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a lesson in cartography

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He manages to keep his distance for less than a week before he forgets and lunges across the room, slapping a hand over her mouth before she can shake the tower down about them. The skein of abandoned spell around her shivers into the workroom walls around them, dampening and diffusing into the salt borders.

Disaster temporarily averted, Sarkan lets out a breath, and scowls down at his pupil.

Her eyes glare up at him, sky-colored—not blue, no, but a cloudless bright gray. The gray of stone walls and river water, cool and crisp, like her skin beneath his, the frown of her lips against his palm. He doesn’t want to let go.

“Idiot,” he says, and includes himself in the invective. His hand comes away; he laces it behind his back and puts the table between them. As an afterthought, he stares down at the ingredients he’d laid out for her, and finds himself freshly appalled. It looks like a muddy forest path has vomited itself upon his clean stone table, spilling out of the pestles and dishes, dripping over the edges onto the floor, soaking sheets of parchment beyond any possible salvaging.

“I will never cease to be amazed at your unequaled talent for creating chaos out of the simplest components. You were meant to be scrying and map-making. What were you doing?”

Whatever it’d been, it’d felt strong and strange, old in the same way as the bones of the tower.

“I’m not sure,” the girl admits, still scowling. “I didn’t think—” That much he is well aware of. She’s rubbing at her mouth with the back of her hand, then running it through her hair. Her mouth is red—she’s been biting her lower lip again. He can feel her magic, clinging still to his palm, and his heart is pulsing, leaping against the vial walls of his chest. He ignores it. She is not beautiful, he reminds himself. He needs to stop looking at her.

Eventually, he drags his eyes back down to the pile of tattered parchment upon the table, and scowls reflexively at it.

He has been trying desperately, with the usual amount of success, to convince her to record notes on her workings of Jaga’s spells. Said bedamned witch’s spellbook is open on the table now, to a page Sarkan had once had high hopes for: a working of mud, and blood, and ink. There is a crude, lazy drawing of a map next to it. Earth and life bound to parchment, with the ink as a channel—the purpose had seemed obvious enough.

He’d hoped that it could be used to create a living map, of sorts, to chart corruption in the valley. An early warning system could be invaluable, and after a week of avoiding each other’s eyes over simple earth spells, of minimal conversation besides what was strictly necessary for instruction, he’d foolishly felt himself fortified for returning to more intensive lessons again. Had tapped a finger on the page, with the sketch of the inkdrop trailing out of a mouth, and set his wayward pupil to it.

Thus far, Agnieszka’s contributions are: a fumbled incantation that had shaken both the tower and his bones and a series of maps, now ruined utterly by muddy, inky handprints. Oh, and he cannot discount the single piece of parchment upon which is written in a shaking hand—inside out? christening guards. There are, he notes, also sketches of wide-eyed toads that, he grants, do look real enough to jump off the page.

Unfortunately, they’ve had this conversation before, and it’s worryingly easy to piece the direction of her mad thoughts together. He pinches the bridge of his nose, and feels mildly, moderately more comfortable to be on familiar ground again.

“I really cannot understand this peasant obsession with taking the most wildly embellished tavern ditty and taking it as gospel truth,” he says, very patiently, through his teeth. “Jaga did not turn those unfortunate Rosyan guards at that christening into anything at all—that sort of transubstantiation is an impossibility, as we’ve discussed at length. At best, it was an illusion—” He is not ready to talk of illusions; he still cannot shake the feeling of Agnieszka’s magic running beneath and within and inside him, cool and delighted and— “Living things cannot be completely rewritten—altered, yes. Remade, no.”

“But she did step out of time, five hundred years of it,” the girl says stubbornly, crossing her arms. “And her spells do work, little as you like it. You could be wrong about the story of the toads, too.”

“Are you so desperate to turn yourself amphibian?” he inquires icily. “Not that you’ve far to go to reach that goal—” He’s thinking of the cool-water rush of her, and is crueler as a result than he perhaps intends; her eyes flash and her mouth tightens. He bites the inside of his cheek and presses on. “—but perhaps instead, for once, you could focus on the task set to you. Scrying spells of revelation. A spell that creates living maps, that we could modify to show corruption—”

“But that’s not what this spell’s for, not exactly, that’s why I—” she blows her hair out of her eyes, pushing up her sleeves; she’s looking past him at something he can’t see, and for a moment it feels as though a wind is blowing through the windowless room, skittering with leaves and rain and sun.

She blinks, and then looks at him again, real and present, the most vibrant thing in the room; he drags his eyes away and stares down at the table, the spilled ink sunk into the carved bands at the edges. This particular ink is not meant to be easily cleaned, brewed with milk of pine and iron, and a preliminary application of a handkerchief, steeping in scouring spells, makes ominously little dent to the stains.

She speaks over him, ignoring his muttering.

“I still think Jaga could have turned men to toads—but that’s not what this spell’s for, either. It just reminds me of that story, somehow. Something about it. Anyway, I think—it’s actually more of a game? It feels—playful?”

“Playful,” he repeats in drawling disbelief, and drums his fingers once, twice, three times on the stained table. “Playful?”

“You know, I don’t think there should be ink. Or not like this, not in bottles,” the impossible wretch murmurs to herself, and dabs one of the kitchen knives—the kitchen knives, in his laboratory—through one of the puddles of mud she’d been floundering in and he’d been tactically avoiding, then touches it to her tongue, ignoring his hiss of distaste. She licks the blade before he can stop her, and he sees a bright burst of red against the steel, spilling over her lips in a trickle of crimson. Her eyes are crackling, bright as a spray of water across the rocks, and she locks onto his gaze.

He can feel her magic again, curious and swirling about him and has only a second to realize that she’s blithely and without bother created both a conduit and a channel, that a major working is about to fall off her tongue and onto him, before it actually does.

“Pokaż się,” she sings, the notes as inexorable as pebbles dropped in a pond, the words simple: show yourself. Sarkan thinks of maps again, for some reason, of the roads and rivers of a life lived, and stares at the red of her mouth, her lips, from far away, and doesn’t notice until he sees her eyes widen and she makes the most unbearably idiotic squawk, reaching out a hand towards him.

And then he notices he’s falling—or, not exactly, but he is condensing, in a way that feels familiar, like the folds of his own spellwork. “You are a menace,” he tries to hiss, and all that comes out is a tongue of flame before he’s lost in strangling black velvet.

***

“I’m sorry,” is all he hears for a while, a muffled wail from somewhere beyond the blanketing folds of cloth..

He ignores it; of course she is sorry, and she will be sorrier soon, when he sets her to the densest course on magical ethics and history he can manage. More importantly and more infuriatingly, she was right yet again, Sarkan concludes grimly, and takes some consolation in the fact that at least he need not say so aloud.

At any rate, he has not much time to think on it—his fire is considerably more difficult to control in this form.

It takes him some few minutes—an embarrassingly long time—to acclimatize himself to this new orientation of limbs, and the addition of two more upon his back, so easily tangled and delicate. But at last he’s ordered himself to his satisfaction and can properly glare furious daggers up at his pupil. She has poured mud everywhere in what he will charitably assume was an attempt to smother the fire in his clothing, but at least she is cleaning his wings now with a corner of her skirt and a contrite expression and strong, deft fingers. Then he realizes he’s—not purring, but certainly rumbling—and snaps furiously at her fingers.

“Well,” Agnieszka says, shaking out her hand and glaring. “At least you’re not a large dragon.”

As though that isn’t the most infuriating, insulting aspect of this disaster. He confines his comment on this to a single curl of smoke, and flexes his talons, refusing to look at her.

“You know, I may even prefer this version,” she says, sounding amused, and then sighs, shaking her head, her hair flying out about her—will she never braid it properly, it is a hazard in the workroom, and distracting, and—

She is settling at the worktable, and he cannot see what she is doing. Which could be anything—there is literally no situation Agnieszka cannot compound and snarl; it is, perhaps, her particular gift, as his is fire, and the Falcon’s sight, and the Sword’s steel. He has thought of it often—what her name might be. Disaster, he thinks darkly, pacing and eying her bent head with deep suspicion. Tangle. Confusion.

He abandons the idea of attempting an undignified clamber up the smooth stone leg of the table. The surface is several feet taller than his head, now, and as distant as Kralia or Rosya, for all the good it does him.

Almost without his permission, his wings unfurl, fanning out and beating at the air.

He does not, per se, want to fly yet—he suspects the period of trial and error that will entail would be best spent in private—but the stretch of the muscles in his back feels shockingly good. And he is hungry. He’s very hungry. Which, he realizes with a start, is entirely beside the point. Agnieszka is working unsupervised.

He stalks over to her chair and stares up at her, tapping a foot, his claws making a satisfyingly angry clicking sound upon the stone floor.

She, as usual, ignores him entirely, until he is driven to breathe out a frustrated curl of smoke upon her knee—not fire, only smoke, for all her caterwauling. Then, after a small eternity of her usual complaints, she has the audacity to lift him in her arms—his mind goes temporarily blank—thumping him gingerly onto the worktable in front of her, and then settles to stare at him with her chin on her hands.

She doesn’t say a word as he shakes off the indignity having been lifted bodily, tucking his tail around himself delicately and arranging his wings. Her face is very close; it’s difficult to ignore.

He hears Agnieszka says, very softly, ‘powrót, powrót,’ and for a moment he feels the tug of it, and hopes—but then it’s stopped. He looks up, and she looks down at him, and very tentatively lays a hand against his neck. It’s very cool.

“I do think it’s supposed to be a game,” she says apologetically, after a moment spent like this, and then flicks him on the soft skin of his nose when he hisses at her. “Like—when, oh, you know. When you use your birthday moon to find the animal you’d have been in another life, or when you core an apple to find your true love’s name.”

His name as a wizard, everything he is, reduced to the mad party tricks of an old, deranged witch and her second deranged coming, he thinks mutinously, and only realizes he’s chewing angrily on a tendril Agnieszka’s hair when she tugs it out of his mouth in outrage.

“At any rate,” she huffs, staring at the split ends and saliva; he ignores this and focuses on preening his wings airily with his tongue. “I don’t think it should last long? Probably?”

Probably. He wants to take notes. He wants—quills. Paper. Hands, he wants hands. And meat. It is—not precisely hard to think, but he is very hungry, and the room is distractingly full of smells. He needs to think. He crawls into her lap, despite the general squawking that ensues—it is too hot, he needs to arrange his thoughts in a cool place, and eventually she settles and in the silence, as she strokes his neck, she appears, for once, to do a bit of thinking of her own.

He can feel his magic, still in his bones and blood, ready to be carefully spilled and shaped out, but he hasn’t the slightest idea of how he can in this body, all scale and talon and tooth and long forked tongue.

“What will we do if the Wood strikes now, Dragon?” Her voice is very small.

Of course that’s just occurring to you, idiot, he thinks with a long, curlicue sigh, and lays his head against her chest to listen to the thump of her heart, Spindle-rich and wild. That level of working would have laid her out for a day or more, only a week ago, he thinks. Naturally her progress must come at his own expense; he should have expected nothing less.

But still, he cannot just sit here, however comfortable it is, he decides. Agnieszka appears to have just realized that he is a dragon called Dragon, and is having her typical, if slightly belated, hysterics, giggling into her hand, her shoulders heaving.

For a moment, it seems very strange that she does not know his name.

At any rate, he considers biting her to bring her to her senses, but in the end, decides it beneath him and coolly untangles himself from her lap, where, he is suddenly sure, he should probably not have sat. This spell, he concludes with some alarm, is affecting more than merely his physical form. He stalks off across the table, her ridiculous giggles echoing behind him.

He prowls around for a moment, enjoying the click of his talons on the stone, and admires himself briefly in one of the mirrors—he’s very black, with gold edgings to his wings, and his teeth are very white and long and pointed.

“Yes, yes, you’re still very handsome,” she says, voice a bell-like laugh, the loveliest and most infuriating thing about her, besides her eyes, and her magic, and her impossible— He flicks her a furious glance over his shoulder, and goes back to prowling through the papers, nosing delicately at Jaga’s book, and with some difficulty works out a way of turning the pages without clawing through the delicate paper.

“You know, really, you’re not nearly as upset as I would have expected,” she comments after a moment. She’s calmed at last, and is watching him with her chin in her hand, brow furrowed. “You haven’t set me on fire yet, or even nipped me, or slashed me with your claws.”

She always acts like he’s completely unreasonable, he seethes, when in fact he has kept his temper, in his opinion, remarkably well all these months. He fumes to himself, and continues to turn the pages with careful, icy aplomb. Eventually he pulls out a corner of his old, abandoned notes carefully with his teeth and reluctantly takes it in his mouth, like a dog, to bring it to her. He sits and waits as she sighs and takes up a pen, and begins recording the events that have brought them here in her sloppy, smudgy hand.

“Mud, and blood, and your name in my mouth,” she mutters to herself, and taps the pen against her lips, and then writes it down. She sits back, stretching, as though that had been a herculean feat.

He stares at the paper, then her. When she seems indeed to be ready to stop at that, he bares his teeth and she sighs at him, as though hugely put-upon by having, impossibly and against all the laws of magic, turned her own master into a cat-sized monster. She scribbles down the material of the knife, the provenance of the mud, the time, the temperature, their positions in the room, the materials on the table, and he’s thrashing his tail, wanting her to look at the potions brewing in the corner, to note their phases, but suddenly she’s shouting at him because none of that matters, Dragon.

He is frustrated, and hungry, and he does not care about hunger when he has work to do, but, and yet, he’s hungry and he has so much to do and no time for this, and he misses his hands—he turns his head and lets loose a roar of fire without meaning to, and it crackles terrifyingly red and familiar, a huge blaze that lights the room. It’s Agnieszka’s frightened yelp that lets him recollect himself. Breathe back in, feel the embers settle in his gut, and feels himself hunch low, belly on the table, not looking at her.

Control of fire is the first thing he learned, the first lesson he shouldered, before he was even old enough to talk. Control and walls and words to make things safe, and he has none of these now, and he has nearly destroyed his workroom, and his pupil has turned him—he, who should have stopped her, who should have been paying attention to more than the red of her mouth and the song of her magic—into this helpless, dangerous thing.

She reaches out and touches his neck again, right below his jaw, and he leans against her hand despite himself, and sighs.

Hungry, he thinks, infuriatingly, miserably. The thought beats at him until he finally he presses the tip of his tail against Agnieszka’s mouth. She gapes at him unattractively, like a fish, and he feels empty and despite himself, make a small, keening unhappy sound. He has a moment of utter despair that he’s going to have to—to butt his head into her stomach, or something equally dreadful, when she suddenly blinks at him.

“Oh,” she says sheepishly, and stares at her hands for a moment, before shaking her head and saying, “From your size, you’re a very young dragon, aren’t you? Just over a century. A dragonet, really. Hm.” They had had a lesson on dragons in the weeks before, mostly her spouting the garbage she’d learned in taverns and him correcting her—which myths applied to real dragons, which were only about the corrupted form, why the true dragons were so rare, particularly their vulnerable youth and long childhoods—things he hadn’t especially thought she was paying attention to. “Don’t bite me.”

She lifts him again, and he thinks dark thoughts as he frantically folds his wings—the odds of her snagging him on a door or a wall-hanging are extremely high—and holds him against her chest. Her heart is beating very fast.

One hand is beneath his belly, on the soft scales there, and one on the silky hard scales over his shoulder muscles. Her skin, the first time he’d felt it—that wretched trip to the tower, her deranged, distressed misery—he’d thought her hands clammy, disgusting. The chill of damp creatures that lived beneath logs, in caves.

He had been an idiot; he is an idiot still. Her hands now are soothing, a cool cloth to a fevered brow; she feels like the murmur of a river he’s spent lifetimes avoiding the taste of, and that now has him in its grip at last.

They arrive in the kitchens, which he has come to think of, grudgingly, as her domain, over which he holds little power any longer. And then she hands him a whole rabbit, still dressed in fur. It is nearly as large as he is. He stares at it, then at her—anyone else, he would think was deliberately mocking him, but he has long since concluded that there is no malice to Agnieszka, She is simply that impossibly dense. Finally she slices it for him into bite-sized chunks, all the while muttering about his perfectly good mouth full of teeth.

He mantles his wings and bares said teeth for her; she snorts and presses lightly on the very tip his snout, where the scales are particularly soft and tender. “You’re all smoke, Dragon.”

He really should bite her. He nips at the tip of her finger, just enough to sting, and would smirk if he could at the way her eyes go wide and her cheeks go red. She glares, cheeks splotchy red, and puts the finger into her mouth, draws it out wet—

That would be an unfortunate sight, if he were human.

I have lain with the most beautiful women in seven kingdoms, I have seen mermaids and spoken to gryphons, I am the foremost wizard in this side of the world, I have rewritten magic and codified impossible texts and I absolutely do not care about peasant girls who cannot even practice basic cleanliness or hygiene and stick everything within grasp into their mouths, he thinks, as he carefully, fastidiously licks his talons clean.

“You’re such a prat,” she sighs, watching him with narrow eyes, as though she knew exactly what he was thinking, and he decides to exit the kitchens—not a retreat so much as a regroup to his territory, his rooms, where, hopefully, he will sleep this wretched day off.

That he has some difficulty with the stairs and has to be carried to his rooms is something he will do his best to forget.

***

He wakes burning. He often does—he remembers, as a child, a true child, the first time he’d seen a vial of fire-heart and thought he must have swallowed some, back in that time he could not remember. Or maybe his mother had; maybe he was a distant kin to dragons, after all, the breath of which fire-heart only mimicked.

At any rate, he has learned how to fold that fire, to shape it, to make it precise and beautiful and useful and, if not safe, at least not a hungry storm ready to be unleashed.

But tonight he wakes and he has no hands and no voice and—he could, he thinks, and wants to, badly, breathe out all the sparks beneath his skin. But he does not want to burn down the tower.

He thinks of flinging himself to the sky, wheeling towards the Wood and unleashing fire, but he is not so outside himself to think that in any way practical, and besides, he cannot yet figure out how to make these wings fly.

There are stones he has that absorb magic, pure blocks of salt, from ancient seas—he has lined his workroom with them, he has drawers stored away—but he has none nearby, and he is not, precisely, adept at stairs yet in this form. He tumbles down a landing, bruised and hissing and miserable, and he cannot open any of the doors, and he burns.

Somehow, Agnieszka’s door creaks open a sliver as he stares at it, and a trickle of cool moonlight spills out. He’s in the room before he can think better of it, and the sound of his wingbeats as he scales the side of the bed, claws digging in determinedly—even the sound of his one failed attempt, thumping to the floor with a disgruntled hiss—none of it wakes her, the useless lump.

He finally makes it up and settles himself against the curl of her body, grumbling to himself as he tucks himself under her chin, twines his tail about her wrist. The press of her body against his is like sliding into a shaded pool in summer, the encompassing of cool water. She murmurs something about warmth and pulls him in closer, and he has a moment of thinking he should be thinking something about all this, yawning drowsily, when now, suddenly, she decides to wake.

The ensuing cacophony could likely wake the dead as well, he thinks, huffing and mantling his wings from the foot of the bed, where he has been ejected. What damage she imagines he could do her honor in this form—she leans forward from where she had been huddled glaring in her pillows and shoves a hand against his neck, just exactly where it feels as though his fire is lurking, waiting like a banked swallowed coal. She flinches back almost immediately, shaking her hand and blowing on her fingers.

“Ouch!” She glares at him, as though he put her hand there. “You’re burning up! What’s wrong with you?” For all her complaints, she puts her hand back, stroking down his neck a bit, and he leans into the quenching coolness of it with furious gratitude.

“I’d almost think you ill,” she mutters softly, staring down at him and gnawing thoughtfully on her lower lip again. Her unbound hair is spilling around them, silvery in the moonlight. He says nothing, except for the lashing of his tail. The heat drains from him, like a lanced wound, and her cheeks are slowly flushing a dawn pink, visible even in the dark.

“Fine,” she says at last, and takes her hand away. “I suppose this is my fault, in the end, and it is cold enough in the room that at least you’ll be useful. But you’ll stay at the foot of the bed!”

Cold? When he’d drummed seven different warming spells into her head, and yet—

“Yes, yes, I know, cantrips, but they make it stuffy, and I’ve been too busy to experiment lately. You’re a lot of trouble, you know,” Agnieszka says, flopping back down in her disordered sheets, completely ignoring his automatic outraged response to this, other than to snort again in amusement.

Apparently, much to the surprise of everyone involved in this debacle, the voices of young dragons have much in common with baby birds—high and piping, a musical sort of chirping. Sarkan has been holding his tongue and his dignity as best he can manage; with Agnieszka about, of course, that is not saying much.

“I keep thinking of you as a cat, you’re of the same size, you know,” Agnieszka says, in that way she has that meant she was going to rattle on for hours about nonsense, whether he listened to her or not. He arranges a curl of the bedclothes to better suit him, and makes a very dignified sound of alarm when she places her cool feet upon him carefully. Outraged—her feet cannot possibly be any cleaner than the rest of her—he curls up around them crankily.

“Mmm, like a warming pan. You are useful at times—even with your claws, stop that. I had a chicken that loved me, as a child, you know—she slept with me all the time. Light, she was. And her feet had scales—it’s not just serpents with scales, you’re not a serpent, really, I don’t think, even if your kind did hatch out of eggs. Too warm. I didn’t think scales could be so soft.”

Idiot, he thinks drowsily, and touches her ankle with the tip of his tongue—a reprimand is inserted into her ramble—and makes a mental note to discuss basilisks and their eggs with her in the morning, when the spell will surely be broken.

And in which case I’ll be laying on her feet naked, he realizes, dimly alarmed but too comfortable to care, and yawns in the dark, and listens to Agnieszka drift into sleep.

***

The spell does not break, that day or the next.

“Well, if not this one, then which?” Agnieszka shouts at him in the library on the third morning, shaking a book in his face, but she deflates when he twitches a tail impatiently. “Oh,” she says consideringly, tilting her head at him. “You think the truth spells? Giondorno’s third? Look, I’m not sure, I—think the spell that changed you was a sort of truth spell, though. This is a truth of you, in a way.”

Unlikely, Sarkan thinks with a huff of smoky scorn that made her cough and scowl, and goes back to disgruntledly plaiting her impossible hair with careful magic in his talons. It’s slippery and delicate and tangled and snarled and gloriously warm colored—it looks simply brown upon first glance, dead wood and dirt—except in the light there are auburns and bronzes and golds that fire up, shining through. And obviously he, in this form, has an affinity for things that shine and gleam, which is the only reason he is bothering with braiding it for her now, and anyway, he is greatly improving his dexterity in the process. Maybe soon, he will be able to write.

He curls a tail around her body for balance, wrapping it about her waist several times as she stands to stride back into the library, loading her arms with books at his suggestion.

“I don’t know how we have just as many arguments when you can’t talk as when you can,” she mumbles, the tip of a quill in her mouth, disgustingly and distractingly. “Though I’ll admit you’re much easier to handle like this. Still. I almost miss you dripping sarcasm all over the place. It’s too quiet.”

He seethes to himself, huffing little trails of smoke that he’s begun to very carefully attempt spells with—smoke is like speaking, like breathing, like words, surely he can work with this. He’s too bored to do anything else, and watching Agnieszka, without distraction, is… not advisable.

She is too different now, than she was in those first wretched weeks. She is different from many things.

A century in this valley and he has not been tempted once, by any of the dozen Spindle’s women he’s taken into the tower. Some have been lovelier than even Agnieskza’s beloved Kasia, some have had manners pretty enough for the finest court, all have been far more presentable in appearance.

He feels the explosion brewing before it begins, and breathes out a curling circlet of plumes to catch and buffet some of the shockwave away. It is not so different than the Sentinel spells. Only a few books fall, and most of the mud is contained. None, at least, splatters upon him.

Lacking eyebrows is seriously hampering his teaching abilities, he feels—but the tail is useful. He lets it swing very slowly, back and forth, as Agnieszka’s scowling face appears coughing in the smoke above him.

“I may,” she says, standing up, and slamming an absent cleaning cantrip down upon the table, the books brightening and mud flying. He leaps precisely out of the way, and does not deign to acknowledge her sudden apology for sending him flying. She turns back to their notes from the first day, face lemon-sour. “May be misremembering where that blasted, thrice-damned mud was from.”

A shock, truly.

“Not,” she says, pushing her masses of hair behind her shoulders and frowning. “That it should matter. It’s all a valley to you—it’s not your home, is it, so any bit of it should be an equally good channel? Or—” She visibly struggles for the terminology, and he bristles all over before stalking to the shelves, rearing on his hind legs and beating his wings to keep his balance.

He finds the book of hydrology he wants on water magic and subtle variations in landscape, and picks it delicately up in his teeth, resigned grimly to the tooth-marks he leaves behind. She takes it from him with an enormous sigh, holding it between her fingers and looking at it with open dislike for a moment, before flipping it open and muttering under her breath. Her tongue is between her teeth. She looks ridiculous.

Anyone else—he could not think of anyone else he’d have believed to make this kind of spell, this impossible working, by mistake.

He stares at her, and lashes his tail, and thinks of the faceless girls that moved through his life. He shakes his head, as though he could dislodge the thoughts. A foolish effort, because of course he cannot, but also because he shakes so hard he winds up sneezing, and setting several priceless books aflame.

***

“A break,” she insists after the damage is undone and she’s cunningly scratched the spot between his wings that always itched, and summoned a bowl of diced lamb, and fed it to him until he stopped mantling his wings and felt a bit more settled. “You haven’t even flown outside yet—don’t you want to? It’s a lovely day.”

He was carefully licking clean his chops, thinking dark thoughts about his embroidered handkerchiefs upstairs, the linen spelled cool and cleansing, as distant to him as the moon at the moment. At this, however, he slowly turns his head to look at her.

“Right,” she laughs, rolling her eyes. “You, do anything that wasn’t part of a grand master schedule, written down days in advance and planned out for in neat columns and numbers. Well, you might as well, because I’m done for the day and I am going out.”

His claws dug into the stone of the table, vibrating the floor beneath them, startling them both.

“I know it is my fault, and I haven’t forgotten about the Wood,” she bites out in response, eyes flashing and hair curling. “But we aren’t getting anywhere in here, and it’s something we haven’t tried yet!”

Exactly how she imagined that their venturing out into the snowy grounds beneath the tower, her huffing out little snorts of laughter as he picked furiously across the snow, shaking bits of ice from between his talons—how that was supposed to be helpful in the slightest was beyond him.

Agnieszka has her head tipped back up to the sky, and the winter wind coming down the mountains is clean and sharp as any knife. It pulls her hair out behind her in long, spiraling curls of shimmering brown. Some deep, instinctive, cat-like part of him wants to leap after the streaming shine of it, and to his horror his haunches actually twitch slightly before he squashes the urge thoroughly. Instead he burns a patch of snow down to clear ground, baking it dry and hot as fired pottery, and settles on it crossly to regard the brilliantly cold winter day from narrowed eyes, wings folded tightly against his back.

“No one will see us,” Agnieszka contests. “Go on. What if I give you a, a boost? A bit of a toss?”

She is very lucky, he thinks grimly, staring off haughtily across the valley, that he is currently unable to speak to tell her his opinion of that.

“I just think, if we work our magic together again,” Agnieszka says, not looking at him, her cheeks redder than they’d been before. She sits on the ground next to him, heedless of the snow and mud, blowing on her hands. “And I watch as you fly—I think it will help.”

His tail lashes, sending up plumes of snow that catch in her eyelashes and sparkle there.

“Look, I don’t know why, it’s just a feeling, and you can keep your sneers to yourself!” she snaps back, and kicks at a drift of snow near him, shivering. Thoughtlessly, instinctive after the last few nights sleeping, he presses a little closer to her ankle; she is not at all appropriately dressed for the weather. She sighs and doesn’t move away. “I told you—this spell, it’s meant to be… playful. I think we’re taking it too seriously.”

He stares at her, no longer even lashing his tail. His wings are flat against his body and his nostrils flared. Playful.

“You must have been once, as a boy?” she wheedles, and then rubs a muddy hand over her face. “Just—enjoy yourself, for a moment, for me. Then we can go back inside and you can have me write an analysis of our results for the rest of the day, into the evening. Into the night, if that’s what you so desire. You book wyrm.”

Dreadful. He huffs his distaste for the pun, but—they are lucky, that no danger has yet befallen them, or the valley, while he has been so incapacitated. As foolish and unlikely as it sounds, as little as he wants to merge their magic again, if there is the slimmest chance that she’s right, he would be remiss not to take it.

She holds out a hand and hums, and he shivers his back crankily before reaching back, not with any limb, but mentally—an undignified piping trill meeting her soft song.

Their spell settles over him like a dusting of snow, sweet and chill, and sinks in, leaving a cool feeling not unlike mint balm, behind. His magic isn’t quite right, like this, and yet—he realizes, for the first time, as she slides alongside him, a rippling brook of a melody, that it’s more than that. His magic feels no different to her, she’s telling him, wordless and faintly amused; it only does to him because he’s feeling it from a different place, a new perspective.

Right now, he is his magic. Nonsense, impossible. But.

Each pulse of his heart, each shining black scale, each wing—is made of his magic, familiar and intricately folded. He knows each syllable she’s wandering along, now.

He finds his feet and spreads his wings, testing them in the stiff breeze, not looking at her. He can feel her eyes on him, the cool rush of her magic on him, and swallows.

He has, in fact, been practicing in the evenings before slinking to her room to quench himself in her coolness. He’s taken careful hops off tables and stair flights, in privacy, of course, testing out the angles his wings will reach, and watching the birds that fly past the tower, adjusting his own wings accordingly.

He isn’t entirely sure of taking a running leap, rather than jumping off a height, to attain altitude, but he’ll be damned if she tosses him.

“Should I close my eyes?” she asks, dryly, and makes a big show of covering them with one hand, as though the impossible creature won’t peek the second he turns his back. He ignores her, testing the air with his tongue and feeling the eddies of it now. He thinks, even without words, he could cast a spell to gust beneath him, carry him aloft without effort.

“That would be cheating,” she hums, and makes a gesture as though to tweak his tail. He gives her a long look and yawns, slow and deliberate, teeth shining brighter than the snow, before sauntering a few steps backwards, and then flinging himself forward.

He himself might be his own most complex spell, at that moment—each sinew and crafted, sparkling scale, each breath alive in and of himself. Agnieszka’s magic is a whoop of delight beneath him, and he whistles a melody back to her, wheeling and smug and pleased at her awe.

The wind is a spell he’s never known, the way the Spindle is a spell—he hadn’t realized the air currents and the land interacted so strongly, aside from the pollen they carried. He wants to stay up all evening, and taste the stars, but the Wood is a dark thing in the distance, a warning in the air, and he circles a few last times, eyeing Agnieszka’s hair and slightly rueful at his own inability to bend and snatch it.

She, he knew, would certainly have done the same to him without any hesitation.

He lands gracefully in the snow and she slogs to him immediately, beaming and red-cheeked and pleased. “I see it now!” she says, still meshed with him, and this close he can almost taste her delight at the flying, how she’d soared with him as intimately and close as the blood in his veins. “Here, follow me,” she says, and sings him a sweet happy glissando, a wind and water song, that he settles down to listen and follow. He sings it back and in each note, he finds a new piece of the impossibly complex magic of his draconic self, and unfolds it, smooths it out, until he’s standing on two cold feet.

He opens his eyes, and she’s standing close enough to feel the movement of her breath, the hum of her skin. He swallows.

“Not the most utilitarian spell, nor the most practical,” he says, and sees her struggling to keep her eyes on his; he supposes she’s never seen a naked man. He swallows again, and casts Vanastalem. It leaps to his skin immediately, and she breathes in a gasp, eyes glassy; they’re still entwined.

“Dragon,” she says, and reaches up and puts a cool hand on his neck. His fingers twitch with the urge to catch the hair blowing across her face, tuck it behind her ear.

“Sarkan will do,” he says instead, and turns to open the Tower doors. She doesn’t move for a long moment, and even as he disentangles them, breath shaky, he knows, as he knows the stones beneath his boots and the wind playfully tugging at his hair, that she’s gaping after him like a fish.

“Get over here,” he snaps, and turns to raise an eyebrow at her as the doors open. “We’ve wasted enough time on this nonsense already.”

She’s spluttering at him in outrage as she wades through the snow, the sunlight in her hair, and he can’t help himself—he reaches out and tugs a lock, runs it over his bare fingers. For all the snarls, it is very soft. Her mouth has fallen slightly open.

“Coming?” he says hoarsely, and makes his fingers open. He turns on his heel and stretches his shoulders as they ascend the stairs, Agnieszka muttering all the way. He concludes, as they open the library door, everything at the proper height, spells falling from his lips and books to his hands, that he may actually wind up missing his wings.