When the dragon drops from the sky and torches the tiny fishing town, Rona does not approach. Instead, she grits her teeth and watches. She digs her fingernails into her palms until they bleed, tamping down her urge to run forward. “Remember the rules,” Rona whispers, watching the smoke.
Rona doesn’t move, not even when the villagers start screaming. Mother Judith says this rule is deeply important—don’t let anyone, especially the dragon, see her. She must always stay hidden. She wraps her arms around her knobby knees and sinks further into the bushes.
A hornet drunk on blueberry pollen lands on her cheek but she doesn’t brush it away. Rona remains still. She tries not to think of the way the insect would crackle and pop under the kiss of a match.
When yet another wizard appears—and they always do—Rona ignores him. Ignoring wizards is the easiest rule. They’re all arrogant old bastards, and this wizard won’t listen to Rona’s advice, anyway. He promises her infinite gold if she’ll help him kill the dragon, but why would she ever want to hurt a monster that creates such beautiful fires?
The dragon kills the wizard, and Rona grapples with the next rule. Mother Judith says she must feel pity during those precious moments the wizard is engulfed in swirling red flames. She must ignore how beautiful his white beard looks as it blackens and curls.
Rona should not feel envy—but she does.
* * *
She traces the scars that bubble and pucker across her cheeks, the winding burn marks that make her eyelids heavy with hard tissue and twist her face into a permanent sneer. Mother Judith says these long-healed wounds make her ugly. Rona tells herself that she does not want more.
Even her scars ache with longing as she stares into the smoke.
The rules Mother has beat into her swirl around and around, twisting through Rona’s mind like the yellow flames licking over the thatched roofs of the fishing village. Mother’s voice cracks through her mind, screaming the two rules Rona never wanted to believe:
You are unwanted.
You are unloved.
Rona needs to leave. Mother Judith will find her and the beating will be particularly bad this time, but she can’t tear her eyes away from the dragon.
Every blast of fire sends a shiver through her. The rules say Rona needs to find a river, to leap in headfirst and drown herself in wet and darkness. To hold her head underwater until the panic attacks seize her and she forgets everything bright and hot.
But her scars itch, itch, itch, like a skin that begs shedding.
* * *
The dragon drowns the village in gouts of sapphire flame that twist like dancers through the ash-choked streets. Rona forgets to breathe. She’s never seen blue flames before. She wants—no, needs—a better look. Just a glimpse.
She forgets what happens to little girls who play with fire.
This time, the dragon sees her.
It lands near the already wilting blueberry bushes. Its claws sear the earth, leaving rings of ash. The hornet shoots away, startled.
The dragon is the most beautiful thing Rona has ever seen.
There is no rule for this.
The dragon is the color of a fire turning from blue to green and back again, the hue of a steady flame burning at its hottest on an endless fuel. The heat rolling off of its body makes Rona’s lip crack but it’s a good pain. A sweet pain. She wants more.
The dragon snorts. The smoke is intoxicating.
“Well it’s about time,” the dragon says. “What are you still doing in that thing, anyway?”
The dragon bends down, flames flickering from its maw, and Rona can’t help it—she reaches a hand out. The flames circle her fingers, racing up her elbow. The pain that pops through Rona in great starbursts of heat is nothing to the elation that makes her mouth water.
“Let’s go,” the dragon says. “We need to leave before the witch shows up again.”
As she burns, Rona thinks of Mother Judith.
The rules and the beatings started after Rona set fire to the curtains. She wanted to see how the purple silk would curl under a flame. She wanted to see what happened to beautiful things when they burned.
“Remember the rules,” Mother Judith would shout, snapping her whip across Rona’s ribs. “You’re too dangerous for this world. It’s better this way. Safer for the rest of us.”
* * *
The fire crawls up Rona’s arms. It wraps around her mouth and Rona cannot speak around the smoke. She burns, but she’s alive, and this part is confusing. Mother Judith always told Rona that all fires were deadly. Why isn’t she dying?
The dragon rambles like a peevish old man.
“Do you know how many good hunting years I’ve wasted? I flew from town to town, terrorizing these pests, trying to tempt you out. Do you know what I’ve gone through to find you? Really, I am getting too old to play nanny.”
The more Rona burns the less she hurts, until even her scars melt away.
She feels a sharp pain between her shoulders.
There is no rule for this.
It’s Mother Judith, screaming, tearing through the woods. Of course she found her. It’s in the rules.
“Hurry up,” the dragon says. “I haven’t got all day.”
“Get away from that thing. Get to the river,” Mother howls. “Remember the rules!”
Rona knows the rules, but she no longer cares.
The flames shift from yellow to gold.
The dragon says, “Finally.”
Rona’s skin blisters and peels away in rolling black flakes. Where there should be nothing but charred muscles and cooking bone there’s something hard, glistening, colored the pale yellow of candlelight and coated in a thick albumen fluid.
Beneath the flames that circle Rona’s wrist, scales grow.
The rules no longer apply.
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