There was no reason to be worried, Fix tried to console himself. The general nicknamed the Great Dragon was rarely home, right? He was always off conquering this country or laying siege to that town; he probably sent home souvenirs of his conquests all the time. Fix’s unusual appearance wouldn’t cause a stir, either, judging from the plentitude of exotic features and heavy accents among the servants of the main house. With his dusky skin and pale-gold hair, grown out long over the years and finally (his sister had declared, with some snide satisfaction) properly done-up, Fix would fit right in. The pins and barrettes felt strange – though not as strange as the corset – but a careful application of makeup made even his mud-brown eyes look at least a little deeper than normal.
The disguise wasn’t one hundred percent perfect, but it was good enough; no one had batted a lash at him and Lux during the journey to the estate.
“His wife?” The steward, a gray-haired, pinch-faced man, raised an eyebrow and pushed his glasses up his beaky nose. “Is that what you say?”
Fix took a deep breath and smoothed his skirts. He tried out the biggest, most sincere smile he could manage. “Yes, sir,” he said, and allowed more of his childhood accent into his voice than he had in years. “Taken from the western Templeland villages, sir.”
The man continued to stare at Fix. His lips pressed into a thin line. “And you have proof of this?”
“A token, sir,” Fix said humbly. He bowed his head, fumbling briefly in his skirt pockets before he pulled out the pocket watch. Lux had picked it up from a man years ago: a handsome silver piece, stamped with a stylized sinuous dragon, its one visible eye set with a dark green emerald. He held it up for the steward’s inspection, smiling demurely as the old man leaned forward, squinting at the mark. After long seconds, his lips thinned again, and he turned his head up to peer at Fix. This close, he smelled of slightly soured milk, and there were faint liver-spots visible on his skin under a fine layer of powder.
“Very well,” he said. “The seal appears to be genuine. Your papers?”
“My maid has them,” Fix demurred. Lux, standing quietly behind him, came forward. She handed the slim lacquered box they’d stolen for this particular job to the steward. He snapped it open and adjusted his glasses again, skimming the papers inside.
“… You’re awfully unattended, for being the master’s wife,” he said at last.
“Sir,” Fix said. He dropped a slightly-awkward curtsey. “The Great Dragon felt it would be safer to keep my identity a secret. I traveled under the pretense of being another servant. I was only to reveal myself to the people of the main house once I arrived.”
“Is that so.” The steward looked them both over hard, and then shook his head. “Very well. A room will be made up for your girl; I’ll have someone set up the master bedroom for you. Please wait … my lady.”
He bowed stiffly to them both, and left the room. They waited five breaths after the door clicked shut behind him, and then Lux let out an explosive breath, tossing an arm around Fix’s shoulders and grinning wide enough to split her face. “I think we’re in,” she said, eyes bright. “Did you get a look at this place?! The biggest problem is gonna be leaving behind so much cool stuff when we book it out of here!”
“I bet there’s jewelry,” Fix agreed, grinning as well. “We could probably just wear some of it out, leave more room in our bags for more stuff.”
“We are geniuses,” Lux said happily. Her eyes were glittering. “I was listening to some of the kitchen girls gossiping earlier – they’re pretty good about keeping tabs on wherever their master currently is. We’ll be totally forewarned when he starts heading home, and be out before anyone’s the wiser!” She pumped her fist a few times, still hanging off Fix.
“I wonder if we could convince that geezer to let us into the main vault,” Fix wondered. “I am supposed to be the lady of the house, after all.”
“That’s right!” Lux slid off him. “You’re an honest woman, and you should get first dibs on your husband’s spoils of war, right? My lady.” She dropped into a low mocking curtsey, her eyes sparkling from under coyly-lowered lashes. Fix yawned and mocked boredom, making a brief shooing gesture with one hand; they held their respective postures for a few seconds before breaking up into laughter again.
“Shh, shh, come on,” Fix managed after a few minutes. He wiped at his eyes. “Remember, demure and polite, we’re young girls from a tiny village. We’re supposed to be overwhelmed.”
Lux snickered as she straightened up. She tugged her skirts straight, then set to tidying Fix’s clothes as well. “Overwhelmed, right. I’ll just bet you were! ‘Oh, Dragon! Your arms are so burly and manly, not like my own noodle-sticks–”
“Oh, shut up.” He aimed a swat at her, which she dodged. “It’s not my fault I look more like Mom! And I’ll have you know that there are plenty of girls who like a young man who’s fit, rather than some over muscled brute!”
“You keep telling yourself that,” Lux said condescendingly. “I’m sure someday you’ll meet someone who might believe you.”
He made a face at her, and they both jumped as the door opened. It was the steward, accompanied by a milk-faced maid. “This is Edlyn,” he said. “She will show your woman to her rooms. As for you, my lady, I shall escort you myself.” He pushed his glasses up again, his expression schooled still into one of stern disapproval. “Shall we, my lady–?”
“Fia,” Fix said sweetly, keeping her eyes trained on the floor and her hands clasped demurely before her. “My name is Fia.”
“I think I’m a little bit in love,” Lux told him the next morning. Fix was seated in front of the vanity, with Lux brushing out his hair. Spread before them were a whole variety of jeweled combs, clips, and pins, each perfectly delicate and lovely. “The Dragon must have more money than the king, with all the stuff he keeps around here. The cheapest set of plates still has gold leaf on the rims! Gold! And the silver candlesticks are only for the really fancy dinners, but still – there’s at least eight of them! Eight!” She sighed, yanking the brush through a stubborn knot. “If only you really were his wife, then we could stay here forever. Luxury’s not such a bad thing.”
“Don’t even say that,” Fix said dryly. He selected a thin gold chain from his jewelry box, set with a bright blue sapphire pendant, and fastened it around his neck. “As much as I’m sure you’re enjoying it, I am not that interested in sleeping with another man.”
“You make such a pretty girl, though,” Lux sighed. She began to pile Fix’s hair atop his head, reaching for a long comb set with amber. “Why couldn’t I have had an older sister? Then things would be so much easier …”
“If I’d been born a sister to you,” he said dryly, “who would’ve taught you things like lock picking and the art of a con?” He tapped a finger against his temple. “You think anyone would’ve taught me if I’d been a girl? Be glad I was a brother and kind enough to pass it on to you.”
“And so modest, too!” Lux snorted. She slid the comb into place amongst Fix’s bundled hair and reached for its matched partner. “Still, if you’d been a sister, maybe you really could have won the Dragon’s heart, and we could stay here …”
“Or not,” Fix said. He sighed and turned his head a little, so he could glance over his shoulder at her. “I’m not interested in staying, but if you are …”
“I like the easy life,” she said agreeably. “And this is pretty easy, you have to admit. Even old Pinch-Face seems like he’ll be bearable if I just avoid him more than not.” She slid the second comb carefully into the artfully-arranged tumble of Fix’s hair, pressing it firmly into place. “It’d be pretty nice to be able to stay.”
“As long as we can,” Fix promised. He twisted in his seat to look up at her, smiling as earnestly as he could manage. “That’s about all we’ve got, Lux.”
She made a brief face at him, and then put her hands on his shoulders, turning him back to the vanity. “Do your makeup,” she said. “The servants are going to want to meet ‘Lady Fia’ soon.”
In the hallway from the dining room to the sitting room, the walls were lined with large, elaborate paintings of war. The Great Dragon was always featured front and center, dressed in his distinctive red-accented armor and dragon-horn helmet. In some paintings he rode upon a nightmare-black horse; in others he stood upon his own feet; and in one in particular – the one closest to the sitting room – he was carried in the air by large bat-like wings, with an ocean wave crashing up dramatically behind him. Of all the paintings, this was the only one that showed even part of the Dragon’s face: his eyes were visible through some stylized gap in the helmet, slanted and narrow and dark blue. Fix made a habit of examining each painting every time he passed through this hall – but the one with his eyes especially, scanning those painted eyes like they might tell him something about the man he had pretended to marry.
The servants thought it was rather romantic, actually: he’d caught a few girls giggling from behind corners, and Lux gleefully reported the best pieces of gossip. “They think you must have charmed him with your devotion,” she said one night. “You were so fascinated with him that he couldn’t help but fall in love with you in return.”
“That’s just great,” Fix snorted, as he worked on unraveling the braids woven into his hair. “So I’m a moony farm girl and he’s a self-centered prick. We’re a match made in heaven.”
Lux kicked his shin. “Ladies do not use the word ‘prick,'” she said primly, then laughed at the glare he slanted her in the vanity’s mirror. “You’ve been doing pretty good with the pretending, though. I’m a bit surprised.”
“The trick to a successful con is having the skill to pull it off,” Fix said loftily. “They don’t really want much of their ladies anyway, the upper-class. All I have to do is drink tea and look embarrassed, and all those butterflies Pinch-Face brings in want to teach me all the proper ways of city life – or stick my head on a pole, either way.”
Lux snorted and scrubbed her hands in his hair, leaving it a puffed-up mess. “Oh, listen to you,” she said. “Stick the boy in a fancy dress and now he thinks he’s an actor.”
“I don’t think,” Fix sniped. He took the brush from the vanity table and began smoothing his hair down. “I know.”
“Right, and it was your idea for this job in the first place – I think you just wanted to wear pretty dresses, dear brother–”
“If we’d had you be the lady,” Fix said, “we would’ve been thrown out within an hour of getting here. You learned all the gambling pretty well, Lux, but damned if you ever learned your manners.”
Lux made a face at him in the mirror. “Keep that up, and I really am going to think I’ve got an older sister instead of a brother.”
“Of course,” Fix drawled, and then pushed the brush into her hands. “Now fix my hair for me.”
Nearly a month after their arrival, Fix awoke to pounding on the bedroom door. He jerked awake out of vague formless dreams of shadows and lights and struggled upright, clutching the blankets to his chest. A moment later Lux flung herself into the room and kicked the door shut, leaning against it. Her eyes were wide and her hair askew, tumbling free of its normal pinned bun.
“Fix,” she panted, wringing her hands. “Fix, the Dragon – he’s here! He arrived today! No one knew – it was a secret – oh god, we have to get out!” She dashed for the vanity, shaking out her apron. With one arm she did a wide sweep of the table, gathering jewelry and hairpins alike into the cloth net. “If we go through the window, we might be able to sneak out the back way before anyone – Fix! Are you even listening?” She spun on her heel to glare.
“I’m listening,” he protested, trying to wrestle his legs free. “But Lux, it’s late, you’ve got to give me a little bit–”
“We don’t have a little bit,” Lux snapped. “We have right now, because the Dragon is already HERE. I saw him talking to old Pinch-Face, the steward! We’re going to get caught if we just hang around–”
Fix finally extracted himself from the bed. He crouched down beside it, reaching underneath to grab the bundle they’d shoved underneath on their first day: their old clothes, travel and work-stained, and a sight more sturdy and suited for wall-scaling or escape than the shift he wore, or Lux’s rumpled uniform. As he pulled them out, his sister tipped the contents of her apron into the bag in a cascade of metallic chimes, and then dropped to her knees, wrestling her outfit from the tangle of cloth. She’d just managed to pull her shirt free when a perfunctory knock came at the door.
“My lady Fia,” the steward said from the other side, his voice dry as bone, “your honored husband requests your presence in the study.”
They froze, staring at each other.
“He apologizes for summoning you at this late hour, but it has been so long since he’s seen your face, he would like a refresher.”
Keep changing, Lux mouthed at him, and began to wrestle out of the maid’s uniform. Fix stared blankly for a moment, then shook his head fiercely and grabbed the bottom of his shift.
The door opened, catching them both in the square of light that spilled into the darkened room. The steward stood in the doorway, looking down at them severely. Fix and Lux froze again, and the steward’s eyes went directly to Fix, and the half-raised shift. He raised an eyebrow, lips thinning until they were nothing more than dark slash in his thin face. All he said, though, was, “My lady Fia. If you please. Put on your robe and come with me.”
Fix stared. His fingers were white-knuckled in the material of his shift. “Wha–”
“Your robe, my lady,” he stressed, and nothing in his expression gave away what he thought of that. “The Great Dragon wishes to meet this wife that was the spoils of war.”
Fix closed his eyes for a moment. Then he let go of his shift and stood. “Lux,” he said quietly. “Could you get my robe?”
“Fix!” she hissed. “He’s just one old man, we could take him! We could–”
“I would not recommend it, Miss Lux,” the steward said, still blandly. “I’m sure I have enough tricks to keep you busy in turn.”
She stared at him. Fix walked around her, towards the dark-blue dressing gown that had been left across the vanity chair earlier that evening. With his back to them both, he pulled it on and tied it securely. His heart was beating desperately fast in his chest, but there was a strange sort of calm in the action, like he couldn’t quite make himself care, as he turned back around to face his sister and the steward.
“All right,” he said. His voice sounded flatly calm to his own ears. “Let’s go see him.”
The steward raised an eyebrow, but he merely bowed stiffly at the waist, gesturing. “After you, my lady,” he said, and held the position until Fix walked past him, down the long hallway, towards the one room of the entire house that had been forbidden to him, even as the lady. Somewhere along the way the steward managed to shift to walk before him, and he could hear Lux padding uncertainly behind, though Fix couldn’t quite make himself turn back to look. He walked with his hands clasped before him, watching his feet and the black tails of the steward’s impeccable coat. He stopped at the sound of knocking, remaining still even as Lux came up behind him and put her hands on his shoulders, squeezing.
“My lady Fia,” said the steward. Fix glanced up through his fallen hair, and saw the study door was wide open, and the steward was gesturing. “If you would – only the lady Fia, please,” he added to Lux, when she tensed behind him. “We will wait outside.”
Fixed reached behind himself and found Lux’s hand. He squeezed it briefly. “I’ll be back,” he murmured. “Wait for me.”
She made a noise of protest, which might have become actual words given time, but he let go and stepped past the steward, into the Dragon’s study.
Unlike the rest of the house, the furnishings of the study were almost stark: the wood paneling was a deep, burnished ebony, with three of the walls lined with bursting-full bookshelves. A small fireplace – currently lit – sat to the left of a wide desk that matched the black wood of the rest of the room, and was set with a high-backed, deeply-cushioned chair. In the chair was a tall figure, currently hunched forward, and holding the Great Dragon’s distinctive helmet in its hands. Fix swallowed, then dropped into a careful curtsey.
“Stop that,” said the Great Dragon. His voice was low and a bit rough at the edges. “So, you’re my wife?”
“My apologies,” said Fix. He stared at his feet. “My lord, I never meant–”
“Never meant? To be caught? No one ever does.” There was a creaking noise, and then the sound of footsteps. Fix sucked in a sharp breath, holding still as a hand slid into his line of vision. It was broad and square, but the fingers tapered into surprisingly delicate points. It caught his chin and tipped it up. “If you say you never meant to ‘dishonor’ me or anything, I will absolutely not believe you.”
“Sir,” Fix began, and then let himself look up.
The Great Dragon had the same narrow blue eyes as shown in the one painting, high sharp cheekbones, and dark hair cut close and stiff to the scalp. He had a severe mouth and a hawkish nose, which might have been broken once or a dozen times in the past. A long scar, embellished with black ink, trailed down the right side of the Dragon’s face from hairline to jaw. Fix stared for a moment, and then snapped his gaze up to meet the Dragon’s eyes again.
“You’re awfully pretty, aren’t you,” the Dragon said thoughtfully. “If I were into that sort of thing, I guess that’s what I would pick.” He let go of Fix’s chin and stepped back, crossing his arms. “I’m not, though.”
Fix narrowed his eyes. “Not into girls?” he said. “Or not into pretty boys?”
“Both are rather irritating,” the Dragon said agreeably. He tilted his head to one side. “Mostly, though, I’m uninterested in pretty things that have no substance. You wear your dresses quite nicely, ‘wife,’ but is there anything more to you than that?”
The calm haze was dissipating. Fix bristled. “I taught my sister everything she knows,” he argued. “Everything! All of her skills, she learned from me! I took care of her for–”
“Years and years, since you were children, right?” The Dragon shrugged. “Nobly sacrificed your own childhood to make sure she at least was warm and safe? That sort of thing?” He shook his head, tsking once. “That is hardly a new story, you know. You’re not even the first to try it on me.” He moved forward then, and Fix jumped as his wrist was grabbed and pulled up. “Everyone wants to try and find the heart of the Great Dragon, because they’re certain if they just find the right combination of nobility and sob story, I’ll take care of them properly forever.” He pulled Fix’s hand forward, and pressed it to the center of his chest, over his slow, steady heartbeat. Fix blinked for a moment, then stiffened in shock.
“You,” he began, gaping. “You’re a–”
“I should have sympathy, shouldn’t I?” the Dragon mused. “After all, I was born like this. Women should have compassion in their hearts, right?” She – she! – leaned in, till her forehead was almost against Fix’s own. “I’ve never had anyone pretend to be my wife, though. That’s funny, even if I don’t feel sorry for you.” She pursed her lips, still apparently unconcerned by the shallow handful of breast pressed into Fix’s palm. “Funny is all right, I suppose. I can forgive funny.”
“Forgive?” Fix stared. “What do you mean–”
“Normally,” said the Dragon mildly, her fingers drumming against the back of Fix’s hand, “I don’t take very kindly to being conned. Normally I have Jack take care of such things, but …” She leaned back and let go of Fix’s arm; he jerked it back, rubbing at his wrist. “That was quite funny.” She turned her back on him, walking back to her desk. “You’re free to leave, I suppose, though I would appreciate it if you didn’t actually take anything with you. It’d be terribly rude.” She sank back into her chair and began to polish the helmet.
“So you forgive us,” Fix said slowly. “And you’re just … going to let us go?”
“Never let it be said that I cannot appreciate a good joke,” said the Dragon. She studied her reflection in the helmet’s mirrored curve. “No, it’s really very funny. I’m quite impressed. And the world needs more things like that. Job well done, and all.”
“But–” Fix floundered for a moment. “I know your secret! So will Lux, and you can’t ever keep her quiet – and you’re just going to let us go?!”
“Do you want to be killed?” The Dragon sounded only mildly curious, tilting her head at him. “I suppose we could arrange for that, though it would be the first time anyone has turned down my generosity.” She reached under her desk for a moment, and then produced a long knife with a gently-curving blade that gleamed in the firelight. “I can make it painless, at the very least–”
“No, no,” Fix cut in quickly. “It’s not that, I–”
“You want it to be painful?” The Dragon’s lips pursed. “That is quite peculiar.”
“No, not that either,” he protested. “I just – we’re not going to be turned into the authorities? You’re not going to … I mean, you weren’t going to kill us, for real? Even knowing what we do?”
“There isn’t a point,” said the Dragon. “Tell everyone, if you like. You’ll find that people either already know, or that they won’t believe you.” She looked up at him, raising a thin brow. “You might have been the first to con a marriage – good job on that, I must say; it’s quite creative – but you’re hardly the first who’s tried to cheat me.” She smiled. It wasn’t very pleasant.
“But,” said Fix. “I … isn’t that unpleasant for you? For everyone to think you’re something else–”
She snorted. “Of course,” she said. “And shall I be lectured by the boy who masqueraded as a girl in my house for the past month? I don’t think you have much of a case to appeal, ‘wife.'”
“Even so, at least Lux knew, and I–”
“People know,” the Dragon said, with unruffled patience. “There are quite a few people in this house who know, in fact. And as for what the others think…” She twirled the knife in her hand twice, and the gleam of the blade left brief phantom trails as it spun. “They know I am the Great Dragon. They know I am the terrible general that has razed a hundred cities to the ground, and who will fight upon the battlefield with the soldiers under my command. They know my word is good as my arm, and there are few in this world who can beat me in single-handed combat.” She rested her chin on her hand, staring. “They know me. They know who I am. Why does it matter if they know what I am?”
Fix floundered again. “Isn’t it kind of sad, though?” he said. “The whole thing–”
“It might be,” the Dragon said, “if I had the time for it.” She put the knife down; it made a solid thunking noise against the old wood. “You might want to leave now.”
As though on cue – and maybe it was – the study door opened. The steward strode in, bowing once to the Dragon before he took Fix’s shoulders in hand. His grip was hard enough to hurt, bony fingers digging into the fleshy parts as though on purpose. Fix dug his heels in for a moment, resisting, but found himself steered away regardless, towards the door, where Lux was hovering anxiously. As they left the study, the steward leaned forward; up close he still smelled like soured milk and powder, but also of something similar to smoke, and that last lodged itself in the back of Fix’s throat with each breath.
“My master is generous,” he murmured. “You’d best remember that. The rest of us are not quite so forgiving.”
He punctuated the statement with a hard shove, sending Fix stumbling into his sister, then stood there radiating stern disapproval the whole time it took Fix to get back to his feet. He stalked after them as they went down the front stairs, all the way down the long winding expanse to the front doors, which already stood wide open. Outside, the full moon hung low and bright, unobscured by clouds. The breeze was cold enough to make Fix flinch and pull his robe tighter around his shoulders for the meager cover it provided.
“Hey,” Lux protested, looking over her shoulder at the steward. “Hey. We have some stuff we brought with us, we should–”
“Call it payment,” said the steward, unsmiling. “For the weeks you spent living off the master’s generosity.”
He stepped back, and the doors slammed closed. Lux yelped and flew at the doors, banging on them with both fists. “Hey! Hey, come on! This isn’t fair! It’s cold out here, you sadistic bastards! Come on, you owe us at least our coats–”
“Lux,” Fix said quietly. “Give it up.”
She turned to glare at him. “This isn’t fair,” she said. “After everything! We should have at least gotten back what we came in with!”
He looked up, towards the direction he thought must be the Dragon’s study – there was a single lit room up on the second story, with its curtains drawn half-open. He thought he saw them move, but maybe that was nothing than the persistent night breeze.
“We even left behind the pocket watch,” Lux mourned, slumping against the door. “That could have at least been pawned off for something, god …”
Fix put a hand on her shoulder, rubbing absently. He stared at the window for a few more minutes, letting Lux continue to rant, then turned away, pulling her with him. She grumbled, but came without a fight.
“Don’t worry,” he said, putting an arm around her shoulder as they began the long walk back to the city. “We’ll think of something to get our easy life back.”
He looked back once, and this time he saw the outline of a figure in that upstairs-window, tall and thin and unmoving. “No matter what.”