those pencils had actually been intended.
Because of my skills in this area, it seemed logical for me to perform the one task I could do to help keep the household going. And although I would rather have been sketching landscapes, at the very least painting flowers on a pitcher or tracing out the intricate Sirlendian twistwork that had lately come into vogue on a platter or serving tray seemed vastly preferable to helping my mother in the kitchen.
We told no one what I was doing, of course. People paid for Barne Menyon’s work, not his daughter’s. Luckily, my father’s workshop was at the back of the house, in an area where no one could spy on what I was doing, and so it was easy to conceal the deception. It seemed harmless enough, after all, and I suppose I hoped in the back of my mind that my utility with a paintbrush might serve as a means to keep me at home longer, and out of a marriage I definitely did not want.
The meeting with Master Marenson had perhaps not dashed those hopes, but it certainly made them seem rather naïve and foolish. And when he sent a fine necklace of garnets the following day, I realized he was not one to be dissuaded quite so easily. I wished I could send the jewels back. My mother would have none of it, though, and instead had me pen a stilted little note of thanks, which she dispatched by means of our one servant, Janney, who was glad to escape the kitchen for a little while to deliver it.
“Perhaps I should run off with the next caravan of Keshiaari merchants,” I remarked to my friend Lilianth, who had accompanied me to market the next morning.
“As if you would!” she laughed, but her expression sobered. “At any rate, you know that sort of thing never turns out well.”
I paused at the stand of one of the vegetable vendors, pretending to measure the relative merits of one bunch of carrots over the other, but really, I was considering her words. Whether it was a quirk of the curse or just spectacular bad luck, whenever a young woman tried to leave Lirinsholme, she either ended up right back in the town after a series of misadventures, or suffered some ill fate on the road. We learned it was not wise to leave—at least not until we reached the magical age of twenty.
“I suppose not,” I replied, and nodded toward Alina, who managed the vegetable stall my mother preferred. Alina handed me the indicated bunch of carrots, and I gave her a copper piece before tucking the vegetables into my basket, already heavy with my other purchases.
“It is rather dreadful,” Lilianth said, after we stepped away from Alina’s stall and wandered a few paces, going in the direction of Mertyn Pike’s cheese shop. “If only you could meet someone like Adain!”
Adain Sweeton had been besotted with Lilianth since she had taken her hair out of braids, and she loved him just as fiercely. He’d had a domineering mother who wished for no rival at her hearth, but since she had obligingly passed away from a sudden heart spasm, the way seemed to have been cleared for Lilianth and her beau to marry, and soon. And since she was six months younger than I, Lilianth had more of a reason to marry as soon as seemed proper.
There was no one in town who caught my eye, and I was not one of those girls who would snatch up someone—
—just to avoid the Dragon’s curse. Those marriages, more often than not, seemed to result in years of misery, a poor trade for the small chance that one’s name might be drawn by the city elders as the Bride. After all, there were at least a hundred young women of the correct age at any given time. Those odds didn’t seem to be that poor.
“Have you chosen a date yet?” I asked, not bothering to reply to Lilianth’s remark. I guessed it would be easy enough to distract her from a conversation about my own conspicuous lack of appealing suitors.
As I had thought, she did not seem to notice the redirection. “Yes, just yesterday evening. We did not want it to seem to be too soon, because of Mistress Sweeton. But we thought the fifteenth of Sevendre should be far enough off.”
Making it a little more than two months from now. Some might still think that too short an interval, but I was sure it felt like an eternity to Lilianth. “And your gown?”
“Oh, well, I don’t want anything too grand…”
And she was off on a spirited discourse on the fabrics she was contemplating, and whether or not to make the sleeves slashed in the new fashion that had come all the way from Sirlende, and whether I should wear blue or green. All of this I listened to with only half an ear, my gaze caught instead by the mountains that surrounded us on all sides. The bright midsummer sun brought out all sorts of shades of purple and indigo on their heights, and my fingers itched for a paintbrush, even if all I could afford were some watercolors and not the far more expensive pigments used for oils.