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Friday, August 29, 2014

The Awakeners. Caelin the Flier. Foreword and First 5 Words. Advisory: 18+!

The Transarcane Club.
Admittance: 18+
Motto: Enjoy yourself!
What is this? A brand-new universe inspired by world cultures and myths + guilty-pleasures.

Pitch. They have double lives. One is in the technofantastic world of Transarcane where they are proud bearers of the Dragon genome and key players in political games.

The other is in the modern Americana where they sell rare stones to De Beers and look for potential escorts/entertainers to take them back to Transarcane.

After all, the Transarcane men’s taste in women is based on “the bigger the better” requirement. So the pool for pussy hunting is deep.

There is one perk that outweighs all the money in the two worlds. Transarcane is the Land of Long Life. They measure life spans in centuries, not decades.

If you get there, you will live almost forever. Unless you die first, of course. A long life does not mean you are indestructible. Or immortal.

Also, the Dragon lords sell kipi pepper in New York and chocolate in Valaya Capital, but who said it was a bad thing? International trade has no other shortcomings but making certain people very rich.

Until some characters discover the “wonderful” possibilities of killing for money, that is.

So they don’t work hard but they play hard, for they have plenty of time. And they are still too young to be bored.

Here they are, the vice-ridden heroes of my first Transarcane Club story called The Awakeners:

Caelin aka The Awakener. Good-natured rogue. Bearer of the Sun Opal dragon genome. He is also the mythical Flier who introduces the young girls before 17 – the Age of Passage – to the pleasures of erotic arts.

Magda aka The Demon Lady. Whoremonger and businesswoman. Owner of Star Lovers, the chain of brothels with Earthling girls in Transarcane. Sex addict and sole breadwinner of House Mayacee, a huge family of lazy-asses. Her dragon genome is the Fiery Ruby.

Queen Marika aka The Praying Mantis. The true ruler of Valaya Domain. Serious multiple identity disorder condition. She X-rays everything in sight with her acid-green eyes., while her royal husband, King Vlad aka King Asshole, is busy whoring and drinking.

Both have marriage plans for his daughter, Princess Ileana. Needless to say, those plans differ to a “t”. Mixed Frosty Emerald and Blazing Sapphire genomes. Result: trouble. 

Laur aka the Arms Baron. Heir of Seanina, the Night Diamond House. Caelin’s nemesis and genius weapons designer. Religious. Thinks Earth circa Now is a great market in the first place.

So here is the crux. Illeana is about to turn 17. The Passage Ball is a major social event in the kingdom. The lords and ladies try on their best jewelry and order baths.

A week earlier, Caelin falls for the princess and decides to Awaken her.

The erotic arts lesson is bound to be with a twist.

The others are either oblivious, irate, or anticipating a major crap-in-the-ventilator situation.

Enjoy yourselves!

Caelin the Flier
An Awakeners Novel
By Anastasia Stratu
(c) 2014. All rights reserved.




Foreword
The shadows of the past swift stream across life's floor
The tale of all times, nothings that now exist no more
While the wind with clumsy fingers softly fumbles at the blind
And sadly spins the fibre of the story in my mind...
Eminescu, “Now Far I Am from You”
Who are you?
I am Ileana Kasimira Rhi Dorna of House Valaya. I am the only daughter of King Vlad VI and Queen Marika. Princess, heir of Valaya Domain, Seadune Qalifate, shore of Delroth… oh, hell. Never mind. Those are words in the wind. Meaningless titles, names of lands I will never rule.
I am scared. I am helpless. Lost in a world I will never understand.
Zamolxis Almighty, Lord of the Underworld, help me find my way…
What are you?
I am my father and mother’s daughter. King Bloodlust’s greatest pride. Queen Mantis’ greatest shame. Just another in a long line of crowned criminals.
I am the Starry Sapphire. When I am in Dragon form, my scales shine bright blue and white, and my eyes glow a thousand shades of blue.
What do you want?
I want my enemies dead. Dead. Ruined. Gone. All of them. Skulls crunching, eyes lifeless, flesh decomposing under my blue bejewelled slippers. I want to transform and drink their blood.
Yes, that’s right. Of course, in human form we abhor cannibalism. In our Dragon form, we… think less and go by our instincts. Drinking the blood of the enemy you just killed is an instinct as strong as mating.
Whom do you want?
I want Caelin, but he’s gone. He had Awoken me. He taught me lust, and I hate him for that.
He taught me love, and that love will die with me. He’s gone, though, and I hate him for that, too.
He also taught me that blood, even that of your worst enemy, that which is the sweetest is no match for love. Dragon lords think otherwise, but as far as lust is concerned, I had the best teacher in the two worlds. I do not care for the general opinion.
In what do you believe?
We are not monsters. We are just born this way, as Zamolxis made us.
We are not immoral or evil. Dragon blood boils in our veins, and that is our explanation to what we do or what we are. The Transarcane lords’ morals and ethics are so alien to non-shifters they can’t even begin to understand. Not that they try.
They would love to destroy us. Yet we rule Transarcane.
They would love to burn our castles down and rape our maidens. Yet we are the ones who breathe fire, and barbaric pleasures are beneath us. We do not rape. A walk through the fire of pleasure is a journey, not the criminal and dirty “pastime” so justly punished by the Earthlings.
Now I also find that many Earthlings believe all life is sacred. Yet many of them kill and destroy with a bloodlust my royal father wouldn’t begin to feel even at the height of his rage.
I am confused.
For what do you hope?
Revenge. Justice. Peace. Freedom.
I think I will get none of those.
Love?
Please. Don’t make me laugh. After what Caelin did to me, I do not wish to hear that word from a man ever again.
How he touched me, how he thrilled me, how he made me ache with pleasure… I wanted to stay in the fire forever and never walk out of it.
‘This is only a firefly,’ he said as he kissed me for the first time. ‘I will show you a sky full of stars.’
“Flier” rhymes with “liar”.
Although Caelin did not lie about the stars. I did not merely see them. I danced among the stars. I played with them.
Now I wish all the stars exploded and left the world in a darkness to match my own.
I wish I had remained in my cold slumber forever.
What do you fear?
Oh, many things… Right now, I am afraid I will be alone in my bed of blood when my time comes.



Word I. Caelin / Aldem / Sun Opal
Then to her bed he comes again, about her waist his strong arms steal;
She whispers words of tender love, whispers which fiery kisses seal.
He murmurs, "Whisper on, dear love, and let thy eyes' soft mystery
Speak on in meaningless sweet words that full of meaning are to me.
Eminescu, “Calin. Pages of a Fairy Tale”

Clang!
The sword flashed in the morning light, deadly sharp metal cutting through the air. Sir Maclure parried. Up left, down to the right, swish! Caelin stepped back, then forward, then back again. Lunge, pass!
‘I shall still drink your blood’, rasped the knight. His longsword was a good match for Caelin’s… except that Sir Maclure’s sword came from the town Goblin armourer. Caelin’s claidemaugh was made of the best 64 HC carbon steel credit cards could buy.
‘Right. We agreed you draw blood three times and I make three dents in your bloody armour!’
The sparring trainer’s yellowish grin flashed under his half-helm. Caelin’s only “armor” were breeches. Well, I couldn’t risk Lycra sportswear in front of Sir Maclure, right? The knight would have the cultural shock of a lifetime – and that’s saying something in Transarcane, the land of long life.
A sharp stab of pain in the left forearm interrupted Caelin’s musings. ‘Ow! Not fair, Sir Maclure! I was not paying attention!’
‘Tell so to Laur when you fight him next time!’ spat the man. ‘En garde!’
En garde it is, thought Caelin, attacking.
‘That was one!’
With a thrust in the terce, he hit Sir Maclure’s breastplate. The knight grunted and sank to the grassy ground.
Caelin was watching his own cut seal closed with a soft sizzle. In a minute, the skin was as whole and healthy as ever. Tanned smooth skin that many a maiden relished touching during an Awakening. Aldem blood has its perks, Caelin thought, then turned to face the knight.
‘Let’s call it a day, Sir Maclure. I fear I have broken one of thy ribs.’
‘Excellency,’ grunted the older man. ‘I ought to...’
‘No, no, Sir Maclure. Go rouse the castle healer. We shall continue on the morrow.’
‘Aye, my lord.’ The knight picked up his scabbard, sheathed his longsword, and limped away.
Poor man. I should be more careful. OK. Fly-by time.
The Awakener waited for the knight to clear the lawn, then crouched and shivered. A moment later, a golden-scaled Dragon with opalescent eyes was opening its wings on the same spot. The air it stirred rustled through the grass and tree branches. The Dragon stretched its wings and took off.
***
It is hard to go on with the Awakenings when you are jaded, tired, and your girlfriend is a dead ringer for Elizabeth Taylor. Violet was in his life for a reason – having the run of his castle in Transarcane. Accompanying him to yacht parties in Riviera. Starring in R’n’B videos. Warming his bed in the first place.
Well, not exactly warming. Violet’s skin was always cool to the touch. Like she ran at half a degree lower. She was gorgeous, though – small, delicate, surgically enhanced in all the right places. Black hair billowing around an angelic face. Perfectly molded lips. Violet eyes. It was Caelin who had named her after the color of her eyes. Who or what she was before, he did not care. She was his now.
But then, maybe Caelin was hotter than normal people are. Well, if you are born in a long line of Awakeners, work out in your own private gym in your Bel-Air mansion, and boast the proud Opal gene, you are bound to be hot. In all the senses of the word. Plus, Dragon blood can melt stone. Every Troll shepherd in Transarcane knows it.
Not that Caelin bragged about it when going clubbing to Ibiza. When you live in two worlds, you are generally careful with your words. Even when Crystal makes you verbose and the next party animal just takes in any shit you say while she sniffs pink cocaine off your collarbone. Even when King Vlad roars, ‘More pear-wood-matured lava wine for my friend Lord Caelin, heir of Aldem!’ while you secretly hope to dash back to Manhattan in between courses and stock up on Alka Seltzer.
Yes, when you live like this, the old Awakener job seems less and less appealing as the days go by. Before discovering the portal to Earth circa Now, Transarcane was Caelin’s only world and Awakenings were his only entertainment. He told himself, of course, that flying into maidens’ windows and introducing them to erotic pleasures was his sacred duty. That is, before he found a portal, visited a shindig named Woodstock and saw a couple pleasuring each other in broad daylight right next to a concert stage. A two-woman couple, mind you.
He still continued it, though. The Awakening. For a maiden of seventeen, before her night of Passage, must walk through the fire of the highest pleasure at least once. Soon after that, she will be wed to a man who might or might not appreciate a woman with fire under the icy and dignified demeanor, with which every woman of Transarcane should carry herself. So her first erotic experience should be secured.
Caelin never took their “flower of maidenhood”, as the court matrons pompously called virginity. He knew myriad other ways to introduce a young body to bliss. Problem was, Awoken peasant girls, eager to continue their walk through fire, usually ended up in a haystack with village boys way before wedding bells. When confronted with the lack of blood spots on the wedding linen, they usually started sobbing and blamed it on the Flier. Hence the dreadful reputation and general demonization. And few believing in his realness.
Caelin’s family, House Aldem, was one of the most powerful in the realm – faithful supporters of the Valaya ruling dynasty, never-wavering royalists, generous lenders in gold and kind… King Vlad would love to grab some of their mines, but as Caelin’s father used to tell him, ‘When a king wants something you have, lend it to him. It is always good to have a king owe you a couple of favors.’
Nobody knew that, for centuries, the men of House Aldem were Awakeners. Not that centuries matter in Transarcane, the land of long life.
The name Flier still commanded a certain respect, though. Those who believed in the Flier, knew that, when angered, the Flier transforms into a golden-scaled Dragon. Then the smartest thing to do was run as far and as fast as humanly possible, because “pants on fire” did not begin to cover it.
The village crones took the Fliers a bit too seriously, perhaps. It was always hard for Caelin not to laugh when a girl tried to ward him off with an amulet made of knotgrass and goat manure wrapped in cheesecloth. White, for purity. ‘Be gone, you Zmaule! [Dragon in Valayan tongue]. I have a descantec! [spell to protect against jinxing].’
Cue “sex is not dirty” speech, gods made our bodies, bla-bla, our bodies – ourselves, yadda, yadda, then a kiss and some making-out, then home, to Violet. Then a couple more nights of delicious tumbling in haystacks – where else?! Then first orgasm induced by least shocking methods possible, then a little hypnosis – “it was just a night dream, my sweet” – then good-bye.
What a lovely routine, Calin chuckled secretly, flying in Dragon form back to Castle Aldem and thinking about waking up Violet with a couple of well-placed flicks of his tongue. Yes, wake up, not Awaken. Oh, Violet did not need to be Awoken. That luscious Earthling could herself awaken a man on his deathbed.
Yes, Caelin could teach a course on jaded. Caelin could be king of the bored. Yet he wasn’t unhappy. Happiness is the absence of unhappiness – he loved that crown jewel of a platitude, and just went on with his life.
That day, after the usual fly-by of his lands, Caelin was daydreaming of scones and a frosty cup of So Co-co-cold Frozen Caramel Mochaccino. ‘I’ll check the crystal screen and set the portal for that café between 53rd and 54th on Park… wait, what was the name of the place… whatever. Violet will scoff and say she’s watching her carb intake… Blargh. What’s life without sex or carbs? Futility. I’ll just go alone.’
Violet wasn’t even awake yet. Caelin landed on the balcony, shifted to human form, then walked, naked as he was, to his study. A serving girl passed him in the high-ceilinged corridor. She blushed as she met his gaze. Caelin chuckled quietly.
A fire was blazing in the grate, throwing gold and orange flecks of light on the rosewood-paneled walls, tapestries depicting hunting scenes, and heavy chandeliers in blackened silver. Caelin didn’t care for Medieval decorations, but as a courtier of King Vlad and a great House’s scion, he had to entertain. He doubted his fellow knights and lords would take to plasma screens and ultramodernist paintings. Civilizational shock was not to be treated lightly; he learned that lesson as soon as he started his double life.
The fire was giving off too much heat. Caelin looked around furtively – were there any wenches skulking between tapestries carrying a duster and a torch for the master? The study seemed empty, though. He stomped out the fire with his bare feet, opened a window, then rummaged in a drawer and took out a battery-operated fan. Now that’s more like it.
The plastic would melt into disgusting off-white booger-like flakes in an hour. The synthetic plague of Transarcane never hesitated to act on any man-made polymeric or high-molecular compound brought from Earth circa Now. Caelin didn’t care – to him, things were disposable regardless of their value.
The crystal screen was up and running, its bright glow reminding Caelin of superthin laptop screens. Here, in this sword-and-sorcery dump, one had to work with what one had, like this modification of the all-known crystal ball.
Caelin whispered, ‘Show me’. It was, for want of a better word, programmed to search for girls approaching their age of Passage and therefore ripe for Awakening.
The screen showed him a couple of townsmen’ daughters, plump and rosy as they made them, with the characteristic traits of children born in a closed gene pool. Caelin frowned.
His fine aesthetic sense recoiled from these bulging eyes, long bulbous noses, tiny little mouths and ears that looked like satellite dishes on a condo building. Of course, there was nothing wrong with this picture in this world that had simply failed to produce something better for millennia. He only wondered how Magda got away with her Earthling girls who looked so out of the place here. But then, she didn’t. Her “Demon girls” became a common bugaboo in the realm.
Caelin already wanted to activate the switching-off charm for the screen, when a face caught his attention. He looked closer. Then he forgot that he was naked in a house full of servants, that he wanted to go to Park Café for mochaccino, that Violet would wake up and walk in soon…
He just wanted to look at that face and never stop. He, who had a woman of heavenly beauty, had been with almost every girl in the domain, used to scout for Vogue cover girls… he, the Awakener! He just wanted to absorb that face with his eyes.
If he were able to analyze, he could say that she was no classic beauty like Violet or so many others he met on Earth circa Now. Eyes too large for her heart-shaped face, with blue, turquoise and lilac shades swirling under dark lashes and delicate eyebrows. Pouting mouth, too large to meet the local beauty standards. Nose a little upturned, yet with a fine bridge – best indicator of blue blood. Cascades of strawberry-blonde curls beneath a coronet of white and rosy pearls…
Caelin shook his head and looked at her figure. Lovely sloping shoulders. Lovely small breasts, small waist, and eye-catching rounded hips curving under white silk. Lovely.
‘Looking at the king’s daughter?’ came a high silvery voice from behind him.
Caelin jumped. Violed stepped silently, like on cat’s paws, yet he had too much Dragon blood and enhanced Dragon senses not to hear her. He was just too absorbed by this maiden who could star in any Hollywood movie, who could grace any airbrushed fashion magazine page… who was downright unattractive by local standards, even if she was the king’s… what?
OK, Caelin, composure. You are not a teenager who just found Dad’s stash of Hustlers.
‘Good morning, my sweet. What art thou saying? Is this Princess Ileana? Do thou speak truly?’
Violet scoffed. ‘Please. Spare me the vernacular. Yeah, that’s her. The Paris Hilton of Transarcane.’
Caelin laughed. ‘I don’t think she ever bathed her dog in Evian.’
Violet laughed, too. ‘Yeah. She probably uses her Pop’s favorite lava wine for that.’
‘Urgh. Don’t remind me. I thought I needed rehab at Betty Ford’s after that last feast.’
‘To which you never took me!..’
‘Honey, please. I told you a thousand times – this place is not L.A. and King Bloodlust’s soirées are not parties at the Playboy Mansion. Do you want to be burned at the stake? They can do it, you know. One look at your lovely face and you’ll spend the short rest of your life proving you’re not a witch…’
‘OK, OK.’ His compliments placated Violet. She never cared to learn about Transarcane, so she could not possibly contradict Caelin and say – hey, stop bullshitting me, witches are respected Caste members, not human firewood.
‘It’s not like I’m missing a lot, is it?’ she said indifferently.
‘Exactly.’ Caelin was looking at the screen again. ‘Plus, you know women never mix with men except at court balls. Even if you were admitted to the party, you’d be stuck for hours with a bunch of matrons discussing infant mortality rates all night.’
‘Ick.’
‘Yeah… nice setting for a child-free vixen like you,’ he said, pinching her buttock. She squealed.
‘Ouch! You’re right, I’ll probably blurt out something like ‘the more, the better’…
‘… and be granted the mercy of instant death. Queen Mantis would strangle you personally. Ileana and baby Robert are her only surviving children.’
‘Really?’ Violet was mildly interested. ‘Out of how many?’
‘Eleven.’
Caelin was somber. He kept looking at Ileana. What made her so special, kept musing the part of his brain not occupied with the conversation? Why is this face so arresting? Yes, she is lovely, but nothing out of the ordinary. What, what is the secret here?
Caelin loved a good mystery even more than he liked a good project.
‘That’s kinda harsh,’ commented Violet on Queen Marika’s predicament in the meantime. ‘I only wonder why she doesn’t look like an old ruin.’
‘Forgot where you are? This is Transarcane. Even peasants live for, like, three hundred years here. It’s almost twice as much for nobility.’
‘And this is the only reason I agreed to take residence in this drafty old castle!’ She shivered, wrapping her robe more tightly about her slender body. ‘It’s chilling. Aren’t you cold? Oh, for fuck’s sake!’ She noticed the open window. ‘Cal, please!’
She was wearing nothing but a lilac silk robe, matching slippers, and although it was a negligée, strictly speaking, she already was in full makeup, long amethyst earrings, and bracelets. A small tiara that glittered like a bunch of lavender-colored firework sparks adorned her swirls of dark brown hair. Violet slept with her earrings on, Caelin knew. He called her a bling junkie. She pretended she found it cute.
Yeah, thought Caelin, the drafty castle comes with almost endless life, pure unpolluted air and water, meat without steroids, fruit without nitrates, and the position of a nobleman’s chatelaine… You are fully vaccinated and can program your portal any time to take you to Rodeo Drive or to a SPA on the Seychelles… you really drew the short stick here, honey.
‘I am never cold’, he reminded her.
‘That’s right,’ she purred, bending down to kiss the nape of his neck.
Caelin suppressed a shiver of pleasure. Violet’s caresses never failed to excite him, yet right now, the girl on the crystal screen and her secret were all he cared for.
‘Wait a second. How did you know it was the king’s daughter? You’ve never been at court, and Ileana hasn’t had her Passage Ball yet, she doesn’t go out…’
Violet pointed at the screen. ‘See that coronet? Royal jeweller’s work… Honey…’ Her voice turned soft, seductive. ‘Why don’t you let me order something from him? That’s kinda cheap of you, you know…’
‘Right… spoken like a true Van Cleef & Arpels loyalty club member.’
That shut her up. Finally.
‘Could you order breakfast, my sweet?’ He never tore his eyes off the princess’ face on the crystal screen.
Violet shrugged. ‘Need some privacy to stare at this insipid little bitch? OK, I’m outta here.’ She exited the study with the air of a duchess leaving a public toilet.
Caelin took one last look at the princess, then got up, pressed a panel in the wall, and stepped into the dimly lit passageway leading to his chambers. He got dressed in his closet, pausing only for a bit before the mirror to run a comb through his hair. His reflection frowned back at him.
Stop thinking about her.
She is going to be seventeen soon. She is on the brink of her Passage.
Are you going to Awaken the king’s daughter? asked the more reasonable part of his mind. The princess destined for the heir of Shayatt who may not appreciate a lively bed partner? Not to mention that asshole prince Eaon, should his royal asshole uncle choose him as a son-in-law. And what if her hymen broke while riding? That is a common predicament of highborn girls. King Vlad’s precious flower proclaimed as a whore and banished from her lord husband’s castle? Don’t be a fool.
His unreasonable self was already planning the Awakening.
I must know everything about this girl.
Ileana.
He was grinning as he descended to the breakfast parlor.
You and your fucked-up projects, the reasonable Caelin grumbled in his mind.
His daredevil counterpart dismissed that remark. He wondered what kind of Dragon she was.
But seconds later, his thoughts turned back to the girl.
Ileana, Ileana… music and honeysuckle blossoms.
For some reason, he imagined she smelled of honeysuckle.

***
Breakfast was quiet if not low-calorie. Eggs poached in sweet wine, freshly baked bread, butter and buttermilk, hard cheese, honeycombs, and good old honest-to-Zamolxis pale ale. Organic paradise, thought Caelin, eating with his usual gusto. Violet played with her food, frowned, pouted, and whined about not getting bran muffins and green tea. Caelin made pacifying comments between bites – “Just give the recipe to the cook, dear” – but his mind was elsewhere.
Violet was angry about the recipe thing – ‘hey, I’m Coco Chanel, not coq au vin’ – but Caelin was oblivious. Now that he could think clearly and analyze Ileana’s appearance, he realised she looked a lot like Queen Marika. Except that the Queen was skinny, tall, and that icy stare of her acid-green eyes added up nicely to the perfect human equivalent of a praying mantis.
Ileana was softer somehow. Her eyes were shades of blue, ever-changing, ever-fascinating. The Queen’s eyes could burn a man down. Ileana’s could make a man do highly stupid things, and sure enough, she was nothing like her asshole father.
Vlad would make a great King Asshole if the domain didn’t dub him Bloodlust first, thought Caelin and chuckled quietly in his short beard. He’d have to shave it off, though. Before the Awakening. Maidens shied away from hairy faces, he noticed. He must be Prince Charming, not fucking Puss in Boots.
He’ll also have to get his hair black again. It was a nuisance, but the Flier, the Zmau of the village legends was dark-haired. People shouldn’t suspect there were more of them. It was actually Lord Revva of House Aldem, Caelin’s forebear, who started this noble tradition, and that was before auburn hair joined the Sun Opal genome.
Of course, several thousand years ago, the Awakening meant exercising the right of first night, with the occasional rape thrown in, but the Dragon lords have come a long way. It would be just like blaming the successors of Southern planters for slavery, Caelin always told himself in his own defense. When he started thinking that he still had sex in some or other form with virgin teenage girls, and by Earthling standards he was a pervert at best and a green mile candidate at worst, he always made himself think about something else. He didn’t want to dig too deep into this. Double life or not, he was what his world, his House and his forebears made him. End of discussion.
He was so consumed by thoughts about the Bloodlust King’s unusual offspring he almost forgot something important. It had been a week since he dropped by Castle Seanina.
Urgh. Damn. Time to pay the “conjugal” visit, Caelin joked darkly to himself.
The Black Forest. Not a pretty sight. OK, it’s all right to punish a drug lord and arms dealer, especially if he was the one who actually was at the center of the Blood Diamond affair. That is, the Kimberley process. The fact that Laur’s Dragon was of the Night Diamond genome did not help things. The fact that he was a genius weaponry designer? Even less so.
Still, locking someone up for virtual eternity in the Black Forest was harsh… and the only solution. The public story in Valaya and all over Transarcane was that Caelin the Hero, the heir of House Aldem, punished Lord Laur for sacrificing young women on his black altar in his black castle to his pagan god Eweaqh (pah! Common folk used to spit and say Zamolxis’ name to purify their mouths at this point). Lord Seanina also practised blood magic (pah! Zamolxis bless my mouth!). Anyway, Lord Caelin locked the Seanina Castle with a spell, turned it black, and told the villain: “When thy black soul will repent and will turn to the light, then and only then shall the castle walls lighten, only then the spell shall break and thou shalt be free.” The good law-abiding people of Transarcane just loved this kind of “good-always-triumphs-over-evil” bull-squirt.
Caelin went “blaargh” every time this hero business was mentioned and forbade the castle servants to call him that. Truth be told, Caelin’s contribution was small. After Archer radioed the coordinates to Coetzee and the shit hit the fan, he just grabbed a badly wounded Laur and knocked him out with chloroform. Then he took him to the portal and brought him from Africa to his House seat in the Seadune Alliance lands.
When Laur came around, Cailin told him, “I am watching you through the crystal screen every single day of your life. If you put a toe out of the Black Forest, I will blow you up – while you were out, I mined this place. It’s so full of explosives it’s a TNT dumpling. You’ll never find any ticking box or shit, because it does not exist – I am using local spells as sensors and detonators. You are not to fly outside the Black Forest area in Dragon form either – I got a few ground-to-airs planted around, too. You’ll go down like a Stealth in Kandahar. Adios motherfucker.’
So, Caelin has been watching for years his archenemy go gaga in the Black Castle. Well, it was not Caelin’s fault that some crazy bitch – the late Lady Seanina, that is – chose black marble for the outer walls and much of the interior. Anyone would lose it in that black-and-white hellhole. Lately, Laur was unusually calm, though. Was he going from manic to depressive? Usually, Caelin’s visits were reduced to snapping and snarling at each other in the sky over Black Castle.
What will it be today?
Caelin passed through his study again on the way out. He was tempted to look at Ileana again, but resisted the urge. He would get his fill when he started the Awakening. He also had to hurry if he wanted to be back home for supper – he had to cross two domains to get to Seadune, and that meant several hours of Dragon flight.
He said quietly, ‘Show me the Black Castle’, and the crystal screen lit up. A black Dragon was devouring the carcass of what seemed to be a cow. Caelin shrugged and switched the screen off. Good old Laur. So constant in his tastes.
At least it’s not a human body, thank the gods. House Seanina was one of the biggest protesters against “drink only the blood of enemies killed in battle” rule. Laur might as well not give a shit altogether.
Fortunately, people never wandered to the Black Forest. There was even a story circulating about Laur the Balaur (evil Dragon in local speak) and the kidnapped princess. Total baloney, by the way. Caelin knew that Laur just got his paws on an Amazon who heard of him and decided to give him a flogging. Why those stupid broads always have to prove they are as good and brave and strong as men! Caelin, being assured that Freud’s theories work everywhere, thought it was a penis-envy thing. Totally pointless, by the way.
All castes of Transarcane believed Zamolxis created men and women as equals everywhere except the bed of pleasure and the bed of blood. As for the Amazons, they were just versions of Earthling feminists – except that their caste training made them the best archers EV-ER. Thank the gods, they stopped cutting their left breast off a couple of centuries ago – the sight was disgusting.
Caelin stripped, then felt an urge to look at himself in the mirror. Yes, the beard has to go. First, it’s two shades darker than the hair, and second, Violet was right. He shouldn’t hide that jawbone. Well, at least the workouts and the training sessions with Sir Maclure are paying off. The eyes look the same.
Or did they? Was there too much bright expectation in those gray eyes?
Oh, who the hell cares?
He turned away and walked towards the balcony.
The transformation was the same. The shifting a little painful, as usual. The lifting and spreading of the wings – a kick, like always. The route was different.
The golden Dragon flew towards Castle Valaya.

Word II. Laur / Seanina / Night Diamond

Turning my head away, I handed you my sword.
My people ceased their march along the Danube side;
Harold no longer dreamed the universe to ride,
…The conqueror from that hour was vanquished by your word.
Eminescu, “Ghosts”

The black Dragon finished gnawing at the carcass and rose into the smoky air. There was always smoke hovering over the Black Forest. In his frequent rages, Laur spewed flame all over the place, igniting the forest, charring the trees, letting his hatred out. Oh, one of these days…
Stop dreaming, you fool, Laur told himself as he shifted back to human form and walked barefoot through the blackened desolation that once was his domain. The castle was empty – the servants were hiding, as usual. He always had to yell, stomp, and curse whenever he needed a meal or clothes. Not that he ate a lot of human food. Animal blood not only cleared his head – it satiated him, made him strong.
Black walls, black skin, black thoughts. Soul also black? No. He did not know. A warrior of God was not master of his soul. One cannot possess something that belongs to another. To Eweaqh, may His name be sacred.
In his dressing room, Laur put on a linen summer suit – a creation straight off the shelves of Zegna. He did not give a rat’s ass for what his servants, scared into submission, would think. There was no one around to spread gossip. So he enjoyed all the comforts he managed to bring back from Earth circa Now before the bastard ambushed him in Guinea and hauled him back home for good.
He touched the scar on his temple. When your enemy’s intention is beat you to death with a shovel, your only choice is to pretend to be dead. In the meanwhile, your own fellow Transarcaners mess you up. Nice.
The fraying collar of his shirt was starkly white against his soot-black skin. Green eyes looked alien on that broad expressionless face. The smooth polished skin of his head shone in the lamplight.
He looked at his watch. The bastard was about to show up soon. He could use the time to work on his last design.
Laur was no nearer to getting Stockholm syndrome than to playing Santa in a mall on Christmas Eve. The bastard not only locked him up in a pile of plastid – he also blocked the Black Castle portal and robbed Laur of any chance ever to see Earth circa Now again. Blueprints upon blueprints were piling on Lord Seanina’s desk – improved machine guns, advanced biological weapons, grenade throwers – you name it. He was a genius indeed. He cursed Caelin for many reasons, but in his quiet hours, he only cursed him for denying him the opportunity to use AutoCAD.
Laur also hated the local parchment, flimsy and brownish, the unreliable graphite sticks that never gave him the line thickness he wanted, the meager lighting that hurt his eyes. Yet he plowed on, maniacally, relentlessly, designing weapon after deadly weapon.
A certain Wahhabi group would never get to receive those, but Lord Seanina did not stop. And the ideas his boiling blood inspired! Priceless. Some department of defense would kill for those blueprints… not that they didn’t try in his time, when he was the most influential arms baron on the whole goddamned planet. And now? The closest thing to a weapon he had was a rusty sword one of his servants found somewhere. The mere sight of it made Laur sick, yet he never threw it away. It was a reminder that revenge must be served cold, and he was still hot.
Rage coursed through him again as the thin parchment broke under his ruler. Laur swore emphatically, threw down the drawing tools, and went outside. It was high time the despised golden shadow appeared in the sky. Where was the bastard? Is it possible… something happened and some good man finally kicked his ass?
Laur ran back to the study and connected his crystal screen. ‘Show me Lord Caelin of Aldem’, he whispered.
The iridescent screen did not show him something he hoped to see. It showed him something even better.
The golden Dragon was curled in a ball on a greenish bronze roof, motionless, pretending to be a gargoyle, its dark golden claws clutching a rain pipe. Laur commanded, ‘Closer’, and the image zoomed in. He followed the golden Dragon’s gaze. Could it be?
Lord Caelin of Aldem was spying on Princess Ileana.
The Starry Sapphire was dancing in the skies, rolling, diving, as if conscious that the entire capital is watching her white and blue scales sparkle in the sun. The Sun Opal was still as stone. If his golden scales did not shine just as brightly, he would be just like the gargoyles among which he was hiding.
Laur smiled, probably for the first time in years. It was not a pretty sight, his smile.
Then he switched off his crystal screen and went back to work.

***
The bastard appeared in the hallway in human form, and Laur, hearing his footsteps, thought grudgingly that his nemesis was no coward. Nothing would stop Laur from transforming right inside the castle, trash the place to hell, of course, but kill Caelin with a single mouthful of flame. Yet he put down his pencil calmly, rolled the parchment into a neat scroll and started wiping his graphite-stained hands on a rag.
‘Hey Laur, come out!’ he heard. ‘Hey! Are you in a bathtub slitting your wrists or something?’
‘In your dreams, bastard’, Laur called back. ‘Over here. In the study. And you’re not welcome.’
He heard the bastard laugh throatily. Laugh away, Laur smiled inwardly.
Caelin stuck his head into the study door. ‘Hey monster. Didn’t expect to see you in human form. By the way, you look like shit. What are you doing inside? Shouldn’t you be gnawing at cow bones?’
‘None of your stinking business. Got your inmate check done? Haul your bony ass outta here, I got work to do.’
‘I sort of hoped for a little deathmatch before I rotate home. Tired of trying to kill me?’
Laur put the rag down and looked up.
‘What an idiotic question,’ he said with a grin as menacing as he could muster. That was saying something as Laur’s teeth were sharpened and platinum-coated. N-O-T pretty.
The bastard didn’t even flinch. He only lifted an eyebrow and said, ‘New escape strategy? How interesting. Come on; show me what you’re working on. I’m curious.’
Laur hissed, but the bastard was already unrolling a scroll.
‘Wow, this is one bitchin’ gun,’ he whistled. ‘Your design? Figures.’
‘You’ve got three seconds to put that down, or I’m transforming right here and now,’ said Laur in an even voice.
The bastard scoffed. ‘Yeah… like you’d dare.’
‘One… two…’
‘Three. Go on. Transform.’
Laur snarled at him, frustrated. He knew well Caelin would have enough time to transform, too, and the ‘deathmatch’ would probably bring no results, but would leave him sans castle. Shit.
‘There, there,’ the bastard said in a placating voice. ‘Calm down, you big baby. Hey, this stuff is great. If only you’d sell it to the right people…’
‘You know full well there is no such thing as right people versus wrong people,’ said Laur confidently. ‘There is only distribution of power and...’
‘Hey, I don’t need a Geopolitics 101 right now,’ snorted the bastard. ‘I’m no fucking psych major you’re trying to convert to Ilsam.’
Laur bristled. ‘OK, say whatever you want, impose your abhorrent company on me, but leave my faith out of it!’
‘Laur’, the bastard said quietly. ‘Your faith is Zamolxis and the gods of his pantheon. Was for centuries.’
Lord Seanina spat. ‘Don’t mention those Pagan idols to me. There is no God but Eweaqh and Madinah is His prophet!’ He started pacing the studio.
‘Insh’Allah’, replied the bastard absent-mindedly, focusing on the blueprints again. ‘I’m agnostic anyway, so stuff it. Hey, can I get one of these?’
‘What?’ Laur could not believe his ears. ‘You dare…’
‘OK, OK,’ Caelin laughed and put the blueprint back. ‘No harm in asking, right?’
‘You dog!’
‘Ugh, that’s really harsh coming from a soldier of Light.’ The bastard’s voice was dripping with sarcastic amusement.
Laur ordered himself to calm down. He knew the bastard was teasing him without any particular intention or agenda. Once, long ago, he begrudged Caelin his light character. Now he despised it, just like everything about the heir of Aldem. Also, now he knew that a warrior did not do things just because he liked them, or fancied doing them… everything should be done for a reason.
Then he remembered Ileana and calm returned as if by magic.
‘Anything else, Caelin?’ he asked politely.
The bastard’s gray eyes widened. ‘Wow. We have a breakthrough, group. Thanks for sharing, Laur!’
‘What?’
‘Blargh. Nothing,’ the bastard waved his hand. ‘You should go out more, Laur. Oops… sorry, cruel joke. I mean, you should have… when your portal was open and you could talk to people, not invent ways to kill them.’
Laur was silent. He knew that if he did not finish the conversation himself, the bastard would never shut up. This was another thing he was jealous of – Caelin’s sociability – back in Dragon Academy, a long, long time ago… Again, now he despised his verbosity. A warrior must speak briefly and to the point.
‘Really, Laur, don’t you think it’s high time to reconsider some things?’
Oh Lord, the bastard was launching on a sermon… as usual when checking on him in human form. Laur took a deep breath, and started undressing, arranging his clothes neatly on a chair.
‘OK, OK, I got the hint.’ The bastard stopped smiling. ‘See you outside. Well, not you. The Night Diamond.’
Laur nodded. Lord Caelin turned his back on him and walked away. Laur was aching to grab a dagger and throw it, plant sharpened steel firmly between his nemesis’ shoulder blades, but all he had was that rusty sword.
Fine, he told himself. I don’t know how yet, but I can feel it. Ileana will be your ruin, Caelin Lord Aldem, and I will make sure these are not mere words in the wind.
Laur thought about Clo’An’Tza. He had to check on her. The crone is probably dead now – she was probably one of Transarcane’s First Ones, older than mammoth shit, as they say on Earth circa Now… Laur hoped she was still around, though. She could do stuff like you wouldn’t believe with herbs and incantations. Maybe they should form an alliance…
Laur bit his lip, took off the last of his clothes, and walked out of his study.
***
The two Dragons clashed in the gray smoky sky like two juggernauts. Gold and black scales were flashing, blood was sizzling on open wounds as they healed on the go…. They were both able to augment or reduce their weight of muscle and bone, and now they both bloated their bodies to maximum.
Two huge shapes were circling, slashing the opponent with their tails, biting, scratching, trying to push the other to the limit… That invisible yet deadly edge where sensors are activated and ground-to-airs are released.
Finally, both collapsed from the skies to the ground.
If a stranded Pixie merchant had walked through the Black Forest then, he would have seen two naked men, one bronze-skinned, auburn-haired, and lean, the other dark, bald, and brawny, both bleeding, crouched facing each other, panting heavily. Sounds innocent enough, but the merchant would probably start immediately putting some distance between those men and himself.
‘Hey, your wounds heal quicker than mine’, said the redhead. His own flesh wound looked dreadful – a bloody mass of ripped muscle and sinew. It sizzled as his body put his shoulder right.
‘That is because my blood is boiling’, exhaled the dark bald one[AS1] . His own arm was already half-healed, even though he took extra time to put his sticking-out bone in the right position before it started healing.
‘Mine does, too – we’re Dragons and we’re fighting, you idiot!’
‘Good. That means it will be the right temperature when I drink it!’
A second later, two pairs of wings were opening in the clearing. Golden gossamer and black gauze. The opalescent eyes met the shiny onyx ones. A non-shifter would not be able to decipher their expression, yet the intention was obvious.
Fight to the death.



Word III. Magda / Mayassee / Fiery Ruby
As Rafael on canvas bare did the Madonna's portrait paint
With gleaming diadem of stars and eyes lit with a virgin smile,
So I a pallid mortal girl transformed into a deathless saint,
A girl with barren empty soul and body soiled, depraved and vile.
Eminescu, “Venus and Madonna”
“Mircha?”
“Yes, my lady?” The lad was panting.
‘You were good,’ she approved as she stopped convulsing. ‘Now get off me.’
Mircha was good, but she was already tired of him. This last walk through fire wasn’t as intense as she was used to get. She should think about some fresh flesh, but it was a nuisance to replace a lover in Transarcane.
Finding a handsome brawny lad, then finding a pretext to get body fluid samples, having them analyzed for STD and other diseases in a lab on Earth circa Now was enough of a nuisance. It was as hard as it was easy to get them hard, chuckled Magda inwardly.
Then she had to make the lad bathe before coming to her bed – a task more difficult than all the rest put together. She knew Earthling men had this strange complex about being used solely for a woman’s pleasure, but she couldn’t understand it. So what? Doesn’t it work the other way round?
She also couldn’t dash to Earth and seduce people for one-night stands on a daily basis. And what use, pray tell, are one-nighters when you are used to start your day with walking through fire? No, she should probably just teach Mircha how to please her in other ways and be done with this problem for a while.
Magda stretched luxuriously and turned her huge topaz eyes on the stable boy. He was standing ten-hut beside the bed and devouring her with his eyes. Well, she was a feast to the eye and she knew it. She believed that, of everything Earthlings invented, plastic surgery was the best.
Magda smirked and rolled on her left side. ‘You may go back to the stable, Mircha. Tell Sorina I want a bath.’
‘Yes, my lady. Good day, my lady.’
She waved her hand. The boy exited quietly. She stayed in bed, stretching and yawning. Her maid needed time to heat water, bring it to her bathing chamber, fill the bathtub with hot water and Fruttylicious mango-peach-vanilla bubble bath gel – carefully repackaged into a local roughly hewn crystal flask, of course. Magda couldn’t possibly leave it in its bottle. Plus, it was useless to bring plastic to Transarcane – the synthetic plague [AS2] would ruin it in a jiff.
An idea came to her mind and she laughed, picturing it. She should set up a social network for Transarcaners who have portals to Earth. Whoa, this could be great! Magda made a mental note to talk to her manager. Maybe this won’t be a money spinner, but a sure way to get really good contacts here in Transarcane.
Lady Magda of House Mayassee never missed a moneymaking opportunity. House Mayassee was, just like her dear friend Caelin’s House Aldem, a generous contributor to the crown’s expenses, and King Vlad preferred not to notice that Lady Magda was a lewd shrew, wore risqué dresses, and was the owner of a realm-wide chain of expensive brothels. King Vlad could not whore openly – he respected the feelings of Queen Marika, for the sake of appearances if not the little love that remained in their relationship. So His Majesty depended on Lady Magda to provide him with pretty girls AND make sure there would be no bastards to threaten Ileana and Robert’s claim to the throne.
When in their cups – usually while sipping champagne at a pool party and watching bikini-clad beauties, Caelin teased her quietly: “All hail the Pussy Purveyor of the Royal House of Valaya!” and asked if he could help her with her “cunthunting”. Magda usually brushed him off and made mental notes – she was working. When she wasn’t, Magda usually replied that he should become her partner, because being a whoremonger was the next best thing to being an Awakener.
Caelin usually got serious and refused, saying that it was OK for him to be her partner in the spice-and-coffee trade, but he’d never trade in human flesh. Magda usually pretended to ignore that.
They both did not like to talk about the only thing that marred their relationship: their clashing agendas. Caelin’s goal was getting the women in touch with their sensual selves. For Magda, healthy marital sex meant less clients for her brothel empire.
Although she mocked his Awakener alter ego, Magda knew how important a good start was for a healthy adulthood. Caelin was the one to Awaken Lady Magda of House Mayassee, when she hit 17 and he was a beginner Awakener. Caelin used to blame himself for turning Magda into a spinster sex addict, although she never said a word about it.
Still, when your life span measures in centuries rather than years, perspectives can change drastically several times in your lifetime. Years later, as youths became adults, Caelin got a liking for badgering Magda about her eventual marriage. Magda usually replied that she would only marry into House Qeasse and none other.
‘Imagine this,’ she told him once. ‘I do some really great shit, with huge exposure, you know, and then I introduce myself to monarchs and presidents as Lady Qeasse-Mayassee from France.’
Caelin just shrugged and said, ‘Lady Kissie-My-Assee? In a French accent? Ha. It’s the 2010’s, baby. People would kill for that kind of name.’
Well, House Qeasse was extinct in the male line, so it was a moot point anyway, plus, Magda didn’t want to get married. She had a moot point of her own – Transarcane men were too traditional. As for Earthlings – she believed they were no match for a scion of a proud House and a Fiery Ruby gene bearer. She liked her freedom, too. No Transarcaner – from Dragon lord to poorest Troll yard-keeper – would let his wife run a brothel chain.
Magda smiled and got up. She ran her fingers through her bright red curls. She got her mousy-brown hair covered up by a Paris hairstylist, but the word in Transarcane was that she procured a highly exclusive Chromeo spell from a now dead wood-witch.
Well, when you’re bosom friends with the Flier and live two lives, you must be good at planting rumors.
She approached her large mirror framed by gilded alabaster cupids.
‘Who’s the prettiest of them all?’ she purred. She lifted and dropped one perfect sharp-tipped breast, then watched it bounce. Nice.
Soon after her own Passage, Caelin told her that her dream about the dark-haired faerie prince who showed her a sky full of stars was real. After the shock and indignation wore off – ‘why did you make me believe it was a dream?!’ – Magda insisted on bedding him immediately.
Caelin laughed and agreed – ‘you ain’t no maiden now, right?’ Magda scoffed and kissed him so fervently, even the Awakener was impressed.
Neither of them liked the act, though. They both were showing off their skills rather than trying to pleasure each other. To them, it would always be a competition, they agreed, and were BFFs ever since.
Magda knew what would happen if she spilled the beans on Caelin. He told her she was the only outsider who knew the truth, and that it was a dangerous truth. If anyone knew it was his House at the root of the Flier stories… the entire realm would turn against the Lords of Aldem.
Too many disappointed peasants whose wives demonstrated unlikely lovemaking skills would like to grab a pitchfork and show up at Castle Aldem. Too many noblemen whose daughters shamed their names would do an array of unpleasant things – from challenging Caelin for a duel in Dragon form to joining the Seanina camp.
That would leave Aldem in an “everyone but us is the enemy” position. Hell, a civil war could start in Transarcane. So Magda kept her mouth shut very tight.
‘Why did you tell me about it at all?’ she asked once, when they were enjoying a quiet sunset, sipping Château Pétrus on the porch of her house in the Hamptons. ‘Why didn’t you keep it a secret? I mean, I won’t tell anyone, but you know a human brain is not a safe haven for information.’
‘You mean…?’
‘Yes. Information can be tortured out of a person. They can slip me truth serum. Hypnotize me. Hit me with an Aletheia spell. Lots of things.’
Caelin shrugged. ‘You just kept nagging about how I resembled the faerie prince who visited your dreams during your Passage… I was afraid you’d start digging. And with your persistence and determination…’ he looked at her lovingly. ‘The secret just stood no chance. So it was safer to tell you when the nagging hit critical mass and before your detective project made the big playaz pay attention.’
Magda was serious. ‘I will be watching my back from now on, Caelin. Thank you for sharing.’
He snorted. ‘Yeah… thank me for potentially putting you on a hundred hit lists.’
‘Like they can get me. I’m the Fiery Ruby!’ Magda pretended to shiver like before a transformation.
‘Hey, hey, all right, stop! I get it! But be careful, OK, baby?’
‘Careful is my second name. You wanna lecture a whoremonger about security? Bah! Humbug!’
Magda smiled to her memories as she examined the line of her buttocks in the mirror. She’d go visit Caelin before supper – and stay till late, of course. She would regale Caelin with new whore stories, they would pop open some pink Crystal, pelt Violet with tongue-in-cheek jibes, and stay on the terrace till dawn… May nights were lovely in Valaya.
‘My lady, your bath is ready,’ came the maid’s voice from the door.
‘Sorina, I will need rosy paste today!’ she called. ‘I’m getting a bit Yeti-ish – epilation alert,’ she murmured to herself, placing her hand on her pubis.
It was perfect – a pleasantly plump, soft, smooth upturned trapeze. Once, a tattoo artist inked a little red butterfly there, capturing it mid-flutter. Magda ran her fingers over a short growth of hair, soft like duck down.
As always, her own touch aroused her. Mircha has just given her pleasure inside, but who said she couldn’t have pleasure outside on the same morning?
‘Yes, my lady. Anything else?’ asked Sorina.
Magda did not answer.
She knew her own body to perfection for the pleasure outside to be one of her favorite parts in the daily routine. She also knew Sorina, her sly Brownie body servant, usually stood in the doorway, watching her quietly, avidly, but she didn’t care.
Finally, her nerves throbbed with the sweetest of convulsions.
She arched her back very high, shuddered and fell limply on the mattress. Her exaggeratedly loud groan was the maid’s cue. Get lost and reappear later when the mistress calls your name.
The afterglow was glorious but short. Although wonderfully sated, Magda didn’t forget for a second she had a busy day ahead.
‘Sorina!’
‘Yes, my lady?’
‘Tell Zora to prepare the grey satin dress, the one with garnets, the anthracite mask, and pink garnet bracelets and earrings. Matching hat. Tell Riora I want a severe hairdo today.’
Violet will be furious when she sees me tonight, as usual, Magda thought, stretching. Her mood got even better. Then she got up and walked, still naked, to her bathing chamber.
***
If she didn’t count her spice and coffee trade, Magda could say Star Lovers brought her the lion’s share of her money. Before her, House Mayassee was a proud but impoverished family. Magda despised her forebears for that: instead of increasing the family fortune for the sake of future scions, her father and grandfather drank, gambled, and whored away almost all the family gold.
She started her “business” after she had visited Earth circa Now and had learned about the Earthling’s attitude to sex. Transarcane, with its women worshipping Astreya, the goddess of purity, was a bonanza market for prostitution.
Magda was set on restoring her family’s fortune. As for tarnishing the family name – a Dragon lady in trade! Outrageous! Like a common Leprechaun merchant! – she didn’t care. House Mayassee had enough idiots who preferred to be “poor but pure” and abide by the laws of their caste. They could afford a black sheep.
When the gold started flooding in, the first thing she did was cover the debts of the entire House. She also gave everyone allowances and in exchange made her father sign the edict proclaiming her chatelaine of Castle Mayassee and treasurer of the House. The black sheep became a secret hero to the House – but she didn’t need their appreciation.
All she needed was for them to understand that family needs come before personal desires, but that was probably too much to ask. ‘Futility’, she repeated, sighing, Caelin’s favorite word every time she came for her weekly visit to Castle Mayassee. Typical end-of-week picture: her father drunk; her mother on her knees before Astreya’s altar; her younger brother in bed with his Earthling concubine; her cousins playing “catch the Amazon” and smoking dreamgrass – all at noon, mind you.
Magda usually fell upon the men like a holy terror, then shed a tear or two standing in the temple doorway, not daring to interrupt her mother’s prayers, not even with a “hello”. Then a quick cup of cinnamon-sprinkled milk with lovely Adriane the concubine, one of her “employees”, then heading home feeling both pissed and sad.
To the Transarcaner men, the Demon Lady – Magda’s whoremonger alias – was more than a hero. Proud Dragon lords with jewel eyes and hot skin, haughty Elves – the magnificent representatives of the Artists, tired preoccupied healers of the Greenmen caste, conceited artful Pixie barristers… Even a Brownie servant or a Gnome miner who could afford an hour with a beauty – all of them thanked the gods for the Star Lovers… not that they knew who their owner was. Magda went masked every time she did “business” or “pleasure”. That is, practically her entire life.
And her girls were beauties indeed! One curvier than the other! Breasts, arms, thighs – mounds of delicious flesh! Hair lush, specifically grown out to reach waists – or what passed for waists. Buttocks so cratered by cellulite they looked like the surface of the Moon. Small pouty mouths – Magda taught her girls makeup tricks to make the lips look smaller; big, slightly bulging eyes – “just pretend you’re looking at a mouse, honey”. Plus a healthy glow and flawless skin they usually acquired after a year in Transarcane, far away from junk food and polluted air. Perfect. A Rubens daydream.
With Elves, it was more complicated. To them, an average Vogue cover girl looked, well, average. So, for their segment, Magda had a different approach.
The policy for recruiting Rebel Wilson lookalikes was “come to the dark side, we have cookies” and “I represent Star Lovers where we think curvy is the new hot”. With fit slim Mila Kunis doppelgangers, it was different: “Would you like to work as an escort in a secluded exclusive establishment? No intimacy – unless you want it. 1-year contract, but you can walk away any time – no breach of contract clauses, no penalties. Medieval castle, lovely scenery, dah-dah, you get your own suite, full board – all-organic, blah-blah, gym, SPA, heated pool, yap-yap, first orientation visit to a party, no strings attached, yak-yak, see what the patrons are like, see how our personnel entertains them, some geisha bullshit – yadda-yadda, you’re an entertainer, not a hooker, nah-nah, you choose the escortee to your liking – you’re NOT being chosen, yakkity-yakkity…’ Done.
Magda did the scouting or, as Caelin called it, “cunthunting”, strictly on Earth. Transarcane women would burn her manor down with her inside if they heard of her “job description”, Dragon or no Dragon. The very few who sold their bodies were those who did not care for Astreya the goddess of purity and did not want an honest job. Anyway, the Earthling girls sure had aces in their holes – all of their holes, Caelin would pun – they knew how to give a man a real good time.
Magda did not lie about “choose, not being chosen”. The partners’ choosing based on a bidding system, only the girls were the ones to choose the men. If no one wanted some poor guy, the Madame sent him off with wine and excuses, and referred him to a downmarket Star Lovers where he could be chosen for sure and have the girl for free, too. Magda, with tongue in cheek, named her affordable segment “Free Love”.
There never was a case of sending back the girl. They were all gorgeous – by local standards, of course. If some spoiled Dragon lordling whined that he wanted a brunette not a blonde, tan rather than white-skinned, and that his favorite eye color was “turquoise, but more azure than aquamarine, with little golden dots”, then body makeup, contacts, and wigs did the trick in minutes.
Magda also had a strict “no virgins” policy – “if he wants to break walls with his ramrod, he can go and get himself a wife. Any Transarcaner girl will make a hell of a fortress.”
‘I will lecture my little romantic fool of a “girlfriend” on international trade for when she takes the throne,’ Magda thought, gesturing for more hot water. ‘Hell, why does Ileana call me her girlfriend? And clings to me every time I go to the court? Hell, I’m just a lady-in-waiting, not her BF-fucking-F. Although I can’t help but love the little fool, that’s a fact. I wish I could teach her everything a young girl on the verge of Passage should know. Queen Mantis probably only teaches her prayers to Astreya. And drills her on lifting her nightgown hem strictly to her bellybutton and not an inch higher. Caelin could do some good here, but he is not an idiot – he won’t try his Awakening tricks on the heir of the dynasty…’
Magda had no idea how close to the truth her thoughts were. She was thinking about the inspection as her servants depilated and rinsed her, toweled her dry and dressed her. The gown – pearl-gray silk trimmed with thin strips of light grey lace; hem, sleeves, and bodice adorned with Delroth embroidery – looked exquisite yet modest and very businesslike, she thought. Pale pink garnets – a delicate accent of color – were glittering on her dress and tiny hat; garnet bracelets and earrings completed the ensemble. Her anthracite-gray garnet-adorned Venetian lace mask was a masterpiece.
She shook her head tentatively. The red tresses were braided, artfully escaping here and there out of their silvery net. Her lipstick tone matched the garnets.
She lifted her left hand and admired it for a while. A huge gold-mounted blood-red ruby – the House stone and the sign of her genome – glowed like a hot coal on her middle finger.
“Family First, Pleasures Later” she recited the House motto.
Then she looked at her reflection and smiled a small Mona Lisa-esque smile. In the slits of her mask, her eyes glittered with amusement at her own narcissism, the topaz irises even brighter on the almost black backdrop.
The tycoon was ready to leave the manor.
‘Sorina! My carriage!’
The Fiery Ruby would not fly today. They awaited her in the capital, and that was not far enough to bother transforming.
Actually, the girls could see the royal castle and Princess Ileana’s tower from the eastern windows. Almost every morning, those who were not entertaining gathered on Crissie’s terrace to watch the Starry Sapphire fly.
It was unforgettable, they said.
Today, Magda would watch her little princess friend fly, too.
***
Hours later, Magda was getting ready to pass through the portal. She knew where to go relax on a Thursday. The party at Daphne’s apartment is probably firing on all cylinders now…
Magda studied attentively her stunning reflection.
‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the coolest of them all,’ she cooed, applying golden glitter to her eyelids. The color matched her bright irises perfectly.
The dress from Valentino’s new collection displayed her body to perfection. Dark grey flower appliqués were strategically placed to hide random spots on her body, including her “secret” parts. Otherwise, the dress was see-through. The knee-long bell skirt danced tantalizingly around her thighs.
She completed the ensemble by a heavy gold necklace, metallic gold stilettos and a vintage metallic gold purse. Her Venetian golden lace mask was decorated with feathers.
She looked at herself again. Mission accomplished.
She was the prettiest of them all.
As usual, she lifted her left hand and looked and the blood-red ruby.
“Family First, Pleasures Later,’ she said quietly. “Later” is now.’
She went to her study, lit a candle, and set the portal for Earth circa Now. Seconds later, the frame shone a ghostly blue. She blew the candle and stepped through the portal.
By dawn, she was stark naked, her fiery hair in artful disarray, reclining on a stack of pillows in front of a French window opening to bright city lights. If she opened her eyes a little, she could see the Seattle Space Needle through the slits of her mask.
Instead, she concentrated on pouring champagne over her body and sprinkling the wet areas with snowy white powder. She noticed a pretty dark-haired girl watching her. Magda beckoned her with her finger.
Soon, she could feel the brunette’s tongue flicking expertly around her points of pleasure, and she lazily moved her hips in unison. True pleasure-receiving…
As for pleasure-giving, she didn’t care for that. She didn’t do for free what her girls did for a living. Unless she wanted to, of course, but she didn’t bite and lick and touch other bodies to please them. Her goal was to please herself with those actions, and what was pleasure without sinking your nails or teeth in someone’s flesh?
You can take a girl out of Dragon Academy…
Yet now, she only wanted to lie down and enjoy herself. The white powder never got to take her high – boiling dragon blood burned it almost immediately, but she enjoyed watching her partner sniff and lick the white sprinkles off her body as her caresses got more and more intense.
The dark-haired girl was good with her mouth, if a bit too enthusiastic and eager to please, she noted.
‘Even now, I am working. Analyzing quality,’ Magda thought and laughed softly. Her body shook lightly, and the girl looked up.
‘Continue, my sweet.’ The girl smiled. Her eyes were dim. No wonder – the champagne and white powder mix covered Magda’s body in thick layers.
‘In fact… now I want you to bite lightly. I’m close…’
When she cried and arched her back, her partner disappeared almost instantly, swept away by two men who were watching the scene all that time. Magda did not mind. All she wanted was to lie down, nipples glistening, thighs apart for everyone to see, in the best afterglow she had in weeks.
Then she noticed a young red-haired man next to the French window. He was looking at her with some kind of wistful sorrow.
She beckoned him with a languid gesture. ‘What’s your name?’
He swallowed. ‘Adam.’
He approached. Close up, she noticed he was gorgeous: tall, broad-shouldered, face young and shining with anticipation.
‘Well, Adam,’ she purred. ‘I want you to stroke my hair and kiss my collarbone right now. And in half an hour,’ she stretched luxuriously, displaying her amazing body, ‘I will show you a sky full of stars.’
It was Caelin’s adage, she thought. The young man also had red hair – almost like Caelin’s auburn locks.
As Adam bent down to kiss her collarbone, she remembered she forgot about visiting Castle Aldem that night. That put her off slightly.
But she’d forget about it in half an hour, she was sure.
In fact, she already did when she saw Adam pull out a small bottle with some peach-colored cream inside.
‘What is that?’ asked Magda curiously.
‘Magic cream,’ he whispered, and squeezed a little on his palm. ‘Wanna try it?’
‘What does it do?’
‘Makes you feel like you walk through fire.’
She was too dizzy with the recent pleasures, too languorous to process information. Otherwise, she would notice the familiar turn of speech.
As Adam started rubbing her body, massaging sweet-smelling cream into her skin, she forgot her own name. He rubbed, and she cried out. He turned her on her stomach and rubbed her all over, making her skin feel like one giant point of pleasure… then he took her from behind, and she moaned, and cried, and yelled… until stars exploded inside her and she fainted.
He gave a short grunt, too, as he climaxed. Then he turned his unconscious partner on her back, and lifted the corner of her mask gingerly.
For a moment, he looked stunned. Then he nodded, smirking, as if confirming a supposition. He rummaged in his trousers pocket, took out his smartphone, and clicked a couple of times, focusing on the red butterfly tattoo frozen mid-flutter on her smooth mound.
Then he got up, put his clothes back on, and left.
The half-empty bottle with the magic cream remained on the rug next to Magda.
The label read, ‘AddictTM. Aphrodisiac cream. Do not exceed the recommended dose.’
If Magda paid attention that night, she would notice the peculiar turn of phrase – walk through fire – and a large yellow diamond on Adam’s left middle finger.

Word IV. Marika / Lermori / Frozen Emerald
[Memories] drop with gentle patter
On the pavement of the soul
As does wax before God's altar
From the sacred candles roll.
Eminescu, “Solitude”
Queen Marika’s genome lacked the boiling blood segment. That is why her family – House Lermori – had the motto “Our Heads are Cool”.
When in Dragon form, the Emeralds are not as hot as their peers from other Houses. When human, Lermori are easy to recognize by their acid-green eyes and icy, penetrating stares.
Queen Marika was a perfect representative of her House’s genome.
When Queen Mantis passed through her portal to ECN, she became society hag Maris Heron. She was officially the widow of one William Heron, and when asked – ‘Of the London Herons?’ at a sort of party her daughter called “snooty”’ – she would throw her fine head back a little, fix the inquirer with those acid-green eyes, and reply with icy politeness, ‘That tie is exquisite, sir’ or ‘I love your dress, madam.’ After shutting up a couple of naggers, the Queen acquired the reputation of immigrant royalty. This was so spot on she could laugh. If her Majesty had a sense of humor, that is.
Not that her Majesty was unable to laugh at all, like in the days of her youth, when she was only Lady Marika of House Lermori. Why, when she danced at her Passage ball, ages and ages ago, her eyes were more like spring grass, her hair more gold than silver; she laughed every time a knight complimented her gown, and her smile was immortalized by so many Elf artists she lost count. Yet after marrying a king dubbed Bloodlust and burying nine children, one somehow loses the ability to appreciate jokes.
The marriage could be worse, though. Vlad came over every morning to kiss her hand and inquired politely about her health. Once a month he came to her bed diligently – Her Majesty was in the prime of her life although could not conceive any more. Tradition.
Traditions, traditions… they were like a bejewelled alarm net around her. Touch anything too forcefully, and the entire system is perturbed. In both her worlds – the royal palace and her circle of high-society New York friends. The Queen was used to it now. She could not imagine life outside the bejewelled net.
When she was young, beautiful, and carefree, and a prince’s fiancée, she thought that the world was hers. She pulled at the bejewelled net just for fun. Yet who remembered those days of yore! When one lives in the land of long life, one’s memory works differently. One has too little room in their mind to care for such unimportant things like the antics of a highborn maiden.
Queen Marika was relieving all those memories with as she watched her gem of a daughter approach seventeen… and do exactly the same thing. The Queen was horrified. Ileana was even more free-spirited than Marika once was, and the Queen knew her potential fiancés were all highly unlikely to tolerate that kind of behavior.
As the Demon Lady’s brothels spread all over the country, sowing filth and depravity, the Astreya cult became strong as never before, and these things resonated in the bedchambers of the realm in the first place. Almost all local women worshipped Astreya the White Goddess, and those who worked at the “covens”… well, rumour was they were demons, too.
They could change appearance, skin tone, eye color at will! No respectable white witch of the Zynebune caste would begin to imagine such things. No dark Vrajatori warlock would be able to do it. The outlaw blood mages were rare… King Bloodlust’s father exterminated almost all of them, and good riddance. There was no way in this world women could do what the dwellers of Demon Lady’s establishments did.
They talked in a strange barking language among themselves, and the people’s tongues – Valayan, Seadunni, Om’Kim… they didn’t speak them or chirped in accents so exotic the patrons could hardly understand them. Well, Demon Lady did not bring those denizens of hell to talk to our men, Zamolxis forgive my mouth, the Queen usually said. This was her way to change the subject at feasts every time the topic came out – that is, at every feast the King threw of late.
The demon women laughed aloud – shame! They smoked dreamgrass – sacrilege! They showed their hair in broad daylight – oh Astreya! No respectable woman will ever show her hair or her neckline before sunset!
These were the little rumours respectable women could get from male conversations they overheard. Secretly, they yearned for more information – the racy aroma of the forbidden was irresistible after so much blandness. Yet their taboos were strong. Their faith even stronger.
The Queen heard rumours of a Brownie preacher whose ardent sermons in the “Burn down the covens” key gathered many daughters of Astreya in town and village squares – in broad daylight, too, when any normal Transarcane should be working. She caused quite an upheaval, and then disappeared – quite bizarrely.
If the Queen spent more time watching thrillers and walking the streets of Brooklyn, she would start suspecting something – anything. Yet she remained a highborn Dragon lady of Valaya and a daughter of Astreya in both worlds. Her Majesty had no idea someone could physically liquidate someone else just for a bit of well-deserved defamation.
Also, Queen Marika secretly believed the brothels did good to their society. Now that men had a public sewer to spill their lust into, the good women of Valaya – and other domains, as far as her Majesty knew – led happier lives. Less infant deaths, less children per household, less domestic disputes along the lines “I need to get some but Astreya forbids – go to the temple and light a candle to Astreya, you filthy animal”. Many of them were happy to get rid of their husbands’ advances – mostly those who were not Awoken in their Passage year by Flier dreams.
Her Majesty’s own Awakener never came. Well, she didn’t expect one anyway. Word was, the Flier almost never haunted the dreams of highborn maidens, because they were too pure for that. Queen Marika knew it wasn’t true – her fellow Dragon ladies usually shared their secrets with her, the female leader of the Dragon gene pool. Many of them told her, giggling affectedly, that in their Passage year, they dreamed of a dark-haired prince who flew into their chamber windows and taught them walks through fire
Queen Marika envied them secretly. She was the royal heir’s fiancée, that was why the Flier didn’t risk it, she thought. Still, just in case, she’ll have to ask Ileana if she had any unusual dreams lately. After all, her Passage Day was in early June…
Queen Marika blinked, returning to reality. Reality was her bedchamber, cold and drafty, with a chamber pot under the bed and thin Seadune carpets on the floor. They were beautiful, but not warm. The Frosty Emerald did not care for the chill the other Dragons liked so much. The tapestries were lovely, though. Masterpieces of Delroth Elfins, who could work wonders with colored thread and a needle.
Reality was that she had King Bloodlust’s conjugal visits arranged for the time of the month when she was certain not to conceive. If this ever came out… Queen Mantis feared to think what her asshole husband… that is, His Royal Majesty would do. But then, what did these medieval oafs know about ovulation?
A soft knock interrupted her train of thought.
‘Come,’ said the Queen. She was sitting, as usual, close to the blazing fire, swathed in white furs and green velvets. An emerald-and-platinum coronet was sparkling in her silvery-gold hair.
A pretty Brownie servant entered.
‘Your Majesty, the Royal Jeweller is here. He brought the gift set for the Princess.’
The Queen nodded. The servant darted out and returned, accompanied by a tall fair Elf.
‘Your Lightness,’ he bowed gracefully. His voice was quiet and silvery; his lips were forming a pleasant smile. Yet it didn’t touch his eyes – cold chips of flint.
‘Greetings, Quaniel,’ the Queen said evenly.
‘Princess Ileana’s Passage gift,’ murmured Quaniel, handing the servant girl a large black velvet box.
The Queen gestured for her to open it, and let out an involuntary sigh as the Brownie girl lifted the lid. White, blue, and starry sapphires mounted in platinum formed dazzling patterns of color and sparkle in the dim light.
‘Light a few candles,’ she ordered. Another Brownie girl obeyed.
The set was fairy tale come alive. The Queen contemplated for a while the intricate floral patterns the white and blue sapphires formed around the starry stones.
‘You are as always exceeding my expectations, Quaniel,’ said the Queen reservedly.
He understood it was extravagant praise.
‘I am happy to serve Her Majesty and the dynasty of Valaya.’ The Elf’s voice was expressionless.
Queen Marika’s brows twitched slightly. Everybody knew Elves did not serve. They either stayed in their domain, on the shore of Delroth, twanging harp strings and writing nonsense on perfectly good parchment, or roamed the realm searching for inspiration – Zamolxis only knows what that was. Queen Mantis knew Quaniel could refuse the commission and walk away – under the Charter of Faeries, his kind had that right.
No wonder why they hate us most, the Elves, thought the Queen, admiring the gemstones. A proud people like them… they must hate to be second best to some flying lizards who can only drink and whore and gamble and plot intrigues.
Oh, the Elves would love to join the game of deception around a bunch of useless thrones, but the law was strict. Dragons are the ruling caste. The rest must set their lives around that fact.
The Queen knew the Royall Jeweller was also the Elves’ mole at the royal court, and she despised him for that if not for the haughtiness with which the Artist caste treated the others. Even the Dragon lords were not so haughty – partly because the ruling caste finally realised, after centuries of caste wars, that they were nothing more than the pyramid top. The apex that could not exist without the base.
Elves, though, looked down their nose at everyone who did not share their blood, their sharp ears, their complex, sometimes cruel natures, their talents… That was probably because all other Transarcaners had a dual nature – human and Faerie. The Elves were Elves and nothing more.
Well, not for the common folk. “Bloody non-shifters” was the mildest of insults. The Elves did not deign them any insulting names in return. Or maybe they did – in their own impenetrable language.
‘Thank you, Quaniel, that would be all.’
Oh, how she’d love to see that slim elegant neck in a noose… but a known spy was always preferable to an unknown one. Plus, his atelier’s jewellery was indeed superb.
‘Your Lightness…’ the Elf hesitated. Hatred now blazed almost openly in his eyes. She knew what his question was; he knew she was playing with him. But he already started speaking.
‘My request…’
The Queen nodded. ‘You will be issued a note of payment. Take it to House of Aldem. Lord Caelin will cover the expenses in the name of the ruling House of Valaya.’
The Elf looked down – to hide his eyes, she was sure.
‘Thank you, Your Lightness, but I meant my petition for an invitation to Princess Ileana’s Passage Ball…’
‘I am discussing this with my royal husband.’ She wasn’t even thinking about bothering Vlad with this.
‘I am assured our decision will meet your expectations’. The Queen put out her slender hand. A huge emerald mounted in platinum adorned her left middle finger.
“Our Heads Are Cold”.
The Elf bent down to press his lips to her hand. He walked three steps backwards, facing the motionless woman in the winged chair, then, finally, turned around and exited the Queen’s morning room.
***
The sun was almost touching the horizon, as the Queen received the last of her visitors for the day. The acid-green eyes looked paler. Queen Mantis was tired.
She longed to go to her secret study, program the portal for her house in Santa Monica, then take a swim in the heated pool under the stars, listen to some opera on her Hi Fi system, stretch her aching body on a lounge in the perfumed warm air…
She was too cold in her royal husband’s castle. Plus, the books she ordered on Amazon for her little gem, her Ileana, have probably arrived. The Queen made a mental note: she must not forget to cut out the copyright pages.
Queen Marika closed her eyes. A fleeting smile was dancing on her lips when she heard a high male voice.
‘Auntie! Aunt Marika!’
Her Majesty opened her eyes and frowned.
‘Eaon! What are you doing here? Dorina, what is going on?’
The Brownie servant was cowering by the door. ‘Your Majesty, I…’
The Queen frowned. It wasn’t the poor girl’s fault, of course, that Prince Eaon charged into her chambers like a rampaging bull.
‘It is all right, Dorina. You may go.’
Inwardly, Queen Mantis said a prayer, yet again, to Albeya, the goddess of motherhood, for letting Ileana and Robert live. If this oaf Eaon, a replica of his royal uncle, remained heir to Valaya throne, she was sure the kingdom would go to the dogs. For years, Eaon hung out at the royal court, challenging people to duels in Dragon form left, right, and center, drinking and whoring at the Star Lovers, and drooling over Ileana – not that he ever saw her live.
Eaon wouldn’t care if the princess looked like a Troll bridge watcher, though, thought the Queen, watching her husband’s stepsister’s son thump his butt onto a chair. He was a comely lad, of course, but just as fit for her daughter as… well, a Troll bridge watcher. The Queen in no case found the honorable worker castes worthy of disdain, but did not have any illusions about their looks.
Anyway, Transarcaners never married outside their castes – they were genetically incompatible and cross-marriages did not produce children. For us, it is not discrimination – it is biology, thought the Queen’s alter ego Maris Heron. Maybe that is why we are frozen in the Middle Ages, and our world produces more of such useless ignorant oafs in every generation. Maybe progress is not possible for us in principle, even if we didn’t suffer from the synthetic plague… but that was useless wishful thinking.
The real problem was in front of her, cleaning his nails with a bejewelled dagger and jabbering about seeing the Starry Sapphire fly this morning. His high voice was too much for the Queen’s fraying nerves.
‘… such bright blue and white, Auntie, I swear those were the prettiest scales I ever saw…’
‘Eaon,’ the Queen cut him off. ‘If you ever bully my servants again and enter my chambers without being announced, I shall have the court Vrajatori resident hit you with an Akme spell.’
Prince Eaon, for all his shortcomings, did not lack imagination. The mere picture of boils erupting in between scales was enough. He went quiet and murmured, ‘As you wish, Auntie… pray forgive me, your Majesty.’
The Queen sighed. She knew the threat would hold for two, three visits tops.
‘What do you want, Eaon?’
The prince went serious. ‘Your Majesty, I came to discuss my betrothal to Princess Ileana.’
The Queen feared this. As Ileana’s Passage came closer, Prince Eaon’s visits were becoming more and more frequent.
‘I told you, Eaon, Ileana is to marry at least a year after her Passage,’ she repeated patiently – for the hundredth time, she thought. ‘I understand that you, as late Lady Stephana’s son and heir, are the closest to the throne. But King Vlad is considering a dynastic union with another royal house of Transarcane.’
‘But I knew Ileana all my life! She would of course prefer me to a stranger!’ Eaon tried a new approach.
His resourcefulness impressed the Queen. She paused, reflecting on her answer while registering yet again that her nephew was not a bad-looking man. About to embrace mid-adulthood, he was slim and graceful, with the signature blue eyes of House Valaya. The short dark brown beard covered his lower face, hiding his chin, but the Queen knew a weak chin did not necessarily indicate a weak nature.
The Queen thought that all Eaon knew of Ileana was her Dragon form, and all she knew of him was his name… and general assholeness. Yet she knew that if she refuses Eaon point-blank now, he’d come nag her every single day till Ileana’s Passage ball, and maybe after.
She didn’t even want to think that he would dare invoke the ancient tradition and ask her hand in marriage during the Passage Ball… She’d kill him with his own bare hands, she thought, somewhere in between the vows and the bridal cake.
‘I did not think of that, Eaon,’ she pretended to admit. ‘I shall talk to my royal husband about it.’
Prince Eaon jumped off his chair in excitement. The Queen could understand the enthusiasm – every single Dragon lord in the realm probably coveted the role of Ileana’s consort.
She smiled cruelly, observing his joy. He was probably sure the marriage was in his pocket, the conceited fool – as soon as she mentioned Vlad. The king adored his stepsister, was inconsolable when she died, and Eaon, her only son, became his favorite nephew.
‘Yeah right. I will just smuggle her to Earth forever. Vlad has baby Robert. Let his son take the throne,’ thought the Queen.
The Queen planned to introduce her daughter to her second world anyway, right after her Passage. She’d like her gem girl achieve her potential on Earth circa Now. She could become a high-profile artist or politician, but unfortunately, Ileana was not too good with brush and colors, her singing voice was pleasant but not out of the ordinary, and the political games she learned at her royal father’s knee were relevant for the medieval Valaya, not the White House in the 2010s.
Were those games really so different, thought the Queen, pretending to listen to Eaon’s compliments addressed to Ileana and herself. Her nephew would make an excellent lobbyist, for example. As for Ileana… she will of course travel to Earth for fun, but her place was here, near the throne of Valaya… and in some two hundred years, when King Bloodless will be called Beyond the Edge, Ileana would become Queen.
She will be by then a woman in the prime of her life, married and with as many surviving infants as Albeya, bless Her name, would allow… and Robert can always marry into some good House… in the Freehold, maybe.
The Queen thought of her son with remorse. She should go visit him tonight. She loved her son just as dearly as she loved her daughter, but did not dedicate him as much time as she should. Robert was a child; Ileana almost a grown-up. She had a brilliant mind that soaked up knowledge hungrily. Her father’s quick and logical mind combined with her mother’s slightly caustic sense of humor made Ileana a brilliant conversationalist. Pity no one will appreciate it.
‘… your Majesty? Your Majesty?’
The Queen winced, blinked and pressed her hand to her eyes.
‘Forgive me, Eaon. I am listening, of course, but I also was thinking about how to present your plea in the best light to His Majesty.’
Eaon’s face shone. ‘I shall leave you to your thoughts, Your Majesty.’
He bowed to kiss the emerald genome ring on her gracefully protracted hand.
‘Stupid oaf,’ she thought as she watched him make the three ceremonial backward steps, then turn and leave.
If she could hear Eaon’s thoughts, she would not be surprised – she knew there was no love lost between them. She would surely frown at the language – “fucking old she-spider” was definitely an eyebrow-lifter.
But if Queen Mantis heard that “as soon as I marry the girl and get rid of the king, you will be out of the castle and back to your barren Lermori salt-marshes faster than you can say “throne”, she would think twice before discarding Prince Eaon as an insignificant player.
Yes, after long years of unchallenged ruling one tends to lose vigilance and start underestimating one’s opponents. Which, of course, is the opponents’ cue to start plotting new ways to grab power.
If Queen Marika also knew that the Royal Jeweller and the royal nephew met in the castle corridors that day, and had a long talk, she would definitely read something into that. But when one of her little birds came to tell her about it, Queen Marika was no more.
She was Maris Heron, and she was bidding for an exquisite XVIII-century Persian praying rug at a silent auction in Boston.
‘Oh my, if the dealer prayed on this rug for the kind of bid I am making, this thing certainly works,’ she joked, green eyes sparkling, as she offered her Montblanc pen to the man who was standing next to her, waiting to make his bid. He smiled at her and took the pen.
Maris liked his wide smile, his silver hair, his intelligent eyes. She smiled back and adjusted her hair, displaying a slender wrist and a pearl bracelet. Maris did not care for emeralds. She enjoyed wearing pearls in public. In Transarcane, Queen Marika wouldn’t even begin to think about wearing pearls. Pearls were for maidens, tradition decreed.
Queen Marika would also never dream about wearing knee-long dresses or sleep with men outside wedlock. Maris Heron wore even shorter dresses and could give the Merry Widow a run for her money.
To put it short, Maris was so different from Marika any psychiatrist would diagnose the woman hosting these two aliases with severe multiple personality disorder.
The man gave a short laugh before accepting the pen.
‘If I ask you to have dinner with me and you say “no”, I will surely be praying for you to call me’, he replied, signing the bid sheet and reaching into his pocket for a visit card.
Maris accepted it. “Richard Bronson”, she read. Aha.
‘I think that will not be possible’, she purred.
His left eyebrow moved up an inch. ‘Sorry. I assumed you were unattached.’
‘I am unattached. I only meant that, yes, I’d like to have dinner with you, so there’s no need to pray for it.’
‘Oh.’
‘And you’re not getting the rug anyway. My pen, please.’
She winked and doubled his last bet. He laughed so loudly some people stared.
‘Do you like Provence cuisine?’ he asked, when he was done laughing.
‘Love it. Let’s go.’
‘What, now?’ She could see he liked her more and more.
‘Why not? Unless you want to keep on bidding?’ She played with her pearl necklace a little.
‘No, but it’s early afternoon…’
‘Then let’s take your jet – I heard you had one – and fly to Provence. I bet it’s dinner time there.’ Maris smiled, turned, and walked away. She could hear him chuckling as he followed her to the cloakroom.
***
Meanwhile, the little bird was waiting for Her Majesty to come out of her private chamber, but evidently, the Queen decided she needed an early night. The little Brownie girl decided she’d tell the Queen about Quaniel and Eaon’s meeting on the morrow.
Next day, a carriage ran over the little Brownie girl as she was standing on the cobbled alley, watching the Starry Sapphire fly. The servant survived, the palace Greenmen healers took good care of her, yet by the time the little Brownie girl came around, her news were irrelevant… in a manner of speaking.
Word V. Ileana / Valaya / Starry Sapphire

Once on a time, as poets sing
High tales with fancy laden
Born of a very noble king
There lived a wondrous maiden.
Eminescu, “Lucifer”
Ileana was crouching beneath the mezzanine bannister, watching her royal father drink deeply from his goblet, then pinch the large dark-skinned girl seated in his lap. Weird, Ileana thought. That must be a demon girl. No Transarcaner could have skin like that: Valayans and Delrothi Elves were fair, the Seadunni were coal-black. This demon girl was neither. Her skin was the color of chocolate.
The princess knew what chocolate was. Her friend Magda sold the stuff for gold on the Valaya marketplace, claiming it was brewed by her house whitewitch, but Ileana knew the truth. In the magical city of Ellay, where her royal mother would take her after her Passage, the stuff cost pennies.
The chocolate-skinned girl giggled hysterically, wriggling in the king’s lap. The king drained his goblet, called for more lava wine, then started booming a song. A disdainful grimace curved the princess’ pouty mouth.
Well, no wonder. Her royal mother and Magda told her all men were like that, no matter what their caste or social standing was. The legendary Earthlings, of whom she read so much in those wonderful books her mother brought her, were pretty much the same.
Ileana was burning with impatience. Soon, soon… her Passage ball is on the morrow, and after that, Mother promised she would take her to Earth circa Now. The ball per se presented only a mild interest for Ileana. She has seen all the court balls from the mezzanine, and they were all boring… Yes, the ladies’ dresses and jewellery were pretty, but Ileana did not care for bling.
‘I don’t care for bling,’ she repeated the Earthling word with relish under her breath.
Well, what normal princess did, she asked herself as she watched the men in the dining hall, peeking through the bannisters surrounding the mezzanine. The women’s parties were even more boring – they sat in a circle and talked about children and their bowel movement. Ick.
She almost said it aloud – ick! – when she saw a man walk wobbling to a corner, lay down on a log and expel the contents of his stomach into a large tub. She knew that was the feast log, a necessary feature at any dinner, from the royal palace to a Leprechaun greengrocer’s humble home.
The peeking at the feasts became more interesting after the king permitted to bring Demon Lady’s girls to the palace to liven up the revels. Presently, Ileana was watching her cousin Eaon shove his hand down a beautiful dark-haired girl’s bodice. Her breasts were so big his hand looked tiny on their backdrop. Ileana grimaced and blew a quiet delicate raspberry. Yuck! And this is the man father considers as one of the candidates for her consort? Disgraceful!
Of course, Mother told her, with many metaphors and euphemisms, what is going on between man and wife in the bedroom, but this was the king’s feast and those girls were no wives. Pray, what sane woman will behave in such manner!
She took her eyes off his cousin and the dark-haired demon girl, and gazed at other guests. Her eyes stopped on an auburn-haired lord who did not have a girl in his lap. He was staring into his goblet, neither eating, nor drinking. His face was inscrutable, yet Ileana could tell he was bored and wanted this party to be over as soon as possible. Well, no wonder.
She narrowed her eyes to focus on the auburn-haired lord’s face. He was handsome, she decided. This must be how Mr. Darcy looked in her favorite book. Or Rhett Butler. Ugh, no. Ileana always thought it was stupid of Scarlett to stop chasing Ashley and not to take the chance to divorce Rhett.
If the Queen knew how her daughter would react to Gone with the Wind, Her Majesty would think twice before bringing the book through the portal. Yet what was done was done.
Ileana continued watching the auburn-haired lord. He should lose the beard, she decided. Also, she was curious – what did his eyes look like?
As soon as she thought that, he looked up and stared directly at her. She knew the banisters hid her and all he could possibly see was a shadow in white. Yet she recoiled. The white dress must have given her away. These accursed maiden robes! After my passage, I’ll never ever wear white or pink again!
‘Princess!’ She heard a loud whisper. ‘There you are!’
Sorcha, her handmaiden, curtsied in front of her, panting. The Brownie girl was pretty, Ileana thought, but her caste just did not produce real beauties, like those demon girls entertaining her royal father and his men down in the feast hall. Well, she wasn’t the one to talk – she was no beauty herself. Even though the Queen, her mother, tried to convince her that she was lovely and she’d only have to wait and see how pretty Earthling men would find her.
It’s all about standards, her royal mother liked to say. Ileana was not sure she understood.
‘Sorcha! Shh!’ said Ileana, moving to look through the bannisters again. She looked down again, but the handsome lord was gone.
Ileana’s eyes darted around the feast hall, looking for him. Then, Sorcha whispered loudly, panicking, ‘My princess! Somebody’s coming!’
Ileana was not one to run and hide from anyone. Her royal father was still downstairs. At this time of the night, her mother usually retreated to her secret chamber where, Ileana knew, was the doorway to the wonderful land of Ellay. They were, in fact, the only people who could control The Starry Sapphire… barely, they should admit. If the Princess and heir to the throne of Valaya wanted something, she usually got it.
There was a single thing Ileana’s wish could not overcome. Traditions.
So, she followed them, grumbling and throwing tantrums, dreaming of the day when she will be Queen and change all these stupid rules. She would make Valaya just like Earth, with parliamentary monarchy and international trade and voting. She would also show those snooty Elves their place, and make Delroth a reservation. She will permit young girls to get out in human form, not rot in their chambers until the Passage, going out only in Faerie form. Ileana was lucky – she was a brilliantly blue-and-white Dragon, the Starry Sapphire. As she was emerging for her daily fly, people were gathering in huge crowds to admire her. But what about those poor Pixie or Troll girls? It’s not easy to enjoy your walk when people flinch at the mere sight of you.
Oh, she had an entire list of things to do after she’d become Queen. She was eager to start trying all these things in Kellye-Samaugh, the “toy kingdom” allotted to the heir as one of the Passage gifts, where he or she could learn the arts of ruling until their predecessor died or was Called beyond the Edge.
Ileana sighed. Not that she didn’t love her father, but he was as robust and healthy as kings came… and by the time she’s Queen she’ll be ooooold. Like, real old. Two hundred, or even more.
She watched the tall figure approach. She shrugged – it was his eyes the king would have burned out with a red-hot branding iron for looking at his princess in human form before she came of age. If he took the risk to wander around her castle, hoping to see her… well, it was downright stupid on the eve of her Passage ball.
She waited calmly as the man walked towards her, his steps almost inaudible on the gallery malachite-paved floor. Sorcha was beside her, trembling from head to foot. The princess, however, stood proud and straight. Her strawberry-blonde hair under her pearl coronet was shining gold, silver, and red in the torchlight. Her blue eyes were slightly narrowed.
The man, however, had his eyes covered by his palm. Ileana sighed. It was the auburn-haired lord whose eyes she did not see. She couldn’t say she was disappointed – she certainly was glad he was not an idiot to look at her, but she had hoped to see his eyes.
‘Forgive me, my lady, I seem to have lost my way,’ he said quietly, then turned and walked away quickly.
Ileana stood and watched him disappear, feeling stupid. He did the right thing – covered his eyes and walked away the moment he realized who she was. She did the right thing – did not utter a word. Why was she so… unsatisfied?
She’d look him up on the morrow at the ball, she decided.
‘Sorcha! Come!’
‘Oh, princess, Her Majesty… if she finds out…’
‘You’re not going to tell, are you?’ Ileana asked, chuckling. The Brownie girl giggled, too.
‘What, do you think I’m totally nuts?’ The maid repeated the Earthling words carefully, then giggled again. ‘You know there’s a pair of eyes in every tapestry here, my lady. We should go. Your Passage is tomorrow – you need to rest.’
Ileana nodded and, deep in thought, led the way to her tower. Sorcha followed. Only the princess’ perfume lingered in the gallery. Pink peony, white rose.
She thought she’d ask Mother to add a note of honeysuckle to her adult perfume.
She didn’t know why she wanted honeysuckle.
If she knew what the auburn-haired lord was thinking, the coincidence would surprise her. ‘This peony-rose fragrance is juvenile. For girls… and the princess is obviously a young woman.’
With the woman part, Ileana would agree.
The part about eyes in tapestries was right, too.
Ileana never suspected how many people spied on her, in how many schemes she was a central figure. Yet only one person would find out about this brief encounter on the mezzanine surrounding the king’s banquet hall – it was his page hiding beyond a jade column, while he himself was busy pinching the dark-haired demon girl’s nipples at the king’s banquet table.
***
‘All hail Ileana Kasimira Rhi Dorna of House Valaya, heir of Valaya Domain, Seadune Qalifate, Shore of Delroth, Duchy of Omekim, Nalarnyse Freehold, Princess of Valaya and adjacent lands, Queen of Kellye-Samaugh, Adornment of the Realm…’
By the time the herald reached the middle of her title, Ileana was feeling a terrible urge to roll her eyes. She knew she couldn’t. First, it was the first time in her life when she was wearing make-up, and she was afraid her eyelashes would leave black smears under her eyebrows. Second, she was no longer a child. The antics and high jinks of her teen years were in the past. She was officially an adult now.
‘Hail the Princess! Long live the Princess!’ the hall echoed. Ileana looked around and blinked – it was a rainbow of expensive fabrics, fabulous jewels, and artfully painted faces.
The entire Dragon gene pool was there.
Here and there, she could also see Elves and Faeries from other castes. She caught the eye of her physician, Vannah, an elder of the Greenmen case. He winked and whispered, ‘Courage!’
She nodded, and forced herself to press her lips into a confident if fake half-smile.
For some reason, she did not feel any particular joy or elation. All she felt was anxiety. ‘The eyes of the realm will be now fixed on me,’ she realized. This made her hold herself with a graveness and seriousness unusual for a young girl between Passage and wedding.
She also realized there was no way to guess for how long her marriageable years would last. Her father could give her away on the morrow, for all she knew.
As soon as the herald shut up, Ileana sank into a deep bow in front of her father. She flicked the train of her royal-blue dress, covered in darker blue swirls of Delroth embroidery, and it fell around her knees in elegant waves.
King Vlad VI, a huge red-bearded ruddy-faced man, normally loud and boisterous, was quiet and solemn. Ileana looked up and, to her surprise, saw his eyes glistening with tears.
‘Raise, my lady,’ he said hoarsely. ‘You have Passed. Congratulations, daughter mine.’
He got off his throne, panting, kissed her cheek, then nodded to the Queen.
Her mother was crying openly but quietly, tears streaming over her narrow face as she started adorning Ileana with jewellery. Small starry sapphires, surrounded by white diamonds, went into her freshly pierced ears. The coronet – a delicate confection of starry, blue, and white sapphires arranged in floral patterns, fit easily into her hair styled into intricate whirls and braids. Platinum bracelets with the same stones followed. She bowed her head slightly so that the Queen could fasten her necklace – a simple chain of tiny blue sapphires and white diamonds set in platinum. A huge starry sapphire was dangling on the chain. Finally, Her Majesty slipped the genome ring – Ileana’s birthstone mounted on a simple platinum setting – onto her left middle finger.
‘You look beautiful, my gem girl,’ the Queen whispered, only for her daughter to hear.
‘Thank you, Mother,’ Ileana whispered back.
She turned to face the crowd. Faces, eyes, gemstones and dresses danced before her eyes. The cream of Transarcaner. She felt queasy.
The heck I will show them I’m afraid!
She lifted her chin and walked through the parting crowd to accept the scepter and the orb of Kellye-Samaugh from Zamolxis’ High Priest, a thin malicious-looking bald old man robed in scarlet, black eyes burning, who was waiting for her by the altar at the opposite end of the hall.
‘May the Almighty lead thee on thy path,’ he proclaimed in a booming voice.
‘May the Almighty hear thy prayer,’ she gave the ritual answer sonorously and walked back to sit on a gilded chair next to her father’s throne.
‘All kneel before the Queen of Kellye-Samaugh!’ yelled the herald.
Silks and satins rustled, some was sighing, someone was huffing with the effort…
She felt like closing her eyes and starting shrieking. She never thought the gazes of so many people – men included! – could be so… disturbing.
Yet she sat still, wide blue eyes fixed on a spot on the ceiling, mouth pressed into a cold half-smile, chin jutted upwards. The scepter and orb felt cold in her hands.
She was Queen Ileana now.
Everybody will call me Your Fairness to my face and the Young Queen behind my back. Or will nickname me. They’ll call me “Praying Mantis”, like they call Mother. Or worse.
She felt another herald lift the regal symbols from her hands. It was her cue.
Ileana rose gracefully, descended from the dais to the hall again, and put out her left hand. Dragon lord after dragon lord approached to kiss her starry sapphire genome ring. Their ladies followed, then the rest of the guests. By the time they were done, the young Queen’s feet were aching, pinched by the high-heeled slippers – she never wore high heels before – and she presumed her beautiful genome ring was covered in slobber.
After that, she walked back to sit on her chair and exhaled. The stupidest “official” part of the ceremony was over. Ileana looked to the left at her royal father. He rose to his feet, shifted his huge body on his oak-trunk-like legs and boomed: ‘Let the revels begin!’
Then His Majesty turned to his only daughter and said loudly, ‘My lady daughter, can I have the first dance?’

***

‘Father?’
‘Yes, my dove?’
Her father was so huge, the top of her hairstyle barely reached his chin. She looked up. The king was no longer teary – his face was ruddy and shining with pride, as he led her slowly in dance. He moved like a bear. She felt stupid, trying to follow his moves in the dance.
‘Do you think I will be a good queen? A good ruler, I mean?’
‘We are assured you shall, my dove,’ King Bloodlust replied. ‘You are clever like us and resourceful like Her Lightness, your royal mother. Do you truly believe we do not know about your hiding place on our banquet hall mezzanine?’
She gasped. ‘Oh no… So…’, she continued, looking at her father’s jovial face and grin hiding in his bristling black beard, ‘you are not going to send me to an Astreya monastery for penance?’
‘What in the three hells for?’ wondered the king.
‘Well, I… was looking at m…me… the lords,’ she finished lamely.
The king only laughed. ‘You were a dragon princess and now you are a dragon queen. You are the Starry Sapphire, the most famous Dragon of the realm since your late great-grand-aunt, Lady Vassyleya, may she rest in the Underworld under Zamolxis’ wing.’
‘May she rest,’ echoed Ileana.
‘It is good you have respect for the rules,’ said the king. ‘But remember, your duty is to see that your subjects respect them. Sometimes, for that same purpose, you will have to break those rules, so you must learn not to worry too much about breaking them. It will only bring you sorrow and regret, and those will make you weaker. And weakness…’
‘… is just a feeling for people and a vice for kings,’ Ileana finished his phrase proudly.
‘Our clever dove,’ the king sighed. ‘Now, Ileana, about your marriage…’
But the dance ended, and the king had to bow and give the privilege of inviting her to dance to other lords. Ileana saw cousin Eaon pushing through the crowd.
Please, oh Astreya, not him! she prayed. Anyone but him! I’ll dance with the Royal Jeweller if you wish, but not cousin Eaon!..
She did not get to finish her prayer with a plea for the auburn-haired lord to ask her for a dance. He got there first.
‘May I ask you to dance with me, if it please Your Fairness?’
She looked up.
His eyes were of an unexpected color – they had hardly any color at all.
They were light gray, like summer rain clouds.
Her eyebrows twitched in surprise, but she tried to make her smile as pleasant as possible.
‘Of course, my lord.’ She recognized him now. ‘I assume you are Lord Aldem?’
‘Just Lord Caelin’, he corrected her.
She liked his voice – low, throaty, yet somehow musical.
‘Ah… so your father is Lord Soulia?’
‘Aye, my Queen.’
‘Is he here?’
‘He is not, my Queen. He decreed I represented our House at Your Fairness’ Passage Ball… the revels are marvelous, my Queen, if I may say so,’ he added.
She noticed him lift an eyebrow and smile a little, as if mocking his own words. His eyes never left hers, and she felt her knees weaken. She suddenly felt her face blushing, her blood boiling even hotter and closer to the surface.
She felt like transforming and flying with him… she never flew with anyone. Now she wanted it.
‘Are you not feeling well, my Queen?’ Lord Caelin asked solicitously.
‘No… no… I am fine. Thank you, my lord.’
She wanted to ask him whether it was he, yesterday, in the mezzanine, but she hesitated. She could not possibly admit she could ever put herself in such shameful situation.
‘I think your face seems familiar… like I saw you in a picture in a book,’ she blurted out and panicked. Picture? Book? In Valaya? Where all they had were incunabula with images of the gods?
He only nodded and said politely, ‘It is possible, Your Fairness.’
His eyes were laughing, though, she noticed. Ah. Silly Ileana. He had probably a portal to Ellay as well, just like her royal mother. She curved her full lips in a smile, and noticed him falter and take a wrong step in the dance.
Hm. Interesting.
She didn’t notice the music was over; she failed to observe the change in tempo as the fiddlers and bagpipers switched to a lively reel. She listened to her heart beating, she felt her blood bubbling; every now and then, she lifted her head and looked into his eyes that turned serious.
‘Your Fairness,’ he murmured at last. ‘May I offer you a goblet of wine?’
She had never tasted wine before, of course, and she found it so delicious she drained her goblet almost at once.
Lord Caelin laughed as he took away her goblet. ‘Did you like the bouquet, my Queen?’
She had no idea what bouquet was. ‘Er… I liked the taste.’
‘Bouquet is much more than taste, my Queen. It is the aromas of fruits and spices you inhale when first taking your goblet, it is the song of flavors that play on your tongue while you sip and savor… it is the aftertaste you enjoy, sip after sip…’
His low voice was like a song, hypnotizing her. She looked, wide-eyed, into his eyes as he spoke, forgetting the rule – ‘You should look a man in the eyes only for an instant at a time, my gem’ –forgetting how to breathe… blue and gold scales flashing before her eyes…
She blinked, chasing away the mirage.
‘I see, my lord Caelin. I should practice with another goblet, I think,’ she said playfully.
She loved the way he chuckled gutturally. ‘How about some fresh air first, my Queen?’
Lord Caelin was about to take her to the terrace when her cousin Eaon appeared out of nowhere and caught her bare arm painfully.
‘Not so fast, little cousin,’ he rasped. ‘I have a question I must ask you. Now.’
Ileana jerked her arm violently, putting three steps between them as she exclaimed, ‘Cousin! Why! Manners, I beg of you!’
Lord Caelin stood in front of her. ‘My lord Ducima. Why don’t you take a walk with me?’
Without further ado, he grabbed Eaon by the shoulders, wrinkling his bejewelled violet doublet, and marched him out of the dancing hall so quickly Ileana could barely say goodbye. She could only hear weak cries of ‘Let me go! Aldem, I shall drink your blood! Tomorrow, first light, in Dragon form!’
Her mother the Queen was already on her way, cutting through the throng like a magnificent green galley ship.
‘My gem… did he hurt you? Did he say anything shameful to you?’ she asked quietly.
Ileana straightened her back and looked her mother in the eyes.
‘No. But what if he did? I am an adult. I am entitled to hear questions from men –and answer them, too!’
The Queen Mantis did not like her daughter’s brazen tone.
‘What if he asked you to marry him? You would have to accept it, you know that, and your father would have had no other choice but to give you to him. Do you want Eaon of Ducima?’ The Queen Mantis’ voice dripped sarcasm. ‘As your lord husband and future consort?’
Ileana scoffed. ‘This is the silliest rule I’ve ever heard – a maiden should not shame herself and Albeya by refusing a marriage proposal on her Passage night. I am Queen now, and who is he? Just a trumped-up kissing cousin… not that I intend to kiss him! If he had proposed, I would have just refused!’
‘Ileana!’ Her mother was shocked. She took her rebel daughter away from the curious throng, lecturing her on the way. ‘My gem, I understand you want change, but in a society like ours you need to bring it slowly, surreptitiously… you can’t just do it like this, in a blow…’
‘Yes I can!’
‘Ileana,’ the Queen’s voice grew cold. ‘Listen to me. These people – everyone in Valaya – look up to you. Tradition is their house, their bread and mead. If you replace the bread with… something they have never seen before, will they eat? If you burn the house and build something they’ve never seen, do you think they will enter?’
Ileana’s lower lip trembled. ‘I… I believe you’re right, Mother. It’s just… I’d rather be dead than married to cousin Eaon.’
The Queen Mantis frowned. ‘Then be grateful to Lord Caelin. He can lose more than a few scales tomorrow.’
Ileana looked at her mother, puzzled. ‘What do you mean, Mother?’
‘Well, did you think those duel challenges were empty words, my dear?’


Word VI. Caelin / Aldem / Sun Opal
Upon her beauty’s nakedness he feeds his hungry heart’s desire
And scarcely can his chest contain the burning ardour of its fire;
Till clasping her to him at last in one long, clinging sweet caress,
His fiery mouth is set on hers, and on her lips his hot lips press.
Eminescu, “Calin. Pages of a Fairy Tale”