Dionelle shook with rage and fear as she listened in disbelief to the Lord and Lady Dunham give her instructions on how they wanted her to deal with the dragons. Standing behind them in the arched tunnel that was separated from the main dragon chamber by a piece of tactless fireproof glass, were their advisors whispering information about what other kingdoms had done to minimize their responsibilities to the dragons. There were two advisors and four men-at-arms, bringing the total number of idiots to eight, and not one of them would listen to a scrap of what Dionelle had to say.

She couldn’t believe they were so arrogant and knew so little about dragons. They kept calling it a negotiation, but there was nothing to negotiate. Dionelle was simply expected to tell the dragons that the kingdom would no longer provide oxen for the flight.

“M’lady, this is an insult to them,” Dionelle insisted.

“Insult! Do not patronize me, girl. Beasts do not have sensibilities that can be insulted,” Lady Karth snapped.

“We have better uses for our oxen, and all you have to do is make them understand that,” Lord Dunham said.

“M’lord, that explanation will sound thin to them and I am simply trying to do what you insist I must. If I am to keep peace with them, there needs to be a better explanation to break part of your accord with them.”

“Nonsense,” Lord Dunham insisted. “Many kingdoms have successfully reduced their involvement with dragons and trimmed the provisions of their various accords.”

“Those changes were made because of hardships to the kingdoms. What hardships befall Pasdale?”

“Hardship? Why, I need a new wardrobe!” the lady quipped with great mirth. The others laughed as if it was the cleverest thing they’d ever heard.

Dionelle stood before them gravely, not joining them in the joke. Her life was on the line and she couldn’t make them see or care.

When the ruckus quieted, Dionelle hotly asked, “Is it your intent that tonight I shall die and a dragon war be started?”

The lady’s eyes flashed and she seized Dionelle by the arm.

“Get out there and do your job!” she barked, shoving Dionelle out into the dragon chamber.

Dionelle stopped for a moment, flabbergasted by the ugly room—all stone in the massive circular domed chamber, grey and unending rock, broken only by the wide slat near the distant ceiling where the dragons came and went. She couldn’t believe anyone would be ignorant enough to host dragons in such a boring place.

“Who is this, then?” a crackling voice boomed, and Dionelle started, realizing for the first time that there were three dragons in the room. It was a stunning black dragoness who addressed her, and in a quick assessment, Dionelle realized she must be the flight’s leader. The two other dragons were males, one green with silver-tipped wings, horns and claws, and the other a mottled grey and scarlet.

Most dragons had markings in a different shade or colour from the rest of their body, often with different coloured horns, spikes or wings, but this dragoness was entirely black, her features discernible only by the darkening shadows or a shimmer of light. Her claws and horns were impossibly black, shards of obsidian against her dark scales, and Dionelle had never seen anything like it before.

“I beg your pardon, Mistress,” Dionelle said with a mock curtsey, since she wasn’t wearing any skirts. “I was taken aback by the hostility of this room’s aesthetics and have forgotten my manners. My name is Dionelle and I am to be Pasdale’s new dragon whisperer, should your flight choose to accept me. And if I may be so bold, you have the most beautiful markings—or perhaps the utter lack of them—that I have ever seen. You are like midnight come alive.”

“Thank you my dear; I shall overlook your unflattering entrance. This room is a blight, as anyone who has sense can see.”

Dionelle smirked, glad that her back was to the nobles, but she still heard the lady sniff indignantly. She desperately wanted to agree with the dragoness, but knew it would be gravely unwise to mock her leaders and employers. She remained silent, but didn’t let the smirk go unnoticed by the dragons. It would be a difficult balancing act to keep from enraging either party.

“We have tried to negotiate more appealing chambers,” the dragoness explained, “but our requests have been ignored.”

“My apologies, Mistress. I am sure the Dunhams have a good reason for not being able to provide you with prettier accommodations.”

“They have given us a more beautiful dragon whisperer with you, and that at least is a good start. Your manners are quite good and that also pleases me. Have you always been so white?”

“White like the snow since the day I was born,” Dionelle replied tentatively. She could feel the Dunhams’ impatience growing, it radiated from the room behind her, but she knew she had to entertain these niceties with the dragons if she hoped to have them accept her as a whisperer.

“Most unusual! I must say, if you survive this negotiation, then we happily accept you as our new whisperer.”

“This pleases me,” Dionelle said, feeling awkward. “I do hope I survive, then, and have further opportunities to speak to you.”

“Very well. Now please explain this new business. Recently one of my superiors stopped at the oxen farm to feast, as is our agreement, only to be turned away by lancers. She was already famished and exhausted from a long journey over desert wastelands in her trip from the southern seas and then was denied the meal she needed and forced to defend herself in a most shameful retreat. One of my comrades was able to hunt for her until she was rested enough to fully tend to her own matters, but this was a dreadful inconvenience and a clear breach of Mountain Dragons’ Pasdale Accord.”

“Mistress, please give my sincerest apologies to your superior, and it pleases me to hear that she did recover from her physical distress. It is difficult for me to discuss policies that were decided upon before my arrival here tonight, but I assure you it was a mere oversight that the ruling nobles did not provide you with warning over their need to put their oxen to other uses.”

“Indeed,” the dragoness said in a testy tone.

When she said nothing more, Dionelle grew nervous. The dragoness had not settled in to properly converse, still sitting on her haunches with her head at nearly full height, nearing the ceiling, and looking down at Dionelle, who was only a little taller than her clawed foot. Until the dragoness relaxed and lay down to speak with her, Dionelle couldn’t let her guard down. She hadn’t offended the dragons in any way, but hadn’t won them over yet either.

“Mistress, my ruling lord and lady regret that they must withdraw from this section of the accord, but they must use the oxen that the kingdom raises for other uses.”

“What uses are more pressing?” the dragoness asked, her tone rising and her body becoming more rigid.

Dionelle floundered, lacking any answer other than the nobles’ spite, greed and ignorance, the admittance of which would doom her to death by one party if not the other. She didn’t actually know what else the nobles had planned for the oxen and hadn’t thought to ask. Before she could say as much, there was a brilliant flash and roaring filled her ears. She was knocked backward and then slid partway across the floor from the blast of the dragoness’s fires.

She hadn’t been afforded the opportunity to grab her fire cloak before leaving home and she huddled into a ball, trying to protect as much of her clothing as she could, but as the flames died, Dionelle realized that most of what she wore had been incinerated before she even hit the floor. Even her boots had been destroyed and she kicked off their remainders, as she felt the soles beginning to melt. She’d never been flamed by a dragoness before and hadn’t known the true depths of their fury.

Dionelle frantically tried to pat out the flames from the small swatches of fabric clinging to her, ignoring the snickering from the nobles, but once she’d put out all the fires, there was nothing left but a few charred rags in a heap at her feet. She pawed through them quickly, desperately, but nothing was big enough to offer her any protection at all. The continued tittering from the nobles indicated they would offer her no support.

“What devilry is this?” the dragoness demanded.

Dionelle was startled, forgetting the situation in her embarrassment, but was also relieved to see that the dragoness had leaned forward, resting her chin on the floor to be as close to eye level with Dionelle as she could.

“I’m immune to fire,” Dionelle whispered, her voice choked with shame as she furiously blinked back tears.

“More of the Dunhams’ scheming, is this?”

“They could not find an experienced replacement for the previous whisperer, and so chose me since I had the best chance of surviving any lapses in etiquette.”

“How did you achieve your immunity? You are too young to have learned it already. Who has enchanted you? Did they call on elemental demons?”

“I don’t know who or how I was enchanted, but I have been this way since birth.”

“White as the snow and immune to fire. You are very unusual.”

“Thank you, Mistress.”

“Stand up then and face me.”

“Mistress, if you will forgive me, I would prefer to hold what dignity I might have left and remain sitting.”

The dragoness grunted and gave her head a brief shake. The nobles, safe behind their repulsive fireproof glass, continued to laugh and taunt. Dionelle caught a snatch of a comment about having the backside of a newborn babe before she shut her ears to the nobles and did her best to focus on the dragoness.

Dionelle stood slowly and cautiously, clasping her hands behind her to try to block some of the view. She didn’t care what the dragons saw, suspecting the dragoness simply wanted to study her form for aesthetic value, but she refused to let the nobles see her so vulnerable.

“Will you turn?” the dragoness requested.

Dionelle bit her lip and started to form as eloquent a refusal as she could, but howls of laughter rose from the noble gallery and the dragoness scowled in their direction, quickly silencing them.

“No, of course, that’s enough for now,” the dragoness replied. “You may sit and retain some dignity.”

“Thank you, Mistress. You show immense kindness to such an ignorant stranger as myself.”

“You are not wholly ignorant, my dear, and neither am I.”

Dionelle carefully sat on the cold stone, letting the floor hide her bottom while she pulled her knees up to her chest to hide the rest. It didn’t take long for her to begin to shiver, though she wasn’t entirely aware of the chill of the stone, only her anger and humiliation. She fought back as many of the tears as she could and chose to ignore the ones that fell. The dragoness was kind enough to do the same.

“Now then, shall you answer me?” the dragoness demanded.

“Yes, Mistress. As best I can.”

“You know better than to lie?”

“Certainly. I would only tell you the truth—or as much of it as I am party to.”

“So you don’t have an answer about what our oxen will be doing? Or why we must hunt abroad rather than be shown hospitality?”

“I’m afraid I didn’t think to ask what the other use was for the oxen and the information wasn’t volunteered. I am new to this land, the new bride of a simple rancher, and until this night I had no use for the wider kingdom’s politics. I know little about the current state of the kingdom or its wealth, but when I have time to confer with my lord and lady, I can find the answers you seek.”

The dragoness snorted, annoyed but placated for the time being.

“Very well. I must bring this news—this breaking of the accord—to my superiors and await further instructions, but I suspect that some other form of compensation will be required.”

“Yes, naturally,” Dionelle replied quickly. “Once I am able to discuss details with the Dunhams, I can help you come to a new agreement.”

Dionelle heard an angry hiss from behind the glass—Lady Karth, no doubt—but couldn’t fathom what she had done wrong. She had done just as they had asked. She had convinced the dragons to accept a major break from a longstanding accord and hadn’t even been killed in the process. At least, not yet.

Dionelle bowed her head and then looked enquiringly to the dragoness.

“Does my mistress have any further concerns for this evening?”

“We have many, but I believe you need time to be fully briefed on recent activities in the kingdom. We have sufficient explanation for now. I bid you goodnight, Dionelle.”

“May the winds that carry you be blessed,” Dionelle replied.

It was the customary leave-taking phrase amongst dragons, but the dragoness seemed charmed that Dionelle had used it, smiling briefly—a quick twitch at the corners of her vast mouth—before leading her flight out of the ugly room.

Dionelle remained on the floor, stunned and relieved, and was oblivious to the sound of booted feet stomping across the stone tiles until a coarse, threadbare blanket was thrust rudely over her shoulders by one of the guards. She startled and looked about in time to see Lady Karth reaching for her. The noblewoman caught Dionelle by the hair and wrenched her to her feet.

“We did not authorize you to make a new deal with them!” Lady Karth screamed. “Now they’re going to expect something else to replace the oxen.”

She shook Dionelle as she berated her and the thin old blanket began to slip loose. Dionelle was too confused to fight back or try to break the woman’s hold and all she could think to do was grasp the blanket before it fell to the floor and left her exposed. Lady Karth dug the fingers of her free hand into Dionelle’s shoulder and turned the poor girl to face her, relishing in Dionelle’s distress when she cried out in pain.

“Do you really believe a daft little waif like you can walk in here and undo all that my lord and I have worked so hard to achieve? You are a peasant! You will remember your place or I will see to it that the dragons feast on your frail flesh. Remember your place, because if you raise that tone of contempt against me again, I will rip you to shreds in a manner to rival that dragoness!”

The lady let go of Dionelle’s hair, and she felt a moment of relief until she realized that the horrible woman had only released her to unsheathe her blade. Still digging her fingers so hard into Dionelle’s shoulder that Dionelle was certain they would pierce the flesh, the lady pressed a broad-bladed dagger under Dionelle’s chin.

“Do not believe that you have knowledge,” Lady Karth snarled. “You are nothing but a poor fool and not in the league of my advisors who have studied with great men and travelled to locales you could never even imagine!”

Dionelle realized that the woman was completely mad and she held her tongue against any retort that came to mind, knowing that any answer would result in death.

“That’s enough, my dear,” Lord Dunham said in an even and serene tone, easily breaking his wife’s hold. “She has staved off war with those beasts, so we mustn’t harm her so long as she keeps them happy.”

Lady Karth was spinning the blade in her palm, eyeing Dionelle with pure malice, looking for a place to maim her.

“We must keep her whole,” the lord continued. “The dragons are placated as much by her appearance as by what she says.”

When the lady sheathed her blade, Lord Dunham smiled winningly.

“I believe this calls for a celebration! Wine!” he said, gesturing to one of his advisors, who scuttled off to fetch wine, before turning back to his wife. “Shall we finalize the design on your new chariot tonight or wait for the morrow?”

“Tonight,” Lady Karth purred lustily, brushing Dionelle aside as they exited the chamber.

“Get this wretch out of my sight,” Lord Dunham said to a guard as he nudged Dionelle in their direction.