Dragon Rose

By: Christine Pope

Chapter One

My mother shut the front door and looked over at me. I waited on the bottom step of the staircase at the far end of the foyer, wishing I could flee and knowing all too well how that sort of behavior would be rewarded.

“Well?” she asked.

I hesitated. For the briefest second I contemplated the sort of prevaricating non-reply that might allow me to make my escape without having to give her the truth, but I knew better than that. My mother could sniff out a lie at twenty paces. I told her, “He’s forty-five if he’s a day, and his breath stinks of onions.”

“Rhianne.” My name on her lips was barely a sigh…albeit a sigh that spoke volumes. “You are in no position to be so choosy. When you are the eldest of four daughters—”

“—it’s your responsibility to get yourself married off and out of the way,” I finished for her. I knew the tale all too well by then, but that did not make me any happier to hear it once more. “I assure you, I know what is expected of me, but really, Mother—could you find no better prospects than Liat Marenson?”

“He is one of the richest men in Lirinsholme. He trades his wool all across the continent. And with the new factory he is building, he will only increase his wealth.”

She spoke simply, as if reciting facts I had never heard before, but of course I knew them already. A town the size of Lirinsholme, with roughly five thousand souls within its walls and a little more than half that number living on its outskirts, did not have many secrets. I knew how many sheep Liat Marenson owned, knew that he had just spent a goodly sum to refurbish his large house on Lampwell Square. His first wife had died a year before, in childbed, and apparently he thought enough time had passed that he could go looking for a new one without causing too many tongues to wag.

I also knew that I could never, ever marry Liat Marenson. A fine house and gowns of Keshiaari silk were not inducement enough to lie down with a man old enough to be my father.

“I am sure Master Marenson will make a fine husband for some lucky girl,” I said, since it was clear my mother expected some sort of reply. “But not me.”

Her lips pressed together, and her dark eyes narrowed slightly. It was the only sign of anger she would allow herself. In all my almost twenty years, I had never once seen her lose her temper.

The gods only knew I had given her reason enough on more than one occasion.

Voice even, she said, “If you married him, you would be safe.”

That again? In less than two months, I would not have to worry one way or another. I would have turned twenty, and therefore be too old to be selected as the Dragon’s Bride. My mother and I both knew that, and we also both knew that her pressing me to marry someone so unappealing had far less to do with my supposed peril at the Dragon’s hands…or talons, I suppose…and far more to do with the understanding that once I was Master Marenson’s wife, his wealth could help to improve my younger sisters’ prospects immensely.

Because that thought was uppermost in my mind, I found it easy enough to reply in flippant tones, “I think I would rather be married to the Dragon than to that paunchy, smelly old man!” as I gathered my skirts and hurried away up the stairs before my mother could remonstrate with me. As it was, I heard the shocked intake of her breath at my words, and I wondered if I had gone too far.

After all, marriage to an overweight, balding wool merchant was not a certain sentence of death…unlike marriage to Theran Blackmoor, the Dragon of Black’s Keep.

The curse had been part of our lives for so long that we accepted it as part of the natural course of things, like the color of the sky or the phases of the moons. But of course there was nothing natural at all about a dragon who used to be a man.

How exactly such a thing had come to pass, no one could say, and the Dragon kept his own counsel. Legend had it that in ages past, when magic still existed in the world, Theran Blackmoor was cursed by a mighty sorcerer. What Lord Blackmoor had originally done to so upset a sorcerer was now shrouded by the passage of time. A few tried to argue that he had never been a man at all, but had been born in his monstrous dragon form, although that theory was not widely supported. Whatever the case, the Dragon had cast his shadow, both literally and figuratively, over Lirinsholme for more than five hundred years…and he had been claiming his Brides for just as long.

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