The trees in this part of the Dragonwood are thin and lanky, like growing boys, like her own willowy limbs, but Lina has no interest in the trees, or young men, or the body that conveys her, stomping feet falling where they will. Her thoughts are for the great lizards, those remote majestic beasts sunning themselves on the high rocks jutting from the tree line. She looks up to patches of hot blue sky through the canopy of green leaves far above. Her feet are bare. It is the hottest part of the day, and everyone else is resting in the stone-coolness of the house. Around Lina the air is thick, dark, and green, sitting on her skin, sinking into her hair to run down her neck in rivulets. Every time a twig or stone digs into the sole of her foot, her heart leaps. Soon, she tells herself. Soon. Please.
She pauses her stomping to lift her hair against a light breeze. Heavy and thick as her arm, the braid falls to her feet and even a little beyond, dragging on the ground, pulling her head back until her scalp aches. Strands escape constantly, wispy things flying about her face. She wishes she could cut it off, pluck the hairs from her head, shave down to smooth unburdened scalp like her grandfather, like widows and oracles, bald beneath wimples. If her aching scalp were bald as a dragon’s egg, she would throw the bones and divine her own path, be reborn from that egg and fly away with the dragons. But she cannot—Lina is not an oracle, a widow, an old man, or a great lizard. She is not free to do as she pleases. Lina was bought from a witch, on the promise that her hair remain unshorn. Lina was seen by the oracles as the wife for the Prince. She will marry him in a week’s time, and become not only a wife and a princess but her family’s greatest honor. The Prince’s tower looms in the distance, beyond the Dragonwood. No matter which direction she walks, the tower grows closer.
Six months ago, the oracles came to their village, descended on the family estate, declared Lina the match for the Prince. They had seen it. “The desired outcome,” they said as they sprinkled herbs in the fire and tied knots in thread pulled from Lina’s clothes and bedding. They circled her beneath the full moon and smoked an owl pellet. The stink turned Lina’s stomach and lingered in her hair for days. Over the shoulders of the oracles, she watched her mother and father clutch hands, eyes bright in the smoke haze. This was the sum of all their hopes and dreams.
Little Lina was already a miracle child when the oracles arrived, hoped for and prayed for, sacrificed for on the feast days and saints’ days, and finally, when all else failed, paid for from a witch, a wandering oracle cast from the circle of the sisterhood. For Lina’s mother, no more watching as her sisters-in-law dropped baby after baby, strong boys and girls, while her arms remained empty. Just a little hedge magic, a little twist of fate, a promise, and Lina came squalling into the clan of the wolf. That night, her mother likes to tell the story, the moon was in the constellation of the Tower, the sun in the Queen’s throne. “The gods laid this path for you in the stars,” her mother repeats over and over as they stitch her trousseau, tiny stars on the borders of towers and wolves’ heads. “Your stars will make you a queen, my little Lina.”
While no one is looking, Lina stitches her stars in the constellation of the dragon.
The royal household descends three days before the wedding like skeins of geese pausing their migration, raising a village of silk tents on the western lawns. Lina and Prince Ector are introduced. Ector’s eyes are brown with flecks of gold and green, like dragon skin. They are warm and kind, but guarded.
They stare silently at each other, strangers shy of getting acquainted. Lina is more interested in speaking with Ector’s cousin, the Duchess Honoria of Felchess, whose travelogue of her tour through the far eastern Dragonwood Lina has read four times. Honoria sits several tables away, waving a wineglass in the air to punctuate her storytelling. She is probably regaling the table with her account of the buffoonish tour guide who didn’t know the difference between a male dragon and a nesting mother, whereas the Duchess, being well-read in the authorities on the subject, corrected the poor young man for the benefit of the tour group. Or perhaps she is not speaking of dragons at all, but only some court gossip to titillate her audience. Lina looks away, down at her own wineglass, in which she sees the distorted reflection of her hands, fingers curled into strange pale claws. She reaches toward the reflection and wraps familiar fingers around smooth glass.
Their families’ murmurs grow edged with concern as Lina and Ector eat their first meal together in silence.
The evening is claimed by the women of the house, who brush her long hair, scrub calluses from her feet, hands, elbows, rub perfumed oil into her skin, share their secrets. She has been happily on the giving end of this exchange for many of the women in the room, but now that she receives these attentions, she finds the ritual an imposition. She doesn’t want smooth skin and smooth hair. She wants scales and claws and fire. She wants to be a dragon. Some days she can almost feel the shape of it beneath her skin, an itch of dissatisfaction, subtle and patient.
A year ago, while brushing her cousin Caenis’s hair in preparation for her wedding, Lina quietly voiced her discomfort with the idea that someday she would marry a man, not because she disliked men or marriage, but because she did not see herself as a wife, or some days even a woman.
“Are you two-spirited?” Caenis asked
“No,” Lina replied, wishing then she hadn’t said anything, wishing she could take it back, as the other women around them paused their conversation and listened. “I don’t want to be a man, or live as one, or marry a woman.”
“What do you want, then?” her mother asked. It was a gentle question, not a challenge, but Lina shrank away, suddenly uncertain of what to say. Wishing to be a dragon meant turning her back on these women, separating herself from them, from her whole family. She didn’t want them to misunderstand, to believe she wanted to be something else because she thought so little of them and what they were. That wasn’t it at all, but she had no words to express the itch inside her bones.
Now, as then, the room is pleasantly warm and full of family. Caenis brushes Lina’s hair and whispers their favorite story in her ear: the tale of the unhappy princess who demands her suitors bring her the tail-tip spine of a dragon, but the would-be husbands must procure that needle-thin spike without killing the beast, an impossible task. Lina stretches out long and languid like a dragon on the midday rocks, lets Caenis’s voice break against her like water as she turns her attention inward and questions her desire for the thousand-thousandth time. For weeks after her confession, Caenis and her mother questioned Lina about it, but she avoided answering. When the oracles arrived and declared Lina a match for Ector, everyone seemed to breathe a sigh of relief that said well, there’s Lina’s answer. Now she won’t be confused anymore, and we can all stop worrying about her. But she is still confused. The oracles’ pronouncement did not settle her mind; it only created more turmoil. Lina believes in the power of the oracles to guide people to the best path, but her desire to be a dragon has not been quelled. Nor has it settled into the kind of certitude that would allow her to say, “the oracles are wrong.”
It is rare, but there are stories of people who defy the oracles. To do so requires a level of confidence in oneself that Lina does not possess. She has never been anything other than herself, and every other day, she wonders if her desires will change, worries that becoming something else will not settle her uncertainties at all, worries she will make the wrong choice if it is ever hers to make.
Her family celebrates her impending transformation into wife and princess long into the night, but the thought of becoming either stirs no emotion other than regret that the transformation she truly wants is fading into an impossibility. Her questions will never be answered.
The household sleeps the morning away and convenes at midday for another meal. Ector brings a book to the table and sets it down between them. Lina catches the Queen’s pinched look of dismay, but it is forgotten when she looks down and sees her copy of Jaffo’s A History of the Dragonwoods. She knows it is her copy because the pages are marked with clumsily-embroidered ribbons from her childhood.
“I found this in the library,” Ector taps the book with a long slender finger. “The marginalia look like your handwriting.” He pauses, and when she doesn’t respond, he adds, “Perhaps I should have waited until after the meal?”
“It’s my book,” Lina finds her voice on the other side of her surprise. “Have you read it before?”
Ector nods enthusiastically and ignores his food. “Three times! I searched the royal archives for a year looking for evidence to support Sir Rampion of Hunstead’s claims about the offspring of the dragon and the wyrm, but no accounts of his Caravan of Marvels noted a single sighting. Does your family archive hold anything?”
Disappointing him feels like kicking a puppy, but Lina shakes her head and says, “No, neither our archive nor the neighboring estates have any accounts to verify Hunstead’s claims. We do, however, have generations of observational studies of the dragons’ mating seasons to show that his claims are specious. The dragons don’t mate with the wyrms and wyverns, nor do they eat them.”
To her surprise, Ector doesn’t look disappointed by her revelations at all. “Fantastic!” He exclaims with his voice and his hands, and almost knocks over the water jug. “I didn’t know the estates here kept records of the mating seasons. Do you think they’d send copies if I asked?”
“I think they’d send you anything you asked for.” Lina puts a grape in her mouth before she states the obvious. He’s the crown prince. He has only to ask and he receives everything, including the best-suited wife. Is this why the oracles saw her as the ideal match? They both love dragons? Her enjoyment of their conversation turns to dust in her mouth, and she swallows the urge to gag on the grape. She will spend her life talking about dragons with this man, and never be one.
Ector is too busy flipping to a page covered in her scribbled notes to notice her distress. She swallows some water and answers his questions with a smile. He asks for a tour of the woods in the afternoon, and she agrees.
There is a heated argument amongst Ector, his guards, and his parents when Lina arrives at his tent for their afternoon walk. The rest hour is over, and the heat of the day has gone down, but Lina has missed her opportunity to walk barefoot and alone. For this walk, she’ll have to keep to the path with her shoes on her feet. If, that is, Ector is allowed to go into the woods at all.
“—dangers!” a guard bellows.
“The dragons don’t attack people, and they certainly don’t eat them,” Ector rolls his eyes. “It’s well documented—”
“Forgive me, your Highness,” another guard interrupts, “but not everything you read in books is true.”
“He’ll be safe.” Lina steps into the tent, into the circle of wary faces. “I go walking in the woods nearly every day. No one here has ever come to harm unprovoked.”
Ector looks to his parents triumphantly. “My lady will make sure I am unharmed.”
The Queen rolls her eyes, and Lina stifles a smile at the sight. Ector takes more after his mother than his father. “Oh, fine,” the Queen huffs. “But take Honoria with you. And your guards.”
Between Ector’s questions and Honoria’s questions and stories, two pleasant hours pass and Lina talks herself hoarse. No, dragons on this end of the wood are no wilder or tamer than the dragons on the other end of the wood. They mostly eat wild boar, mountain goats, and antelope, but occasionally snatch up sheep that wander from the herd. They bury their dead and mourn them, like the elephants in the lands to the south. There is an account in the library from a hiker who came upon the dragon’s graveyard in a hidden valley in the central mountain passes. Lina promises to show the diary to Ector when they return.
They keep to path. They return safe from possible harm.
In the library, Lina leads Ector to the corner she claims for herself. All the books and folios about dragons line the shelves between the window and the fireplace, all within easy reach of a cozy armchair. While Ector’s back is turned and he exclaims over her collection—”I stopped looking when I found Jaffo on the chair there this morning! If I’d seen all this I never would have made it to lunch!”—she plucks shed strands of her hair, so very long, from the chair’s back and drops them to the floor.
Half a dozen times, she has sat in this chair and held a blade to her hair, sick of the burden, and half a dozen times her hand has been stayed by the intensity of her parents’ fear. The hedge witch did not say what would happen if Lina’s hair were cut, but her parents imagine fearsome consequences and have never allowed more than an inch to be trimmed from the day she was born. She loves her parents and dreads disappointing them more than she hates her hair, more than she distrusts a disgraced oracle’s soothsaying; this is the only thing about herself she never questions.
Beside the fireplace is a mirror. Lina comes here to be alone and look at her own face, sometimes for hours, studying each angle, curve, line, and freckle for some sign of who she is, and whom she might become. Some days, her face seems that of a stranger looking back at her. Some days, she covers the mirror with a shroud, ill from her longings, wishing them away. Two years before, she tried giving up dragons, stayed away from the library for weeks, until she was so empty she lay in bed and wished for death. But the feeling was not strong enough to kill her, so she disdained it, got out of bed, and started walking the woods barefoot, seeking a different fate.
The diary she hands Ector contains not only an eerie description of a valley full of dragon bones, but also the clearest account she’s ever read of a dragon spine and its properties: a slender needle-like growth fifteen to twenty centimeters in length jutting from the very tip of a dragon’s tail, perhaps the vestigial remains of armored spikes spanning the backbone, now easily broken off or, the diarist theorizes, shed and regrown annually like a deer’s antlers. Sharp enough at the tip to penetrate the flesh of a mammal. All accounts of the consequences of a dragon spine penetrating the flesh are unverified, old wives’ tales of men made into monsters; no one in living memory can speak to the possibilities of a dragon spine. Unfanciful naturalists posit that the spines are not from dragons, but from some plant in the Dragonwood, and caution that they are likely poisonous, given the descriptions of their unnatural effects on the flesh.
In the middle of the night she returns to the forest, abandons the path, abandons her slippers in the undergrowth. She hopes for a dragon spine with every twig and pebble pressed to the soles of her feet, but her feet remain pristine. Even the dirt doesn’t stick.
In the darkness, the Tower looms.
She can’t say no. In two days she will marry the Prince. She will become a princess, the stuff of stories, but she yearns to be something from a different story. As soon as the oracles gave their pronouncement, her mother stopped asking what Lina desired. Before Lina grew accustomed to the strange question, her opportunity to answer it was gone. The words of witches and oracles determine her fate. The night grows warm, and she grows warmer from the fury rushing through her. When has she ever had a choice in who she is? Her hand falls to the knife at her waist, a ceremonial gift bestowed upon her at dinner. She must wear it through the next two days, to symbolically sever her ties to her family so she can be bound to another. Ironic, that fear of separating from her family has stilled her tongue for all this time, has stayed her hand from severing her hair, has wrapped her desires in doubt. Her fingers grip the hilt.
When has she ever felt brave enough to make a choice? When has she ever done more than leave it to chance?
Lina stands still in the forest, and the rage fades away, leaving an echoing chasm of doubt and regret and longing in her chest. If she refuses this marriage, her family will be ruined. Her forays in the forest are coming to an end, and so too her chance to go toward the thing she wants instead of away from what she doesn’t. Every turn she takes, the Tower follows.
Her head aches from the heat and the weight of her braid, and she wonders for the thousandth time why the witch didn’t say what would happen if she cut it off, only made her parents promise to let it grow and grow and grow. They have all been so afraid, so fettered by it, unable to see beyond it. Dragon or princess, neither gives one whit for the length of her hair. Perhaps she cannot choose the transformation, but she can choose to be unafraid of who she becomes. Lina draws the knife from her belt, steel so fine and sharp it hums in the sudden small breeze created by its movement. She lifts her braid, cuts it, and drops it to the forest floor, light-headed for the first time in her life.
Her mother flies into a terrified rage when she sees what Lina’s knife strokes have wrought and must be calmed with fortified wine.
Ector compliments the close crop. “It brings out your lovely eyes,” he says. “Doesn’t she look fey, mother?” He smiles, and she sees his sense of humor hiding in the corner of his mouth. “Soon, all the ladies of the court will shear their tresses from envy.”
Lina’s mother looks so relieved she might pass out. The queen looks like she is trying very hard not to roll her eyes again. Ector insists Lina will become the muse for every court artist, the inspiration for every painting, the object of every swain’s poem.
“It’s more comfortable in the heat of the day,” is all Lina says. Her mother glares at her, silent instruction to move along to a different topic of conversation, one that does not involve her deep streak of pragmatism in the face of romantic gestures. “I love to walk in the sun,” Lina reveals, feeling petulant. Then she recalls that she intended to reveal nothing more of herself. She does not want to encourage Ector, even though she knows the conclusion is inevitable and she may as well make the best of it. But Lina is not the sort of person who makes the best of things. She came into the world with grasping hands, as her mother tells the tale, although Lina wonders where this desperate grasping person is hiding. She does not know her.
The prince smiles and agrees. “I love the heat here. It sinks into the bones. It can grow cold in the Tower.” He holds her hands loosely, not limp, just loose. His grasp is easy and confident, his fingers warm and dry. His nails are neatly trimmed. Everything about him is neatly trimmed. He changes the subject and asks her if she believes that dragons shed their spines and grow new ones like deer and their antlers, as the diary-writer speculated, or if she thinks a dragon has only one spine for life. She can’t see anything hiding in the corner of his smile now. Through the window over his shoulder, she sees a lone dragon fly above the forest, unusual in the heat of the day when they rest in the mountain caves and sun themselves on the rocky slopes, and her heart aches to join it.
They lock Lina in her room after the noonday meal, but she climbs out the window and down into the Dragonwood. She walks for hours in the heat of the afternoon, reveling in the breeze on her neck, the strange weightlessness. When she returns, her feet are clean, and her parents are sitting on her bed waiting for her.
They confiscate her rope, confiscate all the rope they can find throughout the household and even from their royal guests, and when they put her to bed that night, her father locks the windows from the outside. It doesn’t matter. The wedding is the next day. Her fate is upon her. She lies sleepless and stares at the stars, sticky and listless in the oppressive air of the closed room, the warm night pressing against the glass.
She finally drifts into a strange state of quasi-sleep when a rock crashes through her window. The glass shatters, and the crash startles her to her feet. Picking her way over broken shards, she trips on a lumpy bundle, lost in the murk of the floor. Fumbling, she closes her fingers around it and draws the thing up close to her face to see it in the moonlight: a silky roughness wrapped around a chunk of stone.
The wrapping falls away in her hands, glides between her fingers. It is a rope. Pale, thick as her thumb, tightly braided. The silk running through it is familiar in her hands, a twining of colors in the strongest fiber, for she used it to decorate and bind her now discarded braid. The rope is crafted of her own hair.
Footsteps sound in the passageway outside her chamber; voices echo against the walls.
She doesn’t stop to think. Instead, she unlocks the window and scales the outer wall, heart pounding every time her feet slip. The rope, hastily secured to the bed, holds. The house awakens beneath her, lights flaring, windows and doors heaving open. She reaches the ground and runs to the Dragonwood as her family calls after her in the darkness. It is middle night, when the dragons roam.
Without hesitation, she enters the wood.
The pain when her foot finds a spine in the darkness is so great she cannot stop herself from crying out. The trees absorb her screams, their dead leaves cradle her as she falls to the ground. The spine has pierced her foot, emerging through the top. She waits five agonizing minutes, counting the seconds with whimpers of pain, before drawing it out. She needs to be sure it will take. Blood runs thick over her fingers. The pain is a fire running up her leg. Her foot has gone numb. She wipes the spine clean and weaves it into the side seam of her nightdress, desperate with hope that it is the right kind of spine, that the tales are true, or, if they are not and she has failed, that it is poisonous and she is dead by morning because this pain is too much to bear for nothing.
Ector finds her sitting with her back to a tree, binding her foot with strips from the hem of her nightdress. He is gentle, pressing the torch into her bloody hands so he can carry her. “Did you find what you were looking for?” he asks. Flickering torchlight illuminates pieces of sympathy on his face. Nearby, loud voices and the bays of hunting hounds echo in the forest.
“I don’t know,” she replies, burying her face in his cool neck. She can feel her fever rising. “It’s too late anyway.”
They dunk her in cold water to bring down the fever, wrap the foot so tightly her toes remain numb, but nothing stops the fire in her blood. She sweats through three nightgowns until finally, at dawn, the shaking stops and she feels almost cool in the light of the rising sun. She sleeps for an hour, until they wake her to bathe and don her wedding gown. Her mother hides Lina’s shorn head beneath a veil heavy with decorations and presents her to the Prince. He looks well rested, and she wonders if she dreamed him finding her in the forest.
The ceremony is traditional, except that the oracles officiate, a very rare boon. Lina and Ector are handfasted. They feed each other the bitter greens and the sweet, kneel and speak the ancient words. Over their heads the Oracles chant the binding spells. Most people forego the spells these days (none of Lina’s cousins married under magic), but the royal house keeps the old ways.
Lina swallows panic in deep gulps at the thought that the binding magic might interfere with the work of the dragon’s spine. Although she has no way of knowing if she’s succeeded except waiting, she refuses to give up hope, even on her wedding altar, even as Ector looks at her, so pleased. He judders as she does, when the binding flows between them, a prickling suffusing the limbs, starting in her hand where it touches his, tracing up her arm, over her shoulder, and down into her chest to wrap around her heart. Pain flares in her foot, white hot. She gasps. Around them, the onlookers gasp with her, thinking they are witnessing one tremendous thing, when in fact it is another, all unknown to them. As she loses awareness of her body, feeling only the fire consuming her foot, she is glad she has this for herself.
The wedding party lasts all day and well into the night. The fire in Lina’s foot is the only thing keeping her awake enough to grit her teeth and smile at the endless guests. She is surrounded by people, but loneliness rises within her. She is so weary, she feels removed from her body and her thoughts. Lina watches her mother and the Queen speak with the oracles. What did the queen sacrifice for the oracles’ insights about her son? What did Lina’s mother sacrifice to bear her? What is Lina sacrificing to change the course of her own life? One of the oracles catches her staring. They regard each other across the distance and the fading light, until the oracle smiles knowingly and winks. Confused, Lina turns away.
Ector—her husband—takes her hand. His fingers are long and cool. He waits for her to grip.
When she does, his smile is so brilliant it catches attention and a cheer goes up around them. She is caught between feeling secure and feeling lost. She wonders if the dragon spine is real, if it took, or if she is just nervous and fevered and married. He looks happy.
He leads her to a chair tucked in the corner of a garden hedge away from the crush of people. A flick of his wrist, a gesture, and three guards appear to stand perimeter around them, holding the guests at bay. A young boy brings a tray of food, a pitcher of water, and a carafe of good dark wine. While she eats for the first time in over a day, he confesses in a low voice, as though he had reached inside her and found her thoughts, “I believed I would feel different. They told me I would feel more settled after the binding, but I still feel restless. I want to see the Dragonwood again. I’ve never been there until yesterday.” He doesn’t comment on his participation in her midnight excursion. His voice is wistful as he continues, “I’ve wanted to visit so many times, since I was a small boy, but it was never permitted. And once we leave here, I doubt I will have the chance again. Is it silly that I hoped to meet a dragon, and charm it into giving me a spine?”
Lina reaches for more wine. It quenches her thirst, but not the heat in her belly. “ ‘Why do you court me?’ the Princess demanded.” She quotes the story Ector has referenced, her favorite story, and waits for his response. Does he know it as well as she, as well as he seems to know everything else she loves?
Ector smiles. “To see you happy,” he quotes the bard’s response. The bard, who of all the princess’s suitors brought her what she demanded: a true dragon’s spine, from a live dragon. “For every time I have passed through your court, you have been borne down by a great sadness. I would see you free of it. I ask nothing in return but to write songs of your joy.”
Lina finishes the tale: “The princess took the spine from his hands, and to the astonishment of her court, plunged it into her own heart. Instantly she was enveloped in flames, and when the flames died out, a great dragon curled around the princess’s throne, for she had been borne down, by the curse of a wicked witch, transformed from a dragon queen into a human princess, trapped while her dragon clan suffered her absence. Freed by the bard, she returned to her clan, who rejoiced to be reunited with her. They granted the bard the boon of a hoard, but he did not retire to become a landed baron as people expected. He remained true to his declaration and traveled many countries singing songs of the dragon queen’s joy.”
Ector drinks his own wine. “Alas, I have no dragon’s spine for you.” He leans close. “I wanted to issue a decree that I would only marry a woman who could bring me the spine of a dragon. My mother went to great lengths to dissuade me, and in the end had to consult the oracles to make me see reason.” He shows her humor, but there is a longing in his eyes, etched into the angles of his face.
Lina’s attention is diverted as, one by one, the guards turn inward to face them. The fire in her foot flares. Beyond the guards, the crowd presses in. The garden corner shrinks. Faces peer at them over the shoulders of the guards. They are on display.
Ector’s shoulders stiffen, and his face composes into a pleasant, somewhat vacant expression. She understands then, for the first time, that they share a cage. “The spines are just a story,” she lies. His face falls, just a fraction, and she is surprised that she can read him so clearly when they are barely acquainted. Her heart breaks a little. She fingers the hem of her veil, where she has hidden the used spine, ready to confess her lie and give him this small gift in recompense for the trouble she might soon cause, but the Prince stands to meet his obligations and she is carried along with him, because they are her obligations now, too.
She didn’t expect to love him. It makes this much harder.
The newlyweds are given a suite of rooms near the top of the Tower. Their daily complaints about climbing the many stairs become their first shared jest, because they would not trade their rooms for anything. The view of the forests is unmatched. In the morning and the evening, they watch the dragons spiral and swoop over the woods, hands clasped. They make love on the balcony, matching their cries to the screams of the dragons in the distance, and Lina has never felt so present and comfortable in her own body. It is a strange revelation, after so long contemplating what else it might be, but it does not settle her old discontent, and the tension makes her as restless as ever.
Ector was right about the cold at the top of the Tower, but the heat grows inside of her, stretching her, pushing its way out. She orders cold baths, sometimes three times a day. She feels hungry and faint and her thirst cannot be quenched by water or by wine. Her mother-in-law and the ladies of the court whisper of babies behind their hands and a hopeful anticipation fills the Tower.
Ector seems not to notice her heated skin, her agitation. He seems content, no longer the caged bird. Lina feels betrayed. She thought he understood, but he smiles and goes about the business of preparing to be king someday with purpose and drive. He speaks of all the things he is setting in order for the future but does not speak of the Dragonwood, even as they begin and end their days by watching the dragons.
Lina doubts everything. Perhaps there is no transformation coming. Perhaps her foot was pierced by an ordinary thorn. Perhaps she is simply overwrought with nerves and conflicting thoughts to the point of fever. Her husband makes her laugh, and doesn’t tell her she is too much or too little, and would it be so bad, really, to live out her days with him? He is an ideal partner, and she is torn between a good man and a desire so entrenched she cannot open her hands to let it go. “Don’t worry, dear,” the queen pats her hand and mistakes her restlessness for other desires. “A child or two will draw you down to the ground.” Her head feels heavy, as though her braid yet weighs her down.
On the day Lina singes her clothing simply by putting it on, her doubts fall away and she knows her time is coming. The heat and the pain are unbearable. She weeps, and even the cold of the mountain that blows past the Tower as the season turns brings her no relief. In spite of it all, her heart lifts in anticipation, then plummets with guilt when Ector looks her in the eye and smiles.
She tries to send him away, but he refuses to leave the room. He turns away visitors, barricades the door against his guard, and burns his hands to blisters holding her.
“I’m sorry,” she cries. “I didn’t mean for it to happen this way.”
“Shhh,” he kisses her hair, smooths the short length grown during their brief marriage. “You’re perfect. This is perfect. I won’t leave your side.”
The transformation steals her breath. Bones melt in a fire and settle into new shapes. Hair and cloth burst into flames, filling the room with an acrid stench that does not smell to her the way it had to her old self. She is tangentially aware of pounding at the door, questions shouted, her own screams going on and on and on. Ector holds her gaze with his warm gold-flecked, dragon-skin eyes, doesn’t flinch, not even once. In their short time together, she has only begun to plumb the depths of his endurance, the extent of his stoicism.
She thought she would grow larger, but she stays the same size, only rearranged. Perhaps, she thinks, she will grow as she ages. For a dragon, she’s quite young.
She has wings now, and a long tail.
She breaths fire from her snout.
The room is very quiet.
Ector looks different to her new eyes. She can see the sadness in him, colored threads of blue and pearly gray. There are also patches of red and orange—excitement. “Marvelous,” he breathes out, and then asks, “Can you understand me?” She tries to nod, a strange movement with such a long neck, and her body unbalances. Her new tail gets away from her, knocks over a table, topples a vase to the floor. The shards of pottery remind her of shards of glass, her window broken so mysteriously.
As though he knows her thoughts, he says, “I threw that stone at your window. I found your hair in the wood and made the rope, because suddenly there wasn’t any to be had. I was hoping you’d find a spine.” His face stretches into a vast, unabashed smile, and he lights up with a joy colored purple and yellow like pansies in sunshine.
Lina draws her tail around; it obeys her this time and goes where she directs. Her new limbs feel as natural as the old. There at the tip of her tail is the thing they both desired, a desire so strong it found its way into the stars and brought them together, from a hedge witch’s baffling charge that Lina’s hair remain uncut to the sly matchmaking of the oracles, everything intersecting to produce their desired outcome.
“May I?” he asks. She masters a nod and nudges him with her snout. Her love for him swells in her with an unexpected fierceness, and she wonders if all her feelings will be magnified into this heady, exciting wine of emotion sliding through her belly. There is no pain when he snaps the spine from her tail. He meets her gaze and, without hesitation, plunges the spine into his thigh. Like Lina in the forest, he cannot stop his scream of agony.
The door bursts open with a mighty crash, and the king and queen, half a dozen soldiers, and the court physician pour into the room. There are shrieks and cries at the sight of her, and Ector urges her toward the balcony. “Go!” he urges. He cannot stand on his leg—the spine remains very deep in the flesh. Soldiers raise swords and advance on her, but they halt as the Prince throws up one hand to ward them off. He pushes her with the other, balancing against her to hold himself up even as he tries to thrust her away. “Go!” he shouts over the din. “I’ll find you!”
She pauses in the balcony doors. Evening has come. In the distance, the dragons begin their descent from the mountain peaks into the woods. They call out over the land, and a reply rises from her belly, tears from her throat. It echoes over the valley, and one by one, the great dragons turn to answer her. They circle in the sky, draw closer to the Tower, beckon her to join them.
She looks back to him one final time, and in the reflection of the glass balcony doors, she sees herself transformed, sleek and strange, yet familiar in her angles and her oldest imaginings. He says again, “I’ll find you,” and draws the spine from his leg, holding it aloft in triumph. When they meet again, he, too, will be altered yet familiar.
She launches herself from the Tower, rises on powerful wings, and takes flight.