Dragon Slayer – Lauren Gilley

He woke to the pain of his brother’s elbow in his ribs. “Val,” Vlad murmured, half-asleep. “Stop kicking me.” “Oh.” Val blinked up at the ceiling, the faint shadows from the fireplace that flickered over it. “Sorry.” Vlad sighed and rolled toward him. The furs flapped, letting in a shaft of cold air that made Val gasp. But then his brother wriggled closer until there was no room for anything save soft shirts, body heat, and warm, sleep-sour breath between them. The lantern Mother had left on the desk had all but burned down, only the last sputtering fraction of the wick. The fire crackled low in the grate, a diffuse glow that washed up over the bed where the two brothers slept together beneath a heap of furs and blankets to keep warm in the winterchilled palace. There was just enough light for Val to make out his brother’s face, the glimmer of his cracked-open eyes through a screen of tousled dark hair. “Where did you go this time?” Vlad asked, sounding more awake now. The dream still clung to him. The dream that wasn’t a dream at all, but a visit.

“I don’t know,” he said. “There was gold everywhere. And columns. Tapestries. I think it was a palace. There was a man. A prince, maybe.” Vlad grunted in obvious disappointment. He liked specifics. The very first time Val went dream-walking, it was to see his brother.

His nurse had tucked him in for a nap, the sun high above, the light of his bedroom pure and without shadows. Val’s mouth still tasted of berries and cream, and his muscles burned pleasantly from playing, and his eyes had closed the moment his head touched the pillow. But then, suddenly, he’d found himself awake. And out of bed. Standing in the center of the room where Vlad sat perched on a stool at a low, book-loaded table, reading from a tome almost as big as he was. Vlad had jumped, startled, his serious reading-face dissolving into an expression of intense shock. And then he’d frowned and huffed angrily. “You’re supposed to be napping.” “I…I am. Or…I was.

” Vlad slid off the stool with a sigh, and came around the table, reaching for Val’s hand. “I’ll take you back,” he said. But his hand passed straight through Val’s. As if it wasn’t even there. Val stared down at his own small hand, agape, as he watched his fingers blur and swirl, like smoke, before resettling and becoming solid again. Solid-looking. Vlad let out a string of curses he’d learned from the wolves, no doubt, and tried again. The same thing happened. Vlad was in the process of stepping right through him when Fenrir poked his head into the room and startled both of them with one of his booming laughs. “Dream-walking is it, my lords?” Fenrir was very old, and very wise, even if father said he was a “great stupid lout of a wolf,” and he’d explained to them that Val was still very much upstairs in their shared bed, that this was his mind projecting itself.

“Not all vampires have the gift,” he’d said, “but some do. You do, your grace.” And he’d bowed low, beard swaying, so that Val had a view of the top of his head. Val had laughed, and tried to clap his hands together, but of course he wasn’t really there, so that hadn’t been possible. In the months since that first discovery, the dream-walking had happened with greater consistency. Mother had promised he’d someday be able to choose his destination, to drop into his strange not-dreams at will, and go visiting with others of their kind across vast distances. But so far, it happened when it wanted to happen. He thought Vlad might have been jealous of his skill, but Vlad never said so. He only asked about his travels, pumping him for details, trying to experience it vicariously. Vlad’s nose wrinkled.

“Are you sure it wasn’t Father again?” “No, it wasn’t him. This prince wasn’t speaking Romanian.” “Father speaks lots of languages.” “But it wasn’t Father.” “Uncle, then?” “No, it–” Footsteps in the hall. Their mother’s scent reached them before the door swung open. They both froze; Vlad’s dark eyes went comically wide. Candlelight stretched across the floor and Mother entered with a soft, musical chuckle. “Boys,” she chided, coming to sit on the side of the bed. The candle’s glow fell over them, gentle as the hand she smoothed across each of their foreheads in turn.

“I seem to remember putting two handsome princes to bed two hours ago.” When Mother scolded, it was always with a smile, and it always made Val want to promise that he’d never step so much as a single toe out of line ever again. “Val went dream-walking,” Vlad said, shifting onto his back so they were both looking up at Mother’s quietly radiant face. Her hair fell in thick gold waves to her waist, the ends trailing across the blankets. “Oh? Where did you go, darling?” She pushed Val’s hair out of his eyes, smile impossibly warm. “He doesn’t know,” Vlad said. “I don’t know,” Val echoed. “I was by the sea. I could smell the salt. And there was a man – very tall, and handsome, and he had curly dark hair.

I think he was important.” “Hmm, he sounds important,” Mother agreed, smoothing his hair again. “What else do you remember?” He felt his face scrunch up as he fought to recall. Every time he dream-walked, it became easier to recall the details. The first few times had left him foggy, his thoughts distorted. But the more he walked, the more pieces he was able to bring back with him. Now, tonight, he remembered a velvet night sky studded with stars, the distant shush and slap of gentle waves. He remembered buildings packed cheek-by-jowl, smooth pale stone that gleamed in the moonlight, architectural angles that reminded him of… He gasped. “Greek. They were speaking Greek.

” The man he thought might be a prince, bent over a wooden table with another man, a silver plate dotted with burning, melting candles. They’d spoken in Greek. “Ah.” Mother’s smile became proud. The same smile she bestowed on Vlad when he slid down from his horse’s bare back, a brace of hares clutched in one small hand. “My son the triumphant hunter,” she would always say. She looked at Val like that now. “Did you go to Byzantium, love?” “I…” He wracked his brain, searching, searching. He’d made a noise, a quiet clearing of his throat, and the two men had turned around in their chairs to look at him, looking startled. Humans were always startled by what he could do.

But before that, before they’d noticed him, one man had called the handsome, curly-haired stranger by his name. “Constantine,” he said. “That was his name.” Mother beamed. “My clever boy. You went all the way to the seat of the emperor.” Val felt himself smiling in return. “Wow,” Vlad breathed beside him, breath warm where it tickled Val’s neck. Byzantium. Constantinople.

The eastern seat of the Roman Empire. A fitting destination, he supposed, for a son of Rome. ~*~ An Empire Away Nightfall in the palace gardens of Edirne smelled of a strange blend of orange blossom and healing wolfsbane. The climate here was that of Eastern Europe, of Wallachia, and Transylvania, and Hungary. But the Turks had brought plants from farther east with them, and architecture and customs as well. Overhead, the sky wheeled dark and star-studded. A breeze stirred the flames of the torches; they scudded and smoked, and lit the way with bright flickers. Mehmet admired the patterns on his bare toes as he walked down the pebbled path, wending his way beneath the shadows of climbing roses. He still missed his mother, living with her and the other women in the harem. But it was time for him to start acting like a man, as Father had said.

And men didn’t hang off their mother’s skirts. Did men eavesdrop, though? He hoped they did, because that’s what he was doing now, moving toward the low murmur of voices just ahead beneath a wisteria bower. One belonged to his father, but the other was a stranger. Silent from long months of practice, Mehmet skirted one of the bower’s stone support columns and ducked down into the shadows of a decorative hedge. When he peered through the leaves, he saw two figures standing in the flickering torchlight: his father’s familiar stocky build, and a tall, lean stranger, a hood hiding most of his face. Mehmet caught the wet gleam of dark eyes, and the end of a prominent nose. They spoke in Turkish. “I’m afraid,” Father was saying, “that I fail to understand your reasoning for this, my lord. Generous gifts are not given without the expectation of reciprocity.” The stranger chuckled.

“You really think me so mercenary, Your Majesty?” Father didn’t join in his laughter. “I know who you are, and what you’ve done.” “Ah. You disapprove, then.” “I did not say that.” The stranger rolled his weight back onto his heels, obviously surprised. “Sometimes,” Father continued, “it’s a man’s own flesh and blood that stands in the way of his empire, and steps must be taken.” A gleam of teeth beneath the hood as the stranger smiled. “Then we understand one another.” Father cocked his head.

“I understand much of you. Still. Choosing my son, when you have nephews – that I do not understand.” It was quiet a moment, save the rustle of leaves and the pounding of Mehmet’s heart behind his ribs. “My nephews are fine boys,” the stranger said at last. “But they are content. They lack…imagination.” Mehmet didn’t know why, but he shivered. The hooded face turned toward him. “Speaking of which, it seems your son has joined us.

” Oh no! He’d tried so carefully to be quiet. Father turned toward his hiding spot, expression shifting from surprise to outrage. “Mehmet–” he started. The stranger lifted a staying hand. “No, it’s alright. Don’t scold the boy. Mehmet, come out now, you’re not in any trouble.” He hesitated, thinking of the mullahs and their riding crops, their assertions that they would make a mannerly boy of him for the sultan. The stranger pushed his hood back and revealed a high forehead, and strong jaw, bold cheekbones. Fierce and beautiful, like one of the Greek statues he admired so much.

“Come here, Mehmet,” he said, smiling, “let me look at you.” Mehmet left his hiding place, brushing leaves from his kaftan, trying to look as upright and respectable as possible – a waste after hiding, but he wanted, suddenly, to impress this man. The man looked down at him, and his smile widened. In the dancing torchlight, his eyes seemed to glow. “Hello, Mehmet. My name is Romulus, and I think you and I shall be great friends.” 1 ONLY MY MIND Denver, Colorado Present Day The first time it happened, Mia was coming off a twelve-hour day at the barn. She’d climbed into her first saddle at six, schooled four horses, handled a tricky lameness exam with a client’s horse and a man-diva of a vet who sniffed at her contemptuously every time she asked a question, and then she started teaching lessons. At some point, Donna shoved half a peanut butter sandwich into her grubby hand and said, “Eat that before you fall over.” When she got home, bone-weary and ready for bed by seven p.

m., she’d noticed a big greasy spot of peanut butter on the collar of her polo. Figured. She took an obscenely hot shower, threw her schooling clothes in the direction of the hamper, and reheated a Tupperware of leftover pasta. Hair still wet, she collapsed into her comfiest chair, dinner and a glass of wine on the side table, favorite ugly socks on her feet, her current vampire novel du jour in one hand. It was a boring evening; the kind a busy trainer/working student gunning for the pro circuit lived for. And then, suddenly, it wasn’t. She glanced up from her book, intent on spearing a difficult hunk of chicken with her fork, and froze. A man stood in the center of her living room. Her fork fell out of her hand, landing on the edge of the plate with a clatter.

The first thing she noticed was his hair. It was impossible not to notice: long, full, pale gold waves that fell nearly to his waist. Then the eyes: blue. The face: narrow and regal. The clothes: red velvet, and a black fur cloak, and knee-high polished boots. He was stunning. He was impossible. Slowly, Mia set her book aside on the table. The man wasn’t looking at her, was instead inspecting the room around him, making a slow turn in the center of the rug, tilting his head side to side as he took in her TV, Ikea furniture, and overloaded bookshelf. He stopped, finally, blue eyes widening, and stepped in closer to inspect the titles on the spines.

Later, much later, she would remember the way it was the books that had captured his interest first, and she’d carry that little kernel of gold with her for the rest of her life. But for now, she had an intruder in her apartment, and the closest weapon to hand was the lamp on the table beside her. Slowly, slowly, she leaned over and wrapped her fingers around the base. It was a chunky faux-bronze thing that she thought was supposed to look antique, and it was heavy. She gave it an experimental tug and it eked toward her a half-inch, shade wobbling alarmingly. She bit her lip, wincing. It would take both hands, but she thought it would make a good projectile. She’d get only one shot, though, so it had to count. “Hmm,” the man hummed, back still to her, “you can throw that if you like, but it won’t do any good.” She snatched it up in both hands, heart leaping wildly, and chucked it at him.

He didn’t move, but the lamp didn’t strike him. It seemed to pass through him, his back and shoulders swirling like smoke a moment, then resettling. The lamp crashed against the bookshelf; a handful of well-loved hardbacks toppled to the floor, pages crumpling. The frame of the shelf had cracked. Silence, save the rough scrape of Mia’s breath in and out of her lungs. Holy shit, she thought. What the… The man turned, unhurried. A sharp little smile lifted one corner of his mouth. “I did warn you.” A dozen potential questions gathered on the back of her tongue, but what left her mouth was, “What are you?” His smile widened; the lamplight caught on sharp, white canines.

“Oh, well. This is interesting.” He tipped his chin down, and his eyes flashed, and he leaned toward her in a way that sent goosebumps rippling down her arms. There was such an inherent threat in his posture. Like the villains in her favorite novels. “Stop.” She threw up a hand, as if that could keep him back. “Just…” She couldn’t breathe. “Stop.” He relaxed a fraction, head pulling back on his slender, pale neck.

“I can’t actually touch you, you know. Not even if I wanted to.” To demonstrate, he reached behind him and passed a spectral hand through a shelf on her bookcase. I’m dreaming, she thought with sudden relief. She’d been even more tired than she thought, and she’d passed out in the chair; probably dropped her book; probably spilled her wine. Or what if it’s worse than a dream? an insidious voice whispered in the back of her mind. No. She couldn’t think that. Not right now. She was dreaming.

And yet… “What are you?” she repeated. He smiled, but it was softer this time, almost delighted. “You could have asked all sorts of things, you know. Who. Why. What are my intentions. But you went straight to what.” His smile became almost a grimace, but he folded his arms and cocked his hips in obvious challenge. “What am I? I’m many things. A prince.

A prisoner. A brother. A legacy. But that’s not what you meant, is it?” “You look…” Her eyes moved over his glorious hair, his fine features, his elegant clothes. Beautiful. “…like an elf.” But that wasn’t right, and when he smiled again, she saw his canines, that sharp flash, and knew. “Close, darling,” he said. “But not quite.” Mia took a deep breath that did nothing to calm her pounding heart.

She glanced over at the book she’d laid on the table; its cover depicted a long-haired vampire in medieval armor, arms around a human woman. She exhaled in a rush. “Of course there’s a vampire in my living room,” she muttered, gaze flicking back to the intruder. “Of course.” His grin was blinding. He sketched a deep, formal bow, hair sliding over his shoulders in gorgeous disarray. “Prince Valerian of Wallachia, ma’am. It’s a pleasure.” She blinked at him. “What kind of accent is that?” Because if she was dreaming, why not play along? It was the most entertaining thing that had happened to her in months.

He sighed. “I’ve just told you. Wallachian.” When she continued to stare, he said, “That’s in Romania, darling.”


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