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The dragon Thyrssa lives in a lovely place that would only be considered a lovely place if one was a dead king or a dragon. As with Castle Valentia after Landarcus took over, she’s taken the great Odnorek’s considerable manor house and made it her own. Odnorek, for a dragon, was and still is thought of kindly. Apart from a taste for archers, he’s apparently a sort of dragon mensch. This is not how people think of Thyrssa the Black.

I know just a little about dragons from my studies, and just a little more from having a few younger or stupider ones threaten me and my friends in these halls. I do know that the ranking of dragons by intelligence goes something like this: Cave dragons < White, red and a few other low-class colors of dragon < Black dragons < Your typical goblin < Brown dragons < Green dragons < Silvers < Golds < Platinums, which may not even be an actual thing < Anything above this level is a one-off, and you probably don’t stand a chance against it anyway, whether it’s eating you, breathing on you or playing chess with you.

But there are exceptions, and I clearly recall Professor Zing-Grey, in my first year Draconology class, making a big deal of the fact that dragons continue to grow, in body and in brain, throughout their long lives. “People have to work their brains or they become stupid,” I remember her telling us, “as is often seen, but an old dragon can sit there for centuries calculating. They just love to calculate.”

Thus, Professor Shmoke continues to maintain that Odnorek was always smarter than him, and Shmoke may be many things but he’s neither stupid nor especially humble. And Thyrssa the Black may not be able to beat Odnorek at chess, but she’s no fool and no mere beast.

Standing out in the hall, Glee looks sufficiently nervous, so I step up next to her. She looks nervously at me. I smile. She takes my hand, which surprises and alarms me at first, and then raises her wand in her left hand and touches the door in the middle. It swings open slowly, revealing a hallway wide enough for three abreast, arched upward to twice my height, and walled in the same shiny black wood as the door. It goes back maybe twenty feet and then turns left. A modest amount of light comes around the corner.

It all is very clean, as if, say, a large, hot beast shoved itself through the hallway on a regular basis.

“Well, okay,” says Glee. “I’m off.”

“How far do you have to go?” I ask.

“I guess down and around the corner.” She looks that way. She doesn’t seem anywhere near actually moving forward.

I hold up the hand she’s still holding. I squeeze her hand and ask, “Do you need someone to go with you just inside?”

I’m not sure what makes me ask this. I don’t know Glee, not yet, though it turns out she’s not the sort of person who conceals deep wells of secret inner life. I should be extremely frightened: that would be a normal reaction for me. Intellectually, I know this is a bad situation. The environmental cues are distinctly negative. And I know I don’t need to go in: it really is her mission, not mine. My friends commence to quietly urge me to restrain myself.

Glee holds my gaze for a little. Finally she whispers, “Maybe just inside.”

We go in, hand in hand, her wand in her left hand, my wand in my right. We don’t purposely shut off our wands’ light; somehow the place does that for us, so that by the time we’re close to the far end of the hall, the only light is the curious glow from the next chamber. There’s plenty of sound, of course—I can’t even hear my boots on the stone floor. It’s sort of like the wind over a boiling ocean, and also sort of like a large hot beast snoring. Still, unaccountably, I find myself wanting to hurry to get there.

The hall turns sharply left and goes on for a few feet, and then expands into a large chamber. I do not, at this point, see much of the chamber, but the scattered gold and silver cross the floor into the little bit of hall; just inside there are the racks of crowns and huge gems and precious items, along with handy pegboards full of rings and necklaces and hooks hung with jewelry and robes of precious metals festooned with gems. Festoon: how I love that word; I bet it’s one of Thyrssa’s favorite words as well, and you would be hard-put to describe her place without it. In front of the racks and pegboards is a sort of bench or table, also mostly covered with jewelry. It’s wood, but it’s been slowly roasted in this hot room to the point that nothing could make it catch fire.

After a few seconds standing there in the corner, we both realize with a start that we’re looking at a gigantic swollen tail. It’s black as night, its scales just discernable, but it has gold and silver coins stuck to it like bits of frosting to the face of a toddler at a birthday party. It’s twitching ever so slightly.

I make myself look away from it. I can tell Glee is hypnotized just a little by that tail. I tug on her hand and we look at each other. “I can’t go in with you,” I whisper, just audible to me over the snoring. “Just try not to look at it.”

We smile at each other, and then we both look away, finding something else in there to set our eyes on besides the dragon’s tail. Because, you know, a dragon’s tail tends to be attached to a dragon, and a tail this formidable—well, you get the picture. So: pegboards. Hooks. Table.

And that is when I see something that makes this whole stupid idea worthwhile.