Once on a Summer Evening

Story by LeviWolstrom on SoFurry

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This is an experimental story I wrote a few years back. My goal was to create a story within a story, and I think it was partially successful. Originally it was going to be longer, but I stopped it early.

It is presented here without edits.

Jeremy sipped from his glass of lemonade, savoring the drink as he swirled the cool, tangy liquid in his mouth. He swallowed, gave a contented sigh, and reclined in his wicker chair on the balcony, overlooking the city streets below and rolling hills, purple in the light of the setting sun, away to his left. He closed his eyes to ward off the orange sun's rays, ready to relax. The chair's wooden strips squeaked as he repositioned his body to something more comfortable. I love the early summer evenings, he thought to himself. Cool enough to be outside, yet warm enough to enjoy it. In a few more hours, flashes of fireflies would light the streets below, and children would leave their homes in eager pursuit of the luminescent creatures. When they meandered to his level, even Jeremy could not fight the urge to begin the chase and cup his hands around one, if only his old bones allowed it. But after sixty summers under the sun, his joints were stiffening and reflexes beginning to slow. Ah, but the next generation will enjoy life. That is good... He had no children, no heirs to his name, no one to take his place as Lord or Lady Kelson. Only one woman had ever stolen his affections, and after her, none could compare in charm or beauty. Such is life. He took another sip and relaxed into his chair.

"Pardon me, my lord. Captain Philip requests an audience with you." Jeremy groaned, sat up, and opened his eyes at the interruption. Donald, his afternoon servant, stood before him, wide-brimmed hat before his chest, head inclined slightly forward in respect. Worry lines teased his boyish face. "What would you like me to tell him?"

"Let me answer," Jeremy said. He stood up and tousled the servant's hair. "I would like you to tell him to leave me alone, but fearing the consequences for you if you actually did say that, why don't you go home to your family and allow me to handle affairs this evening? I daresay it is time for your shift to end." He walked through the curtain separating the balcony from his hosting room, talking as he went. "I am pleased with your service today." He said this to every servant unless they had done something to earn his displeasure, and almost the only way to do that was to do no work.

Donald followed three steps behind, as protocol dictated, still acting on-duty. "I will leave, sir, but only if my responsibilities toward you have been fulfilled."

"Donald!" Jeremy sighed. "That is enough. You are nearly finished here today. Your last remaining responsibility is to go home to your family. I promise I can see to Captain Philip myself." Oh, what an evening. Did the captain of the guard know he had intruded upon a relaxing, pleasant evening? Jeremy intended to let the man know if he had the opportunity to get a word in.

"Sir, I don't think the Captain should be kept waiting."

"The Captain has come uninvited and unwanted to my home," Jeremy said. "Let him wait." He raised his finger at a new thought. "Go out by the side. Don't let him see you." Donald's stoic expression finally cracked, and a grin broke through. "Yes, that is more like it. Have a good evening, and give your mother my thanks, and this." He reached in his pocket and pulled out two silver pieces about the size of his thumbnail. "Tell her to inform me if this is not enough to pay for a new dress, and to avoid trying to sew a new dress from her dress." Jeremy frowned. He hoped his statement was not too confusing. He'd already lost track.

Donald took the coins and bowed. "Thank you, sir."

"It is the least I can do." He produced a smaller bronze coin. "Might you give this as a temple offering for me? Give the Night Queen my apologies for being unable to continue our evening together." Jeremy strode across the room, passing couches laden with overstuffed pillows and walking across deep, luxurious rugs. His favorite, a rich purple one covering a third of the floor, had cost a great deal from the Eastern merchant, but at one look, he knew it must be his. She would have approved.

Captain Philip was a stout man in his forties, known by all to be soft from two decades of service to the king with not a single war, yet he made up for it by his grizzled appearance: beard and unshaved neck, unkempt black hair (what he had not lost), and a perpetual scowl. The past decade had also added a few inches to his waist, a combination of family history and the sedentary lifestyle he lived.

"Captain Philip, what brings you to my doorstep this evening?"

The captain of the guard lazily brought his left hand to his forehead in a mock salute. "I am checking the rounds, sir. I have a question for you and, if I may, I wish to seek your advice in a most important matter."

Jeremy stared, refusing to blink. This was unprecedented. Philip never went to the noble caste for advice, choosing instead to keep his list of advisors short: other officers and occasionally royalty, although the latter were better known for giving orders than advice. What was the man up to? Jeremy shifted his gaze to the captain's squinty eyes, search for signs of deceit or other forms of malice. "It is rude of me to keep you waiting," Jeremy said at last. "I was on the balcony when you came calling. It is pleasant out there. Come with me and we can talk there."

"I will defer to you of course," Philip said. Jeremy stepped aside so the captain of the guard could enter. "But must we talk outside? It is humid tonight, and the peasant children noisy." He smirked. "I imagine you of all the nobles would most want to escape any reminders, Lord Kelson."

Jeremy grumbled at Philip's thoughtless comments. He knew little of the affairs of peasants, even less of Jeremy's motives and desires. "It would behoove you to step into their shoes for a week or more, Captain. Experience their hopes and fears." He walked through his foyer and lounging space for guests before stopping at the curtain separating them from outside. "Until then, you must learn from a distance, if indeed you are capable of learning." Philip huffed, swaying back and forth on his feet as he waited for Jeremy to pass through first. "Where are your servants?"

"Dismissed. It is after hours for them. I sent the last one home as you arrived. I want them to spend time with their family." He surveyed his living space before stepping again into the humidity. So much room for one person. Soon, it would be time to write his will. Which servant would inherit his belongings?

Jeremy reclined in his chair and motioned for Philip to take a seat on the other side of the balcony, nearest the stone supports. The captain sighed and wiped his brow with the back of one of his thick hands. "I want to begin first with my question. You have no family, am I correct?"

Jeremy squinted. Did Philip really consider this an important question? Doubtless he intended to lead him to his most important query. "I have no relations subject to the crown," he said. "As to my other family, who can say? Family ties were sundered many generations ago."

"So I will tell Officer Rick to dismiss the maiden passing herself off as your niece? Or shall I arrange for harsher punishment? It is, after all, illegal to pose as noble blood."

"I will be the one who determines the legitimacy of her claim, Philip. If this woman can prove her identity to me, then she will fall under my protection, as you are aware. If not, you are free to do with her as you please." A wicked grin passed across the captain's face, making Jeremy sick. What twisted pleasures had arisen in his mind following Jeremy's offer? He was not sure he even wanted to know. And yet, he could not revoke his offer. A noble's word could not be overridden. At that moment, Jeremy determined to protect this mystery maiden, no matter what story he had to fabricate. With only one exception: he would never pass her off as his secret lover. It would not ruin his reputation - all the noblemen were known to entertain at least one woman in addition to their wives - but his heart and soul belonged to another.

"Very well." Philip grunted and swatted at a mosquito. Soon the bats would be out, feasting on these parasitic vampires, but the sky was not yet a deep enough blue for them to appear. "I am having her brought here." He clapped his hand around another of the pests and rubbed his palms together, smearing the remains of the mosquito across his skin. "I am concerned that a strange woman would seek to enter our city," he said. "You remember the damage she caused years ago. It would be nothing short of disaster to allow her entry."

The way Captain Philip stressed "she," there could be only one on his mind. Everyone from about four years younger than the captain, to the elderly on their deathbed, knew of her. Jeremy laughed. "Do you really think Ilysa would dare to show herself around here again after the beating we gave her?" "Yes, but you were not here at the time. As I recall, you came to this city about five years later. I will tell you the story of her arrival, although you might have heard it before. I was there."

*** A tall, shapely woman dressed in purple, wearing a frilled purple hat, looked with condescension at the merchant before her, who did not even come up to her shoulders, but since he groveled at her feet, it was impossible to tell his height with certainty. "When I requested three carts of grain carried by your strongest oxen, I hoped that meant you would make the oxen work, instead of filling each cart halfway. This is two carts worth!" She reached into the nearest cart with her long, pointed fingers and took out a handful of oats. "I will not pay for three. I will pay for one."

"Ma'am, this is the best I can give you. We have had a poor harvest, and I have to recoup losses somewhere." Onlookers backed away as far as they could. No one wanted to be around Ilysa when she was displeased. The consequences were deadly. He clutched her ankles. "Please understand! I am not trying to cheat you."

"Hmm. You should not have offered something you could not deliver, merchant." Ilysa kicked the merchant away. "Here is what I will offer. You need to feed your family, and I want grain. Your grain is the best quality around, so I am not interested in seeking out a merchant who can give me inferior quality but the desired quantity. I will pay you for two."

"Momma, why is Daddy bowing like that?" Philip tugged at his mother's dark brown dress, stained from years of work in the fields. She glanced at him with her weathered, tanned face, evidence of her hard labor. At three years of age, Philip was not yet old enough to do heavy work. That was the responsibility of his older siblings. Will, the second-oldest brother at thirteen years of age, stood beside them, hands clenched into fists.

"A very important customer is not pleased with our labor," his mother said. "Stay here with me. That goes for you too, Will."

"I don't like watching this," Will said. "Why can she get away with being so uppity?"

"She is not to be crossed, Will," his mother said. "Stay out of it and be thankful she is paying us at all."

"I am glad you agree to my terms," Ilysa said. "I will be back for my grain later. Have it ready to leave this city in two hours."

"Yes, ma'am." Philip's father rose to his feet when Ilysa left him, his shoulders slumped. "That will get us through the winter months if we're careful," he said to Philip's mother. "We will not starve, at least." He frowned. "Wasn't Will with you?"

"Is he not here?" Philip's mother turned. Will was gone. "Will?" She glanced from side to side, and her gaze fixed on the crowd on the other side of the square, where Ilysa had gone. Her eyes widened in fear. "Will! Stop!"

Will crept up behind Ilysa, gaining on her with each second. When he was right behind her, Will plunged his hand into Ilysa's money bag. Ilysa stopped. "How dare you?" She flung him to the ground, and her voice deepened, becoming more gravelly.

"Philip, hide! Stay here behind the cart. Do not watch!" Philip's mother deposited him behind the cart wheel and ran off. Philip crawled underneath the cart to the other side, to see what the commotion was. Will had tried to retrieve their lost money from the mean lady!

Cracks appeared in Ilysa's hardening skin as her neck elongated and mouth pushed out into a triangular snout. Ilysa's purple dress melted into her skin, transforming along with her body to become thick, purple scales. She crouched down as her arms and hands shifted into legs ending in claws, and she lunged at Will, snapping her jaws around his neck.

Philip screamed and curled into a ball, clenching his eyes shut and holding his hands to his ears as the crowd embraced chaos. People ran back and forth, some shouting orders to restrain Ilysa. "She is a murderer! Stop her!" Philip peeked out again and saw Ilysa, stuck somewhere between the form of a human and a dragon, still with blood dripping down her purple chin.

Philip cried.

*** "Hmmm." Jeremy tilted his head forward when Philip ended his story. Truly it must have been horrifying to watch, especially for someone so young and suggestible, although he doubted just how much had been his memory and what had been added from the embellishments of older witnesses, especially since he admitted to hiding behind a wagon for most of the attack. But regardless of possible inaccuracies in the tale, the historical record gave irrefutable evidence of Ilysa's actions that day. "You suffered a horror that day. Would that the very young could be spared tragedy. There is enough later in life."

"I am thankful for the lesson it taught me," Philip said. "Beauty is not to be trusted, for beneath fair skin, fangs await."

Jeremy winced at the awkward phrasing, glad the night had deepened enough to hide his expression. Despite the poor wording, what Philip had learned was the truth. One could not be too careful around beautiful women. "And I take it you have also applied your lesson literally. How long did our guards seek out the dragon, and how did she escape in the first place?"

"That is a mystery to all of us," Philip said. "Perhaps she beguiled some guard into letting her walk free. Maybe she shrank her form down to the size of a mouse and slipped through a crack in the wall."

"Maybe Lord Jeremy should latch his doors at night, lest a stranger enter unopposed." Jeremy and Philip turned when a female spoke, interrupting their conversation. Before them was a young woman with dark hair, wearing a pink dress that covered her slender body from her neck to her ankle. Her expression stern, she gazed at them without fear.

Philip was the first to recover. "How did you escape from Rick's watch?" He reached for the sword at his side, but not before Jeremy could put a hand on his arm, restraining him. "Jeremy, what are you doing? I must stop her."

"Let her explain herself first, Philip. Not all human females conceal a dragon beneath." He nodded to the young woman. "You are the one they call my niece, is that it?"

"I am." She inclined her head forward, but she did not bow. "It is a pleasure to finally meet you, Jeremy. I hear much about you." She turned to Philip. "To answer your question about how I left, it is simple. I asked to go and he released me. Your officer is standing outside this door, ready to arrest me if I should prove to be other than who I claim to be."

"I would ask you to join us, but I do not know your name," Jeremy said.

The woman laughed. "That was rude of me. I am Karen."

Jeremy closed his eyes, searching his memory for any record of a relative named Karen. None came to mind. Likely she was an impostor, claiming to be in his family line so she could hide her true purpose in coming. Nevertheless, he was not about to let Philip take her. "Welcome, Karen. Please join the captain of the guard and me for a few minutes. We are having a discussion about the dragon Ilysa. Have you heard of her in the southern lands?"

"Ilysa?" Karen strode forward and lowered herself into a chair. Jeremy had not seen a woman move with such grace since... since she had entered his life. Yet the one before him was not the woman of his dreams, despite the similarities. Besides, she was far too young for a man such as himself. "There are naught but whispers of her name in the southern lands. If memory serves me right, she once ruled the region neighboring this one, did she not?"

"Tales travel well to the southlands," Jeremy said. "I would offer you something to drink, but I have only water now. Would you care for any?"

Karen lifted her hand. "Thank you, but no. I do not need anything." She rested her elbows on her knees and watched Jeremy. "What was your story about Ilysa?"

"We discussed how she once attacked this city, was thrown in prison, and escaped," Jeremy said. "I was just about to tell Philip about a legend that I have heard from the peasant class. Some there believe they hold the answer to the mystery of Ilysa's departure."

"You would believe a peasant?" Philip asked. He snorted and spat over the side of the balcony. "They will tell you anything for attention."

"I do not think they would deliberately lie about this, although certainly their story has added details over the years. We can contemplate Philip's story and mine after I have finished with the telling of this tale." He took a deep breath and readied himself for the story. "This is a tale of a man named Eric..."

*** "Oh. She's here." Eric glanced over his shoulder to see what Brandon was talking about. "Can't she stay up in her mountain cave, surrounded by piles of gold, and leave us alone?"

Ilysa, the dragon who lived in the mountains, stood on the other corner of the square, haggling with a farmer. Eric squinted. Perhaps "haggling" was not the proper term, because the farmer was on his hands and knees, and usually it was the buyer who did the begging in these parts. Eric took pity on him. He was actually trying to make a decent living, but Ilysa was not pleased with his efforts. Eric placed a calloused hand on the clothes he was helping Brandon sell today. At least Ilysa would not trouble them. Since she was a beast covered with scales from the end of her snout to the tip of her tail, she wore nothing, unless she appeared in human form like today. Her lavish purple dress and feathered purple cap were... a little over the top, to put it mildly. But it was not Eric's place to judge a dragon, especially a dragon who pumped so much money into their small economy. Her stern face showed no mirth and told lesser beings to stay away, but he could not deny that his heart fluttered a bit when she smiled. Dragons had a charm, they said. That's what made them so dangerous. "Well, we can use her gold."

Brandon punched his arm. "We have potential customers to worry about," he said. "Don't gawk."

"Yeah, yeah." There was not much point in trying to attract customers right now. Ilysa captured the attention of everyone around. "What do you think is going to happen to him?"

"The farmer?" Brandon shrugged. "Who knows? Maybe he'll convince her to buy something." He mumbled something else unintelligible. The farmer stood up when Ilysa stormed away. His shoulders sagged, and he shook his head, so Eric guessed the farmer was having some ill fortune today. "Uh oh."

"Hmm?" With a slight nod of his head, Brandon pointed toward Ilysa, but more specifically the child sneaking up on her, one hand extended. "Uh oh." The child came ever closer to Ilysa with each passing second. "Brandon. Is he about to do what I think he's going to do?"

"Kid's an idiot if he tries." Eric's breath caught in his throat when the child reached into Ilysa's purse. Eric's face burned with the desire to speak out, but he knew if he said anything, the child would be caught. Stealing was a crime worthy of punishment, but he feared the punishment Ilysa would deliver.

It did not matter. Ilysa stopped walking and grabbed the child's wrist, bending it backward at a sharp angle and throwing him to the ground. "You are a fool! No one steals from Ilysa!" As she spoke, her clothes melted into her skin, which dried out and creased, forming purple scales. Her neck lengthened as her jaws pushed out, forming a triangular snout. Claws grew from the tips of her hands, which lowered to the ground as her transforming spine adjusted her body.

In the time it took to blink, Ilysa lashed forward, snapping her jaws around the child's neck. The child collapsed, a pool of blood forming around his head. Ilysa stood still, red dripping from her teeth and eyes glowing yellow. For an instant, he made eye contact with her, and Eric's heart rate accelerated. Ilysa broke contact, though, and it was then that Eric realized he had forgotten to breathe the past few seconds.

Eric stood transfixed, stunned at what he had witnessed. The cloth he was peddling slipped from his grip and landed in a wadded pile on the table. "Unbelievable."

"Stop her!" Brandon shouted and sprinted across the square, passing ten paces in front of Ilysa, who gave no indication she had even noticed him in front of her. He ran along the outer perimeter of the crowd, saying, "Did you see what happened? We can't allow it!"

She is a dragon! That was the one thought that coursed through Eric's mind repeatedly. How does he expect to stop a dragon? Ilysa wagged her head, as if coming out of a dream, and transformed back into a female human. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.

I acted too hastily. Eric blinked. Her lips had not moved, yet he understood her perfectly. I let my anger get the better of me, and now a boy is dead. There is nothing to do about it now. Someone from behind slung a line of rope around Ilysa's neck, and another coil of rope wound its way around her stomach and arms. "Muzzle her! Take her before the magistrate!" Ilysa thrashed and snapped at the humans surrounding her, face becoming draconic once again, but a daring human managed to fasten a metal band around her mouth, disarming her teeth and breath weapon. Eric followed along with the crowd, curious to see what would happen. Ilysa was letting them capture her, but why?

*** "I just gave this story!" Philip's comment interrupted Jeremy's tale, disrupting Jeremy's thoughts for a moment. He glanced at Karen, who displayed the same confused look. "Why are you telling it again?"

"It is not the same story you told, Philip." Jeremy closed his eyes and instructed his mind to recall the tale. "The events are identical so far, but it tells the perspective of another. It is Eric's story, not yours."

"I already can't believe the account. Ilysa is crafty, always working for her own gain. All the stories tell us that." Philip slapped the side of his chair. "Who tells the peasants these things?"

"Many times it takes many tales." Karen spoke and looked to Jeremy for support. She was the youngest here, and female, so by custom she had to wait until both Jeremy and Philip had finished speaking, or risk being reprimanded for her behavior. Jeremy smiled. "Most accounts tell only one side. It is only after hearing many perspectives that the truth is revealed."

"That is a welcome perspective," Jeremy said. "Now if you will excuse me, I want to finish my story."

*** It was a good thing the dungeon guards were corrupt, else Eric suspected he would never have made it this far into the compound. Perhaps "compound" was not quite the right word to use, since most of the cells were underground and a person could easily walk right over the prison without ever realizing it. The guard said Ilysa was being held near the surface, close enough for her to see the sun and moon through grating at ground level. This made things much easier for Eric. He patted the rope he had placed at his side, underneath his clothes. It would be handy for climbing down, if he dared to go that far.

I am actually going to Ilysa. Why? She had murdered a young man, a child really, in cold blood, and had allowed herself to be taken by the mob, even though she possessed the strength to destroy a score or more of people in under a minute. Something drove her to act this way, and something else possessed him to find out what. It will probably kill me. The guard said she was muzzled, but how did he know she had not broken free?

He didn't care. He only wanted to find out.

"This is it," he whispered to the night air, and he shivered despite the evening's warmth. He stooped and grasped the grating in both hands and pulled up. It groaned against its stone support, but after a few seconds of effort, it popped free, sending him backward. Eric uncoiled the rope from around his waist and tied it to one of the crossbeams that had supported the grating. He supposed there was just enough room for him to squeeze between it and the stone. He dropped the free end of the rope into the hole, hoping fifteen arm lengths was enough. Then, he lowered himself through the hole.

"You are fortunate I cannot open my mouth far, human, else I would have spit fire on you already." Ilysa's low voice came from somewhere beneath him, off to his right perhaps. The moon shone overhead, but his body's shadow blocked most of the light, so he could not see inside even if he had tried to look down. "Why have you come?"

Eric was about ten feet below the hole now. He looked from side to side. Over in the darkness, two points of yellow light shone. "You let them capture you. Why? You were justified in killing the boy." Eric wanted to get that out of the way as soon as possible. Everyone knew the primary rule of dealing with dragons. If you stole from them or attempted to steal from them, you were fair game. If you died, it was your fault. "You could have escaped."

Ilysa made a rumbling sound, like a dog's growl or a cat's purr. Eric did not know which was the better comparison. Was she amused? Angry? He hoped for the former. "I could have, but I have my reasons." Her eyes moved from side to side as she swayed her head back and forth. "You ignored my question at your peril. Why have you come?" Chains clinked around the dragon's body. How much could she move? He stopped climbing down. "You are not in danger where you are. I cannot reach that far."

Eric hustled the rest of the way down, holding his breath when his feet touched the floor of Ilysa's cell. "I wanted to ask a question."

"You already asked one." She turned her head away. "I am not in the mood for visitors." Eric stepped to the side. The moon cast a square of light into the cell, but its illumination faded before he could see Ilysa. He wondered what she was like. No one had ever seen her in full dragon form and lived to tell about it. Her partial transformation earlier today was a rare event, one that few would forget and none would want to repeat.

She was not attacking him, but she said she could not reach that far. No use taking chances. "I heard you today. When the crowd swept over you and you did not resist them. You said something about acting too hasty."

Ilysa snorted, and sparks fell to the floor, originating from a point just below her eyes. It lit up her face, exposing a metal coil around her snout. "I said no such thing, foolish boy." Eric backed away a step. She purred again. "However, I did project my thoughts toward you."

Eric tilted his head forward and stepped toward Ilysa. He put a hand over his chest. "Pardon?" Dragons could supposedly do that, but only to humans they had under her spell, and Eric wasn't under any spell. How could humans know that with any degree of certainty? Anti-dragon sentiment ran high, as always. Probably it was a misunderstood dragon talent. "Why did you do that?"

"Because I knew you would come and free me. Stay where you are." Eric obeyed. After hearing that, his legs would not have been able to move anyway. With the clinking of chains and rustling of leather, Ilysa stood and came toward him, far closer than Eric imagined possible. Her head appeared in the moon's light, sleek and slender, eyes set deeply above the base of her snout, always glowing. No trace of blood from her attack could be seen. Her feet came into view as she walked around him, forming a circle with her body. Heavy chains connected thick bands of iron around her legs, identifying the source of the clinking. Her wings were free, but she kept them close to her body.

Eric's breath caught in his throat. No human was allowed to see a dragon's true form. Her body was smaller than he'd imagined. At the shoulder, she barely came above his waist. The length of her body, including the tail, was impossible to gauge, but Eric guessed it had to be at least twelve feet, probably more. "I... I thought you said you could not reach this far."

Ilysa winked. "You were in the air then," she said. "Also, I lied." She draped a wing on his shoulder. "You are the seamstress' helper, are you not?"

"Yes. I help her sell her works in the market square."

"Mhmm." Now Ilysa completely encircled him. She wrapped her neck around and brought her head to his eye level, fixing her gaze on him. Her eyes, sparkling with energy and mystery, drew him in. "Do you not wish to do something more with your life?" She came so close the tip of her snout touched his nose. "Free me, come with me, and I will grant you a life you can only imagine."

Eric suddenly became aware of holding his breath for some time. He breathed in, and Ilysa's spicy breath filled his lungs, overpowering his mind and lifting his thoughts high above the world. "How will I free you?"

Ilysa laughed, a throaty rumble which shook Eric's bones. "You came here to free me. Use the tool you brought with you."

Eric snapped out of his daze long enough to remember the pin he'd stuck in his shirt. Yes, he had brought it with him, but he hadn't been sure why. It wasn't like he had any thread, so if his clothes had ripped, the pin would have been useless. Now... "I understand."

"First my snout," Ilysa said. "I tire of this coil. You will find the locking mechanism on your left-hand side." Eric reached for the side of her snout, feeling for the lock. With his other hand, he removed the pin from his shirt. Ilysa turned her head, bringing the lock closer to him, but in the process his hands lost the lock and brushed against her scales. They were smooth, almost silky, and cool to the touch. He fumbled with the pin a little but quickly recovered, placed the pin in the lock, and within seconds the metal coil came loose. Eric threw it to the side, and it clattered somewhere behind him.

Ilysa opened her mouth wide, exposing two rows of white teeth that shone in the moonlight. A strange light lit up the back of her throat, flickering on and off. "Now your feet." Eric stooped and picked up the chain. It crossed over itself, further limiting Ilysa's movements, and it connected to the metal bands around her feet with a thick loop of iron. The bands formed a clamp around each leg, with a simple but strong lock where the ends clasped together. A few moments later, Ilysa was free. She raised each leg in turn, as if testing them. She eyed the square hole above her.

"How sturdy is your rope?" She threw herself backward so she stood on her hind legs. Her wings disappeared as her body shrank and took on the features of a human female. Her scales separated from her skin and formed a purple dress. She frowned. "Why are you staring at me like that?"

"Why did you... change back?" Eric shook his head. "Um..."

"I would not fit." She gave the rope a firm tug. "Sturdy enough. You climb first. I will follow." Eric nodded and began his ascent of the rope, looking down in time to see Ilysa take the rope in her hands and follow him up. Once at the top, Eric reached to help Ilysa the rest of the way, but she ignored his hand and pulled herself over the rim. Now in the open, she returned to the dragon form. Eric reached down to wind the rope, but Ilysa stopped him with a wing. "Leave it," she said. "We are free. It does not matter. Besides, it adds to the speculation if we leave them some evidence." She bowed her head. "Now climb on, and we will fly from here."

Eric hesitated, still glancing back at the rope. "You mean, you will take me away?"

"Of course I will. We had a deal. You let me escape, and I let you escape." Her eyes gleamed as she gave him a toothy grin. "You are mine." Eric took a deep breath and climbed onto Ilysa's back. She had no spines, so he tucked his knees in and hugged her neck. Ilysa jumped into the air and beat her wings, and they were gone.

*** Jeremy leaned back in his chair when he finished the story. It was too dark to read faces now; the stars and sliver of a moon did little to illuminate the balcony. A wood stub and rag lay at his feet, along with oil and some flint, so he could light a torch when he desired. He could see enough to go back inside. "The peasants say Eric disappeared from the city that day and has spent his life traveling the world with his lover, Ilyna." He laughed. "Maybe they think him a hero for risking his life, probably they view him as a lunatic for trying."

"In those stories, Ilysa is not even the same person, or rather dragon," Philip said. "Your story is too fantastic to be true, so I'll have to conclude the peasants are addled. Thank you for telling it, though. You provided me with some entertainment to recall whenever I see one of them passing by."

"I would like to have heard the first story, so I knew how to compare the two," Karen said. "Jeremy's is strange, and unlike the version of Ilysa that the southlands know. Down there, she is a fierce queen, willing to defend what is hers at all costs, yet good to reward those with whom she finds favor. There is a story of a country girl who stumbled into her cave and came close to stealing a trinket, but Ilysa caught her. Instead of killing the girl, she took her in as her slave and representative among the people."

Jeremy could sense the skepticism in Philip's voice as he spoke. "Where are you from?"

Karen was not baited. "Do I sound like I am from the country? It is a tale from the southlands. Shall we go to Ilysa's cave and verify its accuracy for ourselves?"

"No!" Philip's reply was fierce. "I mean, no. There is no need for that." He stood, a shadow in the twilight. "It is late, and I want to be home soon. Jeremy, I assume Karen is who she claims to be?"

"Yes, she is. I will vouch for her. You are dismissed. I will walk you to the door. Karen, you may do what you wish." Jeremy prepared the torch and squeezed the flint lighter, creating a spark that landed on the oil-drenched rag. Orange light illuminated the balcony, snuffing out the stars overhead. Together, Philip and Jeremy walked through the house, Karen remaining behind. "I hope you have a good night," he said to Philip when they were at the door.

"Likewise. My apologies for doubting your niece."

Jeremy closed the door behind him and walked back to the balcony, where Karen waited. "Ilysa never told me she had acquired a servant," he said, "although it does not surprise me that she would show mercy." He set the torch in its stand on the wall and settled back in his chair. The fireflies were gone, replaced by moths fluttering near the light. "I will not ask what it is you tried to steal."

Karen smiled and, if the light did not deceive him, blushed a little. "She wants to know when you will come to call on her again. It has been very long, she says."

Jeremy yawned. "I am old now, Karen, and have lost the handsomeness of my youth. I no longer have the strength to climb to her mountain, and it is too dangerous for her to come here." He sighed. "Ilysa stole my heart when I rescued her from that pit, and she has never returned it, nor would I ask it back."

"Not even once before you die? Ilysa would be most pleased." Karen reached into her dress and produced a small bag. "If you will not grace her with your presence, at least honor her by accepting this gift." She opened the bag onto her palm and shook, letting two small gold coins and three bronze ones fall onto her hand.

Two gold and three bronze. Ilysa had provided him the same trinkets soon after their escape. It had been the beginning of his fortune, which had ultimately given him a position among the nobles in his place of birth, above the peasants. What did she want to tell him? "I already have more than I could ever spend in my life, Karen. Why does she give me this?"

"She says you will know what to do with it. Take it." Jeremy held out his hand, and Karen dropped the tokens into his palm. He made a fist around the coins, brought his hand to his side, and let them fall into his pocket. "She believes Eric will pass along the gifts he receives."

Jeremy, once known as Eric, nodded. "That I will. I can think of a few who need the money, already. Added to my own funds, it should be of help to them. I give Ilysa my thanks."

"I must be going now," Karen said. "I do not need an escort."

"Are you sure? I would be glad to walk you down to the gate."

"No, Eric. Remain here. The next time you walk to the walls, it will be to see Ilysa again. Can you promise her that much?"

Jeremy paused. "I'll see what I can do." It would be good to see her again, and one day, he would. That was certain.